McGwire tops special 10 (The Province)


’98: Fascinating Year

McGwire tops special 10

The Province, January 3, 1999

It was a strange and wonderful year in sports, from the ridiculous – Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of both the Los Angeles Dodgers and Kevin Brown – to the sublime – Mark McGwire’s record-breaking season. Here’s our list of, if not the 10 most fascinating then at least 10 fascinating athletes of 1998.

1. Mark McGwire: It really was his year. He was on People magazine’s 25 Most Intriguing People list; was the NL Player of the Year; and was a candidate for Time magazine’s Man of the Year.

The St. Louis slugger shattered Roger Maris’s “unbreakable” record of 61 homers in a season by slamming 70. There was controversy when it was discovered McGwire took androstenedione, an over-the-counter supplement that produces testosterone, but since the drug isn’t banned by major league baseball, his mark isn’t tainted.

McGwire, paid princely amounts, also turns out to be a prince off the field. He recently donated $175,000 US each to four charities helping abused kids.

And who’ll forget his perfect fielding percentage in the World Series? St. Louis wasn’t in the Series, but McGwire, sitting in a front-row box seat, reached over and one-handed a foul ball to the delight of the fans.

2. Doug Flutie: He’s not Canadian, but we still feel proud that our little Doug has proven he belongs in the NFL.

After leading the Toronto Argonauts to two straight Grey Cup wins, the 5-foot-10, 175-pounder signed a two-year, incentive-laden deal with the 6-10 Buffalo Bills.

Beginning as Rob Johnson’s backup, Flutie, 35, took little time to establish himself as the No. 1 man. The scrambling and improvisation CFL fans have grown to love ­– or hate – for eight seasons proved to be just as effective in the NFL.

With Flutie starting, the Bills finished 10-6 and faced Miami Saturday in the AFC East wild-card game. All this from the little miracle-maker who was released by New England in 1989 after four unspectacular seasons with the Patriots and the Bears.

His initiation back into the men’s club is complete with his selection to the Pro Bowl behind AFC starter John Elway.

3. Ross Rebagliati: His 15 minutes of fame are almost up, but boy, what a ride.

Who would have thought a snowboarder from Whistler would have become the poster boy for Roots, released his own CD, partied with Dan Aykroyd and Mark Wahlberg, gotten offers from film-makers and been a guest on The Tonight Show?

And all because of a little misunderstanding with the IOC. Rebagliati won the first-ever Olympic gold for snowboarding. It was taken away when marijuana was found in his system. Pleading second-hand smoke, Rebagliati’s medal was returned.

Canadian speedskater Catriona LeMay Doan said: “It makes me kind of cringe that our society supports that situation as hero. You see his face everywhere….”

In what’s been dubbed the Rebagliati Rule, the IOC has added marijuana and other “social drugs” to the list of banned substances, even though they’re not performance-enhancers.

4. Ronaldo: Hours before Brazil’s World Cup final against France, its star is in hospital and scratched from the lineup – and then put back in.

He plays like he’s in a coma and France upsets the world’s No. 1-ranked team 3-0. Ronaldo later says he had convulsions. But what really happened? No one knows.

Doctors thought it may have been epilepsy. Other possibilities ranged from poison to problems with his love life, to emotional stress.

Ronaldo discounted the epileptic convulsions theory, saying: “There was never something like that. The problem is that the whole team played badly and they found a reason for the defeat in me. I’m not taking any more tests because nothing is wrong with me.”

Despite the loss and the scrutiny of its top player, Brazil is ranked first for the fifth straight year. And the 22-year-old Ronaldo has been short-listed for FIFA’s world player-of-the-year honours again.

5. Sammy Sosa: The Yin to McGwire’s Yang, Sosa also broke Maris’s record. Unfortunately for Sosa, he fell four short of McGwire, the man to whom he’ll be forever linked.

It’s a testament to the Chicago Cubs outfielder’s season that he was named the NL MVP in a year when McGwire amazed the world.

Sosa hit 66 homers, had 158 RBIs (to McGwire’s 147), a .308 batting average (McGwire .299) and scored 134 runs (McGwire 130). Most importantly, this ex-Vancouver Canadian led his team to the playoffs.

With the exception of two writers from St. Louis, Sosa was a unanimous selection as MVP. “I would have voted for Mark,” he said.

This ex-shoeshine boy from the Dominican Republic showed class, sportsmanship, charity and humour all year long.

6. Michelle Smith: ’98 was the year of the drug scandal. There was the Tour de France, which was rocked by a series of reports indicating use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs; the doping suspensions of track and field stars Dennis Mitchell and Randy Barnes; and four Chinese swimmers getting two-year bans after testing positive for banned masking agents at the World Championships in Australia.

But Michelle Smith, whose coach and husband is ex-Dutch discus thrower Erik de Bruin who himself was banned four years after testing positive for high levels of testosterone, is one of the highest-profile athletes ever banned for a doping-relating offence.

Her four-year ban by the international swim federation came when she was found guilty of tampering with an out-of-competition urine sample taken at her home in Kilkenny, Ireland. The sample was spiked with whiskey.

Drug rumours surrounded Smith after she won three golds at the Atlanta Olympics, including edging Marianne Limpert of Fredericton in the 200-metre individual medley.

The ban effectively ends Smith’s career.

7. Michael Jordan: Just another ho-hum year for basketball’s greatest: All-star, league MVP and Finals MVP for a record sixth time.

Jordan led his Chicago Bulls to their sixth title in eight years, scoring the winning hoop and 45 points in the final game against Utah. It was the most-watched final ever.

All this in a season in which His Airness had to answer questions about his future at every single NBA stop. Jordan let it be known he was gone if Bulls coach Phil Jackson left. Jackson’s out, but Jordan’s being coy. Charles Barkley says Jordan is gone for good. But we may never know, as the NBA lockout continues.

8. Dominique Moceanu: At age 14 at the Games in Atlanta, American gymnast Dominique Moceanu won gold despite suffering a stress fracture.

In ’98, at the ripe age of 17 after running away from her Romanian immigrant parents, Moceanu went to court in a bid to become legally independent from them. She won and was declared a legal adult.

Moceanu claimed her parents bullied her, hit her and squandered most of her earnings since she was 10 years old. She claimed her dad threatened to have her Romanian coach deported, the same coach who helped her become the first non-Russian to win the all-round competition at the Goodwill Games in August.

Her parents haven’t worked since her gold in ’96.

“This was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” she said.

9. Roger Clemens: Clemens did it all: He went 20-6 for the Jays, winning his second straight Cy Young and and unprecedented fifth total; won the triple crown for the second straight season, leading the league in wins, strikeouts (271) and ERA (2.65); went unbeaten in his final 22 starts, winning 15 times; was co-winner of the American Sportscasters Association’s AL player of the year award; and was the first winner since ’95 of the Joe Cronin award for significant achievement.

Toronto was in the playoff hunt up until the final weeks of the season. Clemens demanded a trade to a “contender” but later changed his mind.

10. Pete Sampras: One of the sporting world’s all0time dull guys gets on our list for precisely that reason.

In an age when hype makes right, the anti-personality that is Sampras finished the year s the top-ranked male tennis player for a record sixth straight year, breaking Jimmy Connors’ mark of five.

In an era in sport – and society – that places personality above talent, lesser players such as Andre Agassi are treated as gods while dull but dominant Sampras goes unnoticed.