Column: Buckner should be remembered for more than one play

When the name Bill Buckner is mentioned in any game of word association, where participants say the first thing that comes to their mind, one thing immediately comes to mind in Boston, New York and, frankly, worldwide.

Bill Buckner’s career had progressed solidly and steadily before one certain play in the penultimate game of his 18th MLB season, and continued for four more years before he retired. But he’s most remembered for what happened on the final pitch of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series.

Buckner died Monday at age 69 after battling Lewy body dementia, 33 years after that fateful play.

To the outsider or even the casual fan, Buckner’s career was defined by one trickling ground ball on Oct. 25, 1986 that somehow got through his 36-year-old legs, allowed Ray Knight to score the game-winning run for the New York Mets and is perceived to have extended the Boston Red Sox World Series drought, which dated back to 1918 and eventually ended in 2004.

But Buckner was so much more than “The Buckner Boot”; anyone who played 22 seasons would have more depth to their career than the three seconds it took for a baseball to travel from Mookie Wilson’s bat to between Buckner’s legs.

“His life was defined by perseverance, resilience and an insatiable will to win,” Red Sox owner John Henry said in a statement Monday. “Those are the traits for which he will be most remembered.”

Buckner wasn’t a Hall of Fame-caliber player — only 2.1 percent of the electors voted for Buckner in his only year on the Hall of Fame ballot — but he was what I like to call a “Hall of Very Good” player. Anyone who sticks around the big leagues for 22 years does so because they’ve proven to be a noteworthy player.

Buckner earned 2,715 hits, hitting for a .289 lifetime average in a career that touched four different decades. He was a true “professional hitter” who only struck out 453 times in his entire career, and never more than twice in a single game.

He hit over .300 in seven seasons, including a .324 season in 1980 that won him the National League batting title while with the Chicago Cubs.

He was only an All-Star once, in 1981, but twice finished in the top 10 in MVP voting, in 1981 and 1982.

Buckner is mostly remembered for his time with the Red Sox — that’s where the error occurred, after all — but he had a pair of strong eight-year stints with NL clubs, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Cubs.

With the Dodgers, he was part of the 1974 team that won the NL pennant and lost the World Series to the Oakland Athletics. With the Cubs, he was part of the 1984 NL East-championship team that ended a 39-year playoff drought, though he was traded away at midseason.

While known for the error in the 1986 World Series, he was actually part of another of the most historic and frequently-replayed moments in baseball history, though as more of a footnote. When Hank Aaron hit his 715th career home run to top Babe Ruth’s all-time record, Buckner was the left fielder who tried to climb the fence in an attempt to make a play on the ball as it sailed over his head and into the Braves bullpen.

When Buckner participated in the 1986 World Series, he had made 8,996 major-league plate appearances (on his way to 10,037). His experience at age 36 was valuable to the Red Sox, and he hit third in their lineup, but his ankles were showing their age and Dave Stapleton was often used as a defensive replacement at first base in the late innings when the Red Sox led.

In Game 6, they took a 5-3 lead in the 10th inning after Dave Henderson homered and were three outs away from their first championship in 68 years. Manager John McNamara left Buckner in the game.

After Calvin Schiraldi got the first two outs he allowed three straight singles to the never-say-die Mets. Bob Stanley replaced Schiraldi and — in an important detail that’s oft-forgotten in the narrative blaming Buckner for the Red Sox’ loss — allowed Kevin Mitchell to score the tying run on a wild pitch earlier in Wilson’s at-bat.

The Buckner play became the enduring memory of Game 6 because it ended the game and forced a Game 7, one which the Red Sox lost despite two hits and a run by Buckner.

But three things should be remembered: First, if Schiraldi and/or Stanley did their job more efficiently the Buckner play would have never existed because the Wilson at-bat would have never happened. Second, if the Red Sox don’t also blow the lead two nights later in Game 7, Buckner’s error would be a moot point because the Red Sox would have still achieved their goal of winning the World Series.

And third, Buckner’s career was far more than one game. He played in 2,539 other major-league games (including postseason) and was an impactful player.

Unfortunately, those things were largely forgotten over the years in much of the discussion about the ’86 Series, among fans and the media alike — especially before the Red Sox’ 2004 championship season.

Buckner was released by the Red Sox in mid-1987 but came back to the team in 1990, his final season.

Over the last four years of his playing career, Buckner was heckled both in Boston and around the rest of the league, both while still on the Red Sox and in short stints with the California Angels and Kansas City Royals. Even after his retirement, Buckner’s error never stopped getting media attention — even to this day, in some ways — though it subsided as the Red Sox began winning championships; they’ve now won four in the last 15 years.

Buckner, who grew up in California, moved to Idaho after his playing career, in part to escape the constant reminders of that one ill-fated play. For several years, he declined invitations to appear at Fenway Park in Boston, but he accepted the Red Sox’ invitation to throw out the first pitch on Opening Day 2008 as part of the team’s celebration of their 2007 championship.

