1994 Baeball Lockout lampoons the villians who shut down the game

North County 7/20/94


There is going to be a Major League Baseball strike. It is no longer a matter of IF, but WHEN; and perhaps if you’d like to throw a HOW LONG? in there, feel free. The Lords of Baseball have laid down the gauntlet. The boys with the number on their backs are expected to walk. And the word I’m getting from those in the know is that for the first time since 1904 there won’t be a World Series.

Believe it.

As in the past, the players will take most of the heat from the press and fans. The average salary in The Show these days is $1.5 million, and there is little else that the average middle-class American baseball fan finds more abhorrent than a spoiled brat jock with tons of money and a grudge to bear. But just as in the past, it’s those lovable owners and their incredible practice of shooting themselves in the foot and turning around to wonder about the perpetrator, that have some explaining to do. If you choose to throw blame, there is plenty of places it will stick.

There was always a prevailing fear among the owners that Vincent might side with his crazy, “Integrity of the Game” rant instead of pushing their money-grubbing agenda. So, off he went shaking his head in disbelief like the last sane man leaving Captain Bligh’s ship after the mutiny.

“There are two axioms that have run though the history of professional baseball,” my friend, Donald Dewey once told me. “You never have enough pitching, and no owner ever makes money.” Dewey, co-author of The Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball Teams, finished his diatribe by assuring me that the whole history of the game has been low-lighted by owners continually trying to concoct new and exciting ways to drive down players salaries.

Now the owners want to take away arbitration. This was something they originally shoved at the players to get those greedy bloodsuckers in a small room with a naked light and jam their stats down their throats to prove they are a worthless lot. But the bell curve of big dollar free agency and the emergence of the evil agents turned the hardball dagger right back at them.

The owners want a salary cap. “It’s time we share the burden of our game’s ills,” they say. “We’re paying you guys too much!” Not unlike the President of the United States trying to keep a straight face while asking Americans to help knock down a national debt the government ran up like a bar tab.

Let’s face it folks, it’s easier squeezing that camel through a needle’s eye than it is to get employees to say they’re earning more than their worth. So the players are putting the proverbial thumb to nose and telling the bosses to take their game and shove it. This could happen by Labor Day; but it make no mistake, it will happen.

“Do not be surprised if the players don’t come back at all,” Baseball Weekly’s Rob Rains told me just yesterday. And it’s this type of wild hyperbole that has already effected every facet of the game. Teams are afraid to make trades for a stretch drive that may never come.

Major League Baseball has taken hits from every direction since Fay Vincent was sent packing by the owners two years ago. They scoffed at the former commissioner’s suggestion that they consider revenue-sharing to rescue some of the struggling franchises like the ones in Pittsburgh and Seattle. There was always a prevailing fear among the owners that Vincent might side with his crazy, “Integrity of the Game” rant instead of pushing their money-grubbing agenda. So, off he went shaking his head in disbelief like the last sane man leaving Captain Bligh’s ship after the mutiny.

Milwaukee Brewers owner, Bud Selig and his band of cronies have run things into the ground quite well since then. Television ratings are at an all-time low, the realignment of divisions continues to be an embarrassment with losing teams in first place, and public perception of this mess has driven down a brand new avenue of bad. And it will be a sure bet that closing the game down right now before football season will murder any interest the fans may have if the matter is settled at all.

The looming talk of work stoppage has made this a lame duck season. Nobody is going to watch a long distance run with no finish line. The real shame of it all is that Ken Griffey jr. and Matt Williams will never get a shot at Roger Maris’ single-season home run record. Kirby Puckett and Joe Carter won’t get a shot at Hack Wilson’s single-season RBI mark. And we’ll never know if Lee Smith could surpass the single-season save record.

But I’m sure those pompous, sanctimonious creeps that run this game we have all grown up loving, will believe that we’ll come running back eventually. And you know what? We will. Because all the low-rent disingenuous prattle that spews from this band of apathetic business whores could never wipe away the feeling of sitting in a ball park and watching the beauty of baseball unfold.

They just can’t help trying.

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O.J. Simpson: Superstar Images Die Hard

North County 6/22/94


OJ SimpsonI’m a child of the 70s’. Most of the sporting events and the personalities that shaped the decade have since become the yardstick to which I’ve measured everything, and everyone else. When you’re a kid, sports heroes can make the difference in your entire outlook on life. When you’re an adult, especially one who takes the sports world on as a career, your perspective on fun and games and its participants changes dramatically.

Then a hero from your time becomes a tragic figure, a murder suspect, a suicidal fugitive. You’re sitting at home watching what you thought was a meaningful basketball game, and then O.J. Simpson is in the back seat of a Ford Bronco with a gun to his head chased by a fleet of L.A. police cars. You try and put together the images of a man who streaked through your past across fields of green, and the man fleeing the law on primetime television.

As cynical as you can become in this life, as hardened a realist as you think you are, if you ever saw O.J. run with a football, it is what you think of first. There is a generation of sports fans who know Simpson from commercials, television, and movies; but for those of us who saw him play the game those long-ago Sundays, the image dies hard.

Twenty years later O.J. Simpson is bobbing and weaving through the secondary, reaching the end zone and slowly letting the ball drop behind him. Then, immediately, he is in a courtroom staring into space. The line is painstakingly drawn. You wonder if twenty years hence, the images may not conjur up the latter.

You can’t get around 2,003 yards on a snowy December day ay Shea Stadium. Close your eyes and there he is on the shoulders of giants; a legend of memory.

If Orenthal James Simpson murdered his wife, Nicole Brown, and her friend, Ronald Goldman, then he is a monster. History will tell you it’s not a difficult transition to make, going from hero to monster. But the sports world is, as they say, the toy department. Often we witness the real world come crashing into sports like the terrorist tragedy at the ’72 Olympics, or more recently, the assault on Monica Seles, and the murder of Michael Jordan’s father. But nothing like this. O.J. Simpson is not the victim, but possibly the villain.

