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1998 Best of Dallas

BEST PLAY-BY-PLAY TEAM Eric Nadel and Vince Cotroneo, Texas Rangers, KRLD-AM (1080)

We've never met anyone who loved the game of baseball more than Eric Nadel, which is quite a thing to say given that Nadel has spent the last 20 years of his life watching every single Texas Rangers game. Don't they give out Congressional Medals of Honor for such acts of heroism?

It seems like only yesterday we were young children with our Realistic transistors tucked beneath our pillows during late summer nights, listening as Nadel and his old friend (and ours) Mark Holtz called a West Coast game featuring the Oakland Athletics and Don Zimmer's lowly Rangers squad. It didn't seem like summer without the voices of Nadel and Holtz in our earphones; it could have been 100 degrees, but without those two guys on our radios, it might as well have been football season with snow on the ground. Now, a year after Holtz's death from leukemia, Nadel carries on without his partner; so do we.

Before a spring-training game in Port Charlotte, Florida, Nadel stood on the roof of the press box at Charlotte County Stadium and said he could never explain how much he misses his old friend and mentor. He looked out across the ballpark, the wind to his front and the alligator swamp to his back, and said only that "I think of Mark every day during baseball season, and most other days too." But Nadel's new partner is no lump of coal to Holtz's perfect gem: In Holtz's place is the affable Vince Cotroneo, who spent the last seven years calling Houston Astros games--and surely he misses that right about now, with Randy Johnson setting the armpit of Texas on fire with shutout after sublime shutout. Cotroneo and Nadel have spent this season guiding us with patience, intelligence, and humor through some of the best and worst ball the Texas Rangers have ever played. Never in the history of the sport has a team with such high expectations performed to such low levels, and the boys in the booth make little effort to disguise their own frustrations with the Rangers--or their delight when something goes right.

One day, Nadel will be looked upon as one of the all-time broadcast-booth greats; Cotroneo, for his part, sounds delighted to sit next to him, learn from him, and pretend he's not filling a legend's seat far too big for him or, really, anybody. An honorable mention goes to Dallas Stars play-by-play man Ralph Strangis and his partner, color analyst Daryl Reaugh. Strangis has the hardest job in all of sports media--trying to explain to the listener what the viewer has trouble following. He'd win this award if listening to hockey on the radio wasn't so damned dull and annoying; it's not his fault.

BEST SPORTS ANCHOR
Dale Hansen, WFAA-Channel 8
KXAS-Channel 5 advertises Brian Jensen as "The Sports Guy," when he's really just a Dale Hansen starter kit. He must shop at Hansen's garage sales--where else you gonna find a sports coat in that shade of blinding blue? And Scott Murray, well, we like him well enough, except for his rather annoying habit of pronouncing athletes' names wrong; take a deep breath, Scott, and say it with us: No-VIT-sky. Take Max Morgan (please). Or Babe Laufenberg--and just what is the deal with local stations hiring ex-Cowboys to read the TelePrompter? Oh, well--better that than a playbook. (There are more homers on local TV than in the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa race.) And Mike Doocy is literally the definition of a talking head. No offense, Mike, we still think you're good-looking, but you just don't fit on our 27-inch TV.

We like Dale--no, we absolutely adore Dale, love him like he was kin--because he's a royal pain in the ass, because he's so cynical he makes us feel good about our lives, and because he realizes this is just sports we're talkin' about, fellas, so lighten up and have a shot. He's the one local desk jockey who could never be accused of being a home-town cheerleader, and if he too often slants the other way, well, that's just a welcome relief from the rah-rah-sis-boom-blah that clings to the other sports desks like so much Cameron Diaz hair gel. Dale's a cranky genius, prone to go off like a time bomb and force Tracy and Chip to clean up his mess. More often than not, they look at him like he's an idiot--or just drunk. Which he is, on himself and on this game we like to call sports anchoring.

READERS' PICK
Dale Hansen

Best SPORTS MOMENT OF 1998
Dallas Mavericks 104, Chicago Bulls 97
It happened as though in a dream, a barely remembered engram long since faded. Even now, reading about it in an old notebook kept while watching it unfold before our very own eyes, it seems as though the moment never occurred. We recollect it almost as though we watched it out of the corner of our eyes, unsure whether we saw what we thought we saw. No--must have been smoke, a ghost, a trick of the light.

 

But wait, there it is, in the notebook and the stat sheets and the newspaper clips written in disappearing ink that begin to fade. Says it right there. Dallas beats Michael Jordan. Lowly Mavs humiliate mighty Bulls. A dynasty is shamed. Yes, en route to winning their 542nd consecutive world title, the Chicago Bulls came to Reunion Arena and got beat by Michael Finley and Cedric Ceballos on a March night that seems so long ago now, so many yesterdays and defeats and owner lockouts behind us.

