SELLING THEIR SOLES
Everyone has an opinion on the events unfolding in Iraqeveryone except pro athletes. The Dallas Mavericks' Steve Nash wore an anti-war T-shirt during the NBA's All-Star weekend, and Arizona Cardinal Pat Tillman left his high-paying NFL job last year to enlist in the army to become a ranger. For practically all other pros, nothing but silence.
No pro has taken the stand that Division III basketball player Toni Smith has. The 21-year-old Manhattanville College student has simply turned her back on the flag before her games on the Purchase campus and on the road. Her peaceful, legitimate protest hasn't stopped right-wing radio talk-show hosts and sports commentators from condemning her. Of course, wars have been fought to ensure that people like Smith have the right to express their views.
With so much to blab about, why are pros silent? Male pro golfers are notably mum about the sexist membership policies at Augusta National, despite the growing protests by others. Is Tiger Woods just a golfer and a corporate spokesman, or will he take a stand on the issue? NFL players aren't talking about their league's sorry record in hiring black coaches.
The question is: Will there be another Muhammad Ali? He gave up more than three years of his boxing career and was stripped of his title after refusing to serve in the military during the Vietnam War.
Athletes like to compare themselves to entertainers, but that's a bad comparison. Lots of entertainers take stands and talk about issues. Athletes keep quiet and sell shoes. Evan Weiner
DIGGING DEEPER ON WELLS
"Everybody better tread lightly," snapped an uncommonly pissy Brian Cashman of David Wells's autobiography last week. "You're damn right I'll read the book." (Considering that the galleys have been available since January, it seems he rather missed the boat.) Frankly, though, this is a case of much ado about nothing. The AP story that started an avalanche of recriminations highlighted three items from the 432-page tome: first, the lefty's "half-drunk . . . hungover" state during his 1998 perfect game; second, his claim that some players use steroids and speed. Whoa, stop the presses! As Jim Bouton, author of Ball Four, observed, "What Wells wrote is no surprise." Especially hypocrites lecteurs were those who fumed over his guess that "between 25 and 40 percent" of his peers juice uphow dare he throw such numbers around? (The outcry induced Wells to lower his estimate in the final version.) Gee, we figured a book full of strip-club antics ("Beer + Boobs + Buddies = Blast!") and breezy jokes ("What time is it when Cecil Fielder spots your hoagie? Time to get a new hoagie") wasn't exactly a scientific study.
The AP's third revelation: Wells "takes shots" in print at Mike Mussina and Roger Clemens. In fact, he has only praise for the former, who agreed to a taxing four-man rotation back in their Baltimore days: "Risking his game, his health, his arm . . . Moose puts everything on the line for this team." Boomer also selects him for his personal all-star roster, along with Andy Pettitte, David Cone, Jimmy Key, and, er, John Smiley. Notably absent from the list is Clemens, yet Wells doesn't dish any fresh dirt on the headhunter. (He saves his venom for Marge Schott, Pat Gillick, and "asshole" and "choke in the clutch" Armando Benitez, whom Wells throttled during a bench-clearing brawl.)
While the Rocket bridled a bit, cracking that his sister might hit the author "upside the head with a set of car keys" (her verdict on Wells: "Someone should just bitch-slap him"), so what? Chemistry, schmemistryas starters, the two guys don't even play on the same field together.
The Yanks will fine Wells $100,000 for airing his views. "It's not like this is North Korea," joked Jason Giambi at the start of spring training. Or is it? J.Y. Yeh
THE METS' THIRD CHOICE
Considering Joe Randa, Norihiro Nakamura, Shea Hillenbrand, and the other names that popped up once the Mets let Edgardo Alfonzo go, it's something of a minor miracle that Ty Wigginton is still the likely candidate to be the team's starting third baseman come Opening Day on March 30. At 25, Wigginton is that rarity in the Steve Phillips era: a hard-nosed player who's actually worked his way to the big leagues through the Met farm system. A 17th-round draft pick out of UNC-Asheville in 1998, the SoCal native has produced offensively at all levelsincluding a .300 season at Triple-A Norfolk last yeareven as he was tossed around the field from second base (his original position) to stints at third, first, the outfield, and even behind the plate. Wigginton finished 2002 by hitting .302 with 6 HRs and 18 RBI in 116 at-bats as a late-season call-up, then spent the winter in the Dominican League, where his 9 HRs and 31 RBI in 37 games topped everyone on his teamincluding the Mets' designated star of the future, José Reyes. Phillips still felt it incumbent to invite 37-year-old ex-Diamondback Jay Bell to campthe same Jay Bell who last year hit a whopping .163 in a heading-over-the-hill campaign that saw him start nine games. Wigginton's situation isn't all that different from that of a former Met farmhand who was moved around the infield as he came up in the mid '90s, and who won a starting job only after the front office gave up trying to prove they could do better than what was under their nose. That player's name? Edgardo Alfonzo. Billy Altman
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