Our Year in Sports
The sports year 2000 was bracketed by two comebacks: The Titans' oh-so-close failed one in the Super Bowl, and Mario Lemieux's triumphant one in Pittsburgh. In between, Tiger and Venus dominated in areas where they break new ground with their very presence. And while the Olympics brought athletics to a crescendo, it also revealed a new trend that suggests sports ain't as important as it used to be. Below, some of our thoughts on the past 365 days.
The Fever Breaks
Was 2000 the year big-time sports started to go into the tank? The 12 months just ended saw the general economy, superheated for a decade, finally cool off. Meanwhile in the sports world, jocks still shouted "Show me the money," and they still got it, but for the first time in 10 years the question arose: Just where is the money going to come from?
In the mid '90s, billionaires and networks paid unimaginable sums for franchises and TV rights, but in 2000 the fever seemed to have broken. Neilsen numbers for all the pro leagues went down, down, downlower than ever, whether for the dull, Michael Jordan-less NBA or for the supposedly revitalized, home-run happy Major League Baseball. The Subway Series registered the lowest World Series ratings ever, and the biggest TV sports bonanza of them all, the Summer Olympics, bombed miserably both aesthetically and financially, despite the $705 million NBC paid to broadcast it. It seems a dead cinch that the next time TV contracts come up, the networks' pockets won't be quite so deep.
Nor was sports' economic cooldown confined solely to television. The sports-apparel business, booming in the '90s, is going bust. Big NFL licensees Starter and Pro Player have gone belly-up, and Logo Athletic recently filed for bankruptcy protection. As for the prices of franchises themselves, no one is talking anymore about buying Manchester United for $1.1 billion, as Rupert Murdoch tried to do only two years ago. In fact, when Molson Breweries recently put the Montreal Canadiensalong with the Yankees the most successful and storied pro team in North Americaup for sale, the company expected to get at least $200 million; the highest offer so far: $84 million. With the stadium-building frenzy of the '90s over, franchise prices everywhere have hit a glass ceiling.
Mind you, we're not saying it's the Great Depression all over again; despite the Nasdaq's swoon, it's still impossible to rent or buy a New York apartment for less than a king's ransom, and too often you still have to pay eight bucks to get a stinking vodka tonic in this town. So it is that Alex Rodriguez can still score $252 million for a 10-year contract with the Texas Rangers. But here's the thing: After Rodriguez signed, it was revealed that the deal wasn't really about Rodriguez or even about baseball at all. Seems the Rangers' tycoon owner, Tom Hicks, was just trying to "brand" his real estate and overseas broadcasting businesses. Meanwhile, half the clubs in baseball have given up trying to win a pennant, even with only four teams in a division these days; they simply can't afford the players.
Us? We won't mind if the whole house of cards comes tumbling down soon. Street hockey and playground basketball don't cost a thingand maybe, just maybe, we'll be able to get back into the Garden for a Knicks game or two. Mark Winopol
Stroke of Genius
How positively cosmic of Tiger Woods to cap his stratospheric year with yet another otherworldly golf shot. The 220-yard six-iron, out of sand, over trees and over water, at Glen Abbey's unforgiving par-five 18th gave him the Canadian Open and put him over $8 mil for the seasonbut what timing, what delivery, what ice-blooded composure. The guy's got a one-stroke lead, and really needs only to play it safe by laying up (or at least just going for the fat part of the green) to give him a probable bird, or in any case, a lead-cinch par. Worst happens, they go sudden death extra holes. So what does he do? He air-mails the rock, high-risk, over the drink into the green's thinnest angle of approach, and lo-and-behold, he stone-cold, flat-out sticks it to 18 feet for an automatic wrapgame, set, match. Whereupon he flashes that megabucks grin, the one that says, "Yeah I've done it again, and it's nice, Jim, real nice."
Woods's foil-of-the-moment, a genial New Zealander named Grant Waite, mutters afterwards, "I can't even comprehend what he did there." Later, a handful of pros trot out to drop balls in the very same spot and try their luck, but they can't fathom it either. With less-than-zero pressure, none manage to hit the dance floor. Hey, that's all rightit's a tough shot, and they're not Tiger Woods. John Stravinsky
Games of Inches
For many of us, 2000 will always be about the Mets and Yankees, and not just because of the World Series. Thanks to emotionally charged incidents like Roger Clemens's beaning of Mike Piazza, the obstruction call against Todd Zeile (with Lee Mazzilli giving pointers to the umpire!), Dwight Gooden's return to Shea, and the home-and-home subway doubleheader, the two teams had the feel of star-crossed combatants all season long.
