Friday, October 30, 2009

King Cole's Crossroads


Last year this time, Cole Hamels could have walked into the office of Mayor Michael Nutter and demanded to be made dictator of Philadelphia, and Nutter would have had to comply. Hamels could have insisted city residents wear Cowboys jerseys, sing “Meet the Mets” as the recessional hymn at any church service in the area and replace the statue of William Penn atop City Hall with a bust of Terrell Owens, and no one would have argued. Such is the power of a World Series MVP.

What a difference a year makes.

Hamels may be the reigning World Series MVP, but his star has faded considerably in the eyes of Phillies fans, who approach his start in Game Three of the series against Big Brother with more than a mild sense of trepidation. In the interval between his outstanding performance last October against the Mephistopheles Rays and Saturday night at 7:57, Hamels has resembled only sporadically the dominant ace who propelled a team to its first world championship in 28 years. In fact, Hamels goes to the mound as the fourth or fifth-best starter, in many minds, on the Phillies, given his travails this season, which have included a lack of control, the inability to finish off good hitters, a drop in velocity, a propensity for reacting to small bursts of misfortune by throwing tantrums and losing focus and generally resembling a struggling young pitcher, rather than an established ace.

Instead of using last year’s prosperity to vault him among the game’s elite pitchers, Hamels has instead regressed. Some believe he is injured, and if that is the case, he deserves a huge benefit of the doubt for putting up more than 205 innings in a compromised state. But Hamels and the Phillies insist he is healthy, and given his history, that’s easy to believe, because Hamels has never been known for his high threshold of pain. No, this is likely something different – and more troubling. Hamels’ season has been characterized by bursts of strong pitching, interspersed with nightmarish sequences in which the runs pile up, sometimes both occurring in the same game. Worse, Hamels often reacts to these worrisome stretches by melting, rather than rallying. His most noteworthy bit of distemper came during the NLCS, when he stalked about the mound area after Chase Utley threw a ball past Ryan Howard that would have completed a double play. Hamels then punctuated the outburst by throwing his mitt in the dugout after the inning was completed.

Beyond the obvious inability to control his emotions, Hamels’ eruption demonstrates something more disturbing. Talented, confident athletes usually respond to misfortune by hunkering down and taking control. By acting out, Hamels betrayed a lack of self-assurance, as if he were acknowledging that he is working on a thin margin and anything unexpected could derail whatever progress he had accumulated. He wasn’t just petulant; he was insecure. That self-doubt is what has to concern Phillies fans more than anything else, and one must believe it’s why skipper Charlie Manuel chose to pitch Hamels against Microsoft at home, rather than in The House That Avarice Built. Hamels has thrown better in front of the Philadelphia crowd than he has on the road this season, and Manuel is doing everything he can to create an atmosphere conducive to a strong start.

It’s not like he hasn’t had some success this year. In five starts from Aug. 26 to Sept. 17, Hamels went 3-1 with a 1.45 ERA, struck out 38 and walked just seven. It was right out of the October, 2008 catalog, when Hamels went 4-0 in five starts, with an ERA of 1.80, 35 Ks and nine walks. And it reinforced that Hamels is likely not hurt. More than anything, he is lacking a guaranteed out pitch, and that is allowing hitters to wait him out on his strong, but not nightmarish, fastball.

Compounding the concern about Saturday’s game is Hamels’ mound opponent, Andrew EuHGHene Pettitte, who has pitched in more post-season games than any other hurler and who loves the big stage more than Elton John and Chad Ocholoco combined. You know Pettitte won’t care if the entire Citizens Bank Park crowd dresses up like giant syringes or Roger Clemens or giant syringes sticking out of Clemens’ calloused hindquarters. He will throw his six strong innings and move on.