It begins to come back to us, the Finley revenge baskets and the Ceballos three-pointer with 3.9 seconds left on the clock that nailed shut the Bulls' coffin. We recall how, on that night, Jordan played more like a shadow than a superstar, connecting on only 10 of 24 shots taken. We recall Dennis Rodman's return to his hometown and the sideline temper tantrum when he refused to put his shoes back on. We recall a crowd that cheered as though these were the good old days of 1988 and not the awful present; we recall the flash bulbs and the cheers and the Reunion Rowdies clearing their throats for one more "Shout" before the season came to a crumbling close.

We recall, still in a haze, the moments after the game, when the locker-room locusts crowded around Jordan and wanted to know how the Bulls could lose to Dallas. We recall his sharp suit, his sly smile, his short answers--This doesn't matter, said the look on his face. But most of all, we recall Rodman's answer to some buffoon's question about how it feels to lose to the Mavericks. "Does it hurt?" asked the TV talking head. "No," Rodman answered, the giant grin cutting his face in half. "It hurts when you go out for a couple of drinks and a girl won't have sex with you. That hurts."

Yes it does, my brother. Losing to the Mavericks? Well, that's a pain barely felt...and so quickly forgotten.

READERS' PICK
Stars playoffs

BEST TEAM IN THE AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST
Um...The Texas Rangers?
At the time of this writing, the Rangers are still in the hunt for the AL West title, trailing the Anaheim Angels by...one game...no, two...no, one...no, two...no, now they're two ahead of Anaheim...no, now they're not. Watching the Rangers this season has been like riding a Six Flags roller-coaster nonstop since April. Just when you think you've thrown up for the last time, here comes another dip at a thousand miles per hour, usually when John Burkett has the ball.

The boys in Arlington seem at once desperate to win and eager to lose this division, which is more mediocre than a Celine Dion song. Odds are 5-to-1 them Little League champs could take either team in the West in a best-of-five series, if only because they have better pitching. At the beginning of the season, second baseman Mark McLemore sat at his locker and insisted the Rangers are not victims of their own history. "Nobody on this team has been here for 27 years," he said. "This team's history means nothing to everybody in this locker room. We're here to win it. It doesn't matter what happened before."

Six months later looks like 10 years earlier, as Texas has failed to run away with a division so pitiful, Sally Struthers laughs at it. Even with Aaron Sele and Rick Helling pitching lights-out, even with Juan Gonzalez driving in more runners than a chauffeur, even with Will Clark born again behind the plate, even with John Wetteland recording save after ulcer-inducing save, Texas stumbles damned near every time it runs out of the dugout. They've given up nearly 80 unearned runs this season (come back, Benji Gil, all is forgiven), gone 17-17 in games decided by one run, and couldn't get a winning streak going during the final month of the season against sub-.500 teams.

Nothing against Johnny Oates (fire him), but the skipper (please) can't seem to motivate his boys to play pro ball in an amateur division (not kidding). Maybe Tom Hicks needs to reconsider his investment before he plugs this leak with a wad of wasted millions. And to think, Kevin Elster was gonna save this team. Where's he now? Probably out in Los Angeles, shooting a pilot for a mid-season replacement.

BEST PLACE TO ROLLERBLADE
FAIR PARK
One afternoon this spring, we were sitting on the steps of the Cotton Bowl, listening to the sound of our own heart beat--that's how quiet Fair Park is in the middle of the afternoon 11 months out of the year. Then, suddenly, about 25 Rollerbladers--or in-line-skaters, to be politically correct--sped by us at breakneck speeds, turning the Esplanade into the Detroit Grand Prix of Rollerblading. In a moment, the ghost town better known as Fair Park was alive with the tiny rumble of skates grooving along the cement paths--the whrrrrrr-whrrrrrr of it all.

 

READERS' PICK
WHITE ROCK LAKE

BEST SPORTS COLUMNIST
Frank Luksa, The Dallas Morning News
When Randy Galloway moved to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, he ruined Mondays for us. Used to be, we could flip on Galloway's WBAP-AM (820) radio show the day after a Cowboys loss and listen to the Cuervo King get down with his football-writing buddies from The Dallas Morning News. Not that we've anything against columnist Jim "Revo" Reeves (a durned likable and smart feller) or beat writer Kevin Lyons, but they just ain't Frank Luksa and Rick Gosselin (a man The Ticket's talking heads correctly refer to as "The Mad Scientist" of the NFL). We used to love how Luksa didn't let Galloway get away with nothin'; Frank's wit and wisdom cut through Randy's good-ol'-boy bull-shootin' like it was so much static.

