More than any other sport, a baseball season parallels the major motifs in America over the course of a year. A few examples from the past: Jackie Robinson's emergence during the Civil Rights movement, unchecked cheating and steroid use during the Bush administration, and the Rays unlikely run to the World Series during the Obama campaign. This year, it's not that hard to see the correlation between the banking scandals and the opportunistic World Series win that was essentially purchased by the filthily rich Yankees, while the small-market teams forfeited free-agent bids to stay afloat, at the cost of wins.
Here in Indianapolis, the mainstream sports community stumbled around in a dizzy state of disorder for the first half of the year. Fortunately, local colleges and obscure minor league teams did the dirty work and scored some pride.
Looking back from January, Mike Scifres (the name still makes me a little nauseous) punted the Colts out of the playoffs in the first round, the Pacers limped across the finish line 10 games under .500, the Indians pitching staff compiled an ERA of roughly eight billion, and IU became to Big Ten basketball what the White River is to Indianapolis; a noxious, unfortunate eyesore full of crap and broken dreams floating around the Midwest. It was probably once great, and you hope to see it cleaned up some day - but right now, driving south on West St... you just want to get past it without throwing up.
When July came around, Indianapolis turned to an old friend - a quiet underdog and uncelebrated gem of the city. The Indiana Fever salvaged the athletic universe with an amazing run at the WNBA championship. Like an archangel, Tamika Catchings reached down upon Indianapolis, and righted the ship.
They fell narrowly short of the title, but it was the best showing that a basketball team from Indiana has put forth in almost a decade. Fear not, Fever, you are now in league with both the Pacers and IU as scrappy runners-up; this is the third basketball championship loss our weary eyes have witnessed this decade.
And, shockingly, the Pacers became fun to watch again. They stopped driving around Indianapolis like a game of Grand Theft Auto and quit bringing a small fortune worth of marijuana and weaponry to Club Rio shootouts. They pass the ball sometimes. And, most importantly, they have taken free souvenir dispersal to an incredible new level. Any idiot can fire a t-shirt gun, but Boomer now has a t-shirt cannon, which if aimed correctly, could both exterminate and clothe a small country. They couldn't have that piece in the building when Tinsley was on the team, for obvious reasons.
Speaking of murder, we had to say goodbye to Colts legend Marvin Harrison. He was a mainstay for over a decade, and - even more than Peyton Manning - defined everything that was exciting and lovable about the Colts rise from unlovable losers to the perennial powerhouse they are today. He was catching bombs from Jim Harbaugh in '96 when nobody thought the Colts had any business in the playoffs, and he was still slashing up safeties as part of one of the greatest offenses of all time in 2004; when it seemed like every game ended with a score of 70-69.
I was at the 2003 playoff game with my brother, in which the Broncos forgot to tackle him, and he snidely galloped into the end zone. A large, intoxicated gentleman, smelling of cheap gin and chili dogs, spilled beer all over me and cheered maniacally. It was one of the great sports memories of my life. Marvin Harrison is directly responsible for a lot of fun and excitement in this city over the last 10-plus years.
But the Colts are still cruising, and the Indianapolis Indians... well the Indians are still going to be terrible as long as they're affiliated with the Pirates but oh, well; I've been told by an inside source that there will be $1 beer nights in 2010. The Indians are a model operation for minor league sports teams, and yet they are paired with a Major League affiliate that holds the record for the most consecutive losing seasons. Tragic.
But all is not lost for Indy's intrepid minor league fanatics. Like a thief in the night, the Indiana Ice quietly won the United States Hockey League championship. And like most things that happen in Fargo, N.D., no one had any idea about it. Ice games at Pepsi Coliseum are both cheap and wildly amusing, and they are currently in the middle of another successful season.
Also doing their part, The Indiana FC Lionesses professional women's soccer team won a divisional title and boasted the league's leading goal scorer, Laura Del Rio. They routinely win championships, and feature many athletes who play in the Women's world cup for other countries.
Marian (now) University continued their cycling excellence by finishing seventh at nationals, Butler made a nice showing in March Madness and Purdue won its first ever Big Ten Tournament championship in Men's Basketball.
2009 started vaguely ominous, with Peyton Manning being single-handedly taken apart by a punter in the playoffs last January, during the worst economic crisis of my lifetime. But a calendar year - like baseball - is a marathon, not a sprint. And the Indians have some great prospects coming through the system in 2010; if nothing else, they'll be exciting to watch. Fortunately, baseball parallels life on the local level, as well.