Fans Week Roundtable, Part II: Sports Heroes and Hysteria

In Part I of my Stiles on Sports Fans Week roundtable discussion with Justin Kenley (Cardinals, Panthers, North Carolina fan), Ryan Pittman (Cubs, Packers, South Carolina fan) and Garrett Black (Clemson fan), we discussed both exciting wins and heartbreaking losses they’ve experienced as fans.

In Part II, I asked more about their fan experiences, including who they admire on the field and the crazy things they’ve done and seen as a fan.

 

SOS:  Who is your favorite player, and why?

Justin:  For the Panthers it’s hard, but I’ve got to say Luke (Kuechly).  And not even just from that fandom perspective; I just love how he brings it every single play.  The dude is everywhere.  And I guess that’s something that, as a fan, you appreciate a guy going all out.

For the Tar Heels, it’s hard man.  I love me some Marcus Paige, though.  I just love his story.  Kind of a guy that not a lot of people knew, coming out (of high school), and “is he really going to be that good,” and to carry the team the last two years the way he did, that was just, I love Marcus Paige.

And Cardinals, good gosh, if this was six years ago, I would’ve said (Albert) Pujols, without even a wink, definitely.  I don’t know, man, I like so many of them, for different reasons.  There’s very few guys that we’ve had in the last few years that I said, “man, I just don’t like that person.”  If I had to say my top ones, I love Molina (Yadier Molina), because I was a catcher, and I think he’s just amazing at what he does.  I love the way Carp (Matt Carpenter) plays, I love the way Waino (Adam Wainwright) pitches, and then… it’s hard to narrow that one down.

Ryan:  There are three.  Jason Grilli is probably my favorite player of all time.  I met him when I was 10 years old at a baseball camp in Toledo.  He actually taught me how to bunt.  He’s a relief pitcher, and he was a nobody then, and I guess he’s kind of a nobody now, but he’s had some times where he’s been closer with the Pirates, he’s been closer with the Braves, and the occasional game saved for the Blue Jays now.

I met him 12 years ago when he was nobody, and I’ve watched him ascend throughout the major leagues, and he’s almost 40 now and still pitching.  It’s kind of cool to be like, hey, I’ve got his autograph right there.  It’s kind of cool.

Another is Omar Infante.  I just watched him growing up, and he played the same position I did, and he played for the Mud Hens in Toledo.  He played shortstop, then moved to second base; I played shortstop, then moved to second base.  And it was kind of cool.

Carlos Pena is also on that list.  There was one time I called him over to sign his baseball card, and they asked everyone to stand for the national anthem.  He’s holding my pen and my baseball card, and he says “Hold on,” and puts it on the railing, turns to put his hand over his heart for the national anthem, then he grabs the card, signs it, and then runs over to first base to play.  He went from me to first base to start the game, and it was just really cool.

And then he went on the next year, two years later, to hit 40-something home runs for those same Rays that I described earlier, the ’08 Rays, and he became a huge power hitter, and I still remembered that fond memory as a kid.  Kind of changed the way I think about professional athletes.

Garrett:  I’m gonna have to go with Hunter Renfrow.  Not only did he catch the winning touchdown, but he’s got the story and the character to go behind it, and it’s just great to see a former walk-on catch a touchdown and then be vainly tackled by three future draft prospects.

 

SOS:  Who is a “role player” you’ve always liked, and why?

Justin:  Easily Skip Schumaker.  Just a guy that comes, and didn’t matter where he was playing, he was going to bring it, every day.

I’ll never forget in 2013, we went to St. Louis for my graduation present, and the Dodgers were playing, and it was the first time Skip had come back to St. Louis after he got let go, and man, Skip Schumaker, who a lot of people wouldn’t know his name, he got a standing ovation from like 40,000 people in Busch Stadium, and it was awesome.  It was just really, really cool.

If you know the Cardinals, you appreciate what he did.  Because he could play second base, right field, pinch hit.  You knew he was going to do something.

Ryan:  I’ve always been a fan of utility players in baseball.  Currently Ben Zobrist fits that, and I guess there are so many now.  It used to be a lot more rare.

Guys like Martin Prado, who’d play every infield position and every outfield position, and I appreciate that, they might not have a set position that they’re best at, but their bat is valuable enough and their leadership is valuable enough their team can’t take them out.  So they might not have an everyday spot, but they play everyday.

