posted: Aug. 30, 2005  |  Feedback

Some short bytes on a Tuesday ...

• Disappointed in "Prison Break" Monday night -- it was all over the place and nearly impossible to follow unless you were keeping a chart or something. The guy who played the brother on death row was such a brutal actor, even the Sports Gal noticed (and she never notices stuff like that). The lead female could have been cuter. Didn't like the bad guys that much, except for the Boggs rip-off from "Shawshank" (he was slightly creepy). And I knew going in that the premise was ridiculous, but watching it, it was even more ridiculous than I expected. This would have been a much better HBO show -- they could have thrown in some nudity during the conjugal visit, the riot scene would have been much more over the top, and the swear words would have loosened things up. Anyway, I'm giving it two more weeks to see if it gets better ... if not, I'm pulling the plug.

• Now here's a show that delivers the goods: "Kill Reality" on E! Every week, this show gets a little better and a little more insane, capped off by Monday night's unbelievable drunken/violent/homicidal cameo by Katie from the "Real World/Road Rules Challenge." Somebody needs to create the "Reality-TV Awards" just so she can win the award for "Best Job of Embarrassing Everyone In Your Family." If my daughter ever turns out like her, just shoot me in the head. I'm begging you. What a show. You know the house is crazy when Trishelle -- probably the biggest drunken bimbo in the history of the "Real World" -- evolves into the voice of reason in the house. Now that's scary.

A few other things I enjoy about this show...

1. The immortal Jonny Fairplay ... I thought his career peaked with the grandmother lie on "Survivor," but then he came up with the "Upper Decker" -- an act that was so disgusting and inspired, it started an e-mail war with me and my college roommates because we were so disappointed that our buddy Blueboy (my craziest roommate in college) didn't know about the Upper Decker when we were in school. (Note: Blueboy claimed that he did know about it, but given his body of work in college, none of us believed him. This would be like attending college with Courtney Love and asking her, "Hey, did you know about cocaine when we were there?" and her saying, "Oh, yeah, I knew about it, I just never wanted to try it." I think the Blueboy is crushed that he never thought of it.) Regardless, Fairplay might be the first reality-TV character without a ceiling -- he's capable of anything -- as well as being the type of guy about whose love life people are always pointing out stuff like "Well, one girl got you evicted from your apartment by throwing all your stuff out the window..."

2. Watching people like Bob Guinea, Trishelle, Jenna Morasco and others trying to act ... I can't say enough about it. Highest of high comedy.

3. Rob S. from "Survivor" (one of the producers) could be the dorkiest guy in reality TV history -- he's almost tragically uncomfortable on camera, yet he keeps coming back for more. You can almost imagine his practicing funny lines in the shower, then screwing them up when he's trying to say them in front of the camera crew. And while we're here, I can't say enough about Tonya from "Real World," who's starting to look worn down like one of those porn actresses who films too many movies in too short of a span. The fact that she hasn't leaked an Internet porn tape yet remains the biggest upset of the 21st century so far.

(Hey Tonya: Time is running out. You have about 15 months of partying left in you before you're going to look like you're 45 years old. So hurry it up.)

4. During some of the party scenes, you can't help but wonder, "Wow, I think some of these people are a little more than liquored up"... and then Radar Online ran a report Monday about rampant drug use and even a couple of wild orgies during the filming (I'm not allowed to link to it). Fun for the whole family! Anyway, I highly recommend this show if you enjoy ridiculing others and don't care about watching TV shows with no redeeming social value whatsoever.

• From bad TV to good TV: A&E is running a "24" marathon of Season 4 this weekend -- Sunday and Monday, all 24 episodes -- which means I'll be caught up in time for Season 5 later this month. Thank you, TV gods.

• The Al Michaels e-mails keep pouring in. Did you know that ...

A. Al announced the Scott Norwood Game? Only the most famous missed kick in football history.

B. According to Colorado reader Tom Stearns, you can find this note on the official Cleveland Indians site from former Tribe infielder Duane Kuiper:

"Most people don't remember the game in 1977 that I hit my home run -- my only home run (in 3,378 at-bats) -- and that Al Michaels was doing it on national television. Michaels, you know, was famous for what he said during the 1980 Olympics. When the U.S. hockey team beat Russia, Michaels said, 'Do you believe in miracles?' Well, he used that same line -- 'Do you believe in miracles?' -- when I hit that home run, and that was three years before he said it in the Olympics."

• On the phone last week, my buddy Gus claimed that David Wright, barring injury, will be the greatest Mets position player ever by the time he's 28. That seemed crazy to me, so we argued about it. Then Gus sent me an e-mail with the Mets' leaders in every category, including home runs (Strawberry, 252), RBI (Strawberry, 733), average (Olerud, .315), runs (Strawberry, 662) and hits (Kranepool, 1,418). Now that's astounding. (Ed Kranepool is the team leader in hits? He had 18 more than Mike Greenwell!) In 45 years, their best hitters were Piazza, Hernandez, Carter and Strawberry, although none of them peaked for more than four to six years. In that same time, the Red Sox had Yaz (23 years), Rice (15 years), Boggs (11), Fisk (9), Nomar (8), Vaughn (7), Lynn (6) and Manny (5 and counting). Just thought that was crazy.

• Speaking of the Sox, a funny e-mail from Owen in Montana:

"The world is waiting for your perspective on what was easily the most entertaining moment from Friday night's Red Sox game. On the very slight chance that you missed it, John O'Hurley sang God Bless America for the seventh-inning stretch, and NESN interviewed him afterward. At the end of the interview, he showed off his new trophy wife, with whom he was celebrating his one-year anniversary. As things wrapped up, O'Hurley's parting comment was that 'the most amazing thing about her is that even after a year, she still has that new wife smell.' This comment provoked a fit of uncontrolled laughter from Jerry Remy, that is if you can describe five minutes of mucous-laden wheezing as 'laughter.' Eventually Remy pulled himself together long enough to observe that if O'Hurley does indeed own the J. Peterman label, 'No wonder he's got a new wife.' Hopefully you got to experience this moment as it happened, and hopefully you could share that experience."

Owen's right -- the best part was that it was a throwaway line right at the end of the interview, so it came out of nowhere, and then Remy started with the nicotine wheeze/laugh and pushed it to another level. I do think Remy and Orsillo have been cracking up waaaaaaaaay too much this season -- it's like they're doing Whip-Its on Friday nights -- but in this case, it was completely warranted. And yes, we're getting closer and closer to the game when Remy actually coughs up one of his lungs on the air. It's coming.

• Finally, this week's sports book recommendation ...

A few years ago, Wall Street Journal reporter Stefan Fatsis threw himself into the world of competitive Scrabble, which has so many tortured freaks, it makes the World Series of Poker look normal by comparison. As with any good author, Fatsis ends up getting a little too involved, messing around with Scrabble on his own and slowly understanding how this game can consume people. The end result was "Word Freak," a unique, well-written, entertaining, fascinating, thoughtful sports book that still holds up four years later. If poker can be considered a sport, then so should Scrabble ... which is why I'm making the executive decision to give this "top-50 sports book" status.

Want the book? Here are the links: link | Barnes and Noble

posted: Aug. 29, 2005  |  Feedback

Other than "Should I be concerned about the Red Sox?", the most common e-mail I get in late August and early September is "Who did you draft on your fantasy team?" Sad but true. And since my first fantasy draft (for my East Coast league) took place yesterday morning, I thought it would be easiest just to tell you what happened and give my mailbox a break.

Our league rules: 10 teams, 17-week regular season, four teams make the playoffs, fantasy playoffs mirror the real playoffs -- you get to protect six players, then draft from the teams that didn't make it to fill out the other spots (total playoff points wins). That means players who are pretty much guaranteed to make the playoffs (Dillon, Brady, Manning, McNabb, T.O., Culpepper) are a little more valuable than guys on shakier teams (McGahee, Moss, Julius Jones). Also, we start everybody on our 13-man roster (2 QBs, 4 RBs, 4 WRs, 1 TE, 1 K, 1 D) and can only bench someone if they're injured or it's their bye week (so there's a ton of waiver wire action every Tuesday). And due to our primitive scoring system that was created in 1990 when nobody knew any better, defenses are more valuable than in normal leagues.

I drew the seventh pick overall. The top six unfolded like this: Tomlinson, Manning, Holmes, Alexander, James, McGahee … giving me Corey Dillon at No. 7 (major upside for the playoffs).

Next six picks: Culpepper, Barber (yikes), Moss, Green, Portis, Lewis. And I was sitting there at No. 14 doing backflips because I didn't like Barber (coming off a career year), Green (potentially crappy team) or Portis (ditto), and Maryland reader Chris F. scared me off Jamal Lewis with the following e-mail this weekend:

"Let me give you some inside skinny on him. Do not [ignore] the four months he spent in jail. I work in a jail and while he may not have been doing hard time, the experience will affect him. The food sucks in jail. We try to fill them with fatty/carbo laden food. He either ate badly or not at all. This is not like 'The Wire' where the CO brings in good food for the well-connected inmates. Also, most jails/prisons that have short-timer inmates do not provide weights. The liability is too high as is the risk of injury. Jamal may have done some cardio work in prison but due to a poor diet and lack of weights, he most certainly lost muscle. These top athletes are used to the best food, equipment, and staff to keep them in shape year round and Jamal missed all of this for a large portion of his offseason. Plus the time on house arrest where he did not have access to the Ravens' facilities will also be a factor. Look for a very off year for him and stay away in the first round. He is already injury prone and with the rust and loss of muscle I hope someone wastes a first-round pick on him in my league(s). Just my two pennies worth."

Now that's an interesting e-mail. Anyway, I was delighted to drop a Deuce with my second-round pick.

The next nine picks: J. Jones, R. Johnson, McNabb, Owens, D. Davis, Holt (over Harrison!), L. Jordan, Harrison, Collins (yikes).

Now we're at the No. 4 pick in Round 3. Kevin Jones and Chad Johnson are still on the board. I'm dying for one of them. Of course, Jones goes at No. 24, then my friend Wyman takes Chad Johnson with the next pick. Do you have that one guy in your league who always manages to take the guys you like every year, no matter where you're respectively picking in each draft? That's Wyman for me. I'm thinking of having him killed this winter.

Then, some luck: Mahady takes Marc Bulger right in front of me. Let's just say Bulger wasn't on my list. And since I need a receiver at No. 27, I have a choice between Burleson, Walker, Wayne, Andre Johnson and Joe Horn … and end up grabbing Burleson. Which reminds me, the NFL Network has a great show on Fridays and Saturdays called "No Huddle," where they zoom around to different preseason games. Very valuable TiVo material in Exhibition Week 3 when everyone's playing their starters in the first half. Anyway, any doubt I had about Burleson was erased when I watched that show and Culpepper kept throwing to Burleson (five catches, 97 yards) for the entire first half. So I was happy with that one.

Next six picks: J. Walker, R. Wayne, S. Jackson, C. Martin, A. Johnson, T. Brady.

