Fast Five: Memorable Sports Farewells

I’ve attended academic classes for five days a week, nine months a year from the time I was three years old, through two years of preschool, 13 years of K-thru-12, and four years of college.

But last week, I walked out of a college classroom for the last time, ahead of my graduation from Anderson University this Saturday.

As the sports aficionado I am, I couldn’t help but compare myself leaving school–retiring from school, in a sense, after what amounts to a 19 year academic “career”–to many of my athletic heroes in recent years walking away from the game.

Sure, the conclusion of my school years has come with much less fanfare than many of the highly-publicized retirements, such as Chipper Jones, David Ortiz, Tony Stewart, Alex Rodriguez, Paul Pierce, Landon Donavan, and even broadcaster Vin Scully, over the last several years in the sports world (in addition to some of the athletes listed below).  But, like many of these stars, I am also unsure of what is next.

But while the finish of my last final exam was as mundane as me handing it to the professor and quietly walking out the door, these athletes had more memorable farewells:

Honorable Mention:  Jeff Gordon

The four-time NASCAR champion’s final season came alive when he won at Martinsville in The Chase for his 93rd career win, clinching a spot in the Championship Round.  Gordon was one of four drivers to compete for the title at Homestead in the season finale, when he finished 6th behind champion Kyle Busch after leading nine laps.  The roar of the fans when Gordon took the lead could be heard over the roar of the engines in the race’s broadcast.  While Gordon has returned as an injury replacement for Dale Earnhardt Jr., his final full season was a memorable and successful farewell in a sport where many stars’ careers have ended either in mediocrity or by injury/death.


Honorable Mention:  David Ross

Ross, a “role player,” was never a household name, playing mostly as a backup or platoon catcher during stints with the Dodgers, Pirates, Padres, Reds, Red Sox, Braves and Cubs.  In his final season with the Cubs, “Grandpa Ross” hit 10 home runs in 67 games in the regular season, most often getting playing time as Jon Lester’s personal catcher, and was a leader of the 103-win Cubs team.  But his farewell will be remembered for his playoff performance.  Ross hit .250 in the postseason with two home runs, with a .400 batting average in the World Series.  In his final at-bat, Ross became the oldest player (39) to homer in a World Series Game 7, helping the Cubs to their first championship since 1908.


5.  Kobe Bryant

The Black Mamba played his entire 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, and by the final season was playing reduced minutes in most games as his body was less durable than in his prime.  But on his final night in the NBA, Bryant played 42 minutes and exploded for 60 points, the most by any player in a game in the 2015-16 NBA season.  Bryant made 22 of his 50 shots, including six threes, and was 10-for-12 on free throws.  Bryant outscored the opposing Utah Jazz 23-21 in the fourth quarter, helping the Lakers to a 101-96 win to eliminate the Jazz from playoff contention.

The only thing that could have made this farewell better was if it were in a game that counted for the Lakers.  But as Bryant ended a career that included five NBA championships, his Lakers struggled to a 17-65 record.


4.  Ted Williams

Teddy Ballgame was one of the greatest hitters in MLB history.  His .482 career on-base percentage is the best of all-time, and he is the last player to hit .400 or better in a season (.406) in 1941.  Williams hit .316 with 29 home runs and 72 RBI in his final season in 1960 with the Boston Red Sox, where he played his entire 19-year career.

The final home run, the 521st of his career, came dramatically, in his final at-bat at Fenway Park on September 28, 1960.  Williams never acknowledged the crowd during his career, but later said he almost tipped his cap while running around the bases after the home run as the fans roared.  The Red Sox’ final three games of the season were in New York, but Williams played in none of them, making the Fenway home run the final at-bat of his illustrious career.


3.  Peyton Manning, John Elway and Jerome Bettis

This group of two Hall of Famers and Manning, who will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer when eligible, each culminated their careers with a Super Bowl title, with each overcoming the criticism of not being able to win “the big one” over the course of their careers.

Manning won Super Bowl XLI with the Colts, but also lost Super Bowls XLIV with the Colts and XLVIII with the Broncos.  He was able to finish with a second championship by winning Super Bowl 50 with a 24-10 win over the Panthers (although it should be noted the defense had more to do with the championship than Manning’s tired arm).  Manning didn’t announce his retirement until weeks later, although fans and the media alike could sense that Super Bowl 50 was very likely his final game.

Elway lost three Super Bowls early in his career (XXI, XXII, XXIV), but reached two more Super Bowls (XXXII, XXXIII) in his final two seasons and finished with back-to-back titles.  After beating the Packers in Super Bowl XXXII for his first championship, Elway led the Broncos to a convincing 34-19 win over the Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII, his final game, and finished his stellar career by winning Super Bowl MVP.  Like Manning, Elway didn’t officially announce his retirement until after the season.

Bettis, the lone player in this group who played running back instead of quarterback, played his final 10 seasons with the Steelers after playing for the Rams his first three years.  Super Bowl XL was the first Super Bowl appearance of his career, which included six Pro Bowl appearances and the 2001 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award.  After Bettis’s Steelers won the Super Bowl with a 21-10 defeat of the Seahawks, Bettis announced during the post-game trophy presentation that “the last stop for ‘The Bus'” would be with the NFL title won in his hometown of Detroit.

2.  Derek Jeter

The Captain, whose jersey will be retired this Sunday night by the New York Yankees, was one of the most beloved players throughout his career as the Yankee shortstop.  The .310 career hitter, who hit .308 in the playoffs in his career while leading the Yankees to five World Series titles, announced before his 20th season in 2014 that he would retire at season’s end.

Through eight innings of Jeter’s final home game at Yankee Stadium on September 25, 2014, Jeter had a double, two RBI, and a run scored.  But after the Yankees blew a 5-2 lead in the top of the ninth, Jeter got an additional at-bat in the bottom half, with the game tied and pinch-runner Antoan Richardson at second.  Jeter delivered one of the great moments in recent MLB memory, collecting a walk-off single to right field in his final home at-bat for his third RBI of the game, giving the Yankees a 6-5 win.

But the season still had three games remaining, which were played in Boston.  Jeter played DH–he wanted his final game at Yankee Stadium to be his final game at shortstop–and on September 28 earned an RBI infield single in his final at-bat, before being pinch-run for by Brian McCann.  As dramatic as his final home at-bat had been, his final overall at-bat in Boston showed how respected Jeter is, as he left the field to a standing ovation from the fans of the Yankees’ archrivals.


1.  Lou Gehrig

Gehrig was the “Iron Horse,” a durable player who was twice American League MVP as the Yankees first baseman, was a part of six World Series titles, and is one of 12 modern-era players to win a Triple Crown.  But Gehrig’s performance began to diminish in late 1938, and by the beginning of the 1939 season, it was clear something was physically wrong.  On May 2nd, Gehrig took himself out of the lineup, ending a streak of 2,130 consecutive games over the previous 14 seasons, a record that would stand until 1995.

Gehrig was diagnosed with ALS (nicknamed Lou Gehrig’s Disease), on June 19, and officially retired on June 21.  On July 4, the Yankees held Lou Gehrig Day.  Between games of a doubleheader, after Gehrig’s #4 became the first number retired by a team in MLB history,  stirring tributes were given by Babe Ruth, New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia, and Yankees manager Joe McCarthy, among others.

Once Gehrig stepped to the mic he was, at first, too emotional to speak.  But once he did, he delivered a speech that has long been remembered beyond the realm of baseball:

“Fans, for the past two weeks, you’ve been reading about a bad break. 

“Today… I consider myself… the luckiest man… on the face of the earth.  I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.

“When you look around, wouldn’t you consider it a privilege to associate yourself with such fine-looking men as are standing in uniform in this ballpark today?  Sure, I’m lucky.  Who wouldn’t consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert?  Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrow?  To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins?  Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy?  Sure, I’m lucky.

“When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift – that’s something.  When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies – that’s something.  When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter – that’s something.  When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so you can have an education and build your body – it’s a blessing.  When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed – that’s the finest I know.

“So I close in saying that… I might have… been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for.  Thank you.”

Gehrig’s remarks were followed by a two-minute standing ovation from the sellout Yankee Stadium crowd.

Gehrig was immediately elected into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, as the writers who vote waived the typical five-year waiting period for eligibility due to Gehrig’s illness.  Gehrig died of ALS on June 2, 1941.

2017 MLB Preview

After a thrilling 2016 season that concluded with the Chicago Cubs winning their first World Series since 1908 (and being named Stiles on Sports Sportsmen of the Year), it’s time for the 2017 season to commence.

The season begins today with a trio of games on the ESPN family of networks (N.Y. Yankees at Tampa Bay, San Francisco at Arizona, Chi. Cubs at St. Louis), before Opening Day around the country tomorrow.

