The bottom line in assessing any sports year has to be the quality and excitement of the competition - and by this yardstick 1982 certainly ranks well up there. Not only did we get more than the usual quota of thrills in the big season-ending playoffs (especially the Super Bowl, the World Series, and the NCAA basketball championship), we also had more than our share of memorable individual performances throughout the year.
In baseball there was the fabulous season of Milwaukee's slugging shortstop Robin Yount. In football, Herschel Walker ran wild once again for Georgia and finally won the Heisman Trophy. Hockey gave us its annual Wayne Gretzky show. Tennis offered the comeback of Jimmy Connors and the all-around brilliance of Martina Navratilova. Golfer Tom Watson finally won the US Open and added another British Open trophy to his collection. Marathon superstar Alberto Salazar outdid even his own spectacular feats of previous years. And just about every other sport had at least one outstanding individual dominating the competiton and generating his or her own special brand of excitement.
Of course there were also plenty of those less welcome off-the-field problems which so often dominate today's sports headlines - such as campus scandals, revelations of drug abuse by numerous pro athletes, and the eight-week player strike that nearly wrecked the pro football season. But these things should not obscure the fact that the main story was still played out on the fields and arenas as always - and that by any standards the 1982 version was a fan's dream.
The Super Bowl triumph of the San Francisco 49ers, culminating one of those truth-is-stranger-than fiction Cinderella stories that happen now and then in sports, got the year off to an exciting and dramatic start. Two years earlier the 49ers (2-14) had tied for the worst record in pro football, but now, reconstructed by Coach Bill Walsh, they had stormed through the regular season and then defeated the mighty Dallas Cowboys in the National Conference championship game to stand on the threshhold of the sport's greatest prize. Adding to the drama of the situation, their opponents were the Cincinnati Bengals, another team that had risen from the ashes of a losing season the previous year, and also the club for which Walsh had gained recognition for his coaching genius as an assistant only to be passed over when the top job opened up. Then as if all this weren't drama enough, the game itself turned into a thriller from which the 49ers finally emerged on top, 26-21.
Things don't happen this way too frequently, of course. All too often, in fact, these climactic final games or matches tend not to live up to expectations. But this exciting Super Bowl, it turned out, was a harbinger of more good things to come in many of the year's other big events. The NCAA basketball final went down to the wire before North Carolina nipped Georgetown 63-62. The World Series developed into a closely-fought, back-and-forth struggle in which St. Louis finally nipped Milwaukee in the full seven games. The US Open Golf Championship went down to the next-to-last hole before Watson holed an historic chip shot to beat Jack Nicklaus. At Wimbledon, Connors dethroned John McEnroe in a tense, emotional, four hours-plus final that was the longest in the tournament's history. And there were many, many other unforgettable moments - as the following sport-by-sport account clearly indicates. Baseball
The national pastime came all the way back from its strike-torn 1981 campaign , with several exciting pennant races, some memorable individual performances, and record-breaking attendance figures.
The Atlanta Braves were the talk of the early season, winning a record 13 straight games at the start and opening up an apparently insurmountable lead in the NL West. They cooled off in midseason and even fell out of first place, but came back to beat out Los Angeles and San Francisco in a close three-team finish.
Milwaukee also had to battle all the way in the AL East, struggling at first until Harvey Kuenn took over as manager, eventually passing Boston to take the lead, then holding off Baltimore's closing rush to win out on the final day.
In the AL West, the addition of Reggie Jackson helped California overcome Kansas City in a battle that went to the final weekend.
St. Louis was thus the only division winner that wasn't pressed to the end, wrapping up the NL East title to all intents and purposes with a couple of weeks to spare.
In the playoffs, the Cardinals made short work of the Braves in a 3-0 sweep, while the Brewers became the first team to overcome an 0-2 deficit in a league championship series, defeating the Angels three games to two.
The World Series went back and forth, with the Cardinals eventually capitalizing on their greater speed, stronger pitching, and tighter defense in a seven-game triumph. Clutch-hitting catcher Darrell Porter was voted the Series MVP, while speedy outfielders Lonnie Smith and Willie McGee, designated hitter Dane Iorg, starting pitcher Joaquin Andujar, and ace reliever Bruce Sutter were among Manager Whitey Herzog's many other key performers.
