The 10 Most Exciting Plays in Sports

Jordan Rabinowitz@JordanRabContributor IApril 23, 2014

The 10 Most Exciting Plays in Sports

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    When it comes to thrilling plays, you don't necessarily attend a game with a desire to see one. Sure, when the time is ripe for a walk-off home run or a game-winning field goal, you'll welcome it with open arms. But it means something, somewhere along the course of the game didn't go necessarily right for your team, which was not able to secure a clean, comfortable victory.

    Of course, while a clean, comfortable victory is nice, the emotional payoff of a split-second of magic after a grueling eight-and-a-half innings, 57 minutes or three periods is an unmatched feeling.

    And even in games that are won cleanly and comfortably, it's hard to resist an edge-of-your seat play no matter when or how it takes place.

    With that in mind, let's examine the 10 most exciting plays—game-ending or otherwise—in sports.

10. The Unassisted Triple Play

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    The unassisted triple play doesn't crack the list based on visual spectacle—although it's pretty. It happens too quickly for the crowd to even fully process what just happened. But because of its infrequency, and the jaw-on-the-ground reaction it tends to elicit once it's turned, it was hard to leave it off the list.

    Consider just how rare the unassisted triple play is: The one Eric Bruntlett turned for the Philadelphia Phillies in August 2009 was the most recent and just the 15th in major league history, making it considerably rarer than the vaunted perfect game, which has been done a comparatively robust 23 times.

    That the play is based almost entirely on luck rather than skill is understandable, but ultimately, irrelevant when it comes to judging how exciting it is.

    One player's ability to turn a potentially dangerous inning for his team into dust in a matter of seconds? The unassisted triple play is damn exciting, and just because a player must be the recipient of some otherworldly luck doesn't mean anyone should say otherwise.

9. The Game-Winning Field Goal

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    The game-winning field goal owns a very interesting distinction as being host to some of the most exciting few seconds in sports despite being a clearly calculated, manufactured scenario.

    A team has the ball down by less than three with under two minutes to go in a game. It knows what it has to do, the opposing team knows what it has to do and you know what's coming.

    While it's due to that very factor of predictability that the game-winning field goal sits closer to the bottom of this list than say, a walk-off home run or a buzzer-beater, such predictability doesn't take away from the magic of those few seconds while that football sails through the air.

    You know when a team is going to attempt to win a game on a field goal before it does, but each attempt—successful or not—seems tailor-made for NFL Films documentation, set to a driving orchestral score and narrated by the late John Facenda.

    Next time you want to knock the game-winning field goal as predictable and commonplace, just try staying seated as your favorite team attempts to make one. Not as easy as it sounds.

8. The Four-Point Play

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    When even the best three-point shooters only sink such shots 40 percent of the time, it should paint a pretty accurate picture as to how difficult it is to a sink a shot from 23 feet with hands in your face.

    Consider then how difficult it is to do so while a defender is making any sort of illegal contact with you. That sort of degree of difficulty makes it one of the most impressive successful plays in sports.

    But what makes the four-point play one of the most exciting is its ability to swiftly change the course of a game when executed at just the right time.

    Basketball is a game of possessions and being able to turn a two-possession game into a one-possesion game—or tie it on the spot—is like using a built-in cheat code, a loophole Dr. James Naismith never intended to exist.

7. The Home Run-Robbing Catch

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    Nick Laham/Getty Images

    Here's a play where you might be better off measuring its excitement by the disappointment the fans on the wrong end of the play feel rather than the happiness enjoyed by the team whose defensive wiz pulled it off.

    It flat-out sucks to be robbed of a home run, but any self-respecting baseball fan doesn't need me to tell them that. They really just need to watch a player on their favorite team hit what looks like a sure-fire moonshot, only for it to be brought back into the park by an acrobatic outfielder who doesn't care for things like rising apples, sliding sausage chefs or light-up Liberty Bells.

    The visual spectacle comes from seeing a superhuman feat of strength and ability, but the true thrill behind the play—like many others on this list—is one player's ability to take a game-altering play and single-handedly stop it from happening.

    The fact it looks damn pretty doesn't hurt either.

6. The Return Touchdown

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    Well I guess if this thing comes up short, he can field it and run it out.

    So spoke the eerily prophetic Auburn Football play-by-play announcer Rod Bramblett on the cusp of perhaps the greatest play in college football history. Unless you roll with the Tide, it's hard to watch that play too many times—there simply aren't enough adjectives to describe what we saw (I think we ran out some time in the middle of last December).

    Yet, while Chris Davis' missed field goal return touchdown to win the 2013 Iron Bowl might be the greatest play in CFB history, the return touchdown itself finds itself in the middle of this list.

    What Davis did under those particular circumstances was transcendent, but not all returns were created equal, so heroic acts like his are evened out by your (relatively) dime-a-dozen pick-sixes or your Devin-Hester-in-his-prime return TD mill.