Hamels, on the other hand, must match Pettitte or risk putting the Phillies in a hole. He certainly has the track record, but his post-season performance this season (1-1, 6.97 ERA) is hardly reason to believe he’ll rise to the occasion. Should Hamels unfurl a gem, he will regain his status as post-season stud, erase much of the stench of his previous work and perhaps earn the right to start Game Seven in the Bronx, should things advance that far. Struggle, or worse, fall apart, and he’ll enter the ’10 season required to answer questions about which was more indicative of his future: 2008’s dominance, or 2009’s uncertainty. In effect, his pitching Saturday night will re-establish him as the King of Philadelphia or just another pitcher with one shiny item on an otherwise mundane resume. No pressure, Cole. None at all.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: Cleveland Browns fans have planned a “late arrival” protest for their team’s Nov. 16 Monday night game with the Ravens. They’re hoping a TV shot of a nearly-empty stadium will put pressure on ownership to fix some problems. Organizers can count on one group to support the cause: the players. They haven’t shown up all year…In his new autobiography, Andre Agassi details his dislike of tennis, his crystal meth use, his agonizing hair loss and his marriages to Brooke Shields and Steffi Graf. In a related story, Pete Sampras is planning a book that will discuss life without a personality…The NC2A’s decision to suspend Oklahoma State wideout Dez Bryant for a year was another example of the organization’s continued war against student-athletes. Yes, Bryant lied about his meeting with Deion Sanders, but the NC2A’s discipline proved why he did it. Bryant was afraid he’d get smacked down for telling the truth. While schools spend money like crazy and prostitute themselves to corporations for a buck, the NC2A looks away. Meanwhile, a college kid works out with a former pro, and he is banished. Disgusting…Great news for all of you who believed syrup of ipecac was a little too powerful as a vomit-inducing agent. Fox is putting a camera on Cowboy Quarterback for Sunday’s entire Packers-Vikings game. Watching just a few minutes of that should inspire nausea sufficient to expel any toxin or poison that has invaded a person’s body.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? The Eagles’ uninspiring 27-17 win over the lousy Redskins last Monday showed just how far the team has to go before it can be considered anything more than a wild-card contender. The Birds’ offense is a mess, especially if Brian Westbrook’s concussion keeps him out of this week’s game (it should), not that coach Andy Reid uses him all that much. Injuries along the offensive front have been a problem, and that much is out of Reid’s control. But the play-calling, the incessant use of the “Wildcat” formation to no productive end and an unwillingness to commit to the run have conspired to strip the offense of a personality. Right now, it seems as if Reid is trying to make every play a big play, rather than creating a rhythm that allows for consistent movement and production. Some of the blame has to be directed at QB Donovan McNabb, whose completion percentage (57.3%) would be the second-lowest of his career, not counting his rookie season. But for the most part, the blame lies with Reid, who looks like someone trying to show everybody how smart he is, rather than putting together a solid gameplan every week.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: You have to love the NFL. No matter how much evidence gets thrown in its face about the absolutely devastating effects of pro football’s collisions on players down the road, they continue to stonewall. The most recent example of the denial came Wednesday, when commissioner Roger Goodell testified before a House Judiciary Committee and refused to acknowledge that repeated blows to the head cause long-term damage and contribute to emotional instability. Of course, Goodell said that more research was needed and that the league was committed to that. Good for you, Rog! He even had players’ union chief DeMaurice Smith along for the ride. Smith actually echoed Goodell’s nonsense, even though he represents the players whose brains are being damaged. If you have the time, check out Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent article on the topic in last week’s New Yorker. In it, Gladwell sees the actual brain damage that multiple high-speed collisions spawn and checks out a University of North Carolina program that registers the g-force severity and frequency of hits sustained by players during practices. It’s eye-opening stuff and enough to make you understand how the NFL is in no way interested in rectifying the situation, particularly if it takes away from the violence. How many more suicides and sad, demented former players will it take to change the stance? Unfortunately, it looks like too many.

* * *

ONE MORE FOR THE ROAD: Great job by Majoke League Baseball commissioner Bud Sellout on Mark McGwire’s return to the game. Sellout offered an enthusiastic endorsement of the former slugger and suspected steroid cheat’s joining the Cardinals as a hitting instructor. Anybody who saw McGwire’s pathetic performance in front of Congress or took note of his invisibility knows the guy has something to hide. By letting him come back to baseball with no admission of guilt, pledge to help educate youth or any remorse whatsoever amounts to efforts to sanitize his image in pursuit of Hall of Fame votes. Sellout has tried to convince people (and anyone who believes him is a complete sap) that he cared about erasing steroids from the baseball landscape, but this is another example of his desire to evade the topic. McGwire should not be coaching, not without addressing a long list of mandates regarding his past. Don’t expect Sellout to enforce that. He’s too busy piling up the salary increases.


