World-class athletes and the usual misdemeanors

As Americans focused more than ever before on international contests, the biggest story was Italy winning soccer. But there were other unexpected champions too.

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World-class athletes and the usual misdemeanors

The World Cup.

Around the globe, the year in sports began and ended in the middle of the calendar, with the World Cup. Biggest story in the world: Italy, not one of the South American powers, winning the final over France. French legend Zinedine Zidane getting red-carded in what he said would be his last international match for head-butting an opponent in the chest.

In the United States the world’s biggest sporting event was big, bigger than ever, despite our side’s disappointing showing and first-round exit. But it was just one chapter in a year filled with surprising champions and new young stars, along with more than a few disturbing events away from the field of play.

It was a year in which Americans spent more time than ever before focused on international sporting events, not just the World Cup but also the inaugural World Baseball Classic and the Winter Olympics.

You forgot about the Winter Olympics, didn’t you?

Americans even paid passing attention to the world basketball championships, traditionally ignored on these shores, but perceived as a first step toward a new American seriousness in international hoops, toward regaining the old U.S. birthright of Olympic gold. The U.S. took the bronze medal, which is becoming a habit. On to Beijing in 2008.

All of this may have been a glimpse of the future, a product of the communications revolution and the global economy, the shifting sands of the sporting landscape pulling Americans out of their comfort zone and into the international arena. Or maybe it was just one of those funny years.

On the home front it was a year of underdogs and unexpected champions — or had you been thinking Carolina Hurricanes over Edmonton Oilers for the Stanley Cup?

And it was a year of the usual crimes and misdemeanors. Though only tangentially related to sports, the Duke lacrosse rape scandal, in which members of the team were accused of gang-raping a stripper they’d hired for a party, was the biggest of these.



The rape charges against three team members were dropped Dec. 22, but district attorney Mike Nifong is still pursuing sexual assault and kidnapping charges. Meanwhile, the North Carolina bar has filed ethics charges against Nifong, accusing him of making misleading and inflammatory statements about the suspects in the Duke case.

One of the worst instances of street violence against an American sports team struck the Duquesne University men’s basketball squad in September when five players were shot outside a campus dance. All survived. The most seriously injured, junior Sam Ashaolu, shot twice in the head, has resumed playing basketball and hopes to return to competition.

More directly related to the field of play was this year’s crop of drug stories. Tour de France champion Floyd Landis of the United States failed his post-race drug test and was stripped of his title, though he denies the charges and is fighting for reinstatement.

Journeyman relief pitcher Jason Grimsley was nabbed by the feds for allegedly accepting a shipment of human growth hormone, an illegal performance enhancer for which baseball has no test. Grimsley cooperated, telling authorities he used steroids, HGH and amphetamines during his career and naming names of others who he said did the same.

Barry Bonds started the year in drag and ended it reupping with the San Francisco Giants, with whom he’ll launch an assault on the all-time home run record in 2007 to the boos of baseball fans who don’t live in San Francisco. In between, the book “Game of Shadows” detailed the BALCO case that, among other things, told the world once and for all that Bonds was a steroid user.

The authors of that book, San Francisco Chronicle reporters Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada, were found in contempt of court by a federal judge for refusing to divulge their source for the grand jury leak at the center of their story. They face prison time if their appeals fail.

In the last week of December, an appeals court ruled that federal investigators could use confidential data — names and results — from 2003 MLB drug tests that were said at the time to be confidential. The samples, collected as a survey to gauge the prevalence of steroid use at the time, were confiscated in a 2004 raid on two drug labs.

If a Bonds sample is among them, it could have implications in the perjury case the government has reportedly tried to build against him since he testified he’d never knowingly used steroids. Also, given that the BALCO story has been driven by leaks, it’s not unreasonable to expect information about the more than 100 positive tests to find its way to the public.

In an effort to rehabilitate his image, Bonds tried his hand at producing a reality TV show for ESPN about his life. It was canceled for a lack of viewers, to say nothing of a lack of reality.

