For those of us who watched it, we’ll never forget where we were. In many ways, it was one of our JFK moments, the other being when the Challenger blew up. Twenty-seven years ago, June 17, 1994 was one of the craziest days in sports history.
Earlier in the day, 64-year-old Arnold Palmer played the final round of competitive golf in his legendary career, shooting an 81 at the Oakmont Country Club. The 81 was a very pedestrian score, but the score didn’t matter. The crowd rightfully showered Arnie with love and coming up the 18th, the King paused to wipe away tears while the crowd roared.
In Chicago, the city played host to the first-ever World Cup played on US soil. Oprah Winfrey emceed the event. Diana Ross sang while President Bill Clinton looked on. Germany proceeded to beat Bolivia by a score of 1-0 in front of a sold-out Soldier Field crowd.
New York City tried to lay claim as epicenter of the sporting world. In the afternoon, the city hosted an enormous ticker-tape parade for the Stanley Cup-winning New York Rangers. It was the Rangers’ first Cup in 54 years and drew a massive crowd.
Before the confetti could be swept away, the New York Knicks played host to the Houston Rockets in Game Five of the NBA Finals. The Series was tied at two games apiece and New Yorkers were dreaming about two parades. Both teams had star power and bangers. Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing were both on their way to the Hall of Fame, but others like Vernon Maxwell, Robert Horry, Sam Cassell, John Starks, Charles Oakley and Anthony Mason played large roles as well. Things got chippy right before halftime. Olajuwon, the master of shake and bake fakes, landed an inadvertent elbow to the mouth of Mason, sending one of his teeth flying. Mason pushed Olajuwon and drew a technical foul for his troubles. If that wasn’t enough, moments later, Mason got knocked to the floor on a breakaway by Robert Horry, who was rightfully assessed a flagrant foul. Can you imagine if that sequence had happened to LeBron? He’d have been crying for someone to be arrested. Mason just sucked it up and kept playing. The Knicks took Game Five by the score of 91-84.
In Kansas City, the Royals and Mariners were taking the field for a 7:05 start. David Cone was on the mound for the Royals, squaring off against Ken Griffey Jr., who was trying to tie Babe Ruth for the most home runs hit before June 30. Junior was on pace to break the 1961 record of Roger Maris, a record that at the time was one of the Holy Grail records of baseball, the other being DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak.
About the time the Royals-Mariners were getting underway, the nation’s attention turned to Los Angeles, where O.J. Simpson was set to turn himself in to authorities for the murder of his wife Nicole and her friend Ron Goldman. The murder had occurred five days earlier and Simpson quickly became a suspect. Authorities waited on the Juice as his custody deadline passed. Simpson attorney Robert Kardashian stepped to the podium and read what was reputed to be a handwritten note from Simpson, a note that sounded ominously like a suicide note. Kardashian, a fine attorney in his own right, has had his legacy obscured by his publicity-loving former wife, Kris, and the exploits of his silicone-enhanced progeny Kim, Khloe, and Kourtney.
The suicide note was so shocking at the time, you could almost hear a collective gasp of the nation through the television. Then things got weird. Really weird.
Simpson called the police from the back of a white Ford Bronco, driven by his friend and former teammate, Al Cowlings. Ironically, Simpson was a longtime commercial spokesman for Ford Motors. Simpson reportedly held a gun to his head while Cowlings went on a slow-speed chase down various Los Angeles freeways. The police negotiator begged Simpson to throw the gun out the car window while viewers held their breath. Would he really off himself on live TV?
What to watch? Viewers frantically flipped from the NBA Finals to the Simpson car chase. Citizens of Los Angeles, alerted to what was happening, lined the freeways, rabidly cheering for their favorite killer. At the peak of the chase, over 20 news and police helicopters and 95 million views tuned in for the surreal event.
Meanwhile in Kansas City, Cone, looking for his 11th win of the season, breezed through the first two innings. The Mariners weren’t an especially talented team. They came into the game with a record of 28-37, but besides Griffey, they had Edgar Martinez and Tino Martinez, both dangerous hitters. The Royals came in at 34-30. Despite having the sixth-best record in the American League, the Royals stood in fourth place, five games behind Cleveland in the Central.
24,470 fans came out to the K that pleasant evening. Some surely picked up the news on their portable radios, which seems quaint in this day and age of Facebook and Twitter and instant news.
About the time the nation was tuning into the O.J. chase, Cone was facing the Mariners in the third inning. Maybe Cone heard the news. Maybe he didn’t. Either way, his inning came unraveled. Felix Fermin led off the inning with a sharp single. I’d always thought of Fermin as a Mendoza line-type hitter, but a quick check of his stats shows that he hit .317 in 1994, and ended his career with a .259 average, which was pulled down by disastrous numbers in 1995 and 1996. Cone got Luis Sojo on a fly ball to center before Dan Wilson tagged him for another single. Cone retired Quinn Mack on a fly to left, which brought Edgar Martinez to the plate. Martinez was the epitome of a professional hitter, arguably the greatest DH to ever step to the plate. He promptly turned on a Cone fastball and deposited it over the fence for a three-run jack. Griffey then stepped to the plate and took another piece of cheese from Cone and dropped it into the upper fountains in right field and just like that it was 4- 1 Seattle.
One has to wonder, were the players getting updates from the clubhouse TV? I was frantically switching between the three offerings: the Royals, the NBA Finals and the chase. It drove my wife batty. In 1994, we had no remote control for our television, so I was seated about a foot away, flipping channels every time a station went to a commercial. Eventually, I settled on the chase, mostly out of morbid curiosity.
The chase lasted slightly more than two hours. Cowlings pulled into Simpson’s Brentwood estate, stepped out of the car, and began what appeared to be negotiations with officers on the scene. Simpson, meanwhile, stayed sequestered in the back seat of the Bronco until darkness fell.
After the Griffey home run, the Royals-Mariners game quickly became anti-climactic. Seattle tacked on another meaningless run in the sixth. The Royals went down without much fight. Seattle starter Dave Fleming, who would find himself in a Royals uniform in 1995 for nine games, scattered four hits over six innings of work. Bill Risley and Bobby Ayala mopped up the final three innings for Seattle.
The game finished in a brisk 2:37 and fans arriving home still had time to tune into the O.J. saga.
At approximately 11:00 Kansas City time, the Juice finally emerged from the Bronco and was place in handcuffs by Los Angeles detectives and driven to central booking, becoming one of the highest-profile perps in the nation’s history. Thus ended one of the strangest, most exhilarating, and exhausting days in recent sports history.
The Royals and Mariners met again the next evening in front of almost 33,000 fans, still buzzing about the Simpson spectacle. Jeff Montgomery came on in the ninth to protect a 1-0 Royal lead, but imploded, allowing three hits and two walks, giving the Mariners a 3-1 victory.