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THE BALLS AND STRIKES OF '95

All right, so where were you when O.J. walked? How about when Cigar ran? Or when the Big Cat struck out against Mark Wohlers?

To say that 1995 was an astonishing year in sports is to understate the case. Consider. Tennis great Monica Seles emerged from a traumatic two-year retirement and nearly beat Steffi Graf in the U.S. Open final just two weeks into her comeback. In March Michael Jordan dropped minor-league baseball for a sport he actually understands and poured 55 points through the hoop for the Bulls when he hit Madison Square Garden. The San Francisco 49ers breezed past San Diego 49-26 to win their fifth Super Bowl and have set their sights on a sixth. Meanwhile, your Denver Broncos fell on their duffs for the second year running to prolong aging (and ringless) John Elway's agony. Wade Phillips got canned, but will new coach Mike Shanahan yet prove to be a savior? The clock is ticking.

Shockingly, Mickey Mantle died. So did Pancho Gonzales, legendary race driver Juan Manuel Fangio and master court hustler Bobby Riggs. Ex-Broncos back-up quarterback Norris Weese succumbed to bone cancer at 43.

Heroic moments? This summer, Baltimore shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. broke Lou Gehrig's Iron Man record of 2,130 consecutive games and, in the 22-minute standing ovation that followed, shook hands with nearly every fan, and most of the umpires, in Camden Yards. But not even Cal seemed big enough to carry the lingering weight of a divisive and bitter baseball strike. The Atlanta Braves finally won a World Series. But not before the Colorado Rockies, invigorated by expensive free agents including Larry Walker and Bret Saberhagen, reached the playoffs in just their third season and gave Cy Young perennial Greg Maddux and his teammates the fright of a lifetime in round one. Except at Coors Field, where there is nothing to forgive, the grand old game remains on shaky ground. As for beloved Blake Street Bomber Dante Bichette, he led the league in homers and RBIs but finished second in the MVP voting.

Follies? Heavyweight rapist Mike Tyson got out of the joint, thumped a tomato can named Peter McNeeley for--let's see--a full 89 seconds, then watched while con artist Don King grinned through the sham. In May goofy Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott rubbed fur from her dead Saint Bernard on the players' legs to help break a slump. Hotheaded basketballer Vernon Maxwell slugged a heckler, pitcher Jack McDowell flipped off jeering Yankees fans and bad boy Darryl Strawberry took a called third strike, this time in the Bronx.

Looking for really weird? At Del Mar Race Track, on August 10, a 38-year-old man carrying a duffel bag ran into the path of horses sprinting toward the wire in the feature race, but jockey Chris McCarron deftly steered his mount around the failed suicide, who was promptly shackled and shipped downtown.

"Think he was alive in the late double?" one local railbird was heard to ask. In Denver, horse racing itself is dead now that Arapahoe Park has shut its doors for the second time. Wonder if the operators were holding space on equally defunct MarkAir.

Say, how are things in Cleveland? The long-beleaguered Indians won their first AL pennant in 41 years but lost the Series in six games while moody slugger Albert Belle did a lot more damage to the Tribe's dressing room than to the Braves' pitching. Meantime, the owner of football's Cleveland Browns, Art Modell, decided to move the club to Baltimore after half a century--thus stiffing fans so loyal they wear dog masks to show their love.

While the NFL expanded into Jacksonville and the Carolinas, Modell was not the only owner with happy feet in 1995. The Prince of Darkness, Al Davis, returned his Raiders to Oakland, the Rams relocated in St. Louis, the Houston Oilers are probably headed for Nashville and half a dozen poohbahs in three sports are making noises about pulling out.

How does Los Angeles Broncos sound? At least local taxpayers refused to pony up to build owner Pat Bowlen that new stadium he's demanding.

On the other hand, Denverites landed one hot NHL hockey team because of financial discontent up in chilly Canada: As of this writing, the Colorado Avalanche, formerly Les Quebec Nordiques, stand atop the Western Division while the best goaltender in the game, Patrick Roy, stands between the pipes. What an irony if the 'Lanche were to land a title before the Donks, Rox or Nuggs.

