It's fashionable, these days, to dismiss top-ten lists, those annual rites where facts and events are sorted the way a child sorts baseball cards. David Letterman lampoons the practice, quite successfully, almost every night. I agree that history--even sports history--is a continuum, that years and decades are arbitrary markings that make little sense when chopped into little blocks that can be compared one with another. Yet I like top-ten lists and am about to inflict one on the readers here. Top-ten lists, when taken with the proper mix of sincerity and levity, offer an opportunity to review the recent past--an important practice, I'd argue--while demanding that one pin down one's convictions, to make decisions about what went on and why it's important. There'll be no attempt to "put the decade in perspective" here, no argument that the Pete Rose scandal follows directly from Iran-contra, or that John McEnroe's decaying talents reflected a turn toward the traditional on the part of the average sports fan as the decade progressed; that's making a bit too much sense of something where meaning, if not entirely arbitrary, is at very least subjective. The 80s in sports was not a golden or a gilded age, but it was certainly a brassy age, full of noisy figures who were sometimes shiny and sometimes tarnished. Beyond that, there's not much to be said.
The following list of the decade's top sporting moments is arbitrary and subjective, heavily weighted toward local events, and I don't know whether it says more about myself as a person or as a Chicago sports fan that I picked the tragedies of the 1983 White Sox and the 1984 Cubs over their triumphs. Our descent onto the Comiskey Park field on two straight nights in September of 1983 (we poured onto the field, only to watch the Kansas City Royals rally on the scoreboard television, leaving the magic number at one, then returned the next night to watch the Sox clinch outright and, again, to celebrate) remains one of the clear victories of the decade, both for the Sox and their fans, as--in an age supposedly of hooliganism and the triumph of the yahoo--there were few incidents of destruction. Jim Frey's march of the 1984 Cubs around Wrigley Field was also unique and almost equally thrilling. Yet in the end the defeats suffered by those two teams are clearer in the memory, more dramatic on close inspection. The Chicago sports fan has a sharp sense of history, and he or she never forgets that it is made up, in large part, of defeats.
1. Jack Nicklaus wins the Masters in 1986 at the age of 46. Only those opposed to golf on moral grounds should have trouble with this choice. If Nicklaus is not the greatest golfer of all time (an impossible title to appoint), then at very least he has clearly had the greatest career, and this was its crowning achievement. At 46, six years past his last previous major title, barely in contention going into the final round, he played the last ten holes of the tournament seven under par, including a 30 on the demanding back nine of Augusta National, to give him a nice round figure of 20 major titles in his career. It was one of the greatest charges in the history of golf. I didn't see this on television, only heard about it later in the day and read about it in the following days and weeks in newspapers and magazines. Nicklaus, firmly into middle age, had put on some extra weight before the tournament, in the idea that it would help sustain him over the full 72 holes. I remember a photo of him, pants hanging down, shirt coming untucked, urging a putt into the hole, looking even more disheveled than he had normally looked at the beginning of his career, but smiling like no one had ever seen him smile before.
2. Bjorn Borg defeats John McEnroe in 1980 to claim his fifth straight Wimbledon title. Borg's prime is such a distant memory that it's hard to remember that--like the Pittsburgh Steelers--he enjoyed his final great triumph in 1980. This was the match that made "Breakfast at Wimbledon" a U.S. television event--which, while intended as a compliment, is just about the worst thing that can be said about it. We must resist the temptation to say it matched 70s style against the new 80s brashness, because the 70s in sports were at least as brash as the 80s, and because the match is fine enough on its own terms: Borg the elegant, stately, disciplined Swede against the unpredictable and volatile McEnroe, with his sideswiping serve and his rag-doll volleying style. The match peaked in the fourth set, which ended in a tiebreaker that went on seemingly forever, finishing with an 18-16 McEnroe win after he staved off seven match points. It was Borg's great triumph that he summoned his powers one last time to take the final set, which was not subject to a tiebreaker, and which might truly have gone on forever had Borg's serve not become so intransigent. Borg won with a total score of 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (16-18), 8-6. It was a heavyweight fight of a tennis match, probably best described as Borg-McEnroe I, which Borg never again equaled. McEnroe shaved him at the U.S. Open later that year in another four-hour marathon, then did the same in a rematch at Wimbledon in '81.
3. The New York Mets win game six of the 1986 World Series on an error by Bill Buckner. The 1986 baseball postseason was the most dramatic series of series since the play-offs had been instituted in 1969. The Mets beat the Houston Astros four games to two, losing twice to Mike Scott, whom they would have faced in game seven if they had lost game six. They rallied with three in the ninth to tie that one, then scored in the 14th only to see Billy Hatcher homer to tie the score, then scored three in the 16th and held off a Houston rally in the bottom of the inning. The Boston Red Sox defeated the California Angels in seven games, coming back from a 3-1 deficit, with Dave Henderson triggering the comeback in game five when he homered in the top of the ninth with the Red Sox a strike away from going home. In the World Series, Boston won twice in New York, the Mets won the next two at Boston, the Red Sox won game five behind Bruce Hurst, and then scored twice in the top of the tenth in game six and got two quick outs in the bottom of the inning. A series of bleeder hits got the Mets back in the game, a wild pitch allowed them to tie, and then Buckner let a trickling grounder go right between his legs for the Mets' victory. It was a mistake more glaring than either the Merkle Boner or the Snodgrass Muff--call it the Buckner Through the Wickets Boner. The Mets won game seven going away.
