Watching a record run is what passes for a sense of community
The U.S. is a big-event kind of country, a place where, when
something truly national happens, Americans call the caterer and
set the taps. Super Bowls, hurricane watches, O.J. trials, any TV
cliff-hanger--these become excuse enough for a vast family picnic.
Oscar night? A nation checks off winners on newspaper tear
sheets, wipes bean dip from its collective chin. The Olympics?
Men speak confidently to strangers of double Salchows, buy each
other light beers.
It's a pretense of community, of course, as we actually share
less and less with our neighbors. Maybe it was cable TV that did
it, dividing a society into 500 niches. Or maybe the times are
just too complicated to allow sameness of thought. But the U.S.
is no longer a country that can agree on anything important. So
it's a relief to grab hold of some happening and with
coast-to-coast obsession reassure ourselves of our brotherhood.
We probably can't talk civilly about abortion or race or
gardening--but who doesn't have something safe to say about
Seinfeld's last show or Mark McGwire's last home run? This
summer's home run derby is better than most for sudden
consensus: It's big, it's nonthreatening and--best of all--it
lends itself to a countdown.
As St. Louis girds for a Ruthian crowd to watch McGwire, it's
illuminating to remember that Roger Maris's record, which also
had its countdown, was set in front of a paltry 23,154 in Yankee
Stadium, some 44,000 below capacity. In 1941 Ted Williams entered
the last day of the season hitting .3995. Yet only 10,268 fans at
Philadelphia's Shibe Park, 23,000 short of capacity, saw him
finish the year at .406. Earlier that season Joe DiMaggio could
draw no more than 8,682 to Yankee Stadium to watch him break Wee
Willie Keeler's 44-year-old hitting-streak record. For the Shot
Heard Round the World that Bobby Thomson hit to put the 1951 New
York Giants into the World Series, there were 20,000 empty seats
at the Polo Grounds.
But these days, living as we do in communities so fractured,
we've got to be there to share in these sporadic frenzies of
national interest. The Bulls' Three-Peat, Big Mac and
Sammy--they have all done double duty as cultural consolidators.
Big Thought: McGwire's run to 62 has been nothing more, or less,
than the brief convocation of a splintered society. And it has
been fun, this gathering of tribes; don't tell us it hasn't. Of
course, the minute that ball clears the wall (and the dip is put
away), we'll all withdraw again, each to our own little chat room.
See you next countdown. --Richard Hoffer
Major League Baseball
THE BEST OF THE REST
Take away an incomparable home run race, a scintillating Cy
Young scramble and the matter of the New York Yankees going
after the alltime win mark, and the 1998 season would still be
an outstanding one. Here are our picks for the top 10 stories
that have been overlooked in the media flood flowing around
Messrs. McGwire, Sosa, Martinez, Clemens et al.
10) THE RIGHTHANDED STEVE CARLTON Remember when Silent Steve won
27 games for the execrable 1972 Philadelphia Phillies? Well, this
year's Phils aren't as bad and Curt Schilling isn't as good, but
the flame-throwing ace has major league bests in strikeouts (268)
and complete games (13).
9) THE OTHER BASH BROTHER Jose Canseco, McGwire's former bashmate
on the Oakland A's, has played more than 111 games for the first
time in seven years and is having a mini-renaissance with Toronto
(41 homers, 96 RBIs and 28 stolen bases through Monday).
8) SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA BASEBALL--AND NOT THE DODGERS Quick! What
was the third-best team in baseball, with a 91-52 record through
last weekend? The San Diego Padres. And that was with Tony Gwynn
hitting only .325. And you gotta love a team (the 79-64 Anaheim
Angels) whose three, four and five hitters (Darin Erstad, Tim
Salmon, Jim Edmonds) were hitting .303, .302 and .303,
7) ALBERT BELLE: BERSERK...IN A GOOD WAY On a second-half tear,
the Chicago White Sox' master of mean had 44 home runs, 131 RBIs
and a .322 average, which is to say that he is almost earning his
$10 million salary.
6) TWO CATCHERS AMONG THE TOP 10 NATIONAL LEAGUE HITTERS The
number 2 position hasn't had two of its practitioners this high
in either league since Ted Simmons and Manny Sanguillen in 1975.
