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‘94 WAS A WILD, WACKY YEAR IN SPORTS

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Good morning, class, if you'll all be seated we can get started with today's history lesson. Uh, Jason, it's not nice to hit Suzy with your Power Rangers lunchbox. Turn around in your seat. Thank you. Today, we're going to talk about 1994. Of course this was before you kids were even born, but it affected an important part of today's society.

Nineteen ninety-four was the year the sports world cracked up. It was the year sports was sent to the emergency room in critical condition. Things happened that year that nobody ever could have imagined. It was a long time ago, but 1994 changed sports forever in many ways.Anyone know some of the things that happened that year? Anyone?

Anyone?

Well, here goes. It was the year of labor strikes. It was the year that history's greatest basketball player played baseball instead. It was the year a 45-year-old fat man won the heavyweight boxing title. It was the year a famous former football player was charged with murder and was chased by the LAPD on the evening news.

It was the year a soccer player was murdered for losing the World Cup. It was the year a thug whacked an ice skater on the knee to keep her out of the Olympics. It was the year they canceled the World Series.

It was the year they gave sportsmanship the last rites. It was the year no one could tell the difference between the sports world and the afternoon soap operas. It was the year that a cliche died: It WASN'T just a game anymore.

It was, well, let me tell you about 1994. You won't believe it, but these things really happened. Honest.

LABOR

It was definitely the year of labor unrest. If Jimmy Hoffa had been around, he would have been the baseball commissioner. In 1994 there was only one professional baseball league, which of course gave it a monopoly on the game. Today there are three of them in the U.S. alone, not to mention dozens of others around the world, and all because of what happened in '94.

That year, the players went on strike and shut down the World Series. At the time, Tony Gwynn was threatening to break the .400 mark and Frank Thomas and Albert Belle were chasing triple crowns and Ken Griffey and Matt Williams were making a run at Roger Maris' home-run record. Of course, after Michael Jordan hit 65 homers, batted .440 and won the triple crown a few years later, those feats were not nearly so revered as they used to be.

Meanwhile, hockey went on strike, too, but no one noticed. The NBA barely averted a walkout by the players. Even a skier got in on the labor revolt. Jeremy Nobis held his own brief strike against the U.S. ski team. It was that kind of year.

CRIME

Some very strange things happened in 1994 that were so bizarre and terrible and incidentally illegal that they seemed like a weird dream or an absurd Hollywood plot.

The year began, appropriately, with violence and scandal. The husband of ice skater Tonya Harding, Jeff Gillooly, and two other men, plotted and carried out a plan to club the right knee of her rival, Nancy Kerrigan, to keep her out of the Olympics and clear the way for Harding to win the gold. As it turned out, they probably should have used a Zamboni to clear the way for Harding. Seven skaters finished ahead of her in the Olympics, including Kerrigan.

Anyway, it turned out to be the best thing for everybody except the three bad guys, Huey, Duey and Gillooly, who went to jail. The Winter Olympics got bigtime attention because of it, and Kerrigan made millions of dollars as a sympathetic figure. Harding, as you know, became a famous pro wrestler and video star.

Things just got worse from there. Ten days after Colombia's Andres Escobar accidentally scored a goal during a 2-1 loss to the U.S. in the World Cup, he was shot to death in Colombia for his mistake. His assailants shot him six times. With each shot they shouted "Goal!" and, "Thanks for the own-goal."

Later, a former football player star named O.J. Simpson was charged with murdering his wife, and then things got surreal. He gave police a dramatic, low-speed chase on the L.A. freeways while TV cameras showed it live on TV and people cheered from the side of the road. It was the kind of stuff that tabloids and Connie Chung lapped up with spoons.

It wasn't long before somebody came out with trading cards showing O.J. in his Bronco on the lam and being arrested. Distributors claimed they sold thousands of their "In Pursuit of Justice" cards. The 10-card set, for a cost of $10, included mug shots of Simpson and friend Al Cowlings. They planned to issue a set of 50 cards that would include a picture of the blood-splattered walkway where the slayings occurred.

"They weren't made in bad taste even though the whole subject is," said Lowell Katz, a sports card dealer, at the time.

I told you that you wouldn't believe it.

FEUDS

It was a year for bad attitudes and worse manners. It was as if for one year everybody got up on the wrong side of the bed.

A young pro golfer named John Daly got into a fight with a fan in a parking lot following a round of golf and was left with injuries that forced him to withdraw from the tournament. The man he duked it out with was 62 years old.