As usual, there are many storylines entering the season.  With the Cubs no longer having a century-long curse without a title, the longest drought now belongs to the Cleveland Indians, but they have positioned themselves well to potentially end their own dry spell this year.

Meanwhile, the Cubs remain strong and have a legitimate chance to repeat, while every other team that made the playoffs in 2016 has very good shot to return, with nearly all favored or co-favored in their respective divisions.

That’s not to say there can’t be risers from 2016’s non-playoff teams.  That group includes the Cardinals, Royals, Pirates, Tigers and Astros, all of whom have had recent success, as well as teams on the rise like the Braves, Rockies, Yankees and Mariners.

So without further adieu, here are my predictions for each division race in the 2017 season.

P.S.:  don’t take these to the bank–last year’s picks missed all over the map, with some picks missing badly.

 

Editor’s note:  instead of boring you with a detailed description of the depth of each roster, I’ve only included a few key points.  Links to each team’s MLB.com depth chart are included if you would like to see how each individual position stacks up.

 

NL East 

1. Washington Nationals
2016: 95-67, lost to Dodgers in NLCS
The Nationals have a rotation–Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez at the top and the underrated pair of Tanner Roark and Joe Ross at the bottom–to match that of the division-rival Mets.  Scherzer is the defending NL Cy Young winner, but it was Roark who had the staff’s best ERA last year (2.83).  The bullpen, however, will be a question mark.

With the additions of OF Adam Eaton and C Matt Wieters, which helped offset a few bench departures, their lineup is better than New York, and should give them the slight edge in a tight division race.  It’s hard to believe, but the Nationals have still never won a playoff series in franchise history, including last year’s 5-game NLDS loss to the Dodgers; that fact could change in 2017.

2. New York Mets
2016: 87-75, lost to Giants in NL Wild Card Game
After a Wild Card Game loss to the Giants, if the Mets stay fully healthy, they could very easily top the Nationals.  But over the last couple of years, injuries have ravaged this team on both sides of the ball.  Their rotation, when healthy, may be the best in baseball, but all five of their young arms have an injury concern, and oft-injured 3B David Wright is out for now with a shoulder injury.  That said, Robert Gsellman, who may not have even made the roster if not for Steven Matz’s elbow inflammation, is a sleeper candidate for NL Rookie of the Year.

Offensively, the Mets return last year’s lineup, which was at times too reliant on the home run–no regular starter hit higher than .282 (Neil Walker); for their best shot at the Nationals, more consistency in the offense and their health will be important.

3. Atlanta Braves
2016: 68-93; last postseason appearance: 2013
The Braves were a different team last year after the trade-deadline acquisition of Matt Kemp (37-68 before, 31-25 after), which gave Freddie Freeman some “protection” in the lineup.  2017 Rookie of the Year favorite Dansby Swanson was also effective in a short late-season stint, and the bullpen got better as the year progressed.

Now, with no significant roster losses and the interim tag removed from manager Brian Snitker, the Braves pitching staff has added Jaime Garcia and former Cy Young winners Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey to the rotation short-term to bridge the gap to 2018 and beyond, when the strong pitching in baseball’s top farm system will continue reaching the majors.  In the meantime, this team should be more competitive than the last two years, and if it all comes together could be a sleeper in the East.

4. Miami Marlins
2016: 79-82; last postseason appearance: 2003
The September death of pitcher Jose Fernandez was tragic, as a shining young star in the game was lost much too soon.  But beyond just the emotional loss for the Marlins, they now have a hole to fill in the rotation.  The team tried in free agency, but the aging Edinson Volquez is unlikely to match Fernandez’s effectiveness or spirit.

This team will hit, especially if Giancarlo Stanton stays healthy (he hasn’t for a full season since 2014), and has added veterans Brad Ziegler and Junichi Tazawa for depth in an already strong bullpen.  This team is not terrible, and should hover at or just below the .500 mark again, but there is no reason to believe this is the year they make the leap to contenders.

5. Philadelphia Phillies
2016: 71-91; last postseason appearance: 2011
The Phillies added some experience to their young roster this offseason, adding P Joaquin Benoit in free agency and trading for P Clay Buchholz, P Pat Neshek and OF Howie Kendrick.  However, these moves essentially just offset the players lose in free agency, leaving the Phillies with a similar roster composition to their team from last year.

This organization is moving in the right direction, although they are doing it slowly.  There is talent on the major league roster, and those players will get better with more experience, while more young talent comes through a strong farm system.

 

NL Central

1. Chicago Cubs
2016: 103-58, defeated Indians to win World Series
A year after breaking the most famous drought in professional sports, the Cubs are fully capable of winning the World Series again in 2017.  The core of the 2016 champs is intact, with the exception of free agent departure Dexter Fowler, whose place in center field will be taken by a Jon Jay/Albert Almora platoon.  Kyle Schwarber will also be with the team a full season after missing the entire regular season then becoming a World Series hero.

The Cubs rotation, with the 2015 Cy Young Winner (Jake Arrieta) and two of the top three in last year’s Cy Young voting (Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks) held a remarkable 2.96 ERA.  The bullpen lost free agent closer Aroldis Chapman, but after signing Wade Davis and Koji Uehara have three of the last four pitchers to record the final out of the World Series (along with returning Cub Mike Montgomery).

2. St. Louis Cardinals
Projected Wild Card #1
2016: 86-76; last postseason appearance: 2015
The Cardinals missed the playoffs by one game last season, snapping a five-year postseason streak, and they’ll be motivated after their rivals from Chicago won it all.  Free agent OF Dexter Fowler left the Cubs to come to St. Louis, giving the Cardinals the true leadoff hitter they’ve lacked the last couple of years.

The pitching staff doesn’t have the depth they’ve had in previous years, especially in the bullpen, but should still be strong; Carlos Martinez has emerged as the staff ace, and free agent signee Brett Cecil will help in the ‘pen.

This is still the typical Cardinals roster full of players they have drafted and developed (with a few exceptions), and while they don’t quite match up with the Cubs, they are still capable of a successful season and a wild card berth.

3. Pittsburgh Pirates
2016: 78-83; last postseason appearance: 2015
The Bucs took a big step back last year, winning 20 games less than in 2015, and this year they continue to look fairly mediocre.  The pitching staff features young talent, including Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow, who may experience some growing pains.

Offensively, while no position stands out as a glaring weakness, there aren’t many strengths either.  How Andrew McCutchen plays after the Pirates tried to trade him in the offseason could be a big key to whether or not the Pirates have any shot at contending, although being in the same division with the Cubs, said contention would more likely be for a wild card spot.

4. Milwaukee Brewers
2016: 73-89; last postseason appearance: 2011
The Brewers understand their situation as a rebuilding team, and instead of punishing manager Craig Counsell for losing seasons his first two years, extended him through 2020.  A pitching staff full of young players and reclamation projects is potentially no better than last year, especially after losing free agent reliver Tyler Thornburg.

Offensively, the team does have a couple of things going for them, even after the loss of free agent slugger Chris Carter.  Ryan Braun continues his very solid career, and Jonathan Villar has established himself at the top of the order.  An intriguing player is Eric Thames, who hasn’t played in MLB since 2012 but signed as a free agent after a successful stint playing in Korea.  But even if it all clicks offensively, it’s unlikely to be enough to contend.

5. Cincinnati Reds
2016: 68-94; last postseason appearance: 2013
The Reds are also in a rebuild, and I wrote about their indifferent long-term outlook when they traded Brandon Phillips in February.  After going a combined 132-192 in the last two seasons, they return virtually the same roster (with the exception of losing Phillips).

Offensively, a lineup including 1B Joey Votto and young slugger Adam Duvall was mid-pack in the National League, and should continue to be.  However, the pitching staff had a team ERA of 4.91 a year ago, including 5.09 in relief, and is no better this year.  Some of that is due to playing in a small ballpark, but the struggles of this pitching staff still can’t be ignored entering 2017.

 

NL West 

1. San Francisco Giants
2016: 87-75, lost to Cubs in NLDS
After having the best record in MLB at the All-Star break last season, the Giants ended up as a Wild Card team; the main reason was a horrendous bullpen.  That unit improved with one offseason move–the signing of closer Mark Melancon.  Now, when the solid Madison Bumgarner-Johnny Cueto-Matt Moore trio in the rotation gives the Giants a lead, there’s a better chance the team will keep it.

Last year’s Giants offense, led by C Buster Posey and OF Hunter Pence, was above average in batting average and below average in home runs.  That combination had that offense, which is essentially unchanged, ranking ninth in the NL in runs.  With a strong rotation and improved bullpen, that could be enough to win the West.

2. Los Angeles Dodgers
Projected Wild Card #2
2016: 91-71, lost to Cubs in NLCS
The Dodgers have won four straight NL West titles, and have the longest active postseason streak in baseball.  Last year, they did it offensively with young players, like Joc Pedersen, Andrew Toles and NL Rookie of the Year Corey Seager.  They’re all back, with another year’s experience under their belt, although they lose OFs Josh Reddick and Howie Kendrick.

