By Drew Stevens (@lookwhatdrewdid)
For those with ties to the Los Angeles Lakers or Dodgers, or the Seattle Storm, Kansas City Chiefs or Tampa Bay Lightning, congratulations, then and now as you continue to enjoy your reigns as champions.
In the throes of a year that extorted enough cries of uncle from the masses to startle Scut Farkus, yours were at least briefly replaced with tears of championship joy.
Meanwhile, for Chicago sports fans whose nearest recollection of gridiron and hardwood conquests mostly belong to the bygone days of video rental stores — though ESPN was a constant source of past-time dopamine this year as well for Bulls fans — there was no such intermission.
Our most recent titlist earned its third national league central division crown of the decade in September and was swept out of the playoffs a week later. What lies in the years ahead appears to be more of a rebuild than the retool Cubs president Jed Hoyer promised. That’s what the pinching off of last season’s national league Cy Young runner-up Yu Darvish Tuesday suggests anyhow; never mind the earlier off-season ditching of World Series curse-crushing cogs Jon Lester, Albert Almora Jr. and Kyle Schwarber. Len Kasper’s skip across town might as well be symbolic of the forthcoming transfer in power from one side of the city to the other.
That side, in addition to being the new home of the former Cubs television long-time play-by-play man, also hosts our most capable and colorful contender.
With the bats to trigger more runs than a dairy bender, a reinforced starting pitching rotation and an aged but (still?) adept manager in Tony La Russa, the White Sox are practically swimming in championship expectations. So much so that any result short of a pennant next year could reasonably be considered a failure.
Quite the turnaround for a club fresh off its first playoff appearance in 12 years and the exorcism of eight consecutive winless seasons. All that’s left is to cleanse the clubhouse of any bad juju awaiting Adam Eaton’s return — and to complete the process his dealing away set in motion four years ago.
As close as the Sox are to being the honoree of the next ticker tape parade is seemingly as far away as the Bulls, Bears and Blackhawks are from warranting such distinction.
Season-ending injuries to prospective centerpiece Kirby Dach and Alex Nylander in addition to the indefinite absence of captain Jonathan Toews have further soured what was an already bitter outlook for the Hawks’ immediate future. A condensed 56-game schedule that leaves less than a pucks-width margin for error is the salt in the wounds.
It could have been argued that injuries were as much to blame for the Bulls’ mediocrity as any one of Jim Boylen’s sideline shortcomings. There was more than enough liability to pass around as explanation for them being denied entry into the Orlando bubble experience. But five games into a season with Boylen’s successor and fully operational Otto Porter Jr., Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. and it would seem this team’s vulnerabilities have more to do with ill-fitting pieces, underachievement and a thready pulse. Billy Donovan can teach players the art of ball and player movement. He can even instruct them in alternative strategies for defending pick-and-rolls. But Donovan can’t perform heart transplants.
That the Bulls won two games in a row against Washington this past week, despite being shorthanded both games, proves the fight is there.
While the Bears have yet to feature an elite quarterback in anything but grayscale, their grit has been on display for all to see live and in living color. That it’s unveiling took the coercion of a six-game losing streak is unfortunate. That they were taken behind the woodshed in two of those losses while a national audience looked on was untimely. That a playoff berth is now dependent upon either beating the juggernaut in repulsive bay green and cheese gold or the Los Angeles Rams besting the Arizona Cardinals without their starting quarterback and leading receiver is unsettling.
In a rollercoaster ride of a season — in which a lack of success forced the Bears’ supposed offensive mastermind to cede play calling duties and its second-rate quarterback was under center for five of its eight wins — that feeling seems fitting.
What wasn’t just was how injury and personal turmoil beset a promising season and contributed to the Sky’s hasty playoff exit. Even with all of Courtney Vandersloot’s wizardry, replacing the production of former leading scorer Diamond DeShields and a surging Azura Stevens proved too tall of an order.
Stevens, who shot 50% from the field last season while averaging career highs in points (11.5) and rebounds (5.9), is hopeful her left knee surgery won’t cause her to miss training camp. DeShields, who struggled through injuries to her knee and thigh before leaving the WNBA bubble, is reportedly back in the gym according to head coach James Wade.
The Sky won 10 of their first 15 games but only two of their final seven after once DeShields and Stevens departed. A wholly intact team will look to fulfill its potential and resume its challenge for top seeding next season.
That’ll also be the objective for a Red Stars squad that wasn’t able to return to the National Women’s Soccer League championship game this season because of the coronavirus. For NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird to even be able to orchestrate competition at all is lemons-to-lemonade legendary. According to Red Stars midfielder Danielle Colaprico, to have had a season at all likely saved the league that experienced record-setting viewership and dusted the professional sports field in social media engagement during games held during the pandemic.
The Challenge Cup final between the Red Stars and Houston Dash — which Houston won 2-0 — averaged 653,000 viewers. By comparison, the prior year’s final averaged 166,000 viewers. So successful was it that another Challenge Cup will be held in multiple bubble environments in April to open next season.
Kickoff of the next Major League Soccer season will be Georg Heitz’s second as the Fire’s sporting director. That’s also the amount of times the club would have qualified for the playoffs in the past nine seasons should they end a four-year drought in 2021.
If his club is to rebound from a season that saw 12 of its 23 matches end in either a draw or a one-score loss as Heitz promised, it’ll be on the strength of both his commitment to improve and remodel his roster. The youthful revival he’s helped engineer has resulted in 16 of the Fire’s 30 players being 23-years-of-age or younger. In that regard, Heitz has already begun to live up to his word. It’s up to his club to help carry him the rest of the way.
In much the same manner, potential breakthroughs from the Sox in 2021 — and to a far less likely degree, the Bears — would pleasantly usher us into our next twelve-month escapade. Smack dab between a forgettable year and one we desperately yearn to be different, their contention can be our merciful consolation.
In these stingy times, that’s all we could ask for.
Drew Stevens is a writer based in Chicago
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