Aught Lang Syne: Athletes of the Decade, Part I

You thought we were done, didn’t you? That we would stick to our promise to end by December 31? Please. We’ve still got two posts to go to determine the most important title of all: Athlete of the Decade.

In defining what exactly constituted the “Athlete of the Decade” in a sport, there’s a fine line between who is best and who is the most iconic. I tended toward the latter, which runs the risk of predicting how future historians remember the Aughts.

And a little wrinkle: The order in which I present the sports counts down to the Athlete of the Decade across sports. That is, the last sport I do will have the No. 1 Athlete of the Decade, the penultimate is the second-best across sports, and so on. Here are Nos. 6, 5, and 4.

College Basketball

5. J.J. Redick

4. Carmelo Anthony

3. Stephen Curry

2. Jason Williams

1. Tyler Hansbrough

Believe me, no one hates doing this more than me. Hansbrough, however, is basically the only star college basketball player to win a title and stay all four years at school, largely because of the unique circumstances surrounding his arrival in Chapel Hill. He immediately became the star player for the defending national champion because everyone from that team had gone on to the NBA. And since he was an established star by the time the next big recruiting class came in a year later, he remained the primary scoring option on a dominant team for three more years. Hansbrough was the first four-time first-team All-American, and it’s hard to fathom another player staying long enough to achieve that. In his four years at Carolina, he went to two Final Fours, won a national championship, became UNC’s and the ACC’s all-time leading scorer, and (sigh) won all four games he played at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Tyler Hansbrough was far from the best player in college basketball this decade; he probably wouldn’t even crack my starting lineup. But he is its defining one, and maybe the last great four-year player in NCAA history.

College Football

5. Jason White

4. Matt Leinart

3. Reggie Bush

2. Vince Young

1. Tim Tebow

It essentially comes down to Vince Young and Tim Tebow for the title, and I’ll begrudgingly go with Tebow, even though Young was a better player and participated and almost single-handedly won the Game of the Decade. Unfortunately, he still won’t be remembered as much as Tebow, who stayed all four seasons, was a Heisman finalist all three years he started at Florida (and the first sophomore Heisman winner), won two championships, and ended his career as the SEC’s all-time leader in rushing touchdowns—no small feat for a quarterback.

Vince Young made everything look easy; Tim Tebow made sure you knew that he tried really hard. It’s possible that much of the attention paid to Tebow derives from his, by all accounts, refreshing personality. Multiple journalists have said that it is impossible not to like him. He is a very religious guy who has gone on off-season missions to impoverished countries. He seems more genuine than most modern athletes. He has been on the cover of Sports Illustrated four times—not including the commemorative championship issue. These have nothing to do with how he plays football, but it’s these things, fair or not, that make him so memorable.

Major League Baseball

5. Ichiro Suzuki

4. Derek Jeter

3. Barry Bonds

2. Alex Rodriguez

1. Albert Pujols

It’s a shame Albert Pujols is so surly. Because Albert Pujols may just be the greatest right-handed hitter in baseball history already. If Albert Pujols were an open and affable guy, he’d probably be the star of dozens of national commercials. Pujols entered the league and immediately staked a claim to being one of its best hitters, and he has elevated his production almost in each year since.

His .334 batting average in the Aughts is the best in baseball—better even than Ichiro. And oh yeah, Pujols averaged 41 homers and 124 RBIs per season. He plays in the same era as two other dominant right-handed hitters in Alex Rodriguez (.303, 44, 124) and Manny Ramirez (.317, 35, 111), and he is better than both of them.* In eight of his nine seasons, Pujols has finished in the top four of the MVP balloting. The one time he didn’t, he hit .327 with 32 home runs and 103 RBIs. He has won three MVPs and would have won considerably more if not for Barry Bonds going off and having the greatest offensive stretch since Babe Ruth in the 1920s.**

*In case you’re wondering why Pujols over A-Rod? A batting average that is 31 points higher in lineups that were consistently worse than Rodriguez’s in a league that made it difficult to drive in as many runs.

