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
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
“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.
It may seem like sour grapes to complain about the American women’s team after its World Cup victory did so much to raise soccer awareness in the U.S. Nevertheless, the spectators’ reactions and the tournament’s coverage frustrated those of us who aren’t American. I happened to follow the second half of the tourney in France, where one of the TV commentators noted that, “All the teams like trying to beat the Americans because they hate losing so much.” The words struck a chord with anyone who’s ever watched their squad face the Yanks.
The line from obnoxious to revolting was crossed a couple of months later, prompting the London Evening Standard to describe Americans as being “as odious in victory as they are unsporting in defeat.” What provoked this particular outburst was the conclusion of the Ryder Cup. With the Americans trailing the Europeans, Justin Leonard’s 45-footer propelled Team USA ahead. The other members of the team, their caddies, even their wives, immediately stormed the green—neglecting the fact that, technically speaking, the fat lady had not opened her mouth yet.
American nationalism isn’t new: Watching broadcasts of any Olympics in the U.S., you’d never suspect that there are any competitors from foreign lands. But the pressure is getting worse as bad behavior is spilling from the stands and the broadcast booths onto the actual playing field. It’s one thing to have a kid taunt you because you’re applauding Denmark. It’s quite another to have American organizers of long-distance races discriminate against foreign runners just because the homegrown talent can’t compete against, say, Kenyans.
Obviously sports jingoism isn’t exclusive to America. After all, hooligans have been stirring up trouble across European borders for years now. But there’s a big difference when it’s the U.S. that starts flexing its muscles, and it’s the difference between an unruly chimp breaking some china and an 800-pound gorilla wreaking havoc on an entire house. When the supporters belong to the only superpower left, everybody, and not just sports fans, starts to cringe. And when American athletes themselves cross the line and behave like boors, that’s when their opponents start to really, really resent them. And if there’s one thing we don’t need at this point, it’s for things to spin out of control even more in the overheated world of sports. —Elisabeth Vincentelli
Female Sports Figure of 1999
Serena Williams. Her U.S. Open championship over the bratty Martina Hingis was inspiring. That it was done by this charismatic African American teenager in the still-lily-white corporate world of Grand Slam tennis made it more so. She teamed up with big sis Venus for doubles championships at the French and U.S. Opens to boot. Her dynamic play and barrier-busting presence puts Serena at the top for ’99.
Runners-up: Mia Hamm. Mia’s Army, that great sea of little girls in No. 9 jerseys, says it all. Hamm has moved an entire generation of young American females to join the world’s most popular sport. Oh, and she led the U.S. squad to a World Cup championship in ’99, while becoming the top goal-scorer (male or female) of all time. Now, if only she and her teammates can convince U.S. Soccer that gender equity isn’t a dead concept. » Cynthia Cooper. Cooper led her Houston Comets to their third straight WNBA title—in fact, Coop and the Comets are the only ones to be champions of that league. She also led the WNBA in scoring—again—with 22.1 points a game and threw down 42 in a contest she dedicated to best friend and former Comets point guard Kim Perrot. Coop’s clearly the cream of the league, even while she plays on the same team as Sheryl Swoopes, and she’s got ’em raising the roof in playgrounds across the land.
Male Sports Figure of 1999
Lance Armstrong. In the jargon of sports, coming back from the dead means overcoming a 14-point deficit in the fourth quarter. Lance Armstrong overcame far more than that. After Armstrong was diagnosed with testicular cancer that spread to his lungs and his brain, his oncologist had no choice but to lie to him about his chances for survival: 10 percent, maybe. But not only did Armstrong survive, he came back better than ever. He tackled the Tour de France, the world’s most grueling sporting event, with the resolve of a man who’s been through far worse. And by wearing the Yellow Jersey to Paris on a day when he was lucky simply to be alive, Armstrong gave us the kind of moment—courageous, inspirational, miraculous—that should redefine a thesaurus’s worth of jock clichés.
Runners-up: Pedro Martinez. In an era in which 60 homers ceased to be newsworthy, this animated son of the Dominican Republic established himself as the game’s one true stopper. Pausing only briefly to cuss out his manager and GM, baseball’s uncrowned MVP single-handedly kept Boston within shouting distance of New York during the regular season. And like Wyatt Earp walking into Tombstone, he ambled out of the bullpen in Game 7 of the division series—Muscle pull? What muscle pull?—and silenced the mighty Indians. If Jimy Williams and Co. couldn’t overcome the Curse of the Bambino, don’t blame Pedro. His ALCS masterpiece at Fenway was the only thing that stood between the Yankees and a perfect postseason.
»Latrell Sprewell. In 1998, he was not only Middle America’s worst nightmare, he finished fourth in the Voice Sportswriters’ Poll for worst sports figure. But in 1999, the Knick swingman was, if not the American Dream, at least the Knicks’ savior. He electrified Madison Square Garden like it hasn’t been juiced since Clyde hung up his full-length mink, and in the process he saved Jeff Van Gundy’s job as surely as his earlier actions bought P.J. Carlesimo a two-year stay of execution. Besides his on-court endeavors, Sprewell turned out to be a compelling, articulate figure outside of the arena—just ask Mike Wise.
Team of 1999
USA Women’s Soccer. They took the Women’s World Cup championship in dramatic fashion, filling up huge stadiums along the way and providing yet another touchstone in the advancement of women’s sports.
Runners-up: New York Yankees. The 25-time World Series champions swept the Fall Classic for the second consecutive year. The dynastic version of the Bombers are back, doing the Bleacher Creatures proud. »Houston Comets. The 1999 WNBA champions are the league’s only champions, having won it all in each of its three years of existence. And no other team comes close to Cooper, Swoopes, Thompson, and company—they’ve had the league’s best record all three years as well.
Worst Sports Figure of 1999
Rae Carruth. While we’re not entirely comfortable picking Carruth before he’s been tried—he stands accused of killing his pregnant girlfriend, and could get the death penalty—Carruth is clearly the poster boy for NFL domestic abusers. He’s a symbol of the long and embarrassing list of football players accused of committing crimes against women. We only hope that Carruth’s tragic case spurs the NFL to come up with more than cosmetic solutions to an obvious problem.
Runners-up: John Rocker. Let’s be clear. Rocker is a straight-up bigot. There need be no psychological testing on him to figure this out. But the kind of xenophobia he spewed to Sports Illustrated isn’t exactly a rare thing—even if its condemned as outrageous by the whole world. Let’s put it this way: Major League Baseball will be the organization that ultimately sanctions Rocker for his remarks, yet MLB, in 125 years of existence, can’t seem to let more than a token number of minorities or foreigners into its corridors of power. » Juan Antonio Samaranch. The former fascist bureaucrat leads an Olympic movement that has emerged as woefully corrupt. The bribery scandal that rocked the IOC last year resulted in the purge of powerless officials from third world nations, while Samaranch and his cronies survived. His new “reforms” for the IOC hardly seem to address the problem, and his selection of the likes of Henry Kissinger to an “independent” IOC ethics panel is suspicious at best.