    And because it's all relative, return touchdowns of all shapes and sizes—interception, fumble, kick, punt, and field goal returns—are objectively rare, which is how the game-changing, tide-turning play cracked the list and made it this high at all.

5. The Game-Winning Shootout Goal

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Think of T.J. Oshie and the game-winning shootout goal as hockey's version of Chris Davis and the return touchdown. Oshie etched himself into American Olympics lore with his epic shootout performance in Sochi against the host Russians, much like Davis and Auburn's Iron Bowl victory will be justly celebrated for years.

    And without taking anything away from the thrill of the game-winning shootout goal (hey, being the fifth-most exciting play in sports isn't a bad thing), Oshie's performance was bigger than the act itself. If we're talking about the singular most thrilling plays ever, then let's talk about putting Oshie closer to No. 1.

    But the shootout is a common occurrence, as in, as common as there are regular season NHL games that go five minutes into overtime without a goal scored. It should be considered a testament to the thrill of the shootout though, not a detriment to Oshie's heroics, the game-winning shootout goal is No. 5 on this list despite how often it occurs.

    Not that Oshie didn't help its cause.

4. The Stoppage Time Goal

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    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    Now let's be clear. We're not just talking about any goal scored as the clock reads 90:00. Insurance goals are all well and good, as are garbage time ones for teams in a deep hole.

    More specifically, let's discuss those match-tying or go-ahead goals when all the opposing club wants to do is get off the pitch with a positive decision.

    If you're the victim, it's not unlike blowing a save in baseball, only it's a less slower burn and the reversal of fate is arguably all the more agonizing. Playing 90 full, good minutes before letting it slip away in the waining seconds is less than undesirable—it's downright repugnant.

    Which is what makes being on the right end of a game-tying or go-ahead stoppage time goal is a unique euphoria. To be in the mindset for anywhere up to 90 minutes that your team is going to lose or draw, only to have a miraculous turn of fortune while the opposing club simply has no time to get retribution—there's no need to sugarcoat, it's just exciting.

3. The Walk-off Home Run

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    Which walk-off home run is the greatest in MLB history?

    Kirk Gibson? Carlton Fisk? Aaron Boone? Bill Mazeroski?

    Take your pick, because each is as miraculous as the next and no answer is incorrect. The walk-off home run inspires backyard dreams, Hollywood screenplays and has given baseball fans highlight upon highlight of unforgettable, unbelievable moments of heroics.

    Sure, there are rarer, quirkier walk-off plays. A walk-off steal of home. A walk-off wild pitch (ensuring a no-hitter, no less). 

    Just this past World Series, we were awarded with two varieties of walk-off so rare, Twitter users were attempting to outwit each other with their grandiose predictions of how the next game would end.

    But in all of baseball, there is nothing like the thrill of the walk-off home run, a game-winning act in its purest, unfiltered, most exciting form.

2. The Buzzer-Beater

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    Joe Murphy/Getty Images

    The buzzer-beater is the result of a pretty simple formula that adds the best qualities of a game-ending field goal in football and baseball's walk-off home run and puts it on a basketball court.

    The special nature of the buzzer-beater is that it takes the heart-stopping few seconds of ball-in-flight time from both without being as predictable a scenario as a field-goal attempt, while still having the pressure-invoking nature of a clock and the pace that comes with it naturally not pertinent to baseball.

    A buzzer-beating, game-winning shot tends to come on the heels of a frantic final few seconds of basketball, a beautiful mess of frenetic movement, clashing bodies, screaming coaches and fans who don't quite know what to do with the anxiety quickly bubbling up within.

    It is truly glorious.

    And the best part is even when the shot doesn't fall under the gun, you've still earned yourself a few seconds of unadulterated joy. And no one can take that away from you, Eric Devendorf.

1. The Successful Hail Mary

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    While I didn't have to make the distinction for previous plays on this list (of course I was just talking about game-tying or go-ahead stoppage time goals, silly), let's make the distinction right now for the most exciting play in sports. Chucking a ball up at the end of the half or game happens, a lot.

    But when it succeeds? Well, there's nothing in sports quite like it.

    Because of that incomprehensibly low success rate, the converted Hail Mary is the most exciting play in sports. Maybe it's just the nature of the length of seasons in those other sports, but walk-offs, buzzer-beaters, shootout goals—as awe-striking as they are—can soon be forgettable.

    But when wins are as valuable as they are in a 16-game-or-less season, it's not hard for the average sports fan to wrack his or her brain for some of the most memorable in recent years.

    Again, it doesn't take anything away from the other sports (they're on this list too, remember?) to say the converted Hail Mary gets a little more street cred because of the value of each win in football; it just is what it is.

    As for the play itself, it's the perfect hybrid of skill and luck. As a quarterback must place the ball in just the right spot, so too does his receiver need to outmuscle any number of defenders to come down with it. But like we saw at Jordan-Hare Stadium, a few fortuitous tips don't hurt, either.