The pitching staff couldn’t stay healthy last year, and still had a 3.70 team ERA.  The best pitcher in the game resides at Dodger Stadium in Clayton Kershaw, but he also has a very deep unit behind him (so much so, Alex Wood is starting the season in the bullpen).  The bullpen lost some of its depth in free agency and is the team’s biggest question mark–even with the re-signing of closer Kenley Jansen, the unit’s instability moves the team just behind the Giants in the West.

3. Colorado Rockies
2016: 75-87; last postseason appearance: 2009
The Rockies have improved their win total the last two years, and have one of the best offenses in the game–their offensive stats, including a .275 average, are spectacular, even for a team that plays half its games at altitude–led by MVP candidate Nolan Arenado.  That offense now adds veteran Ian Desmond, a player who is used to being on successful teams, although he’ll start the season on the DL.

Pitching at Coors Field is tough, and while this team (or any Rockies team, for that matter) is highly unlikely to lead the league in ERA, their young rotation has a shot to be really good, while a bullpen that had a 5.13 ERA in 2016 has bolstered itself by adding Greg Holland, Jake McGee and Mike Dunn.  The Rockies are probably still a year away, but some teams have gotten “ahead of schedule” in recent years, so Colorado could be a sleeper team out west.

4. Arizona Diamondbacks
2016: 69-93; last postseason appearance: 2011
After looking like a potential contender last year, the Diamondbacks’ season was about as horrendous as their uniforms.  Former Red Sox bench coach Torey Lovullo comes in as manager, and faces a tough task in the desert.  The offense was not the problem in 2016–led by 1B Paul Goldschmidt, the D-Backs were above average in batting average, OPS, homers and steals–and should still be good, even without NL hits leader 2B Jean Segura.

A 5.09 staff ERA was main cause of last year’s struggles, including a 5.19 rotation ERA.  This year’s staff may be moderately better with the additions of Taijuan Walker in the rotation and Fernando Rodney in the bullpen, but mostly consists of the same cast of characters and lack of depth that plagued them last year.  Those struggles are likely to continue, keeping them from contention once again this year.

5. San Diego Padres
2016: 68-94; last postseason appearance: 2006
The Padres have lost at least 85 games every year since 2010, and after a rough 2016 campaign have lost OF Jon Jay, C Derek Norris, P Edwin Jackson, P Brandon Morrow and P Tyson Ross (who was injured in 2016 but was a key piece previously).

Jhoulys Chacin, who was the #4 starter to start the season last year for an Atlanta team that lost 93 games, is now the Opening Day starter for the Padres, and former catcher Christian Bethancourt has made the roster as a reliever, both of which tells you all you need to know about their lack of pitching depth.  The offense, which was well below average last year, has solid young players like OFs Hunter Renfroe and Manuel Margot, in addition to established 1B Wil Myers, but this team looks worse than last year’s 94-loss team, and is miles away from contention.  Three Rule 5 Draft players made the roster; the last such team was the 2003 Tigers (43-119).

 

National League Playoffs Prediction

NL Wild Card Game:  Cardinals def. Dodgers

NLDS:  Cubs def. Cardinals, Nationals def. Giants

NLCS:  Cubs def. Nationals

 

AL East

1. Boston Red Sox
2016: 93-69, lost to Indians in ALDS
After winning the AL East last year, the Red Sox got even better in the offseason.  While they lost David Ortiz to retirement, 1B/DH Mitch Moreland is a worthy addition to mostly fill that void, and the young outfield of Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Andrew Benintendi will be a year older and more experienced after each were solid in 2016 (Benintendi is still considered a rookie, and is AL Rookie of the Year favorite).

The pitching staff boasts 2016 AL Cy Young winner Rick Porcello, but he is not even the best pitcher on the staff after the acquisition of Chris Sale; a top three featuring those two and David Price, also a former Cy Young winner, is as good as any.  In the bullpen, trading for Tyler Thornburg (although he’ll start on the DL) offsets some losses in free agency.  The Red Sox are favored to repeat as AL East champs, although it will, as always, be a very tough division to win.

2. Toronto Blue Jays
Projected Wild Card #1
2016: 89-73, lost to Indians in ALCS
The Blue Jays return mostly the same roster that has gone to the ALCS the last two years, with one glaring exception.  DH Edwin Encarnacion became an Indian in free agency, and the aging Kendrys Morales, who signed with Toronto, won’t replace all of Encarnacion’s production.  Otherwise, the team’s offense remains intact.

While the Blue Jays are known for the high-flying offense of the last two years, their pitching staff is quietly one of the best in baseball.  Their 3.78 ERA last year was the best in the AL, with a strong five-deep rotation (Aaron Sanchez, J.A. Happ, Marcus Stroman, Marco Estrada and Francisco Liriano) and a bullpen anchored closer Roberto Osuna and former closer Jason Grilli.  Beating Boston won’t be easy, but it’s doable if everything comes together.

3. New York Yankees
2016: 84-78; last playoff appearance: 2015
The Yankees are transitioning into a team with a young core capable of a sustained run, a solid development for a team whose main criticism the last couple of years was its increasing age.  Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira retired and Brian McCann was traded, clearing the way for young guns such as C Gary Sanchez, 1B Greg Bird and RF Aaron Judge.  This trio will make the Yankees formidable in the years to come.

The Yankee rotation is still old, led by Masahiro Tanaka and C.C. Sabathia.  The bullpen is bolstered by Aroldis Chapman, who was dealt to the Cubs in July for prospects and returned to New York on a lucrative five-year free agent deal.  The ‘pen, which also features Dellin Betances (who would close almost anywhere else) and Tyler Clippard, pitched to a 3.67 ERA last year.  The Yankees are probably a year away from threatening a deep playoff run, but if the young players adapt quickly and the veterans stay healthy they could pose a threat to Boston and Toronto now.

4. Baltimore Orioles
2016: 89-73, lost to Blue Jays in AL Wild Card Game
The Orioles under Buck Showalter have made the playoffs every other year; if the trend continues, they’re due to miss the postseason this year, and after a quiet offseason that is realistic.  Offensively, C Wellington Castillo replacing the departed Matt Wieters is the only major change to an offense right at the league average in batting average and on-base percentage, although they only stole 19 bases all season.

Rotation depth was questionable last year, with a 4.72 unit ERA, and is worse this year after Yovanni Gallardo was traded and Tommy Hunter became a free agent.  Making matters worse, two of their five projected starters are on the DL to start the season.  The bullpen is good (3.40 ERA in 2016), and closer Zach Britton is great (), but how many leads will they get?  Sure, this is somewhat the same team that won 89 games last year, but after their stagnant offseason they’ve lost ground in the AL East.

5. Tampa Bay Rays
2016: 68-94; last playoff appearance: 2013
After losing 94 games in 2016, the Rays also had a tellingly uneventful offseason.  An offense that hit a league-worst .243 last year is no better, and while the team did make one signing to try to improve themselves, it was C Wilson Ramos, who is out until at least the All-Star break with a knee injury from last year.

The Rays have a solid top three in the rotation, with Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi and Alex Cobb, although below that it is less stable, and a bullpen that pitched to a 4.09 ERA last season lost Kevin Jepsen.  In the AL East, facing the four teams above them 19 times each, it is going to be a long year for the Rays.

 

AL Central

1. Cleveland Indians
2016: 94-67, lost to Cubs in World Series
The 2016 Indians lost Game 7 of the World Series in extra innings, becoming the first team to do so since the 1997 Indians.  Good news for Cleveland is all three previous teams to lose Game 7 in extra innings won at least 89 games and made at least the LCS the following year.  Even better news is that this year’s edition should be even better than the 2016 team.

The core of last year’s squad is intact, while free agent DH Edwin Encarnacion adds some power to the lineup.  The 2016 playoff run was without OF Michael Brantley and pitchers Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar; all three of those key pieces are now healthy. Imagine last year’s playoff run with even more pitching depth, or another clutch hitter.  It’s scary, and the rest of the league should be scared of what this team is capable of in 2017, as they try to win their first World Series in 69 years.

2. Detroit Tigers
2016: 86-75; last postseason appearance: 2014
Last year, the Tigers were still alive to make the playoffs on the last day of the regular season.  This year, with mostly the same roster, Brad Ausmus’s team is looking to take the next step.  The offense was the strength of last year’s team, led by a perennial MVP candidate in 1B Miguel Cabrera, veteran DH Victor Martinez and slugging LF Justin Upton.