“I really had to forgive, not the fans of Boston per se, but I would have to say in my heart I had to forgive the media for what they put me and my family through,” Buckner said that day. “So, you know, I’ve done that and I’m over that.”

Buckner even appeared at autograph-signing events with Wilson, who commented on Buckner’s death in a statement Monday.

“We had developed a friendship that lasted well over 30 years,” Wilson said. “I felt badly for some of the things he went through. Bill was a great, great baseball player whose legacy should not be defined by one play.”

But even in his death, Buckner’s career still is being most remembered for one error. Every story on Buckner Monday mentioned the error or included a clip of the play, while far less mentioned his 1,208 RBIs. Some of the famous photographs of his dejected stare in reaction to the play have topped obituaries rather than images from any of his 718 extra-base hits.

The word association with Buckner’s name remains “error,” even as “good player” and “professional hitter” would a more appropriate reflection as his life is remembered in the coming days.

Column: Last year’s upset now part of Virginia’s Final Four redemption story

Last year, Virginia was the victim of the greatest upset in NCAA Tournament history when they became the first-ever No. 1 seed to lose a first-round game to a No. 16 seed, UMBC.

What a difference a year makes.

Saturday, 379 days after losing to UMBC, Virginia defeated Purdue 80-75 in an overtime epic to win the tournament’s South Regional and advance to the Final Four for the first time since 1984.

While the memory of the UMBC defeat will still be an unpleasant one for coach Tony Bennett, his Cavaliers and their fans, Saturday’s victory changes the narrative of that loss. In a bubble, the loss was the worst thing that could have happened to a college basketball team. But in the bigger picture, the loss becomes the beginning of one of the great redemption stories ever seen in sports.

This is not to suggest that Virginia’s loss last year was a “good thing” — to do so would disrespect both the accomplishment of UMBC and the Virginia seniors from last year who experienced that heartbreak and haven’t experienced this year’s Final Four run.

Virginia players celebrate after advancing to the Final Four on Saturday. (Photo: Virginia Athletics)

But now, a year and a program-record 33 wins later, coach Tony Bennett and his team can begin the story of this year’s success with that loss and recall how they overcame the humiliation and noise that came from it, only to come back better and reach the Final Four the following March.

A year after going to his knees in despair as time expired against UMBC, senior Kyle Guy finished the win over the Boilermakers on his knees as well — but this time he was overcome with jubilation.

“I was definitely flashing back to when I was on my knees last year, and I did it again,” Guy said. “And that was just, you know, just overflowing with joy. So happy for my teammates and my coaches and for myself to be able to break through in the way that we did this year. Not only did we silence (Bennett’s) critics, we silenced our own and we’re so grateful for our fans that traveled and have always believed in us.”

Bennett’s Virginia team reaching the Final Four — on the 10th anniversary of his hiring, no less — also helps change the overall narrative around the program. Even before last year’s upset loss, many saw the Cavaliers as a team that played great in the regular season but couldn’t win in the NCAA Tournament.

“There were a lot of people that didn’t think we would make it this far in the tournament,” sophomore Jay Huff said. “After last year, a lot of people were thinking similar would happen, there would be an early exit in the tournament. Obviously, we don’t go out just to prove people wrong, but it is fun knowing they’ll have to eat their words a little bit.”

That perception wasn’t completely unfounded. Since Virginia’s run of success began in the 2013-14 season, the team lost in the Sweet 16 in 2014 and the second round in 2015 after a pair of first-place finishes in the ACC. In 2016 the Cavaliers blew a double-digit lead in the final minutes of their Elite Eight game against No. 10-seed Syracuse, before a 2017 second-round loss to Florida.

Every loss except the one to Florida came as the higher seed (either a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in each case), and against the Gators the Cavaliers could only muster 39 points.

“You think of all the guys that came before us and just the teams that were so close and showed you just how difficult it is to get to the Final Four,” Jerome said after Saturday’s game. “And how many times Coach Bennett has been a 1-seed or a 2-seed and has had so much regular season success. To be the team that gets him to the Final Four, I think that’s what means the most.”

Then came UMBC. Virginia — a program known more than anything else for a staunch defense — allowed 53 second-half points in a 20-point loss to the Retreivers. They weren’t just the first No. 1-seed to lose to a No. 16; they were routed. The narrative about postseason struggles intensified exponentially.

After that loss Bennett told his team they had to own it. He said they had no choice but for that loss to be a part of their legacy — it was going to be in the record books no matter how much the team disliked it — and that the best way to respond would be to come back and add a successful 2018-19 campaign to that legacy.

And did they ever add to that legacy. This group of Cavaliers — the upperclassman leaders Guy and Ty Jerome, the star forward De’Andre Hunter, the sixth-man-turned-postseason-starter Mamadi Diakite, the big New Zealander Jack Salt, the small but quick Kihei Clark and a solid-though-seldom-used group of reserves — will now become the Virginia players in 35 years to play in the Final Four, and could become the first Cavaliers to win a national championship.

“The quote we use is ‘If you learn to use it right, the adversity, it will buy you a ticket to a place you couldn’t have gone any other way.’” Bennett said. “I didn’t know if that meant we’d get to a Final Four … I just knew that would deepen us in ways on the court, off the court and what we believe and mark us for the right stuff. And that, I think, is what took place.”

