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High Honors: Marino, Lemieux, McConnell Serio share spotlight

Sunday, February 13, 2000

By Chuck Finder, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Sixty-four years and going, the Dapper Dan Dinner last night scored its first career hat trick, or the banquet-circuit equivalent, anyway.

  Dan Marino was making jokes -- not a retirement speech - last night at the Dapper Dan banquet. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

It honored a Sportsman and Sportswoman of the Year, in Mario Lemieux and Suzie McConnell Serio.

And it accorded Dan Marino the same front-and-center billing with his induction to the Pittsburgh Sports Hall of Fame.

A lot of folks came to the annual banquet inside the Downtown Hilton ballroom -- about 1,200 or so seated at tables, another 100 sporting glitterati on the dais and a smattering of television stations that included Fox WSVN from Miami. But if they came expecting a hint about the football future of Marino, who rendered himself a free agent at midweek, they were left wanting.

Then again, Marino did admit that he wanted to be behind the steering wheel of a championship team.

"I'm out of work now," the former Central Catholic and Pitt star said in the direction of Chip Ganassi, owner of the Championship Auto Racing Teams' past four series winners. "So if you need a driver. ..."

So Dolphins fans' questions -- dapper Dan return, retire or go elsewhere? -- remain unanswered.

No, this night wasn't as much about fish tales, futures and employment as it was about accomplishments of the past year and off-the-athletic-fields labor.

Lemieux was bestowed with his third Dapper Dan top honor, joining his 1986 and 1988 awards. Yet he became the first owner to receive the award and the only other front-office winner besides the Pirates' Syd Thrift in 1987.

"It's certainly a great honor," the Penguins owner said.

"As you know, last year was a difficult year for all of us who love the game of hockey ... and the Penguins. It certainly was a tough 11 months for all of us, not knowing if the Penguins would be in Portland, Las Vegas or Kansas City. I get a lot of credit for saving the team, but I can tell you it was truly a team effort."

By that, he meant Team Lemieux. He then introduced and thanked many of those who helped to steer him and his ownership group, among them agents Tom and Steve Reich, friend and advisor Tom Grealish (who introduced him) and his wife, Nathalie.

McConnell Serio, on crutches after recent foot surgery to correct a nagging fracture (the result of an injury while playing in the WNBA), followed her True Grit Award from last year's banquet with the first Sportswoman of the Year honor.

She is the only woman athlete to join the elite Dapper Dan group since the club began rewarding local athletes in 1939, when boxer Billy Conn won.

Mario Lemieux, the Sportsman of the Year, chats with Sportswoman o fthe Year Suzie McConnell Serio. (John Beale, Post-Gazette) 

"It's a proud moment for me, my family and the Oakland Catholic family," said McConnell Serio, who was introduced by her brother Tim McConnell, the Chartiers Valley boys' basketball coach.

Yet delighting the crowd just as much, and playing as prominent role in the evening's proceedings, was Marino.

"For me, it's growing up in the city of Pittsburgh and Oakland and having dreams of becoming a professional athlete ... it's a special night because of that. That will always be with me," Marino told the crowd. Later, he added, "it does hit a nerve. It's a great award, and [people] think enough of you to come out."

The Miami Fox affiliate thought enough to follow him north to see if he might mention retirement or returning or possibly playing elsewere: media reports have focused on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers being a possibility. Marino, making his first Dapper Dan appearance in a a decade and a half, didn't add any fuel to the speculation -- unless you take this auto-racing thing seriously.

"Sure," Marino joked afterward, "Chip's going to give me a job."

Ganassi's excellence in the open-wheel circuit earned him the Lifetime Achievement.

A special Millennium Award was also given to Lemieux, the Steelers' Art Rooney II, the Pirates' Kevin McClatchy and PNC's Thomas O'Brien.

The first standing ovation of the night went to Ralph Kiner, the Pirates' slugger of the 1940s and 1950s. He delighted the crowd most of all with a tale of a 1952 contract negotiation with persnickety General Manager Branch Rickey. In an age long before free agency, Rickey demanded the National League's leading home-run hitter take a 25-percent paycut: "Where did we finish last year, son."

"Well, last," answered Kiner.

"We can finish last without you."

Other snapshots and snippets:

*Pirates manager Gene Lamont made three predictions: "First, Jason Kendall will come back better than ever. Second, when they talk about the Cy Young Award after next year, Jason Schmidt will be right up there. And third, Wil Cordero, when they talk about the free-agent signings this winter, he'll be right at the top of the list."

McClatchy added: "We're going to finish ahead of Mr. Griffey [Cincinnati and Ken Jr.], Mr McGwire [St. Louis and Mark], and Mr. Sosa [Chicago and Sammy]."

*After spinning a funny yarn about how he played a role in Rocky Bleier's career, Steelers announcer Myron Cope became the foil du jour. Kidded Steelers special teams coach Jay Hayes, from South Fayette High: "I've been listening to you since I was this big ... er, since I was your size." McClatchy added: "I'm starting my fifth season here in Pittsburgh, and I'm finally starting to understand what Myron Cope is saying." Finally, Lemieux recalled how his first radio interview in Pittsburgh in 1984 was on Cope's show: "The interview was supposed to be 45 minutes. But after five minutes I said, 'I've got to go. I can't understand him.' "

*Grealish, Lemieux's introducer, joked about the Penguins' greatest player getting into the NHL Hall of Fame three years before getting into his own team's. "A year ago, Mario asked me, what do you think it will take for me to get into the Penguins Hall of Fame. I said, 'I don't know ... buy the franchise?' For the record, I was joking."

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