Sports

. . . OR GIVE ME DEPTH

The Liberty's Tamika Whitmore knew what it would take to knock Washington out of New York's path to WNBA championship finals: "We've got to take the ball and shove it up their nose," she said flatly. So that's what New York did. After dropping the first of the three-game series 79-74 in D.C. last Thursday, the Liberty played as though the Mystics weren't even on the floor on Saturday at the Garden, blowing them out 96-79. New York shot a league-high 66 percent from the floor. "It looks like a misprint," coach Richie Adubato said afterwards. "We were incredible." On Sunday the squad played like mortals again—damned good ones—and finished off the Mystics 64-57 in a rough and scrappy contest for the Eastern conference title.

The ball isn't the only thing getting shoved around this year. The physicality of the play has provided useful if costly preparation for the Liberty before meeting sharp-elbowed Lisa Leslie and the L.A. Sparks in a best-of-three championship series beginning in New York on Thursday, then moving to the West Coast. Over the past week, Sue Wicks was thrown skidding to the floor so often that the Garden staff hardly needs to polish it; Tari Phillips followed each game by packing herself in as much ice as an Alaskan salmon; Crystal Robinson was limping by Sunday; and Whitmore had lost a tooth.

It was Adubato, though, who seemed most worn out, sick and tired, in any case, of being asked whether his squad had any oomph left, given that three of his starters and one of his main subs are over 30. But if there's any wobble in the Liberty's knees it's more a function of the shallow depth in their bench than length in their tooth. New York is the only team in the league whose starters each averaged 30 minutes per game or more all season. Sunday's second half did seem powered by fumes. But there are a lot of those in Los Angeles. —Alisa Solomon


THE SUN SETS ON THE BRITISH UMPIRE

Strike? What strike? The Brits just declared their independence from MLB by yelling (in their funny accents) "Play ball!"—at the Rawlings National League weekend in Brighton, a sort of English World Series. With six teams, the amateur RNL isn't likely to produce the next Ichiro (though former star John Foster recently made it to the Braves' bullpen). Still, baseball has a growing following across the pond, fueled by the broadcast of two games live every week on TV.

At the grassroots, the BaseballSoftballUK group organizes youth teams, inviting U.S. college players to coach them in summer camps and introducing the game into schools, as well as running adult leagues and the RNL. The number of athletes playing has doubled since 1997. "Baseball's in our culture now," says Windsor Bears manager John Boyd, because youngsters fancy "anything American." (Does that include Bud Selig?)

Back at the RNL playoffs, we saw a preponderance of knee pants in the dugouts and MLB caps (Yankees, Mariners) in the 800-strong crowd. Under steady rain, a Brighton Buccaneer pitcher glumly warmed up, while his teammates—Brits and Aussies, with surprisingly few Americans—surrounded manager Craig Savage(who this year got tips from Tony Gwynn in San Diego). His players work a variety of jobs, from construction to IT, and practice twice a week; some also train for the UK's national baseball squad, which has never yet qualified for the Olympics. An hour later, an official finally called off the game, intoning, "The elements have beaten us once again." (This is England, after all.) Apart from the annual RNL playoffs, Boyd told us, "nobody in this country can ever go to a live game." Now they'll have to wait a bit longer to do so. —J. Yeh


BASEBALL'S BIER MAN

Bud Selig's "competitive imbalance" bleatings may be so much flapdoodle—as Doug Pappashas pointed out at BaseballProspectus.com, the owners' revenue-sharing plan would actually make it harder for have-nots to compete, by taxing their revenues at the same rate as the big boys. But the car salesman's words have struck a chord in the strike-fearin' hinterlands, where the Yanks' four World Championship banners in seven years are a battle flag for small-market fans of the have-nots. With so many loving to hate the Yanks, we almost hate to spoil the fun by noting that their recent "dynasty" has been fueled less by cable TV and Brian Cashman's trading genius than by another, less-publicized innovation: the expanded playoffs.

In 1995, the year the leagues split into three divisions apiece, the Yanks snuck into the playoffs as the first-ever A.L. wild card. In 1996, the Yanks took their first A.L. East title in 15 years—but it was a weakened A.L. East, with the Indians and Brewers exiled to the new A.L. Central. Cleveland's 99 wins would have been good enough in the two-division format to best New York by 7.5 games. In 1997, Baltimore won the East; the Yanks got the wild card. In 2000, at a pathetic 87-74, the Yanks would have finished 2.5 games back of Cleveland, which didn't even make the playoffs in the three-division format.

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