Why do we love watching sports? And what did we love the most in 2009?
Those are two questions each of us would answer differently. But the answer to the second question helps explain the answer to the first.
We love watching sports because they are a Rorschach inkblot test for our emotions. And we file away certain memories from any given year based on what we love about the games we watch and play.
Maybe you love watching the Ravens each Sunday because wearing a purple jersey and nervously chewing your nails - or on your remote - gives a sense of belonging. Maybe knowing that thousands of fans are doing the same gives you a connection to a city, or a region, and maybe it stirs a sense of civic pride in your otherwise cynical heart.
Then again, maybe you like watching sports because it means time spent with family, a tradition we pass down from one generation to the next. Maybe it's an excuse for fathers and sons to exchange phone calls and conversations that help bridge the distance between them, or maybe it's the unspoken bond forged by squeezing in 18 holes on a warm spring day with a friend, a spouse, a son or daughter, or a stranger.
Maybe you like underdogs, or maybe you prefer to watch a group of exceptional athletes chase the imperfect goal of a perfect season. No matter what your reasons are for loving sports, 2009 offered something for you. Before we flip the calendar and put the first decade of the millennium in our rearview mirrors, we asked each of our writers to recall a favorite image, moment or memory from the past 12 months.
Some are big moments, others quite small. But each vignette helps answer the question with personal resonance. They are a reflection of why we love the games we watch, play and write about. And they are our favorite mental snapshots of 2009.
For wounded servicemen, this was as good as it got
It was a hot day in June, and the Ravens had invited three wounded servicemen from the war in Iraq to attend their minicamp at the Castle in Owings Mills.
Sgt. James Norris of the Army's 104th Cavalry survived 11 attacks from rocket-propelled grenades and IEDs. Cpl. Matt Jordan of the 4th Infantry Division saw his leg shredded by a roadside bomb. Spec. Charles Wood of the 10th Mountain Division suffered from combat-related seizures.
But all three were smiling. All were huge Ravens fans. And this was their first time at an NFL practice. Life didn't get any better.
When practice was over, coach John Harbaugh invited the soldiers onto the field. The team surrounded them and broke into thunderous applause. The three were stunned - and moved.
"There was a time when I didn't know if I was going to be back home," Norris said, eyes getting misty. "And to be around you all now, it's truly a blessing."
Harbaugh asked the servicemen for a cheer to close out practice. They were stumped for a moment.
Then Norris said quietly: "God bless America."
And that's how practice ended, with the Ravens and soldiers in a huddle, hands held high in the middle and everyone shouting: "One, two, three ... God bless America!"
It was a wonderful moment. I don't think I'll ever forget it.
Topping the untoppable
The most memorable "moment" for me in 2009 actually includes two moments that I cannot separate. They both involve Fallston's girls athletes. While it seemed the first one could not be topped, the second one might just have surpassed it.
First, the basketball team kept sailing through a dream season, heading into the playoffs undefeated. Just about everyone figured that run would end once the Cougars met powerhouse Paint Branch in the Class 3A state title game. The Cougars, especially Jess Harlee, had a different idea. Harlee put on a 28-point show and hit two free throws with 3.3 seconds left for a 65-62 victory and a 28-0 season.
In the spring, the girls lacrosse team had a 17-2 season going when they met Maryland's most successful team, 15-time state champion Mount Hebron, in the state final. It looked like an uphill battle in three feet of snow - until it started. The Cougars made the upset look easy, running up a 10-goal lead in 17 minutes and routing the Vikings, 16-1, on five goals from Jenn Ward and a stunning defensive effort led by McKenzie Hannahs.
Three people shared in both titles - Hannahs, Monica Fischer and coach Mike McTeague, who said: "They believe they're going to win - if they play hard, they're going to win. To believe that is half the battle, especially against legendary teams like the ones we played."
A game too good to end
The year brought plenty of standout teams, most notably the 28-0 Class 3A state champion Lake Clifton boys basketball squad. It had unforgettable days, like the brisk one at UMBC Stadium last month when both Loch Raven soccer teams claimed state titles. And there were remarkable individual performances, led by Mount St. Joseph senior forward David Arnold, who was asked to play goalie and stopped three penalty kicks in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference soccer championship against then-No. 1 McDonogh to lead the Gaels to an improbable upset win.
But the most memorable event in 2009 took place at Calvert Hall's Alumni Memorial Gymnasium on Jan. 29, when the St. Frances boys basketball team came away with an epic 90-84 win over the host Cardinals that took three overtimes. The Panthers overcame a 10-point deficit in the final three minutes, Dante Holmes' buzzer-beating 3-pointer sending the game into overtime. From there, Calvert Hall twice extended the game - Shawn Holmes hitting a tying jumper with seven seconds left in the first overtime and Donya Jackson calmly sinking two foul shots with four seconds left in the second one - before St. Frances finally took charge as senior Terrell Vinson led five Panthers in double figures with 26 points.
