2011 year in review: The unbelieveable and the unthinkable

28

December

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As is often the case, the year in sports depends on where you live. For those who live in Green Bay, St. Louis, Boston and Dallas, 2011 will be remembered as the year of championships. Same with places such as Connecticut and Auburn.  If you live in central Pennsylvania or upstate New York, 2011 will be remembered among the darkest days at your favorite university.  And if you live here in Tampa Bay, 2011 will be remembered like a roller coaster. There were ups with teams such as the Rays and Lightning, and dips with teams such as the Bucs, Bulls, Gators and Seminoles.  So let’s look back at the best and worst in 2011 in sports and sports media:

Local story of the year


It would take one heck of a local story to beat out the Lightning’s run to within one victory of the Stanley Cup final. And lookie here, we just happen to have one heck of a local story. With less than a month left in the season, the Rays were nine games behind the Red Sox for a playoff spot. Boston had a 99.6 percent chance of making the postseason, according to statistical analyst Nate Silver of the New York Times. The Rays roared back and, on perhaps the most incredible night in baseball history (more on that to the left of this), won the wild card.

Best night of the year
Some call Sept. 28 the greatest night in baseball history. Tied for the wild card on the final night of the season, the Rays and Red Sox staged an incredibly dramatic chain of events in St. Petersburg and Baltimore. The Rays trailed the Yankees 7-0 in the eighth while the Red Sox took a 3-2 lead against the Orioles into the ninth. The Rays rallied to tie the Yankees, capped by a two-strike, two-out homer by Dan Johnson in the ninth. A short time later, the Orioles scored two with two outs, including the tying double with two strikes, to beat Boston. And soon after that, Evan Longoria’s homer in the 12th sent the Rays into the playoffs. And, oh, in the National League, the Cardinals capped a rally from a 101/2-game deficit to the Braves to make the playoffs, beating the Astros as the Braves lost to the Phillies.

National story of the year
In a word: scandals. Marquee football programs Ohio State, Miami and North Carolina were rocked by scandals that, ultimately, cost Jim Tressel (Ohio State) and Butch Davis (North Carolina) their jobs. Syracuse’s men’s basketball program continues to face allegations that a longtime assistant sexually molested young boys. National League MVP Ryan Braun of the Brewers, according to Major League Baseball, failed a drug test. But no story this year or in recent memory comes close to the sad, sordid case of Penn State football and allegations that former assistant Jerry Sandusky sexually molested, perhaps, dozens of young boys. The scandal brought down coaching icon Joe Paterno and left one of the most famous college football programs of all time in disarray.

Game of the year

Locals would vote for that Rays comeback over the Yankees on the final day of the regular season, but we have to go with Game 6 of the World Series. The Rangers were one strike away — twice, in two different innings! — from winning the World Series only to watch in horror as the Cardinals rallied to win then win again in Game 7.

Team of the year
We’re not sure what the Packers are going to end up doing this season. But there’s a chance that years from now, the 2011 Packers will be considered one of the greatest NFL teams of all time. We don’t want to look stupid years from now for having not selected them as our team of the year.

Best sports documentary
ESPN continued with its excellent “30 for 30” series, churning out must-see documentaries on subjects such as transsexual tennis player Renee Richards, boxer Chuck Wepner, the intense rivalry between Auburn and Alabama and Cubs fan Steve Bartman. There were two solid documentaries about college basketball teams of yesterday — Michigan’s Fab Five, which aired on ESPN, and the Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV, which aired on HBO. But the best doc of the year goes to HBO’s McEnroe/Borg: Fire & Ice, which explored the greatest tennis rivalry ever: John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg during the early 1980s.

Athlete of the year
Plenty of nominees to choose from. There’s Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Mavericks superstar Dirk Nowitzki, Bruins goalie Tim Thomas and Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander. But it’s our belief that no player meant more to his team than UConn basketball player Kemba Walker. The Huskies won 11 straight to finish their national championship run. Walker averaged almost 24 points a game and was named tournament MVP.

