With empty stadiums at the start of the year and mass postponements and cancellations of games at the end, 2021 probably wasn’t the greatest for watching televised sports.
But there was a lot to watch. And if there was a game televised and a screen to view it on, there is a good chance we tuned in on our flat-screens, laptops, tablets or smartphones.
Everything is subjective, of course, but here are some of the favorite things I watched from a couch, comfy chair or barstool in 2021.
Best new show
ESPN made the bold move to create a show that would compete directly against its own “Monday Night Football,” airing it alongside the game on ESPN2. The so-called “ManningCast,” featuring brothers Peyton and Eli Manning, proved to be an instant hit.
The Manning brothers are not only very good at analyzing games, but Peyton proved to be an adept interviewer of guests, mostly from the sports and entertainment worlds. Special guests aside, it’s the repartee between the brothers that really makes it work. The Mannings are at their best when they’re making fun of each other, the way only siblings can do.
If you haven’t seen it, catch the Week 17 “ManningCast” on Monday when the Pittsburgh Steelers host the Cleveland Browns in what could be quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s final home game with the franchise. The Mannings’ season finale will be ESPN’s wild-card broadcast, which should be epic.
Best studio analysts
Ozzie Guillen and Frank Thomas. While covering them as players with the Chicago White Sox in the 1990s and early 2000s, I never would’ve guessed they one day would pair up to bring us the best pre- and postgame baseball show on TV.
It’s funny, incisive and never too rah-rah, though obviously they’re both happier when the Sox win. Sometimes their NBC Sports Chicago show hosted by Chuck Garfien — a good-natured foil for their ribbing — is more interesting to watch than the game.
There was none better than Fox Sports’ broadcast of the Field of Dreams game between the Sox and New York Yankees, from actor Kevin Costner walking silently out of the cornfield followed by the players to Tim Anderson’s walk-off home run.
What could’ve been a hokey, made-for-TV event turned into an instant classic that can’t be replicated. Naturally, MLB decided to do it again next summer with a game between the Cubs and Cincinnati Reds. Good luck with that.
Best in-game call
Cubs broadcasters Jon “Boog” Sciambi and Jim Deshaies were doing the Marquee Sports Network telecast remotely from Wrigley Field on May 27 when the Cubs traveled to Pittsburgh, but still delivered a call for the ages on what looked like a routine play.
After initially running to first on a grounder to third, former Cubs shortstop Javier Báez retreated back toward home to avoid a tag by the first baseman, allowing a run to score on a botched play and making it all the way to second.
“Keep going, go, go …” Deshaies excitedly said as if communicating to Báez. “You’re invisible.”
The New York Times named it one of their favorite plays of the year. You can’t help but laugh watching it unfold.
Nothing compares to Ken Burns’ PBS documentary “Muhammed Ali,” an engaging account of the life and times of the most famous figure in the history of sports. While it lauded Ali for his stance on the Vietnam War and civil rights issues, Burns didn’t ignore Ali’s infidelities or the inappropriate manner in which he treated his archrival, Joe Frazier.
Also worth watching was “All Madden,” the Fox Sports documentary on the legendary John Madden, who went from Super Bowl-winning coach to ubiquitous TV pitch man to unparalleled NFL analyst to co-developer of one of the world’s most popular sports video games. Unfortunately, it originally aired on Christmas Day, when most people were occupied with family and not football, a few days before Madden’s death. It aired it again Wednesday on FS1 and Thursday on FOX-32.
I didn’t catch the documentary on quarterback Tom Brady, “Man In the Arena.” Frankly, I’ve had quite enough of watching that guy, who never was as interesting as his talent would suggest.
Final round, the Masters.
Hideki Matsuyama carried a four-stroke lead entering the final round, but his game ebbed and flowed and the lead shrank as they approached the last few holes. Matsuyama finished with a one-stroke victory to become the first player from Japan to win the Masters and the first Japanese man to win a major.
But what made the 2021 Masters so memorable was having it take place in the spring again after the 2020 tournament was switched to November because of the COVID-19 postponement. It just didn’t seem right in the fall. The Masters belongs in April, when the azaleas and dogwoods are in bloom and the tinkling of the piano serves as the perfect background music.
Best rain delay
During an early-season delay in Detroit, Sox announcer Jason Benetti gave a play-by-play of Tigers fans biding their time in the rain.
When one fan took off his shirt and began walking around the stadium while other fans avoided making contact, Benetti cracked: “Shirtless man always has the right of way.” So true.
Best Hall of Fame event
While Derek Jeter’s Cooperstown induction in July dominated the Hall of Fame events, catcher Ted Simmons stole the show for many with one of the best Hall speeches I’ve heard.
Simmons gave credit to former players who paved the way for free agency, including Curt Flood, Catfish Hunter and Andy Messersmith, and saluted unappreciated baseball lifers such as scout Gordon Lakey and minor-league instructor George Kissell, a St. Louis Cardinals legend. Simmons even ended his speech with a quote from a Beatles song: “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”
A close second was the induction speech of NFL great Edgerrin James, who dealt with unfair perceptions because he refused to conform and cut off his trademark dreadlocks. James was one of the first stars to wear dreads, which are now common.
“Proudly represent the real you,” James said. “Follow your dreams, aim high and create the life you want to live. And to all those who have been judged prematurely because of their appearance, the way they speak, where they come from and in the minds of many should be locked up in prison, I represent us.”
Not sure how Bears fans could’ve survived 2021 without the channel to take their minds off the team’s weekly ineptitude. The Week 14 telecast, when RedZone was switching back-and-forth between two late afternoon overtime games (San Francisco 49ers-Cincinnati Bengals and Tampa Bay Buccaneers-Buffalo Bills), was the most riveting half hour of sports all year.
Scott Hanson is a master studio host, keeping everyone informed on the game situations and updating the big playmakers for fantasy football fans. It’s the one added cable fee my family would never complain about.