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McElroy: What I'm thankful for in sports this year
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McElroy: What I'm thankful for in sports this year

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Champion Braves sign Manny Piña to add depth at catcher

Atlanta first baseman Freddie Freeman hugged relief pitcher Will Smith after winning the World Series in Game 6 against the Houston Astros on Nov. 2.

It’s become an annual tradition since starting this column nine years ago that every November this space is dedicated to what I’m thankful for in sports.

This year will be no exception because after surviving 2020, in many ways including literally, there’s been much to give “thanks” in life and sports in 2021.

As the movie character Tony Stark said, it was “something like a normal version of the planet had been restored, if there ever was such a thing.”

This was a year where one hopes absence made the heart grow fonder, where we didn’t realize what we’d had until it was gone, and appreciated how great it was to have it back.

During the past year, I’ve been thankful in sports for simple things: the return of the roar of the crowd, the atmosphere in the air before kickoff, along with so many other sights, smells, and sounds, including that of 66,000 rabid Hokies jumping up and down on the Friday night before Labor Day while bellowing the lyrics to “Enter Sandman.”

Oh, how we missed being at our favorite arenas, ballparks, and stadiums along with the boos, cheers, and clever and witty student sections that packed them.

In a discussion a few weeks ago, colleague and VCU radio voice Robby Robinson noted “there’s something about how a crowd can help tell the story of a game” just the way that it did opening night as the Siegel Center pulsated in the final seconds of a Rams victory when Vince Williams forced a game- clinching takeaway.

I’m thankful we made it through seasons to see champions crowned with no legitimacy lost along the way to COVID-19 cancellations.

I’m thankful the Atlanta Braves won the World Series, which might sound blasphemous coming from a lifelong Philadelphia Phillies fan, but it’s hard to not be happy for one of the good guys in baseball, Freddie Freeman, as well as one of the most humble and hard-working people I’ve met along the way in this business, Adam Duvall.

While discussing stand-up people, I’m truly thankful for athletes like Dak Prescott, Michael Phelps, Hayden Hurst, and Simone Biles who were brave enough this past year to open up and champion mental health awareness, as was my dear friend, Richmond Marathon runner Scott Day, profiled last week in this paper by Eric Kolenich.

As much as some deny it or dispute it, athletes can be role models, and these advocates for mental health showed millions their most vulnerable side, and more importantly that no one has to go alone through the darkness that life sometimes presents.

I’m thankful for Taylor Heinicke reminding us that just when everybody else thinks it’s over, take one more shot, and for Trey Mancini, who showed when life gives you one more shot, make the most of it.

I’m thankful for those like American League MVP Shohei Ohtani, who showed us with 46 home runs and a 9-2 pitching record, “that’s the way it’s always been done” doesn’t have to be the way it is.

I’m thankful sometimes in a “look at me” world that humility is still a strong quality. Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo delivered the sports quote of the year during the playoffs: “When you focus on the past, that’s your ego. ‘I did this. We were able to beat this team 4-0. I did this in the past. I won that in the past.’ And when I focus on the future, it’s my pride.”

I’m thankful for four days in May when Phil Mickelson reminded all those that 50 isn’t even close to being old when he hoisted the Wannamaker Trophy.

I’m thankful how sometimes we find great stories and other times they find us, just as Oddici Alexander and the JMU softball team captured the attention of a nation as well as the respect of their competition in Oklahoma at the Women’s College World Series this past spring.

I’m still thankful for those moments where it feels as though time stands still as a pitcher winds to deliver what could be the final strike of a no-hitter, or how Virginia’s Kyle Teel smashed a grand slam that took a nanosecond to leave the park, yet felt as if it traveled for an eternity through the air, lifting the Cavaliers back to the College World Series.

There are the moments to be thankful that stop us in our tracks like a towering Bryce Harper home run, a Lamar Jackson gravity-defying highlight or when you forget how simple and perfect life can be when your daughter looks at you with an ice cream mustache and a smile on a hot summer day at The Diamond.

Last but not least, after nine years, I am thankful there’s still a space left here for me to type in, and more importantly, I’m glad you are here to read it.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

Wes McElroy hosts a daily sports talk show at noon on 910 and 105.1.

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