Monster Lists! Best of 2015: Sports!

Chris Blog Final

The City of Chicago Celebrates the Blackhawks 2015 Stanley Cup

Blackhawks Champ logoThis was a tough one for me to chose, but after giving it a lot of thought I had to go with the Hawks claiming their third Stanley Cup in six seasons and their first on home ice in 77 years. This choice is more personal than anything. Living in Chicago during their Cup run, the victory was a unique experience for me. To be in a city when they have a sports team on a championship run, especially one that spent so long laboring under a terrible owner, was a blast. A winning team can really bring a city together. Plenty has been written about what the Hawks did during the playoffs, so I’ll spend my words on writing about what went on in the city, on a personal level. Basically, it’s my top moment not for the on ice heroics, which were many, but for the memories I have from it.

These memories include seeing the team banner strung up along the river walk in front of the AMA plaza, flags flying from posts, streetlights, and porches all over the city, and Blackhawks helmets being donned by the Art Institute lions. Even more memorable are the personal interactions, such as when I would wear a Hawks jersey and get into conversations with people from all levels of my department. One day, the day of one of the Anaheim games when I was in my jersey at a restaurant downtown, a guy behind the counter pulled out an old and battered Hawks sweater, walked up to my table and said “Let’s go tonight boys!” Another time I was in a Hawks sweater (jersey), waiting to cross the road at a red light in Hyde Park, when a car full of guys driving through rolled down their windows and shouted “Whoo! Go Hawks!!” I had conversations about hockey and the Hawks with cashiers, doormen, random passers-by, and more. I watched games in bars across the city, at the apartments of several different friends, and hosted some watch parties of my own. All of these things made the city a great place to be during the playoff run.

Blackhawks chicagotribune
Photo: Chicago Tribune

That’s why this is my favorite moment. It gave me a chance to experience a championship run of a team I love while living in the their home city. When it comes to Chicago sports, the Bears frequently disappoint us, the Cubs and Sox divide us, the Bulls keep falling just short, everyone forgets the Fire, but the Hawks serve as a rallying point. They play beautiful hockey, pull off heroic wins, and continue to hoist cups. And that makes the city come alive in a unique and brilliant way.


 

Andrew Fultz

The First Annual College Football Playoff

College Football Playoff

For as much as I am enjoying and would love to write about the Steph Curry craze, I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge how amazing it is that college football has a playoff. The broken mess known as the BCS is no more and all sports fans have rejoiced a thousand times over.

No longer would a one-loss team (Miami) that had lost to another one-loss team (Florida St.) be chosen over the head-to-head victor for the championship game because some wonky computer said Florida State was better (this was the case in 2000).

No longer would a Power 5 team go undefeated and not even get a shot at winning the National Championship (2004 Auburn) – unless, of course, each of the Power 5 teams has an undefeated conference champion, but that will never happen, right? Right??

No longer would a weak, lucky team like 2012 Notre Dame Fighting Irish be the opponent in college football’s marquee game.

And in all likelihood, no longer will we see two teams from the same conference compete in the national championship game – even though LSU and Alabama were the correct choices in 2011. And you’re still wrong if you think otherwise.

Finally, after a decade and a half of complaining, bad bowl matchups, and poor decision making, the college football playoff and its committee have come to get the right four teams into the fray and let the score be settled on the field, all while still inspiring lots of complaining. Right, Iowa fans?

Kidding. There are no Iowa fans.

Nike Uniform Football Final Four

A year ago, the committee proved to me that they have the right makeup to justify the power they’ve been given. In the poll-driven era, the AP wouldn’t have had the clout to put Ohio State – fresh off their 59-0 dismantling of Wisconsin – into a playoff ahead of a winning team that was ranked ahead of them the week before.

Implication: AP voters don’t watch the games.

Of course, you know the rest of the story. Ezekiel Elliott ran through Alabama and Oregon.

Implication: The committee watches the games.

And they just ranked Tennessee at #25 in the Playoff official rankings, continuing to prove their college football competence.

But beyond the existence of the playoff – for which again we should rejoice – was the execution of the playoff itself. My friends and I gathered to watch the two semifinal games in a manner not unlike what we do to watch the Super Bowl. Tons of football food, pizza, and a giant TV. The perfect meal for what would turn out to be a pretty spectacular night.

In the spirit of sticking to the point of our list, I’ll point to one singular moment within my “moment.” Astute fans will know what I’m about to point to, but in case you have forgotten, have an embedded Vine:

The Crab Fumble.

