Page 2 columnist
Say it ain't so, EV-RY-ONE!
I'll explain the inflection on that later.
But first, make way for Dogman, who was hanging out the other day in Orlando with Fat Boy. Not Dog's Fat Boy, also known as Larry Finch, who was a backcourt-mate at Memphis back when the Tigers went to the Final Four in '73, or Aught-Five (I'm making Dog sound like Billy Packer here), or whenever the hell it was that Red Walton landed on their heads to the tune of 21 of 22. Dog was back there with that Fat Boy. Well, unless you're counting Bill Laurie, Fat Boy Finch's actual backcourt-mate, now son-in-law and potential heir to the Wal-Mart fortune.
Anyway, not that Fat Boy.
Not Mark Aguirre's Fat Boy, either. Did that Fat Boy ever even make it to the Final Four? I suspect not. Didn't Skip "Money" Dillard miss those free throws? (It was so laughable, you could never forget it -- the sheer absurdity of the nickname.) And say, Billy, wasn't that against St. Joe's? Didn't St. Joe's upset No. 1 DePaul back in Aught Nine? (Aguirre got a ring in the big leagues with the Pistons and is working for Isiah now with the Ka-nicks, who are currently driving me and Dogman nuts with their up-and-down-and-further-down play. They're starting to make me fantasize about Kirilenko.)
No, Dog was hanging out with the other Fat Boy, the one I call "Warn" -- or Warren Sapp, as he is known by millions.
"Including you," Dog says, over my shoulder.
"C'mon, let me tell it, Dub," the Dogman shrieked.
I'm tired. So I relent.
* * * * *
Now, Mister Josey Wales, I could start off by saying me and Sapp got to talking as we were happily on our way over to the crack house, except that s*** ain't funny to me. I understand it might be funny to you. I understand that. But, see, that's the kind of crap that costs me money and respect.
Forget respect. It costs me money. Never mind how. Not that you care.
Me and Sapp were in a gym down in Florida, as I was down there to scout this Darius Washington kid, high school point guard. When I call Sapp "Fat Boy," that's what Kennard Lang and all of them from Miami call him. He is fat, in a bearish sort of way, but you've never seen fat move so quick in your life. When a guy like Finch or Aguirre or Sapp is called "Fat Boy," it's a nickname of vast respect. This means he carries his weight around like a slingshot in his back pocket.
Sapp doesn't have a pot belly. He has a side-of-beef belly. He is as quick as natural law, still. And he ain't got no contract.
Being in the NFL labor force is like that.
"I'm not crazy," Sapp says, leaning close in to speak. "If I had my druthers, I druther stay here, play in Tampa. It's right down the road from here. That's if I had my druthers. But I guess I'm looking at Baltimore now. Maybe."
You gotta like that about Warn. He's got a lot of Barkley in him. He has a conspiratorial naturalness to him that makes you like him and want to be on his side even if you happen to disagree with what he's saying. Just like there are some people you and I tend to disagree with just on general principles.
"Like I said, I'd just as soon sign with the Bucs. I'm at home. At the same time, Drew (Rosenhaus) is in there working on something for me now. The Bucs have done nothing. (New player personnel guy and quasi-GM) Bruce Allen, I don't know him," says Fat Boy, although he knows him well enough to know that Allen "used to be an agent; know what I mean?"
It means: Be wary of Bruce Allen.
Not only that, Sapp knows Allen's rep as a former agent. And it's not personal. It's business. At a certain point, that job begins to define the man, instead of the other way around.
Let's just say Warn ain't holding his breath on Tampa. He was waiting out the T.O. decision because Ozzie Newsome got the word to Warn to stay heads-up if Philly got him, which finally happened. Warn's not a bad consolation prize, if you're a fan of -- or a sportswriter around -- Le Baltimore Ravens. Not only can Sapp play D-line, he can go double-tight with Heap and then do a Beyonce Bounce and tell you how he did it, and then lecture you about labor issues later.
