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The Worst of the Worst : Few Could Live Up to Area’s Great Expectations

MIKE PENNER

1990 was the worst year in the history of Orange County sports.

No ifs, ands, buts, substitutions or other nominees accepted.

Don’t give us 1966. Sure, that’s when the Angels moved to Anaheim Stadium. There was still some darned good high school football played around here, mister.

Don’t give us 1982. The Rams were 2-7 disasters that year, but the Angels saved their greatest playoff choke until 1986.

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Don’t give us 1987. The Rams may have lost nine games and Eric Dickerson and the Angels may have tied for last, but the Cal State Fullerton football team and the UC Irvine basketball team didn’t go months without winning a game.

Unfortunately, someone had to give us 1990. We can’t give it back. This was the year somebody in operations decided to give Atlanta and Cleveland a break and bust some chops out West for a change. So Atlanta got the Olympics, Cleveland got Sandy Alomar, Jr. . . . and Orange County got the shaft.

Being bad is bad enough. But most years, you learn this about your teams well in advance, so you have time to prepare and maybe buy some good books. Not this one. The Rams and the Angels promised their fans the moon--there would be Super Bowls, there would be Mark Langston no-hitters--only to run them through the worst kind of imaginable hell on earth.

The Rams were going to win it all. Sports Illustrated said so. In January, the Rams eclipsed everyone this side of San Francisco and would have cold-cocked Denver in Super XXIV if given the chance. By September, odds were that San Francisco would finally get bored and the Rams, with Jim Everett beating clocks and Curt Warner turning his back, couldn’t help but break through.

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The Angels weren’t necessarily going to win it all, but they were damn well going to match Oakland arm-for-arm. You have Dave Stewart, we have Mark Langston, thanks to 16 more of Gene Autry’s millions. You have Bob Welch, we have Chuck Finley. You have Mike Moore, we have Bert Blyleven. With a little more offensive pop, who knows?--and on May 11, the Angels landed Dave Winfield.

A big deal?

Big deal.

The Angels couldn’t even stay in the race long enough to greet Winfield in fifth place. After 30 games, they were tied for last--11-19, 12 games out. This included three victories in their first four games, including Langston’s brazen debut: A combined no-hitter with Mike Witt. Afterward, Autry said he hoped Langston could do it two or three more times.

Did Langston ever win again? The mind goes numb trying to recall. A trip through the record book shows he finished 10-17, but that was after he had sunk to 5-15. So at least Langston made good use of garbage time. This year, the Angels had five months of it. Their final numbers: 80-82, fourth place, 23 games behind Oakland.

The Rams needed two whole months to tank their season. Their opener, a 36-24 thumping by the Anthony Dilweg-led Green Bay Packers, was seen as either a skittish aberration or an omen for trouble. It proved to be the latter--and so much more.

The Ram defense, 21st in the league in 1989 and 28th against the pass, was worse than anyone could have imagined. In one abominable five-game stretch, from Sept. 23 through Oct. 29, the Rams allowed 27 points to Philadelphia, 34 to Cincinnati, 38 to Chicago, 24 to Atlanta and 41 to Pittsburgh. Twenty-four to Atlanta? Not bad, thought Coach John Robinson, who handed out game balls to his six defensive coaches after that one.

Before you could add up the missed tackles, the Rams were 3-7 and their playoff hopes gone. So, too, was Warner, old Seattle Slow, released after the ninth game, after averaging 2.8 yards per carry. His job was handed to Cleveland Gary, who dropped that and just about everything else, fumbling 11 times--or until Robinson couldn’t take it anymore. Tonight, the Rams are 5-10 and will close their season in New Orleans with Marcus Dupree at tailback.

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At our local institutions of higher learning, athletic achievement was decidedly lowbrow. Cal State Fullerton lost 11 consecutive football games, a school record. UC Irvine lost 15 consecutive basketball games, a school record. The Titans went 0-for-October and 0-for-November and finished 1-11. The Anteaters went 0-for-January, went winless from Dec. 16 to Feb. 17 and finished 5-23.

