YEAR STRIKES OUT
This was the most tumultuous year in American sports history--O.J. Accused! Nuggets Beat Seattle! World Series Canceled!--but behind the screaming headlines lay a core of sheer absurdity.
Just two weeks ago, for instance, newspapers reported that June 17, 1994, the evening that fugitive O.J. Simpson led three dozen police cars and the entire rapt nation on that low-speed chase over the freeways of Los Angeles, produced the single busiest hour of delivery orders in what was termed "U.S. pizza history." Hooray! All hail the purveyors of pepperoni. It also came to light that the former football star signed his famous semi-suicide note with a little smiley face. Meanwhile, the judge in the Simpson case, Lance Ito, did a five-part interview series with an L.A. TV station. Can a three-year contract with Paramount be far behind? And the restaurant where Ron Goldman worked and Nicole Brown Simpson ate dinner before being stabbed to death is booked solid until...well, until the Reverend Rosey Grier comes out of retirement to play for an expansion club.
Little matter: Simpson's all-pro team of lawyers could fill the place every night for years. Meanwhile, O.J. allegedly was framed by the Mafia.
More absurdity? Your Denver Broncos, relieved of postseason duties for the first time since the Punic Wars, managed to go 0-5 in 1994 against the despised Los Angeles Raiders--including two beatings last January and a summer exhibition loss in Barcelona. While Al Davis cackles away up there in his skybox, Wade Phillips had better watch his back: The Donks' 0-4 start was bad enough, but folding the tents against the Silver and Black is unforgivable.
So were the foul balls of major-league baseball.
The season got under way gloriously, fueled by an official horsehide, now sewn in Costa Rica, reputed to have a family of rabbits in it. By mid-season, no fewer than four sluggers--Seattle's Ken Griffey Jr., the Giants' Matt Williams, Houston's Jeff Bagwell and White Sox first baseman Frank Thomas--were threatening Roger Maris's 33-year-old single-season home-run record. In Baltimore Cal Ripken was chasing Lou Gehrig's consecutive game mark, and San Diego's exemplary Tony Gwynn was flirting with .400.
Then it all came tumbling down. Intransigent owners and spoiled players dug in their heels, and on August 12 this scintillating season screeched to a halt. For the first time since 1904, the World Series was canceled (the World Series!), and millions of alienated fans won't give a damn if there's no 1995 season, either.
Absurdity is our theme, is it not? No sooner had baseball slapped its faithful down than several owners, including the Rockies' Jerry McMorris, hiked ticket prices. Some gall. While we're at it, witness the response of San Francisco outfielder Barry Bonds, who is paid $4.75 million a year by his club. Out on strike, he pled poverty to a judge, asking that his $15,000-per-month child-support payments be cut in half.
Meanwhile, Ken Burns's public-TV series on the history of the game ran longer than the season.
The entire National Hockey League also went in the tank, but not before the New York Rangers won their first Stanley Cup in 34 years (and 4,232 games).
This was not the only glory in an ignominious year. The Dallas Cowboys won their second straight Super Bowl (as Buffalo dropped its fourth), but they lost their coach, Jimmy Johnson. Paul Azinger brought tears to the eyes of the golf world when he returned to the PGA tour after a bout with cancer; Arnold Palmer did it when he played his last Masters. Tiger Woods--young, gifted and black--gave the game a long-overdue shot in the arm with his win in the U.S. Amateur. In November heavyweight George Foreman, an inspiration to all dreamers, cast out his demons by knocking out champion Michael Moorer in the tenth round.
"He should never have stood in front of me," the 45-year-old, 250-pound Foreman said. Indeed.
Everyone said the U.S. Ski team was awful, but downhiller Tommy Moe, once cut for smoking pot, won the gold medal at the Lillehammer Olympics. Then Diann Roffe-Steinrotter, winless since 1985, took the gold in Super G. U.S. speed skater Bonnie Blair shone at Lillehammer, and hard-luck case Dan Jansen finally got the medal monkey off his back.
Colorado basked in glories, too. Last spring the Denver Nuggets pulled off the biggest upset in NBA playoff history by beating top-seeded Seattle in seven games, then took Utah the distance in round two before the Mailman and John Stockton did them in. Mount Mutombo and the Dream stand tall this season, but Issel's revitalized Nuggs won't sneak up on anyone.
