On January 1, 2008, I was careening through the back roads of Costa Rica at seemingly unsafe speeds, traveling between resorts on my honeymoon.
"Just make it through this," I prayed, "so that next year at this time, I can be at the Winter Classic."
OK, that's a lie. I didn't know that the most important event in Chicago sports history (or the universe for that matter) would be played at Wrigley Field, nor do I pray, so I just tried to focus on watching Die Hard on our driver's in-car TV. Bruce Willis gave me strength.
But since we're talking about the Winter Classic (Yes, this column is definitely timely. Isn't the Internet great!), like apparently a shitload of other hungover people, I watched the NHL's new showcase event (Stanley Cup? Never heard of it), which was hyped as something comparable to the culmination of every Super Bowl and World Series, perhaps equaling the Second Coming (of Jesus, not Stan Mikita), New Year's Day on TV. Cynically, I rooted not for the Blackhawks to upend the Red Wings, but rather, for the Wrigley Field bathrooms to explode, or something equally comical, because seriously, who plays hockey outside in the dead of winter?
All throughout the game, we mocked the self-imposed gravitas of it all, sick of the month-long marketing blitz of what was just a regular-season hockey game. Sure it was a great idea, and they pulled it off pretty well, but really, did you ever sit at Wrigley in the middle of July and think, "Man I wish they'd put a rink in here?
But this game and that park were a perfect fit, because it took a lot of hype to get a lot of people to spend a lot of money to watch a game that didn't mean much of anything. There is something to be said, however, about enjoying sports on an aesthetic level, rather than with a soul-crushing, "Why are they doing this to me" intensity, which is how Chicago fans left Wrigley in October. There is nothing wrong with a spectacle now and again. So maybe starting off a New Year by doing things differently would bode well for a city so rooted in its traditions and melancholies.
After all, 2008 didn't go down as a particularly memorable (in a good way, at least) sports year in Chicago. Barack Obama's intramural basketball games were probably the most important games in town. And with the way newspapers are cutting out sportswriters, perhaps the most covered.
Let's summarize this year:
The Cubs' dream season ended more abruptly than a Ron Santo anecdote, as noted here and here; The White Sox had a life-affirming three-day run after five months of "Meh"; The Bears followed up a busted season with a mediocre one and Brian Urlacher is so beat up, even ex-strippers he knocked up were dissing his manhood; the Bulls were an embarrassment last season; the Blackhawks made news by putting their games on TV, which would've been even more exciting if it were 1958.
Chicago's best prep basketball talent continued to impress, but only outside the city, with then- Memphis guard Derrick Rose and Kansas' Sherron Collins playing in a kickass NCAA final. The local schools trudged on, nearly anonymous.
So what do Chicago sports fans have to look forward to in 2009, aside from Hawk Harrelson, bad singing at Wrigley and Olympic dreams?
Well, let's start with the important stuff, as Cubs Convention is upon us: Female sports fans are in mourning again after Jim Hendry jettisoned another well-stubbled second base sex symbol. My wife, a Mark DeRosa fan, wanted to shower Hendry with expletives on New Year's Eve, as I listened to a conference call discussing DeRo's trade to Cleveland. Like every other female Cubs fan, she also had googly eyes for similarly groomed Todd Walker. What can she say? She loves a man with a scratchy face.
DeRosa's move out of town comes on the whims of the Cubs' new obsession with adding left-handed hitters (Note to Hendry: I'm available). Aaron Miles, a switch-hitter, will split second base duties with Mike Fontenot.
Growing up, I dealt with all the negatives of being left-handed: special scissors, cramming your hand into notebooks, learning to golf as a righty. I always thought of my left-handedness as a weakness. Twenty years later, I know I could be cashing fat Tribune checks with my left hand (I'm presupposing I would've been awesome at baseball with some foresight).
The Cubs also picked up $10 million man Milton Bradley, whose quirky name is a headline writer's dream (unless all headline writing has already been outsourced to India). Bradley's got a rap as being a headcase, which means that's all you'll hear about on sports talk radio and in quickie columns ("Are the Cubs through playing games with Milton Bradley?"), but he's a good-hitter (And he can hit lefty!) and certainly better equipped to handle Major League pitching than Kosuke Fukudome, who as mentioned in this video, maddeningly looks like he's screwing himself in the ground at the plate.
On the opposite side of town, the White Sox, when not touting their affiliation with Barack Obama, have solidified their cast of fifth starter candidates by inking Bartolo Colon. Now, if you know who Colon is, you're aware he's pretty fat. But I'll tell you, of all the baseball players I've seen, he definitely looks the least like a professional athlete. He's short, hefty and had an unbelievably bad haircut (short curly things sprouting from his melon) a few years back. The only guy to come close in this regard is former Cub Matt Stairs, who looks more like a third base coach. A 50-year-old third base coach. On a beer league softball team. But the guy can still mash, so maybe Colon can still pitch.* After all, as baseball sage Billy Beane once said, these guys aren't modeling blue jeans.
The Blackhawks will surely make the playoffs. Are there still NHL playoffs? How many teams make them? Who really knows, or cares. (That's a bullshit line. I don't care. The sold-out crowds they get every night, I'd say they care. Putting games on TV, and not telling fans to go fuck themselves, works. How about that? A couple geniuses they got over there on Madison.)
But while the Hawks are selling anything with an Indian on it, they could probably just tell us they made the playoffs, put the games on Comcast, dress half the team in different color jerseys and sell $200 tickets and no one would be the wiser.
As for the other tenant of the United Center, the Bulls are coached by Vinny Del Negro. There's a sentence you probably won't be reading for too many years. Nothing against the Italian Stallion, but let's just say he wasn't the Bulls first choice (or fifth). The Bulls, winners of two in a row as I write this, have a few talented players, but the esprit de corps is gone. On a personal level, I've lost any interest in following them since they jettisoned Scott Skiles last Christmas Eve (I covered his last game). When you watched a Skiles team play, you felt like there was a plan in place, someone organized was at the helm. I guess you can't judge Cousin Vinny just yet (See that, I made up another funny nickname. Just like Mariotti!) Despite having one of the most exciting rookies in Derrick Rose, Del Negro's team has been hampered by injuries and a few ill-fitting parts, which has lead to a lack of continuity on the floor. Well, I think that's the problem. I haven't really watched their game too much, and Sam Smith's not writing for the Tribune anymore, so I'm a little lost.
As for the Bears, the one positive I can take from them is I'm glad to be a Steelers fan.
*One other Colon story. Completely self-referential. When I worked as a sportswriter in Yuma, Arizona, I was designing pages one night, shortly after the Cleveland Indians traded Colon to the Montreal Expos (RIP Youppi). C.C. Sabathia had a good game that night and I was feeling puckish, so I wrote this headline: Sabathia cleanses Colon issue. I was told not to do that again. And that's probably why I'm writing for free now.