Saturday, December 31, 2011

You Say You Want a Resolution?

For this last post of the calendar year, let's check my New Year's Resolutions for 2011, and see how I did:

* Do a better job at my new job, unless I can find a better one.

Can't say I did much better, although I did get a Christmas bonus this year, which I did not get last year, so I must be doing something right. On a scale of 0 to 10, a 6.

* Treat Ashley and Rachel equally.

No. I won't say which one I'd been favoring, but the other one doesn't seem too upset with it. Still, this was a failure. This is a 2 at most.

* Get to a few more Yankee games -- home and away.

Nope. Just one. I didn't even get to Yankee Stadium II for either of the games the Rutgers football team played there this season, either the win over Army or yesterday's Pinstripe Bowl, in which they beat Iowa State 27-13. But I did, at the least, "complete the circuit," getting to all 3 "local" ballparks: Yankee Stadium, Citi Field and Citizens Bank Park in Philly. So it's somewhat appropriate that I give this a 3.

* Come up with the money to make a trip to Europe, or at least to Britain.

Nope. The closest I got to seeing Arsenal live was ONE Red Bulls game, with Thierry Henry -- who is about to go back to Arsenal on a 2-month loan. (They beat fellow Londoners Queens Park Rangers today, 1-0.) This is a big fat 0.

* Call right-wingers out on their lies and ignorance. I think I already do a good job of this, but it must be done, perhaps more than ever. The 2012 election is less than a years away.

To borrow a phrase their side likes, "Mission Accomplished." For the most part. An 8.

Total, 19. Out of 5, 24. Average, 4.8. That's pathetic.

*

So here are my New Year's Resolutions for 2012:

For this last post of the calendar year, let's check my New Year's Resolutions for 2011, and see how I did:

* Do a better job at my new job, unless I can find a better one. (Again.)

* Remember that Ashley and Rachel are 4, soon to be 5, and that they won't understand everything I say, but they will hear things I say, and that I should temper my words accordingly. So as to avoid awkward questions. I mentioned the word "war" to them earlier this year, and Rachel asked, "What's war?" I told her the truth: It's when 2 countries have a fight with each other. She seemed to accept that definition.

* Get to a few more Yankee games -- home and away. (Again.)

* Come up with the money to make a trip to Europe, or at least to Britain. (Again, this resolution is made. Maybe 2012-13 will be the season -- if not 2012 being the calendar year.)

* Help President Obama get re-elected, and get the House of Representatives back, and keep the Senate, so that his 2nd term will have more caffeine and less Tea.

* Treat people better. Even when a lot of them piss me off. (Admittedly, this could be either the easiest to pull off, or the hardest.)

Happy New Year, and don't celebrate too hard. I want you alive to read my blog in 2012 and beyond.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Should-Be Winter Classic Sites

Due to New Year's Day being a Sunday, and having the NFL regular-season finales (except for Monday Night Football), the NHL will have its annual Winter Classic on January 2 this year. It will be the New York Rangers against the Philadelphia Flyers, at Citizens Bank Park, home field of the Philadelphia Phillies.

As a fan of the New Jersey Devils (who beat the Buffalo Sabres last night), used to the off-color shout, "Rangers suck! Flyers swallow!", who do I root for in this one?

The Flyers. Never root for the Rangers. Never, never, NEV-ER.

Unless they're playing the Dallas Cowboys. Or the Boston Red Sox.

*

The seeds of the Winter Classic were sown all the way back in the early days of the game. In fact, that's how hockey started: Boys on a frozen pond in Canada. It wasn't until 1875 in Montreal that an indoor ice rink hosted a hockey game. It simply wasn't technologically possible before that.

Hockey was first played in the Olympics in 1920 in Antwerp, Belgium, indoors. When the Winter Olympics were first played in 1924 in Chamonix, France, the hockey was played outdoors. This continued with the World Championships, sponsored by the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF). This topped out in 1957, at the Lenin Stadium (now the Luzhniki Stadium) in Moscow, where 55,000 saw the host Soviet Union played Sweden to a 4-4 draw in the final game, giving the hosts enough points to win the title. The crowd was, at least officially (translation: as far as anyone knew for sure), the largest ever to see a hockey game, in any country, at any level.

The first NHL team to play an outdoor game was the Detroit Red Wings. On February 2, 1954, in a season that would see them begin back-to-back Stanley Cup-winning seasons, they played an exhibition against the inmates of Marquette Branch Prison, on the prison grounds on Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

This would be the only outdoor NHL game until 1991, when the Ranger sand the Los Angeles Kings played a preseason exhibition in the parking lot of Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. Then in 2001, the modern trend began. Michigan State University hosted their arch-rivals, the University of Michigan, in front of 74,554 fans, a new world record, at their football stadium, Spartan Stadium (a.k.a. Macklin Field). They called it the Cold War, and the two collegiate hockey powers played to a 3-3 tie.

The NHL got into the act in 2003, and this time it was in the regular season. The Edmonton Oilers hosted a doubleheader with the Montreal Canadiens: First, an alumni game between the 1980s Oilers (5 Cups in 7 years) such as Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier (who was still active at that point but got permission from the Rangers) against the 1970s Canadiens (4 straight Cups and 6 in 9 years) such as Guy Lafleur and Larry Robinson. It was known as the Heritage Classic, trying to tie in with the idea of youth hockey on frozen lakes and ponds, and it was −2 °F at Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium. Still, 57,167 fans, far and away an NHL record (breaking the record of 27,277 for a 1993 Tampa Bay Lightning game at what's now called Tropicana Field), saw the ex-Oilers beat the ex-Habs 2-1, and then the current Habs beat the current Oilers 4-3. Canadiens goalie Jose Theodore started a fad by wearing a special snow hat called a "toque" over his mask.

On April 2, 2005, during the NHL lockout, a charity game called "Our Game to Give" was held at Ivor Wynne Stadium, home of the Canadian Football League's Hamilton Tiger-Cats. A team led by Doug Gilmour beat one led by Steve Staios 9-8, although only 10,300 attended.

The restored NHL decided it was worth trying again. It set up an annual contest for New Year's Day, calling it the Winter Classic. On January 1, 2008, at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, New York, home of the NFL's Buffalo Bills, a new league record of 71,217 fans saw the Pittsburgh Penguins beat the Buffalo Sabres 2-1 in a shootout, after the game was played in a steady snowfall. Both teams wore throwback jerseys from the 1970-71 season, the Sabres' first.

In 2009, for the first time since the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium closed in 1997, the NHL played a game at a building that opened prior to 1961. Also, for the first time ever, it was in a stadium built for baseball. Wrigley Field in Chicago, built in 1914 and home of baseball's Chicago Cubs, hosted the arch-rival Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings. The Wings won, 6-4, in front of 40,818. The Wings wore copies of their original 1926 uniforms, while the Hawks wore a uniform that was a combination of their 1936 and 1949 uniforms.

In 2010, the Boston Bruins beat the Flyers 2-1, on an overtime goal by Marco Sturm, in front of 38,112 at Fenway Park in Boston. Built in 1912, this made Fenway the earliest-constructed building to host an NHL game since 1929, when the Blackhawks moved from the 1899-built Chicago Coliseum (demolished in 1982) to the new Chicago Stadium (demolished in 1995). The Flyers wore uniforms resembling those of their 1974 Stanley Cup team, the Bruins from 1958. Bobby Orr and Bobby Clarke were honorary captains.

Fenway kept the rink for a week and played another 2 games on January 8: A women's collegiate game in which the University of New Hampshire beat Northeastern University (of Boston) 5-3, and a men's game in which Boston University beat Boston College 3-2.

The winter of 2010 saw two other sets of outdoor games: Camp Randall Stadium at the University of Wisconsin, a longtime hockey power, hosted a doubleheader. Their women beat Bemidji State of Minnesota, 6-1. Their men beat Michigan, 3-2. And a minor-league game was held at the New York State Fairgrounds in Syracuse. In what's believed to be a North American minor league record, 21,508 fans saw the Syracuse Crunch beat the Binghamton Senators, 2-1.

On December 11, 2010, a new record was set when 113,411 saw "The Big Chill at the Big House," Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. Again, it was Michigan vs. Michigan State. This time, Michigan won, 5-0.

The 2011 NHL Winter Classic almost broke the '08 Sabres' record: A crowd of 68,111 saw the Washington Capitals beat the Penguins 3-1 at Heinz Field, home of the NHL's Pittsburgh Steelers. Each team wore uniforms from their first season, the Pens from 1967-68, the Caps from 1974-75.

Later in the season, on February 20, the "2011 Heritage Classic" was held at McMahon Stadium in Calgary, where 41,022 saw the host Flames beat the Canadiens, 4-0.

For this coming Monday's game, the Flyers will again wear 1974 uniforms, while the Rangers, whose uniform design has not changed much (except in font) from their 1926 debut, will wear a classic version of their familiar design.

Later in the month, Citizens Bank Park will host a minor-league game between the Hershey Bears and the Adirondack Phantoms; Fenway will host a series of college and high school games; and Progressive (Jacobs) Field in Cleveland, home of baseball's Indians, will host a revival of one of the great football rivalries in a hockey game, Ohio State vs. Michigan.

*

So where should future Winter Classics be held? They're already talking about one in California, in front of nearly 100,000 at the Los Angeles Coliseum. But just because something could be done doesn't mean it should be done. The whole point is that it's a Winter Classic. You know the old saying, "It never rains in Southern California"? Well, it does. But it doesn't snow. In northernmost California, or along its eastern border in the Sierra Nevada mountains, such as Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the Continental United States (a.k.a. the Lower 48).

So, in my opinion, the following teams should be out as potential hosts: The Anaheim Ducks, Carolina Hurricanes, Dallas Stars, Florida Panthers, Los Angeles Kings, Phoenix Coyotes, St. Louis Blues, San Jose Sharks and Tampa Bay Lightning.

Likewise, the following teams have already hosted, and should be dropped from consideration until other potential sites have hosted: The Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, Calgary Flames, Chicago Blackhawks, Edmonton Oilers, Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins.

Ironically, the 2 oldest and (at least in terms of most Stanley Cups won, if neither all that recently) most successful NHL franchises aren't exactly good choices. Where could the Montreal Canadiens play an outdoor game? McGill University's Molson Stadium seats only 25,000 people, not much more than the 21,273 they get indoors for every home game at the Bell Centre. And the Olympic Stadium, which seats 66,000 for football, has a permanent roof -- something it was supposed to have when it opened in 1976, but didn't get until 1987, and hasn't functioned well. Ironic: Now that there is a roof on the Big O, it works against a hope of the city.

While the Toronto Maple Leafs could play in front of 60,000 at the Rogers Centre (formerly the SkyDome), they'd have to open the retractable roof. Besides, now that the novelty of its roof has worn off, it's really not all that interesting a venue.

For similar reasons, the Vancouver Canucks would be a problematic host. The renovation of the Stadium at British Columbia Place gives it a retractable roof, making it possible, but it's hardly a stadium with a lot of character. (Then again, neither is the Bills' stadium.) And Frank Clair Stadium, home of the CFL's now-defunct Ottawa Rough Riders, seats just 26,000, making it not such a good site for the Ottawa Senators to host.

As far as Canada is concerned, that leaves the restored Winnipeg Jets. Canad Inns Stadium (formerly Winnipeg Stadium), is loaded with history as the home of the CFL's Winnipeg Blue Bombers, and while its official capacity is just 29,533, it can be expanded to a respectable 44,784 with temporary seating.

