Two tight baseball playoff races make for a terrific stretch drive
Every baseball season yields its own pearls, no two exactly
alike. So it is that this year, though not as spectacular as the
last, bears a luminosity not seen even in 1998, the mother of
pearls. Behold the old-fashioned playoff race, in which 90 wins
isn't good enough.
To find the kind of epic struggle being waged by the Braves,
Mets, Astros and Reds in the National League--and to a lesser
extent the Red Sox and A's in the American--you'd have to go
back to the pre-wild card era, when baseball didn't give out
consolation prizes. The Giants closed the '93 season on a 14-3
tear, won 103 games and went home. Atlanta had won 104,
prompting Braves third baseman Terry Pendleton to say, "It'll
never be as good as this again."
But this September has been about as good as it gets. The level
of play has been so high that the worst record since Aug. 1
among the four National League and two American League clubs
hanging on by their fingernails belonged to Houston--and through
Sunday the Astros were playing .600 ball over that span.
September 26, 1999
No team has won 90 games without making the playoffs since the
wild-card era began in '95. This year three teams with 90 wins
might go home early. In the National League East, Atlanta
couldn't shake New York even with a 21-7 August. The Mets have
been tougher than cowhide--from June 6 through Sunday they were
24-6 after losses. The Reds, the only contenders who haven't
lost more than three in a row all year, have clung to the
Central-leading Astros like bad body odor despite a 12-game
Houston winning streak this month.
The A's? They endured four four-game losing streaks before the
All-Star break, but a 39-22 run through Sunday has kept them in
the wild-card fight with the Red Sox, who were on a 20-5
finishing kick at week's end.
Yes, the taste of bittersweet is back in baseball--a flavor San
Francisco knows best. From '64 to '67 the Giants tied a record
with four straight 90-win years in which they didn't make the
postseason. Only the '42 Dodgers won more games without
advancing than the '93 Giants, whose manager, Dusty Baker,
eulogized that season with this gem: "You ever lose a
girlfriend? Every song reminds you of her."
Another memorable breakup awaits. --Tom Verducci
LSU PURSE SNATCHING
Sticky fingers and fast feet made LSU senior flanker and
co-captain Larry Foster a football star. Now those qualities
might land him in jail. Foster was arrested last week for purse
snatching after four other LSU students chased him into a
According to university cops, Foster swiped a purse from a
female student at about 10:30 a.m. on Sept. 13 as she sat on the
steps of Hines Hall on the campus's main quadrangle. Two
bystanders pursued him about half a mile to the Music & Dramatic
Arts Building, where two more students joined the chase. Foster
ducked into a men's room. When he emerged and the posse
confronted him, Foster identified himself, showing his driver's
license to one of the students, and walked away.
One witness found the purse--minus about $20--in the bathroom.
University police charged Foster with felony purse snatching,
which in Louisiana carries a mandatory minimum jail sentence of
two years. He did not play in last Saturday's 41-7 loss to Auburn.
A three-year starter and the Tigers' fourth-leading career
receiver, Foster has NFL talent. Married with two small
children, he seemed to have big league maturity, too. His
teammates made him one of their four captains, and coach Gerry
DiNardo tabbed Foster to represent LSU at SEC media day. The
arrest shocked DiNardo. "I'm very close to Larry," he said. "As
a football team we are moving on, but as a family we're
concerned about him."
Some Tigers players said they had noticed changes in Foster
lately. His wife, LaToya, was out of work until recently, and
after last week's incident police discovered two outstanding
warrants for Foster's arrest. (He allegedly wrote bad checks for
a combined $414.27 two years ago.) Foster's lawyer Steven Moore
says his client is eager to tell his side of the story but won't
yet comment publicly.
LSU police are hailing the students who dared to chase down a
star wide receiver at a big-time football school. "They
basically made the case," says Capt. Ricky Moore. Foster's
teammates are left wondering about their captain's apparent
misstep in the quad. Says defensive end Jarvis Green, "I just
wish I could take those three seconds away from Larry."
Writer Herbert Warren Wind used to call the Ryder Cup a "golfing
get-together." Not anymore. For more than a decade these matches
have been more like multimillion-dollar holy wars. No wonder
some of the players want to get paid.
The Ryder Cup has become the biggest event in the sport, even
more important and exciting than the Masters. There's a simple
reason: Professional golf is a largely selfish pursuit, but at
the Ryder Cup a man plays for his team, his tour, his country.
He actually has to think about somebody else for a change. And
pride, it turns out, can be a wretched thing to play for. It
bares souls. It brings out the worst in men. It also makes for
Most of the players get it--and get into it. In the homes of
true zealots like Tom Lehman, children are taught essential
history. It goes something like this: "The Ryder Cup is a
biennial competition between American and European touring golf
professionals. Because of the widespread availability of
pasteurized milk in the U.S., the American team dominated the
competition for decades. Since 1985, due to an improbable run of
luck, the European team has won four times and tied once, while
the Americans have triumphed only twice."