The Yankees won eight of the clubs' 11 meetings in 2000, but that obscures just how closely matched they were. How close? Consider this: A distance of about six inches, spread out over four different plays, may have spelled the difference between them. Remember, the teams traded lopsided wins and then had a rainout when they faced off in the Bronx in June, but the Mets' karma against the Yanks began heading south on July 7th, when Paul O'Neill reached above the Shea Stadium wall to rob Derek Bell of a two-run homer that would have given the Amazins an 8th-inning lead. The next day, during the nightcap of the Queens/Bronx doubledip, Lenny Harris had Chuck Knoblach's 5th-inning drive in his gloveuntil his glove hit the wall and the ball plopped over the fence for what turned out to be the game-winning homer.
None of which is as surreal as what happened to Todd Zeile in the World Series. Zeile appears destined to be remembered for hitting the now-(in)famous drive that caromed back into play after striking the very tip of the leftfield wall in Game 1. But don't forget that he was also robbed of a homer during the Mets' 9th-inning Game 2 rally, when Clay Bellinger reached to the top of the fence to corral the ball. (As one Mets fan disgustedly observed, "If Zeile had done one more push-up before the Seriesone more push-up!he'd have two homers by now.")
The Mets dropped all of these games, three of them by one run and the other by two. Woulda-coulda-shoulda is a loser's game, natch, but it's hard not to wonder how an inch here or an inch there might have affected these contests. And one can only speculate as to what horrible misdeed the Mets must have committed in order for Fate to have decreed that they come up on the short end of so many heartbreakingly close plays. Matt Franco, if you've been kicking your dog every night, please stop! Paul Lukas
The only thing better than an election year is an Olympic year. Not because of the human drama of athletic competition, the true spirit of sportsmanship, or the glory of sport, but . . . because Kevin Garnett had to wear a cowboy hat during the opening ceremonies. Because no triathletes were attacked by sharks . . . but they might have been. Because a Greco-Roman wrestler who looks like Drew Carey became the world's most popular athlete for 10 minutes. Because gymnastics judges can't measure a vaulting horse. Because Marla Runyon's seeing-eye dog could have outrun the whole field in the 1500 meters. Because team doctors don't know which cold medicines will show up positive on a drug test. Because team doctors do know which performance-enhancing drugs won't. Because it gives you an excuse to say Halil Mutlu, Haile Gebrselassie, and Hicham el-Guerrouj. Because Anthony Ervin lost sole possession of a gold medal in the 50-meter freestyle due to the hydrodynamic drag caused by his hoop earring. Because they happen only once every four years. Allen St. John
If the WNBA continues to thrive, 2000 will be looked back upon as a transitional year in which a new generation began to supplant the old. The fourth season for the league was the first in which the draft relied almost entirely on players just out of college. In 1999 the draft had gone deep with the vets of the ABL, and the two previous years, the WNBA had ingathered the stalwarts who had been racking up experienceand hunger to play at homein Europe and beyond. This past year, the average age of the WNBA roster decreased by several points, and it will be dropping faster than the Nasdaq in the seasons to come.
In 2000, players such as Kym Hampton, 37, Suzie McConnell-Serio, 34, and four-time champion MVP Cynthia Cooper, 37, hung up their high-tops, and many more at least openly contemplated retirement. Meanwhile, numerous older players noted the experience gap during practices, complaining that their novice teammates weren't giving them enough of a challenge. Others began to question whether the new generation was paying their elders proper respect. As 34-year-old Liberty pointguard Teresa Weatherspoon fumed about Rockers rookie Ann Wauters, age 19: "For a youngster to walk in my face . . . I'll walk in your face!"
