Thursday, February 26, 2009

Time To Trim Some Fat


As college coaching bullies go, Jim Calhoun has some work to do before he can approach the standards established by some of the legends in the field. The UConn coach can stamp his feet all he wants, talk down to officials all day and provide sarcastic responses to reporters’ questions until their curiosity withers, and he still won’t be in the same (low) class as Generalissimo Knight, Mike Krzyzewski, Nick Saban and that ilk. And when it comes to the Hall of Fame (Woody Hayes, John Thompson, etc.) Calhoun still has plenty of work to do.

Despite criticisms to the contrary, Calhoun’s tirade after Saturday’s win over South Florida doesn’t enhance his credentials in the discussion of coaching tyrants. Granted, Calhoun didn’t look good as he lost his cool in the face of questions from Ken Krayeske, a journalist/activist/law student who used (improperly) a post-game press conference as a forum to put forth his agenda that because the state of Connecticut is running a $1 billion deficit, Calhoun’s $1.6 million salary is excessive and needs to be cut drastically. Calhoun could have said something other than “I want to retire some day” and “Not a dime back,” not to mention “Shut up!” When young coaches are trained in the art of media relations, they will be shown Calhoun’s performance as an example of how not to behave. When your comments after a basketball game cause the governor of your state to use the term “embarrassing,” you might want to consider a little anger management training. Or at least switch to decaf.

In the days following the incident, Krayeske has become a minor celebrity (the clock is at 14:55 and counting) and expressed his delight that his questions have sparked a national discussion. Calhoun has since won his 800th career game and continues to search for safe shelters for his income within a shaky investment climate. In other words, life goes on pretty much the same way as always in the Nutmeg State. And in college athletics. Still, it’s up for debate whether the Connecticut basketball team actually brings in $12 million annually to the university. The Hartford Courant reported that the direct revenues from the program (per UConn sports information department reports) are $7.3 million, with $5 million of the school’s $20 million in corporate sponsorship deals attributed to the hoop team. That pushes the number to Calhoun’s $12 million assertion.

No matter what the final figure is, there can be no disputing that in this or any other economic climate, the business of college athletics is out of control. While Calhoun crows about his ability to produce for the university, schools all over the country are experiencing budget woes that have forced (at best) spending cutbacks and (at worst) layoffs and the cessation of programs. Even Ohio State, which had the second-highest revenues among universities in 2008 (about $114 million), has experienced a downturn in men’s basketball revenues that will impact staff travel and expenses. Guess that means football coach Jim Tressel will have his sweater vest allowance trimmed.

The bigger issue is whether the recession will lead to any substantive changes in how the biggest universities do business. While the rest of us are asked to cut back and tighten up, construction continues apace on luxury suites at Michigan Stadium. While jobs are being cut by the tens of thousands, and retirement accounts dissipate faster than A-Rod’s credibility, programs continue to sequester their teams, coaches and support personnel in hotels before home games and spare few expenses when it comes to recruiting. Stanford is cutting five sports, while the Cardinal grid team is facing sagging attendance and diminishing revenues – but no cutbacks. We all know King Football pays the freight for the “minor” sports, and when it staggers, the effects are felt on the softball field and in the pool, not necessarily the gridiron.

This is by no means a call for big-time schools to de-emphasize football. El Hombre would never want that for the world’s greatest sport. But there has to be some control exercised, and it’s up to the NC2A to impose it, since its members can’t possibly be expected to do it themselves. If Texas were to pull back dramatically in one area, you can bet Oklahoma would exploit that faster than it would go at a frightened freshman cornerback in the Cotton Bowl. If Georgia decided to bus to games, count on Florida assistant coaches to rename the Bulldogs “Team Greyhound.” It’s time for the grown-ups to step in, and that means the folks in Indianapolis need to display some rare fortitude and compel the schools to change how they do football business – at least until things improve across the country.

