As I type this, my television — as tends to be the case these days — is tuned to the MLB Network. There, I’m watching a rebroadcast of a game played on July 20, 2004, in which Albert Pujols hit three home runs against the Chicago Cubs. The 2020 version of Pujols is a broken-down, elderly, prohibitively expensive albatross for the Los Angeles Angels, but the 2004 version was a monster, one of the greatest baseball players I’ve ever seen. He was at his most brilliant that July day, launching moonshots for an incredible Cardinals team and leading them to an 11-8 win in a game they’d once trailed 7-1. Watching him instantly transports me back to that time — back when he was young and perfect, back when we all were.
Nostalgia has always been vital to the enjoyment of sports, because sports are inherently about a consistent, constant history. For the most prominent leagues, the rules haven’t changed much in generations. They keep records, they write everything down, and it’s all saved for posterity. So it’s no wonder that during this sports-free pandemic, those desperate for any sort of athletic endeavor to watch have plunged so deeply into the past. Whether it’s the constant throwback games aired on all the sports channels, computer simulations between all-time teams, or the weekly Sunday night ritual of Michael Jordan worship that is The Last Dance, fans are filling their otherwise empty sports souls with remembrances of days gone by.
But while reliving all this past glory is temporarily satiating some people until their favorite league can finally return, I’ll confess all it’s doing is making me miss live sports more. Because nothing makes me realize just how amazing sports are now than realizing how much worse they used to be. Sometimes we forget that the sports we’re watching today (or at least the sports we should be watching today) are played at a higher level — a much higher level — than we’ve ever seen before. The golden age of performance is always happening right now.
It doesn’t take much viewing of an old baseball game to realize how poorly the old-time players would fare today. If Babe Ruth got one look at a curveball from a middling collegiate pitcher in 2020, he’d run away screaming about witchcraft and dark sorcery. But you don’t have to go that far back to witness sports evolution. In 1985, Chicago Bears defensive lineman William “Refrigerator” Perry was a folk hero for his gargantuan size, weighing 335 pounds, which would make him, today … too small to play in the NFL trenches. (The heaviest player in the NFL clocks in at 380, and the Jets’ first-round pick last week, Mekhi Becton, weighs 364 pounds but only has 17 percent body fat.) LeBron James’s body type would have made him a Karl Malone post up–and–pivot guy 20 years ago; now he soars like Jordan and knocks people around like Charles Oakley. (It’s amazing what year-round, focused weight training can do when combined with incredible skill and athleticism.) But look no further than Pujols to see how much baseball has changed even over the course of his own career. During that three-homer game on MLB Network, a highlight of his Hall of Fame career, he hit his shots off Glendon Rusch (a soft-tossing lefty in his 30s who couldn’t strike anyone out), Kyle Farnsworth (known for a blistering fastball in the mid-90s, a velocity that now would make him among the slowest throwers on any team), and LaTroy Hawkins (another light tosser in his 30s). There is no way any of those men would be on a baseball roster today. To watch Pujols homer off them is like watching him play against teenagers.
There is value, of course, in putting players in the perspective of their era: Pujols was better than almost everyone else during his peak era, which is why he’ll be in Cooperstown someday. But the game he was playing is simply different than the one played now. Weight training, biomechanics, and technology in general have changed what the human body is capable of, while medicine and injury treatments have improved dramatically. Add it all up, and players are simply bigger, faster, and stronger than they used to be. I have no doubt that Mickey Mantle would be a jacked specimen of human perfection if he played today, but he didn’t, and you can tell: He looked nothing like today’s stars. Lamar Jackson is as fast as Barry Sanders and can throw like Joe Montana; Giannis Antetokounmpo is LeBron and Magic Johnson except he’s seven feet tall; Mike Trout has the batting eye, patience, and smarts of Ted Williams but is built like a goddamned tank. If you were to put Antetokounmpo on the court during one of those ’90s NBA games, it would look as if Mothra had invaded the arena. People would stare at him as if he were a space alien.
There is an old rule that every fan’s emotional maturity freezes at the age they first fell in love with sports — that they think sports will never improve from what they saw when they were 10 years old. It’s why people are always claiming baseball has Lost Its Soul, and that football players aren’t as “tough” as they used to be. But while I’ll always have a soft spot for the speedy Ozzie Smith–Whitey Herzog Cardinals teams of the ’80s, the skinny dudes on those teams would get the bat knocked out of their hands today. Watching old games for five minutes now makes that abundantly clear. Sports is like technology: It can’t help but improve, because if it didn’t, it would cease to exist entirely.
All this is very much worth keeping in mind while watching The Last Dance every Sunday night (which, it’s becoming increasingly apparent, was authorized solely because Michael Jordan has read all your “LeBron is the best player ever” tweets and will not stand for it). Much of Jordan’s brilliance was in his otherworldly competitive edge, and clearly, that competitiveness, if deployed today, would make him an even better athlete than he already was. But simply acknowledge his age in the film. The titular “Last Dance,” meant to capture Jordan in his final days as a star, trying to squeeze one last title out of his talent, features him when he is 35 years old. He was terrific that year — Karl Malone won the MVP, but Jordan may have deserved it — but it was clear that he was spent, exhausted … done at the end of the year. Hence, why he retired in the first place. Now compare this state of affairs to 2020. LeBron James, also 35, not only isn’t at the end of his career — he’s in his absolute prime, leading a Lakers team (before the pandemic hit) to the best record in the Western Conference in the second year of a four-year contract that will take him through the next couple seasons, at which point he’ll be 37. He has said he’d like to keep going after that, perhaps long enough to play with his son, LeBron James Jr. (“Bronny”), who already has scholarship offers from Duke and Kentucky, despite the fact that he won’t graduate from high school until 2023. It’s no wonder Jordan wants to remind us of how great he was; he’s running out of time for the LeBron-Jordan debate to even be much of a debate at all. And that’s before you account for how different the game looks in that footage than it does now. Would Jordan be able to account for the floor spacing and pace that dominates the game today? Or would he keep trying to be the alpha dog like he was back then? It’s a little easier to hit a shot over Craig Ehlo than Giannis, that’s for sure.
We watch The Last Dance, and it makes us remember how great things were. It also reminds us how far the game has come. Nostalgia has a tendency to make us glamorize the past at the expense of the present. But when the games return, we’ll be able to see, after watching months of reruns, what greatness looks like, right now — and how nothing from the past can really quite compare. Sure, it’s fun to have your barroom and sports-radio talk about how nobody can compare to whomever happened to be the superstars when you were a kid. But all this watching of old games makes the stark contrast of eras rather self-evident. If this sports pause has any positive effect, maybe it’s that we’ll start appreciating the brilliance of now a little more. And the great thing? It’ll only get better from here.