The second city

Times Staff Writer

Here in the nation’s second-largest market, a phrase the NFL has forced us to commit to memory, we have a saying that the nation needs to learn, because this was us in 2006: We’re No. 2!

Take a look at our sports teams and the last 12 months.

USC football: Runner-up to Vince Young and Texas in the Rose Bowl.

UCLA basketball: Runner-up to Joakim Noah and Florida in the men’s NCAA final.

The Dodgers: Runners-up to the San Diego Padres in the National League West, runners-up to the New York Mets in the NL Division Series.

The Angels: Runners-up to the Oakland Athletics in the American League West.

The Lakers: Runners-up to the Clippers in the L.A. NBA standings.

The Clippers: Runners-up to the Phoenix Suns in the second round of the playoffs.

The Ducks: Runners-up to the Edmonton Oilers in the NHL Western Conference finals.

The Kings: Runners-up to the Western Conference’s ninth-place team, which finished one game out of the playoffs.

With the exception of USC, which ended its streak of national football titles won or shared at two, none of this was truly considered disappointing.

UCLA and the Ducks came out of nowhere to go as far as they did. The Lakers won three playoff games, which constituted a great leap forward in the post-Shaq era. The Dodgers don’t win playoff games, remember? The Clippers had their most successful season ever. The Angels were very satisfied with second place, judging by General Manager Bill Stoneman’s decision to stay with the hand he already had.

The Kings have had better seasons, but they have also had worse seasons. At the end of every Kings season, it all washes out the same: again, no championship.

Or as the Kings’ 2006-2007 marketing slogan goes, “Celebrating 40 Years of Stanley Cup-Free Hockey!”

There’s nothing wrong with being part of the supporting cast. Members of Michael Jordan’s supporting cast came away with the same rings as he did.

We were very good at being almost great in 2006.

Kobe Bryant scored 81 points against the Toronto Raptors on Jan. 22 — the second-best performance in NBA history, behind Wilt Chamberlain’s 100.

(Bryant also placed fourth in the NBA most-valuable-player voting, but had the second-most first-place votes — 22 — behind winner Steve Nash of Phoenix.)

Reggie Bush took his Heisman Trophy, Fresno State highlight video and Gale Sayers comparisons into April’s NFL draft, where he was said to be the no-brainer top draft pick. He wound up being second — the Houston Texans opting instead for a defensive lineman, Mario Williams.

(The Texans, no bold gunslingers, blinked in the face of reports that Bush’s family had violated NCAA rules by giving new meaning to the words “taking it to the house.”)

Matt Leinart was the second quarterback taken in the draft, second-guessed for bypassing the 2005 draft to play his senior season at USC, where he did not repeat as Heisman winner or national champion.

Phil Jackson nearly took the Lakers into the second round of the playoffs in his second tour of duty with the team, losing to Phoenix in seven games.

Shortly thereafter, the Clippers became the second team from Los Angeles to lose to Phoenix in seven games.

The Ducks came close to reaching their second Stanley Cup finals, but lost to Chris Pronger and the Oilers in five games. Determined not to do that a second time, the Ducks took Pronger from Edmonton in the off-season and now enter 2007 with the NHL’s best record.

In most years, in most cities, these achievements would have been toasted with a champagne supernova. Nothing like this went down in Cleveland, Atlanta or Washington this year.

But the people who went on to win it all in 2006 turned our champagne flat.

St. Louis, the city that stole our Rams, won the World Series. With a former Angels shortstop, little David Eckstein, winning World Series MVP.

Jerome Bettis, who played for the Rams before St. Louis stole them, won the Super Bowl with Pittsburgh.

Shaquille O’Neal, who finally made up with Bryant but ended the year calling Jackson “Benedict Arnold,” celebrated his second season away from the Lakers by winning the NBA championship with Miami.

Americans like to refer to their league winners as “world champions.” This has always been a presumptuous claim, as the world extends far beyond the AL East and the NFC South, but we have blissfully played isolationist for decades.

At least until 2006, when the plain facts became impossible to ignore.

U.S. national teams are not No. 1 in much of anything anymore. Not baseball, not basketball, not hockey, not golf. Not even NASCAR in the satirical stock-car send-up “Talladega Nights,” where Will Ferrell’s good ol’ boy Ricky Bobby gets turned into a grease spot by a fleet, effete Frenchman.

We co-hosted the first World Baseball Classic, and could not get out of the second round. Our major leaguers were eliminated with a loss to Mexico, the same country that eliminated our minor leaguers during qualification for the 2004 Olympics.

We invented basketball, yet neither our men nor our women could reach the final at their respective world championships. In the semifinals of both events, our men lost to Greece (Greece!) and our women lost to Russia.

Following that theme, our Davis Cup team also lost to Russia in the semifinals. On the same weekend, our Ryder Cup team was trounced by Europe, 18 1/2 -9 1/2 .

The basketball, tennis and golf losses all happened during a 24-day span in September. If not “Black September,” that month will certainly be remembered as “Anything But Red, White and Blue September.” These were rousing success stories compared with our showing at soccer’s World Cup. During a year in which the U.S. men’s team was ranked as high as fifth in the world, we wound up fourth in our first-round group — losing to the Czech Republic and Ghana (Ghana!) en route to an 0-2-1 record that included a miraculous short-handed draw with eventual champion Italy.