In the U.S., the most obvious site would be Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers, for the Red Wings to host. Also possible: Target Field in Minneapolis, thbe new home of the Minnesota Twins, or TCB Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, new home of the University of Minnesota football team, for the Wild; Sports Authority Field at Mile High (formerly Invesco Field at Mile High), the new home of the Denver Broncos, for the Colorado Avalanche; and one of the New York Tri-State Area stadiums. Less obvious is Ohio Stadium in Columbus: The Blue Jackets could play the Red Wings in a hockey version of "The Game," Ohio State vs.Michigan.

As for the New York Tri-State Area: Yankee Stadium isn't exactly suited, space-wise, for a hockey rink. But Citi Field, home of the Mets, would be ideal, especially if it's Rangers vs. Islanders. It wouldn't quite be the halfway mark between Madison Square Garden and the Nassau Coliseum -- that would roughly be Belson Stadium on the St. John's University campus, also in Queens -- but it would be close, and Islander fans could use another great Long Island institution. No, not Creedmoor. The Long Island Rail Road.

Could the Devils host? Sure, MetLife Stadium, the new home of the Giants and Jets, seats 80,000, which (depending on who else hosts the Winter Classic) could set a new NHL attendance record. But it couldn't be against the Rangers. I don't want their bastard fans outnumbering us 60,000 to 20,000 in what's supposed to be home game for us.

Yes, I know: Many of the Rangers' bastard fans are also my fellow Yankee Fans. What can I say, but "It's complicated."

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Top 10 Ball-Drops in Sports for 2011

Every year, in New York's Times Square, at one minute to midnight on New Year's Eve, a ball is dropped to signal the New Year.

Since the Mets are so good at dropping balls, which one will be chosen for the Times Square drop?

Here are the Top 10 Ball-Drops in Sports for 2011. By "ball-drop" I mean on-field blunders or management miscues.

Dishonorable Mention: Cliff Lee. He decided the Philadelphia Phillies had a better chance of winning the World Series than the Yankees. Well, both teams ended their season in Game 5 of the League Division Series. So, as it turned out, they had exactly the same chance. Nice going, you dumb hillbilly. And you've still never won a ring.

10. Jim Tressel. He had a great thing going at Ohio State, and he blew it. And it didn't have to be. All he had to do was tell the NCAA what he knew, and he could have saved his job, and probably saved THE... Ohio State University from shame and the more serious of sanctions that it ended up facing. He refused.

9. Michael Gearon. The owner of the NHL's Atlanta Thrashers, he can't be totally blamed for having to sell the team and have it be moved to become the new Winnipeg Jets. But the fact is, this was the first move of an NHL team in 14 years (1997 Hartford Whalers to Carolina Hurricanes), and the first move of any team in any North American major league sport in 7 years (Montreal Expos to Washington Nationals).

Not an easy thing to do, considering the precariousness of the situations of the NHL's New York Islanders and MLB's Oakland Athletics and Tampa Bay Rays. Speaking of the latter...

8. Tampa Bay Rays Fans. Your team made the Playoffs for the 3rd time in the last 4 years. And yet you finished 29th out of 30 in MLB attendance. You averaged 18,878 fans per home game, only 646 out of last place. You've got 2.8 million people in your metropolitan area. That's more than MLB markets Baltimore, Denver, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Kansas City. And you trailed all of them in attendance. This, after waiting so long to get a team, with (depending on how you define it) anywhere from 3 to 8 near-misses (most notably the 1992 San Francisco Giants). You have a good team now, and the population to support it. And you don't. Shame on you. You deserve to lose your team.

7. NBA Owners. They came thisclose to canceling an entire season. True, the NHL has bounced back well from canceling the entire 2004-05 season, and MLB recovered from canceling the last one-third of the 1994 regular season and the entire ensuing postseason to be bigger than ever, and the NFL recovered from their own preseason lockout.

But the NBA's problems go beyond the lockout and the cancellation of the first one-fifth of the regular season. They've effectively taken the Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, Dallas Mavericks, Chicago Bulls and, at least potentially, the secondary teams in New York and L.A., the Nets and Clippers, and turned them into a mini-major league, and turned the other 22 teams into a feeder league. Essentially, those 8 clubs are the Premier League, and if you're not in the Premiership, you're in the minors.

6. Rex Ryan. All that talk, and the Jets probably won't even make the Playoffs this season, after blowing 2 straight AFC Championship Games. Rex, you've failed as head coach of the New York Jets. Do the honorable thing and resign, and let someone else guide this team.

And there's 5 people and/or teams that can top (or bottom) that? Yes.

5. Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves (joint entry). Say what you want about Girardi and Lee, but at least they got into the Playoffs. According to SportsClubStats.com, the Red Sox had a 99.85 percent chance of making the Playoffs on September 2 -- at which point they were still, ever so slightly, in first place in the American League Eastern Division. Shortly before that, the Braves had a 94 percent chance of making the Playoffs.

And both blew it, completing their blows on the last night of the regular season. Both of these franchises are known for chokes, but this year, they outdid themselves.

And there's 4 worse than that? Oh, yes.

4. Texas Rangers. You would think that, having won its 2nd straight Pennant, this one without the incredibly overrated Cliff Lee, after not having won any Pennants in their history before, the two-time defending American League Champions would be immune from this list.

But they had 2-run leads in Game 6 of the World Series. In the 9th AND 10th innings. In other words, like the Boston Red Sox in 1986, they were 2 runs up in what should have been the last inning of Game 6, clinching the World Championship without needing a Game 7. But whereas the '86 BoSox blew such a lead once, the '11 Rangers blew such a lead twice, in back-to-back innings. And lost Game 6 in the 11th, and lost Game 7. If the 2004 and '07 World Series didn't get the '86 Red Sox off the hook, the '11 Rangers surely did: It was the greatest choke in World Series history.

And there's 3 worse than that? You better believe it, and one of them is in baseball. Barely.

3. Fred Wilpon. You would think that, having finally fired general manager Omar Minaya, the Mets' owner would be immune from this list.

But he had a new ballpark, and his own TV network, in the biggest market in the country, with some of the most passionate fans in the country, and started the season with David Wright, Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran and Francisco Rodriguez (but not Johan Santana, out for the season due to injury), and finished below .500, with only the first of those star players. Turns out, even with trading Beltran and K-Rod, and all those potential big-revenue sources, the Mets lost $70 million.

Granted, it was due to a stupid decision well before this year (Fred trusting his pal Bernie Madoff), but with all the possible ways to produce revenue in major league sports, you gotta be a real moron to own a major league sports team and lose money. Or perhaps really crafty at trying to write it off as a tax break. And I don't think Freddy the Freeloader lost that money on purpose, for tax reasons.

And there's 2 worse than that? I think you'll agree.

2. LeBron James. You know why. I'm not going to give you a long answer. I'm only going to give you three-quarters of an answer. After all, that's all LeBron ever gives. "King James"? Yeah, right!

So what could be worse than that?

1. The administration and football staff at Pennsylvania State University, led by Joe Paterno. Even a big Rutgers fan like myself, as much as I hated Penn State and Ol' Ratface before, could not have imagined something like this. I had said Paterno was not the squeaky-clean man running a squeaky-clean program like he claimed, so, yes, I TOLD YOU SO. But who could possibly have imagined something like this?

Let's hope that, when I do this piece in December 2012, it's about mere incompetence, on the field or in the boardroom. And not about what used to be known as "unspeakable acts."

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Sportsmen of the Year: An Overview (SI's, and Mine)

Sports Illustrated Sportsmen & Sportswomen of the Year

1954 Roger Bannister
1955 Johnny Podres
1956 Bobby Morrow
1957 Stan Musial (Lifetime Achievement Award, or LAA)
1958 Rafer Johnson
1959 Ingemar Johansson
1960 Arnold Palmer
1961 Jerry Lucas
1962 Terry Baker
1963 Pete Rozelle
1964 Ken Venturi
1965 Sandy Koufax
1966 Jim Ryun
1967 Carl Yastrzemski
1968 Bill Russell (LAA)
1969 Tom Seaver
1970 Bobby Orr
1971 Lee Trevino
1972 John Wooden and Billie Jean King (LAA in Wooden's case)
1973 Jackie Stewart
1974 Muhammad Ali
1975 Pete Rose
1976 Chris Evert
1977 Steve Cauthen
1978 Jack Nicklaus (LAA)
1979 Willie Stargell and Terry Bradshaw
1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team
1981 Sugar Ray Leonard
1982 Wayne Gretzky
1983 Mary Decker
1984 Edwin Moses and Mary Lou Retton
1985 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
1986 Joe Paterno
1987 Athletes Who Care: Bob Bourne, Judi Brown King, Kipchoge "Kip" Keino, Dale Murphy, Chip Rives, Patty Sheehan, Rory Sparrow and Reggie Williams
1988 Orel Hershiser
1989 Greg LeMond
1990 Joe Montana
1991 Michael Jordan
1992 Arthur Ashe (LAA)
1993 Don Shula (LAA)
1994 Bonnie Blair and Johan Olav Koss
1995 Cal Ripken Jr.
1996 Tiger Woods
1997 Dean Smith (LAA)
1998 Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa
1999 U.S. Women's Soccer Team
2000 Tiger Woods (only 2-time honoree)
2001 Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson
2002 Lance Armstrong
2003 David Robinson and Tim Duncan (LAA in Robinson's case)
2004 Boston Red Sox
2005 Tom Brady
2006 Dwyane Wade
2007 Brett Favre (LAA)
2008 Michael Phelps
2009 Derek Jeter
2010 Drew Brees
2011 Mike Krzyzewski and Pat Summitt (LAA in both cases)

61 honorees: 39 right, 24 wrong; 67 alive, 6 dead; 10 Lifetime Achievement Awards

My choices

1954 Roger Bannister
1955 Otto Graham
1956 Bill Russell
1957 Maurice Richard
1958 Rafer Johnson
1959 Ingemar Johansson
1960 Floyd Patterson
1961 Roger Maris
1962 Wilt Chamberlain
1963 Pete Rozelle
1964 Jim Brown
1965 Sandy Koufax
1966 Frank Robinson
1967 Carl Yastrzemski
1968 Al Kaline
1969 Tom Seaver
1970 Bobby Orr
1971 Roberto Clemente
1972 John Wooden and Billie Jean King
1973 Don Shula
1974 Muhammad Ali
1975 Arthur Ashe
1976 Chris Evert
1977 Al McGuire
1978 Steve Cauthen
1979 Willie Stargell and Terry Bradshaw
1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team
1981 Sugar Ray Leonard
1982 Wayne Gretzky
1983 Mary Decker
1984 Bonnie Blair and Johan Olav Koss
1985 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
1986 Greg LeMond
1987 Magic Johnson
1988 Orel Hershiser
1989 Joe Montana
1990 Lou Piniella
1991 Michael Jordan
1992 Mario Lemieux
1993 Jacques Demers
1994 Bonnie Blair and Johan Olav Koss
1995 Hakeem Olajuwon
1996 Joe Torre
1997 Steve Yzerman
1998 John Elway
1999 U.S. Women's Soccer Team
2000 Derek Jeter
2001 Joe Sakic
2002 Lance Armstrong
2003 David Robinson and Tim DUncan
2004 Joe Dumars
2005 Roy Williams
2006 Dwayne Wade
2007 Peyton Manning
2008 Michael Phelps
2009 Troy Polamalu
2010 Drew Brees
2011 Aaron Rodgers

63 choices; 51 alive, 12 dead

Monday, December 26, 2011

Who Are the Real Sportsmen of the Year? Part III

1991 Michael Jordan. The best player in basketball at the time, finally led the Chicago Bulls to their first NBA Championship. Can't disagree with this one.

