Losers No More

It was the year of Hurricane Mitch and Typhoon Monica, of Governor Ventura and King Viagra. It was the year they finally played college football at Mile High Stadium (Colorado 42, Colorado State 14), the year Harry Caray and his "Holy Cow!" died. It was the year that boxer Bobby Czyz offered this heat-of-battle theory to explain the Mike Tyson ear-biting incident: "If I hit an opponent and his eye fell out...I would eat it before he could get it back."

It was some year, all right. But the most astonishing thing may have occurred on January 25, 1998: The long-suffering Denver Broncos finally won a Super Bowl. Eleven-point underdogs at kickoff in San Diego, 37-year-old John Elway and 44 other predominantly orange overachievers surprised the defending champion Green Bay Packers 31-24, giving the American Football Conference its first championship since the invention of the forward pass and relieving fans in the Mile High City of a burden they had borne since the Kennedy administration.

Losers no more. Top of the heap. Hey, bartender, get everybody another round.

So inspiring was the victory that Denver policemen immediately started tear-gassing drunks in LoDo, and a crowd said to number 650,000 showed up for the victory parade. "This one's for John," Broncos owner Pat Bowlen had crowed. But this one, it turned out, was really for Pat: Ten months after beating Green Bay, Bowlen's extortion plot to erect a new Broncos stadium at taxpayer expense swept through the electorate like Terrell Davis carrying the ball against fifth-graders.

Two other Super Bowl postscripts proved more appealing. On February 15 veteran NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt finally won the prestigious Daytona 500 in his twentieth try, and he credited Elway, a loser in three previous Super Bowls, with providing the extra emotional horsepower. In late May, Elway himself thrilled the faithful by announcing, after much hand-wringing and public speculation, that he would return to the team for a sixteenth and final season--and join Dan Marino in the ultra-exclusive 50,000-yard passing club.

Number 7's battered body parts are finally wearing out, one by one, but it's still been a pretty good year: The Broncos won their first thirteen games before taking a snooze December 13 against the lowly New York Giants. Is a second shipment of Super Bowl rings in the offing? Don't bet against it.

Don't bet against major-league baseball, either. Four years after hitting rock bottom with a divisive players' strike and the cancellation of the World Series, the grand old game put on its rally cap in 1998 and produced an epic poem of a season.

The iron man, Baltimore infielder Cal Ripken Jr., ended his record 2,632-consecutive-game streak by quietly taking to the bench at season's close, and dyed-in-the-doubleknit fans all tipped their hats to him. They will likely be marveling at the home-run heroics of a Saint Louis Cardinal with tree-trunk forearms, Mark McGwire, and his good buddy on the Chicago Cubs, Sammy Sosa, for decades. But these two did more than put up outlandish numbers (70 dingers for Big Mac, 66 for Sammy). While turning batting practice into a hot-ticket fan ritual and shattering Roger Maris's 37-year-old single-season homer record, the Bunyonesque single father with the red hair and the sleek black Dominican hugged each other and grinned, and revealed everything that's good, deep down, about baseball--its mystery and grace, its unspoken camaraderie, the magic that grabs the true believer at age five or six and sticks around for a lifetime.

Chances are, your little kid may now want to put on the cleats and stand in there, burning for some heat to hit out of the park.

As for the New York Yankees, who have been baseball's imperial wizards for most of the century, it's hard for even rabid Yankee-haters to grouse much about the club's 24th World Series title. Except for their monster of an owner, the Bronx Bombers were an admirably selfless bunch this year, from slick shortstop Derek Jeter, to rumpled perfect-gamer David Wells, to the anonymous journeymen (like Series MVP Scott Brosius) who propelled them to 114 regular-season wins and a record 125 in all, including a four-game World Series sweep of the plucky but outclassed San Diego Padres. Even in Keokuk, we hear, the locals are now screaming like enflamed cab drivers and demanding their pastrami piled high.

Baseball at 5,280 feet, meanwhile, was another matter. For the first time, Coors Field hosted the mid-season All-Star Game, a 13-8 slugfest that showed the world what a vast outfield, thin air and spooked pitching can do to the average ball score. This assault on baseball minimalism was accompanied by $40 parking spaces, twenty-foot inflatable beer bottles and a post-game fracas in the parking lot over souvenir Beanie Babies--worthless bags of fluff that had somehow grown as coveted as a McGwire home-run ball.

On either end of the All-Star break, the Colorado Rockies proved that good intentions and free spending don't always put you in the win column: In losing their first six home games, the '98 Rox gave up 107 hits, 41 walks and 86 earned runs. Their season slid downhill from there--landing with a clunk in fourth place in the National League West.

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