Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Ice the Champagne, Philly


When it comes to the main characters from the 1919 Black Sox World Series, everybody knows about Joe Jackson, who was banned from baseball, even though his .375 average during the series would indicate he didn’t try to fix anything – except the Sox’ fortunes after their two best pitchers took dives. They should recognize the name Arnold Rothstein, the New York gambler who spread around the dough. They might remember Kennesaw Mountain Landis, the gruff former U.S. district judge who banned Jackson and seven other Sox players from the game.

And, if you saw the movie “Eight Men Out,” you would even know about Hugh Fullerton. Fullerton, then a writer for the New York World, uncovered the scandal, after receiving a tip before the series. Fullerton was played by renowned author Studs Terkel in the movie and was instrumental in exposing the Sox’ misdeeds. It was quite a job by Fullerton, who is credited with being the first person to put athletes’ quotations in newspaper articles and include slang and human-interest items in his reports. Among his protégés were Ring Lardner and Grantland Rice.

Four years earlier, in 1915, Fullerton was covering baseball for The New York Times. That year, the Phillies made their first-ever World Series appearance, after 32 years of futility. Manager Pat Moran’s team had won the National League by overcoming the Boston Braves – known as the “Miracle Braves” a year earlier for their surprising run to the world championship – and prepared to face the Boston Red Sox. Before the first game began in Philadelphia (the teams’ owners convened at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York to flip a coin to see which city would host the first two games), Fullerton weighed in on the series, which he felt would go decidedly in Boston’s favor. “Man for man, [the Red Sox] outclass the National League champs,” Fullerton wrote. He went on to say that the only chance the Phillies had was if Grover Cleveland Alexander, who won 31 games during the regular season, triumphed three times. Alexander won the opener, 3-1, after which he was borne about National League Park as if he had single-handedly ended the First World War. That was it for Philadelphia prosperity. Fullerton had been right. Boston won in five games.

Ninety-three years later, the Phillies have returned to the Fall Classic, for just the sixth time in franchise history. (That used to be a bad decade for the Yankees.) Fullerton is long gone from the journalistic scene, but there are plenty of people still picking against the Phillies. Five of Sports Illustrated’s nine “experts” give the Lucifer Rays the advantage. At, it’s 8-5, Beelzebub Rays. One espn “authority,” Jim Caple, says a matchup between the Phils (or any NL team) and the Satan Rays “is like the majors versus AAA,” and El Hombre assumes he isn’t talking about the automotive club. Even some scientist from New Jersey Institute of Technology, Bruce Bukiet, gives Tampa Bay a 59% chance of winning, based on his mathematical calculations. What’s next, a Nickelodeon poll?

Yep, the nation is aligned strongly against Philadelphia – again. One gets the feeling that if a Philly team in any sport were littered with Hall of Famers, had a past Mensa president as coach or manager and had won every single regular-season game it contested, the rest of the nation would still favor its championship-round opponent, based on some long-standing bout with futility or the fact that Philadelphia fans booed Santa Claus 40 (that’s 4-0) years ago. If the ’27 Yankees were reincarnated as this group of Phils, most wags would pick Tampa in six. If Cy Young were starting three times for the Phils, it would be Abaddon Rays in seven. This is not to say the pundits have it in for the city, but picking against its teams sure seems fun.

Well, it ends here. Go ahead and choose Tampa. Revel in the city’s previous successes against proud Philadelphia outfits, as if wins by the Lightning and Buccaneers have anything to do with this World Series. Pick the upstarts to take it all and to conclude one of the most amazing transformations since Charlize Theron got ugly in “Monster.” Jump on the bandwagon, along with rest of the people in the Gulf Coast area, who finally decided to become baseball fans when the playoffs rolled around. Say they’ll win in six. Or seven. Call for a sweep.

You’ll be wrong.

After 25 years of sporting futility in Philadelphia, the tide is turning. The Flyers came within a couple wins of the Stanley Cup Finals last year. The Sixers are better. And despite the ridiculous, condescending blithering of team president Joe Banner, who couldn’t make a trade beneficial to the team if his boss’ next B movie depended on it, the Eagles remain a factor in the NFL. And now come the Phillies, ready to usher in a new Age of Enlightenment in Philadelphia sports, as if they were a sporting Voltaire. By hanging a banner, they will not only break a 25-year drought; they’ll make it easier for their local brethren to do the same. Being the first at anything is the hardest. But when the Flyers won the 1974 Stanley Cup, they launched a 10-year run of prosperity that included another Cup, an NBA title, a World Series championship and a Super Bowl appearance. Myriad playoff trips and championship-round qualifications were also included.

