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1998: The Year in Sports 

Thomas Crone
Rather than try to tie all these loose ends into a tidy package, I'll just go with an overarching theme -- underdogs are good -- and go at it in piecemeal fashion.

Neat feat: The best sporting moment, and certainly the most dramatic, that I saw in 1998 occurred at the St. Louis Marathon. I walked the event (a strange practice in patience, for sure!) and saw the leading runner packs begin to pass the walkers on the "riverfront mile" near the Arch. Just at the south end of the Jefferson Expansion Memorial, train tracks cut along a street. And, unfortunately, that morning saw a train moving on it, too. Instead of pausing, several runners jumped onto the suddenly-stopping train and jumped through. One was caught as the engine began rumbling backward, the cars lurching at the change in direction. Those of us taking a more cautious approach were rattled by that image and thought about it for miles. Impressed with the effort, yes. Mystified, too? Yes. More than anything, struck by the sporting spirit of that all-out assault on the clock. Crazy, no doubt, and admirable as well.

No charge, really: It takes a real (odd) fan to actually draw fantasy teams for the new International Basketball League franchise, coming soon to St. Charles County. Select five from among these possible guards: H Waldman (UNLV/St. Louis University), Erwin Claggett (SLU), Kiwane Garris (Illinois), Richard Keene (Illinois), Julian Winfield (SLU/Mizzou), Tyus Edney (UCLA), Anthony Pieper (Marquette). Select five from these forwards: Fred Hoiberg (Iowa), Lou Roe (UMass), Anthony Bonner (SLU), Bobby Brannen (Cincinnati), Derek Grimm (Mizzou), Jerry Gee (Illinois). At center, maybe: Faisal Abraham (Marquette), plus your foreigner spot. Toss in current college options such as Ryan Robertson (Kansas), Rodney Buford (Creighton), Leroy Watkins (Illinois State), Danny Moore (Southwest Missouri) and Monte Hardge and John Woods (Mizzou). Can't wait for the IBL! Too bad it's in St. Charles! Yes!

Major pain: Continued news on the soccer front suggests, well, little to get truly excited about. A lower-level, short-season United Systems of Indoor Soccer Leagues team has been organized for next summer, a good sign in the development end of things, with college-aged players to be stressed. And the indoor Premier Soccer Alliance has announced that it's coming to the Family Arena in St. Charles, though the overall health of the Ambush doesn't suggest that the region's crying out for a second wall-ball team. For the consumer, it simply appears that the necessary ingredients aren't matching up here -- high dollars, a cagey approach to expansion of the Billiken Sports Center by SLU, inconsistent fan demand and a still-undetermined idea of whether an A-League team is workable in light of the absence of Major League Soccer. Maybe next year.

Holiday cheer: Plenty of people have been plenty nice over the past year to our, um "sports department," even as this section was reduced. (Not a complaint. Everything's just fine. Couldn't be better.)

Kudos to the sports-information department at St. Louis University. After calling other regional colleges for information, you realize how quickly and efficiently the SLU group works. Thank you.... And to Margo Garvin, who's put on several quality women's-basketball events in the last months. Her new Keep Hoop Alive publication is also the best yet, a thick guide to prep and college hoops. Call 727-5599 for that.... Nice guy Radford Beasley Jr. continues to climb the featherweight-boxing ranks, winning a couple of minor world titles, now solidifying his hold in the World Boxing Council Top 10, with a North American Boxing Federation title try. A nice guy in a business that could use more of them.... Gateway Athletics and the St. Louis Track Club continue to do a lot with a little, organizing local running series that really capture the spirit of amateur, yet competitive, athletics.... And let's hear it for Mike Rainey and Rick Wallace, the nicest guys at KFNS (590 AM)!

Holiday jeer: Though it's great to see all the new, affordable sports options coming into town, it's too bad that they continue to drift westward. As fellow columnist Thomas R. Raber pointed out earlier this year, the minor-league baseball Rascals, for example, are building a brand-new stadium while trying to give it an "authentic" feel, even though Lemay's Heine Meine offers exactly that.... These new franchises are also beginning to look like a glut. New baseball, basketball, soccer and hockey teams with midsized prices are all coming in the next 8-15 months. Some of these organizations will feel a quick pinch.... And would somebody please develop the old Southtown Famous-Barr lot on Kingshighway? It would make a lovely, I dunno, soccer stadium in the heart of the city.... Sports -- you're supposed to dream, right?n

Catherine Case was right. At the close of 1997, the founder of the area's first women's senior ice-hockey club told The Riverfront Times: "Women's hockey is getting ready to explode."

By the end of February, the U.S. women's hockey team had won the gold medal at the 1998 Olympic Games in Nagano. In March, Case's St. Louis Force wound up its inaugural season with a 14-2-3 record and a berth in the USA Hockey regional playoffs at Madison, Wis., where they were eliminated by the Illinois Storm.

Now, Case says, "I have people calling me up all the time saying, 'I used to be a figure skater. Do you think I could play hockey?'"

