Sports is a world of black and white, winners and losers, us and them, first place and everybody else. The lines are straight and the answers final. You win some, you lose some.
Not in 2002.
2002 was all about the gray areas. It was a year of ties, disputed finishes, moral relativism and endless debate. It was the year of the Tuck Rule and the double figure-skating gold, the speed-skating flap and the disputed Indy 500, the All-Star Game tie and the imminent lifting of Pete Rose’s “permanent” ban. A former National League Most Valuable Player said he was on steroids when he won the award, then said he wasn’t, which led to baseball promising to get tough on steroids, which it won’t. A former NBA player named Bison Dele, né Brian Williams, disappeared mysteriously at sea and is presumed dead.
Were some players on Harlem’s Little League World Series team ineligible because they didn’t live full time in Harlem? Should Tiger Woods boycott the Masters because the Augusta National Golf Club won’t admit women members? Should Mike Tyson have been allowed to fight despite his long history of bad and sometimes criminal behavior inside and out of the ring, including a press conference brawl in February? Is it OK to turn a high school basketball player into a national superstar? And what’s the deal with Ted Williams’ body?
On the other hand, there were some clear winners. The Los Angeles Lakers made it three straight NBA titles. The Detroit Red Wings won the Stanley Cup and sent Scotty Bowman, the greatest hockey coach in history, into retirement in style. Lennox Lewis humbled Tyson for good. Serena Williams emerged as the dominant tennis player in the world — and, more impressively, in her family — by beating her sister Venus in three straight Grand Slam finals. Sarah Hughes, the New England Patriots and the Anaheim Angels pulled off major upsets.
The Miami Hurricanes began the year by winning the national college football championship and eventually extended their winning streak to 34 games, an ungodly number in an era when schools can no longer dominate by stockpiling scholarships. Lance Armstrong won his fourth straight Tour de France, a dominance that would be astonishing even if he weren’t a cancer survivor. Cael Sanderson finished his college wrestling career undefeated. The U.S. had its best showing since 1930 in the World Cup, which was won by Brazil. The Minnesota Twins not only survived contraction, they thrived, going to the playoffs and beating the favored Oakland A’s, who had won 20 straight games late in the regular season. And as college basketball pundits twisted their hankies over the exodus of underclass talent to the NBA, senior Juan Dixon led the Maryland Terrapins to the NCAA title.
There were losers too. Tyson, for one, who lost his air of intrigue, his ability to convince the rubes that he was still a dangerous man, when Lewis exposed him as old, slow and washed up, a victim of his own idiocy and lack of self-control, a sporting tragedy for the ages. U.S. Olympic Committee president Sandra Baldwin, who stepped down after joining the puzzling list of résumé falsifiers. Baseball fans, who had to suffer through a summer of bone-headed labor squabbling, even though they were spared the insult of a strike. They were also spared, for the most part, the chore of watching Barry Bonds’ amazing swing, as opposing pitchers walked him at an unprecedented rate.
Team USA lost in the world basketball championships, a defeat so shocking that if you spend the rest of your life searching, you just might find an American who cared about it, or who had heard about the world basketball championships before they took place in front of a sea of empty seats in Indianapolis. And the biggest losers of the year might have been the father-son whack-job team who jumped from the stands and attacked a Kansas City Royals coach at Comiskey Park.
There was tragedy, as there always is. Darryl Kile, an ace pitcher still in his prime, died of a heart attack at 33. Brittanie Cecil, an eighth-grader, died after being hit in the head by a puck at a Columbus Blue Jackets hockey game. The NHL mandated that safety nets be installed in all rinks this season. Johnny Unitas, Sam Snead, Bob Hayes and Enos Slaughter were among the former stars who passed away in 2002.
Some legendary broadcasters, for many people the very sound of the games, left us this year. Chick Hearn, the only voice the Los Angeles Lakers had ever had, passed away after a fall at home. Jack Buck, the longtime announcer for the St. Louis Cardinals, died after a long illness. Ernie Harwell, alive and kicking at 84 and the greatest Detroit Tiger since Ty Cobb, retired after 57 years of broadcasting baseball.