Garrett:  I really have to appreciate Cole Stoudt.  Can we call a backup quarterback a role player?  Because he was never gonna be the guy.

I mean, he was a starting guy, but the expectation was never to win a championship with Cole Stoudt.  But I think he provided leadership to keep the team together, in the Tajh (Boyd) to Deshaun (Watson) handoff, and got hurt just in time for Deshaun to come.  But I think the kind of leadership he provided for the team, in that transition year between Tajh and Deshaun truly taking over, kind of kept that team together.

SOS:  That’s interesting, because that’s not necessarily a popular opinion in Clemson fan circles.

Garrett:  Here’s the thing:  at any other school that wasn’t swimming in quarterback prospects, like Clemson has been lately, Cole Stoudt could’ve started.  I mean, he wasn’t great, and to be fair we kind of got spoiled with Tajh, so we kind of expected we’d get that kind of production, and to be fair we got better later on, but we should’ve known it was going to get worse before it got better.

 

SOS:  Besides your favorite teams’ known archrivals, who is one team you can’t stand?

Justin:  I really don’t like the Reds, but I feel like that falls in that rivalry a little bit.  There’s a couple of NFL teams I don’t like.  Really, the AFC North.  The Ravens, the Bengals, and (my fiance) Courtney would kill me because Courtney is a Bengals fan, but just, the way they play just irks me.  There’s not one team—I hate the Patriots, obviously, but I feel like everybody hates the Patriots, so I feel like that doesn’t really count.

I will say in basketball, I really don’t like Kentucky.  Kentucky just, I love beating Kentucky.  I don’t mind the whole one-and-done movement to an extent, but I kind of hate the way they’ve done it, and I just, I don’t really like Kentucky.

Ryan:  Typically because of fantasy sports, I don’t hate any team, because I need their players.  That’s tricky.

I don’t like the Mets.  I really don’t like the Royals either.   I feel kind of bad saying it, but like the kind of players they had that have now since passed who were frustrating to watch, you know, Yordano Ventura was just annoying… rest in peace.  He was trying to cause fights, and they seemed to be getting into fights with other teams because they didn’t think they were getting the respect they deserved, and I was like, “come on, play the game, earn the respect,” and that was really frustrating recently.  But yeah, the Mets.  The Mets just always beat my team, knocked us out.

Garrett:  Everyone hates Alabama, but we just beat them so I don’t have as much hatred in my heart anymore.  I’m probably going to have to go with Florida State next, although that’s a division rivalry.  It’s hard to hate Pitt (laughs).

I loved beating Ohio State (in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl).  That felt good.  Because everyone was telling us how Urban Meyer’s like the best coach ever, and to be fair, he’s a great coach, but it feels good to topple the big guys.

 

SOS:  Who is one team you wish you had been alive to watch or old enough to remember?

Justin:  I would have loved to seen, and I don’t have a pinpoint year, but I would’ve loved to have seen Stan Musial play for the Cardinals.  Just because he meant so much to my grandpa; I mean, that was my grandpa’s dude.

Ryan:  Actually there’s two.  The Yankees, back when they were with Babe Ruth, and Joe DiMaggio, and those Yankee greats, I’d love to see one of those Yankee teams play.  And then, more recently, but still before me, was the Big Red Machine.  Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan

SOS: Pete Rose

Ryan:  Yeah, I’d love to go back and watch them, because they were a dominant team, but they weren’t in a big city.  They were small market Reds winning games, pretty cool.

Garrett:  ’81 (Clemson), obviously.  That was the other golden era.

 

SOS:  Do you have any strange superstitions when your favorite teams play?

Justin:  If I go to one game, and what I wear works, I wear the same thing again.

Two years ago in the (NFL) playoffs, the first day we went it wasn’t that cold, so I wore my Luke Kuechly jersey, and just a hat or whatever, but then the next game it was really cold, it got colder, and I didn’t care, I just wore the same thing.  We won in this last time, I’ll win in it again.

I’ve never been like a crazy superstitious kind of guy.  I will always, though, if I’m watching my team play, I’m going to wear something of that team.  I will do that, even if it’s just sitting on the couch.

