The Greatest Plays In Sports

An unscientific, non-definitive non-ranking of the moments that bring us back.

There are times when it can be hard to remember why we love sports.

Major sporting events like the Super Bowl have turned into pageants of crass corporate interests and saber-rattling pseudo-militarism. Team owners cry poverty and strip their rosters of a competitive edge while reaping massive, public-funding-aided profits. Scandals, such as the sign-stealing one currently rocking Major League Baseball, threaten to undermine viewers’ trust in the sanctity of competition. 

Is there anything good left in sports?

I say yes. 

Strip away the money, the scandal, the misrepresentation and malfeasance, and sports at their essence are about irreplaceable moments of unbridled, unscripted joy. We keep coming back for these moments — the things that wash away everything wrong with it and make us smile.

I’d like to discuss a few of these moments, but being as this is an internet publication, one might feel compelled to call this a definitive ranking of sports moments. It’s not that. I’m not detail-oriented enough to be definitive, or organized enough to rank. This is an emotional, sloppy, well-intentioned, unranked collection of The Best Moments In Sports.

I encourage you to comment below with your own, as I’m sure there are some I’ve missed. Let’s consider a few.  

The moment when a pitcher nabs a line drive.

The briefest of moments, the quarter-second between the sound of bat hitting ball and ball hitting glove. A sure hit is turned into an unexpected out, the batter barely having exited the box. The pitcher beams, having casually wiped away their problems. The batter? They’re left stunned.

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A half-court or greater shot to end a half

The game clock winds down, a defensive rebound is nabbed with only seconds to play in the half. A ball is heaved — not in desperation, as the game isn’t over and the score may not even be close — but in casual diligence, like checking the coin slot of a payphone to see if there’s any change in there. It almost never goes in, but when it does, the crowd reaction is invariably a collective “aaWWWhhh”, a sound that can only be made when you were surprised halfway through the act of standing up to head to the restroom. 

A kickoff or punt returned for a touchdown

I grilled steaks for dinner last weekend, and though I always enjoy this rare-for-us meal, the appreciation is tinged with the knowledge that it’s probably something I shouldn’t do anymore. The environmental impacts of beef production are well-known, and in thirty years eating a big New York strip might seem like a relic of another time. 

I feel the same way about kick returns, a play that exemplifies football’s existential problem moving forward. The leagues have tried to mitigate the risk, but it remains one of the most dangerous plays in a dangerous sport, two lines of players running full-speed at one another. It’s violent, risky, and could be done away with. When it succeeds, though? There’s nothing quite like seeing multiple tackles shed, a well-timed block leaving thirty yards of open field between the returner and glory.

It, like the steak, is worth savoring now. 

A horse closes in on the home stretch

Hey, speaking of dated ventures: I live in Kentucky and I’m obligated to care about horse racing. (I happily accept this obligation). Few sports can so easily be distilled to moments than one whose entire event takes only two minutes. The slow, oceanic murmur of the crowd roils as they round the final turn, frothing into a roar of anticipation, anger, confusion and joy as a horse closes the gap on the leader. The crowd’s reaction isn’t well-intentioned or sympathetic: it’s rooted in personal financial stakes that are changing in seconds. As long as you’ve got no skin in the game, it’s a fantastic thing to witness.

I’m sticking to generalities for most of these moments, but I have to share this: I attended the 2019 Kentucky Derby on assignment from SBNation, and the moment the race ended, now-seemingly-worthless betting slips rained down from the boxes in Millionaire’s Row onto the only-merely-expensive seats below. A minute or two later, in the dawning confusion over apparent winner Maximum Security’s eventual disqualification, the PA announcer sternly advised to “HOLD ALL TICKETS”. Consider this a sub-moment, then: realizing that the ultra-wealthy may have just thrown lots of money away right in front of you. Doesn’t happen often. Great to see.

A player does something out of line with our reasonable expectation of their ability.

This covers a few areas: A pitcher hits a home run. A brick-laying center hits a three-pointer. A diminutive punter saves a touchdown with a surprising tackle. It’s always greeted with alarm and delight, the collective acknowledgement of a very talented person doing something they’re not supposed to be talented at, like witnessing a concert violinist set down their bow and ripping off a tight ten minutes of insult comedy. I didn’t know you could do that, but damn. The box seats got roasted.

