SOSA: SO, SO FUN
The Cubs' beguiling slugger brings joy to the Maris chase
The Chicago Cubs, engaged in a taut three-way National League
wild card race, sat riveted to the out-of-town game playing on
the television monitors hanging from the ceiling of their Coors
Field clubhouse in Denver last Saturday. And the boys from Toms
River, N.J., weren't even playing the New York Mets or the San
Francisco Giants. The Little League World Series telecast
provided a delicious moment of inverted reality: big leaguers
looking up to Little Leaguers. When a Japanese boy belted a home
run and bounced around the bases, Cubs first baseman Mark Grace
called to a teammate, "Sammy, that's going to be you when you
hit Number 62!"
After a weekend in which Sammy Sosa turned Coors Field into his
own Williamsport--an opposite-field laser on Friday and a 484-foot
blast off the leftfield scoreboard on Sunday--he trailed Mark
McGwire (page 32) by one dinger, and on Monday night he tied Big
Mac at 55. It would have seemed absurd on May 25 to suggest that
Sosa would be McGwire's foil in this end game, having spotted him
14 homers. But Sosa has prospered while drafting behind McGwire's
huge popularity and Most-Likely-to-Succeed status.
"The attention's nothing like it's been for Mark," says Cubs
third baseman Gary Gaetti, the Forrest Gump of the Home Run
Chase, having played four months with McGwire's St. Louis
Cardinals before joining the Cubs. With Sosa, teams don't open
their gates for batting practice. The flashbulbs don't pop with
every pitch. Fans don't boo pitchers for every ball out of the
strike zone. Sosa has yet to appear in an interview room, while
McGwire is tied with Mike McCurry for the national lead; the
crowd of reporters covering the Cubs is still small enough for
him to take care of everyone in front of his locker. The Chicago
Tribune--the newspaper run by the company that owns the
Cubs--sent only one writer to Denver. Sosa encourages such
restraint with his clever I'm-not-worthy mantra.
"This is Mark McGwire's show," Sosa said, continuing his
noncampaign even after temporarily catching Big Mac at 54 on
Sunday. "I'm not going to steal his show. He's the man. He's like
my idol. I think he's going to come back and take the lead.
That's what I want him to do."
Even Sosa had to chuckle at that, having stretched his
magnanimity to comical lengths. Still, his coyness adds fun to
what has been a remarkably uplifting Home Run Chase, one only
the media and the memorabilia grubs can possibly pollute. You
would think it impossible to hit 54 home runs quietly. Yet
here's Sosa, having tiptoed to the doorstep of history. He's the
one with the wink and the smile. He looks just like a Little
Leaguer. --Tom Verducci
FINISHING UP STRONG
Ignore for a moment the outcome of the WNBA championship series
between the Phoenix Mercury and the Houston Comets, which was to
be decided in Game 3 at Houston on Tuesday. Consider instead the
many ways in which, in just its second season, the league has
taken off. Season-ticket sales were up 72%; attendance increased
by 12%, to 10,869 a game; merchandise revenue tripled; teams in
Minnesota and Orlando will be added in 1999 to increase the
total to 12; and a '98 expansion team, the Washington Mystics,
drew a WNBA-high 15,910 per game despite their 3-27 record. Oh,
and due out this month: WNBA Barbie.
So far the selling of this league has effectively outstripped the
product. Though the quality of WNBA play has improved since last
year thanks to an influx of foreign players (31, as opposed to
14), it still doesn't measure up to that of the ABL (which may
help explain why the WNBA's TV ratings, though no worse than the
NHL's, have declined since last summer).
