Thursday, July 30, 2009

Hooray! Training Camp Has Begun


One of the reasons people remain so devoted to soap operas is that there are never reruns. Viewers don’t have to suffer through an encore of this affair or that miraculous recovery from a rogue strain of beriberi. The story moves inexorably forward, as if a day without some new drama from Erica Kane would cause a national emergency. And just try to interrupt the cycle with something as mundane as a ballgame or coverage of a papal assassination threat, and you would find out just how devoted Erica’s fans could be.

The soaps move inexorably forward, as expected. Professional sports, however, are supposed to have quiet times. Or at least that’s the way it used to be. These days, about the only major league that adheres to the old model of off-season hibernation is hockey, and given its television ratings, one can’t decide whether to consider the icy pursuit “major” anymore. Even it tries to stay relevant during the warm-weather months with its own free agency and mildly amusing story lines like the league’s death struggle to keep a franchise in Phoenix, which loves hockey as much as TV networks love quality programming.

The NFL is another story. By treating its free agency period like a Sweeps Week version of “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” (back when it was good), the league keeps fans enticed through February. March and April are consumed by the Draft. May is all about the mini-camps and OTAs. But the real genius comes in June and July, when without fail, storylines emerge that keep the NFL news cycle churning, even if the items in question are suited for “All My Children” than the sports page. During the past six weeks, fans have been bombarded by stories about Britney Favre’s waffling, Michael Vick’s freedom and Plaxico Burress’ apparently futile attempts to stay out of the joint. So, during the long stretch of summer heat, when players and coaches hit vacation spots, “spend time with their families” and prepare for the hell of training camp, fans aren’t allowed to forget about football. For some, the daily stories of Favre’s will-he/won’t-he nonsense and the national debate over when Vick should play again were worse than a WNBA doubleheader. Others delighted in the coverage, if only because it kept them close to the game they love.

The good news is that training camps are finally open, and we can now concentrate on the battle for Jacksonville’s backup linebacker spot and the inevitable pre-season body count. The Hall of Fame Game (in retro AFL unis, no less) is a mere 10 days away, and that means it’s appropriate to consider some of the buzz throughout the league.

Enough, Already: In order: 1. Favre is a selfish diva who benefitted from Minnesota coach Brad Childress’ unwillingness to set a deadline that would have preserved some dignity for his franchise. If Favre decides to play in two, four or nine weeks, his offensive line should give him the same treatment the cons gave Paul “Wrecking” Crewe when he returned to action after deliberately throwing those interceptions. 2. Kudos to Roger Goodell for his treatment of Vick. His “conditional reinstatement” puts the onus on Vick to behave. Now, the question is whether a team wants to disrupt its offense by signing a QB who can’t work in the pocket. 3. Burress is going to jail and should have copped a plea. New York mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to make an example of him, and every Burress protestation will add time to his sentence.

QB Shuffle: The Favre Debacle notwithstanding, there are some interesting quarterbacking plot lines to be developed the next couple months. It looks like the Jets have already committed to Mark Sanchez, who should ask his coach to stop taunting linebackers in the AFC East so that Sanchez isn’t torn apart as revenge. The Lions are trying to decide whether it makes sense to let Matthew Stafford take over a circus that will consider three wins reason for a parade. Hey, if he’s the top overall pick, he should be mentally tough enough to handle that. Peyton Manning did. In San Francisco, it’s either Shaun Hill or Alex Smith. Ugh. Maybe John Brodie will come out of retirement. The Raiders have 61 million reasons why charismatic Jeff Garcia won’t take the starting job from JaMarcus Russell, even if Russell looks like a colossal mistake. Tom Brady is back in New England. Tony Romo is looking for love in Dallas. Ben Roethlisberger is trying to clear his name in Pittsburgh. And Jay Cutler wants to win something – anything – of consequence in Chicago.

Rising Stars: Last year, the Cardinals astonished everyone by shuffling off decades of futility and mismanagement by reaching the Super Bowl and actually giving the Steelers a scare. El Hombre will give a better idea of this season’s surprises in his gala 2009 NFL Preview, but it would be instructive to pay close attention to some teams during the exhibition games. For the past couple years, Houston has been a trendy pick for the playoffs, but this year, it might really happen. The Texans have slowly accumulated weapons on both sides of the ball and could be ready for 10 wins. With the Vikings’ relying on the Tavaris Jackson/Sage Rosenfels QB nightmare, the NFC North door could be wide open for the Packers, who may just have the division’s most stable situation under center. And it may just happen that the Saints take a step forward, although it’s going to take an examination of their shaky defense during the pre-season to see whether that’s possible.

