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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Leipheimer clinches third title in California


Levi Leipheimer celebrates his third consecutive overall title in California.
By: AP Photo

Levi Leipheimer celebrates his third consecutive overall title in California.

By Associated Press

ESCONDIDO, Calif. -- The climb up a snowcapped mountain during the final stage certainly gave the Tour of California a European feel, as well as the spectators dressed in an array of costumes from a devil to an overweight guy wearing only a lime-green thong.

So did the presence of seven-time Tour de France Lance Armstrong, although his role this time was simply as a teammate.

With a boost from Armstrong and a tough mountain to climb, Levi Leipheimer won his third straight Tour of California on Sunday.

It was somewhat of an anticlimactic finish, considering that Leipheimer had taken over the lead in the nine-day race last Monday and never gave it up.

“It’s the sweetest victory of the three,” Leipheimer said. “It’s hard to describe. I mean, to keep a streak going like that, it just becomes so difficult. I told Lance this week that I don’t know how the hell he won seven times in the Tour de France. I’ve got a lot of respect for that because the pressure builds, the expectations are higher and you can’t get second place because that’s losing."

Leipheimer was ninth in the final stage and finished with an overall time of 31 hours, 28 minutes, 21 seconds. His winning margin was 36 seconds over David Zabriskie of Garmin-Slipstream. He came into Sunday’s eighth stage with the same margin over Zabriskie.

Armstrong, who began a comeback last month, spent this race in support of Leipheimer, his Astana teammate. The seven-time Tour de France winner finished 31st in Sunday’s stage and seventh overall, 1 minute, 46 seconds behind Leipheimer.

“It was a hell of a good time,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong said he enjoyed the role of supporting his teammate.

“Nobody came in here with any other expectation than riding for Levi,” he said.

Armstrong has said the priority of his comeback is to spread the message of the fight against cancer more than to win his eighth Tour de France in June or his first Giro d’Italia.

But two stage races into his comeback, he said he feels in pretty good shape.

“I think overall we’re happy with where we are,” Armstrong said. “If you compare Feb. 22 to any other year, we’re well ahead of that.

“Obviously to win the Tour you have to be as strong as possible and as light as possible. I don’t necessarily need to get that much stronger but I have to get lighter. Three and half years away of not watching every gram of food you put in your body and the amount of wine you consume takes its toll, so you’ve got to get back into it.”

Third place overall went to Michael Rogers of Team Columbia-High Road, who was 45 seconds behind Leipheimer.

The Tour of California visited San Diego County for the first time. The 96.8-mile final stage from Rancho Bernardo to Escondido featured a gut-busting ride up snowcapped Palomar Mountain, where the cyclists reached the 5,123-foot level on a two-lane highway with 21 switchbacks.

Dozens of spectators tried to run alongside the riders near the top, including a man in a University of Montana jersey who wore a football helmet decorated with antlers.

Leipheimer grew up in Butte, Mont.

He and Armstrong said it was a tough climb.

“With the speed we went up and the riders we were surrounded with, I had to remind myself it was California in February, because it felt like the Alps in July,” Leipheimer said.

Frank Schleck of Team Saxo Bank won the eighth stage in 3:48:39. Vincenzo Nibali of Liquigas was second and George Hincapie of Team Columbia-High Road was third.

Floyd Landis finished 29th in Sunday’s stage and 23rd overall in his first race back since being stripped of his 2006 Tour de France title after testing positive for synthetic testosterone. Landis won the inaugural Tour of California in 2006.

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Calcio Comedy: 20 Things To Expect From Italy v England

1) Cristiano Ronaldo says that he is better than Pele and Diego Maradona, and compares himself to God.

2) Jose Mourinho bangs on beforehand about how his Chelsea side were better than United, and that his record against Fergie is Won 6, Drawn 4, Lost 1.

3) Sir Alex Ferguson will use the words “No doubt about it” at least 100 times, while he will mention during an interview with SKY Italia about how good Luciano Spalletti’s wine is.

4) Wayne Rooney does a Zinedine Zidane and headbutts Marco Materazzi in the chest after the Italian snipes that he would “rather NOT have Rooney’s mum”.

5) Mourinho runs down the Old Trafford touchline to celebrate a last minute goal that puts Inter into the next round.

6) Ferguson engages in a furious touchline row with Mourinho over the award of a throw-in, and lobs his chewing gum onto the pitch in disgust.

7) Manchester United fans sing “same old I-Ti’s, always cheating”, even though Inter don’t have a single Italian in their team.

8) Claudio Ranieri laughs hysterically during both of his pre-match interviews in the tie against former club Chelsea.

9) Ranieri gets a better reception at Stamford Bridge from the Chelsea fans than Luiz Felipe Scolari.

10) English commentators tut-tut about Italian diving shortly before Didier Drogba goes down like he's caught the plague.

11) Momo Sissoko to have the best pass completion rate...for Chelsea. “Camoranesi... Nedved... Del Piero, back to Nedved, now Sissoko, oh he's played it straight to Deco!! Deco, Lampaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaard GOAL! Chelsea lead!"

12) Lampard is credited with the goal by UEFA, despite the fact the ball took eight deflections, and travelled to and from Timbuktu, on its way into the net.

13) Phil Thompson, Graeme Souness, and a number of other SKY Sports pundits bash the Italian league at every opportunity, and label it an “old, slow, retirement home”, while repeatedly championing the Premier League as the “best league in the world”.

14) Souness says he would never have the over-rated Francesco Totti or Zlatan Ibrahimovic in his team (if he was a manager).