Now I'm on the clock again. And Joe Horn is the right pick. There's no question. He's the best guy on the board. But that would also give me the two best Saints, and there's nothing worse than having the two best guys on a subpar team. So I took Trent Green instead (the last good QB on the board).

Next 12 picks: Gonzalez, Westbrook, Mike Anderson (that 93-yard TD run Saturday bumped him up about 4 rounds), T. Henry, J. Horn, Ravens D, Gates, H. Ward, S. Smith (that one hurt, I wanted him), Buffalo D, R. Williams (Wyman again -- damn him), D. Jackson.

My choices at No. 47: Drew Bennett, Michael Clayton or Larry Fitzgerald. Because I'm drinking the Norm Chow Kool-Aid, I end up making Bennett the highest white receiver taken in six years (since the heyday of Easy Ed McCaffrey). Now I'm hoping Clayton or Fitzgerald falls to me at No. 54 … and that's exactly what happens (I landed Fitzgerald).

The rest of my team (the "Sex Panthers"): Ronnie Brown (No. 67), Jake Delhomme (No. 74), Cedric Benson (No. 87 -- and he signed four hours later), L.J. Smith (No. 94), Deion Branch (No. 107), Neil Rackers (No. 114), Arizona D (No. 127). Why Brown and Benson, you ask? Because every year, there's always one rookie RB (and possibly two) that heat up as the season goes along and ends up with 1,100-plus yards and 8-10 TDs (last year, it was Kevin Jones). And since both guys were top-five picks in real life, I thought I could get lucky with one of them.

My big mistake: In the eighth round, I was worried there were three decent QBs left (Brees, Delhomme and Warner) and I wouldn't get any of them, so I took Delhomme over the Panthers D (my No. 1 choice for a defense because I think they can win the NFC). Next pick, someone takes Carolina's D, and then there was a run on defenses … I ended up getting screwed. Now I'm going to have to play Defense Roulette -- pick up various defenses from week to week depending on the matchups. I hate Defense Roulette.

Anyway, here are everyone's teams. I'll let you decide who looks the best:

Grady (drafting 1st): Tomlinson, RB; Holt, WR; Jordan, RB; Ravens D; Gates, TE; Hasselbeck, QB; Taylor, RB; R. Smith, WR; Brees, QB; Burress, WR; Droughns, RB; Keyshawn, WR; Nugent, K.

Camp (2nd): Manning, QB; D. Davis, RB; Harrison, WR; Horn, WR; Ward, WR; Cadillac, RB; Eagles D; T. Bell, RB; Coles, WR; Pennington, QB; Suggs, RB; McMichael TE; Kasay, K.

Rusty (3rd): Holmes, RB; Owens, WR; Collins, QB; Henry, RB; S. Smith WR; Foster, RB; Brooks, QB; Bennett, RB; Shockey, TE; Chambers, WR; Lloyd, WR; Wilkins, K; Tampa D.

Stoner (4th): Alexander, RB; McNabb, QB; K. Jones, RB; M. Anderson, RB; Buffalo D; Porter, WR; Vinatieri, K; Stokley, WR; Mason, WR; Williamson, WR; Plummer, QB; Franks, TE; S. Davis, RB.

Wyman (5th): James, RB; R. Johnson, RB; C. Johnson, WR; Westbrook, RB; R. Williams, WR; Boldin, WR; Witten, TE; Barlow, RB; Leftwich, QB; Kennison, WR; Falcons D; Stover, K; Carr, QB.

Mahady (6th): McGahee, RB; J. Jones, RB; Bulger, QB; Gonzalez, TE; D. Jackson, WR; Driver, WR; C. Brown, RB; Panthers D; Houshmandzadeh, WR; L. Johnson, RB; Smith, WR; Janikowski K; Warner, QB.

Simmons (7th): Dillon, RB; McAllister, RB; Burleson, WR; Green, QB; Bennett, WR; Fitzgerald, WR; R. Brown, RB; Delhomme, QB; Benson, RB; L.J. Smith, TE; Branch, WR; Arizona D; Rackers, K.

Andy (8th): Culpepper, QB; Lewis, RB; Walker, WR; Brady, QB; Dunn, RB; Heap, TE; Patriots D; Akers, K; Bruce, WR; Moulds, WR; Faulk, RB; Taylor, RB; McCardell, WR.

John/Chris (9th): Barber, RB; Portis, RB; Wayne, WR; A. Johnson, WR; Vick, QB; Palmer, QB; Arrington, RB; Crumpler, TE; Vanderjagt, K; Bettis, RB; Muhammad, WR; Bears D; Rogers, WR.

Swanny (10th): Moss, WR; Green, RB; S. Jackson, RB; Martin, RB; Clayton, WR; Favre, QB; Steelers D; Lelie, WR; S. Moss, WR; Elam, K; Duckett, RB; Clark, TE; Griese, QB.

Who has the best-looking team? Probably Camper with Manning, Davis, Harrison, Horn and everyone else. I also like the team that Stoner (our defending champ) drafted because he used his first few picks for RBs and a good QB/defense and landed three decent WRs late. I'm not sure about my team -- as it turned out, I'm relying on too much T.U.P. (tremendous upside potential) with my young guys (Burleson, Bennett, Fitzgerald, Brown, Benson), usually a recipe for disaster in a fantasy league. But we'll see.

And yes, when guys write about their fantasy draft, it's almost as boring as someone writing about their latest poker experience. I apologize for what just happened. But look at it this way:

1. At least nobody has to send me a "How did you do in your draft?" e-mail now.

2. You just read the entire post.

(See, you might be a little more addicted to fantasy football than you thought.)

posted: Aug. 25, 2005  |  Feedback

One crucial note: I bought the new "Stripes" anniversary DVD last weekend and finally had a chance to zoom through the deleted scenes Wednesday night. Did you know there's a two-minute deleted scene with a topless P.J. Soles (one of the underrated babes of the late '70s) trying to seduce Bill Murray's character? Oh, it's on there. Shouldn't they advertise these things on the DVD case? The 25th anniversary edition, 18 minutes of new footage, PJ SOLES NAKED!!!!!!!!! Let's hope this sparks a new DVD trend.

Also, I haven't seen the Moss/Gumbel interview on HBO yet, but my buddy House reports that the absolute highlight is Gumbel's altering his cadence/dialect in an attempt to relate to Moss, which has always been my favorite aspect of the Bryant Gumbel era (when he inexplicably turns into the stewardess from "Airplane" with certain black guests). Since Brian Austin Green used to do the same thing on "90210" with any black co-star, I always wondered what would happen if Gumbel ever interviewed Green. Would they just say "Screw it" and both start talking like that? I wish there was a way to find out.

Anyway, I was going through seven documents filled with mailbag questions from the past 12 months and decided, "Screw it, I'm only keeping the ones that are guaranteed to make the mailbag and dumping everything else." Since some of the leftovers were funny/bizarre/strangely informative, here's a special edition of "Yup, These Are My Readers."

Wouldn't Rafael Palmeiro make the perfect new James Bond? He's got a great look, can lie right to your face even under oath, is deceptively strong thanks to the roids, and can go all night due to the big V. Let's go already!
-- Evan T., New York, NY

In reference to the statement made in your column on 4/23/2004 in about how the "Separate Ways" video was the funniest four minutes of the '80s and maybe any decade, I must take umbrage -- everyone knows that Billy Squier's "Rock Me Tonite" was the funniest 4 minutes MTV or VH1 has ever shown. The sight of Squier bouncing effeminately around while singing some of the cheesiest lyrics ever written has got to top even the immortal "Separate Ways." Look what it did for Squier's career as a "guitar virtuoso" -- even he admits it killed his career -- COMPLETELY -- with no hope of any comeback at all. Journey survived a little longer -- not much, but a little.
-- Trent Boreman, Charlotte, NC

One of the greatest mysteries in movie history: In Rocky III, Rocky and Apollo in Rock's old gym, talking about getting the edge back. Apollo says, "I trained hard, but I didn't have that look in my eye. You had it; you won." Wait, he didn't have that 'eye of the tiger' for Rocky II!! Are you kidding me? Throughout the entire 15 rounds he wanted to annihilate Balboa into next month. If anyone had that look, it was Apollo, so I don't get it. Any explanation? This had troubled me for some time.
-- Sean, Waltham, Mass.

Yesterday my wife asked me if I would have any objection to her ordering a "how-to-have-better-sex" video series. I told her I would only go along with it if the video series met one of two criteria -- either the series must be personally endorsed by Fred McGriff, or the series must have been used by "back-to-back-to-back" national love making champions. I don't think she got the joke. Can you explain it to her? Also, is there something wrong with me that my wife is asking me to take lessons on love making? Should I care more than I do?
-- Greg, Seattle, WA

If Fred Taylor's hamstring physically tears out of his body on a run then picks up the ball and slices and dices its way to the end zone for a TD, do you still get fantasy points?
-- Tim DeGrande, Stoughton, Ma

I am troubled by all of the Tom Brady lust expressed by Sports Gal and many other sports-watching females. As a Mass. native, it's overwhleming and shows a real lack of imagination on the part of his followers. He's like a bastardized version of Matt Damon with half the IQ and a much more grating, high-pitched, prepubescent laugh and Nomar's oversized Brite Smile dentures. To me, he looks like "Preppy Rapist #2" from a Lifetime movie circa 1992 starring both Meredith Baxter and Tori Spelling. I greatly prefer Johnny Damon, the Sexiest Man Alive (especially the clean-shaven, mid-summer 2002 version). Sometimes I forget how many outs there are if I sit in the center field bleachers at Fenway because my eyes are glued on Johnny 95% of the time. Unfortunately, Johnny sometimes forgets how to count outs as well.
-- Liz, Boston, MA

What is the most reprehensible thing you have ever done to win a game of Madden against your nemesis opponent (we all have that guy we can never beat)? For me, it was in 1992 when I started to secretly videotape games, and go back to watch the tapes to try and learn their tendencies.
-- Drew, Chesapeake, VA

Do you think there is there any chance that when Rocky IV is re-released on DVD for some uber-special fill in the blank anniversary addition we will get to see deleted scenes where Rock and the gang are actually setting up for the activities performed during the training montage? For example:

Rocky: "Hey Duke, I'm kinda gettin' tired of this splittin' wood stuff."

Duke: "No problem champ. Today I got you bench-pressing a wheel barrel filled with me, Paulie and Adrian. Then we're gonna bob and weave you past a piece of string."

