GOOD SPORTS Great gifts for athletes and those who just want to dress like one

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Finding the perfect gift for the sports enthusiast on your holiday shopping list is not as simple as it used to be. These days, sporting goods are nearly as complex and high-tech as computers. There are huge warehouse stores devoted entirely to sporting goods. They sell everything from Ping-Pong balls to hunting rifles. Space-age metal alloys, graphite composites and synthetic fabrics have replaced wood, cotton and leather as materials of choice.

Computer-aided design has revolutionized the construction of many items, from baseball bats to sports watches. Today, one can get a bat made of titanium, and a skiing watch that reads barometric pressure and altitude.

Shoppers beware -- if you're buying gifts for the sports-minded person on your list, it helps if you have an engineering degree. But with the following primer on sports-gift ideas, you can walk confidently into your local sporting-goods store, armed with the latest information on sporting-goods technology.

Major-league apparel

There was a time when dinosaurs roamed the Earth and the best basketball shoe you could buy was the Converse Chuck Taylor, made of canvas and rubber. It cost about $20. Now you need about $134 to buy top-of-the-line basketball shoes, like the Nike Air Max Chris Webber model. This black, white and blue shoe features compressed air wedges in the sole, and is extremely lightweight but durable. Mr. Webber, of the Washington Bullets, is one of the National Basketball Association's rising stars, and this shoe would make most hoop fanatics jump for joy.

Nike doesn't just make shoes anymore. Nike apparel (jackets, shirts, shorts, sweat suits) is also a big seller, according to Norm Shortt of Champs Sports. Nike's current line of clothing is in basic earth tones: pine, brown, tan and black.

The black Nike baseball cap with a white stripe is hugely popular. And this fall, Nike introduced its line of sports balls, including footballs, basketballs and volleyballs. They range in price from $29 to $59 and are expected to be very popular also. One suspects that Nike could put its trademarked stripe on a snow shovel and that shovel would become a big seller.

Most sports junkies have a team that they are absolutely rabid over. Hint: Buy them a sweat shirt, jersey or cap with this team's name on it. If they don't have a favorite team, keep in mind that sports apparel touting the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers are perennial best-sellers. With girls, the Charlotte Hornets are the most popular team. The reason, according to Mr. Shortt: purple and teal, the team's colors.

On the ski trail

Local ski enthusiasts are hoping this season is much better than last year's, in which January temperatures soared to 50 degrees, melting any hopes for good skiing in the region. Gift buying for a skier usually centers on clothing, because ski equipment is a very personal decision (there are so many types of skis out there).

As any skier will tell you, clothing is a big part of the sport. Comfort and functionality of ski wear are critical, but looking stylish while you slalom is perhaps just as important. This year's hot new material is fleece. And we're not talking about those old fleece sweat shirts. Fleece these days is highly advanced fabric with names like Polar Tec and Turtle Fur.

Today's fleece has good insulating properties, is highly breathable and doesn't shrink or lose piling when laundered. But just as important, fleece comes in lots of cool colors and designs, including bright, bold, computer-generated prints and patterns.

Skiers like to wear fleece under a nylon shell, to create a layering effect, says Mike Holofcener, owner of Edge Set in Towson. Layering clothing allows more versatility when weather conditions change. Earth tones, especially forest green, are still popular colors in ski wear, he adds.

A popular accessory among skiers is the Footwarmer by Hotronic. This electronic shoe-heating system is battery-operated and provides warmth for several hours. Its two foot pads go into ski boots to keep the wearer's tootsies toasty during those chilly days on the slopes. The Footwarmer sells for about $149.

For skiers who have a technological bent, Avocet makes a ski watch called Vertech that provides temperature, vertical feet, descent rate, altitude and barometric pressure. And for approximately $130, it even tells the time and date. Just don't look at it while you're flying down the expert slope.

For lounging about the ski lodge, or for schlepping around the mall, UGG Boots are very trendy. These plush Australian sheepskin boots, which retail for about $159, are said to be worn by none other than Rush Limbaugh.

Big wheels

It's been called the fastest-growing sport of the '90s -- in-line skating. An estimated 20 million Americans are in-line skaters, getting an excellent aerobic workout every time they roll off. The high-tech skates they use are nothing like the roller skates you wore as a child. In-line skates look more like space-age hockey skates. There are now sophisticated braking mechanisms available that take some of the fear out of trying to stop.

Rollerblade, one of the leading in-line skate manufacturers, debuted its Advanced Braking Technology (ABT) last year, and now several other skate makers are offering braking devices. With ABT, when a skater's foot moves forward, a hard rubber disc goes down to the ground at the back of the skate, allowing all the wheels to remain on the ground, thus enhancing control and balance -- which is important when you're careening down a hill and there's a traffic light at the bottom. Although in-line skates can be bought for as low as $49, a good pair costs from $139 to $179, and a better pair can cost $479.

Among bicyclists, the 10-speed road bike is going the way of Converse Chuck Taylor sneakers. Mountain bikes now outsell road bikes 12-1 in most stores. Front shock absorbers are the latest development in mountain bikes. You can buy a mountain bike with shocks, or purchase the shocks (Rock Shox are around $259) and install them yourself.

Front shocks add stability, comfort and control, says Ellen Downey, assistant manager of the Mount Washington Bike Shop. Without shocks, the front wheel of a bike gets deflected to the side when hitting an obstacle such as a rock or tree stump. With shocks, the wheel rises toward the frame when striking an object, allowing a rider to track straighter and faster.