This week the three-day event comes to a place simply and
grandly called the Country Club, in the leafy Boston suburb of
Brookline, and the U.S. team is being deservedly exalted.
Leading off for the Americans is the incomparable Tiger Woods,
the No. 1 player in the world. Among his 11 teammates are David
Duval (No. 2), Davis Love (4), Payne Stewart (8), Mark O'Meara
(11) and Justin Leonard (12). The European team includes Jean
Van de Velde, the swinging Frenchman, his Irish buddy Padraig
Harrington and a couple of Swedes with names you can only wish
were approved Scrabble words. No wonder London oddsmakers have
made the Americans 3-1 favorites.
But the rankings get spat out each Monday by a computer, while
the Ryder Cup competitors are men with brains, lungs, stomachs,
nervous systems, dry mouths, wet palms. In the weekly 72-hole
stroke-play tournaments that decide the rankings, each player
tries to kill par--first to 20-under wins. But Ryder Cup
competition is a series of 18-hole match-play affairs, and in a
mere 18 holes anything can happen. The better player doesn't
always win. Neither does the better team. Ask any American who
played on the last two Ryder Cup teams and he'll tell you the
Euros can win this week. --Michael Bamberger
Once upon a time the National League looked so disdainfully upon
the American League that the N.L.-champ New York Giants refused
to play the 1904 World Series. There was a time when American
League people spoke angrily of a National League superiority
complex; a time when the All-Star Game was a gauge for which
league had the better talent; and a time when the leagues had
different pitching styles and different strike zones.
Even today the two leagues have a few differences over rules,
notably the designated hitter, but otherwise the
American-National schism is all but over. It ended last week in
Cooperstown, N.Y., where major league owners voted 30-0 to
eliminate the positions of National and American League
presidents. The brick and mortar at the Hall of Fame withstood
the decision. "It's something that should have been done years
ago," said commissioner Bud Selig, who calls separate but equal
leagues "an anachronism."
It took a whole century--O.K., just the past six years--to
complete the homogenization of the leagues. American League
president Gene Budig, who accepted a golden-parachute position
in the commissioner's office, and National League president
Leonard Coleman, who quit rather than be stripped of his
authority, were thrown overboard in baseball's quest to imitate
the NBA and NFL. Whoever heard of an AFC president?
In voting to eliminate the league presidencies, major league
owners continued the trend toward centralizing authority in the
commissioner's office. Selig and his top lieutenants, Sandy
Alderson and Paul Beeston, will oversee scheduling, umpiring and
player discipline--matters formerly handled by the leagues.
Umpires might soon be assigned to games in either league, and
Selig's signature presumably will grace balls in both leagues.
Most fans won't notice the difference.
Nostalgia aside, Selig made the right move. Even club executives
Bill Giles of the Phillies and Andy MacPhail of the Cubs--sons
of former league presidents--congratulated him in Cooperstown.
But it's the right move only because owners have spent a decade
emasculating the leagues through interleague play, realignment,
rotisserie-style player movement and expansion.
Baseball will wisely continue to keep league records while
working on a schedule for 2001 that will revitalize
intradivisional rivalries. But this one-big-happy-world movement
makes it all the more asinine for the leagues to play by
different rules. (Flash: AFC to play 12 on 12!) Selig's work
won't be done until he gets owners and players to agree to dump
the DH, an experiment begun in 1973 because--get this--baseball
needed more offense. What could be more anachronistic?
RUSSIA'S POOR OLYMPIANS
Bear Market for Precious Metals
Some of Russia's best athletes have gotten a hard lesson in hard
currency. Before the 1998 Nagano Winter Games the Russian
Olympic Committee promised bonuses to athletes and coaches who
brought home medals: $50,000 for a gold medal, $30,000 for a
silver, $20,000 for a bronze. After Russians won nine golds, six
silvers and three bronzes, the committee put more than a million
dollars into accounts for the medalists and coaches at the
Russian Bank for Reconstruction and Development (RBRD).
Most of them quickly withdrew their cash in dollars, which
proved to be a wise move when Russia's banking system collapsed
last year. The ruble, which had been trading at six to the
dollar, plunged to 20 to 1. (It's now at more than 25 to 1.)
Then, last fall, the RBRD announced that $2.2 million of the
Olympic committee's money had been mistakenly sent to the State
Bank for Foreign Trade. Nine Olympians were out in the cold as
the two banks spent the last year wrangling over the money.
Last month a judge ordered the state bank to pay up. But for
many athletes and coaches, the damage was done. Zinetulla
Biyaletdinov, an assistant coach of the men's silver-medal
hockey team and the last Olympian to cash in his bonus, got the
equivalent of about $7,200--less than a fourth of what he'd been
promised. Biyaletdinov vows never again to entrust his money to
the Russian banking system. "I will keep it in a banka instead,"
he says with a smile. Banka is Russian for "glass jar."