Friday, October 23, 2009

NBA Action is Fantastic


Back in the ‘90s when Tom Odjakjian was playing roundball matchmaker while with espn, he laid out for El Hombre the perfect recipe for a successful conference hierarchy – at least from the TV perspective:

Take three or four top-shelf teams, a couple hopefuls with the potential to pull upsets now and then and a bunch of catfish living at the bottom of the sea, incapable of doing anything but pumping up the big boys’ records. Mix together for maximum drama and excitement.

In other words, screw parity. That socialist concept may be nice for the NFL and Sweden, but real interest gets generated when there are some true heavyweights roaming the land, stumbling into each other every now and then and staging some memorable battles, preferably near the end of the season.

Odjakjian has since moved on to the Big East, where he has to – among other things – figure out a way to get South Florida and DePaul’s hoop teams on TV every season, no easy task. But his idea remains vital today when it comes to fan interest. Parity may lead to the most equitable level of hope for fans and fill coffers in a similarly identical manner, but no matter how much a matchup between a pair of mediocre teams might make league officials happy, real excitement comes when showdowns between the big boys take place.

It would seem as if Odjakjian was orchestrating the NBA’s off-season moves, because the league enters a watershed season with its most impressive collection of heavy hitters in a long while. It doesn’t quite match the 1980s for star power, but the moves made over the summer have turned the top part of the league into a five-way battle royal, while at the same time pushing the league’s Dalits even further from contention. It’s amazing to look at how the upper echelon fortified itself, while perpetually awful teams cut salary (New Jersey), added incongruous parts (Memphis) or simply gave up (Milwaukee).

San Antonio conned the Bucks out of Richard Jefferson for a few postcards of the Alamo. The Celtics added Rasheed Wallace for versatility and crankiness. Cleveland decided that defending the high pick-and-roll wasn’t all that important (even though every NBA team has 439 variations of the ancient set) and brought Shaquille O’Neal aboard for interior heft and comic relief. Vince Carter is now with the Magic, playing the part of Hedo Turkoglu, without the bad hair. And Los Angeles decided the best way to defend its title was to have Ron Artest beat on Kobe Bryant in practice, rather than in games. Each of those extremely high profile moves, along with a few other, less-publicized transactions (Marquis Daniels in Boston, Antonio McDyess in San Antonio) should create a strong upper class that will allow for maximum attention and a fascinating playoff season.

With a possible work stoppage looming in ’11, serious financial problems plaguing many teams (buy one ticket, get 20 free) and a free-agent frenzy on the horizon that could completely change the league’s personality, it’s nice the NBA has a season ahead that could be truly memorable. Here are some of the more interesting storylines:

Rent-a-Net: New Jersey is running an interesting promotion: Buy four courtside seats for 10 games at the low-low price of $25,000, and you get access to the Izod Center’s club, free food and beverage and the chance to have the Net player of your choice show up at an event for an hour. What a deal. Imagine having Jason Kidd or Vince Carter or Richard Jefferson at your kid’s birthday party or enlivening a Bar Mitzvah celebration. Oh, you mean they don’t play in Jersey anymore? Somehow Devin Harris, Brook Lopez and Yi Jianlian don’t have the same cachet. How about this marketing slogan for those crazy enough to buy that package: Sucker Seats.

Dysfunctional Family: The most frustrated man in the NBA has to be Memphis GM Chris Wallace, who is credited with (blamed for?) the team’s acquisitions of Zach Randolph and Allen Iverson, even though he had nothing to do with them. Those choices were made by Grizz owner Michael Heisley, or if you believe A.I., the Lord. Heisley is so cheap he probably charges for catsup and mustard at the concession stands and thought bringing two of the league’s most selfish players to town would help sell tickets. They sure won’t help Memphis youngsters Rudy Gay, O.J. Mayo, Mike Conley and Hasheem Thabeet, unless they want to learn how to hog the ball and stay out late. Expect this team in the playoffs again around 2019.