Richard Nixon’s passing, with its pomp and plaudits, could not wipe the image of him boarding that helicopter heading for oblivion. All of his accomplishments as a public servant, and his six years as the most powerful man in the free world, sank behind the frozen picture of him resigning in disgrace.

Twenty years later O.J. Simpson is bobbing and weaving through the secondary, reaching the end zone and slowly letting the ball drop behind him. Then, immediately, he is in a courtroom staring into space. The line is painstakingly drawn. You wonder if twenty years hence, the images may not conjur up the latter.

Even writing this, I’m having a problem placing it all into perspective. There is certainly no place in my heart for a murderer. And if O.J. Simpson killed those people, then somewhere along the line he placed his good name somewhere else. Perhaps we 70s’ kids are afraid to look for it.

One thing is for sure, there is little place for the fragile human spirit in distant memories. Just a hero running a football across the end zone.

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Mike Tyson Sits While Boxing Waits ‘s report on the state of boxing with Mike Tyson in jail.

North County 6/15/94


Mike TysonLast Monday a court in Indiana denied former Heavyweight Champion, Mike Tyson a year reprieve on his six-year sentence for rape. Rumors from the Hoosier state had a deal worked out to pay accuser, Desiree Washington a cool $1.5 million, sealed with the obligatory apology for the fiesty pugilist’s actions. These rumors died hard under the stoic jurisdiction of judge, Patricia Gifford, who told Mr. Tyson under no circumstances will he walk until after his time is up in May of 1995.

According to a blurb in the June 13 issue of Sports Illustrated, Tyson’s considerable fortunes have dwindled so much under the mismanagement of promoter, Don King that he would’ve had to pay Washington in installments.

Things have gotten so bad between King and Tyson you can hear every promoter in boxing fumbling for their bloated check books now. The future of the game may just rest on the shoulders of an ex-con.

Tyson’s name hangs like a dark cloud over the world of professional boxing. The heavyweight division has not been the same without him. Not unlike when Muhammed Ali was stripped of his title in the 1960s’, every current champ hears the inevitable: “Tyson would kill this guy.” Before losing his title recently, Evander Holyfield said he would hold off retirement to shut the critics up. He would wait until, “the man gets out.”

This is either a legitimate discussion on the legend of Tyson or a knock on the weakness of the heavies in this age of prize fighting. You’d have to go with the latter. Although Iron Mike was one of the most feared men to ever enter the square circle, his decline began a half-decade ago with a startling defeat to Buster Douglas. Douglas got fat and complacent. Holyfield sent him away. And Tyson found big trouble outside the ring.

Before the rape charges, there were alleged wife beatings, car crashes, and fist fights in the streets of New York at all hours of the night. Tyson was a combustible case, and his involvement with the maniacal publicity machine that is Don King did not help. It became the chic analysis to blame Tyson’s troubles on King and the lack of discipline in his camp; but it was merely a smoke screen for a man out of control. Sooner or later the buck stops at the source. See the Kurt Cobain suicide or Jennifer Capriati drug arrest for more recent examples of the young, rich, and lost.

As long as Mike Tyson sits, so does the sport. No one clamoring for the incarcerated ex-champ have a thing to do with his irreparable behavior, but they’re doing the time along with him.

A case could be made that Tyson’s life was saved the night he refused Desiree Washington’s cries for him to stop. He was a street kid with a raw talent being exploited by people he hardly knew. People who would not allow their meal ticket to see the reality of his brutish existence, the same people who currently fight to set him free in order to crank up the ol’ gravy train again. And as much as they hate to admit it, the lords of boxing are counting the days.

Tyson embodies everything that is good, bad, and ugly about the brutal sport of boxing. He thrives in it because he’s not only a fearless punching machine in the ring, but the essence of terror outside of it. Many compare him to the late Sonny Liston, who was once the most feared man in the game. Even the greasy scum commissioners were afraid of Liston, of what he might do while holding their championship belt. Years after losing the title, with hints of foul play and mob connections, Liston was found lying in his apartment stone dead. Drugs? Angry enemies? There are still questions. The same questions they could be asking about Mike Tyson.

Boxing has been the sanctuary for the social fringe and angry street thugs. It has also helped many to overcome a life of crime and self-loathing. The Italian and Irish ghettos of the first half of this century, and the Black and Hispanic ghettos of the past 40 years, have produced men who rose above their plight. The names are not as important as the sport they helped create.

My grandfather, Bartolomeo Martignetti, built an identity as an American through boxing in the late-twenties. It was an identity he could not escape until his death. He was lucky to live as long as he did. Most men with the guts and angst of the street burn fast.

The Heavyweight Champion of the World is some guy named Michael Moorer. He out-boxed Holyfield, and then turned around to wonder if he would quit. This is not the attitude that the sport needs to sell tickets or create excitement.

Once, not too long ago, there was a man who held the belts with a ferocity of an evil warrior. That man was one cash deal and a court decision away from becoming a boxing reality. As long as Mike Tyson sits, so does the sport. No one clamoring for the incarcerated ex-champ have a thing to do with his irreparable behavior, but they’re doing the time along with him.

There are several scenes in Spike Lee’s monumental film, Do The Right Thing in which the side of a building looms over the action. Under the fading image of Iron Mike is an inscription that reads: “Brooklyn’s own Mike Tyson.” It is that faded image that looms over the future of heavyweight boxing now. Last Monday the world at large spoke in a small courtroom in Indiana.

Boxing must wait.

Mike Tyson is not done paying for his sins.

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N.Y. Rangers Win the Stanley Cup!

North County 6/8/94


Mark MessierThe New York Rangers are not just a professional hockey team. To their fastidious and undying fandom, it is a way of life. Not even the nomadic Dead Heads could claim such maniacal allegiance. And now, with only mere days to erase 53 curse-filled years of treachery and despair, there will be no reining them in. That suck of air you hear is the collective buildup to the eventual outpouring of breath in a sigh of unified relief. The Broadway Blueshirts are about to win Lord’s Stanley Cup.