Ryan:  Sometimes, in a game that really matters, in football or baseball playoffs, something like that, if my team is struggling, say, two-thirds of the way through the game, and I’m not wearing any gear of that team, I’ll go track down a Cubs hat or a jersey or a Packers t-shirt, just to see if (it helps), just supporting.  Never the opposite, though.  If I’m wearing gear and they lose, I don’t take it off, but sometimes you’ll get halfway through a game and go, “oh shoot, I’m not supporting my team,” so you do whatever you can to make them get back in business.

Garrett:  I have a mechanical tiger that plays Tiger Rag.  He used to dance, but the wheels broke.  Every time we score any points, I always click his paw and make him play the Tiger Rag song, and while this probably has more to do with Dabo (Swinney) and Deshaun (Watson), it has only been wrong, like, three times in the last four seasons.

SOS:  What do you mean, “it’s only been wrong”?

Garrett:  Like, whenever I hit the button every time when we play, we always win.  Again, that probably has more to do with the players, but I like to think I’m contributing.

 

SOS:  What is a crazy or unique experience you’ve had while watching a game?

Justin:  I remember, it was so funny, because my dad is not a guy to like freak out on TV.  At the game, he’ll freak out and stuff, and yell, but on TV he just doesn’t.  And I vividly remember when Marcus Paige hit that shot (to tie the game) against Villanova last year, the shot that no one will ever remember except Carolina fans, my dad jumped off the couch and just screamed his head off, and was pumped.

And I remember, it was just so funny, because obviously I was caught up in the moment, freaking out, but it was just funny to me, because I was like, “my dad never gets this into it in a game.”

The Seahawks game two years ago in the playoffs (was crazy).  We made that huge run, 15-1, divisional playoffs, and I kid you not, the upper deck where we were sitting at, we did not sit down for the entirety of that game.

Like, we were up at first half, at kickoff, when they came out of the tunnel, and then we sat down at halftime, and then when the clock hit zero we left.  And it was just crazy.  Because like, I’ve been at games where you stand a lot, but just the way that season was rolling, and the electricity in the air, you didn’t want to sit down, and so that was pretty crazy.

I about hit Courtney in the face this year, when Luke Maye hit that shot against Kentucky.  I really did.  I was punching the air, I was going nuts.

I will say, I am really weird about, like—regular season, and I can just sit on my couch and chill, but like, if it’s the playoffs, I bring a chair, and I sit probably as close as me and you to the TV, and I’m in it.  I’m in it.  Because it’s every pitch.

Ryan:  I was at Wrigley Field in 2003 when Barry Bonds, in batting practice, hit a baseball over Sheffield, through a window across the street, and that video’s kind of gone popular now, a cool “I didn’t do it,” you know, that was pretty funny though, just to—I don’t think he even noticed that it was out there, and it was like “did he just…?”  Yeah, he just hit one across the street, through a window.  That stands out.

I seem to have been to a lot of games where Top 10 plays happen on SportsCenter.  You were at one where Andrelton Simmons made that sick play against the Mets that we didn’t see because people (standing in the aisle) blocked us.

SOS:  I kind of saw it.  You were a little more blocked.  The best play I’ve ever seen live.

Ryan:  It’s kind of cool, you see it in person and then the next day it’s #1 on SportsCenter.  I was at a Hawks and 76ers game and a dunk made #1 on SportsCenter, and I was sitting right there watching it.  That’s pretty sweet.

Garrett:  The year of the “Kick Six” in the Iron Bowl, we were sitting in a beach house, and the Iron Bowl was taking a little long to finish that year, so we had the Iron Bowl going on here (on one TV), and the Clemson-(South) Carolina game going on here (on another TV).

And I would much rather see us win and Alabama win—I don’t like Alabama, but I’d rather–I’d trade an Alabama win for a Clemson win, if that makes sense—but I was incredibly ecstatic watching, what’s his name, Chris Davis run that kick, that (missed) field goal back for a touchdown, but then my joy quickly turned into despair when Tajh Boyd proceeded to throw like six interceptions.

 

Tomorrow, Fans Week continues with a look at some of the crazy things I’ve ever heard and seen from fans at sporting events. 

Fans Week Roundtable, Part I: Gratifying Wins and Gut-Wrenching Losses

Most of us aren’t members of any team or coaching staff in any pro or college sport, but there is one position we all hold:  fan.

