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The 2012 insideSTL Sportsperson of The Year

When it came down to it, two names kept getting mentioned. And if you’re a St. Louis Area sports fan, it’s a hell of a positive, because that means two franchises who have had a really bad 10 years are on their way back.

It also speaks volumes for the belief in these men that in a year in which the Cardinals were a win from the World Series, a Cardinal, when it got down to it, wasn’t in the top two for insideSTL Sportsperson of The Year.

Here’s an attempt at summing up the St. Louis Area sports scene right now in a paragraph: The Cardinals continued their amazing run of consistency since 2000 with another great season in 2012, and they’re primed for another run in 2013. After struggling for the vast majority of the last decade, the Rams, Blues, and Missouri basketball look to have a foundation for some near-term major success. The Fighting Illini basketball team is off to a damn good start under John Groce. The Billikens’ team had a good 2012, but the program suffered the ultimate loss with the passing of Rick Majerus. How the athletic department fills that void will determine whether or not Majerus’ momentum will continue. And on the college football side, 2012 was bad…and 2013 could lead to a big change 125 miles to the west. Illinois was awful, but it was Tim Beckman’s first season. Missouri was not as bad, but per Gabe DeArmond of PowerMizzou.com, “20 BCS teams missed a bowl. Nine of those fired their coaches. Only four missed a bowl, have been at their school three years or more, and got to keep their job. Of those four, Gary Pinkel is the only one not to win a conference title and make a BCS bowl game.”

I’m not sure any of the local teams entered 2012 with more buzz than Missouri football. I’m certain that no local team enters 2013 with more question marks than Missouri football.

But, considering how bad the Rams were a year ago, considering that the Blues had to fire their head coach 13 months ago, and considering about 5% of the fan base knew who Frank Haith was when he was hired 20 months ago, the belief in those teams’ near-term future combined with the consistency of the Cardinals conveys the idea that 2013 has the potential to be a hell of a year.

Before turning the page on 2012, we acknowledge those local sports figures who had outstanding years…and the one person who joins Sam Bradford (2010) and David Freese (2011) as the insideSTL Sportsperson of The Year.

Here’s who members of TheITDRoll.com Morning After chose as the Sportsperson of The Year:

The Cat: Ken Hitchcock: He not only transformed the blues season, but also the way fans feel about the team. A just happy to be in the playoffs sentiment gave way to the thinking that maybe they CAN win it all. Imagine the excitement if they played this season.

Doug: Jeff Fisher: Fisher is the sports person of the year for returning the Rams to respectability. He took over a woeful roster and a team that had become a punch line and kept them in the playoff hunt until the 15th game of the season.

Producer Joe: Stan Kroenke: E. Stanley Kroenke...for at least right now.

Iggy: Steven Jackson: 8 straight years he has gone over 1000 yards rushing on some pretty crappy teams. He is the constant professional and does so much for this community that largely goes unnoticed. This could be his last year as a Ram and needs to be recognized as one of the community’s most giving athletes, both on and off the field.

Zaaaaaccccckkkkk: Jeff Fisher: I think Haith and Hitchcock are close runner-ups. Fisher is the answer though. To take the Rams from 2-14 to almost making the playoffs and being "in the hunt" until the second to last week of the season is astonishing. The team has adopted the Fisher MO of playing tough defense. The whole turnaround of the team has put life back into the team and this team can keep getting better under Fisher for years to come.

Before unveiling the Top Five and our 2012 insideSTL Sportsperson of The Year, here’s a look at some of the names receiving votes but not cracking the Top Five:


Rick Majerus: I almost want to put him in his own category. He did quite a bit for the Billiken basketball program, but he clearly impacted many around town with his unique personality. His passing is a shame for so many reasons. From a basketball perspective, it would have been awfully intriguing to see what he could do with this year’s team. From a conference perspective, he would’ve loved the idea of the potential for Saint Louis U. to join the new “Catholic Conference.” And, from a personality perspective, I think Majerus was becoming more and more comfortable with St. Louis and more and more a part of the community. His final public appearance couldn’t have been more fitting: an overmatched team battling a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament…one of his players crying his eyes out as he raved about how much he loved his coach…and Majerus going from one topic to the next in answering questions that weren’t asked…but also getting emotional when thinking about not getting a chance to coach his kids again.