The pitching staff’s 4.24 ERA last year was 11th in the AL, despite the resurgence of ace Justin Verlander and the Rookie of the Year season of Michael Fulmer.  The bullpen has been a problem here for years, although it is improving, led by closer Francisco Rodriguez and up-and-coming set-up man Bruce Rondon.  The Indians will be tough to catch, but a Wild Card berth is very realistic for the Tigers.

3. Kansas City Royals
2016: 81-81; last postseason appearance: 2015
After ending a 29-year playoff drought in 2014 by reaching the World Series, then winning it all in 2015, the Royals led the division after a 30-22 start, a 20-33 record in June/July doomed them to a distant third-place finish and a .500 record.  Offensively, the team offset the loss of Kendrys Morales by signing Brandon Moss, traded for OF Jorge Soler, and retain most of the core from the championship team.

The biggest loss of the offseason came with the death of ace Yordano Ventura in a car accident.  Overcoming that loss emotionally won’t be easy, and replacing him on the field won’t be either, especially since the team lacks the depth provided previously by departed players Edinson Volquez, Luke Hochevar and Wade Davis.  The addition of Travis Wood will help, and Mike Minor, who has moved to the bullpen, could as well if he stays healthy, but it’s hard to see any better of a record than last year.

4. Minnesota Twins
2016: 59-103; last postseason appearance: 2010
2016 was not a good year for the Twins, who had a league-worst 5.08 ERA, a league-worst .979 fielding percentage, and a fifth-worst .251 batting average.  On one hand, the outlook isn’t good for 2017 either, as C Jason Castro is the team’s only addition, although he essentially just replaces free agent Kurt Suzuki.

On the other hand, this is a rebuilding team, and the young core of the future is intact for another season.  Sure, it can’t get much worse than a 103-loss season, but players like Miguel Sano, Max Kepler and Byron Buxton who are the all-stars of the future should be better with more experience.  This team won’t win the Central, but still has some big issues in the pitching staff, but should be moderately better and could pass the White Sox.

5. Chicago White Sox
2016: 78-84; last postseason appearance: 2008
The White Sox started 2016 at 23-10 and looked like a potential contender, but as the season crumbled away the team decided it was time to rebuild.  Chris Sale and Adam Eaton were traded, and Justin Morneau and Austin Jackson are among the free agent departures.  Those trades netted the Sox two of baseball’s best prospects in P Lucas Giolito and IF Yoan Moncada, but they aren’t quite MLB-ready to start the season.

Besides Jose Abreu and Todd Frazier in the middle of the order, the lineup is full of young players and reclamation projects.  The rotation is led by legitimate ace Carlos Quintana, but it’s no secret the White Sox are trying to trade him for a haul of prospects, so it’s unknown if he’ll be in Chicago all season, and beneath him the pitching staff has many more questions than answers.  It’s going to be a long year (or few years) in the South Side as the White Sox rebuild.

 

AL West

1. Houston Astros
2016: 84-78; last postseason appearance: 2015
Last year, coming off their “ahead of schedule” postseason berth in 2015, the Astros underachieved and missed the playoffs.  As a result, they were aggressive in free agency to try to add to their talented core of young stars including Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve and George Springer, and added DH Carlos Beltran, C Brian McCann (via trade) and OFs Nori Aoki and Josh Reddick.  This lineup is stacked, which is refreshing after they struggled to score at times last year.

The bullpen (3.56 ERA in 2016) remains a force from top to bottom.  The biggest question is the rotation, which added Charlie Morton to offse tthe loss of Doug Fister.  If Dallas Keuchel can return to his 2015 Cy Young form, there’s no reason the Astros can’t win the West and be a threat to go deep in October.

 

2. Seattle Mariners
Projected Wild Card #2
2016: 86-76; last postseason appearance: 2001
The Mariners fell just short in 2016, and still seek their first playoff appearance since 2001.  Some wonder if their window is closing, as stars Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz aren’t getting any younger.  In an effort to win now, the Mariners made a plethora of trades this offseason, but none were bigger than a deal to get SS Jean Segura, who led the NL in hits last year with Arizona.  The Mariners stole just 56 bases last year, while Segura himself stole 33.

The back end of a good rotation was helped with the acquisition of Yovanni Gallardo, while Edwin Diaz emerged as the closer last year in a strong bullpen (3.55 ERA) that could be even better.  This team has the talent to win the division, although they’ll need a solid season to beat Houston.

3. Texas Rangers
2016: 95-67, lost to Blue Jays in ALDS
The Rangers were a statistcal anomaly in 2016, at 26 games over .500 despite a run differential of just +8.  Now, while the core of the defending West champs remains, some of the supporting cast is absent.  DH Carlos Beltran, OF Ian Desmond, 1B/DH Mitch Moreland and P Colby Lewis are among the departures.  The team did add 1B Mike Napoli and P Andrew Cashner, who will start the season on the DL.

The lineup was above average in every major category last year, but that may change without Beltran, Desmond and Moreland.  A good rotation led by Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish will give way to a bullpen that struggled last year to a 4.40 ERA and is virtually unchanged.  This is still a good team, but the Astros and Mariners have passed them this offseason.

 

4. Los Angeles Angels
2016: 74-88; last postseason appearance: 2014
Depth is a key issue for the Angels.  Offensively, behind Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, there’s not much there, although they have one of the game’s best defenders in SS Andrelton Simmons.  There also aren’t reinforcements coming:  the Angels farm system is consistently rated one of the game’s worst.

Starting pitching depth and health was an issue in 2016, and loses depth in departed veterans Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson.  The bullpen isn’t bad (3.77 ERA in 2016), that won’t be enough to cure this team’s problems.  The Angels are in transition; they aren’t in a all-in rebuild, but they also aren’t going to be contenders.

5. Oakland Athletics
2016: 69-93; last postseason appearance: 2014
The A’s have lost 93-plus games the last two years, and last year were well below average on both sides of the ball.  The lineup adds Matt Joyce, Rajai Davis and Trevor Plouffe, and while no large holes jump off the depth chart their lineup is full of guys who would be hitting in the bottom half of the order most other places.

On the mound, ace Sonny Gray will start the season on the DL, and beneath him the A’s have no rotation depth.  The bullpen isn’t much better, with journeyman Ryan Madson set to serve as closer.  The “Moneyball” concept has worked at times in Oakland; this is not one of those times, as the refusal to spend much to make this team better is going to cost them for another year.

 

American League Playoffs Prediction

AL Wild Card Game: Blue Jays def. Mariners

ALDS: Indians def. Blue Jays, Red Sox def. Astros

ALCS: Indians def. Astros

 

World Series Prediction

113th World Series:  Indians def. Cubs

Fast Five: Greatest Moments of 2016 MLB Postseason

It’s baseball season.

Pitchers and catchers reported to Spring Training for a few teams on Monday, and most report today.  All of them have one goal in mind:  playing (and winning) in October.

Sure, the 2017 postseason is a long way off, and while many (including me) will try to predict who will reach the playoffs, there are always surprise teams, especially in baseball.

Whoever makes the playoffs will have a tough act to follow, after so many great moments in the 2016 postseason, culminating with the first Chicago Cubs World Series title in 108 years.

As we look ahead to the 2017 season, here’s a look back on the best moments from last October (and early November):

5.  The Cubs comeback to win NLDS

After the Cubs led the best-of-5 NLDS 2-0, the San Francisco Giants came back to win Game 3 in extra innings and stay alive.

In Game 4, the Cubs trailed 5-2 after eight innings, and Giants starter Matt Moore looked unstoppable.  However, Moore due to a high pitch count Moore had to come out after the eighth, handing the game over to the shaky Giants bullpen.  A pair of Giants relievers allowed four Cubs to score, including a game-tying 2-RBI single by Willson Contreras and a go-ahead RBI single by Javier Baez.

When Aroldis Chapman got the save, the Cubs had completed the largest ninth-inning comeback in a series-clinching game in MLB history, and ended the Giants run of “even year” dominance (they won the World Series in 2010, 2012 and 2014).


4.  Two Blue Jays walkoff clinchers

The Toronto Blue Jays reached the ALCS, doing so on the strength of walk-off wins to clinch both the AL Wild Card Game and the ALDS.

In the Wild Card Game, with lights-out Orioles closer Zach Britton still in the bullpen in the 11th inning, Edwin Encarnacion hit a 3-run homer off Ubaldo Jimenez, giving the Blue Jays a 5-2 win to advance to the ALDS.

In Game 3 of the ALDS, with Toronto leading the series 2-0, a Russell Martin grounder seemed poised to send the 6-6 game to the 11th.  But after a bad throw pulled Texas Rangers 1B Mitch Moreland off the base, Josh Donaldson broke for the plate, beating the throw to score, winning the game and the series.

This play had some additional procedural drama, as the Rangers appealed that there had been obstruction at second base on Encarnacion.  When the play was reviewed and upheld, the top-seeded Rangers had been swept, and the Blue Jays were in their second straight ALCS.