This week, Stiles on Sports will glimpse at the admiration for our favorite teams and players, the exciting wins, and the heartbreaking close calls that are all a part of fanhood.

Welcome to Fans Week.

To start, I talked to three friends (and fellow recent graduates of Anderson University) who are as big of sports fans as I am in a roundtable discussion about their experiences as a fan.

All three have had one or more teams they pull for win championships in recent years, and all have had agonizing near misses too.

Justin Kenley is a St. Louis Cardinals, Carolina Panthers and North Carolina Tar Heels fan.

Ryan Pittman pulls for the Chicago Cubs, Green Bay Packers and South Carolina Gamecocks.

Garrett Black is a Clemson Tigers football fan.  While he only has one team he is a diehard fan of, following that team has been a roller coaster ride over the last few years.

Our conversations covered the full gauntlet of fanhood:  Part I of this two-part roundtable includes discussion on joyous championship occasions and agonizing losses.

 

SOS:  What is your best win as a fan?

Justin:  It’s got to be Game 6 (of the World Series) in 2011.

It was on a Thursday night, and I had a cross country meet Friday morning, and I had to run at 7:30, so we had to be at the meet at 6:15.  Our coach was the kind of guy that you’re in bed by 9:00 on those nights, and I was like, “nah, I can’t go to sleep.”

I was sitting on the edge of our ottoman, and my mom and dad were in there, and I remember thinking we were really done.  And when David Freese hit that triple, I lost my stinking mind.  I just went crazy.  And then, obviously, the next inning, Josh Hamilton hits a home run (for Texas), and then Lance Berkman ties it up again, and then obviously the home run in the 11th.

Honestly, the home run in the 11th, I didn’t freak out nearly as bad as I did for the triple and the single, because it was just the moment, with two strikes, down to your last pitch, but yeah, it’s got to be that.  Game 7 was kind of a letdown too–well, not for me, but as a game.

Ryan:  Probably South Carolina baseball in, I think it would’ve been 2011, they played UConn in the Super Regional, and it was at Carolina Stadium, and I was actually able to go, and I was there when they clinched it to go to Omaha.

As a fan, actually being there for that, seeing the celebration–you know, you watch other teams win on TV and stuff, but actually being there and watching them make the dogpile in the middle, that’s a priceless moment.

And obviously, my greatest sports thing as a fan ever was when the Cubs won the World Series last year.  I’ve never been happier in my life.  I was watching a team that I thought never could win win, and that was pretty spectacular too.

SOS:  Garrett, as a Clemson fan I guess yours is pretty obvious.

Garrett:  Well, let me tell you about a game that happened this past January… (laugh)

SOS:  What was that like as a fan?

Garrett:  I lost my mind.  My younger brother actually took a video of my reaction.  I go in and out of the frame multiple times because I spent the next 30 seconds to a minute just kind of screaming and running around the room.

 

SOS:  What is your worst loss as a fan?

Justin:  I’ve gotta go with the Super Bowl loss…not to the Patriots but to the Broncos.  Villanova (beating North Carolina in 2016) sucked, but just growing up in Charlotte, and loving the Panthers, and just to see the electricity that that team was bringing to Charlotte, and to be on such a roll, and then to just fall short, that hurt.

I was awful mad that night.  Because I had to drive back two-and-a-half hours from my home, because we had a Super Bowl party, and that was not a fun ride back.  Because I still think, and call me a biased fan, but I still think if we play them 10 times, we win seven of them.  I really do think that, especially that year, and they just didn’t play good, so that sucked.  Villanova’s up there, but that one really sucked.

Ryan:  I’ve got to go back to the Packers when they were playing the Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game.

They had the huge lead in the fourth quarter (19-7), and the Seahawks got a miraculous touchdown with like, what was it, 30 seconds or a minute left, and then freaking, was it… Bostick, Brandon Bostick, decided not to block, decided to be a hero and field the onside kick, and he ended up becoming the villain, and the Packers lost that game, which I thought was a game they should have easily won, and been in the Super Bowl that year.  And that was painful.

Garrett:  I’m probably going to have to go with the Orange Bowl loss (to West Virginia in 2012, 70-33).  Just, I remember me and my dad watching it, and I think we were down two or three scores, and we’re like, okay, now’s the time to buckle down and get with it, and I think we allowed another two touchdowns within—I mean, West Virginia was scoring all over the place that game.  So we just turned the TV off, and we didn’t speak for the rest of the night.  It was tough.

