Ah, 2016. The worst year in recent history, and the best sports year of all time. Forget Trump and Aleppo and David Bowie for a second, and think back on everything that happened in the world of sports.
The Cubs. LeBron. Leicester City. I bet you didn’t even remember that we had an Olympics. Oh, yeah! Three whole weeks of ‘em!
You probably forgot about those three weeks because the Olympics were so…ordinary. They happen once every four years, same events, many of the same heroes. 2016, on the other hand, was anything but routine. It was the year of firsts, or at least firsts in a long time. It was the year of cameras finding grandmas in the crowd and of record-breaking parades.
It was also a year of goodbyes. There were deaths, heartbreaking ones—Ali, José Fernandez, Chris Sager, Pat Summit, Arnold Palmer to name a few. But there were also so many retirements—Tim Duncan, Kobe, David Ortiz, Peyton Manning. We spent the year celebrating their careers and their lives, saying goodbye to an era.
So let’s send off 2016 with a little celebration as well. Ladies and gentleman…put your hands together. Are you ready? Grab a seat and get comfy cuz it’s time for the 6th annual Joey Awards!!!
Most Outstanding Male Athlete LeBron James (F, Cleveland Cavaliers)
Our Most Outstanding Male and Female Athlete awards can be summed up by a picture each. For LeBron:
It’s all there in that photo. The exhaustion. The shock. The relief. The pride. The joy. LeBron’s performance in the Finals—in which he became the first player ever to lead his team in all five categories for a playoff series—was the stuff of legends. I don’t mean basketball legend. I mean actual legend. Like Mount Olympus level legend.
These finals were so compelling because of the undertones, because of the history that was both on the line and providing context. If LeBron and the Cavs vs. the 73-9 Super Warriors felt like a movie, it’s because it literally followed the playbook for one. I’ve written this before, but if you look at Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey and compare it to LeBron, it’s a dead heat.
And like a movie, our hero delivered. Boy, did he deliver. There was high speed action (LeBlock!) and some famous lines (Cleeeeeeeeveland!). And then there’s that picture. The iconic poster. LeBron idolizes Muhammad Ali (The King donated $2.5M towards a Smithsonian exhibit on The Greatest), and that photo is going to become his version of the Sonny Liston knockout shot. The genius of the Liston photo is that it completely captures Ali—his swagger, strength, dominance. LeBron crying and hugging Kevin Love sums up LeBron in the same way. His myth has never been about his basketball abilities, that’s always been a kind of given. No, LeBron’s stardom is driven by his story. He is the local boy done good. He is the hopes and dreams of a dying city. LeBron is promises and faith and all the complications that follow.
In a strange way, perhaps because of everything he means, this was the first year that LeBron really felt like a champion. He won in Miami, but he could never really win until he got one in Cleveland. They’ve been waiting for him to deliver since he was in high school, and he finally did it. You can see that in the picture too, a man being freed of an undeniable weight.
Most Outstanding Female Athlete Katie Ledecky (Swimmer)
Here’s Katie Ledecky’s picture:
My mom and I have an ongoing battle. I’ll be watching a game, and she’ll snag the remote and hit pause during a commercial. “You’re not missing anything!” she’ll say, and I’ll counter with, “But I have to watch it live.” My problem is one I’m sure everyone can agree with: anything is worse if you know the how it will end. You don’t read the end of a book first. So eventually, I’ll wrestle the remote back from her, and fast forward before I miss a play.
When Katie Ledecky raced this summer, we all knew how it would end. But that never seemed to matter, because her dominance was that incredible. You knew she would win, but you had to see it to believe it. Would she win by eleven seconds this time or just five? She showcased the kind of special moment that only the Olympics can bring (even as lame an Olympics as this summer’s), where one person’s transcendence shines through across the world. Most everyone knows nothing about swimming, and they certainly don’t follow the competitive circuit. They couldn’t tell the difference between a good swimmer and a great one. Then there’s Katie Ledecky. We all watched her races and saw her pulling further and further away. And we just knew she was special, and we thought to ourselves, “Ain’t this girl something?”
Best Team Chicago Cubs
I remember being in Mesa, AZ, last Spring, studying the roster, and telling my dad, “I mean…this has to be the year. There aren’t holes anywhere in the lineup.”
They had the best hitter in baseball, the best defense in recent baseball history, three Cy Young candidates, and the best manager in baseball. In the middle of the season, they added one of the game’s best relievers, thanks to the dealings of the greatest executive in baseball history. But the genius of what Theo built was not only in the skill of individual players that made up the roster. For years, baseball has been mired in a war of analytic guys vs. old school scouts. Theo found a way to balance the two perfectly. “Every year I did the job,” Theo told Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci, “I just developed a greater appreciation for how much the human element matters and how much more you can achieve as a team when you have players who care about winning, care about each other, develop those relationships, have those conversations. It creates an environment where the sum is greater than the parts.”
