Sports lists: People love 'em, but they cause a lot of fuss

Driving home Wednesday night after the Al Cesky Awards Banquet, I tuned my car radio to 90.5 WKHS's Ace and The Brain Show (Wednesdays, 8 to 10 p.m, a fine, commercial-free sports/music program that you should check out), and heard an obscure baseball trivia question opened to listeners, with the deejays promising an autographed picture to the first caller who offered up the correct answer.

Knowing the answer, I dialed up the station fully expecting to get a busy signal, but to my surprise one of the hosts picked up after two rings. I said "hello, this is Dewey Fox, and the correct answer is: Rick Monday prevented two protesters from burning an American flag during a baseball game in 1976." I was right, and for the first time in my 32 years I had won a radio station call-in contest. Apathy and a near phobia of waiting on a busy telephone line have limited my attempts at such feats in the past, so to actually connect and have the correct answer was pretty exciting, even if I still don't know whose autographed picture is being mailed to me.

More interesting than winning the contest was the on-air conversation I had with the show's two hosts, who prior to my call had been discussing another publication's recent list of Maryland's 175 greatest athletes, which, unsurprisingly, has caused some uproar. The hosts took issue with the fact that the list included athletes who were born in Maryland, but did not spend any appreciable time playing sports for Maryland teams (i.e. Jimmie Foxx, a Sudlersville native, and one of my all-time favorite baseball players, whose only time spent on a professional franchise inside this state's borders were the 76 games he played for the Class "D" Easton Farmers as a 16-year-old in 1924).

I somewhat agree with their objection, but things get sticky very quickly when you're dealing with things of this sort. Let's say you make it the "only athletes who played for Maryland teams" list, then you've got to chuck out Baseball Hall of Fame members Foxx, Lefty Grove, Babe Ruth (Ruth and Grove, Maryland natives, both played minor league ball in Baltimore, but I'm not counting that as enough), and Al Kaline, who went straight from Southern High School to Detroit, where he spent the next 22 seasons as a Tiger. That would be bad enough, but if you went the opposite way, making a list comprised only of athletes born or raised in Maryland, you'd probably have people waiting in the parking lot on Monday morning with torches, pitchforks, a tub of hot tar and a bag full of feathers, because you would have to leave off the some of the state's athletic gods, like Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Johnny Unitas, Wes Unseld, Jim Palmer, Ray Lewis, Gino Marchetti, Raymond Berry, Lenny Moore, and this list could keep going for a long time. But, you still have to consider the athletes from Maryland who participated in non-team sports, like Michael Phelps and Ray Leonard (he didn't start boxing until he moved to Palmer Park, Md. at 10 years old), and Harford County's own world champion figure skater, Kimmie Meissner.

If I were to make a list of Harford County's greatest athletes, I'd be lucky in that the top spot would go to Aberdeen's favorite son, Cal Ripken Jr., but after that it would get just as hard as the 175-name list I've been writing about. I tend to agree with author Don DeLillo's assessment that lists are "forms of cultural hysteria," a vain attempt that humans make at organizing and putting their stamp on the past, but like most journalists I fall back on them when I'm feeling nostalgic, or ornery.

In any case, I appreciate anyone who would attempt to catalog and rank that many athletes, because even the stupid top-10 lists I make now and then are hard enough.

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