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Monday, August 11, 2003
The List: Biggest sports busts

By Jeff Merron
Page 2 staff

We've run plenty of lists about players who've been big busts -- Heisman Trophy winners who couldn't make the transition to the NFL (Andre Ware), baseball "phenoms" who flopped (Todd Van Poppel), guys who choked in the Super Bowl (Tony Eason), and players who get tens of millions for not playing (Bryant Reeves).

But sometimes it's just a bad plan, man. So we've tried to lay off the players and teams in this list (well, almost), to remind you of some some seriously flawed ideas: the biggest sports busts.

He Hate Me
What a legacy: The XFL did give us the immortal He Hate Me.

1. The XFL
If only the cheerleaders had been totally naked ...

2. The White Sox in shorts
It was all the idea of Bill's wife, Mary Frances Veeck. On August 8, 1976, the White Sox took the field for a doubleheader against Kansas City wearing shorts. By the second game, they were back in their regular uniforms. Experiment over.

That wasn't the original plan. Eric Soderholm, who became a pale hoser the following year, told the Chicago Daily Herald in 1999, "It was a fiasco. Players were still talking about them a year later. The guys who had surgery and their knees were all scarred up, well ... it wasn't too attractive."

But Mrs. Veeck defended her idea. "They were not totally a gag thing," she said. "It got very hot in Comiskey Park."

3. Disco Demolition Night
Bill Veeck's son, Mike, hated disco. Veeck's dad, who never met a gimmick he didn't like, said yes to Mike's idea to boost attendance for a July 1979 White Sox-Tigers doubleheader: Blow up a crate of disco records with a quarter-stick of dynamite. Fans could bring an LP or 45 to the game to add to the pile and get in for 98 cents. Comiskey sold out. Extra discs brought to the game were flying throughout, prompting Ron LeFlore to wear a batting helmet while he patrolled right field.

Disco Demolition
Fans storm the field at Chicago's White Sox Park on Disco Demolition night Thursday, July 12, 1979 after the first game of a double header between the White Sox and Detroit Tigers. The promotion by a local radio station turned into a melee after hundredso

Between the games, Steve Dahl, a popular local DJ, blew up the records, and mayhem ensued as fans rushed the field by the thousands. Jim Keen, a fan who was there, recalled that the fans ran all over the field for 45 minutes. But, he told the Chicago Tribune in 1989, "It was no riot. We were just sliding into bases, running around and acting like the Sox just won the pennant. They hadn't won one in 20 years, so we figured we'd never get a real chance. Looking back, of course, we were right."

The fans did more than that, though. They also set the batting cage on fire and tore up the field so bad that the umps forced the White Sox to forfeit the second game.

4. Bud Selig before Congress
In December of 2001, Congress held hearings to discuss baseball's antitrust exemption. Commissioner Bud Selig testified, but you know things aren't going well when a representative finds it necessary to say, "Let me remind you, you are under oath."

5. Dan & Dave
Early in 1992, Reebok hit on an advertiser's dream, discovering American decathletes Dan O'Brien and Dave Johnson, rivals who also happened to be co-favorites to win gold in Barcelona. The company devised an eight-month ad campaign, which featured the two (wearing Reeboks, of course), and their friends, in a series of ads boasting who would win. It was clever for two reasons: 1) Nobody outside of track and field ever heard of Dan and Dave before, and 2) the two really were almost evenly matched, with Dave holding a three-to-two lead over Dan in direct competition, but Dan boasting a higher best score in the event.

But at the U.S. Olympic Trials five weeks before the Games, the plan went awry. Dan blew the pole vault and failed to qualify for the Olympics. Reebok switched gears and ran some ads with Dan cheering on Dave for the title. But Dave finished a disappointing third in Barcelona.

Dan and Dave, the advertising campaign, actually turned out to be a success for Reebok. Dan and Dave, the decathlon rivalry, was the big bust.

Oh, by the way: Czech Robert Zmelik won the decathlon gold. Zmelik had also endorsed Reebok -- but not in the U.S. A Reebok-wearing unknown had won.

6. World Team Tennis
Martina Navratilova played for the Boston Lobsters. Ilie Nastase and Chris Evert played for the Los Angeles Strings. Billie Jean King, who founded the league, was a marquee player. Vitas Gerulaitis, as you know, led the Pittsburgh Triangles to the 1974 WTT title. The Anaheim Oranges grew out of the wreckage of a short-lived Soviet franchise. And the New York Apples were one of the league's best teams.

World Team Tennis, which had its heyday from 1974-78, was a tennis circus that never caught on, even in the gimmick-happy sports world of the 1970s. And WTT had gimmicks galore: co-ed locker rooms. A five-set, multi-player format with substitutions allowed. Red, white, blue, and brown courts. Lots of cheering and other raucousness of the sort not permitted in settings such as Wimbledon.

"It's like the Central Hockey League; you've got a hard core of maybe 3,000 people in any city who will come out to the game, but the league doesn't have any focus or any impact outside the cities where the games are played," Ron Bookman, editor of World Tennis magazine, told the Washington Post back in '78. "Most players are just collecting their paychecks and waiting for the season to end so they can go back to tournaments."

After the 1978 season, eight of ten teams folded, and WTT was over. It's rebounded, in a variety of forms, over the years, and they're still trying. With Anna K. playing for the Kansas City Explorers, maybe there's hope. Watch for this year's finals between the Sacramento Capitals (led by Andre Agassi) and the Delaware Smash (owned by Billie Jean King ) on Aug. 23.

7. 2002 U.S. men's basketball team
For everyone with a short memory, the U.S. national team finished sixth in the World Championships last September in Indianapolis. After going 58-0 over a period of 10 years with NBA players, the team lost three games, and went, as Barbara Barker of Newsday wrote, from being the "Dream Team to the Creamed Team." Said Bill Walton after the U.S. team's terrible performance, "This was a disappointing, frustrating and embarrassing showing. There was absolutely no dynamic on the court. And the players were at fault."

8. Grass in the Astrodome
"The Eighth Wonder of the World" faced a problem when it opened for baseball business in 1965: too much glare from the ceiling, which was semi-transparent to allow in natural light for the real grass. The solution: paint the roof, reduce the glare. Oops. That helped players to see the ball, but also reduced the sunlight. The natural turf turned brown and died, and the Astroturf era began.

9. Michael Jordan as a baseball player
MJ's first retirement led him straight down the basepaths & once in a while. In 1994, Jordan, 30, played a full season with the Birmingham Barons, the White Sox' Double-A affiliate. He boosted Southern League attendance, but was barely able to boost his batting average above .200 (his stats: 127 games, 114 strikeouts, 3 homers, .202 BA), retired after a year, and returned to the Bulls.

10. The Olympic Triplecast
For the 1992 Barcelona Games, NBC came up with an idea to recoup some of the $400 million in rights fees and $100 million in production costs: sell a special package, a "Triplecast" of 24-hour-a-day competition. Viewers stayed away in droves, balking at the $125 cost for two weeks, and NBC and its cable partner, Comcast, lost tens of millions of dollars in the deal.

Also receiving votes:
The Goodwill Games
Dennis Miller on Monday Night Football
Shooting hot dogs into the stands
NFL Playoff Bowl