by Julian Spivey
Team of the Year: Los Angeles Lakers (NBA)
This was an incredibly hard choice between the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Dodgers this year as both championships meant a great deal to Los Angeles, with the Lakers winning the title in the year of Kobe Bryant’s tragic passing and the Dodgers coming so close in recent seasons and going three decades without a title. To make things even harder, both franchises were the best in their respective leagues from start-to-finish of the season. If ever there was a year to have a tie in this category it might be this one, but let’s leave ties to soccer. Ultimately, I went with the Lakers over the Dodgers for two reasons – the Lakers played the majority of the NBA season, where as the baseball season was only about 1/3 of a normal season and the Lakers had to deal with a four-month hiatus before the postseason due to NBA shutting down over COVID-19. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to shut down, get ready again and be your best when it mattered most, but the Lakers did it.
Athlete of the Year: Patrick Mahomes (Kansas City Chiefs – NFL)
It’s so hard to for me to give NFL players this honor annually because they play most of their season in one year, but the league’s biggest game comes in the next (though look below and see this is the third out of the last four years I’ve done so) – but Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes made it a bit easier this year by leading his team to its first Super Bowl title in 50 years in February and by having a MVP-caliber year in the current NFL season (which has played 13 games at the time of this writing). Mahomes currently leads the league in passing yards by an almost whopping 450 yards over second place, is second in quarterback ratings and third in touchdown passes. More importantly his team is 12-1, the best record in the league, and looks to be on its way to possibly being the NFL’s first back-to-back champs in more than a decade. Mahomes is already, even this early in his career, one of the five most exciting to watch players I’ve ever seen in the NFL.
Coach of the Year: Andy Reid (Kansas City Chiefs – NFL)
Andy Reid finally won the big game! For years, the talk of NFL’s coaches was how Reid was one of the best regular season coaches in league history, but just couldn’t win the big game – the Super Bowl. In 2020, he finally had a team underneath him that could go all the way – lead by 2020’s Athlete of the Year quarterback Patrick Mahomes. Reid’s Super Bowl winning team went 12-4, while his team during the current season is 12-1 (at the time of this writing). He’s won at least 12 games in the last three straight seasons in K.C.
Best Breakthrough Athlete of the Year: Bryson DeChambeau (PGA Tour)
Bryson DeChambeau wasn’t exactly a slouch on the PGA Tour, winning five tournaments before 2020 (with four of those coming in 2018 alone), but when he returned to the PGA Tour this summer after a hiatus due to the PGA Tour suspending its season because of COVID-19 he looked like a new man, his game was different and he became the talk of the sport. DeChambeau had already planned to change his game by adding muscle mass to increase his swing speed and hit the ball farther, but he added 20 pounds during the season’s break to go along with the 20 he had already added and once play resumed he shot to the lead of driving distance on the tour and was hitting tee shots that mesmerized even those who only casually followed the game. He backed up these tee shots too by winning. In July he won the Rocket Mortgage Classic in Detroit, Mich. He was in contention the entire time at this year’s first major tournament, the PGA Championship, but ultimately finished fourth. However, he absolutely crushed the ball and the field in the year’s second major tournament, the U.S. Open at the West Course at Winged Foot in Mamaroneck, N.J., winning it by six strokes.
Game/Event of the Year: Game 4 of World Series
We all know this has been a weird year in general, but it’s also been a weird year for sports. The worldwide COVID-19 placed the whole sports world on lockdown for at least two months, sometimes longer depending on the sport. Some of the year’s most anticipated events – the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics and March Madness for college basketball – didn’t even take place. But of the ones that did – and a great many still did – I can’t really think of any instant classics. Maybe I’m just overlooking obvious choices and if so please tell me in the comments, but the best I could come up with was game four of the World Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays, which ended in one of the wackiest ways I’ve ever seen a major sporting event end and have detailed below in ‘Play of the Year.’
