A Golden Age? Bite Me.

They say we're living in the new Golden Age of Sports. Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player ever to lace up a pair of sneakers, they say, and Jerry Rice is the best pass receiver who's ever run a post pattern. Young Tiger Woods won his first Masters as a pro by an astounding twelve strokes and promises to revolutionize a 500-year-old game long thought to be ossified and exclusionary. If Ken Griffey Jr. doesn't break Roger Maris's season home-run record--Griffey is already the second coming of Willie Mays--then Mark McGwire will. Or Larry Walker. Walker, who works just across the street, is assembling possible Triple Crown numbers this year and could also become the first major-league batter to hit .400 since Ted Williams did it in 1941. If the peerless Padre Tony Gwynn doesn't beat him to it.

Little matter, they say, that Wayne Gretzky, Jack Nicklaus and Dale Earnhardt have all entered the twilight. Or that a revived Roger Clemens has lost a little heat off his fastball. Or that Super Mario has just hung up his skates. Little matter that divisional realignment, hockey brawls, AstroTurf injuries, labor strife, outright greed and the several disguises of Dennis Rodman now and then hang a cloud over our games. In this, the new Golden Age of Sports, the sky's the limit, and the sky is blue. Just look at Martina Hingis, the sixteen-year-old tennis phenom bent on rewriting the record book, or stock-car racing's swift, handsome boy-next-door, Jeff Gordon. They've got decades of triumph ahead of them. At least that's what people say.

Babe Ruth, Bobby Jones, Red Grange and Joe Louis don't have a thing on Pete Sampras, Cal Ripken Jr. and two-sport whiz Deion Sanders, they say.

So what can they say about Mike Tyson? About Bitin' Mike.
The easy thing to say--one of the things that's being said--is that boxing long ago lost its place at the table. Boxing has degenerated into a freak show so crude and disreputable, this view holds, that any American sports fan who wears a moral compass underneath his or her official John Elway jersey needn't worry much about the depredations of the Don Kings and the Mike Tysons of this world. These guys are outcasts to start with, okay? They're not even in the big, happy family of sports anymore. So don't worry about them. Nowhere on hardwood or gridiron or ice do their low motives and outrageous behavior prevail. On the green lawns of Wimbledon, no one carries a gun. In the New York Yankees clubhouse, even meddlesome George Steinbrenner finally knows when to shut up. The fiercest defensive tackle, buried in the deepest player pile of the biggest game of the year, wouldn't think of biting another man's ear off.

Aside from Mike Tyson and his fellow thugs in the ring, sports are better than ever, they say.

Why doesn't somebody ask the photographer the illustrious Mr. Rodman kicked in the groin about that? Ask Monica Seles, who has never regained her form after a lunatic Steffi Graf fan stabbed her in the back more than three years ago. Want to research sub-Tyson behavior amid the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat? Look no further than Tonya Harding's rap sheet. Or the social philosophies of Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott, who refers to some of her players by racial epithets, lets her dog defecate on the playing field and believes, deep down, that Hitler really wasn't such a bad guy after all. Would you buy a car from this woman?

How about fun-loving Fuzzy Zoeller? His fried-chicken-and-watermelon comments about Tiger Woods may have been "innocent" in a Neanderthal kind of way, but the guy couldn't shut up. Couple of days later Zoeller stuck his other Foot-Joy in his mouth. Of course, in the Golden Age of Sports, it's also just fine for a Yankees pitcher or a Miami Dolphins linebacker to give the finger to the boo-birds in the crowd.

As further evidence that prizefighters--and only prizefighters--operate out of bounds, assorted commentators point to the ring style of heavyweight Andrew Golota, who was disqualified in two straight bouts with Riddick Bowe for repeated low blows. They talk about how Oliver McCall had an apparent nervous breakdown in the middle of his WBC title fight with Lennox Lewis, dropped his gloves and stopped fighting. A sewer of a sport, they say.

It's hard to argue with that. But what does it say about the Golden Age that Roberto Alomar, the Baltimore Orioles second baseman who spit in the face of an umpire last year, was voted onto the 1997 American League All-Star team? Apparently, baseball fans love statistics but don't give a damn about history.