 

SOS:  What non-playoff win stands out in your memory?

Justin:  Two years ago, we were playing the Cubs in the regular season, and it was just one of those frustrating nights, the ball didn’t seem to bounce our way, nothing really happened, and then the ninth inning with two outs, Jhonny Peralta hits a line drive over the left-center field wall in Wrigley Field.

And it was just awesome to see Wrigley Field so pumped and excited, and then the air was let out of that place.  And I think if I remember correctly, they went on to win it in the 10th.  Which, it’s kind of funny that that’s a baseball game, because one out of 162, but that one stuck out in my mind.

Another one I remember… I was at Bank of America Stadium the year before we made the big run, and we went 12-4, and it was when we played the Saints, in the monsoon game.  And literally, I was up in the upper deck and couldn’t even see the field, because the rain was so bad.  It was that bad.  But that kind of like Cam (Newton)’s emergence, leading us to a division title and stuff, and that game sealed the NFC South for us.  That was awesome.

Ryan:  This is going to be a little off the grid…

SOS: That’s the point of the question.

Ryan: I think it was two or three years ago, South Carolina basketball was in the SEC Tournament as like a 13-seed, and all of a sudden they won a couple of games and made it to the quarterfinals and lost there.  It wasn’t a great season, but those two wins, I think were against Auburn and another crappy team in the SEC, but it was like—in my opinion those wins were big, because I was like, “hey look, we’re winning in the tournament.” It was symbolic to the fact that it was going to get better.  So at the time, obviously, it’s not a huge deal when a 13-seed beats a 12-seed, or something like that, it’s not a big deal…

SOS: But the next day beat a 5-seed, I think.  I want to say it was Arkansas.

Ryan: Yeah, it’s like wow, here we are, it’s a game that didn’t really matter but it gave me hope as a fan.

Garrett:  When Deshaun (Watson) snapped the losing streak against (South) Carolina, and he was playing on, what, a torn ACL, and it was a home game, in fairness, but five losses in a rivalry that heated, in a row, that was like being able to breathe air again.

 

SOS:  What non-playoff loss stands out, or “still stings”?

Justin:  Any time we lose to Duke, I hate it.  I almost treat the Duke games like playoff games.  And obviously there’s playoff losses that sting, but just regular season games—there’s always a game that where like, “man, we had that.”

I also hated when (the Panthers) lost to Atlanta, when we went 15-1.  That really stung.  Because I really thought, “we’re going to go undefeated this year.”  Only two games away from doing it, and then to win in the fashion we did in Week 17, it would’ve been nice to have won in Week 16.

Ryan:  This is going to go way back.  Wow, it must have been ’03 or ’04.  The Cubs were playing the Brewers at Miller Park.  Craig Counsell hit a leadoff home run, and the Brewers won the game 1-0.

I watched that entire game as a 10-year old, like, come on, come on, let’s get a run, like, can we score a run, because the pitching was great, and that game still stands out, because, like, the first inning home run, you can get so much time to come back, you’ve still got 24 outs to work with, and…. no.  That loss stands out.  It didn’t affect anything, but that’s a non-championship, non-playoff loss that stands out.

Garrett:  The one that’s freshest on my mind is the loss to Pitt this year, because we were the better football team, we were at home, we should’ve won that game.

But we were kind of resting on how good we were supposed to be, and not actually playing to our full potential, and I think had we won that game we wouldn’t have won the national championship.

 

SOS:  Who is one team that didn’t win a championship that you are particularly fond of?

Justin:  I loved the 2013 Cardinals.  I thought that team was loaded.  I still think we were the best team that year.  I loved our bullpen, going seventh, eighth and ninth, with (Kevin) Seagrist, (Carlos) Martinez and (Trevor) Rosenthal; I was like, “man, you get us in the seventh inning with the lead, it’s ballgame.”

I loved that team, and I hate that—I feel like it was one of those things that we just didn’t play well in the World Series, and it happens.  I loved that team, and obviously the Panthers two years ago.  That was a fun team to watch.  Cam (Newton) doing Cam things that we’d never seen before, that was a lot of fun.

