As the decade comes to a close, The Baltimore Sun’s sports staff reflects on the moments and athletes from Baltimore that they’ll remember most.
Golden Michael Phelps
As a swimmer, Michael Phelps peaked before this decade. In fact, he often hated the sport he’d vowed to change as he slogged through preparations for the 2012 Olympics in London. But Phelps’ story certainly became richer as he retired after the 2012 Games, unretired in 2014, hit rock bottom in his personal life later that year and finally rededicated himself as a man and athlete.
When Phelps arrived in Rio de Janeiro for his fifth Olympics, he was a more reflective person who had started a family of his own with his new wife, Nicole. Could that man still dominate in the pool at age 31? Phelps answered with a resounding closing argument for his unparalleled Olympic career, winning five gold medals and a silver to push his career totals to 23 golds and 28 total medals. Those numbers put him so far ahead of the pack that you almost have to laugh, looking at the list.
For more than a decade, Phelps was the standard in his sport, the guy every young swimmer dreamed of beating. But in race after race, he applied his will and talent to fend off the young lions. Most great swimmers are thrilled to end their careers with even one Olympic gold medal, but Phelps held himself to an impossibly higher standard, and in the end, he pulled it off. He actually did not win his last individual race, the 100-meter butterfly, but his second-place finish did not vex him as it might have in previous years. He wore a contented grin as he spoke to reporters afterward, seemingly ready to hand the sport to a new generation.
With the next Olympics looming in 2020, Phelps seems happy tending to his growing family and advocating for mental health awareness, a sweet afterlife to one of the greatest athletic careers any of us will ever witness.
It’s wild to think that I’ve been in Baltimore for almost this entire decade, having graduated from Loyola Maryland in 2011 and starting to work a few weeks later. The two biggest actual sporting events — the Ravens’ Super Bowl win and the Delmon Young game for the Orioles — were unique professional experiences. I spent the former doing reaction stories for the Towson Times and was at the latter.
But nothing will match the Orioles’ empty stadium game in the thick of the Freddie Gray unrest. Everything about that day was surreal, from Adam Jones’ press conference to speak for the team to the quiet game itself. I hope nothing about that day is ever replicated again, but will never forget it.
— Jon Meoli
The ultimate Cinderella
Covering Lamar Jackson’s record-breaking 2019 has been, to quote the man himself, pretty cool. But watching the UMBC men’s basketball team come within a few missed shots of the Sweet 16, as a No. 16 seed in the NCAA tournament, from my living room couch and then press row was surreal.
The Retrievers did not look like giant-beaters. Their point guard, K.J. Maura, might have been the lightest player in Division I basketball. Their star, Jairus Lyles, had ended up back home in Maryland after a wandering college career. Their coach, Ryan Odom, was the little-known son of a coaching legend. UMBC did not profile as a team that could beat No. 1 Virginia, much less Vermont in the America East tournament.
But then the Retrievers got to the conference final, rallied to beat the defending champion Catamounts — in Vermont, no less — and arrived in Charlotte, North Carolina, as the quintessential Cinderella team. If you picked UMBC to beat a one-loss Cavaliers team, it was probably because you had a death wish for your bracket.
Somehow, the Retrievers hung around in the first half. Then they got hot in the second half. It was hard to process watching a team that had been just a little better than the other teams in one of America's lesser conferences being this much better than the nation's best team. For one night, it was.
I flew in to Charlotte for the second-round matchup against Kansas State. It was not a pretty game. UMBC defended like its life depended on every possession, but the Retrievers just couldn’t hit shots, even open ones. After the loss, it was almost heartbreaking to hear a few players acknowledge that they’d reveled in Friday’s win so much — the media attention, the viral tweets, the shout-outs from Aaron Rodgers — that they didn’t feel right coming into Sunday night. That Retrievers team will always be remembered for its historic upset. What would’ve happened if they’d notched a second one?
— Jonas Shaffer
Tragedy strikes University of Maryland
The event that had the most impact on me during the past decade — and one of the most significant during the 3½ decades I have spent working in Baltimore — occurred with me sitting on a Tel Aviv beach in June 2018. There with my wife to visit our younger son, I read on my cellphone that a Maryland football player had died from heatstroke.
Though I had never talked to Jordan McNair during his redshirt freshman season in College Park, I got to learn much about him during the next year covering the aftermath of his death, culminating with a health and wellness fair his parents held at the McDonogh School, where he graduated, on the first anniversary of his death.
Hopefully, the tragic way McNair died will have far greater impact than what happened in the weeks, months and years following the cocaine-induced death of Len Bias nearly 32 years to the day — June 19, 1986 — before McNair. And though not nearly as accomplished since his college career was just about to begin, hopefully McNair will not be forgotten either.
I know I won’t forget.
— Don Markus
Ravens legends go out on top
It is always special to see great players leave on a winning note, and that’s how both middle linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed closed out their careers in Baltimore as the Ravens won Super Bowl XLVII at the end of the 2012 season. It’s rare these days when players stay in the same city as long as Lewis (17 years in Baltimore) and Reed (11). It was just as special covering their inductions into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
— Mike Preston
Blast goalie bonds with young fan
The decade brought plenty of athletes to write about who did great things on and off the field. With this time of year focused on generosity and giving, I reflected on the story I wrote in the summer of 2018 about Blast goalie William Vanzela’s unique bond with one of his biggest fans.
