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Friday, July 5, 2002
Unfair fight got Sammy all Riled up

By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

Sportswriters. Can't live with 'em. Can't kill 'em.

Sammy SosaGot that from a sportswriter. Worse. A sportswriter's editor. Initials are Jay Lovinger, if you want to look him up.

Me, I'm for looking up Riles. I want to know why Rick Reilly didn't come on my job, knock the mouse out of my hand, offer to take me to a lab for some carefree steroid testing, write about me, go on radio and TV about me. Oh, wait, maybe I do know why.

Who'd care?

I have a little circle of friends. Even they wouldn't care.

Still, how come Riles didn't throw a brother a bone? How come Larry Johnson didn't draw a cartoon with me in it? I guess because I'm not Sammy Sosa. No, I'm not. I'm better than that, holier than that. I'm a sportswriter ... heavy on the "sports" part ...

First, let's be clear on what it is sportswriters do, exactly.

What do we make? Legends. Or villains. That all? That's all I can think of. That's everything, isn't it? That's one way of looking at it. We make profits for entertainment industry congloms. We're a wacked-out gene-splicing of Gomez and Morticia Addams, Gordon Gekko, the Geico Gekko, Roger Corman, Oliver Stone and Miss Cleo, and that guy's second head on the "Mike's Hard Lemonade" commercial. "Mike's" uses sportswriters in its ads. The abominable snowman paratroopers? Definitely us.

If we had a nickname, it'd be Swifty.

If we had a mascot, it'd be a rabbit pulled out of a hat.

Our colors are green (envy) and gold (self-explanatory).

Riles and Sammy. Total mismatch. Riles was Lennox Lewis, Sammy was Tyson. The past-his-prime Tyson. It was worth it, for Riles to go to Wrigs and ask Sammy to take a test for steroids, just to see the look on Sammy's face. Just to see that smile drop.

Nobody's that happy. Ernie Banks wasn't that happy. Good 'ol Ernie.

Sammy thought he had us fooled. Running the bases with that small U.S. flag last season, when he hit a bomb after 9/11, acting like a good guy while finishing second to McGwire in the Great Home Run Chase of '98, smiling, pounding Big Mac's broad back. Mac's back was exceedingly broad. Hmm. I wonder ... nahh.

Back to Sam-ala. He'd happened upon the key to acceptance for a Foreign Other (or Foreign Brother) in America; that is, being second, and liking it.

Sammy Sosa
Sammy Sosa used the media to turn himself into a fan favorite.
"I am the man in the Dominican Republic, (McGwire) is the man in the Unined Staze," Sammy said, before melting into laughter. Sammy has -- had -- that Charles Barkleyian gift of being able to get automatic laughs. People stood on a precipice ready to jump over laughing at what he said. It was almost like a relieved burst of laughter. Almost like, this guy's funny, with overtones of, this guy doesn't threaten me at all. Poor Samster. Old boy thought he had the "Unined Staze" figured out.

Figured if Riles nailed anybody, it'd be Barry Bonds.

Say hello to the bad guy, Sammy. Riles snatched the mask right off Sammy. Had him cursing and confused. Fair? Fair's got nothing to do with it. Sammy lucked into the part about not being naïve enough to actually go take the blood test. Riles was going to win this ... either way. Sammy was going to look bad, to somebody, and Riles was the story, either way. It was just beautiful, Riles, my man. I know you're reading this. Freaking beautiful. Superb combat tactics, airtight long con, or sweet revenge as a dish best served cold, however you want to look it. It was coo-ul.

Why did Sammy get offended? Beats me. Couldn't he see the beauty in Riles' proposition. I'da done it, but then I'm not a good example, because I'm such a whore. You'da done it, too, right? Right? So what if test-positive ingredients are in simple Afrin, or other over-the-counter medicines? So what if there are questions, like:

Harumph-harumph, let's keep the onus on Sammy, where it belongs. If he submits to a test, he has a quicker fall than Tom Cruise as John Anderton in "Minority Report." Doesn't matter if he did anything. He's going to look like he did, to somebody.

If only Sammy knew what was coming. Talk about the angel of death on your butt. As soon as he saw Riles, he should've sprinted toward right field. Riles would have never caught him. Who cares if it's two hours before the game? Sixty bombs or not, when a loaded sportswriter is aimed at you, don't think "showdown," think "flee!"

Riles was going to win either way. He leads the ballplayers (and a certain sportswriter we won't name, because he didn't invite me) to Jesus by getting the New Day Ernie Banks to submit to a blood test, or he blows up for trying. Either way, just him asking Sammy is a story.

If for some odd reason Sammy complies, and he tests clean, then move on to the real big game. Bonds. See Big Brother. Be Big Brother. Let Sammy sweat out the precedent he'd set. Sammy is small potatoes. Baseball, and the players who have played it well, aren't eternal. Sportswriters are. The pen is mightier than the sword, not to mention a 32-ounce Louisville Slugger.

Don't forget who makes what a legend around here, OK?

