The sports seasons pass in such swift succession, blurring one into another, that a look back at the end of a year is but a peek into a kaleidoscope. Baseball season, once majestically uninterrupted save for some football at the end, now is invaded almost unremittingly by basketball and hockey, pro and college football. And golfers and tennis players follow the sun the year round. There are no gaps, no way stations in this unbroken parade. There are no off-seasons, no true Hot Stove Leagues, no time for reflection. And yet, faces stand out from the maelstrom, memories somehow take form.
Not all of the faces are congenial, of course. There are, to name two, the fretful countenances of John McEnroe and Bob Knight, co-boors of the decade. McEnroe drew a $7,850 fine and a two-month suspension for blistering a chair umpire and a television technician with vulgarisms during the U.S. Open tennis tournament. So what else is new? Marriage, fatherhood and advancing years seem not in the slightest to have matured this intrepid model of eternal infantilism. Knight is no better, although, unlike McEnroe, he had, in recent years at least, restricted his most embarrassing tantrums to domestic audiences. But in November this aging brat removed his Indiana team from the court in the midst of an exhibition game with the Soviet national team after an official tagged him with a third technical foul. Knight's petulance deprived nearly 17,000 fans of seeing all they had paid for—the defending NCAA champion Hoosiers were trailing 66-43 when yanked—and offered the visiting Soviets what must have been an edifying glimpse of sportsmanship, American-style.
Let us not overlook the contributions to civil rights made during the year by the now-departed Los Angeles Dodger executive, Al Campanis. This unfortunate man's racist remarks on a television news program may well do more to galvanize baseball's hierarchy into action on this neglected front than could any high-minded lecturing from more reputable authorities. It must be said in Campanis's defense that his comments in no way represented an extreme position in the national pastime's approach to equality in hiring. In baseball terms Campanis is a moderate. Only time—not too much of it, one hopes—will reveal if the game has learned that its blacks do have, contrary to Campanis's opinion, "the necessities."
Drugs continued to plague athletes in 1987, the year's most notable offender being Dwight Gooden, the New York Mets' 23-year-old pitching star. He spent the first month of the baseball season in a treatment center, and his absence may well have cost his team a second straight National League pennant and world championship. But Dr. K did come back in time to win 15 games, and as if to prove that hospitalization had left his ego unimpaired, he insisted at season's end that his contract be renegotiated to include the security of a multiyear deal.
December 28, 1987
Professional basketball's Julius Erving, the inimitable Dr. J, displayed much more character than the baseball Doc when he somehow orchestrated a season-long retirement party that never approached excess. Not since Sarah Bernhardt has anyone brought off a prolonged exit with so much dignity and grace. And as a pleasant counterbalance to the churlish McEnroe, we were favored with Steffi Graf, who, at 18, swept aside the old guard of women's tennis to assume the No. 1 ranking worldwide. Graf won 11 tournaments during the year and collected nearly $1.1 million in prize money. And on the way up, she passed Chris Evert headed in the other direction. Evert's stunning loss to Lori McNeil in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open ended her string of 16 consecutive advances to the Open semis. It also concluded her astonishing 13-year streak of winning at least one Grand Slam event.
The new and the familiar alike had their moments in boxing. Mike Tyson, 21, became the youngest heavyweight champion in history as he slugged his way through the alphabet—WBA, WBC, IBF—to unify a title that had been divided since the brief and unlikely reign of Leon Spinks in 1978. And Sugar Ray Leonard, out of the spotlight for five years and 50 days, returned to the ring to snatch the middleweight championship from Marvelous Marvin Hagler in a 12-round split decision. Leonard promptly retired again, leaving Hagler frustrated and fuming.
It was a very good year for another old-timer, jockey Angel Cordero, 45, who won his 6,000th race and thereby joined the select company of Johnny Longden, Willie Shoemaker and Laffit Pincay. Sailing's Dennis Conner has been around awhile, too, but never so prominently as in this year when he brought the America's Cup back to America after his Stars & Stripes defeated Australia's Kookaburra III Down Under.
Hockey tried to clean up its act with more severe penalties for fighting, but these proved no more than mild deterrents to violence. Still, Wayne Gretzky, an artist among thugs, continued to dominate the game, demonstrating again and again that finesse does indeed count for something.
Golf introduced some fresh talent in the modest persons of U.S. Open champion Scott Simpson and Masters winner Larry Mize. Mize, who had won only one tournament in six years, defeated Greg Norman by sinking a 140-foot chip shot on the second hole of a sudden-death playoff.
The NFL suffered its second players' strike in five years. This walkout engendered "replacement games," which, played as they were by mostly nondescript nonstrikers, thoroughly corrupted the standings. For example, the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants emerged from the strike with an 0-5 record, three of the losses coming in replacement games. The fans made their feelings known: TV ratings and attendance were down almost everywhere.
In fact, 1987 could even be characterized as The Year of the Fan. Once-faceless crowds were making themselves heard as never before. In Minnesota's Metrodome, where the world champion Twins rarely lost, the shrieking, Homer Hanky-waving hordes proved they could do more than just root, root, root for the home team; they could influence games. Fans everywhere were beginning to assert themselves. And so it might not be a bad time for those who run our games, as well as those who play them, to pay attention to what the people in the seats are saying. Who knows, they might actually learn something.