Yes, the country needs entertainment and diversions. It does not, however, need Ohio State to raise its football ticket prices a dollar (to $63 a game), in order to cover a $500,000 or so shortfall. Teams need to get on the bus for road trips to schools fewer than 200 miles away. They need to be more cost-conscious when entertaining and pursuing recruits. They need to put a ceiling on coaches’ salaries, the better to show that everybody is attempting to help the bottom line. This is not a plea for punitive measures, rather a chance to let the one part of a university that rarely has to worry about funds (OSU’s revenues have climbed $10 million in two years) to acknowledge that it is part of something bigger. Jim Calhoun need not threaten his golden years by surrendering even a dime of his salary. He does, however, as the state’s top-paid employee, have to show some compassion for those who aren’t making $1.6 million a year, for those who don’t even have jobs. Was Krayeske out of line for asking the question in a post-game setting? Absolutely. He wasn’t, however, wrong for raising the issue, not about Calhoun specifically but about an industry that has been rollicking along for the past 20 years and is now showing signs of facing some of the same concerns of other businesses. College football and basketball support a lot of teams, and that’s great, but it’s not right to ask the wrestling team to cut more weight when the football training table is serving chateaubriand. Calhoun missed a golden opportunity to display some empathy. Given another opportunity, he might act differently. Let’s hope those in charge of college athletics do.

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EL HOMBRE SEZ: Nationals GM Jim Bowden could be jobless within a couple days, thanks to allegations that he was skimming money off the bonuses of players the team signed from Latin America. He’s also in trouble because Washington inked a player it said was a 19-year old, when in fact the young man was 23 – and had a completely different identity. Bowden shouldn’t worry if he’s fired, because he can always get work at the carnival guessing women’s ages. They’ll love him…Michael Phelps has been dropped as the keynote speaker at two events in Canada next week because of his “widely publicized alleged use of marijuana.” The good news is that his agent picked up two other gigs for him right away in Jamaica and Amsterdam…Tampa Bay cut five players Wednesday, four of whom were older than new coach Raheem Morris, 32. Salary, of course, was a big reason, but Morris had been complaining that the players had been forcing him to eat his vegetables and go to bed at 10 p.m…Andy Roddick may not have won a major tennis tournament, but he gets big praise for boycotting the Dubai Tennis Classic, after organizers prohibited an Israeli, Shahar Peer, from competing in the women’s draw. It’s nice to see an American athlete with the guts to speak up about important issues…Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has called for stiffer penalties for athletes caught using performance-enhancing drugs, in the wake of a scandal involving members of the country’s biathlon team. Officials acted quickly, upping the punishments from “no dessert” to “no TV for a week.” Leonid Brezhnev was unavailable for comment.

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YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? The aforementioned move by Tampa Bay put the Bucs something like $50 million under the salary cap for the 2009 season, just one of the squads with a huge amount to spend when the free-agent marketplace springs to life at midnight. The Eagles happen to be one of those outfits, thanks to about a $30 mil surplus, but don’t expect them to go crazy outbidding other teams for marginal talents. They might take a close look at Giants running back Derrick Ward. They could look at an offensive lineman, although Jordan Gross’ recent giant contract with Carolina (six years, nearly $60 million) could drive up the price too far. Wideouts T.J. Houshmandzadeh and (Hello) Laveranues Coles are possibilities, but it’s unlikely the Birds will pay top dollar for a number two receiver. QB Donovan McNabb is asking for weapons, but they probably won’t come through free agency, and if they do, they will be of the semiautomatic pistol, not the H-bomb, variety. This isn’t a case of the Eagles’ being cheap, rather an indication of a mediocre crop and unrealistic price tags. The team needs help if it wants to compete for the Super Bowl, but it’s unlikely to make a big splash in the next couple days. That means it probably won’t be a good idea to trade out of the Draft’s first round – again.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: NBA analysts and fans are debating the pending union of the Boston Celtics and recalcitrant guard/serial team-wrecker Stephon Marbury on the wrong terms. They want to discover whether the guard can help the team with his production off the bench. They want to know if his infamous carcinogenic personality will spoil the harmonious Boston locker room. Those are worthy questions, but they ignore the biggest issue here, and that’s the sheer nausea-inducing idea that after a career of me-first play, Marbury will have a chance to get a championship ring he clearly doesn’t deserve. He forced the Knicks to release him by putting together a series of lethal seasons with the team that made it impossible for the new regime to consider using him on a regular basis this season. As he sat, collecting the bulk of his $20.8 million contract and sulking about not being bought out or traded, Marbury was a high-profile liability on the Knicks’ ledger. Now, he’s set to join the defending NBA champions, and if he can behave himself (no guarantee), he’ll get the opportunity to chase the ring he never approached as a shoot-first poison on several other teams. It’s a chance for Marbury to sanitize his reputation, because you know as each successive week goes by without his infecting the Celtics with his own brand of basketball bacteria, more and more media outlets will run “redemption” pieces about a veteran who’s “playing to win.” Poppycock. He’s playing for next year’s contract, and if that means sublimating his true essence for a few months, he’ll do it. Don’t be fooled, though. Marbury hasn’t changed. He’s just employing a Machiavellian approach to his current situation. The good news: It’s yet another reason to root against Boston.