Those days are gone now. Galloway, lured away by promises of freedom and hundreds of thousands of dollars, has abandoned Luksa to Sports Day Executive Editor Dave Smith and all them pea-brains at the Morning News, who insist on burying Luksa's sports-page poetry inside the section while playing up "newcomer" Tim Cowlishaw as though his "insights" were brand-new. Look, Dave, we're tired of those godawful Cowlishaw radio spots and billboards; why don't you give that money to Frank and call it even?

Any man who pens columns like Luksa's July 3 farewell to the engimatic greatness that was Tony Tolbert ("I thought it sad that anyone would play this long and well for the Cowboys and leave on such a muted note. That's why I wrote a column about Tolbert, whoever he was.") should be celebrated, not cast aside for a fresh face who peddles stale ideas. Not that it makes one damned bit of difference: Luksa's Tolbert column didn't even get played on the front page of Sports Day. We had to dig for it, as though it were gold. Of course, it was.

READERS' PICK
Randy Galloway

BEST THING TO HAPPEN TO THE DALLAS MAVERICKS
The NBA lockout
Word is the owners' lockout could end sometime in the middle of October, when arbitrator John Feerick rules on the owners' contention that players with guaranteed contracts shouldn't be paid during the lockout. If Feerick rules in the players' favor, it's likely the owners will call off their lockout and welcome back their property with open arms.

Please, say it ain't so. We're looking forward to a winter without the Mavericks, a year off from the misery and shame this so-called basketball team brings to our beloved city. Let Don Nelson stay in Hawaii, drinking beer and working on his tan; the man plain wears us out anyway. Like, who in the hell does that guy think he is, telling Junior Perot he's the coach till he feels like it, then his baby boy's taking over whether he likes it or not? That guy's got Spaldings for balls, and we kinda respect that.

Let Kurt Thomas rest that ankle another season; he can get injured in 1999. Let Shawn Bradley add about 100 pounds to that super-freaky frame of his, though it really don't mean much when a guy that tall (7-foot-6) can't shoot, dribble, rebound, block, or pass. (Mr. Bol, your table is ready.) And just let the rest of us be.

Frankly, the thought of having to watch the worst team of the 1990s play one more game this year turns our stomachs. We'd be happy if the Mavericks were sold to a German investor and moved to Berlin, where new Mav Dirk Nowitzki can play without having to wave bye-bye to his mommy and daddy. Sprechen ze suck?

BEST DALLAS COWBOY
Troy Aikman, quarterback
On a team so often judged by its worst players of late--does David LaFleur actually get paid to play like that?--it's a chore to single out its best individual. Not that Jerry's team doesn't still feature a few superstars on its roster, one or two guys who might well make it into the Hall of Fame should the nominating committee choose to overlook some players' tastes in pharmaceuticals and girlfriends.

Just look at Emmitt Smith, who, two games into the young season, had already racked up 217 yards and one touchdown; he's on pace to best his numbers from last season by...what?...week eight. Or newcomer Ernie Mills, the former Carolina Panthers wide receiver who was averaging 20 yards per reception going into Monday night's game against New York and already has two TDs on the season--two more than Michael Irvin, a man who gives and gives to the community, because the court ordered him to. Hell, he keeps playing this way, and kicker Richie Cunningham might well get our vote for best Dallas Cowboy. After the Cardinals and Broncos game, the guy was four-for-four on field goals--including a 54-yarder that tied a Cowboys record nobody much talks about. Of course, the last guy Jerry Jones wants to see on the field this season is Cunningham, unless he's kicking an extra point. Richie played so much last season, he kept telling Troy Aikman to call him "Sir."

 

But there's little doubt it's Aikman who steers this team away from the iceberg this season, depending upon whether his collarbone heals properly and quickly and Jason Garrett can hang in there long enough for there even to be a season to rescue. Not that we have anything against Garrett--sure, he won his last start, in 1994, and we love any guy who can speak eloquently on the merits of Bob Dylan. But this is Aikman's team. It wasn't his fault last year was such a bust: It's not as if he had anyone but Michael Irvin to throw to, given that Anthony Miller couldn't catch a ball if the ball had hands. Teams covered Michael Irvin like Marty Griffin last season, leaving Aikman to throw to Miller, Eric Bjornson (whose last name is apparently Swedish for "underachieving"), and LaFleur, who's such a non-entity, we're always surprised refs don't flag the Cowboys for having too few men on the field whenever he's in the game.