Best Play of the Year: Final play of World Series Game 4
This is the first time where you could argue my choice for ‘Play of the Year’ could also be one of the worst plays of the year if going by the miscues of the Los Angeles Dodgers defense (but, hey they went on to win the World Series, so I’m sure they’re doing fine). It was certainly the wildest play I’ve seen all years and one of the most heart-pounding I’ve ever seen in a World Series. The Dodgers had a 7-6 lead in the bottom of the ninth inning of game 4 with a 2-1 series lead and ready to take a commanding 3-1 lead. The Tampa Bay Rays had runners on first and second. There were two outs. The Rays had pinch hitter Brett Phillips, who saw little playing time during the postseason, at the plate. The Dodgers had their closer Kenley Jansen on the mound. With two strikes against him, Phillips hit a liner into the outfield that was for sure going to tie the game. Exciting enough, but that should’ve been it. Dodgers center fielder Mookie Betts (one of the best defensive players in the game) bobbled the ball, which allowed Randy Arozarena (who may have had the best postseason in baseball history) to round third. Betts’ throw, which was cut off by first baseman Max Muncy, who had an easy throw to catcher Will Smith. Arozarena was so sure he was going to be nailed at the plate he threw himself in reverse and started back to third, where he should’ve been caught in a rundown to end the inning and send the game to extra innings. But Smith missed the ball! He was so worried about placing a tag on the baserunner that he took his eye off Muncy’s throw, whiffed and it went to the back stopped. Arozarena once again threw himself into reverse and scored the game-winning run – a run only made possible by two incredibly unlikely missteps by Dodgers defenders.
Best Moment: Success of NBA Bubble
None of us knew if we’d see another sporting event again in 2020 on the evening the NBA suspended the season due to COVID-19 when Utah Jazz All-Star center Rudy Gobert tested positive in mid-March. The whole sports world would essentially shut down soon after and depending on the sport it would be anywhere from two months to longer before resumption. Of all sports league it was the NBA that could’ve most been devastated as they were nearing the end of the regular season and about to embark on the playoffs when play was halted. There was no way the league was going to come back the way we were used to seeing it. Commissioner Adam Silver and the league worked out a bubble scenario where the remainder of the season could be played at the ESPN Wide World of Sports facility at Disney in Orlando, Fla. Many expected the remainder of the season to be bumpy with positive COVID tests and possible outbreaks within the bubble, but amazingly the NBA didn’t have a single person – player, coach or what have you test positive. The NBA’s bubble experience was a shining success, something that other pro and college leagues that played this year couldn’t say.
Hero/Impact of the Year: Darrell Wallace Jr. (NASCAR)
I’ve been a fan of NASCAR driver Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. pretty much since he entered the sport in the Craftsman Truck Series many years ago now. He has an incredible personality, a ton of talent (that showed in the truck series often and I hope will get a better chance to show at the Cup Series level in the future) and he’s incredibly important to the sport as its lone African-American driver in the top series (the first to do so full-time in decades). This year he become even more important to the sport in a year where the country has felt so much strife with politics and race. After the death of George Floyd at the hands of a bad cop this summer Wallace spoke up about a multitude of race issues – by saying NASCAR should ban the appearance of the Confederate flag from fans and putting Black Lives Matter on his racecar at an event at Martinsville Speedway. In the majority white and likely conservative fan base of NASCAR these were things that took major backbone and drew backlash. But Wallace did it anyway without blinking an eye because it was the right thing to do. I hope he can find his way into Victory Lane in a Cup Series race in the future, but even if it never happens Wallace has already had a bigger impact on the sport and its future than most ever have within the sport.
Best Sports Media Personality: John Smoltz
When I started doing this particular award a few years ago I kind of thought it would be a one-time honor, but for the second time in five years (and four awards, since I didn’t give one in 2018) it’s going to be Fox and MLB Network baseball analyst John Smoltz. Smoltz, who I will admit I absolutely loved as a player on my favorite team when I was growing up, is the smartest baseball analyst I think I may have ever seen. He doesn’t talk down to the audience like many announcers do, especially the guy who used to be in his seat for Fox Sports’ baseball coverage Tim McCarver. He is extremely good at predicting what may happen at the next given moment in a game, which is something Alex Rodriguez is constantly trying to do when he does games for ESPN and more often than not seems to get it wrong. Smoltz also has an even-keeled commentating style I appreciate, he gets excited when it’s called for, but doesn’t constantly over do it like many analysts these days seem to do.
Lifetime Achievement: Jimmie Johnson
Jimmie Johnson is one of the three greatest NASCAR drivers of all-time. You can argue against that if you want, but the fact is his seven Cup Series championships are tied with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for the most all-time and that’s a good enough reason for me to include him and those other two legends in the all-time top three drivers conversation. Before the 2020 season Johnson surprised some folks by announcing it would be his last year in the sport. Unfortunately, the season wasn’t the fairytale he probably hoped for, he didn’t win a race for the third straight season (which still dumbfounds me) and his fans didn’t get to wish him well in person with COVID-19 causing most races to be run without fans in attendance and the tracks that did allow fans cut capacity down severely. Despite not going out on a high note, Johnson certainly made a huge impact on the sport. And, if you’re a fan you can watch him do something exciting and new in 2021 when he joins the IndyCar Series for its road and street course races.