That something is a top 10 list- the most exciting positions in sports. Which essentially means this: if you have the ultimate player in every position, the absolute most dynamic and spine-tingling human possible, tailor-made and born to the task, which position is inherently the most exciting? Clearly, quarterback is more exciting than left tackle, and forward is more exciting than midfielder. But across sports, how do the rankings shake out?
Time for qualifications. First off, we're dealing with team sports only. There's no distinct 'position' in a sport like golf or tennis except the position of 'individual,' and the excitement level is dictated solely by the player's style. It wouldn't make sense to include a category like 'golfer' on the list. Second, I'm only including team sports I know and understand. Sorry, jai alai and gaelic football. Third, I'm eschewing sports that are limited to niche audiences. Sorry, lacrosse and field hockey and rugby.
After all the exclusions, I'm left with the following: baseball, basketball, football, soccer, hockey.
Let's get to it, and let me know your rankings in the comments.
There are times, rare times, when a soccer goalie can bring fans to their feet with incredible performances. A few diving saves mixed with some intelligent snuff-outs mixed with overall consistency can make the keeper's presence felt. I'm thinking of Spain's Iker Casillas in the last World Cup, or Germany's Oliver Kahn in 2002. In general, though, the goal is too big for the keeper to exercise absolute control; you can only do so much if the circumstances are wrong, as Kahn learned in the '02 championship when, after allowing 1 goal in 6 matches, he watched Brazil slip two into net.
Speedy leadoff hitter/outfielder, baseball
I really went back and forth on this one. Maybe it should be on the list. Guys like Pete Rose and Rickey Henderson and Ichiro Suzuki and Kenny Lofton really are exciting, and there are many electric elements to their game. The infield hit, the bunt, the triple, the steal, scoring from first on a double, the diving catch in the outfield...there's a lot to be said for these guys. You could argue that the great ones at this position have the most baseball intelligence of any position except, possibly, catcher. They miss the list by the skin of their sharp, sharp teeth.
10. Goalie, hockey
Unlike soccer, the net in hockey is small enough that an excellent goalie can absolutely control a game. Back when I paid attention to the sport, I remember guys like Patrick Roy and the Rangers' Mike Richter dominating for 60 minutes, to the point where it felt impossible for anyone to slip one by. But the ultimate example a goalie singlehandedly determining an outcome will always be Dominik Hasek at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano. In 6 games, Hasek allowed just 6 goals. The Czech Republic lost just 1 game, in the group stages against Russia, and they avenged that defeat with a 1-0 win in the gold medal game. The highlight of Hasek's dominance, though, came in the shootout against Canada in the semifinals. The whole video below is worth watching, but the action starts at 4:00. "Is anyone going to beat this goaltender??"
9. Center, basketball
I can't help but be reminded of our discussion about flow a few days ago in this space. A center is naturally a bit slower and perhaps more plodding than most other positions on a basketball court. But like it or not, there's something exciting about their height, and when that height is combined with great moves and great defensive prowess, an interesting kind of dynamism is birthed. We talked about Hakeem with his fluidity and grace, but even the hard brutality of a younger Shaq or the defensive dominance of Mutombo can be thrilling. It would be easy to leave this position off the list because of the myriad boring-but-effective players who have filled the center role, but as I said, this is about the best of the best.
8. Power hitter, baseball
Though Hank Aaron called the triple the most exciting play in baseball, many would disagree and give that honor to the home run. Nothing is more terrifying than watching a power hitter stroll to the plate for the enemy, and nothing is more exciting than seeing your man come up in the clutch. Ortiz still gives me nightmares, and even when he's slumping, I'm at the edge of my seat when A-Rod steps in the box. The possibility of a long ball is alternately titillating and anxiety-provoking. And when it comes to fruition, the explosion or devastation is incredible.
This was the best power hitter moment I've ever seen live. The Yanks were down 3-1 in the ninth inning to the Twins in Game 2 of the 2009 ALDS. A-Rod was up with a man on base.
In some ways, that was the moment when Yankee fans knew the World Series was ours. The mystique that had been absent for a decade was back, at least for a year.
7. Forward, soccer
Messi and Pele and Maradona and Cruyff stand out as the best of the best. When these guys make a charge, you can sense the entire stadium start to buzz. The only problem is that actually scoring in soccer is damn hard, so it's still rare for their incredible brilliance to end with a goal. The genius is best experienced in highlight videos.
6. Running back, football
There are a thousand examples, and it can be exciting on a spectrum from the quick and juke-happy Barry Sanders way to the grueling, driving Ron Dayne way. Here's one of the best who most of us probably never got to see:
5. Receiver, football
This is always more pronounced in college, where the future greats can really dominate against d-backs who will never make the NFL, and when it's right, it's right. I'll never forget Randy Moss with his high green-and-white striped socks at Marshall (at least I think I remember those socks; YouTube seems to disagree), or Keyshawn Johnson in the Rose Bowl, or Chad Johnson and Houshmandzadeh killing Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl.
4. Pitcher, baseball
When a no-hitter or perfect game or even a 20-K performance are on the line, a baseball stadium is the most alive it will ever be in a non-playoff situation. I've mentioned this before, but the closest I came was a Chien-Ming Wang perfect game that was carried into the 8th inning before the Mariners broke it up. I get envious every time I see one go through to the end. Only twice in MLB history has a pitcher thrown a no-hitter in the postseason, and you have to consider those two of the greatest moments in sports history. Here's the end of one:
3. Point guard, basketball
I originally thought I might put this at #1, considering how exciting it is to watch Derrick Rose this postseason. And really, a case could be made. I can't remember ever having more fun at a live sporting event than watching Jason Williams play for Duke. He could do absolutely everything, and even though it might not seem possible, he brought Cameron Indoor to a new level of intensity. When a point guard can shoot, drive, and pass, he becomes pure electricity. As with the football receiver position, it's more pronounced in college since the competition is diluted, but you still see greats in the pros. Rose and Paul are the current best, with Westbrook a close third and Rondo and Williams in the running. In college, J-Will was my all-time favorite, but Ty Lawson is another recent dynamo. At their best, these guys are engines.
2. Quarterback, football
A great passing quarterback is a beautiful thing to watch. There's an aesthetic appeal about a ball slicing through the air in a tight spiral, a moving object destined to meet a larger moving object at an exact moment. The mastery of initiating that encounter makes a quarterback a type of wizard, a king of the most stressful position on earth. We could sit here all day and toss out the great names in football history, but for me, no offense or quarterback was ever as exciting as the fin-de-seicle Rams and Kurt Warner.
1. Shooting guard, basketball
In all of sports, nothing is quite as electrifying as hot shooting guard. They're the ones we remember the most, and the ones who become legendary. The greatest athlete in history played this position. It allows for unprecedented creativity, a freedom to express individual style, and the potential for hot streaks that seem to defy logic. There's nothing better.