This breakthrough will be accomplished by a lights-out bullpen, a clutch-hitting bench, a shutdown ace and a sense of veteran purpose that trumps youthful exuberance every time. The Phillies will win the World Series in six games and return to an adoring city that will have its championship thirst slaked by the finest wine. From there, the city’s sports teams will charge into the next decade with a confidence absent to this point. Take your shots now, America, because your fun is just about over. The championship is on its way to Philadelphia, and you’ll just have to deal with it.

And as for the snowball thing, get over it. Santa has.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: Strong showing by the Cowboys against the Rams last Sunday. Just goes to show you that character can’t be bought. Dallas has little of it, and that will be its downfall…Speaking of the NFL, the latest rumors have Brett Favre’s providing information to the Lions on how to beat the Packers. First of all, it’s ridiculous to think Detroit can beat anybody. Second, shouldn’t Cowboy Quarterback have been focusing on how to beat Oakland?…Reports out of Phoenix say Grant Hill and The Big Salary Waste want to own the Orlando Magic some day. They should call Tim Duncan and Tony Parker for some advice, because the lately, the Spurs have owned the Suns…Poor Big Brown. The magnificent horse hurt his foot during a workout and will no longer get to take part in the brutal sport of horse racing. Instead, he’ll retire to Three Chimneys Farm and begin his stud “career.” Any other males out there envy Big Brown, too?…Here’s another reason why some people want Communism back in Russia: Seven athletes were recently banned for two years for manipulating doping samples. That never would have happened in the old USSR. They would have done a much better job covering up their cheating.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? Remember when Philadelphia used to be an NFL town, way back in 2006? Well, the Eagles get a chance to win back some fans against the surprising (4-2) Falcons Sunday. The bye week gave the team a chance to heal its wounds – particularly Brian Westbrook – and prepare for the last 10 games in a season that could well decide the fates of coach Andy Reid and QB Donovan McNabb. Big things remain possible for this team, but a loss to the Falcons would be crushing. It will be interesting to see if Reid can motivate the club he assembled to play consistent, smart football, or if the problems that created a 3-3 start will persist. Fans should expect some prosperity, thanks a light schedule ahead. They shouldn’t, however, expect any help from the front office, which refuses to augment the roster and continues to treat fans with contempt.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: Back in September, before his Florida Atlantic team was ready to tangle with Texas, coach Howard Schnellenberger said everybody knew the Longhorns lacked toughness and commitment. Although it’s always tough to understand Howard’s baritone rumble, he was right. The feeling around college football was that the Steers were a little light in the shorts. Well, no more. Their comeback win over Oklahoma and obliteration of Missouri (don’t be fooled by the final score; Texas led, 35-0, in the first half) proves UT is for real. And don’t worry about the gauntlet of ranked teams the Longhorns must face (number seven OK State this Saturday; number eight Texas Tech next week, number 19 Kansas down the road), because this team has the fortitude to handle anything in its path. Looking for one half of the BCS “championship” matchup? Here it is.


Friday, October 17, 2008

Finish The Job


When Nicholas II’s cronies decided it was time to get rid of Russian mystic/drunk Grigory Rasputin, they appealed to his base sensibilities. Prince Felix Yusupovsky invited the starets to his palace, on the pretext of introducing Rasputin to his delectable wife. There would also be an assortment of gluttonous treats. In other words, it was just another Saturday night for Tsarina Alexandra’s most trusted confidant.

Rasputin, of course, consented. Once he arrived, the Prince and his confederates fed the “holy man” poisoned cakes and drink. Nothing. So, they shot him. Rasputin crumpled to the floor, and the men left him there to die. When they returned, Rasputin sprung up and began to beat the Prince, who called for help. His friends arrived with guns, cudgels and other implements of mayhem and set upon Rasputin. After giving him the business, they bound his arms and legs and tossed him into a nearby river, where finally, he died, not from his wounds, but by drowning. In fact, his hands and feet were free of the ropes

The Tampa Bay Beelzebub Rays had better study up on their Russian history, if they hope to subdue the Boston Red Sawx. Thursday night’s come-from-ahead debacle in Boston shows just how hard it is to conquer the defending world champions. Tampa held a 7-0 lead in the seventh, and half the team’s young roster was salivating at what was probably their first taste of champagne – even if the tightwad organization probably had screw-cap versions of the stuff on ice. But Big Papi, he of the 1-for-700 ALCS batting performance, smacked a homer. J.D. Drew launched one, too. The previously infallible Tampa bullpen imploded. And here we go, back to Florida, with the Sawx’ having new life.

