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Top stories of 2009

Hand-wringing in the new year . . .

As we exit 2009 amid a chorus of tsks, whines and whimpers, the cacophony of an SUV slamming into hydrant and tree and the silence of PR-spun website apologies, let’s take a look at the year’s most memorable moments in the wonderful world of sport.

Some were shockers -- 59-year-old Tom Watson was eight feet away from winning the British Open -- and others were stunning only in that so many found them surprising . . . i.e. gazillionaire golfer spends some of his evenings with cocktail waitresses, guy at college party takes a hit off a bong and a handful of baseball players who hit a homer every other trip to the plate were linked to performance-enhancing drugs.

Comedian Bill Maher says the United States is a “stupid” country because he turned on the evening world news and the lead story was about a golfer’s one-car accident at the end of his driveway that seriously injured no one. Well, if Internet hits are any indication, the country’s IQ was really sinking in 2009. Clearly, people like nothing better than to see the pedestal kicked out from under a prominent sports figure.

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It wasn’t just steroids, recreational drugs and that parade of I-was-with-him-too young women coming out of the woodwork. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to know all about the NASCAR driver who gave new meaning to “speed” on the track and a college coach who was being extorted for millions by a woman he admitted to having sex with in a restaurant.

A former and current NFL star endured tragedies -- Steve McNair was shot to death by a girlfriend and Chris Henry died after falling from a pickup truck during a dispute with his fiancee. Others found themselves on the other side of the law, including Plaxico Burress, who shot himself in a Manhattan nightclub, and Michael Vick, who returned to work hoping people would forget the dogs he killed.

Oh, and the Yankees won the World Series.

But, hey, it wasn’t a year of entirely feel-bad stories and tabloid fodder.

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Unretirees Lance Armstrong and Brett Favre each made another successful comeback. Usain Bolt set world records in the 100 and 200 meters at the World Championships. Roger Federer won a record 15th Grand Slam title at Wimbledon. Mark Buehrle of the White Sox pitched a perfect game. Connecticut’s women’s basketball team won 39 times without a loss en route to the NCAA championship.

And Rush Limbaugh was dumped from a group trying to buy the St. Louis Rams.

The top 10:

Tiger’s tale

It would have been a better story if Tiger Woods had been accused of cheating on the course, but probably not as big. Lost in the domestic disaster was Woods’ award as the Associated Press athlete of the decade and the fact that he returned to competitive golf in 2009 after eight months rehabilitating his surgically repaired knee and finished the year No. 1.

Gut shot

Jack Nicklaus was home watching -- for the first time in his life, he says -- an entire round of golf on television. Tom Watson was watching the flight of his eight-iron land right where he wanted it to on Turnberry’s 18th green . . . and then inexplicably keep rolling and rolling until it eventually trickled off the green. He putted down the slope from the collar and was left with a putt that would have made him the oldest player to win the British Open . . . by 11 years. He missed and lost a playoff to Stewart Cink. “It tears at your gut,” Watson said, but quickly told crestfallen reporters, “This ain’t a funeral, you know.”

Comeback ‘kids’

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Seven-time Tour de France winner Armstrong pedaled his way to a third-place finish in 2009 at 37 years old. How long can the cancer survivor who has dominated what many believe is the most grueling event in all of sports go on? “Pain is temporary, quitting lasts forever,” he likes to say. For Favre, 39, who backpedaled comfortably into the pocket with Minnesota, quitting is temporary. He has now beaten every team in the NFL; it only seems as if he’s retired from half of them. A few months ago, Favre was a joke. The Vikings are paying him $12 million this season and it looks as if they will have the last laugh.

Smoke on the water

A British tabloid ran a picture of Michael Phelps helping himself to an alleged marijuana pipe and he later admitted his “regrettable” behavior. The guy spends half his life staring at drowned bugs and wads of gum on the bottom of a pool. Sure, 14 Olympic gold medals are a nice reward, but he still could be looking for a higher meaning to life. . . .

Performance enhanced

Alex Rodriguez says he was “young . . . stupid . . . naive . . . and wanted to prove to everyone that, you know, I was worth” the $252 million he was being paid over 10 years by the Rangers. No one in Texas was complaining: During the three seasons (2001-03) he was using steroids, he led the league in homers every year -- with 52, 47 and 57 -- and averaged 132 RBIs. At least A-Rod admitted it. David Ortiz found out he was on the infamous list of those who tested positive in 2003 but had no idea how the stuff got in his system. Manny Ramirez tested positive for a fertility drug and it’s doubtful he was trying to get pregnant. Miguel Tejada pleaded guilty to misleading Congress and admitted he bought HGH but said he threw the drugs out before using them.

Where’s the pause button?

Bolt (it’s such a perfect name, isn’t it?) isn’t much of a tourist as he travels the globe, preferring to hang out in his hotel room playing video games. Then he gets to the track and gives the impression he’s in one. At the World Championships in August, he broke his world record in the 100 meters by the largest margin of improvement since the beginning of electronic timing. After he set the mark in the 200 -- by the largest margin in World Championships history -- former Olympic champion Shawn Crawford said, “I felt like I was in a video game . . . that guy was moving fast.”

Slam dancer

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Andy Roddick looks like Bill Russell at the free-throw line. The sweat’s not dripping off his chin, it’s streaming off. Across the All England Club net, Federer looks as if he might have climbed a flight of stairs. And he’s wearing a belt! It’s enough that the guy is on his way to winning a record 15th Grand Slam title, enough that he’s beating a guy who’s held serve 37 times in a row during the match, he could at least make it look as if it’s an effort.

Bobble and gobble

In the ninth inning, Chicago White Sox center fielder Dewayne Wise sprinted to the warning track, leaped to reach above the wall to grab a drive off the bat of Tampa Bay’s Gabe Kapler . . . then lost control of the ball . . . then snatched it back. Two outs later, Buehrle, 30, a four-time All-Star, was at the bottom of a human pileup along the first baseline of Chicago’s U.S. Cellular Field after earning the 18th perfect game in major league history. “Never say never in this game,” Buehrle said, “because crazy stuff can happen.”

Alert the health department

Louisville Coach Rick Pitino, father of five, the only coach in NCAA history to take three different teams to the Final Four, hadn’t faced a major scandal until a woman allegedly tried to extort $10 million from him after a sexual escapade in a Louisville restaurant. After she was arrested -- by this time she was Karen Cunagin Sypher, having married the team’s equipment manager -- she alleged that Pitino had raped her twice, but Kentucky authorities said there was insufficient evidence to support a rape charge. Pitino admitted to having a one-night affair and paying $3,000 for an abortion. He was allowed to retain his position and later called a news conference to admonish the media to stop “reporting these lies.”

Conspiracy theory

Despite testing positive for methamphetamines twice last year, Jeremy Mayfield swears he’s never taken the illegal drug. He says he doesn’t trust anything NASCAR or its medical testing staff does. After his stepmother testified that he had “cooked his own methamphetamine in his shop by the house” and that she had seen him use the drug “approximately 30 times,” he claimed NASCAR officials had paid her to say that. “She’s basically” a prostitute, he told ESPN.com.

Nice year.

john.weyler@latimes.com


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