Losers No More

What happened? Emotional anchors Andres Galarraga and Walt Weiss had slipped off to Atlanta. The team's most expensive free agent, pitcher Darryl Kile, went 13-17 and ran up a 6.22 earned run average at home. Clubhouse frictions erupted. In the end, it was manager Don Baylor, the one and only skipper since the Rox first took the field in 1993, who paid the price. He was replaced by Florida's Jim Leyland, a master tactician, who will have rookie-of-the-year runner-up Todd Helton and a cast of veterans to work with in 1999. But first he must re-sign disconsolate left-fielder Larry Walker--the league MVP in 1997 and a man who has noted the $80 and $90 million contracts top sluggers now command.

The best thing about the 1998 Rockies was that they were not the 1998 Denver Nuggets. You know. Basketball. Remember basketball? Before the current player lockout, or hostage crisis, or whatever they call the thing the NBA apparently learned from their baseball brethren, circa 1994, Bill Hanzlik's perfectly awful Nuggets managed to do what only two teams in the history of the game had ever done--lose 71 games. That means Anthony Goldwire and Priest Lauderdale and a lot of other tall guys who should be washing the windows of skyscrapers instead of playing pro sport won only eleven games--just two more than the infamous 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers. Surprise: Hanzlik was fired. Ditto general manager Allan Bristow.

Eager for the new NBA season to finally get under way? Not if you live here, you're not--despite the return of all-time Nugget fave Dan Issel, this time as new GM of the shattered club. Better the entire league should go the way of roller derby so that Issel can while away his retirement handicapping the daily double. By the way, that man wearing number 23 on the boob tube last spring was named Michael Jordan, and the 45 points he scored that night against the Utah Jazz earned him a sixth NBA championship ring. Better tell the grandchildren of such greatness, lest the world forget.

Need we recall that, in June, the Detroit Red Wings swept the Washington Caps to win another Stanley Cup? Or that the Colorado Avalanche continues to plummet from the giddy heights of 1996? Or that the Avs' coach--Marc Crawford--was fired, too? Didn't think so. Instead, consider the yin and yang of last winter's Olympic hockey: The U.S. men--all well-fed, cocky NHL stars--tanked on the ice, trashed a hotel suite and came home in disgrace; the U.S. women's team, unpaid but willing, played its collective heart out and not only won the gold medal but untold millions of fans for the women's version of a sport long held to be strictly male territory.

The men's gold went to upstart Czechoslovakia, which, led by impenetrable goaltender Dominik Hasek, beat the U.S., then Canada, then Russia--the power that had invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968. In delirious Prague, they say, even six-year-olds were raising glasses of cold pilsner to "The Dominator" and his national-hero teammates.

Talk about nationalism. Soccer's quadrennial World Cup is watched on TV by one of every three people on the planet (including 512 Americans), and last summer it traveled to France, where they cook up a pretty nice bowl of soup, and the ticket scandals are rampant. To everyone's surprise but its own, the home team wound up beating favored Brazil 3-0 in the final. And Cháteau Margaux, friends say, ran red in the streets. But the high point of the proceedings, at least in terms of absurdity, had come earlier: Before underdog Iran faced a U.S. squad seeded eleventh in the 32-team field, the Iranian coach took his players to meditate at the grave of Ayatollah Khomeini. He gave them some pep talks about outscoring "The Great Satan." Fail, it was rumored, and things might not be so copacetic on the plane ride back to Tehran.

Whew! Iran 2, USA 1. The Americans, in athletic and emotional disarray, lost all of their games and finished dead last. The Iranians managed to keep their heads.

Not so the Tour de France bicyclists who stopped pedaling in a snit over drug allegations. Or Carolina Panther Kevin Greene, who attacked one of his defensive coaches on the sidelines a few Sundays back. Or the Western Athletic Conference, which grew top-heavy under the new weight of sixteen teams and simply blew apart in late May: Eight of the defecting schools, including longtime WAC members Colorado State, Air Force and Wyoming, will begin play in a new conference next year. Or eligible bachelor Dennis Rodman, he of the many hair colors, who got drunk in Las Vegas, married TV babe Carmen Electra, had the marriage annulled, then promptly declared dear Carmen his one and only. Between the romantic antics of Messrs. Rodman and Clinton, there's no need for minor entertainments like pro basketball.

Golf had its moments in 1998: Against a field of brilliant youngsters, Mark O'Meara, too, impersonated Elway by winning the Masters after thirteen years of futility; 58-year-old Jack Nicklaus gave everyone a thrill on Friday at Augusta by drawing near but winding up tying for sixth, just four strokes back. Rising player Casey Martin, who has a withered leg, won a case in court allowing him to use an electric cart on the big tour--despite opposition from Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and some of the game's other big names. On the women's tour, South Korea's emergent Se Ri Park was all the rage, especially after her stunning win in the U.S. Women's Open. Among the senior men, former Colorado University linebacker Hale Irwin had another career year--winning seven tournaments at $2.86 million; last year he won nine times, putting $2.3 million in the bank.

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