And now some wise words about the claims of retired athletes

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It’s not uncommon to hear retired athletes — and the fans who watched them when they were children — to claim that the teams of yore could beat the teams of today.

Sometimes this is just an exercise in comparing players. Was Mantle better than Trout?, etc. As far as that goes it’s fine. When we get involved in those conversations I think we’re all tacitly assuming adjustments for era and equipment and level of competition and stuff. Who was greater for their time is the inquiry we’re really making, even if we don’t really say so.

Other times, though, it’s just nonsense. Like when someone says the 1939 Yankees would beat the 1998 Yankees head to head, despite the clear size, speed, skill and specialization advances that the latter team has over the former. Nothing personal against DiMaggio and friends, but athletic progress is ever-forward and the players of today would crush the players of yesterday. If you doubt this, go look at track and field and weightlifting records and any other athletic accomplishment for which there are objective forms of measurement.

Yet the unreasonable beliefs persist. This week they’re floating around the NBA, as the Golden State Warriors stand on the brink of sweeping their way through the playoffs. As this happens, people are arguing about whether the 1990s Bulls or the 1980s Celtics or Lakers teams were better. Which seems comical to me absent era adjustments and the like. If you’re not making that kind of comp but, rather, are arguing that if you put those teams in a time machine and brought them to the present day, they’d beat the Warriors, you’re crazy.

I think their coach, Steve Kerr, put it best:

It may do violence to your childhood memories to think that Mickey Mantle would be merely good today and the merely good players of that era wouldn’t crack a big league lineup, but it’s true.