With 2017 drawing to a close, The Baltimore Sun sports staff is sharing some of its favorite memories from the past year. Here are the stories, moments and characters that left the deepest impressions.
Brooks Robinson turns 80
Few athletes are singled out, in print, for a milestone birthday. Brooks Robinson is one.
When he turned 80 in May, we had to call the Hall of Fame third baseman. Could he actually be that old? He reckoned so.
“The big eight-oh has got me,” said Robinson, perhaps Baltimore’s favorite son of sports.
Outwardly, Robinson accepts old age with grace. He has weathered prostate cancer and recovered from several debilitating falls. He still attends an occasional memorabilia show where he’s likely to meet at least one autograph seeker who, not coincidentally, shares his given name. Such is the depth of the public’s affection for him, on and off the field.
One by one, they disappear, the players we grew up with, revered in our childhood and lodged in the scrapbooks of our minds. This year claimed the Orioles’ Lee May, the Ravens’ Michael Jackson and the Colts’ Bobby Boyd, Alex Hawkins, Tom Mitchell and others. But Robinson, star of two World Series, lives on.
“I’m pretty sure there’s a field of dreams up there, but I’m not looking forward to joining them yet,” he said. That’s good news for those who treasure one of the last remaining icons from the golden age of Baltimore sports.
— Mike Klingaman
Manny’s greatest moment
It wasn’t the high-water mark of the Orioles’ disappointing 2017 season — certainly not in the standings — but Manny Machado delivered a performance Aug. 18 that was meaningful on so many levels that it stands taller than any other individual achievement at Oriole Park this past season.
At least in my opinion.
That was the night that the Orioles fell behind by five runs by the second inning and Machado almost single-handedly brought his team back with a three-homer, seven-RBI performance that carried the O’s to a 9-7 victory.
That’s just what the box score says. It was the way Machado pulled off the biggest single offensive performance of his career that was so special. He got the Orioles back into the game with a two-run shot in the third inning, kept them close with a solo homer in the fifth and topped the evening off with a walk-off grand slam in the ninth that got struggling pitcher Jeremy Hellickson off the hook after another awful performance by the starting rotation. It was his third grand slam in 11 games.
That’s just what it meant that night. It was also a reminder of just how valuable Machado has been to the Orioles and how much it’s going to cost to keep him as he enters his walk year in 2018.
Here’s what it means going forward: Machado is known more nationally for his near-nightly “Web Gems,” and he started a perfect around-the-horn triple play Aug. 3, but the second three-homer performance of his career capped a two-week span in which he was an absolutely unstoppable force both at the plate and in the field.
He really is that good and the Orioles are going to miss him sorely if they cannot find a way to persuade him to stay in Baltimore.
— Peter Schmuck
Big-time football success — at least for a short while
Going into the Maryland football team’s football season opener Sept. 2 at Texas, a local radio station asked me to predict how the Terps would do in DJ Durkin’s second season in College Park.
“If Maryland goes 6-6, Durkin might be Big Ten Coach of the Year,” was my response.
That changed a few days later, when the Terps left Austin with a 51-41 victory and I got a reminder what a big-time college football atmosphere was like.
As The Baltimore Sun’s national college football writer for more than a decade, I often spent Saturdays in the fall at places just like Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.
As the Maryland football beat writer the past two seasons — about 30 years removed from my last stint covering Bobby Ross — going to the Big House in Michigan and Beaver Stadium in 2016 was as close as I came to my former beat.
The only problem was watching one-sided games.
That changed, however briefly, on that scorching Texas afternoon back in early September. It didn’t matter that the No. 23 Longhorns, a 5-7 team a year ago, were totally overrated because of the arrival of new coach Tom Herman.
For a little over three hours, the Terps appeared to be making significant strides in their rebuilding. Then sophomore quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome and senior linebacker Jesse Aniebonam suffered season-ending injuries in the third quarter.
While the elation of the victory and the emergence of freshman quarterback Kasim Hill, who engineered two touchdown drives in the fourth quarter, overshadowed the sober reality of the injuries for a few days, it didn’t last long.
Three weeks later, against a Central Florida team that nobody knew would wind up the regular season unbeaten, Hill became the second quarterback this season to suffer a torn ACL. His injury and a 38-10 pounding by UCF foreshadowed a revolving door at quarterback and a 4-8 season for the Terps.
But for one afternoon in Austin, it was fun for Maryland fans.
There’s no reason to believe it won’t be fun again.
All three players should be back next season — pending the rehabilitation of the quarterbacks and whether Aniebonam, who broke his ankle, gets his anticipated extra year of eligibility from the NCAA. A second straight top-20 recruiting class has just been signed.
And Texas is coming to FedEx Field to open the 2018 season.
Given the way this year’s game went for the Longhorns, and the rest of the season went for the Terps, both teams can't wait.