You think that's how it went down?
-- JS McCredy, Chicago

Did you know that the numbers that are the center of a mystery on Lost (4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42) are all numbers that have been retired by the New York Yankees? In order, Gehrig, Berra/Dickey, Munson, Whitey Ford, Mattingly and Jackie Robinson.
-- Jeff, Owasso, OK

Growing up, was there ever a group of athletes that you always detested? Mine up through high school was always the lacrosse players. Even though I loved watching the sport, these were the guys that would always walk around school with their lacrosse sticks, as if to say "in case you didn't know, I am a lacrosse player. In fact I am so good that I must carry this stick around with me all day." 95% percent of the time they were always jerks and they tried to run you off the road with their jeeps, which always had at least ten lacrosse bumper stickers on them. What about you?
-- Cassidy, Washington, DC

So, as I am reading your column with many references to past cultural icons, it dawns on me: Bill "The Sports Guy" Simmons could someday be an historic cultural icon! Has that realization hit you yet? How do you see your life 10 years after you disappear and have become a "what ever happened to him" kind of person? I'm thinking that I see you on a special sports writer edition of Jeopardy! losing to John Hollinger and Gregg Easterbrook.
-- Toby, Portland, OR

Since there have been so many different seasons of the Real World and Road Rules (with each season usually including at least one gay cast member), how about setting up the next season of the Real World/Road Rules challenge as "Battle of the Sexual Preferences"? Just think of all the possibilities and over the top dramatics! The unintentional comedy scale would be hitting an all-time high … and Veronica can play on both teams (sort of like an all-time QB).
-- Steve Starzynski, Chicago, IL

After reading your Summer Slam diary and your wishes that the ECW "You (bleeped) Up!!!" chant would make its way into other sporting events, I just thought I'd let you know that it has in Madison, WI. Whenever the opposing team gets a penalty at a UW home football game, they are immediately hit with a rousing chorus of the famous ECW chant. How this has never made it onto national television, I'll never know. At least they're doing you proud in the land of beer and brats!
-- Scott Saunders, Libertyville, IL

I really think it's about time O.J. Simpson was back in the spotlight. Couldn't he make a guest spot on HBO's inside the NFL where each week he tries to predict the top performers in next week's matchups? I mean would anybody really be against this? &Well, other than the Goldmans and the Browns of course. I'm going to hell.
-- Jason Kahn, Newton MA My one ESPYs comment: Did LeBron steal that fake laugh from Magic? He almost fell off his chair at Matt Perry's lame baseball announcer bit.
-- Mike Holland, Sparta, NJ

Will there be a day when we look back and say "The pitcher not wearing a helmet was just as stupid as when batter's didn't wear helmets and hockey players went without protection?" I read about the line drive that hit Matt Clement and cringed with each added detail (Left Field!?). I don't think I even want to turn the highlights on tonight. This is not an isolated incident. As a Red Sox fan, you will remember Bryce Florie being struck in the face. Kaz Ishii had his skull fractured at some point in the last couple of seasons. A High School Legion player was killed with a line drive two years ago (and they blamed it on aluminum bats, hmph). Any one of the line drives that hit Florie, Clement and Ishii could have been fatal if it impacted, say, 2 inches away from where it actually did. If our ignorance prevails, the law of averages will leave a major league pitcher dead on the mound one day. I hope the day we say "Boy, that was stupid" comes first.
-- Brian Brill, Philadelphia

Who do you think will be the first person to have an on-air heart attack on WEEI? My bet is on Pete Sheppard, although Glenn Ordway is my dark horse because he always looks like he just ate something huge.
-- John, Laramie, WY

How come Clarice Starling's best friend at the Academy, Ardelia, gets no credit at all for bringing down Buffalo Bill? First, she's smokin' hot and second, she figures out Hannibal's clues about Bill knowing Fredrica Bimmell side by side with Clarice. Does she get a promotion? Nope, she has to endure a cocktail hour with the dorky insect guys. It's just so unfair. Like they couldn't have included a shower scene?
-- Christian Puchkoris, Manchester, CT
When will we see the EA Sports game called "MLB -- Juicin' It," where you build your players by giving them steroids. And you would have to take suspensions and everything for failing "tests" given by the commission. Also, you could play historical teams or players juiced. Ideas?
-- Bryan, Houston

I recently started trying to eat more healthy (I figured Taco Bell 5 times a week isn't the best way to be nice to my body). This has lead to an increase in actually looking at nutrition labels on the food I eat. And here's my question: Why does corn have calories? It is in the same state going out as coming in. That's idiotic. It seems to me that it should have negative calories because the body uses more energy to push the stuff through than it gets out of "digesting" it.
-- Chris, Urbandale, IA

My brother-in-law developed a movie theory that I think you'll be into. We call it "Rockwell Theory", named after actor Sam Rockwell. Aside from liking the name, it was during the movie "Matchstick Men" that the idea was conceived. The theory is this: Generally speaking, when a B-list movie star appears in a movie in a "supposed" minor role, you can bank on them being involved in the "big twist" at the end of the film, thus eliminating the element of surprise. Of course, not every movie has a twist at the end, but the theory is so accurate that it has taken away the excitement from movies such as Batman Begins (Liam Neeson), Collateral (Jada Pinkett Smith), The Village (Adrien Brody), and of course, Matchstick Men (Sam Rockwell).
-- Scott Koenig, San Diego, CA

(Note from Simmons: My personal favorite here was Michael Rooker's performance in "Sea of Love." He was an up-and-comer back then, and he was casually thrown into like one scene in the first hour of the movie, even though he was billed like fourth in the credits. I mean, you just knew he was the killer. There was no doubt.)

Does Joe Morgan's wardrobe make you want to watch 'Boogie Nights'? --Steve, Washington DC You can't just casually drop a bombshell like "Johnny Damon has the most famous hair in the history of baseball" at the end of (yet another) Bosox blurb in the Cowbell without some analysis or backup. Now I'm not saying he doesn't, but I'm guessing the Oscar Gamble 'fro, the Sammy Sosa flat-top, the Randy Johnson mullet and the Mike Piazza frosted tips would each like a chance to state their case.
-- Scott, New York (via Detroit)

How has Ian Ziering never been cast on "The Surreal Life"? It's like they made a documentary about white point guards in the NBA and failed to interview Steve Nash. It's inexcusable. I think for the next series they should bring back Flavor Flav, only this time team him up with Darryl Strawberry, Robert Downey Jr., Courtney Love and Tatum O'Neal. Finally we will see what happens when people stop being polite and start freebasing. I know you've thought about this too, Bill.
-- Saverio, Clifton Park, NY

Doug Christie was released by the Magic yesterday. Do you think that when he tells his wife that he got released it will play out like the scene in "Any Given Sunday" when Dennis Quaid gets slapped by Lauren Holly?

Doug: "Everybody's been telling me what to do, ever since college, this is not your decision."

Mrs. Christie (slaps Doug): "I will not listen to this [expletive] from you, I will not."

Doug: (points in the air to say hi to his wife)
-- Jeff, Manalapan, NJ

Why doesn't Roger Clemens' name come up in the "Guess who's on steroids" game? He's 43 years old. Up to 235 pounds (a good 50 more than when he broke into the league). And after averaging a 4.0 ERA from 1999-2003, he suddenly becomes unhittable. I mean really, he's starting to look like one of the British Bulldogs.
-- Matt Morin, San Francisco, CA

In response to why women hate Jennifer Love Hewitt: First, who told her to be an actress, because someone LIED to her. Obviously her acting skills are not why she is so popular (among men). Did she learn nothing from Pam Anderson? Just pose in Playboy, that is if she hasn't already, and shut your mouth. Who actually watched "VIP" or "Barb Wire" with the mute off? NO ONE!! and no one watched "Heartbreakers" or "I know what you did last summer" for the Oscar award-winning acting or story lines. Put America out of its misery and stop with the pathetic attempts at acting or singing. Second, if I have to see her on the cover of MAXIM/STUFF/FHM one more time talking about her humanitarian efforts to save little pink bunnies. I swear on my 1998 Yankees World Series tape that I will do not so nice things to her. And finally, it should be illegal to be that skinny and have breasts that large, literally a walking, talking, real-life barbie doll. Not that I'm jealous or anything. Seriously. That pretty much sums up why we hate her. Hey Jennifer, "WHY DON'T YOU GO BACK TO YOUR HOME ON WHORE ISLAND!"
-- Isabella M.

When will we be able to buy a desktop calendar with nothing but Mike Tyson quotes on it? I wonder what they would put on Valentines Day, or even Christmas? Good Times.
-- Zane, Seattle WA

posted: Aug. 25, 2005  |  Feedback

Before we get to this week's sports book recommendation, I wanted to mention a few things:

• In Monday's Johnny Damon column, I had a brainfart about the game-saving catch in Tampa Bay -- it would have been a game-ending extra-base hit, not a homer. Still a great catch though.

• This is a new one: A correction for a reader's correction. During the 1997 playoffs, Al Michaels didn't broadcast the Music City Miracle game or the Jags-Dolphins blowout -- he did the Miami-Seattle game, which was memorable because it was probably Marino's last great comeback, as well as one of the defining games that caused me to create the "Never bet on a bad QB in a playoff game" rule in the NFL Gambling Manifesto (Jon Kitna completely self-destructed that day). And while we're here, as a few readers pointed out, Michaels also announced the infamous Don Denkinger Game, which would have been the most famous blown call in the history of professional sports if the two teams involved weren't Kansas City and St. Louis.

• In last week's mailbag, I wrote that Michaels' partner for the 1980 USA-USSR game was the DJ Jazzy Jeff/Andrew Ridgeley of hockey announcers. Unbeknownst to me, his partner was actually the great Ken Dryden, whose name my editors added as the last sentence in the paragraph (inadvertently making it seem like I thought Dryden was a nobody or something). Believe me, I would never think that about Ken Dryden -- the guy owned the Bruins for a solid decade. Just killed us. When he retired, it was like seeing somebody chop Jason's head off in a "Friday the 13th" movie.

• In Friday's Blue Chips column, I write that my buddy Jim and I drove from Colgate to Ithaca to see "Rocky 5" ... actually, it was Utica. According to Jim, we saw the movie at the Sangertown Mall. Upstate New York always confused the hell out of me -- you had Colgate in the town of Hamilton (even though Hamilton College was 20 minutes away -- why wasn't Hamilton in Hamilton?), you had Utica and Ithaca with the whole "we both have depressing names that end with 'A" thing going, and everything looked exactly the same for about 400 miles. Strange place.

• If you remember my Super Bowl blog from Houston two years ago, one of the running themes was about how the brand-new Metro Rail was going to break every transportation record for "Most pedestrians struck" by the time everything was said and done. Well, earlier this week, the Metro Rail notched its 100th victim: You can click here for details.

• I had only one Red Sox friend (Hench) and one reader (Steve Comeau) realize the irony of Gerald "Ice" Williams' botching Pedro's no-hitter with the mistimed leap against the wall on Sunday: Remember when Pedro hit the leadoff batter during a Rays-Sox game in 2000, followed by the guy charging the mound, a raucous brawl, and then an enraged Pedro taking a no-hitter into the ninth? You know who the leadoff batter was? Gerald "Ice" Williams. Now that's goofy.

One other weird thing about Sunday's game: As everyone knows, not only has there never been a Mets no-hitter, most Mets fans are starting to wonder if it will ever happen in their lifetimes. So Sunday, my friend Sal (lifetime Mets fan) went to Dodgers Stadium with his 3-month-old son -- the kid's first Mets game and his first baseball game -- and nearly witnessed the first-ever Mets no-no with him. If it had happened, I think they would have been eligible for a father-son ESPY or something.

