The past year in sports was so packed with events, so loaded with new games and new leagues, so inundated with young billionaire stars breaking old records and so chock full of tales of human interest and human frailty that the realm of athletics became inflated to the point of bursting.
When you try to condense and redigest it, the real shock about 1984 is that those 12 months of sport seem as dense in detail and drama as several years put together used to be. Is this the Golden Age of Games, or the beginning of sports satiety?
Did 1984 really contain two Olympic Games and one Olympic boycott? Was Peter Ueberroth (everybody's sportsman of the year) both the president of the Summer Games and the new commissioner of baseball? Did Jim Brown, Y.A. Tittle, George Blanda, O.J. Simpson and Wilt Chamberlain really have their most significant records broken? Were those really the Cubs in the playoffs and the Padres in the World Series? Could a football player (Steve Young) and a baseball star (Bruce Sutter) have signed the first pro contracts worth more than $40 million in the same year?
How easy it is to forget, among the welter of Thursday night NFL games and cable TV broadcasts of the Braves and ESPN wrapups at 8 a.m. and college football games rebroadcast in the middle of the night, that in 1984:
Sugar Ray Leonard retired minutes after a comeback victory and Swale died just eight days after adding the Belmont Stakes to a Kentucky Derby victory.
The Washington Redskins suffered the worst Super Bowl defeat ever in January, yet, by December, had redeemed themselves by winning their division title again despite constant injuries. Meanwhile, the world champion Los Angeles Raiders limped to a wild card spot and were ignominiously eliminated Saturday by the Seattle Seahawks.
The Georgetown Hoyas won an NCAA basketball title and Virginia reached the Final Four without Ralph Sampson. Maryland won its first ACC tournament title with Lefty Driesell.
Robert Irsay stole the Colts from Baltimore in the middle of the night; Leonard Tose almost snatched the Eagles out of Philadelphia to cover his casino debts, and black-hat Al Davis shook the underpinnings of the NFL by going to the Supreme Court and proving that he could move his Raiders anyplace he wanted and make it stick.
A former batting champion (Willie Wilson) started the year in jail and a boxing promoter (Don King) ended the year under the cloud of a tax-evasion indictment that, if he is convicted, could incarcerate him until 2024.
Pete Rose started the year in 4,000-hit glory, turned into an aged bench warmer by midseason in Montreal, then, in September, was suddenly the hard-hitting player-manager of his hometown Cincinnati Reds.
Carl Lewis could win the same four gold medals in Los Angeles that Jesse Owens captured in 1936 in Berlin, yet somehow rub the public so wrong that he ended the year less of a hero than he began it.
Bill Johnson, Phil Mahre and Debbie Armstrong could win gold medals in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, as the United States -- never a Winter Olympic power -- won five gold medals in the Games' glamor sport: skiing.
The connection between all these events, and many others like them, is their unexpectedness, their novelty, their power to demand our attention and, therefore, the cumulative sense that as contemporary sports fans, we are always playing catchup, trying to digest the latest landmark, appreciate the newest hero and figure out what six "big events" to watch on the tube this weekend.
Doubling our sense of the density in our sports calendar was the fact that this was a year in sports when anything could happen, no matter how improbable.
If little Mary Lou Retton needed back-to-back 10s in her final events to win the women's gymnastic gold, then she did it, just as the U.S. men's gymnastic team shocked heavily favored China. If Jeff Blatnick had to overcome Hodgkins disease to win his wrestling gold, then he found a way and, in the process, made the nation cry with him in victory.
Perhaps a bigger shock than any individual Olympic performance was the realization that the Games were generally regarded -- at least in the United States -- as a major success, despite the Soviets' back-at-you boycott. The L.A. Olympic Committee turned a profit in the hundreds of millions, a first, and excellent U.S. television ratings seemed to say, "Russians? What Russians?"
This was the sort of year when the Chicago Cubs could become summer's darlings by going from next to last place to the playoffs behind a castoff pitcher (Rick Sutcliffe) with a 16-1 record, then blow the National League pennant with three straight losses, the last defeat going to the same Sutcliffe.
This was a season when such youngsters as Don Mattingly and Dwight Gooden could win batting championships and strikeout titles and do it in the Big Apple, where it counts double. It was a season when the most improbable collection of division winners ever -- the Cubs, Padres and Kansas City Royals -- could join the classy world champion Detroit Tigers in the baseball playoffs.
No long shot or comeback seemed too ludicrous to come true this year. When Greg Norman needed to make a 50-foot putt to force a playoff in the U.S. Open, he became the first golfer to sink such a shot for such stakes; that he could follow such a feat by losing the playoff to Fuzzy (the Towel Waver) Zoeller the next day was just another pie in the face of expectation.
Certainly, the Los Angeles Lakers spent the whole summer with just such pie on their mugs after blowing a seven-game NBA final series to a Boston Celtics team that couldn't touch them for talent; the Celtics grabbed a 15th banner for Boston Garden, and said goodbye to retiring General Manager Red Auerbach, the greatest team-builder of his generation in any sport, in true shamrock style -- with poise, mental toughness and spit-in-your-eye guts.
Maybe one team above all others epitomized the sense that anything, no matter how ludicrous or heroic, was possible in sports in 1984: the University of Miami football team. Two days into the year, Bernie Kosar led the Hurricanes to the season's No. 1 ranking with an almost unbelievable 31-30 Orange Bowl victory over an unbeaten and supposedly unbeatable Nebraska team.