Thursday, February 19, 2009

How Dare He?


With so much going on in the world of sports, from the negotiations to broadcast NASCAR’s weekly drama on the Soap Opera Network, to the contrived excitement of the NBA Slam Dunk Contest and Sheriff Buford T. Justice’s inability to make drug charges stick against Snoop Phelps, there was absolutely no reason to join the hysterical media chorus about Alex Rodriguez, his young and stupid cousin and their Cream of Cheat. Why not talk about how NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock is going to go nuts over some offensive lineman’s hip drop at this weekend’s Scouting Combine? Or whether Texas Tech actually thinks it can fire its wildly successful head coach and still lure 50,000 people out to the west Texas scrub every other Saturday.

That will all have to wait, and all because of an e-mail sent to me by an esteemed national radio host. Attached to it was a blog post by a Milwaukee talker with the sporting eye of an 80-year old double-cataract myope. This genius has decided that he is the smartest guy in the country, because he has defended Bud Sellout all along, and now he has been vindicated. This is a transparent case of Bratwurst City brotherhood, since Sellout is a former snake oil salesman, er, car dealer from Sudstown. And even though anyone who can honestly say the steroid mess in baseball can be blamed on everybody but the man in charge, is clearly in need of a refresher course on logic, El Hombre is steamed.

Looking for villains in this mess is like trying to find evidence of Mickey Rourke’s hard life and bad career decisions on his battered face. They are everywhere. And blaming Sellout for the whole mess is unfair. Without the strong supporting work of union goons Donald Fehr and Gene Ozra, baseball’s drug mess never could have erupted like the acne on Jose Canseco’s back. Without the willingness of players to risk their long-term health by taking everything from testosterone to infertility drugs to pills designed to fight narcolepsy, the game wouldn’t have been soiled like the Suleman octuplets’ diapers. And without a hero-worshipping group of fans and media, who marveled at the long-ball numbers being cranked out by power-hitting laboratory mutants, the game’s credibility wouldn’t be suffering worse than Joaquin Phoenix’s.

The word is conspiracy, and we were all in on it, at least for a while. And if we’re all guilty in some way, then Sellout is especially culpable, because he was in charge. There was a lot to dislike about Uberfuhrer Steinbrenner during his rein of terror atop the Yankee organization, but he got one thing right from the start: If you want to be the boss, you have to make the difficult decisions and stand by them. That’s what people in charge do. They face down the tough situations, choose to act and then withstand the inevitable criticism. They set the pace and then remain strong when others launch bombs at them. What do you think would have happened in London during WWII if Winston Churchill had remained sequestered in a bunker, when Nazi bombs were pelting every house and pub night after night? There would have been chaos and despair. Instead, Churchill surveyed the wreckage daily, promised things would change and endured the barbs of those who insisted it was his mismanagement that allowed the mess to take place. That’s leadership.

