Against all odds, a vintage year

Sure shots, long shots and once-in-a-lifetime shots – 2004 had them all.

It was an over-the-top, out-of-control year, sensational in glorious and scandalous senses.

Halley’s Comet comes around every 76 years. The Boston Red Sox hadn’t won the World Series in 86 years.

Nobody ever won a World Series or even a league championship down 0-3 in games, much less three outs from a sweep.

A gutsy bettor with blind faith in the Red Sox could have made millions plunking down dough on them at that particularly bleak moment when a sweep by their ancient and annual enemy, the New York Yankees, seemed inevitable.

It took a self-proclaimed team of ‘idiots,’ undaunted by history or curses, to flip fate and make 2004 one of sport’s greatest vintage years.

One of the most enduring images of the year – illustrating what it took to win and what it meant to those who did – was the bloodstained sock of Curt Schilling. It gave new meaning to Red Sox and belongs in the Hall of Fame.

Stitched to pitch, Schilling inspired his teammates and lifted the suffering generations of Red Sox Nation scattered around the globe. It was a medical miracle, if not a heavenly one, the very opposite of what Boston’s many pessimistic fans had come to expect.

The signs at Fenway read ‘Believe,’ and millions did, even if they feared down to the last out that something, somehow would go wrong as it always had since 1918.

Yet Schilling delivered and David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Jason Varitek, Johnny Damon, Kevin Millar, Orlando Cabrera and the others did the rest, stunning the Yankees and sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals in the most amazing team comeback in sports history. ‘1918 is gone forever,’ Boston outfielder Trot Nixon said when the Series ended. ‘We’re not going to have to hear about that again.’

He was wrong, though in a good way. These Red Sox will hear forever how they broke the so-called Curse of the Bambino.

Roll back the calendar to Jan. 1 and imagine betting on the New England Patriots to win the Super Bowl en route to an NFL-record 21-game winning streak and the Boston Red Sox to sweep the World Series in the same year. What would you have won if you parlayed those with bets on the starless Detroit Pistons to win the NBA title and the Sunshine State’s Tampa Bay Lightning to win the Stanley Cup?

What if, along the way, you ran up the winnings by betting that a single school would win the men’s and women’s Final Four in basketball. No school ever had. Connecticut did.

And what were the odds back then that Vijay Singh would win nine times in the year, become golf’s first US$10 million man, and replace Tiger Woods as No. 1 in the world?

Or that Switzerland’s Roger Federer, uncoached, would become the first man since 1988 to win three Grand Slam tennis titles?

‘Roger just played too good today,’ Andy Roddick said after losing to Federer in the Wimbledon final. ‘I threw the kitchen sink at him, but he went to the bathroom and got a tub.’

Singh and Federer weren’t huge shocks to rise to the top of their sports, but to win on the scale they did was extraordinary.

There was far less surprise in seeing Lance Armstrong pedal to a record sixth straight Tour de France, Michael Schumacher win a seventh Formula One title or Kurt Busch capture NASCAR’s Nextel Cup in a new championship format.

Nor, despite their advanced age, was there astonishment in seeing Roger Clemens win a record seventh Cy Young award or Barry Bonds join Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron in the 700-homer club while winning a record seventh MVP.

Clemens retired from the Yankees, unretired for his hometown Houston Astros, and had one of his finest seasons. Bonds shrugged off a federal grand jury appearance, a thousand questions about steroids and the arrest of his personal trainer in the BALCO case, and, at 40, had a career year.

They, like Ichiro Suzuki, whose record 262 hits broke George Sisler’s 84-year-old mark, gave the season a golden hue.

Michael Phelps imposed himself in such a way at the Athens Olympics, winning eight medals, six of them gold and none a surprise. If Phelps didn’t quite match Mark Spitz’s record haul of seven individual golds in 1972, he still ruled the pool.

Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj, the greatest middle-distance runner of all time, elevated the games by winning the 1,500 gold after failing twice before, then added the 5,000 – a double that hadn’t been accomplished since Paavo Nurmi did it in 1924.

Argentina pulled the upset of the games, winning gold in men’s basketball while a humiliated U.S. team settled for bronze.

It was a year to take pleasure in the overachievement of little Saint Joseph’s, No. 1 in the men’s basketball poll, and to cheer for Smarty Jones, the Seabiscuit of our times. Smarty Jones won millions of fans in his bid for the Triple Crown, and they loved him still even when he came up a length short in the Belmont.

Peyton Manning’s pursuit of Dan Marino’s season TD passing mark – 48 in 1984 – has been a wonder to watch, especially seeing him doing it with poise and class and none of the phony celebrations that some other players have displayed.

‘I thought 48 was something no one would touch or get close to,’ Marino said, adding that if he had to yield the record to anyone he’d be proud that Manning is the one.

We needed all those good times to get us past the embarrassments, scandals and violence that permeated the sports landscape.

Janet Jackson’s ‘wardrobe malfunction’ in the Super Bowl halftime show, exposing her right breast to an audience of 90 million, brought a wave of condemnation, but more serious matters blew through the seasons.

After 15 years of denials, Pete Rose admitted to betting on baseball and his own Cincinnati Reds, but he remained banned from the game and ineligible for the place that would otherwise surely be his in the Hall of Fame. There were the allegations of rapes and sexual favors for recruits at the University of Colorado, which made far more of a splash when they came out than when they were dismissed as unfounded. There was the sexual assault case against Kobe Bryant that was nightly news until the prosecution dropped the charges when his accuser said she did not want to participate in the trial. The 26-year-old Los Angeles Lakers star has said the sex was consensual, but the woman is pursuing damages in a civil case.

Hockey wasn’t even a shadow. The NHL was shut down, possibly for the 2004-05 season and beyond, when team owners locked out the players to press their demands for a salary cap.

The BALCO investigation, which began the summer before last, goes on, with recent allegations by the company’s founder that he was secretly juicing up the world’s fastest couple, Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery, among others in the Olympics, baseball and the NFL.

For all the sensationalist headlines and federal grand jury leaks, baseball attendance stayed high, except in Montreal, which lost the Expos to Washington, D.C., the first team to move since the Senators became the Texas Rangers in 1971.

The Athens Olympics were also unfazed even as a doping scandal touched the games right from the start when the top two Greek runners, Kostis Kenteris and Katerina Thanou, missed drugs tests claiming they had been involved in a motorcycle accident they are now charged with faking. Two dozen athletes were busted for drugs – more than twice the number in Sydney four years earlier – yet that was hailed as a success.

‘These were the games where it became increasingly difficult to cheat,’ IOC chief Jacques Rogge said at the closing ceremony.