TWO SCHOOLS, ONE COACH
Minnesota Twin Bill
When the ski teams of tiny liberal arts colleges Carleton and
St. Olaf meet this winter, the losers won't be able to say, "We
got outcoached." Two weeks ago the schools, whose campuses are
less than a mile apart in Northfield, Minn., hired Mike
Nightingale to coach their Nordic ski teams. As far as the NCAA
can determine, it's the first time that one coach has guided two
teams in the same league.
By coaching at the two Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic
Conference schools, the 31-year-old Nightingale--a St. Olaf alum
who has worked as an instructor at the U.S. Olympic Training
Center in Marquette, Mich.--will be able to combine two
part-time salaries into one paycheck. By sharing Nightingale,
Carleton and St. Olaf get a coach with better qualifications
than either could otherwise afford. Nightingale will have an
office at each school that will be linked electronically to his
home in St. Paul. "Logistically it made sense," says
Nightingale. "The two teams have always practiced together
informally. I saw the Carleton team on a daily basis when I was
skiing at St. Olaf."
Recruiting could get tricky, though Nightingale thinks it will
be easy to decide which college fits a prospective skier. "The
schools couldn't be more different," he says. "Carleton is
liberal, and St. Olaf is more conservative. They draw different
students." Both, however, are accomplished in Nordic skiing.
Carleton won the 1999 U.S. Collegiate Snowsport Association
men's title last March, and St. Olaf finished 22nd in the most
recent NCAA championships.
Nightingale's biggest worry may be sartorial. He has no idea how
he'll incorporate both the gold and black of St. Olaf and the
maize and blue of Carleton into his game-day duds. "I'm going to
need a very special outfit," he says.
Whose Central is it, anyway? The Packers and Vikings are both
1-1 going into Sunday's showdown. The man from Cajun country had
20 comple-shauns and an intercep-shaun last week, and now
sore-thumbed Brett Favre needs a win at Lambeau to keep his
September from being flambeau'd. These are two troubled teams,
but it says here Green Bay is better by Favre.
Inmates in Puerto Rican prisons who watched the De La
Hoya-Trinidad fight as a reward for good behavior.
Weight in pounds of a blue catfish that disabled Vietnam vet
Bruce Midkiff pulled out of the Ohio River.
Pitches by Randy Johnson through Sunday--11% more than any other
major league pitcher this year.
Electronic vests that Nike will design for rare Jamaican iguanas
to help researchers track the animals.
Age of Devil Rays rookie Jimmy Morris, the science teacher who
made his big league debut last week.
Former WBO heavy-weight champ Tommy Morrison. On Sept. 10 the
Rocky V costar, who stopped fighting in 1996 after contracting
HIV, told a judge, "You won't be seeing me again," after he got
a suspended sentence for drunk driving. Six days later he was
pulled over in Fayetteville, Ark., and charged with cocaine,
marijuana and gun possession.
The sale of controlling interest in the Reds, for $67 million,
by Marge Schott to financier Carl Lindner and two partners.
Ripped for running a backward organization, stripped of power
for running her mouth, the reported owner of that Nazi armband
still wants to preside over the Reds' Opening Day parade.
Steffi Graf consorting with French and U.S. Open champ Andre
Agassi. Seen ringside at De La Hoya-Trinidad, the trophy couple
had 27 Grand Slam titles and not much else between them.
Eight California condors, more than one fourth of the state's
wild population, tearing up the Pine Mountain Club, Calif.,
bedroom of former Sierra Club director Les Reid--they got in
through a torn screen door.
Michael Jordan took his first serious step toward a pro golf
career last week, entering the $150,000 Chicago Open as an
amateur. "Today I found out I was out of my league," announced
His Airness after shooting 84 in the first round. Here's how
Jordan's latest coming-out party stacked up against his other
Basketball Baseball Golf
Debut Bulls vs. Birmingham at Chicago Open,
Washington, Chattanooga, Beverly County Club
Oct. 26, 1984 April 8, 1994 Sept. 15-16, 1999
Credentials Two-time Named youth Plenty of celeb golf
All-America at league Mr. Baseball experience; also
North Carolina, by North Carolina lost a reported
NBA's third Dixie Association $57,000 gambling
pick in '84 in 1975 on the links
Crowd 13,913 10,359 About 100
Ooh Had 16 points, Made strong throw Parred the
six rebounds from rightfield 1st hole
Boo Shot 5 for 16 Whiffed twice and Had a 90-yard
from the field went 0 for 3 drive on number 17
Best Drive Back-to-back The $350,000 A 200-yarder
acrobatic customized bus he on number 5
layups bought for the team
Unkind Cut Chopped down Any of his swings Shot 84-81 and
trying to dunk missed it
on Jeff Ruland
This Week's Sign That the Apocalypse Is Upon Us
Judges for the United Nations Correspondents Association's
political cartoon award include Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie
Wiesel, Crown Prince Alexander of Yugoslavia, seven U.N.
ambassadors and Yankees pitcher David Cone.
No team has won 90 without making the playoffs since '95, but
this year three teams might do it.
They Said It
WILLIAM PRINCE DAVIS
Murderer, just before his Sept. 14 execution in Huntsville,
Texas: "I'd like to say in closing, What about those Cowboys!"