Neither can I.
— Don Markus
Clouden’s OT game-winner for St. Frances
High school athletes tend to amaze me on a regular basis with their skill and athleticism, so deciding which moment to single out usually takes awhile. St. Frances’ junior point guard Nia Clouden, however, made it easy in 2017.
The No. 1 Panthers girls basketball team finished the regular season in February against a talented National Christian Academy team from Prince George’s County. The game lived up to every bit of the hype. Neither team managed more than a six-point lead, pumping up the excitement level in the St. Frances gym.
The Panthers led by three points in the final seconds, but National Christian’s Elizabeth Martino hit a 20-foot jumper as time expired to send the game into overtime, setting off a big celebration by the Eagles’ fans.
In overtime, National Christian led by one with 5.2 seconds left before Clouden made the most of a broken play. She caught a long pass above the 3-point line, dribbled just inside the line and launched the shot. Nothing but net. Pandemonium in the gym.
Not only did the Panthers win, 75-74, but Clouden’s basket secured the first undefeated regular season, 25-0, in a storied program history. St. Frances went on to claim its 10th Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland A Conference championship and win the Bishop Walsh Invitational before playing in the Dick’s Nationals, but no single moment would stand out quite like Clouden’s buzzer-beater.
— Katherine Dunn
Losing Frank Deford
It’s perhaps bittersweet to use a year-end celebration to reflect on an obituary. But more than any of the rising stars, fast horses or football games I covered in 2017, the loss of Frank Deford will stick with me.
When news of the great writer’s death emerged on Memorial Day, I immediately went to my basement to pull several collections of his work from my shelves. As I began combing the old Sports Illustrated “bonus” pieces in search of material worth quoting in Deford’s obituary, the stories and the man telling them sucked me in as if I were reading for the first time.
Irascible tennis star Jimmy Connors springing from the love of his mother and grandmother. Bob “Bull” “Cyclone” Sullivan making his small-town Mississippi football team scrimmage in a pond. Boxer Billy Conn finding a love that defined him more than his classic loss to Joe Louis.
Deford rendered these stories with a style that could not be imitated but that inspired generations of would-be writers, including me. It didn’t hurt that he grew up in Baltimore and graduated from Gilman, just as I did.
But those facts were incidental measured against the magnitude of his work. I called Deford for interviews a few times over the years. He often answered his home phone in Connecticut and was as gracious, eloquent and charming as a fan might hope.
After his death, numerous writers spoke about the counsel Deford went out of his way to dispense. To many other people, he was the erudite voice on NPR who made sports more accessible for the non-fan. No matter how you knew him, he was a voice for the ages.
— Childs Walker
A player you could root for
As a reporter and professional, you don’t root for teams or outcomes. But every now and then, you come across an athlete whose story and character affects you in a way that challenges some of that objectivity.
Zachary Orr signed with the Ravens in 2014 out of North Texas. In three seasons, he went from an anonymous undrafted free agent given virtually no shot to make the regular-season roster to the team’s starting weak-side linebacker.
Orr was one of the Ravens’ best players in 2016, finishing with a team-leading 132 tackles, three interceptions, five passes defended, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries. He handled the success with a humility that reinforced his standing as one of the team’s most popular and respected personalities.
After essentially playing for the league minimum over his first three seasons, Orr put himself in line for a lucrative restricted free-agent contract tender that would have paid him in excess of $2.5 million in 2017.
However, a rare congenital spine-neck condition, discovered in a postseason physical, forced Orr to retire at the age of 24. Still, Orr never stopped smiling during his retirement news conference in January.
“The one thing I can’t live with is regret, and I don’t have any of that in my life,” Orr said.
Orr considered a comeback but when no team was willing to clear him medically, he rejoined the Ravens as a coaching and scouting assistant. He’s with his teammates in the meeting room and on the practice field every day, an omnipresent smile on his face.
— Jeff Zrebiec
Learning the will of a Loyola lacrosse player
I have three memories and can't pick only one. Watching the palpable wave of relief wash over the Maryland men’s lacrosse players after capturing their program's first NCAA championship since 1975 was gratifying after watching four other Terps squads since 2011 fall short.
And judging by the tears shed by alumni in the stands at Gillette Stadium, it was obvious that there was no shortage of emotion over the victory.
I was impressed by the thoughtfulness of players at several schools who decided to honor the memory of Georgetown defenseman Ed Blatz Jr. by wearing his No. 14 jersey.
I never knew the young man, but after interviewing the players who spoke openly about how his death affected them to their core, he clearly was missed by many and continues to resonate with them.
But most of all, I marvel at the will of Zac Davliakos, who has overcome being born with only a thumb and pinkie finger on his left hand to become Loyola Maryland's starting long-stick midfielder.
