Top 16 of 2016: The biggest storylines of the year in Chicago sports

Top 16 of 2016: The biggest storylines of the year in Chicago sports

Tune in to CSN on Christmas night at 10:30 p.m. for a special edition of In the Loop: Top 16 of 2016.

In a city as large as Chicago with five major sports teams, it's not difficult to find enough stories to compile a list such as this.

But 2016 was different. From rebuilds to championships, from surprising newcomers to shocking departures, the teams that make up the Chicago sports landscape made headlines for a number of reasons. Here are the 16 biggest headlines from perhaps the wildest sports year this city has ever seen.

List compiled by CSN Chicago staffers
Written by Mark Strotman

16. Notre Dame's disastrous year

The story: The first day of the 2016 calendar was a perhaps ominous sign of what was in store for Notre Dame that year. Junior All-American Jaylon Smith suffered a torn ACL and LCL in his final collegiate game, an Irish loss to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. The Irish’s fortunes only worsened from there as Brian Kelly’s group, ranked No. 10 in the preseason polls, stumbled to a 4-8 record. The program’s fifth-worst season since 1899 included: ugly losses to Texas, Michigan State, Duke and Navy; defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder was fired four games in; quarterback DeShone Kizer struggled after a red-hot start (20 TDs in his first five games, 14 TDs in his last seven); Brian Kelly denied reports that he was exploring other coaching options one day after the Irish’s final game.

In the midst of their first losing season since 2007, Notre Dame was also ordered by the NCAA to vacate all 21 wins from its 2012 and 2013 seasons due to academic misconduct. That included the Irish’s 12-win season in which they advanced to the BCS title game.

The quote: “When you’ve been in this business a long time, you think that you’ve got a track record of what you’ve done. But you’re also at a high profile institution like Notre Dame where the expectations are really high. And so you’re going to have to answer those questions when you have a year like this. One side of me says, look, this is my 25th year, I know what I’m doing. But on the other side of it, you can’t be surprised that when you go 4-8, that you’re going to get those questions asked as well.” - Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly on the Irish's 4-8 season, Nov. 26

15. Elena Delle Donne comes out prior to winning Olympic gold in Rio

The story: The spotlight was on Sky forward Elena Delle Donne as the 26-year-old prepared to compete for Team USA in the Rio Olympics. And even more eyeballs were focused in on the 2015 WNBA MVP when she revealed in an interview to Vogue magazine she was gay and engaged to her partner, Amanda Clifton. Delle Donne averaged 8.6 points on 50 percent shooting in Rio, helping the Americans to their sixth consecutive gold medal. She also continued her dominance on the court back in the states, being named to her second straight All-WNBA first team. She averaged 21.5 points – second in the league – and 7.0 rebounds for the Sky, while also tallying career-highs in field goal percentage and assists. A thumb injury kept her out of the postseason, and the Sky fell in four games to the Los Angeles Sparks in the Western Conference Finals.

The quote: “I’ve grown up in a family where I have the most unique sister in the world and we’ve always been taught to celebrate uniqueness. It was easy for me to be who I am and hopefully others can be who they are as well.” - Elena Delle Donne on her decision to reveal her sexuality, Aug. 3

14. Back to school: Illinois tabs Lovie Smith as new head coach

The story: Four years of losing records, allegations of player mistreatment the previous year, and underwhelming recruiting classes all in a rapidly improving Big Ten conference smelled disaster for the future of the Illinois football program. Mired in mediocrity, the program needed a jolt. It received just that when athletic director Josh Whitman announced the hiring of longtime NFL head coach Lovie Smith. Smith, who had spent the last two seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, immediately gave relevancy to a program that had enjoyed just three winning seasons in the last decade.

Smith, who led the Bears to a Super Bowl appearance in 2006, won over the fan base in his introductory press conference, declaring the Illini wouldn’t need to rebuild, and in time would be competing for Big Ten championships. Smith began his collegiate head coaching career with a 52-3 win over Murray State, and the Illini earned their first win over Michigan State since 2006 in conference play. Though they finished just 3-9, the Illini’s foundation under Smith had been set. In 2017 he’ll bring in the No. 53 recruiting class in the country, which includes six players from Illinois. Whether Smith can bring back Illinois football into the national spotlight remains to be seen, but his hiring marked a step forward toward making that a reality.

