He is no longer a two-way player (wide receiver/thug). He has mouths to feed and walls to scale and paychecks to deposit and a "nine" route to run. He has this place he likes to visit -- the end zone -- and he is there virtually every Sunday, and it has everything to do with his long legs and his long arms and his long story.
Can a rookie be Comeback Player of the Year? This one came back from a bad rep and a judgmental Downtown Athletic Club. From a penitentiary, and from racism, and from Division 1-AA. This one comes back to the huddle several times every game and asks Randall Cunningham to toss it high and far. "Sometimes he listens, sometimes he doesn't," says Randy Moss, who cannot, under any circumstance, be overthrown, and who makes his Vikings a great January playoff story.
Go long, they told him when he got to Minnesota, and his 6'4" string bean of a body has been headed down the sideline ever since. The Vikings call it a "nine" route, and he runs it 90% of the time, nearly always taking two defenders along for the ride. It means the rest of the Vikings can play 10-on-9, which is why Randy Moss is a game-changer whether he touches the ball or not.
He is more AFL than NFL, more Lance Alworth than Jerry Rice. John Hadl to Alworth in the 1960s was one Hail Mary after another, and Alworth had the hands to go get it. Moss runs those same routes, and he's so tall he can jump over two defenders and still make a basket catch. The young Rice turned 10-yard slants into 60-yard scores; Moss turns 60-yard heaves into 60-yard scores. He is better off in the vertical offense.
Moss has smashed the rookie touchdown record of 13, previously shared by Green Bay's Bill Howton (1952) and San Diego's John Jefferson (1979), and every score is like his first. He does the Minnesota version of the Lambeau Leap -- scaling a Metrodome wall after each touchdown -- and the fans pat him on the back while he's up there. The irony is most of them would have been frightened of him a year ago.
So were 19 NFL general managers, the ones who passed him by in the college draft. Moss is the reason to watch the Vikings in January, but he's also one reason the NFL needs more black men in the front offices.
If only they had called Maxine, his mother, she could have told them about his West Virginia high school, where boys wrote "All Niggers Must Die" on desks. That she made Randy go to church three times a week. That she did not allow a single curse word in her home -- or beer, either. That she worked 20-hour days as a nurse's aide, and that she had to let him grow up on his own. And that he vowed to take care of her someday, but wasn't going to cut off his cornrows just because some stranger told him to.
The whole league loves him now. It's not that he reinvented himself. He just removed the 'rows and started going deep. Six points cures all. -- Tom Friend
Keith Van Horn
In today's America, trends of culture blow eastward as they grow. Chicanas in East L.A. find their lipstick fashion on the mouths of models in Soho magazine shoots, and Middle American rappers hear their funky rhyme flows delivered with Brooklyn accents on MTV. It's appropriate then, if the NBA is in business as it should be in February, that we direct your attention to Diamond Bar, California's, own Keith Van Horn, a pure West Coast product now on view by the shores of the Hudson River.
It's apparent that the Nets forward grew up on the Showtime Lakers. You can tell from the deadeye way he drives the lane, that way that has wiped the urge to call him Opie right off the minds of a thousand defenders. It's in his unquestioned interest in taking the three -- no, taking just about any shot on the floor. The guy Jayson Williams calls Pale Rider even plays the noncontact form of D favored in L.A., too.
Maybe most telltale of his influences are those damn socks. Up near his knees as though his calves were under arrest, the socks of Keith Van Horn are the kind of fashion risk that can get a rookie hazed. But Van Horn, 23, carries himself with such quiet cockiness that by the end of last season, New Jersey teammates were copying him.
There's an ABA quality to how Van Horn does his thing. And in fact, the player he most favors is Billy Cunningham, the old Sixers forward who showed his real wares as a Carolina Cougars scoring machine. Yet to simply label Van Horn a throwback is a mistake. He brings to the table both an easy blend of arrogant carriage and game-tight skills, a forward-looking fusion of the old and the new.
He's not unconscious when he shoots with time winding down; he's just beyond worrying about it. He married at 20, soon after having his first child, a little girl. Emotional burnishing of this sort -- earned at the age when most college stars are majoring in How to Take Being Coddled to Its Logical Conclusion -- will lead a dude to say "been there, done that" at the spectre of the buzzer.
