July 11, 2006
Francisco Liriano:
Rejoice! Baseball's lingering wrong has been righted, as the best pitcher in the AL was put on the roster to replace Jose Contreras. Now I can enjoy the game.
The Lead Item
Two Words For You:

At the start of the MLB season, I counted down my Top 5 MLB Story Lines. The All-Star Break is a perfect moment to provide some accountability:

(1) Bonds vs. Babe
Whiff! It's not the No. 1 story line, and it's not even on the radar (and barely raised a pulse for 715). Now, Bonds is in a hazy twilight zone at 720, at least a year away from Aaron's 755 -- if he even makes it that far.

Meanwhile, Bonds could be indicted as early as next week, according to a report in today's NY Daily News. Needless to say, this would become a huge story line for the season's second half (see Big 5 for my new list).

(2) AL East: Odd Team Out
Hit! As expected, Toronto has the 5th-best record in the AL, yet only the 3rd-best record in the AL East. And the White Sox and Tigers look so untouchable for the AL Central and wild card, let's modify this to "Odd TEAMS Out." Division title or bust for the Jays, Yanks and Sox.

(3) This year's White Sox
Foul tip! So the Brewers didn't turn out to be this year's ChiSox; however, Milwaukee is still only 2½ games behind the Dodgers for the NL wild card. Meanwhile, if you said the Tigers would be this year's White Sox, come collect your prize. There won't be many of you.

(4) Fantasy or Reality?
Hit! Depending on the fan set you run with, of course. But if you're reading this column and are minimally online savvy, you are probably immersed in your fantasy season. Kudos to you if you saw any of the following coming: Matt Holliday, J.J. Putz, Freddy Sanchez.

(5) Greenies vs. Starbucks
Struck out looking! As in, "I kept looking for this to be a big issue, but it just hasn't resonated yet." Sure, Jason Grimsley's HGH story made big headlines, but amphetamines have been a nonissue.

World Series: Mets over A's
Ground-rule double! New York has the best record in the NL and seems poised for a playoff run; Oakland is tied for 1st in the AL West but faces a brutal pennant challenge from Boston, Chicago and Detroit.
New pick: White Sox over Mets

Home Run Derby
"Hit It Here: 500 Flights." The fact that Ryan Howard actually hit that sign with his final, derby-winning home run was worth sticking around to see.

(Can you imagine being the person who won the promotion? What do you do with that many airplane rides? Can you just get a jet to take 250 of your friends to one place and back?)

Since old Ebbets Field marketing patron Abe "Hit Sign, Win Suit" Stark was probably rolling in his grave, it's a good thing for Howard (and that one lucky winning fan) that they left the other ideas on the cutting-room floor:

Hit It Here:
Get Hit By Michael Barrett!

Hit It Here:
Win Dinner With Brett Myers!

Hit It Here:
500 Leftover July 4 Hot Dogs!

Meanwhile, Howard cranked himself from regional curiosity to full-blown soph sensation. And I can't remember seeing a cuter (or less annoying) athlete's kid on TV than Howard's 5-year-old son, Darian.

By the way: Every ballpark should have some water behind right field, even if it has to be artificial. The kayakers fighting swimmers for balls was hilarious. Play nice!

(Handy rule of thumb, for those already prepping for McCovey Cove next July: If you're not willing to dive in, you don't deserve the ball.)

Finally: Ramon Henderson, who pitched both to Howard this year and to HR champ Bobby Abreu last year, is arguably the greatest Derby pitcher ever. For whatever that title is worth...

Cup final TV ratings: Up 180% from '02 (best since '94)
Tyrus Thomas: 26 pts in Bulls summer debut
Marcus Williams: 24 pts, 12 ast as PG in Nets summer debut
Barbaro: Takes turn for worse; fans still hoping for best.
Jonathan Papelbon: Unlikely to throw for AL in ASG tonight
Tamika Catchings/Becky Hammon: Will miss WNBA ASG
MLB All-Star Game
Kenny Rogers vs. Brad Penny: Can you feel the excitement?!?!

There have been few one-year U-turns in MLB history as mind-boggling as Rogers':

At last year's All-Star Game, he was a pariah for beating down that photographer, booed by the very Detroit fans who now cheer him as their ace.

This year, he'll start, the photog incident long-forgotten, pitching for Detroit and home-field advantage in the World Series if his Tigers can maintain their current pace and win the AL pennant.

NASCAR Danica?
If Danica Patrick moves from IRL to NASCAR, how would she be welcomed by NASCAR fans?

I went to my go-to expert, Jeff MacGregor, who wrote "Sunday Money," the book on the sport (and an absolute must-read). His e-mail reply to me:

"Danica Patrick would be greeted with the warmth, hospitality and generosity for which all NASCAR fans are famous. But her public honeymoon will be brief -- lasting exactly as long as it takes her to walk from the press tent to the car.