One More Chance: Don’t be surprised if Cleveland Cavalier fans don’t learn the lyrics to the Jackson Browne classic, “Stay,” and serenade LeBron James every time he takes the floor. James can opt out of his contract after this season, and one would imagine the Knicks will go after him with the same zest Eddy Curry attacks the post-game buffet. James wants to make money, lots of it, and he has a bigger chance to do that in New York, even though the Knicks can’t offer him a contract as lucrative as Cleveland can. We’re talking endorsements. We’re talking Wall Street. We’re talking lunch boxes. To make it harder for James to leave, the Cavs spent all they could during the off-season to make their team better. Shaq’s in town. So are strong role players Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon. Cleveland re-signed Sideshow Bob. This is the team’s best chance for a title, and whether it wins one might just determine James’ address next year.

Reverse the Curse: When top overall draft pick Blake Griffin hurt his knee just before training camp – after hurting his shoulder during summer league play – everybody laughed and credited the Clipper Curse for stalling another promising career. But Griffin is stronger than some superstition, and the team has more talent than previous incarnations, which pretty much always found a way to lose. It all depends on PG Baron Davis, who is said to be svelte and in shape, a big difference from this time last year, when he hit the pasta full throttle in a reality show diet scheme. But Griffin and fellow pups Eric Gordon and Al Thornton have big upsides, and L.A. has a manageable payroll and stalwarts who are tied up for a couple more years. The Clips won all of 19 last year. Expect them to double that and then some, unless of course, you know, they’re cursed.

On the Rise: The Thunder is so young and so new to its OK City digs that it’s tempted to consider it an expansion team, rather than a franchise that has been around since the late 1960s. (How else would it have chosen a name like “Supersonics?” Love that space age wonder.) If things continue on their current path, that kind of thinking should evaporate pretty quickly. Thanks to young standouts like Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green, the Thunder is heading in the right direction. There’s no way Oklahoma City can make the playoffs this year, but don’t count out a run next season and count them in for sure the year after that. Then, the only problem for the team will be whether all of those players want to leave town.

Fearless Predictions: Eastern Playoff Teams: Cleveland, Boston, Orlando, Atlanta, Chicago, Washington, Miami, Detroit. Western Playoff Teams: Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio, Utah, Portland, Denver, Dallas, New Orleans, Los Angeles Clippers.

Conference Finals: Cleveland over Boston; San Antonio over Los Angeles.

Finals: San Antonio over Cleveland.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: Washington coach Jim Zorn is just the latest victim of owner Daniel Snyder’s stupidity. El Hombre understands that the money is great, but why would anybody want to subject himself to being part of the Redskins’ circus…Shame on Magic Johnson and (and to a lesser extent) Larry Bird. Instead of putting together what would have been a great book about their rivalry, which had so many rich components, they chose to rip on Isiah Thomas. Sure, Thomas deserves a lot of heat for his mismanagement as a coach and commissioner, but to load their book with rumormongering and innuendo was small time stuff…One month after separating with his wife, Dodgers owner Frank McCourt fired her as CEO of the team. Jamie McCourt should have a pretty good case against her estranged husband, because EH hears he was sleeping with one of his employees…Oklahoma QB Sam Bradford’s shoulder injury – and re-injury – will forever more be known as Exhibits A and B why any player with the chance to go in the top five of the NFL Draft should do so without question. Unless there is a rookie salary cap, there is little reason to take the risk Bradford did, all in the name of devotion to dear, old State U. Even if there is a salary cap for newcomers, it’s possible Bradford’s injury could impact his career – and earning power – permanently. That’s a steep price to pay for loyalty.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? Every time Cole Hamels has pitched during the post-season, fans and Phillies brass have hoped the lefthander would return to the form that made him so successful last October. Well, it ain’t happening. Unlike Brad Lidge, who has regained some of his mastery after discovering the two-seam fastball, Hamels is a flawed pitcher right now. Teams have solved him somewhat and are sitting on his solid but hardly jaw-dropping fastball, a fact evidenced by the large number of at bats that he requires six, seven and even eight pitches to complete – sometimes with a poor outcome. Hamels can’t get lefties out, is running high pitch counts in early innings and looks like he has lost his confidence. Once the team’s ace, he’s now better suited for the three or four spot in the World Series rotation. Hamels needs to gut out the rest of the year and then discover a way to counter the hitters’ adjustments to him, unless he wants to remain ordinary. With that in mind, here’s how the W.S. pitching order should go – Game One: Clifford The Big Red Ace; Game Two: Heavy B; Game Three: Pedro; Game Four: Hamels, unless Lee wants to go on three days rest like his Yankee pal C.C. Sabathia.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: The absolutely horrible umpiring during the post-season has renewed pleas for an instant replay system in Majoke League Baseball. The game simply can’t be determined by incompetent umpires, especially when so much is at stake. Since MLB already has a system in place for home run calls, it wouldn’t be a major step to institute a method of reviewing other plays – but not balls and strikes. Give each team one or two challenges a game and let it stay at that. For those worrying about how much time it would add, like some of those interminable NFL replay stoppages, remember that a big part of that process involves clock and yard-line issues, considerations which don’t have any role in baseball games. Further, allow for no commercial breaks during reviews, the better to prevent a 30-second interruption from mushrooming into two or three minutes. Think the umps would have needed much time to divine that Joe Mauer’s hit in Game Three against the Yankees was fair? Hell, an NBA ref could have seen that. It’s time to take the game out of the hands of incompetents and get it right.


