A year in mixed bags, from Detroit's rise and fall in baseball to horse racing's continued decline
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.
6. Detroit's high-profile defeats. My one (public) attempt at political strategizing—that a celebratory appearance in the World Champion Detroit Tigers' locker room might pave Mitt Romney's path to victory—was certainly a non-event, several times over. The Tigers failed to set the scene by losing the Series in four straight games. And I have to say in retrospect that Michigan's electoral votes, and the presidency in general, were a lot cause for Romney even if the Tigers had done better. Detroit did not play the role of the 1969 Miracle Mets in my scenario, and Romney turned out to be no John Lindsay.
7. The soccer victory no one watched. Soccer’s global icon David Beckham’s six-year stint with the Los Angeles Galaxy came to an end with the Galaxy winning its second straight Major League Soccer championship. But Beckham's celebrity failed to move the needle on the sport's meager television ratings (this year's final between the Galaxy and Houston Dynamo got a 0.7 overnight rating, which was lower than the third round of golf’s World Challenge on NBC [1.0] and lower than MLS Cup 2011, which got a 0.8 rating featuring the same two teams) or secure more than a marginal place in the national sports consciousness.
8. The Baseball Hall of Fame one again ignores movers and shakers off the field. Once again George Wharton Pepper was not elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame—nor, so far as I know, has anyone ever suggested that he should be. But I thought of Pepper when former baseball players union executive Marvin Miller died in late November. Miller had broken the reserve clause's stranglehold on players' careers and salaries by engineering the advent of fee agency in 1975, and his admirers lamented the fact that, notwithstanding the tremendous impact he had on the sport—comparable to Jackie Robinson and Babe Ruth in the opinion of many—he had been rejected for inclusion in the sport's hallowed shrine on numerous occasions. Which is what made me think of Pepper. Pepper was the Philadelphia lawyer who managed to persuade the United States Supreme Court in 1922 that organized baseball was not engaged in interstate commerce and therefore was not subject to federal antitrust law. That ruling provided the legal armor that for more than half a century—longer than the free agency system that Miller won—enabled the sport's owners to do business more or less as they pleased without significant interference whether from players or politicians, let alone fans. Can one say that his impact on the sport was less than Miller's?
9. American mens' tennis remains shut out. In the season-ending rankings of the men’s professional tennis tour, no American man is in the top 10, and only one, John Isner at No. 14, made the top 20. Leading Isner are three Spaniards, two Serbs, two Argentines, two Frenchmen, one Brit, one Swiss, one Czech, and one Canadian. Rounding out the top 20: one Croat, one Ukranian, one Japanese, one German, one Frenchmen, and one Swiss. Just business as usual this millenium and an accurate barometer of the current state of American tennis, at least so far as the men are concerned. No American has won a men's singles title in a Grand Slam event since 2003 when Andre Agassi won the Australian and Andy Roddick the US Open. Their success marked the end of an era. The next year, for the first time since 1988, no American man won a grand slam— launching the era we are now in. If it's any consolation for American tennis fans, it could be worse so far as the international standing of American tennis is concerned. Nowadays, as the multinational complexion of the current rankings shows, the US is being clobbered by the rest of the world. For those of us who can remember the 1950s and early 1960s, back then Australia was all by itself clobbering the United States.
10. Horse racing's slow fall to obscurity continues. December 26 , the day after Christmas, is the traditional opening day of the winter season at Santa Anita racetrack. Looking through some old papers that day, I came across a memento of the 1982 opening: a losing exacta ticket from that day. I'm sure I didn't lack for the fellowship of other losers on that day 30 years ago. That afternoon 69,293 of us were jammed into "the great race place." This year's attendance was 27,000. And that is the way it is with horse racing nowadays, as average daily attendance at Santa Anita has dropped from 30,902 in 1980-81 to just 8,074 last year. The track says it hopes to reverse the steadily downward trend with better marketing and more "user friendly" betting facilities. It is sure to be a futile effort. The sad truth is that most of those 69,000-plus on hand in 1982 were not there for the sport of kings at all. They were gamblers looking for action and once the race track lost its monopoly on legalized betting, it has turned out that there just weren't as many "racing fans" or "improvers of the breed" as those attendance figures might have suggested.
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