As the year came to an end Mark McGwire, whose star turn in the 1998 home run chase inspired a jealous Bonds to start taking steroids, according to “Game of Shadows,” appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time. Despite career numbers that would make him a shoo-in under ordinary circumstances, McGwire had virtually no chance of being elected this time around. He’ll have 14 years to hope the baseball writers change their view that his performance was drug-aided and his stonewalling of Congress in 2005 was unforgivable.

Baseball’s biggest loss of the year was really a win — for fans. A federal judge ruled in August that Major League Baseball doesn’t have the exclusive right to ballplayers’ names and stats, meaning it couldn’t force fantasy league companies to pay a fee to use them. A win for baseball in the case might have been devastating for fantasy baseball, which is likely a huge driver of the sport’s recent surge in popularity.

Though 2006 was a year of surprise champions, the first one crowned wasn’t all that unexpected. USC and Texas had been No. 1 and No. 2 for the entire college football season, and they met in the Rose Bowl for the national championship. Texas quarterback Vince Young turned in one of that bowl’s greatest performances, leading the Longhorns to the comeback win, a mild upset over a team that hadn’t lost a game since September 2003.

He was then passed over by his hometown team, the Houston Texans, in the NFL draft and taken with the third pick by the Tennessee Titans, who inserted him in the starting lineup this fall with much success. The Texans, in a stunning move, also passed on star USC running back Reggie Bush, who went to New Orleans with the second pick.

Bush has been part of the NFL’s best story in 2006, helping the Saints to a playoff berth one year after a lost season in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The Saints’ return to the refurbished Superdome, a decisive Monday night win over the Atlanta Falcons that served notice the Saints, then 3-0, were a legitimately good team, was one of the emotional highlights of the sports year.

The headlines Bush and teammates such as quarterback Drew Brees have been making on the field are happier than the ones that dogged the Southern Cal star between the football seasons, when a Yahoo Sports investigation alleged that Bush had accepted benefits from sports agents while still a college athlete.

The Pittsburgh Steelers fell apart in the new season after having recovered from a rough 2005 start to win the Super Bowl in February. The Steelers beat the Seattle Seahawks in one of the least glamorous Super Bowls in history, capping a postseason dominated by officiating controversies.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was hurt in a motorcycle crash over the summer, and while he was able to start the season, the Steelers never got things going until it was too late.

The NFL’s television landscape changed in 2006, with ABC’s “Monday Night Football” ending after 36 years. NBC took over the big network prime-time slot, moving it to Sunday, ESPN grabbed the Monday night game, and the NFL sold a package of eight Thursday and Saturday games to its own cable network, which proceeded to battle cable companies over carrier fees.

Terrell Owens signed with the Dallas Cowboys and continued his soap opera of a career. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue stepped down after 17 workmanlike but hugely successful years. He was replaced by longtime league executive Roger Goodell.

The Florida Gators won the NCAA men’s basketball Tournament, blowing out UCLA in an unmemorable title game. What everyone will remember will be the Cinderella run of George Mason University, an 11 seed that went all the way to the Final Four in what may have been the most entertaining Tournament of all time.

Maryland won an overtime thriller over Duke in the championship game of the women’s Tournament.

Florida won a chance late in the year to pull off a basketball-football double. Thanks to an upset of USC by UCLA on the last weekend of the season, the Gators earned a spot in the Jan. 8 National Championship Game, an add-on to the four-bowl BCS formula beginning this season. They’ll play Ohio State.

The Buckeyes have already played a national title game of sorts, beating archrival Michigan 42-39 when Ohio State was ranked No. 1 and the Wolverines No. 2. Some observers, believing Michigan was the clear second-best team in the nation, argued for the Wolverines to get a rematch for the title. Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith ran away with the Heisman Trophy.

Baseball provided an unexpected championship, the St. Louis Cardinals beating the Detroit Tigers in a cold and rainy World Series. The Cardinals, perennial contenders lately, almost executed one of the great flops in baseball history, barely pulling out of a year-end nosedive to take the National League Central Division with 83 wins, which would become the lowest total ever for a World Series champ.

The Tigers, three years from a scarcely believable 119-loss season and two years from a relatively reasonable 91-loss campaign, roared out of the gate, stumbled down the stretch, blew the American League Central on the last weekend of the season, got well in the playoffs, and then blew apart again in the Series, one that will be remembered for the smudge on pitcher Kenny Rogers’ hand and the inability of any Detroit pitcher to throw a ball to a base without mishap.