15) Italian media pundits jealously declare that the only reason the Premier League is so strong is because of rich foreign owners, managers and players.

16) In the build-up to Arsenal-Roma, both will be described as attractive, passing sides who play good football, but whoever loses the tie will be condemned as being 'in crisis.'

17) There will be serious crowd trouble inside and outside the Stadio Olimpico. English fans smash up a number of local bars. Italian fans attack their adversaries while riding around on mopeds.

18) The English media blame 19th century Italian policing for the trouble.

19) The Italian media blame 19-times over-the-drink-limit English fans for the trouble.

And Finally…

20) Whichever country comes out on top in the three-round contest will declare that they have the best league in the world.

What are your views on this topic? What do you expect to happen before, during and after the England v Italy ties? Goal.com wants to know what YOU think.

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Leafs hike ticket prices

By SUN MEDIA

The apparently recession-proof Toronto Maple Leafs have hiked tickets prices by an average 3.5% for next season.

Not that they expect all their fans will weather the economic storm.

For the first time, the 20% renewal deposit for season tickets is "non-refundable".

The good news is Raptor ticket pricing remains the same next year, following an 8% increase in 2007-'08.

The Leafs, who will miss the playoffs for a fourth consecutive season, raised prices 5% in 2007 but there was no increase in '08. The '07 hike was the first since the 2004 lockout.

“Until this increase, we have basically been at 2003-04 pricing with only a 1% net increase since before the lockout,” explained Tom Anselmi, executive vice-president and COO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd, in an email.

“However, costs and inflation, such as NHL revenue sharing, hockey front office and operations costs, Air Canada Centre capital improvements, technology and greening investments and Canadian dollar (exchange costs) are up significantly in that same time period.”

Leaf seats now range from $37 to $182.

The increase comes amid anticipation that the NHL salary cap will start falling next season with the troubled global economy lowering league revenue.

“We’re very sensitive to pricing, especially in a tough economy,” Anselmi said. “We gave it careful consideration, however, not many businesses have only had inflation of 1% over the last four years.” The Leafs are consistently ranked as the National Hockey League’s most profitable franchise, worth more than $400 million US by Forbes Magazine, a claim often disputed by MLSEL.

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What a slice! Stray golf ball discovered buried inside felled tree

By Daily Mail Reporter

Of all the flukes seen on a golf course, greenkeeper Richard Mitchell can claim one of the strangest.

As he took his chainsaw to a leylandii tree, he hit the exact spot where a ball was embedded in the wood and sliced through it.

The ball apparently lodged in a fork of the tree many years ago when a golfer hooked a drive on the first tee. The conifer grew around the ball and it remained hidden in the screen of 15 trees.

golf ball

A golf ball was found embedded inside this preserved tree trunk

Trimmed, sanded and varnished, it is to become a rather unusual trophy board at Eaton Golf Club in Norwich.

Mr Mitchell discovered the ball last month after he felled the 40ft trees, planted 37 years ago, and began cutting the timber into 4ft lengths for firewood.

The piece of wood with the half ball visible is being preserved and varnished by former club captain Jim Cook who is a skilled woodworker.

It will then be kept behind the bar and used to record the names of everyone who gets a hole-in-one on the 198-yard ninth hole.

Jim Cook is pictured on the ninth hole

Eaton member Jim Cook is pictured on the ninth hole close to where the unique tree was felled

Peter Johns, the manager of the £675-a-year club, said: 'It is just an incredible find.

'We think it came off the first tee. It must have lodged in a fork or embedded itself in the trunk and the tree grew round it.

'If Richard had cut the trunk an inch or two either way we'd never have known it was there.'

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Mickelson captures his 35th tour title

 Phil Mickelson, shown at the Buick Invitational Feb. 5, 2009. (UPI Photo/Earl S. Cryer)
Phil Mickelson, shown at the Buick Invitational Feb. 5, 2009. (UPI Photo/Earl S. Cryer)

Phil Mickelson shot a 1-over-par 72 Sunday, good enough to win the Northern Trust Open in Pacific Palisades, Calif., for the second straight year.

Mickelson used a pair of late birdies to finish at 15-under 269, a stroke ahead of Steve Stricker, who closed with a 67 but bogeyed the final hole at the Riviera Country Club.

K.J. Choi, (69), Fred Couples (69) and Anders Romero (70) shared third place at 13-under 271.

The victory was the 35th on the PGA Tour for the 38-year-old Mickelson.

Mickelson, who won $1 million, needed birdies on the 16th and 17th holes and a 6-foot, par-saving putt on the 18th to beat Stricker, who finished ahead of him.

"It was an exciting finish. Obviously, I didn't want it to be that close. I felt like I got off to a good start and wasn't able to keep it going," Mickelson said. "But to fight through a round where I didn't have my best stuff and to make some key putts coming down the stretch and key shots, it feels terrific to pull off the victory."

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Presenting the Mount Rushmore for each NBA team

Jackson

Tech's Knight suspended 1 game

Associated Press

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The Big 12 Conference suspended Texas Tech coach Pat Knight for one game on Monday for complaining about the officials after a loss to Texas A&M.

Knight received a technical foul in the second half of the 79-73 loss on Saturday for arguing a foul call and complained about the officials after the game to reporters, saying he didn't care what the Big 12 thought.

The son of Bob Knight, Pat Knight also was publicly reprimanded by the Big 12 earlier this month for being ejected after running onto the court twice to argue a foul call in a game against Nebraska.

