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Two teams have dominated my television the last few weeks. They couldn't be further removed from one another. One is a championship team that has come close to--and on occasion attained--perfection; more often than not the other is perfectly awful. One is a storied franchise returned to glory; the other is a storied franchise fallen on hard times. They are, of course, the New York Yankees and the Chicago Bears.

In the days between the end of the Chicago baseball season and the beginning of the Chicago basketball season, one takes what one can find in the way of sports. As for me, I don't go to Turkey to watch basketball and I don't go to Soldier Field to watch men's soccer--though with the NBA lockout dragging on and the Bulls a splintered franchise regardless, things may get that desperate before long.

No apologies for this year's Yankees, though. They were reminiscent of the Bulls--a Bulls team without the overarching presence of a Michael Jordan, sort of like the 1993-'94 incarnation. That team, as talented and disciplined as it was, ran afoul of Hue Hollins in the end. The players just weren't good enough. The 1998 Yankees were plenty good enough, players of great ability who also had style and character--not in the Wheaties "sports builds character" sense, but in the Damon Runyon sense. The hard thing for a Chicagoan to digest is that New York always sells its great teams as teams of great characters, whether or not it's true. The 1986 Mets were a group of larger-than-life guys, but how many of them seem true characters now and how many just creations of the Manhattan hype machine? Gary Carter, Ray Knight, Bob Ojeda, Ron Darling--fine players all, but not especially enduring in the public mind. Darryl Strawberry with that aesthetically pleasing long stripe down the side, Dwight Gooden with his catlike preening on the mound and his demons within, Lenny Dykstra with his determination--that was about it. Those Mets were a great team--they won 108 regular-season games and the World Series--but they pale next to the 1998 Yankees.

The foremost quality these Yankees shared with the '93-'94 Bulls was a sound foundation in the fundamentals. The pitchers moved the ball in and out, up and down; they changed speeds; and, of course, they threw strikes--much of the time under the guidance of former Cubs catcher Joe Girardi. Even back when he was with the Cubs, Girardi looked like the old second-generation-immigrant ballplayers of the 30s and 40s; the Yankees' pinstripes just exaggerate that look. One can easily imagine Girardi squeezed Zelig- or Forrest Gump-style into a photo alongside Joe DiMaggio or Lou Gehrig; he'd belong there.

Beginning with Girardi and fellow catcher Jorge Posada, the Yankees were as strong up the middle as any team going back to the Cincinnati Reds of the mid-70s. Shortstop Derek Jeter was especially impressive, a proud, elegant young player deceptively mature for his age (compare his manner with the faintly pompous air of the Atlanta Braves' Chipper Jones). Second baseman Chuck Knoblauch fielded his position like a rat terrier. Both middle infielders are heady players and potent offensive forces, as both work the count and are more than willing to take a walk, Knoblauch batting leadoff and Jeter second. I think Knoblauch's one brain lapse, his failure to chase down the ball after it bounced off a hitter running inside the baseline--was really an attempt to force the umpire's hand. It happened late in the second game of the American League Championship Series, and Knoblauch was clearly right to protest that a call had to be made, a call that's typically slow to come. In similar circumstances the last weekend of the season, Cubs manager Jim Riggleman was out of the dugout and halfway to home plate before Eric Gregg finally made the obstruction ruling that ended the game and gave the Cubs a precious win over the Houston Astros.

The best of the bunch up the middle for the Yankees might have been center fielder Bernie Williams, a switch-hitter who led the American League in batting average and has power from both sides of the plate. What was most impressive about Williams was how he did the fundamental things. Drifting and cutting to deal with ball, wind, and spin, he roamed center field like a yar little sailboat--a metaphor especially apropos in light of the tradition set by DiMaggio, "the Yankee Clipper." What can I add but that I loved to watch him? (Only the Braves' phenomenal Andruw Jones is more captivating as an outfielder.) The Yankees in the corners were less impressive but just as solid: Paul O'Neill in right, a varied cast of characters in left ranging from rookie flash Shane Spencer to flyhawk Ricky Ledee (he killed San Diego ace Kevin Brown almost single-handedly in the World Series, handling him in much the way the Cubs' light-hitting Gary Woods used to own Steve Carlton). At first, there was Tino Martinez, a regular-season threat though a near bust in the playoffs, at third the Yankees' one straight-from-the-gods blessing, Scott Brosius, a barely .200 hitter last year with the Oakland Athletics who came to the Yanks, adjusted his overly open batting stance, and went on to have a career year, complete with the most valuable player award in the series. Brosius was the emblem of the Yankees' success, a player who made himself subservient to team goals and commanded more attention in the bargain.

