2008 in review

For those who seek in sport some refuge from the merciless realities of the alleged “real world”, 2008 was a very good year. In nearly all other endeavors under the sun there was precious little to smile about let alone exult over. But in the world of fun and games, 2008 was rollicking stuff, a bonanza, a moveable feast and sustained roar.

Hereabouts, we have never had it better. How green was our valley? Consider that no other town has ever had four teams in four different sports all hovering at the top of their leagues and disciplines at the one and same time. No city has ever enjoyed greater across the board dominance in professional sport. You can look it up.

The Celtics came all the way back in one stunning blitz from last to first, erasing the near comic stammerings of an entire generation in one nearly flawless season.

Even more improbably, at year’s end the Bruins were promising to match them stride for stride, emerging from their own black hole of failed promise and diminished expectations with even less notice, making it all the finer.

If the Giants quashed the Patriots’ dynastic pretensions there was sufficient honor in merely being a combatant in that gaudy Super Bowl in the desert widely and immediately acclaimed to have been the best bloody Soupey ever. Sometimes destiny chooses strange partners inscrutably. Witness David Tyree.

The Red Sox came within a bloop single of another World Series appearance, which probably would have resulted in another championship against a Phillies’ team that likely would have been more intimidated by them than by the Rays.

Necessarily there were disappointments, stray heartbreaks. But they tended largely to jack up the drama and stiffen the challenge thereby increasing the rewards. Resident Galahad Tom Brady went down hard. So did Rodney Harrison and Adalius Thomas. Manny Ramirez wigged out. Roger Clemens melted down. The Yankees out-smarted Theo, snaring Mark Teixeira from the Nation’s eager embrace with the weeping and gnashing of teeth over that little caper only just beginning. The Patriots failed to make the playoffs with 11 wins, which hadn’t happened in almost a quarter century. Old stars faded; Ortiz and Varitek, Harrison and Bruschi, maybe Crown Prince Brady himself. In the end it all only adds to the richness of the drama.

Running sharply counter to the times, the vast industry of sport only got bigger, fatter, richer and more and more in demand. Many speak of a reckoning beckoning but if that’s true and one is looming in the gathering wreck of the national economy it wasn’t apparent as 2008 ends, nor were any of the leagues lining up to petition Congress for a bailout.

Great stories abounded all over the map. There were the Tampa Bay Rays, a rags to riches story for the ages. The Beijing Olympics introducing the world to the Chinese Renaissance. The celebration of things that are old, like Yankee Stadium, and heroes who are new, like Michael Phelps. Boston College’s hockey team won another national championship. Detroit’s Red Wings became a certified hockey dynasty. Dick Williams entered Baseball’s Hall of Fame.

New stars were minted; Garnett and Allen, Kessel, Krejci and Wheeler, Lester, Pedroia and Bay, the improbable Matt Cassel. Huge leaps in stature were achieved by both Doc Rivers and Claude Julien. If there was an athlete of the year it was probably the Giants’ Eli Manning. While the coach or manager of the year had to be Tampa’s Joe Maddon. A new, more grandiose Yankee Stadium rose in the Bronx. George Steinbrenner stepped down. Sons Hank & Hal stepped up. The cycle continues. The cycle is perpetual.

Then there were the passings. The class of 2008’s dearly departed is impressive.

Baseball lost Buzzie Bavasi, highly principled mainstay of the Dodgers front office. Maybe Branch Rickey integrated the team, but it was Buzzie who made sure integration succeeded. Russ Gibson, the Fall River boy who caught for the Impossible Dream team. Buddy LeRoux, the irrepressible hustler who rose from waterboy of the Celtics to owner of the Red Sox. Tommy Holmes of the beloved Boston Braves. Mickey Vernon, the Senators’ stylish first baseman and Ike’s favorite player back when Washington was first in war, first in peace and last in the American League. Billy Consolo, original Red Sox “bonus baby”. Johnny Podres who led the Dodgers over the Yankees. Herb Score who might have been the greatest, save for a single pitch Gil McDougald lined right back at him.

Also, Don Gutteridge, Eddie Brinkman, Bobby Murcer, Preacher Roe, John Marzano, Gerry Staley, Sal Yvars, Tommy Tresh and Bert Shepard who lost his baseball career on a World War II battlefield but lived to be 87.

Football lost Dwight White and Ernie Holmes, granite moorings of the Steelers’ superb “Steel Curtain” defense. Mike Holovak, proud son of BC; a war veteran and thoughtful coach but first and foremost, a gentleman of the old school. Gene Upshaw, Otto Schnellbacher, Buzz Nutter, Gene Hickerson, Dick Lynch, Jack Mildren, Eagle Day, Georgia Frontiere and the man who may have been the second greatest player in the history of the NFL, Mr. Sammy Baugh, every inch a Texan. Was there ever a fellow who did as many things on a football field as well as Slinging Sammy Baugh? Not likely!

From basketball. Kevin Duckworth, an amiable giant only 44. Darrell Garretson, a model ref. Harry Mangurian, one of the more agreeable Celtics owners back when they had a new one every couple of years. He was one of the few Red Auerbach actually liked and under his watch, Larry Bird came to town. And two coaches who were truly legendary; Pete Newell and Don Haskins.

Golf lost Tommy Bolt, Mike Souchak and Orville Moody. Boxing lost Art Aragon and Joey Giardelli, Madison Square Garden mainstays back when boxing ruled nightly on the television of the early ‘50s. From chess, there was Bobby Fischer, stormy and haunted grand master. He lifted the game to unprecedented heights then dissolved in his own fury. Auto racing was hardly what Paul Newman was all about but the incomparable actor graciously contributed greatly to the sport. Sir Edmund Hillary, who conquered Mount Everest and so much more. There may never have been a truer sportsman.

From hockey, there was John Ashley, an old-school ref. Ray Getliffe, of the Bruins pre-war champions. “Bep” Guidolin who broke into the NHL at the age of 16 and later coached the “Big Bad Bruins” in the last days of the Orr-Esposito epoch. Pit Martin, the key piece in Milt Schmidt’s masterpiece of a trade that brought Messrs. Esposito, Hodge and Stanfield to town. Patty Considine, favored son of Charlestown. He worked the penalty box at the old Garden becoming in his quaint way a bit of a legend. Russian phenom Alexei Cherepanov felled on the ice by a heart attack. He was only 19.

And lastly from the ranks of those who wrote about the games or talked about them and who did so with a particular elegance and eloquence.

Eliot Asinof. He wrote “Eight Men Out”, first thorough chronicle of the “Black Sox scandal”. Red Foley, who ruled the press boxes of New York and knew the rule-book if ever a man did. Don Gillis, who owned this town, and Barry Lorge, a gentleman of the tennis lodge. W.C. Heinz, a lion of the New York newspaper scene back when it had genuine literary merit. Chicago’s Jerry Holtzman. He wrote, “No Cheering in the Press Box”; a classic. Paul Robbins of the Holy Cross class of 1961. He was devoted to the winter games. The very droll Skip Carey, Hockey’s good Jack Falla, Football’s Myron Cope, and Jim McKay, supremely of ABC.

It’s a roll call that seems to me something of a measure of a given year. As Kipling would say, one hears them tramping on the road to oblivion with the tumult and shouting gently receding. So much for 2008.