As for the Tyson-Holyfield biting incident, what will you bet that Nevada's boxing "regulators"--a contradiction in terms that rivals "baseball's acting commissioner"--slap Tyson on the wrist ($3 million is peanuts to him), suspend him just long enough to get back into shape and let him slug on? Given the gate-building inherent in Evander's missing cartilage, a third Holyfield-Tyson bout would be the biggest moneymaker of all. There's no doubt that it, too, would be staged in good old Las Vegas, where memories are short and the fix is always in. Who's to say that the two million pay-per-view viewers who forked out fifty bucks each to watch the Saturday Night Bite won't be even more eager to get taken again?

A couple of years ago Robert Lipsyte wrote a lengthy obituary of American sports in the New York Times Magazine chronicling all the money-grubbing, folly and arrogance. "Sports are over," he wrote, "because they no longer have any moral resonance." That might have been overstating the case a bit, but players, owners and fans certainly seem to care more about who wins the ring than who acts most honorably. One look at the 1996-97 edition of the Chicago Bulls should show any thinking fan what a sad pass we have come to. The exemplary Jordan may be not only the greatest basketball player of all time but the greatest single athlete. Greater than Ruth or Cobb. Better than Jim Thorpe or Jim Brown. Better than Muhammad Ali.

Jordan's transcendent performances in the playoffs--include that 38-point masterpiece against the Utah Jazz while bearing the burden of a hideous viral infection--speak of a human being who is extraordinary in many ways. Fine. But the fact that one of Jordan's teammates was the aforementioned Rodman--that Jordan will agree to step onto the same floor with this kicking, clowning baby with rainbow hair--underscores the deepening absurdity of sport. There they were, the genius and the buffoon, wearing the same uniform, battling for the same fifth world title. Albert Einstein and Jim Carrey couldn't have provided a starker contrast.

Is this the Golden Age? Maybe. But even Holyfield the sainted proves to be slightly tainted. In his autobiography, not so humbly titled Holyfield: The Humble Warrior, the champion acknowledges that he, too, once spit out his mouthpiece and bit an opponent. He was a lad of eighteen, it was a Golden Gloves semi-final in Georgia, and his opponent was one Jakey Winters, the first man ever to knock Evander down. In retaliation, Holyfield took a chunk out of Winters's shoulder but lost the three-round fight on a unanimous decision.

She doesn't own boxing gloves, but Tonya Harding would love it.

No club in baseball needed a couple of days off this week as badly as your Colorado Rockies. Their paper-thin pitching staff remains ravaged by injuries, Ellis Burks is back on the shelf, and the Blake Street Bombers have been sputtering like wet firecrackers since the beginning of July. The Rockies' six-game losing streak--in which they scored a total of six runs--dropped them to 43-45, eight and a half games behind the division-leading San Francisco Giants, at the All-Star break.

In the seventh inning of the final loss before vacation, league RBI leader Andres Galarraga even managed to pull a muscle in his back.

It suddenly looks like a long, long road to playoff contention. Even if Bill Swift gets to pitch twelve or thirteen innings before tearing an Achilles tendon in the shower or getting his hand stuck in the blender while making margaritas. That panting you hear? It's the San Diego Padres, just four and a half games behind the Rox, cranking up for a run at third place.

On the other hand, there's Larry Walker. The Rockies may be toast, but the big right-fielder could single-handedly provide the most exciting season in the team's brief history. Baseball pundits say seven-time NL batting champ Tony Gwynn is the fellow who will hit .400 this year if anyone ever can again, but don't count on it. Walker endured a 0-for-15 slump amid the Rockies' recent travails but still went into the break hitting .398, four points higher than Gwynn. And those nineteen dingers he smashed out of Jacobs Field in the All-Star home-run derby are bound to loosen up his stroke. What's more, Walker's new saloon in LoDo opens this week, and he got engaged to be married the other day on the plane from San Francisco to Cleveland.

As for Walker's Triple Crown bid, won't it be wonderful to follow that in mid-September? At the All-Star break, Walker led the league in batting average and home runs (25) and ranked fifth in RBIs with 68--sixteen behind teammate Galarraga. If the Rox are also-rans in the waning days of the season, will any fan complain if the Big Cat suddenly experiences another power outage? Tell the truth now.


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