Most depressing story
Learning Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt has early onset Alzheimer’s. Not only is Summitt, arguably, the best coach in women’s basketball history, you could argue she is as fine of a coach who has ever lived. It’s heartbreaking what she is about to face, but she already is an inspiration with her courage and grace.

Coach of the year
Call us homers if you want, but we’re going with Rays manager Joe Maddon. The payroll was slashed. He lost his cleanup hitter almost from the start of the season, and he was in a division with two of the richest teams in baseball. Yet his Rays made the playoffs for the third time in four years.

Most inspirational sports figure

Tim Tebow. If we have to explain why, welcome back from the cave you’ve lived in for the past three months. A recent Sports Illustrated story quoted a national marketing firm that measures the popularity of celebrities, and Tebow was alongside stars such as Lady Gaga, Jennifer Aniston, Tom Hanks and Taylor Swift.

Ten awesome sports things on TV in 2011

1. MLB Network’s countdown of the 20 best games of the past 50 years was the best series on TV.
2. ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption remains the best daily sports show on TV.
3. ESPN’s Sports Reporters remains the best weekly sports show on TV.
4. These analysts: John McEnroe, Cris Collinsworth, Johnny Miller, Doris Burke and, oh yeah, baby, Dick Vitale.
5. HBO’s 24/7 series, either about boxing or hockey, was must-see TV.
6. Norm MacDonald’s short-lived show on Comedy Central was like SportsCenter meets Saturday Night Live “Weekend Update.” Too bad it was canceled.
7. These play-by-play announcers: Mike Emrick, Mike Breen, Al Michaels and Brent Musburger.
8. NHL on NBC.
9. These hosts: Bob Costas, John Saunders and Chris Fowler.
10. TNT’s Inside the NBA — perhaps the best pregame and postgame show on TV.

Three things on the rise in TV in 2011

1 NBC Universal. With Comcast, which already owned Versus, taking over NBC, coverage on both networks has been beefed up, especially hockey on Versus. Look for even bigger things as NBC Sports Network, as Versus will be called starting Jan. 1, could make a bit of a run at ESPN as a network for fans.
2 Sunday Night Baseball on ESPN. The network did us all a favor by finally dumping Jon Miller and Joe Morgan and bringing in the highly capable Dan Shulman and excellent analysts Orel Hershiser and Bobby Valentine. The result was an enjoyable national game each week. Next season might be even better with former Red Sox skipper Terry Francona taking over for Valentine.
3 The NFL Network’s Red Zone package, which picks up games in progress when teams get inside their opponent’s 20. It’s so addicting, it has to be illegal.

Three things on the decline in TV in 2011
1 ESPN’s College GameDay. It pains me to say it because I love this Saturday morning football preview show. But it just wasn’t at the same level as years past. It felt like it was on cruise control. It felt like it had gotten a little too comfortable.
2 HBO’s Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel. Like GameDay, this is a good show, but our expectations are so high that when they aren’t met, it feels disappointing. And like GameDay, the show feels stagnant. It might be time to think about shaking up the personnel.
3 Monday Night Football. It’s not ESPN’s fault, but so many of the games were dogs. Maybe it’s because there are so many games on TV these days. But Monday Night Football just doesn’t feel special like it did when Frank, Howard and Dandy Don were calling the games during the 1970s.

Three tv talking heads I’ve grown tired of
1 ESPN’s Merril Hoge for his constant griping about Tim Tebow.
2 Fox’s Gus Johnson for his constant grunts, groans and yells.
3 ESPN’s Steve Young needs to cut his words-to-minute ratio in half.

Three tv talking heads I want more of in 2012

1 ESPN analyst David Pollack was the breakout star on College GameDay.
2 Rays TV analyst Brian Anderson was superb in his first full season.
3 ESPN’s Trent Dilfer might be the best NFL analyst on TV.

Most disappointing team
Let’s stay local here, and gee whiz, there are way too many choices, aren’t there? The Bucs have gone from 10-6 to hapless. The Lightning has gone from the Eastern Conference final to out of the playoff pack in a league where everyone, it seems, makes the playoffs. The Seminoles went from a top 10 football ranking to not having a significant victory all season. And well, the Gators lost to the Seminoles and finished 6-6. That’s plenty of disappointment. But nothing seems more depressing than USF football. In Skip Holtz’s second season as coach, the Bulls went from preseason Big East contenders to bringing up the rear in the conference and not being one of the 1,089 teams that play in a bowl game.

