Forget Great Wins and Losses: 2012's Most 'Meh' Sports Happenings

A year in mixed bags, from Detroit's rise and fall in baseball to horse racing's continued decline

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When getting together year-end lists, the tendency is to point out the highlights and lowlights of the preceding 12 months. That's certainly what other Atlantic's sportswriters did a few weeks back, rounding up 2012's most epic wins and losses. But I'm interested in the more ambiguous happenings: the "midlight" moments that may not have been epic in themselves, but that should signaled out for what they revealed about the sports year that was. So here is a list of 10, in rough chronological order:

1. Linsanity. It was one of the most heart-warming and thrilling sports stories of our time—and then it wasn't. Jeremy Lin came (out of nowhere it seemed), he conquered, and he left. Last February this most unlikely of superstars, an Asian-American graduate of Harvard with an undistinguished resume as an NBA cast-off, who was sleeping on his brother's couch, saved the season for an injury-ridden New York Knicks team. For a few inspiring weeks, the heroics lived up to the hype. But "Linsanity" turned out to be a seismic event without aftershocks. Unable to agree on contract terms with the Knicks, Lin left New York for Houston in the off-season—and now the Knicks sans-Lin are off to their best start in years. Sad to say, he is hardly missed by the team's fans, enjoying the Knicks' current success. Perhaps it is all for the good: a vote for the team over the individual in the era of the "me,me,me” But it leaves me with one question. Is my Lin 17 Knicks t-shirt a collectible or clutter?

2. The Moneyball snub. Moneyball, the movie version of Michael Lewis's baseball business best-seller, was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar but did not win. But no surprise in that. Moneyball was only the third baseball film to garner a Best Picture nomination, following The Pride of the Yankees (1942) and Field of Dreams (1989), neither of which won either. When it comes to the Motion Picture Academy and sports, boxing's two Best Picture wins (Rocky and Million Dollar Baby) and even track and field (Chariots of Fire) trump baseball—as do the death matches of ancient Rome (Gladiator). But if it's any consolation to the much beleaguered erstwhile "national pastime," no football film has ever been honored as Best Picture and only one (The Blind Side) has even been nominated, which places our reigning national pastime on a par with bicycle racing (Breaking Away) and pool (The Hustler).

3. The NHL lockout. What if you won the Stanley Cup—and couldn't do a victory lap? That's now the fate of the Los Angeles Kings. In June, the Kings won hockey's Stanley Cup after 45 seasons of futility, fulfilling, it was said, the long-standing dream of making the sport from the frozen north safe for the Sunbelt. But the Kings success masked ongoing problems with franchises elsewhere, notably Florida and Phoenix. But In Los Angeles, all seemed upbeat going forward until, that is, the next season rolled around in the fall. Or rather, didn't roll around, as the start of the season fell victim to a lockout premised on management claims of widespread financial distress, which remains ongoing and may soon trigger the cancellation of the entire season just as it did in 2004-2005. But no one outside the admittedly fanatic core fan base for the sport seems to care very much. And even in Los Angeles, it's not on the front burner. The ongoing negotiations between players and owners (or lack of them) are duly recorded by the LA Times's hockey beat writer but the paper's leading sports columnists have paid little heed to the season threatening cancellation. The Kings' one bright shining moment grows ever dimmer day by day—even as it had already been largely overshadowed by the one team LA really cares about: the Lakers.

4. Barclays opens in Brooklyn. In September, major league sports returned to Brooklyn this fall for the first time since 1957 with the Brooklyn Nets (newly arrived from New Jersey) bringing NBA basketball to their new home in the Barclays Center. The name was courtesy of a 20-year, $200-million naming rights deal with London-based Barclays bank. The timing seemed as though it could not have been worse. The arena opened just as the bank was embroiled in an interest-rate fixing scandal that had already cost it a $450 million fine and that was the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation. But you know what? Brooklynites of a certain age were awash in displaced nostalgia for their beloved Dodgers, and the younger set was caught up in a Jay-Z centered marketing blitz. The rapper's one-fiftieth or one-fifteenth (depending on the source) of one percent stake in the team was transmuted into prominent billing as a team "owner,", and barely a negative word was to be heard about the Barclays connection at all.

5. Not much bang for bucks in the MLB. Baseball’s most-spending teams, the Yankees in the American League and the Phillies in the National, did not make the World Series. The title was instead won by the San Francisco Giants, who claimed only the eighth highest payroll among the Major League's 30 teams. But what else is new? Over the past 10 seasons, only one top-payroll team—the Yankees in 2009—have won the World Series. Nor has any Series matched the top-spending teams in each league. Baseball's world champions and payroll rank during those years: 2003 - Florida Marlins (25th); 2004 - Boston Red Sox (2nd); 2005 - Chicago White Sox (13th); 2006 - St. Louis Cardinals (11th); 2007 - Boston Red Sox (2nd); 2008 - Philadelphia Phillies (12th); 2009 - New York Yankees (1st); 2010 - San Francisco Giants (10th); 2011 - St. Louis Cardinals (11th). But if money does not (necessarily) talk, baseball fans can't stop talking about money. That track record has done nothing to dampen Los Angeles's expectations of great things for 2013: The Dodgers have been making aggressive free agent signings and putting together a record high $210 million payroll, twice last season's. But we shall see.

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Henry D. Fetter is the author of Taking on the Yankees: Winning and Losing in the Business of Baseball and has written widely about the business and politics of sports. More

Henry D. Fetter is the author of Taking on the Yankees: Winning and Losing in the Business of Baseball (WW Norton). He has written about the business and politics of sports, the American left, Jewish and Israeli history, and legal affairs for publications including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, the Times Literary Supplement, the Journal of Sport History, Israel Affairs, The Public Interest, American Communist History, The National Pastime, and the Encyclopedia of American Jewish History, and his work has appeared in several baseball history anthologies.

His article "Revising the Revisionists: Walter O' Malley, Robert Moses and the End of the Brooklyn Dodgers" was awarded the Kerr History Prize for the best article published in 2008 in the journal New York History; an earlier version of that article was presented at the Columbia University symposium "Robert Moses: New Perspectives on the Master Builder" (March 2007) and received a McFarland-SABR Baseball Research Award. He is the recipient of research grants from the Society for American Baseball Research and the Harry S. Truman Library Institute.

Fetter is a graduate of Harvard Law School and also holds degrees in history from Harvard College and the University of California, Berkeley. A native New Yorker, he attended his first major league baseball game at Brooklyn's Ebbets Field on Memorial Day 1955 and some years later followed the Dodgers to Los Angeles where he has practiced business and entertainment litigation for the past 30 years.

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