Assistant coach Stew Robinson will replace Knight for Wednesday's game against Texas.

"I wasn't surprised because I broke a rule," Knight said during the Big 12 coaches teleconference on Monday. "I know the rules, but sometimes you have to lay on a grenade to get your point across."

In 6½ seasons at Texas Tech, Bob Knight received two public reprimands from the Big 12 in 2007 for his actions following losses.

Pat Knight didn't show any of his father's fiery demeanor after taking over the team halfway through last season, choosing to remain calm in tight situations.

That has changed over the past few weeks. With his team struggling -- 12-15 overall, 2-10 in conference -- Knight has become frustrated with the officiating, leading to two outbursts in the past three weeks.

The first time came following a loss to Nebraska on Jan. 31. Unhappy with a foul called on Alan Voskuil, Knight was ejected for running onto the court to argue with the officials. A few moments later, he returned to the floor to continue arguing, leading to a public reprimand from the conference two days later.

Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe didn't give Knight a harsh penalty after that outburst because of his "past exemplary behavior." This time, Beebe said he was disappointed that Knight had committed a violation so soon after the first one.

"I was extremely lenient in that case and chose not to suspend Coach Knight," Beebe said in a written statement. "The nature and extent of his comments after the Texas A&M game, and his callous attitude in light of his commitment to me to abide by the rules, require a serious penalty."

Knight became increasingly frustrated with the officiating during Saturday's home loss to the rival Aggies, a physical game that featured 56 combined fouls. He was hit with a technical foul in the second half for arguing a call against John Roberson and considered getting thrown out of the game to prove a point.

Knight thought better of it and instead decided to complain to the media after a game in which four of his players fouled out and his team was outshot 51-22 at the free-throw line.

"I was sitting there with my staff and the way things were going, I asked them if I needed to get thrown out of this game. We decided it was best not to do that twice," he said. "I already made my point once doing it that way, so the only way to make a point and get it out there was to bring it up in the press conference knowing that I was probably going to get fined or suspended."

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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Powerful Agent’s Blunt Warning About Future of the N.B.A.

By HOWARD BECK

David Falk speaks in adages and anecdotes, every catchphrase and tale conveying a lesson from nearly four decades as an elite N.B.A. agent. The stories come in rapid-fire fashion, their themes accentuated by an All-Star cast of characters, including Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing and David Stern.

As Falk intently delivers this oral history, the lessons coalesce in one stark, alarming prediction: the N.B.A. and its players are heading for a profound labor battle.

The nation’s economy is buckling. Too many teams are losing money. League revenue is flat, and the salary cap is about to shrink for only the second time in its history.

The N.B.A.’s system is broken, Falk says, and fixing it will require radical measures that almost guarantee a standoff in 2011, when the collective bargaining agreement expires.

“I think it’s going to be very, very extreme,” Falk said, “because I think that the times are extreme.”

How extreme? Falk said he believed Stern, the commissioner, would push for a hard salary cap, shorter contracts, a higher age limit on incoming players, elimination of the midlevel cap exception and an overall reduction in the players’ percentage of revenue. And, Falk said, Stern will probably get what he wants.

“The owners have the economic wherewithal to shut the thing down for two years, whatever it takes, to get a system that will work long term,” he said in an extensive interview to discuss his new book. “The players do not have the economic wherewithal to sit out one year.”

Falk’s comments will surely irritate the players union and many of his fellow agents. But then, his new book is called “The Bald Truth” for reasons beyond his smooth head.

In 35 years as an N.B.A. agent — and for much of that time, its most powerful agent — Falk has earned a reputation for brutal honesty. In fact, Chapter 3 of his book is titled, “Blunt is Beautiful — Stay True to You.”

In recounting the twists and turns of his career, Falk critiques N.B.A. owners, other agents, former clients and even his mentor, Donald Dell, who gave Falk his start at ProServ in 1974.

Nothing is as striking, however, as his bleak assessment of the N.B.A.’s economic system. Falk’s view matters more than most. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, he was the N.B.A.’s top power broker, as the adviser to Jordan, Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo and a host of other stars. He sold his agency, FAME, for $100 million in 1998, but he reopened it in 2007 as a boutique agency.

Falk despairs over the current state of the agent industry, saying “there’s rampant cheating going on” and “the quality of the representation is low.” He blames the union, which certifies agents but provides almost no oversight. A union spokesman declined to comment.

While Falk is no longer the most active agent, he remains highly influential. He is still close to Jordan — now a minority owner of the Charlotte Bobcats — and represents a handful of stars, including Mutombo, Elton Brand and Mike Bibby. (His client list also includes Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski and the former Georgetown coach John Thompson.)

Sometimes a foe of Stern, Falk is also an unabashed admirer, calling him “the greatest commissioner in the history of professional sports.” Falk does not seem nearly as impressed with Billy Hunter, the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association. The two have had a tense relationship. Falk foresees a rout in the next round of negotiations.

In a joint appearance during All-Star weekend, Stern and Hunter acknowledged the dire state of the economy and its effect on the N.B.A. Stern said publicly for the first time that the salary cap — which is tied to league revenue — would probably decline next season. Privately, league officials are bracing for a major decline in the cap in the 2010-11 season. Stern and Hunter said they had begun preliminary talks for a new labor deal.

Their conciliatory tone sounded promising, but Falk seemed skeptical. In his view, the union botched negotiations in 1998, which led to the three-month lockout, the only labor stoppage in league history. The union tried to stave off a luxury tax and maximum player salaries but ultimately had to accept both in order to strike a deal in January 1999 and save the season.

