The year that was 2009 sports was marked by a lot of traditional teams winning championships. But the highlight was a decidedly non-traditional team getting on a big run and capturing the nation’s heart in the process.
Hurricane Katrina leveled the city of New Orleans and the region at large in August 2005. A long rebuilding process begin. The rise of the New Orleans Saints became oddly metaphoric and uplifting for the area. The leadership of Sean Payton and Drew Brees brought the Saints their first-ever Super Bowl championship, with most of America pulling for them to do it.
There were two other great stories in the Midwest during the NFL season. The Indianapolis Colts won their first fourteen regular season games and looked poised to match the achievement of the New England Patriots two years earlier and complete a regular season at 16-0. And since the Patriots had ultimately lost in the Super Bowl, the door to be the first team to 19-0 was wide open for Peyton Manning and the Colts.
But the Colts backed down. Concerned more about injuries to starters, they decided to keep their focus squarely on winning the Super Bowl rather than doing so undefeated. In the end, they got neither, losing to New Orleans.
The NFL is a young man’s league, but no one could guess that by watching 40-year-old Brett Favre play for the Minnesota Vikings in 2009. Favre had one of the great years of his career and the Vikings reached the NFC Championship Game before coming up short to the destiny wave that was the Saints.
There were traditional powers looking to get back on top in the NBA, college football and major league baseball. The New York Yankees hadn’t won a World Series since 2000, an interminably long time for an organization known for its impatience and free spending. The Yankees did it in 2009.
The same goes for Alabama football, who hadn’t even won a major bowl game—much less a national title—since 1992. And though the Los Angeles Lakers had won the NBA title as recently as 2002, their ’09 breakthrough marked the first time Kobe Bryant had won a ring without Shaquille O’Neal.
North Carolina basketball didn’t have a long time on the outs—they had won the NCAA title as recently as 2005. But the Tar Heels do fit the mold of a traditional team winning a title, so we’ll include them on the list with the Yankees, Lakers and Alabama football. In fact, UNC hoops was arguably the most dominant champion of any team sport in 2009, winning all six NCAA Tournament games by at least twelve points.
The Stanley Cup Finals also pitted two proud franchises against each other and it was a rematch no less. The Detroit Red Wings had beaten the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2008, a good six-game series. It was so good that the same teams came back and this time went the full seven. And this time the Penguins got their revenge, winning the city their first Stanley Cup since the Mario Lemieux era. Read more about the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals
One story that seems somewhat ironic and out of character five years later came in the NBA playoffs. The Eastern Conference Finals matched up the Orlando Magic and Cleveland Cavaliers. The star players were Dwight Howard and LeBron James. These two men have gone in opposite directions when it comes to how they’re perceived both on the court and off, a perception that decidedly favors James.
But in their only playoff confrontation, it was Dwight’s Magic that pulled off the upset of LeBron’s Cavs, winning in six games and denying the NBA its coveted LeBron-Kobe matchup in the Finals.
The 2009 New York Yankees were entering a new era for the proud franchise. The old Yankee Stadium had closed down following the 2008 season and a new one under the same name was opening up. The old stadium had seen the home team win a World Series in the first year of its existence in 1923 and nothing less than a repeat performance would be expected in 2009.
There were significant on-field changes as well. The Yankees’ string of making the playoffs every year from 1995-2007 had ended the previous season. Joe Girardi was entering his second year as the successor to Joe Torre, the manager for almost the entire run of playoff seasons, including six American League pennants and four World Series titles. The failure to make the postseason in 2008 had rankled management and significant upgrades—even by the Yankees’ free-spending standards were made.
New York added first baseman Mark Teixeira, a big-time power hitter and RBI guy, and outbid the rival Boston Red Sox at the last minute. The Yanks acquired A.J. Burnett, who would become a steady #2 starter and have one the best seasons of his career.
But no free agent signing mattered more than C.C. Sabathia. The big lefty had pitched the Cleveland Indians into the playoffs in 2007, done the same for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2008 and he came to New York and promptly delivered a 19-win season, logged 230 innings and posted a 3.37 ERA in a new park whose hitter-friendliness would quickly become notorious.
The Yankees had good pitching all year, even if the depth was lacking. Andy Pettite won 14 games and was a solid veteran presence and the incomparable Mariano Rivera was closing games out, 44 saves in all with a 1.76 ERA. New York finished fourth in the American League in ERA.
It was the offense that really made New York feared though. Of the nine everyday players, eight of them posted both on on-base percentage in excess of .350 and a slugging percentage higher than .460. And in several cases, it was a lot higher. Teixeira had 122 RBIs and hit 39 home runs. Derek Jeter’s OBP was .406. Alex Rodriguez hit 30 home runs, drove in 100, and had an OBP of .402. The lineup was filled out Jorge Posada, Robinson Cano, Johnny Damon, Nick Swisher and Hideki Matsui.
The Yankees started relatively slow, though they stayed at or near the top of the AL East. They had a curious early problem with the Red Sox, losing eight straight to their archrival, but New York significantly outplayed Boston when the teams weren’t playing each other and by the end of May, the teams were trading first place back and forth.
New York finally broke through head-to-head with a big four-game sweep of Boston in the Bronx in early August. The Yanks pulled away in the AL East and won 103 games, en route to the best record in baseball.
