Commentary

The great sports restoration, Part II

Originally Published: July 30, 2010
By Patrick Hruby | Page 2

If there's anything sports teaches us -- beyond the enduring utility of a cup -- it's that progress isn't always … progressive.

Oh sure, the march of time and human ingenuity has given our games instant replay. Plus the electronic first-down marker. And the totally useful antifungal foot spray.

But what about the stuff that's been taken away? Like those way cool Darth Vader-esque football visors?

Last week, Page 2 presented an admittedly unscientific list of 15 things in sports that ought to be revived, brought back or otherwise restored to their former glory. Such as two-sport athletes, single-bar facemasks, and the bullpen car.

Thanks to reader feedback, we're adding 10 more items to our athletic restoration project, starting with …

1. Renegade chic

Origin: The Oakland Raiders, circa 1965-1980. An authority-defying owner in Al Davis. A rouges' gallery roster. Hard-hitting play and a hell-with-you 'tude. Silver-and-black uniforms topped with a pirate logo … wearing an eye patch. In every regard, the John Madden-era Raiders were the standard-setters for bad-is-good, hate-'em-but-secretly-love-'em outlaw mystique in sports.

Golden age: The 1980s, a decade that rocked athletics like, well, a Miami Hurricane. It's not even close. Mike Tyson ruled boxing. The Canes lorded over college football. The Raiders were still getting it done. The Bad Boy Detroit Pistons beat down Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. The Boz was publishing "Confessions Of A Modern Anti-Hero." Jim McMahon was wearing ROZELLE headbands and mooning press helicopters. Johnny Mac was questioning the seriousness of chair umpires. The USFL existed and had team nicknames like Gunslingers, Gamblers, Renegades and Maulers. The Bash Brothers were shootin' roids and clobbering home runs. The 1986 New York Mets were kicking butt and … well, most of what they were doing besides kicking butt can't be printed on a family-friendly website. You know that scene in "Top Gun" where Tom Cruise is on a motorcycle, racing alongside a runway, wearing sunglasses and a leather jacket, not wearing a helmet and there's an F-14 taking off beside him, afterburners flaring, right over the edge and into the danger zone, then Cruise pumps his fist because he's just so Maverick-y? That, in a nutshell, is renegade chic.

Cause of death: The phenomenon actually extended into the 1990s -- first when UNLV destroyed Duke in the NCAA men's basketball title game; next when Luther Campbell-backed Miami thumped Texas 46-3 in the Cotton Bowl despite 202 yards of penalties; and later when gun-totin' Red River renegade Barry Switzer coached the Michael Irvin-led Dallas Cowboys to a Super Bowl. Nevertheless, the writing was on the wall: Duke upset UNLV, the Hurricanes and the Cowboys fell to Earth and the Boz started making D-grade action movies. By the time low-key, corporate champs like the San Antonio Spurs, New England Patriots and Roger Federer came to dominate the Aughts, renegade chic was no more.

Restoration rationale: The most entertaining bad guys are the ones who revel in their own villainy. Peyton Manning and his professional-minded ilk may be admirable, but they're not exactly fun.

2. Baseball manual scoreboards

Origin: Once upon a time in America, working with your hands didn't necessarily involve keyboards, touch screens or former vice presidents.

Golden age: The 1930s, when the manual scoreboards installed at Wrigley Field and Fenway Park were the norm as opposed to nostalgic, old-tyme novelty items.

Cause of death: Semiconductors, LED screens, wireless communication, the ability to check real-time game stats on your cell phone while the HD scoreboard displays an animated coffee cup vs. doughnut race. In short, modernity.

Restoration rationale: A living, breathing human being has to flip those metal score numbers. In the current economic downturn, the country needs all the jobs it can get.

3. Back-to-the-basket big men

Origin: The first time a tall guy realized it's easier to put the ball in the peach basket from two feet away rather than 20.

Golden age: The 1980s NBA. Big men (Hakeem Olajuwon, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kevin McHale) could score with a variety of post spins, hooks and up-and-unders -- and so could small forwards (James Worthy, Mark Aguirre).

