By Bill Simmons
Page 2

LAS VEGAS -- Remember when Jay Leno was just a big-chinned comic who killed on "Late Night with David Letterman" every three weeks? Other than anything Eddie Murphy was doing on "SNL," the Leno-Letterman segments were the funniest 10 minutes on TV, the perfect match between comic and talk-show host. Leno stomped out like a man on a mission, launching into various tirades as Letterman cackled in delight. They always saved the best for the end of the second segment, when Letterman would say, "All right, Jay, it's time -- tell us, what's your beef, what's sticking in your craw?" And Leno would unleash a rant about something mundane and strangely meaningful. It was practically poetry.

I know, I know ... if you're under 30, you're thinking to yourself, "Wait a second, Jay Leno???? The same Jay Leno who hosts 'The Tonight Show'? The guy with the big chin who cracks bad jokes and makes his guests uncomfortable? The guy who gets inexplicably huge ratings every week? That guy?"

I'm telling you. Jay Leno. Nobody was better. I even have five dusty VCR tapes filled with Letterman sketches and guest spots from back in the day -- regular segments that I loved, like "The Fugitive Guy" with Chris Elliott; spots with Murphy, Tom Hanks, Michael Keaton and all the other regulars; all the anniversary specials; even every episode of the L.A. Week. (By the way, you're not going to believe this, but at the time I was making these tapes, I was single.) Other than Letterman, nobody appears on that tape more than Jay Leno. He was the MJ of talk-show guests. He owes his career to Letterman, whose show made Leno a household name.

Jay Leno
Guess what? The Sports Guy hasn't read Jay's book, either.

And that's what made everything that happened so sad. Leno parlayed those guest spots into a permanent guest-host gig for Johnny Carson, eventually swiping "The Tonight Show" away from a stunned Letterman (who never saw it coming). Mainstream Leno was dramatically different from Aggrieved Everyman Leno; not only did his show tank, but NBC nearly fired him to keep Letterman from jumping networks. Leno responded by turning his show into a carbon copy of Letterman's CBS show, eventually winning the ratings battle because of his network and the legacy of "The Tonight Show" name. I don't know a single person who thinks Leno's show is better than Letterman's show. Not one. And yet he wins every week. Go figure.

Now he makes something like $50 million a year and owns roughly 25,340 different antique cars, although in the comedy community, he downshifted from "icon" to "punchline" over a decade ago. The great Bill Hicks even had an angry routine about Leno selling out every comedian who ever looked up to him; the piece ended with Hicks wondering which brutal "The Tonight Show" guest would cause Leno to shoot himself with a shotgun on live TV. After some thinking, Hicks decided it would be Joey Lawrence. It's one of the most vicious bits you will ever see.

Vegas, Part IV
Notes from my fourth Vegas trip of 2004:

1. We stayed at the Hard Rock, my favorite gambling spot because they have more hand-shuffled blackjack tables than any other casino. Unfortunately, the StringCheese Incident was playing there on Saturday night, so it looked like a giant hacky-sack game was about to break out for 48 straight hours. If there's a more loathsome guy on the planet than the broke stoner with Adam Duritz hair who wears a Phish T-shirt and somehow finds himself flanked by natural-looking beauties with armpit hair who aren't wearing bras, please let me know.

2. The new Monorail opened last week, the one that saves you cab rides by taking you all over the Strip. Of course, it's been breaking down while they work out the kinks. At least it's not pancaking cars like the Malachi Brothers Memorial Light Rail in Houston.

3. Celeb Gambling Highlight of the Weekend: I played at a blackjack table on Friday with Luc Robitaille, who told our dealer that it was "50-50" that the 2004-05 NHL season will happen this fall. I spent the next four hours throwing down Diver Downs and fighting off the urge to tell him, "50-50? Are you friggin' nuts? Can we wager on this?"

4. Mandalay just opened a "European Pool" -- $30 to get in, topless bathing allowed. I'm not making this up.

5. Best sports wager: I plunked down $100 at 25-1 odds on Seattle to win the Super Bowl. How do the Seahawks not have as good a chance as anyone else in the NFC? Couldn't this be the Year of the Bald QB?

6. Worst sports wager: I wanted to go against KC's Brian Anderson on Saturday, simply because he murdered my roto team in April and May. So I took the Indians plus-140 to win by two runs or more. Of course, Anderson threw a two-hitter for six innings. If that's not bad enough, the Indians won by one run. This is why I don't bet on baseball.

