Continuing last week’s countdown of the 10 sporting events this year I enjoyed the most.
5) Secretariat (October 10) — A cinema may not be your typical venue for a sporting event, but for this Sunday matinee, it sure felt like one. The story of Secretariat’s gallop to the 1973 Triple Crown is the best sports movie since Miracle (Disney has mastered this formula). Diane Lane (as the thoroughbred’s owner, Penny Chenery), John Malkovich (as trainer Lucien Laurin), and Nelsan Ellis (as groom Eddie Sweat) are perfectly cast, and there are at least three stand-up-and-cheer moments, including actual footage from the ’73 Preakness. If you didn’t get goose bumps when Secretariat — in the gate — turned to stare down Sham, you must have been refilling your popcorn.
4) Redbirds 8, Bees 7 (August 19) — Over the first eight innings of this roller-coaster ride, the teams combined for six runs. Then they scored a total of nine in the final frame. The Redbirds had what looked like a comfortable 5-1 lead with three outs to go, and brought in closer Fernando Salas to finish the job. (Salas was 18 for 18 in save opportunities, though with a four-run lead, this didn’t qualify.) The Bees attacked the PCL All-Star, though, and scored six runs to take a 7-5 lead. But then in the bottom of the ninth, Joe Mather — having struck out a franchise-record six times in a game earlier in the week — drilled a two-run homer to tie things up. Mather was immediately followed by Mark Hamilton, who snuck an opposite-field homer inside the leftfield foul pole, his second bomb of the game, and a walk-off memory-maker for a sparse Thursday-night crowd.
3) Braves 4, Marlins 1 (July 3) — I have some happy memories from Atlanta. My little sister was born 10 days before Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record. (Hard to steal a Home Run King’s thunder, but Liz managed.) Then in 1982, I was in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium when the St. Louis Cardinals won their first National League pennant in my lifetime. (Never has a silent stadium sounded better.) But last July I made my first trip to Turner Field with some old friends from middle Tennessee, one of them a longtime Braves fan. Saw an 11-inning win by the home team on a Friday night, then enjoyed baseball under sunshine the day before flags and fireworks took over. Atlanta scored all four of its runs in the fourth inning, plenty for starting pitcher Tommy Hanson. Bill Wagner — a borderline Hall of Famer — got the save in his final season, and Cody Ross scored the only run for Florida. Ross would become famous three months later in helping lead the San Francisco Giants to the world championship (he was MVP of the NLCS).
2) Tigers 73, St. John’s 71 (March 17) — Had things gone a little differently 25 years earlier at the Final Four in Lexington, these two teams would have played for a national championship. But on this night — with the smallest crowd of the season at FedExForum, many of them in green instead of blue — the Tigers and Red Storm battled for a second-round berth in the NIT. And it was some kind of battle. Memphis took a nine-point lead at halftime, thanks to 10 three-pointers. But they needed a trey from Wesley Witherspoon — the only one they’d make in the second half — to regain the lead with less than a minute to play. Witherspoon also made two free throws in that final minute, but it was the last play of the game that 10,200 fans will be talking about years from now. With the game tied at 71, Witherspoon took a pass from Elliot Williams and drove through the lane, throwing up a desperation shot off the glass as time expired. Only after the buzzer sounded did the ball gently fall through the net, setting off the kind of pandemonium that would make a roomful of leprechauns proud.
1) Andy Roddick vs. James Blake (February 17) — These are the two best American tennis players since Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi were in their prime in the late Nineties. As recently as 2006, Blake was number four in the world. Roddick was the last player not named Federer or Nadal to end a year atop the world rankings (in 2003, the same year he won the U.S. Open). It was a showdown that managed to live up to hype, and in front of a standing-room-only crowd in excess of 5,200 at the Racquet Club of Memphis stadium court. Dressed in black from his cap to his sneakers, Roddick broke Blake in the fourth game of the first set on his way to a 6-3 win. In the second, Blake answered a Roddick break with two of his own for a 6-4 win. Then, down 5-4 in the third set, Blake managed to break the world’s seventh-ranked player and extend the match to a third-set tiebreaker. Roddick won a pair of points on Blake’s serve in the tiebreaker to win, 7-3. Unfortunately, the match took place in the first round of the Regions Morgan Keegan Championships (a reflection of Blake’s ranking having recently tumbled into the fifties). Roddick went on to lose in the quarterfinals.