Have you ever wondered what happens to the soda cans that you send off to the recycling center? Some of them may have ended up as a Huffy Metaloid bike, a mountain bike for children that's made from 120 recycled aluminum cans. This innovative bike also features an unusual girder-like frame and straight handlebars. It sells for about $139.

For sheer head-turning appeal, it's hard to top the new Specialized Sharkcruiser. Cruisers are the low riders of the bike world and are popular among young people at Ocean City. These single-speed, fat-tired bikes are stylish in a retro sort of way, but they are certainly not built for speed. The Sharkcruiser looks like a shark on wheels. It features shark details near the handlebars, and has a bottle opener built into the frame. It sells for about $230, beverage not included.

A hot accessory for cyclists is the Dee Dog bag by Timbuk Tu. This shoulder bag was designed as a messenger bag for bicycle couriers, but has crossed over into the mainstream and been adopted by commuters and students. It can holds books, a briefcase, or your lunch. And its strap and clip design makes it less cumbersome than a backpack. It sells for about $64 and comes in a variety of bright, three-color designs.

Sticks, bats and rackets

The local ice hockey scene is expected to receive a boost this year with the opening of a huge new ice rink in Harford County. What to buy that future Wayne Gretzky in your life? Well, wooden hockey sticks are declasse -- now sticks are made of aluminum and even graphite composite material, like a model by Pro Kennex that's stronger and lighter than wooden sticks. The high-tech sticks cost $24 and up, as opposed to wooden ones, which start at $8.99. That's the price of technology.

Although the World Series is history, the great American pastime stirs passions year-round. When they take to the diamond again in spring, your favorite amateur baseball and softball players can have a new arsenal of high-tech equipment to choose from. Although you can still get a good old wooden Louisville Slugger for about $20, the new wave of bats are made of aluminum alloy, which increases swing speed and power. They cost up to $120.

Among gloves, you can get a traditional Rawlings Signature Series for about $45 or you can spring for a Conform glove by Wilson for around $240. The latter can be ordered through Grand Slam U.S.A. stores. It features a built-in dial that adjusts the glove to secure your entire hand, providing a snug, comfortable fit. Many Major League baseball players use this one.

The weather is a bit too cold for tennis, but there is a racket on the market that's proving too hot for many tennis buffs to resist. It's called the Prince Longbody, and it's several inches longer than a standard racket, providing a much larger hitting area. Prince was the leader in developing oversized rackets, and the Longbody is the latest creation in the company's revolutionary approach to racket design. Prices range from $199 to $279, depending on model.

For golfers and anglers

There's an old joke that says a game of golf can ruin a perfectly good walk outdoors. Even so, there are millions of devoted golfers out there. And while it may seem that the golfer on your holiday list has everything he or she could possibly need, that surely isn't so.

Golf requires highly specialized equipment; equipment that is changing rapidly because of advancing technology. In other words, there's always a new driver or putter on the market that becomes the hot new thing on the links.

This year, there are several innovations in equipment. The Great Big Bertha, by Callaway, sells for about $489 and features an extra-large titanium head and ultra-light graphite shaft. A more affordable option is the Burner Bubble by Taylor Made. It features a radically designed shaft that supposedly increases club head acceleration, thus adding distance to a golfer's drives. The Burner Bubble costs around $219.

Another hot club this year is the Wilson Invex driver, which that American John Daly used to win the British Open this year. It has a unique airfoiled design, which is supposed to improve your swing. The price is about $299.

A new putter by Switch features a head that's so oversized it resembles a branding iron. Available for around $99, it features a cork grip, which enhances feel and sensitivity, and has an interactive design that allows a golfer to custom-tailor the putter by adding or removing weights in the putter's head as well as in the grip.

According to Jeff Bell, manager of Pro Golf in Bel Air, fast greens require less weight in the head of the putter, while slow greens usually demand more weight.

Golf clothes are always a popular gift, and traditional plaids and pastels are not your only options these days. Now there are bold, colorful prints and high-tech fabrics available for shirts, slacks, pullovers and jackets.

Fishing is another sport in which most avid participants seem to own everything they will ever need. Once someone has a rod and reel, hook, line and sinker, what else is there? Well, if the fishing enthusiast on your list also has a computer with CD-ROM, you can get him or her "Gone Fishin: Digital Freshwater Fishing," a computer game that creates the experience of fishing right in your house. Players can choose the weather, the location, the body of water, and the type of rod and boat. They'll use a depth gauge and fish finder to catch the elusive whopper. This "virtual fishing experience" costs about $50, frying pan not included.

SHOPPING GUIDE

Good Sports

Page 11 -- Short Ultra UGG Boot in chestnut, $150.

Prince Longbody Mach 1000 tennis rackets from Princeton Sports and the Sports Authority, around $280.

Telescoping Ski Tube from Gorsuch Ltd., $100, ([800] 525-9808).

Page 14 -- Giro Mudshaker bike helmet, ages 4 to 12 (pink), Giro Minimoto bike helmet, ages 0-4 (blue), from Mount Washington Bike Shop, both $39.95.

Coolblade/ABT in-line skates from Rollerblade from Princeton Sports, $249.99.

Avocet Vertech ski watch from Gorsuch Ltd., $130, ([800] 525-9808).

Burner Bubble golf club by Taylor Made, from Pro Golf, $229.99.

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