The Lions in the Super Bowl, a .400 hitter in a season, and other sports dreams I’d like to see become reality
Time isn’t of the essence in baseball. Its untimed nature is part of the sport’s charm. Baseball might not be on the clock, but the rest of us are.
For even the most die-hard sports fans there is a finite amount of sports that can be viewed before your time is up and you’re punched out by the umpire up above. Whether you’re a fan of the New Orleans Saints or the Duke Blue Devils, you’ll face the final score, subject to the ultimate upon-further-review decision.
That’s why I believe in a Sports Bucket List. It’s broken down into three categories: accomplishments/occurrences, events, and venues. Sports fandom is largely about bearing witness and experiences.
Some notable achievements have been crossed off my list over the years, from the Red Sox winning the World Series, to a baseball player winning the Triple Crown (thanks, Miguel Cabrera), to two horses sweeping the Triple Crown races, including Justify this year. Since I debuted my bucket list here in 2015 each year one of my sports wishes has been granted. The original list was spurred by American Pharoah becoming horse racing’s first Triple Crown winner in 37 years. In 2016, the Chicago Cubs won a World Series and Cleveland celebrated a pro sports championship. In 2016-17, Russell Westbrook became the first NBA player to average a triple-double for a season since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62. (Westbrook repeated the feat this past season.) In March, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County became the first No. 16 seed to defeat a No. 1 seed in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
Here’s my current Sports Bucket List:
■ A baseball player hitting .400 in a season. This batting benchmark has become chimerical like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster. It’s hard to believe a .400 hitter ever existed. The last player to qualify for the batting title and bat .400 was Red Sox legend Ted Williams. Amazingly, when Williams hit .406 in 1941 he also led the majors in homers with 37. How good was Williams that year? When Joe DiMaggio had his 56-game hit streak in 1941, he hit .408 during that streak. Teddy Ballgame posted an OPS of 1.287 and finished with 10 more home runs than strikeouts, only fanning 27 times. Sox slugger J.D. Martinez struck out 23 times this June.
With the prevalence of shifts, the popularity of advanced analytics to determine defensive positioning, and the preoccupation with launch angle and exit velocity, Gisele Bundchen replacing Bill Belichick as Patriots coach feels more realistic than another .400 hitter.
■ An NFL team completing an undefeated season with a 16-game schedule. The 1972 Miami Dolphins won ’em all (17-0), but they only had to conquer a 14-game regular season. The Patriots came tantalizingly close to perfection in 2007, authoring the only 16-0 regular season in NFL history — an accomplishment that is not fully appreciated in these parts for its historical significance — before falling to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII to finish 18-1. The Patriots have defied the NFL’s predetermined parity during the illustrious Tom Brady-Belichick era. The ultimate act of defiance would be going 19-0. First, Brady and Belichick need to reconcile.
■ Major League Baseball making the DH universal. Baseball has presentation issues it must resolve, but the National League’s long overdue adoption of the designated hitter is an easy one. The game shouldn’t be bifurcated by pitchers batting. It’s absurd that this has dragged on for 45 years, since the first DH, Ron Blomberg of the New York Yankees, stepped to the plate at Fenway Park on April 6, 1973. Baseball has become more specialized in every aspect. Yet, the NL stubbornly clings to letting mostly overmatched pitchers bat. It’s anachronistic. If they could all hit like the Angels’ Shohei Ohtani, it would be a different story.
■ A pitcher winning 30 games in a season. The last one to do it was Denny McLain of the Detroit Tigers in 1968, baseball’s famed “Year of the Pitcher.” After that season, MLB lowered the mound from 15 inches to its current height of 10 inches. McLain compiled a 31-6 record with a 1.96 ERA. He threw an astonishing 28 complete games in 41 starts. Through Thursday, there had been 25 complete games pitched in the majors this year. Baseball has become reliever roulette. This achievement is impossible in modern baseball.
■ A golfer winning the modern Grand Slam. No golfer has ever won the Masters, the US Open, the British Open, and the PGA Championship in the same calendar year. Tiger Woods won four consecutive majors between 2000 and 2001, the “Tiger Slam.” In 1953, Ben Hogan won the Masters, US Open, and British Open. He skipped the PGA Championship, which was slated to conclude the day before the first round of the British Open. Instead, Hogan traveled to Carnoustie in Scotland early to practice. He was victorious in the only Open Championship he ever played in, becoming the first player to win three majors in the same year. Hogan never played all four majors in the same year.
■ The United States winning the men’s soccer World Cup. You can’t win a tournament you don’t qualify for; it’s back to square one for the Yanks. At least we know they’ll automatically qualify for the 2026 World Cup as hosts, along with Mexico and Canada. The jury is out on US qualification for Qatar and the 2022 World Cup. France, participating in Sunday’s 2018 World Cup final in Moscow against Croatia, is a great soccer role model for the USA. Les Bleus, 1998 champions, have cashed in their country’s cultural and ethnic diversity to build one of the most talented sides in the world. Closer to home, the USMNT can duplicate the blue print of their dynamic female counterparts, the reigning champions and three-time women’s World Cup winners.
■ A men’s college basketball team completing an undefeated season. The University of Connecticut women’s basketball team simply calls this a season. Since 1995, UConn has posted six perfect seasons, and it has reached the last two Final Fours undefeated before falling on last-second shots in overtime. Robert Montgomery Knight’s 1976 Indiana Hoosiers remain the last men’s team to finish unblemished. With the men’s game less stable than Kanye West, thanks to the one-and-done rule, the continuity required for this is lacking.
■ The Toronto Maple Leafs winning the Stanley Cup. Canada celebrated its centennial in 1967, which was the last time Maple Leafs fans celebrated a Cup. For Toronto fans, it probably feels like it has been 100 years since the Leafs lifted Lord Stanley’s hallowed hardware. The hope is that marquee free agent John Tavares, who grew up in nearby Mississauga, Ontario, sleeping on Maple Leafs bedding as a boy, can break the curse. Tavares joined a high-octane Toronto team this summer in the hockey version of The Decision.
Going more than a half-century without a championship is disappointing enough, but doing it in the cultural capital of the planet’s most hockey-obsessed country is disgraceful.
■ A team playing in the Super Bowl in its home stadium. The Minnesota Vikings had a chance to become the first team to do so but got torched in last season’s NFC Championship game by the Philadelphia Eagles. Vikings fans might have been the only ones more upset than Patriots fans that Philly prevailed in Super Bowl LII at U.S. Bank Stadium. It could happen this season if the Atlanta Falcons, who have a little, ahem, Super Bowl history with the Patriots, make it back to the Big Game for the second time in three seasons.
■ The Detroit Lions going to the Super Bowl. I’m a sucker for woebegone franchises. The Lions began play in the NFL in 1930, as the Portsmouth Spartans. The other remaining NFL franchises from back then are the Green Bay Packers, the Chicago Bears, the New York Giants, and the Arizona Cardinals, who were the Chicago Cardinals. The poor Lions are the only one from that group to have never reached a Super Bowl. They were last NFL champions in 1957.