Friday, October 9, 2009

A Flood of Memories


There was no fanfare two days ago to mark the 40th anniversary of one of the truly seminal moments in sports. Maybe because it didn’t involve Cowboy Quarterback or LeBron James or this athlete with that reality-show chippy, no one bothered to notice. But it should have been commemorated with a giant retrospective, instead of falling into history’s abyss. Hell, it didn’t even show up on any “This Day In Sports” lists.

If you know what happened on Oct. 7, 1969, go straight to the head of the class, because you pay attention to the whys and wherefores of sport, rather than the daily blithering of synergy-chasing media outlets. It was on that date the Phillies traded Dick Allen, Cookie Rojas and Jerry Johnson to the St. Louis Cardinals for Tim McCarver, Joe Hoerner and Byron Browne.

And Curt Flood.

At the time, it was a big deal because the Phils were finally breaking ties with the disgruntled – and highly-talented – Allen, who had emerged as one of baseball’s most dynamic sluggers. But because of his treatment in Philadelphia, both by teammates and fans, Allen wanted out. By dealing him to St. Louis, the Phillies were giving up their main bat, but they were hoping that Flood’s speed, average and slick glove would compensate somewhat.

It never happened. Unhappy with the Phillies’ dreadful play, the prospect of what he considered playing in a racist city, the idea that the Cardinals would trade him in the first place, and that he learned of the deal from an assistant GM and not the big boss, Flood refused to report to Philadelphia. Not only that, but he wanted to choose where he played. Imagine that; Flood wanted to be a free agent.

Fans who don’t remember the late 1960s and early ’70s – or the 100 years of baseball before that – can’t fathom a world in which a player who was without a contract wouldn’t be able to cut his own deal. Flood could have made $100,000 (real money back then) to play for the Phillies, but he refused. On Christmas Eve, 1969, he sent a letter to baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn that outlined his case.

“After twelve years in the major leagues, I do not feel I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes. I believe that any system which produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen and is inconsistent with the laws of the United States and of several States(sic). It is my desire to play baseball in 1970, and I am capable of playing. I have received a contract offer from the Philadelphia club, but I believe I have the right to consider offers from other clubs before making any decision. I, therefore, request that you make known to all Major League clubs my feelings in this matter, and advise them of my availability for the 1970 season.”

Flood had taken on the cherished MLB reserve clause, which had tied players to their teams. Once you signed with a team, you belonged to that team – forever. Satan had a better escape clause than baseball did. Contracts arrived in the mail each winter, and players signed them, no matter how insulting they were. Okay, so maybe somebody like Babe Ruth had some leverage, but Curt Flood did not. He belonged to the Cardinals, and if they wanted to trade him to the Phillies, the Dodgers or Ulan Bator Yakherders, there was nothing he could do about it.

