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Losers No More

It was the year of Hurricane Mitch and Typhoon Monica, of Governor Ventura and King Viagra. It was the year they finally played college football at Mile High Stadium (Colorado 42, Colorado State 14), the year Harry Caray and his "Holy Cow!" died. It was the year that boxer Bobby...
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It was the year of Hurricane Mitch and Typhoon Monica, of Governor Ventura and King Viagra. It was the year they finally played college football at Mile High Stadium (Colorado 42, Colorado State 14), the year Harry Caray and his "Holy Cow!" died. It was the year that boxer Bobby Czyz offered this heat-of-battle theory to explain the Mike Tyson ear-biting incident: "If I hit an opponent and his eye fell out...I would eat it before he could get it back."

It was some year, all right. But the most astonishing thing may have occurred on January 25, 1998: The long-suffering Denver Broncos finally won a Super Bowl. Eleven-point underdogs at kickoff in San Diego, 37-year-old John Elway and 44 other predominantly orange overachievers surprised the defending champion Green Bay Packers 31-24, giving the American Football Conference its first championship since the invention of the forward pass and relieving fans in the Mile High City of a burden they had borne since the Kennedy administration.

Losers no more. Top of the heap. Hey, bartender, get everybody another round.

So inspiring was the victory that Denver policemen immediately started tear-gassing drunks in LoDo, and a crowd said to number 650,000 showed up for the victory parade. "This one's for John," Broncos owner Pat Bowlen had crowed. But this one, it turned out, was really for Pat: Ten months after beating Green Bay, Bowlen's extortion plot to erect a new Broncos stadium at taxpayer expense swept through the electorate like Terrell Davis carrying the ball against fifth-graders.

Two other Super Bowl postscripts proved more appealing. On February 15 veteran NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt finally won the prestigious Daytona 500 in his twentieth try, and he credited Elway, a loser in three previous Super Bowls, with providing the extra emotional horsepower. In late May, Elway himself thrilled the faithful by announcing, after much hand-wringing and public speculation, that he would return to the team for a sixteenth and final season--and join Dan Marino in the ultra-exclusive 50,000-yard passing club.

Number 7's battered body parts are finally wearing out, one by one, but it's still been a pretty good year: The Broncos won their first thirteen games before taking a snooze December 13 against the lowly New York Giants. Is a second shipment of Super Bowl rings in the offing? Don't bet against it.

Don't bet against major-league baseball, either. Four years after hitting rock bottom with a divisive players' strike and the cancellation of the World Series, the grand old game put on its rally cap in 1998 and produced an epic poem of a season.

The iron man, Baltimore infielder Cal Ripken Jr., ended his record 2,632-consecutive-game streak by quietly taking to the bench at season's close, and dyed-in-the-doubleknit fans all tipped their hats to him. They will likely be marveling at the home-run heroics of a Saint Louis Cardinal with tree-trunk forearms, Mark McGwire, and his good buddy on the Chicago Cubs, Sammy Sosa, for decades. But these two did more than put up outlandish numbers (70 dingers for Big Mac, 66 for Sammy). While turning batting practice into a hot-ticket fan ritual and shattering Roger Maris's 37-year-old single-season homer record, the Bunyonesque single father with the red hair and the sleek black Dominican hugged each other and grinned, and revealed everything that's good, deep down, about baseball--its mystery and grace, its unspoken camaraderie, the magic that grabs the true believer at age five or six and sticks around for a lifetime.

Chances are, your little kid may now want to put on the cleats and stand in there, burning for some heat to hit out of the park.

As for the New York Yankees, who have been baseball's imperial wizards for most of the century, it's hard for even rabid Yankee-haters to grouse much about the club's 24th World Series title. Except for their monster of an owner, the Bronx Bombers were an admirably selfless bunch this year, from slick shortstop Derek Jeter, to rumpled perfect-gamer David Wells, to the anonymous journeymen (like Series MVP Scott Brosius) who propelled them to 114 regular-season wins and a record 125 in all, including a four-game World Series sweep of the plucky but outclassed San Diego Padres. Even in Keokuk, we hear, the locals are now screaming like enflamed cab drivers and demanding their pastrami piled high.