But the WNBA's championship week was a particularly hard one for
the ABL: On the day before Game 1, the ABL announced that it
would fold the Long Beach StingRays, its 1998 title runner-up,
after a year of operation because of poor attendance and
sponsorship. In a bigger blow, on Monday, Dawn Staley, previously
of the ABL's Philadelphia Rage and one of the top point guards in
the world, announced that she had signed a multiyear deal with
Still, the WNBA isn't out of the woods financially. Players have
been talking about forming a union to address matters such as
health benefits and salaries (the league average is about
$30,000). But Comets forward Tina Thompson, for one, recognizes
the fragility of an enterprise as new as the WNBA. "Certainly we
want to make a [good] living, but this league is just in its
second year," she says. "Right now none of our fans have business
meetings while they're at the game, and we appreciate that. We
don't want to push our crowd away. Women's basketball has come a
long way, but we still have a long way to go." --Kelli Anderson
Sports Drug Craze
It's often impossible to pinpoint when a product leaps from
obscurity to obsession, but those who make and sell
androstenedione should have no such difficulty: For them Aug. 21
will forever be a high holiday. That's when Mark McGwire
admitted to popping the testosterone-boosting supplement,
prompting weekend warriors to begin gobbling the pills at a
Viagra-like pace. "This has gone from a $5 million-a-year
industry to maybe a $100 million industry," says Len Moskovits,
president of Met-Rx Nutrition, a sports-nutrition company that
has seen sales of its andro products jump by 300% since
Health-food stores have been besieged by andro requests and have
struggled to keep it in stock. Sports-nutrition companies hope
to drive demand even higher by broadening their marketing beyond
the bodybuilding crowd. "Before, we were asking if this stuff
was mainstream enough to advertise in Muscle & Fitness," says
Moskovits. "Now we're asking if it's mainstream enough for
Enthusiasm is to be applauded. Then again...Red McCombs, the new
owner of the Minnesota Vikings, who were 4-0 in exhibition play,
recently declared that "the drama of the preseason is one of the
greatest dramas in sports, not just the NFL, but in any sport."
Wait till he gets a load of the Pro Bowl!
Soccer Coach Sued
TROUBLE IN THE FAMILY
For 17 years, Anson Dorrance has dominated women's soccer,
coaching North Carolina to 15 national championships and the
U.S. to the '91 World Cup title. On Aug. 25, however, the
47-year-old Dorrance was named as the central figure in a
sexual-harassment lawsuit that has rocked the sport and
threatens to rupture the national team less than a year before
the U.S. is to host the Women's World Cup.
Dorrance denies the allegations in the civil suit, which was
filed by two former Tar Heels: Debbie Keller, 23, the '96
college player of the year and a forward on the American team,
and Melissa Jennings, 19, a backup goalkeeper at North Carolina
from '96 to '98. Keller, the U.S.'s second-leading goal scorer
this year, is vying to start on a team whose nucleus is made up
largely of former Tar Heels, including stars Mia Hamm, Kristine
Lilly and Carla Overbeck. Says Overbeck, "I've known Anson for
14 years, and everything he has done has always been very
Because of the suit, Keller will be in litigation with a
teammate when the national team gathers in Boston on Sept. 7 to
prepare for this month's U.S. Women's Cup tournament. Backup
keeper Tracy Ducar, a North Carolina assistant coach, is among
the 10 current and former university employees named as
defendants. To head off conflict, national coach (and former
Dorrance assistant on the U.S. team) Tony DiCicco said last week
that he planned to meet with a lawyer for the U.S. Soccer
Federation to consider whether he should rescind the invitations
to Keller and/or Ducar to join the team.
According to Keller's lawyer, Louis Varchetto, the case likely
won't be resolved in court until after the World Cup or perhaps
even the 2000 Olympics. National team members could be called as
witnesses for both sides. "A lot of players grew up under
Anson's tutelage and think the world of him," DiCicco says. "At
the same time we have players who sympathize with what Debbie is
going through. There's some healing that's going to have to be
NBA Coaching Changes
WHY START THE CAROUSEL NOW?
The Milwaukee Bucks and Sacramento Kings didn't get where they
are--which, almost every May, is the NBA lottery--by making
savvy decisions, but the recent firings of their coaches after
two months of a lockout that has no end in sight were curious
moves even for them. Milwaukee's Chris Ford and Sacramento's
Eddie Jordan hadn't lost a game since April. So what exactly did
they do to warrant the ax? Steal office supplies?
The Bucks, at least, redeemed themselves a few days after
dismissing Ford last week by replacing him with George Karl, who
helped turn the Seattle SuperSonics into a title contender. But
it would take Freud to find a method to the Kings' madness in
firing Jordan, who was given only one full season to turn around
a Sacramento mess that has been years in the making.
The Kings had no A-list coach waiting in the wings to take over.
One of the leading candidates for the job is Los Angeles Lakers
four-year assistant Kurt Rambis, a former player with no
head-coaching experience--a description that also fit Jordan
when he took over in Sacramento with 15 games left in the
1996-97 season. Rambis, inexplicably, may even have his choice
of jobs; the Los Angeles Clippers, an even more woeful franchise
than the Bucks or the Kings, have also shown interest in him.
It's difficult to understand why someone with credentials as
modest as Rambis's could start the coaching carousel turning, but
it's even harder to fathom why Sacramento suddenly felt the need
to fire Jordan, since he is presumably no worse a coach than he
was when the season ended. The only thing that's clear is that if
Rambis winds up as a coach, he should learn from the fates of
Jordan and Ford and realize that the ax will surely fall on him
too someday, whether he deserves it or not.
