In sports, 1990 was a year in which those who thought they were very special were invariably brought very low. Those who acted as though they were above everyone else -- above the law or the rules or their sport, above their teammates or common decency or common sense -- had to pay some terrible comeuppances.

Conversely, almost every bad penny in '90 had a shiny flip side. For every George Steinbrenner who was banned there was a Fay Vincent who had the brains and guts to do the banning. For every Pete Rose who spent Christmas in jail, there was a judge who had the backbone to send an idol to the clink.

You can't have upset winners as historic as the Cincinnati Reds and "Buster" Douglas unless you have champs as cocksure as the Oakland A's and Mike Tyson. One always requires the other.

It's typical of 1990 that notorious Shoal Creek Country Club will ultimately be remembered for the doors it helped to open in golf in the future, rather than for the people it kept outside its gates in the past. Even 1990's most infamous team, the New England Patriots, left an ironic residue. For years, male athletes in every sport will think of "Lisa Olson" and the "Pity Pats" before thinking to sexually harass a woman reporter.

Our cautionary tales, painful as they were to the principals, almost always came equipped with heroes and heroines as well as victims and villains.

In coming years, the sad, sinister saga of Rose's fall will probably dwarf all the other stories in sports from the last couple of years. Rose has led a life of such enormous and ambiguously open-ended symbolism that it's hard to believe he won't become a subject of infinite revisionism well into the next century. You can use him to illustrate a lot of truths. And their opposites.

Rose was a common man, in background and talents, who made himself uncommon by labor and enthusiasm. That was his contribution to our culture. His crime (against himself) was that he forgot his commonality and began to act like a 20th-century aristocrat -- that is to say, like an untouchable celebrity. He went from being of us to being above us to being below us. Now, he'll probably spend the rest of his life outside us.

Just like Rose, Steinbrenner thought he could ignore baseball's ancient rules about associating with gamblers. He was banned forever -- a kind of Lifetime Achievement Award in reverse.

Some Oakland A's thought they were so good that they didn't need to re-prove it. In the World Series, they suffered the most unexpected sweep of a defending world champion in history. Biggest baseball upset ever? Well, the biggest since the 1954 Giants, that's for sure.

Some A's, like Jose Canseco, bragged before the Series about sweeping the Reds. Worse were Dave Stewart and others who insisted the A's were still the better team after they got skunked. In this case, telling the truth also is bad sportsmanship. Let others say it. Because if you say it, others won't.

With some help from the injured A's, Reds like Chris Sabo, Billy Hatcher, Barry Larkin, Tom Browning, Randy Myers and Jose Rijo found themselves swept along on one of baseball's great October waves. Redoubling the ghostly mood of the Series were memories of '88. One thing's for sure: No team has ever suffered two such Series indignities. According to one Post reporter, Pentagon brass buzzed about the Series for days, saying things like, "Let's not take Iraq's military power too lightly."

The Reds' victory ends the year nip-and-tuck with the Tyson knockout as the most memorable sports event of '90. If Tyson proves his greatness throughout the '90s and never loses another fight (while Douglas presumably returns to obscurity), then their fight in Tokyo will become more mythic. However, if the unpredictable Tyson continues to fall apart, Buster may eventually be seen as nothing more than Tyson's instrument of self- destruction. Then, The Upset would shrink with time.

The sight of Tyson groping for his mouthpiece actually helped revive boxing. Nothing creates public interest like legitimate debate over Who's The Real Heavyweight Champ of the World.

Everywhere we looked in 1990, we found Tysonish superiority complexes.

The University of Nevada-Las Vegas basketball team thought it could flaunt and taunt indefinitely. Within months of winning the national title, the Runnin' Rebels were suspended from the 1992 NCAA tournament. They now face charges that may bring them the NCAA's "death penalty."

Many think UNLV got off easy because it was allowed, on appeal, to play in the '91 NCAA tournament. In the long run, however, might this not be the best resolution? Let the UNLV kids, like Larry Johnson and Stacey Augmon, play out their careers. Then punish the adults. In time, Vegas may be remembered as the central symbol of a laudable and long overdue crackdown by the NCAA on college cheaters.

If the 1980s really were an American "Bonfire of the Vanities," and if the 1990s are destined to be a less self-centered, less self-infatuated time, then 1990 was a fitting fulcrum for the beginning of that pendulum swing in sports. Talk about a bad year for people who thought they were bulletproof.

Several Patriots assumed they could act and speak obscenely toward reporter Lisa Olson and get away with it. Several Washington Capitals thought they could have a sexual encounter with a teenage girl in a limo and get away with it. In the end, the men involved may have suffered as much emotional pain as they inflicted.

Okay, probably not.

