Here are the (in reverse order) five “sports superlatives” for 2014.  My pledge to you – to try not to be obligatory (think the “anti-ESPY Award” version of sports superlatives, with one self-indulgent exception).  For the most part, this sports year wasn’t marked by numerous, amazing things we’ve never seen before. So, we’ll have to expand our boundaries and categories a tad in order to include the moments, performances, and trends that best put the year in perspective.

5. Most Influential Trend in Sports – The Advent of the MLB “Power Pitcher” –  From MLB.com’s John Schlegel:

It’s no secret pitching has been on a solid roll these last few years, and the hits just kept not coming in 2014. The haul of heady overall numbers, just from the regular season, represented another historic notch on pitching’s belt. Consider these feats for pitching as a whole in 2014: The fewest runs allowed since 1981, the lowest cumulative ERA since 1989, the most strikeouts in history, the lowest rate of walks since 1968 and the lowest marks allowed in both batting average and on-base percentage since 1972. Throw in five no-hitters, and it really was another banner year for the men on the mound.

2014.04.01-SiddThose old enough may remember the best (IMO) “in print” April Fools joke of all-time – the Sports Illustrated “Sidd Finch” article in 1985. The New York Mets had allegedly found a guy in a remote region of Tibet who could throw a baseball 166 MPH. Not only that, his arm was so resilient that it didn’t need rest – he could pitch every day. The article ran on April 1, 1985 and rocked the baseball world.  The Mets’ catchers had a “special glove” that could catch Finch’s fastball. I remember reading the article (filled with interviews of actual Met players) when I was in college and being THOROUGHLY convinced that the Mets would go 162-0 that season, and that baseball would be ruined forever – it was that convincing. It turned out to be an elaborate April Fools joke that had my naive young soul at hello.

The 2014 season didn’t bring us any Sidd Finches, but it did bring us the most strikeouts in MLB history, and the emergence of the “3-inning power bullpen”.  Several teams (most notably the Royals who made their first World Series since 1985) had bullpens full of pitchers who could throw 96 MPH+.  The thinking is, if the starting pitcher can go six innings, then the power arms in the bullpen can come in innings 7-9 and shut things down. It works. MLB Baseball faced a similar “pitching dominant” scenario in the mid to late 1960s (the “dead ball” era) when pitchers were so dominant that the league decided to lower the mound several inches so that the pitchers’ “plane angle” would be reduced.  It worked, and hitting came alive for the rest of the century.  However, now MLB faces a new “dead ball era” – it’s great for pitchers, but it has put the sport into a TV ratings tailspin because of a corresponding lack of offense across the board.  It will be interesting to see what the sport does to adjust going forward.

 

john-calipari-celebratesjpg-a1a996de01ebd2bb4. Best Coaching Performance – John Calipari – University of Kentucky Basketball

There was no doubt that Kentucky was the most talented team in college basketball coming into last season.  The problem was, all that talent was 18 and 19 years old (freshmen and sophomores). Those of us who appreciate the parity in college basketball are frustrated with  John Calipari, who is able to (literally every year) bring in the highest percentage of elite recruits from around the USA.  It gets old. However, even though this has been true of Calipari since he arrived in Lexington, KY in 2009, he only has one NCAA championship there (2012).  In 2014, Kentucky lost to UConn in the championship game, but the team overcame a lackluster “rebuilding” season to make it all the way to the finals. It was Calipari’s best coaching job ever, even though they finished as runners-up. Calipari isn’t just in a great situation at Kentucky, and he isn’t just a great recruiter.  Most notably, he’s a tremendous coach – and don’t look now, but Kentucky may go undefeated this season.

3. Best Homecoming – Lebron James – Cleveland Cavaliers

This may all be for naught.  As I write, the Cavs are languishing in mediocrity in the NBA Eastern conference so far this season.  Their “dream team” compilation of Lebron, Kevin Love, and Kyrie Irving have not jelled. At the moment, it looks like Lebron is going to miss several games with a (lingering) bad knee.  Still, the way this went down was, well, redemptive. A few years back, Lebron took glory and entitlement to new “heights” (yikes) with his “decision” to take his talents to South Beach. He had left Cleveland, his hometown team, for the scenario most likely to garner him a “ring”. It worked, but not without a severe tarnish to his image. Lebron faced a decision this year.  He could stay in Miami (where there was no longer a “dream team” in place) or he could go to another major market dream team scenario – there were rumblings in Dallas, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles for his services. Lebron chose to go home though, to a city that is more starved for a title than any major US sports market.

Hats off to Lebron for going home. It doesn’t look like it’s going to pay off this season (though things can change) but here’s hoping that this story has a happy ending. The city of Cleveland, perhaps more than any metropolis in the country, deserves it.

2. Best Catch – Odell Beckham Jr. – New York Giants

It’s real, and it’s spectacular. In an age where trick camera work brings us quarterbacks throwing footballs out of stadiums and basketball players making shots from miles away, we long for seeing something that isn’t doctored or fabricated. This is certainly the best catch I’ve seen since this one. The body contortion necessary for Beckham’s catch is otherworldly. I’ve seen more improbable catches, but I would struggle to say that I’ve seen one more athletic. This guy has the potential for heretofore unforeseen things, which is encouraging in an era in which we think we’ve seen it all. Per below, there are those who clearly don’t think that this is the best catch of all-time. I can’t disagree, but it’s certainly the best catch in 2014.

 1. Best Pitching Performance/Worst Late Night with Jimmy Fallon Performance – Madison Bumgarner – San Francisco Giants

This is where you’ll have to bear with me. This is 2014’s likely “ESPY winner” – the obvious choice. Madison Bumgarner turned in the best postseason performance by a pitcher in MLB history. It’s not debatable, the stats flat back it up. From the “play in” game in Pittsburgh, to the final out in Kansas City, “MadBum” got it done, no matter how hostile the environment. As a lifelong and (until recent years) very long-suffering San Francisco Giants fan, I found it mesmerizing and wonderful. Bumgarner led my Giants to their third World Series championship in five years. I’m officially spoiled forever, and can die in peace. It sounds strange, but I’m kind of not kidding – passionate sports fans who have suffered in exile may be able to understand.

That said, it all (almost) came undone in this agonizingly unflattering segment in early November on The Tonight Show. Jimmy Fallon is normally very well-versed with what to discuss with his guests, but he seems to have no clue what to say to Bumgarner, who just absolutely killed it in the World Series. For heaven’s sake, there should be plenty to talk about! What we get though, is a less than interested Fallon, a not very “engaging” or helpful Bumgarner, lame bull-fighting references, underwear, and my worst sports moment for 2014.

Honorable Mention:

Best Exit – Derek Jeter, New York Yankees

Best Bio Caption – Trey Hondras – Jackie Robinson West League, Little League World Series

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