Bobby Hull's Remarks
OPEN MOUTH, INSERT SKATE
No wonder Mother Russia is a mess: Someone in that
politico-economic loony bin actually cares about Hockey Hall of
Famer Bobby Hull's views on something other than the slap shot.
Last week in the Moscow Times, an English-language newspaper
that has been seeking celebrities' opinions on modern history,
Hull was quoted as saying that Hitler had some good ideas but
went too far. Hull strongly denied that he had made the remarks.
His story was backed up, for the most part, by a translator
present at the interview, who said Hull, a rancher for almost 40
years, framed his remarks about one of history's most notorious
butchers in the context of cattle breeding.
Just as absurd as the line of questioning--Next: Nate Newton on
Kosovo! Martina Hingis on Asian stock markets!--was Hull's
willingness to be lured into any chat land-mined with names like
Hitler and Stalin. This is a mug's game. Whenever Reggie White
plays sociologist before the Wisconsin legislature or Al
Campanis turns anthropologist on Nightline, it's a recipe for
disaster and possibly career suicide. They shouldn't, in the
current phrase, go there. And the media should not invite them to.
Raiders Coach Gruden
A MAN OF FEW WINKS
At 3 a.m., in a room at the Napa, Calif., Marriott that is his
training-camp bunker, first-year Oakland Raiders coach Jon
Gruden rises. Though he went to bed just 3 1/2 hours earlier, he
doesn't need an alarm. Never has. By 3:30, after a 15-minute
walk, he's watching tape of a preseason game. By 3:45 he's
writing the offensive script for the 8:45 a.m. practice.
While attending Dayton in the mid-1980s, the now 35-year-old
Gruden visited a hypnotist in hopes of finding a way to sleep
more than four hours a night. The hypnotist didn't help, nor
have the other insomnia gurus Gruden has consulted since. "The
last one," Gruden says just before 4, working the Copenhagen
between his lip and gum, "told me there are some people who just
don't need as much sleep as others. The bottom line is, I love
what I do, and I'm excited to get up every day."
Gruden has been warned about the toll that long hours can take
on a coach from no less an authority than Mr. Burnout, the Rams'
Dick Vermeil. "I told him, 'Don't let the game overwhelm you,'"
Vermeil says. Gruden says he understands. Yet, as he goes
through his predawn routine, it's clear that he views none of
this as work. "You know why these hours are good?" he says of
the time between his rising to his meeting with the assistants
at 6:30. "I get to think--really think--about how I'm going to
handle things. I don't have to rush."
Three times in 85 minutes, Gruden describes why the wee hours
are so important. This is his chance to be an NFL head coach, he
says. He'll be damned if he's going to leave one task undone, no
matter how menial. At 5:10, Gruden is still working on his
script when a bleary-eyed visitor gets up to leave. "Don't go
taking a nap now," says Gruden. "Day's just starting." --Peter
That a major leaguer make his daughter a batgirl, as Mark
McGwire and Shawon Dunston have made their sons batboys.
That Mike Mulligan had taken a few mulligans during his round of
82 at the Greater Vancouver Open.
That future Little League World Series telecasts keep the
cameras off those dejected kids who prove that, alas, there is
crying in baseball.
Dollars paid by Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga for a house in
Nantucket, $1.7 million less than the Florida payroll.
Age in years of Jamie Lynn Bence, who, after singing the national
anthem at Yankee Stadium, has sung at all 30 major league parks.
Percentage of NBA players afflicted with toenail fungus,
according to a survey by a pharmaceutical company.
African-American first base coaches in the major leagues.
African-American third base coaches in the major leagues.
Jars of Skippy peanut butter bearing the likeness of Yankees
shortstop Derek Jeter that will be distributed this year.
Dollars paid by former Nebraska running back Johnny Rogers to
reclaim his Heisman Trophy after it was confiscated by the
Douglas County, Neb., sheriff because of a debt judgment against
Members of the Boone family who have hit major league home runs,
after Reds third baseman Aaron hit his first, joining brother
Bret, father Bob and grandfather Ray.
WILL THE YANKEES WIN THE WORLD SERIES?
Say it: They're a team of destiny. How else to explain Scott
Brosius, a scrap-heap third baseman who hit .203 last season,
zeroing in on 100 RBIs? How else to explain Darryl Strawberry,
worn down and washed up, nearing 25 homers? Most amazing, how to
explain George Steinbrenner shutting up for an entire season?