But that Cardinal team was good, man.  I remember going into the World Series, and obviously, 2011 was different, because we snuck in to the Wild Card and just got hot at the right time, but 2013 I was like, “man, this is the best team I’ve seen us put together in a while.”  So just, it just kind of sucked to lose it, because I felt like we were so good, but that happens, man—sports.

SOS: Yeah, to win a World Series you’ve got to play well for a whole month.  You have an off week, you’re done.

Justin: It happens.

Ryan:  Does it have to be a team that’s my favorite team?

SOS: Not necessarily.

Ryan:  Because, there’s a handful of those teams that I just… I think the Tampa Bay Rays, back in 2008, when they made the World Series.  It was with their low-payroll, low-everything, no really big superstars, but they found a way to win games, and it was kind of cool to watch that small market team that hadn’t been in the league that long just kind of come out of nowhere with guys that were fun to watch and just enjoying the game.  That’s probably my favorite non-championship team.

I could say the 2015 Cubs, too, (once the rebuilding team was respectable), but there wasn’t that connection yet with those players.  It was still bits and pieces, and like it wasn’t quite there yet.  It was all magical anyway, we shouldn’t have even been in the playoffs that year.

Garrett:  I’d have to give it to the ’15 Tigers, the ones that lost the championship game.  They’re the ones that kind of finally shed the underperforming label, because we could’ve won the ACC as many times as we wanted to and that would always just be “all you can do is win the ACC.”

I remember, like in the 24 hours after we lost that game (to Alabama), I saw probably three or four different think pieces on how much respect people had for Clemson after that game.  It just was like the perception of who Clemson was and what we could accomplish kind of just changed overnight after that game.

 

Tomorrow in Part II, our roundtable will discuss the panelists’ favorite players to watch, who they wish they could’ve watched, and crazy things they’ve done and seen as a fan.

 

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.

Column: Raiders Backstabbing Fans With Move to Vegas

Monday, the NFL owners approved for the Raiders to move from Oakland to Las Vegas.  The move will take effect once a stadium is built in Sin City, with an earliest realistic ETA of 2020.

By moving, the Raiders franchise is stabbing one of the most vocal and loyal fanbases in sports in the back.

Prior to last year’s AFC playoff appearance, the Raiders franchise had been in a prolonged slump.  After reaching Super Bowl XXXVII–which they lost to Tampa Bay 48-21–the team did not have another winning season until last year’s 12-4 campaign.  While that season ended in a disappointing playoff loss to Houston aided by several key late-season injuries, the future is very bright for coach Jack Del Rio’s team.

Now, as the franchise’s boisterous and devoted fans finally have a solid on-field product to watch, the Raiders executives are abandoning their supporters who have stayed with them through so many rough seasons.

Sure, the Raiders have actually consistently ranked in the bottom half in attendance over the last few years.  But every franchise would suffer at the box office if they were mired in a decade-plus of losing–and few other franchises have the culture and tradition of the Raiders, which they have enjoyed in good seasons and bad.  As the team’s fortunes improved in 2016, attendance did as well.

In addition to on-field struggles, the Raiders have one of the smaller stadiums in the NFL–the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum has a capacity of 63,132.  The Raiders share a market with the San Francisco 49ers, who play across the bay at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara; the Bay Area is by far the smallest two-team market in the NFL (behind New York and Los Angeles).

Combining all factors, the Raiders low statistical attendance makes sense.  However, the stats can’t show the atmosphere created in Oakland, especially in big games (even though there haven’t been many of them there in recent years).

Even as these fans are the ones hurt by the move, they are not actually the reason for it.

It’s no secret that for the team to stay in Oakland long-term, a stadium was necessary.  The Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum is shared with MLB’s Oakland Athletics and is, quite frankly, seen by many as a dump.

The City of Oakland has dragged its feet for years, but now has a stadium proposal which is realistic and feasible (but expensive).  A stadium plan approved by both the city of Oakland and Alameda County would cost the city $200 million, an investment group led by Raider legend Ronnie Lott $400 million, the Raiders franchise $500 million and the NFL $300 million (the league committed this money to a potential stadium proposal when it turned down the Raiders’ application to relocate to Los Angeles in favor of the Rams and Chargers moving there).

If a plan exists for the Raiders to remain in place, and especially in a place where all their fans and tradition are already established, then why are they so eager to move to Las Vegas and abandon their fans in northern California?

