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The signpost up ahead says 1999. So we respectfully submit for your consideration 1899. What did happen in sports the last time we started watching for the last three numbers on the chronometer to roll over?

Well, the Knicks won the AAU basketball title (Knickerbocker Athletic Club), though somebody had to pull a cord underneath each peach basket to release successful shots. The Stanley Cup went to Montreal-the Shamrocks. Henry Ford and Alexander Winton staged the first stock car race in Detroit. On the South Side of Chicago, a neighborhood football team known as the Morgan Athletic Club was formed; after various reincarnations in Chicago, St. Louis and Phoenix, you now know them as the Arizona Cardinals. Jack Johnson fought for money for the first time. The American League was born. And, on the last day of the Cleveland Spiders' season, 19-year-old cigar-stand clerk Eddie Kolb gave manager Joe Quinn a box of cigars in exchange for the starting assignment, then proceeded to give up 18 hits in eight innings of a 19-3 loss. It hardly mattered, though, because the Spiders finished 84 games out of first in the National League.

Plus ´a change, plus c'est la m‘me chose, which, roughly translated, means: Florida Marlins. Everything, but not much, has changed in 100 years. (There was no NBA then, either.) While 1999 may seem unlikely to top 1998 for excitement, if 1899 is any indication, we're still in for an extraordinary year. What if Randy Moss catches three TD passes in Super Bowl XXXIII to help the Vikings get those four monkeys off their backs? What if Nomar Garciaparra takes the Red Sox to the World Series, only this time-for the first time since 1918-they win? Neither is out of the realm of possibility. Hey, what if we had told you in our premier issue that Mark McGwire would hit 70 home runs? As if.

Randy and Nomar may not lead their teams to the promised land, but they, as well as Jaromir Jagr and Keith Van Horn, embody the hopes of their sports. Like our first set of Next athletes, they are 26-or-under and they regularly perform magic. Their trick is that they make half of us think we've never seen that before, and the other half think we've only seen that done by the immortals. They create a buzz that links generations and shrinks the sports world. (Did you see Moss last night!?)

Over the next 27 pages, we'll take a closer look at the Fab Four, as well as other future greats in a variety of sports spread out over the calendar year. On those same pages, we'll give you hints on what to look for in '99, and our ESPN TV colleagues will remind you of what was so wonderful about '98.

We think you'll get the same feeling that we have, that there's more in the air than just another century. Viking receiver Cris Carter was talking about his protÁgÁ, Moss, but he could have been talking about 1999 when he said: We are on the ground floor of something huge. Come on in-we're going up.