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A Sporting Chance

The good, the bad and the very ugly of athletics in 2000.

First, the good news.

This was the year Tiger Woods won the U.S. Open, the British Open, the PGA and seven other tournaments with the ease of a golfing god, then graciously praised the efforts of his merely mortal opponents. It was the year that Rulon Gardner, an unknown Greco-Roman wrestler from tiny Afton, Wyoming, vanquished a Russian Olympic behemoth who had not lost a match in thirteen years. In 2000, former cancer victim Lance Armstrong pedaled 2,550 miles to his second Tour de France victory, and former cancer victim Andres Galarraga made a heartening comeback with the Atlanta Braves. Denver's own Metropolitan State College won the NCAA Division II basketball championship, and Todd Helton thrilled otherwise down-in-the-mouth Colorado Rockies fans by toying all season with the magical .400. Tennis star Pete Sampras won a record thirteenth Grand Slam, U.S. sprinter Marion Jones bagged five medals (three golds) in Sydney, and an eight-year-old racehorse with the ill-fitting handle Zippy Chippy kept right on running -- despite losing for the 87th straight time.

On June 3, a pitcher for the London (Ontario) Werewolves, Brett Gray, struck out 25 batters in a regular nine-inning game against the Chillicothe Paints. Said the astonished Frontier League hurler: "People probably see it and think it's a misprint. I did."

Unfortunately, many of the major sports stories of 2000 also looked like misprints -- or the handiwork of demons bent on destroying our remaining faith in humankind. We've seen plenty of misbehavior on and off the playing fields through the years, but this year produced a bumper crop of morons, miscreants and malfeasants. A scattershot selection of prizewinners:

O.J. Simpson Award for Domestic Policy: The verdict from Charlotte is not yet in, but the preponderance of testimony makes it a good bet that former Colorado Buffalo and Carolina Panther Rae Carruthhad something to do with the November 1999 murder of his pregnant girlfriend, Cherica Adams. Co-defendant and confessed triggerman Van Brett Watkins has testified against Carruth, claiming the former wide receiver plotted the crime to avoid paying child support. Earlier in the year, Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens was acquitted of murder charges in the deaths of two men outside an Atlanta club on the night of the 2000 Super Bowl, and veteran Packers tight end Mark Chmura was accused of raping a high school girl. NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue must be having nightmares about the people some of his players choose to hang with. Here in Denver, Dishonorable Mentions in this category go to Rockies pitchers Bobby Chouinard, who will serve a one-year term (in the off-season, wouldn't you know) for aggravated assault after holding a loaded gun to his wife's head, and Pedro Astacio, who, for now, has avoided deportation to the Dominican Republic in the wake of charges of assault and domestic violence against hiswife. As for Avalanche goalie Patrick Roy -- Saint Patrick, to his fans -- he was led from his Greenwood Village home in handcuffs on a domestic-violence complaint just four days after setting the NHL record for wins by a goaltender: 448.

Albert Belle Sportsmanship Trophy:Boston Bruins enforcer Marty McSorley, third all-time in NHL penalty minutes, shocked even fellow hockey thugs when he clubbed the Canucks' Donald Brashear with his stick, knocking him unconscious on the ice. Suspended for the last 23 games of the 1999-2000 season, McSorley was later convicted in a Vancouver court of assault with a weapon. Runner-up Roger Clemens lost only in the court of public opinion. In a July inter-league game, the five-time Cy Young winner obviously beaned the Mets' Mike Piazza (who was batting about .450 against him), knocking Piazza out of action for a week; in game two of the Subway Series at Yankee Stadium, Clemens flung a jagged shard of Piazza's shattered bat at the catcher as he ran toward first base. The Rocket's excuse? He thought it was the ball. Dishonorable mentions: All nineteen Los Angeles Dodgers suspended for a brawl at Wrigley Field during which some players went after fans in the stands; sixteen assorted Detroit Tigers and Chicago White Sox-- including both managers -- suspended for their April punchup; local Olympic swimming star Amy Van Dyken, who at the Sydney games spit into the lane of Dutch gold medalist Inge de Brujn and later carped, "I could swim like that if I were a man"; explosive Croat tennis star Goran Ivanisevic, who had to default a November match in Brighton, England, after smashing all his rackets.

The Caligula Cup: Clearly, the owners of professional sports teams can be a cruel, despotic and self-absorbed bunch (see Steinbrenner, George). But most of them looked like guardian angels in 2000 compared to Daniel Snyder, the petulant and intrusive majordomo of the Washington Redskins. One of Snyder's first moves was to fire more than a dozen employees without severance, and after a loss, he lambasted head coach Norv Turner in the team training room. Last summer Snyder charged fans $10 to visit the Skins' training camp, and when his $100 million team -- the most expensive in NFL history -- suffered its fourth loss in five games two weeks ago, Snyder abruptly fired Turner. Meanwhile, ex-starting quarterback Brad Johnson complains that his demotion came straight from the executive office. And you thought the Bush-Gore wrangle was big news in the nation's capitol.

