Wednesday, December 28, 2011

2011 Chicago Sports Memories Awards

Play of the Year: Jonathan Toews, Blackhawks, April 27

     After spotting the Vancouver Canucks the first three games of their first-round playoff series, the Hawks roared back to take the next three contests, forcing a Game 7 on April 27.
     In that game, the Hawks trailed 1-0 as the clock wound down to the two-minute mark in the third period. Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews took possession of the puck off an errant Vanvouver pass at center ice, circled, then moved in on the left wing. As he was being dragged down by two Canucks defenders, Toews slid the puck across to Marian Hossa, whose backhanded attempt was stoppped by goalie Roberto Luongo.
     Unfortunately for Luongo, the rebound landed in front of Toews, who poked it into the net as he himself skidded face-first along the ice. There was 1:56 remaining in regulation, and it looked as if the Hawks might pull off a miracle and capture the series after all. They ended up losing in overtime, but they demonstrated the heart and resilience that will contimue to be their trademark for years to come with Toews as their captain and Joel Quenneville as head coach.

Game of the Year: Bears vs. Green Bay Packers, January 23

     For the first 90 years of their existence, the Bears met their ancient rivals from up north only once in posteason play, in 1941 when the two teams tied for the Western Division title and needed a special playoff game to decide which would go to the NFL championship game.
     The Bears and Packers met for the second time in postseason play this past January, again with a trip to the NFL championship game (now known as the Super Bowl) riding on the outcome.
     In the NFC title game at Soldier Field on January 23, a knee injury forced Bears quarterback Jay Cutler out of the game early in the third quarter with the Bears trailing 14-0. Afterwards, Cutler had to endure ridiculous questions about why he hadn't been able to continue with a torn MCL (medial collateral ligament)!
     The Bears got to within 14-7 early in the fourth quarter, but finally went down to defeat 21-14. The biggest Chicago game of the year and of the past several years ended in frustration and recrimination. Meanwhile, the Packers went on to win the Super Bowl.       

Player of the Year: Derrick Rose, Bulls

     The third-year point guard carried the Bulls to the NBA's best regular-season record at 62-20 and in so doing became the youngest winner of the league's Most Valuable Player award at only 22. The Bulls made the conference finals, and they have justifiably high hopes again as they enter the truncated 2011-12 season.
     Rose's play on the court is truly jaw-dropping, but what makes him so much more impressive is his maturity, dignity, and humility. You might lump it all together under one word: class. Fame and fortune have not changed Rose at all. If anything, they have made him even more respectful and accountable to his teammates, to the game of basketball, and to those less fortunate than himself.
     Is it all too good to be true? We'll have plenty of time to find out, because Rose will be with the Bulls for a long time. For now, we'll close with a quote from Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf: "If you don't see something special in Derrick Rose, then you're blind."

Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order):
Marian Hossa, Blackhawks; Patrick Kane, Blackhawks; Paul Konerko, White Sox; Jonathan Toews, Blackhawks; Brian Urlacher, Bears.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

In Memoriam, 2011

     We Chicago sports fans lost some noteworthy performers this year. Heading the list were Chicago Cardinals Hall of Famer Ollie Matson, former Bears safety Dave Duerson, former White Sox skipper Chuck Tanner, former Northwestern and Bears receiver Jim Keane, and former Cubs pitcher Bob Rush.
     Blackhawks alumni Alexander Karpovtsev and Igor Korolev were among 44 people who perished when a plane carrying the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey team, of which the two were members, crashed upon takeoff near Yaroslavl, Russia, on September 7.

Below is a list of notable Chicago sports personalities who passed away in 2011:

Ricky Bell, 36, Bears defensive back 1997-1998 (February 17).

Dave Cole, 81, Cubs pitcher 1954 (October 26).

Wes Covington, 79, White Sox outfielder 1961, Cubs outfielder 1966 (July 4).

Dave Duerson, 50, Bears safety 1983-1989, four-time Pro Bowler, member of Super Bowl XX championship team (February 17).

Woodie Fryman, 70, Cubs pitcher 1978 (February 4).

Joe Gentile, 87, Chicagoland car dealer, alumnus of and donor to Loyola University, whose basketball arena is named for him (October 10).

Jesse Jefferson, 62, White Sox pitcher 1975-1976 (September 8).

