So here we are, sitting on the doorstep of another year sure to bring plenty to sports talk about issues both on the field and off. With competitive teams and New England athletes competing in individual sports like MMA and all of the Olympic events, it's great to be a New England sports fan (even with the sub-zero temperatures this time of year).
The past 12 months have brought us another slew of games, decisions, play calls, personalities, and rivals to argue about at bars, barbershops, and board rooms. Things like fourth-and-two, whether to re-sign Jason Bay, the Evil Empire buying a title, the NHL Winter Classic ,and more were on our minds, lips and keyboards, and thanks to the glut of sports media here, we have no shortage of outlets of which to get opinions from (including this one!).
We've looked at the honorable mentions and No's. 6-10 on our list of the top Boston sports stories of 2009, but now, as we prepare to welcome in 2010, let's say good bye to 2009 and the top five stories in Boston sports over the last 12 months.
No. 5: Harrison and Bruschi Retirements, Seymour Trade Signal End of a Defensive Era for Patriots
Hey, look at it this way—the New England Patriots' losses have been the networks' gain, as Rodney Harrison (NBC) and Tedy Bruschi (ESPN) both effortlessly slid into the role of "football analyst" to begin the season. Every week we can see them flashing those million dollar smiles that look like they've barely seen a combined 28 seasons of NFL action.
Once upon a time, the two were damn good football players too.
After patrolling and policing the Patriots defense together for six years (Harrison joined the team in 2003) and celebrating two championships together, Harrison and Bruschi both hung up their shoulder pads this summer and the Patriots have suffered for it.
While their stats near the end of their careers may have not gotten headlines on the Monday recaps, there is no doubt that Bill Belichick's defense has been in search of consistent leadership during this 2009 campaign. Combined with the surprising preseason trade of defensive mainstay Richard Seymour, this is a defense in serious transition.
However, there are some positives. Even in a season where he'll likely miss three games, Pro Bowl nose tackle Vince Wilfork has been a presence on the line and is making a case for an Albert Haynesworth-style payday when it comes time to ink a new deal this offseason. On top of that, young buck Jerod Mayo is evolving into the linebacker we are dying to have become a megastar in New England.
But the secondary was never fully addressed since Asante Samuel left town and highly-touted free agent signing Adalius Thomas has evolved into more of a team issue than a team player. This group has had their moments—like this past Sunday against Jacksonville—but in games against Indianapolis and New Orleans, they got handled badly. To lose all three of those guys at once was a huge deal, as their presence alone was essentially an extension of Belichick on a player level.
Leaders take time to develop and personnel like Wilfork, Mayo, and even Brandon Meriweather have shown they have the stuff to evolve into Double-B's go-to guys. It just might be a while until they become the three-headed monster that Harrison, Bruschi, and Seymour were for so many seasons, a monster that inspired the rest of the group to jump on for the ride. They get to start their own playoff journey and try in just a few weeks.
No. 4: Kevin Garnett Hurts Knee, Misses 2009 NBA Playoffs
One of the toughest things in sports is to repeat as champions. But with the nucleus still intact and another year of maturity for one of the best young point guards in the league, the Boston Celtics had as good a chance as any to go back-to-back and win their 18th title. Even with the loss of the versatile James Posey, the C's began the year at 27-2—the best start in NBA history.
Things changed in February when spiritual leader Kevin Garnett injured his right knee in a game against the Utah Jazz. After missing 14 games, there was still reason to be optimistic, as it looked like Garnett would be back for the playoffs. However, fans woke up from their dream when Garnett was shut down for the season after coming back for just four games. He would eventually have major knee surgery, but returned on time and has been as good as ever in 2009-10.
Even without him, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Rajon Rondo, and the rest of the Celtics advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals and arguably were a KG away from defeating the Orlando Magic in Game Seven and getting a rematch with the Cleveland LeBrons. Offseason rumors were that Garnett would have played if the Celtics had advanced, but this was never proven and finds its place in Celtics lore.
The injury was a hard reminder that seasons are long and that health is always the great equalizer for any team rolling along to the promise land. Just months removed from another Boston icon's knee blowing up, New England fans felt the pain again with Garnett.