Of course it's only natural that younger athletes usurp their forbearsand even exceed their greatness. The difference here, though, is that as the WNBA succeeds, what may be forgotten is the history of the struggle to get it off the ground in the first place. Younger players, said Liberty low-post defender Sue Wicks, don't have a sense of what it meant "to play just out of your own passion and not even expect to see anything in the newspaper." Not that such expectations are bad in themselves"Giving women that sense of entitlement is what we built this league for," said Liberty three-point master Crystal Robinson. Still, the questions of value and purpose that have come up with every major development in women's sportsthe passage of Title IX, the absorption of women's collegiate sports into the NCAA, the mega-marketing of the WNBA devouring the mom-and-pop approach of the ABLwill be surging up again. Alisa Solomon
Revenge of the Nerds
As the Kubrickian year dawns, creatine-fueled behemoths still work the sports world's glamour jobs, draining 18-foot J's and befuzzing Troy Aikman's cerebellum with punishing helmet-to-chinstrap hits. But with Byzantine salary-cap machinations a front-office staple, a team's odds of earning the "bling bling" are increasingly determined by pocket-protectored, weak-as-kittens bean counters. Shooting guards and linebackers may get the girls and Get Out of Jail Free cards, but capologists are the real muscle behind America's championship squads. Or, when payrolls slip out of whack and you've got a Juwan Howard/San Francisco 49ers debacle at hand, capologists are the goats who reduce loyal fans to paper-bag-on-head woe.
Hail, then, to Kevin Abrams, the 29-year-old Canadian sports-management major who rescued the New York Giants from the twin scourges of salary-cap Armageddon and Kent Graham. Jeers to his Jets counterpart, Mike Tannenbaum, who prematurely balked at Keyshawn Johnson's prospective haul as unmanageable, thereby saddling hapless Al Groh with a trio of dwarfish wideouts. (Hope you enjoy your January vacation, Mike.) Thumbs up to the anonymous Jerry West aide who computed a way to fit Kobe, Glenn Rice, the Big Graduate, and celibate rebounding robot A.C. Green onto the same payroll for one title-winning year. And thumbs downway down, as Roger Ebert might quip about any Pauly Shore vehicleto the numbskull accountant who cobbled together the Washington Wizards' roster, an overpriced catastrophe doomed to a multiyear bout with Clipperdom.
Capology's prominence may strike traditionalists as yet another symbol of pro sports' dreary evolution from lightweight pastime to Gordon Gekko-ish conglomerate. The race, after all, is supposed to go to the swift, not to the crew backed by the sharpest C.P.A. But the geekification of bigtime athletics has some pluses, too. There's a certain entertainment value in hearing John Madden stumble over the tongue-twisting phrase "disastrous cap situation." Seeing wizened salary-cap casualties prance about in strange uniformsPatrick Ewing in Supersonics emerald green, Bruce Smith in Redskins scarlet-and-goldis not without its charms. And, of course, there is something cosmically comforting about knowing that karma has run its course, that the four-eyed smarties picked last for dodge ball now lord over the jocks' professional fates. Brendan I. Koerner
Love on the Subway
New Yorkers make the mistake of believing their own bad publicity. How else to explain the 700 cops deployed at Shea for John Rocker's protection, with nothing more to show for their overtime checks than tracking down an errant ball ejected from the stands? While west of the Hudson we're universally viewed as pushy, mean, violence-prone kikes and whops, you have only to drop a glove on the 7 train and nine people of five different races and three sexes will rush to retrieve it before you exit the closing doors.
So why did we buy the hype of brother-on-brother violence, blood in the streets, and stadium conflagrations that were predicted for the Subway Series? Perhaps a fuse was lit by the Rocket's beaning of Mike Piazza during the battle for the Merc Cup (Wall Street's bauble awarded to New York's interleague champ each year). So when the fall's big dance began, outside agitators couldn't have asked for more than Roger's conscious/unconscious/overly emotional/brain-locked (pick one) attempt to finish the job in Game 2 with a shard of bat right out of Steve Yeager's worst nightmare.
Still, that ludicrous moment was diffused a couple of games later by the preternaturally mature Derek Jeter, who cleanly fielded yet another shattered bat head and paused for a theatrical beat before wryly smiling and handing it off to a batboy. We all needed that moment of dark humor, because this series was becoming just too much to bear: No true fan could stand to lose to those scumbags across town, but all of us had friends, coworkers, family, and lovers who would suffer no matter what the outcome.