But the stories that dominated the year were the ones without resolution, the ones that kept us wondering and arguing:
Skategate: Adorable Canadians Jamie Salé and David Pelletier skated like a dream in the Olympic pairs figure-skating free skate, only to watch Russians Yelena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze take the gold, sparking an international incident. Christine Brennan of USA Today, the sport’s leading chronicler, pretty much wrote that the judging was rigged. Turns out she was right, and within days the world had a new punch line to play with: “French figure-skating judge.” Marie-Reine Le Gougne, the judge, said she was pressured to vote for the Russians, then said she wasn’t, then said she was, wasn’t, was, wasn’t, and so on, even though no one was listening. She was later suspended from the sport. (Was not. Was too.)
The adorable Salé and Pelletier were eventually named co-winners of the gold medal, and the International Skating Union changed the way skating is judged. The officials who had been baffled for decades about how to deal with the insane levels of corruption in figure skating managed to fix the system in a week. The very real question remains, however, whether that was a good thing. Without the corrupt judging, what is the appeal of figure skating?
Later in the year, a Russian mobster was arrested in Italy and charged with plotting to fix the figure-skating and ice-dancing events at the Olympics, leading the world to lament the sad state of the once proud Russian mob.
The real tragedy of the Salt Lake City Olympics was that all of this overshadowed the emergence of curling as a major American spectator sport.
Short-track slapstick: One of America’s most photogenic Olympic hopefuls was scruffy-cute Apolo Ohno, a medal favorite in short-track speed skating, a sport ruled by centrifugal force that Americans quickly grew to love in 2002 and won’t think about again until 2006. In his first race, the 1,000 meters, Ohno was leading until a wild pileup on the final lap — par for the course in this frantic sport — allowed Australian Steven Bradbury, the only man far enough off the pace to avoid the carnage, to glide home for the gold, making him a charmingly goofy national hero Down Under. A few days later, Ohno, who had himself charmed America by jumping for joy upon receiving the silver medal that should have been gold, was trying to pass Korean Kim Dong-Sung for the lead on the final turn of the 1,500 meters. There was contact. Ohno stood up from his racer’s crouch as if to say, “I’ve been fouled.” Kim finished first, Ohno second. But the referee awarded the race, and the gold, to Ohno, ruling that Kim had impeded him. The Koreans were outraged.
Whether you believe Ohno deserved the gold probably depends on where you were born. “It is one of those grave points of theological disputation that may never be resolved,” wrote Gary Kamiya in Salon, “like how many Canadians can do triple salchows on the head of an emotionally vulnerable French judge.” French judge. See?
The Tuck Rule: The New England Patriots beat the Oakland Raiders in an AFC playoff game played in a snowstorm in Foxboro, Mass. In the key play of the game, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady appeared to fumble as he tried to pull the ball down from a cocked, ready-to-throw position and fold it in his arms to protect it. The Raiders recovered, seemingly sealing the victory, but the officials, citing a little-known and nonsensical rule that suddenly became a household word, deemed the play an incomplete pass. NFL bigwigs debated changing the rule in the offseason, but tabled the matter. The Patriots rode their tainted win into the Super Bowl, where they untainted it by stunning the heavily favored St. Louis Rams. “Just what exactly is a fumble?” became the football question of 2002.
Steroids: Ken Caminiti, who won the National League MVP award in 1996, told Sports Illustrated that he was on steroids at the time, and that at least half the players in the majors are regular users of the illegal drugs. The former slugger immediately backed off the statement, though the magazine stood by its story. Less than a week later, Jose Canseco’s literary agent said that the former star had told book publishers in meetings that he too had played on steroids. A month earlier, announcing his retirement, Canseco had said that 85 percent of all big leaguers were steroid users. Now he said he would name names in his book.
The revelation sent shock waves through the sports world: Jose Canseco has a literary agent?
