Top 5 Sports Stories of the Past Year

MJ Kasprzak@BayAreaCheezhedSenior Writer IIJuly 24, 2011

Top 5 Sports Stories of the Past Year

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    The NFL lockout is coming to an end.

    Yeah, I know the players have not accepted the new collective bargaining agreement. In fact, I examined whether they even should ratify the CBA in a piece at PackerChatters after the owners agreed on their end.

    So how do I know it is ending? The speculation and rumors have started back up as to whether Brett Favre will return for another season.

    Some people (say, ESPN) cannot live without a Brett Favre story. People claim to hate Favre articles, but they read them.

    Plain and simple, Favre is good for the business of football like Skip Bayless is good for the business of sports talk. You can hate him all you want, but you cannot wait to jump on the next foolish thing he does.

    It does not matter that Favre may not even be wanted by an NFL team this year. If anyone ever aged so much over one season, I do not know whom it was.

    He went from legendary iron man who made plays (as well as mistakes) to a player that was among the worst starters in the league and went down to two separate injuries during the season. He comes with the baggage of being fined for obstructing an investigation as to whether or not he committed a crime—much less engaged in improper and even harassing behaviour.

    Yet we are still talking about him. Why?

    The media decides its own stories and, like lemmings, many fans follow.

    But imagine you were Rupert Murdock and had vast wealth to spend where you wanted it. Nice thought, isn't it?

    Now imagine you keep your character and instead of engaging in slimy behaviour that makes the world a worse place to live, you devoted your empire to pushing media in the right direction. You get to decide based on merit what sports stories get covered.

    Here would be my choices for each major international sport.

Soccer: Japan Beats USA in FIFA Women's World Cup Final

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    Sorry, fellow Americans. Not only is Team USA losing the final at the Women's World Cup the biggest story, but soccer itself is the world's biggest sport.

    However, we can take solace in that last fact: We do not care about soccer as much in this country (even among women's sports) as the rest of the world.

    We can also be comforted in the fact that this is not about America losing. Team USA was merely one of three favourites in the tournament, so even if we were supposed to be the single most likely nation celebrating the title, it was a less-than-even chance.

    This was about Team Japan rising to the occasion. It was not one of the favorites and struggled early.

    More than that, the nation of Japan has faced more devastation than at any point since World War II. This time it was not largely of its own making, but from two earthquakes that are among the strongest the world has seen in many of our lifetimes.

    Japan needed something to feel good about. These women heroically rose above the adversity in their nation and superior competition to win the single most important sporting event in their world.

    Congratulations, Japan.

Basketball: Future Eight-Time Champion Miami Heat Loses

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    When he had his spectacle of The Decision to announce where he was going to sign in 2010, LeBron James made his choice because he envisioned success he had not seen with his local Cleveland Cavaliers.

    When he took part in what was like a high school pep rally (complete with the immaturity and self-congratulating ego boosting) on steroids last summer, he outlined what he expected would result from his choice: "Not one, not two...not seven" championships.

    The future eight-plus-time NBA Champions made it to the finals and had the "underachieving" Dallas Mavericks on the ropes. They held a 15-point lead in the fourth quarter of Game 2 and were on the brink of taking a 2-0 lead that teams just do not lose often in the finals. (The last time was when Dallas lost to Miami in 2006.)

    But they could not close the deal. Whether you agree that it was a lack of character, there is no doubt they did not play well. On the heels of their boasting, that makes it a bigger story than the team that won.

Football: Green Bay Packers Overcome Injuries, Brett Favre's Shadow to Win Title

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    Sorry, but the lockout does not constitute the biggest story of the past 12 months in American football.

    If regular season games get cancelled, maybe, but right now it amounts to posturing and blowing smoke more than anything else. To this point, offseason workouts are still taking place, but being led by players rather than coaches. Free agency has not happened, but the draft has.

    Thus the average fan does not even notice the difference. While some teams may gain an advantage out of this, every team is going through it so the playing field is ostensibly level.