No. 3: The 2009 MLB Playoffs (aka Hell for Red Sox fans)
If prior to the 2009 playoffs, you had mapped out the worst possible scenario for Red Sox Nation, it's hard to imagine it could have been any more brutal than what we experienced this fall. Not only did a perennial postseason punching bag finally defeat the Sox in the ALDS, but their blood rival that hadn't won a title since 2000 (despite spending about $2 billion) actually took home the top prize and revived one of the more obnoxious fan bases in sports in doing so.
Let's start with the direct pain. The Los Angeles Angels not only beat the Red Sox in a playoff series for the first time in five chances, but swept them in doing so—culminating in a sad Sunday game that was in Boston's back pocket until a meltdown by closer Jonathan Papelbon snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. It was ugly, just plain ugly. The bats never got going and there was a general malaise over the team in general.
This team earned their playoff berth, but certainly didn't battle like they wanted it. Something just felt off, didn't it?
If that wasn't bad enough, the Yankees won the World Series, earning rings for offseason acquisitions Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia, and AJ Burnett. After spending and spending and spending and spending, they finally did it. Congratulations! That's what spending that much cash and playing in a little league-sized ballpark will do for you. (Bitter? Yes, I am.)
If there's any positive out of this mess, it's that it feels like Boston vs. New York might actually mean something again in 2010. Since 2004 and then 2007, the Yankees haven't really felt like a factor as we've been too euphoric in our own championship victories to even notice them making the postseason. But with the spending last year and the equally aggressive offseason moves this winter, New York isn't going away and hopefully Boston isn't either.
No more joking around with Jeter or A-Rod, okay Big Papi? It's time to get serious again...like Varitek/A-Rod serious.
No. 2: David Ortiz and the Great Steroids Scandal of 2009
We all pointed, laughed, and said "I told you so" when reports broke in February that Alex Rodriguez had tested positive for steroids back in 2003. We then had to slouch, grimace, and eat a bit of crow when two familiar names—David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez—were linked to the infamous steroids test of that year and leaked from "the list" this summer.
Not our guys! That's impossible...improbable...and likely accurate.
Amidst one of the most worst offensive seasons he had suffered in years, Ortiz was faced with one of the worst nightmares a professional athlete can face—a drug scandal. Ortiz denied the reports and in a memorable press conference during a series with the rival Yankees, said he took a variety of supplements and vitamins but never steroids. The story eventually died down to a degree, but the coincidence with his offensive outage was remarkable.
Believe him or not, we now had our own national steroid problem to deal with. I remember going to San Francisco in 2003 and being amazed as just how much the Barry Bonds bubble was in effect. People simply didn't care about anything about what the rest of the world thought about their offensive hero. While there were a smattering of boos at the Fenway and on sports radio, the opinion really was quite nonchalant. We finally got our own bubble to live in.
2010 will be an interesting one for Ortiz, as it's his final contracted year in Boston. The man that meant so much for so long could be taking his final swings in a Boston uniform. What kind of bat will we see? Will Ortiz answer Theo Epstein's offseason call or will he regress? Where is he going to bat in this order? As No. 34 goes, so goes the Red Sox offense, especially if Mike Cameron and Casey Kotchman end up getting the majority of starts in this offense.
We need ya big guy.
(By the way, notice how Manny just kinda slid on by in this whole mess? Mannywood!)
No. 1: No championships for the First Year Since 2006
God, we're spoiled.
Since the Celtics earned their 17th World Championship in June 2008, we've experienced a dry spell here in Boston. The past 12 months marked the first calendar year since 2006 and the fifth year this decade that a Boston team hasn't celebrated a championship.
Say what? The city of Cleveland would love to have just one of the six combined championships the Celtics, Red Sox, and Patriots have won this decade and we're complaining about a calendar year? Yep, that's right.
Admit it—holiday shopping did feel a bit different with no championship apparel to buy for friends and family. (Well, that and that damn 27th World Series that Yankees team just earned. Too much Yankees merchandise available around here these days.)
But the Celtics are healthy again and still the beasts of the Eastern Conference despite a horrible West Coat trip. The Patriots' Brady-to-Welker road show is playoff-bound once again and if Theo's plan holds up, the Red Sox will see the postseason yet again. So yeah, you've go to feel a bit of hope that championship joy will return to our corner of Mudville (Snowville?) by this time next year—or else it will be two years in a row. Ouch!
Josh Nason is the main writer for Small White Ball, a New England-based sports and media blog that contributes to Bleacher Report. Reach him via Twitter or josh [at] smallwhiteball [dot-com].