After failing to execute in their previous tournament failures, the Cavaliers made the big plays on Saturday night. Guy made five second-half threes en route to a 25-point night, Hunter hit the layup with 28 seconds left in overtime that gave the Cavaliers the lead for good and Clark hit the free throws in the final seconds to ice it.

And then there was the biggest play in the game, in the tournament and in Virginia basketball history: Trailing by two in the final seconds, Diakite tipped the rebound of a missed Jerome free throw out past half court, Clark ran it down and frantically passed the ball back to Diakite, who threw up a 15-foot prayer — one which was nothing but net and sent the game to overtime, where Virginia eventually won.

These clutch plays helped to ultimately change the outcome of the game and perhaps the tournament. They helped change the perception of an entire program.

And they helped change this group of Cavaliers’ tournament legacy, from that of the event’s most notable losers to that of Final Four-bound redeemed regional champions.

Column: 16-seeds more confident after one of their peers pulled it off

Think back to when you were growing up and faced the daunting task of doing something new, scary and daring.

If you’re like me, you may have been more likely to feel comfortable enough to go for it if you saw one of your peers finish the task first — whether it was riding a bicycle without training wheels, diving into the deep end of the pool or riding on the zip line at summer camp.

For 16th-seeded Gardner-Webb, North Dakota State and Iona as they entered the 2019 NCAA Tournament, last year’s UMBC team may very well have been that peer.

Fifty-two weeks ago the Retrievers shocked the world by becoming the first No. 16 seed to defeat a No. 1 seed in the tournament’s first round when they beat Virginia 74-54, a feat previously thought by some to be impossible.

While none of this year’s 16-seeds were able to repeat the feat, Gardner-Webb, North Dakota State and Iona each played their top-seeded opponent extremely well for the first half of their games against Virginia, Duke and North Carolina and avoided being thought of as just an also-ran when fans and pundits recapped the first round outcomes. (Sorry, Fairleigh Dickinson, this column isn’t about you.)

Sure, the Cavaliers, Blue Devils and Tar Heels posted dominant second halves to win and advance (Virginia beat Gardner-Webb 73-58; Duke topped North Dakota State 85-62; North Carolina defeated Iona 88-73). It should be expected that this would happen in these games considering the talent gap between these No. 1 seeds — by definition the best teams in the country — and their 16th-seeded counterparts. The ability of great coaches to make halftime adjustments — and UVA’s Tony Bennett, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and UNC’s Roy Williams all fit that description — is also a factor in the games turning back towards the favorites, even after two of these three No. 1 seeds trailed at halftime and the other was up by just four points.

But as Gardner-Webb, North Dakota State and Iona each played on Friday there was a sense that the teams had a new sense of confidence never seen before in 16-seeds, knowing now that beating a No. 1 seed was not just something that hypothetically could happen, but something that has happened.

(Photo: Gardner-Webb Athletics)

It started in mid-afternoon as Gardner-Webb held a 28-14 lead on Virginia — the very team that lost to UMBC last year in the tournament’s ultimate upset — before the Runnin’ Bulldogs led 36-30 at halftime. Surely thoughts of last year’s game and all the noise surrounding it since had to creep into the heads of the Cavaliers, though Bennett’s club responded with their typical stanch defense, holding Gardner-Webb to 20 second-half points.

North Dakota State led 12-5 early and was tied with Duke as late as the 2:13 mark of the first half before trailing 31-27 at the break. Duke — the No. 1 overall seed and the tournament’s largest betting favorite in four years — used a 33-10 run to start the second half and put the game out of the Bison’s reach, scoring 54 second-half points en route to the second round.

Iona hit 10 threes in the first half to take a 38-33 halftime lead over North Carolina. The Tar Heels outrebounded the Gaels 52-26 for the game and Iona made just five of 20 threes in the second half, instigating a 30-9 UNC run that allowed them to cruise to the win.

While each of these three No. 16 seeds lost in the end, they all have nothing to hang their heads about and can be proud of the way they competed. Each of them took their best shot at an excellent opponent and provided them with a stiff first-round test — something that has often not been the case in past 1-vs-16 matchups, as the average margin of victory by 1-seeds over 16-seeds since 2015 is 26.8 points, with nearly half those games decided by 30-plus points.

While any reasonable pundit won’t expect 16-seed-over-1-seed upsets to become a normal occurrence, this year’s crop of three compelling games and three legitimate upset attempts could be a sign that the days of pushover 16-seeds may be history.

Because while facing a No. 1 seed is a daunting and scary task, they’ve now seen one of their peers finish the job.

Column: Hootie Johnson leaves behind a complicated legacy

William “Hootie” Johnson, the former chairman of Augusta National Golf Club, has died at age 86.

Johnson is one of only six men to serve as chairman of Augusta National, and while The Masters reached new heights during Johnson’s tenure, he leaves behind a complicated legacy.