Somehow, the magic of the NCAA Tournament seemed to be escaping Warn right at that moment. It's that way when you have to concentrate on your career and your last contract, and what you can get up front -- which in the NFL is all you're going to get. When Warn talked of being purposefully anonymous in a helmet, banned and barred from having on-field personality and being just a number despite playing the most popular game in America . . . when he invoked slavemasters and sweated everyone that he wasn't confusing or making very angry last year . . . when he did all that, he wasn't just talking out of his neck.
Look at T.O., Warn says. Come on now. What kind of management-labor relationship is it when you've got your deal worked out ahead of time with the team you know you want to go to in free agency, when you've got a ten mil bonus on the table, when that team has actually set aside some compensation to your last team for you going free agent (which is restraint right there, on its face, because it's not real true free agency if you have to give up more than a simple draft choice), and then your former team says you missed a paperwork filing deadline and so therefore your free agency is rescinded. Just like that.
It's punitive to say you didn't file this paperwork -- and it was a formality, at best -- on Monday like you should've, and so it's going to cost you your right to sell your services on the open market. And then that your contract can be traded to another team, which, oh by the way, doesn't have to lure you with a $10 million signing bonus and can just suit you up. Oh, they can ply you with a couple or three mil if they're that dumb, but that's entirely up to them.
Shazam. Now take this conscript to the company store and get back to work.
On one hand, the way the "rules" are written, T.O. was up the creek. But on other hand, looking at is as part of a greater labor-management arrangement, the league -- vis-à-vis the Ravens and the 49ers -- had to fold or face rebellion. The next thing you know, just when they're thinking Ray Lewis is going to be the league's Enforcer with this new loudmouth gladiator in his locker room, Ray Lewis says instead, "I am Spartacus!" And T.O. says, "No, I am Spartacus!" And then Fat Boy is chiming in, "No, I am Spartacus!"
One of the most brilliant moves the league ever made -- and I'm wondering if Pete Rozelle gets credit for this, too -- was choosing a lawyer as Rozelle's successor. Tags looked at this and said, "Back off, boys. Let him eat Philly."
"That Devin Harris boy from Wisconsin can play. John Lucas's boy is nice, too," Warn said. And with that, we'll leave what's left of the NCAAs to the comedy stylings of Jay Bilas, Dickie V., Digger, Steve Lavin, Billy Packer, Clark Kellogg, Jim Nantz, Aint Bee, Charles Manson, etc.
* * * * *
The reason I started up with, "Say it ain't so EV-RY-ONE!" is to capture the plaintive cry, "It ain't so, is it Joe?" -- which supposedly was offered by a Chicago street urchin to Shoeless Joe Jackson. This became the mythic plea, "Say it ain't so, Joe," from a kid who is supposed to represent sweetness, goodness and light. But if I know Chicago, and I do, the kid was probably pinching hub cabs and pints of Scotch and looking up Miss Fletcher's skirt with a compact mirror.
So the EV-RY-ONE! means just that. It's a scream taken from Gary Oldman as Detective Stansfield in "The Professional," when he tells his subordinates to call in everyone on the force and their backups against the holed-up hit man, Leon. "Everyone, Stan?" a subordinate asks. "EV-RY-ONE!" Stansfield roars, trembling like Bruce Lee after he stomps a mudhole in someone's chest. I think they must've done 30 or 40 takes on that. Oldman had a ball.
Let's start this part of the discussion, the "Say It Ain't So," part, with the spitting cobra known as Reginald Martinez Jackson. Not that I mind big mouths, per se. I have one myself, and freely admit it.
That's how I met Reggie Jackson, by us having such big mouths.
Oddly enough, even though I was in Oakland, I first met Reggie when he was a Yankee. He was in his glory back then, the master of all he surveyed at the plate, and in his own words, "The straw that stirs the drink." He beckoned me over after a Yankee loss at Dodger Stadium in the '77 Series and said, "Who gives a s***?" when I asked him what happens if the Yankees and Steinbrenner don't renew his contract.