As you can imagine, Flood’s letter was received with the same enthusiasm in the Majoke League Offices as news about the debut of “Cougar Town” was at the National Organization for Women’s headquarters. Kuhn and MLB fought Flood to the death in court, and vanquished him. The reserve clause won, because the Supreme Court upheld a 1922 ruling that favored the outdated model. Flood sat out the 1970 season, played 13 games with the Washington Senators in 1971 and retired. He had a career .293 average, won seven gold gloves, registered 200 hits twice and played on a pair of World Series champions.

That’s a pretty impressive resume, but it’s nothing compared to what his reserve-clause challenge meant to baseball players – and, ultimately, all professional athletes. Though the 1975 arbitrator’s decision to make pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally free agents was based on the reserve clause’s ambiguous language and not Flood’s lawsuit, all professional athletes should applaud the courage he displayed in challenging an entrenched, parsimonious hierarchy. It’s no coincidence that the reserve clause endured for decades before Flood’s challenge and only five years after it. The clause would have been overcome eventually, even without Flood’s actions, but his willingness to fight for his beliefs and demand to be treated with dignity by MLB owners required a rare fortitude.

Sadly, few professional athletes know of Flood and his stand. They sign their gigantic contracts, but they don’t know what went into paving the dusty road that leads to their sporting penthouses. Curt Flood gave up his career for his principles. He sacrificed a lot of money. But he never let go of his beliefs. Forty years later, MLB players ought to rename their union in his honor. It’s the least they can do for the man who had the guts to stand up to the baseball barons and demand something better.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: Golf and rugby have been added to the Olympic roster for the 2016 and ’20 Games, while baseball and softball remain on the sidelines. Geez, wonder if a certain billionaire golfer’s worldwide popularity had anything to do with it, not that the IOC cares about money…After beating the Packers last Monday night, Cowboy Quarterback cured the common cold and rescued a toddler who fell down a well. espn plans a four-hour special on the big day during the Vikings’ bye week…Danica Patrick is considering a limited NASCAR arrangement for 2010. It would be an interesting move for the Indy racer, who would no doubt be asked to drive in a bikini, the better to appeal to stock car racing’s effete clientele…So Lamar Odom married a Kardashian sister last week after knowing her for something like two months. He’s convinced it’s true love. El Hombre believes it’s even money the thing doesn’t last six months.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT: It is hardly stretching things to declare Saturday’s third game of the Phillies NLDS against Colorado a must win. Thursday’s loss to the Rockies was a disastrous brew of poor starting pitching (grow up and pitch well while the sun is shining, Cole), shaky managerial decisions (what, Bunning and Short weren’t available, Charlie?) and a lack of offense (remember when Chase Utley was reliable?) that resulted in a 1-1 tie in the best-of-five minefield. Now, all the Phils have to contend with in Denver is weather straight from Joe Stalin’s gulags, a starting rotation so jumbled it’s a wonder Joe Roa doesn’t come trotting out onto the mound for the first inning Saturday and a sinking feeling that the team’s offensive shortcomings during the regular season are being exposed further during the playoffs. This team has won a title, so dismissing it is dangerous, but the Rockies are a strong adversary, and it’s time for the big guns on the roster to step up over the weekend to prevent a disaster. That means some long balls from the middle of the order and a starting pitcher not named Lee with the huevos to deliver seven or eight strong innings.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: Florida State board chairman Jim Smith wants Bobby Bowden out of the head football coaching position, preferably yesterday. Shame on him. First of all, his comments create instability that hurts the team on the field and the recruiting trail, where rival coaches can tell prospects that no one knows what’s going to happen in Tallahassee. Second, Bowden is more responsible than any 100 people for helping FSU develop a national reputation. Before he got there, the school was a regional concern, not too far removed from being a women’s college. Now, it is known all over America, and Bowden has brought hundreds of millions of dollars into the university’s coffers. For that, his contract – which runs through next season – should be honored, and Bowden should be allowed to close his career with dignity. Smith’s upset the Seminoles are 2-3, but he shouldn’t be sacrificing the man who has done more for the university than anybody else. Let Bowden have his victory lap next season and then move on.