Troy's the third-most reliable quarterback in the history of the game. He has three Super Bowl rings. And he's always the first guy to talk to the media and the last guy to leave during such interview sessions, making him one of the most patient men this side of Gandhi, especially when he has to endure questions from the likes of Channel 4's Geraud Moncure. This team doesn't even make it to Valley Ranch without Aikman, much less the playoffs.

BEST DALLAS COWBOY
READERS' PICK
Troy Aikman

BEST MOB ACTION
The deportation of Barry Switzer
Cowboy fans were downright mad after last season, and we had to blame someone for our team's on-field woes. Just how ticked we were became evident with how ferociously we bid farewell to Barry Switzer. If you think he just got fired by Jerry Jones, you weren't listening to talk radio. It was the whole mob of us kicking his lazy butt back across the Red River. Jones had no choice, lest he, too, wanted to be lynched. We, the fans, exiled that potty-mouthed, gun-toting, Sunday-ruining gigolo to Oklahoma, Super Bowl ring and all. Chan's our man now. Switzer, B. is history. Yeah, boy, we told him off good.

BEST SPORTS WEB SITE
Texas Rangers
We'll fess up. During the appropriate season you regularly find us perusing all the city's major sporting team sites--dallasstars.com, texasrangers.com, and dallascowboys.com. (No, we don't spend much time at dallasmavericks.com. We don't have any desire to spend any real time with them; why would we want to waste precious virtual time?) All are good, offering up plenty of reports, stats, photos, sound clips, and videos. The Cowboys site even has a Cheer Report so you can stalk--er--keep tabs on your favorite pom-poms. What's not to like about that? But, truthfully, there's only one site that we really get jiggy with, only one that we truly interact with--texasrangers.com. While the Cowboys site uses a nifty new QuickTime trick to virtually show you the view from different sections of Texas Stadium, texasrangers.com can literally take you out to the ballgame (and the QuickTime virtual trick is promised soon). We've often hopped online, decided we wanted to go to a game that night, entered how many seats we need, and either let the site show us the best seats available or picked out the seats ourselves. A simple secure credit card transaction later, and we had tickets waiting for us at the gate. Try that with a Cowboys game and you'll wind up wading through Ticketmaster's pain-in-the-ass site for a month of Sundays and still need to cuss someone out on the phone before it's all said and done.

www.texasrangers.com

BEST SPORTS VENUE
THE BALLPARK IN ARLINGTON
We'd pick Lone Star Park, if only because it's the only sports venue in town where we can pick up a little extra scratch (and not much--this season, we gave new meaning to the word handicapping). But we still have to give it up for the Ballpark, even if it's the home of the Texas Rangers; never has such a beautiful monument to the game of baseball been wasted on such undeserving recipients. Don't get us wrong: As lifelong Dallasites, we love the Texas Rangers and have suffered through every humiliating season as though each come-and-gone player was our own flesh and blood. But the old Arlington Stadium is good enough for a team that has appeared in the playoffs once in 27 years; a minor-league team should play in a minor-league park. Forget the game, though (Why not? The Rangers do all the time), and consider the surrounding charms of the Ballpark: The Legends of the Game Baseball Museum and Learning Center is a delightful, informative step into the past (not to mention a catcher's shoes--one interactive exhibit lets you "catch" a Nolan Ryan fastball). We can spend hours in there looking at old jerseys and photos and other pieces of memorabilia lovingly collected by the museum's curators. Better to glance upon a piece of the past than to sit and watch the present out on the Ballpark's glorious diamond; there just ain't no way to be kind about a so-called first-place team that ends the home portion of the regular season by committing four errors.

 

READERS' PICK
THE BALLPARK IN ARLINGTON

BEST BOWLING ALLEY
THE BRONCO BOWL
The bowling alleys here aren't necessarily the best in town, though the renovations that took place three years ago did turn a run-down institution into a 10-pin palace for us regular schmoes. (Actually, for sheer decadence, we prefer the handful of lanes buried in the back of Dave and Buster's on Walnut Hill and Central. It's like being in a movie star's mansion, munching on tater skins and guzzling beer while sitting in plush leather seats.) But bowling at the Bronco Bowl is only part of the charm (that is what it's called, right?), and it ain't like there's that much difference between bowling alleys when you get down to it. Anyone who says different works for Don Carter's. At the Bronco Bowl, you've also got pool tables galore, a decent video arcade, a sports-themed restaurant, a bar that ain't so bad--and when all is said and done, there's always the concert hall in the back, where the rock is usually solid.

