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Crystal balls
Dodgers win the series! Bird plays H-O-R-S-E! Congressman Canseco! We have seen the future of sports (and its name is Tony Graffanino).
BY MARK JURKOWITZ

"Wait till next year." the plaintive cry — which originated with snake-bitten Brooklyn Dodgers rooters in the 1950s — is now a rallying point for disappointed sports fans everywhere. In New England, 2005 didn’t bring as many blessings as the previous year, what with the Sox going out early in the playoffs and the Patriots facing incredible adversity and numbing injuries. (Although their season is far from over.)

While 2006 may not bring the Red Sox another World Series or get more than three people to watch the Bruins on TV, it will be a topsy-turvy year of spills, thrills, and chills. And there is only one thing we know for sure: Manny will be Manny.

A FLAG FOR LA-LA LAND

The 2006 baseball season starts out poorly for the Red Sox. Theo Epstein declines another entreaty to rejoin the front office in order to head up the fledging "Kerry ’08" presidential campaign. That breeds trouble when ace pitcher Curt Schilling responds by threatening to retire in order to become press secretary for Mitt Romney’s White House bid. (Schilling is talked out of the move only when WEEI agrees to give him his own weekend show, bumping the likable "Preacher and Teacher" combo of Larry Johnson and Craig Mustard.)

To the disgust of Red Sox Nation, Johnny Damon gets off to a torrid start for the Yankees, Þnding that short right-Þeld porch to his liking and belting 10 homers in the Þrst month of the season. Soon, he is the toast of the Apple, his clean-cut visage adorning billboards in Times Square. He becomes a regular guest on Imus in the Morning, and begins holding forth on politics with the I-Man’s favorite pundits, Tim Russert and Howard Fineman.

At the same time, Manny Ramirez, whose trade demands cannot be met, grudgingly shows up, but his heart is clearly not in it. In a classic case of "Manny Being Manny," he spends one entire game inside the Green Monster wall rather than manning his position in left Þeld. Forced to go with only eight defenders on the Fenway diamond, the Sox are mauled by the woeful Devil Rays 27-6. Manager Terry Francona promises to talk to Manny soon about his "unorthodox defensive positioning."

Given baseball’s tougher policy on performance-enhancing drugs, a number of players enter the 2006 season with that suddenly shrunken Sammy Sosa and Pudge Rodriguez look — claiming, of course, that they "ate better" and hired new personal trainers during the off-season. Barry Bonds returns to the Giants healthy and raring to go. But in a stunning development, Bonds, ensnared in the BALCO case, is arrested by Pac Bell security guards while rounding third base after blasting home run number 714, which would have tied him for second place all time with Babe Ruth. Because he never stepped on home plate, he is ofÞcially awarded a triple and remains in third place on the homer list. A shell-shocked Commissioner Bud Selig mutters something about "the integrity of the game."

But it’s the crackdown on amphetamines, or greenies, that really begins to affect play in 2006. Forced to function on adrenaline alone, the average starter now tosses an average of 75 pitches a game before requiring relief. Stolen bases decrease by 50 percent (who has the energy?) and the Detroit Tigers actually forfeit a game when the players vote not to play the second half of a rainout make-up double-header. Meanwhile, baseball is forced to consider a midnight curfew for games when Players Association boss Don Fehr complains that his union members "need their beauty sleep."

The balance of power continues to shift in the American League. The Red Sox, forced to go with Tony Graffanino at shortstop and Bubba Crosby (a preseason pick-up from New York) in center Þeld, win only 87 games and fail to make the playoffs. The Yankees’ luck sours when Damon injures himself during a Vanity Fair photo shoot and is replaced in center by an aging Bernie Williams. A perennial fan favorite, Williams surprisingly leads American League outÞelders in Þelding percentage. Unfortunately, that’s because he only manages to get his glove on only one ßy ball all year. The Yanks sink to third place.

So who wins it all? The newly revamped Los Angeles Dodgers, of course, who defeat the Cleveland Indians in a seven-game series. Derek Lowe wins three games in the Fall Classic, Billy Mueller knocks in the winning run in Game Seven, and Nomar is named both National League Comeback Player of the Year and MVP. But the real story behind the Dodgers is manager Grady Little’s skillful use of his bullpen. Now quick to remove any starter at the Þrst sign of trouble, Little reprises Sparky Anderson’s old nickname of "Captain Hook."

"Why can’t we get someone like Little to run the Red Sox?" bellows NESN studio analyst Kevin Millar, as the Dodgers enjoy their ticker-tape parade along Rodeo Drive.

ANOTHER SUPER BOWL

To absolutely no one’s surprise, the rejuvenated and now healthy Pats make it to Super Box XL (that’s 40), and face the defensively stingy Chicago Bears in a rematch of the infamous 46-10 1986 drubbing. The Bears make it tough on Tom Brady and company, holding them to 220 total yards and only 17 points. But unfortunately for the Monsters of the Midway, the Rex Grossman–Kyle Orton quarterback combo manages to amass only 37 total yards and 0 points. The single biggest offensive play for the Bears is a five-yard encroachment penalty against Willie McGinest in the fourth quarter.

