We partied like it was 1999, all right, long and hard and oblivious to the numbers on the calendar on the wall.
The champagne corks flew when John Elway won the Super Bowl. Glasses were raised when Michael Jordan sank his final 20-foot jumper against the Utah Jazz. Then the glasses were refilled and raised, and refilled and raised again, every time the amazing Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home run derby sent another baseball into history.
But then, sadly, 1998 came to an end.
The ensuing hangover, as we painfully discovered, has been a bear.
If 1998 was a 12-month celebration of American sport, 1999 played like one long memorial service. We said goodbye so often it hurt--to Joe DiMaggio, the All-American icon; to Wilt Chamberlain, perhaps the greatest basketball player of them all; to Walter Payton and Marion Motley, the starting tailback and fullback in pro football's all-century backfield; to Pee Wee Reese, who towered as captain of the star-glutted Brooklyn Dodgers for so many years; to Payne Stewart, three months after winning his second U.S. Open; to Catfish Hunter, Hall of Fame pitcher who mastered the art of closing the deal; to Gene Sarazen, the 97-year-old dimpled golf legend; to Kim Perrot, the 32-year-old WNBA star.
Between obituary notices, we passed the time by sitting in on retirement news conferences. More farewells, more misty eyes, more minor chords.
Jan. 13: Jordan announces his second retirement from pro basketball in six years to devote more time to another sport: recreational golf. If this is really it this time--you never know; he's only 36 and Phil Jackson is back,
coaching in Hollywood--Jordan leaves with six NBA championship rings, 10 scoring titles, five most-valuable-player trophies and the perfect closing act: a championship won on the arc of his final jump shot.
April 16: Wayne Gretzky, the Michael Jordan of hockey, calls it a career, if you wish to call it that. It looks more like an adding machine that slipped a gear, spitting out these ridiculous numbers: 894 goals, 1,963 assists, 2,857 points, 61 league records, 10 scoring titles, nine MVP awards, four Stanley Cups. Another number--Gretzky's 99--is immediately retired by the NHL, never to be worn by any other player in the league.
May 2: Elway retires, becoming the first NFL quarterback to quit immediately after winning the Super Bowl. Or after winning back-to-back Super Bowls. His 148 victories are also unprecedented for an NFL quarterback. His 47 fourth-quarter rallies are already a part of American folklore. But to make a run at three-consecutive titles-and-out at 38? Sheer science fiction, to Elway's way of thinking.
July 28: Barry Sanders says he is retiring too. Yeah, sure, we say; he's too young (31) and too close (1,458 yards shy) to Payton's all-time NFL rushing record. Quit now, just because Detroit and Coach Bobby Ross are two royal pains in the posterior? We don't believe it, and still refuse to believe it. Meanwhile, the Lions prepare for their 16th Barry-less game of the regular season.
Aug. 13: Two months after winning the French Open and one after reaching the finals at Wimbledon, Steffi Graf, winner of 22 Grand Slam titles, says this act has become tiresome and abruptly quits at 30. After an injury-ridden 1998, Graf says she found it "almost too easy to catch up to the top players again. I have nothing left to prove." And what are we left with?
Professional basketball and hockey leagues wobbling on weakened knees without their all-time greatest players and feel-good ambassadors.
A professional football league suddenly stripped of its most charismatic old gunslinger and most fearsome not-so-old running back.
A teen-heavy "women's" professional tennis tour without its designated baby-sitter, so useful in dispensing discipline at the majors and keeping the young brats in line.
Never before had one calendar year been broadsided by so many superstar retirements--by athletes still competing at, or near, customary high-performance levels. You have to go back to 1966 to find even two retirements of similar stature and circumstances: Sandy Koufax and Jim Brown, both 30 and at the top of their sports, bowing out within a span of four months.
On paper, this should have been the rightful cause of public mourning.
Instead, on many fronts, perhaps as a defense mechanism, the hello-I-must-be-going syndrome was greeted with approving applause.
From the Sporting News: " 1/8Elway is 3/8 following a most pleasant trend in sports: great players, such as Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky, being smart enough to get out before they wished they had."
From Sports Illustrated: "Now they're getting it. They're leaving on top, with minimal fanfare and no looking back. . . . Gone, just like that, in a span of four months, gone before any owner could demean our memory of them with a stupid or desperate trade, before last-act whispers (is he washed up?) could build into a humiliating roar."