It takes two

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Sports throughout their history have been marked by great pairs. Be they rivals or long-time teammates; for many great athletes, their careers are defined in comparing them to another. One of the current conversations goes something like, “Sure Peyton Manning is great, but Brady has those rings.” On the other hand, sometimes a franchise is defined by teammates, as the Astros have been personified in the classy play of Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell for years. Pairings are even more crucial in individual sports; witness the current trend to try and find a “rival” for Tiger Woods in professional golf.

Here are ten of my favorite pairs. Add some of your favorites.

10. Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson
This is one of those pairings where you tend to see divine providence at work. Branch Rickey was the greatest general manager baseball has ever seen. He was responsible for developing the farm system in baseball and turning the Cardinals and then Dodgers into premiere franchises. He was also a man of great moral strength and enough daring and clout to take the first step in integrating Major League Baseball.

But he needed the right man to be the test case, or else baseball would claim it had been right all along by not integrating the game. He found it in Jackie Robinson, a man of profound dignity and determination, who was willing to absorb unspeakable abuse for the advancement of his people. Robinson not only held his temper, but played brilliantly, and he, too, revolutionized the game by bringing the stolen base back into the majors. These two remarkable men needed one another, and the nation needed them both.

9. Affirmed and Alydar
The last winner of horse-racing’s triple crown almost didn’t win any of the triple crown races.
In 1978, Affirmed and Alydar staged the greatest duel in racing history when they finished 1-2 in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes. Affirmed won a well-contested Kentucky Derby by 1 ½ lengths, and that would prove the most comfortable of his three wins. In the Preakness, the two horses ran neck and neck down the stretch, with Affirmed holding off Alydar’s late charge by a nose.

8. Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier
Hockey’s odd couple. Gretzky was the most skilled player of all time, but looked like he knew more about deferred annuities than putting the puck on the tape. Messier, on the other hand, looked like a hunk of granite that had come to life and put on skates. Together, they were unstoppable. With Messier’s steely glare and Gretzky’s unmatched play, they lead the Edmonton Oilers to four Stanley Cups in the 1980’s. While Gretzky is generally cited as the greatest player of all time (or simply “the Great One”), it’s interesting that Messier won two titles after they split up (one in Edmonton and one in New York), while Gretzky never won a cup without Messier

7. Casey Stengel and Yogi Berra
Of course you all know Yogi, star of stage, screen and AFLAC commercial, who is as famous for his unique brand of malapropic wisdom as his hall of fame baseball career. Some of my favorite Yogi-isms include, “It gets late early out there” in reference to how the shadows crept in earlier in left field in Yankee stadium than they did behind home plate, or “That place is so crowded that no one goes there any more,” in reference to a popular restaurant.

What fewer people remember is that Stengel was the originator of this sort of thing in Baseball, exhorting his Yankees teams with “Stengelese.” Here’s a few of Casey’s gems: “There comes a time in a man’s life, and I’ve had plenty of ‘em.” “All right, everybody line up alphabetically according to your height.” “Good pitching will always stop good hitting and vice-versa.”

What absolutely amazes me is that Stengel managed Berra for years. What are the odds that these two characters would not only be around baseball at the same time, but actually end up on the same team. What’s also amazing about them is that despite the seeming lunacy, they were both the best at what they did, winning several World Series together and both winding up in the Hall of Fame.

6. Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain
These guys are interesting to me because each was clearly superior to the other, depending on which standard you used to measure them. Chamberlain was simply a physical freak; a man who physically dominated his league in such a way that he set scoring and rebounding marks that no one has come close to matching. Not only did he famously score 100 points in one game, but he also averaged over 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds a game that season. Nor was that his highest rebounding average; he averaged 27.2 boards the year before that.

Russell, on the other hand, just won. On any level with any team, Russell couldn’t be beaten. After leading the San Francisco Dons to two NCAA championships and winning a gold medal on the ‘56 Olympic team, he won 11 NBA titles with the Boston Celtics. While Wilt racked up the statistics, Russell controlled the game from the defensive end, using blocked shots and rebounding to lead his teams to victory. Russell’s no nonsense demeanor also contrasted with Wilt’s flamboyant style, and underscored what made the two men different both on and off the court.

5. Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras
Another case of contrasting styles. Agassi and Sampras were the face of American tennis for over a decade. Agassi is remembered for his wild fashions and high-profile dating life as a younger player, while Sampras was often cited for being too dull to watch despite his excellence. Sampras was clearly the better player, amassing 14 grand slam titles and edging Agassi 20-14 head-to-head, but Agassi has won all four grand slams, something Pete was unable to do. Sampras also beat Agassi in three of their four meetings in Grand Slam finals. As both players aged, they seemed to become more alike in personality. One of Sampras’ defining moments came in an emotional Australian Open quarterfinal in 1995, when Sampras defeated Jim Courier despite breaking into tears after hearing earlier in the day that his coach, Tim Gullickson, had been diagnosed with brain cancer. Agassi, on the other hand, has put his youthful antics behind him and is now celebrated for carrying himself with Sampras-like class.