“The players lost 40 percent of their salaries, and they got a worse deal in January,” Falk said. “So as we approach 2011, my overwhelming feeling is, let’s not make the same dumb mistake as in 1998.”

The players, he said, must recognize that the owners have the ultimate leverage. Many are billionaires for whom owning an N.B.A. team is merely a pricey hobby. Some of them are losing “enormous amounts of money” and would rather shut down the league for a year or two than continue with the current system.

So Falk is urging the union to take a more cooperative approach.

“And if we don’t do that, in my opinion, there’s an overwhelming probability that the owners will shut it down,” he said.

Naturally, Falk has strong opinions about what is ailing the league. He believes too many average players make too much money, while the stars — Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade — do not make enough. Falk would eliminate the cap for the superstars and, at the other end, abolish the midlevel exception, which allows teams to give $30 million deals to role players.

Unlike most of his peers, and the union leadership, Falk is an advocate of the age limit, which Stern won during collective bargaining negotiations in 2005. Falk said the limit, now 19 years old, should be raised to 20 or 21.

His reasons are purely practical. The influx of underclassmen to the N.B.A. has eroded fan familiarity and the quality of play, Falk said. An age limit will create more polished and prepared rookies, while the N.C.A.A. provides free advertising for future N.B.A. stars.

“The single biggest factor contributing to the success of the N.B.A. over the last almost 30 years has been the N.C.A.A tournament,” he said, listing a dozen great moments in tournament history. “Every guy in that era, from ’79 to about ’95, who came in the N.B.A., all the fans knew on a first-name basis. It got to the point, when Duke won twice in the ’90s, people said they knew how Grant Hill wore his socks.”

Changes to the salary cap and the age limit sound like sacrifices from the player’s side. Falk does not see it that way. To understand his view, consider an early chapter from his own career.

Early in his relationship with Jordan, Falk offered to drastically cut his marketing fee in exchange for an upfront payment on his negotiating fee. Jordan was initially resistant, but he agreed when he realized the arrangement would save him $10 million over the long term.

As Falk tells it, his boss, Dell, was aghast. But to Falk, the gesture was about gaining Jordan’s trust and loyalty, which would pay dividends in the long term.

“There wasn’t anything better I could have done with $10 million at that time,” Falk writes.

That, essentially, is the message he has for the players union. The players and the owners have effectively been partners since the salary cap was instituted in 1982. The players’ earnings are dependent on the league’s financial health. And in Falk’s view, the players will have to make short-term concessions if they want the league to thrive.

“The only logical way over the next 25 years that players are going to make more money is to grow the pie,” Falk said.

Of course, in his opinion, the players will have little choice but to give the owners what they want. The situation, Falk said, is analogous to the negotiations he conducted on Jordan’s behalf with the Chicago Bulls in 1984. Jordan held all of the leverage, and the Bulls knew it.

Falk recalls the statement made by Rod Thorn, then the Bulls’ general manager, on the occasion of Jordan’s signing: “There was a lot of give and take in these negotiations. We gave, and they took.”

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Larry Miller, Popular Owner of Utah Jazz, Is Dead at 64

Associated Press

Larry Miller

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Larry Miller, the car sales mogul who turned the Utah Jazz into one of the National Basketball Association’s most stable teams, died Friday at his home. He was 64.

The cause was complications of Type 2 diabetes, the team said in a statement announcing his death.

Miller had a heart attack in June 2008, then spent nearly two months in the hospital for complications of diabetes. He was in a wheelchair after his release from the hospital and had his legs amputated six inches below the knee in January.

A tireless worker with a knack for the most minute details, Miller started his career in an auto parts shop, then built a car dealership empire that made him one of Utah’s most recognized and influential people.

“Every citizen in our state feels a little empty today,” Gov. Jon Huntsman of Utah said in a statement. “Larry was Utah and Utah was Larry. He inspired many and served countless. We all have been made better by his extraordinary life.”

Miller expanded his realm in 1985 when he bought a 50 percent share of the Jazz as the team appeared on the verge of moving to Miami. Miller bought the rest of the team a year later, declining an offer that would have sent the team to Minnesota.

The Salt Lake Tribune quoted him as saying, “It was an opportunity, I realized, to give a community and a state that I care a great deal about something that maybe nobody else could give them.”

Miller sat in his courtside seat, wearing khakis, a golf shirt and tennis shoes, for nearly every game, giving his players and the fans an unobstructed view into his emotions. The team made two straight appearances in the N.B.A. finals, in 1997 and 1998.

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Senior sidelined: 73-year-old declared ineligible

by FOXSports.com

The feel-good story of the 73-year-old man who put a spin move on Father Time by playing basketball for a Tennessee junior college has taken another unusual turn. Apparently, Spanish isn't Ken Mink's favorite subject.

Mink, who made national headlines by making the men's basketball team at Roane State College in Harriman, Tennessee, has been ruled academically ineligible by the National Junior College Athletic Association, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel. His team will be required to forfeit one game, the paper reported.

The NCJAA reportedly ruled that Mink had not maintained the minimum required number of credits an athlete must pass in a semester in order to remain eligible to participate in sports.

"I told coach (Randy Nesbit) early on that I was having trouble in Spanish," Mink told the News Sentinel.

Fearing he might fail the Spanish class, Mink said he enrolled in a Sociology class on another campus, hoping that a passing grade there would give him the credits he needed to retain his eligibility. But that class was apparently completed too late to apply to the semester in question.