    No, the biggest story is that the Green Bay Packers took the Vince Lombardi Trophy back to its birthplace. In fact, their title was not just the top story in 2010—it ranks as one of the three most heroic Super Bowl championships of all time.

    This is not because they won but because of all they overcame to do it.

    Packers players collectively lost nearly 100 games to injuries over the course of the 2010 season. It was more than all but four teams in NFL history, and none of those teams had won more than six games.

    But that was not all the adversity they faced. Aaron Rodgers alone overcame enough to warrant a spot on this list if the team had stayed healthy.

    He had to prove to doubters (including those who had been Packers fans at the time of the Brett Favre divorce) that the team made the right move handing the starting job to him. Until he won a title, there would remain some who would question his ability and leadership.

    He not only won the title, he won the Super Bowl MVP award. Along the way, he became the top-rated passer in regular season and playoff history.

Baseball: Giants Bring First Title to San Francisco

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    The Giants moved out to San Francisco in 1957. Since then, they have made it to the World Series only to feel heartbreak.

    They were swept by Bay Area rival Oakland Athletics in 1989. They were three innings away from a title before dropping that game and another to the Anaheim Angels in 2002.

    This time, they did not play an in-state rival. They beat the Texas Rangers to bring the trophy home for the first time in the city's history.

    What made it a much larger story, however, was their road to get there.

    They had been under .500 near mid-season when they dumped their big-name catcher in what appeared to be a concession that they could not win. They called up promising prospect Buster Posey to handle the most vital pitching staff in the league considering the relative lack of scoring.

    Posey handled the staff and provided the needed offense. The team's turnaround emboldened them to be aggressive and add a few more players; it was enough to win the NL West on the last day of the season.

    Then they had to get by the Atlanta Braves, playing for the last time for coach Bobby Cox. Many people thought they would, but almost no one picked them to beat the Philadelphia Phillies, a team that had won the World Series two years earlier and had among the best pitching staffs and lineups in baseball.

    Even after getting through the Phillies, most prognosticators predicted the Texas Rangers would beat them. But the Giants dispatched them in a mere five games.

    What made the run all the more incredible was that there were different heroes throughout. Not one Giants hitter batted .300 over the course of the entire playoff run, and 32 of their 63 runs in the postseason were scored with two outs.

Hockey: Tim Thomas

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    The most important position in all of sports is a hockey goaltender. No one proved that more than Tim Thomas in 2010-11, and that is why he is the only individual to rank as a top story for a sport.

    Thomas won the Conn Smythe Award for being the best playoff performer in the NHL in 2011. He gave up just 1.98 goals per game (Carey Price was second at 2.11) and tied for the playoff lead with four shutouts while going 16-7.

    He also had an incredible .940 save percentage, 16 points higher than anyone who made it out of the first round as a starter. He stopped a record number of shots in the 100-plus year history of the NHL playoffs, both for the duration of the playoffs (there have only been four rounds since 1974) and the Finals alone.

    But before accomplishing that, he won the Vezina Trophy as the best goalie in the league. (The votes were not revealed until after the playoffs, but taken before they started.) He should have also won the Hart Trophy as the league's best player.

    His regular-season stats and margins to the best competing goalie were similar (.938 vs. .930 save pct., 2.00 vs. 2.11 GAA, nine shutouts vs. 11). Not only did he have that edge at the most important position, but it was a wider edge than Hart Trophy winner Corey Perry had over Daniel Sedin.

    Perry's 50 goals were five more than Steven Stamkos (second on the list) and nine more than Sedin. But he was only third in points with 98, six behind Sedin and one behind Martin St. Louis.

    He led forwards in ice time but his plus-nine rating was not even in the top-100 in the league. He spent over 100 minutes in the penalty box, meaning opposing teams benefited from his antics in the form of power plays or merely not having to defend Anaheim's best player.

    Perry was the best forward in the league, but no one meant as much to their team as Tim Thomas, even in the regular season. Arguably no one has meant as much to his team in the playoffs since Patrick Roy in 1993.