Return to Greatness
by Mike Maloney(Other)
Posted on October 16, 2006, 11:20 PM
Growing up in the Chicago area, I remember a lot of successful sports teams. I don't really remember the Bears winning Super Bowl XX, but I do remember the hype that still surrounded it when I went to Kindergarten a couple years later. I remember watching Michael Jordan and the Bulls winning six championships. I remember the Blackhawks actually fielding consistently good teams, culminating in a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1992, although they ended up losing. I also remember the White Sox sniffing the World Series in 1993 before losing to the Blue Jays in the ALCS, only to come out even stronger in 1994 only to have their great season cut short due to the strike. I remember the Cubs... ...well, they did actually win a playoff game in 1989. Chicago sports really carried a lot of momentum, beginning with the Bears in 1985, and ending with the Bulls last title in 1998. However, seven championships and seventeen division titles later, the city seemed to run out of gas.
The Blackhawks followed up their Finals appearance in 1992 with another Norris division title in 1993, only to lose in the second round of the playoffs. They have not won a division title since, and have only qualified for the playoffs once since 1997 which, considering how many teams make the playoffs in the NHL, is a real testament to how poorly the team has played. Much of this can be blamed on the owner, Bill Wirtz, who has done everything possible to completely destroy the Blackhawks dedicated fanbase. Longtime Chicago stars Ed Belfour, Jeremy Roenick, Chris Chelios, and Tony Amonte were traded away, and Wirtz began blacking out home games. As the team diminished in talent, ticket prices remained the same, causing the AHL Chicago Wolves at one point a few years ago to actually outdraw the Blackhawks in terms of average fan attendance. The Blackhawks currently have the longest Stanley Cup drought in the NHL (Last cup was in 1961). The Blackhawks really do a better job of illustrating the rise and fall of Chicago sports than they do of representing the current upward trend most teams are experiencing, but they're still a major sports team in Chicago, so they needed to be mentioned.
After the White Sox peaked in 1994, a season where they seemed destined to win another AL West title, where Frank Thomas seemed destined to make another run for the Triple Crown, and where the Sox seemed destined to try and win their first World Series in 75 years, baseball went on strike, and the White Sox were never the same. They only went to the playoffs once between 1993 and 2005 (2000 they lost in the first round to the Seattle Mariners), and their most memorable moment during that stretch was probably the infamous "White Flag Trade" that saw the Sox give up one of their best starting pitchers in Wilson Alvarez, their closer in Roberto Hernandez, and another pitcher Danny Darwin. In return, the Sox received six minor leaguers from the Giants, including Keith Foulke. The White Sox at the time of the trade were only 3.5 games back of the division leading Cleveland Indians at the end of July. Jerry Reinsdorf, owner of both the Sox and the Chicago Bulls, received a lot of criticism for seemingly giving up halfway through the season. However, the Sox eventually transitioned in a new team. Out was Lance Johnson, Tim Raines, Ozzie Guillen, Robin Ventura, Jack McDowell, and Wilson Alvarez. In was (Manager) Ozzie Guillen, Jon Garland, Mark Buerlhe, Paul Konerko, and A.J. Pierzynski. The White Sox seemingly came out of nowhere in 2005, expected to be a good team, but nowhere near as talented as they showed themselves to be for much of the season and the playoffs, defeating the Houston Astros in the World Series to break the second-longest WS drought in all of baseball. After getting so close to the top in 1993 and 1994, the Sox finally got there in 2005.
The Chicago Bears had one of the best seasons in NFL history in 1985, going 15-1 en route to a victory in Super Bowl XX. Thanks to Jim McMahon, Walter Payton, Mike Singletary, and of course, Mike Ditka, Chicago won its first Super Bowl in team history (The team has won many championships, but none since the Super Bowl officially started in the 60s). The success of the Bears in the 80s led to a skit on Saturday Night Live called "The Superfans", which I was actually watching last week and inspired me to write this column to begin with. The Bears had had won their division in 1984 as well, only to lose to the San Fransisco 49ers in the NFC Championship. They won their division again in 1986, 1987, 1988, and 1990, although they never got back to the Super Bowl. The Bears would then struggle for much of the 1990s, only finishing second once in 1991, and squeaking in as a wildcard playoff team in 1994 after finishing 4th in the division. What the 1980s were to the Bears, the 1990s were to the Green Bay Packers. The Bears took a backseat in the NFL Central, and would go through a very long stretch of unsuccessful quarterbacks and running backs, struggling to find their identity. The Bears have only recently started regaining their identity, when Lovie Smith took over as head coach. The Bears began to play superb defense, and in 2005 they had one of the best defenses in the league. Unfortunately, their attempt to find a permanent QB for the forseeable future hit a speed bump as draft prospect Rex Grossman missed most of his second consecutive season due to injury. As dominating as their defense was, their offense, led by Purdue alum Kyle Orton, struggled mightily, and the Bears were knocked off in the playoffs. 2006 is a new year, and whatever issues the team had on offense have disappeared, as Rex Grossman has emerged as one of the better QBs this season, and with WR Bernard Berriam having a breakout season along with RB Thomas Jones having another solid year, the Bears have managed to equal on offense their abilities on defense (Of course, as I work on this, Chicago is losing to the Arizona Cardinals 20-3 in the 3rd quarter. Figures). The Bears seem poised to go far into the playoffs, and a Super Bowl appearance after 20 years could be in the cards.
