Commentary

Great (unrealized) expectations

Cutler's bookend injuries summed up the year in Chicago sports

Updated: December 27, 2011, 11:32 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

Cutler & Rose & Epstein Getty ImagesJay Cutler's injuries dashed Bears fans' hopes, Derrick Rose's explosiveness raised expectations and Theo Epstein's brains have Cubs fans excited.

CHICAGO -- It began with a knee and ended with a thumb.

Jay Cutler's bookend injuries -- the knee injury in last season's NFC Championship Game and the thumb injury in the 10th game of this season -- represented Chicago's year in sports and all the unrealized expectations that came with it.

What are athletes but a collection of body parts? Receivers have good hands, hitters have good eyes, hockey players have strong legs, basketball players have it all.

You could build a perfect human or a virtual Frankenstein with the body parts that dominated Chicago sports this year.

Derrick Rose's heart, Tom Thibodeau's lungs, Luol Deng's legs, Matt Forte's hips, Jonathan Toews' hands, Theo Epstein's face, Sam Hurd's brain, Ozzie Guillen's mouth, Adam Dunn's everything, Jake Peavy's shoulder, Carlos Zambrano's head, Caleb Hanie's arm, Gabe Carimi's knee, any Blackhawks' hockey haircut, Cutler's glower, Roy Williams' hands, Ozzie Guillen's mouth.

But it was Cutler's knee and thumb we'll always remember.

'Greatest' and 'Saddest'

I was writing a game column in the bowels of the Pacers' arena in late April only to have my phone pierce the deadline silence.

It was ESPN Chicago's own Mike Wilbon and he needed someone to talk to about the Blackhawks. I'm guessing Tony Kornheiser didn't care.

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Jeff Vinnick/NHLI/Getty ImagesThe Blackhawks gave the Canucks a lot to worry about in coming back from a 3-0 deficit, but Vancouver survived Game 7.

"ARE YOU WATCHING THIS GAME?!" he wanted to know. He was riveted. And loud.

The Blackhawks were in the midst of their epic comeback in their first-round playoff series against Vancouver. Left for dead after going down 0-3, the Blackhawks were making it a 3-2 series when Wilbon called me. The series, once an afterthought, became exciting and memorable. And it went to Game 7, the two sweetest words in sports.

But the Blackhawks lost Game 7. The Bears lost months earlier in the NFC Championship Game at Soldier Field, one of the most anticipated games in the city's history, and the Bulls lost in the Eastern Conference finals to the hated Miami Heat, at the United Center.

"The journey was great," Rose said to me recently. "That's something I definitely learned from, but the end was bad."

Rose said his MVP season could be summarized by two words: "greatest" and "saddest."

The Blackhawks' hangover season was a blur, win, loss, win, loss, until that fateful series.

The journey was not so kind to our baseball teams. Again. The White Sox and Cubs had no chance seemingly out of the gate, and the fans responded by going to fewer and fewer games. Interest in on-field action was minimal, at best, even with the vaunted bauble of ineptitude, the BP Crosstown Cup at stake.

That resulted in changes. Ozzie Guillen couldn't get security, so he left for Miami. Looks like a good move so far, as the Marlins are the talk of baseball. Robin Ventura, improbably enough, is the new White Sox manager. Kenny Williams, the guy who traded for Peavy, claimed Rios and signed Dunn -- the Three Amigos of the White Sox fade -- is now in the spotlight as his overpaid, underperforming team readies for a rebound.

On the North Side, Jim Hendry was fired in secret, worked for another month, then was publicly let go. Who would've thought last December that Tom Ricketts would have landed the perfect Theo Epstein clone to replace Hendry?

A lost baseball season is nothing new in Chicago, but we've seen the White Sox reach the mountaintop and the Cubs the summit, and damn if we don't want to see someone plant the city's flag again.

The real Jay Cutler

The brouhaha over the uproar over Cutler's knee injury in January was more of a story than the injury itself. The reporters who covered Cutler on a regular basis didn't think much of it when he didn't come out for the second half. No one really liked Cutler from our limited interactions with him, but if he were too injured to play, we believed him. After all, he had taken a beating in his two seasons in Chicago.

But then the Twitter critiques came, and when you have NFL players going after one of their own, well, it's a story.

It was no secret that Cutler wasn't traditionally popular in the NFL world, but what the Twitter criticism showed us is that athletes are just fans -- no more logical, no less prone to fits of pique.

Before that pivotal moment in Cutler's life, one which seems to have triggered a positive change in his public demeanor, I wrote about the duality of his personality and his performance. Who is Jay Cutler? I wondered.