This is exactly why the Phillies do not want to see Boston in the World Series. It doesn’t matter whether the Satan Rays have a better team, what with the power of B.J. Upton and Evan Longoria, the speed of Carl Crawford, the magnetism of Robin Zander and that solid starting rotation. The Sawx are just too damn resilient. Like Rasputin, they can’t be killed with just poison. Or bullets. You have to lop their collective head off and bury it 1,000 miles from the rest of the corpse. You have to dig out their heart and feed it to 100 baying hounds. And even then, you had better sleep with an eye open, just to make sure a stray limb doesn’t pick up 32 ounces of maple and hit a spirit-breaking home run.

The Lucifer Rays are good. Maybe great, even. After Thursday, they remain the preferred opponent for the Phils, thanks to the Sawx’ pathological ability to come back in big games. As the ALCS returns to Florida, El Hombre has a bit of advice for the Abaddon Rays: Dust off the guillotine. Bring in the electric chair. The firing squad. The asps.

You’re going to need all of it, if you want to play the Phillies.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: If, as the MLB Players Association asserts, owners colluded to make sure BALCO Bonds would not be signed for the ’08 season, then baseball should pay. While Bonds is a reprehensible character and the poster-child for the drug abuse that was rampant during the ‘90s and early 21st century, that is no excuse for breaking established labor rules. Worse, Bonds’ became such a monster in a climate propagated by baseball itself. Congratulations to baseball for convincing the Players Association to hold off until after the World Series to file a grievance, but if the owners colluded, they must pay, even if it means losing a round to the horrible Bonds. Baseball created its problem, so it must continue to do penance.


Thursday, October 16, 2008

The City of Brotherly Optimism


When the Philadelphia Phillies prepared to take on the mighty Yankees in the 1950 World Series, ace reliever (and surprise Game One starter) Jim Konstanty spoke about his team’s character and drive.

“Maybe it’s corny or foolish, but I don’t think the Yankees can match our spirit and will to win,” he said. No word on whether he was waving pom-poms (the 1950s version of rally towels) at the time.

Konstanty was right. Those ’50 “Whiz Kids” (a reprise of the nickname given to the 1942-43 University of Illinois men’s hoops team) had plenty of spunk and verve. At a time when the country went for that kind of stuff, Konstanty couldn’t be criticized for his rah-rah attitude. Of course, when South Korea invaded North Korea on the first day of the Series, a little of that innocence was gone. Still, the Happy Days didn’t evaporate completely, despite the “Police Action” over in Asia. It wasn’t until the mid-‘60s that Howdy Doody was cold-cocked by the Black Panthers – for damn good reason.

So, the ’50 Phillies had spirit. Yes, they did. Unfortunately, the Yankees had DiMaggio and Berra and Vic Raschi, who two-hit the Phils in the opener, even as his hotel room was being looted. The Fizz Kids went down in four, and it was 30 long years (thank you, Gene Mauch, for 1964 and beyond) before Philadelphia would see another World Series game.

Twenty-eight seasons after that seminal moment – the franchise’s only world title – we have another group of gung-ho, feisty World Series-bound Phillies, who thrive on their resilience and teamwork and camaraderie. They’re managed by a back-slapping type who can talk hitting with the best of them yet turns a simple declarative sentence about why he made a pitching change into a four-adverb pile-up. They specialize in come-from-behind victories, shrug off adversity and make the improbable possible. The Phillies never think a deficit is too big or a situation too dire. They keep the faith. They believe. In other words, they are the perfect team for Philadelphia.

That’s right. This optimistic bunch is Philly all the way. You may think every person in town is a grouchy pessimist, waiting for the worst to happen – and then reveling in the opportunity to curse the fates. If you listen to the idiots who come to Philadelphia for a day and leave spewing stereotypes and hackneyed characterizations, you believe every Philadelphian revs up for the holiday season by putting lye in the coffee of Salvation Army Santas and celebrates spring by spraying DDT on the Easter Bunny’s garden.