Let’s sum up just how perfect this moment was:

National broadcast. First ever Division 1 college football playoff game. One of the hated football programs ever. The most hated player in college football since Cam Newton (sorry, Johnny Manziel). Late in the third quarter, Oregon is rolling. A team that was only in the playoff because it was an undefeated defending National Champion was down 19. With his team flailing, Winston embodies the ‘Noles by forcing his own fumble, magically tripping the ref behind him, and hopelessly chasing the Oregon defender down the field as his repeat hopes go up in beautiful, green and yellow flames.

Being a lowly Tennessee fan that was forced by his mom to go to bed on the night they would win the National Championship in January 1999, I don’t recall that I’ve ever had more fun watching a football game than that moment. The laughter. The social media explosion. The rout of an overrated team that was only getting by on its predecessor’s accomplishments.

The Crab Fumble was my favorite sports moment of 2015.

But here, have a Steph Curry video.

I need to see #1 again. Will my editor let me see #1 again?

[Editor’s Note: Sure. I never want to deprive our readers from seeing pure greatness. LET THERE BE MORE STEPH CURRY!]


 

Reid blog photo

Baseball Choosing Developing Teams Instead of Buying Them

2015 was a turning point in major league baseball. After years of high price, big market teams leading the way, a new generation of clubs entered the spotlight.

The World Series favorite in April were the Washington Nationals and they didn’t even make the playoffs despite bringing in free agent ace Max Scherzer.

The Dodgers, having by far the largest payroll in baseball, didn’t make it out of the first round of the playoffs.

Who could forget all the money the Red Sox spent during the off season? Bringing in free agents like Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval wasn’t cheap, nor was it smart. They finished with a losing record.

None of these teams benefitted from spending million of dollars to bring in big names. There is a new age in the game, and it means more competitiveness and cheaper players.

Let’s take a look at four specific teams that have are leading the way to baseball’s newest and best trend in years. And here’s a fun fact: they all made the playoffs.

2015 MLB Playoff Teams (1)

The first stop on our tour lands us in Houston. For the past few years the Astros have been the laughing stock of baseball. A switch to the American League didn’t help their depleted offense. But after years in the cellar, a contender has risen, maybe a few years earlier than expected and finished second in the West taking the wild card and beating the Yankees in the first round.

Kuechel McHugh houstonchronicle
L to R: McHugh, Keuchel (Picture: Houston Chronicle)

Led by a two headed monster of ace pitchers Dallas Keuchel and Colin McHugh, and an offense led by young homegrown stars like Jose Altuve, George Springer, and Carlos Correra, the Astros made it clear that they are a young team poised to be a competitive juggernaut for years. And the trade for 30-homerun hitting 1st baseman Chris Carter with Oakland while getting the the player they traded, Jed Lowrie, back in Houston.

The development of their starters has been somewhat of a surprise. Keuchel was a seventh round pick in 2009, and won the AL Cy Young. The 23 year old McHugh, after being shelled with the Mets and the Rockies, McHugh has found a home in Houston winning 19 games this season.

Now that we’ve been south, let’s travel to the Windy City. The Cubs have been well… The Cubs. Years of last place or near last place have actually done this club well and have they have cashed in on those high draft picks,  looking to finally break the curse.

Cubs hitters
L to R: Rizzo, Schwarber, Bryant

First rounders Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber look to have a McGwire and Sosa battle, scary considering they’re team mates. Infielder Addison Russel that came over in the Jeff Samardzija deal with Oakland will be a factor, as well as international free agent Jose Soler. Anthony Rizzo, the captain of this young squad, was acquired from the Padres a few years ago and been an outstanding hitter since coming to the club playing in back-to-back All Star games. Losing stud pitcher Andrew Cashner in the deal has been well worth it for Chicago.

Their hitting is clearly the highlight of the organization, as they are still working on making their pitching more of a strength. Their only big money free agent is Jon Lester who had only a so-so first year in Chicago, is actually NOT the ace of this squad. That is Jake Arrieta and, coming into this season, few people knew his name. That’s not the case anymore. Arrieta had the second half people dream of. His ERA was a staggering 0.75 (that’s not a typo), and won the National League Cy Young.

Our next destination takes us up north, past the turnpike, a hop on the number seven train and you’re in Queens, New York. Home of the National League Champion Mets. A name that many people didn’t think had a chance early in the season, considering they only signed two free agents: Michael Cuddyer, who spent a good chunk of the season injured or on the bench, and John Mayberry Jr. who was cut in July due to his inability to functionally play baseball.