Sure, the NFL is a business, and there is a potential for tons of revenue in a previously untapped market that is also one of the top tourist destinations in the U.S.  But that being said, I’m not completely sold that the move will pay off in the long run.

Las Vegas is certainly a growing market.  Pro sports have stayed away in the past because of the connection the city has with sports gambling, but all four of the major North American pro sports leagues have softened their stance in recent years.  The city acquired an expansion franchise in the NHL that will begin play this fall, and now has convinced the Raiders to move from Oakland.

The city, theoretically, has a large enough population to support an NFL franchise, since it is as large or larger than several existing NFL cities.  But while cities like Green Bay and Buffalo both have well-supported franchises, other cities similar in size to Las Vegas have struggled with fan support; partially for this reason, St. Louis lost their franchise when the Rams moved to Los Angeles last year.

That said, Las Vegas is unlike any other city in America.  In the self-billed “Entertainment Capital of the World,” tourism is the biggest part of the economy.  Sure, the residents of the Las Vegas area would make some permanent fans, but the NFL is surely counting on tourism to provide additional filled seats in the Las Vegas stadium, which will be located just off The Strip.

This is an experiment, as no other NFL franchise will be so reliant on tourists being interested in its games, and one which may work–or may not.  Sure, fans will show up en masse at first, but once the novelty of a Las Vegas team wears off, it’s impossible to know if the visitors will keep heading to the stadium.

It’s telling that the NFL owners, who typically have little tolerance for unnecessary distractions, are moving a team to a city full of them.

As for the immediate future, while the Raiders wait for their Las Vegas home to be built, the Raiders will continue playing at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum.  Their lease there runs through the 2017 season, with an option for 2018.

The earliest the Las Vegas stadium can be finished is likely 2020, meaning the Raiders would have to find a temporary home for that season, either in the Bay Area (more likely) or the Las Vegas area.  Conventional wisdom would say to play as few lame duck seasons in the Bay Area as possible, but there is not currently an attractive stadium option in Las Vegas to even use temporarily:  UNLV’s Sam Boyd Stadium has a maximum capacity of 40,000.

The Bay Area has three more likely options for a temporary home in 2019:  Levi’s Stadium (capacity 68,500), which they would share with the 49ers, Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto (cap. 50,000) or California Memorial Stadium in Berkeley (cap. 63,000).  Levi’s Stadium just opened in 2014, while California Memorial Stadium was renovated from 2010-12.

The move to Las Vegas is not the first time the Raiders have forsaken their long-standing fans in Oakland for a move to one of America’s centers of entertainment.  After playing in Oakland from 1960-81, the Raiders moved to Los Angeles in 1982, playing in the City of Angels for 13 seasons before moving back to Oakland after 1994.

Now, history is repeating itself as the Raiders move to Las Vegas.  But this time, even if they return to Oakland in another decade as they did before, the forsaken fans may not.

Column: The NFL Overtime Rule Needs Changing

For years, fans, players, and the media have all wondered when we could see a Super Bowl end in overtime.

Finally, in the game’s 51st edition, it happened.  Then, after just 3:58 elapsed on the game clock, it was over, without the Atlanta Falcons even possessing the football.

The New England Patriots overcame a 28-3 third-quarter deficit to score a game-tying touchdown and conversion with :57 left in regulation, leading to the historic extra period, played under the NFL’s overtime rules.

Those rules gave the Patriots an unfair advantage simply because they won the coin toss.  Unlike college and high school football, in the NFL the team that gets the ball first in overtime can win the game with a touchdown.

The league justifies this by saying both teams are guaranteed to possess the ball unless the first team scores a touchdown by driving all the way down the field after the extra session’s opening kickoff.

And yet, that’s exactly what the Patriots did, going 75 yards in eight plays to score just 3:58 into the overtime period, without the Falcons ever having a possession.

As a result of these rules, the team that wins the coin toss almost always takes the ball, with a few rare exceptions (including, once, the Patriots), because they know their chances to win are enhanced by possessing the ball first.

This doesn’t make sense.  While the rule is better than it used to be–until 2010 the first team to score in any way won, meaning the first team with possession could win with a field goal–it is still preposterous that one team or the other got an advantage in the Super Bowl based on whether a coin landed on heads or tails.

