- - Thursday, April 26, 2018

Mount Rushmore opened in 1941, and we’ve been rebuilding it ever since. It’s become a popular measuring stick for sports greats — the Mount Rushmore of baseball players, the Mount Rushmore of NFL coaches, the Mount Rushmore of pickleball greats, among many others.

The Babe Ruth Museum and the Baltimore Sun partnered on polling and creating a Mount Rushmore of Maryland sports, with the goal “to identify the state’s four most enduring athletic icons.”

So they picked six.

Hey, it’s not like Mount Rushmore was carved in stone or anything. You’ve got to be flexible when it comes to icon building. Rumor is Mount Rushmore was actually supposed to be built to honor the four Marx Brothers, but politics resulted in it being changed to the four presidents.

This was a process that includes a group of local sports experts and online polling that reportedly began with 250 contenders. That’s a lot of icons. Did Sidney Ponson make that first list?

They found it too difficult to cut that list down to the traditional four Mount Rushmore figures, so they went with six — Cal Ripken, Johnny Unitas, Michael Phelps, Brooks Robinson, Ray Lewis and, of course, Babe Ruth. After all, it was his poll.

It’s as subjective as any argument in sports — even the criteria is often up to debate. Babe Ruth, after all, may have been born in Baltimore, and the city has adopted his birthplace as part of its identity, but most would consider him carved into the New York City Mount Rushmore of sports.

The other choices are certainly all valid. The hardest part, after all, is cutting the list down, not determining who is deserving and who is not. That’s why they increased their list to six. After all, who are you going to leave off? Phelps, one of the greatest Olympians of all time, with 23 gold medals, 28 in all?

It’s the same question I asked myself when I decided to steal their idea for my own purposes — a Mount Rushmore of Washington sports — not who will make it, but who will be left out?

To make that process less painful, I also went with six.

I can assure you that the work involved in selecting my Washington Mount Rushmore of sports is no less scientific or intensive than what they did up there in Baltimore.

What is distinctly different, though is my Mount Rushmore includes two coaches. Not one was listed on the Maryland list — not Earl Weaver, not Don Shula, not Gary Williams.

But it’s hard to build any monument to Washington sports icons without Redskins coach Joe Gibbs.

Whenever I have discussed in print or on the radio which Redskins legend should be the first to have a statue here, the overwhelming choice is Gibbs, who led the franchise to four Super Bowls, with three championships, from 1981 to 1992. It is as gold as a golden era of sports could be, and the face that he did it with different casts of characters — three different quarterbacks — carves his place in granite.

And I don’t see how you can build this testament to greatness in sports in Washington and leave Georgetown Hall of Famer John Thompson off. A District native, he was one of the greatest high school players in the city, one of the greatest high school coaches in the city, and then created a Georgetown University basketball universe, going to three straight Final Fours and being the first African-American coach to win an NCAA basketball championship. He is part of this city’s history, yet his influence and appeal goes far beyond its boundaries.

Of the remaining four, two are easy. Sammy Baugh put the Redskins on the map when they moved from Boston in 1937, leading them to one of two NFL championships during his era. He is considered one of the top two or three players in league history.

The other, of course, is Walter Johnson, arguably the greatest pitcher in baseball history. From 1907 to 1927, the Washington Senators hurler was the most dominant pitcher of his time — a 417-279 won-loss record, a 2.17 career ERA, 3,508 strikeouts and 110 shutouts.

Big Train and Slinging Sammy were game changers, with legacies that went far beyond Washington.

That leaves us to the final two. You know who else is a game changer? Alex Ovechkin. The Capitals star player may have a championship hole in his resume, but his greatness is the hockey version of Baugh’s and Johnson’s, and he reaffirmed it this year, leading the league with 49 goals at the age of 32 — the seventh time he will have won the Rocket Richard Trophy for top goal scorer, tied with Bobby Hull for the most in NHL history. He has won the Hart Memorial Trophy as the league’s Most Valuable Player three times, and probably should have won more. He has filled his trophy case with honors, and arguably changed the game in this town.

Finally, the knockout blow — Sugar Ray Leonard. Yes, the boxing great, from suburban Washington in Palmer Park, Maryland., was the boxing franchise in Washington form the time he won the gold medal in the 1976 Olympics to his history 1987 comeback win over middleweight champion Marvin Hagler. His presence for big fights against Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns and others dominated the sports landscape here as much as any other franchise. He won world championships in five different weight classes, from welterweight to light heavyweight, and in 2002 Ring Magazine named Leonard as the ninth greatest fighter over the last 80 years. As much as the Redskins are Washington, so is Sugar Ray Leonard.

I get who is missing. Sonny Jurgensen is a sports icon here, one of the most beloved figures in town. John Riggins remains one of the most popular Redskins players in history. Josh Gibson, the Hall of Fame Negro League catcher with the Homestead Grays, has a statue outside Nationals Park. Wes Unseld led the Bullets to their only NBA title. And many others as well are perhaps deserving, under different criteria.

But this is Mount Rushmore. We’re building a monument here. Expand it much further, and we’re talking about the Poconos of Washington sports.

Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network.


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