The explosion of women in hockey has worsened a snag in scheduling at area ice rinks. So few rinks, only so many hours, and so many people wanting time on the ice. Even the Force is forced to practice at odd hours and to routinely play games at 11 o'clock Saturday nights.

"People want to see women's hockey grow, but that means another resource wanting ice time," Case says. "So they have to move over. And then they aren't so excited about it."

Yet some of those excited about women's hockey need to chill out. Along with the joy of the U.S. Olympic team's victory, came shrill editorials claiming too much for an imaginary sports elixir and what it can do for women. On Feb. 10, the Post-Dispatch declared that the Olympic hockey team "should be watched by a new generation of girls who'll ask for hockey skates -- not tutus -- for their birthdays."

Well, now. What's wrong with tutus, if that's what you want? And what's wrong with choosing to steer clear of sports entirely, if you prefer? Do we want young women to lose their options as we try to bestow them? Let's hope women's sports grow in '99 and beyond. And beyond mimicking the model of men's sports. There are other options.

Are the logos for Konica and BJC Health System embedded in your mind? Both were on billboards over the left-field wall at Busch Stadium last summer. Think how many people worldwide saw those trademarks over and over and over in video highlights as Mark McGwire's 62nd home run, and many others, flew over the boards. Konica and BJC couldn't have dreamed of that exposure -- which will last in perpetuity on video -- when they purchased those spaces.

Yet incidental advertising isn't everything. Think how many times you've seen the Beatles deplane in black-and-white at New York in 1964. Every time you see the clip, you see them emerge from a Pan American Airlines jet. But did it do Pan Am any good? They went out of business in 1991.

The pressure on McGwire was enormous as he pursued and then broke Roger Maris' single-season home-run record. But the storied nonstop pressure of the media may have been exaggerated. Major-league clubhouses must be cleared of all press 45 minutes before each game. Yes, McGwire's personal life was encroached upon. But for a professional athlete, 45 minutes should be plenty of time to compose yourself, collect your concentration and play to your potential. And McGwire did that superbly last summer. Let us not say he was denied a chance to prepare himself before each game.

Despite his muscles, some women say that, aesthetically speaking, McGwire has no shoulders. Makes you want to look up "picayune" in the dictionary. Still, it ought to remain OK to say negatives about him. On the occasions that McGwire played poorly last summer, the response of many was an ironic "Trade him. He's a bum." Those quips seem snappy, but they close off honest discussion of his ability.

Also last summer, the Cardinals unveiled a bust of broadcaster Jack Buck, which was planted outside Busch Stadium on the Stadium Plaza side. Buck's signature phrases are many: "He wouldn't walk the pitcher, would he?" and "Where was that pitch?" But my favorite is what he says when a batter drops a surprise bunt that rolls foul: "That was a good idea that didn't work." Such quiet wisdom is what got Buck honored. It was also Buck who taught St. Louisans to say "enning" for inning.

Jackie Joyner-Kersee's farewell track-and-field performance in July at SIUE was one of the warm breezes of the summer. More than 9,000 attended an event that was expected to draw about 6,000 faithful. They saw Joyner-Kersee finish fifth in the long jump, then charm the crowd with hugs and waves and leisurely laps around the track, trailed by young girl athletes.

And over in Madison, Ill., at Gateway International Raceway, they filled the cracks in a track that fell apart during 100-degree heat in July 1997 in time for the facility's first NASCAR Busch Grand National race. Among this year's successes was the Ram Tough 200 in September, which was a stop on the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series tour. St. Louisan Mike Wallace, brother of Winston Cup drivers Kenny and Rusty Wallace, finished eighth at the event and went on to finish 13th in points for the season. Those who attended the Ram Tough 200 will remember the dense pattern of pickup trucks that graced the acres of spectator parking. There's no doubt -- truck-racing fans are also truck owners.

The Rams, to be sure, continue to stink. But sports-talk radio is much more entertaining when they lose. And when they lose, the callers are suspiciously more forgiving when the team beats the point spread. Missouri voters banned cockfights this year, but one still goes on every Sunday morning between KFNS/Riverfront Times personality Howard Balzer and a caller named Lee.

Let's applaud linebacker Michael A. Jones of the Rams, who in October made himself part of the St. Louis County Family Court Mentor Program for troubled youth. Jones was the first sports figure ever to get involved.

I don't hate Tony Banks. I just don't think he'll find his game in St. Louis. It's the old Andy Van Slyke syndrome: The potentially great Cardinal outfielder of the '80s didn't prosper until he went to Pittsburgh.

For televised-sports viewers, one of the nightmares of the year was the commercial for the Isuzu Amigo. The spot, which featured a gummy jingle based on the old Slinky toy ad, made its debut on the Super Bowl and continued to run through the NCAA basketball finals. Isuzu claims the Amigo's sales are up. If so, ads that irritate surely are the most effective.

And who can forget the sweet couple in the Schnucks grocery spots, shown during Cardinal games last summer? In one ad, the playful man reaches across the woman's lap, stealing food from her plate. Stop, she warns, or "you'll be out at home." My thinking is either filthy or foolish, but I think that's an odd lot of innuendo to be served up by the "friendliest stores in town." Were they aware of the drift?

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