The Year in Sports

A Rogues' Gallery

Misbehavior among the athletic elite was already old news by the time Babe Ruth started chasing naked flappers. Sports idols have always had a taste for malfeasance, whether via pleasures of the flesh (Wilt Chamberlain and his 20,000-plus bunkmates, Sean Kemp and his gaggle of kids), the bottle (Mickey Mantle, Billy Martin, and their aching livers), the glassine envelope (Keith Hernandez and his cocaine-fueled rendezvous with the Devil, Daryl Strawberry and his "uncle's" private stash), or down-and-dirty fisticuffs (somehow I can never quite shake the image of Jumbo Elliott decking a lady in the loo). The understanding is always that athletes are not exactly given over to introspection or neuroses, and that testosterone-driven, knuckle-dragging behavior is their birthright. It's "boys will be boys," and their shenanigans are excused as the petty peccadilloes of musclebound Peter Pans. Nobody ever ascribed Steve Howe's substance abuse to anything more than stupidity, rather than poor toilet training.

But the transgressors of 1999, a gallery of troubled rogues allegedly involved in everything from suicide to homicide to compulsive tantrum-throwing, seemed infinitely more complex than their no-goodnik predecessors. Exhibit One is Dimitrius Underwood, the God-fearing behemoth whose tangles with the mental health system are too numerous and bizarre to recount. Leon Smith, the prep star whose jump to the NBA was marred by hallucinations of fighting Columbus and an aspirin overdose, was revealed to be the naive product of a rotten childhood. Ryan Leaf, whose infantile alter ego makes him a Freudian's wet dream, was written off as a victim of the too-much, too-soon ethos. Then there's Rae Carruth, the lanky Panthers wideout whose flirtation with the world of titty-bar denizens may, literally, end his life. But, gosh darnnit, he wanted to be a playwright, he was an introvert, a nondrinker, and there's just got to be a more deep-seated reason for this madness. Right, Rae?

Their shortcomings may be many, but I must confess to a perverse affection for this new breed of troubled sports hero. Observing Steve Howe beg forgiveness for his umpteenth relapse, one could only chortle—the afflicted athlete of yore was too much of a hellion, too much of a Page Six gossip item to seem worthy of pity. Yet it would take a hard heart not to warm up to Underwood or Smith or even Carruth; we hear their tales of youthful struggle, the inside scoops on their gentle moments playing with kids or crying on the phone, well-written insights into their existential angst. The new archetype of the athletic wrongdoer isn't a lunkhead looking to party—it's Hamlet in cleats. Alas, poor Cecil Collins!

Or maybe I'm just suffering from a horrid addiction to CNN/SI.com. Obviously, today's Oprah Winfrey-aware sportswriting corps knows that the probing of psyches makes for good copy. Nineteen ninety-nine may have been the year of the Prozac-ready athlete, but who's to say Mickey Mantle couldn't have been weaned from the bottle by resolving some heavy-duty Oedipal issues? I'm sure a few months on the couch could keep Jumbo Elliott using urinals from here on in. —Brendan Koerner


The Price of Success

Last year, flush with fannish passion and a few extra bucks, I gave in to temptation and bought season tix to the Yanks. The logic: With their loaded rotation and a lineup as deep as the San Marinas Trench, they were a shoo-in for the whole bran muffin. I wanted to be there for the last game of the last Series of the '90s, to see the team I'd grown up with close out the millennium with a symbolic exclamation mark. One hundred and sixty-two regular season games later, there they were: front-runners to repeat as World Champs. Which they did, in short order. And I was there, hugging complete strangers and cheering myself hoarse.

Two weeks ago, I received an invoice in the mail for renewal of my season ducats—at an eyeball-popping rate increase of 20 percent. I understand the logic: Jeter, Rivera, Posada, Pettitte—young guns going into arbitration or seeking long-term deals; Clemens, Cone, Williams, Knoblauch, O'Neill—old hands generously rewarded for their histories. They're a team that, Steinbrenner's grumpy disavowals aside, will shatter the $100 million payroll threshold like a cinder block going through a windshield, this year or the next. They're also a team that, so long as George's pockets are as leaky as they are deep, is ensured of an almost ridiculous level of dominance.

It's become cliché to bemoan the economics of sports, the overwhelming fiscal power of big-market franchises, the "top this" antics of agents, the spoiled-brat demands of twentysomething millionaires. But the money that fuels this machine ultimately comes from the bottom up. Someone has to buy the seats, the dogs, the $7 beers. And those of us without corporate accounts just can't do it any longer.

For the past two seasons, the pundits have referred to the Yanks as heads-down working Joes who know their job is to manufacture runs and stamp out victories. Now they've become a blue-collar team that only blue bloods can afford. —Jeff Yang


Ugly Americans

"You know they're going to lose, right?" My neighbor had the cocky assurance of a new convert: "The Americans are the best." Well, that'll teach me to applaud nice play, regardless of who's doing it—and in this case it was the wrong team, the foreign team, that happened to handle the ball nicely at the Women's World Cup opener. The U.S. was on its home turf and dominating the game, but that 12-year-old Johnny-come-lately in section 334 made me want to cheer for Denmark even more.

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