4. Britt Burns loses game four of the 1983 AL play-offs. This remains the single best baseball game I've ever seen. Burns--a large and lovely pitcher with an excellent fastball, a good curve, and a field demeanor that put one in mind of mint juleps--had had a turbulent 10-10 season, but manager Tony LaRussa chose him to start the must-win game four anyway, saving ace LaMarr Hoyt for game five--if they got there. Burns was amazing, shutting out the soon-to-be-champion Baltimore Orioles over nine innings. The Sox, however, blew their one rally in the seventh inning, when Jerry Dybzinski--theoretically the best bunter on the team--failed to advance runners on first and second with no outs, and when Jerry Dybzinski--theoretically one of the best base runners on the team--rounded second and ran right into Vance Law at third on a simple single to left in the infamous Dybzinski Fuckhead Catastrophe. I was seated in the upper deck above third base, and I can still see him backpedaling while moving forward toward third base, almost as if he were being drawn to it, and looking to the sky to ask, "Why me?" Law took off for the plate, was thrown out by a mile, and the rally soon ended. Burns gave up a homer to Tito Landrum with one out in the top of the tenth. He trudged from the mound the epitome of tragedy in sports.
5. North Carolina defeats Georgetown 63-62 in the finals of the 1982 NCAA basketball tournament. The booming of basketball is the decade's top trend, and this was one of the games that set it up. An all-star team could still be composed of players from this one college game. Patrick Ewing and Michael Jordan were freshmen. Ewing--a puppy still testing the parameters of his talent--swatted away the first four shots by the Tar Heels and was called for goaltending each time. It was as if he were an obsessed hero from the classics, accepting defeat but maintaining that his basket would remain unsullied. The Hoyas recovered in the second half, but Jordan hit what proved to be the game-winning hoop with 16 seconds to play. Georgetown had a chance to win, but Fred Brown dribbled the ball upcourt, crossed the centerline, and then passed it directly to James Worthy, a North Carolina player, thinking he was a teammate. Georgetown coach John Thompson hugged Brown after the game regardless. Georgetown played in the finals three times during Ewing's career and won only once, but their two losses--to Carolina in '82 and then to Villanova in Ewing's senior year of '85--were probably the two best basketball games of the decade.
6. Steve Garvey homers off Lee Smith in the bottom of the ninth to win game four of the 1984 NL play-offs. I choose this moment over the more ignominious moments of game five--Ryne Sandberg failing to field a critical hot grounder, Frey leaving Rick Sutcliffe in too long, Leon Durham letting one through the wickets--because it was the moment when the confidence lifted and we became, once again, Cub fans. Garvey--the antithesis of Buckner and a player who did everything for the team instead of for himself, but who, like Buckner, was nevertheless driven by incredible selfishness and a regard only for his own statistics--went four for five on the night and drove in five of the San Diego Padres' seven runs. After that, we knew that Sutcliffe's 16-1 record meant nothing, that tomorrow bore little but disaster, and we went calmly to our fate.
7. Mike Tyson KOs Michael Spinks. This much-maligned, 91-second fight should be elevated--not dismissed--because of the mismatch it turned out to be. Both fighters were undefeated in 1988, and Spinks had at least as much right to the heavyweight title as Tyson. (He had been stripped of it for refusing to fight a South African boxer.) Tall and ungainly but with a significant reach advantage and a quick, stinging punch, Spinks appeared the one boxer capable of giving Tyson a fight. Tyson blew him out like a candle. I can still see Tyson running from his corner at the opening bell, his ears pulling back and his eyes squinting to accept any punches as he launched his own assault.
8. The Bears win Super Bowl XX. If the game was gleeful for its hype--Jim McMahon mooning a helicopter, children singing along with the "Super Bowl Shuffle" video on the giant television at Daley Plaza--it was significant, like the Tyson fight, for the mismatch it turned out to be. Peak value, this was the best football team of the decade.
9. Andre Dawson homers in his last Wrigley at-bat of 1987. Those disparaging Dawson's talents now had best review this season. As the decade ends with the coming of the $3 million ball player, it should be remembered that Dawson took a massive pay cut to join the Cubs--almost against the wishes of Dallas Green--and hit 49 home runs. The season ended with a homer that was so moving in its various elements--so seemingly corny, yet so obviously accepted as a gift by the 30,000 or so fans at Wrigley Field--that it remains one of the most intensely felt experiences of the decade for fans of the Cubs. The applause the fans returned to Dawson was unlike anything heard at Wrigley Field before. Hollywood could never make a movie about this homer; it could never be explained to anyone who didn't love sports. I'll take it over Kirk Gibson's home run in the 1988 World Series every day of the next decade.
10. The lights go on at Wrigley Field. On the one day of the decade any sane person would have picked had the choice been made in 1980--8/8/88. Which ends the decade on a note of innocence lost, of corpsechewer time marching on. Except that it rained like hell, calling the game and pleasing all those who hadn't already been pleased by the lights themselves--a final triumph.