Glory, then sorrow
My favorite memory of 2009 is a two-parter that is bittersweet. I was fortunate to witness perhaps one of the most exciting NCAA men's lacrosse championship finals in the sport's history, when Syracuse rallied from a three-goal deficit with less than six minutes left in regulation to win in overtime, 10-9, over Cornell on Memorial Day. Attackman Kenny Nims' game-tying goal with 4.5 seconds left - courtesy of an over-the-head pass from midfielder Matt Abbott - crystallized the determination and talent of an Orange squad intent on capturing an NCAA-record 11th national title. Less than two months later, however, the sport mourned the passing of Michael Colley, an assistant sports information director who fielded all media requests connected to the Virginia lacrosse team and died during a walk while vacationing with friends in Virginia Beach at the young age of 46. Colley was in charge of the Cavaliers' football and lacrosse teams and was a tireless representative for both. I can remember covering March's seven-overtime thriller between the Cavaliers and Maryland, and Colley had worked up a sweat trying to feed the media as much information as he could despite working outside in 50-degree temperatures. And he still found a way to get us reporters an opportunity to interview whomever we requested.
'I'm not going to let them down'
While there were plenty of high points for the Ravens on the field in 2009, the one that stands out for me came off of it when the team selected Michael Oher with its first-round pick.
I will never forget his reaction when his name was called. The last player remaining in the green room in New York, Oher could have been embarrassed like Brady Quinn or Aaron Rodgers. Instead, he shed a tear and said: "I'm not going to let them down. I'm going to give them everything I got."
In this era, the top-level athletes expect to be drafted high and have people cater to them. It was refreshing to see someone really appreciate the moment.
Bozeman shows Morgan the way
Exiled by the NCAA to the small island that is Morgan State basketball, Todd Bozeman found redemption last March in Winston-Salem, N.C., when the Bears claimed their first bid to the NCAA Division I tournament. It took the coach three years to reach the heights at a school that had had just one winning season in the previous 26 years.
As he stood on court after an 83-69 win over Norfolk State in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championship game, Bozeman had tears of joy and sadness on his face. The joy was obvious. The sadness was not. His father had died while Bozeman was serving an eight-year "show-cause" ban by the NCAA for paying a recruit at California, and would not be there to share his son's moment of resurrection.
For me, it was a moving, heartfelt experience. In three short years, Bozeman replaced the picture of Morgan's basketball ineptitude with a portrait of excellence. He gave the university a moment in the sun and put NCAA money in its coffers. And that stood out in bold relief even more when, a month later, the school showed its thanks by creating acrimony in negotiations for what should have been an automatic contract extension. Bozeman will probably go back to the NCAAs again this year, but the first time is always special. Especially when you've been where he has been.
It wasn't over till it was over
It started like so many of the other Orioles-Boston Red Sox games that I've covered over the past couple of years. On the night of June 30 at Camden Yards, the Red Sox hammered Orioles starter Rich Hill and built a 10-1 lead by the top of the seventh inning. A 79-minute rain delay only added to the home team's misery.
But the Orioles scored five times in the bottom of the seventh, with pinch hitter Oscar Salazar connecting for a three-run homer. They then scored five more runs in the eighth inning as Nick Markakis hit a two-run double off All-Star closer Jonathan Papelbon to bring home pinch runner Jeremy Guthrie and Brian Roberts for the go-ahead run.
Overall, the Orioles sent 20 batters to the plate in the seventh and eighth innings against five Red Sox pitchers; 13 of them got hits and one of them walked.
The biggest comeback in Orioles history, sealed when George Sherrill pitched a scoreless ninth, was easily the high point of another forgettable season for the Birds.
More than just heartbreak
I cried a little bit when Tom Watson was about to hit his second shot from the 18th fairway at Turnberry. I didn't weep, but my eyes glossed over. It felt like my dad was about to win the British Open. It felt like I was watching the most ridiculous, improbable, wonderful thing unfold on my television screen. A 59-year-old man with an artificial hip, a shaky putter and a face weathered by sun and time was about to win the Claret Jug.
What happened next was like watching something beautiful slowly overtaken by flame. It did not happen in an instant. Instead, it took hours, at least in my mind. A bad chip, a weak putt, a poor drive in the playoff and then agony in slow motion as Watson and Stewart Cink played out the inevitable conclusion. The final hole felt like a funeral procession for everyone but Cink.
But in the end, it was a reminder that the losers are sometimes far more interesting than winners. Sometimes, in sports and in life, it is the trying that really counts - the flutter in the stomach, the foolish and fleeting emotion that is "MAYBE." Watson looked heartbroken, and I could relate. Because I was, too. But it was a nice reminder what a good thing it is to care deeply about something so silly as a round of golf, as long as that caring is shared by the people you love. It was a reminder to call home, to recount that agony and commiserate with my dad.
Kevin Van Valkenburg
They can't all say it ain't so
Since I can't boil this down to one single moment that burns brightest in my memory, I'll try instead to sum up the past year in sports with what should be the catchphrase of 2009:
"What the hell were they thinking?"
Decades from now, 2009 will be remembered as the year of the toppled sports hero, and the name at the top of the list, of course, will be golfer Tiger Woods. There is no bigger name in sports, and it's still hard to grasp how far the mighty one has fallen since that strange car accident unleashed all his demons on an unsuspecting public.