Ken Mink's dream of playing college hoops took a rough turn this week. (Saul Young/Knoxville News Sentinel / Special to FOXSports.com)

"This is not an academic issue, it's an administrative issue," Mink wrote in an email to the News Sentinel on Friday. "... the NJCAA is ruling me ineligible because the NJCAA contends Roane State did not follow administrative procedures in restoring my eligibility after the NJCAA had questioned whether or not one of my courses was completed within the fall semester.

"Coach Nesbit supplied the NJCAA all the documentation proving my academic eligibility. Coach Nesbit knew I had met the requirements and restored me for play, but the NJCAA has contended the coach (or school) had not checked with the NJCAA a second time before restoring me to play."

Nesbit and Mink are appealing the ruling, but Mink said the appeal process may not be complete by the time Roane State concludes its season. Mink played in a Feb. 7 game against Hiwassee, scoring two points. That's the game the NJCAA ruled Roane State must forfeit.

Mink said his college career at Lees Junior College in Kentucky was cut short in 1956 when he was wrongly accused of spraying his coach's office with shaving cream and kicked off the team. He said he realized he could still hoop it up when he was shooting baskets in his driveway last fall.

He wrote to some coaches seeking the chance to play, and Nesbit gave him a shot. Mink spent the summer getting into shape and playing with a senior team from the area in three state tournaments.

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The Man Who Warned Baseball About Steroids

By Joe Torre and Tom Verducci

Texas Rangers pitcher Rick Helling in 1998
Texas Rangers pitcher Rick Helling in 1998

The 1998 baseball season was a party of epic proportions, the equivalent of an all-nighter with the music cranked and every care in the world, or at least the anger and bitterness of the 1994-95 players' strike, easily forgotten. The 1998 Yankees, the winningest team of all time, were just part of the fun for Bud Selig, whose caretaking role as interim commissioner finally ended in midsummer. Bud Selig, who had owned the Milwaukee Brewers, was the ultimate insider.

It was an expansion year, with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Arizona Diamondbacks adding two more television markets, $260 million in expansion fees, and another 324 games to the inventory of moneymaking possibilities. Attendance jumped 12%, with almost seven and a half million more people paying their way into ballparks. The per-game major league average improved by 4% to 29,054, the best it had been since before the strike hit. The ratings for games televised by Fox improved by 11%t.

It was the year David Wells threw his perfect game, a rookie Cubs pitcher named Kerry Wood struck out a record-tying 20 batters and the age-defying Roger Clemens, while in the employ of the Toronto Blue Jays at that stage of his pitcher-for-hire phase, became the first pitcher to strike out 18 or more batters in a game for the third time.

Most of all, it was the year that belonged to hitters, who just happened to be growing cartoonishly large and hitting baseballs into parts of ballparks where no baseballs had gone before. It was a freak show and baseball loved it. It was the first season in history in which four players hit 50 home runs. Greg Vaughn and Ken Griffey Jr., half of the 50-plus bombers that year, were dwarfed in size, production and attention by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Both McGwire, with 70 home runs, and Sosa, with 66, blew away the record 61 home runs of Roger Maris that had stood as the standard for 37 years. America was captivated by the two huge men and the great home-run race. Senator Edward Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, praised McGwire and Sosa as the "home-run kings for working families in America." McGwire, with forearms the size of a grown man's neck, 17 inches around, was a gate attraction unto himself, a modern wonder of the world. Ballparks opened their gates early and called in concession staffs to clock in early just to accommodate the thousands of fans who wanted to see him take batting practice. On September 9, Fox scrapped the season premieres of its prime-time Tuesday night shows to televise the game in which McGwire would hit his record-breaking 62nd home run. More than 43 million people watched.

Baseball was awash in goodwill, national attention and money like it had not seen in many years. The Los Angeles Dodgers garishly flaunted such largesse after that season by giving Kevin Brown, a pitcher soon to turn 34 years old, an age when players traditionally had neared retirement as their bodies gave out, a seven-year contract worth $105 million, sweetening the deal with private jet service back and forth from his Georgia home.

That same winter, with the party raging at full throttle, one man rose up and basically announced the whole damn thing was a fraud. Rick Helling, a 27-year-old righthanded pitcher and the players' representative for the Texas Rangers, stood up at the winter meeting of the Executive Board of the Major League Baseball Players Association and made an announcement. He told his fellow union leaders that steroid use by ballplayers had grown rampant and was corrupting the game.

"There is this problem with steroids," Helling told them. "It's happening. It's real. And it's so prevalent that guys who aren't doing it are feeling pressure to do it because they're falling behind. It's not a level playing field. We've got to figure out a way to address it.

"It's a bigger deal than people think. It's noticeable enough that it's creating an uneven playing field. What really bothers me is that it's gotten so out of hand that guys are feeling pressure to do it. It's one thing to be a cheater, to be somebody who doesn't care whether it's right or wrong. But it's another thing when other guys feel like they have to do it just to keep up. And that's what's happening. And I don't feel like this is the right way to go."

What Helling had just done was the equivalent of turning up all the lights, clicking off the music and announcing the party was over. "He was the first guy," David Cone said, "who had the guts to stand up at a union meeting and say that in front of everybody and put pressure on it."

There was only one way for baseball to react to this kind of whistleblowing: Crank the music back up and keep the party rolling.