And Irvine keeps talking about adding football.

Disappointment didn’t stop there. At Fullerton, John Sneed’s basketball team returned Cedric Ceballos and three other starters from a stunningly good 16-13 season and proceeded to slog through a 13-16 reversal, including a stunningly bad 18-point loss at Irvine. Larry Cochell’s baseball team managed a pleasant surprise by reaching the College World Series, then blew it all in an 0-2 sweep out of Omaha. The Titans lost, 14-4, to Oklahoma State and 8-7 to The Citadel.

The Citadel?

At Irvine, the women’s basketball team (1-27) was even worse than the men’s. Trevor Kronemann, the heavyweight champion of Big West men’s tennis, couldn’t get out of the first round of the NCAA singles tournament. The Anteaters did win an NCAA title in sailing, but they always do that. When it came to any sport played on land, Irvine, generally, found itself at sea.

Bright spots, bright spots. We keep thumbing through old newspapers, searching in vain.

Go to the community colleges. Rancho Santiago won a state championship in men’s basketball. Golden West won state championships in women’s basketball, men’s swimming, women’s volleyball and water polo. Orange Coast won a state championship in women’s swimming.

Go to the high schools. Mater Dei and Servite won state basketball titles. Capistrano Valley, Esperanza and Sunny Hills won Southern Section football titles.

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Go to the Little Leaguers. A group of junior high school kids from Cypress won 17 consecutive games and reached the semifinals of the Little League World Series.

And, of course, go to the Placentia Perennials, Janet Evans and Michael Chang, still in their teens and still collecting hardware. This year, Evans won the Sullivan Award; Chang, the Davis Cup.

In other words, you had to go with youth. The younger, the better. Unspoiled by expectation, they merely delivered.

Thus, a slogan for 1990: Don’t trust anyone over 20.

Anybody else, they’ll only break your hearts.

The Spy 100. The Fortune 500. And, now, the Orange County 20.

The people, places and things that did the most to shape this sports year into what it truly became--an utter disappointment.

1. The Rams. No. 1 in your county, No. 1 in the world. First, the defense gave up too many points, then the offense gave up. The courageous play that carried them through 1989 surfaced only once in 1990--the goal line stand against Houston. They choked against Cincinnati, they choked against Dallas and, in the one game they had to win, at home against New Orleans, they outgained the Saints, 444-218, and lost, 24-20. They never should have left Berlin.

2. Mark Langston. Sixteen million gets you what, five victories through mid-August? And now the Angels are talking $12 million for Gary (.229) Gaetti.

3. Jim Everett. If Everett stepped up to the challenge in 1989, he took two steps back in ’90. Where was he during overtime against Cincinnati? In the clutch against Dallas and New Orleans? On any play at any time in Atlanta? Put it another way: Would Joe Montana have allowed this season to happen in San Francisco?

4. Curt Warner. He was going to be another Charles White, another Greg Bell--resurrected in Anaheim. He ended up joining Bert Jones, Joe Namath and Steve Bartkowski--a starter in the Rams’ Too Late For Prime Time All-Time Backfield.

5. Cleveland Gary. Eleven not-so-funny things happened on the way to a 1,000-yard season. Sadder still was the sight of Gary, post-benching, getting in his few carries a game and wrapping both arms around the football as if it was filled with plutonium. Come back next year, Cleveland, all is forgiven.

6. Bert Blyleven. You had a feeling it was a coming. At 39, he wasn’t going to toss up another 17-5. But 8-7, 5.24 earned-run average and no starts after Aug. 10 because of a bum shoulder? Anyone ever win Comeback of the Year twice in three years?

7. Devon White. Do we even have to get into it?

8. The Angels. Thirty years of pennant-less baseball and proud of it. They went from 91 victories to 80, were non-factors from May on, and the best thing they did all season was extend Doug Rader’s contract through 1992. Originally, the Angels offered one year but Rader held out for two. It’s his life.