Van Horn has taken the high road in another aspect of his journey to stardom. Arriving in the league, he was immediately hailed as the next Larry Bird, echoing the Rick Barry comparisons Bird heard before he put that stereotype to death.
But Van Horn just dubbed such pronouncements "interesting" and wondered aloud why pundits had not compared him to Derrick McKey, whose game is a more accurate template. This is not your father's Great White Hope.
By declining to take advantage of what others often take as pure privilege, Van Horn makes those long-range bombs and sinewy breakaways linger long past game's end. He's a star for the millennium. -- Donnell Alexander
Before Khalid El-Amin, the Connecticut Huskies were a mere basketball team, a regional novelty, trusting in mere mortals. Now they're a circus act led by a guy whose names in the language of his Islamic faith mean, in reverse order, "Trustworthy" and "The Sword of God." Whoa. UConn coach Jim Calhoun puts it this way: "Before Khalid, we were starving in the desert. And he was like two jugs of water. But not just water. Ice water."
Thing is, when the 5'10'' (riiiight!), 203-pound (suuuure!) freshman showed up in Storrs last season, El-Amin looked like a jug. Fans called him everything from "Butt Boy" to "Pugsley." Reporters dubbed the Minneapolis native "Stubby K" and "Minnesota Fats." Even Calhoun didn't know what to make of this raw, chubby kid he had installed as the physical and emotional leader of his previously rudderless team. "Khalid never looked at me when I talked to him," says the coach. "Then he'd keep interrupting me in the huddles, saying stuff like, 'It's winning time.' "
Guess what? It was winning time: Connecticut went from 18–15 to 32–5, finishing only a few bites short of the Final Four. Khalid was MVP of the Big East Tournament and averaged 23 points in four NCAA Tournament games. Along the way, he embarrassed all doubters virtually the same way he silenced Fairleigh Dickinson fans who shouted "Fat Boy, Fat Boy" at him during the NCAA's, when he buried another three (of 28 points), gazed up at his abusers and rubbed his ample tummy. Just wait 'til they get a load of him this March.
"Growing up, I always had the baby fat," says El-Amin. "I love to eat. Fast food, burgers, the works. I even eat when I'm not hungry. But conditioning has never been a problem. And I don't get angry at anybody for calling me fat. The way I get back is when the clock's at three zeros and we're ahead."
"Khalid is a very special person," says Calhoun, who is risking his reputation as a control freak by giving El-Amin an alarmingly loose rope. "He plays the game with such energy and enthusiasm. You can't muzzle a kid like this. I've learned from him. He's 19. But he's an old 19."
And no wonder. The baby among five children of Charles and Arlene El-Amin -- his father is a former Imam and his brother, Makram, a current Imam, at the Masid An-Nur mosque in Minneapolis -- Khalid helped win three high school championships, committed to the University of Minnesota, then changed his mind, provoking statewide resentment. He was married at 16 to a woman three years his senior. He was a father at 17, separated at 18. Now he and his wife, Jessica, have renewed their vows, and the couple welcomed a baby boy into their household this month.
His balloon cheeks constantly flapping, El-Amin embraces life and the game with equal zest, meaning UConn will be tough in March. "I'm a people person," he says. "I have no enemies. On the court, I'm not exactly the other team's friend. But after the game, we can all go and hang out. Maybe get something to eat." -- Curry Kirkpatrick
Scouts write reports on players because they have to. In 1996, then-Marlins superscout Gary Hughes (now Rockies VP for player personnel) went to Harrisburg, Pa., to see a Double-A game, and was so captivated by Expos farmhand Vladimir Guerrero that he wrote a report on him because he wanted to. It was the strongest, most detailed account he has ever crafted on a one-day look: cannon arm, long strides, incredible power, killer body, a love of the game, great smile. Two years later, here's Hughes' updated report: "He's the best player in the game. Not potentially. Now."