Cause of death: Multiple co-morbid factors, including Dirk Nowitzki's jumper, Kevin Garnett's dribbling ability, Ralph Sampson's overall skill, the introduction of the college 3-point shot, every young player idolizing Michael Jordan and a longtime trend of cultivating and rewarding 7-footers who can run and jump over 7-footers who can play basketball. Patient X is probably Magic Johnson -- an exciting, one-of-a-kind 6-foot-9 point guard who, ironically, was quite comfortable playing down low.

Restoration rationale: Because variety is the spice of life. Because a sweet drop step is a thing of beauty. Because watching a talented big man like Rasheed Wallace chuck treys -- even though he's a decent shooter -- is as frustrating as having a tall pickup teammate who treats the key like a swine flu quarantine zone. Because the single most unstoppable shot in basketball -- the skyhook -- made Jabbar an effective player into his 40s, and really, would the Seventh Seal rupture if just one current player learned how to shoot it?

4. Meaningful heavyweight fights

Origin: The late 1800s. Exhibit A? John L. Sullivan's 1887 heavyweight boxing championship belt -- a three-headed, diamond-studded piece of bling that resembles the front gate to a gated community Donald Trump couldn't afford to live in and is far more impressive than the ticky-tack alphabet soup belts handed out today.

Golden age: More like a series of meaningful sub-eras, from Jack Johnson (America's unresolved racism) to Jack Dempsey (the pugilist-as-celebrity) to Joe Louis against Max Schmeling (us vs. the Nazis) to Muhammad Ali (pick a theme, any theme, especially if you're Norman Mailer) to Mike Tyson (revenge of the Reagan-era underclass; impossibly fast-punching video game nemesis).

Cause of death: Meaningful heavyweight fights died on Feb. 11, 1990, when James "Buster" Douglas knocked out Tyson. They are survived by a pair of undersized European power forward brothers no one cares about, cable reruns of "Rocky IV," the ear-biting, face-tattooing absurd theater of Tyson's slow self-immolation and whatever smack Dana White is talking this week.

Restoration rationale: Find a real-deal, undisputed baddest man on the planet, and pretenders like Kimbo Slice won't get money and fame just because there's a void to fill.

5. Baseball doubleheaders

Origin: Instituted by former Major League Baseball commissioner Ernie "Let's Play Two!" Banks, the practice of playing a pair of games on the same day became widespread due to frequent, pre-global warming rainouts and a lack of infield tarp. Just kidding. In reality, doubleheaders were invented for the same reason everything is invented: money. When the American Association, which later became the American League, began in the 1880s, it used doubleheaders (along with beer sales and playing on Sundays) as a selling point against the rival National League. The NL followed suit, making the twinbill an integral part of the sport.

Golden age: Believe it or not, WWII. According to the Hardball Times, nearly half of all major league games between 1942 and 1945 were played as part of a doubleheader, the better to conserve fuel and supplies. Meanwhile, ballplaying combat vets were busy bringing greenies and other stimulants back from the front -- which may or may not be a coincidence.

Cause of death: Money! (Sensing a pattern?) As postwar prosperity and franchise relocation made baseball an easier sell, teams grew increasingly reluctant to offer two-for-one specials. In 1983, the Seattle Mariners became the first 20th-century MLB team to play an entire season without a doubleheader.

Restoration rationale: When it comes to spending time at a ballpark, all-you-can-watch is probably safer than all-you-can-eat.

6. Stickum in football

Origin: As far as we can tell, a chemistry lab accident that made its way to a football field.

Golden age: Concurrent with the aforementioned renegade Raiders. Sure-handed wide receiver Fred Biletnikoff regularly used the sticky, ball-securing orange goop en route to the Hall of Fame. He also shared his dark arts with cornerback Lester Hayes, a former college linebacker whose Stickum-slathered mitts -- and forearms, and jersey, and socks -- picked off 18 passes to earn NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors in 1980.