3.  Indians shutout wins pennant

The Cleveland Indians progressed through the playoffs on the strength of their incredible pitching.  After ousting the Boston Red Sox in the ALDS to end David Ortiz’s career, the Indians took a 3-0 lead in the ALCS against Toronto.

The Blue Jays won Game 4, and many favored Toronto to win Game 5, as Cleveland turned to rookie Ryan Merritt, who had just one regular season start.

Merritt, who inherited a 1-0 lead after a run scored on an error in the top of the first, went 4.2 scoreless innings (falling one out short of qualifying for the win), and the Indians bullpen finished the job (one inning by Bryan Shaw, 2.2 innings by Andrew Miller, one inning by Cody Allen).

All told, it was a six-hit shutout of a potent Blue Jays lineup, as Cleveland clinched their first pennant in 19 years.  They would eventually fall just short in the World Series, and enter 2017 seeking their first title since 1948.


2.  Kershaw saves Game 5

The winner-take-all Game 5 of the NLDS between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals was the longest nine-inning game in MLB postseason history–and was well worth the time investment to watch.

Starters Max Scherzer (WAS) and Rich Hill (LAD) both pitched well, allowing a single run.  Scherzer’s run was a game-tying homer in the seventh by Joc Pederson.

That only began the wild seventh–after Scherzer was relieved, Carlos Ruiz gave the Dodgers a lead with an RBI single, and Justin Turner stretched it to 4-1 with a 2-RBI double.  In the bottom half, Chris Heisey hit a 2-run pinch-hit homer to make it 4-3.

After the homer, Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen entered with no outs in the seventh.  He stranded the bases loaded in the seventh, and another runner in the eighth.

With two on and one out in the ninth, Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw entered the game on one day rest.

Kershaw got Daniel Murphy to pop up, then struck out Wilmer Difo to end the game, earning his first major league save to clinch a postseason series (and his first save at any level since 2006 in rookie ball).


1.  Cubs win first World Series since 1908 in Game 7 for the ages

After six thrilling games, the 112th World Series between the Indians and Cubs was tied at 3-3.  The Indians had led the Series 3-1, but the Cubs had come back to force Game 7.

Before Game 7, I called it baseball’s “game of the century” thus far, fully expecting that it would not live up to that lofty level of hype.  And yet, the game far surpassed it, legitimately becoming the greatest baseball game played in the 21st century.

Game 7 had everything.  Dexter Fowler led off the game with a home run, and Javier Baez and David Ross added solo homers for the Cubs, with Ross’s coming in the final at-bat of his career.  Cubs starter Jon Lester came in in relief, giving up one earned run in three innings.

The Cubs committed three errors, and two Indians scored on a wild pitch, the first such play in a World Series game since 1911.  Cubs leads of 5-1 and 6-3 evaporated almost instantly in the eighth, with Rajai Davis tying the game with a 2-run homer.

It became the first Game 7 to go to extra innings since 1997 (which the Indians lost to the Florida Marlins), and that was put on hold for 17 minutes by a passing shower (the first World Series rain delay since 2008).

Ben Zobrist’s RBI double put the Cubs ahead, and Miguel Montero added an RBI that turned out to be a big insurance run.  In the bottom of the 10th, Davis singled to pull to within 8-7, before Mike Montgomery came in to pitch and took just two pitches to record his first professional save, a final out that will be replayed forever.

A story that many veteran writers called the best story they had ever covered–the Cubs finally winning the World Series–was an appropriate end to an insane 2016 MLB postseason.  After Cubs fans waited 108 years,

Column: In Agreeing to Phillips Trade, Braves and Reds Going in Different Directions

Three-time All-Star second baseman Brandon Phillips has reportedly been traded from the Cincinnati Reds to the Atlanta Braves, in exchange for two minor leaguers, LHP Andrew McKirahan and RHP Carlos Portuondo.

Phillips, who has played for the Reds since 2006, waived his no-trade clause, a clause he has used to nix multiple trades previously, to return to his home state of Georgia.  The Stone Mountain native has over 12 years of MLB experience, and will turn 36 in June.

The Reds agreed to pay $13 million of Phillips’ $14 million salary for 2017, the final season of a 10-year deal he signed before the 2008 season.

The Braves and Reds both won an identical 68 games in the 2016 season (Braves 68-93, Reds 68-94), but now after agreeing to this deal, two of the game’s oldest franchises have shown how much they are going in opposite directions entering the 2017 season and beyond.

The Braves are on the back end of a rebuilding project, and enter 2017 in a position to be much more competitive than they have been the last two seasons (67-95 in 2015, 68-93 in 2016).

After the firing of GM Frank Wren in 2014, the front office agreed rebuilding the Braves’ minor-league system was the best solution for long-term success, and the club went all in on a massive rebuild.  As a result, every ranking of farm systems has the Braves at or near the top, and most pundits project the major league club to be more competitive in 2017 and contenders for several years after.

The Braves reportedly first attempted to trade for Phillips early in the offseason, before the free-agent signing of Sean Rodriguez.  But Saturday, after the announcement that Rodriguez would be out three to five months with a shoulder injury suffered in a car accident, the team stared at a possible weak spot at second base, and trade talks with the Reds resumed, and then commenced, quickly.

Phillips, who hit .291 with 11 HR, 64 RBI and 34 doubles in 2016, is no longer at his peak performance–he is a three-time All-Star and four-time Gold Glove winner, both most recently in 2013–but is still a solid addition for the Braves, adding more offensive depth and another veteran to lead a clubhouse that blends lots of youth and experience.

Adding a local player, from Redan High School in the eastern Atlanta suburbs, won’t hurt the Braves at the box office either, as they move into a new home at SunTrust Park for the 2017 season.

The addition of Phillips fits the Braves’ pattern from this offseason.  With a bevy of prospects in the minor leagues who could be big-league ready in a year or two, the Braves don’t want long-term deals with players who may block said prospects’ path at their given position.

As a result, the team signed veteran free agent pitchers Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey (both former Cy Young winners), traded for Jaime Garcia, and has now traded for Phillips.  All except Dickey (club option for 2018) will be free agents after 2017.

With these additions, the young talent like Freddie Freeman, Julio Teheran, Dansby Swanson and others already at the major league level, and the highly-touted prospects the team has waiting in the wings in the minor leagues, there is a light at the end of the tunnel for the Braves, and it’s not just a candle, but a flood light.

The turnaround of the club’s outlook in just a two-year span since starting their overhaul is impressive, especially considering how many other teams in baseball have been somewhat non-committal as they entered a rebuilding phase, and now appear to face a lengthy period of mediocrity as a result.

The Reds appear to potentially be one of these teams.  After three playoff appearances in four seasons between 2010-13, the Reds dropped to 76-86 in 2014 and 64-98 in 2015.  The core of those playoff teams–players including Phillips, Johnny Cueto, Jay Bruce, Mat Latos, Edinson Volquez and Aroldis Chapman–is gone, with the exception of Joey Votto (signed through 2023).

While some of those players left in trades (others were free agents) and allowed the team to get prospects, the Reds’ farm system is considered by most analysts to be mid-pack.  The team does own the ninth-ranked prospect in the just-released Baseball America Top 100 (3B Nick Senzel), he is the only Reds player in the top 68, and they only have three of the top 100 (the Braves, by comparison, have eight, including two of the top 11).

Most metrics have the Reds winning less than 70 games in 2017, and those projections likely came when Phillips was still with the team.

According to reports since the trade, the Reds may have viewed Phillips as a problem, with his presence potentially blocking younger players–potential parts of the Reds future–from playing time, namely infielders Jose Peraza (ironically a former Braves farmhand), and Dilson Herrera.

This is further evident when considering the return for Phillips.  McKirahan is a former Rule 5 Draft pick, who missed half the 2015 season with a PED suspension, then all of 2016 with Tommy John Surgery.  The 27-year old was not expected to contend for the Opening Day Roster in Braves spring training, although with the Reds’ lack of bullpen depth, with a good spring he could potentially threaten to make the Cincinnati club.

Portuondo is a 29-year old Cuban defector, viewed more as “organizational depth” than a prospect after eight mediocre seasons in the Cuban league, and a 3.63 ERA across two minor-league levels in 2016, his first season in American pro baseball.

The fact the Reds are willing to pay $13 million of Phillips’ $14 million while he takes at-bats for another team in exchange for two players who may never make it to Cincinnati says a lot about the state of the franchise entering the 2017 season.

While the Reds continue their dive into the beginning phases of a potentially lengthy rebuilding process, further cementing their path with the trade of Phillips, the Braves are coming out of their own, and the acquisition of Phillips further equips them in their role as a sleeper team for the 2017 season.