The union was having too much fun and making too much money to pay much attention to Helling's warning. It was far easier and financially prudent to ignore the issue, to assume that Helling was an alarmist prone to exaggerating, and to make sure everyone involved knew as little as possible about players injecting hard-core steroids into their asses. Don't ask, don't tell and don't care was the unwritten code of the day.

"What really bothered me was there were plenty of good guys, good people, who were feeling the pressure to cheat because it had become so prevalent," Helling said. "I firmly believed at the time that it was an unlevel playing field. I was trying to find a way to do something about it. Make it as fair of a game as possible. Play it the right way.

"When you see guys coming into spring training camp 30 pounds heavier than they ended the previous season, or they had gained four or fives miles an hour on their fastball, I mean, those things are not normal. My whole career was played in the peak of the steroids era. I saw guys throwing 87 miles an hour one year and 95 the next. Unfortunately, a lot of people, the press, the owners, the players, they turned the other cheek. I was like, 'Are you serious? Can't you see what's going on? Are you seriously going to let these guys get away with it?'

"Unfortunately, it turned out just the way I thought it would. It blew up in our face."

The union's executive board paid little attention to Helling. The owners were of a similar mindset. In fact, within a matter of days of Helling sounding an alarm that went unheeded, baseball provided official proof that steroids were not considered an urgent problem. At those same 1998 winter baseball meetings in Nashville, baseball's two medical directors, Dr. Robert Millman, who was appointed by the owners, and Dr. Joel Solomon, the designee of the players, delivered a presentation to baseball executives and physicians about the benefits of using testosterone. Angels general manager Bill Stoneman was so surprised at the tone of the presentation — basically, the message he heard was that no evidence exists that steroids were harmful — that he wondered why Major League Baseball even had allowed it.

Also in attendance was Dr. William Wilder, the physician for the Cleveland Indians. Wilder was so disturbed by the presentation that he wrote a memorandum to Indians general manager John Hart that whether testosterone increased muscle strength and endurance "begs the question of whether it should be used in athletics." Wilder also endorsed sending information to players about the "known and unknown data about performance-enhancing substances."

Wilder also spoke directly with Gene Orza of the players association. Orza advised him to hold off on any education about supplements until more information was available. Wilder was incredulous. Of Orza's request to postone any action, the doctor wrote, "That will be never! Orza and the Players Association want to do further study ... so nothing will be done."

Orza infamously revealed the players' position on steroids more blatantly in 2004, even long after the lid blew off the steroid epidemic in baseball. Speaking as part of a panel discussion in a public forum, Orza said, "Let's assume that [steroids] are a very bad thing to take. I have no doubt that they are not worse than cigarettes. But I would never say to the clubs as an individual who represents the interests of players, 'Gee, I guess by not allowing baseball to suspend and fine players for smoking cigarettes, I am not protecting their health.' "

Well, there you had it. No wonder nobody wanted to listen to Helling. The owners and players didn't even want to acknowledge that something harmful was going on. A presentation on the benefits of testosterone? Not worse than cigarettes? Helling, though, didn't give up. Each year he would make the same speech at the players association board meeting ... 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 ... and each year nothing would happen, except that more and more bodies grew unnaturally bigger and the game became twisted into a perversion, its nuances and subtleties blasted away by the naked obsession with power. Baseball was reduced to the lowest common denominator: to whack the ball farther or to heave it faster. Baseball's inability and unwillingness to act made silent partners of Selig and his traditional rivals at the union, leaders Don Fehr and Orza. Neither side had the smarts or the stomach to make steroids a front-burner public issue.

"Steve [Fehr] and Don came to me and said, 'Rick Helling is talking up steroids. Do you think there's a problem here?' " Cone said, referring to the Fehr brothers, including Steve, Cone's agent. "I said, 'Maybe we need to talk to guys, but I don't really see a problem.'"

The union, Helling said, did talk to some players about it, but the pitcher was wise enough not to expect anything to come of it.

"I understood their side of it, from a lawyer's side," Helling said. "Their thinking was, 'This isn't anything ownership has asked us for. It's never been an issue [in bargaining]. So why would we give them something without getting something in return. Why open this box?'

"I was active in the union. I know Don and Gene very well. Still to this day I talk to them. I understand. 'We don't want to go down that road if we don't have to.' Every year I brought it up. I'd say, 'This is more of a problem than you think.' Bud, Gene, Don ... they had an idea of what was going on. They didn't realize how widespread it was. As players, we kind of did know. Whether it was 50% or whatever, I can't say. It was more than people thought. It was more than Don, Gene and Bud thought. So the thinking was more, 'If ownership didn't ask for it, why volunteer it? It's probably not that big a deal.' "

Helling said he never saw a player inject steroids, but he heard all the clubhouse talk about what players were doing, as they would euphemistically put it, to "get an edge." Helling himself had a very clear understanding of what was cheating and what was not. He was born in Devils Lake, North Dakota, and became one of only 15 men born in that state to become a big leaguer. He attended Stanford University and made his major league debut with Texas only two years after the Rangers selected him with a second round pick in the 1992 draft. He pitched decently for both the Rangers and Marlins (he was once traded to Florida and back within 11 months) before committing himself to a strenuous conditioning and fitness program after the 1997 season. In 1998, his first full year as a starting pitcher, he won 20 games. He would pitch 12 seasons in the majors, compiling a record of 93-81 while earning more than $15 million.

"I can look back on my career, and whether it was good or bad, I know that everything I did, I did myself," Helling said. "I didn't do any form of cheating. It's unfortunate that there were a lot of people I knew who thought, 'I need to do something to keep up.' You hear the excuses of the guys who admitted it: 'I felt like I had to do it.' The way I looked at it, when I wasn't good enough to do it myself, it was time to move on. A lot of players didn't think like that. Guys always had an excuse of why they could do it.