New York has six top-quality starters, baseball's most lethal
closer and more depth than a James Joyce novel. Lose in the
playoffs? Fuhgeddaboudit. --Jeff Pearlman
No team wins it all anymore without strong middle relief, and
the Bombers' once-dominant bullpen is suddenly shakier than a
Steinbrenner promise to stay in the Bronx. And forget the
expansion-padded win total once September ends; through Sunday
the Bombers were a mousy 13-12 against potential playoff
opponents. History, in the form of the non-world-champion 1906
Cubs (116 wins) and '54 Indians (111), tells us it's hard to
stay sharp after a dreamy season. Good night, New York.
There's no doubt that the Dolphins' Dan Marino, who holds the
NFL career passing records for completions, yardage and
touchdowns, will stroll straight into Canton when he retires.
About the only significant record he doesn't own is for
quarterback rating--which may explain why Dapper Dan, despite
his other Hall of Fame numbers, will start his 16th season with
zero Super Bowl rings. The signal-callers with the 10 best
career quarterback ratings have fared far better in Super Bowls
and in NFL title games than the top 10s in the three Marino-led
categories. When it comes to titles, efficiency seems to be key.
Title Game Group's Title
Top 10 in... Winners Game Record
Completions 2 5-12
Yardage 3 8-14
Touchdowns 4 9-10
Quarterback 7 13-9
WELL-PAID WHIPPING BOYS
Eager to protect preseason rankings, college football's Top 25
teams just love to bring in a few patsies to pad their records
before taking on more challenging conference opponents. What's
in it for the blocking dummies? A hefty payday and a hope that
they'll live to fight another day. Here are some mismatchups to
savor during the next two weeks, the heart of the silly season.
Thrashing Losing Coach's
Game The Skinny Fee Pep Talk
Alabama- UAB is 10-12 since 1996, $450,000 "Buck up, boys.
Birmingham when it moved to Division I-A; They weren't a
at Nebraska Huskers are 24-2 since '96 unanimous No. 1
Northeast Indians averaged 18.8 $400,000 "It'll be good
Louisiana points against likes of practice for our
at Florida Nichols State, Arkansas other road games at
and Hawaii. Gators Kansas State and
defense allowed 18.1 Arizona."
against likes of Penn
Kent State Matchup between Golden $325,000 "So we gave up 44.5
at Flashes' receiver Eugene points a game last
Georgia Baker and interception- year. Let's
happy Dawgs spoiled by concentrate
Kent's iffy offensive on offense."
Arkansas Last season 2-9 Indians $250,000 "Just because ol'
State held only two opponents Kevin Faulk rushed
at LSU to less than 30 points. for more yards than
Tigers averaged 31.5 our entire offense
last year doesn't
mean we can't tackle
him now and then."
Northern Huskies, 0 for 11 in 1997, $150,000 "Next year we'll
Illinois fulfilling final year of make real money!"
at Kansas six-year contract signed
State before Wildcats got good.
Lost last two games to
Kansas State by total of
THIS WEEK'S SIGN THAT THE APOCALYPSE IS UPON US
The girls' volleyball coach at Channelview (Texas) High locked
eight of her players in a six-by-eight-foot equipment cage for
about 50 minutes because they disobeyed her order to study in
the locker room.
While virtually every tennis tournament has an up-to-the-second
site, there's little on the Net about the players' lives away
from the net. Check out live scoring at the U.S. Open
(www.usopen.org), but try these pages for off-court dope on your
Pete's place has a Pistol Pete video game and a photo gallery
that includes pics ranging from the Sampras family Grand Canyon
vacation circa '84 to the ubiquitous furry-belly action shot.
Though this page dubs the Swiss Miss the Princess of the WTA, it
is the least fawning of the Hingis fan pages. Must sees: photos
of her houses in Switzerland and of her rumored beau, No.
60-ranked Julian Alonso of Spain.
www.geocities.com/colosseum/field/1204 What do you learn from
the Pat Rafter fan club home page? That the '97 Open champ
(above) is a chocoholic with eight siblings, that he loves the
Broncos--the Brisbane Broncos rugby team, that is--and that he
looks darned good topless.
sites we'd like to see
Computer images of David Bowie pumped up on Big Mac's
Real time video of the dormitory hazing gantlet run by New
Cincinnati Reds manager, when asked during a discussion of the
language barrier faced by visiting teams playing in Montreal if
he spoke French: "Si."