Under his tenure as chairman from 1998-2006, Johnson oversaw the lengthening of Augusta National as new technology allowed golfers to hit the ball further, ensuring the course remained a tough test for the world’s best players each first full week of April.  Johnson also helped to keep the field truly elite, making changes to the tournament’s qualifying procedure.

Johnson helped bring the Masters to a wider audience, as he expanded television coverage of the tournament to the entire 18-hole course for the first time — it was previously contained to only the final 10 holes — and reopened the waiting list for tournament badges for fans for the first time since the 1980s.

But Johnson was also in charge of Augusta National during its biggest controversy:  the highly publicized disagreement with Martha Burk over the club’s policy not to allow female members.

In 2002, Martha Burk, who was chairwoman of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, wrote a letter to Johnson suggesting Augusta National’s male-only membership policy was sexist. In Johnson’s very public response, he claimed the club had the same rights as any private club, citing the Boy Scouts/Girl Scouts and sororities/fraternities as examples of organizations which allowed membership to only one gender.

However, Johnson’s tone in his response was less than subtle, calling Burk’s letter “offensive and coercive,” and saying the club would not change their policy “at the point of a bayonet,” and they would not be “bullied, threatened or intimidated.”  The response sparking a national controversy over the issue, with Burk leading protests against the club, including one near the course property in Augusta during the 2003 Masters.

Johnson, speaking as the public face of the Augusta National membership, certainly came across as stubborn, and many saw the response as misogynist and discriminatory.  This characterization of Johnson is ironic, because his personal history shows a much more inclusive man than the one portrayed in 2002.

Johnson, a former running back at the University of South Carolina, worked as a banker in Greenwood, South Carolina before rising to prominence in the business world as an executive at Bank of America before becoming chairman at Augusta National.

As a businessman, Johnson served as co-chairman of a committee that developed a plan to desegregate state colleges and universities in South Carolina and was a trustee at historically black Benedict College.  As a banker, Johnson often appointed both women and African-Americans to his corporate boards in an era before such appointments were common, and loaned money to minorities when others would not.  He was also the first prominent businessman to suggest removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House.

U.S. Representative Jim Clyburn (D-SC) defended Johnson to USA Today in 2002:  “His whole life has been just the opposite of what he’s being portrayed. He’s always come down on the side of access and equality. He’s not a prejudiced person in any way. He is not deserving of this controversy.”

Johnson, who was a member of Augusta National since 1968 after joining at the invitation of club co-founder Bobby Jones, eventually resigned as chairman in 2006 at age 75, becoming chairman emeritus. The club admitted two female members, Condeleezza Rice and Darla Moore, in August 2012.

Augusta National and The Masters certainly grew during Johnson’s term as chairman, but after serving in a role where most haven’t been a household name — current chairman Billy Payne is still probably better known among non-golf fans as the CEO of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics — he’ll likely be most remembered for the standoff on Augusta’s membership policy, making his legacy complicated as he is remembered in the coming days.

Chairmen of Augusta National Golf Club:
Clifford Roberts, 1931-76
William Lane, 1976-80

Hord Hardin, 1980-91
Jackson Stephens, 1991-98
Hootie Johnson, 1998-2006
Billy Payne, 2006-present

Elliott, Hamlin Notch Duel Victories

In Thursday night’s Can-Am Duels at Daytona, Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin each earned historic wins in the events which set the field for Sunday’s 59th running of the Daytona 500.

Duel 1

Chase Elliott, who won the Daytona 500 pole on Sunday, won his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race, albeit an unofficial one, in the first Duel, leading 25 of the race’s 60 laps.

Elliott joins some elite company with the win, as he became the first Daytona 500 pole sitter to win a Duel since Dale Earnhardt Sr. in 1996.  He is the first driver since Jeff Gordon in 1993 to make a Duel win his first win in a Cup Series car.

And while the win is unofficial, the Duels did award championship points for the first time since 1971, with the top 10 earning points (10 for first, nine for second, etc.).  The last drivers before Elliott (and Hamlin in Duel 2) to earn points for a Duel victory were David Pearson and Pete Hamilton.

As a result, Elliott and Hamlin will enter the Daytona 500 as co-points leaders.  The last time anyone led the standings before the Daytona 500 was in 1981, in the era when a race was run at Riverside, Calif. in January, was Bobby Allison.

Winning the Daytona 500 pole and a Duel will give Elliott an opportunity to win the rare “Daytona triple crown” of the pole, a Duel, and the Daytona 500.  If he can win Sunday, Elliott would be the first to accomplish the feat since… his father, Bill Elliott, in 1985.  Fireball Roberts in 1962 and Cale Yarborough in 1984 are the only others to pull off the rare triple.

Elliott earned the win by outdueling a star-studded top seven–every driver in the top six (Jamie McMurray finished second, Kevin Harvick third, Brad Keselowski fourth, Matt Kenseth fifth, and Trevor Bayne sixth) has either won the Daytona 500 or the series championship, and seventh-place Martin Truex Jr. finished second in the Daytona 500 last year.