**Name me one other guy in the last 60 years who hit .359 with 43 home runs and 124 RBIs who did NOT win his league MVP, as Pujols did in 2003.

Furthermore, Pujols is a Gold Glove first baseman and has been, along with Tony LaRussa, the one constant in a decade of success in St. Louis. Pujols is a transcendent baseball player and not just one of the best of this decade; he’s one of the best of any decade, one of the best of all time.

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6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Wey on January 1, 2010 at 6:04 PM

    Hard to really take issue with any of these choices, but Jason White?? He had two very good years, but isn’t what I would call iconic…Perhaps you could make an argument for top ten, but this just seems like a stretch to me…I suppose Nate Hybl just missed the cut?

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  2. [...] Aught Lang Syne « Aught Lang Syne: Athletes of the Decade, Part I [...]

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  3. Posted by Tim on January 2, 2010 at 12:56 PM

    The final spot came down to White, Colt McCoy, Adrian Peterson, and Darren McFadden. McCoy has more wins than any QB in NCAA history, Peterson and McFadden were the decade’s most electrifying running backs after Bush. But none of those guys won a Heisman trophy, or played in back-to-back title games, or returned to school to be a Heisman finalist again after winning the trophy–a trend White started earlier in the decade that would be followed by Leinart, Tebow, Bradford, and now Ingram.

    Sure, it’s beyond a stretch to consider Jason White “iconic.” But I feel the same way about all of the other contenders there. And to be open, Nate Hybl was No. 12 on my final list, just behind former Rutgers placekicker Jeremy Ito.

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  4. Posted by Wey on January 2, 2010 at 2:19 PM

    The only reason I press this issue is because I think the evaluation of college football players is interesting for a number of reasons and is, in many ways…Yeah, White won the Heisman, but I think Larry Fitzgerald probably had a better year relative to his position…White was involved in back to back title losses, including the 55-19 embarrassment to USC…returned to school? It wasn’t as if he was a serious pro prospect and was foregoing any money…the “trend” of players following him may have happened, but I don’t know why that is especially important in evaluating him as a player…

    I think one could make a strong argument for why future Redskins Sam Bradford is a superior choice to Jason White (though it doesn’t mean that he even deserves to be in the top five). I think if you compare their two seasons head to head, Bradford comes out on top (his 2008 season is arguably the best by any college quarterback in history)…furthermore, Bradford didn’t lead the Sooners to back to back title games, but did lead them to the Fiesta bowl and the Ntl. Championship game…I suppose a lot of this has to do with how much stake you put into the Heisman trophy (obviously a very iconic award)…I generally don’t (how likely is it that virtually every year the best player in the nation is an offensive player?)…Furthermore, I think it’s fairly obvious that he’s a better player than White…If you agree that none of those guys are particularly iconic, the implication seems to be that because Jason White “won a Heisman trophy… played in back-to-back title games… returned to school to be a Heisman finalist again after winning the trophy” that’s what makes him “better” than some of those other guys….that may be true, but I don’t think this is the best way to evaluate him against some of these other players….My guess is that if you ask virtually anyone with a reasonable knowledge of college football to, off the top of their head, name the five best players of the past decade , virtually no one names White…perhaps they do after some research, but unless they give disproportionate weight to the Heisman (or perhaps more important, disproportionate weight to winning it relative to being runner up, etc.), I think it’s a tenuous argument at best…

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  5. Posted by Wey on January 2, 2010 at 2:19 PM

    in many ways indicative of why I’ve remained interested in college football*

    Reply

  6. [...] Finals except LeBron, Wade, and Dirk” now, can you? And I think it’s you agreeing with my already-established view of Pujols as surly there.* And Wilson as Bargnani? Come on, John. Shaun Marcum is the Bargnani of this postseason, and we [...]

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