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Who's on First? New Almanac Sets the Record Straight

During the past year, John Hassan spent every working moment tracking the macro and micro developments in sports.

As editor of the "1998 ESPN Information Please Sports Almanac," he sorted through a mountain of facts in 18 sports, from the Super Bowl to the champions of the Soap Box Derby.

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Work on the almanac, which hit the shelves before Thanksgiving, is the product of months spent scouring sports Web sites, reading countless sports pages, and tuning in ESPN's "SportsCenter."

Hassan, who is moving on to help edit the biweekly sports magazine ESPN, launching in March, says Tiger Woods and "his success at the Masters, as well as his overall success as a black golfer," was easily the biggest story of 1997.

Hassan calls what Woods did at the Masters (becoming the youngest winner by the largest margin with a record low score) "astonishing. He stomped the best players in golf. All of a sudden Tiger Woods was not about hype anymore. He went on to become the first player in the history of the PGA Tour to win $2 million in earnings."

Although the ESPN almanac does not name athletes or stories of the year, Hassan picks Woods as the No. 1 male athlete and Cynthia Cooper and Martina Hingis as the leading female athletes.

Cooper was a great story not only because she led the Women's National Basketball Association in scoring and her team, the Houston Comets, to the league's inaugural championship, but also because she did so while keeping tabs on her ill mother, Hassan explains.

If Hingis hadn't fallen off a horse in April, he believes the Swiss tennis star might have won the French Open to go along with wins in the other three majors - Wimbledon, plus the US and Australian Opens. Even without a victory in the French, Hassan is convinced that Hingis produced the greatest year in women's tennis since 1988, when Steffi Graf won the Grand Slam and the Olympics.

Hassan had hoped that Graf, who missed much of '97 while on the mend, would win the '98 Australian Open, which begins Jan. 13. Last week, however, she withdrew, sensing she wasn't ready physically.

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A win in Melbourne would have given Graf at least five victories in each of the Slam tournaments, a feat that Hassan believes should place her among the greatest athletes of the last half century.

"You don't find that kind of dominance anywhere else," he says. "She won events spread around the year, on different surfaces, in different countries."

Hassan says the key to compiling an almanac is consistency of effort and balance in presentation. The pace inevitably intensifies in September and October with the onrush of final deadlines. The World Series is the last news event incorporated into the '98 edition, which came out 12 days after the Series ended.

The temptation is great, Hassan says, to load yearly reviews with baseball statistics because baseball "numbers sing and really take on a gravity. In other sports you know who holds the record but not the number. When Fran Tarkenton held the pro football passing records for 15 or 20 years, I didn't memorize his statistics. I just knew he threw a lot of touchdown passes."

When Hassan was hired two years ago, the "Information Please" almanac was facing stiff, new competition from Sports Illustrated - part of the Turner-Time Warner empire. "They were walloping us," he says. "Sports Illustrated was just too big a brand name for us to battle. So we had to do something to stem the tide of slipping sales."

ESPN was approached about becoming a publishing partner. It was perfect timing, Hassan says, because ESPN was looking to expand into publishing.

Hassan naturally thinks the ESPN book is superior to Sports Illustrated's almanac. At $11.95, he knows it is $2 cheaper for a book just as thick.

But don't expect it to get any bigger. "This is a book fans rifle through," Hassan observes, "and 960 pages is pretty much all the glue and paper that can be held together."

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