Friday, October 2, 2009

Stop the Madness


When Edgar Allen Poe wrote the famous short story, “The Imp of the Perverse,” in 1850, there was no football, not even the European version of the animal. The Chinese had been playing a kicking game as early as the second century BC, and there was the Central and South American “Tlatchi” game that was invented hundreds of years before. But, for Poe’s purposes, there was no prolate spheroid, no tailgate parties and not even any old-fashioned European hooliganism.

But Poe might as well have been writing for the modern-day football fan when he described the Imp and its characteristics. For those of you not familiar with the little bastard, understand that it’s the thing inside you that makes you do what you’re not supposed to do. Ever wonder why you’re dying to see just how hot that iron gets? It’s the Imp. When you decide to drive through the giant puddle, even if it means soaking the breaks or bottoming out, blame the Imp. And in those moments of weakness when you actually tune in to a WNBA game, kill the Imp.

The Imp’s role in our football viewing is clearly defined. No matter how wrong we realize it is to see one man being obliterated by another on the field, no matter how much we have heard about the trauma that comes from head-to-hits and no matter how savage the entire process may be, we still love it. God help us, but we love it. The brutality of the game is on display every Sunday in the NFL and on college gridirons, but sometimes it takes big-time, high-profile collisions to make it all resonate a little more.

By now, most of you have seen Taylor Wyndham’s blasting of Tim Tebow last Saturday in Lexington. In fact, you have probably seen it 10 times, thanks to the repeated showings by espn and the magic of YouTube. El Hombre correspondent and fratello-da-un-altro-madre Raging Bill saw it and immediately referenced Chicago linebacker Wilber Marshall’s leveling Joe Ferguson back in ’85, a hit that led former Bears coach Mike Ditka to say, “I thought he killed him.” Wyndham had a clean, high-speed shot on the helpless Tebow, who unlike his “Superman” descriptions, looked quite vulnerable in that moment of isolated violence. He sustained a concussion, remained prone on the field for a long while and vomited while being carted off the field. (No word yet on how Gator fans can buy pieces of the Tebow chum, but you can bet it’s coming.)

Football America, of course, recoiled in horror at the hit. Then, it watched again and again. Turns out the Imp is quite a fan of the game. Florida boosters couldn’t care less about Poe, his theories or much of anything that doesn’t wear orange-and-blue. They want to know whether Tebow will be available next Saturday night in Death Valley against LSU. Despite assurances by UF coach Urban Meyer that Tebow is “terrific,” let’s hope it’s a neurosurgeon (or two) who’s making the ultimate decision on the quarterback’s availability, and not someone charged solely with winning games.

That wish is even more fervent in light of results released Wednesday of a study commissioned by the NFL that looked into the dementia rates of former players, versus those of the general public. The research, which was conducted by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, found that 6.1 percent of 1,063 former NFL players aged 50 and older had received a dementia-related diagnosis. That’s five times higher than the national average of 1.2 percent. Players ages 30 through 49 were given those diagnoses at a rate of 1.9 percent, 19 times the national average.

This is pretty compelling stuff, especially since it was the NFL that ordered the study. In the past, the league has scoffed at results like this, so these numbers, from its own request, have to make an impact. Then again, this is the NFL, which is selling the controlled violence in stadiums every Sunday and through ancillary outlets like its propaganda partners and video product line. Instead of using the study as a clarion call for change, the ostriches in New York jammed their heads deeper into the artificial turf. “There are thousands of retired players who do not have memory problems,” NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said.

Yes, and there are thousands of people in American Samoa who didn’t die in the horrible tsunami earlier this week. Does that mean everything is fine for those who did perish and their families? “Memory disorders affect many people who never played football or other sports,” he said. “We are trying to understand it as it relates to our retired players.” Uh, Greg, this study provides a pretty good understanding: Play professional football, have a significantly larger chance of getting brain damage than the average person. That ought to save the league a little dough. Now, Aiello is merely providing the league take on the situation, so bashing him does no good. Going after the NFL, however, is absolutely necessary. Although last March it instituted a rule protecting “defenseless” receivers against shots to the melon, the league has to go further and ban every hit to the head – and by the head. Players who use their head or deliver blows to the head will be penalized and suspended. To some, that is Draconian. To those like Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey, who fights dementia every day, it would make perfect sense. A culture must be changed here, and there are going to be some unhappy people at first.

