SWEET LOU, SOUR YANKS
Mike Cameron‘s earrings must’ve blinded the White Sox pitchers last week when he homered off them in four straight at-bats (call it the Arthur Rhodes Effect). Even Cam couldn’t believe his eyes: “It was like I was a willow tree,” he marveled, “just weeping in the wind.” Also weeping (tears of joy) was Bret Boone—the pair became the first teammates ever to go yard twice in one inning. For the 116-win Mariners, however, the remarkable almost looks routine. Exhibit A: manager Lou Piniella. More irascible than George Steinbrenner, more oddly shaped than Mr. Met, Sweet Lou turns heads whenever he barrels out, arms flapping, to holler at an ump—a sight surpassed only by his legendary outburst after losing two frames of the 2001 ALCS to the Yanks. “I want you all to hear this!” he barked to a queue of helpless reporters. “We’re gonna be back here for Game 6. Print it!” On top of an attitude worthy of B.A. Baracus, the big guy has style: Regardless of the weather, he sports a bomber jacket zipped up to the neck, thereby resembling a supersized walking marshmallow. And then there’s Ichiro Suzuki—the sole player in MLB with his first name on his jersey, inspirer of the Safeco Field sushi hut’s Ichi-roll, and a multilinguist who greets the assistant GM with “Wassup, homeslice?”
More bizarrely, the Mariners have banned “Yankees Suck” T-shirts from Safeco (for their naughty wording). “If you don’t pay attention to the small things,” sniffed Rudy Giuliani—sorry, a team spokesperson—”you lose control of the neighborhood.” Fans in the Bronx, by contrast, get to wear cartoons of a New York firefighter urinating on Ichiro. Given the way the M’s wiped up the Yanks last weekend, perhaps that picture should go the other way around.
BREAK UP THE EXPOS!
Five weeks in, the neatest surprise of the baseball season has to be the Montreal Expos. Despite being designated for extinction by commissioner Bud Selig, and being run by an MLB-appointed front office that looks like baseball’s version of the Reconstruction Era (name a minority, and Montreal most likely has one as an executive), Les ‘Spos have been at or near the top of the NL East pretty much since Opening Day, and show no signs of disappearing—at least not on the field.
Much of the credit has to go to manager Frank Robinson, who spent the past three seasons as baseball’s vice president of “on-field operations”—i.e., doling out fines and suspensions for brawls and beanball wars—and who, at age 66, has finally grown into the role of old-school hardass that he played without much success as manager of the Indians, Giants, and Orioles between 1975 and 1991. We always remember his public dress-down of San Francisco’s Jim Barr at Shea Stadium 20 years ago: Robinson was approaching the mound after signaling for a pitching change when Barr started toward the dugout and casually flipped him the ball. Robinson caught the ball with one hand, grabbed Barr’s arm with the other, and angrily yanked him back to the mound to wait until the new pitcher arrived from the bullpen. You could see the smoke coming out of Robbie’s ears all the way from the press box.
Robinson is in the Hall of Fame but rarely gets mentioned in discussions of all-time greats—even though his stats rank him among lifetime leaders in homers (fourth, after Aaron, Ruth and Mays), total bases (ninth), runs (11th), and RBI (14th). Like him, the young and low-salaried Expos began the season getting no respect, and they’ve used it as incentive. They’re playing with the sort of inner purpose Robinson displayed as a player—none more so than 26-year-old superstar Vladimir Guerrero, who’s exhibited none of the daydreaming he’s been dissed for in the past. Guess he knows where the Barr’s been set.
SAVING THE CHIEFS
Ever since Madison Square Garden officials handed him his walking papers two years ago, they’ve blamed former Ranger president and GM Neil Smith for everything but global warming. But the Blueshirts’ only Cup-winning GM in the past 62 years may do something even Paul Newman couldn’t: save the Chiefs.
Smith is reportedly among a group of investors looking to purchase the cash-strapped Johnstown Chiefs of the East Coast Hockey League—the team that inspired Newman’s 1977 hockey cult classic, Slap Shot. A farm club of the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Chiefs have a die-hard following in Johnstown, a struggling central Pennsylvania mill city, but they have had difficulty filling their quaint, 4000-seat War Memorial Arena, where Slap Shot was filmed. The current owners say a group of “out-of-town investors” is in line to purchase the club, but won’t reveal any names until after the ECHL’s Board of Governors approves the sale in June. Smith, a part-time hockey commentator for ESPN and apparently a candidate for the GM job in Anaheim, couldn’t be reached for comment. But according to the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, he attended two Chief games in December with ECHL commissioner Richard Adams and toured the arena. The new owners have reportedly committed to keeping the team in Johnstown for at least two more years. Meanwhile, who’ll save the Rangers?
Contributors: J. Yeh, Billy Altman, Brian Dunleavy Sports Editor: Ward Harkavy