Starr Gazing: The Year in Sports

My editors at NEWSWEEK prefer their writers to be forward thinking. So even with this year-end ritual of looking back at the past year in sports, I did some looking ahead as well. And I can assure you, saving you decades of anxiety, that when I sit down to write the top stories of the 21st century, this year's topper will remain No. 1. That's because I can't even imagine a more extraordinary sports fairy tale than the 2004 Boston Red Sox.

I considered making the BoSox numbers one through 10 for 2004--Red Sox Nation, Boston win rare Super Bowl-Series double, Epic Yankee Choke, Who's Your Papi, A-Rod Wears Goat Horns, etc.--but chose to spare you that. Let that notion serve as a reminder, though, that these lists are personal, about as definitive as the Bowl Championship Series rankings. (OK, maybe a little more definitive.)

It was an extraordinary year in sports, both for good and bad. Lance Armstrong topped my 2003 list when he won his fifth straight Tour de France and dropped to fifth on my list this year when he won his record sixth. The perfect metaphor for 2004 may have been the Olympic women's shot put, held on the ancient fields of Olympia where the Games began in 776 B.C. It was a brilliant attempt to marry the original values of the Olympics with modernity. And it produced what one might expect of that awkward mix: a lyrical and moving competition followed by the disqualification of the winner for doping.

Here's my Top 40 of 2004:

1. R.I.P. Curse: The perfect season. Three outs away from being swept by the despised and dreaded New York Yankees, the Boston Red Sox stage the greatest comeback in baseball history and put an end to sport's longest-running tragic-comedy. Nobody really believed in the Curse of the Bambino, but everybody is really happy it's dead and gone. Indeed, if Red Sox Nation had known it would all end so magically, they might not have minded the 86-year wait quite so much.

2. BALCO Bust: Who knew a little, hi-tech nutritional lab outside San Francisco could cause such a stir? But the raid on BALCO produced a parade of big-name witnesses--including Barry Bonds, Marion Jones, Gary Sheffield and Jason Giambi--before a federal grand jury. And with it the biggest drug scandal in American sports history. Baseball, with its asterisked legacy, took the biggest hit--the feds are now looking over its shoulder--and the case hasn't even gone to trial yet.

3. The Spitz Chase: There was so much hype about the possibility of eight gold medals that Michael Phelps' astonishing six golds, eight medals performance, might actually have been undervalued. Given the added heats and the higher level of competition, Phelps' feat was likely more difficult than that of Mark Spitz 32 years ago. No fairy-tale ending to this one, though. A DUI arrest reminded us once again that our heroes have feet--sometimes huge feet--of clay.

4. The Nightmare Team: Nobody pretended this was America's Dream Team. With only Tim Duncan and Allen Iverson sticking it out from the original roster--the rest chose safe harbor at home--the NBA sent its youth brigade to Athens. Still, nobody thought the U.S. would get thumped by Puerto Rico in its opener. Things never got much better. The Yanks settled for the bronze and a painful reminder that while we've still got game, it's not necessarily a very good game.

5. Unbroken Lance: It doesn't seem fair that Lance Armstrong should drop four places from my 2003 list for his record sixth straight Tour du France triumph. But this record chase lacked the high drama of last year's race. Moreover, the epic achievement competed with a slew of bad cycling news. First Marco Pantani, Italy's greatest cyclist and the last man to win the Tour before Armstrong, died of a cocaine overdose. Then popular American Tyler Hamilton, a former Armstrong teammate, twice tested positive for illegal doping.

6. Dynasty? The New England Patriots' Super Bowl victory over the Carolina Panthers lacked only the upset factor of their first one two years before. Otherwise, it was deja vu all over again--right down to the last-second field goal by Adam Vinatieri. And while it may not be an official record, New England's 21 straight wins in this era of parity is a mind-boggling achievement. The word "genius" is tossed around far too freely in sports, particularly football, but Bill Belichick might just be the real deal.