1992 Arthur Ashe. Another lifetime achievement award (LAA) that SI gave out for SOTY. As I said in Part II, they should have given it to him in 1975, when he deserved it a whole lot more than Pete Rose. Ashe died of complications from AIDS early the next year, and is the most recent SI honoree to die (though not the one who is the most recently deceased).

Joe Gibbs of the Washington Redskins coached his 3rd Super Bowl winner in 9 years. If SI wanted to go for an achievement of clean consistency by a thoroughly decent man, there's one. Clarence "Cito" Gaston of the Toronto Blue Jays became the first black man to manage a World Series winner; if SI wanted to go for a civil rights achievement, there's one. Mario Lemieux of the Pittsburgh Penguins won his 2nd straight Stanley Cup, then, just before the calendar year ran out, came back from Hodgkin's disease to play again. If SI wanted to go for a champion dealing with a potentially fatal illness, there's one -- and this one not only lived, but returned to play at a Hall of Fame pace. All were worthy of SOTY. Considering that Ashe should have been honored 17 years earlier, and that I've already reflected this fact in my own picks, I'm giving it to Lemieux.

1993 Don Shula. The Miami Dolphins boss surpassed George Halas of the Chicago Bears to become the winningest coach in NFL history, but this was another LAA, and it came 20 years after he could have been so honored, following the Dolphins' 1973 achievement of the undefeated season.

Jacques Demers overcome a learning disability, which prevented him from learning how to read until he was already an NHL coach, to lead the Montreal Canadiens to their 24th Stanley Cup -- their 23rd World Championship meant that they were the most successful franchise in North American sports from May 1986 to October 2000 when the Yankees won their 25th World Series. And they did it the hard way: Beating their Provincial rivals, the Quebec Nordiques, in 6 games including 3 overtime wins; sweeping the Buffalo Sabres but needing 3 more overtime wins; overcoming the New York Islanders (the last time that franchise has gone this far) in 5 games but needing 2 overtime wins (one in double OT); and topping the Los Angeles Kings in the Finals, losing Game 1 and then winning 4 straight, the first 3 in OT before winning in regulation at the Montreal Forum.

It was fitting that hockey's greatest franchise won the 100th Anniversary Stanley Cup (especially since the 1st Cup, and several others before the 1909 founding of the Canadiens, were won by teams from Montreal). A team that included such legends and stars as Patrick Roy, Guy Carbonneau, Denis Savard, Vincent Damphousse, Kirk Muller, Mike Keane, John LeClair, Mathieu Schneider and Eric Desjardins had a soft-spoken, determined leader who knew what it was like to refuse to quit. Demers is now a member of the Canadian Senate.

1994 Bonnie Blair and Johan Olav Koss. For the first time, the Winter Olympics were held in the even-numbered year between leap years, while the Summer Olympics continue to be held in leap years. SI honored 2 superb speed skaters: Blair remains, to this day, the most successful American female athlete in Olympic history; and Koss thrilled the home crowd at Lillehamer, Norway with his Gold Medals. In a year that began with the Dallas Cowboys (ugh) winning the Super Bowl, reached its midpoint with the O.J. Simpson murder case, and ended with Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig cancelling the postseason due to a strike in which the players, however greedy, had the comparative moral high ground, Blair and Koss were superbly sportsmanlike, and I do not question this decision by SI.

1995 Cal Ripken Jr. Whether Babe Ruth "saved baseball" after the 1920 Black Sox Scandal is dubious. Even more so, Ripken, the Baltimore Orioles shortstop, didn't "save baseball" by continuing to play until breaking Lou Gehrig's consecutive games played streak of 2,130 games (especially since, due to the strike, while he played in every game available to him, he didn't play from August 12 to the intended end of the season on October 2, or from the intended start of the next season on April 3 through April 24). Ripken was a very good player for a long time, and while 3,000 hits was enough to make him a legitimate Hall-of-Famer, let's tell the truth: That streak, and the ego he maintained to maintain it, ended up hurting his team.

The real Sportsman of the Year was Hakeem Olajuwon of the Houston Rockets, whom he led to a 2nd straight NBA Championship, this one (unlike the 1st) alongside his college teammate Clyde Drexler, who, like Hakeem, had previously been 0-for-2 in NBA Finals (in his case, with the Portland Trail Blazers) and had joined with Hakeem to lead the University of Houston's "Phi Slamma Jamma" team to 3 NCAA Final Fours, including 2 Finals, but lost them all. Hakeem's acts of charity were already well-known, and bringing Clyde the Glide back to his hometown was no act of charity: It was a masterstroke, as the Rockets, who struggled to beat the Patrick Ewing Knicks in 7 games the year before (avenging the NCAA Final to Ewing's Georgetown 10 years before), swept the Shaquille O'Neal-led Orlando Magic.

1996 Eldrick "Tiger" Woods. Tiger won the NCAA individual golf championship at Stanford University and the U.S. Amateur. He had not yet won a professional major, although he would do so in (pardon the pun) roaring fashion at the next year's Masters. Even if you believe that golf is a sport (and it most certainly is NOT), this award was premature at best and massively dubious at worst. This was Joe Torre's year to get the award.

1997 Dean Smith. In what turned out to be his final year as a college head coach, the North Carolina boss guided his team to a 13th ACC Tournament Championship and an 11th Final Four, and surpassed Adolph Rupp to become the all-time winningest men's college basketball coach. (He has since been surpassed by Bobby Knight and Mike Krzyzewski.) He won 2 National Championships and coached the U.S. team to the Gold Medal at the 1976 Olympics. If SI had a separate LAA, the Dean would have been an easy choice. But while he was a fine sportsman who had a great year, it didn't make sense to name him Sportsman of the Year.

After coming close 3 times with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Jim Leyland finally got to, and won, a World Series with the Florida Marlins. Coach Mike Holmgren, quarterback Brett Favre, and defensive end Reggie White led the Green Bay Packers to their first Super Bowl win in 31 years. Steve Yzerman led the Detroit Red Wings to their first Stanley Cup in 42 years. Despite what we later learned about Favre and White, and the Marlins' spending spree with the promise of breaking them up in the off-season -- leading Dave Rosenbaum to title a book about the team If They Don't Win It's a Shame: The Year the Marlins Bought the World Series -- any of these potential selections would have been better for a single year. I'm going with Yzerman, the longest-serving Captain in NHL history, and a total class act for nearly 30 years now.

1998 Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. So Ripken didn't quite "save baseball," but the Mac & Sammy Show did? What we now know about Mac, and what we now suspect about Sammy, should be irrelevant, every bit as much as what happened to Pete Rose didn't cause SI to strip him of his 1975 honor, or what O.J. did in 1994 would not have made a difference had he gotten SOTY for his 2,003-yard rushing performance in 1973.

But did Roger Maris get SOTY for hitting 61 homers in 1961? No. Did Hank Aaron get it for reaching 715 homers in 1974? No. Even if you believe Jerry Lucas in '61 and Muhammad Ali in '74 were worthy honorees, the fact remains that Maris and Aaron were not so honored, and Maris, at least, won the World Series. Sosa did get the Chicago Cubs into the Playoffs, but McGwire's St. Louis Cardinals... Refresh my memory, did McGwire hit 70 homers while the Cards won 83 games, or did he hit 83 homers while the Cards won just 70? For all practical purposes, there's no difference: In spite of his individual achievement, his team did not reach the postseason.

Having already given the award to Torre for 1996, I'm not going to give it to him for 1998. Derek Jeter? Not just yet. How about John Elway? He finally got his ring, and then led the Broncos to a 14-2 regular season in what everyone presumed (correctly, as it turned out) would be his last season. A LAA? Not really: Had Elway been named SOTY, it would have been totally deserved. He was a winner and a sportsman.

1999 U.S. Women's Soccer Team. They won the World Cup, in front of the highest live attendance (90,185 at the Rose Bowl) and the largest TV audience ever for a women's sporting event, and offered what should be the final proof that a woman can be athletic and feminine at the same time. Or, as Rick Reilly put it in SI:

Admit it. You were thinking, Joe Torre in heels. You figured when a U.S. women's team finally broke through, one that made even the truck drivers care, it would be a bunch of women with Bronko Nagurski shoulders and five o'clock shadows. Well, the revolution is here, and it has bright-red toenails. And it shops. And it carries diaper bags. The U.S. women's soccer team is towing the country around by the heart in this Women's World Cup, and just look at the players. They've got ponytails! They've got kids! They've got (gulp) curves!

Captain Carla Overbeck crawls across a magazine page in a leopard-skin dress. Midfielder Julie Foudy calls the team "booters with hooters." Lethal scorer Mia Hamm makes PEOPLE'S 50 Most Beautiful. Midfielder Brandi Chastain shows up in the pages of Gear wearing only a soccer ball, which gets her on Letterman, who sends Late Night shirts to the whole team, which snaps a picture of the players apparently wearing only the shirts and cleats, which causes Letterman to refer to them forevermore as "Babe City."

"Hey, I ran my ass off for this body," says Chastain. "I'm proud of it."

This team is a wonderful combination of Amazonian ambush and after-prom party. "We're women who like to knock people's heads off and then put on a skirt and go dance," says Chastain.


With all due respect to what Derek Jeter, Kurt Warner, Tim Duncan and anybody else achieved in that calendar year, this was the year a soccer ball shattered the glass ceiling. I dare you to tell Chastain her team didn't deserve the Sportspeople of the Year award. She's 43 now, still playing, and broadcasting, is married with 2 kids... and could probably throttle you if she so desired. Go ahead, tell her, I dare you.

2000 Tiger Woods. This is the only time SI has given the award to a previous winner. He won the last 3 of the 4 majors, and then won the Masters the next year to become the first-ever holder of all 4 titles, even if he didn't quite do it all in the same year to form a true "Grand Slam." (This became known as the "Tiger Slam," which is certainly better than the infamous "Saturday Slam" of Greg Norman.) But until Tiger, or any other golfer, tries to take a shot with Justin Verlander throwing the ball at him at 95 miles an hour, or with Ray Lewis bearing down on him at full prowl, or tries to put the ball in a hole guarded by Dwight Howard or Tim Thomas, he is playing a game... NOT a sport. You don't give Sportsman of the Year to a poker player, do you? No matter how successful.

Only one man has ever won the Most Valuable Player award of Major League Baseball's All-Star Game and World Series in the same year. That's Derek Jeter of the 2000 World Champion New York Yankees. Derek would be honored by SI in 2009, but this was the year he deserved it most.

2001 Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson. As dominating as they were in the 2001 World Series, to call either man a "sportsman" is absolutely laughable.

Unfortunately, there wasn't a lot of choice. The Super Bowl MVP was Ray Lewis, who was coming off criminal charges. The NBA Finals were won by Shaq, Kobe Bryant, and the Lakers -- no sportsmen they, and of course they cheated again. There was no Triple Crown winner in horse racing, no Olympics, no World Cup, and boxing was a mess, as it had pretty much been for the 10 years before and the 10 years since. And to give SOTY to Ray Bourque, whose achievement of finally winning the Stanley Cup after 22 years of superb hockey, and still being a major contributor to his team, while not entirely undeserved would, essentially, have been another LAA. I could give it to the Colorado Avalanche's Captain, Joe Sakic, instead of teammate Bourque. So I'll go with Sakic, who was also, in this year, selected as Canada's Captain for the upcoming Olympics, which they won.