Speaking of the Nuggets--come on now, you remember them. Bunch of tall guys. Gave everybody a thrill a couple of years back by upsetting Seattle in the playoffs. Well, since this time last season they've had three coaches: the Horse, of course, Dan Issel; cup-of-coffee man Gene Littles and current occupant Bernie Bickerstaff, who also happens to be general manager of the team, its president and, for all we know, the caterer. Nuggetland is quiet right now in the face of Rockymania and Avalanche fever, but keep your eye on Bernie: He snaked rookie sensation Antonio McDyess away from the hapless Clippers, didn't he?

Basketball looked healthier down Houston way: Led by Hakeem the Dream, the Rockets confounded the experts by repeating as NBA champs.

In golf, CBS loudmouth Ben Wright carped that the women's game is being damaged by lesbians, then added that women's breasts impede their swings. But another Ben--Crenshaw--bailed out the game's image by winning his second Masters just a week after his long-time mentor, Harvey Penick, died at age ninety. On the 18th green, Crenshaw wept.

Lenny Wilkins surpassed Red Auerbach in NBA wins, and at Grambling State, ageless football coach Eddie Robinson chalked up his record 400th victory. Powerful Nebraska, winner of its first national championship early in the year, was pointed toward a second one pending the outcome of the Fiesta Bowl test against Florida. The best 1995 story in college sports, though, was traditional Big Ten doormat Northwestern, a Cinderella that went 10-1 and is headed for the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1949.

While L.A. Dodgers ace Hideo Nomo thrilled all of Japan and most of America, Dallas Cowboys chieftain Jerry Jones signed defiant deals with Nike and Pepsi that prompted a $300 million suit by the NFL--just slightly less than Jones is paying overrated defensive back Deion Sanders. German Axel Schultz got screwed by the judges in his fight with Big George Foreman, but George wants no part of a senior citizen whose comeback is even more bewildering than his own: Denver's Ron Lyle, who decked Foreman during the Ford administration, is 53.

In tennis, Americans Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras cooked up the game's hottest rivalry since McEnroe v. Borg, but the weirdest stroke of the year came from Benedicte Tarango, the wife of journeyman Jeff Tarango, who smacked an umpire after her husband stormed off the court at Wimbledon.

Canadian Jacques Villeneuve won the Indy 500 after Scott Goodyear was ticketed for streaking past the pace car ten laps from the finish, and Sterling Martin won his second straight Daytona following a two-hour rain delay. On softer tracks, the great thoroughbred Holy Bull broke down in February, robbing an ailing sport of its only star, and a New Jersey claimer named Gussie Mae barely failed to set a new record for futility when he got the first win of his career after 85 straight losses.

Trainer D. Wayne Lukas swept racing's Triple Crown--with two different horses. But the horse story centered on a great Equine-American named Cigar. A mediocre grass runner earlier on, the five-year-old won twelve straight dirt races in 1995, including seven Grade I stakes and the $3 million Breeders' Cup Classic. And let's not forget greyhound Unruly Thomas, still competing out at Mile High Kennel Club. He's won fourteen straight.

In 1995 the New Jersey Devils (who used to be those other Colorado Rockies) won their first Stanley Cup. Popular Don Zimmer, a Rockies coach, quietly retired in the middle of a game against St. Louis after 47 years in the game. Upstart New Zealand won the America's Cup; ousted Rockies principal Mickey Monus got twenty years for fraud; and in the end, Johnnie Cochran not only got O.J. off, but the ex-running back demanded that the cops return his fake mustache and beard, his gun and his Hooters VIP card. Maybe Mark Fuhrman can drop the stuff by Simpson's place.

While he waits, the racehorse Cigar and the Homo sapiens Cal Ripken Jr. finish in a dead heat in the race for sports hero of the year. But it's hard to ignore the Friends of Matt Berlin.

On April 13, Berlin was visiting Oswego, N.Y., when he decided to go bowling. Amazingly, he had rolled eleven straight strikes in his second game, one short of perfection, when the power suddenly failed. For more than an hour, Berlin waited in the dark and was about to leave the building, unfinished and unfulfilled, because he had a plane to catch. But his fellow bowlers in Oswego wouldn't hear of it. Out to their cars they went to fetch flashlights and cigarette lighters, and in that shadowy dimness their new friend at last got to try for his 300, his perfect game.

So, did Matt Berlin roll strike number twelve? Of course he did! And with that, may we banish for a moment the shame on the playing fields and the scorn in the locker rooms.

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