Tuesday, Feb. 11, 1997 | 11:59 a.m.
SUN STAFF AND WIRE REPORTS
Las Vegas resident Jimmy Vasser, the 1996 PPG Indy Car World Series champion, received the ESPY Award as Performer of the Year in auto racing.
Vasser, who drives for Target/Chip Ganassi Racing, accepted the ESPY during ceremonies Monday night at New York's Radio City Music Hall televised by ESPN.
"This is very special," said Vasser, who won four races -- including the inaugural U.S. 500 -- en route to his first PPG Cup and more than $3 million in prize money. "I'm definitely honored to represent my series, sport and team on an evening celebrating many of the world's greatest athletes. Look at who was honored: Muhammad Ali, Evander Holyfield, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and more. The opportunity to be around some of those great names was a big thrill and something I'll always remember."
Vasser beat out NASCAR's Terry Labonte and Formula One's Damon Hill for the auto racing ESPY. The fifth annual ESPYs recognized achievement in 34 sports categories.
Ho Jo back with Mets
Reaching back to its past, the New York Mets agreed Monday to a minor-league contract with Howard Johnson. As in 36-year-old Howard Johnson. He spent 1996 as a minor-league coach with Butte of the Pioneer Rookie League, an affiliate of the Tampa Bay Devils. In 1995, the third baseman and outfielder hit .195 in 169 at-bats for the Chicago Cubs, with four doubles, one triple, seven homers and 22 RBIs.
In other baseball news:
* Japanese pitcher Hideki Irabu insisted that he wants to play for the New York Yankees instead of the San Diego Padres, and said "extortion, coercion and collusion won't change my mind."
* Pitcher Dave Burba avoided arbitration, agreeing to a three-year deal with the Cincinnati Reds that guarantees him $8.15 million.
* Andy Van Slyke, who retired after the 1995 season due to back problems, is trying to make a comeback with the St. Louis Cardinals. Manager Tony La Russa invited Van Slyke to training camp as a non-roster player.
Northwestern fires coach
After four seasons with the Big Ten's basketball doormat, Northwestern coach Ricky Byrdsong is being shown the door. Byrdsong did not attend a news conference announcing his firing, effective at the end of the season. Saturday's 56-44 loss to Wisconsin dropped the Wildcats to 6-16, including 1-10 in the Big Ten. They are tied for last with Penn State. Byrdsong received national attention in February 1994 when he left the Northwestern bench during a game at Minnesota and wandered into the stands. He slapped hands with Gophers fans and their mascot and took a seat. After a leave of absence, Byrdsong returned as Northwestern's coach.
Rodman returns tonight
Chicago Bulls forward Dennis Rodman returns to action tonight against Charlotte after sitting out 11 games for kicking a cameraman. Bulls coach Phil Jackson said Rodman looked good in practice, but might not start against the Hornets. After serving a six-game suspension for head-butting a referee last March, Rodman came off the bench for five games.
ABC director dies
Darold Dobs, executive director of the American Bowling Congress, died of cancer in Milwaukee, only days after the ABC recognized the first perfect three-game series in a bowling history. He was 54. Despite his declining health, Dobs was well aware of the accomplishment by Jeremy Sonnenfeld of Sioux Falls, S.D., who rolled three consecutive 300 games at a tournament in Lincoln, Neb., on Feb. 2.
Second-seeded Michael Chang of Henderson routed Mashiska Washington 6-2, 6-0 in the first round of the Sybase Open in San Jose, Calif. No. 1 Pete Sampras begins his title defense tonight against Alex Radulescu.