This phenomenon cannot be explained in a short newspaper column by a novice sports sufferer. But it is my folly to try.

“A way of life” for most people outside of the improbable world of sports is defined by the delicate attempt to understand their existence on earth. The Ranger fan never asks why their considerable hearts have been subjected to countless seasons on the brink. In some cases it is handed down through generations, or perhaps culled from a sense of empathy for the underdog. Some people root for the Rangers the same way we grew up rooting for Ralph Kramden to finally make his first million on one of his hair-brained schemes. It is a normal human condition to hope for the impossible. Pray for the improbable.

Eastern philosophies deal in the simplicity of nature, as in Taoism or Confucius. But there is nothing simple about being a fan of a team that has dropped more shoes than Buster Brown on his worst day. In fact, only the cynicism of Nietzsche could begin to contemplate the intricacies of the Ranger fan. But not even good ol’ Plato could grasp the ramblings of the guy I saw praying before a lit candle, while gripping Rosary beads, balancing himself atop an abandoned pool table during the first overtime of Game 7 against the feisty New Jersey Devils at the End Zone Sports Bar.

Mere seconds before a trip to the finals. Overtime for a chance at all the marbles. It had not been a series for the weak-kneed or faint of heart. There was a revolving door on the bandwagon throughout; and when the Rangers were down by two goals, trailing three games to two, the grim memory of play-off’s past began to surface. To the untrained eye, this was a minor annoyance on the road to greater things for the team with the best overall regular-season record. But to that guy, sequestered on the pool table with a fist full of beads, it was HERE WE GO AGAIN.

But captain, Mark Messier had promised a win and delivered. Shades of Joe Namath in Miami, he rang the bell in hat trick fashion and forced a final game. He was rightfully lauded as the hero of the moment, but only the moment. Messier was summoned from the cup-happy Edmonton Oilers for this very reason; bring home the hardware to Madison Square Garden. He’s been here for four years, but he might as well have been here a week; because a Ranger fan’s memory is long, and there have been false saviors before.

Suffering is not a right of passage or badge of honor for the Ranger fan, it’s about being there when the suffering stops.

For more than half a century there have been promises broken and miracles unfulfilled. Those who have spent any part of it have been reminded through song, story and signs displaying those four hollow digits that ring true and hollow: 1940. That was the last time the Rangers won a Stanley Cup. For those with a loose grip on history, that’s eleven presidents, a World War and a Baby Boomer generation ago. Hockey was not a big thing then. The Rangers played no home games in that series. The circus was in town.

In fact, the last time a New York hockey team from the island of Manhattan had gotten close to the elusive prize was in 1979. It was the year of the Fonz on the tube and John Davidson in goal. The Rangers lead the finals 1-0, and built a two goal lead in game two. Those faithful still able to muster the courage to recall say their heroes did not win another shift. The Montreal Canadiens won yet another Stanley Cup. For Ranger fans, the wait painfully continued.

But the fans kept plodding on, throughout several declines and rebuildings. Two years ago the Rangers had the best record in the NHL, and lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in round two of the post season. The Penguins, like the ’79 Canadiens, or the ’72 Boston Bruins for that matter, were the better team; but this year’s model is the best chance this century can offer. After all, this is a team that quit down the stretch of last season and failed to even make the play-offs. However, when the hockey year commenced, the fans were cheering as if the future of mankind hung in the balance.

Baseball’s Boston Red Sox have not won a World Series in 76 years, but their fans seem to revel in the disappointment. There have been books and films exonerating the utter torment and resiliency of the Beantown faithful. No such fanfare surrounding Ranger fans. You get the feeling if the Red Sox ever win, their fans will no longer be on the map. Ranger fans would be happy to leave that map. Suffering is not a right of passage or badge of honor for the Ranger fan, it’s about being there when the suffering stops.

Perhaps this week it finally does. Maybe the demons under the ice are felled and sent crawling back to wherever they came from. It’s always been about the glory of BELIEF. It is the life blood of the Ranger fan; a whole separate way of life. I call it the Zen of the Puck; a combination of hockey and Buddhist philosophy centered around the enlightenment of intuition. Webster’s dictionary defines intuition as “ a direct perception of truth or fact, independent of any reasoning process.”

There is no reason to believe the improbable, except when you’re a Rangers fan with a dream of having your heroes sipping from the Stanley Cup. It’s been a long time between drinks. Fill it up for the faithful.

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Violence in Sports ‘s hard-hitting demand to clean up sportsmanship.

North County 5/25/94


The violent nature in sports today must stop. It has reached the saturation point, and is getting uglier by the incident. The chance for those in charge to quell the rise of this behavior is fleeting; and the only way to prevent serious injury, irreversible damage, or even a law suit that could shake the foundation of a league, is to stop it completely.

There is hardly a day that goes by without a disgusting display of poor sportsmanship and childish machismo that results in a rampageous fight or all-out brawl. The evening highlight shows are filled with these incidents; and although the well-meaning talking heads tell you how awful it all is, their attention inadvertently sanctions this behavior.

Toughness and heart is one thing; but it’s beyond that now, and there is an underlying fear among league officials of amateur and pro sports that this spreading disease is incurable. Fines and suspensions are tantamount to putting a band aid on a gaping wound. It’s time to stop the bleeding for good.

It’s time for the leagues, the NCAA, and even the Athletic Directors at High Schools everywhere to step in and stop it now. At some point, before it’s too late, some player committing a violent act during a game must be punished severally. Someone must become an example.

College and pro football defensive backs standing over the prone body of a felled opponent, wagging their fingers down at him. Hockey defensemen swinging their sticks at the back of an unsuspecting winger’s head. Major League pitchers using the baseball as a weapon, promoting mound-rushing mayhem. Useless trash talking and taunting after nearly every foul and basket in the NBA. This has got to come to an abrupt halt. Something bad is going to happen soon. Real bad.