At the time, Liam Fanning was 7 years old, a New Freedom, Pennsylvania, resident who was undergoing chemotherapy after having surgery to treat the bone cancer he was diagnosed with in his femur that February.
Friends of the Fanning family reached out to the Blast requesting Vanzela send Liam a video message to provide encouragement, but the star goalie did more.
Shortly after helping the Blast capture the Major Arena Soccer League championship that spring, Vanzela made the trek to New Freedom to visit Liam in person.
It was a visit that has formed a lasting bond.
With Vanzela rehabilitating from his own surgery from a torn adductor tendon in his groin, the two made a pinkie promise to work hard in recovery. The reward would be having Liam go to a Blast game the following season as Vanzela’s guest with the two walking out together during player introductions.
That game turned out to be the Blast’s 2018-19 season opener on Dec. 1 — Liam’s 8th birthday.
Beforehand, Fanning friends organized the LiamStrong Bull Roast that included an auction, which Vanzela helped promote and collect auction items for. He and other Blast players attended the bull roast, which raised $40,000 to help Liam’s medical costs.
The bleachers were shaking and rumbling at Camden Yards that afternoon.
Delmon Young had just knocked the first pitch he saw into left field, clearing the bases and cementing possibly the greatest comeback in Orioles history.
The Orioles were behind 6-4 to the Detroit Tigers in Game 2 of the 2014 American League Division Series when Young came to the plate as a pinch hitter with the bases loaded. Fans had seen the Orioles score eight runs the night before in the eighth inning on the way to a 12-3 victory to take a 1-0 lead in the series. It was the eighth again, and you could sense that some old-fashioned Orioles Magic could be in the cards against a shaky Tigers bullpen.
It’s still exciting to watch: With the crack of Young’s bat, Nelson Cruz scored, followed by Steve Pearce. J.J. Hardy, running for all he was worth from first base, managed to swipe his hand across home plate just before the tag, giving the Orioles the lead they wouldn’t relinquish. And Young stood at second base as the stadium was whipped into a frenzy around him.
I was there as a lifelong, diehard Orioles fan (this was also a year before I started working in The Sun’s sports department), sitting in the bleachers with my family. I regularly attend about two dozen games a season, including playoff games in 1997 and 2012. But I think it’s safe to say I have never before heard the stadium that loud. Fans were whipping around their “We Won’t Stop” orange towels, while singing “Seven Nation Army” at the top of their lungs.
The Orioles went on to win the series against the Tigers and then fall to the Kansas City Royals in the American League Championship Series. They were without Manny Machado and Matt Wieters (both out with injuries) and a suspended Chris Davis. It still feels like that season was a missed opportunity as the Orioles only made it back to the postseason once again this decade (losing in the wild card game in 2016 to the Blue Jays). Then in 2018 came the dismantling of the roster and the start of the rebuild.
And Orioles fans are left to wonder when the stadium might shake with such joy and enthusiasm again.
— Jen Badie
In recent years, the Army-Navy football game has been put back on its rightful pedestal among college football’s most cherished events. It even has carved out its own niche where it virtually has the national spotlight to itself one day a year.
If there was ever any question about the unique passion that the rivals put into the contest, one needs only glance back to the 116th playing of the game on Dec. 12, 2015, at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.
Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo’s postgame actions said all you need to know about how much the participants care about each other. The Mids just had edged Army, 21-17, to extend a record run of dominance against their rival to 14 straight victories, but Niumatalolo wasn’t exactly in a celebratory mood.
Before the annual service academy clash, Niumatalolo had been the center of news reports about his possible departure for a lucrative coaching job at Brigham Young University.
One postgame question about the coach’s future produced a flood of emotion as Niumatalolo talked about how much he cherished coaching at the Naval Academy and working with a group of athletes he considered family. He could have bolted for the airport like one of his peers had so famously done after a resume-boosting victory. But, eventually, he preferred to stick with a program that he built into a model of consistency.
I’ve had the pleasure of attending nearly two dozen Army-Navy games and I can tell you that this game and the immediate aftermath always will stand out as a showcase of what kind of bonds are built by the Army-Navy rivalry.
If you are passionate about sports and haven’t seen an Army-Navy game in person, don’t wait another decade for the event to pass you by.
— Gerry Jackson
Tragedy at Johns Hopkins
I like to pretend that I’m tougher than I actually am. (Maybe covering sports has desensitized me to my feelings.) But almost two years ago, I found myself in tears while writing an article on the late Jeremy Huber, who died Jan. 26, 2015, of complications caused by pneumonia and flu and would have been a Johns Hopkins senior lacrosse defenseman in the spring of 2018.
Robert and Nancy Huber, Jeremy’s parents, have always been incredibly generous talking to me, and one comment that Mrs. Huber gave always gets me. “You always wonder what he would have been doing,” Nancy said through tears. “His friends at Hopkins are interviewing for jobs and looking at grad schools, and we wish that was us.”
That was the first time I wept in front of my computer, and I still get misty-eyed every time I read it. Mrs. Huber’s quote is a reminder to me to appreciate what is in front of me.
Thank you, Mr. and Mrs. Huber, and thank you, Jeremy.