Banner '96 turned heads, tugged hearts

December 29, 1996|By John Eisenberg

As we near the end of 1996, a very good year in sports around here, there is only one appropriate reaction.

Whew.

Talk about a breathless sprint.

If the next 12 months are anything like the past 12, the Bromo-Seltzer clock might just blow a gusher one of these nights when the Orioles are going into extra innings.

You could argue that more happened in the past year than in the 10 prior years combined.

The NFL returned to town, wearing purple, after 12 years of silent Sundays.

The Orioles made it back to the playoffs for the first time since Cal Ripken was a babe at shortstop in 1983.

L Ground was broken on a new football stadium at Camden Yards.

The Orioles hit more homers than any other team in major-league history, led by a club-record 50 from, of all people, Brady Anderson.

Jon Miller was chased out of town to San Francisco.

The Orioles knocked the defending American League champs, the Indians, out of the playoffs.

Debbie Yow fired Mark Duffner as Maryland football coach, then said her gut told her to do it a year ago.

Roberto Alomar spit on an umpire and went from a mild-mannered superstar to international sporting villain.

The Ravens went 4-12, with many leads blown, but the fans at Memorial Stadium relished the return of the Sunday experience that Robert Irsay stole.

Eddie Murray returned to the Orioles in a trade and hit his 500th home run at Camden Yards.

Maryland-bred Cigar captured the heart of the horse racing industry with 16 straight wins.

A 12-year-old kid from New Jersey knocked the Orioles out of the American League Championship Series, sort of.

The Orioles moved Ripken to third base in November, after 15 years at shortstop.

That's 13 screaming, big-headline, big-ticket items -- an average of one per month, plus one to grow on.

Whew.

Here's hoping that '97 is no less interesting, but does anyone else out there need time to catch his breath?

Sometimes it almost seemed as if anything with a Baltimore connection, past or present, was swept up in the momentum of '' the year.

The Colts, who used to play here, came within one play of making the Super Bowl.

The Preakness, seemingly ruined by the absence of Kentucky Derby winner and favorite Grindstone, came up with a terrific story line when Pat Day was pulled off a horse by D. Wayne Lukas and came back on another to end Lukas' six-race Triple Crown winning streak.

Michael Watson, a Towson native, scored five goals for Virginia in the NCAA lacrosse championship game at Byrd Stadium -- and lost.

Jim Phelan, the basketball coach at Mount St. Mary's since the '50s, graced Division I March Madness for the first time.

Navy's football team went to a bowl game, scored 42 points and won.

Maryland's basketball team, seemingly diminished by the loss of four seniors, and led by Dunbar's Keith Booth, has started with a 10-0 mark, one victory shy of the season-opening record set by the 1975-76 Terps.

Whew.

And it was a lively year nationally, too.

The Atlanta Olympics were a failure in spirit even without the terrorist bombing that sullied it, but Michael Johnson's sweep of the 200 and 400 meters was sheer perfection.

Michael Jordan and the Bulls won more games in a season than any other team in NBA history, drawing comparisons to the greatest teams ever. (Sorry, Mike, not quite.)

The Yankees -- oy! -- won the World Series for the first time since 1981.

Mike Tyson tasted canvas, and defeat, against Evander Holyfield.

For me, three events stood out from the rest:

Michael Johnson's performance in the 200. If you saw it, you'll never forget it.

Game 6 of the World Series, in which the Yankees completed their upset of the Braves. The stage was so big and bold -- the Yankees, the Series, the Bronx, the crowd -- that even Yankee haters felt chills.

The Masters. The agony to Johnson's ecstasy. Greg Norman blew a six-shot lead in the final round, with millions of TV viewers watching just to see if he would. Too awful to bear.

What was the biggest event of the year locally? There's a tough question, considering the breathless year. Was it Miller's firing? The kid? The spit? The upset of the Indians? Those all were huge events spawning widespread interest. The Orioles are the secular religion around here now, a seemingly endless soap opera.

The return of the NFL, which didn't generate the same passion, crystallized the reality that we live in a baseball town now.

Yet the return of the NFL was the big event of 1996.

The Ravens' season itself was a disappointment in terms of wins, TV ratings and general fan interest, but you have to take the long-range view. The return of pro football represents a fundamental addition to our sports world that will resonate for years.

The Orioles' machinations are like a new car -- fascinating and fun, but fleeting, a toy ultimately replaced by new toys.

The arrival of the Ravens is more substantial, like a new wing on a house, a permanent entity.

The Orioles still own the town, but at least the Ravens are here. And even if the Ravens have started slowly, they have the chance now to plant roots and grow a new history, identity and following. Or to fail to bloom.

Either way, 1996 will be remembered as the year they kicked off. The frantic year in which Baltimore became whole again as a sports town.

Pub Date: 12/29/96

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