June 13, 2006
Eric Staal:
Canes star assists on both goals in a 2-1 win in Edmonton, giving Carolina what appears to be an insurmountable 3-1 Stanley Cup series lead.
The Lead Item
Two Words For You:

Big Ben was a big idiot for not wearing a helmet while riding his motorcycle. He has no excuse; there is no excuse that he could provide (or that any defenders could provide on his behalf).

It doesn't matter that he didn't like wearing a helmet, and it doesn't matter that Pennsylvania somehow managed to repeal its helmet law a few years ago.

In fact, Big Ben's on-the-record defiance -- to his coach, to the media -- makes it worse. If there can be any good news about a broken jaw, it's that he can't offer some pathetic reply to our collective "told you so."

By putting himself in this position, he hurt himself, his teammates and his fans. It was a selfish act worthy of everyone's derision. (In fact, if he were a scrub and not a star, the thrifty Steelers would surely nullify his paycheck over this.)

That's what I'll be interested in seeing: When mouthy rookie Kellen Winslow hurt himself on a motorcycle, fans and media critics mocked him. They still do. He's an All-Pro punch line.

Now, Ben has earned way more cred than K2, but should that immunize him from being blitzed over this? No way. In fact, because he is such a huge star, he deserves to be ripped even more.

This isn't just about a grown man choosing a guilty pleasure over professional responsibility. How about Ben's many admirers who won't wear cycle helmets because of him? And the kids he influences who won't wear helmets on their bikes?

Along with everyone else, I hope for Ben's healthy recovery. But, after that, let's make an example of him:

Wear your helmet, moron.

U.S. Soccer Dud
The worst-case scenario for U.S. Soccer came on Monday.

After four years of buildup, hype and expectations after a breakthrough run to the quarterfinals in 2002, the U.S. team was handed the worst loss of any team in the 2006 tournament so far.

Considering the promise of U.S. soccer's legitimacy, this was even worse than the 5-1 beating that the U.S. team took from the Czech Republic at the start of the 1990 World Cup.

Wasn't the U.S. supposed to be better than this? Maybe not "beat the Czechs" better, but certainly "make a freaking game of it, please!" better?

So, for starters, yesterday's 3-0 shellacking provides fodder for the cynics and cranks who think the real sport this month is mocking soccer and its fans, particularly the hopeful ones rooting on the U.S. team.

Next, it was the ugliest loss found anywhere in the 2006 tournament, combining all the elements of nearly every losing side yet, in a horrible twist on the symbolism of an American melting pot:

Paraguay: Allowing a goal in the game's first minutes.

Costa Rica/Iran: Allowing three goals or more.

Angola/Poland/Sweden/Serbia: Being shut out.

Plus one unique effort: The largest goal differential (3) yet seen in the Cup. (Being behind 2 at the half was a kiss of death worthy of the Group of Death: Teams up 2 or more at halftime are 72-0-4 in Cup history.)

When the day began, I didn't think a team could be humiliated more than Japan, which gave up 3 goals to Australia in the game's final 10 minutes, including (1) the equalizer, (2) the winning goal, and (3) one for plain embarrassment.

But at least Japan was in the game for 90 minutes, leading for 84. The U.S. was out of it right from the start and was never competitive.

"The U": Miami returns to Omaha/CWS after KO'ing Ole Miss
Tiger Woods: He's back; practices at Winged Foot for Open
Otto Pfister: Rejoins Togo as coach after pay disagreement
Marshall Faulk: Is he retiring or not? No decision yet
Blue Jays: 1-3 in 5 starts vs. O's Kris Benson in 2006
Ricardo Lavolpe: MEX coach told to stop sidelines smoking
Yet it gets worse:

As I watched Italy beat Ghana 2-0 (in a game much closer than the score), it didn't take a soccer savant to realize that both teams are vastly superior to the U.S.

So after a day that started with so much promise (2nd round, anyone?), the U.S. will be fortunate not to go 0-3 in its group and lucky (lucky!) if it doesn't finish 32 out of 32 teams.

That's how ugly this 3-0 loss really was. The first day of play in the Group of Death signaled the death knell for U.S. soccer in 2006.

NBA Finals G3
Dallas is already planning a victory parade for the Mavs for June 20.

But somehow, I don't think the Heat need that detail as motivation. If they do, the team is in worse trouble than anyone thought.

Let's rank the various motivations in play for the Heat in tonight's Game 3:

(1) Shaq: The greatest Finals performer since Michael Jordan retired put up the worst playoff performance of his career: 5 points, even outplayed by comedic foil Erick Dampier. (Good news: It can't get worse.)