I tend to agree with those experts who insist this was one of the greatest teams of all time. Other teams had lineups as good, other teams hit more homers, other teams stole more bases, other teams even fielded better--but the Yankees had plenty of all that and an astounding pitching staff, perhaps the most character-rich area of the team. There was the "Boomer," David Wells, a pitcher of uncontrolled appetites who harnessed himself and feasted on hitters, pitching a perfect game and establishing himself as the ace of the staff. The White Sox' Britt Burns had much the same sort of stuff--a hard, riding fastball and a knee-buckling slow curve--but Burns couldn't get consistent command of it before congenital hip problems ended his career. Wells rolled down the mound like a bowling ball, and his curve dropped like that bowling ball falling off a table. Sly old right-hander David Cone returned to become the team's lone 20-game winner; but even more impressive--and maybe even craftier--was "El Duque," Orlando Hernandez, whose high-kicking windup and leering side glance recalled a stereotypical Hollywood stripper giving a customer the eye while wrapping herself around a brass pole. Out of that windup came an array of pitches--sidearm fastballs and sliders, change-ups, and a remarkable overhand curve (straight out of the book). In all the fuss Hernandez generated as someone who'd escaped from Cuba on a raft not even a year ago--motivated by the heroics of his younger brother Livan pitching for the Florida Marlins in last year's World Series--almost lost was Andy Pettitte, a stately left-hander with a textbook motion and Greek-god good looks. In the bull pen was roly-poly Jeff Nelson, a right-handed slinger whose stuff made him threatening despite a moustache that looked like he'd grown it in seventh grade. There was Graeme Lloyd, a thin lefty with the calm composure of a British World War I flying ace, and, of course, Mariano Rivera, as thin as death and almost as certain when he entered a game in the ninth.

The unlikely thing that got me comparing the Yankees and the Bears was Martinez's grand slam in the first game of the series. With the game tied and the bases loaded, Martinez worked the count to two and two against Padres left-hander Mark Langston. Langston threw a perfect pitch, knee high on the inner half of the plate--and American League umpire Rich Garcia called it a ball for a full count. Martinez hit the next pitch into the upper deck. Baseball is a game in which the best team sometimes loses, as when the Reds swept the A's in the 1990 series and when the Padres beat the Braves this year (though the Braves, unlike the Yankees, were a flawed team with inferior players in the middle infield who also did an inferior job at the top of the batting order). There are moments when a baseball game or even a World Series pivots, and that was the moment this series swung forever to the Yanks. I don't think the Padres win the series if they get that strike, but they win the game and put up a better showing.

The Bears, as bad as they are, have had similar moments in almost every game they've played this year. They lost their first four but won the fifth (an improvement over last year) with a 21-point fourth-quarter rally. They lost their next in a bad way, the pivotal moment being the opening kickoff. Then, 1-5, a faceless, characterless team that bore the earmarks of their personalityless coach, they welcomed the Dallas Cowboys to Soldier Field two weekends ago. The Bears were clearly overmatched, though sometimes they seemed only a step or so away from proficiency. Walt Harris fought the great Michael Irvin for possession of a pass until both were out of bounds in the end zone, and the Cowboys settled for a field goal. Darryll Lewis almost pinned the Cowboys on their goal line by jumping into their end zone to pull back a punt, but one foot came down in the zone to make it a touchback instead. The Cowboys drove from their own 20 for another field goal and a 6-0 lead. Dallas fumbled, but John Thierry ran over the ball trying to scoop it up, and the Cowboys recovered.

But somewhere along the way, the Bears got it going, and players--real quality players--began to emerge from the chaos. Second-year fullback Robert Chancey found some holes and made others on his own, and located a running mate in rookie halfback Curtis Enis. Fellow rookie Alonzo Mayes made some nice grabs at tight end and rumbled like an oversize Mike Ditka. The Bears marched for a score on a perfect pass from Erik Kramer--yes, he's still around--to Chris Penn. The Cowboys responded in kind, but in a dunderheaded move went for a two-point conversion and failed, leaving the score 12-7. And then the Cowboys just plain fell asleep in their secondary, allowing Kramer to get hot, and that was the pivotal moment. The Bears drove for two field goals to win the game, 13-12.

Thierry forced a fumble on the Tennessee Oilers' first possession Sunday. Barry Minter fell on it, then got up and rattled down to the goal line before he was stopped. Chancey ran it in on the next play. In the second quarter, after an Oilers field goal, Enis got the ball on a miserable pitchout call on fourth and one and beat the cornerback to the corner for the first down--lousy play, great run. Unfortunately, Penn then fumbled. The Bears later drove for a field goal, but scrambling Oilers quarterback Steve McNair answered with a touchdown before the half to tie the game at 10. The Oilers fumbled the opening kickoff after the intermission, leading to a Chicago touchdown, and the Bears came back for more the next time they had the ball. Unfortunately, Mayes drew an offsides penalty to stall the drive, and the Bears settled for a field goal and a 20-10 lead--two steps forward, one step back, which at least reversed the ratio of earlier in the season. The Oilers drove for a field goal to make it 20-13, but fumbled in their own territory on their next possession. The Bears could have put the game away in the fourth quarter, but Jeff Jaeger missed a field goal from 34 yards and the Oilers drove for a tying touchdown with four minutes left. Yet Glyn Milburn produced a big kickoff return, and Kramer nudged the Bears into field-goal range. Jaeger hit this one from 33 yards, and in the final pivotal play Paul Grasmanis sacked McNair to push the Oilers out of field-goal range on the last drive and preserve the win.

Chancey, Enis, Mayes, Minter, Milburn, Grasmanis, even Thierry (who woulda thunk it?)--out of the faceless, helmeted Bears, they established themselves as players. I'd rather watch the Yankees' characters do all things well than watch the Bears win doing some things well and some things poorly. But with the Bears, doing well is a pleasant surprise, the most unlikely players sometimes turning out to be the ones worth watching.

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