So while the rest of America greeted our bountiful curse with indifference (as evidenced by abysmal TV ratings), we turned to each other, if not necessarily for succor, then at least without hatred. Joe Torre's face said it all: Throughout the series he looked like a man who'd just spent way too long on a stalled D trainhaggard, edgy, exhausted, and just praying for this ride to end. Yet the subway is part of the reason New Yorkers do what seems so hard for so many other Americanswe joke, argue, even despise and disdain each other, but somehow manage to live jammed together with less homicide than history and current events give us reason to expect.
Indeed, the most flagrant fan attack was perpetrated at Yankees.com, where visitors the morning after victory were greeted by a photo (captioned "Yankees Suck") of a man's shaven, spread buttocks (cognoscenti noted his wedding ring) exposing an anus that looked to have spent serious quality time with the business end of one of those broken bats. While love is myriad in its expressions, hate always gets the best lines, so perhaps this Yankee-hating hacker could have expressed even more to his brethren by uploading the same photo with a different headline: "Duh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh YankeeeesWin!" Bob Baker
While baseball had the intriguethough not the ratingsof the Mets and Yankees, and the NBA had Shaq's long awaited coronation, the NHL and NFL apparently needed something more to entice their viewers. So they went to the wives.
Who can forget Martin Brodeur's wife: cowboy hat on head, kids in hands, gyrating, twisting and turning every time the Stars got close to the net during the Stanley Cup? ABC's shots of her illustrated how the hockey wife, perched in the enemy's den, lives and dies with every one of her husband's kick-savesa true testament to the humanity and love in sport.
On the other side of the spectrum was Kurt Warner's wife in the Super Bowl. Sitting in the stands like an ice queen, severe bleached blonde haircut and blue boa, Brenda Warner was featured on the telecast more than the offensive schemes of either team. ABC ran interviews with Warner and his wife that played more like infomercials for born-again Christianity than an example of the connection a wife has with her husband during the biggest game of his life. Bill Jensen
Pigskins and Piggy Banks
For most sports fans, I assume, we've come to the end of the Year of the Tiger, but from where I sit 2000 also marked the full arrival of the million-dollar coach. My own employer, Oregon State University, was a key player. A year ago, Dennis Erickson returned to college football after several less-than-blissful years in the NFL, to lead the Beavers to their first winning season since 1971. This year, Oregon State won a share of the PAC-10 championship and a bid to the Fiesta Bowl. Under normal circumstances, what follows would be predictable. The coach who turned around a struggling program is offered twice the salary and a lot more prestige by Big Time U. With deep regrets and best wishes, he departs Aggie Town, leaving the deserted AD to find a young coach who is a link or two lower down the football food chain.
Beaver fans were bracing for such an outcome (USC was the tempter in this case); instead, Erickson signed a contract extension that, "with incentives," will pay him approximately $1 million per year. That's about what A-Rod will tip the Rangers' batboy this season, but also several times what OSU's president makesand for coaching a nonprofit "amateur" sport. Virginia Tech offered a similar deal to keep Frank Beamer, amid reports that Beamer was now one of 10 or 15 coaches around the country who could command seven figures. Oklahoma likewise rewarded Bob Stoops with $1.4 million. Out west, the University of Washington last year broke the million-dollar ceiling with Rick Neuheisel, and OSU's action this season forced the University of Oregon to put Mike Bellotti in Erickson's and Neuheisel's financial neighborhood. Steve Spurrier's $2.1 million at Florida still tops them all.
Such, you say, is the familiar off-season business of college football. But what's new is the schools involved. Ambitious outsiders, not the football elite, have tended to drive up coaches' salaries, but the Virginia Techs and Oregon States have come from even farther outside the core than those before them. We seem to be watching the last desperate efforts of small-market schools for inclusion in the capital-driven super conferences that will survive the intensified commercialization of college sports. These small-town, small-stadium schools will be the crucible in which the presumed benefits of big-time college sports will undergo their most severe testing. Likewise, all the troubling issues inherent in a commercial spectacle staged by institutions of higher learningwith which we've lived for more than a centurywill become magnified. The coming years will be varyingly painful and exhilarating to experienceand fascinating to watch. Michael Oriard
The One-Hit Wonder
When Mets pitcher Bobby Jones took the mound on October 8 to face the San Francisco Giants, I sat very still in my seat at Shea and waited, along with every other spectator, for the ensuing disaster. As his very name implies, Bobby Jones is a baseball everyman, a career .500 pitcher possessed of meager talent, and a modest disposition that allowed him to accept a trip to the minors early in the year when his game was falling apart. And so it came to pass that this incredibly ordinary pitcher took the ball for Game 4 of the divisional playoffs.