The quote: "Every function we’ve been to — and we’ve been through a lot — has been that way. It’s the same message as our players have given: ‘Coach, what do we need to do?’ And for our fans, the message is come back, the message to our students. There’s nothing like student excitement in Memorial Stadium. From talking to the fraternities, the sororities, we need their energy in the stadium wearing the orange and blue. All of those things, University of Illinois bumper stickers, whatever it is, let people know who you believe in. Don’t worry about what’s happened in the past. It’s about today." - Illinois head coach Lovie Smith at his introductory press conference, July 26

13. Aces Wild: Cubs rotation becomes best in baseball

The story: Expectations were understandably high for the Cubs' pitching staff in 2016. Anchored by reigning Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta and two-time World Series champion Jon Lester, Joe Maddon's rotation expected to again finish among the league's best. Kyle Hendricks had his first full season - and two playoff starts - under his belt, Jason Hammel felt confident in a bounce-back campaign, and free agent John Lackey signed with Chicago looking for jewelry, not a haircut. What those five became - with six others making spot starts along the way - was baseball's best rotation, by a longshot. Cubs starters touted baseball's best ERA by more than half a run, finished first in WHIP and second in innings pitched (Toronto) and strikeouts (Washington).

Their starters went at least five innings in each of the team's first 40 games (through May 20), each of the five starters made between 29 and 32 starts and pitched between 166 and 202 innings. Lester and Hendricks finished second and third, respectively, in the NL Cy Young voting. Hendricks (1st), Lester (2nd) and Arrieta (10th) all finished in the top 10 in ERA, becoming the first NL trio since 2013 to accomplish the feat. And perhaps the most amazing feat from any of the starters ironically came out of the bullpen, when Lester gave the Cubs three innings in Game 7 of the World Series, two days after throwing 90 pitches in a Game 5 win.

The quote: “Our starting pitching really carried us for most of the season. Hendricks’ growth, I thought, was a big story of the season, and especially in the postseason, when you compare where he was this October to last October, in terms of his endurance and the weapons that he had to attack good-hitting lineups."

“It’s very rare that someone shows up and does exactly what you hope. Outside of a small hiccup in April of 2015, (Lester) has been a dominant, elite starting pitcher (and a) reliable, hard worker. He pitches his best in the big games. And I thought his poise in several key postseason games rubbed off on a lot of other people.” - Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, on Kyle Hendricks' and Jon Lester's individual seasons, Nov. 16

12. Dwyane Wade's homecoming: NBA star joins Bulls in free agency

The story: No one expected Dwyane Wade to leave the Miami Heat in free agency this summer. Not even Wade himself. But after Pat Riley reportedly low-balled the future Hall of Famer with his initial offer – $10 million per year – Wade began considering the possibility of playing somewhere new for the first time in his 14-year NBA career. One of those options was to return home, like his close friend LeBron James had done in Cleveland two years earlier, to Chicago. Denver had the most money to offer, Cleveland would have reunited him with James, and Miami was the only NBA home Wade had known since he entered the league in 2003. Ultimately Wade couldn’t pass on the chance to play for the team he had grown up watching and idolizing.

He shocked the NBA world by signing a two-year, $47.5 million deal with the Bulls. As much as it affected Wade, it also had an impact on the direction of the Bulls, who had missed the playoffs the previous season for the first time in eight years. Signing an established player in Wade signaled that the team would not enter a rebuilding phase - Wade's agreement to join the team came days after the team inked point guard Rajon Rondo to a two-year deal. As of this publishing, Wade has averaged 19.3 points, 4.2 rebounds and 3.6 assists in 26 games, while also acting as a mentor for superstar Jimmy Butler and a much-needed positive figurehead in the locker room.

The quote: “This is one of those moments for me, that is a dream come true. It took a long time to get here. But I’m here. The excitement the city (of Chicago) has shown, I can’t tell what you’ve meant to me.” - Dwyane Wade at his introductory press conference, July 29

11. Blown call in Fenwick-Plainfield North 7A state semifinal becomes national news

The story: Jacob Keller faced a 4th-and-15 with his Fenwick Friars leading 10-7 and just four seconds remaining in their 7A state semifinal game against Plainfield North. In an effort to run out the clock, the Fenwick signal caller took the snap and heaved the ball downfield. By the time it landed the clock had expired and Fenwick was headed to Champaign. Not so fast. The referees correctly called intentional grounding but incorrectly awarded Plainfield North an untimed down. The following play the Tigers kicked a field goal to send the game to overtime, and won in the extra period by converting a two-point conversion to punch their ticket to the 7A state title game.

Later that night the IHSA released a statement admitting the officials had made a mistake but that, per IHSA by-law 6.033, "the decisions of game officials shall be final." The school filed a lawsuit against the IHSA, taking their appeal to the Circuit Court of Cook County. The court, as expected, ruled against Fenwick, and Plainfield North traveled to southern Illinois for the state championship game. The Tigers, however, were met by powerhouse East Saint Louis, which rolled to a 26-13 victory.

