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.

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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.


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