Alexander Karpovtsev, 41, Blackhawks defenseman 2000-2004 (September 7).

Jim Keane, 87, Bears end 1946-1951, led NFL in pass receptions with 60 in 1947, played college ball at Northwestern (March 8).

Igor Korolev, 41, Blackhawks center 2001-2004 (September 7).

Ed Manning, 67, Bulls forward 1969-1970 (March 4).

Ollie Matson, 80, Chicago Cardinals kick returner and halfback 1952-1958, traded to Los Angeles Rams in 1959 for nine players, six-time Pro Bowler, inducted into Pro Football Hall of Fame 1972, previous to his football career won two medals at 1952 Summer Olympic Games (February 19).

Charlie Metro, 91, one of Cubs rotating managers in so-called “College of Coaches” era 1962 (March 18).

Tim McCaskey, 66, Bears vice president, second oldest of Ed and Virginia McCaskey’s 11 children (January 30).

Scotty Robertson, 81, Bulls head coach 1979 (August 18).

Bob Rush, 85, Cubs pitcher 1948-1957, White Sox pitcher 1960, two-time All-Star (March 19).

Johnny Schmitz, 90, Cubs pitcher 1941-1942 and 1946-1951, two-time All-Star, missed 1943-1945 seasons while serving in World War II (October 1).

Roy Smalley, 85, Cubs shortstop 1948-1953 (October 22).

Chuck Tanner, 81, Cubs outfielder 1957-1958; White Sox manager 1970-1975 (February 11).

Bob Will, 80, Cubs outfielder 1957-1958, 1960-1963 (August 11).

Gus Zernial, 87, White Sox outfielder 1949-1951, led American League in homers and RBIs in 1951 after being traded to Philadelphia Athletics early in the season (January 20).

Monday, December 5, 2011

Santo's Second Fondest Wish Comes True

     Today's announcement that Ron Santo has finally been elected to the Hall of Fame was more bitter than sweet, coming as it did a year after Santo passed away. Many observers have cited Santo as the most deserving player not yet in the Hall, a wrong that will be righted come induction day next summer. Alas, the honor will be too late for Santo himself to enjoy it.
     Santo was easily the best National League third baseman of his day and one of the best of all time. He was a nine-time All-Star, five-time Gold Glover, and four times finished in the top ten in MVP balloting.
     For the period of 1964 through 1969, Santo had the highest WAR (wins above replacement player) in the major leagues—better than Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Frank Robinson, or anyone else. His figure of 45.7 means that the Cubs won that many more games with Santo in the lineup than they would have won with an average player in his place. By that measure, Santo was the most valuable player in the major leagues over the six-year period.
     Santo the broadcaster is better known than Santo the player, at least to fans under the age of 45 or 50. He spent two decades in the Cubs' radio booth, teamed first with Thom Brennaman and Bob Brenly, and then, for 15 years, with Pat Hughes. As a broadcaster, Santo was a mirror for the feelings of his listeners in good times and bad. No one was more delighted than Santo when the Cubs won, and no one was more disappointed when they lost.
     His election to the Hall of Fame makes Santo's second fondest wish come true. His fondest wish was to see the Cubs win the World Series.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Ventura Ventures Into Uncharted Territory

     Having tired of biting the hand that fed him for eight years, Ozzie Guillen recently concluded that it was time to leave his post as manager of the White Sox. Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and general manager Kenny Williams were only too eager to agree--so eager, in fact, that they couldn't even wait until the end of the season. They granted Guillen his release with two games remaining on the schedule, so he could get a head start alienating his next employer, the Florida Marlins.
     All the self-appointed experts were sure that Williams would choose one of two former White Sox players, Sandy Alomar Jr. and Davey Martinez, to replace Guillen. As it turned out, however, neither Alomar nor Martinez even got an interview before the job was offered to and accepted by yet another former Sox player, Robin Ventura. Ventura has never coached or managed at any level of baseball from Little League on up, so his hiring came as a shock to everyone, including Ventura himself.
     Ventura the player had plenty of heart and character, qualities that should serve him well in his new role. He was one of the most popular White Sox of recent decades, so the fans will probably give Ventura the manager the benefit of the doubt, at least for a while. Only time will tell, of course, how he fares.
     Below is a brief listing of some noteworthy achievements--good, bad, and middling--of Ventura's predecessors as White Sox skipper.

