Thursday, May 24 marks the 45th birthday of Texas Rangers right-hander, Bartolo Colon. A child born on April 4, 1997, the day of Colon’s MLB debut, can legally drink in the United States.
When Colon debuted, MLB was a 28-team league (the Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Rays began play the next year). The Washington Nationals were still the Montreal Expos. The Milwaukee Brewers played in the American League, while the Houston Astros were in the National League. Of the 28 teams that were in existence, 16 of them played in different stadiums.
All of that got us to thinking. Just what did the sports world look like in 1997, when Colon was a hard-throwing rookie for the Cleveland Indians?
1. Peyton Manning and Tom Brady were still in college
Manning vs. Brady was the definitive NFL rivalry for more than a decade. But in April of 1997, both men were still in college. Manning was entering the 1997 season as the clear favorite for the Heisman Trophy (though Charles Woodson had other ideas), while Brady was getting ready for his sophomore year and working his way up the Michigan depth chart. As far as other future Hall of Fame quarterbacks go, Drew Brees was still in high school when Colon debuted, while Aaron Rodgers was in middle school.
2. Tim Duncan was still in college
While Duncan’s college basketball career had wrapped by the time Colon made his debut, he was still a senior at Wake Forest in April, 1997. A little more than two months later, the San Antonio Spurs made him the first pick of the 1997 NBA Draft. It’s fair to say that things have worked out well.
3. Lombardi Trophy returns home
The Green Bay Packers won the first two Super Bowls. But after the retirement of Vince Lombardi, the team would experience mostly futility for the next 25 years. In the 90s, the Packers acquired quarterback Brett Favre and became a championship contender again.
On January 26, 1997, the Lombardi Trophy made its return to Green Bay. The Packers defeated the New England Patriots 35-21 in Super Bowl XXXI, marking the NFC’s 13th straight Super Bowl victory. Not to worry, though. Things would get better for the losing team and conference in relatively short order.
4. Teams still looking to end championship droughts
When Colon threw his first MLB pitch, both Brady’s Patriots and Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs were looking for their first championship. To date, each has five titles now. The Detroit Red Wings, San Francisco Giants, Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox, and Chicago Cubs all had championship droughts going back to at least 1955.
Detroit broke through shortly after Colon’s debut, winning the Stanley Cup in June of 1997. The Red Sox, White Sox, Giants, and Cubs ended their droughts in 2004, 2005, 2010, and 2016, respectively. Excluding the Chicago teams, all of these teams have won at least three championships since 1997, with the Red Wings winning four.
5. Silver Charm just misses the Triple Crown
In 1997, Silver Charm won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. No horse had won a Triple Crown since 1978. In fact, Silver Charm was the first to even enter the Belmont Stakes with a chance since 1989. He ended up falling just short, losing by three-fourths of a length to Touch Gold.
Real Quiet and Charismatic would follow Silver Charm in the two subsequent years. But like him, both fell short at the Belmont. Six more horses would fall short of the Triple Crown after winning the first two legs (though one did not run in the Belmont) before American Pharoah finally ended the long Triple Crown drought in 2015.
6. Marlins win classic World Series
No team has ever won a World Series quite like the then Florida Marlins did in 1997. It was a star-studded team, filled largely with players who had made a name for themselves elsewhere. By 1998, most of the players who had helped Florida win that series would be elsewhere.
The Marlins won the National League Wild Card, defeated the Giants in the NLDS and the Atlanta Braves in the NLCS. Then, they prevailed in a classic seven-game World Series against Colon’s Indians, with Edgar Renteria delivering the winning hit.
The Marlins were awful in 1998, losing 108 games with almost an entirely different team. But in 1997, it all came together.
7. Great disappointment leads to ultimate triumph for John Elway
The 1996 Denver Broncos were, to that point, the best team that Elway ever played for. Entering the playoffs in 1997, Denver was heavily favored to at least get back to the Super Bowl. It did not happen.
The second-year Jacksonville Jaguars rolled into Denver and stunned the Broncos 30-27. At that point, Elway was a soon-to-be 37-year-old quarterback who had never won a championship. It seemed likely that he’d end his career that way.
A year later, Elway and the Broncos returned to the playoffs, got to the Super Bowl, and won, ending the NFC’s long winning streak in the process. It was a sweet win for Elway and his team, especially given what had happened one year earlier.
8. Michael Jordan wins his fifth NBA title
Jordan didn’t win the league MVP in 1997. That went to Utah Jazz forward Karl Malone. But Jordan would get his revenge in that June’s NBA Finals. After years of falling short, Malone’s Jazz would fight through the Western Conference Finals, earning their first trip to the NBA Finals.
That’s where the magic would end, though. Jordan’s Chicago Bulls downed the Jazz in six games, with Jordan badly outplaying Malone on the way. A year later, Jordan would win his fifth and final MVP, as well as his sixth championship, defeating the Jazz in six again.
9. MLB institutes interleague play
While all of the major American professional leagues have some sort of conference/league play, MLB had always stood alone in one regard. Other than the All-Star Game and the World Series, the two leagues would not meet. That changed in 1997.
On June 12 of that year, the Giants and Texas Rangers squared off in the first interleague game in MLB history. At the time, it seemed like something had to give. Certainly, the two leagues couldn’t continue playing regular season games against each other with one league using a DH and the other not, right?
Well, interleague play hasn’t gone away. And 21 years later, the two leagues have not instituted a common DH rule, either.
10. Tiger Woods dominates Augusta in “a win for the ages”
As a decorated amateur, Woods entered the PGA Tour in 1996 with a lot of hype. He entered the 1997 Masters — his first major as a professional — with three wins in less than a year. That did a lot to silence any doubters. A 72-hole trip around Augusta National permanently shut up any lingering skeptics.
Woods started slow, shooting a 40 on Augusta’s first-nine. He came back with a 30 on the second-nine to shoot on opening-round 70. He never looked back from there. Woods finished at 18-under par, breaking the tournament record, which has since been equaled by Jordan Spieth. Nobody before or since has come close to the 12-shot margin of victory that Woods had over runner-up Tom Kite.