And when those parts are already dominant on their own, the result is the best baseball team of the 2000s.
Best Game Game 7 of the World Series
Nearly two months after it all ended, I still haven’t fully processed what occurred in Game 7. It involved what very well might be the best (Kris Bryant smiling as he fires the final out to Anthony Rizzo so that THE CUBS WIN THE WORLD SERIES!!!) and the worst (Rajai Davis’ home run) moments of life. Almost immediately, it was hailed as the greatest baseball game ever played. Think about what that means. Think about how long they’ve been playing baseball (it was invented during the Civil War), and how many games are played per year (approximately 2,500).
And that was the best ever.
That’s not hyperbole. This game had everything. History on the line, superstars, lead changes, a dramatic home run, managerial decisions that will be debated forever, a rain delay, extra innings. I said it at the time, but I’ll say it again: of course that’s the game that ended the Cubs’ drought. It had to be make us sweat, had to put us into both the good and bad versions of shock. Some day I’ll work up the courage to watch it all again, but right now, I’m not sure my heart has recovered from the first time.
Every four years, a new gymnast will capture America’s heart and imagination. In London, it was Gabby Douglas. In Beijing, Shawn Johnson. Biles was Rio’s offering, only she wasn’t like everyone else that came before her. She was, by all accounts, the greatest gymnast of all time. It was easy to tell. She was world class in every event—the bars, the beam, the vault—but it was on the floor that Biles’ brilliance really shone through. She seemed to defy gravity, and for a moment, America stood slack jawed.
Most Impressive Performance LeBron’s NBA Finals
“When you have LeBron James, you’re never afraid,” Cavaliers general manager David Griffin told Sports Illustrated. “You’re never David against Goliath because you have Goliath. So fear does not really exist. Every circumstance we put ourselves in, we expect to get out of, because we have him. He makes you believe you can do anything because he is present, and we all get to succeed because we’re in his sphere.”
So when the Cavs went down 3-1 to the Warriors in the Finals, Griffin and the rest of the Cavs didn’t count themselves out. I can’t say that I was thinking the same way. “Golden State is the best team ever (on paper),” I remember telling a friend. “LeBron can’t beat them by himself.” Well, he did (with a little help from Kyrie). He led his team in all five major statistcal categories (points, rebounds, assists, blocks, steals), the first player to ever do that in a playoff series, he made one of the most athletic plays I’ve ever seen (hold that thought), and he made good on the promise that defined his career. What more can you ask one guy to do?
I’ve never heard a room make a noise like the sound my family made when we watched LeBlock live. It was something like “OOOOOOHOOWA-HHBOOMKASHAW!!welp” And then nobody could sit down for a solid minute after it. You could feel the force of it through the TV, and when you saw it, you realized, “There’s no way the Cavs are losing this. LeBron won’t let them.”
Cleveland attempts the FLEA-FLICKER from their own end zone…
Ah, the other team from Cleveland. There hasn’t been a lot to cher about for the Browns this year—congrats on that one win!—but this, this had to be the low point. It’s sad. Nothing can go right for the Browns, not even when they try to get cute.
Biggest Waste of Money Brock Osweiler (QB, Houston Texans)
Here’s the good news Texans fans: you made the playoffs! The bad news? The quarterback getting paid $20.76M was just benched. Osweiler has been atrocious. His passer rating is 29th out of 30 starting quarterbacks this year, and he’s thrown the fourth most interceptions. When he was pulled for Tom Savage, most of his teammates were relieved.
But it’s not all bad news for Osweiler. He has at least another $16M on the books for next year, so he might join the very select few to have ever won back-to-back Joey awards. Stay tuned.
Best Speech Jason Heyward’s rain delay magic
Heyward was almost a contender for the Biggest Waste of Money award, but then, during that magical rain delay in Game 7, he pulled all his teammates into the weight room and had a simple message.
“We’re the best team in baseball, and we’re the best team in baseball for a reason,” Heyward said. “Now we’re going to show it. We play like the score is nothing-nothing. We’ve got to stay positive and fight for your brothers. Stick together and we’re going to win this game.”
I will believe for the rest of my life that that rain delay was divine intervention. It’s the only way to explain it. The Cubs were slipping, and guys wandered into that weight room with tears in their eyes. Their breaks had gone out, they were out of control, and then came this runaway truck ramp. It slowed them down, got them back on track, and Heyward reminded them what they were all about.
I don’t care if he never gets another hit. Every penny of the $184M was worth it.