New Faces, New Places: Matt Cassel is in Kansas City. Cutler is in Chi-town. The Jets have Bart Scott, and the Seahawks have T.J. Houshmandzadeh. But let’s face it; the only newcomer anybody cares about is up in northwest New York helping popcorn sales. The T.O. Celebrity Nuthouse has checked into Buffalo for what it hopes is an extended run, but what will most likely end in early departure, just as T.O.’s last two residencies have. Say a novena for Trent Edwards, the Bills’ quarterback, and get ready for the craziness.

Games to Watch: Ha! Fooled you. There isn’t a single exhibition matchup worth watching, except for the fact that it has been six months since football has been on and that at this point a Lions intra-squad scrimmage would be appealing. Watch the first half of every game you can and hope for a quick August.

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EL HOMBRE SEZ: It’s a good thing FINA, the world’s swimming governing body, has decided to ban the full-body swimming suits that are allowing journeymen to set world records. If this continues, it won’t be long until a swimmer crams himself into a dolphin’s mouth and does the 200 freestyle in 15 seconds…Since the Pirates have traded away just about every real ballplayer they have, fans should punish them by staying away completely. Why pay big-time prices for AAA (or worse) baseball? The Steelers have been successful in the market. So have the Penguins. But the Pirates are a joke. This franchise should either be disbanded or forced to find ownership that cares. Until then, any fan who goes to a Pirates game is a sap…The non-stop Tweeting. The unannounced trip to the White House. The reality show. The WWE appearance. One of three things is happening with Shaq: A) He needs money because of his ugly divorce B) He is masking a drop in skills and trying to use style over substance for his pending trip to Cleveland C) He’s just a big knucklehead who should be enjoyed. El Hombre will go with C for now, but don’t be surprised if the others turn out to be correct, too…The X Games start soon (who really cares when?) and that means espn will jam even more faux-hip people down our gullets in its ever-growing attempt to cultivate young viewers and bother the rest of us…Go away, David Beckham. Go away.

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YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? The Phillies’ decision to go for a discounted Cliff Lee over Roy Halladay might seem to make sense in these recessionary times, but it has put GM Ruben Tomorrow and ace pitching prospect Kyle Drabek in tough positions. If the Phillies don’t win the World Series this year, and Lee doesn’t have a dynamite post-season, fans will scream that the team should have traded for Halladay, whom they have been told – right or wrong – would almost guarantee them a championship. Worse, if the Phils don’t win it all, and Drabek isn’t the next Grover Cleveland Alexander, fans will howl since the young hurler was seen as the impediment to acquiring Halladay. By conducting such a public courtship of the Blue Jays hurler and even going so far as to have headlines like “Phils still front-runners for Halladay” on the team’s web site, the Phillies led fans to believe that Halladay was the prime target, and Lee was a backup plan, even if he is the 2008 AL Cy Young Award winner. And just imagine what would happen if the Phillies meet the Red Sox in the World Series, and Boston just happened to trade for Halladay. Should Halladay dominate, Tomorrow will be an even bigger pariah, and even more pressure will land on Drabek. There is no shame in getting Lee, but the yearning for Halladay has created something of a public relations problem for the Phillies.

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AND ANOTHER THING: It shouldn’t matter whether Hank Aaron, Reggie Jackson and the ghost of Cy Young believe that Pete Rose belongs in the Hall of Fame, he shouldn’t get in. So far, MLB commissioner Bud Sellout has remained firm on the issue, but with that jellyfish, it’s hard to be sure he’ll stand strong for the duration. Rose bet on baseball, and that’s not allowed. Every clubhouse door has a huge sign on it warning about the lifetime ban those who violate the edict will receive. Rose violated it. Then he lied about it. Lied about it some more. Only when he stood to profit from his admission, did he come clean. There is no question he had the on-field resume for induction, but if the steroid cheats and Joe Jackson belong on the outside (and there is no certainty Jackson should be there), then Rose absolutely must remain out. If Sellout – or any future commissioner – relents, then that sign must come down and MLB’s efforts to stop gambling in places like Delaware must cease. There can be no middle ground on this.


Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Good, Old Days


This was supposed to be a sparkling missive about the pending commencement of NFL training camp, which ends our long months of wandering through the barren landscape of sports that Don’t Quite Measure Up. At least that’s what it said on the Big Editorial Calendar on the wall. But that was before Ken Keltner Day. And before the 95th anniversary of Babe Ruth’s Major League debut. And before El Hombre watched HBO’s amazing 90-minute paean to Ted Williams. And before what would have been Pater Familias’ 89th birthday.

For fans of baseball whose view of the game goes beyond the highlight, the homer and the needle, names like Ruth, Williams and Keltner (look it up) conjure images of sport as it once was, or at least as we have romanticized it. Don’t knock the power of romance in the world of sports. No matter how many beers Ruth consumed or how much of a distant figure Williams was with his children or how much of a racist S.O.B. Ty Cobb was, their time in the game is considered more magical than what we see in today’s version, if only because it exists in different, less immediate universe. And that’s where Pater Familias comes in.

PF was the perfect resource for a sports-mad youngster, because he had Perspective. Context. When Johnny Bench was emerging as one of the greatest catchers of all time, someone had to be there to remind everybody about Bill Dickey and Mickey Cochrane (not to mention Roy Campanella and Yogi Berra). When Hank Aaron made his assault on Babe Ruth’s home run record, there was a need to inform everybody that not only could the Sultan swat; he could also pitch (94-46 record, 2.28 ERA) and hit for average (.342 career). If you had a question about any of the major sports (that included hockey back then), Pater Familias had an answer. Make that the answer. A defense attorney, he was not one to equivocate. If he said Joe DiMaggio was the greatest centerfielder of all time, you didn’t argue, no matter how much you believed Willie Mays was tops. Wilt Chamberlain was the best ever. Period. And nobody ran the football better – or ever will – than Jim Brown.

Pater Familias checked out back in 2000, after a pretty long (79 years, despite a decades-long devotion to tobacco) run. He accomplished a lot and saw a lot, particularly on the athletic fields. He was at Yankee Stadium in ’46 when Army and Notre Dame waged the best battle of futility – 0-0 – of all time. He sat in the snow at Shibe Park in 1948 when the Eagles and Steve Van Buren knocked off the Cardinals to win their first NFL title. Saw Ruth, Cobb, DiMaggio, Williams, Speaker, Mays, Aaron and just about any other great baseball player before 1970 play – and many of the giants after that, too. Witnessed countless battles between Chamberlain and Russell. Saw both Tom Harmon and Ed Marinaro tear up his beloved Penn Quakers at Franklin Field. And watched the world’s greatest runners scorch the track from his perch as Chief Judge of the Finish at the Penn Relays. He loved the Boston Celtics, because they played together as a team. And because they won. In fact, Pater Familias was something of a frontrunner, a fact reinforced by the identities of his four favorite teams: Celtics, Yankees, Packers and Canadiens. Though he enjoyed the orchestra, ballet, the theater, Shakespeare. fine dining, mathematics and an argument on any subject, his was truly a sporting life. For that El Hombre is grateful.

But there are days, like last Saturday, when that sporting life seems way too short. The commemoration of Ruth’s debut received a small mention in the “This Day in Sports History” section of the newspaper (another of his great loves), but the occasion warranted so much more than just a couple lines of agate type. It called for stories of Ruthian accomplishments. About how this great, big man dashed about on such thin legs – but was still a tremendous baserunner. About how his pop-ups soared so high that Ruth was sometimes between second and third bases when the wounded balls finally collapsed into fielders’ mitts. About how he began his career using a mighty 54-ounce bat, before easing off to a 40-ouncer. About his pitching 29 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings in World Series play. The facts are available to anybody. The legend needs an eyewitness.

HBO’s biography of Williams provides that you-are-there feeling, with outstanding audio and video footage, interviews with writers who covered the Red Sox great and who met him later and the perspective that comes from years of reflection following a the death of a titan. It was a great trip back and a reminder of what the game of baseball was like before it could be boiled into a 90-second package of top plays and canned applause. Pater Familias would have loved it, because it was an even treatment of Williams, but more than that, a generous presentation of the sport he loved. When the show was over, and the goose bumps had subsided (of particular note is a reading, by Robert Redford, at the program’s end of an excerpt from the marvelous “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” article by John Updike that appeared in the Oct. 22, 1960 issue of The New Yorker) there was only one thing left to do: Make the call. And, to tell the truth, for a split second, El Hombre considered it, just as he has dozens of times during the past nine-plus years.