• The Clips swung a big deal over the weekend: A sign-and-trade with Marko Jaric going to the Wolves for Sam Cassell and a protected No. 1. Since Marko wasn't a true point guard, couldn't create his own shot, and had no leadership abilities whatsoever, I never understood what he brought to the table -- he's your classic Euro who looks great on paper, but when you watch him night after night, you can't stop picking his game apart. He's also one of the five or six worst decision makers I've ever seen at the end of games, the kind of guy who leaves you shaking your head as you're walking out of the arena, saying, "How could they have the last shot and not even hit the rim?" I couldn't stand him. So bringing in Cassell in a contract year, when you desperately needed someone who could make a big shot at the end of games, seems like a fantastic move to me. Anyway, I loved this trade for the Clips.

(Kudos to my main man Elgin -- I'm glad to see his cell phone is finally working.)

• One more NBA note: Everyone is wondering where Michael Finley is going when only one team makes sense: Denver. It's the only contending team that can give him a starting spot. It's one of the few teams that can offer him the full mid-level exception. And out of any contender and pseudo-contender out there, he would have the most dramatic effect on the Nuggets over anyone else -- he could play 35-40 minutes a game, shoot wide-open 3s (remember, he shot 41 percent on 3s last year) and give them a little leadership. If you were him, wouldn't you pick Denver? I sure would.

(There's another interesting name still out there: The Mayor, Fred Hoiberg. You're telling me he wouldn't help Houston, Miami, Denver or San Antonio?)

Onto this week's sports book recommendation …

If you loved the documentary "Hoop Dreams," the literary equivalent is "The Last Shot," which was written by Darcy Frey in 1994. Frey followed four star players from Lincoln High's basketball team in New York, a school located in a depressing, dangerous part of Brooklyn, and it's not your typical "Friday Night Lights" ripoff in which the writer follows some random high school team around for a year and expects you to care about them. This book delves into the stranglehold that basketball has on African-American culture; the cultural biases of Prop 48 and the SATs; the complete and utter hypocrisy of the college recruiting system; and even how those summer basketball camps vaguely resemble cattle calls. It's an amazing book, with one overriding theme: When you're a talented basketball player from the projects, there are a million things that can go wrong, and only one thing that can go right.

The book was great when it came out 11 years ago, but it's even better now, and here's why: The four players that Frey followed were Darryl Flicking (called "Russell Thomas" in the book for legal reasons), Tchaka Shipp, Corey Johnson … and Stephon Marbury. That's right, Stephon Marbury. He's a cocky, precocious ninth-grader in the book, the last NBA hope for the Marbury family (his three older brothers didn't make it). As it turns out, he's the only one of the four who "made it," so to speak -- which gives the book a whole new perspective when you're reading it now, especially when you read the updated afterword from the 2004 edition (I won't spoil it for you, but it's devastating to read after the fact).

Unlike last week's recommendation, this book is still in print: You can purchase the one with the updated afterword on right here.

So there you go. New column coming tomorrow.

posted: Aug. 23, 2005  |  Feedback

In case you missed it, ESPN2 aired its Frank Deford documentary ("You Play Better Than You Write") Monday night. I didn't plan on watching it because it seemed like such a blatant ripoff of the Dick Schaap documentary … but it ended up sucking me in. There are some weird aspects to it -- how Deford wrote and narrated it himself, how they devote an entire segment to his NPR gig, how he refers to himself in the third person a few times, even the goofy footage of him walking his dog -- but overall, it's a pretty powerful show (especially the segment about his daughter, which is agonizing to watch).

One thing saddens me about Deford: An entire generation knows him only for his NPR pieces, his columns on (where he proved that even the best writers don't make good columnists sometimes) and his surreal appearances on "Real Sports" (which always ranked in the low-80s on the UC Scale). There's really no way for these people to understand how influential his writing was in the '70s and '80s, when he pretty much mastered the takeout feature and spawned dozens of pompous imitators (with only Gary Smith and a few others able to carry on that art form, which can basically be described as "writing about a real person in sports like you're writing a short story"). I like this genre and I don't. In the right hands, it's fine. In the wrong hands, it's semi-excruciating.

(It's also frustrating to me that the "Best American Sportswriting" series falls all over itself picking these specific styles of stories and ignores everything else out there -- it's like how the Oscars nominates the same types of dramas every year and ignores anything else that's successful. That used to be a fantastic book -- not only did I look forward to it every year, I own every version since the late-1970s -- and now reading that thing is like attending a film festival where they show a Holocaust movie, followed by a Depression movie, followed by a civil rights movie, and so on. Many of the stories don't even have anything to do with the major sports anymore; for instance, if you're a blind, club-footed, diabetic, hemophiliac long-distance runner in Cambodia, and somebody did a piece on you in a major magazine, and you didn't end up in this book, you really need to reevaluate things. But that's a whole other story.)

Anyway, If you grew up reading Deford in the '70s and '80s, and you remember his stories about Arthur Ashe, Jimmy Connors, Billy Conn and everyone else, you should watch this show. It's worth 90 minutes of your time. And don't forget to take your allergy medication, because it gets a little dusty a couple of times.

That brings me to this week's sports book. Back in 1975, two things happened:

1. Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier had the greatest fight of all time. With all due respect to Hagler-Hearns, Leonard-Hearns, Foreman-Lyle, Castillo-Coralles and everything else, for sweeping drama, clashing styles, mutual hatred, historical significance and sheer brutality, the third Ali-Frazier bout in Manila stands by itself. Nothing comes close. Neither guy would ever be the same.

2. Writing about that same fight in Sports Illustrated, Mark Kram submitted the greatest on-deadline sports story ever. It's a masterpiece. Nobody has ever done better.

Three decades later, Kram expanded that piece into the book called "Ghosts of Manila." Maybe it's a little uneven, maybe he self-plagarizes some of his Sports Illustrated stuff, maybe it's too sympathetic to Frazier and too unfair to Ali … but it's still worth reading, partly because it's so well written, partly because he's one of the few writers who dares to challenge the myth of Ali. According to Kram, Ali wasn't nearly as smart or as visionary as other writers led you to believe, and he was much nastier than some wanted to admit -- especially in the ring (everyone forgets how vicious Ali acted during the Ernie Terrell and Floyd Patterson fights) and even outside the ring (where he hammered Frazier relentlessly about being an Uncle Tom and even compared him to gorillas and apes). If you're like me and you loved Ali and revered his place in sports history, this is a jarring book to read. I haven't felt quite the same about Ali since I read it, actually.

Since Kram intentionally shifts the perspective of the book against Ali to make Frazier more sympathetic, you have to take everything with a grain of salt. For instance, at the end of his SI piece about the fight in Manila, Ali praises Frazier for an entire paragraph and calls him a great man, an anecdote that Kram conspicuously leaves out of the book because it hurts his premise that Ali never gave Frazier credit. He also skirts around the crucial reason Ali baited Frazier so much -- in his own short-sighted way, Ali riled Frazier because he wanted to bring out the best in Frazier, and only because he knew a possessed Frazier would bring the best out of Ali himself. Once he returned from his four-year exile, Ali's fatal flaw as a boxer was that he always rose/sunk to the skill level of his opponents -- like Ken Norton, who gave Ali two tough fights because Ali just couldn't bring himself to take Norton seriously, or even the Chuck Wepners and Leon Spinkses of the world.

But he knew Frazier had the toughest possible style for him, and I always thought he wanted to push Frazier as far as he could go. It's just that he went too far with the never-ending barrage of racial comments, and to make matters worse, he swayed the black community (especially influential members of the media establishment like Bryant Gumbel, whom Kram rightly skewers in the book) against Frazier, painting himself as the symbol of black power and Frazier as the symbol of the white establishment.

Here was the end result: Frazier despised Ali about as much as one human being could despise another human being without actually murdering him. That's what made the Manila fight so special, and that's what made the next 30 years so ugly, as Frazier spent much of that time smoldering about the Ali rivalry, even taking a sick pride in Ali's increasingly incoherent state. And so Ali brought the best out of him, but he brought the worst out of him, too. That's what this book is about. As one of Frazier's cronies tells Kram, "Ali's influenced Joe so much he's determined the man he is today. A couple of ghosts, if you ask me. One is still in the ring in Manila, the other doesn't even know there was a Manila. It was a bad reckoning for both, that day."

One other interesting wrinkle to keep in mind if you end up reading this book: For all of Kram's gifts, he ended up having a checkered career at Sports Illustrated. In Michael McCambridge's superb book "The Franchise" about the history of SI, it's revealed that Kram sometimes sent friends out on assignment to do his research for him. According to the book, Kram even ended up getting fired for gross misconduct from SI in 1977 after questions arose about some of the stories he had written and whether he had been paid by the principals involved to give them a positive spin, including a flattering story about Don King's heavyweight box-off that ended up being rigged. The end result was that Kram failed to realize his considerable potential as a writer, for whatever reason.

So this book ends up being special, but it's also a little sad to read, because you can't shake the feeling that Kram should have had a better career than he did. As it turned out, Frank Deford was the one who ended up getting the 90-minute documentary about his life, but Mark Kram was just as talented in their respective primes. Maybe "Ghosts of Manila" isn't as good as the deadline piece he wrote for Sports Illustrated, but it's still one of the best 40-50 sports books ever, and it makes you wonder if there were three ghosts from that night, not just two.

Here's the link.

posted: Aug. 19, 2005  |  Feedback

Quick Paul Shirley update: He's not playing for the Suns next season, but he's working out in Kansas and expects to catch on with another NBA team when training camp starts. In the meantime, he's going to answer occasional reader questions right here in the Cowbell. Here's today's submission:

Q: What is the funniest thing you've ever heard a fan say to an NBA player (either yourself or somebody else), and likewise, what's the funniest thing you've heard an NBA player say to a fan?
-- Nik P., Ann Arbor, Mich.

Shirley: The players' treatment of fans is something of a thin line. On one hand, the fans, quite simply, pay our salaries. As I was dreading my trip to the track in the greenhouse-like climate we endure on a daily basis in the summer here in Kansas, I contemplated the fact that I was theoretically getting paid to go work out today. It is not as though there was someone laying out hundred dollar bills at the finish line (although I am willing to accept volunteers), but in essence, Joe Everyday, who comes to the games and makes fun of the fact that the white guy at the end of the bench has not played in three blue moons' time, is paying me to go to the track. Of course, it is something of an indirect transaction, and as I was gasping for air as I finished my 15th sprint of the day, I could have cared less, but the connection remains.

On the other hand, I have observed the NBA and, for that matter, the phenomenon that is professional sports, from a very intimate vantage point.  My No. 1, top-of-the-list conclusion after a couple of years of playing in and watching the NBA (admittedly, more of the latter than the former), is that professional basketball is not that far removed from the WWF. The only difference is that no one has let the participants in on the secret. So, when I see fans take a game or the actors involved a bit too seriously, it sets my internal monologue churning. Over the years, I have learned that it is best to keep said monologue from ever boiling to the surface, and only because any snide remark I make to the grossly obese tire worker who has decided to celebrate his once-in-a-lifetime trip to a courtside seat by getting absolutely blasted by the end of the second quarter is probably going to be wasted on his vast intellect. (I have had a fair amount of time to develop this philosophy. Remember, my last name is a girl's name. It has been brought to my attention by those in the stands more than once.)