7. Basketbrawl: As if we needed a reminder of deteriorating standards of behavior on and off the courts and fields. The Pacers-Pistons spat that spiraled into an ugly brawl with fans was ample evidence that if we don't wake up, somebody is going to get killed out there. Kudos to the NBA for its quick, decisive actions, but it was another body blow for a league that only a decade ago was sprinkled with stardust.

8. No Hamm-n'-egger: Paul Hamm became America's first men's Olympic all-around gymnastics champ. And he did it the hard way--wining the same gold medal twice. First he staged the greatest comeback in his sport's history, rebounding from a spill on the vault with two near-perfect routines. Then he won it again two months later in the Court of Arbitration in Sport, which denied scoring protests by South Korea. Add American Carly Patterson's all-around triumph and it was the gym-dandiest season in memory.

9. No Hamm-n'-egger either: Even if she had not exited with an Olympic gold medal, courtesy of a dramatic overtime header by one of the kids who grew up idolizing her, Mia Hamm would have still gone out a winner. The greatest women's soccer player in history, Hamm, with the help of her soccer sisters, transformed the image of women in sports. She may have retired but we'll always have 1999 and that World Cup summer of love.

10. Motor City Throwback: Who knew NBA kids could still do it? Not the "just do it" that they've been doing all too much of in recent years, but old-fashioned team basketball with selfless ball movement and relentless defense. The result: the Detroit Pistons upset the bickering glitterati known as the L.A. Lakers with such ease that, by series end, we wondered how it could possibly have been regarded as an upset.

11. Singh a Song of Victory: We may have seen this coming last year. Still, nobody quite anticipated the juggernaut that was Vijay Singh in 2004. He won nine tournaments including the PGA Championship, a record $10.9 million and player of the year on both the PGA and European tours. By year's end everybody else was playing for No. 2.

12. A Grecian Earn: First Greece stunned its neighbors by winning the European soccer championships. Then it shocked the world, after dire predictions that Athens 2004 would be a disaster, by staging a nearly impeccable Olympics. Raise an ouzo to our Greek hosts.

13. Size Double Husky: Basketball was invented just across the border in Massachusetts, not more than a long three-pointer away from Storrs, Conn. And the University of Connecticut has produced such estimable talents as Ray Allen and Sue Bird. Still, this double elevated UConn to a whole new tier: first came victory in the men's NCAA championship (Connecticut 82, Georgia Tech 73), then a week later in the women's (Connecticut 70, Tennessee 61).

14. Tiger, Tiger Not Burning Bright: It's officially, unequivocally a slump for a man who, not too long ago, was the most compelling star in sports. Sure many PGA pros would kill for a Tiger Woods slump. But Tiger could no longer deny what was there for all to see: just one tour victory all season and a lot of late fades when he couldn't keep his drives on the fairway.

15. B.C.S. B.S.: At least the Bowl Championship Series is consistent: a screw-up every year. Last year, it was U.S.C. that was excluded and wound up, according to the polls, co-champion. This year Auburn drew the short stick. And wouldn't Cal in the Rose Bowl have been neat? Kudos to the A.P. for, even if belatedly, yanking its poll from the process. The press doesn't need to be complicit in this farce.

16. A Major Penalty for Stupidity: The NHL, on the cusp of minor-league status anyway, can't resolve its labor woes and its season is on the brink of extinction. Will anyone outside Canada (sorry about those cold Saturday nights) even notice if they do come back to play? At least the Stanley Cup gets to stay warm in Tampa.

17. El Guerrouj First At Last: The only blemish on Hicham El Guerrouj's record as the world's greatest distance runner was two Olympic disappointments. But the third time was the charm. In Athens the Moroccan star won double gold, with dramatic stretch runs in the 1,500 and 5,000 meters. (And for those who thought Americans could no longer go long, U.S. Olympic marathoners won a silver (Meb Keflezighi) in the men's and a bronze (Deena Kastor) in the women's, the first time this country has medaled in both.

