A Sporting Chance

Colorado sports went on a downhill slide in '99.

Speaking of women, tennis great Steffi Graf won the French Open again, then retired. But the world seemed more interested in her budding romance with resurgent star Andre Agassi. On the other hand, the retirement of the world's most successful female jockey, Julie Krone (3,500 winners), was completely ignored by the media because it came the same day as Gretzky's momentous announcement. At least horse racing itself got a little ink in December, when the splendid jockey Lafitt Pincay Jr., aka The Pirate, rode his 8,834th winner at Hollywood Park in Los Angeles. That broke a 29-year-old record set by his close friend and mentor, the great Willie Shoemaker. In his 35-year career, Pincay has survived scores of spills, suffered twelve broken collarbones and, like most great race riders, battled to maintain his weight. At 53, he works out relentlessly and ingests only 850 calories a day. For Pincay, a mid-afternoon snack consists of half a peanut. Upon witnessing the record, Lafitt's fellow riders carried him from the winner's circle on their shoulders.

In boxing, Denver's own world lightweight champion, Li'l Stevie Johnston, twice defended his title with honor, but he still can't get what he wants -- a bigtime fight in his hometown. Oscar De La Hoya, the Golden Boy, remained the game's most popular personality, but the pulp-fiction elements of this long-troubled sport overshadowed even him: In March, heavyweight champ Evander Holyfield was clearly beaten by British challenger Lennox Lewis in Madison Square Garden, but crooked judges (notably, one Jean Williams) called it a draw; Lewis won the rematch. Meanwhile, the ever-troubled former champ Mike Tyson -- who has had exactly eight fights in the last eight years -- hit Orlin Norris after the bell in Las Vegas in October, which resulted in a "no contest" declaration and his $9 million purse being held.

This gave rise to the undisputed sports quote of the year, courtesy of Nevada boxing commissioner Luther Mack. "We have to take a strong stand," Mack said of the Tyson incident. "We have to make sure we protect the integrity of boxing." Yes, and the Russians mean to protect the integrity of the Chechens.

In the face of a year stuffed with mendacity and misery and loss, we can look to Brandi Chastain's midsummer exultation for a lift, to Pincay's hard-won triumph, even to the imperial reign of the New York Yankees, which has lasted for an entire century. In the end, though, let us consider the feat of one Tramer Ray, an eighteen-year-old high school senior from Medicine Lodge, Kansas. On April 17, three days before the Columbine massacre, Ray played both games of a doubleheader against Chaparral-Attica. But it is the third inning of the second game that he will long remember, because in that inning alone, he hit two grand slams and a three-run homer. In doing so, Tramer tied two national high school records, and his eleven runs batted in broke a third. Said the conquering hero: "I didn't know I did all that."

Just as well, young man. Just as well.

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