Then he remembered. Perspective and Context have to come from other avenues these days. It isn’t the same, but what can you do? The good news is that Pater Familias’ ability to make the past come alive has given his son the desire to do the same thing for his Niños. They may not have the same thirst for history, but they ask questions. And while relating stories of the 1970s doesn’t have the same romantic lure as tales from the Golden Age, perhaps those Niños will have fond memories of stories they’re told when they become adults.

Maybe they’ll even want to pick up that phone. Here’s hoping EH will be there to answer it.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: As much as the thought of an unclothed Erin Andrews, the ESPN reporter, gets the heart fluttering, the slimeball who shot the peephole video of her deserves to be jailed and sued until he doesn’t have a Roosevelt to his name. And shame on The New York Post for publishing images from the video. We have always known The Post was sleazy, but this makes the Weekly World News look like The Manchester Guardian…Notre Dame and Army have announced a deal to play their 2010 game in new Yankee Stadium, in an attempt to recapture some of the magic of the teams’ previous games in the Bronx. The big differences between, say, the epic ’46 struggle between the two teams and today are that the new Stadium has none of its predecessor’s distinct character and that the only time you’ll see 0-0 on the scoreboard when the teams play again is right before kickoff…Russian “prime minister” Vladimir “Leader for Life” Putin reports that preparations for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi are right on schedule, despite the fact that he has replaced the project leader twice and is concerned about “prices and bureaucracy” torpedoing future efforts. Fortunately, Putin has a big incentive for those involved in constructing venues and improving infrastructures: They all want to live…If there is any image in the world of games this year sadder than the look on Tom Watson’s face when he stuttered that putt on 18 last Sunday, it’ll be enough to make Richard Simmons glum. Had Watson won the tournament, it would have been a remarkable accomplishment. The fact that a 59-year old was able to come within a stroke of a major title, however, reinforces the fact that golf is not a sport. Feel free to refute that by mentioning any other sport in which someone that old can come that close to winning a big-time competition…The Seahawks and the Washington State Lottery are debuting a scratch ticket with a $50,000 first prize. Emboldened by the announcement, Detroit and the Michigan Lottery have decided to stage a similar game. First prize is two tickets to a Lions game. Second prize is season tickets.

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YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? The Eagles begin training camp Sunday with rookies and selected veterans’ reporting – and a lot of questions. Chief among the concerns is the health of running back Brian Westbrook and defensive coordinator Jim Johnson. We have been told Westbrook will be ready for the Birds’ opener Sept. 13, and that is reasonable, even if he has little real work before then. Of course if Westbrook doesn’t recover completely from surgery to remove bone spurs in his right ankle, the Eagles are cooked, because rookie LeSean McCoy and colossal ’08 disappointment Lorenzo Booker don’t come close to measuring up. Johnson’s situation is much different. The venerable assistant is fighting melanoma and may not be able to return at all. On the field, that means 35-year old Sean McDermott will be calling defenses for the first time, no small consideration given Johnson’s value to the team over the past decade. Off the field, Johnson’s condition could be quite troubling for defensive players, many of whom have known no other coordinator during their professional careers. Despite those questions, the great news is that football season is starting, and soon all will be right with the world.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? (PART TWO): Get Roy Halladay. Today. Spend whatever it takes. Got that?

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AND ANOTHER THING: “Sources” say that Roger Goodell wants to see legitimate remorse from Michael Vick about his dogfighting role and is looking to see how the former Falcons QB conducts himself before deciding whether to reinstate him for NFL action. Goodell’s giving Vick almost a whole week as a free man before issuing his verdict (the two are supposed to meet today or tomorrow) and that’s ludicrous. How can Goodell possibly know whether Vick has changed from one meeting and a couple days out of stir? If Goodell wants to give Vick a conditional ticket back to football, so he can sign with a team and go through training camp, fine. But the return pass must come with a suspension, the better to see how Vick behaves over a longer period. Yes, he has done his time. Yes, he deserves a second chance. But the NFL can’t just let him back without a probationary stretch. Let him work out with a team and get back into the NFL life, but remember that it’s easier to put on a good show for a week than it is for two or three months. Let’s get a track record here before allowing Vick back completely.