***** ***** *****

Way back in the day, sportswriters wore felt hats and were pretty much standard-issue. They all looked alike, they were all monochromatic, and they all sat up in press boxes and watched ballgames and wrote what they thought they saw -- the better ones about what it meant. They sent copy to newspapers. That's what went in the paper the next day. Sportswriters didn't go into the clubhouses to get quotes. They rode trains with players, didn't write about all the indiscretions that went on -- they had their own -- which is why we are under the mistaken impression this was Camelot or something. No, this was Birth of a Nation, the Depression, World War II, segregation, crap like that. And like Camelot had running water in the first place.

Barry Bonds
If Sosa did submit to a test, the media would then set their sights on bigger game such as Barry Bonds.
This was before color TV, integration, videotape replays, glossy sports magazines, cable, ESPN, the Net, the explosive expansion of sports. Now, along with movies and music, sports are the No. 1 U.S. consumer product, both domestic and international.

With sea change, sportswriting changed vessels. Having been close to the action, some formed relationships with team ownerships, and became general managers of pro ball teams; other sportswriters came down from the press box into the clubhouse. Since TV told what happened on the field as soon as it occurred, they were "beat," "scooped," so they panned for "quotes," in the clubbie and beyond, into the streets, the bars, the inner psyches of players, looking for "insight," i.e., weird quirks to sell papers, magazines, etc.

But you weren't really making anything, unless you became GM of the Dodgers, like Fred Claire did, or of the Warriors or the Knicks, like Scotty Stirling did, or unless you helped change the salary structure of the NFL, say, or wrote a good book, like Roger Kahn or Bob Creamer did, or gave Jackie Robinson a roommate, a shoulder to cry on, and a fair reporting shake, like Sam Lacy or Wendell Smith did; or you, say, wrote "Brian's Song," or, say, found a way to purge baseball of its "new" scourge, steroids, by forcing the issue of testing for steroids.

(Or have your own hit TV show, like "Pardon The Interruption," starring Mike Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser. The other day, Wilbon was being the sportswriting Ali to Kornheiser's sportswriting Cosell. In mock disgust with Kornheiser's refusal to go to some event, Mike asked Tony, "Aren't you a sportswriter?" Kornheiser's deadpan replay was classic: "I used to be.")

I remember as it changed, when sportswriters became part of the game. Once networks brought on sportswriters as studio and sidelines analysts -- Willie McDonough, moi, even the totally ga-ga and self-obsessed Petey Vecsey, the anti-Riles -- that was the tell.

When Albert Belle screamed at Hannah Storm for standing in the well of the dugout just before an ALCS game started, like she was the one out of place or something, it struck me then, as the outrage poured over Belle: "Albert doesn't get it. It's no longer his spot. He can't tell us to get off his set anymore. We're part of it now. Being part of it, we change it. It's our set now."

Nowadays, whether exhausted, ecstatic or disappointed, or just concentrating on what they do for a living, with all this adrenaline and probably pain pumping through their bodies while getting off the field, court or ice, coaches or players must stop at intermission for interviews with a TV sideline reporter. I go along with watching them while they play -- it can be interesting hearing what they say to each other on the field and sidelines -- but when it comes to analyzing games at halftime, especially games they happen to be involved in, games in which they never committed a foul in their lives, they are not the way to bet, analysis-wise, not, at least, until they retire.

Sammy Sosa
Even Sosa's hop wore thin in Chicago toward the end.
Even in the gossamer-thin disguise of roving TV sideline reporter, which anybody, including broke-down ex-football running backs, can totally fake, sportswriters rule. I did sideline work, with none other than the now-infamous O.J. Simpson on the other side of the field. Back then, he was just famous, without the "in" part. Beating O.J. at that kind of work was like stealing for me. In return, did Juice stab me in the back? Yes, he did, but only figuratively, thank God.

Now, sportswriters complain players and coaches never say anything interesting, or that they are stupid or manipulative if they do say something. But if they do shock us and say something real, or different, we don't much like that either. Then they didn't say the proper thing, they didn't "respect the game," by which we mean they didn't obey us, spout the proper cliché. Of course, when they do spout the proper cliché, we berate them for using a cliché. So what does the sports media and sportswriters want?

It varies from day to day.

Whatever we're not getting, that's what we want.

We want what we want when we want it.

We want whatever will give us the lead story of the day.

What else? Money's always good, unless other people get it -- then we tend to grumble about that, as long as they are Foreign Other baseball, football or basketball players. We don't seem to care as much when, say, a hockey player, the cast of "Friends," Bono, Bruce Willis or African-American athletes get salaries of oil tankers of money.

We are especially happy when the African-Americans get paid. We smile sincerely at that. It doesn't tear our guts out at all. No, we don't compare what we make as computer know-nothings and loan officers and light-bulb technicians to what they do, throwing blocks on LaVar Arrington and Jeremiah Trotter and getting stomped on by Shaq. We think it's good and fair for them to get millions to entertain.