Steven Jackson: Another year, another 1,000 yards. No game summed up Jackson’s determination better than the Rams’ tie in San Francisco. He grinded and grinded for extra yardage…and he picked up a blitz with a monster hit on Patrick Willis allowing the Rams to score a touchdown. Jackson handled splitting time with Daryl Richardson with no issue. And, despite not getting as many carries, Jackson still put up solid offensive numbers in a not-so-solid offense. He averaged four yards per carry…and after catching just 12 balls in the first half of the season, the Rams made sure to get it to him much more in the second half. He caught 26 balls in the final eight games, including 16 in the final three. If there’s any justice, Jackson will be back for another year with the Rams…and 2013 will finally be a year in which he will be on an NFL team with a winning record.




Doug Armstrong: My guess is that if they were playing, Armstrong would be getting much more attention. But, seeing as the Blues’ last victory was close to eight months ago, I suppose it’s somewhat easy for fans to overlook the man who played a huge role in putting that team together. The NHL thought enough of his work to give him The 2012 General Manager of The Year Award in June. With the players in place in St. Louis and a bunch of young talent scattered all over, Armstrong’s foundation is strong.




John Mozeliak: He put a team together that was one win away from the World Series, and he did so with losing a number of key pieces both before the season and during it. Who would’ve ever thought that Edward Mujica would wind up being a key acquisition? But, the most exciting part about Mozeliak’s work may not be the players Cardinal fans already know. It’s the ones who are lurking in that ridiculously strong farm system. The Nationals and Giants got a little taste of what’s coming for the rest of the league with the onslaught of Trevor Rosenthal, Shelby Miller, and Joe Kelly. But, names like Michael Wacha, Kolten Wong, and the big one, Oscar Taveras, are going to be key pieces for the Cardinals within the next couple of years…whether it be here in St. Louis or in acquiring a big-time player via trade.



 
Kevin Demoff: I’m not sure anybody in town has a tougher job than Demoff. He has to be the public voice for The Man of Mystery, Stan Kroenke. This year, he had to deal with The Dome Issue, hire a head coach, and also be the John Davidson for the Rams…answering questions when the organization screwed up (see: London). But, Demoff has people buying in. He landed Fisher. He also brought in a guy who doesn’t get much credit---but based on his early work he most definitely should: Les Snead. And, he acknowledged that the Rams made a mistake with the London disaster. Fans just want to have a reason to believe, and Demoff has been able to pull off acquiring some “buy-in” from the public despite a team that hasn’t had a winning record since 2003…and a future home---here or elsewhere---that is still cloudy as of this moment. I don’t envy his position, but I respect the job he’s done in it.


The Top Five:


5. Mike Matheny: A rookie manager taking his team to eight wins in the playoffs? Just about anywhere else, that would get that person the local sportsperson of the year. Here…it gets Matheny #5. But, that’s partly a credit to Matheny, because I don’t think too many people were surprised by his success. Even though the Cardinals lost the final three games of the NLCS, I don’t think too many---if any---fans put the blame on Matheny…and that’s really saying something. It’s a credit to Matheny, but it’s also an illustration of the domination of the Giants in Games 5, 6, and 7. Sure, he inherited a World Champion, but that just doesn’t tell the whole story. Matheny had to replace Tony La Russa, Dave Duncan, and Albert Pujols heading into Spring Training, and by the end of it, he had to replace Chris Carpenter. By the end of May, he had to replace Lance Berkman. With the exception of David Freese, I’m not sure you could hand pick five more important figures in the 2011 World Championship than those guys…and Matheny took this year’s team to within a win of a World Series without all of them…until Carpenter’s late season return. His players liked and respected him…and fans appreciated the fact that he didn’t get in the way. Considering improvement with experience would logically seem inevitable, 2012 was a hell of a starting point for Matheny.




