It seems like such a debatable hyperbole, yet often there is no debate. It just so happens that I, luckily, have tuned in to something historic.
Mostly this occurs with individual sports like golf and tennis, but lately the G.O.A.T./history trend has morphed into mainstream team sports as well. Take Ryan Howard for instance -- last week in Washington I was sitting in the press box for a supposed historical occasion when the slugger tied and passed Mike Schmidt's franchise record for home runs in a season. It was something to see because the shots Howard hit were magnificent and I remember watching Schmidt hit a lot of those 48 homers during the 1980 season. So to be there when the record changed hands was pretty cool.
But it wasn't historical despite how it was being billed by certain media types. Not even close. If I had been outside of the Appomattox Court House on Palm Sunday of 1865 when Lee surrendered his army to Grant, now that would have been historic. Had I been alive to watch Neil Armstrong hop off the Apollo and onto the moon, that would have been historic. Waking up five years ago to desperate phone calls from my wife to, "TURN ON THE TV! NOW!" That was historic. This is just baseball. A nice milestone and definitely something very cool, but not anything I can brag about seeing. Not when half the people I know don't care.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know. I'm just being one of those uptight guys who likes to toss a wet blanket over everyone's fun. Well... yeah. Sometimes I enjoy being iconoclastic and "brutally honest." But mostly I just don't appreciate being misled. Even in the insular world of baseball, Howard passing Schmidt was barely a blip in its history. Maybe for the Phillies Howard's homers are significant since the franchise's history is pock-marked by losing season after losing season and overt racism during the game's "Golden Era" in which the team failed to integrate its roster long after nearly every other team.
Along those lines, Howard is already being referred to as potentially the greatest Phillie ever. Hell, he ought to just retire now. He almost has one full season in the books; he ought to hang 'em up. What else does he have to prove?
Certainly those who call Howard the G.Ph.O.A.T. acknowledge their silliness. Let the man have a career first. But that didn't stop anyone from waxing exaggeration in regard to Roger Federer during the finals of Sunday’s U.S. Open.
For anyone who saw it, Federer was often brilliant and mostly dominant in cruising to a four-set victory over Andy Roddick for his ninth Grand Slam victory. That's within the range of Tiger Woods, Federer's Nike brethren, who was sitting courtside with the Swooshes blazing for all of the close-up shots that stopped being about a celebrity watching a tennis match and more about selling over-priced athletic gear and shoes. Hey, if you're going to be a corporate shill, go all out... right Tiger?
So as Federer cruised, the debate started. Actually, it wasn't a debate, it was history.
It also got me thinking, which is probably not what CBS, the USTA, or Nike wanted anyone to do. But the idea was out there -- was Federer the greatest tennis player of all time?
Certainly the way he pushed around Roddick on Sunday made the debate easy for that day. Federer is easily the greatest tennis player out there now, but whom is he playing? Andy Roddick? Rafael Nadal? Lleyton Hewit?
But when I saw Federer blast balls from the baseline, daring anyone to approach the net against him, I thought, "this kid watched tapes of Borg play."
Who can forget Bjorn Borg? For as great as the "Super Swede" was -- and he is on the short list for G.O.A.T. -- he was even more of an enigma. But perhaps that's the way Borg had to be since he had John McEnroe always buzzing around and trying to knock him off. When it wasn't McEnroe, it was Jimmy Connors -- a guy who was No. 1 in the world for 160 straight weeks -- gunning for him.
Then came Ivan Lendl. Then Boris Becker. Then Pete Sampras, who re-wrote the record books.
Beneath the top layer guys like Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Stefan Edberg, Mats Wilander, Pat Cash and Michael Stich always seemed to be hovering around the top ranks for decades.
These days Federer isn't the king of the hill; he's a man on an island.
That's not Federer's fault, of course. Since you can't pick your parents, you can't really pick when you are born, either. Blaming Federer for being dominant in a weak era is a lot like judging Wilt Chamberlain for being bigger than everyone else during the infancy of the NBA. Any competitor like Federer wants to measure himself against the very best.
Eventually, Wilt had Bill Russell as his nemesis, which often brought out historical performances from both men. It remains to be seen whether or not Federer will develop a big-time rivalry with Nadal or Roddick, just like it's still up in the air whether or not the slugging Phillie will ever fall to mere mortal status against a tough lefty pitcher.
Then again mere mortality never seemed to happen for the golf-swatting Nike billboard sitting courtside for the tennis clinic on Sunday.