|A year only Seinfeld could love|
By Jim Caple
Page 2 columnist
Fittingly, 2002 was the year we were introduced to ThunderStix, the ballpark giveaways capable of eardrum-puncturing noise despite being inflated with nothing but hot air.
Some years provide historic feats (Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998). Some give us extraordinary performances (Tiger Woods at the 1997 Masters). Some even deliver miracles (the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team against the Soviets). Not so 2002, which should have been sponsored by 24-hour talk radio. Instead of providing reason to stand to applaud, the past 12 months mostly left us reaching for the cell phone.
"Hello, am I on? I am? I'm on? Yes, well, I just wanted to say that the damn refs at the Lakers-Kings game were an absolute joke. A disgrace. It's the worst damn thing I've seen in my whole life. That SOB David Stern better launch an investigation, but I know he won't because everyone knows he's in on the friggin' fix."
"Thank you for the call, Mr. Nader."
We've never been forced to expend more energy on less than actually happened than in 2002, when it got so outlandish that Mike Piazza felt the need to call a press conference to announce that he wasn't gay.
The biggest news in sports this year almost always was some distraction from the game rather than the game itself. The NBA refs, the tuck rule, the pairs figure skating judges, the All-Star Game tie, steroids, the possible baseball strike, Augusta's membership policy, the JailBlazers, Terrell Owens, baseball's "Most Memorable Moments" campaign, Pete Rose ... the list goes on longer than an NFL pregame show.
Congress might have eliminated the estate tax, but silly controversy in sports remained one thing you couldn't escape even after death in 2002.
Yeah, this is Matt in Brookline and I just wanted to say that it's a damn sin what Ted Williams' kid is doing to his old man. Whatever happened to respect for the dead? Cripes, freezing your father's body. How could anyone do such a thing when it was his wish to be turned into ashes?
Teddy Ballgame is frozen and hanging upside down in an Arizona meat locker, while the rest of us are bent so far out of shape from 2002's real and imagined controversies that Ken Caminiti wouldn't have had the strength to straighten us out during the peak of his steroid cycle.
It wasn't so much that the year brought new scandals but that we were supposed to regard everything as if it was. A major league ballplayer taking steroids? Can you BELIEVE it? Terrell Owens pulled out a Sharpie and autographed the football in the end zone immediately after scoring a touchdown, a move as choreographed as Olympians grabbing their nations' flag after crossing the finish line or a soccer champion whipping off her jersey to reveal a swoosh-covered jog bra. We've been watching football players overreact to performances since Mark Gastineau's Sack Dance and Ickey Woods' Shuffle, but for some reason, Owens was singled out as if nothing quite like this had ever happened before in a stadium.
At least Owens waited until after he got into the end zone. Hey, if we're supposed to care that much about every over-the-top football celebration, we'll never have time to respond to instant polls during the games.
"Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
That's not from sports talk radio, it's from Shakespeare's "MacBeth," who is not to be confused with South Africa's MacBeth Sibaya, who scored exactly nothing during this year's World Cup, a tournament that prompted such hysterical reaction that one fan set himself on fire so his spirit could lead Korea to victory. Shakespeare wrote the Scottish play 400 years ago, but MacBeth's quote could just as well have been written regarding 2002, when the year's biggest boxing match was the Danny Partridge-Greg Brady bout.
Rarely has so much sound and fury ultimately signified so little. Despite all the insistent bluster from the commissioner's office, baseball did not contract two teams. All the outraged columnists and fan boycott groups were short-circuited when the players did not go on strike. And all the important charges against Allen Iverson were dropped.
(Naturally, Shakespeare himself fell victim in 2002 to having all his words rendered meaningless. In a BBC poll asking for the greatest person in British history, the world's literary master finished behind Princess Di. And we thought Bobby Thomson's home run not making baseball's top 10 moments was an oversight.)
Pardon that digression, but this was the year of digression. Even people who have nothing to do with sports worked themselves into such a lather that we could have washed the dye out of Pete Rose's hair.
Martha Burk, chairwoman of the National Council of Women's Organizations, demanded that the Augusta Country Club open its door to female members. Augusta president Hootie Johnson responded to that by saying the Masters broadcasts would run without commercials so Burk couldn't pressure advertisers. The New York Times called upon Tiger Woods to boycott The Masters, then stifled two of its columnists by spiking the stories they wrote in support of Johnson's position.
And remember, all this is over whether some multi-millionaire woman can join an ultra-private club, so that she, too, may play golf and exclude people much poorer than she is from membership.
But this wasn't even the most dubious, petty squabble of the year. That distinction goes to consumer advocate Ralph Nader's screed. Less than two years after running for president of the United States on a platform of social justice, global responsibility and ecological wisdom, Nader wrote a letter to David Stern demanding that something be done about the terrible officiating in the playoffs.
A former presidential candidate formally complaining about basketball's referees? That's enough to make the actual president gag (which Bush did, though it was while eating a pretzel and watching the NFL playoffs).
Nader wasn't alone, though. Everyone wanted to kill the umpires this year.
If it wasn't the NBA refs defending themselves from Nader and Dallas Mavericks owner/Dairy Queen counterman Mark Cuban, the NFL officials explaining the tuck rule or World Cup officials defending themselves against an outraged Italy, it was the superbly named Ottavio Cinquanta trying to answer several hundred reporters quizzing him in multiple languages about the French judge and her deal to throw the gold medal to the Russian pair.
The figure skating controversy made the cover of Time and Newsweek and virtually swallowed the entire Olympics.
Figure skating controversy or not, hundreds of fans still waited in line for hours each day to buy the $15 Roots beret while others offered more than $100 for the light blue cap everyone just had to have.
Which, of course, was available at the company's outlet store a couple months later for $6. Seeing those in June, it was impossible not to wonder what all the fuss had been about in the first place.
Sort of like 2002 itself.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.