A Year of Games

Sunday School: That wasn't the Comet Hale-Bopp, that was Detroit's amazing Barry Sanders--shredding another defense, winning another NFL rushing title--for a Lions club that rarely makes the playoffs. On his very last carry of the season, the modest star with the faultless balance outflanked the bewildered New York Jets secondary for 53 yards, giving him 2,053 for the regular season, second only to Eric Dickerson's 1984 mark of 2,105. Meanwhile, Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre (3,867 yards passing, 35 touchdowns) seemed destined to be the league's MVP for the third consecutive year; if anything, he's had a better season than in 1995 or 1996, and the Packers look poised for a return trip to the Super Bowl. But for another great QB, Bronco John Elway (3,635 yards, 27 TDs), time is running out: Like his 1983 classmate Dan Marino (3,780, 16), he probably won't get another shot at the big one.

Have You Met Ms. Jones? Except in Olympic summers, American sports fans pay as much attention to track and field as they do to curling or water polo. Unfortunately, the biggest news of the year in this noble and ancient sport came out of a bitter, brag-filled match race between rival sprinters Michael Johnson and Donovan Bailey: When the yapping was done, Bailey flashed from the blocks and blasted into the turn; that's where Johnson suddenly (and suspiciously) came up with a pulled hamstring, casting an ugly pall over the affair. Thank Mercury, then, for Marion Jones. A former University of North Carolina point guard, she competed for the first time last summer on the world-class track circuit and simply blew away the competition, winning the Zurich 200 in 21.76, fastest clocking of the year, and coming home from Europe as the 100-meter world champion. The usual irony prevails: Jones remains the finest American athlete no one's ever heard of.

And now...the inevitable goofballs:
On the Ropes: The unholy spectacle of what used to be professional boxing continued apace in 1997, lowlighted by that big chunk of earlobe Leg-Iron Mike removed from Holyfield in Las Vegas. But Tyson wasn't the only miscreant prowling Don's Kingdom. In February, heavyweight Oliver McCall suddenly dropped his gloves and burst into tears in the middle of a bout with Lennox Lewis; his $3 million purse was snatched away. Riddick Bowe made a showboat play to join the U.S. Marine Corps--and promptly washed out of basic training. Sugar Ray Leonard attempted his fourth (and most pathetic) comeback, and Andrew Golota (quickly dubbed "The Foul Pole") was twice disqualified for low blows in bouts against the aforementioned Mr. Bowe. And let's not forget the three blind mice who "judged" the Oscar De La Hoya-Pernell Whitaker fight a De La Hoya rout, or hamburger-fueled George Foreman, whose latest vow is to box once more on his fiftieth birthday and then retire forever.

The bell tolls for thee, fight game.
Bush Leaguers: When Alexander Pope, English poetry's perennial all-star, made his mordant observation about "the right divine of kings to govern wrong," he probably wasn't thinking about baseball's majordomos. But in 1997, why not? While contending in a close divisional race with the Indians, Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf dumped three key pitchers onto the market (to pay Michael Jordan's salary?) and washed his hands of the season. Baltimore's Peter Angelos, disgusted that his Orioles didn't get to the World Series, forced out manager Davey Johnson--five minutes before Johnson was named American League manager of the year. In Seattle, GM Woody Woodward cut the phenomenal Jose Cruz Jr. loose for two relievers you've never heard of (Mike Timlin and Paul Spoljaric), and Wayne Huizenga started dismantling his world-champion Florida Marlins before the ice in the champagne buckets even melted.

The Rockies' Bob Gebhard? In the wake of the Swift/Saberhagen Double Debacle, he traded Craig Counsell (now sporting a championship ring) for Mark Hutton (now looking for work again).

And we thought the players' strike marked baseball's low tide.
Tube Boobs: As television, the world's most influential medium, marches boldly into the 21st century, need we recount the gruesome details of basketball announcer Marv Albert's twin tastes for backbiting and ladies' lingerie? How about self-appointed marriage counselor Frank Gifford's tryst with a woman-who-was-not-his-wife up in that hotel room? Wonder what Kathy Lee put under the tree for ol' Frank this year. And let's not forget ESPN's Gary Miller, who pleaded no contest to disorderly conduct after peeing out of a second-floor window in Cleveland onto the street below.

Slam Punks: Just for fun last year, all-star hairdresser Dennis Rodman kicked a photographer in the groin and pledged to play his last NBA game in the nude. Shaquille O'Neal blindsided clueless Greg Ostertag, Charles Barkley tossed a drunk through a window, Nick Van Exel shoved a ref into the expensive seats, and Allen Iverson added to his extensive rap sheet. Ex-CU star Michael Westbrook beat the hell out of Washington Redskins teammate Stephen Davis; then his coach, Norv Turner, had the nerve to ask the media not to air the incriminating footage. Last June, the Colorado Silver Bullets, the professional women's baseball team, engaged in the first-ever coed brawl with a men's team. Meanwhile, in St. Louis, troubled running back Lawrence Phillips...oh, forget it.

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