Once again, it’s time for the envelopes, please

Once upon a time the business of tucking away another year obliged lengthy reviews of the highs and lows, winner and losers, heroes and goats. But that task now is too daunting. There’s just too much of the stuff.

The sports world is bloated and bursting. The challenge of grasping the meaning of it all is invariably lost in the ceaseless din. The ability to digest it becomes hopeless.

This much, though, may we offer; some top choices in a few key categories. Champs and Chumps.

Winner of the year: The New York Yankees. Hard though it may be for “the nation” to swallow, the boys from the Bronx are runaway winners. No team in any game was either more dominant in its play or more stylish in the process. Everything broke their way and they handled it all flawlessly. Give the devils their due, chums.

Loser of the year: Alas, in the end, not even close. It’s Tiger Woods, also in a runaway. His unraveling, on the somewhat specious sporting issue of personal morality, was shocking in its swiftness and completeness. And make no mistake about it. Though he’ll win again -- maybe a lot -- the damage that’s been done is permanent. As an anecdote of self-destruction it is classical; worthy of the Greeks. Shakespeare could not have etched it with more bitter irony.

Event of the Year: Where one chooses to define as the game, series, or pageant that if you had the year to do all over again you would somehow get to? This year’s winner is the entire wonderful fortnight of Wimbledon. It’s hard to believe this gilded and ancient tennis festival can actually improve. But the last two finales have been breathtaking. Roger Federer’s triumph over Andy Roddick in the title match was simply sport at its ultimate finest; as fierce a test of strength and skill and will as you’ll ever see on any field of play.
Athlete of the Year: It’s Usain Bolt, the Jamaican thunderbolt and “world’s fastest human.” Ever! He didn’t just break the two most prestigious short distance running marks, he smashed them. And then he did it again. In this most classical of athletic endeavors, the annals of achievement date back to the beginning of historical documentation and nobody has equaled his feats.

Sportsman of the Year: By which we mean that person who in addition to performing brilliantly did so with special grace and humility. The choice is Hideki Matsui, the Japanese slugger and World Series MVP. If you’ve followed baseball closely these last seven years you have been again and again struck by the matchless manners and impeccable bearing of this man. I’ve never seen a baseball player perform with more high-minded or consistent personal discipline. With a pair of bad knees, he’s considered on borrowed baseball time and no longer meets the needs of the Yankees. But one suspects the Angels will benefit mightily from his presence this coming season.

Game of the Year: There were so many. But the vote here goes to the epic NCAA championship hockey finish won by Boston University over the University of Miami (of Ohio). You should never forget that BU was down by two goals with four minutes left. So they pulled their goalie, scored twice in the waning seconds, then triumphed in overtime. Not even Hollywood would have dared conjure such an ending.
So much for ’09. Hail and Farewell.
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In what bodes heavily on the prospects for 2010 the Red Sox are preening mightily over their off-season moves. The mightiest so far has been the signing of John Lackey, the gritty pitcher, to a humongous contract said to be anywhere from 82 million to 88 million bucks, depending on whom you believe. Sorry, but the more you think about it the more you wonder what Theo and his committee of baseball sages are thinking.

Any team would welcome Lackey. He’s tough and he’s been there. But his skills have diminished some and his stuff is not that much above average. On a strong team that cakewalked to the playoffs he was but 11-8 last season with an ERA near 4.00. More importantly, in his two lengthy sabbaticals on the disabled list the last two years he has missed three months.

His fierce will is impressive but was he the best buy for nearly 100 million large? Was the need for him that crucial? Call this the ravings of a devil’s advocate, if you wish. But do you not wonder? Elsewhere, the red flags are up.
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As for the next sporting year, it will be launched as usual by baseball’s Hall of Fame elections, with the winners to be announced the first Wednesday of 2010. It’s one of those rare years when no overwhelming choice looms, although the late blooming and quite fierce campaign in behalf of snappy second-basemen Roberto Alomar probably makes him a cinch. I dispute this, albeit mildly.

There’s no doubt Alomar belongs in Cooperstown ultimately. He was a lifetime .300 hitter with 2,724 hits, fair power for a middle-infielder, 10 gold gloves, and a fine reputation as a clutch performer. He meets all the criteria. Stray controversies, including the infamous spitting incident for which Ump John Hirschbeck, the object of his wrath, has forgiven him, hardly diminish all that. But does it necessarily mean he must be stampeded into Cooperstown on his first try when the list of deserving chaps waiting for their fair shot stretches much too long? If Joe DiMaggio could wait a couple of elections, then so can Roberto Alomar, says I.

This election should be about the careful considerations of several chaps who’ve been on the cusp for years. It’s a list led by Bert Blyleven and Andre Dawson that also includes Allan Trammell, Tim Raines, Lee Smith, and my personal favorite, Black Jack Morris, the best money pitcher of his times. In my book, the continuing rejection of Morris is a major indictment of the competence of the baseball writers (BBWA) who for better or worse do the voting in this particular canvass.

Blyleven and Raines have faint chances. Morris, while the most deserving, has none at all. Alomar will probably breeze. Other newcomers on the ballot with a remote chance are Barry Larkin and Edgar Martinez, although both need to wait maybe 10 years. Longshots include Fred McGriff and his 493 homers. Then there is the matter of Mark McGwire. His vote will be analyzed endlessly. Of that much, there is no doubt.
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Lastly, while there is no category for “sports movie of the year,” let’s make one ad hoc to accommodate a quite special event. That would be the just released film “Invictus”, produced and directed by Clint Eastwood. It’s all about the early days of Nelson Mandela’s “Rainbow Revolution” and how the brilliant black leader made the nearly all-white and bitterly Afrikaner national rugby team a partner in the miracle that he wrought in his beloved South Africa, against all odds.

The elegant Morgan Freeman is stunning as Mandela, capturing the great “Madiba’s” saintly qualities in a moving performance. Also superb is Matt Damon, the local boy, who plays the Springbok’s rugged captain, Francois Pienaar. Arch product of the old regime, Pienaar gradually succumbs to Mandela’s near mystical charms. It all culminates in the quadrennial World Cup of Rugby Tourney held in South Africa in 1995. As an allegory of the quite spiritual experience that inspired an entire nation, the tale is almost perfect.

Above all it is a movie about sport, and the rugby that is portrayed is grand. But more important is the depiction of the capacity of sports for growth and potential for service to the common good. It’s the rare movie -- the last may have been “Chariots of Fire” -- that captures all of that so well. See “Invictus” over the holidays. Here’s betting it will also bring to a dandy end your sporting year.