A Montreal rightfielder who barely speaks English is preordained to play in obscurity. But as Opening Day arrives this April, baseball men are reminded how good Guerrero is. "Too good," says Bobby Valentine. "It's ridiculous. It's sickening." "So good it's unfair," says Rockies coach Rich Donnelly. "He's one of those guys who should only get two strikes."
Last season, at age 22, Guerrero batted .324 with 38 home runs, 109 RBI and 202 hits. The only other player to hit those stats before turning 23 was Joe DiMaggio. The numbers will swell, because so will Guerrero, still growing at 6'2'', 200.
Guerrero stands on top of the plate and drives pitches with power to all fields. He can be pitched inside -- he knows that -- but swings at the inside pitch anyway in an act of defiance. "Wait until he learns just to swing at strikes," says Brewers coach Bob Melvin. "And wait until he learns how to steal a base. (He had 11 last year.) He's going to be scary."
No one in baseball throws better. Says Donnelly: "Some guys in the majors can't hit the ball as hard as he throws." Guerrero's only weakness is that he doesn't go back on balls well, so he plays the deepest rightfield in the NL, but gets away with it because of his arm and speed.
The Dodgers had Guerrero in their camp for 30 days in the Dominican in 1993, and were preparing to sign him. But he left for a day and went to an Expos tryout run by Fred Ferreira, now Montreal's vice president and director of international operations. Guerrero arrived on the back of a motorcycle driven by a guy who delivered prospects to camps. Wearing two different shoes, one with a sock stuffed in the toe to make it fit, the 17-year-old ran an impressive 6.6 in the 60-yard dash and threw exceptionally well from right. In one at-bat in a practice game, he grounded out, then pulled a groin muscle while running to first. But Ferreira had seen enough. He signed Guerrero right there, and paid his biker friend $200.
Guerrero went on to be the star of the Expos' Dominican Summer League team. He was so good, he had to take BP last each day because he would hit balls so far they got lost, and then no one else could hit.
"It's an amazing story," says Ferreira, whose team locked up Guerrero into the new century with a five-year, $28 million contract in September. "I'm still not sure the guy on the motorcycle knows who he delivered to us that day."
If he did he might want to renegotiate that tip: $200 for the best player in the game? -- Tim Kurkjian
Want to know why Jaromir Jagr is so good? Why his Penguins will be playoff-tough in May? That's easy -- just run the numbers, because the square root of his game is math. When the Czech Republic's superstar says it, though, it sounds like "maht." Everything is "the maht."
Perhaps you thought it was about speed, strength and panache with the puck. No. All those wiggly-jiggly, swervy-curvy things happen because Jagr's looking at numbers all over the ice. Other men see the ordinary out there -- rubbery-legged defensemen, Zamboni tracks. He sees a yellow-brick road paved in ordinals.
"Everything in the world is numbers," says hockey's Einstein. "The Earth circling all the time, everything the same, for millions of years. Everything so perfect. It's the maht."
Start with simple arithmetic -- goals plus assists. Not even a neutral-zone trap the size of Kladno -- his birthplace -- will keep the only skater to crack 100 points (102) in '97-98 from winning his third scoring title.
No one in the NHL today equals the Jagr equation. He is a blue-eyed, long-haired, angel-faced assassin, 6'2" and 225 pounds of illusion and strength, able to stickhandle magically with one hand while using his other arm to fend off the next stick-hacking cannonball fired his way.
"You don't count, 1-2-3, like that," Jagr says. "You just have it. In your head. You see a player skating, and you cannot make a pass where he was before, you make the pass forward. Count the speed, the time to the puck. Go there. You are counting, but you don't even know it. Why shouldn't it be the maht?"
What Pens owner Roger Marino loves most about Jagr, whom he'll pay $43.5 million over five seasons, is his style. "Even if he doesn't score once," says Marino, whose franchise is mired in Chapter 11, "you remember every rush he makes."
When Jagr came to Pittsburgh in 1990, the Pens -- with superstar Mario Lemieux in full stride -- were at their zenith, going on to win back-to-back Stanley Cups ('91 and '92). Jagr, then 18, quickly mesmerized everyone with his skill, but revealed little of himself to outsiders. About all we know is that, growing up in a farming family, he loved Kit Kats, video games -- and driving his car at meteoric speed. (Indeed, he and his cars would become quite familiar to Pennsylvania state troopers.)
