In a word, sports in 2014 were contradictory. It was a year of scandals: Donald Sterling, Ray Rice, and Adrian Peterson. A year of head cases: Jameis Winston, Johnny Manziel, and Lance Stephenson. A year of trailblazers: Jason Collins, Michael Sam, and the Northwestern student athletes’ union. There were homecomings, farewells, and protests. The Olympics, with T.J. Oshie’s shootout brilliance, and the World Cup, with John Brooks’ header, were played amongst the backdrop of civil and political unrest.
The one thing there wasn’t was black and white. Grays were everywhere –Sterling is a racist, but isn’t that tape an invasion of privacy? Sure Jameis is an idiot, but should we just let him be a kid? Michael Sam is good enough, but can he get drafted? – because sports, science, and politics collided head-on. The crash left us with the greatest sports year I can remember; a year that sports became a dominant conversation topic at dinner tables, the Today Show, and the Capitol.
There were so many amazing moments, it was tough to pick the best, but these are the Joey’s! For the last four years, I’ve done all the work for you, sorting out through the shades of gray to come to indisputable conclusions. It might have been difficult, but I fought through and found a way. Without further ado, I present to you the best (and at some points, the worst) of the sports world in 2014:
Most Outstanding Male Athlete: Madison Bumgarner, SP, San Francisco Giants: I’m only 16 years old, and there’s a lot that I expect to see before my time is up. I plan on seeing the Cubs win the World Series, I plan on seeing someone invent a way to make guacamole stay fresh longer, and I plan on seeing a man land on Mars.
I’m resigned to the fact that I’m never going to see a pitching performance as incredible as Bumgarner’s October.
Pitching in three of the seven World Series games, Bumgarner allowed only one run. His 0.25 career World Series ERA is the best ever. So is his .528 career World Series WHIP. And so is his measly average of 3.5 hits per nine innings.
What’s more impressive is his complete, utter dominance on the mound. When he came into game 7 in the fifth inning, the Giants were down by one. After pitching a 117 pitch shutout three days before, the 6’5” country boy from North Carolina gave up a single to the first batter he faced. He didn’t allow another baserunner until, with two outs in the ninth, Gregor Blanco misplayed an Alex Gordon blooper, leaving Gordon, the tying run, on third. You have to wonder if Bumgarner was just trying to make it interesting. Three pitches later, the Giants were World Series champions, and the greatest postseason pitching performance ever faded to black.
Most Outstanding Female Athlete: Mo’ne Davis, SP, Taney Little League Dragons: I don’t watch the Little League World Series. I get that it’s “what the game is all about,” and that “it’s so many kids’ dreams.” That’s all great, but while you watch Team Australia beat Team Cameroon 17-14, I’ll watch a big boy, major league game every time.
Well, almost every time, because when Mo’ne – the only girl in the tournament – came out to pitch for the Taney Dragons, neither I nor the rest of the country could get enough. She wasn’t just good; she was the best player on the field. She couldn’t lead Taney to a championship, but she did land herself a Sports Illustrated cover and a Spike Lee directed commercial. And what’s most remarkable is that baseball is Mo’ne’s second sport; she’d prefer to play basketball. Mo’ne’s an early favorite for another Joey when she gets on the college court.
Best Team: San Antonio Spurs: This is a lifetime achievement award of sorts. The Spurs do everything right, and they’ve been doing everything right since I was born. When they lost to the Heat in 2013, it looked like the Spurs window was finally closing. Tony Parker was banged up. Tim Duncan was old. Manu Ginobili seemed older. There were rumors Greg Poppovich was going to retire.
Then, Ginobili and Parker had the best seasons of their lives. Duncan was the same great player he always is, and Poppovich kept his seat as the best coach in sports. They played with a chip on their shoulders, and vowed to never lose to Miami again. That’s just what they did, dominating the season, playoffs, and finals showdown against the Heat. So far this season, nothing has changed, staying just as good, if not better, than they were 10 years ago. See you again in the finals.
Best Game: Los Angeles Kings vs. New York Rangers in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup:I watched this game in Wyoming. It was my best friend and I’s first day at his uncle’s ranch, and I’m sure his uncle’s first impression of me was something like, “this guy is out of his mind.” Dinner started at 7. My Kings’ chance to clinch the Cup started at 7. I couldn’t completely ditch dinner, so I “went to the bathroom” once every five minutes. Maybe it was my screaming “GO KINGS GOOOOOOO!” or “C’MON QUICKIE!!!!!!!!!” but I don’t think they bought my bathroom excuse.
