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What a Wonderfully Wacky Time It Was

The calendar on the wall says Dec. 31, if that still means anything in a year when sports rendered the calendar meaningless.

For the last 364 days, in arenas and stadiums from Salt Lake City to South Korea, it has been April 1 on an endless loop, “Groundhog Day” with a whoopee cushion, the world’s longest practical joke on a broken record.

The New England Patriots beat the St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl.

And the Rams never won another game with Kurt Warner at quarterback.

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Sarah Hughes won the Olympic gold medal in women’s figure skating.

And the Russians won the gold medal in pairs figure skating ... and so did the Canadians.

The United States almost made the semifinals of soccer’s World Cup.

And lost three games and finished sixth at the men’s World Basketball Championship.

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Baseball’s All-Star game ended in a tie when both teams ran out of pitchers with the score frozen at 7-up.

And Ted Williams remains on ice in a cryogenics lab in Arizona.

Tiger Woods shot an 81 in the third round of the British Open.

And shot a 67 in the final round of the PGA Championship and lost to a former electronics salesman named Rich Beem.

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Carson Palmer won the Heisman Trophy.

And USC and Iowa will play the best-looking Rose Bowl in years in the Orange Bowl.

Day after day, week after week, upstarts and underdogs played a never-ending game of Can You Top This? Indiana stunned Duke in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Pete Sampras stunned everybody by winning the U.S. Open. The New Jersey Nets reached the NBA Finals. The Carolina Hurricanes played in the Stanley Cup finals. Jerry West went to work for the Memphis Grizzlies.

Expect the unexpected became the daily morning mantra before cracking open the sports page. Glass-slipper Cinderella stories became old hat. Shocks to the system began to fizzle because the system had built up a jaded immunity.

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But then came the evening of Oct. 27.

Dateline, Anaheim.

Lofting fly ball to Darin Erstad.

Joe Buck is narrating in English, but the words, even when repeated two months later, seem from another galaxy.

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“The Angels! World Champions!”

The.

Angels.

World.

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Champions.

And monkeys will fly high above the outfield fences.

(Actually, that happened too, in the form of a video primate often seen hopping up and down on the scoreboard during Angel home games. Local baseball enthusiasts took to calling the mangy thing “the Rally Monkey” and if the Angels were ever trailing after the fifth inning

The Angels won the World Series.

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Six words previously strung together only by science fiction novelists and comedy writers.

The Angels (Luis Sanchez to Cecil Cooper!) qualified for their first playoff berth since 1986 by winning 99 of 162 games.

The Angels (Donnie Moore to Dave Henderson!) defeated the New York Yankees in the first round of the American League playoffs.

The Angels (Mark Langston to Luis Sojo!) defeated the Minnesota Twins to win their first AL pennant in 42 years of trying.

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The Angels (An 11-game lead in ’95!) rallied from a 5-0, seventh-inning deficit in Game 6 of the World Series and defeated the San Francisco Giants, 4-1, in Game 7.

It was the event of a lifetime, of 6 billion lifetimes, because no one on the planet honestly expected to live long enough to see it happen.

Stranger still was the sight of Jackie Autry, who ran the franchise into the ground before selling it to Disney, and Michael Eisner, who had hoped to dump the team on some poor sucker long before October 2002, standing on the championship podium taking bows for eight months of hard work they had absolutely nothing to do with.

The victory belonged to 25 players who were overshadowed every step of their remarkable climb -- by the Dodgers during the regular season, by Yankee aura and Twin hoopla during the playoffs, by Barry Bonds during the Series.

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It belonged to Manager Mike Scioscia and his coaches, who kept the team focused during a 6-14 start, which was an unprecedented franchise low, even for the Angels, and emphasized smart, fundamental baseball -- all but waving the textbook written by the Dodgers in the faces of their freeway rivals.

It belonged to Bill Bavasi, the former general manager who assembled the basic framework and decided to resign rather than break up the core, as certain Disney executives wanted.