What we have now from Sellout is a cowardice that worsens daily. The commissioner has decided that he is not only innocent of all charges being brought against him in the court of public opinion, but that he needs to convince us that everybody else is guilty. There hasn’t been a leadership breech this grotesque since Neville Chamberlain decided Hitler wasn’t such a bad guy after all and surrendered much of Europe to the tyrant in a quest for “peace in our time.” Sellout is in full sprint, dashing away from his responsibilities as a leader, one of which is accepting the blame for previous mistakes.

The worst part of Sellout’s recent defense strategy is his outrage. How dare he take offense at those who accuse him of ineffectiveness and complicity during the past decade-plus? Where was his voice when the McGwire/Sosa love fest was “saving the game” in 1998? Where was his outrage in the ensuing years when home run totals piled up faster than Andruw Jones’ excess pounds? Why wasn’t he saying then that the union refused to implement a testing program? Why wasn’t he fighting with the same tenacity he is showing now to keep the sport he ran from becoming a cesspool of drug addicts and freak-show performers? Sellout said Monday, “I don’t want to hear the commissioner turned a blind eye to this or he didn’t care about it.” Oh, you don’t? Well, then buy some of those high-priced earplugs rock musicians use, Bud, because you’re in for a crapstorm.

Sellout punked out with BALCO Bonds, refusing to take a stand either way on his pursuit of Hank Aaron’s record. He partied like a rap star as McGwire and Sosa injected their way to long-ball heaven. And only when the evidence became too overwhelming to ignore did he get serious about instituting a drug policy. Funny how the players’ association became a lot more malleable once it saw the public was irate over the steroid use. Think testing would have arrived earlier had Sellout pointed some bloodhound journalists to the smoking syringes back in the late ‘90s? You betcha.

So, stop with the outrage, Bud. Don’t tell us how far the sport has come, because it started in a performance-enhanced abyss created by your lack of leadership. For once during your tenure, have the cajones to admit you were wrong about the whole thing. Then again, since Sellout was part of the whole steroid era, it’s possible that part of his anatomy shrunk, just like those of the juicers he worked to protect.

Then again, maybe he didn’t have any in the first place.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: Great work by Me-Mac, allowing news of his season-ending knee surgery to get out through Stephen Naismith, rather than the Rockets. He is seriously injured, but once again the man came up small, just as he has repeatedly during the post-season. He thinks he’s an elite player in the league, but he’ll find out in ’10 that the market for selfish, injury-prone gunners isn’t too robust…Michigan’s Fab Five has announced it will reunite at a Detroit casino as part of the Final Four in April. Wonder who came up with the appearance money for them, now that Ed Martin isn’t around anymore…The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled last week that cheerleading is a “contact sport,” and that participants who are hurt cannot sue teammates whose actions lead to the injuries. In a related story, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that the WNBA has been reclassified as a narcotic sleep aid…In an effort to cut runaway costs, the Ohio State football team is considering traveling to at least one game by bus this season. To make up for the horrible inconvenience, Buckeye administrators have promised the players won’t have to go to class that week. Oh, wait. You mean? Never mind.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? It may not sit too well with the legions of McNabb haters out there, but the Eagles are showing good judgment and surprising long-view thinking by opening negotiations with Donovan McNabb for a contract extension. McNabb is not perfect, and his lack of a signature, big-game comeback clouds his legacy in town, but he is light years beyond Kevin Kolb and far better than any other quarterback available right now. The Eagles need to re-sign him and then get to work on upgrading the other parts of their offense – O line, running back depth, big-play receiver. The onus remains on McNabb to lead the way and prove he is a championship passer, but throughout his Eagles career, he has proven to be a consistent winner and big producer. That may not be enough for some, but it’s plenty for those who understand that throwing away quality with no reasonable upgrade in sight is bad business. By the way, the list of NFL QBs better than McNabb is pretty darn short: (in no particular order) Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Kurt Warner.

