Tony La Russa

White Sox manager Tony La Russa makes a pitching change in the sixth inning during a game at Guaranteed Rate Field on May 16, 2021. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Trying to come to grips with the state of the sports world in the final days of 2021 isn’t easy.

We’re ending the year the way we began it, stressing over our favorite athletes and teams while another COVID-19 surge forces colleges and professional sports leagues to put their fingers on the pause button again.

And that’s a shame for 2021, a year that rekindled our love for watching live sports in packed stadiums and celebrating with each other in the up-close-and-personal manner we had grown accustomed to in the “before” times.

The crowd of partying Milwaukee Bucks fans watching playoff games in the “Deer District” outside of Fiserv Forum provided us with a clear reminder of how much fun sports can be.

“It’s what we do this for and why we love sports because it creates this community,” Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell said in September. “The Deer District and that scene for the city, that’s what we want when we belong to a community.

“In these times, when people are arguing about everything, that’s what we want to see. That’s very hopeful and inspiring.”

As hopeful and inspiring as those celebrations were, we won’t just remember the wild rides of the Bucks, the Bucs and other championship teams but the variants and vaccine statuses that became as much a part of our consciousness as batting averages and quarterback efficiency ratings. The joy of the Deer District was followed closely by the news of a COVID-19 outbreak of nearly 500 people in the crowd. 

So how will we remember 2021?

It was the year of the unwritten rules, as interpreted by Chicago’s preeminent unwritten rules expert, White Sox manager Tony La Russa, and the year that all rules  were subject to change, such as MLB’s early season edict mandating inspections of pitchers for “sticky stuff” and the NFL’s late-season switch on teams forfeiting games because of COVID-19 outbreaks.

New rules prohibiting fouls on “non-basketball moves” in NBA games became known as the “Harden Rule,” while an added emphasis on NFL taunting rules led to even more subjective penalties in an era of unapologetic celebrating.

And as football cracked down, baseball went in the opposite direction, promoting its most Instagrammable celebrations, such as players riding in shopping carts through dugouts after home runs.

It was the year that reaffirmed Newton’s third law — for every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction.

New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick missed out on the NFL playoffs at the start of the new year, and Duke failed to get into the NCAA Tournament in March. They were not missed, except by those who love to hate the perennial winners.

But Belichick is back now, looking as disheveled as ever and threatening to ruin our 2022 Super Bowl parties. Duke is ranked second in the latest college basketball poll and seemingly primed to return  to our March Madness office pool sheets, even as we’re no longer working in offices.

Tiger Woods suffered career-threatening leg injuries in a single-car crash in February but was back pulling at our heartstrings in December, playing  in a tournament with his 12-year-old son, Charlie. The patented “Tiger Comeback” story is only a Masters away.

It was the year of the old guys and gals, starting with La Russa’s return to the White Sox dugout at age 76, where he led the team to its first division title since 2008 but lost in the playoffs to a younger manager — the Houston Astros’ 72-year-old Dusty Baker.

Max Scherzer went 15-4 with the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers, then signed a three-year, $130 million deal with the New York Mets at age 37. LeBron James, 36, continued to dominate on the court in his 19th NBA season, while his “Space Jam” sequel finished atop the box office on opening weekend in July. “Hi Haters!” James tweeted, adding a grinning emoji.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady won his seventh Super Bowl ring at age 43 and nearly tossed the Lombardi Trophy into the bay, proving you still can’t trust old people with expensive things. Loyola Ramblers legend Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt got back to the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 at age 101 after correctly predicting the Ramblers’ second-round upset of top-seeded Illinois.

It was the year of fakes, from coach Brian Kelly’s fake Southern accent after leaving Notre Dame for the LSU vacancy to the fake COVID-19 vaccination card that got Bucs receiver Antonio Brown suspended to the fake pearls Atlanta Braves fans wore in tribute to outfielder Joc Pederson, who wore the real deal during games in a modern-day twist on sports bling.

