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From cursed to first: Cubs year's top story

CHICAGO — Everything changed for the Cubs on a rainy November night. A century-plus worth of heartache washed away by a wave of pure joy.

There were hugs, cheers and tears — and bottles and bottles of booze, sprayed everywhere from Cleveland to the shadow of Wrigley Field.

Lovable losers no more. The story of so many lifetimes is the Associated Press' sports story of the year.

"The burden has been lifted," manager Joe Maddon said.

The Cubs' first World Series title since 1908 is the runaway winner for top sports story of 2016, collecting 48 of 59 first-place votes and 549 points in balloting by AP members and editors. The death of Muhammad Ali after he suffered from Parkinson's disease for many years was second with 427 points, and LeBron James leading the Cavaliers to the franchise's first NBA title took third with 425 points.

In a year that seemed to be more about what we lost — Ali, Arnold Palmer, Gordie Howe, Pat Summitt, Jose Fernandez and the plane crash that killed most of the Brazilian club soccer team Chapecoense — than the winners on the field, the Cubs provided a feel-good moment. They drew huge ratings throughout the playoffs, with much of the country tuning in to see if it finally was the year.

"I think a lot of casual fans were initially drawn to the Cubs in the postseason because of the 108-year drought and the curse narrative," said president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, referring to the "Curse of the Billy Goat," supposedly placed on the Cubs by Billy Goat Tavern owner William Sianis after he and his pet goat were kicked out of Wrigley Field during Game 4 of the 1945 World Series.

"But when they tuned in, they saw a talented team full of young, exciting players who are also team-first, high-character people."

Among the Cubs' story lines: one last stand for David Ross, a retiring catcher who became a key figure in the clubhouse. Loads of bright young stars, with third baseman Kris Bryant turning in an MVP performance. An eccentric personality in Maddon, the former Rays manager who cemented his status as one of the game's best.

There was history, for the franchise and its front office, with Epstein helping end two of baseball's biggest droughts. See Red Sox, 2004.

That would have been enough to make the Cubs one of the top sports stories of any year, but an epic finish added to the luster of the franchise's third championship. The Cubs dropped three of the first four games in the World Series against the Indians and then rallied to force Game 7 in Cleveland.

After Chicago blew a 6-3 lead in the finale, it won 8-7 in 10 innings.

Ali was mourned all over the world after his death in June at age 74. President Barack Obama called Ali's wife, Lonnie, to express his condolences, and a public memorial in the boxer's hometown, Louisville, Ky., drew an eclectic mix of celebrities, athletes and politicians.

"He was a tremendous bolt of lightning, created by Mother Nature out of thin air, a fantastic combination of power and beauty," comedian and longtime Ali friend Billy Crystal said.

James called Ali "the first icon" and announced in November that he planned to donate $2.5 million to support a museum exhibit honoring the former heavyweight champion. He also is producing a documentary on Ali for HBO.

It was quite a year for James, who powered Cleveland to a comeback from a 3-1 deficit against the Warriors for the city's first major professional sports championship since 1964.

From cursed to first: Cubs year's top story 12/25/16 [Last modified: Sunday, December 25, 2016 10:39pm]
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