Friday, February 18, 2011

'Twas Twenty Years Ago: Chicago Sports Memories of 1991

MICHAEL JORDAN (foreground)
     After losing the Eastern Conference finals to the Detroit Pistons in both 1989 and 1990, the Bulls vowed that it would not happen again in 1991. They won 20 out of 21 games during a late-season surge that saw them overtake Detroit for the division title. Michael Jordan, in his seventh season, earned his second Most Valuable Player award, while fourth-year men Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant emerged as key contributors.
     In the postseason, the Bulls made quick work of the New York Knicks (three games to none) and Philadelphia 76ers (four games to one) to set up the opportunity that they had waited for all year: a rematch with Detroit in the conference finals.
     The Bulls not only won the series; they swept it in four straight games. They trailed for just 13 of the 192 minutes played. Detroit coach Chuck Daly frankly admitted that his team had no answer for the Bulls' quickness, athleticism, and desire. As the clock ticked down in the final game, Detroit's Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer, Mark Aguirre, and Dennis Rodman embarrassed themselves more thoroughly than the Bulls' dominance had. They left the bench and slinked into the locker room before the game was over. "[The Bulls] still haven't proved anything," Rodman said. "They've got to win about five or six championships before they're a great team."
     Even by Rodman's impossibly lofty standard, of course, the Bulls qualified for greatness before the decade was out.
     They dispatched Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers with surprising ease in the NBA Finals to capture their first world championship. Jordan cradled the trophy in his arms and wept for joy, but also for relief that he was no longer a superstar whose team had never won a title. He didn't know yet that this first ascent to the pinnacle was not the culmination of his career, but just the beginning of a new phase.

     The Blackhawks sailed through the 1990-91 season with a record of 49-23-8, racking up 106 points and capturing the President's Trophy as NHL regular-season champions. Ed Belfour won the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year and the Vezina Trophy as the league's outstanding goalie. Laconic veteran right wing Steve Larmer and brash young center Jeremy Roenick were the club's top offensive threats, and Chicago native Chris Chelios, newly arrived from Montreal in a trade for star center Denis Savard, anchored the backline. The Hawks went into the postseason with justifiably high hopes—but they failed to advance beyond the first round. They lost the first series to the Minnesota North Stars, four games to two.

     In Mike Ditka's 10th year as their head coach, the Bears went 11-5 and qualified for the NFL playoffs as a wild-card entry. The streaky Bears won their first four games, lost two, won five, lost two, won two, and lost one. Somewhat infamously, they were bombed 52-14 by San Francisco in the season finale on Monday Night Football. The 49ers (who finished at 10-6) had already been eliminated from the postseason, and they took out their frustration on the Bears before a national audience.
     The Bears lost to Dallas, 17-13, at Soldier Field in the divisional playoff round. It turned out to be their last playoff game under Ditka, whose postseason record ended up at 6-6. The Bears sent five players to the Pro Bowl: running back Neal Anderson, center Jay Hilgenberg, linebacker Mike Singletary, strong safety Shaun Gayle, and free safety Mark Carrier.

     The White Sox moved into the new Comiskey Park (now known as U.S. Cellular Field), directly across 35th Street from the parking lot which occupied the site of their previous home. They drew over 2.9 million to the new park, not just breaking the franchise attendance record, but shattering it by 800,000. Coming off an excellent showing in 1990, the Sox slipped a bit in the standings, going 87-75 to finish eight games behind the world-champion Minnesota Twins. On the plus side, a pair of 23-year-olds, first baseman Frank Thomas and third baseman Robin Ventura, established themselves as rising stars. Both would be fixtures on the South Side for years to come.
     On August 11, 21-year-old lefty Wilson Alvarez made his White Sox debut a memorable one, tossing a no-hitter at Baltimore. (He had started one game for the Texas Rangers in 1989, becoming the first person born in the 1970s to play in the major leagues.) The 7-0 victory put the Sox 20 games over .500, but they proceeded to drop 15 of the next 17 and never threatened thereafter.

     The Cubs came into the season with three new big-name, big-money free agents on the roster—outfielder George Bell, starting pitcher Danny Jackson, and closer Dave Smith. None of them performed up to expectations, and manager Don Zimmer didn't last through May. Club president Don Grenesko mentioned to reporters that Zimmer, like every employee of the Tribune Company, would be subject to an annual performance evaluation. When Zimmer (who was not familiar with or agreeable to the practices of corporate "suits" like Grenesko) took offense and demanded that he receive his evaluation then and there, Grenesko obliged by firing him.
     Zimmer's replacement was Iowa Cubs skipper Jim Essian, a catcher on the White Sox' "South Side Hit Men" team of 1977. Essian guided the Cubs to a 59-63 mark for the remainder of the season and never managed in the majors again. General manager Jim Frey was also shown the door after the season, and he too was replaced by a White Sox alumnus, Larry Himes.

     Owned by suburban car dealer Jeff Sullivan and trained by Chicago fixture Ernie Poulos, Black Tie Affair won his last six starts—all in graded-stakes competition—to take home Horse of the Year honors. He was the first Chicago-based Horse of the Year since the 1950s, he remains the last to date, and (given the lamentable state of racing in Illinois), he might well have been the last of all time.

     They passed away in 1991: William "Dick the Bruiser" Afflis, 62, professional wrestler; Luke Appling, 83, White Sox shortstop 1930-1950, Hall of Famer; Smoky Burgess, 64, Cubs catcher 1949 and 1951, White Sox pinch hitter 1964-1967; Leo Durocher, 86, Cubs manager 1966-1972; Harold "Red" Grange, 87, Bears halfback 1925 and 1929-1934, Hall of Famer; Paul Thompson, 84, Blackhawks left wing 1931-1939 and head coach 1938-1945.

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