Two rounds of NBA play-offs, and every game has some sort of altercation. Some have led to bench-clearing brawls like in Atlanta a couple of weeks ago, and most recently in the always vicious Bulls/Knicks rivalry in Chicago. The sight of benches-clearing bodies flailing into the crowd with security guards and police rushing in is all too familiar.

If the league wants to let play-off basketball run its course and sanction a “let ‘em play” attitude, then they can expect this problem to escalate. Watching a good, rough-and-tumble pro basketball game used to be fun. But slowly it has become a series of personal battles for manhood and territory. The league calls it a “heated reaction to big-game pressure,” but in reality it is a drop in the quality of play. There is simply too many players with big egos, and bigger mouths, pushing each other over the edge.

The NHL once reached that edge, but within the last couple of years the league has taken a tougher stance on stick work and “third man in” fights. In fact, there have been twice as many embarrassing incidents in basketball, a proposed “non-contact sport,” than in the world’s most violent one. Twenty years ago, hockey had deteriorated into a bloody fight fest where only the biggest and meanest could survive. It wasn’t until the league realized that a star like Wayne Gretzky had to be protected. Only then did the slow cleanup begin. It may have saved the sport.

The most inexcusable trend in bench-clearing brawls these days occurs too often in baseball. During the last two seasons the amount of fights on the diamond have been unprecedented. The art of pitching inside is dead, because even a close call ends up causing a mass of bodies piled up in the middle of the field. Baseball itself has its share of taunting, with hitters admiring their home runs and trotting slowly around the bases. Pitchers retaliate by knocking batters down or staring down their strikeout victims. More macho garbage.

The participants can no longer carry the burden of controlling themselves. The policies and officiating have given them enough rope, and they continue to hang themselves with it. The coaches and managers are no help. They will take the rules as they are, and try to exploit them. During the Bulls/Knicks series, New York head coach, Pat Riley, a man who ten years ago cried foul when the Boston Celtics were pushing his team around, sent his muscle men onto the court to intimidate Phil Jackson, who had four different centers use six fouls to bang Patrick Ewing all over the place. The Bulls coach then spent the entire series whining that the Knicks were too physical. Finding a way to bend the rules is part of coaching. To expect these men to take a stand is laughable.

It’s time for the leagues, the NCAA, and even the Athletic Directors at High Schools everywhere to step in and stop it now. At some point, before it’s too late, some player committing a violent act during a game must be punished severally. Someone must become an example.

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Any player leaving the bench must be penalized, and not just with a huge fine, but a lengthy suspension and a warning of expulsion. Nobody wants to lose a job, or scholarship, or current standing on the team. Owners of franchises must pay through the nose as well. Slap a monster fine on an organization for one of these riots, and just watch things calm down.

It is a violent society in which we live; and the world of sports sometimes reflects it all too clearly. It is a frightening picture coming into focus. The time has come to put the brakes on, before it’s too late.

Sports may have always been about toughness and heart. Being tough and being stupid is the difference here. And allowing stupidity to stand in the place of toughness is the problem.

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Diary of a Sports Madman

North County 5/4/94


Editor’s Note: Since Jim Campion has been committed to an institution for rehab resulting from last Sunday’s 12 hour marathon in front of the tube watching sports, we present these excerpts from a running diary of a sports madman.

12:35 – They’ve just tipped off at the Garden for Knicks/Nets game two. The comforting tones of Marv Albert’s voice fills my room. The curtains are drawn, the fridge is working, and the answering machine is fired up. There is a remote control in my right hand. I’m coming to life.

12:50 – The Nets are having trouble with the Knicks trap at the key. I’m having trouble dealing with some of the Knicks haircuts. Wait, here comes John Starks into the game. The crowd is on its feet, Spike Lee is psyched; and look at that, he has hair on his head!

1:12 – Devils/Bruins Game one is underway. It looks like people actually showed up at the Meadowlands to watch. Both teams look sluggish after their first-round, seven-game battles. I’m feeling a little sluggish, so I head to the fridge. A bruised apple and a half a carton of milk? This is no way to survive a marathon of sports action! Of all the cruel twisted of fate, why has this befallen me?!

My cat is trying to get my attention by rolling on his back and looking cute. Must be hungry. Well, he isn’t the only one. “It’s play-off time, you ungrateful feline!” I yell at him. “Show some guts!”

1:41 – Mets/Dodgers from Shea Stadium. It looks sunny and warm. Maybe I should step outside, open a window. Too much trouble. Tim McCarver and Ralph Kiner are discussing possibility of a juiced ball this year: “Homers are flying out of ballparks at a record pace, Ralph.” “I don’t care what those Rawlings people say, it’s a lively baseball.” “Do you realize that only two other months in major league history had more home runs hit than this past April?” “I hit a few dingers in my day, Tim, and I’ve never seen a ball jump off a bat like that.” “Perhaps it’s the bats?” Everyone’s bat?” Todd Hundley, who hit 11 homers all last season, smacks his seventh over the right-centerfield wall for a 1-1 tie.

1:47 – Patrick Ewing gets thrown out of the game with a few minutes left in the first half when Derrick Coleman sends him flying with a body block. Ewing looks as confused as I am. Nets look confident. The Garden faithful erupt in derisive cheers. Charles Oakley, shirttail out, bald head gleaming with sweat, is throwing his body around like a stunt man out of control. Knicks go on a 12-2 run to open up a 22-point lead at the half.

2:10 – First period is over in Jersey and it’s 2-1 Bruins. Devils goalie Martin Brodeur looks like a guy who’s tried interviewing Madonna on national television. Phone rings. Machine answers. It’s my mother. “Eat something that doesn’t fit between bread for a change.” My modest kingdom for a sandwich.

2:35 – A pitcher is ripping a 2-run double of Cy Young award winner, Tom Glavine in the Braves/Pirates game. Braves announcer Skip Carey: “Ball’s got to be juiced.”