Yeah, Philly is tough. You had better believe that. The whole Northeast corridor is. Just try ordering a pastrami-on-white in a New York deli. Or wait patiently for a Boston driver to allow you to enter one of those NASCAR-style traffic circles. By the time you’d get in, the Bruins would be good again. You have to want it and then take it. Southern hospitality? Bah. Corn-pone Midwest cheerfulness? Stick it in your tractor, pal. Philadelphians are hard-core, rugged survivors. But they are, at heart, optimists. Why else would they keep getting out bed every morning? The city’s industrial base is drier than a Bible Belt county. The murder rate is one of the highest in the country. The City Council’s behavior often resembles what you would find in a pre-school sandbox. Still, Philadelphians come back, day after day.

They return to the stadiums and arenas, too. Every season, hope abounds. Hammerheads like LA Times columnist T.J. Simers may elicit chuckles from his soft-skulled readers by calling Philly “Angryville” and dusting off the usual criticisms. But even a dolt like Simers couldn’t have missed the hysteria at the Phillies’ park last week when the NLCS began. Had he taken a minute to do a little research, he would have noticed that the team set an attendance record this year. And the fans in Philadelphia show up early, stay late and don’t have time to stargaze at B-list celebrities like Mary Hart and Pat Sajak.

Are they going to boo when things go wrong? Damn right they are. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. The booing’s genesis is not anger or nastiness. It comes from a sense of betrayal. That the teams the fans support so loyally and generously would actually turn on them by playing poorly, giving inadequate effort or making boneheaded plays or decisions. The reaction comes not from a crop of inherently bad people; rather a fan base that has seen its dreams dashed so many times and can’t believe it keeps coming back for more. You saw the beginnings of it in Chicago this October, when the Cubbies went out in three to the Dodgers. This time, there were real expectations, real hopes. And when the end came so quickly and maddeningly, there was anger. And (gasp!) even some boos. See, it can happen even in the bucolic Midwest, or the Left Coast, where cries of “Hit him in the head!” resounded every time Phillies outfielder Shane Victorino came to the plate in the NLCS. Of course, they were not reported nearly as vigorously as the incidents documented and rehashed – for decades – in Philadelphia.

So, these Phillies are a bunch of never-say-die idealists who refuse to quit, are they? Sounds like a perfect match between team and city. And if you have a problem with that, screw you.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: So, Shaq is upset about the Spurs’ use of the Hack-a-Shaq “strategy” during last year’s playoffs when San Antonio was comfortably ahead in games. Calls it “cowardly” and vows revenge. Has anybody asked Shaq what word he would use to describe an out-of-shape pivotman who continues to soak teams for $20 million a year while refusing to condition himself well enough to play a full season at a high level? Didn’t think so…Don’t be surprised if Spurs coach Gregg Popovich doesn’t care a bit about Shaq’s whining. Have you seen him lately? That beard makes him look like Tom Hanks in “Cast Away.” Looks like he knows the Spurs’ dynasty is on its way out and is preparing to spend a couple years eating grubs and reading subversive literature with Phil Jackson in Montana…Strong showing by Michigan against Toledo in the program’s most embarrassing loss ever. Fortunately, coach Rich Rodriguez has narrowed the team’s troubles down to three areas: offense, defense and special teams. Other than that, things are good. Go ahead and job-search Rich. Don’t think Michigan will hold you to that buyout…Great news for America’s sporting youth: Generalissimo Knight wants to coach again. The world-class boor “has nothing else to do,” so he might as well return to college and commence berating players and officials, slinging profanity around and losing NC2A tournament games. Any AD who hires him should be institutionalized…The college football coaching carousel has begun its annual whirl, now that Tommy Bowden is finally out at Clemson, after a nine-plus-year tenure that made Houdini look like an amateur. As the inevitable grousing begins about “loyalty,” remember that job security for college coaches is non-existent and that it’s hard to be devoted to an entity that would fire you just because a rich booster didn’t like you. With few exceptions, coaches should be able to come and go as they please.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? Good thing the Eagles have a bye week coming up, because their wounded players need time to heal, and their coach needs time to figure out how to “dial up” better plays. We all know Andy Reid is largely overmatched in the personnel selection department and should be removed from all GM aspects, but his play-calling has been shaky at best this season, and even QB Donovan McNabb has been gently questioning some of Reid’s decisions. The Eagles caught a break last week when they whipped San Francisco to move to 3-3, while every other NFC East team lost. They’re not out of the race yet, but if Reid doesn’t improve his performance, the Eagles will not make the playoffs, and B-movie mogul Jeffrey Lurie will have no choice but to fire Reid.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: There should be zero sympathy throughout the NFL for the Cowboys, who took a gigantic risk in signing Space Invaders Jones during the off-season. The serial miscreant majored in trouble at West Virginia and has pursued a graduate degree in the subject since joining the NFL. If owner Jerry “False Face” Jones welcomes the criminal cornerback back after his suspension, then it’s obvious that character has no place in the Cowboys’ organization. Though talented (and his play this year didn’t exactly reinforce that statement), Jones refuses to act like a productive member of society and deserves to be excluded from the NFL for a sustained period. If commissioner Roger Goodell can’t find reason to suspend him for the rest of the season, the league’s owners should refrain from signing him. You might call that collusion. El Hombre calls it responsible behavior.