When I complain about anything in my life, I should remember how Davliakos has refused to let his situation (he and his parents will not call it "a disability") define him as a person and an athlete. Thank you, Zac.
— Edward Lee
An improbable run in the U.S. Open Cup
For a few days in the middle of June, soccer and an amateur club sponsored by a Ferndale liquor store for 20 years, Christos FC, took over the sports page.
The team consisted of a bunch of friends — ages ranging from 23 to 30 — who mostly played weekend ball and drank beers after. But they all had impressive soccer resumes at the youth, high school and college levels — several played together at UMBC — and it led to an improbable run in the prestigious 104th Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
So there was Christos FC, the last amateur team standing in the fourth round and having already blanked three opponents including United Soccer League’s Richmond Kickers, holding its own against Major League Soccer’s D.C. United at a packed Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds.
It was Apollo Creed vs. Rocky all over again.
Rocky got in the first big punch when former McDonogh and UMBC star Mamadou Kansaye gave Christos a stunning 1-0 lead midway through the first half. D.C. United, which didn’t start most of its starters but still featured a lineup from the country’s highest professional division, got a tying goal later in the half.
After some back-and-forth play for much of the second half, Christos understandably tired and D.C. United scored three goals in the final 10 minutes to advance with a 4-1 win.
With Baltimore steeped in soccer tradition for more than 100 years, Christos added one of the most amazing and impressive chapters before its players went back to their day jobs.
— Glenn Graham
Melvin Keihn’s trip home to Liberia
Over the summer, Melvin Keihn, a defensive end for the Maryland football team and a former Gilman standout, returned to his native Liberia for the first time in 14 years to surprise his mother, Satta. He had not seen her since he was 8.
He thought about little things — bringing over-the-counter medicines for his relatives who didn’t have access in Liberia and showing his mother highlights of his football career on his iPad.
He formed bonds with young children while volunteering during his trip — some Keihn continued to communicate with after he left.
Those are good reminders to me, and hopefully to the readers, to appreciate not just what athletes are capable of doing in their sport, but also to understand that their lives extend beyond the box scores.
— Callie Caplan
An Orioles-Red Sox series to remember
By September, almost everything about the Orioles and their 2017 season was a disappointing afterthought. However, over the first four days of May, as they battled it out with the Boston Red Sox, the Orioles took their place in the national spotlight the way they hardly ever do.
The reasons varied, though the fact that the Orioles finished the first month of the season seven games above .500 added to the stakes against the defending American League East champions. Before the series, Buck Showalter had poked fun at the Red Sox for an illness that swept through their clubhouse; Boston had taken issue with a slide by Orioles third baseman Manny Machado that injured their second baseman, Dustin Pedroia; and Red Sox pitchers had tried to hit Machado with a pitch but failed.
All that seemed to be happening on that first, chilly night in Boston was a simple Orioles win. Then center fielder Adam Jones relayed some of the racist taunts he heard from the crowd, and the game — and series — came to mean a lot more.
The following day was one of condemnation for the fans at fault, praise of Jones for the way he handled the situation, and a conciliatory tone between the teams. Jones got a standing ovation in his first at-bat, then when Boston ace Chris Sale threw a pitch behind Machado, the next batter, the old tensions flared up.
Machado went on a profane tirade after the game, and both teams were warned, which led to a silly ejection when Kevin Gausman lost a breaking ball and hit a batter in the second inning of the third game.
The teams got back to baseball on the fourth night, a somewhat forgettable conclusion to a series marked by a discussion about racism, a condemnation of baseball's unwritten rules and a capricious punishment.
— Jon Meoli
Fierce competition on wheels
For many athletes, what they do on the field defines them just as much as what they do off it.
So what happens when their ability is taken away?
Randy Johnson was a 6-foot-6, 308-pound athlete who reached the semiprofessional level in basketball and football. Then a car accident in March 2013 left him with two fractured cervical vertebrae. After his injury, he wasn't motivated to do anything but lie in bed. The accident had robbed of him of part of who he was: a physical, strong presence — perhaps to fault.
"People could have called me very egotistical, and they wouldn't be lying," he said.
In January 2017, here was Johnson playing quad rugby — affectionately known as murderball — at CCBC-Dundalk alongside nine teammates with the Maryland Mayhem, his team for the past three years, at the third annual Maryland Crab Pot Tournament. The man teammates called "Albatross" because of his long wingspan was dominating a different game.
Johnson was one of many at the tournament that day whose life was changed by quad rugby, as teams from Akron, Ohio, Philadelphia and Northern Virginia competed hard on the court and shared touching stories on the sideline. The event was run by volunteer staff from the University of Maryland Rehabilitation and Orthopaedic Institute, which sponsors the Mayhem, whose players received treatment there. The institute, formerly known as Kernan Hospital, has had an adapted sports program for over 25 years, helping introduce patients to wheelchair sports such as basketball, rugby and bocce.