Occasionally, though, someone breaks ranks and fires back. My personal favorite to this point was delivered by none other than Bo Outlaw this year in Phoenix. (I hate to discount his spontaneity, but I gathered that this routine was not a new one. Nonetheless, I enjoyed it.)

To set the stage, it should be realized that Bo is of a slightly different personality than me. Where I am more into quietly observing the action and filing away absurdities so that I can later use them for my own twisted purposes, Bo is more apt to be one of the people of whom I would generally make fun. He is loud, flamboyant, and generally a bit of a ham -- a great guy to have on the bench because one never really knows what Bo might do next. To that end, he is a bit more interactive with the crowd. Sometimes they get tired of it, and let him know it.

Fan: "Hey, Outlaw. Why the hell don't you just sit down?"

Bo: (Silence, with a head turned in the direction of the offending party. Little does the poor guy know Bo is just baiting him.)

Fan: (Emboldened by the halfhearted chuckles of those sitting near him -- which he takes as encouragement, when in fact the people around him are scrambling to dissociate themselves from the proceedings.)  "Actually, Outlaw, why don't you tell the coach to put you in?"

Bo: "Sir, do you know my name?"

Fan: "Hell yeah, you're Bo Outlaw."

Bo: (Pausing for a beat.) "Well, I don't know yours. And there's a reason for that. Nobody cares what your name is."

posted: Aug. 16, 2005  |  Feedback

Heading into the final six weeks of the baseball season, the inevitable "Who are the MVPs?" stories are starting. In the National League, the MVP race can be summed up in one word: Pujols. But the AL race is up for grabs. According to one gambling Web site, here are the odds as of Monday afternoon:

Manny Ramirez (8-5) -- Just two weeks ago, the Red Sox were trying to give him away for 50 cents on the dollar. Now he's the favorite to win the MVP. Go figure. Since the trading deadline passed, Manny is batting .435 (15-for-35) with 4 homers, 16 RBI and 7 walks, carrying his team for two straight weeks (which would have also happened had he been traded to the Mets, by the way). Throw in the fact that he's playing for a potential division champion and headed for 150 RBI ... and that's enough to make him the favorite.

Only one problem: All the "Manny being Manny" stuff aside, should you win the MVP award even though you dogged it for two weeks in July, caused a major distraction and nearly caused your team to give you away? Something doesn't feel right about that. On the other hand, what happens if he finishes with a .300 average, 45 homers and 160 RBI on a 98-win team?

(My reason for not voting for Manny: I don't even think he's the MVP of his own team. More on this in a second.)

Alex Rodriguez (2-1) -- After what happened last season, you could make the case that he's had more pressure on him than any non-steroids guy this year. But A-Rod has been superb in every respect -- you have to hand it to him. During the Sox-Yankees series at Fenway last month, he even reached "I'm scared every time he's at the plate" status for me (which hadn't happened since he joined the Yankees). Even if the Yankees miss the playoffs, he could sneak into the award if Ortiz and Manny split the vote -- kinda like when two actors from the same movie split the "Best Oscar vote" and someone else sneaks in.

David Ortiz (3-1) -- He's on pace to approach last year's numbers (.301, 41 HR, 139 RBI, .977 OPS), he's the leader of the Red Sox clubhouse, and he's indisputably the premier clutch hitter in baseball. Check out these numbers:

• Runners in scoring position: 114 ABs, .368 BA, .480 OBP, .605 slugging, 65 RBI.

• Runners in scoring position with 2 outs: 47 ABs, .383 BA, .525 OBP, .723 slugging, 29 RBI.

• Close and late: 53 ABs, .340 BA, .438 OBP, .717 slugging, 5 HR, 21 RBI.

That's ridiculous. And you know what? I don't care that he's a DH. Would you rather have someone not playing the field, or someone who's a solid D-minus out in left like Manny? What's the difference?

Vlad Guerrero (6-1) -- Would have been in the mix if he hadn't gone on the DL in May and June ... still, he's headed for a typical Vlad season (.325, 35-40 HR, 110-120 RBI, .975-1.000 OPS), and he's been single-handedly keeping the Angels in the division race lately (7 HRs, 23 RBI and a jaw-dropping 1.523 OPS this month). Needs a huge finish to pass the Boston guys though.

Gary Sheffield (15-1) -- Well, he's been the Comedy MVP this season, that's for sure.

Four other people are listed on the ballot: Miguel Tejeda (15-1); any pitcher (15-1); Mark Teixeira (20-1); and Hideki Matsui (65-1). None of them have a chance. And that's the list.

So here's my big question, as well as the reason for today's post ...

Where the heck is Johnny Damon???

You never hear his name mentioned in these MVP conversations, which is weird because he's been the best all-around player on the Red Sox. Offensively, he's having the second-best season of his career -- he's the league-leader in batting average (.337, with a stellar .384 on-base percentage), he's headed for a combined 30-plus steals/homers and 45-50 extra-base hits, and he's batted .313 or higher in every month this season (not a single swoon to be seen). Defensively, he's having a career season (second in range factor for center fielders, only one error). He's been astoundingly durable, as always (107 starts in 115 games). And he's been stellar in big spots, as his "close and late" (.339) and "scoring position, 2 outs" (.356) splits prove.

Of course, few people take him seriously because of the off-field stuff. From the moment they won the World Series and he made that dopey cameo on "Saturday Night Live" just 72 hours later, Damon has seemed hell-bent on turning himself into a crossover sports celebrity -- something that started last season when he grew out his hair and looked like a cross between the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer and Christ, then snowballed with the whole "shaving the beard for charity" thing ... before we knew it, he was writing a book, making daytime talk-show appearances, doing the "Queer Eye" thing and everything else. When "ESPN Hollywood" launches Monday night, not only did they make him their feature segment, it would have been surprising if they chose someone else.

Now, you know me. I hate this stuff. And so does just about everyone in Boston. In fact, had Damon struggled out of the gate, the fans would have run him out of town by the All-Star break. But you have to hand it to him -- Johnny D took care of business on the field. Other than Fred Lynn's '75 and '79 seasons, you could even make the case that Damon is having the single greatest season by a Red Sox center fielder in 55 years (since Dom DiMaggio's career year in 1950), as well as one of the defining contract years in recent memory. Seriously, what non-steroids guy has boosted their price more than Damon has? How many wins would he have been worth to the Yankees or Cubs?

And then there's this: Damon submitted the most important one-game performance of any Boston player this season, which everyone will probably forget if/when the Sox win the division title by 10 games. Back on July 26, the Sox were coming off an ugly 4-7 stretch after the All-Star break, including two ominous series against the White Sox and Yankees (combined record: 2-6). After a Monday loss in Tampa, they were 54-45, tied with the Yanks in the loss column. And then the following things happened in the second Tampa game:

1. Cruising with a 5-0 lead, not only did their best starter (Matt Clement) get nailed in the face by a line drive, he didn't move for about 3 minutes and got carted off on one of those NFL stretchers. New reliever Chad Bradford came in and immediately gave up a grand slam. Unbelievable.

2. For whatever reason, Manny picked this particular game to shift into full "I don't give a crap mode," leading to the infamous replay of Manny jogging halfheartedly down the line on a double-play grounder where the errant throw ended up nearly hitting him in the head.

3. They scraped together two runs in the top of the ninth to tie the game, leading to Schilling (still trying to convert to closer) entering the game and searching for some semblance of confidence.

So here's what happened: With two outs in the ninth, Jorge Cantu came up and crushed a Schilling hanger to left-center. Johnny D sprinted back at full-speed, timed his jump and scaled the wall to pull back a certain game-winning home run -- one of those "This Week In Baseball" catches right out of the late 70s. End of the inning. Then he led off the the top of the 10th and crushed a home run on the first pitch; 9-8, Red Sox. And this whole sequence happened in about 0.3 seconds.

Not only did they win the game, that jumpstarted a 14-2 winning streak and "hottest team in baseball" status. Now they lead the Yankees by 4½, and even the most diehard Yankees fan would have trouble arguing that their starting pitching can hold up. You could make a pretty strong case that the 2005 Red Sox decided to start defending their title on July 26, with Johnny D leading the way.

Does that make him the MVP of the American League? Probably not. Truth be told, the MVP of the 2005 Red Sox has been the Manny-Big Papi combination -- in tandem, they are the most unstoppable force in the American League. But at the very least, Johnny Damon's name needs to be thrown in the discussion, and not because he's a crossover celebrity, or because the ladies dig him, or because he possesses the most famous hair in baseball history. The guy has been playing the best baseball of his career since Opening Day. On a team now favored to make their second straight World Series, that should count for something.

posted: Aug. 11, 2005  |  Feedback

Tying up some loose ends on a Thursday ... • First, the big news: ESPN will announce today that it's picking up "The Contender." Obviously, I couldn't be more delighted about this -- not just that the show lives for another season, but that the ESPN connection could potentially lead to my watching "Rocky 4" with Sly Stallone and keeping a running diary. Good times all around.

If you missed my two columns about "The Contender" from the spring, here are the links: Review | Season finale

• I made two significant screwups in the Al Michaels section of yesterday's mailbag, in the section where I wrote about how he had announced "the greatest sporting event of all time (the 1980 Olympic Hockey game); the greatest gambling moment of all time (the Music City Miracle, when Wycheck lateraled to Dyson to beat the Bills); and the most incredible sports moment of all time (when the first-ever Bay Area World Series was postponed for a week by a devastating earthquake that happened moments before Game 3 in San Fran, the odds of which had to be 10 billion to 1 if you added up all the different variables). I always thought that was amazing. If Michaels had just found a way to announce Hagler-Hearns, the Artest Melee and the Shawn Michaels-Bret Hart 'Screw Job' match in Montreal, he would have gone down as the Forrest Gump of announcers."

Steve L. from Hornell, N.Y., points out ...

"I want you to read something right here ... read this. As a diehard Bills fan and the Throwback being the most frustrating moment of my sports life, the Titans/Bills playoff game was definitely called by the ESPN guys, not Al Michaels. I clearly remember Steve Christie kicking the field goal to put the Bills up 16-15 and Maguire saying "Doesn't Wade Phillips look like a genius now?" regarding the decision to start Rob Johnson. Yes, he actually said that about The Immortal Wade Lombardi. You think that wasn't an omen? You think that wasn't the kiss of death? Poorly coached teams make poorly coached decisions. The ESPN announcers, not Al Michaels, will always be a vivid part of that memory the rest of my life."

Dave from Burke, Va., adds ...