Duel 2

Denny Hamlin, the 2016 Daytona 500 champion, passed Dale Earnhardt Jr. with two laps to go en route to his third career Duel win.

Hamlin won the race with very little help, as his three Joe Gibbs Racing teammates were in the first Duel, and only three fellow Toyotas were in the field, with none finishing higher than 15th.

Hamlin also bested the Stewart-Haas Racing Fords of Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick, who finished second, third and sixth, as well as four cars in the top 10 from Richard Childress Racing and their allied teams, led by A.J. Allmendinger and Austin Dillon in fourth and fifth.

Earnhardt Jr., who had won Duels the last two years and led 53 of the 60 laps in his first competition since July, was unable to block Hamlin’s run entering turn three on the penultimate lap, and faded to a sixth place finish, though he will start second in the Daytona 500 after earning that spot in pole qualifying.

Hamlin becomes the 10th driver to win a Duel as the defending Daytona 500 champion, and seven of the previous nine have each won multiple Daytona 500s (and one of the other two is Dale Earnhardt):  Pete Hamilton (1971), Cale Yarborough (1984, 1985), Bill Elliott (1986), Sterling Marlin (1995), Dale Jarrett (1997), Dale Earnhardt Sr. (1999), Michael Waltrip (2002), Jeff Gordon (2006), and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2015).

News and Notes

Corey LaJoie (Duel 1) and D.J. Kennington (Duel 2) each raced their way into their first Daytona 500 in Thursday’s Duels.  LaJoie is the son of former NASCAR XFinity Series champion Randy LaJoie, while Kennington is the first Canadian to make the Daytona 500 field since Trevor Boys in 1988.  Kennington will start 28th and LaJoie will start 31st, while Timmy Hill and Reed Sorenson failed to qualify.

Another feel-good story from the Duels is Cole Whitt, who drove to a 10th-place finish in Duel 1, and will start 17th on Sunday.  Whitt, driving a #72 TriStar Motorsports Ford that resembles Benny Parsons’ cars from the 1970s, earned one championship point, and sits tied for 19th in the standings entering the Daytona 500 (he was briefly 10th in points before Duel 2).  The 25-year-old Whitt, who has run the Cup Series full-time since 2014, has never finished higher than 31st in the season standings, although he did finish 11th in the Coke Zero 400 last July at Daytona.

     UPDATE:  With Martin Truex Jr. and A.J. Allmendinger failing post-race inspection (see below), Whitt is tied for 17th in points.

Michael Waltrip finished 17th in the 21-car field of Duel 2, and will start 3oth on Sunday.  The FOX Sports analyst and two-time Daytona 500 winner (2001, 2003) has announced he will retire from NASCAR after Sunday’s race, when he will run an “Aaron’s Dream Machine” with the car number 15, the number he drove in his pair of 500 victories.

None of the strong rookie class of Daniel Suarez, Ty Dillon and Erik Jones will start the Daytona 500 near the front.  Suarez, the 2015 XFinity Series champion, finished 11th in Duel 1 and will start 19th.  Dillon finished 10th in Duel 2, and will start 18th, while Jones picked up damage in Duel 2 and finished 19th, and will start 34th on Sunday.

Martin Truex Jr., A.J. Allmendinger and Chris Buescher each failed post-race inspection after their respective duels.  All three will start at the rear in the Daytona 500, while Truex and Allmendinger will lose the points they earned in their Duels.

Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Blaney and Paul Menard will race backup cars in the Daytona 500 after damage sustained in the Duels, and will start at the rear of the field.

 

 

 

Daytona 500 Starting Lineup
Row 1:  Chase Elliott, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Row 2:  Jamie McMurray, Denny Hamlin
Row 3:  Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer
Row 4:  Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch
Row 5:  Matt Kenseth, Austin Dillon
Row 6:  Trevor Bayne, Danica Patrick
Row 7:  Aric Almirola, Ryan Newman
Row 8:  Joey Logano, Kyle Larson
Row 9:  Cole Whitt, Ty Dillon
Row 10:  Daniel Suarez, David Ragan
Row 11:  Kyle Busch, Michael McDowell
Row 12:  Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Jimmie Johnson
Row 13:  Matt DiBenedetto, Kasey Kahne
Row 14:  Landon Cassill, D.J. Kennington
Row 15:  Joey Gase, Michael Waltrip
Row 16:  Corey LaJoie, Jeffrey Earnhardt
Row 17:  Paul Menard, Erik Jones
Row 18:  Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Blaney
Row 19:  Chris Buescher, A.J. Allmendinger
Row 20:  Brendan Gaughan, Elliott Sadler
Failed to qualify:  Timmy Hill, Reed Sorenson

Chicago Cubs: 2016 Stiles on Sports Sportsmen of the Year

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

 

They endured 108 years as the Lovable Losers, through a billy-goat curse, a black-cat jinx, and a Bartman blunder.  But now, after a World Series and a seventh game for the ages, the Chicago Cubs are, finally, the champions of baseball.

Historic championships always lend themselves to year-end honors, but with the Cubs it is hard to pinpoint one individual face of the franchise to recognize, as players, coaches, executives, and the fans all were an integral part of the storyline of the Cubs triumph.

