MY FAVORITE MARTIN
"True life is lived when tiny changes occur," said that great hoops fan Leo Tolstoy. And if you remember a year ago as the Nets began the playoffs, the question on everyone's lips was whether the oft ejected Kenyon Martin would be playing or watching the games in street clothes. What a difference a year makes. In 2003 K-Mart has quietly matured into a reliable player, which he demonstrated in Game One against the Milwaukee Bucks, busting out for 21 points and 15 rebounds, his 25th double-double of the season. And indeed, if the Nets are to make it out of the East, Martin will likely have an important role banging with Ben Wallace of the Pistons or Jermaine O'Neal of the Pacers. Last year, you will remember, the Grand Kenyon committed six flagrant fouls and was suspended for six games, earning the thug tag after high-profile incidents with Karl Malone and Tracy McGrady. He seemed on the verge of following Dennis Rodman and Rasheed Wallace into the NBA's Heavily Tattooed Psychotic Power Forward Hall of Fame. Part of the credit for Martin's rehab belongs to his improved self-control, and part of it has to go to Indiana's Ron Artest. The former St. John's star has replaced Martin as the league's designated discipline problem, suspended six times for a total of 12 games and leading the league with nine flagrant-foul points. But it's not that Martin has lost his edge; it's simply that he's picking his spots better. In a loss against Chicago earlier this month, Martin yelled at Bull assistant Bob Thornton to "sit the fuck down and shut the fuck up." But it was Bull forward Marcus Fizer who got T'd up for retaliatory trash talkingwhile sitting on the bench in civvies. Allen St. John
THE DEVIL RAYS MADE HIM DO IT
Cheer up, Lou Piniella! Or at least put your pants back on. With the Devil Rays' record a paltry 6-11 at press time, the big-jawed manager's tantrum count is beginning to rival J.Lo's. After one ninth-inning loss at Yankee Stadium, an apoplectic Piniella tore his trousers off before a roomful of beat writers, then continued ranting in his undies. (Hopefully he'll add this move to his current on-field repertoire of heaping dirt on home plate and drop-kicking his cap when protesting umps' calls.) An unconfirmed report blamed him for smashing a few light fixtures on the same visit. And then there was the unfortunate incident when a TV mic caught him delivering an expletive-laden tirade in the dugout, culminating with "No wonder you guys lost 106 [blasted] games last year." As he later explained to Sports Illustrated, "Everybody talks about patience. You know what? Too much patience is stupidity."
But if Sour Lou's blood pressure is climbing, so are the young Rays (dubbed "the Clearasil brigade" by one analyst). "We're going to set up this team like an NL club," vowed Piniella, "with pitching, speed, and defense." By drilling his troops in the basics ("Catch the damn ball!") and calling games from the bench for catcher Toby Hall (a tactic presumably welcomed by Hall, whom Lou once lambasted for an entire game over one poor call), the skipper has turned the Rays from an easy out into . . . a less easy out. Seven of their 11 losses were by just one or two runs, and they're a respectable 4-4 in one-run games. Rocco Baldelli (Baseball America's 2002 Minor League Player of the Year) has been batting up a storm (.386, 27 hits), despite a sub-Soriano 21-whiff, one-walk total in 17 games, while Aubrey Huff and Rey Ordoñez are hitting over .300. (Though when your team home-run leader is Ordoñezwith threeyou can't exactly break out the champagne.) Pitching is, in fact, the weakest link, hence the ever changing rotation. "You don't have to have the best talent to win," theorized Piniella. "Look, I feel like I could win with three milkmen!" Sorry, Lounot when they have a combined 8.31 ERA. J.Y. Yeh
THE METS' NEW YOGI
We all know that the Mets started the 2003 season carrying a quartet of ex-Yankees, all of whom have World Series championships to their credit. But besides David Cone, Mike Stanton, David Weathers, and Graeme Lloyd, the Mets have another former Yankee on the roster as welland one who has as many Yankee Series rings as Cone's four. When we got to Shea Stadium early one day last weekend for batting practice, there he was on the field discussing strategy with manager Art Howe, in full uniform, carrying his glove, No. 57 in your program, Fran Pirozzolo, former Yankee team psychologist and the Mets' new "mental skills" coach.
The Mets have even given Pirozzolo his very own number and uniformand a locker next to bullpen catcher Nelson Silverio. Granted, it may take someone like the team's former staff psychologist, the recently departed Allan Lans, to figure out precisely why the secretive Pirozzolo needs all of this "I'm a baseball guy" affirmation. Then again, despite Pirozzolo's (un-pinstriped) association with the Yankees, the veteran sports "performance enhancement" guru is probably best known for his work on the PGA Tour, including his co-authorship of such books as The Putter's Pocket Companion and Sam Snead's The Game I Love. Asked last week by a reporter why he was in uniform, Pirozzolo replied, "Why not? I don't do anything different than any other coach." Indeed, the Mets have had their new, Fred Wilpon-mandated mental-skills-set man working the dugout during several ball gameswhich, while technically a violation of MLB policy, hasn't elicited any formal complaints from other teams. At least not yet. Billy Altman
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