"Al passed up on that Music City Miracle game to broadcast the Miami vs. Jacksonville game (where Marino was down like 63-0 before he realized the game actually started). I'm not trying to just point out a mistake, because I hate when people do that, but I remember a NY radio sports talk show having Boomer Esiason (Michaels' partner for that short 16 month or so stretch) making fun of him because he missed out on one of the great playoff moments of all time, and Boomer admitted that he wanted to do that game, but Michaels wanted to broadcast the Miami game instead because it was probably Marino's last playoff game and the call was up to Al (he really blew that one)."

Yes, I screwed up. But here's the crazy thing -- somehow I forgot this, and mainly because ESPN Classic never, ever, ever shows this fight, but guess who did the call for Hagler-Hearns? That's right, Al Michaels! I totally blanked on that one.

Another Al classic I forgot: As Yonkers reader Charlie Zegers reminds us, Michaels was also on the phone with Peter Jennings during the O.J. Bronco Chase when the Howard Stern listener called in the prank call, "I see O.J. O.J. look very upset ... " then followed that up with "Bababooey!" As Charlie points out, "I can still hear it like it was yesterday. "Peter, that was a totally farcical call." That's gotta count for something."

And if you really want to pad his résumé, he called that crazy Jets-Dolphins game where the Jets came back from down, like, 28 points in the fourth quarter on Monday night (probably a top-five gambling moment), and he called Dave Henderson's famous home run against the California Angels (which had to be one of the five most memorable home run calls of the past 30 years). Plus, he called Derek Fisher's crazy shot against the Lakers last year (not one of Michaels' finest calls, but still).

• Detroit reader Steve Rooney reports that Peyton Manning has been working on the Peyton Manning "I can't believe Bill Belichick owns me this much" Face even during intrasquad scrimmages. Here's the link.

• Some terrible news from Boston reader Janet Chen about the used bookstore on Newbury Street (the one I mentioned in Tuesday's Cowbell): "The Victor Hugo bookstore you cite in this week's book club column is no longer there. It's now a trendy clothing store. As one who purchased my copy of "The Hidden Game of Baseball," there, I was sad to see it go. Just wanted to keep you up to date on the happenings in the old 'hood."

Translation: Nobody reads anymore. Although a few readers passed along a Web site for used and out-of-print books -- -- that apparently gets the job done. Still, not the same as browsing a used bookstore while some hairy guy with bad breath sits behind the counter and stares you down until you purchase something.

• During the Sox game Wednesday night, Kapler hit a home run over the Monster that landed on the little counter in front of the people sitting in the first row, bounced up against the protective wall, then ricocheted back onto the field. Everyone sitting in the Monster started cheering because it was obviously a home run, but the umpires steadfastly continued to insist it was a double. First of all, how can they screw up that call from 150 feet away? How do the second-base and third-base umpires not see the ball ricochet upward? Second of all, how is it possible that it's 2005 and we still don't use instant replay to determine home runs in baseball? Wouldn't it take, like, 35 seconds for the home plate ump to waddle over to a TV monitor, see the replay and make a call? Who's against this? Seriously, who? I feel like the outcome of a playoff series has to be screwed up before they finally fix this rule. Had to get that off my chest.

New column coming tomorrow.

posted: Aug. 10, 2005  |  Feedback

At least twice a day, a high school or college student sends me an e-mail asking for advice -- they want to write about sports some day, they don't know how to go about it, and they're wondering if I can help. And I never know what to write back. How can you answer a question like, "I want to write a sports column, tell me what to do?"

Last weekend, I thought of an answer.

Just a quick back story: I probably own 800-900 sports books that I've been reading and collecting ever since I was old enough to read. The lamer ones are at my dad's house and my mom's house. The best ones came to California with me. And when we moved a few months ago, five boxes of the best and most relevant sports books ever written were dumped in my new garage -- taped up, stacked on top of one another, sitting in the dark.

Well, I was working on a book, and we had a baby, and it took a few months just to settle into the house, and two weeks ago, everything calmed down enough that I could head into the garage, carry those boxes out and unstack them in two living room bookcases. But as I was unstacking them, I realized something. Here was my answer for those aforementioned e-mails. The main reason I became a sports columnist was because I loved these books, because I read them and kept reading them. For instance, you know David Halberstam's book about the 1980 Trail Blazers, "Breaks of the Game"? To me, it's the perfect non-fiction sports book -- he gets to know the players, delves into their psyches, and inadvertently takes a snapshot of a troubled league at its most critical point, the 1979-80 season, when the NBA was in danger of crumbling and Bird and Magic saved the day. Since I love the way it's written, I try to read it once every two years. It's like taking a grad school course: Here's how you write a sports book.

And there's a lesson here. You don't just start writing a sports column, just like you just don't start recording music or writing poetry. Different people affect you along the way, and they inspire you, and you try to emulate them, and eventually, if you know what you're doing, you absorb the best of different people and come up with a style of your own. I was fortunate enough to grow up reading Ray Fitzgerald and Leigh Montville in the Boston Globe -- two of the best sports columnists ever -- as well as Peter Gammons, Will McDonough and Bob Ryan. And those guys were living in my newspaper every day, writing about my favorite teams. Not to sound like Joe Theismann, but you think that didn't affect me? You think I would be doing this for a living without those five guys? No way.

The same goes for my favorite sports books. You can't learn how to write unless you're constantly reading, just like you can't learn how to play music unless you listen to hundreds of different albums, or you can't learn to speak a second language unless you actually go to a foreign country and practice it. For whatever reason, many aspiring sportswriters either don't understand this, or they dismiss it altogether. In fact, I've had conversations at bars with younger people who have approached me, asked me for advice, and when I ask them what their favorite sports books are, they give me the Peyton Manning Face. I'm always astonished by this. How can you aspire to become a sportswriter without reading as many different styles and perspectives as you can?

So I'm here to help. Every Tuesday, I'm recommending a classic sports book in this space. Sometimes I might just write a few sentences about the book. Other times, I might write an entire column about the book. But you're getting a new book every Tuesday. Each one will be worth your time, whether you're an aspiring sportswriter or you just enjoy sports and are always looking for something to read.

This week's book: "Wait Till Next Year," which was co-written by William Goldman (the acclaimed screenwriter) and Mike Lupica (a columnist for the New York Daily News) about everything that happened in the New York sports scene in 1987. Lupica takes the reporter's side, Goldman takes the fan's side, and they alternate writing chapters about the Mets, Knicks, Yankees, Giants and everything else.

Now ...

I don't even like the New York sports teams. You know this. But I have read this book at least 10-12 times over the past 17 years, and only because it's well-written and ages surprisingly well. For instance, I re-read the book two weeks ago. The Gooden/Strawberry stuff still holds up. So does the section on the NFL strike (imagine if that happened now?). The Hubie Brown chapter is funny to read in retrospect. Goldman's rant about a devastating Mets collapse in St. Louis isn't just entertaining, it's creepy to read i(because the game happened on September 11th, which he keeps referencing throughout the column). Not only does the Larry Bird chapter still hold up, but Goldman's overall premise -- that Bird was the best player in basketball, hands down, and that everyone would forget this years from now because they would be seduced the Best Player Du' Jour -- is one of the best and most salient points in the entire book.

As much as I like Lupica's contributions, Goldman is the one that takes the book to another level. The ultimate fan, he twists things around and looks at things from a non-traditional way -- like the chapter on Gooden's drug suspension (which ranks among my favorite things I have ever read about sports), or the chapter about how sports is really air (I won't spoil it for you, but it makes sense after you read it). Would you be reading my column on if it wasn't for this book? Honestly? I don't know. Goldman's chapters made me think, "Why don't more people write about sports from a fan's perspective?" And every time I read the book as a struggling writer, that question nagged at me -- it seemed like there was a different way to approach sportswriting, that you could care about sports, have your little biases, live and die with your teams and still write about everything. Seventeen years later, here I am. Coincidence? I don't think so.

Here's what kills me: When I was writing this little piece, I planned on sticking the link for "Next Year" at the end of the post, so it would be easy for people to purchase the book. Much to my surprise (and dismay), it's out of print. Unbelievable. One of the best sports books ever, a book that still holds up to this day, with two name authors ... and it's out of print. Sure, you can find used copies on eBay or Amazon or you can locate an old copy in the library, or maybe even grab one in the right used book store (like the one on Newbury Street in Boston). Other than that, you're out of luck.

But if you care about writing about sports for a living, you need to find books like "Wait Till Next Year." Need to read them. Need to re-read them. Need to figure out what worked and didn't work. Need to learn your lessons and move into the next one.

That doesn't guarantee you can do this for a living ... but it's a pretty damned good start.

posted: Aug. 10, 2005  |  Feedback

You know the book "The Perfect Storm"? I witnessed the perfect storm of craziness Sunday night: Courtney Love, Dennis Rodman, Tommy Lee, Andy Dick and Anna Nicole Smith, all within 35 feet of one another for Comedy Central's taping of the Pamela Anderson Celebrity Roast.

As you might remember from my column about the Shaq Roast three years ago, few things make me happier than a celebrity roast -- it's the last place on the planet where anything can be said about anybody without any repercussions. Although they're always entertaining on TV, they're 10-20 times more entertaining in person because Comedy Central has to edit out some of the more biting/obscene/outlandish comments. (The fact that HBO or Showtime hasn't launched a Celebrity Roast Series remains one of the great mysteries in life.) In person, you hear everything -- hepatitis B jokes, domestic violence jokes, at least 125 different jokes about Tommy Lee's anatomy, even Jeff Ross telling Courtney Love, "God, what happened? Even Kurt Cobain looks better than you!"

It was a vicious night from start to finish, kicked off by emcee Jimmy Kimmel announcing the names of Dick, Love, Rodman and Lee, then telling an inappropriate joke. Of course, Courtney ended up stealing the show, for better or worse -- interrupting comedians during their monologues, throwing shoes at people, spilling drinks, stumbling around, mauling Kimmel on the sofa, screaming "Clean and sober for 12 months" after every drug joke about her, crossing/uncrossing her legs like Sharon Stone in "Basic Instinct" for the people in the first few rows, pulling up her blouse for the crowd ... I mean, I can't adequately capture what happened. At one point, Tommy Lee was pouring himself champagne from Rodman's table, they looked at each other and both kind of shrugged. Imagine being so crazy that Dennis Rodman and Tommy Lee had to share a "Wow, she's nuts!'" moment about you?

One drawback about roasts: There are always 2-3 people who bomb, and at least 2-3 more people who end up going on waaaaaaaaaaaaay too long. For instance, an unprepared Eddie Griffin (the comedian/actor, not the basketball player) babbled incoherently for about 20 minutes, to the point the teleprompter was flashing in capital letters, "PLEASE WRAP IT UP!" (That was funny in itself -- when they edit the show, they should just show the teleprompter over his actual routine.) There was also a transvestite performer (dubbed "Pamela Manderson" by Ross) who bombed so badly that Jimmy immediately followed her routine with, "Don't worry, that's all going to be edited out of the show."

On the telecast the riff-raff gets cut out, but it's an endurance contest when you're there -- by the third hour, it's nearly impossible to make people laugh (that's why comedians never want to be the last act, because they know the crowd will be dead by that point). Still, they should be able to hone this into an excellent 90-minute show, so look out for it this Sunday (I'd say more, but I don't want to spoil the jokes for you).