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ONE MORE FOR THE ROAD: El Hombre wants to send out his best wishes to loyal reader, American hero and bon vivant Bill “Bitsy” Grant, an avid Phillies fan, loyal Saint Joseph’s Hawk and dedicated Salesianum alumnus, who is in a big-time fight against one helluva foe. Now, Bitsy landed at Normandy back in ’44, so he’s no stranger to struggle. And he raised eight children – six of them girls – so he isn’t frightened easily. The smart money’s on a big recovery, but Bitsy can use all the prayers and positive energy he can get. Continued prosperity for the Phils wouldn’t hurt, either. Get well soon, Bitsy!


Thursday, July 16, 2009

"The Second Half"


While myriad theories emerge about the low ratings for Tuesday’s All-Star Game, and clueless Majoke League Baseball burgermeister Bud Sellout protests (ever so gently) the Manny Ramirez Minor League Victory Tour, baseball resumes its pennant races today with a “second half” that should provide fans with plenty of interest while angering mathematical purists who argue that 88 is NOT half of 162.

Sellout’s declaration that he wasn’t happy with Ramirez’s playing tune-up games in garden spots like San Bernardino and Albuquerque is hilarious. It affords him another way to blame all of the steroid problems in the game on the players’ union, which while certainly highly culpable, has hardly acted alone. Sellout is right (stop the presses!) to say that a 50-game suspension should be a 50-game suspension and that if Ramirez wants to loosen up before returning to the big time ball, he should do so at an American Legion post or a local semi-pro outfit. Since the Dodgers own the 66ers and (it was) the Dukes, Ramirez shouldn’t get an early furlough to get back into shape with those clubs. But for Sellout to make it seem as if the evil players are solely responsible for the loophole is like Terrell Owens’ saying his troubles with every team for which he’s played have been his teammates’ fault.

As for the All-Star Game, it was refreshing to see a 4-3, close contest that had some drama. If TV ratings went down because of that, then MLB should just hold a second Home Run Derby (even though the first one is getting ollllllldddd) and realize that fans don’t like baseball; they like highlights and asinine commentary. Look for baseballs to start flying during the Midsummer Classic next year, as their composition changes to include some of the same material that allows American Idol to keep bouncing back, despite dispensing ever-growing doses of inanity. If you weren’t interested in Carl Crawford’s catch, Joe Nathan’s eighth-inning showdown with Ryan Howard and yet another perfect ninth from Mariano Rivera, then you should be sentenced to a season of Nationals games.

With those issues out of the way, it’s time to look at the storylines that will dominate the remaining 45.679% of the season.

Yanks-Sawx: Get you tickets now! The teams only play 43 more times this season, giving espn the chance to show at least 25 special reports on how great the rivalry is. The fact that New York hasn’t beaten Boston since Bloody Sock Schilling single-handedly ended Communism doesn’t dilute the drama at all. Or at least that’s what the propaganda ministers tell us. Look for devoted TV minions to get the Yanks a wild-card berth and then fix the first round to allow for a Yanks-Sawx ALCS. Hello, Mr. Nielsen.

The Great Chase: Although Washington is on pace to lose “only” 114 games, there is still hope that the Nats can surpass the ’62 Mets’ epic, 40-120 futility. All it takes are a couple months of continued lackadaisical and uninspired play – think Adam Dunn in the outfield – and the Nats could pull it off. But there is some danger out there, since new manager Jim Riggleman could turn things around. Then again, Riggleman describes himself as a “softy,” so the malaise could well continue. The hope here is for 119 losses, so the Mets and their odious fans can continue to wallow in ignominy.

Fire Sales: While most eyes will be on the Blue Jays to see if they dish ace Roy Halladay (more on that below), there will be plenty of other teams trying to get rid of big salaries in the name of rebuilding. The Pirates could let just about anybody go, including Manny Sanguillen, Dave Parker and Dock Ellis’ acid peddler. The Nationals will be holding a tag sale, and all prices are negotiable. San Diego will still try to deal Jake Peavy (with little success), and the Indians are heading to the trading post. As usual, just about any Oriole can be had in return for some mannequins to put in the seats.

Friendly Confounds: After choking last post-season, the Cubs were supposed to mount a strong charge to the pennant and perhaps even win the World Series. Instead, they find themselves mired in a gooey NL Central race, struggling to keep pace with the Happiest Place on Earth Cardinals, whose errors even receive standing ovations from the country’s softest fans. Lou Piniella is calling his players names. The big guns can’t hit. The best pitchers don’t win. But at least the beer’s cold. Look for a rally, but in the end, more disappointment defines the Cubbies.