While Chicago teams have been considered successful for much of the 80s and the 90s, only two of the teams actually won championships during this time, the Bears, and the Chicago Bulls. The Bulls were without a doubt the most successful Chicago franchise during this time, winning six NBA titles in eight years. Much of this success was due to arguably the greatest basketball player of all-time, Michael Jordan. Accompanying him was one of the greatest head coaches of all time, Phil Jackson, and possibly the most underrated player of all-time, Scottie Pippen, who will never get the respect he deserves because he just happened to be teammates with Michael Jordan. Add a cast of solid, albeit unspectacular role players in BJ Armstrong, John Paxson, Horace Grant, Bill Cartwright, Toni Kukoc, and Dennis Rodman, and you have one of the better dynasties in NBA history. The Bulls peaked in 1995-1996, winning an NBA record 72 games, and going 12-3 in the playoffs en route to championship #4. However, as high as the Bulls were during their run, they dropped just as low following the 1998 championship. The team disbanded, and Jordan retired (again), Jackson took a year off, Rodman sort of wandered away, and Pippen was traded. A team that sported a starting lineup of Ron Harper, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, and Luc Longley and won 62 games, the following year featured a lineup of Randy Brown, Ron Harper, Toni Kukoc, Brent Barry, and Bill Wennington. The Bulls would only win 66 games combined over the next 4 years, as poor personnel decisions (Drafting Elton Brand and Ron Artest, only to trade them for players such as Tyson Chandler and Jalen Rose), along with draft picks failing to pan out (Chandler, Eddie Curry, Jay WIlliams), led to some of the darkest days for the Chicago Bulls franchise. But the light at the end of the tunnel came in the form of Jerry Krause, GM of the Bulls, stepping down due to health reasons, and former Bulls sharpshooter John Paxson taking over as GM. Paxson would begin to restructure the team, drafting Kirk Hinrich, Ben Gordon, Chris Duhon, and Luol Deng, and signing Andres Nocioni. The Bulls return to the playoffs came in 2005, as they finished 47-35, and lost to the Wizards in 6 games. Despite a small step back in 2005-2006, the Bulls once again made the playoffs, and gave the Miami Heat a run for their money, playing them tough before losing in 6 games. Lacking veteran presence, the Bulls dealt underachiever Tyson Chandler, and signed free agent Ben Wallace, along with picking up locker room leader PJ Brown. While the Bulls probably won't be getting to the NBA Finals this year, the team overall is very young, very aggressive, and have set themselves up well for a possible championship in 2008. After 6 championships in 8 years, the Bulls missed the playoffs for six straight years, and are now coming around as one of the leagues premier teams once again.
Well, I guess it would just be too convenient for all five Chicago teams to help my argument. With that being said, the last team on the list is, of course, the Chicago Cubs. The Bears, Bulls, and White Sox have all won championships within the last 21 years. The Blackhawks have made to the Stanley Cup Finals. The Cubs? Well, the closest thing they have to a bright spot is making it to the 2003 NLCS, which is funny since I consider it to be one of the more painful Cubs memories I have. I won't get into too much detail on the season, since I talked about it here and here. But to be honest, the Cubs don't really fit the model. They were pretty bad in the 80s, managing to win their division in 1989, and they were pretty bad in the 1990s, making the wildcard in 1998. While there seems to be some attempt by management to put together something resembling a good team, the Cubs are yet to overcome the the fact that they are the Cubs and actually put together a solid team outside of 2003. Ironically enough, Wood and Prior were healthy for most (not all) of that season. The Cubs certainly seem to be a few steps away from being a talented team, but again, there is that whole "But we're still the Cubs" factor. I'd like to say they're on the upswing, but considering their last place finish last year (below the PIRATES!), it'd be kind of hard to not be on the upswing.
So there we have it. Five teams, many of which saw a lot of success and a few championships in the mid/late 80s and the early/mid 90s, only to completely flounder in the late 90s/early 00s (Should it be 2000s? I have no idea). Over the past few years, the teams seem to be turning things around. The Bears are setting their sites for a date in Miami early next year, the Bulls are looking for a championship possibly in the next few years, the White Sox won the World Series in 2005, the Cubs have...potential, and the Blackhawks...well, no one in Chicago cares about hockey anymore anyways (Thanks Bill Wirtz, jerk.). I'll admit that I'm not even a fan of all the teams here in Chicago; I grew up a Green Bay Packers fan, and my loyalty to the White Sox died out sometime around the Strike in 1994, and I've been solely focused on the pain of being a Cubs fan ever since. I used to be a 'Hawks fan back in the day, but I stopped watching with everyone else when Wirtz killed the fanbase here in Chicago. Despite all that, there is something cool about the whole aura the city of Chicago has with the recent success of many of our teams. There has to be some kind of positive repercussions from all this, how else could I have actually been so inspired to write about the successes of the Bears and the White Sox?