Italy won the World Cup for the first time since 1982, but the most indelible images emanating from Germany, for better and worse, were provided by the runner-up, France.

France scored the upset of the World Cup, eliminating heavily favored Brazil in the quarterfinals. Then, in a bitterly contested final, French captain Zinedine Zidane committed perhaps the single dumbest move in any championship decider by angrily reacting to some trash talk and head-butting Italian defender Marco Materazzi in the chest with the teams tied in the second period of overtime.

Zidane was immediately ejected from the match, which eventually ended in a penalty-kick shootout. With its best penalty-taker, Zidane, in the dressing room, France lost the shootout, 5-3.

The U.S. couldn’t buy a goal at the World Cup — we put two of them up on the scoreboard, one scored by an Italian — and by the end of the year we couldn’t buy a coach, either. Bruce Arena had to go — Eric Wynalda said so — so the U.S. Soccer Federation went after the best former athlete available, Juergen Klinsmann, who led Germany to third place and handily happens to live in Orange County.

When it came time to close the deal, however, the federation morphed into the Houston Texans. Klinsmann said no thanks, so the title of interim coach fell to Bob Bradley, whose 2006 claim to fame was coaching Chivas USA to the best MLS record in Carson.

The Winter Olympics went the same way for the U.S. Try as it might to spice up the attraction by referring to host city Turin as “To-rino!,” NBC couldn’t do anything about the content. It wasn’t long before U.S. viewers grew tired of speedskaters sparring, figure skaters falling and Bode Miller living up to zero — as in zero for five — amount of the hype.

For Team USA, these were the Borat Olympics.

In men’s ice hockey, the cultural learnings of America included six losses in seven games, our squad of NHL All-Stars proceeding to make benefit only once — the lone victory coming against the glorious nation of Kazakhstan. The camera caught Americans doing many foolish things, such as snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis showboating to celebrate a sure victory and falling just before the finish to turn gold into silver. For also-ran America, the footage of Jacobellis trading the thrill of victory for the agony of defeat became a symbol for the entire year.

Also swapping gold for silver was figure skater Sasha Cohen, not to be confused with “Borat” star Sacha Baron Cohen. Sasha was a disappointing — and fortunate — second place after falling twice in the first minute of her long program; Sacha’s movie was a box-office hit.

In tennis, Americans produced their worst performance in decades by placing only one player, male or female, in a Grand Slam final. That was Andy Roddick, whose achievement of reaching the U.S. Open final took second billing behind Andre Agassi’s retirement as the biggest headline to emanate from Flushing Meadows.

Roddick lost that final to Switzerland’s Roger Federer, who came within two sets of becoming the first man to sweep tennis’ Grand Slam events since Rod Laver in 1969. Only a four-set loss to Rafael Nadal in the French Open final denied Federer.

Federer had the kind of season that cried out for Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year cover. But the magazine’s editors, doing contortions to find some American athlete worth celebrating in 2006, gave the honor instead to Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade, who finished sixth in the NBA’s most-valuable-player award voting.

Even when we managed to break through to the top step of the podium, it was tainted. Floyd Landis completed an improbable ride to the Tour de France championship, tacking on an eighth consecutive U.S. triumph to Lance Armstrong’s seven in a row.

Landis, however, tested positive for synthetic testosterone, casting the same cloud of doubt and controversy over the accomplishment as the one now permanently attached to Barry Bonds’ chase of Hank Aaron’s career home run record.

Bonds passed Babe Ruth on the home run list May 28 amid a head-shaking mixture of apathy and antipathy. He finished the season with 26 home runs, moving him to within 21 of Aaron.

Barring injury or Bonds suddenly doing the right thing and retiring out of respect for Aaron and sport’s most hallowed record, Bonds probably will become baseball’s all-time home run leader in 2007 — as a nation turns its lonely eyes away, hoping for a pulled hamstring.

So many discouraging words, but one was worth celebrating this year.


That would be Tiger Woods, who won the PGA Championship and the British Open to bring his career Grand Slam victory total to 12, the second most all-time.

That would also be the Detroit Tigers, who went from 119 losses in 2003 to 95 victories and the AL pennant in 2006.

The year’s biggest horse racing story involved a horse that failed to finish the Preakness. Kentucky Derby champion Barbaro broke his right hind leg shortly after exiting the gate, his subsequent life-saving surgery and rehabilitation turning him into America’s horse.

Jimmie Johnson won his first Nextel Cup title by opening NASCAR’s season with a Daytona 500 victory and closing it with, yes, four second-place finishes in his last six races.

But nowhere in 2006 did No. 2 mean more than the NFL.

The wild-card Steelers began the calendar year by defeating Seattle in the Super Bowl.

The 2006 regular season was highlighted by the performances of quarterbacks who started September at No. 2 on their team’s depth charts: Tennessee’s Young, Arizona’s Leinart, Dallas’ Tony Romo, Philadelphia’s Jeff Garcia, Denver’s Jay Cutler.

After 15 games, the league had two two-loss teams — the San Diego Chargers, who rode LaDainian Tomlinson’s record 31 touchdowns to the AFC’s top playoff seeding, and the Chicago Bears, also 13-2 but not quite sure whom their playoff quarterback ought to be.

In November, two of the nation’s most popular athletes, soccer star Mia Hamm and Dodger comeback player of the year Nomar Garciaparra, announced they were soon to become parents.

The number of children they are expecting in 2007?

That’s right. Two.