by Julian Spivey
Team of the Year: Atlanta Braves (MLB)
This year’s choice was truly hard for me because I didn’t know whether or not I should go with the best story and team that came through so much adversity and shocked their sport or if I should go with the most dominant team of the season, who wound up doing what they were supposed to do (which would’ve been the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks). I decided to go with the biggest surprise and best story, which happened to be the way the Atlanta Braves came out of nowhere to win the World Series. On July 10, the Braves finally got to .500 halfway into the season, but that same day they lost their best player and M.V.P. candidate Ronald Acuna Jr. for the remainder of the season with a torn ACL. It seemed their season was over at that point. They fell below .500 quickly and stayed below or around .500 for quite a while afterward. At the trade deadline they made a few trades adding Joc Pederson, Jorge Soler and Eddie Rosario, which didn’t at the time feel like much at all. But those guys meshed well with the players in the clubhouse and the team caught fire and took advantage of a weak National League East Division and rode a hot second half of the season to a division title. OK, great, the team overachieved to the playoffs and would quickly be eliminated by better teams. In the National League Division Series, they dominated the Milwaukee Brewers winning in four games. In the National League Championship Series, they dominated the Los Angeles Dodgers (who had won almost 20 more games than Atlanta during the season) winning in six games. Then the Braves had to face the Houston Astros, probably the scariest offense in baseball, in the World Series. The Braves pitching staff held Houston to almost nothing over the series and the team’s bats continue solidly trudging along. The Braves shocked the sports world and defeated the Astros in six games in the World Series to win their first title since 1995 and fourth in franchise history.
Athlete of the Year: Shohei Ohtani (Los Angeles Angels - MLB)
Shohei Ohtani, pitcher and designated hitter for the Los Angeles Angels, had a once in a century performance on the baseball diamond in the 2021 Major League Baseball season and I still don’t believe it’s gotten the raves and headlines its deserved. Baseball hadn’t seen a player who could be this dominant as both a pitcher and a hitter since Ruth around 1920. Ohtani hit .257 with 46 home runs, 100 RBI and 26 stolen bases for the Angels, while also going a stellar 9-2 on the mound with a 3.18 ERA and 156 strikeouts. Ohtani would ride his one-of-a-kind season to the American League Most Valuable Player award. He’s truly become the must-see player of MLB.
Coach of the Year: Brian Snitker (Atlanta Braves - MLB)
I don’t think any manager in Major League Baseball deserved a title more than Atlanta Braves skipper Brian Snitker did after spending more than 40 years in the same organization doing just about every position a man could do on the way up to the big league job. Snitker’s players absolutely adore him and play their hearts out for the man, which likely played a major reason into the Braves seemingly out of nowhere Cinderella story through the second half of the MLB regular season and throughout the postseason, which they entered with the worst record of any team making the playoffs and wound up World Series champions.
Breakthrough Athlete of the Year: Shohei Ohtani (Los Angeles Angels - MLB)
The 2021 MLB season was Shohei Ohtani’s fourth in the big leagues, but it was the first time that he finally put both sides of his game – offense and pitching together to form the dominant and once in a century player that the Los Angeles Angels hoped he would be when he came over from Japan in 2018. Ohtani had only managed to pitch in 12 games over his first three seasons due to arm injuries and many doubted he’d ever become the dual threat he was thought to possibly be. The 2021 season showed the entire world, but especially his doubters, that he was an All Star at both of his positions.
Game/Event of the Year: Dodgers over Giants in NLDS Gm. 5 (MLB)
It was somewhat of a shame that the National League’s two best teams through a long and grueling season – the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers – were forced to play each other in the National League Division Series because of the way the MLB playoffs work and the wild card (which was the Dodgers) had to play a division winner (the Giants) despite their being worse teams record-wise in the playoffs. However, what this resulted in was an epic full five-game NLDS between two of the biggest rivals in baseball and game five of that series becoming the best sporting event of 2021, in my opinion. Giants ace Logan Webb started the winner-take-all game and was excellent, going seven strong innings only allowing one run. The Dodgers, on the other hand, pitched a bullpen game in which six pitchers battled against the Giants, with 20-game winner Julio Urias doing the bulk of the work going four innings from the bullpen. The game entered the ninth inning tied 1-1 when Giants reliever Camilo Doval hit Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner with a pitch, allowed a single to outfielder Gavin Lux and then a go-ahead single to first baseman Cody Bellinger to score Turner from second. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts going for the kill brought in his ace Max Scherzer to put down the Giants in the bottom of the ninth and clinch the NLDS victory for the Dodgers. The Dodgers would go on to lose to the Atlanta Braves in the National League Championship Series.