 

*One interesting note for the Braves:  RHP Bartolo Colon and Brandon Phillips were once traded for each other in 2002, in a deal between the Montreal Expos and Cleveland Indians; the pair will now, nearing the ends of their careers, play together for the first time.

Column: The Atlanta Sports Curse Remains Alive and Well

Throughout the first three-plus quarters of Super Bowl LI, it appeared the Atlanta Falcons would practically erase the collective stain of Atlanta sports heartbreak with a victory over the mighty New England Patriots to claim the biggest moment in the city’s sporting history short of hosting the Centennial Olympics in 1996.

But after the Falcons fourth-quarter collapse and overtime loss, the curse on Atlanta sports may be stronger than ever.

Cleveland has been the city whose sports were a collective analogy for heartbreak, but now claims the defending NBA champion Cavaliers.  Meanwhile, after an Atlanta team lost a Super Bowl, especially in the way they did, the Big Peach is now the biggest portrayal of the agony of defeat once again–call it Atlanta anguish.

No team has ever led a Super Bowl by 11 or more points and lost.  The Falcons led by 25 before the Patriots’ first touchdown with 2:06 left in the third quarter, and still lost.  The offense was clicking on all cylinders, scoring 28 points on the league’s top-ranked defense in the game’s first 36:29, then failed to scored again.

According to the modern stat of win probability, the Falcons had a 99.6 percent chance to win as late as the 9:00 mark in the fourth, and was still at 85.1 percent at the two-minute warning, before falling to 0.0 moments later once the loss had concluded.

Some will say they did it to themselves, with poor offensive playcalling in the fourth, a key turnover with 8:25 left at their own 25-yard line, and their sudden fourth-quarter inability to stop the Patriots offense.

Others will point to Brady and Patriots, and rightfully so.  They’re the ones who scored two touchdowns and two conversions in the final 5:56, and another touchdown in overtime after winning the coin toss and scoring in just 3:58, giving the Falcons no chance to possess the ball.

But whatever the reason (and it’s really a little of both), the bottomline is that the most heartbreaking loss in Super Bowl history now belongs to Atlanta.  And while none match the magnitude of this super sorrow, the city is no stranger to crushing losses for its teams.

The Braves are 65-75 in the MLB playoffs since moving to Atlanta in 1966, including 11-18 in the World Series, winning only one of their five World Series appearances.  They have won just 12 of their 30 playoff series–and just 9 of 27 when you take out the lone championship run–and are 10-23 in a stretch of eight straight series losses dating back to the 2001 NLCS.

A team that has essentially been a perennial playoff team (the last couple years notwithstanding) hasn’t advanced past the NLDS in 16 years.  The losses have come in unique fashion:  utility infielder Chris Burke’s walkoff in 2005, the “Infield Fly Game” in 2012, Juan Uribe’s go-ahead homer after he couldn’t bunt in 2013.

In the 1990’s run of five National League pennants in nine years, the World Series moments are just as crushing, if not more so:  extra inning losses in Games 6-7 in 1991, including Game 7’s famous scoreless tie through nine innings; an extra-inning loss in the 1992 clincher; Jim Leyritz’s unlikely homer in Game 4 in 1996, a game the Braves had led 6-0 in a series they led 2-0 before losing 4-2.

The Hawks are 94-145 in the NBA playoffs since moving to Atlanta in 1968, winning just 16 of their 48 playoff series.  The team has never reached the NBA Finals, going 1-12 in Eastern Conference Finals games (the one win was in their first season in Atlanta).

The Hawks best chances at championships have come when they’ve run into some all-time players and teams in the playoffs.  For instance, they have been swept the last two seasons (and 2009) by a LeBron James-led Cavaliers team, including the 2015 Eastern Conference Finals as the top seed.

Even when the Hawks had the great Dominique Wilkins, they met Larry Bird’s Celtics (1983, 1986, 1988), Isiah Thomas’s Pistons (1986-87, 1991), and Michael Jordan’s Bulls (1993, and 1997 after Wilkins left), losing each of those series with the exception of a 1986 first-round win over the Pistons.

Similarly, the Falcons are 9-13 in the NFL playoffs after last night’s loss, although their history differs from the Braves and Hawks.  While the postseason losses for the Braves and Hawks have been fairly frequent after solid runs of regular season success (including a 14-year division title streak for the Braves), the Falcons are 341-437-6 all-time (.439), with long periods of futility broken by the occasional playoff berth.  Before a three-year playoff streak from 2010-12, the Falcons had never reached the playoffs in consecutive seasons.

They did reach the Super Bowl in the 1998 season, losing Super Bowl XXXIII to John Elway’s Broncos, but within two years had the worst record in the league.  Top draft pick Michael Vick electrified the franchise, but Vick failed to reach the Super Bowl, coming closest in a 2004 NFC Championship loss, before being released after his dogfighting conviction.

This year Matt Ryan, who was drafted third overall to replace Vick, and the rest of the Falcons realized their full potential.  It looked like the year the Falcons would bring a championship to Atlanta–and then Tom Brady had other ideas.

Ryan was named NFL MVP on Saturday, and I was surprised to read that he was the first non-baseball MVP in the sports history of this city of Wilkins, Vick, and so many others (the Braves have had four MVPs).  24 hours later, Ryan became the eighth straight MVP to lose the Super Bowl.

Many brush off any talk of about any pro sports curse, saying Atlanta is a college sports town.  While college sports are more predominant in Atlanta than maybe any other major American city, the athletic teams at Georgia (located in Athens with a large fanbase in Atlanta) and Georgia Tech (located downtown) have joined in the curse, as they also had a knack for not performing well in big games.

Atlanta does have one pro sports championship, and it was in my lifetime–I was eight months old when the Braves won the 1995 World Series.  And yet, in the shadow of Sunday’s Falcons collapse, that title doesn’t seem to completely eradicate the Atlanta curse.

For one thing, the one championship doesn’t balance out the losses when the losses are so numerous.  And for another, the 1995 Braves title came against the Cleveland Indians, a team that hasn’t won a World Series since 1948 which resides in a city whose collective drought ran from 1954 until just last year, in a series that someone had to win (if you know me, you know I’m glad who it was).

I know, each game and each season are independent of each other, and each sport is definitely exclusive from the others.

But you can’t help but think about a curse after watching one city with just one title get its hearts broken as another celebrates its 37th pro sports championship.

Column: The Greatest 64 Days in Sports

It’s Super Bowl Sunday.  You’re reading a sports blog, so I don’t have to tell you how big a deal the Super Bowl is American sports, and American culture at-large.

But Super Bowl Sunday, to me, is more than just one big game on one Sunday in February, but is instead the start of the best nine-week period on the sports calendar.

Over the next 64 days, from today until April 9, all five of the sports I closely follow have a major event that fans anticipate for months, in a stretch of the sports calendar that puts the other 301 days of the year to shame.

Football, of course, crowns its professional champion tonight in Super Bowl LI.  Pro football isn’t necessarily my very favorite sport to watch (in fact, I prefer college football over the NFL), but I do still enjoy it, especially during the playoffs and “The Big Game.”

While I do find the Super Bowl to be somewhat overrated, I appreciate the cultural event it has become beyond just a football game.  Everyone is watching, whether for the commercials, the halftime show, or (like me) to see if the Patriots or Falcons hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy at the game’s conclusion.  The sheer magnitude of the Super Bowl is unlike anything else in sports; on a cultural level in America, no other sporting event even comes close.

Three weeks from today, NASCAR celebrates its own “Super Bowl Sunday” of sorts with the 59th Daytona 500.  Unlike football (and many other “stick and ball sports”), NASCAR’s biggest event doesn’t end its season, but kicks it off, as the Daytona 500 begins the 36-race marathon that is the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule.

An event that rose to prominence in 1979 with Richard Petty’s dramatic win continues to produce thrilling racing, including last year’s photo finish won by Denny Hamlin.  Some (myself included) are more than skeptical about NASCAR’s new race format, but there is still excitement building for the 500, and it will only continue to build during Daytona Speedweeks, the 10 days of events at the World Center of Racing leading up to the race on February 26.

After Daytona, the calendar will turn to March, a word that is synonymous among sports fans with college basketball.  After the 32 conference tournaments over the first two weekends of March, the field of 68 will be set for the NCAA Tournament on March 12, Selection Sunday, and the tournament begins on March 14.

The next three weeks are a flood of the buzzer-beaters, the upsets, and simply the insane basketball that makes us all adore the NCAA Tournament.  Instead of a one-day event, the tournament spans over three weekends, with the teams that play for the championship playing six games by the time the tournament is over.

The championship game is on April 3, the same day as MLB’s Opening Day.  Fans in every sport have season openers, during which they always possess hope for the upcoming season, but this is especially pronounced at the beginning of baseball season.

Teams and fans alike will be set to go after six weeks of Spring Training, as each team begins the demanding schedule of 162 games in six months.