Wild West: Since most fans can’t name a combined 10 players on the Mariners, Rangers and Angels, the AL West race is getting no attention. But things could get pretty interesting, particularly if Ichiro and Seattle keep winning. The Angels have the best all-around talent, but Texas sure can mash. And Rangers’ ace Kevin Millwood doesn’t look so out of shape anymore. L.A. will probably win, but things could be interesting here in September. Too bad fans will need a satellite dish or premium cable package to see it all.

Reboot: With “half” the season gone, it’s appropriate to re-think the division races and make some predictions. American League division winners: Boston, Chicago, L.A. Wild Card: Yankees. National League division winners: Philadelphia, St. Louis, L.A. Wild Card: Cubs. ALDS: Boston over Chicago; L.A. over New York. ALCS: Boston over L.A. NLDS: Philadelphia over Chicago; L.A. over St. Louis. NLCS: L.A. over Philadelphia. World Series: Boston over L.A.

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EL HOMBRE SEZ: Great line from a Western Conference executive about why the Clippers will sign Allen Iverson: “Because it makes absolutely no sense.” Anybody who thinks one of the most selfish players in NBA history will accept a team role is crazy…Cowboy QB has finally decided to end this chapter of the drama surrounding his return. He’ll let everyone know by July 30. Of course, that doesn’t exactly satisfy the Vikings, who would like an earlier decision, but why should Brett Favre care about them? This is a personal matter between him and his ego…You can root for Tiger or Paddy or any of the others at Turnberry this weekend. El Hombre is pulling for the course, which should claim plenty of self-esteem and reduce normally reasonable men to near tears. At least they can weep into some top-flight Scotch…The NHL announced Wednesday that Boston and Philadelphia will play Jan. 1, 2010 at Fenway Park in the only hockey game to which anybody will pay attention. No word on whether new Flyers goon, er defenseman, Chris Pronger will try to grind anybody into the Green Monster. In other hockey news, NBC has agreed to keep televising NHL games through the 2010-11 season. The league did have to make one major concession in order to keep its flagging product on network TV: the best-of-seven Stanley Cup Finals series will be played over four consecutive days in the morning. Game On!...NASCAR’s Jeremy Mayfield tested positive again for methamphetamine and promptly denied the charge, even though his stepmother reported that she had seen him take meth 30 times over a seven-year period. That didn’t sit well with the high-strung driver, who said, “that [nasty term for a woman] is trash and has got nothing on me but lies.” Mayfield then excused himself and went for a practice lap – the wrong way around the track. Ah, wholesome family entertainment…The savior of American soccer, David Beckham, is back in action Thursday night for the Galaxy, amidst rumors that he was a bad captain and didn’t care about his team. Beckham denied he dissed his mates, although he was overheard asking a Galaxy official, “When do Number Four and Whatsisname get in the game?”

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? If the Phillies think they have solved their starting pitching problems by signing a 37-year old (or so he says) who has trouble getting past the sixth inning, strained his shoulder during tryouts and hasn’t pitched a complete season since 2005, then GM Ruben Amaro has been possessed by the ghost of Ed Wade. Unless the Phils are trying to overload their bullpen and think sterling J.A. Happ will continue to be their ace, then asking Pedro Martinez to go every fifth day is a mistake. Let’s hope this is a relatively inexpensive stopgap solution to a problem that needs a real answer: Roy Halladay. While the Phils wring their hands about what to offer the Blue Jays in return for the big-time ace, consider that the franchise hasn’t produced one homegrown standout pitcher who sustained excellence over five years or more in decades. Halladay, meanwhile, has won 20 games twice and 19 once during the past seven years, has maintained an ERA of below 3.00 in the run-happy American League, and sounds like he’s looking for a new address. The worst-case scenario is that he pitches this season and the next for the Phillies, giving them a true righthanded stopper on a team that leans more left than Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. In a perfect world, he signs a three-year extension and becomes a true bulwark of the future. If that means giving up Kyle Drabek and Joe Savery, Lou Marson and Jason Donald, Carlos Carasco and anybody else but Michael Taylor, DO IT!!! Professional sports are about winning now, and if Amaro wants to worry about what happens in five years, he should go work for the Pirates. Pedro makes for good copy, but Halladay will help the Phillies win another pennant.