Marge Schott, the Cincinnati Reds owner, made wisecracks about homosexuals and minorities and called men who wear earrings "fruits." And she insisted on smoking in the stadium even though it was against the law. Politically correct she wasn't. She later married a grouch named Buddy Ryan, an NFL coach who reminded a lot of people of Sgt. Carter on the Gomer Pyle reruns only he was ruder.

After winning the previous two Super Bowls together, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and his coach, Jimmy Johnson, decided they couldn't stand anymore success. They traded insults in a massive war of egos and got a divorce.

Larry Miller, owner of the Utah Jazz, went on a rage during halftime of a playoff game against Denver. He shouted at his coach to bench Karl Malone and got in a scuffle with a big-mouth fan. The story was given the kind of media attention normally reserved for really important stories, such as Michael Jackson weddings. Miller's apology was televised live in Denver and Salt Lake City, interrupting regularly scheduled afternoon programs.

Dennis Rodman, San Antonio's tattooed, colorful-'do'd forward, didn't get along with anyone, except Madonna. After being suspended for a playoff game against the Jazz for kneeing John Stockton and undercutting Tom Chambers, he limo'd around town with Madonna. Today Rodman and Madonna are a Vegas act.

Basketball coaches had a contentious year, even by their poor standards. Temple coach John Chaney threatened to kill another coach during a press conference. Arizona coach Lute Olsen and Cal coach Todd Bozeman were among several pairs of opposing coaches who talked trash to each other during games.

Arkansas' angry coach, Nolan Richardson, turned the Final Four into a private gripe session on racism, most of which was the result of his own paranoia. It made it difficult for fans to cheer for him, but a former Arkansas governor named Bill Clinton was on the Razorbacks' side. They won anyway.

It was eventually decided that basketball coaches would be kicked out of the arena if they left the bench or opened their mouths, and the games have been a lot more peaceful since then.

TRENDS

The big Four-Oh was in in '94. Ireland's Eamonn Coghlan became the first man over 40 to run a sub four-minute mile - ironically, 40 years after Roger Bannister produced history's first sub-four clocking. George Foreman, fat and 45, won the heavyweight championship with a big right-hand punch, giving hope to couch potatoes everywhere. Foreman's championship forced boxers to rethink their diets. Today's fighters eat Big Macs and Cheetos.

Sports Illustrated, the world's most self-absorbed magazine, turned 40 and then told us about it every week. SI, the same magazine that keeps a running total on how many times each athlete has had the incredible honor of appearing on its cover, reprinted old stories, picked its top 40 athletes and wrote stories about itself.

Two-sport pro athletes were still in. Michael Jordan, the world's greatest hoops star, became the world's most famous .200 hitter and strikeout artist. Whoosh! . . . nothin' but air.

Steroids and performance-enhancing drugs were hot items again in '94. Tests revealed that British runner Diane Modahl had four times as much male hormone in her system as Ben Johnson did when he was kicked out of the '88 Olympics.

"Officials became suspicious when Modahl wouldn't ask for directions when she was lost and would never call back dates when she promised she would," wrote Michael Ventre of the L.A. Daily News.

Many observers suspected drugs after watching the Chinese suddenly dominate track and swimming competitions. Their suspicions were confirmed when 11 Chinese athletes tested positive for drugs at the Asian Games, which was a record for positive tests by athletes from the same country at any major competition. The Chinese response was predictable: Drug problem? What drug problem? We eat worms.

Not long afterward, sports threw in the towel. They took the Jocelyn Elders approach and legalized drugs. Now there is the Steroid Olympics (where women's facial hair first became a fad) and the Clean Olympics.

TV sports took a turn for the worse in '94 when they invented The Golf Channel. Imagine, golf around the clock. Anyway, that was the beginning. Today we have The Chess and Checkers Channel. The Bowling Channel. The Ping Pong Channel. And so on. Today prison officials use The Golf Channel as a form of punishment by forcing problem inmates to watch it for hours at a time while strapped to a gurney. Back to your cells, or it's . . . The Golf Channel!

NFL owners spent millions of dollars on big-name quarterbacks such as Scott Mitchell, Erik Kramer and Heath Shuler in '94, but they were all outplayed by backups who were purchased off the discount rack. By then, even the broadcasters were getting million-dollar contracts.

Race car drivers crashed and died at an alarming rate in '94, which eventually forced Congress to create legislation that limited racing to soap box cars.

As you can see, class, 1994 was a really weird year. Nothing like it has ever happened again. And aren't we all glad about that.