2009: Chicago's year in sports
Jon Greenberg says good riddance to an overall lackluster year in Windy City sports
"A heavy snowfall came, and the year drew toward its close. It closed in a half-green twilight, like the half-twilight of the heart." -- Nelson Algren, "Little Lester" from "Entrapment and Other Writings."
On Dec. 31, 2008, he called and they wept.
After a Jim Hendry conference call with Chicago reporters made it official, the women of Chicago, and many of the men too, bade a teary farewell to beloved everyman Mark DeRosa.
DeRosa, who was the public epitome of the selfless, go-get-'em attitude we expect from our athletes, was shipped to Cleveland for a collection of minor league pitchers. It didn't seem that significant at the time. After all, the Cubs had one of the best offenses in baseball to go along with a talented pitching staff.
But it turned out to be the theme of the season, the theme of the year: Bad decisions. It was a move that was evoked so much by a disgruntled fan base, it became almost popular to bash DeRosa as being overrated and unworthy. After all, how many playoff games did the Cubs win with him?
Still, the reasoning would come back to haunt Hendry.
"Nobody likes to lose a guy like [DeRosa]," said Hendry later in the season to the Chicago Tribune. "But there wasn't anywhere else to get left-handed, you know."
It wasn't Brock-for-Broglio, but it didn't take long for hindsight to kick in. It was on this day the Cubs' die was cast. It was over before it began.
Miles barely batted his weight (.185 average versus 180 pounds), and Bradley acted to his reputation while he hit like Neifi Perez. As albatrosses go, they were expensive. Hendry got rid of both after the season, long after the damage was done.
From the moment the Cubs closed 2008, the city's sporting slogan should have been: "Welcome to 2009. Don't get your hopes up."
It was that kind of sports year in Chicago, full of disappointment, bad decisions and failure. It was the year of Bradley, but it was also the year of Buehrle. It was the year that thousands of provincially proud Chicagoans gathered in Daley Plaza to celebrate the all-but-official landing of the 2016 Olympics, only to watch the International Olympic Committee dismiss Chicago as if it were Palookaville.
In 20 years, some fresh-faced kids will ask you what happened this past year, and you will explain, with a fogged memory, that:
It was the year the Cubs traded for Jay Cutler, who pitched a perfect game and was kicked out of a game by Lou Piniella, and then punched a cabbie coming home from a ribbon-cutting ceremony with John McDonough. All the while, Vinny Del Negro stood nearby, perplexed, as a loose aggregation of tanned women played football in their underwear in the suburbs while Brian Urlacher vented to Patrick Ryan.
Or something like that.
Do you believe in miracles? If so, you better move along. Nothing to see here in the city of slumped shoulders.
Maybe that's not totally true. A few years ago, it seemed like the Blackhawks would need an act of god to turn things around. Turns out, they just needed to put the games on TV and make the playoffs.
On New Year's Day, the Blackhawks, precocious as a pee-wee team, skated at Wrigley Field. It was a marketing man's dream -- the new-era Blackhawks basking in the reflected glory of Chicago history. It didn't snow and the Blackhawks lost the game to Detroit, but it was the real beginning of a wild, life-affirming ride for the franchise, which lost in the Western Conference finals and looks twice as good this season.
When it came to results, it was a year like any other year, no better, no worse. Two teams made the playoffs but neither had a chance to win it all. You don't count on championships in Chicago.
Questions abound as the year draws to a close. Was 2009 Lovie's last stand? Was it the demise of Del Negro? As of Boxing Day, we had no clue.
2009 was Kenny Williams making one blockbuster deal and making another curious one, while his peer on the North Side operated with his hands tied behind his back. His own mistakes and an ownership morass twin accomplices.
Whose town is it again?
2009 was the year the Cubs were finally sold. And still stunk.
2009 was the year the Bears finally got a quarterback. And still stunk.
2009 was the year we lost the Olympics at a great financial cost without ever possessing them. Did we dodge an expensive bullet or miss out at a chance at history? I say the former, but many more rue the latter.
2009 was Michael Jordan returning to the national spotlight and botching his Hall of Fame speech. For some fans, it was a jarring sight, like watching your childhood hero unmasked as a bitter old man.
In late January, the new face of Chicago, Barack Obama, was inaugurated as the president of the United States, and it was unlikely not because of the color of his skin or the unfamiliarity of his name, but because he was a White Sox fan.
The Sox wasted no time linking themselves to the First Fan, even as the team's chairman, Jerry Reinsdorf, donated to the McCain campaign, as well as the winning one.
"We sent along the 'Let's Go, Go-Go White Sox' music," White Sox vice president of communications Scott Reifert, a Hyde Park resident who played up the team's ties to the White House, told me for a story in the Huffington Post Chicago prior to the inauguration. "It would certainly get everyone's attention."
A few members of the White Sox front office made it to D.C. for the inauguration, as did Tiger Woods, who spoke. He wouldn't be in the news much at all the rest of the year.