4. Frank Haith: How big of a surprise has Haith been? Well, he lost to Norfolk State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, and despite that, many voted Haith as The 2012 insideSTL Sportsperson of The Year. For those who wanted to take credit away from Haith by saying he was doing it all with Mike Anderson’s players, look at what he’s done so far this season. The Tigers went from an offensive team making the extra pass to create the open look in 2011-12 to a team full of new faces specializing in defense and rebounding nine months later. Haith has the signature loss of Norfolk State on his resume, and he also saw his teams blow a 19-point lead at Lawrence and a nine-point lead with five minutes to play at UCLA. They’ve got to learn to close out those potential signature wins on the road. But, at least they’re in a position to do so…and it’s not coming as a surprise. In a short amount of time, Haith has taken Missouri basketball from the 40 Minutes of Chaos that he found to a program built for the potential of a big run this March…and beyond.




3. Yadier Molina: Maybe my read is off, but I don’t know if there’s a more underappreciated star in baseball than Yadier Molina. You don’t have to be Brett Hull or Tyoka Jackson with the media and fans, but Molina’s shyness and lack of comfort with doing interviews has played a role in what I think is a lack of appreciation locally---but much moreso nationally---for how great of a ballplayer he is. ESPN can’t do commercials that will catch on with him, and on the other side of things, Molina doesn’t do anything bad on or off the field, so he’s just this guy who goes about doing his job really, really well in a position usually reserved for really, really average offensive players. He just happens to be one of the best defensively…and one of the most overlooked offensively. Molina finished fourth in this year’s MVP balloting, and I’m not sure if it’s for his defense (another Gold Glove), his offense (.315, 22 HR, 76 RBI, 12 SB), or the fact that he’s basically an assistant coach out there with that pitching staff. Molina’s 30 years-old, and he’s played in 63 postseason games.


 

 

 

 

2. Ken Hitchcock: Even though he was hired on November 6th of last year, we already had Hitchcock in the names for The 2011 insideSTL Sportsperson of The Year. That’s how quickly his impact was felt. And, once 2012 came around, he didn’t let up. The NHL awarded Hitchcock the Jack Adams Award for Coach of The Year. But, that’s just the beginning of the story. He took a team that was playing so poorly that they fired their head coach a month into the season…all the way to the #2 seed in the Western Conference. He led the Blues to their first playoff series win since 2002…and when the team fell behind 1-0 to the Sharks, he had his guys respond with a resounding 3-0 win in Game 2…that finished in a brawl for the ages…and Hitchcock instructing the Sharks and the rest of the NHL to not open up The Roman Polak Door. While his team was run over by the eventual Stanley Cup Champions in a four-game sweep, the Blues were just one of four teams that didn’t know what hit them when the Kings got hot in April and May. But, Hitchcock’s presence and system has Blues’ fans among the most furious that the NHL is not playing right now. There’s a real belief in town that after so many years of saying, “Maybe next year” that this year could be the Blues’ “year.” And…with the team as young as it is and with Hitchcock still yet to coach here a full season…it may be the first of many “years.”



 

1. Jeff Fisher: The year started with his hire…and it ended with his team going up against the hottest team in the NFL in the toughest place in the NFL to play…and coming up just short. Bottom line: Jeff Fisher has fans believing in the Rams again. The fact that the Rams were seven points away from a winning season and going undefeated in the toughest division in football…and they had no Pro Bowl players…speaks to Fisher and his staff. With the exception of the game in London, the Rams were either won every game…or were battling to the end in every game. Hell, after what we had seen for most of the last seven years, just being close was a victory? But seven wins…and a tie at San Francisco? Way beyond expectations. And, they did this against one of the toughest schedules in the league. The Rams played five of the six NFC playoff representatives, and they beat three of them. In 2012, Fisher and his staff turned the Rams’ defense around. Imagine if he can do for the offense what he did for the defense in 2013. You’re in a baseball town…with a hockey team that is surging…a couple of college basketball teams in the Top 25…a college football team playing in the premier conference…and I’d argue that there’s more anticipation for the 2013 Rams than any of their local competition. Imagine saying that the Rams were the most-anticipated team this time last year. That’s how much Fisher has meant to this organization and to this city.


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