Cause of death: Outlawed by the league after the 1980 season -- probably to crack down on cheating, possibly to get over on Davis, a longtime league irritant.

Restoration rationale: Philosophically speaking, football should never outlaw anything that makes the game more yucky and disgusting. From a practical standpoint, Terrell Owens, Braylon Edwards and Adrian Peterson could use the assist.

7. Pick-up-and-play sports video games

Origin: Pong. Not the beer kind.

Golden age: The NES and Sega Genesis eras, circa the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. Home video game console hardware hit a technological sweet spot -- sophisticated enough so that on-screen characters didn't resemble refrigerators with legs, but simple enough so that calling a defensive audible didn't require a more convoluted series of button presses than a "Mortal Kombat" fatality. Gamers didn't have to understand West Coast offense pass progressions to enjoy "Tecmo Bowl," fathom line changes to dig "NHL Hockey" or spend hours in practice mode to throw down dunks in "NBA Jam."

Cause of death: Too much of a good thing. The game machines became more powerful; the game controllers ended up featuring one pad, two sticks and as many as eight buttons; the games became more complex and realistic; the hardcore gamers -- forever needing a more potent fix -- demanded as much. Eventually, Skynet became self-aware. Is it any wonder the arm-waving "Wii Sports" became the breakthrough game of the past half-decade?

Restoration rationale: The gamers who grew up with the NES and Genesis have become men. And those game-playing men -- now saddled with a full-time job and two young kids -- cannot live on Wii bowling and golf alone.

8. Daytime World Series games

Origin: Roughly 4.57 billion years ago, a hydrogen molecular cloud collapsed, producing the Sun at center of our solar system.

Golden age: Pre-1971, when World Series games exclusively were played during the day.

Cause of death: Daytime broadcasts draw fewer viewers. Fewer viewers mean less advertising revenue. Less advertising revenue means East Coast baseball fans who enjoy decaf coffee, safely operating heavy machinery and sleeping in beds instead of coffins are flat out of luck.

Restoration rationale: The first two rounds of the NCAA men's basketball tournament shouldn't be the only reasons to cut class on the sports calendar. (Wait … you say you ditched school to watch the Masters? There's an academic term for people like that. Nerds.)

9. College football fullbacks

Origin: Possibly invented as part of the game's oldest formation -- the "T" -- by Walter Camp in 1882.

Golden age: The 20th century. With talented players like Larry Csonka and Sam Cunningham starring in run-heavy offenses, the campus game was fullback-friendly. Two fullbacks -- Doc Blanchard and Alan Ameche -- even won the Heisman Trophy.

Cause of death: The "Outbreak"-like spread of the single-back spread offense, which has left the fullback as relevant as the McDLT.

Restoration rationale: Power running is the sport's helmet-smashing, spine-compressing id. The only thing better than an ornery, hardheaded, no-glory lead blocker is an ornery, hardheaded, no-glory lead blocker with a full head of steam. Oh, and fullbacks are making a pro-level comeback, which means somebody besides the service academies should start producing them.

10. International Olympic animosity

Origin: The 1936 Berlin Olympics, where Jesse Owens threw down a 360-degree windmill jam in Hilter's evil craw. That's how it happened, right?

Golden age: The Cold War. Team USA against Team USSR, a canvas for our deepest geopolitical anxieties. Who else but our Godless, communist, monolithic sports machine rival -- well, at least in our minds -- could make the richest, most sports-obsessed nation in human history fancy itself a scrappy underdog? Sans a bushel of Ivan's red-tipped ICBMs pointed at our biggest cities, would the 1980 Miracle on Ice be remembered so fondly?

Cause of death: The silver screen, when Rocky Balboa slurred to a cheering Russian crowd that "If I can change … and you can change … everybody can change!"; real life, when the Berlin Wall crumbled.

Restoration rationale: War may be hell, but a proxy war where nobody dies and nothing is at stake except the gold medal count is pretty darn heavenly.

Patrick Hruby is a freelance writer and ESPN.com contributor. Contact him at PatrickHruby.net.


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