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ONE MORE FOR THE ROAD: Tiger Woods’ caddie Steve Williams took time off from lobbing cheap shots at Phil Mickelson to predict that his boss might be back on the links as early as a “few weeks” from now. That’s great news for the PGA, which has become as relevant as biathlon during Woods’ recuperation from knee surgery. If you want to see the most compelling argument against Woods as the undisputed greatest golfer of all time, check out the leader board at this week’s PGA event in Los Angeles. You half expect to see Judge Smails and Ty Webb near the top, because the rest of the crew is so weak. Not quite what Jack Nicklaus had to deal with when Tom Watson, Gary Player, Lee Trevino and the like were challenging him. Still, expect Woods’ media cheerleaders to chart his comeback with breathless enthusiasm and continue to stoke the legend machine of their hero.


Thursday, February 12, 2009

The End of the Innocence


That Bud Sellout is on quite a roll these days. First, he pressures espn – which acquiesced like Austria to the Anschluss – into suspending a radio host for having the temerity to criticize him using some colorful language. Not long after that, he called a Minneapolis newspaper columnist to harangue him for writing an unflattering column. Now, the $17 million man is actually entertaining the idea of some sort of punishment for Alex Rodriguez after his recent lukewarm mea culpa about going on the Bonds plan to enhance his already-substantial skills. You have to give Sellout credit for nerve. Here’s a guy who, in conjunction with union toughs Don Fehr and Gene Ozra (and a supporting cast of filthy-rich owners) presided over the whole steroid/HGH mess, and now he’s trying to convince us he’s “heartsick” about what’s happening today. He’d have a better chance getting us to believe he isn’t the highest-paid invertebrate on the planet.

What a week for baseball. The Rodriguez mess broke last Saturday. Then came Miggy’s teary confession of lying about his PED use. Coming quickly are federal perjury charges against Roger Clemens, who all but threw a splintered bat at members of a Congressional committee last year – at least those who weren’t asking him for autographs. Throw in Houston hurler Roy Oswalt’s self-indulgent tirade about being “cheated,” and you have a soap opera worthy of prime-time airing on Telemundo.

Only this isn’t fiction. Alas, it is the state of the “American Pastime,” that pastoral athletic ideal that serves as a metaphor for new beginnings and is romanticized as a chief method for fathers to relate to their sons. Baseball will certainly weather all of this, in large part because the general public doesn’t have the stamina – maybe it needs a strenuous off-season conditioning program – to put in the effort necessary to understand what has happened and what it means. The vast majority of fans just wants to root, root, root for the home team and spend $7.50 for 12 ounces of beer. After a while, the talk of steroids, who’s worthy of Hall of Fame induction and federal lawsuits gets tedious. It’s much more fun to obsess over whom you want to make the backup second baseman on your fantasy team (here’s a vote for Bar Refaeli, who has great range) than to ponder the impact of nearly two decades of deception. That’s absolutely natural. What’s important now aren’t jail terms, suspensions, the record book or made-for-TV mea culpas that lack serious follow-up.

Baseball as we knew it and loved it is a memory. Our love affair with the sport has turned into a business relationship. Yes, the “good, old days” were characterized by a willing naiveté that looked past the faults of diamond heroes and focused on the game’s idyllic persona. We didn’t care that Babe Ruth drank or caroused. The blatant racism that persisted into the 1960s (and became latent after that) was largely ignored. Greenies? Bahhh! Spitballs? Thrown by “characters,” not cheaters. We overlooked it all, in the name of preserving the game’s innocence.

No more. Sellout, Fehr and their constituents have fattened their bank accounts with our money, in the pursuit of a business model that preyed on the nation’s thirst for wholesome sports entertainment, sort of an unholy union between “Field of Dreams” and “Wall Street.” We, of course, gobbled it up. And we’ll continue to flock to games (Pittsburgh excepted) with the kids.

The difference now is that baseball’s secrets have been revealed, and we can see the game as it truly is. Fighting helps hockey sell itself. Football depends on snot-bubble hits that could paralyze but absolutely titillate. Pro basketball has embraced narcissism. And college sports perpetuate the student-athlete myth while selling luxury suites to cocktail-swilling alumni. Against that backdrop, why should be expect baseball to be any different? So what if the local pharmacy sponsors the local Little League nine, instead of Chico’s Bail Bonds? Baseball is a business, not a panacea for winter blues or inter-generational family strife.

