All-Pro Chaos

How about those catcalls raining down from the cheap seats--okay, the $15 seats--every time Pedro Astacio blows another lead or Mike Lansing takes a called third strike with the bases loaded? Strange sounds, no? The public mood, once mild and appreciative, is getting understandably nasty up there. And neither Mike Piazza nor Babe Ruth could likely do much about it.

But the Rockies' shocking home-field woes (6-15? You gotta be kiddin', Bomb-Duds!) are just the start of Denver's present all-pro sports disaster. If you didn't know better, you'd think an asteroid had hit every locker room in town.

Have you heard?
The usually reliable and talented Colorado Avalanche, winners of the Stanley Cup just two years ago, played like juniors in the second half of the 1997-98 season, blew a three-games-to-one lead in the playoffs to the Edmonton Oilers, a team they previously owned, and got themselves eliminated in the first round. Goalie Patrick Roy was reduced from demigod to distinctly mortal sieve (beaten 4-0 in game seven), and zillionaire scoring machine Joe Sakic suddenly couldn't find the goal mouth with a Zamboni. By one estimate, the Avs' early exit cost the local economy a cool $30 million in lost hotel bookings, dinners out and team merchandise sales.

Now the dispirited club is in disarray, and the severed head of coach Marc Crawford or that of general manager Pierre Lacroix--or both--could be rolling across the ice by mid-summer. Avalanche revenues rose by $3.2 million in the first quarter of 1998, but so what? Last week the head coach of the Hershey Bears, in western Pennsylvania, was talking openly about his desire to replace the embattled Crawford.

The Hershey Bears? Are you kidding?
Ascent Entertainment's other playthings, the Denver Nuggets, have used up seven head coaches in eight years, and it took them every bit of that time to find their level of competence: The club won just 11 of its 82 games this past season, two more than the record-setting 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers. The Nuggets attracted just 11,799 fans per game (many of them disguised as empty seats); only the lowly Los Angeles Clippers drew worse.

The Nuggets' unseemly collection of green rookies and weary journeymen staged mutinies aplenty as the going got ever rougher, and the axes fell: GM Allan Bristow and head coach Bill Hanzlik are both out on the pavement, and the unenviable task of lifting the team out of misery into mediocrity now falls to an old hand once burned, Dan Issel.

It's difficult to see why the former Nuggets star would want the Nuggets GM job--the most thankless gig in pro sports. It's even harder to understand why he will likely take on the added burden of coaching the team, but that will probably happen, too.

Give the Horse his due: If this hapless franchise can make any sort of comeback, it will be all Issel's doing. If it dies on the vine, he'll take the blame like a man.

Unfortunately, the Second Reign of Issel began ominously last week. Despite having a quarter of the chances to land the first choice in this year's draft lottery, the Nuggs could do no better than the third pick. Of course, this year's crop of rookies is said to be substandard. And because contract talks between the NBA players' association and the commissioner's office have stalled, a league-wide lockout seems inevitable.

The good news? Over at Coors Field, Dante Bichette still leads the league in hits, and Vinny Castilla has whacked seventeen home runs--second in the N.L. On July 7, Denver will get its first All-Star Game.

But the Rox are mired in fourth place, already nine games back of the San Diego Padres. As for the rival Los Angeles Dodgers, eight behind the Pads, they have just been handed an entirely new batting order by the self-destructive owner of the Florida Marlins. Bobby Bonilla, Gary Sheffield, Charles Johnson and Jim Eisenreich for the aforementioned Mr. Piazza (and Todd Ziele)? What a deal for the Dodgers. Rupert Murdoch must have promised Wayne Huizenga a string of Nissan dealerships in Japan.

At the same time, the Rockies continue to tread water and lose buoyancy. Along with the other bodies out in the alley this year, look for those of Rox manager Don Baylor and general manager Bob Gebhard. Because Darryl Kile and Pedro Astacio aren't getting their club to the playoffs this fall.