The story of the baseball season, though, was a wave of young stars in both leagues, with perhaps a dozen rookies good enough to win Rookie of the Year honors most years. The actual winners were Florida shortstop Hanley Ramirez in the National League and Detroit pitcher Justin Verlander in the American.

Anibal Sanchez, another Marlins rookie, threw the first no-hitter in the big leagues since 2004 as Florida posted a surprising 78-84 record with a minuscule payroll of $15 million, or about $180 million less than the New York Yankees.

Ryan Howard of the Philadelphia Phillies, a grand old man of 26 and a veteran of two partial seasons in the big leagues, led the majors with 58 home runs.

A special committee voted 17 people from the Negro leagues into baseball’s Hall of Fame in February, but surprisingly left out Buck O’Neil, who probably did more than anyone else to keep the history of those leagues alive.

Baseball fans and the commentariat were almost unanimous in condemning the oversight of O’Neil, who had been a good but not great player and a successful manager with the Kansas City Monarchs, then the first black coach in the majors with the Chicago Cubs, and then a tireless ambassador for the Negro leagues.

O’Neil, typically, shrugged it off and spoke movingly at the induction ceremony for the other 17. He died in October, at age 94.

The first World Baseball Classic, held during spring training in Florida, Arizona, Puerto Rico and Japan, was a hit. It was won by Japan, which was led by pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka. The Seibu Lions right-hander signed in December with the Boston Red Sox, who posted a $51.1 million fee for the right to negotiate with him and spent $52 million to sign him, the highest-profile contract in a wild off-season of spending on free agents.

Shaquille O’Neal took on a secondary role and a host of players not noted as team guys — Gary Payton, Antoine Walker, Jason Williams — played like team guys. That allowed Dwyane Wade to emerge as a superstar and lead Pat Riley’s team to a Finals victory over the Dallas Mavericks.

The individual highlight of the ’05-06 NBA season was Kobe Bryant pouring in 81 points against the Toronto Raptors in January. The ’06 part of the 2006-07 season had no such jaw-dropping moments. Instead there was enough complaining by the players about the new synthetic ball unilaterally introduced by commissioner David Stern that he was forced to reverse himself and bring back the old leather one.

But not before the players filed an unfair labor practice grievance about that and about a tightening of the rules regarding how much they’re allowed to argue with the refs. Stern also found himself in damage-control mode yet again following a brawl late in a Denver Nuggets-New York Knicks game at Madison Square Garden.

One of the game’s greatest players, Allen Iverson, spent two weeks on the sidelines in December waiting for the Philadelphia 76ers to trade him. Iverson’s relationship with his longtime team had soured beyond repair, but a combination of his age, his contract, his personal issues and teams’ salary-cap situations made him a difficult sale. The Nuggets finally pulled the trigger on a deal after losing leading scorer Carmelo Anthony to a 15-game suspension stemming from the Garden donnybrook.

In the WNBA, the Detroit Shock beat the defending champion Sacramento Monarchs in the Finals for their second title in four years. It was the third pro championship, but the first WNBA crown, for Katie Smith, one of the greatest female players in U.S. history.

The NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes outlasted the — really? — Edmonton Oilers in a thrilling seven-game Stanley Cup Final that capped the league’s comeback year after the ’04-05 lockout. It was a season marked by increased scoring and excitement, the debuts of sensational rookies Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin and, alas, almost nobody watching on television. After the season, longtime Detroit Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman retired.

One of the biggest sports celebrities of 2006 wasn’t human. It was Barbaro, who won the Kentucky Derby by eight lengths. He looked like a solid Triple Crown contender and was favored in the Preakness, but broke down steps from the gate with a shattered right rear ankle.

Updates on Barbaro’s condition from reporters in scrubs outside his stall became commonplace over the summer as he struggled with an inflammation called laminitis. At times he was given no better than even odds to survive.

Late in the year Barbaro got clearance to leave the Pennsylvania animal hospital where he’d been treated since the May accident, and the Pimlico Downs racetrack announced that an undercard race on Preakness Stakes day would be renamed the Barbaro Stakes. The race had previously been named after the first Triple Crown winner, Sir Barton.