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AND ANOTHER THING: Since Nike and LeBron James decided to deprive the world of Xavier player Jordan Crawford’s dunk over the Cavalier star, we must rely on the reports of those who were there to learn what really happened. (El Hombre isn’t sure this is what Nike had in mind when it unveiled the “Witness” ad campaign for James.) One camper present was Michigan guard Manny Harris, who provides this exclusive account. “It was pretty good. [Crawford] actually drove past his guy, and he was already in the air. LeBron saw that he was in the air, and he tried to block [the dunk]. At that point, it’s tough to block a guy, because [Raymond] was already in the air. But [James] got dunked on. Afterward, [Michael] Jordan made some noise, and so did the high school kids. LeBron kept his composure and acted like nothing happened.” Thank you, Manny, for letting us in on what happened, since James and Nike chickened out. On the one hand, it’s understandable how the player and sponsor want to protect his image, especially in this YouTube world. But don’t you think this would have gone away faster had James and Nike released the video, congratulated the kid and moved on? What are they afraid of? Guess humility and the ability to laugh at one’s self aren’t part of the LBJ package. One thing’s for certain: Had that happened to Jordan in his prime, he wouldn’t have squelched the video. He would have just abused Crawford for the rest of the game and then showed up for every Xavier practice this season looking to play one-on-one. That’s how a competitor does it.


Thursday, July 2, 2009

Justice, NFL Style


When NFL commissioner Roger Goodell issued his official mountaintop farewell after the final mini-camp, OTA, and in the case of the Raiders, DTA (Disorganized Team Activity) had ended, he sounded more like a high school principal than the leader of professional sports’ most lucrative concern. As the kids ran out of team complexes like students’ heading into summer break, they could hear the voice booming from loudspeakers across the country, warning them about the evils of drunk driving.

The final sentence of the proclamation was the most telling: “Let’s make sure that the 2009 season does not bring more tragedy or embarrassment to ourselves and our employees.” Goodell even went so far as to mention Donte Stallworth, the Cleveland receiver who is serving 30 days in stir for hitting and killing a man while driving drunk – and thanks to new information made known yesterday – high. Goodell has suspended Stallworth “indefinitely” and has promised to make known the final disposition of that nebulous sentence soon.

As Goodell weighs the merits of relieving Stallworth of his livelihood for a quarter, half or full season, a debate has sprouted about whether Goodell has the right to impose a substantial penalty at all. There is no doubt that Stallworth should have a chance to play in the NFL again, just as Michael Vick deserves another shot, but some league discipline must be imposed, and it must have teeth.

Some say Goodell must make up for the court’s relative leniency. Although there was no intent to kill the man who walked in front of Stallworth’s car early one morning, he still took another life, and 30 days seems like a pretty small price to pay for that. Despite showing what appears to be true remorse and settling with the man’s family for what is no doubt a hefty amount, Stallworth received a pretty light penalty. (IMPORTANT CODICIL: Anyone who has ever seen the HBO classic “Oz” knows that even five minutes in the joint can lead to any number of nightmares, particularly if Schillinger gets a hold of you, so 30 days can seem like forever, or the length of an WNBA game.)

Goodell’s job is not to correct the court’s work. His sole responsibility is the health and economic welfare of the (insert dramatic pause) National Football League. Because of that role, he must consider Stallworth’s crime within the framework of how his return to action will affect the league and its reputation. Back in ’98, Leonard Little killed a woman while driving drunk and spent 90 days behind bars. Then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue slapped Little with an eight-game suspension, but the defensive end returned and eventually became a Pro Bowler. Though MADD picketed Little’s first game back with the Rams after the suspension, there was no furor surrounding his return and only a small percentage of today’s fans would be able to recall the crime.

Now comes Stallworth. While he sits in jail, Goodell must judge the damage the wide receiver has done to the league, not to mention the ramifications of a player’s driving drunk and high, a daily double of NFL conduct violations. Worse than breaking his employer’s rules, Stallworth perpetuated the myth of athletes’ behaving badly. Despite being but a minute portion of the overall NFL personnel universe, people like Stallworth become the image of the highly-paid performers. No amount of charitable work can erase it. Donovan McNabb could eradicate swine flu from the landscape, and he wouldn’t be able to overcome the damage Stallworth has done to players’ or the league’s reputations.

