Not too long ago, I saw a ad for a Sports Illustrated book entitled NFL Quarterback: The Greatest Position In Sports.
I immediately recognized this as bull. Oh, maybe being the QB is the most glamorous position in sports, but that’s just one definition of greatest. As far as the greatest importance, quarterback isn’t it.
No, rather, a ice hockey goalie is. NFL teams can go far with average or only-slightly-above average QBs. Doug Williams had nearly as many career interceptions as he did touchdowns and never made a Pro Bowl, but he was hot at the right time to help Washington stomp Denver in January of 1988. Trent Dilfer threw more interceptions in his career than touchdowns, but his Ravens won Super Bowl XXXV. The Jets got to within one game of the Super Bowl twice with Mark Sanchez as their quarterback. The Broncos won a playoff game with Tim Tebow at QB.
But, look at hockey, and I’m going to guess you’ll have trouble finding a champion who didn’t have a good goalie (and those that didn’t have good goalies that ended up winning probably had that goalie playing the best few weeks of his career). If a goalie is standing on his head, he can turn a mismatch into a even one, turn an underdog into a favorite, and make even the most unlikely of upsets possible (see: Miracle on Ice, Jim Craig, 1980 Olympics, which given his lack of success in the pros may fall into the “greatest few weeks of his life” category).
Now, to baseball, as Madison Bumgarner showed us this October, the third most important position in sports is the pitcher. Way back when, when men were men, arms were expendable and relievers were just guys who’d come in if somebody was doing really, really, bad, the pitcher was perhaps just as important as the goalie in hockey. Old Hoss Radbourn infamously singlehandedly pitched the 1884 Providence Grays to the title, throwing 678.2 IP, pitching in 75 of the team’s 112 games and starting 73 of them. His 59 wins that season is a record that will never be broken. In 1904, Jack Chesbro set the modern-era record for wins with 30 for the New York Highlanders, he pitched in 55 of the team’s 151 games, and started 51 of those appearances.
Those were the days when “wins” or “losses” meant far more than they do today, since pitchers were all but assured of going the full game, and their opposite numbers were expected to do the same, making the W-L record more analogous to a heavyweight fighter.
Since then, the worth of an individual pitcher has gone down. Having one or two or even three or four good pitchers is no guarantee of success like a good goalie or a good QB is. That’s because, well, it’s rare that they are in the game the whole time, and as good as they are they still can’t control their own offense. Just look at how Detroit’s great starting pitching has been constantly foiled in postseasons past by a suspect bullpen, or how Philadelphia’s “Big Four” starters of Halladay, Lee, Hamels and Oswalt failed to even get to a World Series because their team’s offense took a holiday.
Still, as Bumgarner showed us this past month, there are still times that a pitcher can make all the difference. If Madison Bumgarner isn’t pitching, it’s likely that the Royals win the World Series. A single player isn’t supposed to decide an entire series. Not anymore.
But nobody told Bumgarner that. And he went on to show just how important the position of pitcher is.