The Pittsburgh Pirates' Jason Kendall (.326 at week's end) was
sixth best in the league, and the New York Mets' Mike Piazza
(.323) was ninth.
5) ROCKIN' IN THE ROCKIES With hitters such as Larry Walker
(majors-leading .354 average), Vinny Castilla (.331, 42 homers,
128 RBIs) and Dante Bichette (.341, 117 RBIs) in the Colorado
lineup, there's rarely a dull moment at Coors Field.
4) 400+400=BARRY BONDS The first man to achieve those standards
in dingers and stolen bases has his San Francisco Giants in the
thick of the wild-card race.
3) SURGERY? WHAT SURGERY? John Smoltz has battled back from an
off-season elbow operation to a 14-3 record, good for the best
winning percentage in the National League (.824).
2) HOLY TRINITY OF AMERICAN LEAGUE SHORTSTOPS The Boston Red Sox'
Nomar Garciaparra, New York's Derek Jeter and the Seattle
Mariners' Alex Rodriguez are all true MVP candidates.
1) BASEBALL'S LONGEST-SUFFERING FANS STILL IN THE GAME Wild-card
surprises, the Chicago Cubs and Boston, have World Series hopes.
Fiesta Bowl Fudge
TITLE GAME BAIT AND SWITCH?
The drumbeat for the Jan. 4 Fiesta Bowl, which will supposedly
determine the No. 1 college football team, has begun. ABC is
already promoting it as the "national championship game." A large
poster from Tostitos, the chief Fiesta sponsor, makes the same
claim. False advertising? Decide for yourself.
Under the guidelines of the Bowl Championship Series, which
sprouted out of the three-year-old Bowl Alliance, the Fiesta
will certainly have an excellent chance of featuring a de facto
national championship game because it will match the teams that
finished the regular season at Nos. 1 and 2. Those rankings will
be determined by a complicated formula that takes into account
the USA Today/ESPN coaches poll and the AP writers poll, three
computer rankings and schedule strength. But that formula will
not be used in the votes that will be taken after the Fiesta.
While the coaches have announced that they will name the Fiesta
winner No. 1, the writers have reserved the right to place
another team in the top spot.
A split vote for national champion isn't such a far-fetched
scenario. Let's say the third-ranked team scores an impressive
victory in the Orange Bowl over another highly ranked team, while
the No. 2 team stumbles to a dull win in the Fiesta. The writers
could easily elevate No. 3 to No. 1. On two occasions in the past
five years, a team that was ranked neither first nor second going
into New Year's Day emerged as national champion in at least one
poll, the most recent being Florida in 1996.
ABC is not exactly perpetrating a fraud, but we hope it at least
takes the time to explain that "national championship game"
doesn't quite tell the whole story.
PETE WHO? MARTINA WHO?
Last week at the U.S. Open, Richard Williams, the outspoken
father of Venus and Serena, suggested that the Open should be
moved from Flushing Meadow to the Williamses' hometown, Compton,
Calif. "It's time that a major tournament like this should go to
the ghetto," said Williams. A provocative notion, but not the
most startling thing to come out of Williams's mouth. Grumbling
that he couldn't walk around without being besieged by fans,
Williams marveled, "I'm more of a celebrity than the players. The
only players I'm not more of a celebrity than are Venus and
Serena, which is really amazing."
SOUTH OF THE BORDER
A nation generally isn't considered a soccer power until other
countries start importing its players. By that standard, the
sport's latest heavyweight is...the U.S. Last week in Toronto,
the Mexican women's national team, helped by seven Americans, got
within one step of a berth in next year's Women's World Cup by
finishing second to Canada in the eight-team CONCACAF qualifying
tournament. (Mexico must still defeat Argentina later this year
to qualify for the Cup.)
The success of the U.S. women, the 1991 World Cup and '96
Olympic champions, has resulted in a reversal of the pattern of
Americans recruiting foreign talent. Karlo Pedrin, a
Mexican-born restaurateur in Tijuana whose 16-year-old daughter,
Tawnie, plays with an American club team, had an idea that
Mexico, which had never won a game in qualifying, would be
stronger with American talent. Plus, his daughter would have a
chance to play in the World Cup or the Olympics. After three
American club teams thrashed the national side earlier this
year, the Mexican soccer federation endorsed Pedrin's plan to go
after north-of-the-border talent.