After the game, the players and owner Bob Kraft are ecstatic about their fourth Lombardi trophy in Þve years. But amid the champagne and celebrating, Coach Bill Belichick is noticeably subdued. When asked what’s on his mind, the coach admits he’s preoccupied with the 2006-2007 exhibition season-opening game against the Detroit Lions. "They’ll be a much improved team and we better not take them for granted," he warns somberly.

Unfortunately, the Patriots’ Super Bowl win is knocked off the next day’s front page in the Globe and Herald by a hastily called Larry Lucchino press conference announcing that the Red Sox have just hired two new interns in their ticket-sales ofÞce.

In the college-football championship game, the January 4 Rose Bowl, Texas engineers a mild upset of USC, winning 75-72 in three overtimes. Reggie Bush runs for 471 yards in the loss. After soundly defeating Florida State in the Orange Bowl (no way I’m calling it the FedEx Orange Bowl), beloved Penn State coach Joe "Pa" Paterno announces he plans to retire in 2020.

Some of the biggest football news is made in the booth when, after 36 years on ABC, Monday Night Football migrates to ESPN. After trying several combinations, the all-sports network decides to replicate the famous Howard Cosell/Don Meredith/Frank Gifford chemistry by hiring Billy Crystal, Billy Bob Thornton, and Doug Flutie to broadcast the games. The trio is entertaining enough, and the sports-media world is abuzz with rumors that Thornton is knocking down several Wild Turkeys during the halftime intermission. But ratings continue to sag.

Number 33 Returns

On the hardwood, it’s difficult for the new-look Celtics to generate any real momentum or interest in the 2006 season. Halfway through the campaign, they are a disappointing 17-23. Still, playoff hopes run high, since that puts them right in the thick of things in the highly competitive and wildly entertaining Atlantic Division with Philly (18-22), New Jersey (19-21), the Knicks (16-24), and Toronto (12-28). With fan interest in the club dwindling, however, the Celtic owners make a popular move by replacing executive director of basketball operations Danny Ainge with the legendary Larry Bird. Bird admits he can’t improve the Green immediately. But the team benefits anyway by charging an extra $5 per ticket at home games to fans who show up early to watch Bird shoot H-O-R-S-E against the leading scorer on the opposing team. By season’s end, Bird’s record in those contests is 41-1. The one blemish on the record is a hard-fought two-hour contest against Kobe Bryant.

The meek inherit the earth when the NBA Þnals roll around and the LeBron James–led Cleveland Cavaliers defeat the Elton Brand–led Los Angeles Clippers in six games. The bad news is that the last game of the NBA championship series is beaten in the ratings by TV Land’s all-night Sanford and Son–athon.

HOCKEY

Who cares.

Other Notable Moments in 2006

Yes, the 2006 Torino Olympics is a gorgeous spectacle of winter splendor and, as usual, the only event shown on prime-time television is 50 straight hours of the "chick sport" of Þgure skating. Tragedy does strike, however, when a bullet Þred by a member of the US biathlon team goes astray, severely wounding the top scorer on the Ukranian curling team. (I actually don’t even know if or how you score in curling.)

Steroid truth-teller, Juiced author, and Surreal Life contestant Jose Canseco is elected to a US House seat from Florida, running on the catchy campaign slogan: "I didn’t lie to Congress, I won’t lie in Congress."

The moribund heavyweight division in boxing gets a big lift when John "The Quiet Man" Ruiz packs it in after being presented with a petition from one million pay-per-view and premium-cable fans begging him to retire on aesthetic grounds. After getting in shape while Þlming Rocky Balboa (aka Rocky VI), 60-year-old Sylvester Stallone manages to wangle a boxing license from the Nevada State Athletic Commission. He is immediately ranked ninth in the heavyweight division by Ring magazine and signs on with Don King. By year’s end, he is booked for a $20 million Þght against comebacking 57-year-old George Foreman in a battle billed "Rock of Aged."

Sports-radio giant WEEI has a year of upheaval and turmoil. Morning host Gerry Callahan leaves when he is tapped to replace Rush Limbaugh, who Þnally gets convicted on "doctor shopping" charges. Big Show host Glenn Ordway is let go after a nasty contract dispute in which "The Big O" contends he is entitled to 30 vacation weeks per year. The station’s image is also tarnished by a nasty in-studio brawl between its two resident baseball experts — the Herald’s Steve Buckley and the Providence Journal’s Sean McAdam — after a vehement disagreement over who was the greatest switch-hitting utility inÞelder ever to wear number 52. Tragically, the career of zany new nighttime host Mike Adams comes to a premature end after he locks himself inside a westbound–Mass Pike tollboth at the Auburn exit for 14 straight days. By year’s end, station owner Entercom throws in the towel, opting for a new "advice show" format built around a drive-time program on pet health care.

And Þnally, under a barrage of harsh criticism, the New York Times Company divests its ownership stake in the Red Sox when the Boston Herald reports that Sox owner John Henry was one of the key advisers counseling Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and executive editor Bill Keller to wait a year before breaking the story of the Bush administration’s domestic spying.

Mark Jurkowitz can be reached at mjurkowitz@phx.com

 


Issue Date: December 30, 2005 - January 5, 2006
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