Voted Pens captain at the start of this season, Jagr still remains frustrated by America's posted speed limits. "Look, the coach wants me to go 100%," he says. "I want that from my car. If I had a car that would go just 55, I would go just 55. But I want 100% from the car."
Back home in the Czech Republic over the summer, Jagr calculated that in a driving life span of 40 or 50 years -- his numbers, folks -- he might spend five or six years in his car. His conclusion: "If you would drive just 50% faster, you are saving 2€ years of your life."
At his current rate of speed, Jaromir Jagr is also saving hockey in Pittsburgh. --Kevin Paul Dupont
You're not going to use my name, right?" says the NBA team vice president. "There's a million-dollar fine, and I don't have a million dollars."
This is during the lockout. A gag order is in effect. Unless you're David Stern or Russ Granik, you're not supposed to make a peep. If you do, it's a million large. "No names," I say. "I just wanted to ask about Tim Duncan." The VP turns into stirred mush. Tim Duncan? He loves Tim Duncan.
"There's a handful of people who will be carrying the league," he says, "and Duncan will be one of them. He's one of those guys you go pay to see." Because Michael can't win it all forever, when (if?) the NBA Finals roll around next June, you'll pay to watch Duncan. Because he's Walton without the bad wheels, Artis Gilmore without the bad Afro, Hakeem without 10 years of tread wear. Watch him during a game. His face tells you nothing. It is like looking into the eye of a chicken. Blank. Emotionless. Cyborg-ish. Duncan can take you high. He can take you low. He is the leading cause of facial tics among opposing centers and power forwards. Try watching his feet as he fakes some poor guy into the mezzanine. He has a shooting touch as soft as a baby's sigh. His passing skills are almost Magic-al. His toughness is unquestioned.
"He's the best inside man to come around in a long time," says big-man expert Pete Newell. All Duncan did in his rookie season was finish first in double-doubles (57), 12th in scoring (21.1), third in rebounding (11.9) and sixth in blocks (2.51). He may have finished first in impact. That's why he was the first rookie since Larry Bird to be named to the All-NBA first team.
Nothing against Spurs teammate David Robinson, but when it came time for a must-have basket late last season, it was Duncan who usually got the call. There are a couple of theories why: 1) Robinson's back was still tender, which meant he didn't spend as much time in the low post, or 2) Duncan is more valuable to the Spurs than the Admiral is.
Duncan is afraid of heights, which is strange, since he has already ascended to elite status in record time. But the view means nothing to him. Duncan is more consumed with his knife collection or his PlayStation than he is with himself. His sense of humor, as dry as a James Bond martini, is sometimes mistaken for arrogance. The story goes that Spurs media director Tom James approached him as a playoff practice session was ending. James recited the day's requests: TNT wanted a one-on-one a national magazine photog needed his time for a quick session the usual media horde also had some questions. Duncan didn't say a word.
"Tim," said James, "did you get that?"
Duncan kept shooting and then, without looking at James, said, "It's not that I'm deaf. I'm just choosing to ignore you."
Tough to ignore Duncan, though. -- Gene Wojciechowski
Maybe a punch so desperate could have come only from a Philadelphia fighter hearing a guy from the old neighborhood tell him the world is watching him lose.
Seconds before the bell for the final round of the '96 Olympic Gold Medal bout, 156-pounder David Reid -- America's last hope for a gold -- is getting licked by Cuban Alfredo Duvergel. Reid thinks he's letting everyone down -- his coach, family, team, country and, even worse, his city. The coach, speaking to the hanging head in the corner, tells Reid to get inside, throw the right.
"David," says Al Mitchell firmly, "you need a knockout."
Bell. The Cuban charges in for the kill. But Philadelphia rules say you cannot, must not, back down. Winding up, Reid throws his right fist. Duvergel crumbles.
Thanksgiving weekend 1998, brunch at a Japanese restaurant on the gussied-up Philadelphia piers. The junior middleweight contender, now 25, is with his girlfriend of two years, the kind you can bring home to momma. The music inside is old Marvin Gaye; the ride outside is a tan entry-level Lexus.
