A trio for your thoughts

There are three things to chat about this week, fellow travelers; none of them even loosely connected.

For “Red Sox Nation”

Beginning with the warning, dear Nation, that it may be unwise to premise your post-season hopes on the assumption that the suddenly injury-plagued Rays are sure to collapse while the Yankees are already dead in the water. The latter notion may be safe, but the former is mighty risky.

As plucky a team as has reared lately, the Rays won’t roll over, although the Crawford-Langoria-Percival injuries are strategically brutal blows. More to the point, the wild card, for a change, is no longer a birthright of the AL East. Consider the schedule.

As of the writing, the Twins and White Sox were locked in a tie for first in the AL Central while only a game behind Boston in the loss column. They go head to head only three more times, thus won’t be able to bloody one another down the stretch. The Rays and Red Sox, on the other hand, square off six more times and your precious town team also has 10 more games against the team that gives them fits, the Blue Jays. Meanwhile, the Rays and Red Sox have a total of 13 more games against the Yankees and there’s the suspicion that the Yankees -- being out of it and playing loose and yearning for redemption and stirred by their farewell to their Stadium -- could be lethal in the spoiler’s role.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the wild card doesn’t come from the East, which, by the way, would be rather nice for baseball if not for the local conceit about our manifest baseball destiny. Then if the Townies are going to fulfill your lofty expectations, they have no choice but to catch the Rays and spoil the “feel-good” baseball story of the last decade. Consider the wonder of the Rays. Their entire payroll is less than what the Yankees are paying the left side of their infield. Even without the Bronx Blowhards as chief protagonist, this September, baseball looms a thrilling prospect.

One game, two ‘‘courts’’

Amazingly, the NBA poobahs appear to have pulled off the seemingly impossible trick of escaping the potentially ruinous refereeing scandal with virtually no damage. That’s the apparent bottom line with the rogue ref, Tim Donaghy, heading off to the federal slammer for a rather mild 15-month stretch.

Much mercy was extended Donaghy in return for his “cooperation,” which the court termed “substantial” and which his lawyer suggests might have been earth-shattering. But Donaghy got a great deal. They could have tossed the key away. Instead, he walks in little more than a year and the damages he must pay to the NBA are relatively minor. A grateful Donaghy may now be less inclined to chirp further. Could that have been part of the deal? In the meantime, we have all of those explosive charges that he earlier lodged still waiting to be explored. Incredible!

In only the most important of those charges, he maintains that in addition to the many games he tinkered with there were other important contests that were “manipulated” by other officials. He even cited specific, highly controversial, playoff games as proof. If both the government and the court agree he’s been “a model cooperator” (their term) and his revelations have been “significant” (their description) then how come we’re suddenly at a dead end?

What continues to mystify is the widespread indifference of the major media. None of the Big Boys has chased this potential blockbuster of a story; not the Times, nor the Post, nor ESPN, nor the networks. Nobody wants to touch it. When Donaghy got sentenced two weeks ago accounts were buried, barely making the fine print of the sporting briefs in the local rags.

A rare exception is a certain Mike Madden, columnist for the rather obscure Pennsylvania “Beaver County and Allegheny Times.” Mr. Madden is also puzzled by the extraordinary media silence.

He writes: “A high standard of follow-up reporting would unravel exactly which results Donaghy’s bent refereeing reversed; which teams did and didn’t make the playoffs because of Donaghy; which NBA championships were decided because Donaghy put teams in a position to win or lose. Hotshot journalism would also pursue what other refs were involved, and to what level. There’s a lot of outrage to be mined. But right now we barely know what happened.”

You have to hand it to NBA Czar David Stern. From the start he said it was an ‘‘in-house’’ matter that would be handled “in-house” with the league effectively investigating itself. It was ludicrous. Yet he seems to have gotten away with it. While he didn’t call it “Executive Privilege,” that’s what he was invoking. It’s further amusing to recall that when faced with comparable scandal, a certain Dick Nixon -- merely President of the United States at the time -- made the very same demand. And we all laughed at him. The Age of Woodward and Bernstein has passed. You heard it here first.

In the Olympic pool

There’s much to admire about Michael Phelps, highly agreeable American hero of the Beijing games. He’s performed brilliantly and handled it nicely. He has excellent instincts and deals with the near-suffocating circus of the thing with just the right balance of poise and modesty, presence and charm. He’s a deserving champ.

The only point one can mildly quibble about is the rush to proclaim him the greatest Olympian of all time, which of course is not his fault. He’s made no such claims and when it’s inferred in his presence, he wisely demurs. Moreover, as a true champion he doubtless understands the argument is absurd and no more than an idiotic media thing.

There is no way you can compare champions from different endeavors and different eras who competed under different circumstances while engaging different pressures under different conditions. There’s no way you can compare a Phelps with a Jesse Owens or even a Bob Matthias, let alone a Carl Lewis, Paavo Nurmi or Jim Thorpe. It’s awkward enough trying to compare Phelps with the only other Olympian with whom he can be logically compared, and that would be the estimable Mark Spitz.

And make no mistake about it -- in the great, gush of enthusiasm for young Phelps -- his precursor, Mr. Spitz, was every bit as marvelous. Indeed, it could be argued that his epic achievement in winning seven “Golds” at the Munich Games in 1972 was even more impressive.

Spitz came from nowhere. He was relatively on his own. His moments were nowhere near as highly orchestrated. He had no personal fortune and was not backed by powerful moneyed interests and stood to gain no fabulous fortune. And then there were the ultimate circumstances of the Munich Games that made them the most tragic in the history of sport.

Exactly 36 years separate Jesse Owens, who stood up to Hitler, and Mark Spitz, who triumphed over tragedy, and exactly 36 years stretch between Spitz at Munich and Michael Phelps at the games that introduced us to the brave new world of Beijing. There’s a certain interesting symmetry to all that. If there’s a fourth pillar of the American Olympic movement it has to be Jim Thorpe, who lit up the skies at the 1912 Games in Stockholm, then got robbed of his glorious attainments by sniveling bureaucrats.

Spitz has been most gracious in surrendering his mantle. While he made nowhere near the financial score from the sport that Phelps has already harvested and will soon multiply, his achievements paved the way to a comfortable life. On the other hand, Phelps came to Beijing already earning five million bucks a year for swimming well. One expects he’s about to get a raise in pay.

And to consider, poor Thorpe -- a very poor and semi-literate Native American -- got stripped of his medals, banished from the world of amateur sports, and thoroughly humiliated for having accepted a couple of hundred bucks to play semi-pro baseball.

Does Phelps’ relative good fortune represent progress? Isn’t it pretty to think so.

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