Thursday, October 9, 2008

One Devil of a Team


It has become a staple of just about every up-from-nowhere sports movie in history. The lovable losers, having shucked off the past ignominy of playing at a level similar to Ben Affleck’s recent movie career, reach the inevitable Moment of Truth. There, after absorbing repeated body blows, they regroup and carry on to great success.

You saw it in “Major League.” “Major League II.” “Caddyshack.” “Angels in the Outfield.” “Rocky II.” “Rocky III.” “Rocky XVII, Incontinence Island.” And so on. It’s a Hollywood formula designed to produce two-star, sweat-soaked, feel-good pictures you can watch again and again. Okay, so not “Caddyshack II.” That one made “Major League: Back to the Minors” look like “Stagecoach.”

That’s Hollywood for you, serving up pleasing entertainment designed to keep America uplifted and positive, sort of like an arts Miracle Bra. It’s usually doesn’t happen like that in real life. Away from the silver screen, dreams get dashed, quick starts become forgotten fades and Cinderella gets robbed at knifepoint on the way home from the ball.

Back in the heady days of June, when Tampa Bay was enjoying an are-you-kidding-me ride atop the AL East, most sensible observers figured it nothing more than an temporary high, like what happens when you stand up too quickly or an catch an inadvertent smile from the pretty girl who has mistaken you for someone else. You want the real stuff, you go to Keith Richards. Or the Red Sox. Tampa was going to fall all right. Even your esteemed narrator predicted a crash and burn scenario for TB. He even had some fun with the team’s decision to eschew all satanic nickname references. And in early September, when the Lucifer Rays dropped six of seven and saw their lead shrink faster than a guy’s best friend in Arctic waters, you knew what was coming next. Reality was ready to take the final hand. Step aside, boys, and let the Pros from Dover play through.

Only it didn’t happen that way. Tampa took four of six from the Sawx and closed out the AL East, completing one of the most amazing turnarounds in sports history. The Miracle Mets had nothing on these guys. The Mephistopheles Rays were so bad the producers of “Ishtar” laughed at them. Their 10 years of existence were only marginally more successful than the French army’s performance in WWII. The “high water” mark came in 2004, when TB raged to a 70-91 record and finished only 30.5 games out of first. There was bad, Michael Bolton-bad and the Devil Rays. To improve on a franchise’s best mark by 27 wins and to triumph 31 more times than its immediate predecessor is absolutely indescribable. You could convene a meeting of Billy Shakespeare, Dante Alighieri, Leo Tolstoy and Joan Rivers and they couldn’t come up with the words to portray the colossal accomplishment of this team. With apologies to Chuck D (Dickens, that is), “It was the worst of times; it was the best of times.”

The Abaddon Rays took things even further in the ALDS, dumping the ChiSox in four and robbing the baseball world of another couple weeks Ozzie Guillen’s comedy stylings. Now, it’s the Carmine Hose in the other dugout, and Tampa Bay can’t possibly win again, can it? Look at this team. Exactly one of its regulars hit better than .286 for the season, and that was the catcher, Dioner Navarro. (Who?!) Only two Satan Rays players hit more than 20 homers. Tampa Bay’s current closer has a save percentage of 72.2%, not exactly a shining Fireman of the Year resume. And have you seen those silly glasses on manager Joe Maddon? Maybe they work at Spago. Maybe. But on the Gulf Coast, they make him look like he’s trying to identify (unsuccessfully) with the younger players. What’s next, Timbaland and T-Pain blasting out of the manager’s office? Talk that s***, indeed.