"Fans expect results, and all the smoldering looks and sculpted cheekbones in the world won't help if she can't run the high line at Darlington or root the boys out of the low groove at Richmond."

Kenseth Rear-Ended
The big difference between Matt Kenseth getting rear-ended by a student driver Monday and bumped by Jeff Gordon on Sunday is that the student driver just didn't have the chance to similarly parlay the bump into a NASCAR race win. But the student is obviously on the right track to NASCAR stardom; hey, is that instructor available to give Danica lessons?

LeBron Fallout
Carmelo is no LeBron: Anthony should keep that in mind when he's weighing whether to change his NBA-standard 5-year "max" deal into the innovative LeBron-style "3-plus-1" deal.

The risk of a shorter deal is obvious: What if he's seriously injured? LeBron could survive that; I'm not sure Carmelo could as easily.

If Melo links his fortunes to LeBron's timeline, the one benefit would be that many teams would presumably free up massive cap space to try to make a run at LeBron.

Only one team can sign him; that would leave plenty of cap-happy suitors to look to the next-best choice.

NBA Draft Glitch?
Is the NBA's age minimum in trouble?

If prep star Bill Walker was smart, he would absolutely test the 19-year-old age minimum in the 2007 draft, now that Ohio authorities have ruled him ineligible for next season because, they say, his four years of high school eligibility have been used up.

It's complicated (Chad Ford has the must-read), but Walker's individual case is close enough to the line that I suspect the NBA would rather let him in than deal with a lawsuit that could take down the entire structure.

And why should Walker sit out a year, then spend a year at Kansas State (playing for free and risking injury) when a lot of NBA GMs would be more than happy to use a first-round pick on him?

Bode Baseball
It's the minor-league baseball gimmick of the month:

The indie Nashua (N.H.) Pride signed Olympic flameout Bode Miller to a one-game contract to play for the always-marketable Broxton (Mass.) Rox.

Bode's cause is a good one (Lance Armstrong's foundation), but if his Olympic results are any indication, fans can expect some sort of Bode whiff.

Of course, he can't possibly be more embarrassing than Jose Canseco in his first game for the indie San Diego Surf Dawgs (0-for-3 with three strikeouts, plus his only redeeming stat: one HBP).

Last Zidane Thought
I don't think anyone begrudges Zidane his head butt, if it's true Marco Materazzi made some horrible racist comment. But Zidane couldn't wait till after the game to deliver it?

At that point, he could have either (a) pointed at his Cup trophy in victory, the ultimate comeback, or (b) head-butted, cold-cocked, groin-kneed, throat-choked or anything else in frustrated defeat. More power to him.

The point is this: Waiting until after the game for retaliation was what was called for, no matter how horrible the slur.

Zidane's reaction was more than likely justified; only its timing was epically wrong.

ESPYS Preview
Today: Best Moment. By far, the most compelling category of this year's ESPYS is "Best Moment."

In any normal year, Kobe's 81 would be a lock. But this year, it was eclipsed by the greatest Cinderella story in the history of the NCAA Tournament: George Mason's run to the Final Four. How can you deny the Patriots?

Easy: Jason McElwain.

The autistic basketball team manager's 20 points in 4 minutes of his team's final home game -- made all the more dramatic in that it was caught on grainy video -- was the runaway top moment of the sports year, and the reception he gets at the ESPYS should be nearly as thrilling. What a ride in '06 for this kid.

Tomorrow: Why Young rules.

Manny Ramirez:
Leading AL vote-getter is also this year's All-Star villain, after his no-show in Pittsburgh. Papi accepted Manny's "Most Votes" award, met with boos.
Today on ESPN.com
Quickie Live
Page 2 Index
HR Derby
Top 5 MLB 2nd-Half Story Lines
Bonds indicted?
Once again, I'm suckered...
Yankees out?
It's division or bust
Tigers surge?
Can Detroit maintain pace?
Mets roll on?
Feast-or-famine pitching
AL MVP race
Papi: No DH snub in '06

More NBA Summer: Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge combine for 30 in Blazers' W; Adam Morrison has 12 in Bobcats debut (not conceding top-scorer role, Sean May had 22).

PR Jeremy Bloom to sign 4Y deal with Eagles. I stand by my post-draft analysis: He breaks a TD early in the season and is a huge fan fave.

Look for a new set of restrictions on college cheerleading announced today. Remember that awful accident with the Southern Illinois cheerleader who broke her neck after falling to the court?

The Boss shows no panic about the Yankees' playoff status: "I still think we've got a good chance," he said. "We've got to battle Boston."

I watched a "Baseball Tonight" montage of Home Run Derbies past, and it was truly pathetic to see how many 'roid-tainted moments there were.

Last time: Though my personal campaign feels complete with Liriano on the AL roster, I cannot believe that Travis Hafner is not on it with him.

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