Must’ve been close to 20 years ago when we walked into the Yankee clubhouse before a game and found reigning batting champion Don Mattingly meticulously weighing each of a dozen bats he’d recently received from a big-name manufacturer. “You see this?” he said, shaking his head. “Every single one of these things is 33 1/2 or 34 ounces. They’re supposed to be 32. I thought they were feeling different.” At the time, we surmised that perhaps it wasn’t the Louisville Slugger people who were at fault, but rather the pitchers trying to sabotage Mattingly. Nothing, however, explains Met slugger Mo Vaughn spending nearly a week not recognizing the difference between his usual 36-ounce bats and the 38- and even 40-ounce models he was using—nagging pain in his right arm finally alerted him that something might be wrong.

Apologists for the slugger’s slow response time in this Maplegate affair note that Vaughn missed all of last season due to injury (to his other arm, by the way), but with a quarter of the 2002 campaign in the books, it’s getting harder to excuse his anemic numbers. Through May 20, Big Mo was hitting .252, with three homers and 15 RBI in 111 at-bats. By comparison, Little Joe McEwing (about 100 pounds lighter than the potentate-sized Vaughn) had the same number of homers and only one fewer RBI—in just 67 at-bats. Between Vaughn’s batting average (.212 in May), baserunning that gives new meaning to the word lumbering, and a fielding range measured in centimeters, the Van’s mileage sure doesn’t seem to be justifying the cost per gallon of his eight-figure contract. —Billy Altman


There were lots of girls sporting faded-teal No. 50 Liberty shirts among the 13,005 fans cheering on New York at the Garden for Saturday’s pre-season finale against the Houston Comets. But old No. 50 was herself wearing red. After several seasons being paid to warm the bench—and the hearts of all those little girls—marquee forward Rebecca Lobo was traded to the Comets last month in exchange for a second-round draft pick. Lobo tore her ACL in the season opener in 1999 and spent the year rehabbing only to tear it again. In a tentative comeback last year, she averaged only 5.3 minutes in 16 games, so the Liberty have long gotten used to playing without her. Playing against her didn’t seem to faze them, either: With heavy defense, the Liberty easily trounced the old champs, 62-47. The game started out looking more like a practice scrimmage than a re-igniting of the flaming rivalry between the beasts of the East and the best of the West—and not just because the play was sloppy and slow. Three former Liberty players started for the Comets (Lobo, Grace Daley, and point guard Coquese Washington), and though 2000 MVP Sheryl Swoopes was back after tearing her ACL last year, all-star forward Tina Thompson was out with a sprained ankle. So was Liberty center Tari Phillips, who strained her hamstring.

That gave coach Richie Adubato some room to try out new combos before the WNBA regular season begins on May 25. But only Korie Hlede, whom Adubato snatched from Utah after her worst season, got some serious minutes. New York’s great unspoken need is a point guard who can replace Teresa Weatherspoon, who will turn 37 this year; along with crowd-favorite Becky Hamilton, Hlede seems to be Adubato’s new great blond hope. If the teams haven’t yet jelled, the fans are raring to go. New Yorkers shifted loyalties as fast as Houston turned the ball over on Saturday: Lobo came to the free-throw line and was roundly booed. —Alisa Solomon


Banned from perhaps half the boxing gyms in the New York City area for bad behavior, veteran trainer Milton LaCroix was a pariah around the amateur city circuit, even though his fighters won the New York City Golden Gloves year after year. People in the boxing community couldn’t stand him. Some were threatened by his brash behavior; others questioned his sometimes harsh tactics. Robert Anasi, a fighter who trained under LaCroix, depicted him as an abusive coach in a recent book entitled The Gloves. All of this had LaCroix contemplating changing professions, but that was before he he was hired to train another guy with a questionable reputation, heavyweight Shannon Briggs, for a fight against Jameel “Big Time” McCline last month at Madison Square Garden.

Briggs, originally from Brownsville in Brooklyn, was knocked down in round six and lost a 10-round decision in the April 27 bout. But he did better than the experts thought he would, and LaCroix’s performance was also encouraging. Primarily a coach of amateurs, LaCroix had handled a few pros, but those were mostly club fighters, not the sort to fight in a main event on HBO. “Everybody thought that I was going to be nervous,” he said, “but I’ve been to the Garden before with the Gloves.” LaCroix, who left New York to train Briggs in Florida, said he doesn’t know when he’ll come back to the city. But one of his fighters from the amateurs, 2002 Golden Gloves winner Julian Townsend, lives here and may turn pro soon. “If I come back to New York, everybody’s gym will shut down,” LaCroix said. “They’ll have a heart attack. I don’t think people here realized how good I was until I left.” —Mitch Abramson