Wait--there's more. Last week, Street & Smith's SportsBusiness Journal reported the results of a study showing that 21 American cities cannot support any more professional sports franchises--or possibly the ones they already have--on the basis of population and personal-income levels.

The second-most-saturated burg in the country? It's Denver, outranked only by Phoenix in terms of "negative capacity."

That probably doesn't mean the Avalanche and the Rockies are going to dry up and blow away anytime soon--just look at those monster ticket sales. But don't be so sure about the Colorado Rapids of Major League Soccer, the Colorado Xplosion of the fledgling American Basketball League or the city's current arena football team--whatever they're called.

Of these decidedly minor attractions installed in so-called major leagues, the Xplosion could be most vulnerable. That's because the entire ABL could fall prey to the rival Women's National Basketball Association, which enjoys the backing of David Stern and the NBA. In 1996 and 1997, the ABL signed most of the top college prospects and paid them higher salaries; this spring, the WNBA turned the tables. Boosted by vastly superior TV contracts, more prestigious sponsors (American Express, Nike, General Motors, etc.) and better attendance (9,804 per game, as compared with the ABL's 4,333), the WNBA swept through the college senior ranks, and most of the top prospects ignored the ABL.

Picking first in the draft, the WNBA Utah Starzz signed Malgorzata Dydek of Poland. Dydek is 7-foot-2 and weighs 223 pounds. Think the fans will turn out to see her in Salt Lake City?

Meanwhile, Denverites still have the Broncos. Well, don't they?
After all the misfires and heartbreaks, the Donks ripped through Jacksonville, Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Green Bay and finally won a Super Bowl, didn't they? And quarterback John Elway, the most celebrated figure in this city, finally got his championship ring, didn't he? So we should all feel pretty good, shouldn't we?

Well, yeah. Except for the obvious and nagging realities. Team owner Pat Bowlen is holding the fans hostage with his demands for a new, publicly financed stadium ($300 million? $400 million? Who knows?), and Elway is contemplating retirement. Try to imagine the Broncos' fortunes without Number Seven in the lineup. Somehow it's easier to imagine a Bronco-less city, a city somehow less saturated. Which is exactly what fate and the taxpayers might dictate to the fellow in the fur coat.

That, of course, would be the ultimate ironic twist in this period of Denver pro-sports chaos: While the other teams are purging their leaders left and right, the illustrious Mr. Bowlen could grab his trophy and slip out of town while everyone else is still watching the Rockies butcher another one in the top of the fourteenth.

Ever wonder what Mario or Michael Andretti sees, hears and feels when he screams down the backstretch at Michigan International doing 230 miles an hour? Curious about the violently shifting g-loads when an Indy-car driver hits his big disc brakes and slows from top speed to almost nothing in less than three seconds?

Short of actually zipping into a Nomex suit and shoehorning into a Newman/Haas cockpit with 900 horsepower behind you, the closest you'll get is the new IMAX film Super Speedway. Spend an hour in a darkened room with these sensations and you might suddenly feel like spraying the whole family with champagne.

The in-car cameras used in television race broadcasts convey one kind of feeling--speed in miniature. The outlandish dimensions and dramatic depth-of-field of the seventy-millimeter IMAX image (the giant screen is four and a half stories high and six and a half stories wide) create something else--enveloping, thrilling, race-day real action. As for the authenticity of the engine songs, you won't hear music so sweet and gruff anywhere this side of the Indianapolis 500. By the way, that's team owner Paul Newman narrating.

This generally astonishing product, on view (along with Everest: Mountain Without Mercy) through October 8 at the IMAX Theater in the Denver Museum of Natural History, also contains the usual IMAX meanderings--corny views of Andretti padre e figlio roasting marshmallows, a hokey subplot about a shade-tree mechanic restoring a vintage race car and some painfully faked dialogue.

Little matter. Here is big-time auto racing, bloody in fang and claw, as none but the drivers has experienced it before.