The second dinner was over, I bolted to the TV, where I screamed even louder. The game was heading to overtime. I was losing my mind. I’m not going to describe the ins-and-outs of the two overtimes, because it would take an entire book to recount the back and forth drama. Instead, I’ll just talk about the goal that won it. It wasn’t an incredibly difficult goal (there were no acrobatics needed), and it didn’t take much skill, but, boy, when it comes to game winners, you couldn’t ask for anything better.
The majority of hockey goals are messy. One second, a bunch of people are slapping at a puck, and the next second, there’s a red light spinning and a horn sounding, as people try to figure out what happened. Martinez’s goal could be seen from a mile away. The entire side of the goal was open, he flicked it, and before it even went in, everyone in Staples Center (along with me in Wyoming) started their championship party. I’ve watched the game on TiVo six times already, and it still sends me into a frenzy.
Most Impressive Performance: Tim Howard Makes 16 Saves Against Belgium:The U.S. didn’t deserve to be on the pitch with Belgium in the Round of 16. We were so outmatched; the score should have been at least 5-0. But Tim Howard was in the net, so the game went to extra time. He dove, he charged, and he punched balls away, giving Jürgen Klinsmann’s young squad a chance to move on to the quarterfinals. There are times when players put teams on their back. Howard put the entire country on his. People who had never watched a soccer game in their lives watched from Soldier Field to Kansas City to Air Force One. The importance–and ridiculousness–of Howard’s record-breaking day wasn’t lost on anybody, even in our soccer-deprived nation.
Best Breakthrough Athlete: Anthony Davis, PF, New Orleans Pelicans: For the last four years, there’s been LeBron, KD, and everyone else. Now, it’s LeBron, KD, Anthony Davis, and everyone else. Davis has emerged as the best big man in the NBA since Tim Duncan, averaging 24.3 points (third best in the league), 10.5 rebounds (ninth best in the league), and 2.9 blocks (best in the league) per game–he’s a force, both offensively and defensively, but it’s one thing to do it in the regular season. Until Davis even gets to the playoffs, nothing he’s done is meaningful. In the brutal Western Conference, Davis might have to wait for his shot.
Best Play: Odell Beckham Jr’s Catch Against the Cowboys: It’s the best catch I’ve ever seen. One hand. Three fingers. Full extension. Holy cow.
Worst Play: Mark Donnelly Falls Singing National Anthem: Technically, this isn’t a play, but without the anthem, there’s no game.
At least he recovered like a champ.
Best Moment: Derek Jeter’s Final Yankee Stadium At-Bat: I don’t know if God is a Yankee fan, but he’s definitely a fan of Derek Jeter. Had the ending to Jeter’s storied career been in a movie, people would have complained it could have never happened. For starters, had David Robertson not blown a save in epic fashion, Jeter would have ended his Yankee Stadium career after reaching first on a throwing error.
Instead, Jeter was handed the opportunity to get back into the batters’ box with the winning run on second, and on the first pitch, lashed the ball to right, scoring the game winning run and making grown men cry across the country.
More than just an amazing play, it was so Jeter. Things always worked out for him, and once more, he got another chance, when nine-times-out-of-ten, he wouldn’t have. He was never the type to hit a home run, opting instead to play small ball in the steroid era.
Best Speech: Kevin Durant’s MVP Acceptance Speech:This one was a two-man race between KD and Richard Sherman. Sherman’s post-game rant to Erin Andrews is better known and has definitely been talked about more, but was it really that great? He just won the biggest game of his life and was pumped. He didn’t say anything preposterous. He IS the best corner in the game.
Durant’s MVP speech, though, is the best MVP speech ever given. Hands down. I could go on and on to try to sum it up, but instead, I’ll let KD speak for himself (skip to 23:30 if you don’t want to watch it all).