The quote: "On behalf of the Fenwick community, we would like to express our appreciation to Judge Kennedy for her willingness to consider our petition and provide us with a fair hearing. That is all that Fenwick ever asked. And the only thing our administration was duty-bound to provide for our students, who sacrificed so much their destination.

Fenwick, of course, is disappointed with the outcome. The Fenwick board and president will be apprised of the decision and will pursue no further efforts to secure its berth in the football championship this weekend. Rather, we wish Plainfield North and East St. Louis the best of luck this coming weekend and know that each will be able to hold their heads high upon its completion.

We owed our students a fair hearing of their grievance. We received a fair hearing and now it is finished." - Statement from Fenwick principal Peter Groom following the court's decision, Nov. 23

10. Rick Renteria takes over for Robin Ventura as White Sox begin rebuilding phase

The story: A 23-10 start to the 2016 season had the White Sox believing their active offseason that included obtaining Todd Frazier and Brett Lawrie had paid dividends. But the run was short-lived, as Robin Ventura’s group lost 23 of their next 31 games, and hovered around .500 through the All-Star break. They lost seven of eight to begin the second half, and fell below .500 for good on July 27 in a loss to the Cubs. It resulted in their fourth consecutive losing season – and eighth straight without a postseason berth – and began turning the wheels on what became a massive rebuild. It began with manager Robin Ventura stepping down as manager, with bench coach Rick Renteria filling the vacancy before the White Sox even interviewed anyone outside the organization.

The moves were just beginning. General manager Rick Hahn dealt ace Chris Sale to the Red Sox for infielder Yoan Moncada, right-hand pitcher Michael Kopech - the Red Sox Nos. 2 and 4 prospects - and two others. Days later Hahn struck gold on a deal for Adam Eaton, sending the outfielder to the Nationals for Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning  - Washington's Nos. 1, 3 and 6 prospects. Other moves may be forthcoming, too, with Jose Quintana and Todd Frazier potential trade candidates to bolster the White Sox young core of talent. As it stands, the Sox now have baseball’s best hitting prospect (Moncada) and pitching prospect (Giolito). The window to compete has closed, but their long-term outlook is as bright as it's been in years. The White Sox will begin 2017 with the the Nos. 1 (Moncado), 3 (Giolito), 30 (Michael Kopech), 38 (Reynaldo Lopez), 58 (Carson Fulmer) and 80 (Zack Collins) prospects in baseball.

The quote: “Our desire to move this thing along is not going to be what dictates the pace,” Hahn said. “What’s going to dictate the pace is the value of our players, the potential return we get and how that fits with our long-term plan. There may not be anything else until after the holidays or through the trade deadline or into next offseason. We’re taking a longer-term view, and we’re going to do this deliberately and with reason and logic and react accordingly with the market.” - White Sox general manager Rick Hahn, after the team dealt Chris Sale and Adam Eaton during the winter meetings, Dec. 12

9. Theo Epstein's Sweet 16: Big moves position Cubs to make history

The story: Theo Epstein began building the Cubs years before the organization's historic 2016 season. But in a vacuum, Epstein made a handful of crucial decisions in the calendar year that allowed the Cubs to break their 108-year championship drought. Epstein's first big move in 2016 - after signing Jason Heyward, John Lackey and Ben Zobrist in late 2015 - was surprising the Cubs clubhouse with the return of Dexter Fowler during spring training. Five months later Epstein swung a deal for left-hander Mike Montgomery, giving the Cubs a long arm in the bullpen as well as a potential starter down the line. Five days later Epstein made his biggest splash of 2016, acquiring flamethrowing lefty Aroldis Chapman from the Yankees, solidifying the back-end of the bullpen. Epstein also was part of the decision-making process that put Kyle Schwarber and Albert Almora on the World Series roster. How did those moves work out for Joe Maddon's group?

Fowler had a career-best 4.2 WAR, and led off Game 7 of the World Series with a solo homer. Chapman had a 1.01 ERA in 26.2 regular-season innings with the Cubs, closing 16 games. Montgomery had a 2.82 ERA after coming over and recorded the save in that historic Game 7. Schwarber was a difference maker at the plate in the World Series, while Almora's famous tag-up led to the go-ahead run in the 10th inning of Game 7. Epstein had been building the Cubs for years, but the moves and decisions he made in 2016 were as important as any.