And speaking of Comedy Central, Adam Carolla's new talk show, "Too Late with Adam Carolla" premieres Monday night at 11:30. Not only do I have three friends involved in this show (including the host), I've spent the last three years telling anyone who would listen (including all of my bosses at ESPN) that Carolla should have his own TV show. So I'm overwhelmingly, embarrassingly, almost comically biased here ... but nothing would make me happier than seeing this show take off over the next two months. (FYI: The first guest is Mark Zupan from "Murderball.") End of shameless plug.

Some other quickies on a Monday ...

• From Perry in Minnesota (responding to my 7/29 hockey column): "Eliminate the team in Minnesota? Are you mad? Did you know we sell out every game here. I mean EVERY game, the college games, even the high school hockey state tournament. Who else can claim that? Our men's and women's hockey teams from the U-of-M have been recent national champs. We like hockey more than any other state. They took our team once -- huge mistake."

You're absolutely right -- terrible job by me. In that paragraph of "teams that needed to be knocked out of the league," I was just throwing in every new team from the past few years and totally forgot that Minny was the one franchise that deserved to be there. In retrospect, I should have switched them with Carolina. Big mistake. In fact ...

• From my buddy JackO in Hartford: "You write a whole article about the NHL, including calling for the elimination or move of several franchises and yet you say nothing about the Carolina Hurricanes?????!!!! How about calling for them to be eliminated or, in the alternative, move back to Hartford? Can you do that? Can you throw me a freakin' bone???? Unbelievable!"

Again, absolutely right -- I blew that one, if only because I could have gotten a few Hartford jokes in. But that city loved the Mighty Whale and got totally screwed over by the owner, I should have mentioned that. Now they're stuck with UConn sports and the New Britain Rock Cats. Sad state of affairs.

• Quick follow-up to last week's two-part Anchorman/NBA column: There's an alternate movie out there called "Wake Up, Ron Burgundy" -- same premise, different plot. Apparently they shot two subplots (with the Panda/Zoo angle being the one used for the real movie), so the alternate movie replaces the Panda/Zoo angle with the other subplot. Also, the only place you can purchase the alternate DVD separately from the real DVD is Best Buy. So there you go.

• Finally, some exciting news: According to multiple Web sites, season one of "The White Shadow" is finally coming to DVD this November -- fantastic news, because I can finally throw out my worn-down VHS tapes from the mid-'80s. Here's a picture of the cover. The odds of this DVD selling surprisingly well, followed by a studio turning it into a crappy movie, have just been removed from the boards at Vegas.

Back on Wednesday with a new column.

posted: Aug. 10, 2005  |  Feedback

Seven quick thoughts on yesterday's NBA megadeal ...

1. Imagine being Larry Bird or Joe Dumars right now -- your biggest rival in the East just traded Eddie Jones and, um, nothing else ... and somehow ended up with James Posey (who's better than Eddie Jones by himself), Antoine Walker AND Jason Williams. How is that possible? As my buddy House joked, "They got three potential starters for the Eddie Jones pu pu platter!"

2. White Chocolate is one of those guys who couldn't be redeemed in any other situation but Miami -- he's a head case, doesn't respect his coaches, takes terrible shots and butts heads with the media ... but the old Jordan/Rodman Corollary applies here. In other words, if you have the right alpha dog in place, even the biggest head case falls into line. Shaq is probably the smartest superstar in the league -- he knows what Williams could give this team (a fast break, some dribble-and-dishes, high assist/turnover ratio, some excitement) and will probably be legally adopting him by January. I also think Posey will have a bigger impact than people realize -- he's one of the best defenders in the league, he's a gamer and he doesn't need the ball to thrive. If they re-sign Damon Jones, they're ... actually, I still like Indiana more. But Miami definitely improved.

3. Ironically, Antoine is the guy who worries me here. Do you really want him playing over Udonis Haslem (someone who crashes the boards and knows his role)? Can Antoine accept playing a complimentary role on a great team? He certainly wasn't able to do it in Dallas -- they pretty much benched him by the end of the 2003 playoffs -- and in Boston last spring, after saying and doing all the right things for two months, he ended up launching 104 shots in six games during the Indiana series and carrying himself like the best guy on the court. Which he wasn't. So how will he accept being the third option behind two superstars? What will happen in Game 7 of the Eastern Finals against the Pistons or Pacers, when they're down by two with a minute and 30 seconds remaining and he's wide-open from 26 feet? Does he take the shot, even when he's playing with two much better scoring options? I think he does. You can't change who you are.

Here's the thing about 'Toine: After watching him for two months last season, I was surprised to see how much his game has slipped around the basket -- nobody in the league misses more layups and four-footers, partly because he doesn't have the hops anymore (remember, he has some miles on him -- nearly 700 regular-season games, plus another 37 playoff games in just eight seasons), partly because his free-throw shooting has slipped so much that he rushes his shots before he gets fouled. He also makes some of the worst decisions on fast breaks of anyone I've ever seen -- for instance, he botched two four-on-ones in the same half during one of those Indiana games. But if Antoine just concentrates on the things he does well -- interior defense, defensive rebounding, wide-open 3s, entry passes to big men, pick-and-rolls where he's rolling -- he could be a major asset to Miami. I guess we'll see.

4. From my friend Sean Grande, who does radio play-by-play for the Celtics and owns nearly every "Piper's Pit" on tape: "Let me continue my two-plus year run of NBA heresy by being the only one to say out loud that Jerry West has lost his mind." Agreed. Has he made one good move since the Shaq-Kobe combo in 1996? I always thought that Lakers Dynasty could have been set up for a 10-year run if he made the right moves.

5. Why did the Celtics get involved? Because owner Wyc Grousbeck wanted to reward Antoine for being a great Celtic over the years, that's why. The team didn't want to re-sign him for multiple years because they're convinced Big Al Jefferson is a future All-Star -- why lock up a veteran who plays the same position? So they offered Walker around in a sign-and-trade all summer, and nobody was really interested, and by the time August rolled around, only two teams were interested in him -- Miami and Denver -- and neither team had anything to offer the Celtics. So they ended up doing this convoluted deal that netted them two second-round picks, the rights to some foreign center, two fringe players (Curtis Borchardt and Qyntel Woods) who aren't in their plans, the rights to 45 pit-bull jokes, and only one real caveat: A $5.5 million trade exception that can be used up until Aug. 1, 2006.

Here's why that exception is valuable: Not only can they use it during the season, if they hold onto it until next summer, they can offer someone a little more than the mid-level exception. For instance, remember what happened with the Nets and Shareef Abdur-Rahim? They cut a deal with the Blazers in which Portland used New Jersey's exception, then he ended up making more money than the mid-level exception and and received an extra year on the deal? That's what that exception can do for you. You can't package it with another salary for a bigger salary, but you can sign-and-trade it or use it for any player that makes $5.5 million or less. My guess is they will keep the exception until next summer.

6. With that said, not only do the Celtics look like a 25-win team right now, I have a feeling that Paul Pierce will be going into Full Sabotage Mode by Thanksgiving to force a trade to a winning team. Let's hope we don't have Vince Carter, The Sequel on our hands. 7. Most importantly, Curtis Borchardt doesn't just give Brian Scalabrine someone to hang out with, but seeing the happy look in my father's eyes when they're playing together ... you can't put a price on this stuff. Is there any way we could give Borchardt "32" and Scalabrine "33" to complete the effect?

posted: Aug. 10, 2005  |  Feedback

Just as a heads-up, this "More Cowbell" space is going to be used for recommendations, brief postings, quick reactions, "The Book of the Week Club" and so on ... we just finished customizing the blog so it's easy to use. Hope you enjoy it over the next few months. As I wrote before, I'm going to spend the vast majority of my time working on columns, but this page can be useful for all the fringe ideas/rants/reviews that need a home somewhere -- some of them will be longer, some of them will be shorter, and some of them will be in the middle (like today's post). And occasionally, like with yesterday's Manny post, one of those rants can be blown out into something a little more substantial.

Anyway, some quick recommendations on a Tuesday afternoon ...

• Had a chance to play both "NCAA Football 2006" (recently released) and "Madden 2006" (coming out next week).

The NCAA game features two major changes -- the one I liked was the "Race for the Heisman" mode, in which you can create a player from scratch, stick him in drills to establish his "ratings," sign with a college, and then you play that school for his entire college career and try to win the Heisman with him (with a wrinkle where you can transfer him to "Madden 2006" and have him drafted by an NFL team.) Immediately, I created a scrambling quarterback named "Billy Simmons," signed with Northwestern (they had No. 33 available) and started wreaking havoc in the Big Ten as a freshman quarterback. By the way, I have a wife, a kid and a mortgage. But I liked this feature, it's strangely entertaining.

The one I didn't like: They added an "in the zone" feature where an offensive player can make a few good plays, then he goes "in the zone" and basically turns into Forest Whitaker in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." What is this, "NBA Jam"? Since when was a running back breaking 35 tackles on one play considered to be a realistic turn of events? Sometimes I think they overthink these things. Overall, it doesn't play much different from the old game, so unless you want to win the Heisman with (fill in your name here) or you care about the updated rosters (and many people do, including me) -- save your money if you're broke.

Two other things I liked: The soundtrack (fantastic) and the practice drills (it's especially fun to practice the wishbone for some reason).

(One note to the "NCAA 2006" people: Can't you add the Patriot League to your list of available conferences? Would that kill you? It would take five minutes. Then I could play for Holy Cross and thrash Lehigh and Lafayette, just like the good old days before the administration killed every sports program but men's and women's basketball. No, I'm not bitter.)

As for the "Madden" game, what can you say? Just having the updated rosters alone makes it worth the money, although they added one feature that I hated (repeat: hated) -- this passing cone where you can only throw to receivers in your quarterback's specific line of vision. Translation: You can't run the Geoff Gallo offense anymore, where you sprint 10 yards backward, run around and heave the ball downfield right before getting sacked. Now you have to designate a specific receiver, look to his side of the field, and then, if he's not open, press a series of buttons to find another open receiver. Or, you can just heave it to someone outside your vision spectrum, which is a bad idea because those passes aren't accurate. See where I'm going here? This is waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay too complicated. This device was the equivalent of the Manny near-trade -- why mess with something that was already working? Fortunately, you can turn it off.

Two good things about "Madden 2006": First, they have a "superstar" mode that plays out just like the "Race for the Heisman" -- create a guy, have him sign with someone, then build him into a superstar. (Note: I didn't really explore this one because I was too busy starting a "franchise" season with the three-time champs. Also, I don't think you should have a feature like this unless there are variables like "You just got suspended for four games for using HGH" and "Remember when your posse member stabbed that guy at the nightclub? Well, you just got released because of it.") Second, this could be the most dominating Patriots roster yet -- the defense is awesome; Brady and Dillon are great; they're deep at receiver; and you can sign Tedy Bruschi off the waiver wire, plug him in at middle linebacker and pretend he's active this season. That's worth the money right there.