Play of the Year: Jalen Suggs buzzer beater in Final Four
The final seconds of the Final Four matchup in the men’s college basketball tournament between Gonzaga and UCLA on April 3 were WILD. Bruins guard Johnny Juzang had just tied the game up at 90-90 with a layup after rebounding his own missed shot with 3.3 seconds remaining. Gonzaga, who hadn’t been beaten in over a year at this point, inbounded the ball immediately all the way down the court from their basket and Bulldogs guard Jalen Suggs quickly dribbled down the court, stopped just past halfcourt and popped up a shot that banked off the glass and in for the game-winner at the buzzer to send Gonzaga to the national title game against Baylor. It was a storybook ending, but Gonzaga would see their win streak and title shot ended by Baylor in the championship.
Best Moment: Phil Mickelson Wins PGA Championship at 50
Phil Mickelson is one of the greatest golfers of all-time, but it certainly felt like his major championship winning days were behind him – after all nobody his age had ever won a major title. Going into the 2021 PGA Championship at the Ocean Course on Kiawah Island, S.C. Mickelson was ranked 115th player in the world and hadn’t contended in a major in about a half decade. His last major victory had been the 2013 British Open eight years prior. It wasn’t even a surprise on Sunday during the final round because Mickelson had been at the top or around the top of the leaderboard most of the way – but we had seen 50-plus year olds take the lead into the final round of a major before (three times before, in fact) and none of them came out on top at the end. Mickelson ended up winning the PGA, his sixth career major title, by two strokes. In an era where golf champions are getting younger and younger, Mickelson’s record at winning a major at 50 may last forever.
Biggest Upset: Emma Raducanu Wins Tennis U.S. Open
Not only was Emma Raducanu winning the 2021 U.S. Open tennis major the biggest upset of 2021, but one of the biggest upsets in the history of sports. The 18-year old British player became the first qualifier to ever win a tennis major championship on either the female or male side of things when she defeated Leylah Fernandez to win the U.S. Open in September. To put that in perspective it’d be like Rudy not only suiting up for Notre Dame but being their best player in a national title game. These things just don’t happen. Not only did Raducanu come out of nowhere to win the U.S. Open, but she didn’t drop a single set the entire tournament – in the qualifying matches or the seven main draw contests.
Hero/Impact of the Year: Simone Biles
No athlete had a bigger impact on sports in 2021 than American gymnast Simone Biles. When she backed out of the team event at the 2020 (reminder it took place this year) Tokyo Olympics due to her mental health she led a charge throughout the world that showed that it’s important to take care of oneself, even if it means stepping aside and letting others take the glory or simply saying, “I can’t do this right now” even on the biggest stage. Admittedly, at the time I said Biles failed her team because she didn’t back out before the event, but there’s no doubt in my mind it took a huge amount of courage to stand up for herself and speaks out for many struggling with mental health in the world.
Best Sports Media Personality: Ernie Johnson (Turner Sports)
You can kind of take Ernie Johnson of Turner Sports for granted. I know I’ve certainly done that over the years with this very end of year piece as this is the first time, I’ve included him as the Best Sports Media Personality of the year. His primary job at Turner Sports is the leader of the NBA on TNT’s “Inside the NBA,” with co-hosts Charles Barkley (the 2019 winner of this honor), Kenny Smith and Shaquille O’Neal, but Johnson can do whatever is asked of him, which includes coverage of MLB playoffs and the men’s college basketball tournament. This was a rough year for Johnson as he lost his adopted son Michael, who suffered from Duchenne muscular dystrophy in October, but as always Johnson was the backbone of sports television’s best show.
Lifetime Achievement: Albert Pujols
Albert Pujols hasn’t officially announced his retirement. In fact, he’s said he’d like to come back to play one more season. But the soon-to-be 42-year old slugger with 679 career home runs primarily served as a pinch hitter for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2021 and might not find a home for the 2022 season, if the current MLB lockout ever ends. Pujols is a no-brainer of a first ballot baseball hall of famer with the fifth most homers in baseball history (third most if we’re talking players we believe to have been steroid-less), a .297 career average and over 3,300 hits. He’s the greatest baseball player I’ve ever had then honor to see take the field.