World Series champions
1906 - Fielder Jones
1917 - Pants Rowland
2005 - Ozzie Guillen

American League champions
1901 - Clark Griffith
1906 - Fielder Jones
1917 - Pants Rowland
1919 - Kid Gleason
1959 - Al Lopez
2005 - Ozzie Guillen

Division champions
1983 - Tony LaRussa
1993 - Gene Lamont
1994 - Gene Lamont [season ended in August]
2000 - Jerry Manuel
2005 - Ozzie Guillen
2008 - Ozzie Guillen

Finished exactly .500
1922 - Kid Gleason
1941 - Jimmie Dykes
1974 - Chuck Tanner
2002 - Ozzie Guillen

Finished in last place
1924 - Johnny Evers, Ed Walsh, Eddie Collins
1931 - Donie Bush
1934 - Lew Fonseca, Jimmie Dykes
1948 - Ted Lyons
1970 - Don Gutteridge, Bill Adair, Chuck Tanner
1976 - Paul Richards
1989 - Jeff Torborg

Thursday, September 29, 2011

"As Good as It Gets"

     Bo Jackson’s role as a glib celebrity pitchman in countless TV commercials tended to make people forget that he was not a cartoon character but a shy, modest man who was grateful for the gifts nature had given him. Jackson was an All-Star in both the NFL and Major League Baseball—a unique achievement—until a 1991 football injury left him with an artificial hip.
     His career seemed to be over, and when Jackson appeared at the White Sox’ spring training camp in 1993, few observers gave him much of a chance to make the team. “I have a little hitch in my giddy-up,” Jackson admitted, but he had put himself through a tortuous rehab program and claimed to be getting better every day. Jackson made the team, thus fulfilling a promise made at his mother’s deathbed several months before.
     Jackson’s first at-bat of the year (and first in 18 months) came in the home opener at new Comiskey Park on April 9. He belted the second pitch he saw over the right-field wall for a home run. The crowd of 42,775 went wild, calling him out of the dugout after he had circled the bases. “The only thing I could think of at that time was my mother,” Jackson said after the game. “I made myself a promise after she passed that when I got back in the game and got my first hit, I was going to give that ball to her.” He had the ball bronzed, inscribed, and affixed to his mother’s tombstone.
     Although the Sox lost to the Yankees, it was a stirring start to what would prove a storybook season on the South Side. After a listless three months in which they flirted with the .500 mark, the Sox stormed through the second half to open up a comfortable lead over the Texas Rangers heading down the stretch. First baseman Frank Thomas, Jackson’s football teammate at Auburn University, was having the greatest offensive season in White Sox history and would soon receive the first of back-to-back MVP awards.
     By September 27, the White Sox were poised to clinch the American League West title. On this crisp Monday evening, the Sox’ Wilson Alvarez and Seattle’s Dave Fleming dueled through five and a half scoreless innings. In the bottom of the sixth, Ellis Burks led off with a single. Craig Grebeck followed with a bunt single, and the crowd of 42,116 began to stir. But Fleming settled down and retired the next two Sox hitters. Then Jackson stepped into the batter’s box. Sensing the dramatic possibilities, the fans came to their feet cheering and waving a sea of white socks over their heads. Fleming approached Bo carefully, and the count went to 3-and-0. Given the green light, Jackson swung at the next offering and hit a sky-high drive to left field.
     “I thought it was a pop-up,” Jackson said. But the ball kept soaring up and out, up and out, until it finally landed beyond the wall for a three-run homer. “It was amazing,” said the Sox’ Lance Johnson. “I thought Bo missed it and popped it up, but the left fielder went back, back, back until he just ran out of real estate.”
     “That,” Seattle manager Lou Piniella said, “is one strong man.”
     Bo’s blow gave the Sox a lead they never relinquished as they won 4-2 to wrap up the division title. It was a miracle finish not only for Jackson, but also for Alvarez, who had returned from the minors in August to win his last seven starts.
     After the game, the champagne-soaked Jackson went back out to the field to thank Sox fans for their support. Few had left, although the game had been over for half an hour. Jackson jogged around the field, waving a white sock of his own at the delirious fans. “This is as good as it gets,” he said. “The most fun I’ve had as a professional athlete.”

Reprinted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c) by Christopher Tabbert.