Baseball's top 10 stories of 2009
Alex Rodrigez, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz were all revealed as steroid users
Zack Greinke and Joe Mauer had historic seasons in the AL
The New York Yankees won the World Series and made headlines all year long
Baseball rarely disappoints. Every season brings its share of milestones, rare feats, dominating performances, and thrilling finishes and this year was no different. Gary Sheffield hit his 500th home run, Randy Johnson earned his 300th win and Mariano Rivera recorded his 500th save. Jonathan Sanchez pitched a no-hitter and was one error away from having a perfect game. Eight players hit for the cycle (the most in a single season since 1933). And Eric Bruntlett turned just the second game-ending unassisted triple play in major league history, which appropriately came against the Mets, thereby condensing their disastrous season into a single, historic play. Yet none of them were as noteworthy as the stories below. Here, in chronological order, are the ten biggest baseball stories of 2009.
Alex Rodriguez busted for steroids (Feb. 7)
Spring training hadn't even begun when Sports Illustrated's Selena Roberts reported in early February that Alex Rodriguez was one of 104 players to test positive for performance enhancing drugs during MLB's supposedly anonymous testing in 2003. The news and Rodriguez's subsequent confession sent shockwaves through the game, but it was only the first stunning steroids revelation of the year. On May 7, Manny Ramirez was suspended 50 games for a PED violation of his own after testing positive for a female fertility drug, becoming by far the most high-profile active player to be suspended under baseball's testing system. The next month, it was reported that the retired Sammy Sosa had also tested positive in 2003. In late July, Ramirez and ex-Red Sox teammate David Ortiz were reported to be among the other names on the 2003 list. The news that four of the biggest stars of the last 15 years, three of them sure-fire first-ballot Hall of Famers, had been doping was shocking but sadly familiar. That MLB actually suspended one of them, potentially altering a pennant race by robbing the defending NL West champions of their best hitter for nearly a third of the season, was oddly encouraging.
World Baseball Classic (March 5-23)
The inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006 felt like the experiment that it was, but three years later the second version delivered an improved elimination format, shocking upsets (the punchless Netherlands eliminating a Dominican Republic team that was favored to reach the final four) and an energized American team (something crucial to the event's long-term success). It also brought a burgeoning sense of history, tradition, and rivalry, and ended with a heart-stopping final between WBC studs Korea and Japan at Dodger Stadium, a game ultimately decided by a tenth-inning double by Ichiro Suzuki that clinched the title for repeat champions Japan.
Nick Adenhart's death (April 9)
The excitement of the young season was quickly quelled when 22-year-old Angels right-hander Nick Adenhart was killed when the car he was riding in was struck by a drunk driver the night after his first start of the season. The impact of his death on his friends and family is surely immeasurable, but it will resonate on the field as well. Adenhart had thrown six shutout innings the night before his death and was listed among the Angels top prospects. Looking toward 2010, the Angels, without John Lackey and following another frustrating season from Ervin Santana, will miss Adenhart as much on the field in the coming season as they missed him off it in 2009. As the balance of power starts to shift in the AL West, we're all left to wonder what might have been had another life not been needlessly ended by someone else's tragic decision to drive drunk.
New stadiums in New York (April 13 and 16)
Yankee Stadium and Citi Field opened in the same city with their debuts coming in the same week, but aside from their high cost -- a combined $2.4 billion to build -- and the controversies that accompanied their building, they were quite different. One was a record-setting launching pad, the other appeared to eat up home runs like Mo Vaughn at a complimentary buffet (though in reality it was the team, not the ballpark, that made the home runs vanish). One was a compromised, Las Vegas version of its predecessor that haphazardly tried to combine its predecessor's most distinct incarnations, the other honored the history of a rival team that plays its home games 3,000 miles away. One hosted the eventual world champions, the other hosted a team collapsing in upon itself in ludicrous, almost comical ways. Together they changed how baseball looks and feels in the Big Apple and is likely to ensure that the game's richest teams have another revenue stream from which to sustain their lavish styles. Who ever thought the day would come when the Mets had the best ballpark in New York?
Zack Greinke's amazing start (April and May)
Zack Greinke's path to becoming the best pitcher in the American League took some unusual turns. The No. 6 pick in the 2002 draft endured a league-leading 17 losses in 2005, and during spring training in 2006 he left the team with what was later diagnosed as social anxiety disorder. Greinke returned late that season, and after spending 2007 largely in relief and posting an impressive 2008, he exploded at the start of 2009 with an historically good beginning to his season. He opened the year with 24 scoreless innings, allowed an earned run in just one of his first six starts, and boasted this line after his first ten starts: 0.84 ERA (the lowest in the majors after 10 starts since 1966), 0.88 WHIP, 6.75 K/BB, 9.72 K/9, 0 HR, 7.5 IP/GS, 5 CG, 2 SHO. Though he cooled off from there, he later posted a 0.72 ERA across seven consecutive starts in August and September and cruised to his first Cy Young award.
