Title rings don’t mean everything

I was happy to see the Cardinals win the World Series this past Friday night. The Series was not particularly exciting — a battle of two teams from the Midwest means very little to me, a biased east-coast snob. In addition, I have little respect for the senior circuit, much less a 2006 Cardinals team that won only 83 games.

So then, why did a smile cross my tired face early on Saturday morning as I watched the Redbirds charge the field? Well, for only one reason: Albert Pujols got a ring. I’m relieved that Prince Albert can play the rest of his career without ever hearing, “Yeah, but he still hasn’t won a World Series.”

Despite the fact that in baseball the influence of any individual batter on the outcome of an entire season is relatively limited, many in the media still stress a World Series victory as an essential in a Hall of Fame resume. This is a trend that transcends baseball and pops up in debates surrounding all professional sports. It is an unfortunate argument that deserves to be discredited.

Dan Marino is the most obvious example of a professional athlete whose career has for some horrible reason been tainted by the no-championship gimmick. In 17 seasons, Marino shattered every major NFL passing record. By statistical counts, there has never been a greater quarterback than the Dolphin legend. He holds the records for most passing yards (61,361) and touchdown passes (420).

In his first full season as a starter in 1984, the Pittsburgh graduate had his one and only chance to play in the Super Bowl. He single-handedly carried the Dolphins through the ’84 regular season and set single season NFL records for passing yards (5,084) and touchdown passes (48).

In Super Bowl XIX, only handing the ball off eight times, Don Shula and the Dolphins put all their money on Marino’s quick release. The Dolphins and Marino fell to the 49ers, 38-16. Marino threw for 318 yards and one touchdown on 29-for-50 passing. But it wasn’t enough, and he would never bring the Dolphins back to the biggest stage in American sports.

Last year, when Ben Roethlisberger started Super Bowl XL for the Steelers, the sports media constantly reminded fans that Big Ben would need to win in order to avoid the “Marino stigma.” The Steelers put a beating on the Seahawks and Roethlisberger has been installed into football’s pantheon of quarterbacks, primarily because he is the youngest signal-caller ever to start and win the Super Bowl. But Ben Roethlisberger should not, at least until further notice, and I would contend ever, be compared with Dan Marino.

Unfortunately, Peyton Manning is being subjected to criticism similar to the complaints leveled at Marino. Manning led the Colts to the 2004 AFC Championship game, only to run into the hacksaw that was the New England Patriots. The Colts quarterback, through his first eight complete seasons, has thrown for more yards and more touchdowns than Marino did in a comparable period.

Manning, like Marino, may never win a Super Bowl, but his greatness as a football player should never be classified in the same sentence as Roethlisberger’s. It’s comical to think that one can evaluate the performance of an individual — playing a team game no less — by how many championships that player’s team wins. It is rather the performance of those players in the biggest games of their careers that can differentiate the really good from the elite.

That is the category where Marino and Manning could both have performed better. They are therefore not in the class of a Joe Montana, who led the 49ers to four Super Bowl victories in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, or a Tom Brady, the 21st-century version of Montana. Nevertheless, Marino and Manning are still two of the greatest to ever play the position and should not be discredited because it didn’t all fall into place for them in one season.

As for Pujols, his first seasons in the Major Leagues compare favorably with the stats of anyone who has played baseball. In just under 1000 games, the sweet singing righty has compiled a .332 lifetime batting average, while hitting no less than 34 home runs in each of his six major league campaigns. Pujols, officially listed as 26 years old (insert laughter here), is not only on pace to become the most prolific offensive player in history, he’s also doing it with class and grace — qualities that are mostly lost on today’s athletes.

But Albert had a poor World Series. He went a measly 3-15, with one home run and two RBI. He admitted that he was pressing a little bit too hard and swinging at pitches out of the strike zone. If the Cardinals had lost the World Series to the Tigers, the fingers would quickly have been pointed in Pujols’ direction. But they didn’t. And because they didn’t, Prince Albert can play out the rest of his career, free from the shame of the “but-he’s-never-won-a” qualifier.

Nicholas Thorne is a junior in Pierson College. His columns appear on Wednesdays.

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