"I like Billy and George -- well, I like George. !%@ Billy. But at the end of the day, I'm the one who can hit," he said.
I've seen Reggie Jackson be the master of his domain. I've seen him beat playoff teams -- like the 1981 Oakland A's -- in batting practice in Yankee Stadium, putting cracks in distant seats with his line drives. Reggie put on a real light show, all right. Made it look like the night sky over Baghdad. The A's dropped their heads, and knew they were defeated.
Now, 30 years later, Reggie doesn't think anyone else is capable of such dominance any more. The game was supposed to stand still once he bowed out, once he left it. No more progress after that. Reggie is just not adding it up. It was 30 years after Ruth when he and Aaron began their runs.
"Somebody's definitely guilty of taking steroids," Reggie said recently.
Yeah, OK, Reggie. But who, how, for how long, and to what actual end? Of course, you're implying Barry Bonds, like everybody else. But aren't there two Yankees "implicated" here, too? What about Giambi and Sheffield? They seem to have escaped your vast historical sweep, for some reason. So tell us, mighty Regga-la. Answer this question: Is it steroids, or is it sour grapes?
"You can't be breaking records, hitting 200 home runs in three or four seasons! The greatest hitters in the history of the game didn't do that," said Jackson, who hit 563 home runs, currently sixth all time, and dropping.
"Henry Aaron never hit 50 in a season, so you're going to tell me that you're a greater hitter than Henry Aaron? Bonds hit 73 (in 2001), and he would have hit 100 if they would have pitched to him. I mean, come on now. There is no way you can outperform Aaron and Ruth and Mays at that level."
No, Reg, there's no way you can outperform Aaron and Ruth and Mays at that level. Bad Henry Aaron was not a god. He was a shy, skinny second baseman who hit cross-handed and off the wrong foot, and actually was built somewhat like Alfonso Soriano is today. Aaron was not a titanic slugger. He was a line-drive hitter, one of the two or three greatest to ever live, and most productive.
Most days, Hammer was the best righty line-driver hitter ever, but there's days, and then there's days: I got this concept of the ebb-and-flow of the game from John McGraw, who when asked by a Detroit writer if Cobb was not the best player in baseball, over Ruth, said, rather cryptically, "Well, there's days Cobb is the best player in baseball, and there's days when he ain't the best player in Detroit." The newsman laughed rather nervously; I've always thought McGraw was rather obliquely not leaving out that fact that Turkey Stearns was also playing in Detroit at that time, for the Detroit Stars of the Negro National League).
At one time, Bonds was also starkly in his image -- the leanness of youth at first, thicker later, bigger head later, although without the bulk that's the bone of contention here, that some say comes from 'roids and some say comes from dietary supplements and working out.
You gave it a helluva run, Reggie. For you, I mean. You were a titanic slugger. But your lifetime batting average is .262, and not in the same ballpark as Aaron (a hard .305) or Mays (a hard .302), or Stan Musial, who hit "only" 475 home runs but had a lifetime batting average of, what, .331? A hard .331, not to be confused with a Tony Gwynn or Wade Boggs.
I don't compare Ruth's lifetime average of .342, simply because Aaron and Mays played against the same pitching -- and probably against the best total pitching of any era. And that's key here: Bonds, a lifetime .297 hitter, at 38 years old, led the league in batting average at .370 the year after he hit the 73 home runs that has everybody's thong in such a twist. Indicative of steroids, or a guy in need of a higher league? You can't write all that off to steroids.
No, wait. Reggie can.
"There is a reason why the greatest players of all time have 500 (home runs)," Reggie said. "Then there is that group that is above 550. There is a reason for that. Guys played 19, 20, 25 years. They had 9,000 to 10,000 at-bats, and it was the same for everybody."