9. Fullerton football. This was supposed to be a rebuilding season, but no one ordered a wrecking ball. The Titans got lost somewhere on the way to Mississippi State--their trip to Starkville was a 17-hour nightmare of cancelled flights and missed connections--and they never made it back. Trivia note: The only opponent Fullerton beat was Division II Sonoma State, 38-24, in the opener. Not-so-trivial note: The Titans were ranked No. 105 going into their season finale against No. 106 New Mexico State. There is no No. 107. Fullerton lost, 43-9.

10. Irvine basketball. In the post-season review handed out by the Irvine sports information department, it reads: “UCI endured a 5-23 season, the worst record in the 25-year history of the program, but did win three of its last six games to finish the year on a fairly upbeat note.” It’s those first 22 games that kill you.

11. Georgia Frontiere/John Shaw. Their fiscal policy finally crippled their team. Too many unhappy players holding out of training camp. Too many useful Plan B free agents going to teams willing to pay for them. The No. 20 payroll in a 28-team league. And Robinson is to blame for 5-10?

12. John Robinson. He didn’t help, either. His choice of veteran tailbacks--Warner over Bell--eventually left him with no experienced hand when Gary’s began to quiver. His retooled defense never should have made it out of the shed. He played it too safe against Cincinnati--settling for a field goal near the end of regulation, punting on fourth and inches in overtime--when a victory might have turned around the season. He’s a good coach who didn’t deserve last month’s round of Job Jeopardy, but this is one year to leave off the resume.

13. Mike Port. Waited too long to trade for a hitter. Waited too long to trade for Winfield. Waited too long to trade away White. By year’s end, another wait was over--he had a new boss, CEO Richard Brown.

14. Bret Johnson. The Rivalry Doesn’t Continue. Bret broke up the Johnson-Marinovich wars before their time by balking at his benching by Terry Donahue and bailing to Michigan State. For this, Johnson incurred the wrath of a good many sportswriters-- Brat Johnson became the new handle--but Johnson saw something they obviously hadn’t: Tommy Maddox.

15. Todd Marinovich. Stay in class, Todd. Stay in school. Marinovich also lost his job as quarterback at USC, if temporarily, but his relationship with Coach Larry Smith remains Fight On. Heaven help him if the Patriots come calling next. Working for Victor Kiam is no way to waste your youth.

16. Fullerton basketball. Cedric Ceballos could always play--check out a Phoenix Suns game lately?--and Mark Hill could always shoot and the rest of the pack had helped win 16 games in 1989. So what went wrong? Sneed advances the Too Many Guns, Single Bullet Theory--and he might have a point. At the outset of 1990-91, without Ceballos and Hill, a more balanced Titan attack is 7-2. We find out more this weekend in Las Vegas.

17. Disneyland Pigskin Classic. Nothing wrong with the teams (Colorado and Tennessee) or the game (a thrilling 31-31 tie), just the impression it made locally (a measly crowd of 33,000). Game officials blamed fan apathy, fans blamed lousy over-the-counter seat selection. Maybe we can get it together by next August?

18. Anaheim Arena. They broke ground and announced they planned to open for business in March, ’93, promising NBA and NHL tenants. How? The NBA recently added four expansion teams and the Clippers aren’t going anywhere. Anaheim’s pitch at last month’s NHL expansion meetings fell on deaf ears; the bids for 1992-93 went to Ottawa and Tampa. And now, the low-level talk is that any Anaheim bid is doomed as long as it’s linked to Jerry Buss, whose laissez faire operation of the Kings never thrilled the lords of hockey. MISL, anyone?

19. “The Infield Of The ‘90s.” Mark McLemore couldn’t cut it at second base, either in Anaheim or Cleveland. Third baseman Jack Howell is out of a job any day now. Shortstop Dick Schofield can only anchor the disabled list. And now we hear Wally Joyner is on the trading block. Say it ain’t so, Joe.

20. Newport Beach Dukes. They played Team Tennis this summer. Anybody notice?

This just in: The Freedom Bowl was exciting.

A reason to keep on living, I say.


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