"You see a change in people that start playing," said Mike Henley, a recreational therapist at the hospital who competed for the Mayhem. "If they have enough confidence and dedication to go to practice once a week and last all season long in rugby, they start thinking they can go back to work or go to college."
After Johnson’s injury, he needed help to transfer from his chair and couldn't handle much of his self-care needs. Just a few years later, he started living on his own and participated in Paralympic team training camp.
The accident changed his life, but so did quad rugby. So much so that he got “Mayhem For Life” tattooed across his chest.
"Just because of what I've taken from it, and what I've gotten from it, I'm a much better person now," he said of the injury. "I'm a much better human being because this happened to me."
— C.J. Doon
Playing for Puerto Rico
I hadn’t seen the image until one of the four Puerto Ricans on the UMBC women’s volleyball team mentioned it near the end of an hourlong interview, after they’d talked about the sport and their friendships and President Donald Trump.
Before a Sept. 29 match between Towson and Hofstra, the teams’ Puerto Rican players stood together for a special rendition of the U.S. territory’s anthem, a flag between them. The Retrievers’ own contingent, visiting for the night, joined them on the court. It was hard not to cry, a few later said. A photograph, shared on the NCAA volleyball’s official Instagram account, captured the surreal scene.
Less than two weeks earlier, on Sept. 20, Hurricane Maria had made landfall on the Caribbean archipelago. Winds of nearly 150 mph cut off power to 3.4 million citizens. The official death toll is well under 100, but studies suggest that the total might be over 1,000.
At Towson and UMBC, the seven Puerto Ricans who would stand together followed the developments with life-and-death attention. The Tigers’ Carola Biver, a San Juan native, didn’t hear from her mother for four days. UMBC’s Paola Rojas, of San Lorenzo, waited almost a week for a message from home.
“Every time someone said, ‘I just reached out to my family,’ it was like the best,” UMBC’s Krytsia Negron said. “Everyone jumped and screamed, and it was like the best thing ever.”
Though the seven Puerto Ricans played for different teams, they all came from the same place, all feared the worst and wanted the best for their homeland. They raised money, food and supplies to send back. They thought of their family every time they stepped onto the court.
And when the Puerto Rican anthem played at SECU Arena that day, they were reminded of what they’d left behind and what they hadn’t. The land they left had changed, but their love for it, for one another, was stronger than ever.
— Jonas Shaffer
Terps’ lacrosse drought ends
It was great watching the University of Maryland win a national championship in college lacrosse this spring.
The Terps had not won since 1975, and they had been close numerous times under some great coaches such as Dick Edell and Dave Cottle. They weren't just good coaches, but good men who had a significant impact on the game and the young men they coached.
In his seven years as Maryland’s current coach, John Tillman had been to the title game four times and the Terps had always found a way to lose. But they beat Ohio State, 9-6, this May and it was a great relief for all those who have been involved with the program.
One of the best things I saw was the reaction of Tillman.
In the previous championship game losses he was more concerned about the well-being of his players than just "suffering another loss." In victory, he was the same way. He gave more credit to his players and coaches than to himself.
To me that says a lot about Tillman, who later drew praise from Cottle and Loyola Maryland coach Charley Toomey. It was also interesting that Tillman had called Cottle and Edell to seek advice while at Maryland, which is a tribute to his predecessors, but also to Tillman for using his resources.
— Mike Preston
Schoop emerges as a star
It was easy to tell that Jonathan Schoop had what it takes to become an All-Star with the Orioles — natural abilities, solid fundamentals and a desire to get better — but going into this year, there was something holding him back and keeping him from performing at a consistently high level.
Watching Schoop, 25, blossom before our eyes in 2017 was one of the only highlights of an otherwise forgettable Orioles season. His focus was instrumental in his growth, as he was determined to not let pitchers get him out by enticing him to swing at balls out of the strike zone. His patience at the plate was a skill some of his teammates could have learned from, and as his star began to rise — leading to his first All-Star Game appearance — Schoop constantly deflected attention to those around him whom he said he was learning from — from Adam Jones to J.J. Hardy to Manny Machado to infield coach Bobby Dickerson.
While his teammates struggled to help balance a batting order that was hit or miss on most nights, it was Schoop and rookie Trey Mancini who carried the Orioles through most of the season, and even though it led to the team’s worst finish in six years, there was plenty of reason to be excited about the future because of Schoop.
The Orioles rarely have the opportunity to laud an international signing, and Schoop lived in the scouting shadows in the baseball haven of Curacao, signing a $90,000 bonus at the age of 16 before ultimately becoming one of the best run-producing second basemen in the sport. His game still doesn’t draw the most attention — and on a daily basis he was still often overshadowed by Machado — but Schoop is no longer a secret.
— Eduardo A. Encina