Mets-Dodgers-NLDS-rotation-100415
L to R: DeGrom, Syndergaard, Harvey

Notorious spenders in the 90’s and early 2000’s, the Mets only called up the best of the best, while the rest were traded or left to rot in the minors. But thanks to the Bernie Madoff scandal, ownership lost a considerable amount of money and was forced to let top players and fan favorites go, but this season it all came together. Despite early set backs the Kings of Queens took the second half by storm. Led by returning ace and comeback player of the year Matt Harvey, the unforeseen hero Jacob deGrom, and rookies Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz this rotation was NASTY. Anchored by the ageless wonder Bartolo Colon, they were the most feared rotation in baseball.

 

They brought up a collection of players who would have never made the big league club under the old regime: Lucas Duda, Wilmer Flores, Daniel Murphy (who turned into Babe Ruth in the playoffs), and Juan Lagares would have been bench warmers at best for high priced free agents. Throw in the key trade of 40-year old starter R.A. Dickey to Toronto for two prospects that became hot hitting catcher Travis D’naurd and the already mentioned Syndergaard, the Mets built a young core for the team to build around.

Lastly this teams luck came from an unfortunate situation. When last year’s closer Jenry Mejia got suspended for a PED violation, and Plan B Bobby Parnell hadn’t recovered yet from Tommy John surgery, they looked to Plan C. Jeurys Familia turned out to be a superstar closer who tied the club record for saves. Sometimes blessings do come in disguise.

At last we reach our final destination, Kansas City. To those who have watched baseball over the last two years  this shouldn’t be a surprise.

KC Wins World Series voanews
Picture: Voa News

Kansas City has completely changed their landscape and it’s brought them back to the top. A mix of homegrown talent and smart low budget spending has put them on a pedestal. Eric Homer, Mike Moustakas, Alex Gordon, and Salvador Perez have built themselves an empire that will dominate the division.

It all turned around in late 2010 when they traded then ace Zack Greinke to the Brewers. In that deal they got MVP candidate Lorenzo Cain and star short stop Alcides Escobar. Those two have solidified a team built on defense and speed.

2015 brought a trend that we baseball fans needed desperately. Less buying and more developing. It makes every phase of the game more exciting. I just hope that 2016 brings more of the same.

And the Red Sox just gave David Price $217 Million.


 

Joe CollierBlogpic

Eric Berry Defeating Cancer and Returning to Football

Berry Strong.jpg
Image: Muthead.com

My all time favorite moment this year was the return of #29, Eric Berry,  to the Kansas City Chiefs.

Berry was diagnosed with Hodgkins lymphoma on December 8, 2014. He was diagnosed after playing against Oakland after feeling discomfort in his chest on November 20th. My first thoughts was to hope for the best and get ready to potentially see one of my favorite players never play again.

On June 22, 2015, 7 months after he was diagnosed, Berry was announced cancer free. Not only that, but after doing chemo therapy, Berry came out weighing a pound more than when he started. Berry said that he would set little achievable goals each day, from just getting out of bed to doing five push-ups a day. Berry opted to take chemo through an IV so he could continue to workout.

Eight months after being diagnosed, Barry was clear to practice. He had to pass a series of test for the Chiefs and the doctors cleared him. That included benching 275lbs and squatting 325lbs five times!

On August 15th of this year,  Berry returned in the first preseason game. As the players came on to warm up, the cameras caught an image of Berry running the sidelines with his teammates, only to catch a glimpse of  Berry as he stops and runs over to his mom, removes his helmet, and gave her an emotional hug.

September 15th is a moment that will be ingrained in my memory. After watching him play some preseason games, we finally get to see EB take the field in the regular season home opener. Seeing him be the last player for the Chiefs to run out of the tunnel and Arrowhead Stadium erupting in cheers gave me goosebumps. As it should. We had no idea when or if Berry would play football, then 9 months later he is running onto the field for his regular season home debut.

Like Stuart Scott said:

You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and in the manner in which you live.

That is why Eric Berry’s journey is more than my favorite player coming back, it’s an inspiration to everyone that is battling something to keep positive, even on the hardest of days, and you can beat whatever obstacles that are thrown at you.

In a year were there were many great things happening in sports, seeing Eric Berry beat cancer and return to the football field in less than a year, is one of the greatest moments, not only of 2015, but in the history of sports.


Aaron Blog Photo

Tennessee Beats #19 Georgia, 38-31

Some of the greatest sports moments are ones that have a historical impact. Whether it’s a unbelievable performance (LeBron James), an incredible upset (Holly Holm), or just enjoying a player have the time of his life (Cam Newton), they all take their place in history as actions that will forever play over-and-over in our minds when we reminiscence about the year 2015.