And it belonged to the front-office tandem of Paul Pressler, who rattled the Angels’ tin cup loudly enough for Disney to capitulate with a few more dollars, and Bill Stoneman, who used those funds to bolster the roster with the likes of Kevin Appier, Aaron Sele and Brad Fullmer.

The Angels’ improbable championship was the crown jewel in a rousing comeback year for the Southland, which had been subsisting on the Lakers, bread and water for far too long.

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The Lakers did their part again, winning their third consecutive NBA championship, although the Sacramento Kings and their followers will forever credit the officials working the Western Conference finals with the essential push over the top.

The Sparks won their second WNBA title, repeating the all-gender basketball sweep they and the Lakers first managed in 2001.

The Galaxy, on the verge of being branded the Buffalo Bills of soccer, finally broke through in its fourth appearance in the Major League Soccer championship final, in overtime, on a goal by Guatemalan rookie Carlos Ruiz, to defeat the New England Revolution, 1-0, for its first MLS Cup.

USC won 10 of 12 football games, including routs of UCLA and Notre Dame on national television, the latter giving Trojan quarterback Palmer the cross-country exposure he needed to become the first West Coast player to win the Heisman Trophy since Marcus Allen in 1981.

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All told, in terms of trophies won, the Los Angeles-Anaheim sporting empire has never had a better year than 2002.

In 1988, the Dodgers and the Lakers won championships and USC’s Rodney Peete finished second to Barry Sanders in the Heisman voting. But the Angels were awful, the Raiders missed the playoffs, the Rams lost their wild-card game to Minnesota, UCLA failed to qualify for the NCAA basketball tournament and the Kings still were getting used to the absurd notion of Wayne Gretzky skating for the good guys at the Forum.

In 1981, Dodgers won the World Series and Allen won the Heisman. But the Angels were awful, the Lakers were eliminated in the playoffs by Houston, the Rams were 6-10, the Raiders were still in Oakland, the Kings lost in the first round of the playoffs and UCLA lost to Brigham Young in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

In 1972, the Lakers won their first championship in Los Angeles, John Wooden won his eighth at UCLA and USC went 12-0 to earn the national championship in college football. But the Angels were awful, the Kings were too, the Dodgers finished third in the NL West and the Rams went 6-7-1.

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Granted, the Sparks and Galaxy joined the neighborhood after 1995, widening the channels for potential success. But before them, the region went through the comings and goings of the Sun, Surf, Stars, Amigos, Aztecs, Express and Dreams, and all they left us with was a solitary North American Soccer League championship, courtesy of the 1974 Aztecs.

The Angels’ triumph embodied a baseball season in which anything and everything seemed possible.

Yes, Commissioner Bud Selig was booed in Milwaukee after shutting down a 7-7 All-Star game, forever debunking the notion that there’s no tying in baseball. Yes, the ready-for-contraction Twins reached the AL championship series. Yes, the Oakland A’s won 20 games in a row. Yes, Seattle’s Mike Cameron and the Dodgers’ Shawn Green hit four home runs in a game in the same month. Yes, Selig and Players Assn. chief Don Fehr saved the season by forging a new labor agreement Aug. 30 -- hours before the strike deadline, hours after angry Angel fans pelted Edison Field with debris as a work stoppage seemed imminent.

(Did the Angels vote Selig and Fehr playoff shares? Because without that historic accord in late August, the Angels would be spending their 42nd consecutive off-season wondering, “What if?”)

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The NFL, addled after so many years of obsessive-compulsive attention to leveling the playing field, completely went off the rails.

For most of four decades, the Patriots couldn’t do anything to help themselves. So, in consecutive postseason games in January, the Patriots received handouts from the referee in a divisional playoff game against the Raiders (an apparent game-losing fumble negated by an obscure “tuck rule”), the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC championship game (the Steelers started Kordell Stewart in a big game) and the Rams in the Super Bowl (St. Louis Coach Mike Martz mysteriously decided to use Marshall Faulk as a decoy).