I never felt as strongly about the subject as Hicks did, but it always bothered me that Leno stole Carson's job from Letterman. As Bill Carter's book "The Late Shift" described in detail, Letterman respected Carson so much that he couldn't tell NBC how much he wanted "The Tonight Show," because he didn't want anyone to think he was trying to push Carson out the door. When that door finally opened in the early '90s, Leno and his manager (Helen Kushnick, viciously played by Kathy Bates in the movie version of the book) barged right through. That show was Letterman's manifest destiny. He earned the right to replace Carson. I don't think he's ever been quite the same.

There have been rumors that Letterman will hang it up soon; between his new baby, his health problems and the frustrations of losing to Leno every week, it would certainly make sense. After 22 years, what's left to prove? The guy had the defining comedy show of the 1980s. Wouldn't you hate to see him lingering around past his prime like Carson did -- his core guests aging in dog years, "SNL" skewering him with those "Carsenio" sketches, Leno breathing down his neck? I hope he gets out sooner rather than later. Regardless, the whole thing makes me sad. The torch should have been passed from Carson to Letterman. End of story. Leno ruined everything.

So here's the big question ...

What does this have to do with my column?

I'm glad you asked. After much deliberation, I'm making "What's My Beef?" a running feature on the "Sports Guy's World" page. For one thing, Leno hasn't used it for 15-plus years. More importantly, it's about time somebody stole something from Leno, instead of the other way around.

Anyway, here's my first edition of "What's My Beef?"

* * * * *

So, I'm playing poker at Mandalay Bay, wreaking havoc at a 4-to-8 Hold 'Em table against an inspired collection of chain-smokers and degenerates. Remember the "Eye of the Tiger" montage at the beginning of "Rocky III," when he's beating everyone up and knocking guys over the top ropes? That's me. I'm a one-man wrecking crew. I'm in the zone. I'm the head honcho. I have the juice. I'm Schillinger during the first three seasons of "Oz."

Suddenly, there's a roar from the sports book, which sits directly to the right of the poker room (one of Mandalay's few redeeming qualities). We turn our attention to the big-screen TV, where Arroyo just plunked A-Job with a 75-mph changeup, prompting A-Job to pull the Arnold Horshack Memorial "I'm going to kick his butt ... somebody hold me back!" routine. Varitek tells him to shut his $252 million trap and go to first base. A-Job waits for the umpire to step between them, then tells Varitek to have sex with himself. One thing leads to another. Finally, Varitek gives him a two-handed shove to the face, followed by an attempted body slam as A-Job flails in the air like a marlin.

Rodriguez, Varitek
The Sports Guy missed Jason Varitek and Alex Rodriguez going at it.

And then? Chaos. Within seconds, the combatants are surrounded by teammates from both sides, followed by a spinoff wrestling match between Kapler, Ortiz and Worcester, Mass., native Tanyon Sturtze, who jumps Kapler from behind and does everything but break an empty Rolling Rock bottle over his head. (Question: Could somebody tell Sturtze that he was at Fenway Park at 4 p.m., not Joe De's at 2:30 a.m.?) With everyone rolling around on the grass, it feels like the roof could come off in the Mandalay sports book. People are going bonkers. It's like the Tyson-Holyfield sequel multiplied by 10. The Red Sox and Yankees are brawling at Fenway, we're in Vegas watching it happen, and everything is right with the world.

Anyway, that's how I spent my Saturday afternoon. And I didn't embellish anything about that story, except for one tiny detail ...

The game wasn't actually showing in Vegas.

Unless you live in the Boston or New York areas, or maybe a couple of other fortunate places in the country that received the game, you couldn't watch that epic game on live television. You missed the bench-clearing brawl, which has already taken its rightful place alongside the Fisk-Piniella Brawl, the Fisk-Michael-Munson Three-Way, the Zimmer-Pedro Incident and everything else that reminds us how much these two franchises (and their fans) despise each other. You missed the dramatic Boston comeback, as the team showed signs of a pulse for the first time in three months. You missed seeing A-Job take a two-hander to the face. You missed everything.

See, Fox blacks out every Saturday afternoon game except for its national telecast. It likes doing this because, in theory, fans will always watch their own team over a broadcast involving two other teams. Remove everyone's favorite teams from the equation and the ratings for the national game invariably will rise. Major League Baseball allows this because those exclusive Saturday windows generate a much bigger price tag from the networks, even though the thought process pretty much works like this: We get exclusivity on Saturday afternoons, and every Boston diehard who doesn't live in the lucky regions which get the Red Sox game are screwed, and this makes perfect sense because it's always a good idea to antagonize your core audience.

(As a note of full disclosure, other networks -- including ESPN -- also negotiate exclusive windows with MLB. For example, ESPN has an exclusive window on Sunday nights, and in past seasons, has also had one Wednesday night.)

