My Own Greatest Year In Sports

Let’s be honest, 2011 was a lousy year in sports. Just look at all the stories which happened in that twelve-month span which completely  took away the usual uplifting nature of sports. So, as part of moving forward, I thought it was time to take a look back to a year which for me was the opposite of this one most recently and thankfully past.

That year was 1987.

Ironically, as 2011 brought the low point in the history of Penn State football, 1987 brought one of the highs.  The Nittany Lions came into the Fiesta Bowl in 1987 as a prohibitive underdog against the brash, trash-talking Miami Hurricanes. Joe Paterno’s traditional style of football served as the classic antithesis to the wide-open style of Jiimmy Johnson, but the Hurricanes flat-out got beat.  If you were watching college football in 1987, there is no way you can forget Pete Giftopoulous’ game-sealing interception in the 4th quarter; the one that cemented Penn State’s second National Championship.

Later that year came the culmination of the 1986–87 season in NCAA men’s ice hockey.  To most people, that isn’t such a big deal, but when your alma mater prints its diplomas on hockey pucks, North Dakota’s defeat of Michigan State  to capture it’s 6th National Championship was a big deal on that campus.

The end of March means spring is most places, but Grand Forks, North Dakota is not one of them. The average temperature in Grand Forks in March is about 20 degrees Fahrenheit; average of course meaning a great deal of the time it is significantly colder than that. In short, living in Grand Forks in March means nearing the end of a winter where you’ve been trapped indoors, left to three main forms of entertainment: eating, drinking, and fornicating.  Naturally, after a while, you become a fat, drunken hump-meister that needs no reason to party.

The Fighting Sioux were such fun to watch that winter; their dominance of the indoor ice was an antidote to the ever-present outdoor variety; in January in Grand Forks, even the air freezes.  But thanks to a complement of talent such as Ed BelfourTony HrkacBob Joyce, and Ian Kidd, the atmosphere around North Dakota Fighting Sioux games on Friday and Saturday nights warmed to a simply sub-arctic Bacchanalian orgy filled with the aforementioned three surrounding activities.  That is why to this day, there is a hockey puck on my desk to remind me of the the hockey season in which I drank more beer, ate more pizza and after-bar food (for those of you who know…who else misses The Red Pepper?), and had more sex than in any other six-month period in my life.

As long as we are on the subject of things that forever combined the concepts of ice rinks and sex, when is there a better time to mention East German figure skating gold medalist Katarina Witt?

After all, when’s the last time you remembered a figure skater for her serious upper-body pride rather than her triple axle?

If a figure skater who doesn’t look like a hockey stick wearing toe-pick blades is rare, then the phenomenon known as Mike Tyson must have been the sporting world’s version of Haley’s Comet.

The boxing world hadn’t seen anything quite like Mike Tyson before, and it certainly hasn’t seen anything quite like him since. The year before, Tyson became the youngest heavyweight champion at just 19 years old. In  March 1987, Tyson nearly (and ironically) crushes several James “Bonecrusher” Smith’s internal organs; a victory which unified the WBA and WBC heavyweight titles. Already the the year before, Tyson became the youngest undisputed heavyweight champion in boxing history.

Over the course of the next year, Tyson left a trail of corpses formerly known as challengers (four in all) to retain his title. Early in 1988, he added the last of the great “old-school” heavyweight champs to his body-count when he separated Larry Holmes from his consciousness; the only time Holmes ended up looking up during a ten-count in 76 career bouts.

1987 marks the apogee in the meteoric orbit of  Tyson’s career; this the last year before the tumult takes over.  The following years will bring his divorce from  actress Robin Givens, after being accused of domestic violence, the firing and subsequent suing of his manager, breaking his hand in an early morning street brawl, two car accidents  (one of which was reportedly a suicide attempt), a rape conviction and related prison sentence, a drug conviction with another stint behind bars, and the Evander Holyfield “ear biting” incident.”  Somewhere in that freight train of fouls, Tyson lost the title to a club fighter named Buster Douglas, never to regain it.

At least Tyson always has being a hip-hop and video-game icon.

