Bar Girls

The marketing division of Los Angeles’s WNBA team, the Sparks, finally noticed the lavender elephant in the stands last week—drawing some 1000 lesbian fans to a pep rally at West Hollywood’s Girl Bar on May 4—and a troglodyte with a sports column responded by sputtering some classic homophobia on the pages of the L.A. Times. “Unless there’s some kind of ID card that I’m not familiar with,” wrote the habitually snipey T.J. Simers, “how are the Sparks going to separate the lesbians at the ticket windows from someone like my wife?” Good question, T.J. Better keep the good little woman in the kitchen where she belongs just in case, and by all means, avoid the Staples Center in the summer, where dykes will be running rampant. Of course, T.J. has long followed this advice. Apparently he has never attended a Sparks game; he has mentioned the WNBA in his column only once during the league’s five years—and then only to recommend that they increase ticket sales by playing topless.

Glad to say, some male sportswriters elsewhere—who have at least come to regard female athletes as, well, athletes—responded to Simers’s lesbo-lament with tart denunciations. Fox Sports’ Keith Olbermann demanded in a letter to Jim Romenesko‘s that Simers be fired; The New York TimesHarvey Araton couldn’t quite muster that level of indignation, but did manage a liberal plea for inclusion. Articles in the Sun Sentinel and the Arizona Republic wondered what the big deal is, since their local teams, the Miami Sol and Phoenix Mercury, have long targeted the lesbian market. And on ESPN Radio, Doug Krikorian and Joe McDonnell, as well as listeners who called in, agreed that hawking to homos was just good business sense.

It should be noted that this hour of discussion on ESPN was the most airtime these guys have ever devoted to the Sparks, and the brouhaha also prompted the New York Daily News to produce a most rare story on homophobia and sports on Sunday. Still, the league itself remains squeamish about losing its role-model appeal, and, if the way some supposedly supportive journalists described the Sparks’ move is any indication, with good reason. A reported story in the L.A. Times led off, “Breaking sharply from family-oriented ticket-marketing programs of recent seasons, the Los Angeles Sparks of the WNBA will tonight begin also marketing their team to the Southern California lesbian community”—as if the families coming to the games don’t include lesbians. And it didn’t occur to any journalists to mention that the Sparks’ field trip to West Hollywood might not have marked the first time a WNBA player walked into a lesbian bar.

Then there’s the local franchise. The New York Liberty may be the last to get with the program and go forth with the obvious. “We haven’t singled out any categories,” chief operating officer Paula Hanson told Jockbeat. “We have no lesbian initiatives.”

Down for the Count

Small consolation, but those fight fans who yawned in wait for Felix Trinidad Saturday night (Sunday morning, actually) might be surprised to learn that totals of 833, 1114, and 1252 punches were cumulatively thrown on the dreary undercards leading up to the main event. Furthermore, 1124 of those landed, even if heavyweight Maurice Harris connected only on eight of 65 jabs—which helps explain his soporific 12-round loss to Chris Byrd.

But how about Trinidad? While throwing 209 fewer punches than his opponent, William Joppy, he still landed nearly the same number (108 to 123), including 18 of 26 power shots that closed his electrifying performance in the fifth round. Such are the vagaries of punch stats, as delivered by CompuBox, the two-man ringside team that tracks these things.

“Smart fighters are more conservative,” says Bob Canobbio, who, with partner Logan Hobson, introduced the service to an indifferent fight world 16 years ago. “Too many punches can leave a fighter open for counters. Sugar Ray Leonard had fast hands, but he was very selective.”

Canobbio and Hobson too have fast hands, hitting four buttons each to tally jabs thrown and missed, likewise power punches for each boxer during a bout. Their efforts have by now become a routine sidebar to fight analysis—appreciated by some, like former champ George Foreman (“they push boxing forward”) and fight historian Bert Sugar (“a useful tool”), but dissed by others, like writer Mike Katz (“silly”) and commentator Larry Merchant (“a toy”). Boxing judge Harold Lederman finds CompuBox “interesting” if misleading: “It shows that Roy Jones doesn’t throw a lot of jabs, but I consider him the greatest, pound-for-pound.” Odd how in a sport so rife with opinion, you can wind up reading tea leaves with a laptop. As Foreman says, boxing’s “plenty subjective. ‘He hit him hard.’ ‘No, he hit him hard.’ In a way, these guys (CompuBox) tell the story and they stay pretty unbiased.” And as Canobbio says, “People want to go to the numbers. We’re a stat-crazy society.”

Vegging Out in the Bullpen

It seems about the only thing going right for the Mets so far this season is the vegetable garden in the Shea Stadium bullpen. A peek at it during the annual Photo Day the other week, revealed that the lettuce and the tomato plants were in far better shape than the pen’s human inhabitants—in particular Armando Benitez, whose recent outings have been a microcosm of the team’s overall implosion. Like a lot of the Mets, Benitez has been banged up, except in his case it seems to be a textbook case of Yogi Berra‘s old line about baseball being 10 percent physical, while the other 90 percent is “half mental.”

The Mets spent the spring pressuring the 6-4, 230-pound Benitez to stay in shape, and he’s responded by transferring his old macho act from the mound to the trainer’s room, where excess work on the treadmill has aggravated his chronically nagging right knee. Significantly, out in Colorado last week, the reliever was doing high-profile wind sprints in the outfield during pregame warm-ups to show that he was fit as a double bass; perhaps that’s why Bobby Valentine tried to give him a lesson by keeping him out on the mound through a horrific one-inning, 40-pitch, five-hit, four-run performance that turned a seemingly rare Mets laugher into a 10-9 nail-biter of a win. Word around the league is that Benitez’s fastball doesn’t have its usual 95-mph zip, and the stats back that up. While his career ground-out-to-fly-out ratio is around .6, so far in 2001 it’s more of a sinkerballer’s 1.2. Which might have been fine if Benitez hadn’t already given up five home runs in just 16.1 innings this season. So instead of being a fly-ball pitcher, he’s become a ground-ball-plus-Big-Fly-ball pitcher.

And as far as Benitez’s mental approach goes, all we know is that during the aforementioned Photo Day, where all the players spent an hour or so posing for pictures for the money-paying fans, Armando was the last Met on the field—and the first one off.

Contributors: Alisa Solomon, John Stravinsky, Billy Altman

Sports Editor: Miles D. Seligman

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