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Roller coaster year was quite a ride


IT WAS NOT a sports year for the faint of heart. The highs were especially high in 2004, and the lows were particularly low.

The Boston Red Sox pulled off the greatest comeback in major league postseason history, eliminated the New York Yankees and went on to break a World Series curse that had gripped them for 86 years. Sports doesn't get much more stirring.

But less than a month later, fans and players violently brawled at an NBA game in Detroit. Has sports ever produced more disturbing images?

It was a year for soaring crescendos and awful crashes; a year when the dull, forgiving middle ground seemed to lay fallow.

Michael Phelps of Rodgers Forge won six gold medals in the pool at the Athens Olympics, coming about as close to perfection as an athlete can get.

But then a long-rumored steroids scandal erupted, threatening baseball's core as fans began to doubt whether they should believe what they see.

Highs and lows, and little in between.

Lance Armstrong won a sixth straight Tour de France. But the NHL committed suicide.

The Olympic shot put competition was staged in a dusty bowl where ancient Olympians had competed - a moment of sheer magic.

But Reggie White, one of the greatest football players ever, died suddenly last weekend at age 43.

The year's best moments will be recollected by historians. Six Tours. Six golds. Eighty-six years.

But the worst moments turned your stomach.

Maybe it was all part of the nation's roiling election-year landscape. More likely, it was just a coincidence. Nonetheless, the theme was unmistakable. Highs and lows. Extremes. Anything but vanilla.

In 2004, the Masters wasn't won by one of those bland haircuts golf produces. It was won by Phil Mickelson, whose chronic underachieving in major tournaments had become sports' best ongoing psychological drama.

The Kentucky Derby wasn't won by a horse that got lucky, as so often happens now. It was won by a gifted plebian colt named Smarty Jones that stormed the Preakness, experienced a Secretariat-like swell in popularity and came within yards of winning a Triple Crown, only to disappoint in the final yards of the Belmont.

Wimbledon's women's title didn't go to either of the Williams sisters or Lindsay Davenport. It was won by Maria Sharapova, a long-legged 17-year-old from Russia who whipped Serena in the final.

The NBA Finals? The Los Angeles Lakers got there, as usual. Then they got bashed by the Detroit Pistons.

In the Olympic men's basketball competition, which the United States always wins, the United States finished third.

Yes, a few major events broke the trend by delivering typical results. But even they were tinged with excitement.

The New England Patriots won the Super Bowl for the second time in three years. But they did so on a last-minute field goal.

The University of Connecticut's men's basketball team won its second NCAA title in five years, while the women's team won its third straight. But the male-female doubleheader sweep was a first.

Unfortunately for Baltimore sports fans, the year of drama and unexpected developments didn't include the area's pro teams. The Orioles continued to trod on the dreaded middle ground, finishing with a 78-84 record for their seventh straight losing season. The Ravens were Super Bowl contenders only in their own minds, and in the vicinity of .500 in reality.

Ho-hum stuff.

Unlike the breast Janet Jackson bared at the Super Bowl because of a "wardrobe malfunction." Or the Desperate Housewives locker-room come-on that kicked off Monday Night Football one week.

Did those episodes rank with the high highs or the low lows? Depends on your point of view. The public supposedly was outraged.

Only in 2004.

What was the year's lowest low? It's a tough call between the brawl and the steroids scandal. Both were depressing developments, blights on the landscape.

My vote is for the brawl because the steroids scandal is still developing and will drone on for years. The brawl, meanwhile, came and went in a few horrid minutes, springing forth from the worst aspects of sports today - the disconnect between fans and players, the money grab, the selfishness and arrogance.

Pistons coach Larry Brown reportedly hasn't recovered, having sunk into a funk. At least he grasped the larger story, that the moment highlighted a sports world gone sadly mad.

The race to call the highest high is similarly tough. My vote is for the Red Sox. Even those of us who don't reside in New England or cheer for "the Saux" were converted, however briefly, to membership in Red Sox Nation.

It's worth going over again. The Sox were three outs away from losing Game 4 of the American League Championship Series and being swept by the Yankees. Three outs away with the infallible Mariano Rivera on the mound for New York.

The Sox scored the tying run in the bottom of the ninth. Then they won the game. Then they won three more to knock out the Yankees. Then they swept the World Series from the Cardinals, who never knew what hit them.

Reversing the curse was the accomplishment of the year although those of Phelps and Armstrong were just as compelling. Of course, Sox fans haven't stopped talking about it yet, and probably won't for years.

Someone might soon have to explain to them - gently - that their Sox aren't the first team to win the World Series, just the first from Boston in a long time.

But anyway ...

On the last day of such a year, it's probably a good idea for everyone to take a deep breath. Whew. That was something. Fascinating, inspiring, discouraging, controversial - 2004 produced enough heroes and villains for a decade, all of them king-sized.

Why am I thinking that 2005 might bring more of the same?

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