2600 Fort Worth Avenue, (214) 943-1777
READERS' PICK
DON CARTER'S ALL STAR LANES

6343 E. Northwest Highway, (214) 363-9418; Walnut Hill & Stemmons Freeway, (214) 358-1382

BEST BILLIARDS
MAIN ST. BILLIARDS
Everybody's got their favorite pool hall--frankly, we're partial to dark holes along Gaston Avenue, places that haven't seen sunlight and fresh air since cigarettes got filters. Some people will tell ya Clicks is the best; others, Speed's; a few more, Dave and Buster's, where the felt is as smooth as glass, the balls are as shiny as polished marble, and the sticks are as straight as George Clooney. Pool players are as picky about their shooting galleries as they are their cues. Bad music on the jukebox, terrible amateurs on the table next to you (taking an hour to play a single game), and weak-ass drinks can ruin a night out for the casual ball striker and the pro hustler. (That's why we never go to Royal Rack anymore: Love the cool vibe, mon, but it's more about ambiance than sport.) Main St. Billiards has the disadvantage of being in Deep Ellum--and in a location more cursed than any sacred burial ground upon which tract homes have been built--but every time we've been in there, the place is half-empty, the beer's ridiculously cheap, and the jukebox isn't so bad to throw off our game (even if we had one).

2642 Main St., (214) 742-7665
READERS' PICK
CLICKS
VARIOUS LOCATIONS

BEST SPORTING GOODS STORE
JUMBO SPORTS
We remember the good old days when Oshman's seemed like a decadent experience. After all, our mom and dad always took us to Doak Walker's when we needed some new cleats and bats and goggles, and Oshman's pretty much overwhelmed our young athletic senses. Nowadays, you can get used golf balls at Tom Thumb, pitching machines at Target, and anything else you need at myriad sporting-goods superstores around town. The Jumbo Sports is pretty much what it advertises: It's big, it's got supplies for pretty much every sport you need and in every size imaginable, and the price is what you might imagine when a store buys balls in bulk. Still, we miss the mom-and-pop days. So do Mom and Pop.

11100 North Central Expressway, (214) 750-7484
READERS' PICK
OSHMAN'S
VARIOUS LOCATIONS

 

BEST CAMPING GEAR
REI
Sure, you can find some gear cheaper at Target--you can get a little bit of everything cheaper at Target. But when the only thing between you and multiple concussions from a sudden hailstorm in the Guadalupe Mountains is a thin layer of rip-stop nylon, do you really want to cheap out on that tent? We think not. If your idea of camping involves lawn chairs, miniature televisions, and staying in sight of your car, feel free to shop the discount stores till you drop. But for the more adventurous, REI offers decent prices on an array of high-quality boots, stoves, packs, sleeping bags, tents, and canoe and kayaking equipment. They even stock those fancy powdered mixes and camp ovens that allegedly let you cook a pizza while listening to the coyotes wail. REI offers a full range of climbing gear and rock-climbing competitions on a 28-foot practice wall in the store. Being pear-shaped, spindly-armed news folk, we've yet to try out the wall ourselves, but watching others do so can make for some fine entertainment while we shop. Now where are those pizzas?

4515 LBJ Freeway, (972) 490-5989
READERS' PICK
REI

BEST PLACE TO JOG
WHITE ROCK LAKE
A bit obvious, you say? Well, of course it is. That's why White Rock perennially is the favorite jogging spot for Observer readers and the, um, two members of our staff who jog. The nine miles of trails circling the lake offer plenty to distract you from your aching feet, tortured knees, and wheezing chest, and we're not just talking ducks here. The closest thing we have to New York City's Central Park features a cross-section of Dallas' population for your entertainment: Spandexed skaters, parents and children fishing, moneyed yachtsmen sailing, and plenty of guys just hanging out, sharing the music from their car stereos with you. It's a rolling symphony of Tejano, C&W, metal, and rap. Thanks guys! It can get a bit crowded, but the trail is paved and generally smooth and level, some of the water fountains work, and occasionally what passes for a cool breeze in Dallas blows off the lake. Best of all, the many fine drinking establishments of Lakewood and Greenville Avenue are just a short drive away. Go ahead, you've earned it. Besides, it's a medical fact that hops and barley provide the body with important electrolytes. Really.

READERS' PICK
WHITE ROCK LAKE

BEST PLACE TO WORK OUT
HOME OF CHAMPIONS
There are no fancy weight machines, no StairMasters upon which you can jiggle your flabby thighs; you want a steam, a massage, a facial, or a beauty salon on the premises, go to Signature Athletic Club or the Landry Center or one of them fancy gyms--or health clubs, as you call them. We prefer this Oak Cliff punching-bag paradise run by a veritable boxing legend, former welterweight world champion Curtis Cokes, who trains his fighters here and, for a fee, allows the regular folk a chance to sweat in his shadow. Cokes is a gentleman, a fight scholar, a bona fide hero, and still in shape so many decades after wearing the belt; he will make a man out of you, even if you're a girl. Plus, we recommend this place because it's where Michael Irvin works out--when he's taking a break from his community service. But don't bug the man.

