Best Of :: Sports & Recreation
If you go by the dictionary definition of athlete—"a person possessing traits that are necessary for physical exercise or sports" (notice the plural on sports)—you have given the nod to Eric Decker, a professional-caliber player in both football and baseball. Despite missing the bulk of last season with a sprained ankle, the University of Minnesota wide receiver captured All Big Ten honors and is projected to go in the second or third round of this year's NFL draft. It wouldn't even be the first time the 6'2", 215-pounder has been drafted. The Milwaukee Brewers selected the outfielder in the 39th round of the 2008 MLB draft after he batted a respectable .329 and showed a solid arm. But his future will assuredly entail more pigskin than rawhide. Barring a freak accident, expect him to suit up on Sundays next fall.
Only two players in major league baseball history have led the league in batting average, slugging, and on-base percentage, while also earning an MVP award, Gold Glove, and All-Star team spot in the same season. One of them was Carl Yastrzemski back in 1967, when the Hall of Fame outfielder notched baseball's last Triple Crown season for the American League champion Red Sox. The other one? St. Paul's own Joe Mauer, who recovered from a back injury to launch possibly the best hitting campaign by a Twins player since...Puckett '88? Carew '77? Killebrew '69? Ever? That's the only real mystery when it comes to just how good Mauer's 2009 season was. That it came in the company of career years from Jason Kubel, Michael Cuddyer, and Denard Span—all candidates for this award in the parallel universe where the Twins signed Mark Prior in the 2001 draft—only makes it look that much more impressive.
While picking the winner of this category wasn't as agonizing as watching the NFC title game against the Saints—having your toenails pulled out with a grapefruit knife might be less agonizing—the choice sure as hell wasn't easy. Adrian Peterson kept up his unreal "human cheat code" routine, Sidney Rice caught passes as if his hands were magnets, Percy Harvin's rookie campaign was electrifying, and Jared Allen had quarterbacks catching mulletphobia. But it was Favre, for all the hype and skepticism and shouts of "Judas!" from across the border, who pushed the Vikings from a great running/defensive team to a threat on all fronts. Racking up one of the best seasons any athlete has ever had at age 40 was almost enough—almost—to get the Vikings to the promised land. And if he makes that final decision not to return and try for that elusive second ring, hopefully he'll be remembered for those stunning moments—his four-touchdown game against the Packers, his 88 percent completion rate against the Seahawks, his long-time-coming 34-3 embarrassment of the Cowboys—than for his unfortunate final pass.
Though the Wild have had a middling year, the team has several standout players—reliable goaltender Niklas Bäckström, hard-hitting fan favorite Cal Clutterbuck, and talented new addition Martin Havlát—but the squad's leader is undeniably Mikko Koivu. Management made as much clear this season by naming him the Wild's first permanent team captain, an honor the relatively young Finnish center absolutely deserves. He's a presence everywhere: on the bench and at both sides of the ice, able to make an impact on the game from seemingly any spot in the Xcel. Koivu is among the team's leading goal scorers, but just as importantly he makes plays develop, garnering him more assists than any of his teammates and more than almost anyone in the NHL.
We expected to give this one to Al Jefferson. We really did. Alas, Big Al has fallen off a bit from last season, a decline that coincided with Kevin Love's marked improvement from last year. The former UCLA standout's greatest strength continues to be on the glass—his 4.2 offensive rebounds a game is second in the league. The foundation of his exceptional rebounding ability is twofold: Not only does the 6'9" bruiser have a clairvoyant knack for the ball (he reads the ball off the rim better than anyone in the game), he is absolutely relentless in clawing his way to the right spot. Meanwhile, on the offensive end, Love has extended his scoring arsenal thanks to an improved jumper, averaging 15.1 points a game—four more than he did a season ago. Love is shooting 42 percent from three-point land—which leads the team—and 80 percent from the charity stripe. He dishes 2.4 assists per game (third on the team). Not a bad stat line for a second-year 22-year-old with a little bit of baby fat still showing. And don't expect his productivity to wane anytime soon. The two-pronged foundation of his game—sheer grittiness and a fundamentally sound approach on the court—are attributes that will endure.
Blessed with length, athleticism, and off-the-ball footwork that puts most NBAers to shame, Seimone Augustus can get her points whenever, however—and against whomever—she wants. The only thing that could stop the six-footer last season was a torn ACL. But before the injury she was leading the WNBA in scoring at 21 points per contest. It doesn't hurt that she's a solid rebounder (4.2 per game) and tenacious defender (two steals per) to boot. With a first-rate point guard on board for next season (hometown girl Lindsey Whalen), fans should expect the Lynx to go deep into the playoffs.