"That's not what I was about. I can look back and know it was all me. That's the most important thing. I have my name and my reputation. Anybody who knows me knows there was no doubt that I played it the right way. And that's what I wanted to leave the game with. I couldn't care less if I made one million dollars or one hundred million dollars, whether I won one game or whether I won three hundred games. I was in it to be honest to myself and my teammates and to be a good father and husband. For me it was just the way I was brought up."

Rick Helling, by playing clean, was swimming against the tide.

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Jordan's effort a marvel 15 years later

By Scott Merkin / MLB.com

"Every day at 7:30, Michael was there," said White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf. "Sometimes his hands were bleeding, that's how hard he worked." (Pat Sullivan/AP)

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- He's been known as 'His Airness' or 'Sir Michael' amongst many other nicknames bestowed upon quite possibly the greatest player to suit up in the NBA.

Michael Jordan's likeness also will forever live outside the United Center, the home of the Chicago Bulls, with his statue serving as a fitting honor to the incredible force who spearheaded six of the past seven major championships in Chicago. The mere mention of his name still draws an excited reaction from people all over the country who appreciate the game's greatest competitor.

spring training
cactus league
grapefruit league

But a time existed where baseball, and not basketball, stood as the driving athletic force for Jordan. It was a somewhat controversial period, with critics pointing out everything from Jordan's star power usurping a spot that belonged to a more deserving young player, to the assumption that he didn't succeed in his attempt to reach the Major Leagues.

Many of those closest to Jordan's diamond gems couldn't disagree more fervently. Jordan was not only a hard-working Minor Leaguer, who fit into any clubhouse, but also an individual who handled a potentially crazy situation with class and dignity.

On the 15th anniversary of Jordan's arrival to Spring Training with the White Sox in Florida, MLB.com takes a look back at this incredible effort from a man who hadn't played baseball in almost 15 years, exploring Jordan as a baseball player from a few different perspectives.

The Owner

For events that took place involving Jordan from 1993-94, White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf still can recall what happened with seemingly perfect chronological detail.

"Well, the story actually started on a Sunday in July," said Reinsdorf, speaking recently on the deck outside his office at Camelback Ranch. "Michael was at our game, up in a box with me and [then general manager Ron] Schueler. The two of them got me and said Michael has something he wants to talk about.

"He said he wants to go to Kannapolis and just play a couple of games. He had taken batting practice a couple of years before. What we didn't know was that at the moment we were talking, his father was dead. His father was dead -- we didn't know. Shortly thereafter, he found out his father was dead and that took care of the Kannapolis thing."

The next time Reinsdorf saw Jordan was in October, two months after James Jordan was murdered. Reinsdorf attended a charity dinner for Jordan's foundation, and invited Jordan to throw out the first pitch for the first game of the playoffs if the White Sox reached the postseason.

On that same night, David Falk, Jordan's representative, broke some news to Reinsdorf.

"David Falk got me there and said, 'I don't know how to tell you this but Michael wants to retire,'" Reinsdorf said. "We agreed to meet the following week, and we met at David Falk's house in Washington, D.C.

"Michael told me he needed to get away. The death of his father and all of the media attention and people saying it was because of his gambling, it had got to him. He was burned out. This meeting took place on the last Sunday of the baseball season, and the playoffs were going to begin that following Tuesday.

"I didn't try to talk him out of it, but I asked Michael, 'What do you want to do,' and he said, 'I want to play baseball. It was my father's dream that I become a baseball player,'" Reinsdorf said. "I said, 'OK, but, you have to talk to Phil Jackson. You can't just make this decision and walk away.'"

According to Reinsdorf, Jordan didn't want to speak with Jackson for fear that the Bulls coach would talk Jordan out of his decision. But the two men sat down on that following Monday, and the retirement announcement was to be made on that ensuing Wednesday so as not to upstage the White Sox playoffs.

"He didn't keep a secret," said a smiling Reinsdorf of Jordan, who attended the first playoff game and threw out the first pitch. "I think he told Ahmad Rashad and I don't know who else from there. It was all over the place during the game.

"People were trying to get into the box, and it did upstage the playoffs. It was terrible."

When the retirement announcement officially was made on Oct. 6, 1993, Jordan's plan to play baseball already was set in motion, although it wasn't announced. He signed a free-agent contract on Feb. 7, 1994, receiving a non-roster invite, as well, and setting the Spring Training circus in motion.

After Jordan's baseball move became public, Reinsdorf received a call from White Sox hitting coach Walt Hriniak. It's an understatement to say that Hriniak was stunned by the decision.

"Walter said, 'What the [heck] is this all about?' He said, 'We don't need this kind of publicity and what kind of gimmick is this?'" Reinsdorf said. "I said, 'Walter he's serious. Wait until you meet this guy.'

"On the first day of Spring Training, Walter goes up to Michael in the outfield and says, 'Are you serious about this or is it just a game?' He said, 'I'm dead serious.' Walter said to meet him at 7:30 tomorrow morning in the batting cages.

"Every day at 7:30, Michael was there," Reinsdorf said. "Sometimes his hands were bleeding, that's how hard he worked. You talk to Walter today and he'll tell you the hardest working athlete he ever had was Michael Jordan."

Reinsdorf recounted one night in Florida where Jordan and the White Sox chairman simply sat around his office for three hours talking about baseball.

