A foursome of issues

Four matters come to mind. So we round the bases, as it were. Excuse the cliché, please.

Soccer

The latest conjob to take the foolish and star-struck American futball fanciers for a hayride is named David Beckham. He’s seven years past his prime having burned his bridges with Continental soccer including his own British league. He’s also bombed on his national team and soiled his last World Cup fling, which ended with his being sent home in embarrassment. But overall he’s an amiable bloke with a cute, little, pop-star wife, a ready cockney grin, and a sly gift for self-promotion. If Real Madrid were willing to take him back next season it would be for no more than minimum soccer wages.

None of which deterred the pipe-dreamers of American soccer. They showered him with an absurd five-year, 250 million “multi-services” pact that after a mere month hangs like a shroud on a game and a league awash in red ink. Technically, Beckham belongs to the Los Angeles Galaxy but it’s to be assumed that all of Major League Soccer (MLS) is sharing equally in this inevitable disaster.

Why American soccer persists in deluding itself in this way is one of the great mysteries of our sporting times. The importing of glamorous but fading international stars to create a brief and tiny media-stir here across the pond is a trick that grew old 20 years ago. The parade has been impressive, expensive, and a total waste of time and effort. The incomparable Pelé led that parade and he alone was worthy of it and gave the Yanks a decent return. Everybody who was anybody in the game followed; Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cruyff, Giorgio Chinaglia, Alfonso, Eusebio, even Georgie Best who was half dead by the time he got to climb on the gravy train. To varying degrees all of them took the Yanks for a ride.

Beckham is sure to follow in that tradition. After cutting his deal, he cleverly managed to sprain his ankles running out the string in Spain. Here’s betting he’ll ride the DL much of the season. As they say in hockey, if you are going to hurt your ankles you may as well break them. Sprains take forever to heal.

His act -- lately witnessed in Foxborough -- is familiar. He shows up wearing the team colors and riding the team bus and making himself available for interviews but at game time he disappears, or perhaps makes the sublist, as he did in Washington where he played inconsequentially for 20 minutes and only succeeded in aggravating his ankle problems. Meanwhile, the local team has banged out the stadium on the faint promise that the Messiah may miraculously appear. How many of the suckers do you think will come back?

It’s a shame. Soccer specializes in nice people. And the game -- so glorious on its international stage -- deserves to shine here. But the only way it’s going to happen is for American soccer people to develop American talent that comes together in a team of American kids that sallies forth some year and brings home the World Cup. When that happens, the game will explode in this country. But not a minute before.

Mendy Rudolph

The current crisis in pro-basketball concerning a tainted official suspected of having played with some point spreads reminds us of Mendy, indisputably the greatest and most charismatic referee in NBA history. This is NOT because Mendy was corrupt. Let me emphasize that there has never been that suggestion and there’s no evidence he ever pulled any stunts. He was special. He officiated some 2,500 NBA games. Even Red Auerbach dared not trifle with him.

But Mendy was incredibly reckless -- much more so than the strange character now being investigated. It’s why he didn’t make the Basketball Hall of Fame until this year when he should have been elevated when he died too young almost 30 years ago. There must have been some secret anxieties about Mendy and his behavior, although they have remained well kept. There can be no other explanation.

Because, you see, Mendy was a gambler; a very heavy gambler. He is said to have laid off basketball but how do we know? In the off-season, he made straight for Nevada where he made no effort to hide what he was up to or cover his tracks. Everybody knew about it. He was a regular, a presence. In a 1992 interview his wife, Susan, acknowledged that a heavyweight Vegas type tried to bully Mendy into canceling all of his gambling debts by shaving some points. Mendy, she said, told the creep he would gladly go into bankruptcy first. She quoted him as having replied: “It goes against all my principles. I love the game too much.” And no one who ever knew Mendy Rudolph will doubt that’s gospel.

And yet, Mendy was wrong. Where was Maurice Podoloff and Larry O’Brien, NBA Czars during Mendy’s era, on this one? Given basketball’s terrible affinity for calamities associated with gambling and the hoodlums who control it, how could they have allowed their most respected and important game-official to be so obviously vulnerable to “compromise”?

The next time you hear Czar David Stern boast about how carefully policed his game has so long been while waxing in one of his “how could this have happened to us” lamentations, keep in mind the story of Mendy Rudolph.

Barry Bonds

Is there a single fresh or original thought or comment to be made about the man or his achievement? To twist Churchill’s imperishable observation around a bit it may be noted: “Never has so much been said by so many about so little.” All that matters now is that it’s over. Amen!

But a last word on Hank Aaron’s role in this archly contrived fandango may be appropriate. His “message to Barry” which gave the occasion its only touch of grace and dignity was utterly perfect. Some have grumbled that Aaron should not have co-operated even to that degree, as if he were awarding Bonds undeserved cachet. They miss the point rather pathetically. Men of Aaron’s quality don’t stoop to conquer. In his elegant handling of a ridiculous situation Aaron demonstrated anew how and why in the hearts of his countrymen it is he who will always be, “The Homer King.”

Bonds, on the other hand, flubbed the moment, not surprisingly. Upon seeing the tribute he should have immediately responded with one of his own to Aaron. But he didn’t nor -- as far as I know -- has he since done what mere common sense should have dictated he had to do. He didn’t do it because the poor man is so taken with himself that he can’t see beyond the tip of his nose. Is it possible to feel sorry for a man who ostensibly has everything? The answer is “Yes”, if the man’s name is Barry Bonds.

Given Bonds’ widely conceded intimacy with assorted and exotic bovine hormones, Brian Golden of the Antelope Valley (California) Press, writes, “Barry Bonds is still the only baseball player who could come down with Mad Cow Disease.” Now there’s a line I wish I’d thought of. It just might be the last word on the matter.

Red Sox

Has panic yet begun to grip the Hub? Just wondering. I still maintain they won’t blow this thing simply because they wouldn’t dare. But hey, you never know. Bye, bye!

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