"That one punch did wonders," says Reid. "I wasn't thinking about the money, just how hard I worked." Stick around him and you find yourself believing in a time when hard work and a big punch did the talking. You find yourself watching him precisely because he doesn't demand to be watched.
Deep in North Philly. He hops out at the corner, by an empty swim-ming pool carpeted with dead leaves. The building next door is the rec center where he walked in as a street-fighting 11-year-old and said, "I was told to look for the dark-skinned man with glasses." That was Mitchell, still his trainer.
The gray cement-block house on nearby Marston Street where Reid grew up is dead, boarded up, possibly the worst house on one of the toughest streets in Philly. Reid doesn't live around here anymore --the streets call to him too easily -- but he still trains at a pile of bricks called Champs, Joe Frazier's old gym. His promoters say he's a new-breed Philly fighter who doesn't waste himself on gym wars. Sure.
"What's the point of sparring cream puffs?" Reid says. "Got to be an old neighborhood gym. Here you walk in all soft-ass, somebody's going to get you."
Reid began his pro career in 1997, chopping down former champs Simon Brown and Jorge Vaca, tough guys on the downside. By July '99, HBO boxing promoters say, he should fight for a world title.
Fine, but David Reid still measures himself in Philadelphia terms. Up every morning at 5 to work out. Sometimes chugging up the steps of the Museum of Art -- yeah, like Rocky. There, he can look out at the buildings and believe just for a moment that he's champion of the world. And, of course, of Philadelphia. -- Mike Levine
The Williams Sisters
What you see is a pair of exquisite young black women against the mostly white backdrop of professional tennis. What you hear is the click-clacking of the beads they wear in their braided hair. What you feel is the awesome power and extreme confidence they bring to the tennis court. Venus and Serena Williams stand apart.
They stood apart the first time I saw them, at a 1990 fundraiser in Los Angeles. Back then, they were cute little girls with big tennis racquets. Venus was 10; Serena just turning 9. Already the word was out: They were special.
Venus, now 18, and the elder by 15 months, already stands near the top of the women's rankings (finishing fifth in 1998). Her serve, once clocked at a record 127 mph, can snap your head back as it whizzes by. The power and depth of her ground strokes can drive you off the court. And her court coverage -- your winner seems never out of her reach -- can rip out an opponent's heart. At 6'1€'' and 168 pounds, Venus Starr Williams is the total package. And she's getting better as she gains more court savvy.
A bit more gregarious than her sister, Serena (5'10'', 145) is equally dangerous. Just ask Monica Seles or Mary Pierce or Lindsay Davenport -- she has beaten all three. Serena, who finished the 1998 season ranked 20th, can't yet match her big sister's monster serve. But, like Venus, Serena leaves opponents dumbfounded when she darts across the court to return an apparent winner. She, too, is gaining better court sense.
Who's better? Right now, Venus is. But that could change. Many, including their father, Richard, feel Serena could be the better of the two. As for me, I just don't know. One thing's certain: They'll be fan magnets at August's U.S. Open.
To their credit, neither Venus nor Serena claims the Williams' family tennis crown. Rather, when pushed, they point to each other. It's another reason they stand out -- a shared love and affection for one another. As a WTA Tour mentor for Venus, I've often been in their company. In fact, I think I'm among the few who've seen them without their trademark beads. They are so close, they can communicate without words: a look, a smile, a raised eyebrow.
Unfortunately, the thing that could differentiate Venus and Serena is injuries, which can derail any athletic career. Already, both have been bothered by various ailments. Venus pulled out of the Chase Championships in November because of a chronic knee problem. Serena retired during a match at Wimbledon with an injured calf.
If they stay healthy, there may be no stopping either of them. There's a lot to see and hear and feel about this sister act. With or without racquets, they stand out. And they like it that way. -- Pam Shriver
Quincy Carter is having his second childhood. But the difference between Carter and any other regular guy who won't grow up is that his boyhood fantasy turned out to be his real life -- and it's an ongoing two-parter. In Boyhood Fantasy Part I, Quincy Carter dreams of becoming a big leaguer and gets signed by the Cubs. In Part II, he's a big-time college QB, and NFL scouts start drooling over him next September. Quincy Carter gets to do everything.