2:53 – Nets have cut the deficit to six with seven minutes left. The crowd is restless. Woody Allen looks nervous. Alec Baldwin is chewing his fingers. Ahmad Rashad is in the Knicks locker room asking Ewing if he’s upset having been tossed out of a play-off game for being assaulted. There could be another assault. Girlfriend calls. I tell her about The Virus. “You haven’t heard? It was in Time magazine this week.”

3:15 – Bruins goalie Jon Casey is standing on his head. The Devils are going to lose. The Nets make it a Jersey Double and go down to the Knicks. Ahmad looks like he survived. The Bulls/Cavaliers game is starting up. There’s a knock on my door, something about a little car trouble, and he needs to use the phone. I remember “A Clockwork Orange” and ignore him.

3:18 – Todd Hundley hits his eighth home run of the year. McCarver: “What do you have to say about that, Ralph?” Kiner: Get Rawlings on the phone.”

4:20 – Yanks/Athletics are in the second inning out in Oakland. Melido Perez is giving up ropes to some guys named Scott Brosius and Mike Aldrete. I can read Buck Showalter’s lips: You can’t win them all, get me a Sanka.”

4:47 – Braves lost to the Pirates for the fifth time in six tries. I though they were supposed to be the ’27 Yankees. I’m nursing my last bag of stale Doritos, and I can’t find a single celebrity in Chicago Stadium. I can’t find any Cavaliers either. Bulls are up 12. Michael Jordan is yawning.

5:17 – The Yanks are down. Tony Kubek is wondering why no one has told Mike Stanley that the ball is juiced. He’s hitting .150. My cat is trying to get my attention by rolling on his back and looking cute. Must be hungry. Well, he isn’t the only one. “It’s play-off time, you ungrateful feline!” I yell at him. “Show some guts!”

5:46 – The Bulls finish off the Cavs and go up two games to none. The big highlight was when Bulls coach Phil Jackson was caught with a walkman singing “Truckin’” in the third quarter. Warriors/Suns game two is underway from Phoenix. Charles Barkley is screaming at a referee already and we’re only 30 seconds in. I point out to my cat that that is the type of resolution I expect from him. He darts outside in obvious disgust.

6:15 – The Mets win. The Yanks are fading. Steve Howe is on the mound and I sense trouble. I hear a basketball being dribbled in my driveway. I pull back the curtains to see my cat practicing slam dunks on my hoop. He looks at me and smiles. I think I’m losing it.

7:45 – It’s 15 minutes to the start of the Ranger second-round series with the Washington Capitals. No food, a cat that has mastered a death-defying reverse slam, and a machine full of messages from people who are convinced I’m dead. I’ll never make it through May.

10:36 – Rangers win! I have crossed beyond the thin line of reality for sure. I could swear I saw Mike Keenan smile.

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Mickey Mantle’s Last Victory – James Campion’s look at Mantle’s fight with alcoholism.

North County 3/23/94


Mickey MantleMickey Mantle, baseball icon and hero of millions, is an alcoholic. He’s been an alcoholic most of his adult life; a life spent in the public eye. Mantle’s name has been synonymous with long homers and fast living. He recently admitted to being a victim of this very common and deadly disease by entering the Betty Ford Clinic for Substance Abuse. At 63 years of age, The Mick has had enough.

The most celebrated athlete of the Baby Boomer generation, Mantle has made three times the money signing his name, or making appearances than he ever did playing the game. From the spring of 1951, when he was a fresh-faced kid from the wheat fields of Oklahoma, to this day, no athlete has captured the reverence of baseball fans like the Commerce Comet. This humble cry for help has already echoed through the community of his faithful everywhere.

Hopefully someone is listening.

There is always the age-old argument that athletes have a responsibility to be the best role models possible, mainly because most sports fans start so young. This topic has surfaced again with NBA stars now that basketball is the game of choice for today’s kids. But in the 50s’ and 60s’, when Mantle was building his considerable legend, baseball was the nation’s passion. Every kid wanted to be #7. In 1956 he was the Triple Crown winner, the best player on the planet, and fast becoming an addict.

Mickey didn’t do much talking then, his actions on the field spoke louder than words. His actions off the field had a voice as well. Just not as loud. Turning away from his life inside a bottle of booze should be his most vociferous act. Although I do not believe being a world class athlete puts you in charge of the youth of America, or bestows the responsibility of becoming a walking billboard for alcohol intolerance; an icon recovering from harmful vice puts him in a position to help others. Many others.

Alcoholism is a pitch that Mickey Mantle, owner of 536 career home runs, could not handle. He was not a god after all, but a man, a man with a problem. A man with a problem he no longer wishes to endure.

Hopefully someone is listening.

All those kids who grew up with The Mick are now approaching middle age, with kids of their own, facing similar decisions about social behavior. Mantle came from an era when it was expected of a baseball star to frequent the many watering holes of their town. Throwing back a few with the boys was not only accepted as normal manly behavior, it was expected. Mickey, and teammates Whitey Ford and Billy Martin could be seen whooping it up anywhere from Toot Shur’s famous jock lounge to the trendy glitz of the Copacabana. Sometimes it was a few laughs, other times it was brawls, and cops, and ugly headlines.

Five years ago Martin died when a pickup truck he was allegedly driving from a bar ended up in a ditch. Ford is still battling. Mickey just lost his 26 year-old son, Billy, whom he named after his best drinking buddy. He died of an apparent heart attack in a detox center for substance abuse. Mantle did not want to end up in a ditch, or battle with Whitey anymore. He buried his son, but perhaps he can help prevent it from happening to another man’s son.

Hopefully someone is listening.

It is a fact that beer companies are the most powerful influence on professional sports today. Their advertising dollars allow networks to pay billions to carry these sports to the public. The owners turn around and dish a hefty portion of that bundle to their rich superstars. Every ball park, stadium, and arena hawks beer from vendors on up to those monstrous ads that line the walls of these places.

A couple of years ago the networks were preparing to scramble signals so that satellite dish owners around the country would eventually have to go through a pay-per-view process to watch an out-of-town game. About half those dish owners happen to be bars, whose Sunday business during football (gambling) season might fall off. No games, no drinking. The beer companies threatened to pull sponsorship. The games stayed.

