The Boy-cotts of Summer

You know something’s screwy when Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig starts tossing around words like “social responsibility.” But there was the used-car king last week, throwing his weight behind the one-day walkout by Cuban American big leaguers in protest against the U.S. government’s seizure of Elián González. “We talk about social responsibility, so we should support it,” Selig said at the time. “We wanted them to do what their consciences dictated.”

That’s all well and good, but if only the commissioner really meant it, says one former frontliner. And if only it was their consciences the players had actually been following.

“This is not political activism,” former Yankee and Ball Four author Jim Bouton tells Jockbeat. “This is ballplayers being ballplayers.”

Since his playing days in the 1960s, Bouton has watched big leaguers toe the line of the day—if they even know what it is. In the past that’s meant remaining mum on matters like the Vietnam War or apartheid in South Africa. In the González case, says Bouton, it means athletes doing exactly what’s expected of them by the Miami expat community, and once again exhibiting typically “sheeplike” behavior.

“Cuban players are not acting from political courage but fear of reprisal from their own community, which says something about both the players and that community,” Bouton argues. “It’s not an act of political courage. It’s fear of reprisal.”

Real political courage, Bouton says, would have meant standing up to an angry Little Havana and saying,” ‘I disagree, and I’m going to play as a protest against their unwillingness to obey the law and see that this kid gets back with his father where he belongs.’ That would have been a political statement.”

Of course, none of the boycotting athletes said any such thing. And whether it was because of the underlying red-baiting in their message or just the quiet way they went about expressing it, they received a relatively free ride from a press corps and a sports establishment normally leery of the mixing of sports and politics. It’s hard to believe that pro athletes would get that same reaction if they actually went out on a limb. If they did, says Bouton, that familiar refrain would soon be invoked, the league reminding jocks that “it’s not your job to be making political statements.”

But Selig and company may have painted themselves into a corner with their wholehearted endorsement of the boycott. According to Marvin Miller, the legendary former head of the baseball players union, “Whether they intend it to be a new trend or not, it is a new trend because they’re establishing a very powerful new precedent. . . . If the owners think they can live with that, that’s fine. But I don’t think they ever think things through.”

For sports activists who have taken a true risk for their cause, the sports-and-politics-don’t-mix purists are always lurking. Tommie Smith has been dealing with them ever since he and John Carlos raised their gloved fists in a black power salute during the 1968 Olympics. Over the years, Smith’s perfected a method for handling such unyielding pests: “I look at them and smile and say, ‘God bless you.’ ” He tells Jockbeat with a laugh. “Neanderthals are rampant. You can’t talk to all of them.”

Don’t Believe the Hype

“Two Big” went the Garden billing for last weekend’s two-tons-of-fun heavyweight title bout—and they were. The punching prowess of 247-pound Lennox Lewis, matched with the wade-in style of 247-pound Michael Grant, may have saved the event—a second-round KO by Lewis—from becoming too banal and too bad, but nothing can save its hype-line from the sport’s scrap heap of promotional themes.

Muhammad Ali himself came up with (and lived up to) the classics “Rumble in the Jungle” (Ali –George Foreman) and “Thrilla in Manila” (Ali –Joe Frazier III), but how about such forgettable tags as “March Badness” (Lewis-Shannon Briggs), or “Battle of the Little Giants” (Wilfredo GomezSalvador Sanchez), or “War by the Shore” (ForemanGerry Cooney—at the time affectionately dubbed “Two Geezers at Caesar’s” by fight scribes)?

There’s the story of a publicity meeting before the Garden’s 1983 Roberto DuranDavey Moore match, at which longtime MSG boxing boss Teddy Brenner dismissed such lame offerings as “Massacre in Manhattan” and “Gore at the Garden” with his own memory of a now legendary battle. “I had what I thought might be a great fight back in the ’40s,” he told assembled flacks. “Know what I called it-Zale vs. Graziano.”

Guess Lewis vs. Grant didn’t have that ring to it.

Maxed Out

Michael Jordan to the Max (opening Friday at Sony Lincoln Square), the new, 45-minute IMAX film about His Airness, contains no fewer than five commercials. And we don’t mean large-screen closeups of MJ’s eponymous footwear. At different moments in the flick, the “I wanna be like Mike” Gatorade jingle and other TV spots emanate from the eight-story-tall screen. It’s a fitting tribute, since Jordan’s legacy is as much about selling stuff—his ubiquitous bald dome still crops up consistently on the tube, hawking everything from batteries to long-distance service despite his recent swearing off of the endorsement biz—as it is about balletic basketball mastery.

But his athletic chops have never looked better, even from Spike Lee‘s front-row Garden perch. A soaring Jordan, at 10-times scale, knifing through a sea of defenders in super-clear super-slo-mo inspires a rare sort of awe. And that’s the point. We are to feel privileged to be in Jordan’s presence, even an oversized celluloid one. The mythmaking gets so over-the-top that even MJ’s ill-conceived baseball stint is made to look heroic.

But, oh, those action sequences. Even as we cringed over the positioning of the ’98 Bulls as playoff underdogs, we swooned with every subtle airborne move made by Jordan, the ball always just out of the reach of multiple opponents. But it makes one think: If they pieced together, blew up, and then slo-mo’d a highlight reel of, say, Charles Smith, it’s damn likely that even Knicks fans would stand up and cheer.

Contributors: Joanna Cagan, John Stravinsky, Ramona Debs

Sports Editor: Miles D. Seligman

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