Al Campanis Prize for Public Speaking: We'll never know all the effects Ku Klux Kloser John Rocker had on his Atlanta Braves teammates in 2000, but what was likely the best club in the National League lost to St. Louis in the first round of the playoffs. As for the surly reliever, he managed to offend almost everyone on the planet with his redneck comments about minorities, foreigners, gays and kids with purple hair, which were published in Sports Illustrated. Not content to shut up and hit the books at sensitivity class, Rocker later threatened the offending SIreporter in a stadium tunnel and greeted the rest of the world with a defiant sneer. Rocker was sent briefly to the minors to work on "control problems," but there was no controlling his mouth. Even customarily reticent teammates turned against him. Alarmingly, though, some Braves fans at spring training and at Turner Field gave the man standing ovations. And those "Rocker for President" T-shirts were eyesores. Runner-up: Broncos linebacker Bill Romanowski, reputed to be one of the NFL's dirtiest players and certainly one of the most outspoken. Snared in a wrangle over the illegal use of prescription stimulants, Bad Billy remarked: "You wouldn't put regular gas in a Ferrari, would you?"

The Gordon Gekko Scholarships:Based not on need, but greed. The winners are former Seattle shortstop Alex Rodriguez and his predatory agent, Scott Boras, who sought a contract for the talented free agent a little larger than the national defense budget. In unsuccessful negotiations with the New York Mets, the pair allegedly demanded such perks as a Lear jet, a stadium suite, a private concession stand and, for all we know, the toll receipts from the Triborough Bridge. Instead, the Texas Rangers gave A-Rod an obscene $252 million for ten years -- more than the team's owners paid for the entire club in 1997. Runners-up: All those .247 hitters asking for eight mil a year -- and getting it.

National Association of Optometrists Personal Vision Award: Former Met, Giant, Dodger and Yankee Darryl Strawberry has recurrent cancer, which is a crying shame. He's also had more chances to clean up his act than a janitor on the night shift. In failing to do it, he's betrayed his fans, the game and himself. If a team of psychiatrists can now get the coke out of his life and save him, good for them. But he's worn out his welcome with the public. Runners-up: Bronco free-agent acquisition Dale Carter, suspended a year for repeat drug use, and Charlotte Hornet David Wesley, who on January 12 shot away from morning practice in a car race with teammate Bobby Phills. Phills's Porsche was going an estimated 107 miles per hour when he crashed and was killed. Wesley was doing 110 -- on a suspended license and with four speeding convictions. Meanwhile, let's not even talk about the 2000 auto-crash deaths of Kansas City Chief Derrick Thomas and the NBA's Malik Sealey.

Mike Tyson Trophy for the Advancement of Boxing:On September 15, popular Denver fighter Stevie "L'il but Bad" Johnston sought to regain the WBC lightweight championship he'd lost three months earlier to Mexico's Jose Luis Castillo. The rematch was staged at the Pepsi Center, and after twelve bruising rounds, Johnston was declared the winner of a split decision by three bout judges hired by the new Colorado Boxing Commission-- the first such regulatory body in the state since 1977. But wait. Scarcely ten minutes after Johnston had strapped on his golden title belt, the Japanese judge realized that he'd miscounted his scorecard. The result of the fight was actually a "majority draw" -- which meant that Castillo would retain the title. Bye-bye, championship. Bye-bye, Stevie. And a thundering KO to local belief in the Sweet Science. Runner-up: In January, when the aforementioned Mr. Tyson fought an unknown heavyweight named Julius Francis, students of the game had a pretty fair idea beforehand how things might turn out: Francis had been paid for a newspaper ad -- which appeared on the bottoms of his boxing shoes.

The Machiavelli Memorial Medal: For three decades, Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight practiced ruthless power politics with no fear of retribution, racking up three NCAA championships and 763 career wins while building a personal kingdom in hoops-crazy Bloomington. But the General's history of chair-throwing outbursts and player-choking tantrums finally caught up with him in September, when the university president and the trustees nailed him for violation of a "zero tolerance" policy on new incidents. (Knight had put his hands on a student while reprimanding him.) Defiant to the end, Knight refused to resign and was canned. He may be a sorry anachronism, but he pledges to struggle on: All the benighted Knight is looking for to resume his career, he says, is the right emotional matchup of coach and college. Runner-up: In August, Yugoslav soccer officials warned fans in Belgrade that they would be beaten by police if they yelled political slogans at games.

Better luck to us all next year.

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