It is in the face of that type of power and influence that Mantle must educate his fans on the dangers of alcoholism. Some studies have found that more people each year die from alcohol-related incidents than die of cancer, aids, or illegal drugs. Alcoholism is a pitch that Mickey Mantle, owner of 536 career home runs, could not handle. He was not a god after all, but a man, a man with a problem. A man with a problem he no longer wishes to endure.

Mantle doesn’t suddenly become responsible for the frailties of his fans. Just because he has made his mistakes in public does not mean he must answer for the dangers of alcohol; but by simply being a beloved celebrity of so many sports fans everywhere he should tell his story. He should tell it over and over again. He spent his life telling humorous stories of his exploits on the town. Now that his drinking life has nearly beaten him down, he can rebuild by talking about the other side.

It would be his greatest triumph.

Hopefully someone is listening.

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Phil Rizzuto enters the Hall of Fame ‘s celebration of the Scooter’s induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

North County 3/2/94


Phil Rizzuto was voted into baseball’s Hall of Fame by something called the veteran’s committee last Friday. It was a nice gesture by a group of peers righting sportswriter wrongs, and it arrived about 30 years late.

However, the absence of this honor never made the ever-popular Yankee great bitter or resentful. Since 1941 he has served the New York Yankees and the game of baseball with grace and humor, from champion shortstop, league MVP, to enthusiastic broadcaster.

Every season I inevitably meet up with “The Scooter” in the Stadium press box for a chat. Although our paths cross nearly every trip, just getting to him for a few minutes is no easy task.

One game alone could bring streams of fans wanting an autograph or a photograph with him. He can often be seen rushing in and out of the television booth between innings trying to accommodate them all; shaking hands and cracking jokes to a myriad of well-wishers, friends, and Yankee enthusiasts.

“I’ve heard talk over the years how the writers kept me out because of my smug attitude over winning all those World Series,” he said. “But I’ll tell you, it was nothing but happiness for me. There was no place I’d rather be than at shortstop and turn around and see Joe DiMaggio standing behind me. I was a happy young man playing in the big leagues for the best team in the world.”

We’ve had several conversations over the years; and even though I cannot seem to sit him down for a formal interview, one particular talk we had two summers ago hit home last week when I heard the news of his entry into baseball’s hallowed roster.

He was standing surprisingly alone outside his booth, staring out at the majesty of the illuminated field, while carefully sipping a steaming cup of coffee. I asked him what I always seem to ask each and every year: After 50 years of service to the game, what keeps him coming back every spring like clockwork?

“Fear,” he answered, with tongue firmly planted in check, but a telling smile showing through. “I’m afraid to try anything else. I couldn’t do anything else, and I couldn’t imagine not being around Yankee Stadium.”

“Doesn’t all the attention form the fans wear you down over the course of the long season?” I probed further. His tanned, wrinkled face cracked with another grin as he straightened his glasses and let out a brisk sigh. “No way,” he snapped, pointing out toward the half-filled park. “These people are just like me, they’re Yankee fans. It’s really the fans that make it worth while.”

“Many of these people never saw you play,” I pointed out. “They only know you as an announcer.”

“When I played, there was always Dimag, and Yogi, and Tommy Heinrich,” he said. “They were the big stars. Even then I was a fan of the Yankees, a fan of baseball.”

I was one of those who’d never seen him play. For me Rizzuto’s voice signified the Yankees. I told him of all the nights I would lie in bed and listen to him toil over every pitch. His voice sliding into monotone depression over a Yankee disappointment, or rise in excitement in a crucial moment.

“I miss doing radio most of all,” he said sadly. “It was much easier to communicate the flow of a game to the fan. I knew that they were in on every pitch, and my inflection could bring them closer to the game.”

After decades with the same team there are some who continue to badger him about being a homer. “I’ll never apologize for rooting for the Yankees,” he continued. “Come on, most everyone watching is a fan anyway. I’ve spent most of my life with this team, my heart always breaks a little with a loss.”

We were interrupted by another Scooter fan, and when he was done pressing the flesh and throwing out the complimentary “Holy Cow!” he turned to me and whispered, “That’s why I do it. I’m a lucky man to be loved by so many Yankee fans. I really don’t deserve it.”

“Do you deserve to be in the Hall of Fame?”

“Look, if those guys want me in, then I’ll be in.”

He forced a smile as he looked once more out at the game unfolding before us. The home team had brought a couple of runs across the plate and he was lost in the moment. “Run, you huckleberry! Get in there! All right!”

And that is why outside the Big Apple not everyone loves the Scooter. Even less so from the sporting press. “I’ve heard talk over the years how the writers kept me out because of my smug attitude over winning all those World Series,” he said. “But I’ll tell you, it was nothing but happiness for me. There was no place I’d rather be than at shortstop and turn around and see Joe DiMaggio standing behind me. I was a happy young man playing in the big leagues for the best team in the world.”

It was then I realized Phil Rizzuto never came in from the infield of his dreams. In many ways he’s still standing out there with Joe D. backing him up; the setting sun disappearing under the grand facade of the legendary stadium. He is still the “happy young man.”

He never did feel a sense of history in it all. It was as if it were still happening every day he walked into the ball park.

“Maybe, I’ll never get in,” he finished up. “Every year when the voting is done, I sit with my son and a bottle of wine and wait. We sit and talk and get a little tipsy, and I eventually get over the disappointment.”

I told him there isn’t a place in this country that should keep Phil Rizzuto out.

“Well, thank you,” he said. “Now I’ve gotta get going and watch the Yanks.”

A happy older man in the big leagues; and now finally in the Hall of Fame where he belongs.