In Boulder, CU tailback Rashaan Salaam (the third-best player on his team by preseason estimates) ran away with the school's first-ever Heisman trophy, capping an extraordinary season. Earlier, the Miracle in Michigan, a last-ditch bomb thrown by Kordell Stewart to Michael Westbrook, gave the Buffs a win over the Wolverines, and they rode that cloud all the way to Lincoln, where the Nebraska Cornhuskers thwarted them again. Coach Bill McCartney suddenly retired (that vacant Hank Brown Senate seat may look better than an Orange Bowl bid) and, in keeping with our motif, Jesse Jackson fumed when golden boy Rick Neuheisel was named to replace McCartney.
Despite all this melodrama, the happiest college football story involved Colorado State's long-beleaguered Rams. Under popular coach Sonny Lubick, the former WAC doormats beat powerful Brigham Young and impossible Arizona on the road, bringing joy to Fort Collins for the first time in years. The 10-1 Rams won their first Western Athletic Conference title and first Holiday Bowl trip. Things footballish will never again be the same at the Fort. If they can just keep Sonny on board and the goalposts standing.
The riptides of 1994 now draw us back to irrationality.
After Colombian soccer player Andres Escobar inadvertently scored a winning goal for the U.S. in last summer's World Cup, he was shot to death by gamblers. Brazil beat Italy in an overtime final, but host America yawned.
About this time, Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott, never softspoken, came up with the year's most memorable quote, on the fashion choices of ballplayers: "Only fruits wear earrings." Retired NBA nonpareil Michael Jordan, laboring in baseball's bush leagues, bought the Birmingham Barons a $350,000 team bus equipped with a wet bar and six TV sets. Jordan's Baron teammates scrape by on $18 a day meal money, so his gesture is admirable. But shouldn't Jordan's .236 batting average and the 52 points he scored in an NBA charity game say something about his future plans?
For some, there is no future. In February, stock-car drivers Neil Bonnett and Rodney Orr were killed practicing at Daytona, and Ernie Irvan was gravely injured in August. Three-time Formula One champ Ayrton Senna and Austrian Roland Ratzenberger died in San Marino, and the next month Karl Wendlinger was critically injured at Monte Carlo, raising all the old questions about motor racing. Meanwhile, Indy car champs Mario Andretti, Al Unser Sr. and Johnny Rutherford retired.
Austrian downhill racer Ulrike Maier, the only mother on the ski tour, was killed at Garmisch. Other deaths included legendary Oklahoma football coach Bud Wilkinson, boxer Jersey Joe Walcott, pitcher Eric Show and tennis player Vitas Gerulaitis, poisoned by carbon monoxide from a bedroom heater. Marvelous Marv Throneberry, who could always joke about his baseball skills, passed on, as did NFL executives Jim Finks (New Orleans) and Hugh Culverhouse (Tampa Bay). Mets pitcher Doc Gooden, plagued by drug problems, fell from grace again.
Easy Goer, winner of the 1989 Belmont Stakes and Travers Stakes, died at age eight, but he leaves 72 registered foals behind to carry on. A big gray colt named Holy Bull failed as the favorite in the 1994 Kentucky Derby but still won Horse of the Year honors. His earnings for fourteen races now total $2.4 million--not bad for an animal given outright to trainer Jimmy Croll upon the death of its owner.
The great Martina Navratilova retired from tennis with an amazing 167 singles titles, Ivan Lendl called it quits with a bad back, and the Chicago Cubs' best player, Ryne Sandberg, shocked Harry Caray and company by hanging them up before all the trouble came down.
It was a year of tumult and absurdity, all right, so packed with shocks and dramas that we overlook the little folly with which it all began. On January 6 someone whacked figure-skating star Nancy Kerrigan on the knee with a length of pipe, launching the scandal called Tonyagate and prompting questions about the sanity of sport.
For her part, Tonya wound up as a celebrity--at least until O.J. came along to upstage her. In Portland she emerged as a "spokesperson" for pro wrestling, then as a hawker of burglar alarms, then as the co-star of a sex video filmed on her honeymoon.
Enough. Who doesn't now yearn to ring in '95?