Pedrin began searching for Americans with Mexican ties who would
be willing to give up their U.S. eligibility. His biggest coup
was landing striker Monica Gerardo, a Notre Dame senior who is
the Irish's fifth-leading career scorer. "The U.S. national team
wasn't going to happen," says Gerardo, whose father, John, was
born in Mexico. "So this is a way of playing in the World Cup."
Before Mexico's exhibition game in San Diego last spring, its
first with the imports in uniform, Pedrin was so concerned about
the Americans' speaking English on the field that he gave them
flash cards bearing Spanish soccer terms. Nonetheless, he soon
began hearing screams of "I'm sorry!" and "Oh, s---!" Yet their
source wasn't exactly what Pedrin expected. "It was the
Mexicans!" he says. "At halftime I had to pull them aside and
say, 'You have to speak Spanish too.'"
Islanders Ticket Request
LOOK OUT BELOW!
The letter sent out by the new owners of the New York Islanders
to welcome season-ticket holders to Nassau Coliseum for the
1998-99 season is in many ways typical. It mentions that the new
seamless glass atop the boards will "brighten the arena and
improve your view of the action." It brags of the new
scoreboard's "state-of-the-art video screens." It suggests that
the Islanders' new publication, Game Time, will set "a new
standard in New York sports." Further, the owners promise to
build "a first-class franchise."
The last paragraph, though, is surely unique in the annals of
team-to-fan correspondence, warning of "life safety issues at the
Coliseum." The letter goes on: "Independent experts have raised
serious concerns about the safety of the hoist holding up the
sound system. To date, SMG [Spectacor Management Group, which
runs the arena] has refused to allow us to conduct the kind of
detailed inspection that we regard as essential. Under no
circumstances will we allow you or our players to be exposed to
conditions we believe may be unsafe."
We applaud the Islanders' honesty but interpret their missive
thusly: Come to the arena, watch a good team, have a splendid
time--and we'll do what we can to make sure you don't get
crushed like a grape.
Cary Middlecoff (1921-1998)
UNLOVELY BUT MEMORABLE
Golfer Cary Middlecoff, who died last week in his hometown of
Memphis at age 77, was a fascinating blend of twitch and talent.
With a pause at the top of his swing and lots of interminable
ones between shots, he won 40 tournaments from 1945 to '61. That
total leaves him tied with Walter Hagen for seventh place on the
PGA Tour's alltime list. His biggest wins were the '49 and '56
U.S. Opens and the '55 Masters.
Nicknamed Doc because he was a dentist before joining the Tour in
1945, Middlecoff has long been underrated, partly because he
played his best in the mid-'50s, the interregnum between Ben
Hogan and Arnold Palmer, and partly because he was so difficult
to watch. A chain-smoking bundle of nerves, Middlecoff was both
the game's fastest walker and its slowest player. He studied
shots until grass grew over the ball, changed clubs frequently
and then spasmodically waggled more than a dozen times before
beginning a swing that was majestic but too long in coming. The
courtly Bobby Jones called the process "unlovely," while fellow
competitors joked that Middlecoff had to give up dentistry
because no patient could hold his mouth open long enough. In the
'57 U.S. Open, Dick Mayer showed up for his 18-hole playoff
against Middlecoff equipped with a camping stool.
Middlecoff's bad back, dislike of travel and high-strung
temperament conspired against a long playing career, and he
played infrequently after age 40. He remained influential in
golf circles, however, first as a strong critic of the PGA's
Caucasians-only clause and later as an adviser to the touring
pros in their 1968 decision to break from the PGA and establish
the PGA Tour. Middlecoff also worked as a television analyst for
many years, contributing the enduring aphorism, "Nobody wins the
Open. It wins you." --Jaime Diaz
With a 38-10 Game 1 Win, Are the Cowboys Back?
Forget the 0-5 preseason, which was essentially a get-acquainted
session for rookie coach Chan Gailey. Forget last year, when
distractions and the horrible coaching of Barry Switzer put
Dallas in the tank early. The Cowboys still have Super Bowl
talent, particularly at the key offensive positions. On Sunday
against the Cardinals, wideout Michael Irvin caught nine passes
for 119 yards from all kinds of alignments. Irvin's act doesn't
play well off the field, but on it there are not many better.
