NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — I’m killing a tradition this year. I wish I didn’t have to.

Since I joined this newspaper, my New Year’s Day column has always begun:
“GOOD MORNING. YOU CAN GET OFF THE POOL TABLE NOW. . . .”

It was written in capital letters — the whole column — in sympathy, I joked, for those too bleary-eyed from drinking the night before. It was fun, and a lot of people told me they looked forward to it each Jan. 1. Why not? Humor gets you through a hangover. I was being a buddy. I understood.

Now. When you do this job, you pray for columns that people look forward to. And you certainly don’t want to give them up. But when I sat down this morning, and started to write about bean dip on your nose, wearing someone else’s pants, well, I felt a shiver of hypocrisy.

And I heard names.

Bruce Kimball. Petr Klima. Steve Howe. Mitch Green. Bob Probert. Reggie Rogers. . . .

How much trouble have we seen in 1988 from alcohol alone, from men who were laughing, tossing them back, having an innocently good time? Not one of these people was sitting in a dark room, trying to poison himself. Most emerged from bars, happy and confident, often with women on their arms.

And things ended badly. Their laughter turned to shock. In the mildest case, it was Klima trying to crawl across the lap of the girl next to him, so the police officer wouldn’t see who was driving.

In the worst case, it was Rogers staggering out of his vehicle, dazed, bleeding, seeing the three teenage bodies whose lives he had inadvertently snuffed out. Or Kimball, dropping to his knees and weeping “Why me? Why me?” upon seeing the carnage of two teenagers, killed by his mistake.

Where is the fun in this?

There is no fun.

And I can’t joke about it anymore.
‘Why? What did I do?’

Please know that this does not come from some self-bloated health nut. I drink. Sometimes too much. In the sports writing business, it is almost impossible not to. Truth is that New Year’s Eve has long been a sort of an inside challenge: Let’s see how big a hangover you can handle and still make it in by the bowl game’s kickoff.

No harm was meant. But there is something wrong now, some line we have crossed. The suds have turned sour. We, in the sugar-plum land of the sports page, should not be burying children.

Yet we are. Too often.

Listen to this partial list of athletes arrested on drinking and driving charges this year alone: Cal Ripken Sr., Tony Dorsett, Jeff Chadwick, Blake Ezor, Andre Rison and Manute Bol.

Manute Bol? For Pete’s sake, the guy didn’t even speak English six years ago! He was a Sudanese tribesman! And Klima? He was stolen out of Czechoslovakia in 1985, supposedly dreaming of freedom. He has already been arrested twice, booked, and sentenced.

Freedom?

Remember what Rogers said when they first told him of the manslaughter charge? “Why? What did I do?” And you can almost understand it. What sports broadcast today isn’t sponsored by some beer company? What game can you watch and not see rugged, handsome men toasting each other, as a deep voice coos about “a cool frosty one . . .” or says “head for the mountains. . . .

Women toasting men. Dogs carrying six-packs. In the upcoming Super Bowl, there will be a series of commercials featuring a mock football game between beer bottles. What message are we sending? The advertising is so well-glossed that you honestly forget there is alcohol in the stuff.

And yet most of the drunken incidents in sports stem from beer. Too much beer. Just a couple of beers. I can handle beer. It’s only beer.

Why? What did I do? Haven’t we had enough?

Enough. This should stop. I can think of no uglier confrontation than this summer’s Olympic diving trials, where Kimball, charged with manslaughter, walked up that platform to compete. Diving fans cheered his “courage,” while friends of the dead sat in silent rage. Who cheers for them? Who weeps for their children?

Please. Life is not a commercial. These athletes, for the most part, are nice people, I know some of these people, and the hardest columns to write have been the ones condemning them for a wrong that I, and probably you, too, have at times committed.

It begins with attitude. People will never stop drinking altogether. But I no longer feel right winking at the chug-a- lug. Somewhere along the line, the idea of waking up with my tongue dry and my head throbbing has lost its romance.

So in the memory of those bodies littered across a Florida lawn, and those three teenagers scattered at a Pontiac intersection, the accidents that happened and the accidents that just missed — when we swerved and said,
“Whoa, that was close!” and kept going — well, I hope you understand when you pick up tomorrow’s newspaper.

No capital letters. No pool table. No bean dip on your nose. Let’s take a break and wake up before noon this year. And if you must drink, please don’t touch the car keys, don’t even think about it. It’s not corny. It’s not preachy. It’s just a New Year’s resolution that says we really can live and learn.

Our stomachs, and our children, will thank us.

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