18. A Mighty Arsenal: OK, maybe you couldn't care less about England's Premiership. But consider this: Arsenal finished the first undefeated season--26-0-12--in 115 years in the top English soccer league. In the perfect irony, "Fever Pitch," a Nick Hornby ("About A Boy," "High Fidelity") tale of his fervent devotion to Arsenal was being made into a movie this year by the Farrelly Brothers. Only they gave it an American twist: Arsenal became the Red Sox. Now that's synergy.

19. The Busch League: Who'd be foolish enough to tinker with success? NASCAR did, creating the equivalent of a post-season playoffs with its final 10 races. And what did their hubris reap? High, high drama, as Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon vied to the end for the championship. Busch's fifth place in the final race was just good enough to capture--by eight points over Johnson--the Cup championship in the closest finish in NASCAR history.

20. The Real Dream Team: Sure, a lot of guys tuned in just to check out blonde bombshell hurler Jennie Finch. But if they stuck around, they saw one of the most extraordinary teams in Olympic history. The U.S. women's softball team was almost perfect. It went undefeated (9-0), and when it beat Australia 5-1 for the gold, it marked the only run the team surrendered all tournament long.

21. Steam Heat: When Janet Jackson had a "wardrobe malfunction" during the halftime show at the Super Bowl, the FCC, the NFL and plenty of fans went apoplectic. And again when Nicolette Sheridan dropped tow in the locker room with Terrell Owens. Have any of the outraged taken a gander at "Desperate Housewives?" Janet's flash would be a PG moment on that block. And spare us the NFL's version of Claude Rains ("I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on here"). The league just wants to control the cleavage on the field. But until the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders perform in burkhas, it stands as rank hypocrisy.

22. Big Swiss Cheese: He did it quietly, as the Swiss are prone to do. But Roger Federer elevated his game to historic levels and came up only a French Open short of a Grand Slam. He gave America a taste of his spectacular, all-around talent when he decimated Leyton Hewitt 6-0, 7-6, 6-0 for the U.S. Open title.

23. Bidding Hello to Adu: Maybe Freddy Adu wasn't exactly Pele incarnate in his first Major League Soccer season. But he showed sparks of greatness, which is pretty much what soccer fans hoped for from the 15-year-old American prodigy. And when Adu's D.C. United played road games, the team averaged more than 23,000 fans--or about 8,000 above league average. Oh yeah, D.C. United won the league championship too.

24. Not Quite Smarty Enough: Maybe all we'll ever get again is the tease, but Smarty delivered it in stylish fashion. It was a great ride with wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness until he came up short in the Belmont. It's now 26 years and counting since Affirmed became the last horse to win the Triple Crown. Incredibly, Smarty was the eighth since '78 to capture the first two legs and then break bettors' hearts.

25. Who's My Daddy, Golfing Style: Europeans routed the Yanks for the Ryder Cup--and on American turf too. Tiger Woods had another disappointing Cup, but then again, virtually all the U.S. players stunk up the course. This biennial affair is becoming a mismatch. Is it possible that genuine camaraderie counts for something in a team competition?

26. Generation Next: A new generation of U.S. men sprinters, led by Justin Gatlin and Jeremy Wariner, produced a near-sweep in Athens--eight of nine individual medals. The U.S. women didn't fare quite as well. Marion Jones, in the BALCO spotlight all year, had almost as bad an Olympics as her Sydney Games were great. She didn't even make the team in the 100 and 200 meters--and helped botch the baton pass that disqualified the U.S. team in the 4X100 relay.

27. A Little Enforcement Goes A Long Way: The drug cheats may still be in the lead, but the margin is shrinking. While the science of detection is improving, a get-tough approach is equally valuable. The two most notable Greek Olympic heroes were chased out of the Athens Games--and now face criminal indictments for faking a motorcycle accident to avoid a drug test. And the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency ruled that sprinter Michelle Collins--a BALCO client who never actually failed a drug test--was guilty of doping offenses and suspended her for eight years. It also banned sprinter Jerome Young, a former world champion and Olympic gold medalist, for life for his second offense.

