The Greatest Sports Year: 1991

Sports Illustrated magazine, just after 1998 was safely in the rear-view mirror, said that that year was the greatest sports year ever.  Ninety-eight was a phenomenal year, sure, with two sluggers chasing the greatest record in sports and Michael Jordan exiting basketball with a championship-winning shot.  But it’s possible that 1998 was not even the best sports year in its decade.  The year of 1991 was a better sports year than 1998, and the best way to prove it is to go sport by sport. 

If you like college football confusion, you’ll love either 1991 or 1998.  Ninety-one both began and ended in split national titles (Colorado/Georgia Tech and Miami/Washington).  The sportswriters and the coaches agreed for the next few years, but they split again in early 1998, declaring both Nebraska and Michigan the champion.  By the end of the year, the Rose Bowl joined the new and controversial Bowl Championship Series, which crowned Tennessee as its unlikely champion. 

College football may be a wash, but the NFL favors 1991.  Ninety-eight is cited as the year in which John Elway won his first Super Bowl, and it also contained the regular season that produced his second.  The 1998 Super Bowl, which pitted the underdog Broncos against the champion Packers, was a great game.  But it cannot match the phenomenal 1991 Super Bowl, played in the shadow of Operation Desert Storm, which featured arguably the most dramatic ending in Super Bowl history and served as a preview for three more years of Buffalo frustration.  In the regular seasons that followed, 1998, with Elway’s swan song and the Minnesota Vikings’ phenomenal offense (plus, I guess, the Falcons and the “Dirty Bird”), edge out 1991, which featured a remarkable Redskins team as well as the beginnings of Emmitt vs. Barry. 

The 1998 NBA season was punctuated by Michael Jordan’s exit from basketball.  He returned later, of course, but his dramatic final shot to defeat the Utah Jazz did mark the last time he would be seen in the NBA Finals.  The 1998 season was filled with drama for Jordan’s Bulls and the rest of the NBA, but it cannot match 1991, when Jordan came of age.  In the preceding years, the Bulls had risen above Bird’s Celtics, Barkley’s 76ers, and Ewing’s Knicks.  In ’91, the Bulls defeated the two-time defending champion Pistons to reach their first finals.  Their opponent was a Lakers team that featured Magic Johnson in the finals for the last time.  When the Bulls won, it was one of those “changing of the guard” moments that people love to talk about, but, more tangibly, it was a great series.  It even featured the Jordan switching-hands shot, which is possibly as memorable as his shot against the Jazz. 

For the college basketball fan, there is no question that 1991 was a better year than 1998.  After Duke had lost to UNLV in the 1990 NCAA final by a record margin, Hurley, Laettner, Hill, and company met Johnson, Augmon, Anthony, and Hunt in a national semifinal that was one of the greatest games ever played.  After winning 79-77, the Blue Devils defeated Kansas to win their first national title.  Earlier in the tournament, March Madness was redefined as a 15 seed defeated a mighty number 2 (Richmond over Syracuse, 73-69).   In 1998, by comparison, Kentucky came back to defeat Utah to end an NCAA tournament that was good but not great. 

In either of the two years, the hockey was good, judging at least by the Stanley Cup champion.  The ’91 Pittsburgh Penguins rode Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr to the first of back-to-back titles, and the ’98 Red Wings successfully defended their title as Yzerman, Federov, and company kept the Cup in “Hockey Town.”

Naturally, the national pastime will figure prominently in any sports year, and 1998 was considered possibly the greatest baseball year ever.  As Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa chased the 37-year-old single season home run record, the nation briefly forgot the money squabbles, performance enhancement controversies, and boredom that have plagued baseball since the strike of 1994.  The chase was amazing, as an American-born and a Dominican-born player rewrote baseball history and remained remarkably amicable.  McGwire broke Roger Maris’s record at home against Sosa’s Cubs, and he finished the year with a seemingly insurmountable mark of 70.  Now that Barry Bonds has hit an unthinkable 73, McGwire’s record has slipped a bit from the current mark to a past event, but as an event it rates among the very best in baseball history. 

The 1991 baseball season has nothing to compare with Mac and Sammy’s summer of ’98; that event is the reason most people consider 1998 the greatest sports year in history.  But for the baseball fan who looks at a season as a mosaic comprising individual performances, pennant races, and postseason play, the 1991 season had an awful lot to offer.  First, it featured Rickey Henderson’s breaking of Lou Brock’s stolen base record, after which he famously proclaimed, “I am the greatest.”  That same night, Nolan Ryan threw his seventh no hitter, both a record and a testament to the longevity of the Ryan Express (he was 44).  The 1991 National League pennant race was also memorable as the Braves and Dodgers, who entered September a game apart, went to the wire for the NL West championship.  The Braves won eight of their last nine games to secure the division crown by a game and face the Pittsburgh Pirates in the league championship series. 

The real jewel of the 1991 baseball season, though, was the World Series.  It featured the Minnesota Twins and the Atlanta Braves, two teams that had finished last in their respective divisions the previous year.  The Series was a classic, and, though it featured four games in the baseball-unfriendly Metrodome, it showcased some of the greatest baseball in history.  Games six and seven were probably the most memorable.  In game 6, Kirby Puckett’s eleventh inning home run forced a game 7 in which Jack Morris earned a 1-0 victory after ten innings of work. 

To be fair, the 1998 World Series was memorable, but not for its suspense.  The ’98 Series is remembered for having crowned the great 1998 New York Yankees as champions.  The Yankees’ 114-win regular season was great, but their postseason was a bore, punctuated by a 4-game sweep over the overmatched San Diego Padres. 

Ninety-eight did boast an Olympic games that ninety-one could not, though it is most remembered by Americans for its unwatchability due to poor television scheduling.  Dominik Hasek’s impenetrable goaltending did make a spectacular story, however, as the Czech Republic became the unlikely gold medal winner in ice hockey. 

Another factor the 1998 apologists will cite is the notable exits.  Michael Jordan, John Elway, and Wayne Gretzky all said goodbye in 1998—or did they?  We all know that Michael Jordan made a comeback with the Washington Wizards a couple years after his “final” game.  And John Elway’s finale, which was after the 1998 regular season, did not actually take place until the next calendar year.  Gretzky hung up the skates in 1998, but unlike Jordan and Elway he had exited the hockey spotlight a few years earlier.  All of this, though, misses the point that retirements are nice punctuation marks but are not very substantive by themselves.  When we say that Jordan and Elway retired memorably, we mean that they retired on top, not that they simply walked away from productive careers, as Gretzky did.  In 1991, by contrast, we were able to see all three in their prime.  The exits are great, but they happen in a press conference, not on the field.  If you want to say, as many do, that retirements have made a year great, you should cite the events surrounding the ending, not the career that was ended.  In that case, we’ve already covered the on-field and on-court aspects of the Elway and Jordan retirements. 

Sports publications, understandably, look at a great sports year as one that produces a lot of three-inch headlines.  While that’s certainly part of the equation, the rest of us sit on the couch and in the bleachers experiencing a certain ebb and flow that is forgotten with the passage of time.  We remember the big stories and individual accomplishments, but we also savor the memorable teams, the emerging stars, and the pervasive atmosphere that were woven into the sports fabric.  Some people think of a year as 50 or so magazine covers.  But the sports fan who remembers that sports takes place on the field every day is likely to prefer 1991 to 1998.