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Muhammad Ali in America 1964

North County 2/23/94


Muhammad Ali 2/25/64“I shook up the world! I shook up the world!” -Muhammed Ali February 25, 1964

In the waning moments of Black History Month, it is important to remember a night 30 years ago when the Kid from Louisville, Kentucky stepped into a boxing ring in sweltering Miami, Florida and defeated The Bear, Sonny Liston. For it was in that percise moment that a generation began to thrill to the antics of its “greatest” son. He arrived that night as Cassius Clay, a 22 year-old braggart with razor blade boxing skills, and left as Muhammad Ali, heavyweight champion of the world, an American legend.

“When my generation needed pride, he was it. When we needed victories, he supplied them. He was bigger than life.” -Bryant Gumbel/TV Personality

Four years earlier, The Kid stood on the Jefferson County Bridge in his home town and tossed his Olympic Gold Medal, won in the 178-pound division of the 1960 Games, into the Ohio River. The story goes; earlier that week a transient tried to wrest it from his neck, and the subsequent fight left a disturbing mark on his memory. This act, The Kid said, gave him a new strength and sense of purpose. A metaphoric baptism for a man of peace in the barbaric life of a future prizefighter.

“Years later after Martin Luther King was murdered there was no one to cling to except Ali.” -Reggie Jackson/Baseball Hall of Famer

With less than 20 professional bouts to his credit, The Kid started one of the most relentless campaigns to fight for the heavyweight championship ever attempted. By talking to anyone with a microphone, acting for every camera, and showing up at ringside for every title fight, The Bear was forced to face him. The sheer pomp and will of his personality, as much as his extraordinary talent, put young Cassius at the doorstep of a dream.

“In private, Muhammed was a quiet person. He was always contemplating something. But in front of people he was a magician. He was the most accessible athlete of his era.”-Angelo Dundee/Trainer

The Bear was the most feared boxer of his era. Boxing writers of the time compare his intimidating ringside manner to that of Mike Tyson’s early years. “Sonny Liston was a frightening man,” said journalist Harold Conrad. “He was arrested 16 times, and once beat up an armed cop; even many black fight fans hated his demonic image.” He had a dark image, and an even darker side that put fear into the sport he stalked. Before he agreed to meet The Kid in the ring, he was the one feared by white middle-class America. Only the pomp and will of The Kid would change all that.

“Jackie Robinson is the white man’s hero, but Cassius Clay is the hero of his people.” -Malcolm X/Activist

Flailing about like a lunatic, and braying like a wild banshee, The Kid planted the seed of doubt. He whipped himself into a frenzy. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee!”

Boxing authorities threatened to cancel the fight when word leaked through the Miami Herald that Cassius Clay had intended to change his name to Muhammed Ali. He would denounce Christianity and strip his slave name to become a member of the Nation of Islam. The religious sect had caused quite a stir with its growing anti-white, anti-American rhetoric. The promoters were worried about the gate. But despite the controversial socio-political overtones and being an 8-to-1 underdog, interest was swirling around this charismatic young fighter from Kentucky. In the first spiritual decision of many to come, The Kid would not renounce his faith for a taste of boxing glory. Instead, he plowed ahead against the storm, creating a solitary voice in an angry sea of negative press. He said he harbored no hatred toward anyone. His will and pomp won out, the fight was on.

“Ali reinvented the rituals of boxing” -Thomas Hauser/Ali’s Biographer

Flailing about like a lunatic, and braying like a wild banshee, The Kid planted the seed of doubt. He whipped himself into a frenzy. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee!” he screamed the day of the weigh-in. In front of the Miami Boxing Commission, former champions, Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson, and hundreds of reporters, he concluded the frantic show with a prediction of an eight-round knockout. After the near riot in the crowded room, the writers gave The Kid little chance. The Bear did not agree. “Only a crazy man wouldn’t be afraid of Liston,” said writer, Robert Lipsyte. “Ali convinced the champ he was entering the ring with one of the craziest.”

“I remember thinking that a dark cloud would fall over young Cassius Clay the night he fought the brutal Sonny Liston.” -David Halberstam/Author

The first three rounds were everything The Kid said they would be. The Bear was having trouble sizing up his quickness; dodging the snapping jabs and the crossing right hand. Cassius Clay had the champion of the world looking like a rank amateur. Between rounds the champ’s cornermen surrounded him. They had decided that the fourth round would be an entirely different story. When it was finished The Kid’s eyes were burning. Someone apparently rubbed an illegal substance on The Bear’s gloves.

Before the bell for the fifth round, The Kid was blind. With stinging tears streaming down his face, he pleaded with his corner to do anything. Angelo Dundee assured the young challenger that if he could ride out the round, the fight was his.

Valiantly, The Kid ducked and weaved his way through it. “Everyone in the place thought Liston would destroy him, even with everything being equal,” said fight doctor Verde Pacheco. “After he survived the fifth, with his sight restored, the sixth round could be no worse.”

The sixth round was all The Kid needed.

“Wait a minute! Sonny Liston is not coming out! The winner and new heavyweight champion of the world is Cassius Clay.” -Howard Cosell/Broadcaster at ringside

Bloody, battered and beaten: The Bear did not answer the bell for round seven. The legend of Muhammed Ali was born. The Kid became a man before he became a champion, and when the boxing world stripped him of his title three years later for refusing to fight in Vietnam because of his religious beliefs, they could never take that away.

He would win the title back. It seemed the great Ali would always win in spite of popular opinion. He would be the model of champion, gold medal or not, championship belt or not.

“If you need to know history, the real story of those before you, then you should go to the library and read newspaper clippings of someone like Muhammad Ali every day, then it might giver you some understanding of the man.” -Alex Haley/Author

Thirty years have passed since that night of February 25, 1964, the day that the most influential athlete of the 20th century made his mark on history.

Shook up the world, indeed.

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New York Jets win Super Bowl III revisits Joe Namath’s famous garuntee.

North County 1/26/94


A quarter century has passed since the 18-point underdog, New York Jets defeated the Baltimore Colts in the third AFL/NFL Championship Game; the first such a contest to be called Super Bowl. It was the story of the brash, new, and rebellious versus the old, guarded establishment in a time when similar battles outside of sports were commonplace. In the span of an afternoon almost 50 years of pro football history was altered, and by evening everything that had come before would look different.