111 E. Saner Avenue, (214) 941-5744
READERS' PICK
24-Hour Fitness
Various locations

BEST JOCKEY
Marlon St. Julien
He came out of nowhere, winning the very first race at Lone Star Park's inaugural meet in 1997. Then, without the benefit of first-rate mounts or long-standing relationships with top trainers, jockey Marlon St. Julien rode hard and placed a strong second in last year's jockey standings to Cajun rider Ronald Ardoin. Race followers wondered if the previously unknown 25-year-old rider from Lafayette, Louisiana, could sustain this surprising success.

This year St. Julien obliterated all doubts--not only about his talents, but about the ability of an African-American race rider to make inroads into a sport, thoroughbred racing, that has seen no prominent black jockeys in nearly a century. St. Julien ran away with the jocks' title at Lone Star--winning 78 races and $1.7 million in purse money during the spring meet. This time around, St. Julien got some of the best mounts, bagged his first $200,000 stakes race, and gained enough of a national profile that he was able to make a successful shift to a new riding circuit--in Chicago.

Those who detected St. Julien's talents back when he was riding cheap claimers at Louisiana's back-water Evangeline Downs know he's no novelty act. The polite, incredibly hard-working kid they call "Saint" is headed for the big leagues.

 

BEST DALLAS STAR
Mike Modano, center
We'd give this award to Brett Hull, but he hasn't suited up yet in the hometown black-and-green. Come see us in December, when we've figured out whether he's really the second coming of his old man or just another overrated hockey player--as though we could even tell the difference. We also thought about bestowing this honor upon Joe Nieuwendyk, who played in 73 games last season, led the team with goals (39) and assists (30)--and, hence, points, no duh--and whose playoff-ending knee injury against the San Jose Sharks in the first round could well have cost the Stars a shot at the Stanley Cup. When he went down, it felt as though he took the Stars with him, no matter how hard the boys tried. (Then again, the Detroit Red Wings were unstoppable Motor City madmen in the Finals, so perhaps it was just inevitable.)

Hell, Sergei Zubov and Pat Verbeek and even Jamie Langenbrunner could lay claim to this accolade. When you play for Ken Hitchcock, everyone's a star every other game. But we must give credit where it's due, to Mike Modano, who rebounded last year from a couple of just-above-mediocre seasons and proved he's more than just another pretty face by playing offense and defense. The man finally gave as good as he got, at least after head coach Ken Hitchcock had a little sit-down with the boy and explained what's what. Three years ago, Modano seriously considered retiring from the game and going into the golf business. He had grown weary of all the talk about how he was nothing more than a goal-scoring machine, how he cared more about his points than about his pals on the ice--perhaps because he agreed with the naysayers. He readily admitted during an interview early last season that he would become frustrated when he couldn't score, and that he wasn't even content with an assist; he had loftier ambitions.

Last season, at least before he went down with an injury, Modano had 38 assists in a mere 52 games; he also put the puck in the goal 21 times. In years past, such a point total would have been disappointing, even debilitating. But now, he's content to let Nieuwendyk or Zubov or even Verbeek rack up the points while he goes after opposing teams' star players. The boy's not afraid of anything anymore, especially of himself.

READERS' PICK
Mike Modano

BEST PROFESSIONAL COACH
Ken Hitchcock, Dallas Stars
In time, Ken Hitchcock will win a Stanley Cup. Preferably, it will come with the Dallas Stars. Then again, perhaps not--there is no job in this world more unstable than that of a pro hockey team's head coach. Just ask Scotty Bowman, the legend whose name is engraved on eight Stanley Cups--with three different teams. In three years, Hitchcock has turned a lost, nothing team into Presidents' Trophy owners, leading his team to the very best record in the National Hockey League last season. Never mind that the Stars were knocked out in the Western Conference Finals; no one goes into Hockey Town and comes out alive, not even the Dallas Stars.

In a sports town such as Dallas, where Chan Gailey is hailed as a revolutionary genius without even four games under his belt (and a game plan that sounds more like sandlot ball: Everybody go deep!), Hitchcock should be downright revered. Why? Because he believes in the concept of team before all else, because he has sacrificed and suffered so much to turn the Dallas Stars around in such an astonishingly short amount of time.

Not so long ago, the man wasn't even considered suitable head-coaching material--executives around the NHL thought he was too heavy for players to take seriously--despite his remarkable record in the minors. But since taking over the Stars midway through the 1995-1996 season, he has proven that patience, respect, discretion, and savvy can indeed turn a group of disparate men into a single, cohesive group.