2002 Lance Armstrong. Since I've already honored Yzerman, none of the Anaheim Angels was a standout choice, the Lakers won again, we now know that the New England Patriots are a bunch of dirty cheaters, and not that many Americans knew Ronaldinho's name (or nickname), and we still don't know for sure that Armstrong was doping, I'm going to let this one stand.

2012 UPDATE: Now we know.  My replacement choice is Sarah Hughes, who won the women's figure skating Gold Medal.

2003 David Robinson and Tim Duncan. They led the San Antonio Spurs to their 2nd NBA Championship, all in the last 5 seasons. Robinson retired, and Duncan would make it 4 in 9. Both are distinguished, charitable individuals whose careers have never had a hint of scandal, and all lifted a community (West Texas) which has just this one major league sports team. I cannot question this honor.

2004 Boston Red Sox. At the time, even a sick, twisted, demented Yankee Fan like myself would have had a hard time doubting that they deserved it. Now we know: They cheated, they lied about it, they got caught, and they're still lying about it. We also know that Tom Brady, honored the next year and could have been honored for this year, benefited from cheating.

I'm giving it to Joe Dumars: In the late 1980s and early '90s, the idea of anyone associated with the Detroit Pistons getting SOTY was ludicrous. But Joe put together a team that, like the early 1970s Knicks, stressed team harmony over individual egos, and they beat the Lakers, a team so loaded it was considered "inevitable" champions. You know, just like the 2011 Miami Heat. Go ahead: Tell me that Rasheed Wallace, Ben Wallace, Lindsey Hunter, Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince or Mehmet Okur is going to the Basketball Hall of Fame. At the moment, you can't. But that's 7 superb players, and they triumphed over sure HOFers Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone and Gary Payton.

2005 Tom Brady. Brady and the New England Patriots, early in the year, had won their 3rd Super Bowl in 4 years, and Brady his 2nd SB MVP. But since "Spygate," we can't taken any of the Pats' achievements in the Belichick/Brady Era seriously.

The World Series winner? The Chicago White Sox. No overwhelming star, and manager Ozzie Guillen isn't exactly a sportsman. The NBA Champions? The Spurs, and we've already honored Duncan. The BCS winners? We now know that USC was cheating. The World Cup winners? The horse racing Triple Crown? The Olympic Gold Medalists? The undisputed heavyweight champion of the world? The Stanley Cup winner? There weren't any, of any of those. (This was the year the entire NHL season was canceled.) And while a European sports magazine might have honored Steven Gerrard for the way he willed Liverpool FC from 3-0 down to win the Champions League Final, 99 percent of Americans didn't know who he was at the time.

While I haven't given my SOTY to Dean Smith, as much as I admire him, I'm giving the 2005 edition to Roy Williams, who did in this year what Smith did in 1982: Lead North Carolina to the first of 2 National Championship. And, unlike Smith, Williams can still win a 3rd.

2006 Dwyane Wade. In 2011, honoring a star of the Miami Heat would have been a sick joke. In 2006, it was a good choice.

2007 Brett Favre. At the time, it seemed like a good choice, if something of a LAA. In retrospect, who's kidding who? Whereas Peyton Manning led the Indianapolis Colts to their 1st Super Bowl (their 2nd, and their 4th World Championship if you count their Baltimore years), and has been an exemplar of stellar and fair play since arriving in the NFL in 1999. He has always "cut that meat." As opposed to Favre, whom we now know to have, uh, done something else with meat.

2008 Michael Phelps. Eight Olympic races, eight Gold Medals. Good guy, too. Except for the pot. I'm not taking this award away.

2009 Derek Jeter. Great award, but I've already given it to him for 2000, so I have to give it to someone else. I'm going with Troy Polamalu, the heart and soul of the Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers (2nd win in this generation, 6th overall) and probably the most famous living person of Samoan descent. Certainly, the safety is a better choice than 2 of his prominent teammates from that game, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (issues with women) and Santonio Holmes (also got into criminal trouble). I could make it a joint award with Polamalu and receiver Hines Ward.

2010 Drew Brees. What he's done for the people of the New Orleans area is immense -- and that's before you get into the football playing. A completely deserving award, especially when you consider the Saints' history before he got there.

2011 Mike Krzyzewski and Pat Summitt. As I said, 2 good choices for LAA, but neither was the sportsman of THIS year. Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers was -- unless he's hiding a criminal, pharmaceutical, or otherwise scandalous secret.

I'll have one final entry, as an overview.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Merry Christmas from the Muser

December 25, in the 753rd year since the founding of Rome – or so Dionysius Exiguus, working in AD 525, would have us believe – Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem, in what is now the West Bank, Palestinian Territories. Based on historical and astronomical evidence, and even passages in the Gospels themselves, this date is almost certainly incorrect. Besides, Jesus appears to be one of the last people who would be concerned about people noticing his birthday. He’d rather we were good to each other.

Christmas AD 800: Charles the Great (a.k.a. Charles Le Magne, Charlemagne and Carolus Magnus) is crowned Holy Roman Emperor in Rome.

Christmas 1000: The Kingdom of Hungary is founding by King Stephen I.

Christmas 1065: Westminster Abbey is consecrated in London. But the King of England, Edward the Confessor, who ordered and funded its building, is too ill to attend, and dies early the next year. Which leads to…

Christmas 1066: William, Duke of Normandy, a.k.a. William the Bastard and William the Conqueror, is crowned King William I of England at Westminster Abbey. As the saying goes, never go into battle with a man called “the Bastard” or “the Conqueror,” because chances are he earned those nicknames.

Christmas 1183: Not the best of Christmases for King Henry II, his Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their sons, the princes Richard, Geoffrey and John. The film is "The Lion In Winter," and they are played by the following: Henry by Peter O'Toole, Eleanor by Katherine Hepburn, the future King Richard I (the Lionhearted) by Anthony Hopkins in his first major film role, Geoffrey by John Castle, and the future Magna Carta signer King John by Nigel Terry (who would be a much better King, Arthur, in "Excalibur").

Christmas 1635: Samuel de Champlain, the explorer known as “the Father of New France,” dies at the city he founded, Quebec.

Christmas 1642: Isaac Newton is born in Wolsthorpe-by-Colsterworth, Lincolnshire, England.

Christmas 1776: George Washington leads the Continental Army across the Delaware River, attacks the Hessians on the New Jersey side, and wins the Battle of Trenton, thus keeping the Revolutionary cause alive.

Christmas 1818: “Silent Night” is first performed, at (appropriately enough) the Church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf, Austria. Father Joseph Mohr wrote the lyrics (in German: “Stille Nacht”), and Franz Gruber composed the melody.

Christmas 1821: Clara Barton is born in Oxford, Massachusetts. She goes on to found the American Red Cross.

Christmas 1822: Clement Clarke Moore, a theologian in New York, is asked by his children if there are any books about Santa Claus. He decides to find out, but discovers that no bookstore in town has any. So he writes his own version of the story, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” which establishes so much of the Santa Claus legend that we know today. The story is published the following year. Moore was born in 1779 and lived until 1863.

Christmas 1826: The Eggnot Riot, a.k.a. the Grog Mutiny, takes place at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. Among the cadets who took part, but not punished, was Jefferson Davis. Twenty were court-martialed.

Christmas 1843: In London, moneylender Ebenezer Scrooge has a change of heart. Instead of treating it with a cry of “Bah, humbug!” he accepts Christmas the way those around him do, with the words of his employee Bob Crachit’s small, handicapped son Tim: “God bless us, every one!” The story is “A Christmas Carol,” by Charles Dickens.

Christmas 1856: James Francis Galvin is born in St. Louis. The Hall of Fame pitcher was nicknamed “Pud” because he “reduced hitters to pudding.” No word on whether it was figgy pudding.

Christmas 1867: A Christmas party is held at the Ponderosa Ranch in Virginia City, Nevada, and there’s a Dickensian twist to this “Bonanza” episode titled “A Christmas Story.”

Christmas 1870: Chaja “Helena” Rubinstein is born in Krakow, Poland. She becomes a cosmetics tycoon.

Christmas 1875: “Young Tom Morris,” early golf legend and the son of an early golf legend, dies under mysterious circumstances in his native St. Andrews, Fife, Scotland. He is only 24.

Christmas 1876: Muhammad Ali Jinnah is born in Karachi, British India. He becomes the founder of the nation of Pakistan.

Christmas 1878: Louis Chevrolet is born in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland. A pioneer of auto racing, he founded the car company that bears his name. Possibly also the source of Eartha Kitt’s request: “Santa baby, a ’54 convertible, too, light blue.”

Christmas 1884: Evelyn Nesbit is born in Tarentum, Pennsylvania. She became a popular Broadway actress after getting on the “casting couch” of architect Stanford White, and after marrying playboy Harry Thaw, saw Thaw murder White, resulting in “the Trial of the Century,” making her the most familiar woman in America thanks to the era’s “yellow journalism.” Her life was a disaster after that. Before her death in 1967, she said of the only man she truly loved, “Stanny White died. My fate was worse: I lived.”

Christmas 1887: Conrad Nicholson Hilton is born in Socorro County, New Mexico. Sadly, the hotel icon is now best known for his socialite great-granddaughters, Paris and Nicky.

Christmas 1890: Robert LeRoy Ripley is born in Santa Rosa, California. Yes, he was born on a Christmas Day – believe it or not!

Christmas 1899: Humphrey DeForest Bogart is born in Manhattan. Listen, sweetheart, if you don’t have a Merry Christmas, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life.

Christmas 1902: Barton MacLane is born in Columbia, South Carolina. Like Bogie, he developed a reputation for playing tough guys.

Christmas 1905: Della Young has just $1.87 – about $34 in today’s money – not enough to buy a Christmas present for her husband Jim. She goes to a woman who buys hair, has her long hair cut, and receives $20, enough money to buy a platinum fob chain to go with the watch that Jim owns and loves. As it turns out, Jim sold the watch, and used the money to buy hair-care products for Della. This story was “The Gift of the Magi,” by William Sydney Porter, a.k.a. O. Henry.

Christmas 1907: Cabell Calloway III is born in Rochester, New York. “Minnie the Moocher” is not exactly a Christmas carol, but on December 25, Cab Calloway might’ve sung it, “Hi-de-hi-de-hi-de-ho-ho-ho!”

Christmas 1908: Denis Charles Pratt was born in Sutton, Surrey, England. He was better known as the author Quentin Crisp.

Christmas 1912: Tony Martin is born in San Francisco. A singer and actor, and one of the few surviving entertainers of the 1930s, he starred on the Burns & Allen radio show, and married Alice Faye and Cyd Charisse. He and Charisse were married from 1948 until she died in 2008. He is 99 years old.

Christmas 1914: A truce is declared on the Western Front in World War I. Upon hearing the Germans sing Christmas carols in their trench, the British started to do so in theirs. Soon, they came out of their trenches, and stopped treating each other as enemies for a few hours, exchanging food, drinks, and trinkets. Legend has it that there was even a soccer game. Sorry, forgot to “speak English” there: A football match. The Germans supposedly beat the English, 3-2. The first time, but not the last, that Englishmen would be defeated by Germans at their national game; but, as Sir Alf Ramsey pointed out before the 1966 World Cup Final, twice, the English (well, the British, and their allies) would beat the Germans at their national game, and on their soil no less. Military historian Andrew Robertshaw says such a truce would have been unthinkable a year later. He said: "This was before the poisoned gas, before aerial bombardment. By the end of 1915, both sides were far too bitter for this to happen again."

Christmas 1924: Submitted for your approval: Rodman Edward Serling is born in Syracuse, New York. Rod Serling died in 1975, but he hopes you have a Merry Christmas. He sends you this greeting… from “The Twilight Zone.” (His opinion of the “Twilight Saga” books and films is unrecorded.)