(2) Role Players: The Finals stars have been unheralded Terry and Stackhouse. Meanwhile, the Heat's Williams and Payton can't shoot (9-29 FG) and Antoine Walker shoots too much (35 FGA). (Good news: Udonis Haslem reportedly can/will play after the Game 2 hip injury.)

(3) Riley: We can blame Miami's role players for not hitting shots as the Mavs' double- and triple-teamed Shaq, but where was Riley's Finals "experience" as Avery Johnson's tactics befuddled Riley and his team? (Good news: Making wide-open shots will make Riley look smarter.)

(4) Fans: Wearing white won't be enough. Dallas fans have set a high bar for support; Miami fans have to make it uncomfortable for the Mavs, proving the old NBA adage that a series doesn't really start until a home team loses. (Good news: No T.O. sitting courtside ... right?!?!)

Contreras: All-Star?
Jose Contreras will be the AL's starting pitcher in the All-Star Game, if AL All-Star manager Ozzie Guillen has his way, which he undoubtedly will.

Now, Guillen has been known to make brash, off-the-cuff promises before (still waiting on that post-World Series resignation), but he insists:

"I don't care," Guillen said. "I'll just put him in to start and throw one pitch. I'll be criticized about that, but I'll take a lot of criticism. If it's time for Contreras, that's the guy I'll start.

"He has the best numbers, and he plays for the [AL] manager." It's hard to doubt Guillen's decision after Contreras' start last night:

Contreras won his 15th straight decision with a career-high 11 K's and ran his 2006 record to 7-0, leading the AL with a 2.62 ERA.

(And I don't want to hear any griping from Red Sox fans about Schilling's worthiness as AL starter. Not when Boston has three other starters in the lineup. Give up Varitek for Mauer and Ortiz for Thome, and then we can start talking...)

Grimsley: 50 Games
Has there ever been a more toothless, worthless punishment in baseball than banning Jason Grimsley for 50 games?

Given that Grimsley will likely never play Major League Baseball again, the punishment seems more out of spite than anything else.

Does MLB even have a positive test to point to? Or just that leaked affidavit? That should freak out the players (and union).

Brazil On Deck
I'm not particularly bold: When I unveiled my World Cup picks on Friday, I picked Brazil to win the title. Me and everyone else.

Yet as Brazil prepares for its Cup opener today vs. Croatia (3 p.m. ET, ESPN2), here's the dynamic thought that fascinates me:

Brazil is the soccer equivalent of the Yankees, Duke, Notre Dame and the Celtics. Yet while those other teams are loathed at least as much as they are loved (if not more), Brazil is beloved, nearly universally.

Hard-core soccer fans love the Little Canaries. The joke I keep reading is that fans root for their own team, then when they're inevitably KO'd, they root for Brazil.

How does Brazil avoid the fate of the Yankees, et al? I chalk it up to three factors:

(1) Scarcity: Only coming together quadrennially, there is no sense of dull repetitiveness you get when a team like the Yankees wins a division title, year after year. Brazil's success remains special.

(2) Skill: The teams listed above often come across like soulless robots, especially the Yankees. It is widely accepted that Brazil plays with more stars than anyone else, yet they play with brilliant flair (and rack up goals!)

(3) Attitude: It's impossible to begrudge a team that embodies a style of play so full of joy ("joga bonito") while simultaneously possessing such a reverence for the institution of the sport.

I read some great advice for U.S. fans just dabbling in soccer fandom: Root for the U.S., then find a second team to root for once the U.S. is bounced out. There's no shame in making that team Brazil.

"This Time It Counts":
MLB reportedly has yet to finalize a deal with the union to have this season's All-Star Game winner get home-field advantage in the World Series. (Make the deal!)
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Stanley Cup
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Andrea Bargnani
Raptors go Euro
Tyrus Thomas
Bulls can't resist energy
Rudy Gay
Bobcats snub Morrison?
Adam Morrison
Enjoy the Blazers mess
LaMarcus Aldridge
What about Brandon Roy?

Kudos to the NHL: MLB may have 'em on TV ratings, but no NHL player failed a drug test during the first year of hockey's anti-doping plan.

Speaking of drugs, 47 percent of fans polled by USA Today/Gallup think the 9 percent increase in HRs this season is due to enhancers.

NL All-Star Voting: Drama! David Wright passed Scott Rolen at 3B. Alfonso Soriano closed within 1,000 votes of third-place Beltran in the OF.

Jeff Samardzija is about to become the second Notre Dame FB player this week to get paid as a pro: The Cubs are close to signing him. He'll keep his FB eligibility.

"Can you hear me now?" The Cubs will become the first MLB team to use a wireless phone to make calls from dugout to bullpen. Progress!

Nice to hear that the Ashe Award at the 2006 ESPYs will go to a group of Afghan women athletes trying to spread soccer to their countrywomen.

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