That's because he can. He is a 6'2'', 219-pound baby who was, deceptively, listed as a true freshman in '98, the first to start a season at quarterback for Georgia in 53 years. But in actuality, Carter is a 21-year-old who has been playing minor league baseball in the Cubs organization the past three seasons. In both roles, he is a bona fide prospect.
Carter enrolled at Georgia last spring and won the starting QB job in just a few weeks of fall practices. He hadn't played football competitively since 1995, but his ability was obvious to Georgia coaches -- Carter can stand on his own 20 and throw a neat strike to a streaking receiver 60 yards downfield. Against Florida, he completed 33 of 49 passes for 368 yards. He upstaged Kentucky QB Tim Couch when he threw for 147 yards (with two TDs) and ran for 114, including a 49-yard TD run. After nine games, he ranked 24th in the nation in passing efficiency, while rushing for 256 yards and three TDs.
Even more remarkable is seeing Carter in his dorm room, sitting at a video game console, bantering with his 18-year-old roomie, Terreal Beirria. "It feels almost like I'm a kid again," Carter says. "I can say I've been an adult, and now I'm back to being a kid, which is weird. I know what people mean now when they say, 'I wish I was 18 again.' "
Carter was a schoolboy All-America QB at DeKalb High in Decatur, Ga., where he was raised single-handedly by his mother, Sherry Carter Embree, a private detective.
Recruited by Georgia, Georgia Tech, Tennessee and Auburn, among others, he instead signed with the Cubs for a $425,000 bonus as a high second-round draft pick. An outfielder with speed and power potential, he hit only .211 and .215 his first two seasons in Rookie and A-ball, and clearly missed football so badly that Cubs management finally decided it was hurting his play. "I thought about it too much and missed it too much," says Carter, who improved to .245 in A-ball last summer. "Not a day went by that I didn't think I should be playing football somewhere."
Cubs scouting director Jim Hendry says it was obvious Carter wouldn't be happy until he had given college football a try. So the club agreed to pay his tuition and humor his fall obsession, as long as he reports back by summer. "He's a big leaguer if he wants it enough," Hendry says.
Unless he decides to pull a Deion Sanders, Carter will eventually have to choose between football and baseball. But for now, he's content to be just another dormitory dweller.
"This," he says happily, "is what college is all about." -- Sally Jenkins
Last summer's throwaway line by Red Sox manager Jimy Williams gets at the truth behind Nomar Garciaparra: "It's like he's been here before."
Exactly! If the Red Sox shortstop played major league ball in an earlier lifetime, it would explain why he never fell victim to the lethargy and immaturity that torpedoed so many past Rookies of the Year in their sophomore seasons. (Where have you gone, Joe Charboneau?) Accept that Nomar's taut torso -- imagine a spider on andro -- carries the soul of Honus Wagner and you can explain how a 175-pound 25-year-old can bat cleanup, lead his team into the playoffs and exhibit the work ethic of a 20-year vet.
Old-school. No frills. Same hat for an entire season. A tiny fielder's glove during practice to fine-tune his touch. Running out every ground ball, breaking up every double play and saying nothing when he gets hit by a pitch. Even a hairstyle from another era -- think Ted Williams, 1939.
Dennis Eckersley, who threw his first fastball as a pro the year before Garciaparra was born, asks, "How do they build these new guys, anyway? A shortstop hitting 30 jacks, knocking in 100 runs?"
Two summers ago, Nomar led the AL in hits (209) and triples (11), ranked second in total bases (365), set an AL rookie record with a 30-game hitting streak and stole 22 bases. He also knocked in 98 runs -- from the leadoff spot.
Moved to the four hole last season, Garciaparra drove home 122, cranked 35 McGwires and finished among the AL's top 10 in BA (.323), hits (195), RBI, triples, total bases, slugging and extra-base hits. Now that Mo Vaughn is gone, Nomar will be counted on to pull into October matching or bettering those numbers. And he just might, partly because he doesn't think about stats. It's standard playerspeak to say you'd rather go 0-for-4 and win than 3-for-4 and lose, but Garciaparra makes this cliché sound believable.