Christmas 1926: Emperor Yoshihito of Japan dies. He is succeeded by his son, Emperor Hirohito.

Christmas 1927: Jacob Nelson Fox is born in St. Thomas, Pennsylvania. The diminutive but crafty Hall of Fame second baseman had his Number 2 retired by the Chicago White Sox, whom he led to a Pennant and with whom he won the American League Most Valuable Player award in 1959. Yankee pitching legend Whitey Ford called him the toughest out he ever faced.

Christmas 1935: Alvin Neill Jackson is born in Waco, Texas. Al Jackson was not the most accomplished, but was probably the best, player on the early New York Mets, winning 43 games with them from 1962 to 1969, although he was traded before they would win the World Series that last year. This, on top of being with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1959 and 1961, but stuck in the minors in the season in the middle, when they won the World Series. More hard luck? In 1962, for the Mets, he allowed a hit in the first inning and no-hit the Houston Colt .45s (Astros) the rest of the way. Heck of a way to almost pitch a no-hitter. (That’s as close as the Met franchise has ever come to having one.) At least he’s still alive, unlike Nellie Fox, who died of skin cancer in 1975.

Christmas 1937: O’Kelly Isley Jr. is born in Cincinnati. One of the singing Isley Brothers.

Christmas 1939: Ralphie Parker actually gets his Red Ryder carbine-action, two hundred shot Range Model air rifle with a compass and this thing which tells time built right in to the stock. (This particular model does not exist in real life.) And doggone it if, but for the grace of God and his glasses, he doesn’t come near to shooting his eye out! The film is “A Christmas Story,” and Ralphie is played by Peter Billingsley.

Christmas 1944: Jair Ventura Filho is born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Known as Jairzinho, he starred with hometown club Botafogo and the Brazilian national soccer team, and won World Cups for his country in 1962 and 1970.

Christmas 1945: Billy Bailey, co-director of the Bailey Brothers Building & Loan, of Bedford Falls, New York, with his late brother Peter’s son George, loses $8,000 meant for the firm’s accounts. Unable to come up with the money, George runs into one awful occurrence after another, and wishes he’d never been born. An angel named Clarence Goodbody shows him what the world (or, at least, his home town) would have been like if that had been the case. George changes his mind, and finds that all the people he’d selflessly helped over the years have come to pay him back, to show him that, in the way that matters, he’s “the richest man in town.” The film is “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and George is played by James Stewart, Billy by Thomas Wilson, and Clarence by Henry Travers.

Christmas 1945 (in real life): Noel Redding is born in Folkestone, Kent, England. He was the guitarist for the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Rick Berman is born in Manhattan. He become the keeper of the “Star Trek” flame after Gene Roddenberry died, until it was foolishly given to J.J. “Jar-Jar” Abrams. Ken Stabler is born in Foley, Alabama. “The Snake” quarterbacked the Oakland Raiders to victory in Super Bowl XI. Gary Sandy is born in Dayton, Ohio. Not far from Cincinnati, where he played radio station manager Andy Travis on “WKRP in Cincinnati” – not to be confused with country singer Randy Travis.

Christmas 1946: Legendary comedian W.C. Fields dies. He might have agreed with quirky singer Jimmy Buffett, born this same day in Pascagoula, Mississippi: “Some people claim that there’s a woman to blame.” Also born on this day, in Stow, Ohio, is football legend Larry Csonka. So is former baseball manager Gene Lamont, in Rockford, Illinois.

Christmas 1948: Barbara Ann Mandrell is born in Houston. She, and her singing sisters Louise and Irlene, were country when country wasn’t cool. And when it was.

Christmas 1949: Mary Elizabeth Spacek is born in Quitman, Texas. “Sissy” Spacek also sang country music, playing Loretta Lynn in the film version of Lynn’s memoir “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”

Christmas 1950: Jesus Manuel Marcano Trillo is born in Caripito, Venezuela. A child born on December 25, and named Jesus? He’s better known as Manny Trillo, the second baseman of the 1980 World Champion Philadelphia Phillies. Unfortunately for all of humanity, Karl Christian Rove is born in Denver, and grows up to prove himself Christian, literally, in name only.

Christmas 1952: Captains Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce and B.J. Hunnicutt, Major Margaret Houlihan, and Father Francis Mulcahy are called away from Mulcahy’s party for the orphans at the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital in Uijeongbu, Korea, to tend to a wounded soldier. The soldier has no chance, but when Margaret finds a picture of his family in his pocket, B.J. goes back to work, saying, “A family’s Christmas wreaths should be green, not black.” The patient dies at 11:25 PM. Hawkeye moves the clock ahead, so that the time of death will read 12:05 AM, December 26. Hawkeye was played by Alan Alda, B.J. by Mike Farrell (who also wrote and directed this episode of “M*A*S*H”), Margaret by Loretta Swit, and Mulcahy by William Christopher. Harry Morgan (who just died in real life) played the commanding officer, Colonel Sherman Potter… and Santa Claus.

Christmas 1952 (in real life): Carol Christine Hilaria Pounder is born in Georgetown, Guyana. She became the actress CCH Pounder. (Like the Yankees’ CC Sabathia, she does not use periods.)

Christmas 1954: Singer Johnny Ace shoots and kills himself backstage at a concert in Houston. He was allegedly playing Russian Roulette and had no intention of killing himself. But the world of music breaks even, as Annie Lennox is born in Aberdeen, Scotland. With Eurythmics and on her own, she is one of the world’s most beloved living singers.

Christmas 1955: Not having enough money to buy his wife Alice a proper Christmas present, Brooklyn bus driver Ralph Kramden pawns his bowling ball. And on Christmas Eve, he finds Alice has given him a proper bag for his bowling ball. This “Honeymooners” episode, “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” was based on “The Gift of the Magi.” Ralph was played by Jackie Gleason, Alice by Audrey Meadows.

Christmas 1958: Alannah Myles is born in Toronto. Essentially a one-hit wonder, the singer of “Black Velvet” has suffered nerve damage and can barely move now, but she still records. Someone born this day who moved a bit better was Hanford Dixon, born in Mobile Alabama. The All-Pro cornerback for the Cleveland Browns would bark like a dog at his teammates to get them psyched up, and fans in the bleachers at Cleveland Municipal Stadium would start barking along with him. Soon, he started calling that section the Dawg Pound, and they would respond by wearing dog masks and throwing dog biscuits. Someone born this day who moved even better still was Rickey Nelson Henley, born in Chicago. His mother remarried and took him to her husband's hometown of Oakland, California, and the boy was renamed Rickey Henley Henderson. A Baseball Hall-of-Famer and by far the all-time leader in stolen bases, Rickey is a legend. Just ask him.

Christmas 1960: Fired after arriving for work late and sloshed, department store Santa Henry Corwin wanders into an alley and finds a bag filled with gifts. The spirit of the holiday is one of the few bright spots in Henry's life, and as he begins handing out the gifts, he realizes the bag is able to produce any gift a recipient requests. After a brief jail stint that ends with Henry changing the mind of his mean, skeptical former boss, he continues handing out gifts until one of his giftees points out that Henry has taken nothing from the bag himself. All he wants? To continue playing Santa every year, a wish that's granted when he finds an elf with a reindeer-driven sleigh waiting to whisk him off to the North Pole. This was an episode of “The Twilight Zone,” titled “Night of the Meek.” Henry was played by Art Carney.

Christmas 1960: In Mayberry, North Carolina, department store owner and resident Scrooge Ben Weaver demands that Sheriff Andy Taylor lock up local moonshiner Jim Muggins. Muggins' family, as well as Andy's, gather to celebrate the holiday with Sam. After witnessing how Jim and Andy and their broods can turn the jailhouse stay into a warm, inviting celebration, Weaver gets himself arrested so he can be part of the fun, and he ends the holiday by getting a nip of Jim's hooch himself. This was the only Christmas episode of “The Andy Griffith Show,” and was titled “The Christmas Story.” Andy was played by Andy Griffith, Deputy (and substitute Santa Claus) Barney Fife by Don Knotts, Ben by Will Wright, and Jim by Sam Edwards.

Christmas 1968: The Apollo 8 astronauts become the first people of Earth to see the far side of the Moon. Also, Helena Christensen is born in Copenhagen, Denmark. She is one of the most heralded models of the last 20 years. Also, Jim Dowd is born in Point Pleasant, New Jersey. Growing up in neighboring Brick, he was the first New Jerseyan to play for the Devils, and remains the only New Jerseyan to have his name on the Stanley Cup, having scored a late winner in Game 2 of the 1995 Finals against the Detroit Red Wings.

Christmas 1969: Baby's First Christmas. Well, mine, anyway. Not that I knew it.

Christmas 1971: The longest game in NFL history was played. The Miami Dolphins beat the Kansas City Chiefs, 24-21, in the 2nd overtime of an AFC Divisional Playoff. It was also the Chiefs’ last game at Kansas City Municipal Stadium, before moving to Arrowhead Stadium. Also on this day, Dido Florian Cloud de Bounevialle O'Malley Armstrong is born in London. Best known for her song "Thank You" and her guest appearance in Eminem's video "Stan," Dido also sang one of the sexiest songs I've ever heard, "Who Makes You Feel." With her husband, Rohan Gavin, she had her first child, a son named Stanley, this past July. Also on this day, Justin Trudeau is born in Montreal to Canada's Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, and his wife Margaret. Two years later to the day, another son would be born to them, Alexandre Trudeau. Both brothers would become journalists, and Justin now serves in Parliament, as his father did before him.

Christmas 1975: Two very different Boston legends are born. Hideki Okajima is a Japanese-born pitcher for the Red Sox, who helped them win the 2007 World Series. And Rob Mariano is born in Canton, Massachusetts. "Boston Rob" continually wore a Red Sox cap while appearing on the CBS series "Survivor," and ended up marrying his season's winner, Amber Brkich. Together, they went on to compete on another CBS series, "The Amazing Race." They now have 2 children.

Christmas 1977: Charlie Chaplin dies. The most renowned of all silent-film actors is truly silenced.

Christmas, 1978: Bert doesn’t have enough money to buy a Christmas present for Ernie. So he sells his beloved paper-clip collection to Mr. Hooper, and uses the money to buy a soap dish for Ernie’s beloved Rubber Duckie. But Ernie doesn’t have enough money to buy a present for Bert, either, so he sells his Duckie to Mr. Hooper, and uses the money to buy a cigar box, perfect for storing Bert’s collection. Then Mr. Hooper comes over and gives them presents: Bert gets his paper clips back, Ernie gets his Duckie back, and the boys tell Mr. Hooper – who’s Jewish, and has been wished a Happy Hanukkah by Bob – that they’re sorry they didn’t get him anything. He tells the boys, “I got the best Christmas present ever: I got to see that everybody got exactly what they wanted.” Bert was a puppet operated by Frank Oz, Ernie by Muppets creator Jim Henson. Mr. Hooper was played by Will Lee, and Bob by Bob McGrath.

Christmas 1989: Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu is overthrown, in the latest chapter of the anti-Communist revolutions of Eastern Europe of that amazing year. He and his wife Elena are executed. Legendary Yankee manager Billy Martin is killed in a drunken-driving crash near his home in Johnson City, New York. Compared to them, the Wet Bandits, played by Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern in the film "Home Alone," got off considerably easier, despite being tormented by Kevin McCallister, the child protector of the home they were invading in Shermer, Illinois. Kevin was played by Macaulay Culkin.

