In this dream, the Indianapolis 500 takes more than four months to finish. Crazy, no? That's not all: Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali are still fighting Father Time. The best college football team in the land is Clemson, and the San Francisco 49ers and Cincinnati Bengals are in the Super Bowl. Two British guys are marking down the record for the mile as if it were the price on a pair of polyester pants. The middle part of the baseball season is a total blank, but I seem to recall that a Mayan with a screwball casts a spell over North America. I know the whole thing sounds bizarre, but, hey, it's only a dream, right?
Contrariwise, we went straight down the rabbit hole in 1981. The sports year just got curiouser and curiouser. But then, as Lewis Carroll, the original lonesome end, concluded in Through the Looking-Glass, "Life, what is it but a dream?" (This was later amplified by The Crew Cuts, who sang, "Life could be a dream, sh-boom, sh-boom")
How else, give us paws, do you explain Clemson, which began its season with a 45-10 victory over the awesome Wofford Terriers, winning the national championship? Why in the world would the NBA champion Boston Celtics pay $1.75 million for the third baseman of the Toronto Blue Jays? Can it be that these same Blue Jays actually printed playoff tickets?
What was the logic in a baseball strike that kept box scores out of newspapers for two months and will keep fans away from the ball parks for years to come? Tweedledum, who, by the way, looks not unlike Fernando Valenzuela, knows. "Contrariwise," he says in Through the Looking-Glass, "if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn't, it ain't. That's logic."
And so we had Mark Aguirre bawling like the Mock Turtle of Alice in Wonderland after little St. Joseph's of Philadelphia upset DePaul in the NCAA basketball tournament. The Houston Rockets, with as poor a record as any team in the NBA playoffs, extended the Celtics to six games in the finals. Out of the blue came a hockey player, Edmonton's Wayne Gretzky, who towered over everyone.
Too many horses went off in the Kentucky Derby, and the worst-looking one of them all, Pleasant Colony, ended up wearing roses. By the way, his trainer, Johnny Campo, looked not unlike Tweedledee. So, after triumphing in the Preakness, just about everybody thought Pleasant Colony would be the 12th winner of the Triple Crown. Then Summing came around the far turn at Belmont.
The Indianapolis 500 might as well have been the Caucus-race in Alice in Wonderland. At least in that race—you just go round and round, leaving off when you want to, with no start or finish—everybody is declared a winner. So far, Bobby Unser, Mario Andretti and Bobby Unser have won the 1981 Indy.
The spring held other surprises. This pudgy Mexican of Mayan ancestry won eight straight games, baffled batters with a looking-glass pitch and gave rise to something called Fernandomania. And he kept smiling enigmatically like, well, let's not mix our Carrollian metaphors.
Bjorn Borg would win his sixth straight Wimbledon just as surely as there would be baseball on the Fourth of July. But a howling baby, John McEnroe, annoyed nearly everyone in the stadium with his tantrums and then compounded his sins by winning the bloody thing. If only the Caterpillar had been sitting in the umpire's chair, telling him "Keep your temper," everybody would've been happier.
The baseball strike was a Mad Tea Party that left us with the split season and indigestion. Four teams that had no idea they'd won anything were declared champions of the first half. As originally drawn up, the second season presented the possibility of a team losing so that it might win, which makes perfect sense if you're the March Hare. Even when the plan was revised, it had its lunacies: The team with the best record in baseball, Cincinnati, wasn't invited to the postseason party, while Kansas City, which had the 17th best record, was. Through it all, Bowie Kuhn played the Dormouse, falling asleep in the middle of the Tea Party facedown in his teacup.
In the meantime, in Carroll's England, Jack Nicklaus shot an 83 in the British Open, a tournament he's either won or been runner-up in 10 times. Two Englishmen showed a profound disrespect for that most cherished of races, the mile, by breaking the record three times in 10 days.
As the second baseball season drew to a close, a fan tossed a basketball onto the field in front of Danny Ainge, Toronto's third baseman. He later took the hint and joined the Celtics. With two weeks to go, no fewer than 19 teams, including Ainge's Blue Jays, were involved in divisional races.
The World Series had its moments but, quite frankly, it was played as if the Dodgers and Yankees were using flamingos for bats and hedgehogs for balls. When it was over, George Steinbrenner was perched like Humpty Dumpty, fat and imperious, atop his wall. As Alice said after her encounter with him, "Of all the unsatisfactory people I ever met...."
In college football, the surest way to lose was to be voted the No. 1 team in the country. There were no fewer than six No. 1 teams before Clemson inherited the top spot, and even then, nobody quite believed that a football team from a basketball conference could be the best.
On the pro side of football, those jokes of yesteryear, the Giants, Jets, Bengals and 49ers, made the playoffs, while three of the last four Super Bowl teams, the Raiders, Steelers and Rams, were left wanting. Los Angeles was a particularly curious team to watch, what with the Queen of Hearts, Georgia Rosenbloom Frontiere, declaiming "Off with their heads" as her Rams went down the tube. All sorts of players and assistant coaches were dispatched while the NFL's only woman owner kept women out of the locker room.
What had parity wrought? The Bengals, wearing those ridiculous helmets, pulled asunder San Diego on a frigid day in Cincinnati to qualify for their first Super Bowl. On a frabjous day in San Francisco, the beamish 49ers, who had never before won anything, slew the Jabberwock of Dallas—Callooh! Callay! Then under a bubble in Pontiac, Mich., the world watched as San Francisco won Super BOWl XVI, XXVI-XXI.
Oh, yes. Borg was playing hockey.
If you're still not sure all of this really happened, I can't blame you. But as the year fades away, like the Cheshire Cat, I hope you can still see a smile.