Trivia buffs will be happy to learn that Nomar was born on the same day (July 23, 1973) and in the same state (California) as Monica Lewinsky. His first name is the reversal of his dad's, Ramon. He loves soccer enough that he considered flying to France for the World Cup during the All-Star break.
Garciaparra is fanatical about his routines. He steps out of the box after every pitch and goes through an annoying series of batting-glove tugs and nervous gestures. Every time. Walk behind him going up or down the dugout steps and you'll notice he puts two feet on every step. Every time.
Last fall, Nomar got a taste of postseason play -- and loved it. "It's all about winning. That's what you go into the season preparing for -- to get to the postseason," he says, shifting into ballplayer-cliché overdrive. "I just want to get to the World Series and win it." Hey, it's not as if the Red Sox aren't due. -- Dan Shaughnessy
Dan Shaughnessy is a columnist for The Boston Globe.
What were you doing on your fifth day of work? Getting caught jamming the fax machine with your football picks? Guessing wrong about what to wear on casual Friday? Well, Kerry Wood, in just his fifth start in the majors, pitched the best single game ever. Ever. Can you say 20 strikeouts? Two measly balls leaving the infield? Knocking Jordan off the front pages in Chicago during the playoffs?
Even before Wood painted his masterpiece, you had to really like this kid from Irving, Texas. Not even two weeks in the bigs, and batters were already boo-hooing that he was brushing them off like day-old dandruff. This minor in the majors reminds you of a couple of other guys from Texas: Clemens and Ryan, both of whom are Wood's idols.
Remember, though, he's barely postpubescent. When he cut his finger on an Orange Crush can, Kerry glued the wound shut and didn't miss a start. Now that's youthful ingenuity. Painfully shy, Wood still talks to his mama before every start. For gosh sakes, she takes care of his puppy! Ask Kerry (his parents thought he'd be a gal) about his expectations and the buzz-cut kid mumbles, "I just want to be another guy in the rotation who comes in and tries to win." Yeah, and Sammy is just going with the pitch.
In a way, Kerry Wood is like a lot of guys you know. He listens to Matchbox 20, plays Nintendo and surfs the Net. He did just enough to get by in school. Sports are his life. In 1995, his senior year, 40 scouts would fill the stands whenever he pitched. He signed a $1.26 million bonus during the state tournament. Time to coast? Nope. On a dusty Texas day, Wood pitched both games of a doubleheader, leading Grand Prairie High to a championship. Oh, sure, Cubs GM Ed Lynch violently remodeled his office when he found out, but that's the warrior mentality that could have Kerry high-fiving Roger and Nolan in Cooperstown.
Maybe he can even get Billy Williams a ring. Often, on Wood's off-days, he and the 60-year-old Cubs legend sit in the dugout talking baseball. It's tough to tell who enjoys it more. "This is why you hang around the game 25 extra years," Williams says with a grandfatherly smile. "To see talent like this."
After that brilliant day in May, Wood never looked back. The line -- 13–6, 3.40 ERA, Rookie of the Year -- only hints at his dominance. Try 233 strikeouts in 166 innings.
Then, late in the season, the vulgarity "dead arm" was heard. Stomachs went queasy. All through September, Cub fans waited for Wood's return like GIs hoping for air support on Omaha Beach. It finally came, albeit too late -- the Cubs got swept by the Braves. But that was almost an afterthought. In Chicago's curtain closer, Wood threw five power innings, striking out five. The flamethrower hadn't flamed out.
Now, for the encore. At 21, Kerry Wood can legally drink. Perhaps this October, just perhaps, with Sosa by his side, he can finally give the North Siders a reason to uncork the 1908-vintage bubbly. -- Stephen Rodrick
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
When his first win last April was followed by four DNFs, the Greek chorus in NASCAR's Busch series garage sniped that the stat meant Dale's Not his Father. Then Junior peeled off six more wins to nail down the '98 title. Now he's called Lil' E. And the Fates in the clouds are howling 'til their sides hurt. Dale Earnhardt Jr. grew up watching the old man on TV, when Senior still had long hair and kept everything in the world -- except the car in front of him -- at arm's length. He was raised by nannies and sent to military school. When he wanted to speak to the Intimidator, he had to call ahead to get 15 minutes. When he wanted a job, he was given a rag and a gig changing oil at Dale Earnhardt Chevrolet in Newton, N.C.