The steroid issue was thrust into the baseball labor talks, and a toothless steroid-testing program was negotiated into the new collective bargaining agreement. Problem solved. Not everything is ambiguous, you see.
Who won at Indy? Defending champ Helio Castroneves, trying to drive the last 100 miles on a single tank of fuel, led Paul Tracy with two laps to go, but Tracy was gaining. On Turn 3 of the penultimate lap, Castroneves slowed, apparently out of fuel, and Tracy passed him. Almost simultaneously, the yellow flag came out — making all passing illegal — in response to a crash elsewhere on the track. The race finished under the yellow flag, Tracy first, then Castroneves. Castroneves claimed that he wasn’t out of gas, he only slowed down, as required, when he saw the yellow light on his dashboard indicating the yellow flag was out. Tracy claimed that his pass had come before the yellow.
Which came first, the pass or the yellow flag? Castroneves will die saying the flag came first, Tracy will take to the grave his belief that he passed legally. So who won? Apolo Ohno, of course.
Race officials sided with Castroneves.
Tie me up at the ballpark: It sometimes feels like bondage and torture to pay a visit to the local diamond, especially when the local nine is, say, the Devil Rays or the Brewers. But it was a different kind of tying up at the All-Star Game in Milwaukee. Commissioner Bud Selig declared the game a draw after 11 innings, which brought forth Vesuvian torrents of outrage from people who had gone to bed before the seventh-inning stretch.
All-Star managers in recent years have made an effort to get every player on the All-Star roster into the game, which, when men were men and God was a boy, had been a hard-fought battle that each league actually took pride in winning. Nobody seemed terribly exercised by this fan-pleasing strategy even though it would inevitably lead someday to an extra-inning game in which both teams would run out of pitchers, all of whom agree to play with the tacit understanding given to their team back home that they won’t be run out to the mound for so many innings that their arm falls off, rendering them useless in the second half of the season, in games that actually mean something.
That finally happened this year. Selig decreed in the 11th that the game would end in a tie if nobody scored, which they didn’t. It was the right ruling, the only possible ruling, but it was announced, in typical tin-eared Seligian fashion, in a way that somehow managed to piss everyone off. Selig was showered with boos in his home stadium and raked over the coals in the media in the ensuing days.
That was the least of Selig’s problems, though. He had a labor situation to deal with. Selig has for years led the charge on behalf of team owners, who have claimed, farcically, that everybody in baseball is losing money and that therefore an artificial cap on salaries is needed. A late-season strike seemed assured, threatening to wipe out the World Series for the second time since 1904 — and also the second time on Selig’s disastrous decade-long watch, the other being the ’94 strike — but the owners and players came to an 11th-hour deal, saving the season.
Selig, whose unique marketing strategy for baseball over the last few years has been to talk about what a lousy product it is, even managed to botch this seeming triumph, coming across at the settlement press conference not like the enthusiastic CEO of a grand company that had averted disaster, but like the under-assistant vice president of engineering for Wisconsin Widgets Inc., announcing to the staff that the company would no longer be providing free bagels on Fridays, and sorry about that but times are tough.
Perhaps in search of a feel-good story, a fan-pleasing public relations move, Selig reportedly turned late in the year to the issue of Pete Rose, suspended for life in a gambling scandal in 1989. Rose, who signed an agreement that banned him from baseball but that did not require him to admit he had bet on games while managing the Cincinnati Reds, has always maintained that he didn’t bet on baseball, a claim believed by O.J. Simpson and four members of the Flat Earth Society. But he is adored by fans, who want him back in the fold, as evidenced by thundering ovations at his two sanctioned appearances at baseball events, at the 1999 All-Star Game and the 2002 World Series.
Selig and Rose are reportedly negotiating on a settlement. Selig wants Rose to admit that he bet on baseball and to apologize. Then he’d be welcomed back, his stay on the permanently ineligible list rendered temporary, a seeming paradox, but a fitting agreement to emerge from the year of the gray area.