However, in November, with Kosar still at quarterback, Miami lost two of the most remarkable games in college football history. First, they blew a 31-0 lead (an NCAA record) to Maryland, then closed the regular season with a loss on a last-play, 65-yards-in-the-air pass by Boston College.
Naturally, at least by '84 standards, that final bomb of a 47-45 game was thrown by Doug Flutie, the 5-foot-9 1/2, 176-pound bundle of charm and moxie who became the first quarterback in 13 years to win the Heisman trophy. Why shouldn't a midget quarterback get the award in a season in which Brigham Young could nurse a patsy schedule and an undefeated regular season record into a shot at an extremely dubious No. 1 ranking?
At least a dozen college football "powers" figured they could spot BYU a couple of touchdowns and still bet the ranch that they'd blow 'em away. But then, that's how opponents felt about Flutie and he kept proving them wrong.
Just as soon as a fan thought their was some certainty in any sport, he learned how wrong he was.
For example, the New York Islanders, after winning four straight Stanley Cups, had the NHL's top prize taken from them by Edmonton; those Oilers were led by Wayne Gretzky, who won his fifth straight MVP award and continued to establish himself as the most mythic contemporary athlete in pro team sports.
In individual sports, the same rule was true. Just soon as everybody was sure that John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova would never lose a big match, they staggered in the last days of the year. Navratilova won 74 consecutive matches, breaking Chris Evert Lloyd's record of 55, and she won seven straight Grand Slam events; however, her Australian Open loss to Helena Sukova kept her from a calendar-year Grand Slam. McEnroe, the victor at Wimbledon and in the U.S. Open, was embarrassed in the Davis Cup when his defeats in singles and doubles were at the heart of the U.S. team's loss to Sweden.
Even the shape of entire sports changed this year. The NFL's ratings dropped and its image suffered. The USFL raided players and drove up salaries. Davis' victory in court and the Irsay and Tose fiascos made NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle look like a paper-tiger public relations creation. Bowie Kuhn may have had to stomach player free agency, but Rozelle got stuck with, in his own words, "franchise free agency."
College football was even more radically altered as a Supreme Court ruling threw open the gates for every TV outlet from network to cable to your brother-in-law with a home movie camera to telecast NCAA games. Even PBS joined the oversaturation circus, televising Ivy League games.
While football worried, the NBA finally started getting healthy again. Perhaps no one on earth, including new Commissioner David Stern, understands the theory or practice of the salary cap; it's tougher than the block-charge rule or the criteria for an illegal zone defense. All the hoop world really needs to know is that it seems to work, sort of.
Salaries have leveled off in the ionosphere and not actually reached outer space. Now that the NBA's game of musical chairs in ownership has slowed, fans can focus on the game itself -- a sport that has never been played at such a high level now that the league has gotten some spectacular new attractions, including gold-medal Olympic star Michael Jordan and the combination of Ralph Sampson and Akeem Olajuwon in Houston.
In Washington area sports, this was also a year marked by startling changes. Who dreamed a year ago that Abe Pollin would finally open his pocketbook wide enough to sign Gus Williams and Cliff Robinson for his Bullets and make them a fairly entertaining ticket? Even more dramatic, who thought that the frugal Baltimore Orioles, after plummeting from a world title to fifth place, would spend more money on offseason free agents than any team in baseball -- nearly $12 million -- for Fred Lynn, Lee Lacy and Don Aase?
You certainly could have fooled the Virginia Cavaliers if you'd told them that, after losing their opening football game, 55-0, they would go undefeated for nine games before losing a showdown for the ACC title to powerful Maryland. Even those Terrapins might have been pleasantly surprised if you'd told them that they'd have three of the most impressive successive victories -- over Miami, Clemson and Virginia -- in the program's history.
As in every year, we got a chance to tip our hats to old friends as they departed and welcome new protagonists.
Ray Meyer left De Paul after 42 years of college coaching and did it fittingly -- reacting to an inexplicable and crushing defeat with a wonderful smile and generosity of spirit that made it immaterial that he didn't seem to be a particularly special basketball coach. Just a wonderful person.
Old Edwin Moses got his Olympic gold medal (his 105th straight hurdles victory) and with it the mega-attention that had long escaped him. John Henry, the ancient equine of 9, won the Budweiser Million, prompting his owner to say, "The only thing he can't do is talk."
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar passed Chamberlain in career scoring and Walter Payton surpassed Brown's lifetime rushing yardage mark. Thus, two modest, prudent and well-liked men took the places in the record books of two other fellows who might not fare so well if measured by those same standards.
When we look ahead to 1985, we already wonder what more we can expect from our phenoms of '84. Can Dan Marino pass for more than 48 touchdowns? Can Eric Dickerson run for more than 2,105 yards? Can Gooden strike out more than 11 men per nine innings?
You sure wouldn't expect it.
But, in sports, that is almost always the point.
We can never seem to anticipate what actually happens. In a world in which our expectations seem to be constantly disappointed, the arena of sports seems to deliver not only more than it promises, but, at times, more than seems possible.
Maybe that is why our glut of games, our orgy of overtimes, our banquet of balls, has not left us jaded.