Mark Buehrle's perfect game (July 23)
There have been just 18 perfect games thrown in the history of baseball, but of the 18 men to throw one, only Buehrle went out and retired the first 17 men he faced in his next start. Throw in the last batter he faced in his start prior to his July 23 perfecto, and Buehrle set a major league record by retiring 45 straight batters, easily outdistancing David Wells' record of 38 (which had been tied by Buehrle's White Sox teammate Bobby Jenks across 13 relief outings in 2007). Buehrle's perfect game was the first to occur in a game featuring first-time battery mates (catcher Ramon Castro was acquired from the Mets at the end of May) and was saved by a spectacular catch by defensive replacement Dewayne Wise, who robbed the Rays' Gabe Kapler of a home run with one out in the ninth.
Halladay/Lee trade saga (July and Dec.)
By pure word count, the possibility of Blue Jays ace Roy Halladay being traded at the non-waiver July 31 deadline may have been the biggest story of the year, but when Toronto general manager J.P. Ricciardi refused to bring down his asking rice for his ace, he found no takers. The defending NL champion Phillies were Halladay's most ardent pursuers, but they opted instead to spend four prospects on Indians ace Cliff Lee, who led them back to the World Series. Ricciardi was fired at the end of the season, and with a more reasonable trading partner in Toronto in new GM Alex Anthopoulos, the Phillies resumed their pursuit of Halladay. The result was a blockbuster trade on December 14 that sent Lee to the Mariners for three prospects and Halladay to Philadelphia for three other prospects, one of whom was then flipped to the A's for hitting prospect Brett Wallace. The moves changed the face of three teams, including a two-time defending pennant winner, and could well have done the same for a fourth.
Twins win, cap Mauer's great year (Oct. 6)
Unlike Greinke, Joe Mauer was already an established star entering the 2009 season. In 2006 he became the first AL catcher and just the third backstop in major league history to win a batting title, and in 2008 he repeated the feat. But in April 2009, the Twins were just hoping to get him healthy following minor kidney surgery in January and inflammation of the sacroiliac joint in his back. Mauer returned on May 1 and went 6-for-10 with a home run and two doubles in his first two games after returning from the DL. He went on to lead the majors in hitting (.365) and on-base percentage (.444) and the American League in slugging percentage (.587), becoming the first AL player to lead the league in all three categories since George Brett in 1980. That performance helped fuel a historic comeback by the Twins, who were seven games behind the first-place Tigers in the AL Central on September 6 but they won 16 of their last 20 games to force a one-game playoff to decide the division champion.. Mauer went 2-for-4 with a double and a pair of walks in a thrilling game that the Twins won 6-5 in 12 innings. It capped the season's only real pennant race drama and made Minnesota the first team to win a division after trailing by three games with four games left.
Umpiring gaffes mar playoffs (October)
The cries for expanded instant replay been ringing in umpires ears for weeks when Alex Rodriguez hit a line drive off a camera stationed over the right field wall in Citizens Bank Park in Game 4 of the World Series on October 31. In the tightly contested second game of the ALDS between the Yankees and Twins, left field ump Phil Cuzzi called a would-be double by Mauer foul despite it being clearly fair (his crew chief admitted to the blown the call after the game). In the Red Sox-Angels ALDS, C.B. Bucknor missed two calls at first base in the same game. In the fourth game of the ALCS, the umpires blew three calls on the bases. Two of those cancelled out, but the third was perhaps the most egregious, as veteran Tim McClelland called New York's Robinson Cano safe despite his being tagged while standing two feet off third base. As for Rodriguez's drive, it was ruled a double on the field, but with replay available for home run calls, the umpires quickly overturned that ruling and got the call right, causing many to wonder why they had to endure those earlier mistakes and hoping that the game might one day allow for expanded use of replay.
Yankees win the World Series (Nov. 4)
There's little doubt that the Yankees were the baseball story of the year. It began in December 2008 when they went on a nearly half-billion dollar spending spree ($423.5 million for Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia, and A.J. Burnett), and continued in spring training with Alex Rodriguez's steroid revelations and subsequent hip surgery. The start of the season brought their new billion-dollar ballpark, a series of cream-pie-covered walk-off wins (a major league leading 15 in the regular season and two more in the playoffs), and a torrid second half (52-22, .703 winning percentage) that got them back to the playoffs after a one-year absence. Once there, the Yankees had little difficulty dispatching the Twins and Angels to reach the World Series, where they won their 27th world title and first in nine years by beating the defending champion Phillies in six games. They continued making headlines during the Hot Stove, trading for established stars like Curtis Granderson and Javier Vazquez, meaning that next year they may be even bigger, badder and bolder than ever before.
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