There’s only season that matters in the Bronx though, and that’s October. No one knew that better than A-Rod. Since arriving in New York prior to the 2004 season, he had won two MVP awards (2005 and 2007) and been the consensus best player in baseball. But his October failings—shortcomings that were real, and not just the media trumping them up—were overshadowing everything else.
Furthermore, A-Rod had been at the center of the storm just prior to the season when it was revealed he was on a list of players that had failed steroid tests several years earlier. Rodriguez insisted he was now clean—something we know today to be demonstrably false—but he knew he needed to vindicate himself for the Yankee fans and the only way to do that was to produce in October.
Rodriguez began the process of vindication in Game 2 of the Division Series against the Minnesota Twins. The Yanks had grabbed Game 1 behind Sabathia, but were trailing 3-1 in the ninth inning of the second game. After Teixeira singled to right to open the ninth, A-Rod homered to tie the game against Twins closer Joe Nathan, arguably the best closer in baseball during 2009. Another bomb from Teixeira would win the game in the 11th, and the Yanks subsequently closed out a three-game sweep in the Twin Cities.
It was the Los Angeles Angels, rather than the hated Red Sox that awaited in the American League Championship Series. The Angels had swept the Red Sox out and had their own ace, John Lackey, ready for Game 1. Sabathia was too dominant though, going eight strong innings and New York took the opener 4-1.
Another Game 2, another dire moment for the Yanks and another clutch delivery from A-Rod was up next. This game was tied 2-2 after nine innings, but the Angels scraped over a run in the 11th. Rodriguez immediately responded with a leadoff home run in the bottom of the inning to extend the game. New York won in 13 innings after a Los Angeles throwing error produced the winning run.
The Angels won their own extra inning affair in Game 3 with the series out west, and now Girardi got aggressive. He came back with Sabathia on three days’ rest—a scenario that would allow the big ace to also pitch a seventh game if needed. C.C. was up to the task, with another brilliant eight-inning outing and New York won this game easily 10-1.
Game 4’s win all but sealed the pennant. New York scored six runs in the seventh inning of Game 5 to take a 6-4 lead, before handing it back in the bottom of the inning in a 7-6 loss. But the return to the Big Apple brought the first pennant since 2003. Damon, Teixeira and A-Rod all hit two hits apiece in the 2-3-4 spots in the order, Pettite pitched well and a 5-2 victory sent New York to the World Series.
The Philadelphia Phillies stood in the way. The Phils had won the 2008 World Series and strengthened themselves at this year’s July 31 trade deadline when they acquired ace lefty Cliff Lee. The Phillies were the first team in the postseason to have an ace that could match up with Sabathia.
In fact, the two lefties were each a part of the 2007 Cleveland team that came within one win of the World Series and the fact they went head-to-head for different teams in Game 1 of the 2009 World Series added to the legacy of heartbreak that is the history of Cleveland sports.
Lee quieted the Yankee bats and the Stadium crowd in Game 1. Sabathia pitched very well, but Philadelphia second baseman Chase Utley got him for two solo home runs. The Phils led 2-1 after seventh and then with C.C. out of the game, broke it open against the bullpen, winning 6-1. For the first time in October, the Yankees were truly in a tough spot.
A.J. Burnett answered the bell with a big-time outing in Game 2, outdueling Pedro Martinez, the former Red Sox star who was on his last ride with the Phillies, having reinvented himself as a finesse pitcher in the twilight of his career. Matsui and Teixeira each homered and the Yankees won 3-1.
Philadelphia got three runs off of Pettite early in Game 3 and looked poised to get control back of the Series. It was A-Rod who had the answer, with a two-run homer in the fourth. Pettite redeemed himself at the plate with an RBI base hit that tied the game and Damon ripped a two-run double. On a rain-soaked night in Philly, the Yankees won 8-5.
Girardi again went to Sabathia on short rest for Game 4. He wasn’t dominant, but he was effective, working into the seventh inning. The game was still tied 4-4 in the ninth, when the sequence that all but decided the World Series title took place. And once again, Alex Rodriguez was the hero.
With two outs, Damon singled, and then stole both second and third. A-Rod tripled to bring in the lead run. Two more insurance runs were tacked on. The Yanks won 7-4 and now had three chances—two of them at home—to win their first World Series title since 2000.
It wouldn’t come in Game 5. Lee took the ball for Philadelphia, the Phils built up an 8-2 lead and though the Yanks rallied late, it came up short 8-6. Nonetheless, the series was going to the Bronx and Philadelphia had yet to prove they could win a game in this Series without Lee on the mound—and he was done, save the possibility of a relief appearance in a Game 7.
There would be no Game 7. New York was ready to party in Game 6 and a party is what they got. Matsui hit a two-run homer in the second inning to start the scoring. He would drive in six runs for the game and hit .615 for the Series, earning him MVP honors. The game ended 7-3, and the first year in the new Stadium had concluded with a championship.
Alex Rodriguez isn’t in the books as MVP of the ALCS or World Series, and that’s appropriate, as Sabathia and Matsui were more consequential in those individual matchups. But if baseball had an award like the NHL does with the Conn Smythe Award, that honors the entire postseason, then this was A-Rod’s October.
From the Game 2s against Minnesota and Los Angeles, to Games 3 & 4 against Philadelphia, he had delivered in the big moments with series-altering hits. And even with the steroid allegations on his record, he could finally hear the cheers of the Yankee faithful.