My favorite part of this fight is that when Bautista starts winding up, Odor’s immediate reactionis to step in and throw a punch of his own. Most of us would’ve ducked. I have a hunch—just a hunch—that this wasn’t the first fight Odor’s been in.
Johnny Football Award Ryan Lochte
Here is a complete list of things that are even dumber than Ryan Lochte
The Bud Selig Memorial, Most Likely to Be Caught to Have Taken Steroids Award Charlie Strong
In the three years that I overanalyzed Charlie Strong’s every move as Texas’ head coach, I could never figure out how he was at once so fat and so ripped. His belly must be made of iron. His arms are as thick as an offensive linemen’s. When would he have time to work out so much? I’m just a high schooler, and I don’t even have time to work out. How could the coach of one of the top football program in the nation do it?
Oh wait…maybe that’s why Charlie kept going 5-7!
The Bud Selig Memorial, Oh No! I Might Have Just Ruined a Sport Award Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin—also co-recipient of this year’s George W. Bush Memorial, Oh No! I Might Have Just Destroyed the World Award—ruined the Olympics. Sure, doping is to be expected during the Olympics. But a massive, state ordered doping regiment? We haven’t seen that since the fall of the Berlin Wall. If it’s a handful of guys cheating, then that’s one thing, but when an entire country is doing it? That’s when the Olympics start going the way of cycling, closer and closer towards irrelevancy.
The David Stern Memorial, Holy Cow! I Might Have Just Saved a Sport Award Stan Kroenke (Owner, Los Angeles Rams)
What’s been most striking about having the Rams in Los Angeles is how quickly and naturally they’ve folded back into the city’s sports landscape. Kids at school already talk about the team as “we”. They have the seventh highest attendance in football, up from dead last a year ago in St. Louis.
Most exciting, the best is yet to come. The stadium—an entire complex, rather—Kroenke is building in Inglewood is extraordinary. It will almost certainly change the city, and just a year in, there’s no doubt that the Kroenke’s move has improved the NFL. There’s just a certain ring to Los Angeles that St. Louis doesn’t have.
The Gordie Howe Award for Old Geezer Excellence David Ross (C, Chicago Cubs)
Who would have thought that, on a team whose entire infield made the All-Star Game, its most popular player would be a 39-year-old third-string catcher? But Grandpa Rossy was so much more than just a back-up. He was the heart of the Cubs, a player coach. He set a perfect example for the Cubs’ wealth of youngsters. He never took a wrong step. Never said the wrong thing. And when he did play, he made it count. In his final year, he caught a no-hitter and hit a home run in Game 7 of the World Series. Not bad for a Grandpa.
Most Epic Fail Jordan Spieth’s 12 hole at the Masters
You hear everybody say that golf is a mental game. I don’t know if Jordan Spieth will ever be the same after his quadruple bogey that lost him the Masters. Collapse comes a little easier in team sports. You can move on together, teammates can pick each other up, force each other to keep going. But in an individual sport like golf? A collapse like Spieth’s is the type of thing that can derail a career. Doubt starts creeping in, and there’s nobody to force it back. What will Spieth do when he goes back to the 12th hole this year? He’ll start thinking back, telling himself not to do it again, and once that voice starts going, it’s all over. You can never recover from doubt.
Russell Westbrook Award for Crimes on Fashion Curry 2 Lows “Chef”
Under Armour called these the Chefs, but I’d like to propose some other names for them:
The I Have a Pet Ferret 4’s
The Comic Con 7’s
The Dog Walker 3’s
The Air Tucked In T-Shirt 5’s
The Substitute P.E. Teacher 2’s
The Wii Bowling 6’s
The Ned Flanders 1’s
Best Innovation MLB’s Fort Bragg Game
On 4th of July weekend, the MLB hosted the first professional sporting event on an active military base. It was played in a brand new, MLB-funded 12,500 seat stadium that is now open for military personnel to use however they please. There weren’t any hidden agendas, no money grabs. The Marlins and Braves just gave our military families something to cheer for this summer. Kudos to the MLB and the Braves ownership, who sacrificed home field ticket and concession revenue to stop and give a big, star-spangled thank you.
Best NFL Player NOT AWARDED
A first in Joey’s history. Here’s the deal: the clear recipient of this award should be Von Miller. He nearly singlehandedly won Super Bowl 50 for the Broncos and has continued to dominate this season. He’s the rare player whose impact can actually be felt in a football game, a single player who can affect the other 21 guys on the field.
Miller is an Aggie. Therefore, he is eliminated from consideration.
Best College Football Player Lamar Jackson (QB, Louisville)
And now, two videos from when he was in high school.