Favorite  TV moment of the year

When boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. told HBO’s Larry Merchant, on air, that Merchant, above, should be fired and didn’t know anything about boxing, the 80-year-old analyst said, “I wish I was 50 years younger. I would kick your (expletive).”

Story we’re all tired of
Conference realignment in college football. At one point, I think Texas Christian was in 12 different conferences. I keep waiting for Hawaii to join the Big East and Florida Atlantic to join the Mountain West. Just wake us up when you’re done, okay?

Best sports video game

Madden football. Again. Like every year. Like it will be every year. Forever.
Best sports Website
All the usual suspects — Sports Illustrated, ESPN, Yahoo — produce excellent websites. But if you’re looking for sports with interesting slants, check out TheBigLead.com.

Best football pregame show
NBC’s Football Night in America has the advantage over the other networks in that it can fill time with highlights of the day’s games. It also has a huge advantage because its talent — Bob Costas, above; Dan Patrick; Tony Dungy; Rodney Harrison; Al Michaels and Cris Collins­worth — is so much better than everyone else.

Worst career move

Former NHLer (including a stint in Tampa Bay) Matthew Barnaby had a gig as an analyst on ESPN when he had some sort of domestic dustup in May. Told to keep himself clean, Barnaby admitted he was drunk this month when he drove his car without a front wheel … for 8 miles. Barnaby lost his job. Now here’s hoping he can straighten out his life.

Best sports movie
Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt, left, and based on Michael Lewis’ book about the budget-conscious Oakland A’s, not only was the best sports movie of the year, but it might have been the best movie of the year, period.

Most underrated network
Seems as if everyone loves to get their highlights and baseball news from ESPN. And yes, Baseball Tonight does a fine job. It’s like a burger. It will do the trick. You want steak? Go over to MLB Network. That will fill you up real good.

Best time to listen to local sports radio
Afternoon drive time, as you would expect, has become the best sports radio in Tampa Bay. Steve Duemig (620-AM), left, leads the ratings pack, and you can understand why with his occasionally confrontational and always entertaining style. J.P. Peterson (1010-AM) offers cynicism and humor and has become the voice of the local fan. And give 1040-AM credit for closing the gap a bit with Ronnie “Night Train’’ Lane and Tom Krasniqi. That show proves two voices are better than three on radio because the show has improved dramatically since Mark Carrier, a nice guy who simply didn’t have strong enough opinions, left. What is fun about this hat trick of shows is you always have something to listen to. When there’s a commercial on one, you flip to the next. Then again, you can’t go wrong listening to Cowhead on 102.5-FM either.

Worst call

“I think the Rays are not going to win tonight. I think that the one thing that we have eliminated tonight is that the Red Sox season is not going to end tonight. They live to play another day.”
Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy, on Boston’s NESN, talking about the Rays when they trailed the Yankees 7-0 on the final night of the regular season. The Red Sox would lose, the Rays would win, and the Red Sox would not live to play another day. But this isn’t meant to pick on Shaughnessy. We didn’t think the Rays would win that night either. In fact, we still can’t believe it. Seriously, Dan Johnson?

Best new event on TV
Fox took the plunge into mixed martial arts by showing an Ultimate Fighting Championship bout in prime time. The show had promising ratings and set the stage for more prime-time events in 2012. I have my doubts, but Fox is convinced that, someday soon, MMA will be every bit as mainstream as football and baseball.

Best event coverage

You know, we actually live in a time when sporting event coverage on TV has never been better.  Oftentimes, it comes down to your favorite sport. If you like football, you love NBC’s coverage. If you like baseball, you love Fox.  But I’m going to go off the beaten path here and suggest that HBO’s boxing coverage is the tops. It’s so good, I’ll watch it even if I don’t  know who is fighting.

[Last modified: Wednesday, December 28, 2011 12:27pm]

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