It started on Friday when I got on Twitter at work and wrote this:
"Happy birthday to Willie Mays. If I could go back in time and watch any athlete in his/her prime, it would be the Say Hey Kid."
Then Warriors PR Director Dan Martinez replied. "Great conversation/debate/draft topic ... Which former athlete would you have most wanted to see in their prime?" And really, who am I to disagree with Dan Martinez? LET'S DO THIS.
But we need some ground rules, first. And since this is my list, the ground rules are fully self-centric.
I know a lot of the people reading this were born in the 1980s. I know a lot of the people reading this were born in the 1990s. There may even be a misguided kid born in the 2000s reading this. But I'm 33, so I remember seeing Joe Montana, Will Clark, Rickey Henderson, Ronnie Lott, Kevin Mitchell, Jerry Rice, Chris Mullin, Roger Craig, Matt Williams, Adam Keefe, Dave Stewart, Russell White, Dennis Eckersley, Sleepy Floyd and all the other '80s heroes. So this list is full of guys from the '70s and before, athletes whose greatness makes me happy when I read a book, but aggravated when I realize I don't have a realistic picture in my mind of what it was like to see them play. And since this is a Bay Area regional blog, let's stick to Bay Area athletes. Also, I don't want to bore everyone by letting them know I wish I could have seen Babe Ruth call his shot or Muhammad Ali fight Joe Frazier. Ready? Let's go...
10. Joe Morgan: Making fun of his announcing skills became the coolest way ever to get a gig as a Network TV sitcom writer, but imagine watching Morgan play for Castlemont High School. He's in the Hall of Fame, and he's listed at 5'7", which probably means he's really 5'5". Just exactly where do these Harvard TV writers get off making fun of a dwarf, anyway? Not cool, nerds. NOT COOL.
9. Jack Tatum: Tell me you wouldn't want to see the most dangerous hitter of all time drilling guys without any rules to hold him back. Sure, you'd have to put aside everything you've learned in the past five years about concussions to feel comfortable watching him. However, if I could go back in time and watch any historical event and have guaranteed safety, I'd do it 99% of the time. And so would you. Gladiator was ridiculously popular for a reason. Anybody reading this, if they were offered box seats at the Colosseum during its heyday, would say yes.
8. Vida Blue: Blue's prime came early. As a 21-year-old for the A's, his 1971 season alone would be reason enough to want to dial up the way-back machine: 312 IP, 301 K, 0.95 WHIP, 1.82 ERA, 24-8 record. Vida's charisma is ridiculously underrated, as well. If his and Fernando Valenzuela's careers traded places, he'd be mayor of Los Angeles right now.
7. John Brodie: Based on all I heard about him from my mom and grandpa as a kid, he seemed to be one of the most polarizing (sports) figures in San Francisco history. I guess that's what happens when you play for the 49ers for the entirety of your 17-year career, your career record is 74-77-8, and your career playoff record is 2-3. But his skills were kind of a precursor to the strong Niners passers of the future, as Brodie played for over-matched teams but still managed to lead the NFL in passing yards three times and touchdowns twice.
In 1965, Johnny Unitas was first-team All-Pro, even though Brodie led the league in yards, TD and completion percentage, and played in 2 more games that season. Probably had something to do with the Colts going 10-3-1 and the 49ers going 7-6-1.
The Colts actually came to Kezar (another reason I'd like to see Brodie is I could watch a game at Kezar, which is within walking distance from my apartment ... the fact that Kezar once held NFL games is mind boggling if you've seen the place) in 1965 and beat the 49ers 34-28. Hell, that's the game I'd want to go back and see. Brodie went 20-for-28 for 289 yards and 2 TD. Unitas: 23-for-34, 324 yards, 4 TD. Okay, maybe Unitas had a case to be named All-Pro.
6. Juan Marichal: Tim Lincecum is on his way to assuming Marichal's title of "best San Francisco Giants pitcher ever," but Marichal was incredible, and not just because he attacked John Roseboro with a bat (be honest, you'd pay everything you had in your checking account to see that game live). Marichal completed over half his starts. He was helped by the fact he barely walked anybody, which means you could go watch a day game and if the Domincan Dandy was starting you'd be back on HWY 101 by 2:30 pm. And, you could drive a giant American car on a not-very-crowded highway with an open beer in your hand, and the idea of sports talk radio would have scared you. Times were different. That's partly why I love Mad Men so much. I don't want to litter all the time and drive without my seat belt on, but it's fun to watch people do it on TV.
5. Rick Barry: He was competitive to a fault, even though he was a professional athlete. He was like John McEnroe, constantly bickering with officials and anyone else who'd listen. His underhanded free throws went in 90% of the time. Mostly, I wish I could have seen the Warriors' only championship team and how they were received around here, oh so long ago. That year, Barry had a LeBron-esque season:
Rick Barry (1974-75): 30.6 ppg; 5.7 rpg; 6.2 apg; 2.9 spg; 46.4% FG
4. Joe DiMaggio: It must have been absolutely incredible to see the guy play for the San Francisco Seals. Do you want to know why there's an East Coast Bias right now? Because only 80 years ago, baseball on the West Coast didn't matter at all, even though the Pacific Coast League was flooded with DiMaggios.
3. Willie McCovey: He just sounds like a guy who's so easy to like whenever he's in your presence, and a guy who probably hit balls so far out of Candlestick Park they're still stuck somewhere in the parking lot mud. I'd love to see young Stretch, before the knees started giving him problems, but he was at his best in 1969-70, when at age 31-32 he walked 258 times, struck out 141 times and hit 84 HR. It'd be fun to go watch the '69 Giants, and then wander over to the Haight after the game ... you probably wouldn't remember anything specific from that day, but it'd be worth it.
2. Wilt Chamberlain: I don't care that he only played in San Francisco for two and a half seasons. He averaged 40.5 points and 23.4 rebounds per game. Plus, he played a ton of games in the Cow Palace. All I've ever seen at the Cow Palace is a WWF (that's right, before the name change) non-televised show that featured the best, longest singing performance by The Rock I've ever seen. And as great as that afternoon was, I'd take watching Wilt score on every other possession while accumulating 10 blocks per half that weren't being counted by anyone.
1. Willie Mays: I don't think I'm alone in being a little upset Mays played in an era that was both way before I was born and when every waking moment wasn't documented on television. We have a good idea how special he was, because the people who got to see him gloat as much as they do. Take the great Ray Ratto's Twitter response, sent just before @dmar gave me this post idea:
But you can't. We get Mays, you get Tsuyoshi Shinjo RT @BASportsGuy: If I could go back in time for any athlete in prime, it would be Mays