In 1990, the news was eerily chock full of people who wished that they could have deflated themselves just a bit, rather than have somebody else do it for them after they stepped across that invisible line known as Common Sense. Hall Thompson thought he could keep blacks out of his Shoal Creek Country Club, then crow about it on the eve of the PGA Tournament. Instead, he became the Al Campanis of pro golf and yesterday resigned as chairman of the board of the golf club he founded. Roseanne Barr thought she could make a mockery of the National Anthem. Athens thought it could land the '96 Olympics on tradition alone. Instead, Atlanta and Billy Payne worked harder and stole the billion-dollar prize. Baseball's owners thought that, despite $430 million in profits for the previous three seasons, they could lock the players out of spring training and break their union. Instead the owners lost the lockout and, before the year was out, had to pay $280 million to the players in collusion damages. Andre Agassi crowed that "image is everything," then acted like he was not only above Wimbledon but above his whole sport. Instead, it was Pete Sampras, who takes modest Rod Laver as his role model, who won the U.S. Open from Agassi. When Sampras later captured a $2 million event, he gave $250,000 to charity, while Agassi continues to explain why he pulled out of the same tournament. Jimmy Valvano thought he was above supervising his basketball program and its scofflaw boosters. He made a fortune laughing on the rubber chicken circuit. But he was fired by North Carolina State in a storm of scandal. Those who control racing continued to believe they were above the need to treat their horses humanely. The Breeders' Cup became a tragedy, not just for Go for Wand but for a whole sport that now must reevaluate its use of drugs and its overuse of its horses. Buster Douglas thought he was above the public's right to an honest show for its money. He weighed 246 pounds for his pathetic defense against Evander Holyfield. However, Buster was not above pocketing his $23 million purse. Hank Gathers of Loyola Marymount, like many athletes who look "invulnerable," lulled himself into thinking that he could discount medical advice for his heart problems. While playing on lowered medication, he died on the court. We won't pretend to find any silver linings in this one.

Perhaps the best contrast of the year was between Bo Jackson and Deion "Prime Time" Sanders -- two men who dared to try to play both pro football and major league baseball. Bo made fun of himself in his TV commercials and came out with an autobiography which emphasized the emotional scars of his childhood. Deion covered himself with jewelry on the cover of Sports Illustrated and bragged before he produced. By the end of the year, Jackson had become the first athlete ever to be an all-star in both the NFL and major league baseball. Sanders was released by the Yankees and was having trouble as a defensive back with the Falcons.

While many of the biggest stories of 1990 revolved around characters who became carried away with themselves, let's not fall into the same mistake and get too carried away with our own premise. Plenty of the big news did not follow this pattern. In particular, the work of the San Francisco 49ers.

After winning the Super Bowl, 55-10, and beating three January foes in the postseason by a combined 100 points, the Niners held a team meeting and took a vow among themselves not to blow too much smoke. Instead, Ronnie Lott and Joe Montana, a couple of old-fashioned, tight-lipped types, committed themselves to the labor of "three-peating." So far this season, the 49ers are 13-2.

Of course, others were delighted to praise the 49ers. (A's: please note.) "They are playing as well as anybody ever has," said Denver Coach Dan Reeves after the Super Bowl. "And when they get up on you, they'll stomp you right into the ground."

"They are executioners," added Denver's Steve Atwater.

The chief executioner, as always, was Montana -- Mr. Blue Jeans Sneakers And Not Too Much To Say. He now has 19 touchdown passes and one interception in the last two NFL postseasons. "Get out your thesaurus and look up 'great,' " said 49ers linebacker Matt Millen.

Fortunately, San Francisco is not our only example when it's time to make New Year's resolutions. This was a great year for old coaches who'd been told they were finished, like Don Shula and Chuck Noll, and black quarterbacks who'd been told they'd never make it, like Randall Cunningham and Warren Moon.

When we wanted to feel good, we could look at Texas where Nolan Ryan, 43, pitched another no-hitter (one of nine in '90) and David Robinson showed how well you can play basketball if you're 7 feet 1 and score 1400 on your SATs.

No comeback is too remote to imagine if Cecil Fielder can come back all the way from Japan to hit 51 home runs or if Hale Irwin can come back from near- retirement to win the U.S. Open at 45.

All in all, with a few exceptions like the "Nasty Boys" repeat in the NBA, 1990 was a year in which sports mirrored the same trend that pop-culture mavens spotted in much of the rest of society. Trump-eting yourself, like The Donald, is out. But nobody's quite sure what's in. Are we really ready to retreat all the way back to Less Is More?

At least our Series hero Chris Sabo, finally got a new car. He traded in his ancient Volkswagen bug for an Escort.

CART: Michael Andretti

FORMULA I: Ayrton Senna

NASCAR: Dale Earnhardt

INDIANAPOLIS 500: Arie Luyendyk

DAYTONA 500: Derrike Cope

WINSTON 500: Dale Earnhardt BASEBALL

WORLD SERIES: Cincinnati beat Oakland, 4-0

BATTING CHAMPIONS: AL, George Brett, Kansas City, .329; NL, Willie McGee, St. Louis, .335

HOME RUNS: AL, Cecil Fielder, Detroit, 51; NL, Ryne Sandberg, Chicago, 40

CY YOUNG: AL, Bob Welch, Oakland; NL, Doug Drabek, Pittsburgh

MVPs: AL, Rickey Henderson, Oakland; NL, Barry Bonds, Pittsburgh BASKETBALL

NBA FINALS: Detroit beat Portland, 4-1

NBA MVP: Magic Johnson, Los Angeles Lakers



SUPER BOWL: San Francisco 55, Denver 10



MASTERS: Nick Faldo

U.S. OPEN: Hale Irwin


PGA SENIORS: Gary Player

SENIOR OPEN: Lee Trevino




STANLEY CUP: Edmonton beat Boston, 4-1

NHL MVP: Mark Messier, Edmonton HORSE RACING






WORLD CUP FINAL: West Germany 1, Argentina 0 TENNIS

U.S. OPEN: Men, Pete Sampras; Women, Gabriela Sabatini

WIMBLEDON: Men, Stefan Edberg; Women, Martina Navratilova

AUSTRALIAN OPEN: Men, Ivan Lendl; Women, Steffi Graf

FRENCH OPEN: Men, Andres Gomez; Women, Monica Seles