In the regular season that followed, absolutely nothing made sense. The Rams couldn’t win with Warner, but went 6-0 with a third-stringer named Marc Bulger. The expansion Houston Texans netted 47 yards and three first downs against Pittsburgh, in Pittsburgh, and won by 18 points, costing the Steelers home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Miami Dolphins finally traded for a franchise running back, Ricky Williams led the league in rushing ... and the Dolphins slipped from 11-5 in 2001 to 9-7 and out of the playoffs in 2002.

Heading into the 16th week of a 17-week season, no AFC team had clinched a playoff berth. By the end of the 17th, no team had more than 12 victories and no team, with any degree of confidence, could consider itself the team to beat in the playoffs.

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Even the Lakers, a bastion of dependability after Phil Jackson came aboard, succumbed to the nasty karma. In fact, after winning their third consecutive league title by sweeping New Jersey, absolutely nothing went right for them.

Chick Hearn, the team’s legendary play-by-play broadcaster, died Aug. 5 after hitting his head during a fall in his backyard.

Shaquille O’Neal postponed surgery on his arthritic big toe until late summer, causing him to sit out the first 12 games of the Lakers’ 2002-03 season. Predictably, the Lakers floundered without him, but even after O’Neal’s return, the team continued to lose. Now 13-19, the Lakers have dropped into a virtual 10th-place tie in the Western Conference with the Clippers, now in their third season of being Just On The Brink.

And out there on the horizon, a legitimate threat to O’Neal’s baddest big man title has been detected. His name is Yao Ming, he comes from China, he was the top pick in the NBA draft and he has spent his first three months in America swatting away shots and doubts that he’d ever make it in this league because, hey, he’s from Asia and this is our game.

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At least it was in the 20th century. Welcome to the new millennium, in which the United States takes a squad of NBA All-Stars to Indianapolis, takes on the world with the home-court advantage and gets taken out by Argentina, Yugoslavia and Spain, finishing in sixth place.

That’s how it went for the United States in international team sports. Ice hockey? The American men and women both lost to Canada in the Olympic gold-medal round. Tennis? Our men lost to France in the Davis Cup semifinals, our women to Austria in the first round of the Fed Cup. Golf? The U.S. women had to rally to win the Solheim Cup, but the U.S. men were outplayed and outsmarted by the Europeans at the Ryder Cup, losing to Sam Torrance’s front-loaded squad on the final day, 15 1/2-12 1/2.

Soccer, that’s our new sport. Three years after the United States won the Women’s World Cup, the American men shattered long-held perceptions around the globe, and sleep patterns in their own country, by beating Portugal and Mexico to reach the World Cup quarterfinals, where they outplayed Germany but were denied a penalty kick despite an apparent hand ball by German defender in the goal mouth and lost, 1-0.

We’re also not bad at halfpipe snowboarding, short-track speedskating and a maniacal, head-first sledding sport called skeleton. Americans won gold medals in each of these activities at the Salt Lake City Olympics en route to a U.S. Winter Olympics record haul of 34 medals, more than doubling our previous high of 13.

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(This does not include the gold medal won by the American media on behalf of Canadian pairs skaters Jamie Sale and David Pelletier, who finished second to the Russians before NBC and U.S. newspapers began crying “No fair!” After a week of heated news conferences and accusations of vote-swapping by skating judges, the International Olympic Committee decided to clone the pairs skating gold medal and dole out a second set to the Canadians. Assist, us.)

And, as the rest of the world has grudgingly come to accept, we rule the Tour de France. Lance Armstrong won his fourth consecutive Tour in July, putting him in position to tie Miguel Indurain’s record of five in row in 2003.

Consistency. Dependability. Reliability. That was Armstrong on his bicycle in the French countryside, relentlessly churning his way to a result everyone has anticipated for weeks, reminding and reassuring us all of what was still possible in a sports year when so much else strayed far off course.


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