The announcers abandon the narrative.

This usually occurs in blowouts, and most often in baseball. A game’s result is no longer in doubt, but there’s game left to play and we’ve all paid or been paid for the whole thing. Sometimes this manifests in storytime, an activity we don’t get often enough as adults. Other times it results in two grown adults analyzing a thrown slice of pizza as though it’s the Zapruder film. 

The crowd unites around something pointless.

A cousin to the previous entry, this also relies on the game no longer being close. Still, the crowd has massed behind something. A beach ball’s attempt to circuit the entire arena. A field-stormer’s attempt to evade capture by security. A beloved but untalented benchwarmer’s entry into the game. Or, perhaps most importantly: the potential to earn a free taco if a certain point threshold is met. We entered this building hoping for a dramatic game: we stay here hoping to save 69 cents on grade-D beef, and we will cheer our hearts out for it. 

Moments of candid glee in the judged sports.

In some Olympic sports — and here I’m specifically thinking of gymnastics or figure skating — reactions are usually stifled. Routines are to be executed with grace, fluidity, and precision. It’s unbecoming to betray emotion; you should be a cold-blooded killer. That’s what makes it so special in the moments where it can’t be held in. A competitor nailing a move so hard that they betray years of training in stoicism with a visible “yes!’, or perhaps even a little fist pump, and no one can hold it against them because, dammit, that was good. That was worth it.

A pick-six where even the camera is surprised. 

Live sports still hold an amazing grip on the collective imagination because they’re one of the few things left that most people still consume in real time, at the same time. Unless you’re the rare bird disciplined enough to DVR a game and watch it later without needing to know the result as soon as possible, you revel in being surprised. Sports aren’t scripted. Anything can happen.

Nothing reminds us of this better than when a professional camera operator is momentarily fooled by the sudden and dramatic reversal of a play’s momentum and two teams’ fortunes. 

A home run so definitive the pitcher doesn’t even look.

Following that, as dramatic reversals of fortune go, there are the ones that happen so swiftly, so definitively, that the person most directly impacted it can fail to react, for the act has altered the very fabric of time and space. A ball is hit so hard, so high, and so far that it imprints the knowledge on the pitcher’s psyche a second before they even threw the ball. Time travel is possible.

Or one where the pitcher does look.

A hole in one, either in televised professional golf or in vacation Putt-Putt.

I have precious little knowledge on the former, and extremely proud experiences in the latter. In either, it’s one of the few achievements in sports in which the involvement of luck is undeniable. No one can do it on sheer skill, unless you’re Kim Jong-Il — there are too many factors at play: the wind, the play of the grass, the sheer improbability of hitting a tiny ball into a tiny hole from hundreds of yards away or off the face of a fiberglass beaver in Gatlinburg. Surely, skill was involved too, but it’s the rare time where even the most talented can chuckle at their good fortune.

A dog publicly disavows its handler’s notions of what we’re even here for today.

Who can get mad at a good dog having a good time? Not I, and I hope not you.

Being at a minor league baseball game on a beautiful summer day and realizing that you lost the thread a while ago and it doesn’t matter.

I wrote about this feeling at the end of last summer, when this newsletter was titled something else and I wasn’t sure what I was doing with it. (I’m still not sure.) It’s a beautiful moment, disassociating one’s appreciation of the sport from the need for it to matter, basking in it on an aesthetic and atmospheric level, as a means to a hot dog and a mild sunburn.

When something that seemed truly, factually, intrinsically impossible is proven to be, in fact, possible.

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When the most memorable athletic feat of the day is performed by someone who’s just there to watch.

When you get to share it.

In the end, watching sports is worth it because it’s something you can share. You can’t promise a win or a loss. You can’t promise a close or competitive or even well-played game. You can’t promise that any of our predetermined notions of what will or will not happen will come to fruition.

All you can promise is that something will happen, and that we can witness it together.

Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)

Thanks, as always, for reading and supporting The Action Cookbook Newsletter. If you’re enjoying it, please share — the more people that read this, the more I’m able to do, and the more my fragile ego survives to write another day. Have a great day.

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