Now, let’s go from the rare to the unbelievable.  Those of you under 30 may never swallow this, but there was a time in this country when people were all jacked up over yachting, specifically the America’s Cup.  Remember that in the 1980′s, thanks to the “Miracle On Ice” and two Olympic boycotts in that same decade, international competitions became more of an issue of national pride than they had ever been previously. This was magnified when it came to the America’s Cup, which not only is the pinnacle of the yachting world, but had never been outside the possession of the Americans in it’s entire history, which dates back to just after the Civil War.

That all changed in 1983 when Kookaburra III, a tub from the Royal Perth Yacht Club wrested the Cup from the Newport Yacht Club. Seriously, people went crazy over this loss. Stories came out about how there was talk replacing the Cup’s place in the club’s trophy case with the head of the skipper who lost it.  ESPN got the rights to broadcast the races when the American challenger went to Australia. People stopped in their tracks to watch two hours of boats. Water cooler sports-talk included terms like “jibs” and “tacking.” It was like the Olympics with flat-soled shoes, life jackets, and that white sun-block stuff on your nose.

When skipper Dennis Conner led challenger Stars & Stripes ’87 of the San Diego Yacht Club to a four races to none Cup win over the Australian defender, he literally became a national hero.

Believe it or not, for two weeks in 1987, America went boat-shit crazy.

As far as more conventional sports are concerned, 1987 offered two of the great championship series in sports.

First, there was the NBA Finals. It would be easy to simply say the “Showtime” Los Angeles Lakers which I grew up on (my dad had season tickets) beat the hated Boston Celtics 4 games to 2.  While I loved the outcome, just focusing on that would ignore so many great points of this series.

For example, this series was such a perfect contrast in styles. There is no better word to describe the Lakers than “dominant.” They were a beautiful blend of speed and power, of flash and fundamentals that when they were firing on all cylinders it mattered little who they faced.

Despite that, the Celtics offered the effective foil; not only were they the defending champs, they did it in a way that was a complete opposite of Los Angeles.  The Celtics played high-school half-court basketball, but they played it better than anybody ever did.

Even though they were already a championship caliber club, The Lakers were a team on the way up. Michael Cooper emerged as a guard who offered match-up problems of anybody else in the league,  A.C. Green, James Worthy, Mychal Thompson, and Kurt Rambis offered a mix-and-match option for a front-court that could beat you ant any game you wanted to play. This was augmented guy named Magic Johnson who was a point guard in a power forward’s body, and was better than anybody at either position. Even the grand old man, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar still brought his unstoppable “Skyhook” to the mix.

Meanwhile, even though they were the defending champions, the Celtics were a ship taking on water. The fact they made it to the finals was a major accomplishment, considering the death of Len Bias, the ongoing infirmity of an aging Bill Walton,  and nagging injuries to Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. Boiled down to basics, this meant the Celtics did not the horses to run with the Lakers.

This is why the Lakers were such a prohibitive favorite. It’s also why just zipping ahead to a Laker 4-2 win is a mistake.  Had this series gone seven games, it would be regarded as one of the great NBA Finals of all time.

The Celtics were, for all practical purposes, playing with five players. The Celtics had to play perfectly to win; they did it twice and nearly pulled it off a third time, which is really the only reason this series only went six.  It all started in Game 1, when at one point Larry Bird hit 11 shots in a row.  This showed the younger, faster Lakers that the Celtics were so resilient that if they lapsed even the smallest bit, Boston could capitalize on that slip.

Secondly amongst the “big” sports came the “boys of summer.” In a year packed with basketball, boxing, and bimbos, baseball belted the prize-winning punch.

For openers, there were so many guys who had great “pre-steroid” seasons.  A look at the league leaders in the “Triple Crown Categories” will lead you to that conclusion.

Batting Average:

  • American League: Wade Boggs, Boston, .363
  • National League: Tony Gwynn, San Diego, .370

RBIs:

  • American League: George Bell, 134
  • National League: Andre Dawson, 137

Home Runs:

  • American League:  Mark McGwire, Oakland, 47
  • National League: Andre Dawson, Chicago, 49.