"Michael really enjoyed the clubhouse and the guys," Reinsdorf said. "He liked to sit around, smoke a cigar and [talk]."

Judging by the reaction from a few of his teammates even 15 years later, they enjoyed having Jordan around just as much.

The Teammates

Ozzie Guillen led the 2005 White Sox to the franchise's first World Series title in 88 years. As a colorful manager, he is the face of the organization and one of the most recognizable figures around baseball.

Yet, he's still no Michael Jordan in terms of world-wide popularity. Guillen readily admits that when Jordan was part of Spring Training, he got an autograph from the legend. But one of the most endearing attributes about Jordan the baseball player became that he was just one of the guys.

"You walk into the locker room and you are like, 'Wow, it's Michael Jordan,'" said Guillen with a laugh. "But the next day, he's a normal guy. I love every minute of it, and I think this guy finally has fun in his life besides being on the golf course. He had a real life, were he was treated like just another person.

"Jordan had fun with the other players. To me, it was a privilege to be around one of the best."

Guillen recounted a story of how he regularly kidded Jordan about being the best athlete in the world, but not nearly as good as Guillen on the baseball field. Guillen also told a tale of a young woman who ran on the field during an exhibition game in Miami, trying to get a kiss from Jordan.

"Until that lady was chasing him, I'd never seen a woman on the field in my life," sad Guillen with a laugh.

"I came to realize just how big of a personality he was during that spring," said White Sox radio announcer Darrin Jackson, who also was involved in the 1994 Spring Training as a White Sox outfielder. "When you get off team buses, and the girls start to cry because Michael Jordan is in the vicinity, it was pretty special to see."

Playing with Jordan naturally involved a bit of a media frenzy. As Guillen said, Jordan just wanted to be one of the guys, playing cards and smoking cigars with teammates on the bus.

"When he was there, he never tried to be Michael Jordan with us," Guillen said.

"It was different than any other Spring Training I've ever been a part of as a coach or player," said White Sox bench coach Joey Cora, who was the team's second baseman in 1994. "He was Michael, and Michael is Michael, whether he's playing baseball, ping pong or basketball."

The Coverage

On the day that Jordan held his first press conference at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota, Fla., Scott Reifert can remember lining 38 television cameras up and down the first-base line as a White Sox media relations staff member. Jordan and Schueler sat on top of the dugout to have the press conference.


"I didn't try to talk him out of it, but I asked Michael, 'What do you want to do,' and he said, 'I want to play baseball."
-- White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf

"The media just filled in the seats," said Reifert, now the White Sox vice president of communications. "I also remember the range and volume of media in attendance, and this is before the media explosion. It wasn't just sports guys.

"It was entertainment, everything you can imagine. And it was global. Japan, France, Europe, any place where the Bulls, Michael or the NBA were world-wide brands at that time."

Reifert remembers the bright red car driven at the time by Jordan, and how the kids "would stream down the street" after Jordan when he left the facility and how Jordan would stop to sign autographs. Of course, Reifert also remembers Jordan's famous competitive streak.

Not just from baseball or basketball, mind you, but even with ping pong.

"Someone bought a ping-pong table, and they had a big, clubhouse tournament, where they had pairings," Reifert said. "I think it ended up being Michael and Kirk McCaskill as the finalists, and I think Kirk beat him.

"I'll never forget watching Michael Jordan play ping pong. If you think about his wing span from left to right, it was stunning to watch this guy cover a table. The other thing was competitiveness. Baseball players are competitive, every single one of them, but Michael took it to another level over a ping-pong game."

The Player, The End

Jordan was sent to Double-A Birmingham out of Spring Training on March 31, 1994, and hit .202 with 51 RBIs, 30 stolen bases and 114 strikeouts in 127 games. He also took part in the 1994 Arizona Fall League, where he posted a .252 average for the Scottsdale Scorpions.

Reinsdorf believes that if not for the ongoing Major League Baseball strike in 1995, which sort of "soured him on the whole thing," Jordan might have made it to the big leagues as a fourth or fifth outfielder. One thing was certain: when Jordan retired from basketball, Reinsdorf never envisioned him coming back to the hardwoods on March 19, 1995, first wearing jersey No. 45 as he did on the baseball fields, and then switching back to the familiar No. 23 and leading the Bulls to their second NBA title three-peat.

Numerous pundits consider Jordan's run at baseball a mistake, nothing more than a side show involving one of the world's most recognizable figures, who couldn't consistently hit the curve like many other struggling Minor Leaguers. Those who witnessed Jordan's intense work on a daily basis, along with his amazing talent, know this period was anything but a joke for Jordan. They also realize what might have been if he continued the pursuit of this dream.

After all, even the top prospects out of the First-Year Player Draft don't get sent to the talent-rich Southern League, as Reinsdorf mentioned. And Jordan more-than-survived in Birmingham, playing to sold-out crowds every night.

"I thought he needed another two full seasons of at-bats to be fair to him," said Boston manager Terry Francona, who managed Jordan at Birmingham and praised Jordan for how he handled a situation where the Barons 'were covered like a Major League team with all the media.' "But the first time you tell him no, the answer is going to be yes."

"If he would have started earlier, maybe he had a shot," Cora said. "He was a great athlete, but you don't pick up baseball at 30. It was tough, but he accomplished a lot in a little period of time, which shows how great of an athlete he was."

"This is a guy who with more time, he had a chance," Jackson said. "Because of his determination, he would have probably made it. I've never seen anyone work harder than him."

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