To spend any time around Hitchcock is to admire and even adore him. Off the ice, he is a thoughtful, diligent man who would rather sit and talk about ideology and motivation than players and game plan. He's the very opposite of a man like Mavericks head coach-general manager Don Nelson, who literally explodes whenever asked why instead of how. Perhaps that is because Hitchcock fancies himself something of a philosopher, while Nelson is more of a gut-instinct kind of guy, someone who throws a mess against the wall and hopes Shawn Bradley sticks. Hitchcock's every action serves a purpose; he's probably the only guy in the world who thinks before he takes each breath. His players often say they could probably win without him. But deep down, it's doubtful they believe it--just ask Mike Modano, who was born again under Hitchcock's careful guidance.

 

"I'm hard on people who don't work," The Man Called Hitch said earlier this year. "I don't go away. I don't quit on them. I work with them, but I push, and I push those players to get up to the level that's needed for the team." The team. That's Hitchcock's favorite phrase. And that's why, one of these days, his team will win him the coveted cup from which Scotty Bowman keeps drinking.

READERS' PICK
Ken Hitchcock

BEST TEXAS RANGER
Will Clark, First base
Yes, yes, yes. Juan Gonzalez is having a career year, knocking in an average of one RBI every game. And as we wrote just two weeks ago, if the Rangers actually do make it to post-season play, it will be up to Gonzalez to put this team on his back and carry the boys into October. And yes, we know Pudge Rodriguez has a batting average even Mark McGwire would love to own; for a catcher, he sure knows how to hit. And yes, Rusty Greer's having a hellfire second half, proving once more that any talk of trading him in August was so much empty speculation (although we drool over the idea of having Roger Clemens heading this mediocre pitching rotation). And yes, yes, we know all about the how-the-hell-did-that-happen seasons Aaron Sele and Rick Helling are having. If you would have said at the beginning of the season that those boys were going to post 18-plus wins this season (as pitching coach Dick Bosman insisted), we could have called you crazy (OK, so we did).

But look, for a moment, at Will Clark's numbers as of September 22: a .306 batting average, 100 runs batted in (and he bats fifth in the lineup, which means he gets Gonzalez's leftovers), 23 home runs, 38 doubles, and a relatively injury-free season till last week. Don't think for a second Clark's playing this well because he's in the final year of his five-year contract. He's too much of a professional for that, one of those rare so-called "clubhouse leaders" who deserves such a moniker. His two singles last week against Baltimore--with a broken toe, no less--offer substantial proof of that.

What makes Clark's accomplishments that much more astonishing is that he plays in a town where he's as despised as he is beloved, who gets booed as often as Juan gets cheered. It's possible he won't be back next year--he will likely want a career-closing deal for too much money and too many years--but who would you replace him with? Lee Stevens? Rafael Palmeiro? Mike Simms?

How about Will Clark?
READERS' PICK
Pudge Rodriguez

BEST SPORTS TALK SHOW
Tie: Dunham and Miller and The Hardline, KTCK-AM (1310)
Warning: This item is loaded with Ticket jargon. Proceed with caution.

Craig "Donovan" Miller and George "The Homer" Dunham handle up on the morning drive (from 5:30 to 10 a.m.), while Greg "The Hammer" Williams and Mike "The Wolf" Rhyner steer you home with the afternoon presentation (3 to 7 p.m.), and they make nice enough bookends in this wasteland we call local radio. Better Dunham and Miller's shtick-'em-up than that spare Kidd Kraddick's Wonder Bread idiocies. And, to be honest, every now and then, we'll tune our radio to The Hardline Regurgitated (the hourlong rerun from 7-8 p.m.) to avoid those yahoos that first-time-long-time Randy Galloway to death.

Actually, we're quite fond of both Dunham and Miller and The Hardline, except when Dunham--the voice of Texas Stadium--insists the Cowboys are better than, oh, 5-11; never trust a guy who likes The Fixx and sounds like Norm Hitzges even when he's not doing an impression. (Just kidding, Magical Mystical One--we swear. Yeaaaaaaah.)