Yount, who hit .331 with 29 home runs and 114 RBIs while playing outstanding defense at a key position, was a near-unanimous choice as the American League's MVP, Atlanta outfielder Dale Murphy (.281, 36 homers, 109 RBIs) was a solid choice for NL honors, and Milwaukee's Pete Vuckovich and Philadelphia's Steve Carlton (for a record fourth time) were the respective Cy Young Award winners.
Two of the game's all-time greats, Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson, were elected to the Hall of Fame as were oldtime New York Giant shortstop Travis Jackson and former commissioner A.B. (Happy) Chandler. And assuring his eventual inclusion in that company was Gaylord Perry, who became only the 15th pitcher in major league history - and the first since Early Wynn in 1963 - to win 300 games. Pro football
San Francisco's NFC championship game victory over Dallas via a last minute Joe Montana-to-Dwight Clark touchdown pass followed by the dramatic Super Bowl victory got the year off to a great start. The latter game actually didn't look like much of a contest for a while, with the 49ers racing to a 20-0 halftime lead behind the passing and leadership of Montana, who eventually was named the game's MVP. Cincinnati scored to make it 20-7 early in the third quarter, however, then drove to a first down on the three-yard-line late in the same period only to be stopped by a tremendous goal-line stand that proved to be the turning point. The Bengals kept up the pressure, closing the gap to 20-14 early in the fourth period, but the 49ers clinched matters with Ray Wersching's third and fourth field goals en route to a 26-21 final score.
Unfortunately, the rest of the year was downhill from that point - with public attention focused all summer on talk of drug use by various players, then with a player strike wiping out eight weeks of action. As a result of the walkout (in which the players achieved some gains but the owners essentially retained the upper hand), the regular season will extend into January for the first time ever and will still consist of only nine games per team. This will be followed by an expanded playoff format involving 16 teams instead of the usual 10 - a set of circumstances most aptly described by Detroit Lions owner William Clay Ford as ''a Mickey Mouse playoff setup and an asterisk season.''
The winningest teams in the abbreviated season so far have been the surprising Washington Redskins and the transplanted Los Angeles Raiders, who won a long court battle enabling them to move from Oakland to LA this year. Perennial powers like Dallas, Pittsburgh, Miami, and San Diego have also done well, as has Cincinnati, but the 49ers haven't been able to regain last season's form and have only scant playoff hopes remaining with a 3-5 record and one game left.
Individual standouts have included rookie running back Marcus Allen of the Raiders and quarterbacks Joe Theisman of the Redskins and Richard Todd of the New York Jets. College football
With Walker finally winning the Heisman Trophy for which he had been a top contender from his freshman year on, Georgia (11-0) finished as the only major unbeaten-untied team in the country and topped the polls for the second time in three years heading into the New Year's Day bowl games. Penn State (10-1), a loser only to Alabama, finished second in both polls and awaited a Sugar Bowl date with the Bulldogs that seemed likely to establish a clearcut national champion although SMU (10-0-1) could also establish a claim with a big victory over Pitt in the Cotton Bowl. Individual standouts in addition to Walker included Stanford quarterback John Elway, Penn State running back Curt Warner, and Nebraska center Dave Rimington. Pro basketball
The Los Angeles Lakers, with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar dominating the boards and Magic Johnson earning playoff MVP honors for his all-around brilliance, won their second National Basketball Association title in three years, defeating Philadelphia in a relatively uneventful six games. The 76ers had gone through a rugged playoff grind climaxed by an emotional upset of defending champion Boston in a seven-game Eastern final, and also appeared outmanned by the Lakers. In hopes of correcting the latter situation and ending their long series of frustating near-misses, the Sixers pulled off a blockbuster deal, acquiring league MVP Moses Malone from Houston and signing him to a five-year, $13.2 million contract. College basketball
North Carolina's victory brought an NCAA championship at last to Coach Dean Smith, who had led the Tar Heels to the Final Four on six previous occasions only to see his team lose in either the semifinals or the finals each time. This year they shot nearly 60 percent to overcome upset-minded Houston 68-63 in the semis, while Georgetown advanced by beating Louisville 50-46 in a ferocious defensive struggle. In the final, tournament MVP James Worthy scored 28 points to offset an immense performance by Georgetown's seven-foot freshman Pat Ewing and lead his team to its one-point margin of victory. Worthy, a junior, opted to skip his final season of college eligibility and went to Los Angeles as the NBA's top draft choice. Virginia's 7-4 Player of the Year Ralph Sampson, however, decided to return for his senior year in hopes of leading the Cavaliers to the national title, while sophomore Ewing also is back at Georgetown for at least one more shot.