But Tigergate was just gravy for the supermarket tabloids. Baltimore sports hero Michael Phelps' golden-boy image was smudged when a British tabloid published a photo of him apparently smoking marijuana, college basketball coach Rick Pitino had his own sex scandal, and steroid revelations tarnished baseball mega stars Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez.
Oh, and tennis star Andre Agassi admitted in his recently published autobiography that he was hooked on methamphetamine while he was married to Brooke Shields.
Maybe Charles Barkley had it right about celebrity role models.
'Mirrors' work for Terps men
This was the game that changed the tone of the season for the Maryland men's basketball team.
Before Maryland played Wake Forest in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in March, it appeared that the Terps might miss the NCAA tournament for the fourth time in five years. To that point, it had been a season marked by a public dispute between coach Gary Williams and the athletic department over two former recruits.
Maryland's 75-64 victory over the No. 8 Demon Deacons in the ACC tournament's quarterfinals changed the season's story line. Suddenly, the pundits were talking about how the undersized Terps had a serious chance to make the NCAA tournament, how they had willed their way past a taller team.
Maryland beat Wake Forest by aggressively rebounding and daring the Demon Deacons to hit the 3. Wake Forest was 3-for-25 on 3-pointers.
The Terps indeed made the NCAA tournament - and the Wake Forest win certainly was a key.
Asked about Maryland's success, former Wake Forest coach Dave Odom remarked that Williams must be doing it "with mirrors."
Not just a job, a vocation
In another lost Orioles season, one in which the true highlight occurred when super catching prospect Matt Wieters made his debut in May and energized a frustrated fan base, the most memorable interview I had in 2009 was with another catcher in the Orioles' system.
Caleb Joseph was leading the Carolina League in hitting when we spoke in July. I quickly learned that Joseph, the Frederick Keys' starting catcher, wasn't your normal ballplayer. He was crazy. About baseball. Like I had never encountered before.
The 23-year-old kid sometimes slept on a couch in the Keys' clubhouse "because you never know when your last day is going to be." He said, without a hint of bitterness, that he'd be honored to be Wieters' longtime backup in the majors and he acknowledged that he always cried while watching baseball movies like "The Rookie." Interviews with minor leaguers usually take 10 minutes, tops. This one went on for nearly an hour, every enthusiastic quote, every hilarious anecdote better than the last.
Watching Wieters come to bat to a standing ovation on that late May evening demonstrated what Orioles baseball could and should be like. Listening to Joseph that late July afternoon, though, exhibited what is so enticing about the game itself.
Upsetting 16 years of history
In less than 60 seconds on a bitterly cold day in early February, Erin Hamlin reduced grown men to tears, made a sports legend grin ear-to-ear and destroyed a world championship stranglehold of 16 years that seemed destined to extend to eternity.
Hamlin, a native New Yorker, earned the luge world title on her home track in Lake Placid. She won both runs, the second by setting a track record with a time of 43.985 seconds, giving her the top of the podium over Germany's Natalie Geisenberger.
The first U.S. woman to win the luge world championships, Hamlin also became the first non-German woman to stand on top of the podium since 1993 and ended a 99-race German winning streak in World Cups, Olympics and world championships that dated to 1997.
How big was it? American flags waved and cowbells clanged. German coach Georg Hackl, a three-time Olympic gold medalist, blew her kisses and took pictures. Two veteran U.S. luge officials wept. Men stood bare-chested in the cold, T-E-A-M H-A-M-L-I-N painted on their torsos.
For once, the goose bumps had nothing to do with the cold.
Dreaming and praying for a shot
His name was Andy Mitchell, and he had been rattling around in the Orioles' chain for nine years when we spoke in August. At 31, he had been stuck in Triple-A for five years, pitching his heart out and waiting for The Call.
"God is in control," Mitchell said, "but I know I can play up there."
Readers' reactions ran the gamut. Many admired his grit. Some challenged the Orioles to give Mitchell a chance. Others suggested he get a life.
So what happened? The club never phoned. Undaunted, Mitchell went south to play winter ball, praying for one last shot. He would get it, if this were Hollywood. The Orioles are another story.
Burton makes his last fishing trip
In what was his final real fishing trip, to an Eastern Shore pier that would soon bear his name, outdoors writer emeritus Bill Burton watched from a wheelchair as his lifelong campaign passed to a new generation.
With the sound of cars and trucks on nearby U.S. 50 as a soundtrack, youngsters dangled lines off the Choptank River pier and reeled in striped bass, white perch and the occasional toadfish. Kids and fishing, fishing and public access - that was what the 82-year-old Burton was all about during a career that spanned more than a half-century, including 37 years at The Evening Sun.
Although weakened by cancer and bothered by the heat of a late morning in mid-July, the "Admiral of the Chesapeake," who would die a month later, posed with each beaming angler and presented each one with a certificate printed by his wife, Lois, and painstakingly signed by him, proclaiming the recipient "most energetic" or "best team player" or some other attribute of good sportsmanship.
I didn't get a certificate, but I've got the memory.