That’s where Goodell comes in. His job as commissioner is to propagate the NFL and make sure that its financial health persists and improves. To do that, he must deal swiftly and sternly with those who are threats to that well being. Stallworth’s crime has hurt Goodell’s league and its business. If he does not come down hard on Stallworth, particularly in an economic climate where people are struggling to pay high ticket prices and to make sure their kids have the GI Joes with the Kung-fu grip, he runs the risk of giving back some of the goodwill and market share the league has accumulated during the past several decades.

Yes, Goodell has to pounce, on both Vick and Stallworth. The question is whether they deserve the same suspensions, and the answer is no. Although Vick did more time for his dog-fighting crimes, there’s no way the killing of any animal – no matter what the quantity – trumps the taking of a human life. PETA can scream from the treetops (just be careful not to disturb the slender-billed grackle) all it wants on that one, but it’s wrong. Vick deserves a half-year away from the NFL, and Stallworth needs to be seated for a full season. That way, he’ll get the opportunity to take care of his community service obligations and remain clear of the spotlight, and the league can show that it takes this kind of behavior very seriously. By giving Stallworth a substantial penalty, Goodell will be looking out for his league by protecting its image. He’ll also be sending a distinct message to other players that will be stronger than any “behave yourselves” letter he could write.

And, come September, when everybody returns to class, they’ll know the principal isn’t going to back down.

Now, about that summer reading.

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EL HOMBRE SEZ: A tip of the helmet to SI’s Chris Ballard for his back-page story in the magazine this week. Click on the link and read on. If you don’t choke up, call Keith Richards’ doctor, because you need a transfusion. Some might consider it sacrilegious to root against an American in anything, but you have to cheer for Andy Murray to become the first British man to win at Wimbledon since Fred Perry in 1936. Maybe he’ll get a shoe named for him if he does triumph…The price tag for a courtside seat at the renovated Pauley Pavilion in ’12-13? Try a one-time 500 large serving of cheddar, followed by annual “contributions” of $17,000/seat – plus the tickets’ cost. Yeah, college sports are a pure, amateur pursuit. Pay the damn players already…Tennessee has received a commitment from a 13-year old grid star whose brother and father played for the Vols. No word on whether coach Lane Kiffin told the kid that if he went to South Carolina, he’d never become any good on Rock Band…Okay, so the U.S. soccer team coughs up a 2-0 lead against Brazil in the Confederations Final, and all of a sudden the red-white-and-blew-it is a world power. Calm down, everybody. Let’s see how the Yanks do Aug. 12 in the World Cup qualifier in Mexico while dodging bags of human excrement…A judge dismissed attempts by Ro(H)g(H)er Clemens to revive some of his defamation claims against former trainer Brian McNamee. Awwww. Now McNamee gets a chance to sue Clemens. Ain’t justice great?

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YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? Those 1-2-3-4-5-Sixers did the right thing by drafting Jrue Holiday last Thursday. NBA personnel sources tell El Hombre that Holiday will be a first-rate point man in a couple years, thanks to his size, athletic ability, competitiveness and defensive skills. He played out of position at UCLA last year and still had more assists per minute played and per possession than did Darren Collison, who dominated the ball. While the Sixers wait for Holiday, they remain an imperfect team, even if they re-sign free agent PG Richard Pryor. They have no real center, no two guard and their two best young players – Andre Iguodala and Thaddeus Young – play the same position. The Sixers have a bunch of ugly contracts and at a time when teams are clearing space for 2010 free agency, their salary cap is clogged worse than the commode at an offensive linemen’s convention. Don’t expect big things next season. Or the one after that.

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AND ANOTHER THING: Manny Ramirez returns to the lineup this weekend after serving his 50-day sentence for taking fertility drugs to spark testosterone growth after steroid use. (Allegedly.) Expect an outpouring of love from Dodgers’ Stepfords and a celebration of the cheater’s talents by the league’s propaganda partners. Let’s hope Hall of Fame voters commemorate the occasion by promising never to vote for the bum and to remind people as needed about his crimes against baseball. It will be easy to view the juiced-up slugger as a sympathetic figure, given the welcome he’ll receive, but don’t ever remove him from the list of drug abusers and don’t give in to the temptation to say it was just “Manny being Manny.” Let the pajama-wearing, traveling-secretary-bullying lab creation get into Cooperstown the same way the rest of us do – with a ticket.