On a broiling opening day in Pittsburgh last year, the Cowboys
clobbered the Steelers 37-7. They proceeded to go 5-10 the rest
of the way. Maybe Emmitt Smith can muster a 1,400-yard year.
Maybe Deion Sanders can be a 16-week roll of Saran Wrap on
opponents' wideouts. Maybe Nate Newton can coax 15 more Sundays
out of his 36-year-old legs. And maybe Dallas can conjure a pass
rush out of nothing. But it will take a lot more than an
intoxicating opening day to persuade me. --Peter King
There's no question that Roger Maris's 37-year-old home run
record was the most hallowed mark in sports, partly because of
its longevity, but even more because it has survived so many
serious challenges. On five occasions before this season players
had come within nine dingers, or 15%, of tying Maris. Compare
that with the number of times anyone has come within similar
distance of these other noted single-season benchmarks.
RECORD MAGIC NUMBER 15% MARK TIMES
TD Passes 48 (Dan Marino, 1984) 41 1
Rushing Yards 2,105 (Eric Dickerson, 1984) 1,790 3
NBA Scoring Avg. 50.4 (Wilt Chamberlain, 1961-62) 42.8 1
Hitting Streak 56 (Joe DiMaggio, 1941) 48 0
The Jordan Watch
Phil Jackson urges Michael to think it over, but good bud Charles
Barkley says Jordan is leaving for sure. Stay tuned....
This Week's Sign That the Apocalypse Is Upon Us
The National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association dropped Montana
State as the site of the 1999 College National Finals Rodeo
because the school refused to let sponsors Copenhagen and Skoal
pass out free samples of smokeless tobacco during the event.
They Said It
New York Yankees immortal, reminiscing about his baseball career
to the 1998 Little League World Series champions from Toms River,
N.J.: "If I had to do it all over again, I'd do it all over
--That Kansas State, having reached football prominence, stop
scheduling cupcakes like last week's 66-0 victim, Indiana State.
--That a network would get to work on Roger's Sons, starring the
right-out-of-the-1950s Maris boys.
--That the IRONMIKE vanity plate on the car we just rear-ended
belongs to a proud pants presser, not the poster boy for road
Losses this season for the South Bend Silver Hawks, a
Diamondbacks' Single A affiliate; hence, the price, in cents, of
admission to the team's last home game.
Goals scored by the Canadian women's soccer team in its World Cup
qualifying match shutout of Puerto Rico.
Extra dollars a week PGA Tour caddies wearing B.U.M. clothing
could earn as a result of an endorsement deal between the company
and the Professional Caddies Association.
Cost, in dollars, of the video system the Giants installed in
quarterback Danny Kanell's condominium.
Dollars per second earned by Marion Jones in her 10.83-second,
100-meter win at the Grand Prix finals.
Burros ahead of that ridden by Bill Lee, the "Last Ass Over the
Pass," in the 50th Pack Burro Race through the 13,183-foot high
Mosquito Pass in Leadville, Colo.
Blank slots for names of starting players on soccer score sheets
given to schools by the Canadian Interuniversity Athletic Union.
TWO COLOR ILLUSTRATIONS: ILLUSTRATIONS BY FRED HARPER [Drawings of Roger Maris swinging bat; fan diving over seats to retrieve baseball]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO WHATTA YEAR Clockwise from upper right: Jeter, Garciaparra, Schilling, Edmonds, Walker and Bichette, Smoltz and Bonds have been too little celebrated in this most outstanding of seasons. [Derek Jeter]
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER [See caption above--Nomar Garciaparra hitting ball]
COLOR PHOTO: STEPHEN GREEN [See caption above--Curt Schilling pitching]
COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO [See caption above--Jim Edmonds running for fly ball]
COLOR PHOTO: HARRY HOW/ALLSPORT [See caption above--Larry Walker awaiting scoring teammate at home plate]
COLOR PHOTO: BRAD MANGIN [See caption above--John Smoltz pitching]
COLOR PHOTO: LOVERO [See caption above--Barry Bonds swinging bat]
COLOR PHOTO: STEPHEN DUNN/ALLSPORT [Emmitt Smith running with ball in game]
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY TIM CARROLL [Drawing of New York Islanders player and three fans looking up anxiously at arena sound system]
COLOR PHOTO: DARRELL MIHO [Michael Jordan]