The quote: “This was a show of faith in our big-league team. It was an aggressive move. It was tough to give up what we gave up, but if not now, when? This was the appropriate move given where we are and what we’re trying to accomplish.” - Theo Epstein, on the decision to acquire closer Aroldis Chapman from the Yankees, July 25

8. Kyle Schwarber returns to Cubs in World Series after serious knee injury

The story: As far as the Cubs' 2016 championship aspirations were concerned, Kyle Schwarber became an afterthought when he suffered a torn ACL and LCL just three games into the season. Headlines read that Schwarber's season was over after he collided in the outfield with Dexter Fowler, and the team did not give a timetable for his potential return. Meanwhile, the Cubs kept winning and Schwarber kept rehabbing after surgery in mid-April. Schwarber remained a constant in the Cubs' dugout as the North Siders established themselves as the best team in the majors with a torrid summer. As the Cubs finished off the Dodgers in the NLCS, Schwarber was continuing to defy odds on his rehab and joined the Arizona Fall League. All of a sudden a spot on the World Series roster was not out of the question, unlikely as it may have seemed months earlier.

Schwarber did make the World Series roster and was a crucial part of the Cubs lineup during the Fall Classic. The lefty slugger went 7-for-17 in the series with a pair of RBIs and three walks in 20 plate appearances. Though he wasn't medically cleared to play the outfield in games played at Wrigley Field, his presence at the plate was felt. In the deciding 10th inning of Game 7, Schwarber began the inning with a rope to right field. Albert Almora pinch-ran for him, and scored three batters later on a Ben Zobrist RBI double. It was a Hollywood ending for a player who projects as a core piece of the Cubs' lineup moving forward, and will go down as the most unlikely story of 2016.

The quote: “Once I hit that line, a lot of emotions will come pouring out. I’ll probably cry at some point today. It was a long road, but once we step in between those lines, it’s game time. I’m going to be locked in. I’m going to be ready to go (and) try to win this." - Kyle Schwarber, on returning to the Cubs prior to the World Series, Oct. 25

7. Patrick Kane's MVP campaign among NHL awards for Blackhawks

The story: Where the Blackhawks were short in 2016 on their usual playoff successes, they brought home plenty of hardware at season's end thanks to a pair of remarkable performances. In his ninth NHL season, Patrick Kane put a turbulent offseason behind him by turning in one of the most impressive seasons from an American-born player in NHL history. His 106 points were the most by a player since the 2011-12 season, and though it occurred in the 2015 calendar year his 26-game point streak was the longest in the NHL since 1993. Kane became the first American-born player to win the Hart Memorial Trophy, and the first Blackhawks player to earn the award since Stan Mikita in 1968.

Kane wasn't the only one recognized for his dominant season. Artermi Panarin was awarded the Calder Trophy as the NHL's best rookie. The left winger led all rookies in goals (30), assists (47) and points (77), and became the first member of the Blackhawks to win the award since Kane in 2008. Panarin hasn't slowed down in his second season, either. As of this publishing, he ranks fifth in the NHL in points (35) - one ahead of Kane's 34 - for the NHL-best Blackhawks.

The quote: "And lastly, our fans in Chicago. We have the best fans. Whether it's at home or on the road we travel so well it's almost like every game's a home game for us." - Patrick Kane's acceptance speech at the NHL Awards Show, June 22

6. Kris Bryant's epic MVP season powers Cubs to division title, best record in baseball

The story: Kris Bryant took the baseball world by storm in 2015, earning Rookie of the Year honors in a landslide vote while helping the Cubs back to the postseason for the first time since 2008. So how would Bryant, now squarely in the spotlight as the best player on the league's best team, perform? With an MVP season that helped the Cubs earn a division title and the best record in baseball.

Bryant's numbers at the plate speak for themselves. He hit .292 with 39 homers, 102 RBIs, 121 runs and an OPS of .921. But Bryant's biggest contribution in the regular season may have come in the field. The Opening Day third baseman, Bryant saw time in left field, right field, center field and first base, acting as a mini-utility man as manager Joe Maddon attempted to maneuver his surplus of talent to maximize their abilities. Bryant's MVP moment occurred in late June when he became the first player in MLB history to hit three homers and two doubles in a single game, which he did against the Reds in an 11-8 victory. He became the third player ever to record an extra-base hit in each of his five at-bats, and set the Cubs' single-game total-base record with sixteen.

He ran away with the NL MVP, receiving 29 of a possible 30 first-place votes. He followed up his dominant regular season with an equally impressive postseason. In 17 games he batted .308 with three homers and 8 RBIs. Two of those home runs came in the World Series, and it was Bryant who fielded the final out in Game 7 to end the Cubs' 108-year championship drought. It was a historic season from a 24-year-old who is rapidly becoming one of the game's best players.