28. Kwan More Time: She's geriatric by her sport's standards, but last year, at age 23, Michelle Kwan won her seventh consecutive national championship and her eighth U.S. title overall. If there is a figure-skating god, Kwan, who has never won the Olympic gold, will pull an El Guerrouj in Turin, Italy, in 2006. Regardless, she remains her sport's gold standard.

29. It Bodes Well for Turin '06: Bode Miller opened the World Cup season with six victories in his first 10 races and emerged from the giant Austrian shadow. The American became only the second skier ever to win World Cup races in all four disciplines--downhill, slalom, giant slalom and super-G--in a single season. And he did it over just 16 days.

30. A Singler Sensation: OK, maybe you can't get excited about singles. But Ichiro Suzuki's record 262 hits eclipsed George Sisler's record that had stood since 1920. That's almost as long as ... oh, never mind.

31. Anna Who? Maria Sharapova whipped Serena Williams on center court at Wimbledon and established, at just 17 years of age, that she is no Anna Kournikova. In tennis, that's a very high compliment.

32. Manning His Post: Peyton Manning passed Dan Marino's record for touchdown throws. But hold off on the greatest-ever accolades until he wins a big game outside the dome. Manning would surely trade all his records, past and future, for Tom Brady's two Super Bowl rings.

33. Roger Redux: Roger Clemens does everything well but retire. On a little hometown hiatus from the American League, he led the Houston Astros into the National League Championship Series and, at 42, copped his seventh Cy Young Award.

34. Lefty Dons Green: With his Masters win, Phil Mickelson dons the green jacket and dumps the rap as greatest player never to win a Grand Slam tourney. Mickelson rode high until an inopportunely timed club switch--for big bucks right before the Ryder Cup--made him one of that competition's most notable goats.

35. Take The Money and Don't Run: Ricky Williams walked away from the NFL in his prime. It seemed like a high-minded concept--and it was, sort of. Ricky just wanted to get stoned. (The NFL frowns on that and, for failing his third drug test, Williams was facing suspension.) He also wanted to keep the Miami Dolphins' $8 million to comfort him in his retirement.

36. Court Time: The Court of Arbitration in Sport has been sitting for more than 20 years now, but we're just beginning to notice. It made key decisions on doping penalties and gold medals--and appeared to get them all right.

37. Second Fiddle: Any other Olympics, without Michael Phelps around, and swimmer Natalie Coughlin, with two golds and five medals, might have been a breakout star. Her highlight was the leadoff leg for America's 4x200 relay team. The U.S. team smashed the sport's oldest world record--a 1987 mark that was the last vestige of a generation of East German women whose achievements were sullied by revelations of state-sponsored doping.

38. The Gable Chase: In 2002 Cael Sanderson one-upped America's most famous wrestler, Dan Gable. The Iowa State grappler became the only collegiate wrestler to go through all four collegiate seasons undefeated. (Gable lost his final match senior year.) Now he's after Gable's Olympic marks too. Sanderson was the sole U.S. wrestler to win gold in Athens.

39. Faded Glories: Boxing barely has a claim on this country's attention any more, but I'm too much of a sentimentalist to let "Million Dollar Baby" have all the acclaim. The fight of the year was Bernard Hopkins' 9th-round knockout of Oscar de la Hoya. Hopkins, at age 39, established himself as perhaps this country's premier fighter and one of the greatest middleweights ever.

40. R.I.P. Ken Caminiti: He was baseball's first star to fess up, admitting to taking steroids during his 1996 MVP season with San Diego. After leaving the sport in 2001, he died during the baseball playoffs this year, at age 41, from a toxic mixture of cocaine and opiates. Before his tragic death, he said his downward spiral began with steroids. Steroids are not just a problem of asterisks. Doping is not a victimless crime.