THE VISION THING
Forget everything you heard. It’s not about Alonzo Mourning. (Can you really have more faith in his kidneys than in Antonio McDyess‘s knees?) It’s not about Byron Scott. (Rings or no rings, no one ever confused Gregg Popovich with Phil Jackson.) It’s not about Barbara Walters, the golf courses, or the public schools in Saddle River. When push came to shove, Jason Kidd decided to stay in New Jersey for one reason: Rod Thorn. In the new-school NBA, the biggest gap isn’t talent or money, it’s vision, and that’s one thing the Nets’ GM has in spades. During his brief reign, Thorn has used every conceivable tool—free-agent signings, trades (Keith Van Horn, we hardly knew ye), and stealthy drafts of foreigners and brainy college kids—to make the Nets better. So Kidd’s got to believe that Scott will find a more-than-adequate replacement for über-assistant Eddie Jordan, and that when, say, Kevin Garnett comes on the market next year, Thorn will figure out a way to package Kenyon Martin, Jason Collins, and Kerry Kittles for him. Does re-upping in NJ guarantee Kidd a title? Uh, no. But neither would a move to San Antonio—especially in the wake of L.A.’s snatching of Gary Payton and Karl Malone, a coup that made Kidd more attractive to the Spurs but not the other way around. Short of beating Payton to the Lakers’ mid-level exception—and taking a $100 million pay cut—there were no sure things in the free-agent market for Kidd. But Thorn is the guy who gives him the best chance of riding this wave of uncertainty, getting back to the Finals, and somehow figuring out a way to win two more games. —Allen St. John
A LAST-MINUTE RACE VICTORY
With the late addition of high-kicking Dontrelle Willis to the All-Star Game roster as a sub for Kevin Brown, everyone wins. Though fans, sportswriters, and Bud Selig himself criticized NL manager Dusty Baker for initially omitting Willis, the 21-year-old rookie unreservedly backed Baker’s original picks: “They’ve worked half their lives to be here. I’ve been here for two hours. . . . I’ve done nothing to get that honor but kick my leg up high.” Actually, the modest Marlin, promoted from Double-A in May, has done plenty to deserve his All-Star berth—at 9-1, with a 2.08 ERA record, he has the highest winning percentage and lowest ERA of any of Dusty’s selections. Willis’s success is all the more remarkable given the current dearth of black pitchers. Richard Lapchick‘s 2003 Racial and Gender Report Card charts a steep decline in the overall number of African American players in MLB, from 27 percent in 1975 to 10.5 percent today, but the situation is even worse when it comes to pitching. Only three black starters and four relievers were on the rosters as of opening day this year, according to SI.com. That’s a shocking two percent of major-league pitchers.
Baker sees mostly economic reasons why black athletes have turned away from the sport to basketball and football. Equipment and registration fees render Little League too expensive, while inner-city neighborhoods lack practice space and facilities. Observers further cite the lavish scholarships offered by college basketball and football, resources that college baseball doesn’t match. (Just 6.7 percent of NCAA Division 1 baseball players in 2001 were black.) And where draftees in other sports get to play with the best pros straight away, in baseball they face years of low-paid toil in the minors.
MLB sponsors an inner-city outreach program, but apathy keeps spreading. “People talk about blacks not coming to games. Why should they?” says Gary Sheffield. “They’d like to see at least some black players.” His point is doubly true of pitchers. Kids have stars like Sheffield, Torii Hunter, and Barry Bonds to look up to. And now, at the 11th hour, they’ll have Dontrelle Willis. —J.Y. Yeh
The curtain mercifully came down Sunday on the first act of the comedy of errors known as the 2003 Mets. The 4-3 win over the Phillies broke a six-game losing streak, but true to form, this last act featured not only the standard blown save by Armando Benitez (don’t you just love how he wanders around the mound with his nose in the air and that puzzled look on his face, still trying to figure out what stinks?), but also the irony of Roger Cedeño scoring the winning run after very nearly getting thrown out going from first to third on a double. Cedeño has a unique ability to misjudge fly balls—not only in the outfield, but on the base paths to boot. In the words of the resident press-box philosopher, the Daily News’ Vic Ziegel, “Even when the Mets win, they don’t disappoint.”
True enough, and so it seemed fitting to spend some time last weekend talking to Cleon Jones, who was on hand to help commemorate the 30th anniversary of the ’73 Mets, who went from last place in August to an improbable National League pennant and World Series berth. Jones, of course, was also a member of the ’69 Miracle Mets (the leftfielder hit .340 that year), but in addition, he was part of the amazingly awful Mets of ’65-’68, who averaged 99 losses a season. Asked about letting young players go through their growing pains on the major league level to reap rewards down the line, Jones invoked his old colleague, Met legend Ron Swoboda. “He practiced that one play all his career,” remembered Jones. “I saw him dive for that ball for five, six years—never came up with it. In the World Series, he came up with it. Practice makes what?” Yes, Tug, you gotta believe. —Billy Altman