Looking Back on 2011 and Its Missteps in Chicago’s Sports Teams

Happy New Year? For sure. Has to be. And it’s not as if 2012, from a sports persepctive, has a tough act to follow. The best thing about 2011 is that it’s over.

’s departure for Miami is one reason to be grumpy. Buehrle, the cheerful, ultraprofessional left-hander, was one of my favorite Chicago athletes. He was almost a perfect fit with the White Sox too, but his departure reminds us that nothing is forever in sports.

What is sad is that Buehrle’s last Chicago season will be remembered as a dispiriting failure by a team that was built to win, but was instead sidetracked by petty squabbling between manager Ozzie Guillen and the front office. General manager Kenny Williams survived, and it looks as if the team he assembled will get another chance.

We will know soon enough if the former skipper was the problem. Buehrle obviously did not think so.

It would be foolish and wrong to lay all the blame for the Cubs’ 2011 failings on the deposed manager, Mike Quade, but general manager Jim Hendry’s belief that Quade, an earnest, well-meaning baseball lifer, was a good fit for the job probably doomed Hendry with the Ricketts family, the owners.

Only those who wanted Ryne Sandberg to manage the Cubs objected to Quade’s hiring. I had misgivings the first time I heard him mention Cassie and realized Quade was referring to shortstop Starlin Castro and not the second Mrs. Joe Montana.

Big league managers don’t talk like that.

Hendry is a good man, and his nine-year tenure as general manager had its moments. But in going big-time to replace him — Theo Epstein? the Cubs? — Tom Ricketts made an undeniably shrewd move. He restored hope. It’s the currency of the sports culture in Chicago.

And it disappeared at Soldier Field about three series into Caleb Hanie’s second start as Jay Cutler’s replacement as the Bears quarterback.  

With Cutler, the Bears had the sharp look of a playoff team. Without him — and without Matt Forte, Johnny Knox and a couple of starting offensive linemen — they’re almost unwatchable.

Now the blame game is under way in earnest: Jerry Angelo, Mike Martz and Lovie Smith must pay for this failing, preferably in that order. In the court of talk-radio opinion, a wholesale housecleaning is mandatory, one year after the Bears played for the N.F.C. championship.  

Upon further review, they probably weren’t as good as they looked last season, when remarkably good health and some lucky scheduling breaks eased their way, or as bad as they’ve looked in the last month, as Cutler’s absence underscored his stature as a franchise quarterback.

Hanie? Uh, no. The reaction is rather personal among those of us who believed he had enough talent and moxie to salvage a playoff appearance; sports scribes don’t like to admit it when they’re wrong. But it happens.

At the 1986 Final Four in Dallas- — Louisville over Duke in the title game — I remember feeling bad for as the jubilant Cardinals cut down the nets.

I had quietly been pulling for Krzyzewski as a fellow Chicago guy, and he had groomed this Johnny Dawkins-Mark Alarie-Jay Bilas group for big things since they were freshmen.

Now the three would be moving on, and I wondered if Krzyzewski had missed his one shot at glory, given Duke’s lofty academic standards and the relentlessly competitive Atlantic Coast Conference. Four national championships, 11 Final Fours and an Olympic gold medal later, Coach K is the undisputed king of college basketball, at least. In November, as he was about to surpass Bob Knight’s record for career victories, ESPN’s fawning coverage would have you believe he cured cancer at halftime of the 2010 Carolina game and brokered Middle East peace during a TV timeout.

He is coaching basketball. There are high school guys who do that and also teach history, sweep out the gym and wash uniforms. And they don’t make $4 million a year.

Myth-making in sports is as old as the games themselves, but the practice seemed to reach new heights (or depths) in 2011, with alarming consequences. It is fair to ask if some of what Jerry Sandusky is supposed to have done could have been prevented if preserving the Legend of Joe Pa hadn’t been such an unquestioned imperative at Penn State.

Derrick Rose is 62 years younger than Joe Paterno, but his canonization process has begun. Rose, the ’ fourth-year point guard is a great basketball player and a great story, a product of Chicago’s downtrodden Englewood neighborhood, imbued with the will and the drive to escape the mean streets that have claimed too many other promising young men.

He is also a decent, grounded guy whose humility and gratitude came through at a recent news conference announcing a five-year, $94 million contract extension that should provide nicely for generations of Roses.

But that’s not enough. We want Rose to transform Englewood, eradicate poverty, unemployment and gangs, turn it into a model community of Derrick Rose-caliber citizens.

That’s a lot to ask of a 23-year-old who spent one year in college.

Rose is a kid, a kid who happens to be an amazing basketball player, to the delight of his hometown. A good kid, too. Let’s say that’s enough for 2012. He’ll get the rest of it.


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