This season, Opening Day will be prefaced by the World Baseball Classic, the quadrennial World Cup-style competition held during Spring Training, established in 2006 and most recently won by the Dominican Republic in 2013.  The United States has, surprisingly, never medaled in the event, but has quite possibly their best roster ever entering this year’s edition.

April 3, the Monday that marks the end of the NCAA Tournament and the beginning of baseball season, is also the beginning of Masters week, with the tournament rounds at The Masters beginning on Thursday, April 6.  The creation of Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts is the biggest and most dramatic golf tournament of the year, set in the beautiful backdrop of Augusta National Golf Club, full of Georgia pines and perfectly-groomed azaleas, blossoming as spring sets in.

Golf, the ultimate individual’s game, is the only sport I played in high school, and therefore the one which I most identify with the players.  I’ve dreamed of playing in the Masters–and did so in the backyard many times–and now that I realize that’s probably unrealistic, I dream of driving down Magnolia Lane to cover the “tradition unlike any other” (then again, I’d like to cover all of these events some day).  Golf has four major championships, but among them The Masters stands tall.

The Super Bowl may be tonight, but even once the game is over, the fun will just be getting started.  It kicks off this great 64-day period, the most wonderful time of the sports year.

Fast Five: 2016 Year in Review

*Editor’s Note:  This post was originally scheduled to be published on December 31, but due to personal sickness was delayed until now. 

 

2016 was a crazy year in sports.  From exceptional and historic championship events, to the good and bad of the Olympic Games, to saying goodbye to several big names who retired or passed away.

From the best events of the year to the biggest stories, here is a look back at the year that was in 2016:

Best Events of 2016

5.  Jul. 14-17:  Henrik Stenson wins The Open Championship

The Open at Royal Troon began on Thursday with Phil Mickelson getting hot on the back nine, and eventually facing a putt for a 62, which would have been a record for any major championship.  The putt somehow stayed out of the hole, and Mickelson shot 63, becoming the 28th to do so in a major championship.


Swede Henrik Stenson shot 65 on Friday to pull within one of Mickelson, setting the stage for a fantastic weekend duel.  Stenson shot 68 Saturday to Mickelson’s 70, giving Stenson a one-shot lead entering the final round.

In the final round, Stenson and Mickelson went back and forth, and Mickelson ended the Open with a bogey-free 65, finishing 17-under par with the best 72 holes he had ever played in a major and 11 shots clear of third place J.B. Holmes.  There was only one problem for Lefty:  Stenson shot 63, joining Johnny Miller as the only players to shoot the mark in the final round to win a major.  Stenson took the lead for good on the 14th hole, birdieing four of the last five holes and 10 in the round to win his first major, beating Mickelson in an Open duel reminiscent of 1977’s “Duel in the Sun” between Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus.

4.  Jan. 11:  Alabama 45, Clemson 40 (NCAA Football, National Championship Game)

As the clear two best teams in the country fought for the national title, they produced a game that many compared to the legendary USC-Texas Rose Bowl in 2006.  The two teams traded the lead throughout the first three quarters, with Alabama getting two rushing touchdowns from Heisman winner Derrick Henry, and Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson finding former walk-on Hunter Renfrow for two touchdowns.

After Alabama tied the score at 24-24 with 10:34 to go, coach Nick Saban made one of the gutsiest calls of his career, calling for the onside kick, which the Crimson Tide recovered, leading to a touchdown.  After Clemson answered with a field goal, Kenyan Drake returned the ensuing kickoff 95 yards to give Alabama a 38-27 lead.  A Watson-to-Artavis Scott touchdown with 4:40 left pulled Clemson to 38-33, before a long Alabama drive to milk the clock ended with the Tide putting the game away with Henry’s third touchdown.

3.  Apr. 4:  Villanova 77, North Carolina 74 (NCAA Tournament, National Championship Game)

After the Final Four in Houston saw two less than stellar semifinals, with Villanova beating Oklahoma 95-51 and North Carolina beating Syracuse 83-66 to advance to the championship game, the Wildcats and Tar Heels made up for it with one of the best championship games in NCAA Tournament history.

After North Carolina led 39-34 at halftime and by as many as seven points early in the second half, Villanova came back to tie the score at 44-44 and then take a 67-57 lead with 5:29 left.  Then the Tar Heels came back, led by threes from Joel Berry II and Marcus Paige.  After getting as close as 72-71, North Carolina trailed 74-71 in the closing seconds when Marcus Paige hit a contested, off-balance, game-tying three with 4.7 seconds left–given the circumstances, one of the greatest shots I’ve ever seen (honestly, because of the degree of difficulty, even more of a clutch shot than the one that happened next).

After a timeout, NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player Ryan Arcidiacono brought the ball up the floor, setting up Kris Jenkins for an open three that will forever live in basketball lore.  Jenkins’ buzzer-beater gave Villanova their second national title (1985) in thrilling fashion, culminating a game CBS Sports’ Matt Norlander called “a thrilling, undeniably heart-stopping, instant classic of a title game.”

2.  Jun. 19:  Cleveland 93, Golden State 89 (NBA Finals, Game 7)

Game 7 had some fantastic storylines beforehand.  The Cavaliers and Warriors were playing a rematch of the 2015 Finals, which had been won by Golden State.  The Warriors had reached The Finals by overcoming a 3-1 deficit to Oklahoma City in the Western Conference Finals, then they led Cleveland 3-1 before the Cavaliers fought back to force a Game 7.  The Cavaliers were trying to become the first Cleveland pro sports team to win a championship since 1964, led by native son LeBron James, and doing so on the road in Oakland.

The largest lead of the game for either side was seven, which Golden State enjoyed at halftime, and the game saw 11 ties and 20 lead changes.  After a Warriors layup by Klay Thompson tied the score at 89 with 4:39 to play, the teams combined to miss 12 consecutive shots, including a phenomenal James block from behind on an Andre Iguodala attempted layup.  Kyrie Irving broke the scoring drought with a clutch three, over league MVP Stephen Curry, with 0:53 remaining, and after Curry missed a three, James was fouled hard on a fast break with 0:10 left, staying on the floor for a few moments before hitting one of the two free throws to give Cleveland a 4-point lead, before Curry missed again and time expired, and James fell to the floor in tears as a champion.

The story of LeBron James returning home to Cleveland and winning the city the championship it so desperately wanted was a great story to watch unfold, even as someone who was (mildly) pulling for the Warriors.  As the city won its first title in 52 years, ESPN broadcaster Mike Breen proclaimed, “Cleveland is a city of champions again!”

1.  Nov. 2:  Chi. Cubs 8, Cleveland 7, 10 inn. (World Series, Game 7)

“Game of the Century” is an overused term in the sports world, but leading into just the fifth Game 7 of a World Series since 2001, I said this was legitimately the biggest baseball game in the 21st century thus far.  But even with the Cubs coming from down 3-1 to force a Game 7 in a series between teams with 68- and 108-year title droughts and the matchups of Kluber-Hendricks and Francona-Maddon, I wondered if it could possibly live up to the hype.  And yet, somehow, it surpassed it.

So many moments from Game 7 were memorable on their own, and together they combined to truly make the greatest baseball game of this century to date, and one of the greatest ever.  Dexter Fowler led off the game with a homer for the Cubs, and Javy Baez added one of his own, giving the Cubs a 5-1 lead.  The Indians pulled to within 5-3 after two scored on a wild pitch, the first such play in a World Series since 1911.  David Ross, in his final career at-bat, homering to make it 6-3.  A furious Indians rally against Cubs closer Aroldis Chapman in the 8th, culminating with a game-tying homer by Rajai Davis, the latest in any World Series Game 7.

Nine innings weren’t enough for this classic, and with the game tied 6-6 and going to extra innings, the whole world got to catch its breath with a short rain delay.  After a Ben Zobrist go-ahead double, the Cubs took an 8-6 lead to the bottom of the tenth, but the Indians didn’t go down without a fight, scoring off of Cubs rookie Carl Edwards.  Mike Montgomery, who had never recorded a save in pro baseball, relieved Edwards with two outs, and got Michael Martinez to hit a soft grounder to third that will become one of the most replayed baseball highlights in history:  the final out of the Cubs’ first championship since 1908.

In my post on the game the next day, I summed up Game 7 this way:  “The Cubs and their fans have literally waited a lifetime to celebrate winning the World Series.  It’s only appropriate that the game of a lifetime put them over the top.”


