Top NY sports heroes of the decade
Newsday's Neil best counts down the top 10 New York sports heroes of the past decade.
No. 10) JAROMIR JAGR
Jaromir Jagr spent only 3½ seasons with the Rangers, but he played a key role in the team’s post-lockout revival after it had gone oh-for-the-2000s in making the playoffs.
His 54-goal, 123-point season in 2005-06 led the Blueshirts to their best record since the Cup-winning season of 1993-94 and back into the playoffs at last, where they were swept by the Devils.
One reason for that: Jagr suffered a dislocated shoulder in Game 1 and was severely limited thereafter.
No. 9) DAVID WRIGHT
By now Wright figured to be well on his way to being the Mets’ answer to Derek Jeter, only with more power and better quotes. But the boy wonder has lost some luster after a power outage in ’09 and the team’s three-year playoff-less streak.
There is no arguing with his numbers, though, including four seasons in a row from 2005-08 with more than 25 home runs, more than 100 RBIs and better than a .300 batting average.
No. 8) JORGE POSADA
Profound apologies to Mike Piazza, but Jorge Posada was the Catcher of the Decade in New York, thanks to his sustained production over a longer period. (Piazza wasn’t the same after ’02.)
Posada, who reliably produced runs in the early 2000s, showed he had something left as he turned 38 last season, compiling 22 home runs, 81 RBIs and a .285 batting average. Fielding is not Posada’s strong suit, but three-run home runs tend to make up for that sort of thing.
No. 7) CURTIS MARTIN
Curtis Martin fell between the chronological cracks for the purposes of this list, totaling 6,550 rushing yards in the 1990s and 7,551 in the 2000s.
But his sustained excellence and class on and off the field earns him a spot.
Martin’s career came to an abrupt end one year after he led the league in carries with 371 and yards with 1,697 in 2004, the Jets’ best season of the decade.
No. 6) TIKI BARBER
For his first three seasons, Tiki Barber was a useful third-down back with a cute name and a knack for catching the ball out of the backfield.
Then in 2000, he ran for 1,006 yards, beginning a reinvention that turned him into the Giants’ all-time leading rusher and one of its best-ever all-around offensive players.
Barber totaled more than 2,000 yards from scrimmage in each of his last three years, and on the way out saved the job of Tom Coughlin — whom he had criticized before and would criticize again — with a tour de force against the Redskins in the final game of the 2006 regular season.
No. 5) SARAH HUGHES
Even in an era of wider possibilities for women in sports, there is no jewel quite as valued as the gold medal in Olympic figure skating.
It seemed out of reach for Great Neck’s Sarah Hughes in Salt Lake City in 2002 when she ranked fourth after the short program.
But when the skaters ahead of her faltered and she did not, she vaulted into first place.
Hughes, who later graduated from Yale, never won a U.S. or World Championship, but that shocking gold secured her place in the sport’s history.
No. 4) MICHAEL STRAHAN
Even as the best Giant of the post-Lawrence Taylor era, Michael Strahan’s Hall of Fame candidacy was iffy until the 2007 season. That’s when he won his first Super Bowl in his final game as a pro.
That pretty much did it, along with his 141½ sacks — 89 of which came from 2000 on. His 22½ in 2001 are an NFL record, even if the last was tainted by an apparent dive from Brett Favre.
Strahan was more than sacks, though. He was one of the NFL’s best run-stopping ends, too, and in his later years he emerged as a valued team leader, never more so than during the run to winning Super Bowl XLII.
No. 3) ALEX RODRIGUEZ
One year ago, placing Alex Rodriguez at No. 3 would have ticked off many fans, but he would have deserved it. He already was the first athlete to win two MVP awards for a New York team since Roger Maris in 1960 and ’61.
Now? No-brainer. A-Rod came back from a steroid scandal and hip surgery to finish with his fewest home runs and RBIs since 1997 yet was crucial in jump-starting the Yankees on their road to a title, then in securing it come October and November.
Off the field, he reshaped his image by sticking to his talking points and seemingly finding stability in a new relationship with actress Kate Hudson.
Rodriguez has 238 home runs and 716 RBIs in six seasons as a Yankee. That’s a lot.
No. 2) MARIANO RIVERA
There might be no more telling tribute to Mariano Rivera’s greatness than this:
In 2001 he committed the ultimate sin for a relief pitcher, blowing a save in Game 7 of the World Series. Yet when people consider his career that failure is a rarely mentioned footnote. That is because he does his job better than anyone in baseball history has done it, and he continued to do it exquisitely as he approached his 40th birthday in 2009.
After a wobbly start, he and his cutter finished strongly, including a breeze through a postseason during which many fellow closers blew up in spectacular fashion.
Rivera secured his 500th career save in ’09, and totaled 397 in the 2000s alone.
What also made him unique was his demeanor: In a role long populated by high-strung basket cases, he was a placid, gentlemanly presence with all the unpredictability of a metronome.
No. 1) DEREK JETER
In an era of scariness and scandal, Derek Jeter was our go-to superstar, the one guy we could count on not to disappoint even when all around him was shattering like a Cadillac Escalade window met by a 7-iron.
Most remarkable was that he pulled it off not by staying home watching “Yankeeography’’ reruns but while carrying on a busy social life as the city’s most visible bachelor since John Kennedy Jr.’s heyday.
Jeter is New York’s own Big Man on Campus; he even dates a pretty high school cheerleader. Not a real one, of course. His friend, Minka Kelly, is in her late 20s, and only plays one on TV.
Oh, almost forgot: Jeter can play, too, as well as ever as he turned 35 in 2009.
He batted .334, scored 107 runs, finished third in AL MVP voting, reinvented himself as a shortstop and passed Lou Gehrig’s record for career hits as a Yankee, many of them Jeterian line drives to right.
It was a neat bookend to 2000, when he batted .339 and scored 119 runs.
There was a lot of other stuff in between, but nothing as good as the beginning and the end, when Jeter went home with the prize he champions most of all: rings.