If you are a sports fan, you are living in a time of GOAT milk and honey | Michael Arace

We are fortunate to live at a confluence of greatness in the world of sports. Some of the most remarkable athletes in history are making their marks, quantifiably. For instance, the three winningest men’s tennis players of all time – Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, who have combined for 64 Grand Slam titles – are a product of this century, and two of them are still going.

There are some of us who will attempt to compare the Jimmy Connors-Bjorn Borg-John McEnroe era, when tennis was a boom sport, but, sorry, it is no comparison. What we’re seeing now is something our children tell our grandchildren, the way our fathers talked about Wilt Chamberlain or Jim Brown or Wayne Gretzky.

For this discussion, the focus is on major team sports, and it begins with a pop quiz:

Who was Roger Connor?

Alex Ovechkin is on pace to pass Wayne Gretzky’s record of 894 goals next season.
Alex Ovechkin is on pace to pass Wayne Gretzky’s record of 894 goals next season.

Hint: He was big-league ballplayer.

Ring a bell?

Connor played for the New York Gothams, later called the “Giants” in his honor. He hit baseball’s first grand slam in 1881, and it was a walk-off. He hit a home run out of the Polo Grounds – all the way out – off Old Hoss Radbourn, no less.

In the Deadball Era, Connor was the home run king. He hit 138 dingers in his 18-year career, a record that stood for 23 years after his retirement in 1897. Then Babe Ruth came along and hit 714.

Tom Brady retired with NFL records for passing yards (89,214) and touchdowns (649).
Tom Brady retired with NFL records for passing yards (89,214) and touchdowns (649).

Babe’s record stood for 40 years after his retirement in 1935. It stood until 1974, when Henry Aaron hit 715. And Hammerin’ Hank’s record of 755 stood for … well, for some of us, it still stands, while for others, Barry Bonds is recognized for retiring with 762 in 2007.

That’s about the shelf life of an “unassailable” record – around 30 years, give or take. The home run kings are illustrative: Connor put up a number that stood unsurpassed for nearly a quarter century; Ruth, who would become an adjective, reinvented the game, and his 714 stood for 40 years – from the first administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt all the way to the impeachment trial of Richard M. Nixon.

We can talk about eras. Let’s stick with baseball as exemplar here. Denton True “Cy” Young, the pride of Newcomerstown, has numbers that are truly unassailable. To name just a few: He has more wins (511), losses (316) and complete games (749) than any pitcher in history. These numbers have stood for 100 years and they will stand until the earth is incinerated. Why? Put it this way: Last season, 30 starting pitching staffs combined for nine complete games; the Cyclone didn’t have a pitch count.

While sports evolve, and always will, there are career numbers that are accessible to most every era, in every sport. Here, we’re talking about the Big Numbers. We’re talking about career points, career touchdowns, career goals and such like. Sustained excellence. GOAT milk.

Novak Djokovic (pictured), Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have combined for 64 Grand Slam titles.
Novak Djokovic (pictured), Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have combined for 64 Grand Slam titles.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar passed Chamberlain for the all-time NBA points record on April 5, 1984, eight months before LeBron James was born. Jabbar’s ultimate mark of 38,387 points was, at the time, believed to be out-of-reach forever.

Thirty-eight years later, James is on pace to break Jabbar’s record. Thursday night might be the night.

Last week, Tom Brady retired, and he says he means it this time. Brady only eviscerated the NFL record books. He might be Cy Young. Time will tell. Brady has all the Big Numbers, including passing yards (89,214) and touchdowns (649), and it’s not even close.

Lionel Messi is credited with 795 career goals.
Lionel Messi is credited with 795 career goals.

Alexander Ovechkin has passed Gordie Howe (Mr. Hockey!) on the NHL's all-time goals list, and at his present pace is due to pass Gretzky’s record of 894 goals next season.

The Guiness Book of World Records lists Pele as the career record holder with 1,281 goals, but nobody really knows how to count “official goals” in soccer. FIFA doesn’t even try, and FIFA tries everything, legal or otherwise. Other sources give Pele 765 “official goals” − and they give Cristiano Ronaldo 820 and Lionel Messi 795.

They’re still going, too: Ronaldo is helping a bloody Saudi government sportswash its image in Riyadh, while Messi, in the final year of his contract with Paris Saint-Germain, is mulling a jump to MLS Miami.

Cristiano Ronaldo is credited with 820 career goals.
Cristiano Ronaldo is credited with 820 career goals.

We live in a time of LeBron and Brady, Ovi, Ronaldo and Messi, when their Big Numbers – as true a measure of greatness as any other – are winding down to the final ticks.

Has there ever been such a confluence of GOAT-iness? Maybe in the mid-1970s, when Aaron was chasing down Ruth’s home record, Pele was retiring (for the first time) and Wilt was in his final contract dispute with the Lakers. Maybe in the mid-1960s, when Gordie Howe was passing Maurice “Rocket” Richard and Jim Brown was announcing his retirement on the set of “The Dirty Dozen.”

To go back much farther is to cross a threshold into a time when only baseball, boxing and horse racing meant anything to the American masses, and the NFL was less popular than bowling.

What we are witnessing now is remarkable. Do we realize it?

Most of the Big Numbers can seem as untouchable as Babe Ruth’s 714. Aaron had to hit 24 or more homers every year from 1955 through 1973 to have a shot. We’re seeing, or have just seen, that sort of thing in triplicate, or quadruplicate.


This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: On the awesome confluence of LeBron James, Tom Brady and Alex Ovechkin