Christmas 1990: What would become known as the World Wide Web gets its first trial run.

Christmas 1991: Mikhail Gorbachev resigns as President of the Soviet Union. He had become the opposite of “a man without a country”: He was, in effect, a one-man country. The next day, the Supreme Soviet dissolved, its last act being to dissolve the Soviet Union itself after 74 years.

Christmas 1994: Tim Taylor has to tell his son Randy, who wants to spend Christmas at a ski lodge with his friends, “Christmas isn’t about being with people you like! It’s about being with your family!” The show was “Home Improvement,” Tim was played by Tim Allen, and Randy by Jonathan Taylor Thomas.

Christmas 1995: Dean Martin dies.

Christmas 1996: JonBenet Ramsey is found murdered. Her killer has never been definitively identified.

Christmas 1997: Denver Pyle, best known as Uncle Jesse on “The Dukes of Hazzard,” dies.

Christmas 2006: James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, dies.

Christmas 2008: Eartha Kitt dies. The singer of “Santa Baby” and one of 3 women to play Catwoman on the 1960s “Batman” series apparently had used up her 9th life, but what a life it was.

Christmas 2011: May your days be merry and bright. God bless us, every one. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night. Sleep in heavenly peace.

Who Are the Real Sportsmen of the Year? Part II

From this point forward, all SOTY winners (SI's and mine) are still alive unless otherwise stated.

1970 Bobby Orr. It's hard to argue against the most popular hockey player of that time, especially since he led the Boston Bruins to the Stanley Cup and even scored the winning goal, despite getting tripped up by an opponent, still managing to raise his arms in victory. (That "Flying Goal" picture is one of the most famous in the history of the sport, and can be seen in Booth's office on Bones.) He won the Ross Trophy as leading scorer (as a defenseman!), the Norris Trophy as best defenseman, the Hart Trophy as regular-season Most Valuable Player, and the Smythe Trophy as Playoff MVP, and, as John Houseman would say, he got those trophies, and the Stanley Cup, the old-fashioned way: He earned them.

Orr wasn't just great, he was good: His acts of charity, including in business since his playing career ended far too soon due to injury, are as big a part of his legend as the way he forever changed the position of defenseman. And, though Canadian, he ignited hockey's popularity in America as no one before or since -- with the kind of boost from television that Frank Boucher, Eddie Shore, Maurice Richard and Gordie Howe were unable to provide. There are still many ice rinks in this country, and not just in the Bruins' native region of New England, that can legitimately be called Bobby Orr Rinks.

There are 3 other possible honorees, but I don't think I can put them ahead of Orr. Brooks Robinson, like Orr, redefined a position in a sport, in his case third base in baseball, with his defensive wizardry in the World Series, and his hitting was also a big reason why, unlike the year before, the Baltimore Orioles were able to win it. He, Frank Robinson, Jim Palmer, Boog Powell and the rest redeemed themselves, big-time.

Willis Reed, though in incredible pain, captained the Knicks to their first NBA Championship. But with Red Holzman making such a big deal about how the Knicks were a team first, it made giving them individual awards problematic, no matter what Reed, Walt Frazier, Dave DeBusschere or Bill Bradley did on the court.

And then there was Pele. In 1966, it would never have occurred to SI to name England's captain Bobby Moore or its Final hat-trick hero Geoff Hurst their Sportsman of the Year. But 1970 was the first time the world really got to see the World Cup in blazing color. And what colors: Brazil's yellow, England's red, Italy's blue. The 1970 Brazil national team that won the Cup has often been hailed as the greatest team in soccer's history, and Pele as its greatest player, still at his best at this point. The photo of Pele and Moore, the greatest forward and the greatest defender in the sport, not just then but maybe ever, exchanging shirts after their group-stage game is every bit the classic as the one of Orr's Flying Goal.

But I guess SI wasn't ready for it. They'd rather name a white English-speaking Canadian winning a tournament in America in a sport that was already familiar to them, than name a black Portuguese-speaking Brazilian winning a tournament in Mexico in a sport that most Americans simply didn't get, even with the founding (if not yet the Pele-inspired rise) of the North American Soccer League in 1967. Had I been old enough to understand at the time (and not a baby), I probably also would have given it to Orr.

1971 Lee Trevino. The diminutive Dallasite won both the U.S. and the British Opens this year, at a time when Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player were at their peaks, and did it with a felicidad de vivir (that's Spanish for joie de vivre) that made everybody like him. The first person of Spanish descent to be so honored by SI, he's one of the biggest money-winners and most popular people ever to be involved with golf.

But if you believe, as I do, that golf is not a sport, then we have to look elsewhere for an honoree. And I have one, another Hispanic: Roberto Clemente. Because Pittsburgh wasn't a big market, his achievements had often been overlooked. But when the Pirates won the Pennant, he set out to show everyone just what he could do in the World Series. He got a hit in every game, including hitting a home run in Game 7. (In fact, he also got a hit in every game of the seven-game 1960 Series. That's 14 World Series games in his career, and he got a hit in all of them. Top that.) With his intensity, his unwillingness to compromise (insisting upon being called Roberto instead of Bob or Bobby, although he let Pirate broadcaster Bob Prince keep calling him Bobby), his cannon of an arm, and his turning an awkward batting stance into 4 batting titles and 3,000 hits, he made people notice not just him, but Latin ballplayers, and the people of Puerto Rico in general.

Roberto should have been named Sportsman of the Year for 1971. It was his best year. Sadly, 1972 would be his last year.

1972 John Wooden and Billie Jean King. For the first time, SI had a split award. Also for the first time, they named a woman. Wooden led UCLA to a 7th National Championship, and didn't lose a game in the calendar year. But it was a lifetime achievement award (LAA): What made him more worthy this time than in any of the 6 previous times? Look at the other years: Maybe Sandy Koufax was more deserving in '65, Carl Yastrzemski in '67, Bill Russell in '68, Tom Seaver in '69, or Orr in '70; but was Ken Venturi more deserving in '64, or Trevino in '71? If so, it wasn't by much. And it could be argued that, considering who the other champions of 1973 and '75 were, Wooden was more deserving in those years as well. (He died last year, a little short of his 100th birthday.)

But in the year in which Title IX was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Richard Nixon, Billie Jean was an easy choice. The first tennis player honored by SI, she won 3 of the 4 majors, all but the Australian Open. (No woman would win the Grand Slam until Steffi Graf in 1988.) But this wasn't just about her on-court achievements: Her activism led the tennis tournaments to give female competitors equal pay with male ones, and more than any human being, living or dead, she raised the profile of women's sports, and 1972 was a landmark year in that regard.

Oddly, she may have had an even greater contribution the next year: That such a spectacle as her "Battle of the Sexes" against Bobby Riggs (who really was once a great tennis player, winning Wimbledon and the U.S. Open... in 1939) was necessary is one of the great stupidities of a decade loaded with them. She rendered a repeat of such a thing unnecessary.

1973 Jackie Stewart. "The Flying Scot" was the child of an auto dealer and became a champion in Formula One racing, and SI's first SOTY honoree in any "motorsport." (They had, however, featured auto and boat racing from the very beginning of the magazine.) Prior to ABC Wide World of Sports broadcasting this staple of European sport, Americans knew Indy-car racing (such as in the Indianapolis 500) and stock-car racing (though we did not yet tend to refer to it by its "league name," NASCAR). Formula One was foreign. Very foreign, full of Frenchmen, Germans, Italians, Brazilians. Like soccer.

But Stewart spoke English. He oozed love for his sport. He was personable. He was charismatic. And in his final season (he had announced his was retiring), he became a legend on this side of the Atlantic Ocean as well. He joined ABC to broadcast auto racing, and, along with Frazier, Joe Namath, Jimmy Connors and Reggie Jackson, was one of the top sports personalities in TV commercials in that era. In one commercial for Getty gas, he drove an F1 car up to a big gas guzzler and said that wasting gas "makes my Scottish blood run cold!" He became the most famous Scotsman in America, topping Canadian James Doohan's Montgomery Scott character from Star Trek.

No question he was a great champion, and a great personality. But is auto racing a sport? I say it isn't. But '73 was a tough year: "The Swingin' A's" were champions, but not exactly "sportsmen." George Foreman won the heavyweight title but, at the time, wasn't exactly considered photo- or telegenic. The Knicks won their 2nd NBA Championship, but it simply wasn't as great a story as it had been in 1970. Maybe if Hank Aaron had hit just 2 more home runs, to break the all-time record in spite of the vicious hate mail he got, instead of hitting Numbers 714 and 715 early the next season, he would have been named SOTY. He certainly was a deserving finalist.

And, of course, the Miami Dolphins began the year by completing their undefeated season, and continued their streak well into the following season. But Bob Griese, though a good quarterback, was colorless (the Dolphins' aqua and orange home jerseys notwithstanding). And their defense was known as "the No-Name Defense." (Totally unfair, especially now that Nick Buoniconti is in the Hall of Fame.) Head Coach Don Shula? He was honored by SI 20 years later, an obvious LAA. But he was never really all that interesting. But he should have been SOTY. After all, as he and the surviving members of that 1972-73 Dolphin team will tell us (especially now that the Green Bay Packers won't go 19-0 this season), they are the only undefeated champions in NFL history. (Not quite true, but they are the only ones since the NFL Championship Game, and its successor the Super Bowl, began in 1932.)

1974 Muhammad Ali. No argument. Arguing would be pointless: Even if he didn't punch you for arguing, he'd talk and talk and talk you into submission. That year, he proved he was The Greatest. Aaron may have became baseball's all-time home run leader (and, for all honest men, he still is), but, barring an unforgivable crime, the new record was inevitable. Ali's knockout of Foreman to retake the heavyweight title was, at the time, truly shocking. (In retrospect, no, it wasn't.) As he had so many times earlier in his career, he predicted victory, and, well, as Dizzy Dean (who died that year) taught us, "If you can do it, it ain't braggin'." Ali told us, and he was right: "When you see this, you'll be shocked! You'll be laughin'! And you will know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I am still... The Greatest... Of All Tiiiiiiiime!" He'll be 70 next month, and he still is The Greatest.

1975 Pete Rose. Yes, he captained (at least unofficially) the Cincinnati Reds to the World Championship, and won the World Series MVP. But, as we are now willing to see, even then he was no sportsman.

A better choice would have been Arthur Ashe, who not only became the first black man to win Wimbledon (Althea Gibson was the first black person to win it, in 1957), but delivered one of the most public early blows to the apartheid regime of South Africa. Ashe would receive the SOTY in 1992, a LAA, at the end of his lifetime. He deserved it at his peak.

1976 Chris Evert. The first tennis player, first woman, and first female to be a sole-winner of the SOTY (after Billie Jean shared it with Coach Wooden in 1972), she was also the youngest one yet: 22 years even, 9 months younger than Orr was in December 1970. She won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, after having won the French the previous 2 years. (It would take her until 1982 to win the Australian and complete "the career Grand Slam.")

I see no fault with this selection, although they could have gone even younger and selected Nadia Comaneci. But I guess America wasn't ready for SI to give SOTY to a 14-year-old girl from a Communist country. Even if she did go on to defect, marry an American, and settle in the U.S.

1977 Steve Cauthen. Chrissie's title as youngest SOTY winner lasted just 1 year, as the 17-year-old Eclipse Award winner for Best Jockey was honored. He became known, borrowing the title of a popular TV show of that era, as the Six Million Dollar Man because he became the first jockey to win that much money in a year. Actually, right guy... wrong year.