Baseball at 5,280 feet, meanwhile, was another matter. For the first time, Coors Field hosted the mid-season All-Star Game, a 13-8 slugfest that showed the world what a vast outfield, thin air and spooked pitching can do to the average ball score. This assault on baseball minimalism was accompanied by $40 parking spaces, twenty-foot inflatable beer bottles and a post-game fracas in the parking lot over souvenir Beanie Babies--worthless bags of fluff that had somehow grown as coveted as a McGwire home-run ball.

On either end of the All-Star break, the Colorado Rockies proved that good intentions and free spending don't always put you in the win column: In losing their first six home games, the '98 Rox gave up 107 hits, 41 walks and 86 earned runs. Their season slid downhill from there--landing with a clunk in fourth place in the National League West.

What happened? Emotional anchors Andres Galarraga and Walt Weiss had slipped off to Atlanta. The team's most expensive free agent, pitcher Darryl Kile, went 13-17 and ran up a 6.22 earned run average at home. Clubhouse frictions erupted. In the end, it was manager Don Baylor, the one and only skipper since the Rox first took the field in 1993, who paid the price. He was replaced by Florida's Jim Leyland, a master tactician, who will have rookie-of-the-year runner-up Todd Helton and a cast of veterans to work with in 1999. But first he must re-sign disconsolate left-fielder Larry Walker--the league MVP in 1997 and a man who has noted the $80 and $90 million contracts top sluggers now command.

The best thing about the 1998 Rockies was that they were not the 1998 Denver Nuggets. You know. Basketball. Remember basketball? Before the current player lockout, or hostage crisis, or whatever they call the thing the NBA apparently learned from their baseball brethren, circa 1994, Bill Hanzlik's perfectly awful Nuggets managed to do what only two teams in the history of the game had ever done--lose 71 games. That means Anthony Goldwire and Priest Lauderdale and a lot of other tall guys who should be washing the windows of skyscrapers instead of playing pro sport won only eleven games--just two more than the infamous 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers. Surprise: Hanzlik was fired. Ditto general manager Allan Bristow.

Eager for the new NBA season to finally get under way? Not if you live here, you're not--despite the return of all-time Nugget fave Dan Issel, this time as new GM of the shattered club. Better the entire league should go the way of roller derby so that Issel can while away his retirement handicapping the daily double. By the way, that man wearing number 23 on the boob tube last spring was named Michael Jordan, and the 45 points he scored that night against the Utah Jazz earned him a sixth NBA championship ring. Better tell the grandchildren of such greatness, lest the world forget.

Need we recall that, in June, the Detroit Red Wings swept the Washington Caps to win another Stanley Cup? Or that the Colorado Avalanche continues to plummet from the giddy heights of 1996? Or that the Avs' coach--Marc Crawford--was fired, too? Didn't think so. Instead, consider the yin and yang of last winter's Olympic hockey: The U.S. men--all well-fed, cocky NHL stars--tanked on the ice, trashed a hotel suite and came home in disgrace; the U.S. women's team, unpaid but willing, played its collective heart out and not only won the gold medal but untold millions of fans for the women's version of a sport long held to be strictly male territory.

The men's gold went to upstart Czechoslovakia, which, led by impenetrable goaltender Dominik Hasek, beat the U.S., then Canada, then Russia--the power that had invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968. In delirious Prague, they say, even six-year-olds were raising glasses of cold pilsner to "The Dominator" and his national-hero teammates.

Talk about nationalism. Soccer's quadrennial World Cup is watched on TV by one of every three people on the planet (including 512 Americans), and last summer it traveled to France, where they cook up a pretty nice bowl of soup, and the ticket scandals are rampant. To everyone's surprise but its own, the home team wound up beating favored Brazil 3-0 in the final. And Cháteau Margaux, friends say, ran red in the streets. But the high point of the proceedings, at least in terms of absurdity, had come earlier: Before underdog Iran faced a U.S. squad seeded eleventh in the 32-team field, the Iranian coach took his players to meditate at the grave of Ayatollah Khomeini. He gave them some pep talks about outscoring "The Great Satan." Fail, it was rumored, and things might not be so copacetic on the plane ride back to Tehran.

Whew! Iran 2, USA 1. The Americans, in athletic and emotional disarray, lost all of their games and finished dead last. The Iranians managed to keep their heads.

