Sports headlines resembled tabloid teasers for much of 2007
By: By JIM LITKE, AP Sports Writer
2007 was a lousy year in sports unless you were a fan of the pro teams from Boston, the semipro ones from the University of Florida or the real student-athletes from Appalachian State.
It wasn’t so much about breaking records, even as Barry Bonds took down the most venerated mark of them all while thousands of cameras flashed in AT&T Park and baseball fans everywhere winced.
It was about breaking the rules and even the law. Just about every accomplishment worth celebrating was shoved off the back page soon enough by something scandalous.
It started with Mark McGwire shut out of the Hall of Fame and ended with the Mitchell Report that put an exclamation point on the confusing, conflicted era owned by Bonds, McGwire, Roger Clemens and a host of disgraced players.
“Look,” Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling wrote on his blog after the report was released, “if you ordered HGH or steroids, in your name, and there is documentation to prove that you did, please do us all a favor and admit you made a mistake and move on. This is a pretty damn forgiving country.”
If all you want to remember about 2007 is a headline — and nobody would blame you — here it is: Gotcha!
That tabloid standard would have been perfect on Aug. 16, after disgraced NBA ref Tim Donaghy pleaded guilty to gambling charges. And it would have worked just as well on Aug. 28, after Michael Vick pleaded guilty to running a dogfighting ring and killing some of the losers … or on Sept. 10, after the New England Patriots got caught spying on the Jets defensive coaches in the NFL season opener … or Sept. 21, after Floyd Landis was formally stripped of his yellow jersey and 2006 Tour de France victory … or Dec. 13, after Marion Jones was formally stripped of her five Olympic medals.
Pick almost any day on the calendar — Sept. 17, O.J. Simpson arrested on kidnapping and assault charges; June 17, Durham, N.C., District Attorney Mike Nifong disbarred over the Duke lacrosse case — and somebody was caught doing something bad, apologizing or rationalizing (or in radio personality Don Imus’ case, all three).
The year started and ended with tragedy, and sometimes the innocent paid the price.
Just two hours into the new year, 24-year-old Broncos cornerback Darrent Williams was killed in a drive-by shooting not far from a Denver nightclub where he quarreled with friends. Last month, Washington safety Sean Taylor was gunned down in the bedroom of his home.
It wasn’t a great year for animals, either. The sickening revelations that led to Vick’s indictment, plea and 23-month sentence in a federal prison shocked even those fans used to seeing the league’s stars and stand-ins alike turn up on police blotters.
In late January, a much quieter but equally sad story came to a bitter end when struggling 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro was euthanized.
Even so, fans found a few things worth loving.
Appalachian State won one for the little guys and set the tone for the wildest college football season in a long time by toppling mighty Michigan on the opening weekend, then beating Delaware, someone its own size, to win an unprecedented third straight Division 1-AA championship.
Anybody who believed that faith and hard work could be more than their own reward had reason to smile when long-suffering Colts coach Tony Dungy and quarterback Peyton Manning finally wrapped their hands around a Super Bowl trophy.
Proving the kids can play, Sidney Crosby won the NHL’s Hart Trophy as most valuable player at the tender age of 19 and Morgan Pressel won the Kraft Nabisco to become LPGA’s youngest major champion at the even more tender age of 18.
Tiger Woods lost some sleep due to the birth of a daughter, and some uncharacteristic hiccups down the stretch cost him the Masters and U.S. Open. But that was about all Woods lost.
He clawed his way back to the top in time for the PGA Championship, the season’s final major and Woods’ 13th, won seven times in all and was so much better than everyone else — again — that when the pro tour announced the starting date for its drug-testing plan, one official noted with flawless logic that Woods was the only golfer worth testing.
“If he’s clean,” George O’Grady said, “what does it matter what the rest of them are on?”
Losing to Woods became profitable a while back. Now it’s beginning to seem honorable, too.
“Finishing second,” Brett Wetterich said after losing by two strokes at Doral and becoming the 50th runner-up to Tiger on the PGA Tour, “is not a bad thing.”
Fans in Boston and Gainesville, Fla., wouldn’t know.
The Red Sox steamrolled the Colorado Rockies to sweep the World Series and made the Yankees so nervous that they fired Joe Torre and rehired Alex Rodriguez. The New England Patriots look like a Super Bowl lock after knocking out all comers through the first 14 games of the NFL regular season. And adding Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen makes the Celtics look versatile enough to plow through the NBA’s Eastern Conference, yet swift enough to steal the crown from defending champion San Antonio or anybody else out of the West.
Florida’s Gators, meanwhile, are in need of a larger trophy case. They pulled off an unprecedented calendar sweep of the college football and basketball titles, both at the expense of Ohio State. The feat was even more impressive, considering that Florida’s successful defense as hoops champion marked the first time it had been done in 15 years.
But this being 2007, both towns arrived at celebratory dinners only to find a fly in the soup.
“Spygate” gave Patriots-haters a stick to hack at, rather than measure, the accomplishments of Bill Belichick, Tom Brady & Co. and inspired talk of asterisks from the likes of Don Shula.
Florida basketball coach Billy Donovan had problems with cameras, too. Every time he stepped in front of one, he was either stuffing his foot in his mouth or pulling it out.
“I think this team should go down as one of the best teams in college basketball history. Not as the most talented and not on style points — but because they encompassed what the word ‘team’ means,” Donovan said after winning the title.
Not long after that, though, Donovan opted out of that “team” and bolted to the NBA’s Orlando Magic for a five-year, $27.5 million deal. Then he quickly opted back in at Florida.
“I feel sorry and have apologized. It was my decision. It was my mistake. I have to take responsibility for that, which I’m trying to do,” Donovan said.
Talk about changing your mind. When the new year dawned, aging Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre was choking back tears. He’d just hammered the Chicago Bears in a meaningless 2006 regular-season finale that was billed as a possible farewell appearance.
Fast forward to this season. The point is moot. The 38-year-old has rarely been better, leading the Packers into the postseason with a first-round bye and claiming sole ownership of just about every important career mark for a quarterback.
“Tremendous player. Best competitor I’ve ever seen,” said Packers icon and Hall of Fame quarterback Bart Starr. “I think he’s meant more than I have words to describe.”
That was rarely a problem for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, if only because of how many times he had to send players — Pacman Jones, Chris Henry, Tank Johnson, Vick — to their rooms for violating a personal-conduct policy he helped draw up.
His NBA counterpart, David Stern, spent the previous few seasons mandating how the league’s players should behave and even dress, then discovered he might have been lecturing the wrong group of employees. Donaghy was snared by an FBI investigation, then charged with betting on games, including some he worked, and providing inside information to others to help them win bets.
All the momentum generated by a faster-paced product, LeBron James’ first foray deep into the playoffs and the most promising draft duo in years, Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, skidded to a halt.
“My reaction was I can’t believe it’s happening to us,” Stern said.
The same sentiment bugged baseball commissioner Bud Selig all summer. As Bonds relentlessly ran down Hank Aaron’s home run mark, Selig was asked repeatedly whether he planned to be on hand for No. 756.
“All of this will have to be played by ear,” he replied. “I do have a day job.”
So naturally, Bonds hit the big one at night, in San Francisco without Selig in attendance, then declared: “This record is not tainted at all. At all. Period.”
Three months later, he was indicted on charges of lying to a federal grand jury about steroid use.