I'm biased. This was the first year whose sports moments I can really remember. And Reggie Jackson came to the Yankees for this year and became my man for all time. Sports star of the year? Even in retrospect, I'd say yes. But "sportsman" of the year? That's pushing it. How about Al McGuire? The longtime basketball coach at Milwaukee's Marquette University, having gotten to the National Championship Game in 1974 and lost to North Carolina State, won it this time, topping Dean Smith's North Carolina, and tearfully retired. He then began a second career broadcasting college hoops. The Far Rockaway native, and brother of 1950s Knicks legend Dick McGuire (Al also played for them but wasn't nearly as good as his brother), was one of the great personalities in the game's history. He was arguably the original "Dick Vitale." It was a sad day when he died.

1978 Jack Nicklaus. The Golden Bear won the British Open that year. That's it, just the 1 title. There had been 3 years in which he won 2, so what made this year any more special? Besides, while he remains the greatest performer his game has ever seen, golf is still a game -- not a sport.

This was the year they should have given it to Steve Cauthen. He won not one of his sport's majors, not two, but three. Aboard Affirmed, he won the Triple Crown of thoroughbred horse racing. There has never been another.

1979 Willie Stargell and Terry Bradshaw. No way to dispute this dual award. In the last year of a decade that saw either the Pirates or the Steelers make the Playoffs each year, and both of them do so 4 times (1972, '74, '75 & '79), they each won their sport's World Championship. Bradshaw and the Steel Curtain won Super Bowl XIII in January, and were setting themselves up for SB XIV the following January, their 4th title in 6 years. Stargell had been with the Bucs on their '71 title, and by '79 he was the "Pops" of a team called "The Family." When the Pirates won the World Series in October, Pittsburgh began calling itself the City of Champions, and if you were going to argue, you had to face such black-and-gold badasses as Dave "Cobra" Parker, Bill "Mad Dog" Madlock, "Mean Joe" Greene, Jack Lambert and L.C. Greenwood -- the latter 2 so mean they didn't need no stinkin' nicknames. Sadly, Stargell has died.

1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team. Do you dare question this one? What are you, a Communist? Coach Herb Brooks has died, but all 20 players remain alive.

1981 Sugar Ray Leonard. Unified the welterweight championship of the world by knocking out the undefeated Thomas "Hit Man" Hearns in the 14th round in Las Vegas, a fight that was very much a lower-division equivalent to the 1975 "Thrilla in Manila" between Ali and Joe Frazier. In a calendar year that saw championships won by such questionable personalities as the Oakland Raiders, Bobby Knight, the New York Islanders, the Boston Celtics, John McEnroe, and Tommy Lasorda, I can't dispute this one.

1982 Wayne Gretzky. In the 1981-82 season, Wayne Gretzky did to his sport what Wilt Chamberlain did to his in 1961-62, and Babe Ruth did to his in 1920: Rewrote the offensive record book. Although the Edmonton Oilers were not quite ready for prime time -- blowing a 5-0 lead in a Playoff game against the Los Angeles Kings, known as the Miracle On Manchester for the street the Forum is on -- there was no question at the time that Number 99 was class on and off the ice. That he sided with his fellow owners, not his former fellow players, in the 2004-05 NHL lockout is despicable, but it doesn't change what he did, on and off the ice, to promote the game.

1983 Mary Decker. In spite of the efforts of Wilma Rudolph, Wyomia Tyus, and a few Eastern Europeans that we now know had pharmaceutical help, Decker was the first female track-and-field performer to receive the honor. She won the 1,500 and 3,000 meters at the World Championships, the first time the event was held, in Helsinki, Finland. She had been unable to compete in the 1980 Olympics due to the U.S. boycott, but was a favorite to win Gold Medals at the 1984 Games. But it was not to be, in a race that was controversial even before it started, and more so afterward.

1984 Edwin Moses and Mary Lou Retton. Hard to argue with this dual entry. Moses won the Gold Medal in the 400-meter hurdles at the 1976 Olympics, missed the 1980 Games due to the boycott, and then won it again in 1984. From 1977 to 1987, 10 years, 122 straight races, he never lost. Think about that: He had 122 chances to get beat by someone having a once-in-a-lifetime performance, or get beat by someone cheating, or have a bad race, or be disqualified due to false starts, or get hurt, or get sick, or not feel like showing up, or, God forbid, have something tragic happen to him on the way to the meet, and none of that happened.  One hundred and twenty-two straight races.  He kept the streak going until he was 32 years old -- that's like 45 in footracers' years.  He was his sport's Hank Aaron and its Nolan Ryan.

Retton became the first American, male or female, to win an all-around Gold Medal in an Olympic gymnastic tournament, and the most famous person, let alone athlete, from West Virginia since the State produced football's Sam Huff and basketball's Jerry West in the 1950s.

I suppose SI could've made it a mass entry, as they did in 1980. The Soviet boycott (obviously payback for '80) made it a considerably easier Olympics for the West in general and the U.S. (and West Germany) in particular, and some other Americans should be mentioned. Carl Lewis matched Jesse Owens' 1936 performance by winning Gold in the 100 meters, the 200 meters, and the long jump, and anchoring the 4-by-100-meter relay. A U.S. basketball team led by Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing won the Gold, and was hailed as the best amateur basketball team ever. It may still be, since by the time Jordan and Ewing competed again in 1992, with a few other guys you may have heard of, professionals were allowed. The U.S. men's gymnastic team won the all-around title, led by Peter Vidmar, Mitch Gaylord, and Bart Conner -- the last of them now better known as the husband of Nadia Comaneci.

And Jeff Blatnick had survived Hodgkin's disease and the removal of his spleen to become America's first-ever Gold Medalist in Greco-Roman wrestling. Interviewed after his victory, through tears of joy he yelled, "I'm a happy dude!" Is that phrase symbolic of America in the 1980s, or what?

1985 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The former Lew Alcindor could have won in any number of years, but to be one of the top 5 players in the NBA at age 38, and to dominate the NBA Finals, clinching them against the Boston Celtics on the parquet floor of the Boston Garden, was something special. This was no LAA: This SOTY award was totally legit. There was a time when the Los Angeles Lakers were not known for overweening egos, criminality and cheating on the court, but, rather, for power and style, and this was it: Kareem, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, James Worthy, Michael Cooper, and so on.  (Okay, Kurt Rambis did look like a mustachioed basketball version of a hockey Hanson Brother, but other than that, they were as stylish a sports team as there has ever been, right up there with the early 1970s Knicks.)

1986 Joe Paterno. This isn't about what we now know about the football program at Pennsylvania State University. This is about what Joe Pa was thought to be at the time. Sure, he, his team, their uniforms and their style of play were blander than Pat Boone eating rice pudding. But they got the job done, and even a Rutgers fan like me enjoyed seeing them beat the thugs of the University of Miami in the Fiesta Bowl (albeit on January 2, 1987, after this award was already given) to win their 2nd National Championship.

The first happened in 1982, and there are those who argue they should have already been awarded them in 1969, 1970 and 1973. (And, later, in 1994.) So this looks like another LAA. But look who the other major champions of the year were. Egomaniacs and/or cheaters like the Mets, the Chicago Bears, the Boston Celtics, the World Cup winners of Argentina with Diego "Hand of God" Maradona, and Mike Tyson. Teams nearly as bland as Nittany: The Montreal Canadiens (by this point, they were hardly the flashy "Flying Frenchmen" of the 1950s, '60s and '70s) and the University of Louisville. There was no Triple Crown winner in horse racing, and no Olympics. And while Nicklaus won the Masters at the shocking age of 46, I can't give Sportsman of the Year to a golfer, not even the greatest ever at the time of his greatest achievement ever.

But I don't, even reluctantly, concede this one to JoePa. In 1986, Greg LeMond became the first American -- indeed, the first non-European -- to win cycling's greatest prize, the Tour de France. He was considered worthy of the SOTY in 1989, why not in 1986?

1987 Athletes Who Care. In a year with comparatively bland champions like Phil Simms and the Minnesota Twins -- and with the Lakers' Kareem and the Oilers' Gretzky already past honorees -- SI went with charity:

* Bob Bourne of the Los Angeles Kings, formerly of the Islanders, who helped a handicapped children's school.
* Judi Brown King, a hurdler won won a Silver Medal at the 1984 Olympics, who helped abused children.
* Kipchoge "Kip" Keino, who won Gold Medals in track at the 1968 and '72 Olympics, who cared for orphaned children in his native Kenya (and is now head of that country's Olympic Committee, and was the first African native to win SI's SOTY, even in part).
* Dale Murphy, the Atlanta Braves' 2-time National League MVP and a majority charity fundraiser.
* Chip Rives, a college football player cited for helping needy children.
* Patty Sheehan, winner of 2 LPGA Championships (eventually winning 6 of women's golf's majors), who helped abused girls.
* Rory Sparrow, who came out of Paterson, New Jersey's famed-but-troubled Eastside High School to star for Villanova University and both New York-area NBA teams (he was with the Knicks at the time), who took his experience as an inner-city youth and helped those who came after him.
* And Reggie Williams, the Cincinnati Bengals linebacker who reached out to inner-city high schools, and was later elected to Cincinnati's City Council.

Nothing wrong with honoring any of those selections, all of whom are still alive and still involved with charity. But it is possible to select just one person for that year, and still fit the spirit in which SI made their selections. Magic Johnson led the Lakers to the NBA Championship, effectively moving them from being "Kareem's team" to being "Magic's team" that season (although Kareem, even at 40, was still one of the game's top 10 players), and being in the early stages of building his business empire. When conservatives talk about the super-rich being "investors" and "job creators," they don't think of Magic. But they should. As Magic would later say of Jordan, "If Michael did what I'm doing, he really would own the world."

1988 Orel Hershiser. So much has been made out of one swing from Kirk Gibson that it's easy to forget that the biggest reason the Los Angeles Dodgers even got to that year's World Series (still their last) was the Big O. (Not to be confused with another legendary athlete, Oscar Robertson. Or singers Roy Orbison and Otis Redding, or today's President, Barack Obama, for that matter.) His 59 straight scoreless innings, breaking the record of another Dodger pitching legend, Don Drysdale (who gave his emphatic approval), sparked a team that really didn't have much offense besides Gibson (who did win the NL MVP that year) to a surprising Pennant. Orel won Games 2 and 5 (the clincher) of the Series, won the Series MVP, and, later a pitching coach and now a broadcaster, has always been class on and off the field. This was a good selection.

1989 Greg LeMond. The difference between this year and '86 is that LeMond had come back from cancer to win the Tour de France. And, unlike Lance Armstrong a decade later, there is no serious charge that he did so illicitly. He would win a 3rd TdF.

But if I give it to LeMond for '86, I can't give it to him again for '89. So I give it to Joe Montana, who, at this point, was probably the greatest any quarterback has even been, and as for the numbers of a Dan Marino, or a Tom Brady, or what Drew Brees is now doing, as impressive as those numbers are, well, as Charlie Brown would say, "Tell your statistics to shut up."

1990 Joe Montana. Totally understandable that SI would honor him for this year, just as it would have been for the year before. But if I honor him for '89, I can't do it again for '90. So I'm going with an oddball pick: Lou Piniella. He took the Reds from the disaster that Rose had left them with, and not only controlled his "Eruptions of Mount Lou," but was calmer than Rose had been as manager, and took an unheralded team to upset wins over the Dodgers in the NL West, the Pirates in the NL Championship Series, and a sweep of the McGwire/Canseco/Stewart/Welch/Eckersley "Bash Brothers" A's in the World Series. Louuuuuuuu!