Reggie, you're telling on yourself. There's everybody else, then there's you and Frank Robinson and Harmon Killebrew and Mark McGwire above 550. Then the Big Four. I guess Mike Schmidt at 548, Mickey Mantle at 536 and Jimmie Foxx at 534 and Ted Williams and Willie McCovey at 521 need not apply. And besides, the absolute greatest players of all time -- Ruth, then Mays, Bonds and Aaron -- not only have more than 500, they have far more than 500.
"Now, all of a sudden, you're hitting 50 when you're 40."
(Also having an ungodly, surreal OBP of .582 for an entire season at 38. Did all that escape you, Buck?)
"Why wouldn't you ask me or Aaron or somebody to give you insight?" asks Reggie. "Bud (Selig) is a nice guy, but he doesn't know what's happening here."
OK, Reggie. Three years after Aaron hit No. 715, you hit the famous Three-In-One-Night in Yankee Stadium, in Game 6 of the World Series -- three straight home runs (actually four, if you count the game before) on three consecutive pitches off three different Dodgers. It was akin to things Bonds has done. You were in a similar zone. You, Reggie, above everyone else, knows how it feels in your mid-30s to put it all together -- to have utter and complete mastery at the plate. You know how it feels. You hit four consecutive pitches on a line out of the ballpark.
When Aaron hit 715, he told Dusty Baker in the on-deck circle he was going to do it. And not only that he was going to do it, but how he was going to do it.
"The guy/fool (Al Downing) is gonna throw me a slider away, then try to bust me inside; and I'm ending this right here," Aaron said before hitting No. 715 almost on cue at Fulton County Stadium in April of 1974.
In Aaron's or Bonds' case, mastery can be achieved for a longer period -- or more efficiently, that is, and at a greater rate than you, Reggie. Now is that supposed to turn you into a hissing, spitting cat with an arched back? Or do you just take your hat off to the guy?
No, wait, let me guess ...
"The last I heard (the illegal distribution of steroids and other drugs) was against the laws of the land," Jackson said. "The Players Association talks about 'my rights.' My rights? Do you have the right not to pay taxes? You do something wrong, you pay the penalty."
(Nice convolution, Reggie. Nice, if sort of weird, clean-that-up parentheses inserted by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution). No matter what, Bonds has done nothing illegal. I'm not sure he took anabolic testosterone-based 'roids. But even if he did, Major League Baseball just banned THG, like, yesterday. But it sounds like Reggie's saying Barry did something not just wrong or unfortunate, but criminal.
Reggie Jax, coming soon to "Cops."
Again, was this about Barry Bonds and steroids? Or was this about the Reggie Jackson of another era and his public and self-perceived place in the game?
Reggie got Jim Palmer rolling, and Palmer never met a mike he didn't like. He suddenly became Dr. Jim Palmer of the Muscle Institute, knowing that "you just don't do that," whatever it is that Brady Anderson did. Brady, admitted creatine abuser like a lot of high school athletes in America, hit 50 bombs one year. Never came close again. So, what, did he just quit using? It was once called "a career year" and that's the end of it. Not in this era.
A better barometer than Reggie Jackson? The guy who's the best player today, if the best player isn't Barry Bonds.
"I'm sick of it," A-Rod says. "(Bonds) is the best that ever laced them up."
Way too easy and too hard, Alex. Makes people's small, pointy heads hurt. For now, just between me and you, A-Rod, Bonds is the best that ever laced them up. But you've seen what's possible, and you'll equal and then surpass Bonds one day, because that's what happens to and with human beings.
So do steroids go with that shake, pilgrims?
Ralph Wiley has written articles for Sports Illustrated, Premiere, GQ, and National Geographic, and many national newspapers. He was one of the original NFL Insiders on NBC. His many books include "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir," "Why Black People Tend To Shout," "By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations of the Making of Malcolm X" with Spike Lee, "Dark Witness," "Best Seat in the House" with Spike Lee, "Born to Play" with Eric Davis, and "Growing Up King" with Dexter Scott King and the children of Martin Luther King Jr. He contributes to many ESPN productions, and bats cleanup on a weekly basis for Page 2.