Major League Baseball is now officially back at the forefront of popular sports consciousness, now that the annual rite of passage has just occurred in the annual spectacle that is the Super Bowl. Manning, securing his legacy for keeps, led the Colts to a 29-17 victory over the Chicago Bears on Sunday in No. XLI. It meant the first major sports championship for the city of Indianapolis and the only franchise title since the former Baltimore Colts won Super Bowl V way back in January 1971.
"We have won as a team," said Manning, who went 25-for-38 for 247 yards. "Everybody did their part. There was no panic, nobody ever gave up, we stayed calm, truly won this championship as a team, and I'm proud to be part of it. ... It sure is a great feeling."
It also means it's now up to the Cubs to give Chicagoans something new in 2007, and did we mention that pitchers and catchers report in just 10 days? Tickets are on sale now.
This game was wet and wildly unpredictable at Dolphin Stadium in Miami, where there were four turnovers in the first quarter alone, a record two occasions of turnovers on consecutive plays and utter domination by the Colts in terms of ball control -- yet never a sure thing until Hayden's interception was returned for a 56-yard TD that provided the final score with 11:44 remaining in the fourth quarter.
That unpredictability is what sports fans are accustomed to with baseball, and in that regard, this was one of the most entertaining Super Bowls in a while. It was certainly nothing like the days when Da Bears romped to their only title 21 years ago in the Super Bowl blowout days. This big game, in fact, even outperformed the hype and the execution that was built around Kevin Federline, who was "Rollin' VIP" in a Nationwide Insurance ad that got most of the buzz entering this iconic event.
There were four rainouts in the last MLB postseason, including at least one in each round. Evidently, a championship pattern is emerging. Sunday marked the first time after 40 Super Bowls that it ever had rained during the game. And it didn't just rain, but it was one long Gatorade shower from roughly start to finish. Maybe most amazing was watching Prince perform at halftime in the downpour, and with purple lights ablaze, his classic rendition of "Purple Rain" was just a spectacular sight to behold. And no one beholds a sports event quite like Super Bowl fans, whose attention is usually divided to a best-of-seven series in MLB, NBA and NHL championships.
Dungy became the first African-American to coach a Super Bowl winner. He also joins Tom Flores and Mike Ditka as the only ones to win a Super Bowl as both a player and a coach. Because of Smith on the Bears' sideline, this event actually featured the first two African-Americans to coach in the NFL's title match.
Few could appreciate that as much as Cito Gaston, who led the Blue Jays to World Series titles in 1992 and 1993 and became the first African-American manager to win MLB's championship event.
"This is the first Super Bowl I won't lose," Gaston told Jim Street of MLB.com earlier this week, adding that he planned to call the victorious coach. "Usually, every fan has a team he wants to win. I'll be rooting for both of those guys. The way I see it, I'll win no matter who wins. It will be a great day for me, and all [African-Americans], just to sit here in front of my TV and watch history unfold."
Everyone seemed to watch this one unfold, and oh, how it unfolded fast. Hester took the opening kickoff and went to paydirt, a dazzling first in this event. Chicago had a 14-6 lead after the first quarter, becoming the sixth team to score 14 points in the first quarter of a Super Bowl, a record for the highest point total by one team in the ultimate football game's opening 15 minutes. The others were Miami vs. Minnesota (VIII), Oakland vs. Philadelphia (XV), Dallas vs. Buffalo (XXVII), San Francisco vs. San Diego (XXIX) and New England vs. Green Bay (XXXI).
After Hester's return, the Bears intercepted Manning, then he threw a long TD pass to a wide-open Reggie Wayne, and it was 7-6 after a failed conversion. Then the Colts recovered a fumble. Then the Bears recovered a fumble. Then Thomas Jones broke one to set up a second Chicago touchdown, a reception by Muhsin Muhammad, making it 14-6.
Adam Vinatieri kicked three field goals in this game, and his first one was followed by a Dominic Rhodes 1-yard run with 6:09 remaining in the first half. That gave the Colts a 16-14 lead, and they never trailed again.
The Colts' victory will be celebrated for a long time around the city of Indianapolis. But in Chicago and every Major League market, there is no question what happens now. Baseball takes over, and that feels better than all of that face-slapping that went on in the first-half Bud Light commercial. It's time for the focus to switch to preparation for fantasy drafts everywhere and a time-honored cycle of life returning to Start.
Will it be New York's turn again, with either the Yankees or Mets? Andy Pettitte will be back to help the former, while the latter has the motivation of getting past the hump of last fall's Game 7 crusher against St. Louis for the National League pennant.
Maybe Detroit goes the distance in 2007, with Gary Sheffield now onboard. Maybe Barry Zito helps the Giants to their first title in San Francisco, the way the Colts just won their first title in Indy. Maybe Jeff Suppan helps the Brewers to their first World Series championship, the way he just helped the Cardinals to their first title since they beat those Brewers back in 1982.
There is no end to the maybes in baseball, because any team can win in this era. And to make it even more compelling, it will be Milestone Madness, with the strong likelihood that Craig Biggio gets his 3,000th hit, Tom Glavine wins his 300th game, Barry Bonds hits the record 756th homer and, possibly, four players join the 500 Home Run Club.
This is the time when the great third-base coach in the sky signals that it's time for the so-called "offseason" to head home, time for Major League Baseball to take over as it has done since before the Wright Brothers flew. Now that one final football game is done in Miami, it's time for the Florida Marlins to resume residence.
It's almost time for pitchers and catchers to report to Florida and Arizona, because the game clock in the Super Bowl has struck zero and all attention is now on that countdown clock at the top of the MLB.com homepage.
The Super Bowl was the last truly meaningful matter of action in a long winter that lets baseball players, managers and fans regenerate their energy. There were the elections. There was that long holiday pause. There were college bowl games. Maybe that is one reason everyone becomes totally engrossed in an annual happening.
Then, just like that, it's baseball's turn again. Now there can be no dispute. The Lombardi Trophy has been handed over. The national pastime owns the map again. It's time to say goodbye to football and settle in for the magical marathon.
Thanks for the handoff.