1987 also had a story one might think impossible; a player being traded for himself. Granted, it wasn’t the first time it happened. Thanks to he provision in baseball trades known as the “Player to be named later” (PTBNL),  there have been two times when a player has been named on both sides of a trade.

In April 1962, the expansion New York Mets traded catcher Harry Chiti to the Cleveland Indians for the aforementioned PTBNL.  By June, the Indians discovered why Chiti was on the trading block to begin with; the Indians gave Chiti back to the Mets as the PTBNL.

The same situation arose in 1987 with career bullpen jockey Dickie Noles.  Noles had been ping-ponging around the league as a “have fastball, will travel” type, but in 1987 the last place Cubs offered Noles to the first-place Tigers as one of those trade deadline “bolster the playoff run” moves to which we’ve become so accustomed.  The trouble is that Noles sucked so bad the Tigers didn’t want him either, so he was shipped back to the Windy City as…you guessed it…the dreaded PTBNL was also traded for himself in 1987, in a deal between the Cubs and Tigers.

But the real story of baseball in 1987 is the Minnesota Twins. The magic started in June, when the Twins went 18-9 to capture first place in the American League West. They would never be worse than tied for the lead again that season.  But it was August when the stars really seem to align for the nine of the North Star state

August 3 – In a moment that brings this  team to national attention, Twins pitcher Joe Niekro is suspended for 10 days for possessing a nail file on the pitcher’s mound against the defending division champion California Angels. Niekro claimed he had been filing his nails in the dugout and put the file in his back pocket when the inning started.  He later makes an appearance on the David Letterman show in which he makes light of the incident by showing Letterman exactly how to “doctor” a ball.

August 6 – Later in the same West Coast road trip comes the moment where the Twins never look back.  The Twins are opening a four-game set with another contender, the Oakland A’s. In Bottom of the 4th inning, the Twins have a 3-1 lead and a one-out, bases-loaded chance to blow the game open thanks to an error by A’s shortstop Alfredo Griffin.  The Twins do just that when Kirby Puckett ropes a bases-clearing double off 20-game winner Dave Stewart to put Minnesota ahead for good. The Twins win the game 9-4 to capture sole possession of first place, a lead they would retain until Friday, August 28th…or as I will always call it “The Weekend in Milwaukee.”

August 20 – Even though they’ve just been swept by the Tigers, it dawns on me that the Twins can’t win on the road, but can’t lose at home.  This becomes CRUCIAL as this is in the days when the home-field advantage for playoff series were scheduled in advance; in 1987 the American League West Champion would have home field in the championship series, and the American League would enjoy that same advantage in the World Series. This is when I become a firm believer that all the Twins needed to do in win the AL West, and a World Series title would be coming to Minnesota for the first time.

August 29 – The Saturday of “The Weekend in Milwaukee. ” The Twins had lost to the Brewers the night before to find themselves again tied for the AL West lead. The Twins have Bert Blyleven pitching, and the feel in the air is this game is a “must-win” for the Twins playoff hopes.

In the top of the first, Gary Gaetti belts a two-run shot to put the Twins ahead early.  Puckett adds a solo shot in the top of the third. By the top of the fifth, the Brewers crept back to 3-2, until Puckett added his second home run of the day. Puckett’s bomb opened the flood gates to a Twin 7-2 lead as it was followed by an RBI single by Tom Brunansky and a 2-RBI single my Steve Lombardozzi. Later, Kent Hrbek blasted a three-run dinger to seal the deal. The Twins capture sole possession of first place and never relinquish it.

"The Weekend in Milwaukee:" The first step in getting a street named after you.

August 30 – The Sunday of “The Weekend in Milwaukee,” otherwise known as the day I accepted Kirby Puckett as my Lord and personal Savior.  Puckett leads the Twins to a 10-6 victory by going 6-for-6, including two more homers, two doubles, and 6 RBIs. This made for a two-day total in a critical series of 10 hits in 11 at-bats, 4 home runs, 8 runs batted in, 7 runs scored, and  24 total bases.  Oh, and somewhere amongst that offense-gasm, Puckett also robbed future Hall-of-Famer Robin Yount of a home run.