It was the year of tone-deaf messaging, in which changing the narrative was easier to say than do. The Cubs owners, the Ricketts family, held a ceremony in August congratulating themselves on “preserving” Wrigley Field — shortly after the massive sell-off of players. The Cubs had a .250 winning percentage (14-42) in a 56-game stretch a few days before the back-patting celebration.

Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts, White Sox and Bulls Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and Blackhawks Chairman Rocky Wirtz successfully lobbied the City Council Joint Committee in December to allow for legalized gambling sites at stadiums their teams play in. Meanwhile, MLB  owners locked out players in a contract dispute.

The Blackhawks in April absolved themselves of any mistakes in the Brad Aldrich incident after a former top prospect filed a lawsuit against the team alleging sexual assault. “We believe the allegations against the organization lack merit and we are confident the team will be absolved of any wrongdoing,” the Hawks said in a statement. They changed course after an independent review by Jenner & Block exposed the organization’s mishandling of the incident, leading to the resignation of President of Hockey Operations Stan Bowman and an eventual settlement with the player, Kyle Beach.

The McCaskey family, owner of the Bears, tried to turn the focus from their inept team to a site in Arlington Heights on which they hope someday to build a new stadium. It worked, but only for a couple of days.

It was the year of the instant classic, including Sox shortstop Tim Anderson’s walk-off home run in the Field of Dreams game and the half-court, buzzer-beating shot by Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs in the Final Four. The exuberance of 18-year-old Emma Raducanu of Great Britain, who won 20 straight sets to capture the women’s title at the U.S. Open, was one to remember, as was Hideki Matsuyama’s one-shot victory in the Masters.

It was the year when no-no’s became normalized, with a major-league-record nine no-hitters, the most since 1884. White Sox starter Carlos Rodon threw one, and the Cubs had four pitchers combine on a no-no before going on a 11-game losing streak. And it was a year when we said hello and goodbye to Sox designated hitter Yermín Mercedes and Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta, whose final, miserable start was made memorable by his postgame request to a reporter on a Zoom call that he remove his mask.

It was the year when Cro-Magnon behavior got its comeuppance, with former Los Angeles Angels manager Mickey Callaway, former New York Mets general manager Jared Porter, Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Trevor Bauer, Braves outfielder Marcell Ozuna, Jacksonville Jaguars coach Urban Meyer and Las Vegas Raiders coach Jon Gruden among the legion of badly behaving men in sports.

And finally, it was the year of made-for-Twitter beefs, including Scottie Pippen’s long-bubbling resentment at former Bulls teammate Michael Jordan and his grudge against former coach Phil Jackson for letting Toni Kukoč take a game-winning shot in 1994 instead of him. Jordan and Jackson opted to ignore the criticism, at least publicly, though it certainly puts a damper on a possible 40-year reunion in 2031 of the Bulls’ first title.

Mets players, led by former Cub Javier Báez, became the first athletes to boo their fans, using a thumbs-down gesture to show their displeasure. Golfers Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau continued their forever beef, exchanging unpleasantries like pro wrestlers, then competed in one of those made-for-TV showdowns that geezer Bobby Riggs invented in his 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” match against Billie Jean King. For the record, Koepka and King won.

The most one-sided feud of 2021 pitted Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers against millions of Bears fans. “All my (bleeping) life, I own you,” Rodgers yelled to Bears fans after running for a 6-yard touchdown at Soldier Field, shortly before his lie about being “immunized” was exposed.

But the best beef perhaps was the long-running battle of Kyrie Irving versus the world — the same world the Brooklyn Nets star once proclaimed to be flat. Irving sat out the opening months of the season after declining to get vaccinated, which meant he couldn’t play home games because of New York’s COVID-19 regulations. By December the Nets allowed Irving back for road games after an outbreak left them short-handed. One day after rejoining the Nets, Irving entered the NBA’s health and safety protocols after testing positive for COVID-19.

That leaves us with the most prominent unwritten rule of 2021: Health and safety are essential for all teams, but winning comes first.

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