I'll probably get to Part III after Christmas.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Who Are the Real Sportsmen of the Year? Part I

Sports Illustrated magazine names a Sportsman of the Year every December. Sometimes it's a tie: Sportsmen. Sometimes it's a Sportswoman. On a few occasions, it's been a Sportsman and Sportswoman.

This was the case this year: Mike Krzyzewski, the head coach of the men's basketball team at Duke University in North Carolina; and Pat Summitt, the head coach of the women's basketball team at the University of Tennessee.

Coach K's Blue Devils lost in the Regional Semifinal (a.k.a. the Sweet Sixteen) of the Men's NCAA Tournament. Coach Summitt's Volunteers (a.k.a. the Lady Vols) lost in the Regional Final (a.k.a. the Elite Eight) of the Women's NCAA Tournament.

So why were they given this prestigious honor -- which, unlike the Person of the Year awarded by SI's parent magazine, Time, is not for the person who most affected the news, but a genuine expression of appreciation?

Coach K -- who, for some reason, pronounces his name not by starting with a K, "Kruh-SHEV-skee," like it should be, but "Shuh-SHEV-skee" -- has won 4 National Championships, and last season surpassed Bobby Knight, to whom he was once an assistant, to become the all-time leader in wins by a college men's head basketball coach. As of this morning, he has won 910 games. So he did have an achievement worth mentioning this calendar year.

Coach Summitt, whose 8 National Championships trail only the late UCLA men's coach John Wooden with 10, was already the women's leader in the same category -- indeed, she leads all college basketball coaches, regardless of gender, with 1,080 wins as of her most recent contest. This year, she announced that she had been diagnosed with early-onset dementia, Alzheimer's type. She still plans to coach through the end of this season, at least. On occasion, SI has awarded Sports(person(s)) of the Year for bravery as much as for achievement.

But, essentially, these are lifetime achievement awards. Both Krzyzewski and Summitt have had, competitively speaking, better years. And there were other deserving candidates.

SI has done this before. Since their founding in 1954, they have given out a Sportsman of the Year award every year, and not always to the right person -- and sometimes, not for the right reason.

Here's their list, and here's who I would have chosen, if not SI's choice.

1954 Roger Bannister. As great as Willie Mays, Otto Graham and Tom Gola were in that first year of SI, SI got this one right. The four-minute mile was seen as a tremendous barrier. A Swedish runner named Gunder Hagg had run the mile in 4 minutes, 1.4 seconds in 1945, and that record had stood for 9 years, and people were thinking that the 4-minute barrier would never be broken. There were even scientists who thought that, if it was broken, the strain on the man who did it would be such that he would die.

But Bannister, a medical student at England's University of Oxford (usually written as "Oxford University"), knew from his studies of both medicine and athletics that it was possible, and he did it in 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds. His record was broken a few weeks later by Australian runner John Landy, but then, at the British Empire Games (now the Commonwealth Games) in Vancouver, Bannister, while not reclaiming the record, beat Landy. He then retired, becoming a neurologist rather than compete in the 1956 Olympics. (He'd finished 4th in the 1500 meters in the 1952 Games.) Sir Roger is now retired from medicine, although he still lectures. The record is now 3 minutes, 43.13 seconds, set in 1999 by Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco.

1955 Johnny Podres. Podres was the pitcher who made the difference for the Brooklyn Dodgers in finally winning a World Series on the team's 8th try -- the last 5 defeats coming at the hands of the Yankees, whom they finally beat. But was he really more deserving than Otto Graham, who came out of retirement to quarterback the Cleveland Browns to another NFL Championship, then retired at the top of his game again? I don't think so. Podres and Graham are both dead.

1956 Bobby Morrow. An American runner who won 3 Gold Medals at the Olympics, I had to look up his name to find out who he was. The real Sportsman of the Year was Bill Russell, who led the basketball team at University of San Francisco to a 2nd straight National Championship and the longest winning streak the sport had yet seen (later broken by Wooden's UCLA in 1971-74), and then led the U.S. team to the Olympic Gold Medal, before revolutionizing the pro game with the Boston Celtics (although the bulk of that happened after this calendar year). Morrow was a white man from Texas. Russell was a black man born in Louisiana (though living his "formative years" in Oakland, California). Gee, I wonder why SI made the choice they made. Both Morrow and Russell are still alive.

1957 Stan Musial. You'll never get me to say an unkind word about Stan the Man, but this was SI's first lifetime achievement award (hereafter abbreivated as LAA). Truly, Stan's best years were before SI began publishing.

How about Maurice Richard? In the spring, the Rocket led the Montreal Canadiens to yet another Stanley Cup. In the fall, he scored the 500th goal of his career, at a time when only 3 other players even had 300. True, it would have been a LAA for him as much as for Stan, but he did win a championship, something Stan hadn't done since 1946. (The Rocket also won one that year.) The Man is still alive, but the Rocket is dead.

1958 Rafer Johnson. The UCLA student set a world record in the decathlon, 2 years after winning an Olympic Silver Medal and 2 years before winning a Gold with another record. SI names its first black SOTY. No argument here. He is still alive.

1959 Ingemar Johansson. The Swede knocked out
Floyd Patterson at Yankee Stadium to take the heavyweight championship of the world. Funny, but when Floyd knocked Ingo out at the Polo Grounds the next year to become the first man to reclaim that title (many had tried), SI did not name him Sportsman of the Year. Again, the honoree was white, and the man who got gypped was black. Anyway, Ingo, who is dead, remains the last white man and the last native of the continent of Europe to be an undisputed heavyweight champion. (Then again, when was the last time we had an undisputed one of any race, of any continent? Lennox Lewis, in 2004, a black man from Britain, a nation that likes to remind us that, technically, they are not "in Europe.")

Anyway, I can't think of a SOTY choice appreciably better than Ingo, although Johnny Unitas (NFL Champion Baltimore Colts) and Darrell Imhoff (NCAA basketball champion California) are possibilities.

1960 Arnold Palmer. If you presume that golf is a sport, Arnie was a very good choice: He won the Masters and the U.S. Open, and was the leading money-winner on the PGA Tour. If, like me, you do not think golf is a real sport, then it could be Patterson. It could also be the man who was chosen the next year. Arnie is still alive, Floyd is dead.

1961 Jerry Lucas. The Ohio State forward was hailed as a "scholar-athlete," and that was no joke: He remains one of the most celebrated intellectuals in sports history, a master of memory who has created a correspondence course to help people expand their own memory skills. He led Ohio State to the National Championship the year before, dethroning Imhoff and Cal, but in '61 the Buckeyes lost in the Final to the University of Cincinnati. This result would be repeated in '62, as Lucas and fellow future Hall-of-Famer John Havlicek completed their college careers.

There's no question Lucas was deserving, but was he the most deserving? Admittedly, single-season home run record breaker Roger Maris was not much of a "sportsman," but his achievement, so much derided by the sports media of the time, has only grown in impressiveness in the half-century since. Lucas is still alive, Maris is dead.

1962 Terry Baker. The most celebrated lefthanded quarterback of his time, the Oregon State signal-caller was, like Lucas, hailed as a scholar-athlete. While he did win the Heisman Trophy and lead his school to a very successful season, they did not win their conference (the league now known as the Pac-12). His pro career was a bust: The Los Angeles Rams drafted him despite already having Roman Gabriel, and barely played. Although his degree was in mechanical engineering, he went to law school, and practiced law until retiring. He is still alive. A good choice for Sportsman of the Year, if not the best one.

I can understand why they didn't select Mickey Mantle of the World Champion Yankees: He wasn't exactly a good interview, and wasn't always a class act. But what about Russell? He led the Celtics to another title. What about Wilt Chamberlain? He only had the greatest season, individually speaking, that any basketball player is ever likely to have. What about Maury Wills, who made baseball fans rediscover the stolen base? What about Frank Mahovlich, who brought the Toronto Maple Leafs back to the Stanley Cup? Since SI (with one exception) has never given this award out twice, I'm not going to give it to Russell a 2nd time. I'm giving it to Wilt. He's dead, Baker is still alive.

1963 Pete Rozelle. This was the first time SI gave it to a non-athlete. Consider the challenges he faced, when just 37 years old and in his 4th season as NFL Commissioner: The League's expansion, the bidding war for players with the AFL, the Paul Hornung and Alex Karras gambling scandals, and the decision, with very little time to make it, to play games 48 hours after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Whether the decision was right or wrong (and he later decided it was wrong), Rozelle was an incredibly consequential figure in this year, and, if it was a mistake, he still found a way to make it with class. SI got this one right. Rozelle is dead.

1964 Ken Venturi. He had come back from a car crash to win the U.S. Open. So his selection was understandable. But was he a better selection than Olympic heroes like Don Schollander, Dawn Fraser, Wyomia Tyus? World Series star Bob Gibson? Jim Brown, the best football player of his time (perhaps all time), who won his only NFL Championship that season? Mahovlich, who won his 3rd straight Stanley Cup? At any rate, like Bill Walton, Venturi overcame a youthful stutter to become a broadcaster in his sport. He is still alive.

1965 Sandy Koufax. No argument here. Koufax is still alive.

1966 Jim Ryun. He set the record in the mile run, and held it for 9 years. A year later, he would set the record in the 1,500 meters. His career as a right-wing Republican Congressman from Kansas should not obscure his athletic achievements.

But was he the sportsman of the year, capitalized or otherwise? Frank Robinson singlehandedly turned the Baltimore Orioles from pretenders to first-time Pennant winners and World Champions, winning the Triple Crown and becoming the first man to win baseball Most Valuable Player awards in both leagues. Don Haskins coached Texas Western University (soon to become the University of Texas at El Paso, or UTEP) to the National Championship with an all-black starting lineup, defeating the all-white Kentucky. Bobby Hull became the first hockey player to score more than 50 goals in a season, breaking the record held by Maurice Richard and his former Montreal Canadien teammate Bernie "Boom-Boom" Geoffrion. I'd have chosen Robinson first, Haskins second, Ryun third, Hull fourth. Ryun, Robinson and Hull are still alive, Haskins is dead.

1967 Carl Yastrzemski. The last man to win baseball's Triple Crown, he led the Boston Red Sox to their "Impossible Dream" Pennant. Wilt Chamberlain, who led the Philadelphia 76ers to their (and his) first NBA title, could have been selected. So could John Wooden, or his star center Lew Alcindor (who became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1972), who led UCLA to an undefeated National Championship. Then there was the star of college football's National Championship, O.J. Simpson of the University of Southern California. (Okay, but we didn't know what he would do in 1994.) If they'd chosen after New Year's Eve, when Vince Lombardi coached the Green Bay Packers to the NFL Championship in the Ice Bowl, maybe they would have thought differently.

But Yaz seemed such an inspirational figure that I'm going to say that SI got it right. Yaz, Lew/Kareem and O.J. are still alive; Wilt, Wooden and Lombardi are dead.

1968 Bill Russell. SI finally selects him, for becoming the first black head coach to win a World Championship in any sport, unless you count Fritz Pollard of the 1920 Akron Pros in the NFL's first season (when it was still, more or less, a semipro league). As we discovered in the 1970s and '80s, Russell wasn't much of a coach when he didn't have Bill Russell as a player. He is still alive.

1969 Tom Seaver. In spite of a 3rd straight title by Wooden and Alcindor/Abdul-Jabbar (they went 88-2 over that span), Seaver was "The Franchise" for the Miracle Mets. Certainly, he was a more sellable star to conservative sports fans than Joe Namath, the star of that other New York sports team to win a World Championship in that calendar year. (The Knicks won their first title the following year.) Seaver is still alive.

Part II will follow tomorrow.