In women's play, Louisiana Tech, led by seniors Pam Kelly and Angela Turner, went 35-1 and won a second straight NCAA crown. Hockey
Gretzky again dominated the individual statistics as for the third straight season he set National Hockey League records for goals (92), assists (120), and total points (212), won the scoring title by a huge margin, and was an overwhelming MVP selection. Mike Bossy, though overshadowed by Gretzky's feats, also had a big year (64-83-147) and led the New York Islanders to regular season domination once again as well as a third consecutive Stanley Cup. The only real scare the Islanders had in the playoffs came in the first round against Pittsburgh, when the lowly Penguins forced the five-game series to the limit and actually led 3-1 in the decisive game with six minutes to go before New York geared up, scored twice to tie it, and then won in overtime. After that it was smooth sailing for the defending champions, including a four-game sweep of Vancouver in the finals. Golf
Watson, after losing the lead via a bogey on the 16th hole at Pebble Beach, sank his dramatic chip shot on the 17th to end a long series of frustrations by winning his first US Open and at the same time deny Nicklaus an unprecedented fifth one. That was easily the highlight of a year which saw Craig Stadler win the Masters and also take the money title; Watson add the British Open to his growing collection of major championships; and Ray Floyd capture his second PGA crown. Tennis
Connors was the big story, defeating McEnroe 3-6, 6-3, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4 to win Wimbledon again after an eight-year drought, then sewing up the year's No. 1 ranking with a four-set victory over Ivan Lendl in the US Open final. The new sensation, though, was 17-year-old Mats Wilander of Sweden, who beat Lendl, Vitas Gerulaitis, Jose-Luis Clerc, and Guillermo Vilas in succession to win the French Open. Meanwhile, of course, his famed countryman Bjorn Borg sat out most of the year because of new rules which would have forced him to play in qualifying matches.
Navratilova dominated the women's game for most of the year, winning Wimbledon for the third time as well as the French Open and numerous other events, but her drive for a Grand Slam (last achieved by Margaret Court in 1970) ended with a loss to Pam Shriver in the quarterfinals of the US Open, which Chris Evert Lloyd went on to win for the sixth time in her career. Track and field
Amazing Alberto Salazar won the Boston Marathon in his first attempt, then also won for the third straight time in New York, giving him an incredible record of having entered four marathons in his life and won them all.
Carl Lewis, who in January was voted winner of the Sullivan Award as 1981's outstanding amateur athlete, had another big year topped by a 28 ft., 9 in. long jump that stands second only to Bob Beamon's historic 29-2 1/2 effort at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Soccer
The world's most popular sport reached its quadrennial peak with the month-long World Cup tournament in Spain, and Italy emerged eventually as the winner for a record-tying third time, adding the 1982 championship to the ones it had won back-to-back in 1934 and 1938.
Star Italian striker Paolo Rossi struggled to reach top form in the early games but rose to the occasion in the big ones. Rossi scored all of his team's goals in a 3-2 upset of Brazil that put Italy in the semifinals, did all the scoring again as the Italians beat Poland to advance to the finals, then headed in the big first goal that sparked a 3-1 victory over West Germany for the title. Miscellaneous
The United States scored an unprecedented sweep of skiing's top honors when Phil Mahre won his second straight Alpine World Cup and Bill Koch became the first American ever to win the same title in Nordic competition. . .Gordon Johncock held off Rick Mears in a thrilling finish to win the Indianapolis 500 auto race. . .and 70 years after he finished first in both the decathlon and the pentathlon at the 1912 Olympics only to be disqualified after the fact for professionalism, Jim Thorpe had his victories declared official and duplicates of his medals returned to his family by the International Olympic Committee.