July 10, 2006
Italy:
The quickest, easiest way to get everyone to forget about the worst scandal in soccer history is to win a World Cup. (At least, for now.)
 
 
 
The Lead Item
Two Words For You:
GOLDEN.  FALL.

Can you ever remember a moment in sports history when the best player on the field in a championship game (in overtime, no less) got thrown out for a mindless personal foul outside the flow of the actual game?

Still stunned by Zinedine Zidane's career-tainting ejection, let me attempt to translate Zizou's jaw-dropping head-butt into its analogue in mainstream U.S. sports:

Rose Bowl: Moments before he has the chance to take Texas on its game-winning drive, Vince Young wanders over to the USC sidelines and cracks his elbow into Matt Leinart's face.

NBA Finals: Dwyane Wade walks over to Jason Terry during a timeout in the final moments of Game 6 (or, more accurately, a would-be Game 7) and cold-cocks him in the jewels in front of the ref.

World Series: The White Sox and Astros have gone to Game 7. Bottom of the ninth, game tied, with the player in front of him about to be intentionally walked to load the bases. Paul Konerko wanders from the on-deck circle out to 2B and whacks Craig Biggio in the knee with a bat.

It's impossible to say if Zidane's mistake cost France a World Cup title (I argue it did, given his influence and PK mastery), but there's no mistaking that he indelibly ruined his otherwise all-time-great legacy.

In a World Cup highlighted by the controversial art of flopping (most notably by the new champs), it's ironic that its most memorable moment will be Zidane's head-butt -- so obviously, unmistakably real.

And it makes it all the more insane that, despite the head-butt that ruined his rep and hurt his team's chances of winning a Cup title, Zidane still won the "Golden Ball" as the World Cup's MVP.

Even after a month of following it intensely, casual fans can be forgiven for looking at this coup de disgrace and finding soccer and its culture still mystifying.

Home Run Derby
Last year everyone overlooked the Phillies' HR Derby rep, and Bobby Abreu did nothing less than rewrite the derby record books.

This year I'm not making the same mistake again: Slugging sensation Ryan Howard is my pick to win the showcase (8 p.m., ESPN), edging the sizzling David Ortiz in the finals.

Yes, it's a bandwagon pick. My only concerns? Howard is only 5-for-26 with one HR in the past week, and he recently admitted he rarely hits home runs in batting practice.

(Of course, it's worth pointing out that in the week before last year's Derby, Abreu was 5-for-25 with only one HR.)

Alas, like Abreu's Derby dominance last year, Howard's participation will represent the biggest highlight of the season for Phillies fans.

(Meanwhile, watch out tonight for the super-duper-slo-mo cam, reportedly 120 frames per second -- double the usual slo-mo.)

All-Star Subs
Here's my question:

If the players on the "Final Vote" ballot represented the best players to not make the All-Star rosters, how did two players NOT on the ballot (Magglio Ordonez and Roy Oswalt) leapfrog those players to make the roster?

"Managers' discretion": Ozzie picked his guy Maggs over the astonishingly more worthy Travis Hafner; Phil Garner picked his own pitcher, Oz, over the NL Final Vote runner-up Chris Capuano.

The only good news is that Tom Glavine's drop-out (because he pitched Sunday) opened up a … you're forgiven for losing count … fourth chance for the NL to (finally) put the deserving Capuano on the roster.

The AL remains baffling: How do the league's statistical No. 1 pitcher (Francisco Liriano) and statistical No. 1 hitter (Hafner) NOT make the team, even with all the second chances?

CHECK OUT THE QUICKIE EVERY WEEKDAY MORNING!
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For the record, on Saturday, Liriano LOWERED his MLB-leading ERA to 1.83, more than one run lower than the next closest AL pitcher. And Hafner became the first player EVER to hit five grand slams before the All-Star Break. He's 7-for-10 with 25 RBI with the bases loaded this season. But sure, Ozzie, Magglio would make a MUCH better AL All-Star pinch-hitter.

Liriano remains my obsession, and I'm still waiting for an 11th-hour reprieve: Maybe Roy Halladay pitching yesterday will turn into a Glavine scenario and Guillen -- or even MLB -- can get Liriano on this team.

MLB Hit List
Sox-Sox Marathon: Given the impressive way the White Sox and Red Sox have played in the first half, it's understandable that neither team would want the All-Star Break to happen.

That's the only logical explanation for their participation in the longest game of the season, a 19-inning, 6-hour-19-minute marathon won by Chicago on Tad Iguchi's walk-off bases-loaded single.

(But I'm quite sure it wasn't in either team's plan to use eight pitchers each and combine for 570 pitches. Come to think of it: Now both teams can really use a half-week break.)

Is it possible that Dusty Baker saved his job with the Cubs' three-win weekend? More likely, it was a tease, and he merely postponed the inevitable until the team's next long losing streak.