Not so the Tour de France bicyclists who stopped pedaling in a snit over drug allegations. Or Carolina Panther Kevin Greene, who attacked one of his defensive coaches on the sidelines a few Sundays back. Or the Western Athletic Conference, which grew top-heavy under the new weight of sixteen teams and simply blew apart in late May: Eight of the defecting schools, including longtime WAC members Colorado State, Air Force and Wyoming, will begin play in a new conference next year. Or eligible bachelor Dennis Rodman, he of the many hair colors, who got drunk in Las Vegas, married TV babe Carmen Electra, had the marriage annulled, then promptly declared dear Carmen his one and only. Between the romantic antics of Messrs. Rodman and Clinton, there's no need for minor entertainments like pro basketball.

Golf had its moments in 1998: Against a field of brilliant youngsters, Mark O'Meara, too, impersonated Elway by winning the Masters after thirteen years of futility; 58-year-old Jack Nicklaus gave everyone a thrill on Friday at Augusta by drawing near but winding up tying for sixth, just four strokes back. Rising player Casey Martin, who has a withered leg, won a case in court allowing him to use an electric cart on the big tour--despite opposition from Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and some of the game's other big names. On the women's tour, South Korea's emergent Se Ri Park was all the rage, especially after her stunning win in the U.S. Women's Open. Among the senior men, former Colorado University linebacker Hale Irwin had another career year--winning seven tournaments at $2.86 million; last year he won nine times, putting $2.3 million in the bank.

Racing in its several guises--equine, human, automotive--produced some of the most thrilling moments in sports last year. NASCAR cover boy Jeff Gordon, only 27, won thirteen races (tying Richard Petty's 1975 record) to run away with his third series championship in the last four years--despite the usual sour-grapes complaints that his pit crew was cheating. From the start of the Formula One season, Mika Hakkinen and his new McLaren-Mercedes looked unbeatable, but the swift Finn didn't wrest the title away from brilliant Michael Schumacher and his blood-red Ferrari until the last race of the year, when Schumey was sent to the back of the grid after his engine stalled, delaying the start. The Indianapolis 500--remember Indianapolis, where the best drivers and fastest cars used to compete?--was won by long-suffering Eddie Cheever, with nary an Andretti nor an Unser within, well, 500 miles of the place. Tragedy also struck auto racing: On July 26, during the U.S. 500 at Michigan International Speedway, Alex Fernandez crashed into a wall at high speed, and a wheel torn loose from his car flew over a catch fence, killing three spectators and injuring six.

At Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May, trainer Bob Baffert won the Kentucky Derby for the second straight year with a widely disrespected, 8-1 longshot named Real Quiet. Real Quiet took the Preakness, too, but Baffert failed to win the first Triple Crown in twenty years when Victory Gallop, the runner-up in the Derby and Preakness, beat Real Quiet by a nose in the Belmont Stakes. Talk about racing irony: Jockey Gary Stevens rode Victory Gallop in the Belmont; in 1997, he piloted Baffert's Silver Charm to wins in the Derby and Preakness, only to lose the Belmont.

The happiest man in horse racing, more or less, has to be Denver's Barry Fey, the former rock promoter. Last spring he bought 60 percent of a gelding named Reraise, hoping he was as fast as rumored. In November, Reraise won the million-dollar Breeders Cup Sprint at Churchill Downs going away and appears headed for even bigger things in 1999.

In September, one of the world's greatest human sprinters, Florence Griffith-Joyner, died in her sleep at age 38; by contrast, the world's fastest woman, former North Carolina basketball star Marion Jones, continues turning her opponents around the world into snails. In local track and field news, the Bolder Boulder road race came under fire over the summer for alleged discrimination against the world-beating Kenyans, who have dominated the event: Organizers say their new entrance rules are an attempt to build up the sport for Americans.

In Salt Lake City an Olympic bribery scandal continues to unfold. In Los Angeles, the Dodgers and their fans hope pitcher Kevin Brown is worth $100 million. In New York, fans mourn the deaths of former Jets coach Weeb Ewbank and retired Knicks coach Red Holzman. The world prays that Joe DiMaggio, the Yankee Clipper, can continue his heroic fight against lung cancer. And on the ropes of life, even promoter Don King must be relieved that, last June, boxer Christy Martin's upcoming bout was abruptly canceled: Martin's opponent, it turns out, was five months pregnant.

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