The quote: “It’s very humbling. I’m so grateful for all the opportunities along the way to kind of get me to that point. I’ll continue to work harder than I ever have before, to hopefully sustain that and win more World Series." - Kris Bryant, on being named the National League MVP, Nov. 17

5. Family Ties: Adam LaRoche's retirement becomes baseball's biggest story

The story: Something seemed strange when, three weeks before Opening Day, White Sox first baseman Adam LaRoche abruptly retired. The 36-year-old had struggled the previous season – his first in Chicago – but was set to make $13 million and projected as a middle-of-the-order left-handed bat for the South Siders. The story took an odder turn two days later when White Sox VP Kenny Williams told reporters LaRoche made his decision after the team asked him to limit clubhouse appearances by his 14-year-old son, Drake, who had his own locker next to his father’s as he had in Washington.

Williams said the decision was more about setting a precedent than any issue with Drake’s behavior. Manager Robin Ventura was forced to intervene when the players were reportedly considering boycotting that day’s spring training game, and ace Chris Sale lashed out at Williams, accusing him of lying to the team. Adam Eaton said Drake had been a “leader” in the clubhouse, and that he commended Adam LaRoche’s decision to put family first. Sale went as far as hanging both Adam’s and Drake’s jerseys in his locker during spring training. Cooler heads prevailed in the short-term, with team owner Jerry Reinsdorf issuing a statement that management’s message was a “misunderstanding and miscommunication,” and that no one from the organization would comment further on the issue. LaRoche opted against filing a grievance with the MLBPA, instead only issuing a statement on his decision to choose family over baseball. Almost six months after his retirement, Adam joined Drake in throwing out the ceremonial first pitches in Washington, where LaRoche played four successful seasons, before Game 2 of the NLCS against the Dodgers.

The quote: "In management sometimes you’ve got to make some unpopular decisions, and sometimes they center around things that you don’t necessarily want to. In order to maintain consistency, in order to have an answer for the next person that comes along that wants to have his child on the field 100 percent of the time — that’s kind of where we were, was 100 percent of the time, every day — and so yeah I asked him just to dial it back. Even 50 percent is probably too much. But there’s a wide range between zero and 50 percent. So I was a little surprised at the stance he took. It’s unfortunate.” - White Sox Vice President Kenny Williams, on the organization's stance, March 16

4. Faces of the franchise exit: Bulls say goodbye to Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah

The story: Changes to the Bulls franchise were expected after the team missed the postseason for the first time in eight years. And while letting Joakim Noah walk in free agency and trading Derrick Rose in the offseason weren't surprises, it was still a shock to see the two faces of a once-thought-to-be championship contender leave the franchise in such quiet fashion. Noah struggled through knee and shoulder injuries in his final season with the Bulls off the bench, averaging just 4.3 points and 8.8 rebounds before a shoulder injury sidelined him for the year 29 games into the season. Rose managed to play in 66 games, the most since his MVP campaign in 2011, but struggled with efficiency, shooting just 43 percent from the field and 29 percent from beyond the arc.

Re-signing Noah was never a real option for the Bulls, as New York shelled out $72 million for the declining center. The Bulls also found a trade partner in New York, dealing the former No. 1 overall pick to the Knicks in exchange for Robin Lopez, Jerian Grant and Jose Calderon. With Jimmy Butler cementing himself as a franchise player, and constant rifts inside the locker room, it was clear the time was coming for Rose and Noah to move on, and the Bulls were able to secure their starting center in Lopez, a project in Grant, and free up room for Taj Gibson, Nikola Mirotic and Cristiano Felicio in the frontcourt. Still, it was an odd sight seeing the Bulls take the floor on Oct. 27 without Noah or Rose for the first time since 2006. And it was even odder watching both come back to the United Center the following month donning different uniforms. Though the Bulls were better off moving on from Noah and Rose, it marked the end of an era that once had "championship contender" written all over it.

The quote: "Knowing Derrick as I do makes this trade a hard one. Everyone knows him as the local kid who became MVP for his hometown team, but not everyone got to know him like I did. While he is a terrific basketball player, he is an even better person with a tremendous heart. I wish him the best of health for the remainder of his career, and I want to personally thank him for everything that he did on the court and in the community during his time with the Chicago Bulls." - Jerry Reinsdorf, on the decision to trade Derrick Rose, June 22

3. Bears' injury-plagued season includes Jay Cutler going on IR

The story: It wasn't as loathsome as Marc Trestman's last season in Chicago, but the 2016 Bears didn't fare all that much better. General manager Ryan Pace had one of the more aggressive offseasons in the league, signing linebackers Jerrell Freeman and Danny Trevathan, defensive end Akiem Hicks, guard Josh Sitton and quarterback Brian Hoyer. He traded up to get his man in Georgia edge rusher Leonard Floyd, and the return of Kevin White gave the Bears another "newcomer." While the team's first playoff appearance since 2010 seemed a lofty goal, there was optimism that John Fox, in his second year, could improve on the Bears' 6-10 record from a year ago.