Best NBA Player LeBron James (F, Cleveland Cavaliers)
See Most Outstanding Male Athlete.
Best MLB Player Mike Trout (CF, Planet Earth Angels of North America of the United States of America of California of Southern California of Los Angeles of Orange County of Anaheim)
The biggest travesty in sports right now is that Mike Trout is stuck on an awful Angels team. The best baseball player ever should be playing in the most important games, under the brightest of lights.
What’s that? You have a problem with me calling him the best player ever?
OK, OK…it’s probably a little early to give Trout that distinction. But he’s certainly the best 24-year-old to ever play the sport. His OPS+ (on base percentage plus slugging percentage, adjusted to a players’ league and park) through his 24th year is the fourth best mark ever, leaving him behind only Ted Williams, Ty Cobb, and Lou Gherig in that order. OPS+ only measures his bat, though, which might not even be Trout’s best tool. He’s a menace on the base paths and a well above average center fielder.
If we put it all together, we find that his career WAR (essentially how many wins Trout is worth) through his age 24 season (48.5) is the highest of all time, nearly two whole points better than the next best guy, Ty Cobb. Perhaps more staggering, that career WAR is already higher than Lou Brock’s was for his entire 19-year career. Brock was a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Only sixteen outfielders have ever had a season in which their WAR was higher than nine. That means that 44 Hall of Fame outfielders never broke that mark once in their entire careers. Trout’s already done it four times. Only Barry Bonds, Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, and Babe Ruth have ever done it more times than Trout.
And the scary part, the part that starts to blow your mind a little, is to think that Mike Trout has done all this in his first couple years in the Big Leagues. He hasn’t—holy crap—even reached his prime.
Best NHL Player Connor McDavid (C, Edmonton Oilers)
Connor McDavid has a little Mike Trout in him. The best part of the revamped World Cup of Hockey was watching McDavid captain Team North America, a collection of the best players from the USA and Canada that are 23-and-under. McDavid steered the youngsters against other countries’ senior teams all the way to the championship. He’s the rare player who, coming out of high school, is compared to Wayne Gretzky…and then plays like it. He’s Sidney Crosby with more size. There’s nothing he can’t do on the ice, and before this season, he became the youngest player in NHL history to be named team captain.
Oh, right. Did I mention the fact that he’s only 19?
Joey Lifetime Achievement Award Vin Scully
There never was anybody like Vin before, and there will never be anybody like him again. In fact, he might be the only person I can think of for whom a Joey doesn’t feel like a high enough honor. You could boil it down and say that he was the greatest announcer ever, and that is true, but it’s only half of it. Vin was like an uncle to everybody born in Los Angeles since the mid-50s. How many kids were raised on that voice? He endured for so long, captured so many generations’ imaginations, because with Vin, it was never really about baseball. He always had a story. And he could tell a story like the best of them. Vin’s greatest work, his masterpiece if you will, was his call of the ninth inning of Sandy Koufax’s 1965 perfect game. You can find the audio online, but I prefer the transcript. It reads like Hemingway.
Here’s the final out:
“One and 1 to Harvey Kuenn. Now he’s ready: fastball, high, ball 2. You can’t blame a man for pushing just a little bit now. Sandy backs off, mops his forehead, runs his left index finger along his forehead, dries it off on his left pants leg. All the while Kuenn just waiting. Now Sandy looks in. Into his windup and the 2-1 pitch to Kuenn: swung on and missed, strike 2!
“It is 9:46 p.m.
“Two and 2 to Harvey Kuenn, one strike away. Sandy into his windup, here’s the pitch:
“Swung on and missed, a perfect game!
(38 seconds of cheering.)
“On the scoreboard in right field it is 9:46 p.m. in the City of the Angels, Los Angeles, California. And a crowd of 29,139 just sitting in to see the only pitcher in baseball history to hurl four no-hit, no-run games. He has done it four straight years, and now he caps it: On his fourth no-hitter he made it a perfect game. And Sandy Koufax, whose name will always remind you of strikeouts, did it with a flurry. He struck out the last six consecutive batters. So when he wrote his name in capital letters in the record books, that “K” stands out even more than the O-U-F-A-X.”
My favorite part of that, even more than the mic drop ending, is Vin’s description of Koufax. This small part tells you everything: “Sandy backs off, mops his forehead, runs his left index finger along his forehead, dries it off on his left pants leg. All the while Kuenn just waiting.” Vin could have just said that the stakes are high. Instead, he looked down from the press box, noticed Koufax’s left index finger, and instinctually knew that that small detail told the audience everything they needed to know.
Alas, those are all the Joeys we have to hand out. Happy New Year, and in the words of Vin Scully, I’d like to wish you a very pleasant good afternoon, wherever you may be.