(Meanwhile, was it just a coincidence that Mark Prior was scratched before the game after straining his side during BP and then the team won? Prior was 0-4 since his return from the DL.)

Futures Game: Royals Rule! What does it say about the Royals that the team's best player is the big-hitting Double-A outfielder Billy Butler, who won the Futures MVP after a two-run HR in a U.S. team win?

My MLB Midseason Awards will come later this week, but let's just say that David Wright clinched his NL MVP status with Sunday's go-ahead three-run HR, giving him 20 HRs in the first half, to go with a .312 BA and 74 RBI. (The most important number? The Mets are 12 games ahead in the NL East.)

LeBron Re-signs
LeBron's contract situation turns out to be SO much more interesting than simply, "Will he stay or does he want to leave?"

According to an ESPN report, he will NOT sign a "max" deal for 5Y/$80M and instead do a 4Y/$60M deal with an opt-out clause after Year 3.

The opt-out seems to be in place so he can bolt the Cavs if they haven't made any progress in the East, but the four-year deal sets him up as an unrestricted free agent in 2010.

"I'll show you a MAX!": When the NBA labor deal ends in 2012, he could be positioned for a monster pay day; the number in ESPN's story is $150 million over six years.

(Keep in mind that, by then, ANY team that wants to sign LeBron could create the cap space over the next six years to do it. Translation? Goodbye, Cleveland; hello, major media market.)

Last week when I ran this, I had heard from Cavs fans that LeBron not signing a deal would sour him with fans. Now how will they react when they find out he's committed … but only for three years? Sounds half-hearted to me.

Cavs fans should be unsatisfied: Anything less than a "I'm a Cav for life" from LeBron should be viewed skeptically by fans, especially given how antiseptic his weekend statement was about re-signing with the team.

For the record: Even though we're talking about dates six years out from now, LeBron still will only be 20-freaking-8 in 2012; that was the age when Michael Jordan won his FIRST title.

N'western Hires Fitz
Three reasons to love Northwestern's decision to promote 31-year-old assistant coach Pat Fitzgerald to head coach:

(1) Youth: He's the youngest coach in D-1 (by five years)! He'll relate to players and recruits and, hopefully, be just green enough to take the kind of risks that turn mediocre teams into consistent winners.

(2) Experience: What better experience could you ask for than being the poster guy of the greatest turnaround in college football history? There's a credibility that comes with being part of NU's Rose Bowl team.

(3) Commitment: It might sound strange to think that Northwestern would be a coach's "dream job," but in this case, it fits. Merely annual bowl eligibility could turn Fitz into Evanston's Joe Paterno.

ESPYs Countdown
Your ballots are in. I'll spend the next three days revealing my picks in the always-intriguing "cross-sport" categories, today based on who I think SHOULD win (and who I think WILL win):

Best Coach
Should win: Jim Larranaga
Will win: Bill Cowher

Best Female Athlete
Should win: Hannah Teter
Will win: Annika Sorenstam

Best Comeback
Should win: Tedy Bruschi
Will win: Bruschi

Biggest Breakthrough
Should win: Shaun White
Will win: Chris Paul

Biggest Record-Breaker
Should win: Shaun Alexander
Will win: Alexander

Tuesday: It's J-Mac's world.
Wednesday: Young will rule.

Note: The ESPYs will be held Wednesday and aired Sunday night.

David Trezeguet:
Don't mean to pin a World Cup final loss on one guy (especially because Zidane is WAY more culpable), but missing a PK? Serious chokery.
 
 
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Finals run transcendent
 
LeBron James
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Tim Duncan
Yet another top 3 finish
 
Yao Ming
Only going to get better
 
Dirk Nowitzki
Elevated in West finals
 

The smartest career move Danica Patrick could make is to jump from obscure IRL to high-profile NASCAR. She could be highest-paid endorser/driver in racing.

Jeff Gordon's win in Joliet won't win him any new fans after bumping Kenseth into a spin-out to take the lead. (Payback for a March incident?)

Juan Pablo Montoya knows which side of auto racing the real glory is found: He's jumping from F-1 to NASCAR. (F-1's groupies still get an edge.)

Curious how Renaldo Balkman did in his first two games with the Knicks? 7 ppg, 4 rpg, 1.5 spg in Vegas Summer League play. Not bad, but not great.

More NBA Summer: The Orlando mini-league tips off today, with the top curiosity being the debut of Adam Morrison. (J.J. Redick isn't participating.)

Harvard joins the "Embarrassed College Athletics Club," after its football captain was suspended for allegedly assaulting his girlfriend.

I love a good superlative, even if it isn't sports: How about "Pirates of the Caribbean" shattering the opening-weekend box-office record ($132M)?



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