As he cruised through the first few innings, displaying his dazzling assortment of off-speed junk, Jones seemed to be inducing the Giants line-up into untimely swings, bad decisions, and utter frustration. Every few innings, the Giants' murderer's row of Bonds, Kent, Burks, and Snow would go down, unbelievably, in order. Those of us who had watched this particular pitcher for the last eight years were dumbstruck. I would hold my breath, and wait for the inevitable damage, because a player like Jones lives on borrowed time, and ultimately has to pay for his mediocre stuff.
It became clear by the sixth that something extraordinary was taking place. Ever more frustrated at their inability to rough Jones up, the Giants hitters became more impatient, and in the process, played right into the pitcher's crafty hands. Something that felt strangely like pride began to swell in me, watching this would-be also-ran ring up batter after batter with outlandish 65 mph curves, mixed in with mighty fastballs in the mid-eighties. He was changing speeds and out-thinking each hitter and it was a wonderful sight to behold. Bobby Jones was pitching with the cojones that only a career journeyman has the right to; with nerves that are case-hardened by failure, and an appreciation that he was bending the rules of the baseball universe.
"Come on, Bobby J!" yelled a gent nearby. It sounded so odd, and so funny, this spontaneously invented nickname and the tidal wave of cheers that washed down over him; cheers that never existed in his previous eight years in New York. A player like Jones represents the link between us and the hyper-skilled stars of the game, and his success is more satisfying because we know it is hard wonand hard to come by. Bobby J one-hit the Giants that day to clinch his team's first round series, and after the season, the Mets repaid this supreme effort by cutting him loose, even though they threw barrels full of money at the soulless Mike Hampton, who spurned them anyway. In a way, it was a microcosm of the human condition: the doomed courtship of hollow vanity, and a failure to value the one you should love. Sinclair Rankin
Imagine the Yankees having a year in which they hovered around the MLB basement, in which all their best players had been traded and ended up starring for other clubs, in which they set a new record for most man-games lost to injury, in which George Steinbrenner put the team and Yankee Stadium up for sale but could not find a suitable buyer, in which they had to fire their coach and general manager and it didn't change the club's fortunes one bit, in which the greatest player in franchise history passed away and his funeral drew a more impassioned reaction than anything the team did competitivelyimagine all that and you've got the plight of the Montreal Canadiens in 2000.
Here is the winner of 24 Stanley Cups, a team whose legacy in the game and meaning to Quebec and Canada is one of lasting excellence and integrity, plunging to such depths that the best offer known to purchase them is about $84 million, the same price that an expansion team cost the current owners of the new Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets.
Their new arena, the Molson Centre, has none of the intimate charm of the hallowed now-demolished Montreal Forum, but was built to accommodate over 21,000 fans and send the cash registers into exhaustion. It hasn't worked out that way, and the taxes the Canadiens must pay to the city and province virtually guarantee that red ink will flow instead of black.
The passing of Maurice Richard, who symbolized everything the Canadiens stood for, was more than just the death of a sports hero in Quebec and Canadait was symbolic of the passing of an era in sports, when pride and passion in the pursuit of professional excellence dominated money, ego, and individual self-aggrandizement. Typical of the new corporate mentality that has taken over sports (in which the gloried past might as well not have even existed, for it means nothing in the quest for profit today), the executives now running the Canadiens did not think to put Richard's photo on their yearbook cover or even have the club wear patches memorialzing the Rocket, until the media and fans wondered aloud how the team could start the new season without such a visible sign of tribute. Even the baseball Expos wore a No. 9 patch on their uniforms over the summer.
It is difficult for New Yorkers to comprehend what the decline of the Canadiens means in Montreal and Canada, but les Habitants were once the pride of Quebec. As oppressed as Quebec's French majority felt about being dominated by English Canada's ruling class, that is how proud they felt when nos glorieux would parade down Rue Ste. Catharine each spring with the Cup. But the club now plays games in front of thousands upon thousands of empty seats in their white elephant of a new arena. Once upon a time, season tickets at the Forum were available only if left to you in someone's will. And in New York, Boston, Toronto, and other locales where people pay attention to hockey, many who have hated the club (just as there are legions upon legions of Yankees-haters) are now feeling morose and despondent over the loss of an honored adversary and hockey's once shining crown jewel. Stu Hackel
You Gotta Believe!
