Lame Dunk

Witness Kevin Garnett: In the next six years, the Minnesota Timberwolves will pay this young man $126 million. Because he earlier refused a $110 million contract. L'affaire Garnett, NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik allows, has raised players' salary expectations to an "unrealistic level." What insight.

In sum, it's hard to imagine that anyone in these parts (or any other parts, for that matter) will care a whit if Shaquille O'Neal spends the winter in acting class, or if Anthony Goldwire lies on the beach in Maui, or if Kevin Garnett buys himself his own continent, moves there and starts up his own league. Certainly, not many will care if Michael Jordan's endorsement value (fifteen contracts, $47 million) slips down into the sub-stratospheric range because pro hoops are no longer on the boob tube or in the arena.

Truth is, owners and players alike have locked themselves out of their fans' hearts. So take your hard cap and your basketball season and stick 'em, boys. The rest of us have more important things to think about.

In April, the San Diego Padres were barely a blip on baseball's radar screen. After reaching the post-season in 1996, they collapsed the following year: The pitching staff's 4.99 earned-run average was the worst in club history (although not as bad as the 5.25 put up by a certain purple-pinstriped bunch), and their stone-fingered fielding put them at the bottom of the National League, with 132 errors. Things did not bode well for 1998, despite the addition of a pitcher named Kevin Brown.

Most baseball pundits picked the Los Angeles Dodgers to win the division, behind a dauntless combination of pitching and power. A few others liked the Barry Bonds-led Giants, and some even had their eyes on the Colorado Rockies--a homer-happy outfit that had finally landed a first-rank starter, in the person of ex-Astro Darryl Kile.

As for the hapless Pads, 38-year-old Tony Gwynn might win his umpteenth batting title in '98. Do farmers eat flapjacks? Is John Gotti a crook? But the team would continue to wallow and make do with the usual publicity stunts--like resuscitating the career of Fernando Valenzuela, playing some "home" games in Mexico and selling their stadium's naming rights to a guy named Qualcomm.

What joy, then, to see San Diego on the verge of going to the World Series for just the second time. If they make it, they will have plowed straight through the cocky, overrated Houston Astros and the arrogant, insufferable Atlanta Braves to get there. All that remains for the Padres to bring matchless joy to the hearts of most baseball fans would be to knock off the imperious, swaggering New York Yankees in the Fall Classic.

This would be just deserts for the exemplary Gwynn, whose artistry with the stick is equaled by the career-long sturdiness of his work ethic, and for slugger Greg Vaughn, whose fifty-home-run season was overshadowed by the noisier heroics of messrs. McGwire and Sosa. Long-suffering first baseman Wally Joyner would get a lift, too, as would third-sacker Ken Caminiti, who's 35 and can see the end in sight.

Most of all, a Padres win would be good for fans everywhere--even Atlanta or the Bronx. Bruce Bochy's team has already provided new hope that the wretched of the earth (with the help of a few high-priced free agents) can still rise up and kill off kings. To put mouthy Braves owner Ted Turner in his place one week, then break George Steinbrenner's icy heart the next, in view of millions, would be the ultimate satisfaction--for the Padres and for all of us. Especially for us.

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