Dennis Wierzbicki-US PRESSWIRE
The year in Chicago sports was pretty rough.
This is what we do for fun. Disregard the sentiment for being so vapid, for the well-yeah-duh of it all, but it's a refrain I found myself thinking about too often while watching Chicago sports in 2012. This was the year you might have rethought the ways to best spend your leisure time. This was not a fun or easy year to be a Chicago sports fan. You already know that.
Really, so few of them are. It's kind of the way these things work. There are four professional sports leagues with ~30 teams, teams hosted by big cities and small ones, and only one of them can win a title in the end. It's something everyone knows going in; yet is something that's so easy to lose sight of when everything starts to fall apart. It's true: if you're living and dying by championships, you'll mostly just die. That goes for everyone -- even the Yankees, the goddamn Yankees, have failed to win the World Series 80 times. If it was easy, it wouldn't mean so much when you finally break through. But spectator sports can still cause real physical and emotional pain, and 2012 gave Chicago sports fans an unhealthy heaping of all they could handle. This was the most gut-wrentching, heart-breaking calendar year in local sports I can possibly remember. Let's look back at all the suck with these 10 things.
10. NHL Lockout
Labor disputes in professional sports are becoming par for the course, an inconvenient happening that seem destined to kill our vibe a couple times each decade no matter the league you're most invested in. That this NHL lockout followed similar ones in the NFL and NBA made it all seem more like a formality: players and owners would quarrel until it eventually became big market owners vs. small market owners, just like all the rest, and then a compromise would be reached once the less rich players decided they could no longer afford to continue missing paychecks. But while the NFL was able to get its shit together before missing nary a day of training camp and the NBA simply whittled down its already too long schedule by a cool 20 games, it's looking more and more like the NHL lockout won't reach a resolve anytime soon.
Games are already canceled through Jan. 15 and time is most definitely running out. Time's running out on a year of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane's professional prime, running out on the Blackhawks' chance to keep pushing all of this positive momentum and these newfound bandwagon fans forward.
9. Downfall of Brian Urlacher
Brian Urlacher still looks the same, at least in photographs. I think that's what gets me. There was a time when Urlacher was the baddest player in the baddest league on the planet -- the biggest, faster, most evolved defender in professional football. That's how Urlacher entered the NFL and that's what he largely remained until 2012. This was the year Brian Urlacher stopped being invincible.
The downfall of Urlacher begins on the first day of the year -- January 1, Week 17 of last season in Minnesota against the Vikings. Urlacher suffered a knee injury in that meaningless game, and he really hasn't been healthy since. Between pillages to Germany, lying to the media and missed practices, there has been some football and it was played moderately well. Urlacher held his own appearing in every game until that devastating Week 13 loss to Seahawks. The Bears didn't just yield 177 yards to rookie quarterback Russell Wilson on the final two drives of the game to put a stake in the heart of their playoff chances, they also lost No. 54, maybe forever.
The lesson: Father Time remains undefeated and always will be.
8. Joe Ricketts' Anti-Obama SuperPAC
You would think 101 losses would be sufficient. It should have been enough embarassment. But if there's one lesson the Chicago Cubs have instilled more often than any American professional sports franchise since just about the beginning of time, it's that rock bottom is never quite as stable as one might suspect. The Cubs have made an annual tradition out of pushing the depths of their lows, and 2012 saw a fun, off-the-field wildcard thrown into the mix: a May report that the team's patriarch, J. Joe Ricketts, was set to bankroll a $10 million anti-Barack Obama smear campaign. Too bad he couldn't put the money towards fixing a lifeless lineup.
The New York Times broke the story of the operation, that the campaign would focus on the long-ago-buried comments of the president's former spiritual adviser Rev. Jeremiah Wright and that Ricketts was one pushing for it. After substantial backlash that may have killed the Cubs' hopes of working with the city to get publicly funded renovations to Wrigley Field, Ricketts denounced the plan of action. Too bad. Obama would earn re-election in the fall and Cubs would have their 102nd loss.
7. Hossa hit
The image of Marian Hossa lying lifeless on the United Center ice might be the most enduring Chicago sports moment of 2012 if only because there was a brief period of total uncertainty. Was Marian Hossa dead? OK, he's probably not dead. But would he never walk again? Would he ever play hockey again? Would he still continue to be a functional adult human?
I'm telling you, when Raffi Torress delivered the hit that would earn him a 25-game suspension, all of this was on the table. That Hossa appears on his way to be making a full recovery might among the year's best news. Because, you know, for a second there, we really weren't too sure.