My favorite "Madden 2006" moment of my season so far: In Week 3 at Pittsburgh, the champs rolled off a 17-0 lead and dominated the entire game ... then the Steelers scored a late touchdown while I was in Cover 2, followed by a recovered onside kick and another cheap touchdown with 10 seconds left. You know, just enough to make the score look closer than it was ... in other words, it was just like any other Pats-Steelers game! I love when that happens. Too bad they didn't incorporate a "Deer in the headlights" feature for Ben Roethlisberger.

• Speaking of the New City of Champions, if you're a Red Sox fan, the 12-DVD set of the 2004 playoffs is simply incredible. For instance, I haven't watched Game 4 or Game 5 of the ALCS since they happened ... you can't even imagine how many ways the Yankees nearly won those games until you watch the unedited telecast again. I also enjoyed the extras, especially the footage of Johnny Pesky standing in the clubhouse and greeting each player as he ran into the locker room after Game 4 of the World Series, and Wakefield standing on the mound at Yankee Stadium well after the game (and breaking down). This goes beyond a keepsake -- it's absolutely a Deserted Island DVD for Sox fans (you know, if you were forced to live on a deserted island and had to take five DVDs and only five).

Best moment: Seeing Millar's walk and Roberts' steal in Game 4. It's incredible to watch again in real time, and I have it cued up to replace every Alex Cora at-bat for the rest of the 2005 season.

Best extra: Each of the DVD cases for the 11 games has the box score and play-by-play for each inning written on the case. Especially useful if you're fast-forwarding for things like "What inning did Tony Clark hit that ground-rule double?" or "When did Damon hit the grand slam?"

Most annoying moment: The Fox announcers slanting everything toward Red Sox history and away from the Yankees' brewing collapse in Games 5-7 ... it's outrageous to hear them after the fact and actually made me swear at one point. They just couldn't stop playing the "When will the other shoe drop? What can go wrong?" angle. I wish I could say more, but I'm being electroshocked by my editors right now.

Craziest extra: Millar doing the "You better watch out, you don't want us to win Game 4" routine during the ALCS as a giggling Dan Shaughnessy writes everything down. High comedy for some reason.

Weirdest wrinkle: For whatever reason, they included the first three games of the ALCS over all three games from the Angels series. Considering that the people purchasing this DVD will be 100 percent Red Sox fans, why include three agonizing losses that none of those customers would ever watch? Anyway, I figured out the answer, and it's a genius move on their part -- you can take out those three DVDs and mail them to one of your friends who is a Yankee fan with a note ...


Hope all is well ... I won't be needing these, thought you might enjoy them.

PS: These make terrific coasters for drinks.

In fact, I need to go ... I have to send a package to my Uncle Ricky ...

posted: Aug. 10, 2005  |  Feedback

For any Boston fan hoping for a Manny Ramirez trade, Saturday night provided a sobering glimpse into the future. Minutes before a home game against Minnesota, the Red Sox pulled Manny from the starting lineup. A deal with the Mets seemed imminent. The boys took the field with Olerud batting cleanup, Kapler in right and Millar in left. And maybe the Sox ended up winning the game, but one stat line stood out in the end:

D. Ortiz, DH -- 1 1 0 0

Did he get hurt?

(Nope. Played the whole game.)

Did he have a couple of sacrifice flies?

(Nope. Not a one.)

Was it a low-scoring game?

(Actually, no. Boston banged out 14 hits and scored six runs.)

So what happened? With Renteria on first and one out, the Twins walked Ortiz in the first inning. Third and first, one out in the second … they walked him again. In the fourth, they pitched to Ortiz with two outs and nobody on (he flew out to right). In the sixth, with runners on second and third and one out, they intentionally walked him. In the seventh, with Kapler on second and two outs, they walked Big Papi again.

Sensing a theme here? There are multiple reasons why the Sox never should have considered trading Manny, but here's the biggest one: They weren't just losing a Hall of Fame slugger who still had something in the tank, they were turning Big Papi -- only the premiere clutch hitter in either league -- into a 275-pound, Dominican version of Lu Blue. Without Manny, how many times would teams walk Big Papi in the next two months? 75? 100? 150? No number seemed unrealistic.

Was that why Boston ended up walking away, because of Saturday night's game? Maybe, maybe not. You also have to consider the following things:

1. None of the trades made sense
I know, I know … Manny becomes a 10/5 guy at the end of the season, meaning he could veto any trade and act like a complete doofus in the final three seasons of his extravagant contract. When he stopped running out ground balls two weeks ago and started the whole sad/moody/depressed puppy dog routine, yes, it was somewhat frightening to remember that he's on the hook for another $60 million through 2008. But here were the offers on the table for Manny, according to various reports:

A. Boston gives up Manny and two top prospects for Aubrey Huff, Mike Cameron and a top Mets prospect. Well, Cameron's only real value comes because he's a great center fielder … and we already have Johnny Damon. I like Huff, but he tanked the first half of the season, and he's certainly not stopping anyone from pitching around Big Papi. And it's not like Huff and Cameron are cheap labor -- they're on the hook for a combined $14 million in 2006. So you're getting probably 55 cents on the dollar (and losing a prime prospect) during a season when you still have a chance to defend your title. What's the point?

B. Boston gives up Manny for Mike Cameron and a top Mets prospect, plus the Sox have to pay $15 million of the remaining money on Manny's contract. Basically, they would have been saying, "We give up on the 2005 season."

My theory: I know they offered him around, know they were in intense discussions with the Devil Rays and Mets … but I don't think they ever really wanted to trade him. And why? Because those two aforementioned deals are colossally moronic -- they would have been skewered in every message board, Web site and newspaper. I'm firmly entrenched in the "they wanted to scare the living daylight out of Manny" camp, like when he requested a trade two years ago and they placed him on irrevocable waivers. That same winter, by the time they had conditionally traded him to Texas, Manny was calling Boston owner John Henry and begging him to stay. And last week's fervent trade talk was an extension of that -- they were exploring his value, but more importantly, they were pulling a Vito Corleone, slapping him across the face like Johnny Fontaine and screaming, "You can act like a man!"

Which raises the second point …

2. Manny is completely nuts
Completely. Totally. After his agent agreed to contract terms with Boston five years ago, Manny threw out one final condition -- the Sox also needed to hire the guy who set up the pitching machine for him in Cleveland (trivia answer: Frankie Mancini). So his agent had to go back to Boston GM Dan Duquette, who said, "Yes, we'll hire the pitching machine guy if that makes him happy." Only the pitching machine guy didn't want to leave Cleveland. Manny decided to come, anyway.

Here's the point: He's a lunatic, but in a functional way. Two or three times a year, something sets him off, and it could be anything -- someone borrowed his Aqua Velva without asking, Louisville Slugger forgot to send him a new box of bats, his wife accidentally erased a movie from their TiVo, and so on. And that's it. He's a mess for two weeks. Unlike someone like Bonzi Wells or Terrell Owens, he doesn't antagonize reporters, blast other teammates or swear at his coach. He's not a negative presence. It's almost like having Cuba Gooding from "Radio" around, but without the jukebox and the fake teeth. This is not someone who can derail your entire season.

So what happened this time around? I blame Pedro, who has probably been calling Manny every week for the last nine months, messing with his head and saying stuff like, "I don't want to tell you who said it, but I talked to one of your teammates last week and they said you were a loser, man." Few baseball players are smarter than Pedro -- he knows how Boston works, how Manny works, and he's probably been quietly pouring gasoline on the fire since December (hoping that Manny would crack and the Sox would eventually give him away to the Mets). I have absolutely no proof of this -- it's just a theory -- other than Pedro made it clear that he wanted Manny on the Mets (also, Pedro gleefully interjected himself into last week's soap opera). If you were Pedro, wouldn't you have played it this way? Sure, it's devious and manipulative … but it's the right move. And it almost worked. You know, if he did it.

(Note: I think he did it. Then again, I'm a sucker for conspiracy theories -- I'm a firm believer that Tom Cruise has never even seen Katie Holmes in a towel, much less completely naked. But that's a whole other story.)

Second, just like Jon Lovitz as Harvey Fierstein, I think Manny just wants to be loved. Is that so wrong? Remember, this is a guy who was breast-fed until he was 4 years old. When you forget to coddle him, he takes it personally. This hasn't been the best summer for him -- he started off slowly and became a whipping boy for certain writers and radio hosts (a rehashed version of what happened near the end of the 2002 season), and Big Papi has clearly passed him, both in popularity and productivity. So Manny went into a little funk, and it spiralled, and then the last two weeks happened.

In the past five years, the phrase "Manny being Manny" has been said or written probably two million times; during a NESN interview after yesterday's game, Manny even said it about himself (high comedy, by the way). But you know what that phrase really means? "He's a doofus, he's completely unpredictable, but the dude can hit." And given that we knew all three of these things when he signed with the team, nothing that ever happens with him -- short of his dropping trow in left field -- should come as a surprise.

3. The team has as much of a chance to win the AL as anyone
Not to sound like Hall of Famer Peter Gammons here, but if Schilling can eventually become a starter again, if the flame-throwing rookies (Papelbon and Delcarmen) can give the Sox some bullpen innings, if Foulke can return to form after having his knee scoped (that's the biggest "if"), if Nixon can come back before September, if they can get some life from the bats of Millar or Olerud (they don't even need both), if the starters can stay healthy, and if Manny is happy again, they're absolutely the favorite in the American League again. What other team has two dominant hitters and a leadoff hitter having a career season? Who has more quality starters? Who has an easier schedule down the stretch? In retrospect, that was the biggest reason why the trade didn't happen. When you're competing for another championship, you can't hold a fire sale for a first-ballot Hall of Famer who can carry your team for weeks at a time.

Because that's what everyone forgets about Manny: Strip away all the baggage, and the crazy guy can still hit. In fact, I asked the two most diehard Sox fans I know (my dad and my buddy Hench) what they thought would happen if Manny went to the Mets, and the eventual consensus was that he would hit between .380 and .420, with 14-20 homers and 50-55 RBI. None of us had any doubt. Say what you want about the guy, but he usually rises to the occasion when it matters. You just need to use a cattle prod with him sometimes, that's all.

During Sunday's remarkable game at Fenway (the highlight of the season so far), when Manny strode from the dugout in the eighth inning -- tie game, second and first, two outs -- the fans exploded when they realized that he hadn't been traded. On Friday, they showered him with boos, almost like parents grounding their teenage son. On Sunday, they cheered him, shouting "Man-ny! Man-ny!" and gave him a collective bear hug. And you know what? I would have wagered just about anything on Manny's coming through.

And he did.

And the crowd went three levels beyond crazy.

And Manny took off his helmet and happily pointed to Boston's dugout.

Just like that, everything was cool again. You know the old saying, "Sometimes the best trades are the ones you don't make?" In this case, the Red Sox did make a trade. Five days of rumors and histrionics eventually led to the following deal: Unhappy Manny straight up for Happy Manny. Sounds like a steal to me.

August 2005