The last week has driven that home. The sport has been laid bare by a climate fostered by Sellout, whose lack of leadership makes Boris Yeltsin look like Winston Churchill. After years of sidestepping the steroid question and failing to push the union for a testing program with teeth, he now goes on the offensive, challenging those who question him and saying he might just impose some justice on Rodriguez, who by the way, was only exposed because someone in the baseball family broke a confidence. That is the last vestige of a coward. Sellout has been about profit and self-preservation, the hallmarks of business these days. (The New York Times reported Thursday that 696 employees of Merrill Lynch received bonuses of at least a mil last year.) For him to try to preserve his fetid legacy through intimidation smacks of petty tyranny.

The dollars may continue to pour in, but baseball has officially lost its innocence. The magical words, “Pitchers and catchers report in X days” no longer symbolize a fresh beginning and the onset of spring. They signal another convening of the bottom-line owners and the Machiavellian players. So, step up and watch the drama, folks, and don’t forget to come out to urine sample night at the ballpark, when any fan who has a higher level of Winstrol in his system than the star slugger gets a new liver.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: So, Michael Phelps needs a couple months to decide whether he wants to swim in the 2012 Olympics, does he? No problem. Just as long as he doesn’t let Ricky Williams help him make the decision…Adam Jones is gone; Me-O is next. Sounds like a couple of great first steps toward contention for the Cowboys. The big question is how False Face Jones is going to handle life without a daily soap opera. Anybody else think he is more interested in creating interest through a season-long spectacle than by fielding a winning team? He’s making big money either way…espn’s decision to suspend Scott Van Pelt for his on-air comments about Bud Sellout was the worst example of corporate kneeling seen in a long time. Face it, the “Worldwide Leader” is no more a news-gathering organization than Lawrence Taylor is Fred Astaire. They may masquerade, but neither delivers. Behind every espn story is a carefully-protected corporate relationship. Firing Van Pelt for disparaging Sellout (with no profanity or slanderous comments) was cowardly, even by espn standards...Lance Armstrong’s efforts to have an independent entity test him for performance-enhancing drugs this cycling season fell through. Armstrong wanted to show he was clean, and he probably is. That’s why he won’t win the Tour de France. Here’s a suggestion: Instead of applying transparent testing methods to today’s samples, why doesn’t St. Lance allow his urine from Tour triumphs gone by to go through the rigorous scrutiny?...Check out this collection of merchandise on the NFL’s damaged goods table: Plaxico Burress, Anquan Boldin and Chad Johnson could all be available this off-season. The league should slap an “As is” tag on all of them and find out who’s stupid enough to pay up…NASCAR swings back into action Sunday with the Daytona 500. Even the left-turn crowd isn’t immune to the recent economic downturn. Some sponsors have bailed. Some team owners are cutting staff. And fans have resorted to shaving their favorite drivers’ numbers into their back hair with disposable razors, instead of fancy trimmers.

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YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? The argument for the best college player in the city has begun, and despite three worthy candidates, one stands above the rest. Temple’s Dionte Christmas, Villanova’s Dante Cunningham and Saint Joseph’s Ahmad Nivins have all had fine seasons and are integral to their teams’ success this year. But Nivins has been the best of the bunch. Christmas can score, but when he gets crowded on the perimeter, his offensive game suffers. Give him credit for not getting too frustrated by teams that devote extra manpower to keeping him under control, but if he could take people off the dribble more expertly, he wouldn’t have to worry about his long-range game’s suffering. Cunningham is a tremendous story, having matured from a complementary piece to one of the top frontcourt performers in the Big East and is certainly worthy of all-conference consideration. But he has a strong supporting cast, particularly at guard, which forces other teams to focus on the outside and leaves some room for Cunningham to operate. He has taken full advantage of his opportunities but has also had a lot of help. Nivins, on the other hand, goes it almost alone some nights. The Hawks have few reliable options besides him, so Nivins must shoulder the scoring load, while still pulling down double-digit rebounds each game. Granted, the level of competition Saint Joseph’s has faced isn’t Big East-caliber, but Nivins has been outstanding no matter who he has faced. He’s big, athletic and has improved his shooting and handling skills immensely this year. If he had a guard who could feed the post, he’d be averaging 30 a game. It’s a close race, but the nod here goes to Nivins.