Thus, the Chicago Cubs are, collectively, the 2016 Stiles on Sports Sportsmen of the Year.

The Cubs, as World Series favorites from start to finish, stormed through the regular season at 103-58, the best season in MLB since 2004.

Leading the NLDS 2-1, the Cubs ended the Giants run of even-year titles and their 10-game elimination-game win streak when they came from 5-2 down in the ninth inning to win Game 4, pulling the largest ninth-inning comeback in a series clincher in MLB history.

Facing a 2-1 NLCS deficit against the Dodgers, they dominated the next three games by scores of 10-2, 8-4, and 5-0, cruising to their first World Series appearance since 1945, clinching the pennant in front of a raucous home crowd at Wrigley Field.

In the Fall Classic, the Cubs met the Cleveland Indians, who had a 68-year title drought of their own and took a 3-1 series lead, putting the Cubs’ backs against the wall.  The Cubs won 3-2 in Game 5, the last game of the series in Chicago, but still needed to win the final two games on the road to win the series, something that had not been done in a World Series since 1979.  A 9-3 Cubs win in Game 6, led by an Addison Russell grand slam, set up a monumental Game 7.

It took an 8-7, 10-inning instant classic for the Cubs to win the World Series–a game that included home runs by Dexter Fowler, Javier Baez and David Ross, three errors and a costly wild pitch, the loss of a four-run lead, some debatable strategy, and regaining the momentum after a rain delay to score in the 10th on a Ben Zobrist double, before two young, relatively unknown pitchers got the final three outs.

When Michael Martinez grounded into the final out, Wrigleyville could finally erupt in celebration of a world champion, feeling both the thrill of victory and the relief of a weight lifted that had been bogging them down for over a century.

The final out was, in baseball scoring terms, a 5-3 putout, from third baseman Kris Bryant to first baseman Anthony Rizzo, a play that may be the most appropriate way for this team to clinch its championship.  Bryant and Rizzo, whose names have often been shortened and combined into the nickname “Bryzzo,” are the two young offensive stars of the Cubs franchise.

Bryant, the NL MVP, hit .292 with 39 home runs and 102 RBI, while Rizzo hit for an identical average with 32 home runs and 109 RBI.  Both are affable, young (Bryant is 24, Rizzo is 27), jovial stars who were beloved in Chicago quickly upon their arrivals, and now are practical immortals in the Windy City.  These two will be favorites in Chicago forever, but will be still team leaders for the North Siders over the coming years, a period that could include additional world championships.

But to focus on Bryant and Rizzo is to ignore the fantastic pitching the Cubs used all year.  Jake Arrieta had a fine season in defense of his 2015 NL Cy Young Award, yet was essentially the team’s third best pitcher behind veteran Jon Lester and breakout star Kyle Hendricks.

Lester, the NL Cy Young runner-up and NLCS MVP, went 19-5 with a 2.44 ERA, leading the team with 202.2 innings pitched and 197 strikeouts, and pitched the opener of each postseason series, as well as pivotal Game 5’s in both the NLCS and World Series, and three innings of relief in Game 7 of the World Series.  Hendricks, a 26-year old in just his second full season, was 16-8 and led baseball with a 2.13 ERA, finishing third in NL Cy Young voting and earning the win in the Cubs’ NLCS clincher, allowing just two runs over his final four postseason starts.

Behind every good pitching staff is also good catching, and while David Ross played the least of the Cubs’ three main catchers, he was one of the team’s biggest leaders.  The 39-year old in his 15th MLB season announced at the beginning of the year he would retire at season’s end, and “Grandpa Rossy” was given a farewell tour usually not seen for a role player such as a backup catcher.  But it was for good reason; his veteran leadership by example and positive attitude rubbed off on his teammates, aiding in their success.  Ross, who was Lester’s personal catcher, homered in Game 7 of the World Series–the final at-bat of his career–and was 2-for-5 overall in the World Series.

Many others from the top to the bottom of the Cubs roster had similar contribution.  Ben Zobrist, the son of a preacher who grew up two hours southwest of Chicago but as a fan of the rival Cardinals, earned the game-winning hit in Game 7 of the World Series, and earned series MVP honors after hitting .357 and slugging .500 in the series.

Kyle Schwarber, one of the best young players in baseball who had five home runs in the 2015 postseason, was thought to be lost for the season after suffering a torn ACL on April 7 in the third game of the season.  But Schwarber progressed rapidly through rehab, and after six months was cleared to resume baseball activities.  After just six at-bats in the developmental Arizona Fall League (in which he only got one hit), the Cubs and Schwarber agreed he was ready to play DH in the World Series.  In 17 at-bats in the World Series–his first against major league pitching in 201 days–Schwarber got seven hits (.412), with two RBI, three walks, and even a stolen base in Game 7.