He learned he would be driving the Dale Earnhardt Busch car through a press release. Even now he has to hear that the old man is proud of him through others. But don't wait for him to unload on Jerry Springer. Not when he's about to become the millennial line extension of a marketing empire that helps NASCAR sell more T-shirts than the Rolling Stones do.
His style owes more to Mortal Kombat than NASCAR 99, and for this the Nintendo addict is unapologetic. So what that he took a revenge run at Joe Bessey in South Boston, Va., punting the vet into the wall sideways. So what that he was already on a 90-day probation for roughing up Tony Stewart at Pikes Peak. (Stewart got so mad, he chased Junior into a trailer.) "I think that's what the sport needs," he says. "Everyone gives me crap about drivin' rough. But it's like watching boxing. You don't pay to see someone throw the jab all night. You want to see the knockout."
You wonder if August A. Busch IV, who's shelling out $10 million to be the sponsor of Earnhardt's 2000 rookie season, is ready for the kid who likes his Pearl Jam loud and is only now moving out of his double-wide. But rest assured, everyone else is. Because today's regulars are more predictable than a Nick at Nite lineup, he will make the '99 season feel like a movie trailer. At its end in November, the 91-day countdown starts for his full-time debut in the Winston Cup series on Feb. 13, 2000.
Humpy Wheeler, the Charlotte Motor Speedway president, believes that NASCAR needs Earnhardt, but that Jeff Gordon needs him more. Says Wheeler, "Great champions are measured against great rivalries, and Jeff hasn't had one yet." -- Shaun Assael
Labeling Jamal Anderson is like bringing him down in the open field -- few can do it. And by December '99, when Anderson is again running the Falcons to the playoffs, everyone will know it for sure.
He runs toward the middle because that's where 5'11'', 235-pound running backs go. But he can change his mind, burst left, drop a linebacker with a wicked stiff arm and high-step it around the corner to the end zone. He's too quick, agile and unpredictable to be a one-dimensional blocking fool. His massive legs that squat 670 pounds give him the option to run you over. But he's just as likely to tease you with a hip fake and tiptoe down the sideline. Jamal Anderson, not anyone else, defines who he is.
In his fifth season, Anderson, 26, has finally stepped into the spotlight you might say was destined to shine upon him. His mother, Zenobia, and father, James, provided an exciting life for him and his seven siblings in their suburban El Camino, Calif. home. James was a bodyguard for Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard and Mike Tyson. Jamal has memories of Ali performing magic tricks for him. He was in Sugar Ray's dressing room when Leonard beat Marvelous Marvin Hagler in '87.
A nice, comfortable, exciting childhood may not be what most people expect a black athlete to have come from. "I think there's some resentment from people because I didn't struggle like I'm supposed to," he says. "You know, the typical stereotype: An athlete has to come from nothing to amass anything. It's just not true."
The '94 draft certainly wasn't comforting. After averaging 5.7 yards per carry his senior year at Utah, Anderson had to wait until the seventh and final round before the Falcons chose him 201st. He recalls thinking, "Oh, man, what happened to me?"
"I'm a better runner than William Floyd," he has said of the first fullback taken in that draft, but don't misunderstand the soft-spoken Anderson. He's just comfortable with himself and his confidence gives him a natural rapport with the media. Following a grueling 31-carry performance against the 49ers, he stood in the locker room -- surrounded by cameras, dressed in a powder-blue suit -- and praised the Falcon offensive line, naming each guy personally. He called fullback Bob Christian his "bodyguard."
Anderson joins Gerald Riggs and William Andrews as the only Falcons to rush for more than 1,000 yards three straight seasons. He's among the league rushing leaders again this season and, despite being the Falcons' workhorse, he doesn't fear burn out. That would be too predictable. -- Alan Grant