6. Cutler concussions
2012 is the year football started to become hard to watch. Junior Seau killed himself in May probably in part because of head trauma sustained from years of playing the most physically brutal sport around, and the ensuing season only helped reinforce how dangerous and ugly the game can be. You only get one brain, and if you play football, that brain is very much in jeopardy. Never was this more apparent locally than when Bears quarterback Jay Cutler took one big hit after another and eventually walked away with at least the sixth concussion of his life.
The second hit here is the one that gave Cutler a concussion; the first is just one of many examples of the licks Cutler sustained this season. Cutler has been sacked 36 times, fifth most in the NFL and a number that doesn't even attempt to include all of the other shots he took. Cutler is tough as hell and certainly leads a good life as a mega-millionaire pro quarterback, it's hard not to wonder what he'll be like when his playing days are over. It's possible he'll be luckier than some of the others -- Tom Waddle still speaks just fine, you know -- it's just a little sad, that's all.
5. Cubs :-(
Things have to get worse before they can get better, or at least that's what Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer told Cubs fans during their first year installed as the team's highly compensated brain trust. Things did get worse: after losing 91 games in 2011, the Cubs upped their own ineptitude by another 10 games in 2012. There were other losses, too, missing out on Yoenis Cespedes and Anibal Sanchez in free agency and Randall Delgado when Ryan Dempster decided to block a trade to the Braves. That the majority of the season was spent monitoring the progress of slugger Anthony Rizzo in the minors is maybe the saddest sign of all: aside from Darwin Barney's defensive wizardry, Cubs fans couldn't find a single place to take solace at the major league level.
There's reason for optimism, of course. Epstein has proven himself to be very good in the past and Cubs did win the race for Cuban slugger Jorge Soler. Rizzo looked terrific once he got to the big leagues and people are saying very nice things about first round pick Albert Almaro and top prospect Javier Baez, as well. Maybe 'next year' finally comes for Cubs fans in 2015 or 2016 or 2017. Until then, 2012 will be remembered like everything else Cubs: for nonstop losses.
4. White Sox collapse
From May 29 to September 25, the White Sox sat atop the AL Central for all but seven days. You know how the story ends.
Things were really looking good, we can't forget about that. Paul Konerko flirted with a .400 average into June, Chris Sale established himself as a Cy Young candidate, Adam Dunn, Jake Peavy and Alex Rios each enjoyed massive turnaround years that no one saw coming. A midseason trade to acquire Kevin Youkilis gave the fanbase a much needed reason to get a little excited. But in the end, a September swoon and season-long struggles against a 90-loss Kansas City Royals team cost the White Sox a playoff spot and a division crown. As with anything good that abruptly comes to an end, it's almost impossible to focus on anything other than the end result and the misery it caused.
3. Bulls are cheap
The Chicago Bulls make lots of money. They are also one of six teams in NBA history to never pay the luxury tax. In 2012, the thriftiness of Bulls' front office took center stage during an offseason that saw the team dismantle its talented bench for less expensive and less accomplished replacements.
Omer Asik is the loss that really stings, though the poison pill contract engineered by by Houston Rockets' GM Daryl Morey was unquestionably a tough one to swallow for a player only on the court 15 minutes per game. Kyle Korver would be dealt for a trade exception the franchise likely has no plans of ever using, Ronnie Brewer and C.J. Watson were also discarded even though the Bulls held affordable one-year team options on each. That the one player the franchise actually spent on turned out to be noted brick layer Kirk Hinrich only makes matters worse. The Bulls are still a very good team, but they should be a lot better. It's hard to win with bad ownership.
2. Bears fall from grace
Bears 28, Patriots 17. That's the first thing you saw driving down to Bears training camp in lovely Bourbonais, Illinois this year, the predicted Super Bowl score of a local elementary school. Sorry kids: on the precipice of a must-win regular season finale in Detroit that will still require help just for the Bears to make the playoffs, it doesn't look like it's happening this year. Our local juggernaut faded fast and well hard as soon as the competition got tough, injuries started to pile up and the defense couldn't keep up its one-or-two-touchdowns-per-game pace.
Unlike the late season nose dive of 2011, there was nothing easy to blame. The Bears simply couldn't keep up with the NFL's best teams after fattening their record on weaker competition early in the season. Losing to Seattle, San Francisco, Houston and Green Bay shouldn't be so shameful, but there was a time when everyone assumed the Bears were part of that elite tier. There was a time when they were 7-1 and those preseason Super Bowl dreams didn't seem so far-fetched. Much like everything else that happened in Chicago sports in 2012, the drop-off came without warning, only making the fall even more heartfelt.
1. D. Rose injury
I don't have much to add since the column I wrote still very bummed and very hungover the day after Rose tore his ACL. This is still the worst thing to happen in local sports in my lifetime. Come back soon, Derrick. Healthy, too.