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AND ANOTHER THING: Brett Favre has retired. Again. That’s enough about him. No tears. No career retrospective. No maudlin Chris Berman tributes. Nothing. We went through the nonsense last year during the first “retirement.” He doesn’t get another go-round. Good riddance. Go ride the tractor, Brett. See you in five years in Canton.


Thursday, February 5, 2009

Jail? Maybe not. Cooperstown? No way!


When we last saw Rusty Hardin, he was standing behind Roger Clemens as the former fireballer tried to convince a Congressional committee that he did not inject steroids, use them or blame them for his rage against Mike Piazza. And he had no plans to join Alyssa Milano as a spokesperson for Proactiv, thanks to the product’s amazing ability to clear up his back acne.

There were several compelling moments during the hearing, but one that stood out was when Hardin was twanging away in defense of his client while being shouted at to shut his trap by chairman Henry Waxman. It had to be a little humbling for the cocky Houston mouthpiece to be chastised like that.

Well, we’re hearing from Hardin again, and thankfully we’re not paying him the $500 an hour Clemens is, although some of us would gladly surrender that much to keep him off the airwaves. Hardin is blustering away about how the mounting evidence against his client won’t be admissible or will be easily refuted by a heater delivered under the prosecution’s chin. With pitchers and catchers due to report for duty in fewer than two weeks, this – and the Manny Ramirez/Scott Boras delusional contract circus – passes for baseball news.

Hardin may well keep Clemens out of the pokey, but if the evidence continues to surface in the court of pubic opinion, his Hall of Fame chances are shot. That’s what we should be after, because if Clemens was indeed juicing throughout the late ‘90s and early part of this decade, his whole hard-working façade and everyman devotion to the ideals That Made This Country Great will be as meaningless as a Pirates post-season ticket application. He’ll be toast, and HOF voters will consign him to the same purgatory where Mark McGwire sits, waiting for everyone to stop “talking about the past.”

As delicious as it is to see the further tearing down of Clemens, the unsealed evidence presented Wednesday against BALCO Bonds is a flat-out feast. Like Hardin, Bonds’ attorneys are claiming that the government case won’t be sufficient to put Bonds in pinstripes – and we ain’t talking the kind worn in the Bronx. Who cares? If the positive drug tests are valid, and the transcript of the conversation between Bonds’ former trainer Greg Anderson and Bonds’ former business manager was not obtained by coercion, then the Thanksgiving Day parade float won’t be admiring his bust in Cooperstown until some short-memoried veterans committee stooges deem his time right for rehabilitation. By then, Bonds will be seen as a sad reminder of an ugly era of baseball and (hopefully) will regard his enshrinement with none of the hubristic bile he has spewed for nearly a decade while pronouncing his innocence.

It doesn’t matter whether a court of law deems Bonds’ testimony in front of a federal grand jury to be riddled with lies, because, as we all know, prosecutorial incompetence and the velvet tongues of defense lawyers can make cases that seem airtight appear shakier than last year’s Mets bullpen. If there are positive drug tests, then he is guilty, at least in the baseball world. And that should be enough. Bonds’ overwhelming arrogance throughout the situation has eradicated any sympathy one might conjure for him. Were he not so emphatic in his denials, were he not so nasty to those who had the right to ask very appropriate questions, and were he not prone to holding anyone who dare challenge him with contempt usually reserved for the Yankees, it might be possible to summon some compassion for him. Because of his steadfast arrogance, Bonds deserves everything he gets, and Wednesday’s unsealing of the evidence is an indication that he is up against some formidable opposition. Remember the golden rule of federal prosecution: The gubment doesn’t take on cases it can’t win. Consider it the legal equivalent of Texas Tech’s non-conference football schedule.