The delivery of the immortality-inducing final out of the historic World Series came not from a big star, but from little-known Mike Montgomery.  The 26-year old southpaw in his second major league season was acquired on July 20 from Seattle, and projects long-term as a starting pitcher, but spent the last half of the season in the Cubs bullpen, pitching strong to a 2.82 ERA.  After struggling in the NLCS, Montgomery recovered to pitch 4.2 innings with one run allowed in the World Series.

With closer Aroldis Chapman expended in Game 7, and Carl Edwards struggling in the tenth, Montgomery came in with two outs and the potential tying run on base.  It only took two pitches for Montgomery to retire Michael Martinez and earn his first professional save at any level–a save that culminated an incredible game and clinched a championship 108 years in the making.

Even the Cub who may have struggled the most on the field throughout the season and the postseason made his own contribution to the North Siders’ title.  Jason Heyward, who signed an eight-year, $184 million deal with the team before the season, hit for just a .230 average in the regular season with 49 RBI and a career-low seven home runs, although he did contribute his usual stellar defense, winning his fourth career Gold Glove.  Heyward hit just .104 in the postseason with one RBI in 48 at-bats.

Yet it was Heyward, and not one of the multiple MVP-caliber players on the Cubs roster, who called a team meeting during the rain delay of Game 7.  The Cubs had led 5-1 before Cleveland had come back to tie the game at 6-6, and the skies had opened up just as extra innings were set to begin.

“I just had to remind everybody who we are, who these guys are, what we’ve overcome to get here,” Heyward told FOX Sports after the game.  “The beginning of every day, we didn’t worry about win or loss.  We’re just worried about how we’re going to go out there and have fun, compete, be right there for the guys next to us, and not take the situation for granted.  I just had to remind them of that, and I’m proud of these guys.”

Going out there and having fun is something the Cubs do well, thanks in large part to manager Joe Maddon.  To say Maddon’s teams in both Tampa Bay (2006-14) and Chicago (2015-present) have always been loose would be an understatement.

Maddon is the quintessential “players manager,” with a style that lets players be themselves and do whatever they wish, so long as they show up on time and perform on the field.  As a result, his players perform well more often.  Maddon always seemed to overachieve with young, upstart rosters in Tampa Bay, so once he had a championship-caliber roster with the Cubs, he delivered, likely sealing a future trip to Cooperstown.

Maddon was hired by the front office team of Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer.  Both Epstein, the Cubs president of baseball operations, and Hoyer, the general manager, now have a reputation as curse-breakers, after the pair were the top two in the front office in Boston when the Red Sox ended their 86-year drought in 2004, then ended an even longer one in Chicago.  Ending long-standing droughts for two of the most renowned franchises in baseball is remarkable, but it’s even more extraordinary when you consider that Epstein, the face of the front office, and Hoyer, a behind-the-scenes administrator, both just turned 43 in December.

The pair of Epstein and Hoyer were brought to Chicago for the sole purpose of ending “The Curse of the Billy Goat” by owner Tom Ricketts.  Ricketts, an investment banking executive, bought the Cubs franchise in 2009, and has now delivered on his vow to bring a championship to the Cubs and their fans.  This promise was important to Ricketts and his family, as Ricketts became a Cubs fan while attending the University of Chicago, met his wife in the Wrigley Field bleachers, and even once lived in an apartment at the “Sports Corner” of Addison and Sheffield, across the street from The Friendly Confines.

A Cubs fan leading the team to the title is only fitting, as this was truly the fans’ title.  No member of the Cubs roster has been with the team longer than six seasons, yet these loyal, dedicated, and overwhelmingly patient fans have been with the team for, in many cases, decades.  Entire lifetimes have been spent waiting for one moment, which finally came in the form of a slow grounder to third at 11:46 p.m. central time on November 2, 2016.

It was these fans who celebrated night and day in Wrigleyville and throughout Chicago after the title.  On November 4, two days after Game 7, an estimated five million people packed the route for the Cubs victory celebration, making it the seventh-largest gathering in human history, joining a list of most-attended events mainly reserved for religious pilgrimages and funerals of world leaders.

The event featured a parade from Wrigley Field down Michigan Avenue, culminating with a victory rally at Grant Park.  This “only when pigs fly” event occurred eight years to the day after another such event at Grant Park:  the victory speech of a black man, Barack Obama, elected as President of the United States.

But the impact was felt beyond just the coast of Lake Michigan, but from coast to coast of the United States.  The Cubs have a nationwide fanbase, thanks in large part to the many years their games were broadcast on WGN, and fans across the country celebrated.  It was the first title in the lifetime of nearly all of the Cubs’ numerous fans, with two known exceptions:  108-year-olds Mabel Ball of Illinois, who passed away just days after her Cubs win the World Series, and Hazel Nilson of New Hampshire.

Members of every World Series-winning team make appearances around the talk show circuit over the following days, but the Cubs collectively fulfilled more obligations than usual, with everything from Ellen to Saturday Night Live, where Rizzo, Ross and Fowler appeared with lifelong Cubs fan and former cast member Bill Murray in a barber shop quartet-style rendition of Steve Goodman’s “Go Cubs Go,” a team anthem that is played at Wrigley Field after victories and was heard throughout the country in the days following the World Series.

