When New York clinched the WNBA Eastern conference title last week, besting Cleveland 57-44, no champagne flowed in the Liberty locker room—nor even, as might be more befitting the ultra-parsimonious league, cheap beer. “Winning the conference [in the regular season] doesn’t really mean anything,” says power forward Tamika Whitmore. “Everything starts all over again. We don’t even get a bye in the playoffs. We don’t get any respect from the league.” The Voice goes to press before the first round is decided, but whether the Liberty make it past Washington, then past Cleveland or Orlando, to tackle Los Angeles or Houston for the championship, everyone’s toughest opponent is turning out to be the WNBA itself. For many players and coaches, the league’s thriftiness has crossed the line into stinginess, and more than pennies have ended up pinched: Morale and even the quality of play have suffered.
Ever-encouraging forward Sue Wicks still remembers humming “help is on the way” as she and other bench players were poised to take the Garden floor against the Rockers on July 29—none of the starters had arrived at the building. The team’s flight back from a game in Charlotte the night before had been canceled, and the squad had been divided as seats on other planes became available. Though the starting lineup departed first, they arrived last and made it to the arena only seconds before the opening tap—all the consequence of the WNBA’s saving funds by using commercial airlines, even for back-to-back games, even as NBA charter jets sat idle. The Mystics, meanwhile, suffered from as many holding patterns and returned flights this season as they did failures to convert powerful second-half runs into victories. And even though the harshest league critics don’t suspect that the WNBA was trying to save a night of hotel bills, the Sting did endure a sleepover at the Denver airport.
In postseason play, the universal complaint has zeroed in on the peculiar way the league defines home court advantage in the best-of-three playoff series. The higher seed opens on the road, which puts too much pressure on the team that’s supposed to be rewarded for its superior record, protests Liberty coach Richie Adubato. “I hate it,” he says, adding that other coaches share his opinion. But league officials—who will not release financial data—say that they simply cannot afford a home-away-home travel schedule for the finals. Some players suggest that a small bite be taken out of the massive marketing budget to give the players a break. In the meantime, says Whitmore, “We just have to use our frustration to motivate us.”
Now that Joe Torre‘s shock has worn off from waking up and finding Jose Canseco in his stocking—giving the Yanks a no-glove, all-arrested bench combo of marital demolition derby expert Canseco and Luis “She Said She Was 19” Polonia—some tristate sports fans may be wondering whether Yanks GM Brian Cashman went after the wrong Canseco. While Jose was putting the Tampa Bay faithful to sleep to the tune of .257, 9 HR, 30 RBI, twin brother Ozzie has been turning in a career year just a PATH train ride away in Newark: On the day of Jose’s arrival in the Bronx, Ozzie was hitting .319 with 34 homers (already a league record with 53 games left to go), a league-leading 93 RBI, and an OPS (on-base plus slugging average, the preferred offensive measure of today’s stat geeks) of a whopping 1126, which is Ruthian territory.
Sure, Ozzie’s feats have come in the independent Atlantic League, which is lucky to graduate an occasional player to triple-A (ex-Atlantic Leaguer Felix Jose got as far as an audition in left field with the Yanks earlier this year). But still, 34 dingers in 77 games has got to be worth something, right? Jockbeat asked Clay Davenport of Baseball Prospectus (preferred bedtime reading of today’s stat geeks) to run the numbers, and he discovered that if transported to the bigs, Canseco frère’s numbers would translate to a mere .213/18/39—and a piddling .186/13/28 if you compensate for his advanced age (35). “His brother Jose hasn’t had the best of seasons,” says Davenport, “but whichever line of Ozzie’s you wish to follow, his play still isn’t up to his brother’s standards.” Maybe so, but we’d still rather trust Ozzie with the keys to our Porsche.
• Longtime Mets radio announcer Bob Murphy hasn’t quite reached Phil Rizzuto-esque levels of senility yet, but he’s getting close. Aside from the litany of flubbed play-by-plays, the lengthy pauses while he coughs up a lung, and the increasingly frequent spoonerisms (Jockbeat’s favorite: “All streakers are hitty”), the Murph also views the world through a singularly nostalgic lens. During a recent Mets-Reds contest, for example, he folksily described the city of Cincinnati as follows: “You can get your shoes shined, your hat blocked, and a good bowl of chili, all in 30 minutes’ time.” Apparently nobody has told Murphy that American men stopped wearing hats back during JFK‘s administration. Hate to break it to you, Bob, but when Barry Larkin nixed that trade and opted to stay in Cincy, it had nothing—repeat, nothing—to do with the city’s fedora shops. . . . • George Steinbrenner has decided to pick on someone smaller than him: Columbus, Ohio, where countless middle relievers have racked up frequent flier miles shuttling to and from the triple-A Clippers. Earlier this summer, the Boss threatened that without a new $35 million Columbus stadium, he might just take his Yankee minor-leaguers and go home, once the club’s affiliation agreement expires in 2002. George’s bluster went over about as well in Ohio as in New York: Just 11.6 percent of residents polled said they’d back tax money for a new home for the Clips, and the county is now said to be losing interest in the project. . . . • San Francisco manager Dusty Baker on Jeff Kent, who played for the Blue Jays, Mets, and Indians before finally becoming a star with the Giants: “The way, I see it, when you’re with a lot of teams, that means you’ve got value. Look at Liz Taylor. She’s had no problems getting married or divorced.” . . . • In a halftime profile during Saturday’s Liberty game, Lifetime repeatedly referred to South Dakota-bred guard Becky Hammon as “an All-American girl” and “the girl next door.” The announcers stopped short of dubbing her “the great white hope,” but, hey, the playoffs are still young.
Contributors: Alisa Solomon, Neil Demause, Paul Lukas, Billy Altman
Sports Editor: Miles D. Seligman