Sports

SKATING ON THIN ICE

While the outcry against their acquisition of Alexei Kovalev two weeks ago from Pittsburgh for spare parts and $3.99 million echoed around the NHL, the Rangers targeted another talented scorer whose team may not be able to afford him. Jarome Iginla of Calgary will make $7 million next year, and though he led the league in scoring last season, Calgary has not ruled out moving him by the March 11 deadline for a package of established NHLers. Iginla's future may be decided this week at a meeting of the Flames' owners, who must contemplate the budget for a small-market, non-playoff team. The Rangers have reportedly offered Jamie Lundmark, Dan Blackburn, and Radek Dvorak, in what would be a second predatory attack on a financially struggling club.

What compounds these raids is that the Rangers' bloated payroll, now around $74 million, has driven up the cost of doing business in a league where two teams are in bankruptcy and others are tottering. "It's free enterprise. That's how the U.S. works," said GM Glen Sather, once a vocal small-market advocate when he ran Edmonton. The reaction to the Kovalev deal was so injurious to the Rangers' and NHL's image that respected Blueshirts announcer John Davidson leaped to his employer's defense on the CBC network's Hockey Night in Canada telecast. "The Rangers never broke a rule," he proclaimed.

Not everyone swallowed that argument, and the anti-Ranger sentiment continued, with TSN (Canada's ESPN) leading the charge. TSN's hockey experts frequently slam the "train wreck" Rangers, and after Cablevision president and CEO James Dolan suited up for a Ranger practice last Thursday in Anaheim, commentator Bob McKenzie remarked that it epitomized what most people think about the team, that it was a "rich boy's toy" and that Dolan was "just another millionaire who can't play hockey." —Stu Hackel


GODZILLA TREADS LIGHTLY IN TAMPA

As the local papers fussed over the Jeter-Steinbrenner feud (next week: the Boss gets pinstripes tattooed on his face), there was only one story in Tampa for Japanese reporters: Hideki Matsui. The left fielder's every batting-practice session was televised live in his homeland, while a hundred-strong media contingent interrogated him daily. Luckily for the Yanks, who signed Japan's premier player to a $21 million, three-year contract this winter, Matsui's affable, accommodating nature was already easing his transition to the New World. "I have to try to obey the American way and style," he said (via translator Rogelio Kahlon) at last week's press conference, before which he'd also taken pains to introduce himself to each of his teammates. (Mariano Rivera gave him an encouraging thumbs-up.) And unlike the stylin' Tsuyoshi Shinjo ("That's blond or orange hair!" marveled the Mets' Art Howe recently) or the cucumber-cool Ichiro, Matsui presented a stolid demeanor, reminiscent of baseball throwbacks like Jim Thome, that's sure to find favor with Joe Torre. (Or as Matsui put it, "In public I try to be upstanding. . . . At home, I watch TV in just my pants.")

In New York, however, all that matters is winning. On early evidence, the slugger known as Godzilla ("My face is scary") exhibited good plate discipline and a quick, compact swing, praised by Reggie Jackson and likened by Torre to that of Tino Martinez (when he was good). Yet whether he'll thrive in the Bronx's cutthroat environs is uncertain. One of his old coaches observed, "He is not bold. He is so kind that his kindness doesn't mesh well in the game." (Translation fuzzy, but we get the drift.) Jason Giambi, who saw Matsui receive standing ovations for strikeouts in Japan, eloquently warned, "That shit is gone." While no one expects him to replicate the 50 homers he swatted in 2002, the Asian icon may well surprise the cynics. "There were quiet guys we thought the city would devour who were successful, like [Paul] O'Neill," noted GM Brian Cashman of his new outfielder. How do you say "Kill the water cooler" in Japanese? —J.Y. Yeh


CALL 'EM THE BROOKLYN DODGEBALLERS

Is it a pipe dream or is the ghost of the Brooklyn Dodgers finally coming home? Either way, rumors that Brooklyn may get an NBA franchise continue to flourish in the borough.

Borough President Marty Markowitz has intimated that there may be something in the works, but said, "It is nothing I can discuss, as the matter is between other parties." One scenario being touted was that if Newark fell through as a new home for the New Jersey Nets, Brooklyn might make a pitch for the team. The Nets' CEO, Lou Lamoriello, did not return calls on the matter. According to an NBA source, the Knicks do not have an exclusive New York City franchise. But of course the Knicks do have a vote on franchise matters.

"Who's to say it could not be possible to put an NBA team in Brooklyn?" said Spike Lee. "There are all types of athletes and entertainers that have come from this borough, and it has enough money and clout to support a team." But where would you put the requisite big arena? City Comptroller Bill Thompson said Coney Island might be nice, but Lee thought closer to Manhattan would be better. Markowitz, though he wouldn't comment on details, said there's an old wrong involving the Dodgers that needs to be righted. "Basically," he said, "professional sports can make up for the great mistake of '57 by restoring to Brooklyn a major league sports franchise—and basketball is the sport of choice of Brooklyn." —Stephen Witt

 
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