The sports world lost a few greats this year, as always. Longtime Boston Celtics coach and executive Red Auerbach died. Bo Schembechler, who coached Michigan to 10 Rose Bowls and six outright Big Ten championships in 21 years, died on the eve of Michigan’s epic game against Ohio State.

Other notables who died were golf great Byron Nelson, boxing champs Floyd Patterson and Willie Pep, baseball star Kirby Puckett, Olympic decathlete Bob Mathias, broadcaster Curt Gowdy and pioneering football owner Lamar Hunt.

You might not remember them, but the Stealth Olympics were held in Turin, Italy. Remember Bode Miller? The way that the snowboarders were the breakout stars? Remember Lindsey Jacobellis showboating and falling, costing herself a gold medal in snowboard cross?

Nothing? How about the streaker at the curling match, the one wearing the poultry loincloth?

Other than the X-Games kids, American athletes were mostly a disappointment, from Miller to Michelle Kwan to Sasha Cohen, Johnny Weir and both hockey teams. The American women’s hockey loss to Sweden was a reverse Miracle on Ice, an upset for the ages. The men’s team stood on the sidelines as Sweden beat Finland in a fantastic gold-medal game.

A new rule allowing female figure skaters to wear pants and a new scoring system that rewards athleticism over aesthetics nudged figure skating kicking and screaming toward the world of sports, a blow to anyone who thinks a “Cats” touring company represents the zenith of athletic and sartorial glory. In an upset, the gold medal went to Shizuka Arakawa of Japan. Favorite Evgeny Plushenko of Russia took the men’s gold.

Andre Agassi said farewell to men’s tennis, which Roger Federer dominated, winning 12 of 17 tournaments, including three majors, and reaching the final in four others. But 20-year-old Rafael Nadal cemented his position as Federer’s chief rival, beating him four times, including in the French Open final, on Nadal’s preferred surface, clay. Nadal set a record for consecutive wins on clay.

No woman came close to controlling the sport the way Federer did, but Justine Henin-Hardenne became the first woman since Martina Hingis in 1997 to reach all four Grand Slam finals — she won only the French — and Hingis returned from a three-year retirement caused by foot injuries to play well, winning two tournaments and reaching No. 7 in the rankings.

Tiger Woods struggled early in the year as his father, Earl, lay dying of cancer. But after Earl died in May, Tiger went on his best run since 2000, winning two majors, most memorably the British, where he wept on his caddy’s shoulder after sinking his last putt.

Jimmie Johnson won his first Nextel Cup. Twenty-five-year-old Fernando Alonso became the youngest driver to win back-to-back Formula 1 titles, and F1 titan Michael Schumacher announced that the 2006 season would be his last as a driver.

Mixed martial arts continued its meteoric rise into the mainstream from the free-for-all beginnings that had Sen. John McCain calling for a ban on the sport only a decade ago. The Ultimate Fighting Championship light-heavyweight title match between Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz on Dec. 30 was expected to pull more pay-per-view buys than the biggest boxing match of the year, the Oscar de la Hoya-Ricardo Mayorga fight in May.

Some years give us an unforgettable image or two, moving or still, that we’ll always remember. Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston in 1965. Mark Spitz’s face slicing through water in ’72 — and that masked terrorist on the Munich balcony too. Michael Jordan leaping in celebration in ’89.

It may be too early to tell if any images from 2006 will stand out years from now. Perhaps Woods sobbing on the 18th green in Liverpool. Perhaps any of Dwyane Wade’s spectacular dunks, Jacobellis’ pratfall or Barry Bonds scooping up an empty, needle-less syringe a fan had thrown onto the field in San Diego. Maybe Gonzaga’s Adam Morrison sitting on the court and crying after his team blew a late lead to UCLA in the Tournament, or Kenny Rogers’ smudgy pitching hand.

The best guess might be Zidane’s head butt of Marco Materazzi in the World Cup final, the most memorable moment in the most memorable event of the year. After all, when you talk about sports in 2006, you start and end with the World Cup.

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    For more Salon year-end stories, click here.

  • King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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