Instead, injuries, surprise cuts and suspensions decimated the roster, from Robbie Gould to Alshon Jeffery to Jay Cutler. Gould was cut to make room for Sitton, who was surprisingly cut by the Packers just before the start of the regular season. Connor Barth, Gould's replacement, has hit 17 of 21 field goals, giving him an 81 percent success rate that ranks 22nd of 31 qualified kickers. Cutler was placed on injured reserve in early December with a shoulder injury that limited him to just five games, and potentially marked the end of his Bears career. Hoyer and Matt Barkley have provided stopgap production in his absence. Jeffery, who failed to come to an agreement on a long-term extension with the Bears in the offseason, was suspended in November for PED use and has caught just two touchdowns in 10 games. Along the way, White again was lost for the year with a fractured fibula, Freeman was suspended for PED use one week after Jeffery was caught, and the Bears stumbled to a 3-11 record as of this publishing. There were reports of the organization using an outside consultant, as well as there being a rift among the coaching staff.

Positives in rookies Jordan Howard, Cody Whitehair and Floyd have given a glimmer of hope, and the defense's front seven is a plus. Still, on the whole 2016 created far more questions than it revealed answers for a Bears team still searching for an identity, and potentially a quarterback, in 2017.

The quote: “There is absolutely no truth to that. People can say whatever they want. That’s the unfortunate part of this profession. But absolutely not true.” - Bears head coach John Fox, on whether reports were true that he had moved on from Jay Cutler, Oct. 27

2. Chris Sale saga ends with trade from White Sox to Red Sox

The story: Between the chalked foul lines of U.S. Cellular Field, White Sox ace Chris Sale was his usual dominant self in 2016. He went 17-10 with a 3.34 ERA, struck out 233 batters and recorded an MLB-best six complete games for the South Siders. He finished in the top-6 of the AL Cy Young voting for the fifth consecutive season, and did so on a team-friendly deal. But off the field Sale's seventh and eventual final season with the White Sox was turbulent, to say the least.

It began in spring training when Sale was incredibly vocal about management's handling of Adam LaRoche, who retired after the team asked him to limit the time his 14-year-old son, Drake, spent in the clubhouse. In late July, Sale tore through the White Sox clubhouse, destroying the 1976 throwback uniforms the team was supposed to wear that day for his start. Sale was scratched from the start, and defended himself after the incident was made public.

How much those incidents weighed on general manager Rick Hahn won't ever be known, but after the White Sox fourth straight losing season the team dealt Sale to the Boston Red Sox for a trio of prospects, including infielder Yoan Moncada (No. 1 overall) and right-hander Michael Kopech (No. 30). Sale finished his White Sox career with a number of team records, including single-season strikeouts (274 in 2015) and career strikeouts per nine innings (10.086). In seven seasons, Sale was 74-50 with a 3.00 ERA and a 1.065 WHIP. He'll be remembered for his positive contributions on the South Side, but his departure undoubtedly marked the beginning of a new era for the White Sox.

The quote: "[The '76 uniforms] are uncomfortable and unorthodox. I didn't want to go out there and not be at the top of my game in every aspect that I need to be in. Not only that, but I didn't want anything to alter my mechanics. ... There's a lot of different things that went into it. Looking bad had absolutely zero to do with it. Nothing." - Chris Sale, on not wanting to wear the White Sox throwback uniforms, July 25

1. Cubs win World Series to end 108-year championship drought

The story: All the pieces were in order. The dominant offense, the rock-solid starting pitching, the lights-out bullpen. And yet, despite the 103-win Cubs having every facet of the game seemingly in their favor, the lingering 108-year curse was always in the back of their collective mind, whether they liked to admit it or not, as the 2016 playoffs began. In the NLCS, the Giants were one inning away from forcing a Game 5 back at Wrigley Field with Cub-killer Johnny Cueto ready to take the mound. Then a ninth-inning rally in Game 4 happened, with Aroldis Chapman slamming the door to advance the Cubs to the NLCS for the first time in 2003.

Waiting for them was the Dodgers, who used dominant pitching to shut out the Cubs in Games 2 and 3. The Cubs responded with back-to-back wins in Games 4 and 5, and then shelled Clayton Kershaw in Game 6 at Wrigley Field to earn their first pennant since 1945. Meanwhile, the feel-good Cleveland Indians were proving to be much more than just that in the American League, knocking off the Red Sox and Blue Jays without breaking a sweat.

