Winning a championship is not necessarily the mark of greatness. This is one of the classic mistakes people make when discussing sports, placing too much emphasis on a single moment at the expense of the big picture, a view which seems to have taken a stranglehold over sportswriting in the last ten years.
Winning is often a byproduct of greatness, but it’s not a direct correlation, and as anybody who has ever flipped through a college coursebook late at night and stumbled across the 9AM statistics class they have no intention of taking will tell you, correlation is not causation.
In 1999, the Atlanta Braves faced off against the New York Yankees in the world series. At that point, the Yankees had won 2 championships in the 90’s (1996, 1998) and the Braves 1 (1995). The 1999 series was billed as the ‘tiebreaker’ to decide the best team in the 90’s. Regardless of the outcome, this was an absurd argument since Atlanta was obviously, without question, the best team in baseball for the 1990’s.
Consider – The Braves won their division every year in the 90’s except for 1990 and 1994 (the latter of which doesn’t count since it was a strike year), an astonishing feat. The Yankees were very successful too, but failed to win their division in ’90, ’91, ’92, ’93, the ’94 strike year obviously, ’95, and ’97. The Yankees record for the decade was 851-702, a winning percentage of .548. The Braves 925-629, a winning percentage of .595. If this doesn’t seem like a substantial difference, then please stop reading because I’ll never convince you of anything.
Furthermore, the Yankees went to the World Series in 1996, 1998 and 1999, winning each time. The Braves went to the World Series in 1991, 1992, winning in 1995, 1996, 1999 and if that weren’t impressive enough, from 1995-1999, in the newly expanded playoff format, the Braves never once lost before the NLCS, and never failed to win at least two games in those instances (1997, 1998). The Yankees failed to even make the ALCS in 1995 and 1997.
Greatness in sports shouldn’t be measured by small sample sizes, such as a single playoff series, but rather by extended, sustained excellence. Are the Florida Marlins a better team since 1993 (their first year in existence) than the Braves because they have won more world series titles in that time? Of course not. The St. Louis Cardinals winning the world series in 2006 after a regular season in which they managed a thoroughly mediocre record of 83-78 does not make them a great team, it only confirms that short playoff series are a crapshoot.
Let’s switch to pro football and consider the New England Patriots. Before their 2007 season, they had won 3 superbowls in the 2000’s. Each championship victory was by four points or less, and each game could have easily gone the other way if not for some good fortune. In 2007, the Patriots went undefeated in the regular season, outscoring their opponents by a margin of 589-274, or roughly 20 points a game. In short, they decimated the league. They destroyed the opposition in the first two rounds of the playoffs, then lost in the Superbowl by three points in a game they easily could have won. Does anyone think that this team was somehow less than the 2001 Patriots team? The 2001 team won 5 fewer regular season games, won each playoff game by 7 points or less, one of which was in overtime, and which was helped by an outrageous call by the officials. Both incarnations of the Patriots were Superbowl teams, but only one was great. Not winning the championship in 2007 didn’t change that, in fact the game itself was meaningless in this sense, it existed only for the fun of watching the game and clothing children in Nicaragua and then scaring them (and me) with clowns.
The debate itself over the better team had already been answered, and definitively at that.
Luck is an unavoidable element in sports. So is the officiating, as can best be seen in every single NBA playoff game in the David Stern era. A best-of-5 playoff series does nothing to settle the question of which team is better, only to produce a winner. What is not up for debate is sustained, overwhelming excellence, and that, more than any single championship, is what should be celebrated and immortalized. Give me the 2001 Seattle Mariners over the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals any day.