What I would like to see would not be a major overhaul:  the NFL could simply require the team that loses the coin toss to also get a possession.  To use last night’s game as an example, after the Patriots took a lead that would have likely been 35-28 after an extra point, the Falcons would have had a chance to match.  Had they not scored, the game would be over, or if they scored to tie, then the next team to score would win.

While tweeting my discontent with the overtime rule after the game’s conclusion, multiple users replied to me that the Falcons deserved to lose because they led by 25 late in the third quarter and didn’t score over the last quarter and a half.

But that doesn’t change the flaw in the overtime rule.  If the Falcons had won the coin toss and marched down the field and scored, wouldn’t it be right for the Patriots to get a possession after fighting so hard to tie the game and reach overtime?  (That scenario happened to the Packers, last season, as I mentioned here.)

Furthermore, in a hypothetical back-and-forth game that both teams play all 60 minutes at a high level, isn’t it only right that both teams get a possession, instead of one having the ability to win on the first possession because they won a coin toss?

This rule has been a problem for a long time, and I’ve been a critic of it for as long as I’ve been watching pro football.

Now, as football enters its offseason, if the occurrence of one team being robbed of a chance to possess the ball in a historic Super Bowl overtime doesn’t get the league to change the rule, nothing will.

The overtime problem in the NFL has gone on far too long, and now the rule gave one franchise a disadvantage as it tried to win its first Super Bowl title.

It’s long past time for a change.

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 Patriots Run is the Best Ever

After an unprecedented comeback resulted in the first overtime in Super Bowl history, the New England Patriots stunned the Atlanta Falcons to win Super Bowl LI, 34-28.

The Patriots won the fifth championship in their history after trailing 28-3 late in the third quarter, setting a Super Bowl record for the largest comeback, obliterating the previous largest of 10 points.

Like it or not (and honestly, I don’t), the Bill Belichick-coached, Tom Brady-led New England Patriots are in the midst of the best extended stretch in NFL history, stretching back to their first title together during the 2001 season, 15 years ago in Super Bowl XXXVI.

With Sunday’s victory, Belichick won his fifth championship as a head coach, tying George Halas and Vince Lombardi for the most titles in NFL history.  His fifth Super Bowl victory is the most ever, breaking a tie with Chuck Noll, while his seven Super Bowl appearances is also a record.

Brady, who set Super Bowl records for completions (43), attempts (62) and yards (466), was named Super Bowl MVP for a record fourth time, breaking a tied with Joe Montana.  The former sixth-round draft pick is now the winningest quarterback in Super Bowl history after his fifth title, joining only Hall of Fame DE Charles Haley in the five-time champion club (Haley won two with the 49ers and three with the Cowboys).

The Belichick-Brady era Patriots have had a sustained period of excellence over the last decade and a half, and this run may not be over yet.  Although Brady is 39, he is not slowing down–this season his 28-2 touchdown-interception ratio was the best in NFL history.

The Patriots are 196-60 since 2001 in the regular season and 25-9 in the playoffs, which they have qualified for every season in the span except 2002 and 2008, the latter coming after Brady tore his ACL and missed the entire season.  This remarkable stretch is with a franchise that had never won the Super Bowl when Belichick and Brady came to Foxborough.

A clutch late-game performance by the Patriots is not unique to Super Bowl LI, as the team has had to come through in the fourth quarter in all five of their Super Bowl wins, with Brady engineering a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime in each win.  Their ability to come through late is incomprable (even considering two late losses to the Giants in Super Bowls), although they’ve gotten some phenomenal breaks in many of these situations as well (as amazing as Julian Edelman’s catch last night was, you can’t tell me it didn’t have at least a little bit of luck involved).

Yes, there have been missteps.  The Patriots guilt is clear in “Spygate” and “Deflategate”, and there have been other micro-scandals reported over the years.  And yet, even after receiving stiff penalties from the NFL for Spygate and Deflategate, the Patriots are still just as good as they have always been in the Belichick-Brady era.

This is not pleasant for me to write.  I have not liked the Patriots since they made me cry at 8 years old when they beat the Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII, and have continued to dislike their empire-like reign on the NFL through their scandals and Super Bowl titles alike.

But at this point, all I can do is tip my cap, because this franchise, however they have done it, has put together the best sustained run of excellence in NFL history.