After a slow start to the season, the Liberty have taken tenacious hold of first place in the WNBA’s Eastern Conference. If they don’t lose more than two of their last five games, they have a good shot at beating out Washington for top honors and home-court advantage in the playoffs.

But “loss” is not the L-word that most riles Liberty management. Unlike WNBA franchises in Miami, Los Angeles, Seattle, Sacramento, and Minnesota, New York still refuses to market specifically to lesbians, though they make up at least 30 percent of the league’s fan base, according to several reports. So Lesbians for Liberty, which has been urging recognition for the past several years—Gay Pride Day acknowledgment, for instance—protested last Friday as New York trounced Miami, 66-54. Holding banners proclaiming “Lesbian Fans Fill Your Stands,” they staged a kiss-in during time-outs. Management responded with a statement boasting of “an environment where everyone—regardless of age, ethnicity or sexual preference—is treated equally.” But, protest organizers say, ignoring the dyke multitudes is not equal treatment when the team does special promos for such events as Father’s Day and Black History Month. Pressed for an answer, Liberty spokespeople remained silent.

Not so sportswriters. The L-for-L action was reported in all the New York dailies and got picked up from the AP wire in a dozen cities. A case of sex selling no matter what? Of writers looking for angles now that the mere fact of the WNBA is long over as a story? Or maybe simply that the Liberty’s inexplicable rigidity—and bad business sense—is worth unmasking. Inevitably, the Times’ liberal guy’s guy, Ira Berkow, denounced the protest as “misplaced.” Noting accusations that the league has promoted heterosexual players over lesbian players, he opined, “If true, that would be loathsome.” If, Ira? As Liberty center Sue Wicks told the Voice a couple years ago, she couldn’t say how many gay athletes are in the WNBA, “but it would be easier to count the straight ones.” Yet she’s the only one to have pried open the closet door the league slams shut on players. Fans, at least, can agitate for visibility. Ever-natty coach Richie Adubato may have provided some unwitting solidarity on Friday: He was sporting a bright lavender shirt. —Alisa Solomon


News flash: Mike Mussina replaced by alien replicant. Well, it’s the only logical explanation for his dismal performance this season. After he dominated the second half of 2001 (remember that breathtaking, nearly perfect game at Fenway?), this was to be Mussina’s golden year; most baseball hacks predicted he’d take the Cy Young. Instead, his 4.83 ERA is the worst among Yankee starters—and the worst of his career—while last week’s slaughter in Texas (3 IP, 7 R) added another miserable outing to the list. “I’m not happy with much of anything right now,” grumbled Moose, attributing his failure, and faltering velocity, to possible flaws in his delivery. But his famously exquisite, self-taught mechanics—honed by hours of throwing against a basement wall in his youth—look as sharp as ever. “Whenever anyone struggles,” observes curveball king Barry Zito, “it’s mental.” Or, as songstress Pink succinctly put it, “Don’t let me get me.”

With a year in pinstripes under his belt, Mussina should be in better spirits: His frosty relationship with reporters has thawed, he knows his teammates, he trusts his coach. It’s a far cry from the tumult of his early days with the Orioles, when he was once at the center—literally—of a 20-minute bench-clearing brawl. (Johnny Oates‘s thoughts from the sidelines: “Mussina, don’t get hurt; Mussina, don’t be a hero; Mussina, run.”) Then there was the All-Star Game at which the cocky ace warmed up of his own accord in the bullpen, trying to force AL manager Cito Gaston to let him pitch. (He didn’t, and who has heard of Gaston since?) Whatever’s eating Mussina this season, the Yanks hope it stops—soon. “Moose and Rocket are our 1-2,” said Jorge Posada in April. “If those guys go down, we go down with them.” That, come October, may prove all too true. —J. Yeh


Because Steve Phillips has never met a trading deadline he didn’t like, it was hardly a surprise that the Met general manager made several moves last week to try to bolster his underachieving team for a run (or at least a stumble) at the NL wild-card slot. It also wasn’t a surprise that the Mets moved Jay Payton, who since the All-Star break was hitting just enough (over .350) to entice Colorado to take him and Mark Corey in exchange for run-of-the-mill starter John Thomson.

The Mets took Payton in the first round of the ’94 draft and hung with him through numerous injuries before he finally made it to the majors, but his failure to improve as a hitter since a respectable 2000 rookie season helped write his ticket to Denver. Bobby Valentine was asked if Payton’s departure was going to put added pressure on season-long slumper Jeromy Burnitz. “How many doubles did Jay have? How many homers?” replied Valentine. Indeed, Payton’s power numbers (6 2B, 8 HR, and 31 RBI in 275 at-bats) were hardly better than Burnitz’s (8 2B, 10 HRs, 32 RBI in 330 AB). “I think Jeromy is a good player who hasn’t played well,” added the Met skipper, implying that Burnitz at his worst wasn’t going to give him any less than Payton at his best. Payton’s cockiness didn’t exactly endear him to teammates. Without the stats to back it up, his swagger always seemed a bit muy macho. —Billy Altman