Honorable Mention

Jan. 16:  Arizona 26, Green Bay 20, OT (NFL Playoffs, Divisional Round)

Jan. 23:  Denver 20, New England 18 (NFL Playoffs, AFC Championship)

Feb. 21:  Denny Hamlin wins Daytona 500 photo finish

Mar. 18:  Northern Iowa 75, Texas 72 (NCAA Tournament, First Round)

Mar. 20:  Wisconsin 66, Xavier 63 (NCAA Tournament, Second Round)

Mar. 20:  Texas A&M 92, Northern Iowa 88, 2OT (NCAA Tournament, Second Round)

Apr. 7-10:  Danny Willett wins The Masters

Jun. 30:  Coastal Carolina 4, Arizona 3 (College World Series Championship, Game 3)

Aug. 11-14:  Olympic Men’s Golf Competition (G: Justin Rose, S: Henrik Stenson, B: Matt Kuchar)

Sept. 30-Oct. 2:  United States wins Ryder Cup

Oct. 1:  Tennessee 34, Georgia 31 (NCAA Football)

Oct. 1:  Clemson 42, Louisville 36 (NCAA Football)

Oct. 4:  Toronto 6, Baltimore 3, 11 inn. (AL Wild Card Game)

Oct. 5:  San Francisco 3, N.Y. Mets 0 (NL Wild Card Game)

Oct. 9:  Toronto 7, Texas 6, 10 inn. (AL Division Series, Game 3)

Oct. 10:  San Francisco 6, Chi. Cubs 5, 13 inn. (NL Division Series, Game 3)

Oct. 13:  L.A. Dodgers 4, Washington 3 (NL Division Series, Game 5)

Nov. 12:  Pittsburgh 43, Clemson 42 (NCAA Football)

Nov. 20:  Jimmie Johnson wins Ford 400 and NASCAR Sprint Cup championship

Nov. 26:  Ohio State 30, Michigan 27, 2OT (NCAA Football)

 

Biggest Stories of 2016

5.  Retirements

Every year has its fair share of retirements, but it seemed 2016 had more big names saying goodbye than most years.  Peyton Manning retired as a Super Bowl champion.  David Ortiz was an MVP candidate at age 40 in his farewell.  Kobe Bryant scored 60 points in his final game.  David Ross homered in Game 7 of the World Series in his final career at-bat.  Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira walked away from the New York Yankees.  Vin Scully said goodbye after an unfathomable 67-year run as a Dodgers broadcaster.  Fellow broadcaster Dick Enberg said “Oh my!” one final time.  Tony Stewart won one of the year’s best races at Sonoma as part of his final season.  Family man Adam LaRoche walked away from millions after his son was unwelcome in the White Sox clubhouse.  The accolades for this list seem endless, and they have given us many moments we’ll never forget.


4.  Rio Olympics

Entering the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the host city was a major story, with concerns about the water quality in Rio, trash in the streets, and risk of Zika virus.

Once the games began, there were some excellent performances by the best athletes in the world, including a successful games for the United States team.  Michael Phelps became the most decorated Olympian of all-time, while fellow swimmer Katie Ledecky was utterly dominant in setting multiple world records.  Simone Manuel stunned everyone, becoming the first African-American woman to ever medal in swimming when she won gold in the 100m freestyle.  Simone Biles won five gymnastics medals, with four gold, as the “Final Five” obliterated the competition to win gold going away.

Outside the American delegation, Jamaican Usain Bolt finished his career with a third gold in the 100 meter dash.  Fiji’s rugby team won gold to score the nation’s first Olympic medal ever.  Brit Mo Farah fell down and recovered to defend his gold medal in the 10,000m run.  Golf returned to the Olympics for the first time since 1904, with Great Britain’s Justin Rose and South Korea’s Inbee Park winning gold.

There were still some controversies, both within and outside of competition.  Shaunae Miller dove across the finish line, and while I wrote I had no problem with it, many did.  The water in the diving pool mysteriously turned green.  12-time medalist Ryan Lochte claimed he and three teammates were robbed at gunpoint, before it turned out a drunk Lochte had vandalized a gas station bathroom and fabricated parts of his story.

While the 2016 Summer Olympics were not perfect, but fascinated with these storylines and many more.

3.  Cavaliers end Cleveland title drought

The career of LeBron James has created some of the top stories in years past, as the Akron native left his hometown Cavaliers to play for the Miami Heat in 2010, and after two titles in Miami, signed back with Cleveland in 2014.  After an NBA Finals loss to the Warriors in 2015, the Cavaliers looked destined for another loss to the Warriors in 2016, trailing 3-1, but came from behind to win three straight games, including two on the road, and the title, clinching in a legendary Game 7.

But while this championship was the first for the Cavaliers franchise, this story was about more than just one sport in Cleveland, but all of them, as the city won its first championship in any sport since 1964, ending a drought that led The New York Times to once call Cleveland “the capital of sports heartbreak.”

The Cavaliers fell victim to Michael Jordan playoff buzzer-beaters twice, then lost James in the controversial announcement program “The Decision.”  The Browns lost playoff games on a late interception (“Red Right 88”), an infamous fumble (Earnest Byner), and John Elway’s “The Drive,” before leaving town entirely in 1995 (becoming the Baltimore Ravens), only to be reborn as an expansion franchise in 1999.  The Indians were two outs away from the 1997 World Series title, before a costly Jose Mesa error led to an extra-innings loss to the Marlins.

The Cavaliers title ended the heartbreak, but may also have started a sustained run of athletic success for the city.  While the Browns did go 1-15 in the 2016 season, the Indians reached the World Series, and will have an even better roster in 2017, while the Cavaliers currently have the best record in the NBA’s Eastern Conference as they try to defend their title.

2.  Deaths

Many people of influence in all facets of American and global culture passed away in 2016, but the year seemed to especially hit the sports world hard.  Muhammad Ali, the boxer who was named Sports Illustrated Athlete of the Century in 1999, died after a long battle with Parkinson’s, while Pat Summitt, the longtime Tennessee women’s basketball coach who is the winningest coach in NCAA history, succumbed to dementia.  Arnold Palmer, “the king” of golf, and Jose Fernandez, a young star pitcher for the Miami Marlins, died just hours apart on September 25.

The list also includes broadcasting legends Craig Sager, Joe Garagiola and John Saunders, football coaches LaVell Edwards, Dennis Green and Buddy Ryan, former Heisman winner Rashaan Salaam, basketball legends Nate Thurmond and Pearl Washington, NHL Hall of Famer Gordie Howe, baseball trail blazer Monte Irvin, and dirt racing champion Bryan Clauson.  71 people, including 19 players from Brazilian soccer team Chapecoense and numerous other team staff and media, were killed when a plane carrying the team to a championship match in Medellin, Colombia crashed, while only three players survived.



1.  Cubs win first World Series since 1908

Entering 2016, it was no secret that the Cubs had a great chance to break their curse of 108 years and finally win the World Series, and before the season I picked them to win.  Even still, the way it played out makes this one of the biggest and best sports stories of my lifetime, and one that many veteran baseball writers called the best story they have ever covered.

Coming back from a 3-1 deficit and capturing a thrilling Game 7 to win it all, the Cubs finally rewarded the waiting of their long-suffering fans, some of the most loyal anywhere, with their first championship since 39,466 days before, when Theodore Roosevelt was president.  The resulting reactions from jubilant Cubs fans, nearly all of whom were experiencing their first championship, were expectedly emotional, with many brought to joyous, relieved tears.

The North Side rode the monumental triumph–and, in many cases, disbelief–for days after Game 7, including the Cubs’ victory parade and rally two days after the victory, which saw 5 million people–the seventh largest crowd in human history–pay tribute to their baseball heroes, the unit of Cubs who finally ended sports’ most famous championship drought.

After seeing the Cubs end a historic period of futility in such dramatic fashion, and the depth of the celebration that followed in Chicago and throughout the country, I named the Chicago Cubs my 2016 Stiles on Sports Sportsmen of the Year.


Honorable Mention (in generically chronological order, with yearlong stories listed first)

Athletes get politically involved (Colin Kaepernick, Curt Schilling, ESPYs cold open, etc)

Player conduct (Draymond Green, Grayson Allen, Vontaze Burfict, etc)

Performance-enhancing drugs (Dee Gordon suspension, al-Jazeera report)

Louisville basketball escort scandal

The Rams relocate to Los Angeles

Baylor football sexual assualt scandal

The end of Deflategate

John Scott voted to NHL All-Star Game, wins MVP

Golden State Warriors set NBA regular-season wins record

Leicester City beats 5000-1 odds to win English Premier League

Kevin Durant signs with Golden State Warriors

Dale Earnhardt Jr. sits out with concussion, Jeff Gordon returns

The resurgence of the Dallas Cowboys and Oakland Raiders

Tim Tebow plays baseball, signs with New York Mets

Jimmie Johnson wins 7th title, ties Petty and Earnhardt

New collective bargaining agreements in MLB and NBA

The rebirth of Penn State football

Major college football coaching changes (LSU, Texas)

Tiger Woods’ injury and return

Wake Forest game plans leaked to opponents (WakeyLeaks)