The Bud Selig Memorial, Most Likely To Be Caught To Have Taken Steroids Award: Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota Vikings (for now): The first two-time winner of the Bud Selig Memorial, Most Likely To Be Caught To Have Taken Steroids Award! Everything that gave him the award last time still stands: the remarkable knee injury recovery, the on-the-field dominance, the tree trunk arms, and, of course, the fact that he’s an Oklahoma Sooner. To win two Bud Selig Memorial, Most Likely To Be Caught To Have Taken Steroids Awards, though, you really have to add a cherry on top of your already impressive resume. In AD’s case, that cherry came in the form of a child abuse charge. Two words: roid rage.
The Bud Selig Memorial, Oh No! I Might Have Just Ruined My Sport Award: NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell:Every decision Roger Goodell made this year was the wrong one. There’s the Ray Rice fiasco (which I’ve written about before), where Goodell did nothing until his and Rice’s faces were on every TV channel in America. Then came the Adrian Peterson disaster, where Goodell overstepped his bounds by about the length of a football field. The highway robbery he pulled on former players during their concussion lawsuit was overturned because, as the judge said, “the money wouldn’t adequately compensate the nearly 20,000 men not named in the suit.” He refused, once again, to move a team to Los Angeles. 48 NFL players were arrested. With Selig gone, Goodell is officially the worst commissioner in sports. He’s inept. Arrogant. Smug. And worst of all, a liar, no matter what ESPN wants Bill Simmons or me to believe.
Most Epic Fail: Sochi Olympics: #SochiFail was trending worldwide the entire Winter Olympics. There were unfinished hotel rooms, brown water, stray dogs, no snow, self-locking bathroom doors, warm temperatures, and of course, giant, light up ring malfunctions. That’s karma, Mr. Putin.
Best NFL Player: JJ Watt, DE, Houston Texans: The gap between Watt and the next best defensive lineman is wider than the state of Texas. He’s racked up 20.5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, and 5 touchdowns (one pick six, one fumble recovery, and three receptions on offense). Athletically, he’s a freak, with a box jump of 55 inches and otherworldly strength. No offensive lineman has come close to stopping him yet, and, had he had a competent team around him, he would be the favorite to win MVP. The real shame in him missing the playoffs, though, is that we won’t be able to see more of the best defensive player since Lawrence Taylor.
Best College Football Player: Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin Badgers: He’s unstoppable. His 2,336 rushing yards are the fourth best in history. His 408-yd game against Nebraska set an NCAA record (it was broken later in the season), and he didn’t even see the field in the fourth quarter. He rushed for over 100 yards in 12 of his 14 games. 6 of those were over 200 yards. If that’s not domination, I don’t know what is.
Best NBA Player: LeBron James: SF, Cleveland Cavaliers (!!!): I know, I know. He lost the Finals in the spring. He skipped the FIBA World Cup in the summer. So far in this fall and winter, he hasn’t played anywhere close to his best basketball. Still, I’d take King James over anyone else in the league. Everyone knows what a physical freak he is—even if you don’t know what a basketball is, you could look at him and tell me that—but what isn’t so obvious is his incredible intelligence. There’s a telling story out of the Cavaliers’ training camp: after an practice early in the offseason, LeBron stayed on the court with four others and walked each of them through their roles in David Blatt’s new offense. There are five positions in basketball. LeBron mastered each of them.
He also mastered PR. His return to Cleveland was done so flawlessly, it’s impossible to believe LeBron is the same person who made “The Decision.” He not only won over the support of Cleveland, but he added the support of the entire nation, while deflecting hate from Miami fans. Nothing was leaked, few saw it coming, and nobody could have done it better.
Best MLB Player: Madison Bumgarner, SP, San Francisco Giants: See “Most Outstanding Male Athlete”
Best NHL Player: Drew Doughty, Defender, Los Angeles Kings: Doughty couldn’t have won more this year, with both a Stanley Cup and a gold medal to speak for his 2014 campaign. He’s a point machine, especially for a defender, and in Sochi, his two goals against Finland clinched a key Canadian victory. In the NHL playoffs, he scored 18 goals. Justin Williams won the Conn Smythe after a handful of clutch goals, but Doughty was the best player in the series. And in the world.
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You couldn’t catch your breath in 2014. Each scandal led to another. There were amazing games every week. An Olympics. A World Cup. A pitching masterpiece. Storybooks were begun, others were finished. Sports reminded us what a uniting force they are. How much good they can do, while still flashing a dark side.
In 2015, sports will do a little less harm. Goodbye, Bud Selig. We won’t miss you. I promise.