Those Indians took Game 1 at Progressive Field behind a masterful performance from Corey Kluber. And after a split in Cleveland, they appeared to be in prime position to bring another championship home after decisive wins at Wrigley Field in Games 3 and 4. An eight-out save from Chapman in Game 5 helped keep the Cubs alive with the series shifting back to Cleveland, knowing that Kluber was awaiting them in a potential Game 7.

The Cubs wanted that Game 7, and they got it behind the red-hot bat of Addison Russell, whose six-RBI performance in Game 6 helped push the Fall Classic to a do-or-die Game 7. What happened the following evening, Nov. 2, became perhaps one of the best baseball games ever played.

Dexter Fowler led off Game 7 with a homer, and after Cleveland tied the game in the third inning the Cubs reeled off four straight to take a commanding 5-1 lead. The Indians gained some momentum back in scoring two runs on a Jon Lester wild pitch, and brought in lights-out Andrew Miller to keep the Cubs offense at bay. Instead, David Ross - playing in his final game - took the untouchable reliever deep to center to extend the lead to 6-3.

Shades of Steve Bartman crept in when Chapman allowed three runs to score in the bottom of the eighth, with the Cubs just four outs away from history. But the Cubs, led by the voice of Jason Heyward, regrouped following a short rain delay and plated a pair of runs in the 10th inning, the first of which came from eventual World Series MVP Ben Zobrist. The Indians mustered a late rally in the bottom half of the inning, again off the bat of Davis. But J.D. Martinez's chopper to Kris Bryant was fielded cleanly, and a perfect throw to Anthony Rizzo sent the black cats, the billy goats, and any curse that had grasped a stranglehold on the Cubs franchise for more than a century into the past.

The Chicago Cubs, after 108 long years of suffering, were world champions.

The quote: "It's wonderful. It's fantastic. You believe in something that actually comes true. It's beautiful. You believe in something that was true and beautiful and the whole city, all its fans, they're sort of validated. Their dream came true. It's OK. Dreams come true. People believed in it." - Bill Murray inside the Cubs' clubhouse after Game 7, Nov. 3

Just missed the cut (in no particular order):

- Bears franchise tag Alshon Jeffery, later injured and suspended
- Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville reaches 783-win milestone for second all-time in NHL
- Fire’s MLS SuperDraft trading frenzy
- Brian Urlacher has hair!
- Bulls fail to make playoffs
- Anthony Rizzo’s wall catch
- Blackhawks-Blues rivalry heats up in exciting playoff series
- Marian Hossa collects 500th goal
- Youthful Bears emerge in challenging season (Jordan Howard, Leonard Floyd, Cody Whitehair, Cameron Meredith, others)
- Guaranteed Rate becomes White Sox stadium sponsor
- Bears sign Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman 
- Chicago athletes shine at Rio Olympics
- Jason Benetti joins White Sox broadcast team
- Local basketball star Jalen Brunson wins National Title in freshman year at Villanova
- Robbie Gould exits as best kicker in Bears history

Astros have shown interest in Willson Contreras, report says

Astros have shown interest in Willson Contreras, report says

As the Cubs look to retool their roster and improve a depleted farm system, it’s evident a member of the team’s core position player group may get traded this offseason. That player could be catcher Willson Contreras.

Thursday, The Athletic’s Patrick Mooney and Sahadev Sharma (subscription required) reported the Astros “went into this offseason” with interest in Contreras.

Majority of Houston’s core position players are under contract for 2020 — like the Cubs — though the Astros currently lack a catcher. Both starter Robinson Chirinos and backup Martin Maldonado — who briefly was a Cub in 2019 — are free agents.

Chirinos hit .238 in 2019 with a solid .347 on-base percentage and 17 home runs. Maldonado is limited offensively (.213/.293/.378 in 2019) but has a cannon for an arm and won a Gold Glove Award in 2017. He finished 8th in MLB last season in Defensive Runs Saved (8) among all catchers. Chirinos (3) tied for 20th and has built great rapport with 2019 AL Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander. 

The Astros could look to bring Chirinos and/or Maldonado this offseason. Neither will command long-term deals on the open market and they don't come with expensive price tags. The tandem worked well for the Astros in 2019, but they could stabilize the position for the future by acquiring someone like Contreras. He’s only 27 — younger than Chirinos (35) and Maldonado (33) — and is one of the top offensive catchers in baseball. Contreras also has a cannon, but his defense (-1 DRS in 2019) and pitch-framing are works in progress.

Contreras has plenty of value for the Cubs, so they won't just trade him for the sake of doing so. The return package would have to be sufficient, whether it includes prospects, big league players or both. And as a reminder, trade rumors are referred to as such for a reason. One shouldn't overreact every time a Cubs player pops up in a report.