The Jets represented the upstart American Football League, an alternative pro league that in 1960 challenged the 40-year monopoly of the NFL. The AFL had battled for five years to establish franchises, procure talent, and gain an audience in the shadow of the NFL. It took a bright, shining star to finally burn away the shadows and put the junior league on the map.

In 1965 that star shined on New York Jets owner, Sonny Werblin when he offered the richest contract in the game ($427,000) to potential NFL number one pick, Joe Namath.

Joe NamathAlthough he never saw him throw a pass for the University of Alabama, the showbiz mogul had a hunch that with his piercing good looks and distinct persona, Namath would be just what the AFL’s big market city needed. “The star system,” Werblin argued. “is the only thing that sells tickets.”

Jets doctors felt signing Namath would be a risk, with his many knee operations, but Werblin’s marketing instincts and record offer paid off. A year after Namath signed with New York, league attendance rose, and television ratings increased, prompting the NFL to call for a meeting that would iron out a deal to quit their war over talent and franchise rights. Both leagues would merge in 1970 and it was decided that for the four remaining years an annual title game between league champions would be played at the end of each season. “On that day,” said AFL founder, Lamar Hunt. “We established what we wanted, and that was parity.”

Unfortunately, for Hunt, Werblin, and the AFL, the deal did not include mutual respect. The prevailing sentiment among the media, fans, and most insultingly, the NFL players, was that the merger was a big favor for the lesser league. The outcome of the first two championship games seemed to put to rest any doubts of this as Vince Lombardi’s legendary Green Back Packers made short work of the Kansas City Chiefs (35-10) in the first and the Oakland Raiders (33-14) in the second. Lombardi, the man for whom the Super Bowl trophy would be named, felt the NFL had more than adequately proved its case.

By the time Joe Namath led his Jets through a solid 11-3 season and an AFL title in December of 1968, everyone in the football world thought New York would be fodder for the 15-1 Baltimore Colts.

The Jets received the ball first; and on their second play from scrimmage powerful fullback, Matt Snell slammed into Colts safety, Rick Volk. Volk was recognized as one of the toughest tacklers in the pros. “When Rick hits you,” said young Colts head coach, Don Shula, “you might not get up.” This time it was Volk who did not get up.

The Colts finished their season by winning 10 straight with a devastating defense that had broken the NFL mark for the fewest points allowed in a season. Unlike the Jets thrilling 27-24 victory over the Raiders, the Colts destroyed the Cleveland Browns 34-0 in the NFL title game. “This is the hungriest team I ever saw,” said Baltimore’s all-pro tight end, John Mackey. The so-called experts agreed. The Jets, they all said, would have no chance.

Namath seized the moment. Upon arriving in Miami, the man the media dubbed, “Broadway Joe” ripped the Colts’ defense for being “predictable and easy to deceive.” He told the eager press that although Colts quarterback, Earl Morrall did a bang up job winning the Most Valuable Player honors in the NFL, he would have had a hard time cracking the top five signal callers in his AFL. Then, on the Thursday before the big game at a dinner honoring him as the AFL’s MVP, Namath stood at the podium and boldly announced, “We’re going to win Sunday, I guarantee you.”

The Colts, many of whom had already spent their winner’s share, wanted nothing better than to embarrass New York and their loudmouthed quarterback. Jets head coach Weeb Eubank, having led the Colts to an NFL crown ten years earlier, reminded his team that many of them were once considered “not good enough” for the NFL. “Now you have the opportunity to show them otherwise,” he told them.

At 3:00 PM on January 12, 1969, the long-haired wild bunch from the Big Apple and the God-fearing crewcuts from the working class town, stood 53 yards across the great divide of respect.

The Jets received the ball first; and on their second play from scrimmage powerful fullback, Matt Snell slammed into Colts safety, Rick Volk. Volk was recognized as one of the toughest tacklers in the pros. “When Rick hits you,” said young Colts head coach, Don Shula, “you might not get up.” This time it was Volk who did not get up.

The story of Super Bowl III had begun.

The Colts spent much of the first quarter self-destructing on offense. Interceptions, missed field goals, and busted plays left the game scoreless; and more importantly, with 14:09 remaining in the half, left the door of opportunity open for Namath to back up his words.

Starting from the 20-yard line, Namath handed to Snell three times for a first down. The Colts front line, anchored by the ferocious Bubba Smith, squeezed in tighter, allowing the Jets QB to pass for short but solid gains to wide receiver, George Sauer. Suddenly, for the first time in the game the Jets were in Baltimore territory. The Colts looked angered and confused, the Jets fluid and efficient. “Standing in that press box and watching Namath unravel the NFL myth,” remembers veteran broadcaster, Howard Cosell, “was a thing to behold.”

A quick 12-yard pass to Snell moved the Jets to the Colts 9-yard line. Baltimore’s madman linebacker, Mike Curtis screamed at his defense. Snell ran for five more. Across the field in the stands Lamar Hunt clapped his hands in excitement. Shula clenched his fists in bemused anger. Snell ran for four yards and a touchdown. The Jets were ahead, and never looked back.

For most of the second half Namath played the befuddled Colts defense like a virtuoso, leading to three Jim Turner filed goals. Down 16-0 Shula called on the injured but lengendary Johnny Unitus to save the day as he had countless times over a then stellar13-year career; and with the a little over three minutes left in the game, the Colts scored their only touchdown. But it was way too little, and far too late.

“I stood in the Orange Bowl with tears of joy streaming down my face,” said Chiefs quarterback Len Dawson. “All of us in the league won that game, and underdogs everywhere could feel good that afternoon.”

The AFL is gone now, but 25 Super Bowls later the memory still lingers. Sometimes in sports like in life, it takes years to gain respect. Sometimes it only takes an afternoon.

Books by James Campion are available on this web site or at Amazon & Barnes & Nobleclick to order

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