For every historical moment, there are just as many personal ones that may not make the year end sports montage. The ones that you, the fan, will remember forever because of what it means to you. The rest of the sports world may not acknowledge it, but it goes down in your sports journal as more significant than all the others because of how much it meant to you.

My favorite moment of 2015 was on October 10th when my Tennessee Volunteers played host to the #19 Georgia Bulldogs. Not only was it a rivalry game, but it gave this old Vols fan one of the biggest thrills he has ever had in sports.

93 UT footballTo understand why this is my pick for this list, you need to know that Tennessee football is the center of my sports universe. My dad has been a huge Volunteer fan beginning in his youth, and in 1993, while he yelled from the couch, I continued that fandom as a Heath Shuler led team decimated Louisiana Tech in Neyland Stadium, 50-0. From that game on, every Saturday, I would wear my orange and white and, the vast majority of the time, watch them win.

I was spoiled for 10+ years. We won. A lot. Including the 1998 National Championship. Then in 2008, in the midst of some disappointing seasons, we fired our legendary head coach, and the only one I’ve ever known, Phillip Fulmer. And with that action, Tennessee football was plunged into the dark ages. We had one coach skip out after a year (Lane Kiffin) and hired a replacement that decided to try his best to run our once proud program into the ground (Derek Dooley).

Then in 2013, this guy named Butch Jones was hired and that is when things got interesting. And after going 7-6 and playing in our first bowl game since 2010, I could see some light at the very long and dark tunnel my favorite team had travelled for what seemed like an eternity.

Needless to say, 2015 had a lot of expectations for this team. We had our second Top 10 recruiting class and the buzz around our team was loud to say the least.

OK loss knoxnews
Photo: Knoxnews

Then came the heartbreak. We lost double digit leads to Oklahoma, Florida, and Arkansas with each resulting in losses. We limped in to the Georgia game with a 2-3 record, but what hurt the most is that we very well could have been 5-0. We were literally one or two plays away from being undefeated. The media was hounding Jones and his staff while the fans went to social media to voice their displeasure. The situation was quickly growing toxic.

Heading into the Georgia game, I was cautiously optimistic. I always believed we would win every Saturday no matter the opponent, and this game day wasn’t any different, but the prior loses still left a sick feeling in my stomach. I believed in my team, but I learned to prepare for disappointment.

The early moments of the game saw the Bulldogs jump out to a 24-3 lead. Georgia was taking us to the woodshed and it looked like there was nothing we could do about it. It seemed that this team couldn’t buy positive play on offense or defense. We had been so close to beating Georgia the last two seasons with inferior teams, how could we be getting blown out with a much more talented team?

Vols GA Smith tennesseanWe needed a big play to get back into the game and got it late in the 2nd quarter: On a 4th and 8, QB Josh Dobbs found WR Josh Smith for a touchdown causing Neyland Stadium to erupt. Georgia fumbled the ensuing kickoff, we recovered, and scored again cutting the lead to 24-17.

I could feel the Vol magic starting to spark to life. A little orange flicker of hope that we thought was extinguished after all the demoralizing loses earlier in the year, was still there and was about to engulf the Georgia Bulldogs in a blaze of orange.

But before we could get our biggest win in years, we had to defeat our 4th quarter monsters. We took the lead in the 4th, 31-24, but Georgia quickly tied it up at 31 all, bringing those monsters roaring back to life. This team could have easily doubted but, instead, they mounted a eight play drive capped off with a tenacious run by Dobbs to take the 38-31 lead and to bring the 100,000 strong in Neyland to their feet.

NCAA FOOTBALL: OCT 10 Georgia at Tennessee
QB Joshua Dobbs Scores The Go-Ahead Touchdown                                    (Photo By: Charles Mitchell)

Georgia had one more shot and drove down the field. They lofted the ball up to the end zone as time expired and, unlike weeks before, we knocked it away. And with that stop, we beat our 4th quarter ghosts and turned around our whole season.

Vols GA final play timesfreepress
Brian Randolph Seals the Win          Photo: Times Free Press

We finished winning six out of our last seven games to finish 8-4, but more importantly we looked like Tennessee again. My wife and I, a diehard Vol fan herself, jumped around the house like psych ward patients on green jello day. We danced around the house, very badly I may add, and I wouldn’t have picked another person in the world to share this moment with.

When I finally caught my breath, I called my dad and asked him, just like I did so many times as a boy,  “How about those Vols!?” He replied like he did all those years ago: “They played good today, son.”

And right then and there, I knew, no matter what else may happen in sports for the rest of the year, that this was my moment. And my 9-year-old self couldn’t have agreed more.

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