A World Series won and a Super Bowl lost. A respected coach departed, a beloved institution to follow. URI football was up while Brown football remained down.
As we transition to 2019 and look ahead to a year of uncertainty at home and abroad, let’s look back at my five top stories for 2018 in the sports-crazy I-95 corridor of New England and speculate a bit as to what the new year will bring. Mine are stories with happy, sad and bittersweet endings. How do they compare to your favorites?
1. RED SOX WIN IT ALL
They had the highest payroll in baseball, about $230 million, and except for a late September stumble the Red Sox played like the team to beat from their 17-2 start to their 11-3 post-season finish. They won 108 games in the regular season, a franchise record. They beat the Yankees in four games in the American League Division Series, dominated the Astros in five for the American League pennant and stopped the Dodgers in five in the World Series. And they clinched each series on the road!
They put five players on the American League All-Star team. Mookie Betts was the overwhelming choice as AL MVP; slugger J.D. Martinez was fourth. Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr. won Gold Gloves. Alex Cora, a rookie, should have been manager of the year but was second to Bob Melvin of Oakland. Chris Sale was the best pitcher in baseball in the first half. David Price shook his playoff jinx and was a post-season hero. Bradley Jr. was the ALCS MVP. Journeyman Steve Pearce, a June 28 acquisition from Toronto, was the World Series MVP. Left fielder Andrew Benintendi made the catch of the season, a diving stab of a sinking line drive by Houston’s Alex Bregman with the bases loaded and two out in the bottom of the ninth that preserved an 8-6 victory in Game 4 of the ALCS.
The Red Sox put together a championship season the likes of which we will not see again any time soon. But if the 2019 Sox get and stay healthy (Chris Sales’s shoulder?), find some pitching, come close to performing as well as they did last summer and enjoy a little luck along the way, they should be in the thick of things come September.
2. PATRIOTS COLLAPSE IN THE SUPER BOWL
Tom Brady enjoyed his third NFL MVP season -- at age 40! -- and led the Patriots to a 13-3 record and another AFC East title. He also got them to the Super Bowl, where it all fell apart. Nick Foles, a backup QB for Philadelphia, humbled the Patriots and led the Eagles to a 41-33 upset. Foles passed for 373 yards and three touchdowns and was the Super Bowl MVP. Brady passed for 505 yards and three touchdowns, but New England’s defense was terrible, and Bill Belichick’s decision to confine cornerback Malcolm Butler to the sideline for no obvious reason was talk show fodder for weeks.
Brady and the Pats are not as strong this year, making a Super Bowl run unlikely. They were fortunate to get a first-round bye and will be tough to beat at home. But winning on the road, most likely at Kansas City, for the AFC Championship? Not this time.
3. WORCESTER WINS PAWSOX SWEEPSTAKES
Except for Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien, Rhode Island’s political leadership let the City of Pawtucket and the Pawtucket Red Sox down by dragging out negotiations for a new ballpark for two years. An electorate skeptical of a public-private partnership in the wake of the collapse of Curt Schilling’s 38 Studios further stymied efforts to build a new stadium and continue Rhode Island’s four-decade relationship with the PawSox. Worcester capitalized and dangled a package worth $100 million for a stadium and nearby urban development. The PawSox will head up Route 146 for the 2021 season.
Pawtucket officials are working now to find another use for the Apex site off I-95 that would have been perfect for a multi-use ballpark. An outdoor music venue, perhaps? The future of McCoy Stadium is another question with no easy answer.
4. URI BASKETBALL SOARS, HURLEY LEAVES
Dan Hurley revived a mediocre basketball program at the University of Rhode Island and coached the Rams to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances in 2017 and 2018. Last season URI won 16 in a row, lost one game in the Ryan Center, lost to Duke in the NCAA second round, and finished 26-8. Expecting Hurley to stay in Kingston was unrealistic. When UConn offered a pile of money, Hurley did the smart thing and said farewell to the Rams and hello to the Huskies.
URI promoted David Cox to replace Hurley. The Rams will take a 7-5 record to Saint Louis next Sunday, so coming close to last year’s record is unlikely. They have a solid nucleus though and should be a factor in the A-10
5. COLLEGE FOOTBALL: ESTES ERA ENDS AT BROWN; URI WINS
Three Ivy League championships and consistent finishes in the top half of the Ancient Eight over the course of in 21 seasons were not enough to save Phil Estes’s job as head coach of the Brown football team. A 17-33 record during five consecutive non-winning seasons, 2-8 and 1-9 the last two seasons, and 15 consecutive Ivy League losses doomed the veteran coach.
Brown is counting on James Perry, its All-Ivy quarterback in the late 1990s, to reverse the slide. He returns to College Hill after two years and a 12-10 record at Bryant. Before Bryant, Perry was the successful offensive coordinator at Princeton. He will need two years to recruit the players he needs to run his up-tempo offense and to play defense better than the 2018 Bears did.
Bryant replaced Perry with Chris Merritt, head coach at Christopher Columbus High School in Miami for the last 18 years. Bryant had to go back to high school for a head coach? Not really. President Ron Machtley and athletics director Bill Smith could have hired another young, up-and-coming assistant like Perry, but they do not want Bryant to become just another rung on the coaching ladder. Merritt is 51 and would prefer to have Bryant be his last coaching stop. He has sent 100 players to Division I programs, so he knows the college game. He is stepping into solid situation. Look for Bryant to get even better.
Smiling faces finally returned to Kingston last fall. The Rhody Rams finished 6-5, their first winning season since 2001. Coach Jim Fleming’s team won four of its first five games and was nationally ranked. The Rams lost four of their next five and entered the season finale needing a victory to break the jinx. Final score: URI 24, UNH 21. Wide receiver Aaron Parker and left tackle Kyle Murphy were first-team All-CAA.
URI football is no longer a joke and is relevant again on campus. Those were high hurdles to clear. With enhancements coming to Meade Stadium, the future looks bright.