4. John Stockton and Karl Malone
The Bagwell and Biggio of basketball, Stockton and Malone teamed together in Utah for 18 seasons. Despite both having Hall of Fame careers, they had the misfortune of being in their prime during the Michael Jordan era, and never achieved an NBA title. Stockton ended with over 15,000 assists (Mark Jackson in next with a little over 10,000), and probably could have made it to the Hall based solely on his assists to Malone, who finished with over 30,000 points. No pair of teammates in recent sports has been so associated with a team, city, and one another as Stockton an Malone. So popular were they in Utah, that there’s a car dealership in Sandy, Utah named “Stockton to Malone Honda.” Though there’s some truth to the allegations that they played dirty, they were each fierce competitors and brilliant performers.

3. Joe Montana and Jerry Rice
Though quarterbacks have been tossing balls to wide receivers for decades now, there aren’t really too many great QB-receiver combos. In fact, Rice and Steve Young may be the second best there is. These two clearly were the greatest; Rice being the best receiver of all time, and Montana on the very short list for best quarterback ever. They each won four Super Bowls; three as teammates. Both came up their biggest in the clutch. Before New England made an annual event of close Super Bowls, one of the few to ever live up to the hype was Super Bowl 23, when Montana led the 49ers down the field in the final two minutes to come from behind and beat the Cincinnati Bengals. Montana found Rice repeatedly coming down the field before getting it to John Taylor in the end zone to win the game. Though Taylor caught the final pass, the drive, as the 49ers success, was defined by the greatest passing combo in history.

2. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird
These two pretty much defined basketball when I was growing up. Magic and Birdy is the rare rivalry where you pretty much feel both guy came out ahead. Though Magic has the edge in titles, five NBA championships to Bird’s three as well as his famous NCAA win over Bird, there’s not a feeling that Magic is somehow clearly better than Bird. It’s hard to think of two players in any sport universally held in higher regard. Each was known for unbelievable passion and getting the most out of their abilities. They also took the NBA to new heights and paved the way for Michael Jordan to become the most famous man on the planet. Fittingly, they finally got to play together on the 1992 Dream Team, helping lead the greatest team ever assembled to a gold medal.

1. Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio
This is my favorite sporting “pair” of all time; bar none. It boggles the mind when you begin to think about these to. The Splendid Splinter and The Yankee Clipper; Teddy Ballgame and Joltin’ Joe; The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived, and the Most Perfect Player Who Ever Lived.

What fascinates me about these guys is that each one, in his own way, is a perfect symbol for America; especially the America of their era. Here you have Ted Williams; gregarious, loud, prickly, boastful, handsome, and simply the best there was. You have to understand, Ted Williams WAS John Wayne. John Wayne just played John Wayne in movies, but Williams lived it. The only reason he doesn’t have about 700 home runs and 3,500 hits is that he did two tours of duty with the Marines in the prime of his career. And he wasn’t just touring with them and playing baseball games for PR, he was a fighter pilot, and he was a great fighter pilot. However, excelling at these two things wasn’t enough for Williams; how many of you knew he was also a Hall of Fame fisherman? Why? Because he was Ted Williams, and that’s what Ted Williams did.

Then you have DiMaggio, Williams foil in every respect. Intensely private, reticent, but a man of immense grace and dignity; Joe DiMaggio was the “strong, silent type” come to life. Joe D also embodied success, winning five World Series in a row with the Yankees, and pride, deciding to retire from baseball at the first sign of his skills eroding rather than play too long. And then there was Marilyn Monroe. DiMaggio became a legend far beyond his considerable skill and accomplishments. Joe’s presence was so huge that years after he retired, Simon and Garfunkel lamented “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?”

Their careers paralleled one another. DiMaggio played for the Yankees; baseball’s imperial dynasty, while Williams starred for the Red Sox; The Yanks’ rival and a symbol of futility. Not only did DiMaggio and the Yanks finish ahead of the Sox in the standings every year, DiMaggio also denied Williams personal success. In 1941, Williams became the last man to hit .400, but was still denied the MVP because DiMaggio had a 56-game hitting streak and, of course, the Yankees won the World Series. Then there’s the comparison of skills. Williams was the superior hitter, but was indifferent as a base-runner and defender, while DiMaggio was as complete a player as the game has ever seen. In every way, these men seemed to be different, and yet each was the very best in his own way. Two of my favorite figures in the rich history of baseball.

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