Still, there will be those who try to make Bonds a victim, whether of unfair media scrutiny or federal harassment. To those lost souls, El Hombre has a message: smarten up! This is a guy who has his former trainer – Anderson – sitting in jail in order to prevent him from testifying about the steroid regimen he concocted for and administered to Bonds. Granted, Anderson’s probably being paid seven figure for his adherence to the performance-enhancing Omerta, but that doesn’t mean he still isn’t rotting away, while his wife faces IRS scrutiny. At what point will Anderson get his freedom back, and how much must this man know for Bonds to come up with enough cheddar to keep him incarcerated in the name of silence? This is stuff from mob trials, not baseball. All that’s missing is a jailhouse visit from Tom Hagen for a cigar and talk about the ancient Romans’ suicide practices.

The legal machinations in the cases of both Bonds and Clemens will drag on, potentially for years. But with each new revelation of bloody steroid-laced syringes and positive drug tests, the reputations of these two steroid-era titans will erode further, until it will be impossible to look at them as anything other than laboratory rats whose baseball prowess was soiled by their vain attempt at securing immortality. For that, they don’t deserve jail. But they don’t deserve Cooperstown, either.

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EL HOMBRE SEZ: If Michael Phelps is hitting the bong, he’s no cannabis rookie. That said; he doesn’t deserve criminal prosecution. Some of his endorsement dough might dry up, but there’s no reason he can’t recoup the money from Doritos and Hostess…Tiger Woods is readying himself for a return to the PGA Tour and reports he is practicing full bore. That’s good news, although it’s been hard to find evidence there is still competitive golf being played, just another argument in the case against Woods’ relative greatness compared to legends like Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. His level of competition isn’t close to theirs…Congratulations to those who are putting pressure on Citibank to cancel its $400 million naming contract for the Letsgoes’ new stadium. Although the team says the deal is binding, let’s hope the Treasury Department forces the cancellation of the pact. Twenty mil a year may be but a small part of the $45 billion Citi is getting, but the idea of that kind of spending amidst a bailout climate is disgraceful…Times must be getting tough for Italian soccer. AC Milan wants to keep David Beckham full-time, now that his three-month loan period is over. Guess the economy is forcing everybody to consider using re-treads and discards…Others might disagree, but El Hombre loved the “barber pole” unis the Canadiens wore earlier this week. That kind of horizontal striping wouldn’t work with, say, NFL linemen or Prince Fielder, but it suited the Habs just fine.

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YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? It is becoming more and more clear that the Sixers have a problem in situations where the expectations grow. At the start of each of the last three seasons, they have faltered, and while it’s possible to blame injury or other problems, the team put itself in an early hole at each point, and it’s no coincidence the expectations for success were high each year, especially this season. As long as the team doesn’t have to perform, it can win, and its up-and-down style preference bears that out. When it’s loose and fun, the team thrives. When things tighten, they can’t get it done. Tuesday’s loss to the Celtics was the perfect microcosm of the season. The Sixers rode the crowd’s energy to a late lead but fell into a tie when Boston fought back. With time running out and no real pressure, since overtime was still possible, Andre Iguodala hit a jumper for a two-point lead. Then, with the clock leaking toward zeroes, the Sixers allowed Ray Allen, of all people, to get a clean look from the corner to bury a three and win the game. The Sixers have talent, but they don’t have winners right now.

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AND ANOTHER THING: If Georgia even interviews Generalissimo Knight for its open men’s hoops job, the entire administration should be fired. Knight is a dinosaur who has zero relevance to today’s athletes. He wasn’t all that successful during his tenure at Texas Tech and didn’t recruit a single big-name player. He is a bully whose arrogance and desire for the spotlight are so great that he actually became a member of the media, despite his considerable contempt for the profession and its practitioners over the years. Now, his good buddy and apologist, Dookie V, is trying to insert Knight’s tired backside into the coaching conversations at Georgia and Mississippi State. Neither school should consider hiring him, despite his knowledge of the game. Knight can’t accept that his actions doomed his coaching career, and he’s trying to get a spot in the game again through appearing charming on TV. Those of us who have charted his boorish antics over the years realize how disingenuous he is and how bad it would be for college basketball to have him back abusing players, berating officials and throwing chairs.