There were so many more moments along the way to the Twins World Series Title…the game against the Royals when the Twins rode three first-inning home runs to clinch the division title, or Game 4 of the ALCS where the Tigers’ Darrell Evans became the goat to end all goat, or hometown hero Kent Hrbek’s game-sealing grand slam in Game 6 of the World Series.

There were also many firsts. The Twins were the first team with only 85 regular-season wins. Game 1 of the 1987 World Series was the first World Series game played indoors. It was also the first World Series in which the home team won every game. Most importantly, it was the Twins first Championship since the franchise moved to Minnesota.

13 responses

  1. Awesome piece JW! Still reading, will pick up later and finish, can’t wait!

  2. Nice compiliation of events from a year I remember all too well. Liked the trade info on Harry Chiti. (Interesting), and I was one of those who was rooting for the Twins & Kirby. First time I can remember seeing fans wave those homer hankies and remember the deafening noise from the Metrodome.

  3. Man, the memories are coming flying back to me from when I was 6-7 years old.

    I vividly remember Mcgwire’s rookie year, and even though Rickey was my favorite player, big mac had one helluva rookie year. Another memory I have from around that time is seeing one of the most physically gifted athletes ever in Bo Jackson break onto the scene. Thanks for the trip down memory lane!

  4. I loved the 1987 Twins. Such a great team with great characters. The Metrodome was shaking during the playoffs. And I very much remember Ed Belfour with UND in 87. The year before he was playing for my hometown Winkler Flyers. I can still remember Winnipeg Jets GM John Ferguson saying Belfour will never make it in the NHL. Oops.

    1. And that’s why we never heard from John Ferguson again.

  5. Ah, I remember it well, particularly that Dennis Conner shit.

    I was always like, I’m a sports fan, am I really supposed to be following some rich guy on a yacht?

    Needless to say, I passed. Call me un-American.

    1. Rich guy on a yacht? Half the guys on the floor during those Lakers-Celtics games were worth more than some sail jockey.

  6. I wasn’t alive for 1987, but I’m glad that so much greatness happened in one year for you. Personally, my best year in sports would be the 2010-11 season (My beloved Badgers make the Rose Bowl. Twice. And the Blackhawks won the Cup. Also the Bulls reemergence and Bears NFC Championship game). Great job!

  7. I was about to turn 30 when all this happened. Many thanks to those comments prior about “I wasn’t alive” or “I was 6-7 years old.” Great. Feeling younger every day. But enough about (what’s left of) me. I absolutely connect with the magnificent sports period described above…described with great passion, skill and flair I should note. The Twinkies playing in the Metrodome was almost scandalous. The World Series indoors! All the drama about how Minnesota knew how to play balls off of Hefty bags and plexiglass. That crowd…and that WS…were just insane. And yes, believe it or not many of us were watching sail boats bobbing in the water for hours at a time, moving at a snail’s pace, trying to learn what the hell port, starboard and tacking all meant. The Nittany Lions win was a bittersweet moment for me. While I was cheering them to victory I was suffering from the ravages of a beverage concoction known as “Mississippi Mud.” It was difficult watching with one eye on the porcelain bowl and one eye on the Fiesta Bowl…but I toughed it out…just like Penn State did.

    1. Which was more sacreligious? The World Series indoors or the World Series in Canada?

  8. Ahh, I remember watching Iron Mike… and then watching him some more because he was so dominant. No one would watch his fights on Pay Per View today because everyone would’ve knew it was over in the first round. Hey, no one wants to lose $60 just like that.

    Great stuff with the Lakers. It was “Showtime” and goodness gracious, what a show it was..

    -Christian

  9. Great walk do memory lane JW. I’d forgotten about Dennis Connor’s triumph and Niekro’s idiocy happening in 87′ Could have done without the reminder about the Twins victory over my Cards though.

  10. Here’s a good poster round up from the 80′s! I had the bash brothers one up in my room for a year or two!

    http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/multimedia/photo_gallery/1106/posters.salon94.exhibit/content.1.html

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