Why wouldn't we? We're funny that way. It's a great, ongoing responsibility we have. We're the last line of defense, the keepers of the flame of humanitarians such as Granny Rice and D.W. (Doctor) Griff, and the great traditions of American life. We're like, I dunno, maybe the Spanish Inquisition, without the robes and the guillotines and gallows. We use ink and laser photos, cathode ray tubes and rear projection units. Few can handle being us. Fewer still want to try.

You never hear of a professional athlete retiring to become a sportswriter, do you? No. Be too much like work.

***** ***** *****

I seem to remember years back, when Riles said with a hint of frustrated scorn that Jose Canseco didn't need to talk to him for an original story for the Illy. Jose didn't cooperate (now we know why). Once Jose started getting millions, it wasn't like he needed the PR, from Riles, or me, or even you, for that matter.

Rick Reilly
No matter how Sosa reacted, Rick Reilly was going to have one heck of a story.
What did Riles matter when Jose was being boy-toyed by Madonna? Funny, she never invited him back. That was clue one. But Jose didn't need her or Riles. He didn't need anybody but the guy with the muscle juice. So you might say Jose started this by semi-shunning Riles, then by shotgunning everybody in the room with a steroid label after he was unsigned by big-league teams this season. A real bitch move by Jose. And Sammy paid for it. Sammy never knew what hit him once Riles walked in the saloon.

Don't blame Riles, blame Jose Canseco. That's who put a hit out on Sammy. Sammy's a sign of the times. You can become just another "this guy" too, in the twinkling of a jaded sportswriter eye. A sportswriter scorned? Four-wheel hell. Riles would never go in, hat-in-hand, again. Like a good fighter, like Sugar Ray Leonard the second go-round vs. Duran, Riles'd take the play away. He'd have the edge.

Sammy? No mas.

So, understand the rules, fans, players, team and ad execs, programmers: You brought this on yourselves. Read the newspapers, the Illy, GQ, ESPN Magazine -- sportswriters win. Look at TV talking heads, sports talk radio; we win, or we will soon. Try to find out about a sport (except soccer) or a player (as long as he's male), and we're there, running sport and guy through our thickest screen, making you think what we want you to think. Just try to get elected into a Hall of Fame on just playing ability, without humbling yourself to us first: Who do you think votes for that?

Sportswriters spring -- and spring on you -- eternal. Samuel L. Jackson better watch his back. A sportswriter might be the next host of the ESPYs. You get a feeling if a nuke was dropped on the "Unined Staze," the only ones left would be the cockroaches, sportswriters, maybe Tom Arnold, and ...

"Barbara Walters. We've all become Barbara Walters," says Jason Whitlock, lead columnist of the Kansas City Star, host of his own radio show on 810 WHB, and semi-regular on ESPN The Magazine's "The Sports Reporters."

So let no stone or celeb be left unturned. Sammy, D.L. Hughley, Imus, Bow-Wow, Dirk, Jay Mohr ... all grist for the mill. The mill grinds every day. Somebody's gonna lead SportsCenter every day. It's how you lead SportsCenter that matters.

Guess who helps decide who, and how? Bingo.

Who'd-a thunk it? We'd-a thunk it, that's who.

Think I exaggerate? On second thought, don't think too much. Don't match wits with a rabid sportswriter. It's like matching bites with a rabid Doberman. Not good, unless you want to end up on the wrong end of a Parting Shot.

Sportswriters' new motto:

You talkin' to me ...?

Back to what do sportswriters create, actually make? Um, well ... what have we learned, other than sportswriters rule? Dunno. A better question to me is: is there a movie in it?

***** ***** *****

Pitch: "The Sportswriter."

Vito (RW) welcomes Michael (Mike Wilbon) and Tom Hagen (Tony Kornheiser) into the study on day his daughter is to be married. Audience with undertaker Bona Sera (Dan Shanoff, Jim Caple, Hunter Thompson, Eric Neel, The Sports Guy, any Page 2 columnist); rebukes Santino (Mike Lupica, Mitch Albom, Bob Ryan, Bill Rhoden, Dan LeBatard and Ernest Hemingway -- who was once a sportswriter -- let them hash it out) for letting his temper, among other things, reveal his flaws; Luca (Whitlock) awaits outside; Vito shrugs at Fredo (open call, big-time open call) and his weakness; Vito asks consiglieri (Kornheiser) to go to Hollywood, and while at the ESPYs, make an offer he can't refuse to this run producer, this Woltz (Sammy Sosa), who won't give Johnny Fontaine (Reilly) a meaty role in "The Genie (& Something Else) Is Back In the Bottle," because it'll make him a humongous star ...

We follow Johnny (Riles) to Steve Soderbergh's (himself) editing bay; Jim Cameron is there too, cutting footage of "Solaris" ... and they love Johnny's audition tape, except for one little thing ... he's a sportswriter, and not just any sportswriter but the Sammy Sosa-killing sportswriter, and from a family of sportswriters, and Soderbergh and Cameron are ... Cub fans!

The horror, the horror ...

Sportswriters' newest, latest motto:

We're walkin' here! We're walkin' here!

Sportswriters. Can't talk to 'em. Can't shut 'em up.

Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."