The NFL must admit that its players are at risk for brain injury and long-term trouble and change the game so that the dementia diagnoses drop in the future. It’s bad enough many of these guys will need new hips and knees. They make those in titanium these days. But there isn’t an artificial brain out there, so protecting the ones inside players’ heads is vital. The recent study can be tossed on the growing pile of evidence that shows the dangers of playing a game where the collisions get more violent each season. It’s up to the league to lessen the risk, rather than playing to the Imp in all of us.

Even Poe would have to admit that the league can’t keep embracing the damaging violence.

After he got done burying one of his victims.

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EL HOMBRE SEZ: The NHL season started last night, and that calls for some fearless predictions: Two franchise folds, one team move and a Stanley Cup Finals with ratings lower than the Greater Greensboro Open. The champ? Spartak…It was a wild week in Majoke League baseball. Twins catcher Joe Mauer was accused of stealing signs. The Cards said Cincinnati pitcher Bronson Arroyo was rubbing pine tar on the ball. And the Nationals were charged with felony identity theft for posing as an MLB ballclub. That was good news for the Orioles, who had been under investigation of the same charge but seem to have dodged an indictment…President Obama has drawn flak for heading to Copenhagen on behalf of Chicago’s bid to host the 2016 Olympics. His biggest problem isn’t the partisan doggerel, though. Rather, it’s that his Chi-town roots and the city’s reputation for shaky politics can’t be put to good use in the bribing of the IOC committee members charged with making the choice. If this were 10-15 years ago, Chicago would be a shoo-in…Cowboy Quarterback takes on former employer Green Bay Monday night and says he has no revenge notions. It’s hard to believe him, since CQ has given up all dairy products for the week…A new book claims that employees at a cryonics facility in Arizona charged with deep-freezing Ted Williams’ head used crude tools to decapitate the (dead) slugger and even engaged in some batting practice with the body part. Doesn’t look good for Williams’ ability to be on a roster for the start of the 2054 season.

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YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? Now that the Phillies have clinched the NL East title, fans can relax a little and dispense with the 1964 redux nightmares. But a good night’s sleep shouldn’t come so easily, since the very real possibility of a 2007 encore still looms. The smoking hot Rockies are 73-40 under Jim Tracy, who took over after a dreadful, 18-28 break from the gate. Barring a weekend collapse, the Phils will likely meet Colorado in the dangerous best-of-five NLDS and would enter with some serious problems. Take starting pitching. To some, it’s a no-brainer to start Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee in the first two games, especially since the Rockies hit just .254 against lefties. But neither hurler has looked all that good of late, and the Phils might be better served going with Joe Blanton and J.A. Happ. Think that will happen? No way. The bullpen continues to be a mess, with J.C. Romero’s arm hurting, Brett Myers not back to full strength and major closer issues remaining. The bats have come alive of late, but the same old problems of getting runners in from third base and manufacturing scores remain. The Phils are experienced and talented, but they are also highly flawed and can hardly give fans peace of mind heading into the post-season.

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AND ANOTHER THING: When El Hombre read the item about Cleveland Cavaliers’ guard Delonte West’s arrest on gun charges a couple weeks ago, he almost couldn’t contain himself. Talk about some fertile ground. West was stopped on his three-wheel motorcycle in Maryland and was found to have two loaded pistols and a loaded shotgun on his person. And get this: the shotgun was in a guitar case strapped to his back. Great Caesar’s Ghost! This was the mother lode. Fortunately, time provides perspective, and the reality of the situation is that West is a very troubled young man who can find some sanctuary on the basketball court, but for whom everyday life is a staggering challenge. He has battled emotional issues from the time he was a teenager, and this latest episode shows he has plenty of ground still to cover. So, while it’s tempting (really tempting) to take this latest incident and dash, let’s show some compassion and hope West gets it together and moves forward in a stable condition.