Why create a situation where fans can't watch their favorite team? Why would this be desirable under any circumstances? I've been asking myself that one ever since I moved to Los Angeles, where I plunk down $179 a year for DirecTV's Extra Innings package, yet I miss two or three Saturday Sox games every month ... and that's the ONLY REASON I GOT THE PACKAGE IN THE FIRST PLACE!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Brawl
He also missed Tanyon Sturtze's crazed attack on Gabe Kapler.

Let's put this in perspective for a second. Say you want to lease a convertible. In fact, let's make it a nice one -- let's say you want to lease one of those sharp-looking Lexuses for like $900 a month. So you head down to your local Lexus dealership. You meet some oily salesman with bad breath, haggle with him about the price, and threaten to head over to BMW and Mercedes. He keeps dropping the price ... finally you get your $900 deal with $2,500 down. You sign the paperwork, shake some hands, offer the guy an Altoid and drive that baby out of the lot. You have a brand-new Lexus. And it's summertime and you can't wait to break it out on a Saturday afternoon.

Fast-forward to two weekends later: Saturday rolls around. You hop in your brand-new convertible, stick the key in the ignition ... nothing. Won't start. You get it jumped. Still won't start. Now you're confused. You call the guy with the vegan breath at Lexus. And he gives you this one.

"Oh, I didn't tell you? On certain Saturdays, you can't drive your car. It's a deal we made with Mercedes, BMW and Porsche -- our four companies are alternating exclusive Saturdays for our customers to drive luxury convertibles. Every fourth weekend, you get to drive your car. And as an added bonus, none of the other luxury car owners can drive their convertibles on that day."

This sounds like a ludicrous scenario, right?

I mean, this would never happen, right?

THIS HAPPENS IN BASEBALL EVERY WEEKEND!!!!!!!!

How is it good for the sport of baseball not to make an important game available to a large percentage of the country? What's the logic? Seriously? Do they assume that I like baseball so much that A) they can black out my favorite team; B) I will happily watch a game involving two teams that I normally couldn't care less about; and C) I won't hold a grudge about this? Imagine if -- God forbid -- the NFL did this on Sundays?

Bill Mueller
The Sports Guy also missed Bill Mueller's game-winning homer.

(Note: It's worth mentioning that the NFL has its own version of blackouts, where hometown fans get robbed of seeing their own team if their home game isn't sold out. I don't have a problem with this. If you can't sell out eight NFL games a season when just about every other team in the league has a gigantic waiting list for season tickets, you probably don't deserve to have an NFL team. And yes, I'm talking to you, Arizona.)

Here's the point: On Saturday, July 24, 2004, the customers at Mandalay Bay's sports book were treated to exactly one baseball game all afternoon: a riveting contest between the Cardinals and Giants. I'm sure there were pennant implications and stuff. It's just that I don't care. I don't care about the National League. I care about the Red Sox. And on this particular day at Fenway, there was a bench-clearing brawl and a dramatic walk-off home run against Rivera, and I missed the whole thing. At a Vegas sports book, no less.

And that's my beef.

There's a happy ending to this story.

At 3 o'clock, my buddy Gus called to tell me about the fight. I scurried over to the sports book and caught the highlights on ESPNEWS with no sound. Just the way you want to follow your favorite team. Still, inspired by Varitek's two-handed shove, I returned to that 4-to-8 poker table and proceeded to clean everyone's clocks. Some people were glaring at me. Some people were joking with me, trying to kill me with kindness. Chain-smokers were trying to strategically place their cigarettes so the smoke would drift towards me. A couple of people even gave up and switched tables.

None of it mattered. I was an assassin. The cards were finding me. I could see everything at the table as it was happening -- almost like a higher state of consciousness, like I could process 15 different things at once. I was reading people like Mike McD dismantling the judge's game in "Rounders." In four hours, I made four mistakes, none of them major. Nobody ever managed to take me down for a huge hand. It was like throwing a no-hitter. At one point, I wanted to stand up like Will Ferrell in the "I drive a Dodge Stratus" sketch and scream, "OK, people are SCARED OF ME."

Because that's what happens when you have the juice at a poker table. Everything feeds through you. You toss your chips into a hand and everyone tenses up. You represent the high ace off the flop and everyone assumes you have it. You're fishing for a straight on the river and it finds you. You raise people just for the hell of it, just because you can. And if you sit out a hand, you kill time stacking dollar chips into various architectural designs that would make I.M. Pei proud.

There's nothing quite like it. I'm almost ready for No-Limit Hold 'Em in Vegas. Almost. I learned that on Saturday. Only one thing could have made the day more enjoyable: Watching my favorite baseball team slap the Yankees and A-Job around.

Alas.

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His Sports Guy's World site is updated every day Monday through Friday.




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