The Bulls visited Obama during a trip to D.C. and broke out of a slow start to make the playoffs before losing a heartbreaker of a series to the Boston Celtics in May. The progress of last spring has stalled by winter. The Bulls will go big-ticket shopping this summer, with or without their current coach in tow.
While the Bulls dribbled, the Blackhawks soared.
The Hawks enjoyed unprecedented success last spring, a run to the top of the league that was cemented with some strong offseason signings. Hockeytown is trademarked by the Detroit Red Wings, but Chicago has quickly evolved into perhaps the top American market, and we're all better for it, even if we can't tell Marian Hossa apart from Tomas Kopecky.
In January, not long after the Cubs signed Bradley, the Ricketts family was picked by the Tribune to assume ownership of the Lovable Losers. It was great news, right? Cubs fans taking over the team? Too bad it turned the season into one long rain delay.
As the season progressed, each party parried back and forth, passing along rumors and threats through media intermediaries when they weren't banging shoes on the bargaining table, Khrushchev-like.
Some say Sam Zell was at fault. Others, more quietly, say the Ricketts carry some blame for the months and months of negotiating that played a part in the Cubs' moribund season. But you can't blame them for dickering. The Cubs were widely rumored to be a billion-dollar team and wound up going for $850 million. This next year will portend how the family will run Chicago's most romanticized team.
While they both ultimately disappointed, it's unfair to say that both baseball teams had high hopes for 2009. The White Sox broke spring training with medical miracle Jose Contreras and value meal gobbler Bartolo Colon as the fourth and fifth starters. Their third baseman was Josh Fields and Dewayne Wise was in center. The 1939 Yankees they weren't.
Wise would wind up making perhaps the most famous play in White Sox history, a leaping grab of a would-be home run to save Mark Buehrle's perfect game. The unassuming star one-upped his no-hitter from 2007. It was the performance of the year, a special moment in time. But once it was over, things fell apart on the South Side. Buehrle had a miserable post-perfecto season while the team continued to unabashedly celebrate it.
The Sox didn't have much of a choice. You can't market booted ground balls. Late-summer pickups Peavy and Alex Rios spent most of the season injured or in a slump. Gordon Beckham was the only other bright spot.
The Cubs were better suited to a fast start. But Bradley bombed early and Aramis Ramirez busted up his shoulder and things never really got on track. The players destroyed the cumbersome Gatorade machine before it was removed, Ryan Dempster broke his toe climbing a clubhouse fence to celebrate a win, and Alfonso Soriano forgot how to hit, if not hop.
In August, both teams were poised for a fall run, but then it all fell apart instead, and we waited for football season.
That was our final mistake. And it cut the deepest.
Cutler was an August star, the story of training camp. Lance Briggs, once the subject of great conversation, walked up to some reporters and said: "You guys know I'm still on the team, right? I mean, I'm going to have to do a dance for you guys or something." Unintended racial implications aside, it was a great line.
Green Bay was the scene where it went bad. I wore a tie to the Bears' opener. Someone asked me why I was so dressed up. I didn't know it then, but it was for the team's funeral.
Cutler didn't look like the future of the franchise in the opener, throwing three first-half picks in a nationally televised game as Denver laughed and Chicago gasped. The Bears' offense was so disjointed, it was like Cutler was speaking Shanahan and his receivers were hearing John Shoop.
It would become a familiar story. After a brief bump, it was loss after loss, interception after interception. Victory Mondays were scarcer than non-metered parking spaces.
While baseball is amnesiac with every day bringing a new story, football games are singular events and this season was ripe with disappointment. I don't feel sorry for fans as much as I do the players, who willingly mortgage their health for a shot at the glory and a chance at big money. As this season proved, the Bears organization (which to its credit shows uncommon loyalty to veterans) needs an overhaul both in the front office and on the field to make this team competitive.
It wasn't all bad news. Northwestern football is playing in a New Year's Day bowl and the Wildcats' basketball team is turning heads. Illinois basketball could turn a corner. Derrick Rose looks pretty good in Bulls red, doesn't he? Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane will be here awhile (cabbies beware!). And Joakim Noah, once a Chicago punch line, may be playing himself into the NBA All-Star Game.
Spring training is three months away. The White Sox have reloaded in dramatic, if not surefire, fashion, while the Cubs, in a twist, have stayed pat, because of their trouble in getting rid of Bradley and uncommonly taut purse strings.
What will 2010 bring? Will it produce another 2005 White Sox team or another '85 Bears to be feted for eternity? Will it bring a 2003 Cubs team, so tantalizing and teasing, and so painfully memorable? Will the Blackhawks end the NHL's longest championship drought? Will the Bulls get King James or Prince Dwyane? Will Cutler recover?
The best thing about questions are the answers. And like the proverbial Cubs fan, I can wait 'til next year to find them out.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.