After 108 years of waiting, the Cubs and their fans got to celebrate.  A Cubs World Series title is one of the sports stories of a lifetime, and honoring one of these individuals or even the fans as the face of the triumph would be unfair to everyone else who participated in a historic championship run.  So after their phenomenal run to history, the Cubs are communally the Sportsmen of the Year.

Column: Game 7 WAS the game of the century

I called it the biggest baseball game of the century to date.

I told myself that with that much buildup and hype, it would be difficult for the game to live up to that lofty title, even with the guarantee of one championship drought coming to an end.

But after the Chicago Cubs outlasted the Cleveland Indians in 10 innings to win their first championship in 108 years, Game 7 of the 112th World Series didn’t just live up to the hype — it surpassed it, unquestionably becoming greatest baseball game played in this century, and arguably the greatest of all-time.

Even before first pitch the game had a plethora of storylines.  The 37th winner-take-all World Series game in history, between franchises looking for their first titles since 1908 and 1948.  The Cubs trying to complete a Series comeback after trailing 3-1 in the best-of-seven contest.  A 103-win Cubs team having to play Game 7 on the road because the American League won the All-Star Game.

Cy Young Award contenders from each league, Kyle Hendricks and Corey Kluber, facing off head-to-head for all the marbles.  A managerial battle between Joe Maddon and Terry Francona.  The Cubs exceptional young core of position players and the equally exceptional Indians bullpen.

Game 7 had all this, and more.  Really, it had a little bit of everything.  Things that were expected to happen never unfolded, and things no one expected did occur.  One game contained innumerable moments that will live in the lore of the World Series much longer than 108 years from now.

Dexter Fowler’s leadoff homer.  Kyle Schwarber’s steal in the first.  Kris Bryant sliding between the legs of catcher Roberto Perez to score.  Javier Baez’s homer.  The Cubs stunning Kluber to take a 5-1 lead.  Three Cubs errors.  Hendricks dealing, then being pulled for Jon Lester.  Two Indians scoring on a wild pitch (the first time two scored on a wild pitch in a World Series game since 1911).  David Ross homering in his final career at-bat, becoming the oldest to homer in a World Series Game 7.  Rajai Davis’s unlikely home run in the 8th, the latest game-tying homer in any Game 7 in history.  Aroldis Chapman, running on fumes, somehow getting the Indians in order in the 9th.  Extra innings.

A rain delay.  Schwarber’s leadoff walk in the 10th.  Pinch-runner Albert Almora tagging to second on a flyout.  Zobrist’s go-ahead double in the 10th.  He and Montero earning RBIs after the previous batters were intentionally walked.  Rookie Carl Edwards getting the first two outs in the 10th.  Davis making it 8-7 with an RBI single.  Mike Montgomery, of all people, throwing all of two pitches and getting the final out, his first professional save at any level.  Kris Bryant grinning ear-to-ear as he fielded the grounder to win it all.

It was a paradoxical game with both an abundance of clutch hitting and its share of solid pitching.  Both managers made some tough — and controversial — decisions, and while he ended up on the losing end, Francona appeared to outmanage Maddon.

Both sides experienced a roller-coaster ride of emotions:  joy, frustration, hope, despair, and eventually triumph and heartbreak in the respective dugouts when the classic culminated.

The final result is what many veterans of the sports media world have called the greatest story they have ever covered — the Cubs winning the World Series for the first time since 1908.

The first time in 39,466 days.  The first time since Theodore Roosevelt was President of the United States — all 45 of them — and William Howard Taft and William Jennings Bryan were running to replace him.  The first time since two weeks after Ford began producing the Model T.  The first time since the year Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Stewart were born and Grover Cleveland died.  The first time since 19 years before any of my grandparents were born.

Not only did Game 7 mark the first time a Cubs World Series victory was broadcast on television, but the first time it was broadcast, period, as the World Series was not broadcast on radio until 1921, and commercial radio broadcasting in general did not begin until the 1920’s.

The broadcast of Game 7 will endure for ages, as it joins the list of the greatest games in World Series history and, given the circumstances, may eclipse them all as the greatest baseball game of all-time.

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.

 

 

 

112th World Series

Game 1:  Cleveland 6, Chicago 0
W: Kluber, L: Lester
Cleveland leads 1-0

Game 2:  Chicago 5, Cleveland 1
W: Arrieta, L: Bauer
Series tied 1-1

Game 3:  Cleveland 1, Chicago 0
W: Miller, L: Edwards, S: Allen
Cleveland leads 2-1

Game 4:  Cleveland 7, Chicago 2
W: Kluber, L: Lackey
Cleveland leads 3-1

Game 5:  Chicago 3, Cleveland 2
W: Lester, L: Bauer, S: Chapman
Cleveland leads 3-2

Game 6:  Chicago 9, Cleveland 3
W: Arrieta, L: Tomlin
Series tied 3-3

Game 7:  Chicago 8, Cleveland 7, 10 innings
W: Chapman, L: Shaw, S: Montgomery
Chicago wins 4-3