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Thursday, August 15, 2002
Updated: August 19, 1:10 PM ET
Ten degrees of sports phoniness

By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

The landscape is littered with phonies these days, and not all of them are at Arthur Andersen, the illegal chop shop of the carjackers of corporate America. Sports has its share, as does my own business, I'm sorry to say.

Willie Mays
No one has ever duplicated Willie Mays' catch in the 1954 World Series ... so quit making all the comparisons.
In fact, there are so many phonies running around unmuzzled that I don't have the room to mention them all. So here are 10, each an example of one of the 10 levels of sports phoniness, in ascending order from the Merely Misleading to the Truly Reprehensible.

1. "That's a Willie Mays catch!" -- various sports media members
No, it isn't, so stop saying it is. It's a phony description, An over-the-shoulder catch in baseball by an outfielder is inspired by the Mays Catch in the 1954 Series off Vic Wertz, but it's not the same.

The difference is the center-field wall in the old Polo Grounds was 458 feet from home plate, in some places deeper, so Mays was 440 feet from the plate when he made the Catch. Over-the-shoulder catches these days, like that outstanding catch made by Michael Tucker of the Kansas City Royals, come less than 400 feet away.

Big difference. Let's say so.

2. Joe Torre and Bobby Valentine
Anybody who can manage two of the New York baseball clubs, or work for George Steinbrenner for this long, has to have a little shyster in him. Joe Torre is a little too avuncular. I love the guy, but this is not the man who played in the National League for all those years and tossed a clubhouse or two in his day. This is a man who has a pat hand and can afford to sit calmly with his legs crossed, dispensing wisdom and wins like the Pope gives blessings. I like Joe a lot, but you get the feeling that, deep down, he's a former hellion who retired and is living on the world's greatest pension.

Joe Torre
Anybody who works for George Steinbrenner must have a little bit of phoniness in them.
Valentine ... well, he's a smooth operator, now isn't he? He can deflect attention away from himself when things aren't going well. He can bounce light better than aluminum. He manages the Mets just well enough to lose to the Braves every single solitary year and remain one cool cat. Drop him off the Empire State Building, he'll land on his feet and say you don't know anything at all about dropping cats. He got the team he wanted this year, and it was not a team that could even battle for a wild card. Then he says he'll back the players who get booed, like Armando Benitez, and the ones who get picked out as possibly gay, when he's the guy who answered questions about gay players in the first place. I wouldn't be surprised if he winked when he did that, as if to say, "If I were you, media, I'd run with this." Nice diversionary tactics, Val.

3. Jeff Van Gundy
Ex-coach, caretaker and executioner of the New York Knicks. When he spoke, you couldn't even see Pat Riley's lips move.

4. Warren Sapp
Feuds with everybody, from Mike "Two-Gap" Strahan to his own teammate, Keyshawn Johnson. Predicts his own coach will get fired, then shuts it down in playoff game that decides his fate. Feuds with everybody but guys playing on the offensive line opposite of him. Pray this guy is never holding the rope you need to pull you up out of a well or a mine shaft. Jon Gruden, you've been warned. But he'll spin a helluva yarn about you, after you drown by his hand.

5. Dennis Rodman, Vlade Divac and Vince Carter
Took flopping, photographer kicking, body piercing, Carmen Electra-gliding and term "low-pain threshold" to art-form status.

6. Nearly the entire Portland Trail Blazer roster
Shawn Kemp
Shawn Kemp is just one of the phonies on the Trail Blazers' roster.
R.P. McMurphy, from "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," wins the Mother Teresa/Albert Schweitzer/Martin Luther King Sincerity Award compared to this Bad Actors Guild. Et tu, Qyntel? Q might have been a great player, until he wound up out there with the Portland Reign of Fire, Pituitary Gone Hog Wild division.

Somebody stop them, before they kill hope again.

7. Jose Canseco and Ken Caminiti on steroids in baseball
They really set it off, didn't they? They used steroids to the point of giving them rages, twitches, inner-ear imbalances, delusions of grandeur, but to smear half of the players was truly phony. You're done, so now you want to drag everybody down the hospital waste chute with you. Sad. Pathetic. And world-class phony, too.

(Media gets some steroid phoniness by then smearing the likes of Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds, but never questioning the likes of, say, Bret Boone; what turned him from a ping-hitting journeyman second baseman with Fred Patek power into a bat-flipping, bomb-hitting second coming of Joe Morgan? Honey-Nut Cheerios?)

8. Dennis Conner
Yachtsman and Wild Bull of the America's Cup, with the personality of a cheese grater. Said he didn't run a ship aground, but merely was "swamped." He has it hard, because he has to go around and solicit sponsors. The guys actually doing the sailing? No face time. Too busy winding and tacking, as Conner runs his yap. How he gets classified in "sports" is beyond me. It's not just beyond me, it's beyond belief. Thor Heyerdahl, this guy ain't.

9. Donald "No" Fehr
That smarmy look, that superior attitude, that absolutely imperious Robespierrian tilt of that jowly big head. Somebody get this guy a pinch of snuff. Somebody give him a Roman numeral behind his name, will you? And a royal knighthood. Sir Donnie XIV.

Donald Fehr
Donald Fehr has been staunchly protective of individual privacy rights when it comes to tougher steroid testing.
That will satisfy him. That and nothing else.

In the eternal conflict between labor and management, I'm inclined to be a laboring guy. But look at Fehr. You can just tell he has had nothing to do with labor. Ever. Probably never even had to make up his bed. Probably had his meat cut up for him. Given half the chance, he'd dump the baseball players union for the Screen Actors Guild, NABET, IASTE, the Directors Guild, if he could get more money and recognition out of it. The Kid Stays In the Picture, all right.

Anybody who helps make big-league ballplayers into bad guys has to have lot of nickel-plated phony in him. He doesn't even have enough sense to explain to the public via a public relations arm just what the labor issues are. He doesn't care if the public understands or not. He doesn't care if the players understand or not. I don't think he'd mind being the man who destroyed big-league baseball, actually. To him, that has a certain cachet.

There's a world for Donald Fehr. Napoleonic. That, or colonic.

10. O.J. Simpson and the Great Simpson Trial & us
Undisputed champion of the sports phonies. Had -- and in some cases still has -- people believing he's a nice guy who doesn't need to be fawned over and would never hurt a fly. Still sticking to his story instead of disappearing. The great USC tailback of lore, hiding behind the skirt of a woman named Faye Resnick? Sad. And sad are the people who bought his phoniness. You know who you are.

O.J. Simpson
O.J. Simpson is guilty of being the biggest phony in all of sports.
And you are not all black people or even mostly black people, either, so get off that. None of the people who said, "He's one of the good kind" and who fawned over him were black, including the family of victim Nicole Brown Simpson, who sold her to O.J. for 40 pieces of silver, to do with her as he pleased, and then had the nerve to have righteous indignation afterward after turning a blind eye to her swollen jaw and bruised eyes. Oh, they knew what was going on. But they wanted to protect their vested interest. Phony.

Also phony, the media types who preyed on the Simpson case by making it a totally black-white issue, by never showing any white people who thought he was innocent (there were black people who thought he was guilty -- plenty of those, too). They didn't fit the phony, exploitive story line of race. They made it racial. I still don't see how they can sleep at night. Going over to Howard Law School to show the reaction from black law students at the Not Guilty verdict. They were at law school!!!!! Who do you think they were cheering? They were cheering the lawyer who won the intellectual exercise, Johnnie Cochran. But is that how it was sold to us? No. Even Andy Rooney didn't figure this one out. He fell in line, too. We all get some of this phoniness.

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."