To the Spoilers Go the Victors

Even though he’s been loath to use a certain S-word (“I don’t like it because it denotes the situation we’re in in a negative way. I find it better to think that we’re trying to play as well as we can as long as we can”), manager Bobby Valentine and his underachieving Mets entered the last month of the 2001 campaign reduced to the role of spoilers for their NL East rivals the Phillies and Braves, whose playoff plans they could indeed shoot some holes into now that the pressure they spent most of the year unable to handle has evaporated as noticeably as Robin Ventura’s batting skills. Over the past few weeks, as the reality of their woeful situation has sunk in, the Mets have noticeably relaxed. Relieved of the endless queries about what exactly was wrong (uh, no offense, no offense, and no offense) and precisely what the frustration quotient of the day happened to be [roll the tape of Mike Piazza raising his (unbleached) eyebrows and shaking his head for the umpteenth time], the sense of desperation that hovered over them like a black cloud most of the season seems to have finally dissipated, and they’ve actually played a better brand of baseball.

Too little, too late, of course, but having made the decision to stand relatively pat from last season to this one—why do we hang on to the suspicious notion that, with the unresolved Fred Wilpon/Nelson Doubleday ownership push/pull, such fiscal running-in-place shouldn’t have been so surprising?—the Mets will be facing their off-season with more questions than a Danny Almonte birth certificate. (Watching Edgardo Alfonzo and his aching back most of the season, you want someone to investigate his, too, while they’re at it.) Then again, we did warn at the outset of the season that, as Ventura goes, so go the Mets, and it is interesting to note that, while the Shea boo-birds have had it in for Todd Zeile all season, it’s been the relatively unhammered Ventura who’s been the team offense’s prime offender. At the end of June, the third baseman was hitting a respectable .263, with 16 home runs and 38 runs batted in. Since then, though, it’s been as if Derek Bell’s second-half-of-’00 karma had descended upon him—he’s hit a pitiful .160, with 2 homers (as of August 30, none in a month) and 11 RBI. No wonder the Mets have been trying to move Ventura—though the fly in that saddle soap is that he has two more years on his hefty contract. It’s also why they’re hoping that the Phillies will be dumb enough to deal Scott Rolen, who at 26 is eight years younger than Ventura, and who has shown himself to be a potent hitter at Shea—far more potent than Barry Bonds.

White Line Fever

What do you get when you cross Ball Four with The Blair Witch Project and cast a bunch of guys in white shorts? You get Beyond the Baseline, an hour-long documentary about life on the tennis tour by Mark Keil, a veteran doubles specialist whose claim to fame is being the lowest-ranked player to beat Pete Sampras since Sampras cracked the top 10. Keil and partner Jeff Grant turn the camcorder on themselves (Grant retires—for good—right on camera after losing yet another qualifying-round match) and other tour players (Andre Agassi waxes poetic about sex before tennis), and the results illuminate the tour’s caste system. But for all its video verité edginess—in a scene that plays like an outtake from Cops, a drunken Keil is kicked out of his hotel room in the middle of the night—the story is sentimental at heart, about an aging player’s struggle to hang on for just another summer. The film has aired in England, Australia, and New Zealand, but it hasn’t been picked up for U.S. distribution—the fact that Baseline contains 42 “fucks,” four more than Pulp Fiction, may have something to do with that. Instead, Keil plans to enter it into this year’s Sundance Film Festival. He has put his tennis comeback on hold temporarily and has begun work on another documentary, this one about his former doubles partner Goran Ivanisevic. “It was a labor of love, and we worked our asses off,” Keil says of Baseline. “I sold my house to make it. I’m broke, but at least I’ve got a job now.”


• Levar Harper-Griffith, profiled in last week’s Voice, lost his opening round U.S. Open match against Spain’s Albert Costa, a former top 10 player now ranked 40th, by a score of 6-3, 6-3, 6-3. In the second game of the match, Costa sprained his ankle, but a 20-minute delay for treatment seemed to change the momentum, making Harper-Griffith more tentative while Costa showed few ill effects from the injury. . . . • Only one thing was missing from the seemingly impromptu dustup between pugs Hasim Rahman and Lennox Lewis last week during the taping of ESPN’s Up Close: ABC-ESPN’s own Brent Musburger. Why couldn’t he have been standing between the two fighters when they decided to sublimate their fears about their sexuality by suddenly fighting each other for free? (Each had accused the other of gayness.) Of course, a couple of gratuitous right crosses to Musburger’s chin by the homophobic heavyweights would have been only a partial payback to sports fans who had to listen to his incessant shilling on behalf of the Bronx “Baby Bombers” during broadcasts of the Little League World Series.

Contributors: Billy Altman, Allen St. John Sports Intern: Jonathan Kalmuss-Katz Sports Editor: Ward Harkavy