"The nature of any offseason, there are gonna be rumors about your major-league players and even your best players and that doesn't necessarily mean they're true," Cubs president Theo Epstein said at last month's GM Meetings. "No one knows how this winter's going to evolve. Even us. We have no idea who will be available for us, so I think taking any name that comes up in a trade rumor with a mouthful of salt is appropriate — not just a grain because I think they're usually untrue."

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Cubs games easily on your device.

Cubs 'open-minded' on where Nico Hoerner fits in 2020 equation

Cubs 'open-minded' on where Nico Hoerner fits in 2020 equation

The MLB offseason is a month old, but we still don't have any clear answers on what the 2020 Cubs roster will look like.

So much of that depends on the trade market and who Theo Epstein's front office deals away and what they get in return. 

One of the other major contributing factors is Nico Hoerner and how the Cubs view him. Will the impressive rookie make the Opening Day roster? Will he see more work at second base or center field or both? 

At some point next year, it seems likely Hoerner will be the everyday second baseman with Javy Baez manning shortstop. That path was made simpler when the Cubs parted ways with Addison Russell earlier this week. 

But will the Cubs want Hoerner to start the year in Triple-A Iowa — a level he skipped over in September when he was tasked with filling in for the injured Baez — to continue his development?

"It's a great question and I don't think one that I can answer that well right now," Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said last month. "All I can say is that his timetable obviously was faster than we ever expected being in a pennant race and necessity of Javy going down and Addy going down, it sort of forced our hand to do that. And Dixon Machado was injured. We put Nico in a really challenging spot and he couldn't have responded better. His makeup, competitiveness is fantastic; his poise was really impressive. 

"Clearly he exceeded our expectations in that spot. What that means going forward, I can't answer at this point. But I think it's safe to say we hold him in incredibly high regard and whatever number of games in September that he played in — I'm still incredibly impressed that he can go from being at home to starting the next night and performing the way he did."

The 22-year-old former first-round pick hit .282 with 3 homers and 17 RBI in his first 20 big-league games while playing solid defense at shortstop and earning praise from veterans in the clubhouse for his energy, work ethic and the spark he provided the team down the stretch. 

If Hoerner was a shoo-in to make the Opening Day roster, that would change the equation for the Cubs this winter as they look to build their 26-man squad. But 20 games isn't a huge sample size and he may well need more time down in the minor leagues to refine his offensive approach and defensive versatility.

"We haven't figured that out yet," Epstein said at the GM Meetings. "I think you could make strong arguments on both sides, whether he should be part of the club on Opening Day or a little bit more seasoning [in the minors]. I think a lot will depend on what else we do and yeah, sure, what type of spring training you have might be a factor as well. We're not at the point where we're ready to make that decision yet, but we're open-minded."

As it stands right now, the Cubs' position player group is pretty locked down everywhere but second base and center field. Barring a trade that opens up another hole on the roster, those are the two spots Epstein's front office will look to upgrade this winter after subpar production in 2019. If they felt confident enough in Hoerner to pencil him in as the starting second baseman, that would erase a need and allow the front office to focus on outfield and the pitching staff.

Hoerner might also be a factor in the center field equation. He got some work there in the minors last season and started a game in center on the final weekend of the MLB season in St. Louis.

The Cubs still have Albert Almora Jr. and Ian Happ on the roster to play center field and they can also shift Jason Heyward over there if there's a corner outfielder that makes sense to add this winter. 

At second base, there's still a long list of names even after Russell's departure — David Bote, Daniel Descalso, Tony Kemp, Robel Garcia and maybe even Happ could be in the second base picture. 

Hoerner has the most upside out of that group (the Cubs don't view Happ's long-term position on the infield), but the rookie is also currently the top backup to Baez at shortstop and figures to play multiple positions under new manager David Ross.

"He needs more reps," Hoyer said. "Obviously there's rough edges that we can smooth out there, but the fact that he's willing to [play multiple positions] says a lot about who he is as a competitor. I think he has a chance to be good at one position, but he also has a chance to move around the diamond and really help us in a lot of ways that way, too.

"He's not a finished product and defensively, he'll continue to get better and better. Defense in the big leagues is something that keeps improving with instruction and reps. But I thought he handled himself really well."

Offensively, Hoerner is exactly the type of hitter the Cubs are looking for as they attempt to diversify the lineup. He is contact-oriented with elite hand-eye coordination and an ability to battle with two strikes and put the ball in play. Hoerner also uses the whole field and has a line-drive approach — skills that should help an offense that has too often been all-or-nothing the last couple seasons.

That all adds up to Hoerner slotting in as an important long-term piece of the puzzle and the Cubs eventually handing him the keys to an everyday role, though that might not be from Day 1 of the 2020 season.