Friday, June 2, 2006
Page 2 Quickie: June 1, 2006
The Lead Item
Two Words For You:
You know a pop-culture event has reached its moment when it moves from daytime basic cable to prime-time network TV.
Tonight, the National Spelling Bee airs in prime time (ABC, 8 p.m. ET).
It's been coming for years. Here's a brief timeline of highlights of the sport (and, yes, I argue it qualifies as "sport"):
1994: ESPN starts broadcasting the Bee.
2002: "Spellbound" becomes gold-standard for sports-style competition documentary films.
2005: Broadway spawns a sensation with the Tony-winning musical "25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee."
2005: Champ David Tidmarsh appears on a "This is SportsCenter" ad, helping Scott Van Pelt spell "Albert Pujols."
2006: "Akeelah and the Bee" rigorously promoted via ESPN and Starbucks is about an 11-year-old gifted speller from south L.A. who competes in the National Spelling Bee.
The film stars Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett and was produced by Mark Cuban.
Yet all of those are a prologue to tonight's showcase, the pinnacle of the 81-year history of the event.
Tonight's Bee will be more widely watched than the NBA Finals.
The Bee has always had the dramatic ingredients of a great sport: one-on-one drama; survive-and-advance stakes; time-limit tension; and, don't forget, words you probably could never spell. And we're talking about kids who are 10 to 14 years old.
Some might complain that it's exploitative, but -- in the end -- what could be more uplifting than a competition that takes otherwise dorky kids and puts them on the same TV pedestal reserved for NBA finalists?
If David Blaine can get nearly 10 million viewers, these Bee kids -- working real thrills -- deserve (and will get) more.
And here's my prediction:
My guy, Samir Patel, will win!
Pistons Block Path
The most symbolic moment of the Pistons' win over the Heat came late in the 3rd quarter.
It wasn't quite the spectacular scoring play that Dwyane Wade provided in Game 4, but it was, arguably, as close to its equivalent on defense as it gets:
Ben Wallace posterized Shaq, blocking O'Neal's dunk attempt, keeping his hand on the ball endlessly -- and putting Shaq on his back.
Big Ben turned what could have been a series-clinching Shaq dunk-plus-one into a you've-been-served jump ball, which Detroit won, along with the game.
Wallace called it a "momentum changer," while Shaq bitterly complained, "You know it was a foul."
If the Pistons end up winning the next two games, that block will loom as the pivotal inspiration of the series.
It represented Detroit's renewed commitment to D that kept Wade in check (only 6 4th-quarter points and held everyone but Miami's "Big Two" to 14-39 FG shooting).
But what if the moment inspires Shaq to rampage tomorrow night in Miami to close out the series and the Pistons' Eastern dynasty?
Well, the block will still be pivotal, won't it? Just not in the way that the Pistons are energetically talking about today.
NBA West: Fans Chippy?
We know how the NBA feels about players going into the stands to confront fans. But how does the league feel about owners who do the same thing?
Avery Johnson's wife, Cassandra, got into an altercation with two Suns fans on Tuesday night.
Sitting nearby, Mark Cuban and inactive reserve center DJ Mbenga went over to see if they could help.
Not only does this seem reasonable, but isn't this precisely the type of behavior you'd want to see from a team owner toward an employee's spouse in a hostile road environment?
There shouldn't be any issues for her when the series returns to Dallas tonight for Game 5, but maybe any Suns' spouses should be careful about who they sit near.
Clemens to Astros
"Prorated": Let's stop the (ab)use of the term.
To wit: I really wish people would stop saying, "Rocket signed a $22 million deal!"
There's no question: Clemens will make a ton of cash for pitching half a season (something like $12-$13 million).
But he's not actually getting paid $22 million.
(In typical Clemens' megalomania, his contract reportedly will be $22,000,022 -- 22 is his jersey number. If that was the logic, I'm sure he wishes his jersey number was something in the 40s or 50s.)
Here's my Instant Hystery:
Clemens for NL Cy!
Yes, on half a season! There's precedent: Remember when Rick Sutcliffe went to the Cubs halfway through '84 and led Chicago to the playoffs?
What will it take? Clemens must spark the otherwise mediocre Astros to a wild-card finish, pulling a Sutcliffe-esque 16-1(-ish) record.
But the NL's prohibitive Cy fave remains Pedro, if the Mets make the playoffs. Brandon Webb? Maybe if the D-Backs win the West, but even then, Webb lacks cachet.
One final point: A month ago, I would have said that Clemens' motivation to stay in Houston to be near his son was lame.
(Why wouldn't he want to play for Boston or New York, where he has a much better chance to win a title?)
But just two weeks into fatherhood, I can understand Clemens' impulse to play with Koby and work near his family.
(And, yet, I still can't understand the "K" name thing; hey, at least I didn't name my kid with a "Q.")
MLB: Aces Duel
Speaking of Pedro and Webb, their matchup Wednesday was everything fans could have hoped for from the two best pitchers in the NL. Guess which guy had which stat line:
A: 7 IP, O ER, 4 H, 5/1 K/BB
B: 8 IP, 0 ER, 5H, 8/0 K/BB
Webb is "A," and he ran his consecutive scoreless-inning streak to 25 (and dropped his NL-leading ERA to 2.01).
Pedro is "B," and he finished May with 5 no-decisions. This duel is shaping up like Carpenter-Clemens II.
(Meanwhile, the Mets won the matchup of NL division leaders 1-0, in 13 innings.)
All-Star Game Voting
There is no bigger supporter of the fan vote than me. That's why the early returns for AL All-Star Voting have me conflicted:
Seven of the 8 position players are from the Yankees or Red Sox: A-Rod, Jeter, Cano, Ortiz, Varitek, Manny and Damon. (Praise be to Vlad for breaking this hegemony!)
I happily follow the whims of the fandom, yet I can still reconcile that with this pleading caveat:
There's still time! If you haven't yet, start voting! If you have, you get up to 25 ballots! You don't even have to be at the ballpark, punching chads! Do it online!
But, please, for all that is good and holy: Let's work together to promote other players and to defeat what I call the "Axis of All-Stars!"
NHL Game 7
Like most of you, I'm no avid NHL fan. But if the league wants to win back casual fans who have been driven away, the place to start is tonight's Eastern Conference Game 7 between the Canes and Sabres.
Blow the marketing budget, take out full-page ads, get every player who isn't in the playoffs on a national barnstorming media blitz to talk about how uniquely exciting NHL playoff Game 7s are.
The message for tonight should be: "If you follow one game this season, this should be it."
Meanwhile, the lead up to the series finale is lending itself to drama even the non-hockey fans can appreciate: Trash-talk between coaches.
The Sabres' Lindy Ruff is rattling. Among many comments he's made about the Canes: "All I'm hearing is a lot of excuses. I really am. I'm looking at a team that's scurrying around, looking for excuses."
The Canes' slightly more uptight Peter Laviolette: "I don't want to hear it. There should be some sort of a gag order, honestly."