The Yankees will always be the team of the cityit's true, and we Mets fans know that. It's the Yanks who own the storied folklore, the spine-tingling ballpark, and those twentysomething world championships. Truth be told, a sense of inferiority permeates the railway just outside the platform of John Rocker's beloved 7 trainjust like the smell of Kahn's all-beef franks and watery Rheingold beer.
And yet, this is precisely what makes the payoff of worshipping the Amazins such a bounty: We are not a franchise of legend or tradition, but a community of devout baseball fanatics, faithful Gary Cohen disciples, and ruthless underdog supporters. Like fans of the Cubs or Red Sox, we have endured a great number of awful teams and more recently, a slew of devastating near-misses. So when the planets align just right, everything comes together, and the miracles begin to unravel, it's sheer poetry.
Benny, Timo, Fonzie. We knew them on a first-name basis and thought of them not as men, but as little kids playing the game for the love of the sport. Benny showed us that 250-pound Hawaiian outfielders given up for dead can wield magic wands, too (who could forget his pinch hit grand slam in Tokyo to deliver the team's first win of the season? His 13th-inning blast to end NLDS Game 3? Or that huge smash into the gap to win Game 3 of the World Series?).
Jersey's own Al Leiterthat warrior with the repertoire composed of cutters, groans, and gutsshowed us that you needn't be a bat-throwing jerk to be a big-time pitcher and carry an entire team on your back. And Timo, Piazza, Fonzie, and Johnny Franco showed us that diminutive Japanese imports, egoless superstar infielders, and hometown relievers with pizza-vendor mustaches can come together and recapture the adoration of a city. In spite of its Hemingway-esque fallibility, this clubhouse full of good guys delivered a season of magic.
Hats off to the Yankeesthey won it all. But 2000 was the year the Amazins let the dogs out, and brought pride and glory back to Queens. This season, the difference between Mets fans and Yankees fans crystallized as never before: Yankees fans expect. Mets fans believe. Blake Zeff
Hold That Tiger
Tiger Woods needs the PGA Tour. That's something he must remember as he continues his very public posturing for a piece of golf's television revenue and gate receipts. True, more people watch golf, either in person or on the tube, now than ever before. And Reason No. 1, without question, is Tiger. He is by far the best player on the tour today. He is arguably the best ever. But would people, and corporate sponsors, pay as much to watch him on the driving range or the putting green? Obviously not. They want to see him compete against other golfers, of course, like those on the PGA Tour.
In the unlikely event the PGA denies his requests, there's talk of Tiger forming his own tour. But who's going to sign on to play the Washington Generals to Woods's Harlem Globetrotters?
Has Tiger had an incredible impact on golf's popularity? Yes. And he gets paid handsomely in endorsements, tournament winnings, and appearances. Even in an age in which sports marketers have put an I in words like team and league (Can we stop crying about the Jordan-less NBA and the Gretzky-less NHL now, please?), the PGA cannot place him on a higher pedestal than its other touring players. It would cheapen the gameturning every tournament into an episode of Tiger and Friendsand defy everything that sport is, allegedly, about. Brian P. Dunleavy
Sports Business Journal
Pro sports, especially basketball and football, continued to suck in 2000. I don't begrudge any player getting all the dough he can, but I find no joy in watching businessmen playing anything. That commercial with what's-his-name berating opponents for their stock market ignorance says it all. Bigas in moneybusinessmen, in fact, are about the only folks who can afford tickets to pro sports events these days. And it isn't going to get any better anytime soon.
Which brings us to the real culpritsthe owners, of course. Greedy whining bastards one and all. And NFL owners stand head and shoulder above all their confreresthe slimiest strong-arm extortionists in the history of sports. The old robber barons are whooping and hollering their admiration from the burning pit of Hell.
It's depressing. The only antidote is to start patronizing a pure sporting event, like lawn mower racing. Yeah, now there's some puuuure competition. Michael Swindle
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