We found out this season that he was the key to the team. The Bears were 7-3 with him. After he broke his thumb in a win over San Diego, the Bears had lost every game, going into the season finale. Matt Forte's season-ending knee injury certainly hurt, but it was clear that Cutler was every bit as important to this team as Peyton Manning was to the Colts.

All the debate over Cutler's demeanor and leadership ability washed away this season. Whether he got better PR advice or not, Cutler seemed to embrace the public side of his job. And on the field he was, if not fantastic, certainly worthy of praise.

Cutler's second injury had a Twitter aspect as well. We were in the Soldier Field press box after the win over the Chargers and the place was buzzing with positive vibes when a national reporter surprised us with the news via a tweet. Then local beat writers got hold of it, one after another, and slowly started advancing and theorizing.

Everyone was working hard, changing their stories midstream, when another columnist walked by me on his way home.

"Can you believe the news about Cutler?" I asked.

"What do you mean?" he said.

I explained. He wasn't on Twitter. Neither was his co-worker, who was finishing up a Cutler column on an early deadline, knowing nothing of the news.

There's a lesson for everyone. Don't be afraid of the future, because pretty soon it's the present.

Heck, the Bears might even take that advice and sign a real wide receiver, or at least one who's not trying to be Nino Brown.

From Hendry to Theo

[+] EnlargeJim Hendry
George Gojkovich/Getty ImagesFormer Cubs general manager Jim Hendry paid the price for the Cubs' three-year playoff drought, with his job in July.

A couple of years ago at spring training, Jim Hendry told us a story. It was set in the mid-90s and it was about Hendry in his late 30s, working in the baseball operations department for the Florida Marlins. It had to do with his then-boss (and later employee) Gary Hughes sending him to Publix to buy Fig Newtons during the amateur draft. Hendry told it in a self-deprecating tone, how embarrassed he felt to be given such a menial task at the time, and how it preceded his climb up the ladder in his 40s.

I asked Hendry to recount it during his final interview at Wrigley Field, because I think it speaks to who he is, a baseball man, and the challenges we all encounter in life.

Theo Epstein's story was not so similar. A precocious intellect, he got his first GM job a month shy of his 29th birthday. He turns 38 on Dec. 29, and he has one of the biggest jobs in baseball, after leaving one of the two jobs that are arguably bigger.

Despite their differences, both real and perceived, Epstein and Hendry were fast friends in the GM fraternity, and it's unfair to say Epstein will make right what Hendry did wrong. Hendry did his best to try and win that curse-busting World Series trophy, but his teams just couldn't finish. He made plenty of mistakes, most of which he would gladly admit to. I had no problem with his being fired, and I think Epstein's hire should bode well for the future.

It's hard to believe that three years ago we were lamenting the Cubs' flameout in the playoffs. Those days seem so far away now.

Can't Beat Heat

If I could pick one game from the Bulls that symbolized their season, over which I've already waxed nostalgic many times, it would be their April 7 win over Boston. Derrick Rose scored 30 in a 97-81 win at home, leading Kevin Garnett, a world-famous competitor, to say: "They're not chanting MVP for nothing. His play is doing all the talking."

That win put the Bulls one game away from taking the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Rose and his team were on top of the world, ready to plant their flag on the NBA.

The United Center was electric, and it looked as if Rose really was Heir Jordan.

The season peaked in the first game of the Eastern Conference finals, when the Bulls spanked Miami at home, then everything went dark.

Rose, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng say that loss haunts them still. They know there is only one goal for 2012: Beat Miami.

Farewell, Ozzie

My biggest regret was not spending more time at The Cell this season. The games weren't very interesting, but if I had known (and I should have known) that Guillen was bailing at the end of the season, I would have soaked in more of his wisdom.

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Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesThe White Sox dugout won't be the same in 2012 without Ozzie Guillen.

Guillen is the real deal, a genuine person in a world of window dressing. HIs syntax might be fractured, but he is much smarter than he gets credit for.

His pregame media chats are the stuff of legend, often drawing in the out-of-town writers from their own boring managers. Other managers drone on about rehab sessions; Guillen tells stories about drunkenly heckling high school umpires and does impressions of his players.

Most of what he's said over the past eight seasons is unprintable or best left off the record. Oftentimes he would lose himself in his own verbal gymnastics, but it was always fun.

We will miss Guillen in Chicago -- the journalists, the fans and just the city in general. I hope he returns to manage here again.

Guillen also offered the best goodbye of any of the departed this year, a playful jab at his former friend and boss Kenny Williams and a coda to his White Sox career.

"I told my wife I wouldn't cry," he said, pounding on his chest. "I'm the real Chicago. I'm Chicago tough, buddies. Thank you."

As usual, Ozzie says it best.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.