Both duos spout plenty of hot sports opinions, even when they ain't talking sports (which they do more than they're given credit for), and we especially love listening to fanboy Miller talk to George "The Iceman" Gervin (m'man) or hearing a growling Rhyner defend his Rangers-are-finished predictions to Rusty Greer. The one constant on both shows is Gordon Keith, whose Fake Juan Gonzalez and Fake Johnny Oates and Fake Randy Galloway (among so many other characters) are so dead-on and brilliant he makes us P1 in our pants. Speaking of which, Bruce Gilbert: Keith deserves his own daily show, and not just that Saturday-morning bone Ticket management throws his way. We like Keith's The Rant (mostly because it's a clip-and-paste show featuring his best bits of the previous week), but let's see what the boy can do five days a week. (How about "The Andy Panda Show?") It's got to be better than being whipped to death by the likes of Rocco "wheels off" Pendola and newcomer Bob Sturm, who's better than the ousted Max Miller...but so's Max Morgan. Watch out, bruthas--we see a failed-bit warning ahead.

 

READERS' PICK
The Hardline

BEST DALLAS MAVERICK
Michael Finley, forward
This is almost as big a no-brainer as the Dallas Mavericks themselves. As we've said all along, if Michael Finley--acquired in that Jason Kidd-to-Phoenix trade in 1996--played for a real basketball team, he'd be a superstar by now. As it is, he's stuck playing for Dallas' CBA franchise, a team so terrible the Los Angeles Clippers get excited when they see the Mavs on their schedule, even though the Mavs did beat Chicago, Indiana, and Seattle (twice) last season. And managed to finish 42 games back in the Midwest Division in the process--impressive.

Hell, it might not be so far off to say coach-general manager Don Nelson is the best player on the Mavs' bench--and he hasn't suited up since, what, the Ford administration? Last season, and it pains us to reflect back upon that debacle, Finley led the team in scoring (21.9 points per game), assists (4.9), and steals (1.6). Then again, he was also the only professional basketball player on the floor wearing green and white. Not to knock Erick Strickland--bless him, he tries hard--or Samaki Walker, who might be good, someday, or A.C. Green, who was rewarded this year for showing up to work 978 straight days--with, like, several off-seasons in between.

But without Finley, this pitiful excuse for a basketball team doesn't even win 20 games--four fewer than it won the year before, when Don Nelson blew up the Mavericks as if it was a federal building and told then-coach Jim Cleamons to clean up the mess. The best Dallas Maverick--what a totally worthless title.

READERS' PICK
Michael Finley

BEST SPORTS-TEAM OWNER (OF THE WORLD?)
Tom Hicks, Dallas Stars and Texas Rangers
Perhaps Chancellor Media Corporation's chairman wins this one by default. After all, the only Best-of-Dallas award Jerry Jones is likely to win this year is Best Ability to Cover Up What Really Happened to Everett McIver After Michael Irvin Stabbed Him In The Neck With A Scissors During Training Camp. And he sure ain't getting the nod for Best Hairpiece anytime soon, though he might well get Best Public Relations Move by putting Ticket morning man George Dunham on the payroll as the voice of Texas Stadium's public-address system. (Jerry hits a homer!) We like Jerry well enough, maybe because he talked to us during training camp, which is more than we can say for Mavs owner Ross Perot Jr., who ducks us in the Reunion Arena hallways as though we haven't bathed in months.

Hicks might well be a greedy (sorry--very smart and kind) son of a gun who's taking over the world a hundred radio stations at a time, and we sure don't appreciate the fact that he's determined to turn Dallas radio into rock and roll's graveyard with a bunch of oldies stations.

Still, here's a guy who signed Ed Belfour when he needed a goalie, reupped Mike Modano for relatively bargain-basement prices, then let Stars general manager Bob Gainey go out and make the biggest off-season signing in Dallas sports history by inking St. Louis Blues superstar (and son of a legend) Brett Hull. Hicks wants to win, no matter the price, which is evident in the skyrocketing Stars payroll--despite the fact that the team will keep losing money until it moves into the new arena, or so team management keeps insisting.

Now, the Rangers' situation is a whole different ball of twine: Hicks knows he needs to sign a Randy Johnson--he said that very thing during an interview with the Observer this spring--but that ain't gonna happen, and Todd Stottlemyre ain't no Randy Johnson (or Randy Jackson, for that matter). So he's stuck with a middling team fighting for its playoff life in a division that's barely breathing. And his timing couldn't be worse, with attendance falling well off last year's three million mark. Oh, well. He's going to own every single human being sooner or later, and surely there's one among us who can pitch worth a damn.

BEST SPORTS FAD
Dallas Burn and Major League Soccer
Soccer may be the most popular team sport in America, but try telling that to all the empty seats at the Cotton Bowl when Dallas' entry in the Major League Soccer league, the Burn, takes the field. The founders of the MLS forgot something important: Just like you shouldn't go shopping when you're hungry, you shouldn't start a professional soccer league when American interest in the game has been artificially boosted by hosting the World Cup. If it lasts two more years, we'll be surprised.

 


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