Then you have the Sawx, with Papi and Youk and Coco and Dice-K. With two Series titles in the last four years. With enough success to turn them from America’s lovable losers and cursed sympathetic heroes into the New Yankees. Really, can anybody outside of New England root for these guys – frontrunners excepted, of course. It’s enough to make you want to hug Hank Steinbrenner. Don’t laugh. Baseball needs his special version of craziness. At some point during his tenure, he’s going to charge into the clubhouse with a loaded gun. You wait and see.

How can the simple, underdog Beelzebub Rays contend with the Nation? Come on, now. We’re talking the Ghost of Bloody Sock Schilling here. The Comeback. Next to all of that, Tampa Bay looks like it’s an American Legion outfit. So, the smart money and even the dumb money is screaming, “PICK BOSTON.” But El Hombre has learned his lesson. He predicted the collapse that never came. Made fun of the Prince of Darkness Rays when praise was in order. Something special is going on down there, and not even the Sawx can spoil it. Boston got a break when it drew the Angels in the ALDS. All it had to do was throw a cap onto the field with that signature “B” embroidered on the front and the whole L.A. team would need to change its uniform pants. Tampa Bay isn’t like that. It won’t back down.

Besides, Josh Beckett is hurting. Mike Lowell is out. And Manny, for all his loutish behavior and malingering, isn’t around, either. The Sawx couldn’t get it done in September against the Satan Rays, and they won’t do it in October, either.

The dream continues: Tampa Bay in Seven.
* * *
EL HOMBRE SEZ: Thanks for stopping by, Cubbies. Since when does the 100th anniversary of anything guarantee you anything? Chicago fans thought they were owed some sort of cosmic reward for their suffering. Instead of getting a world title, they attained an annoying status that rivals that of the Red Sawx – without the championship. Let’s see, that’s two series, two 0-3 losses for Lou Piniella’s team. Nice work…So now T.O is a man of God. Good for him. It was inevitable that he would assume that persona at some point. Wonder if he’ll ever try to be a good teammate, or is that out of the question?…Republican VP candidate Sarah Palin will drop the ceremonial first puck before the Flyers’ home opener against the Rangers, as part of the team’s “Ultimate Hockey Mom” contest. After she drops it, Democrat VP hopeful Joe Biden will enumerate the reasons why he would have held onto it. No word on Tina Fey’s plans for the evening…Things are so bad in Tennessee that fans are actually staying away from Volunteers’ home games. Come on, now, that four-point win over Northern Illinois wasn’t that bad, was it? The good news is that underachieving head coach Phil Fulmer is signed for seven more years at $3 million per. Talk about a lack of financial oversight. Still, there is no truth to the rumor that a couple more losses will convince the school to change its fight song to “Rocky Bottom.”

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? Back in 1983, gas cost $1.24, Michael Jackson was the King of Pop, and Joe Morgan and Tony Perez were each about 63 years old. Still, those two geezers led the Phillies through a remarkable September run and an NLCS victory over the Dodgers, with Sarge Matthews riding shotgun in the Cadillac. The two teams get it on 25 years later, and it’s tough to find a discernable difference between them. Both have solid pitching, a good-but-not-great lineup and above-average gloves. The difference will then come down to something off the field, an intangible if you will. Look no further than the dugout, where LA’s Joe Torre matches “wits” with Uncle Charley Manuel. Manuel is known for his ability to keep a team loose, but Torre somehow cured the rift between the old and young players on the Dodgers – and he found a way to keep Manny Ramirez from laying hands on the team’s support staff. The series could come down to a few key moves, and there’s no doubt Torre has an edge in that department. While the Yankees fiddle, Torre leads L.A. into the Series. That may be enough to send Uberfuhrer Steinbrenner to the last roundup and push his idiot son, Colonel Klink, into the Laughing Academy. Dodgers in seven.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: Good thing the International Cycling Union relaxed its rules to let Lance Armstrong return early from his “retirement” to continue his self-aggrandizing ways. Those pesky anti-doping safeguards? Don’t worry about ‘em, Lance. Forget the fact that he steadfastly refuses to let previous urine samples be tested by today’s advanced techniques, the better to determine whether Armstrong was doping during his Tour de France title runs, as has been alleged by U.S. cycling legend Greg LeMond and many others in Europe. Let Armstrong ride and flaunt the rules, all the while doing nothing to help a sport that has been ravaged by scandal. Armstrong will get his new dose of fame, but he had better be careful, because the world’s anti-doping forces are more vigilant than ever.