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Old 12-25-08, 12:08 PM
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Focusing on those in need in sports world this Christmas

Focusing on those in need in sports world this Christmas
Dec. 24, 2008
By Larry Dobrow
Special to

Over the next week or so, many of us will mirthfully reunite with family and friends. We'll sing, open presents and replace grandma's calcium booster shake with nog. What we won't do, unless guilted into it by that commie cousin fresh off her first semester at Oberlin, is think about the less fortunate among us.

I'm not talking about the truly less fortunate: the sick, the destitute, the Seattle fans. I'm talking about the folks within the sports world who, by dint of circumstance or design, deserve our pity and compassion as much as the unkempt dude on the corner shouting about Dan Rather.

So, just in time for the holidays, we present our annual list of the most pitiable people in and around sports. No donations, please. Just remember them in your prayers and in your hearts.

10. Brett Favre: The Jets didn't import Favre to galvanize the locker room or outfit his linemen in sexy skinny Wranglers. They imported him to win games that matter and do what Chad Pennington couldn't: Namely, whip a 10-yard out through the gentle September breeze. Yet the Favre of the last six weeks has been positively Tomczakian (and please, don't waste your time or mine with an argument that his Pro Bowl selection was premised on anything other than name recognition; the aforementioned Mr. Pennington, Matt Cassell and Philip Rivers were all stronger candidates for the QB slot behind Peyton Manning and Jay Cutler).

If Favre can't win games in conditions like the ones in Seattle on Sunday -- snow, wind, surly-shouty fans -- why exactly is he still here? Isn't that supposed to be his calling card, the veteran-fearlessness-in-times-of-great-climactic-distress thing? Had Favre not re-un-retired so loudly, we'd still worship the guy and recall his fart-happy locker room hijinks with great fondness. Now, he leads the league in resigned sighs during postgame press conferences and sounds more and more downtrodden every day. Make it stop.

9. Notre Dame alumni: I'm from a generation that views winning college football as something for which an institution must strive 24/7/365, rather than expect as a birthright. So when I hear disgruntled Notre Dame boosters clamoring for a 74th coaching change in the last decade, I wonder when entitlement started to override common sense.

The way I see it, Notre Dame has two options. It can enact a series of destructive and unconscionable policies, like ones that lower academic standards to accommodate more thick-browed jocks, then reclaim its rightful position atop the college-football mountain. Or the school can accept that its self-image as a gridiron superpower is a quaint relic from a bygone era, and resign itself to the modest, consistent successes attained by institutions like Boston College. That second option isn't too unappealing, when you think about it. After all, Boston College rarely goes 14 years between bowl victories.

8. Lenny Dykstra: Somehow you knew that the spate of "Lenny Dykstra, stock-market wizard" stories that swarmed us during the last 18 months couldn't be entirely accurate. With all due respect to Senor NailsyPants, with whom I'd love to talk sports or pound beers or tip cows, he never came across as the sharpest tool in the shed. Hell, he came across as the guy who'd run headfirst into the shed, just because it was there.

So now we learn that Dykstra's financial successes may or may not have been exaggerated; that he may or may not have left a mess of embittered partners in his wake; and that as a publisher (of The Players Club, a mag for athletes who consider the backs of cereal boxes too intellectually rigorous) he ain't exactly Jann Wenner. What's left? A bunch of car washes in California and that wide chaw-toothed smile, I guess.

7. Maria Sharapova: Did you see that camera commercial, the one where Sharapova flits about those tourist-y places and everybody wants to take a picture? But not of her! See, she's got one of those fluffy little dogs, the kind that comes free with a handbag purchase, and everybody's ignoring Maria to get a photo of the kewpie mutt. It's funny because it's true!!! Poor kid -- being blonde, rich, charming, athletic and impossibly long-legged doesn't get you as far as it used to.

Also: no backhand.

6. The owners of the Minnesota Timberwolves, Philadelphia 76ers and Washington Wizards: Newly anointed head coaches Kevin McHale, Tony DiLeo and Ed Tapscott are well-known guys who have been around the league for a while. And who knows? Maybe they'll prove as adept with Xs and Os as they've proven inept with roster construction.

I just don't know what kind of message it sends when, this early in the NBA season, a team's owner chooses to pluck an interim coach from his front office. If you've got Pat Riley in the organization, tired of shaking hands at corporate klatsches and marketing his "Winner Within" line of deck furniture, fine, hiring from within makes sense. If you don't, tapping an inexperienced front-office stooge comes off as the dumbest kind of penny-pinching, like a store replacing its trained salespeople with kiosks. Randy Wittman, Mo Cheeks and Eddie Jordan may not have been the right guys for the job, but at least they've actually, you know, done some coaching.

5. John Daly: On the surface, Daly's life looks pretty sweet. He gets paid nice sums of cash to hang out in the parking lot of Hooters, swig Diet Coke and pulverize golf balls. I just worry about his ongoing legal shenanigans and his status as the sporting world's most likely candidate for a massive cardiac episode. Which is the more likely scenario: Daly getting his crap together and making a PGA cut, or Daly completing a rare reality-show trifecta -- Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew, The Biggest Loser and The Bachelor: Pebble Beach -- without being ordered to do so by a judge?

4. Stephon Marbury: On my fantasy basketball league's surprisingly well-punctuated message board, there's a motion afloat to cut Marbury some slack. The Knicks have "done him wrong," the argument goes, by holding onto him out of spite, by failing to set him free so that he might soar like the decorously inked sparrow he once was. The counter-argument, which I've proposed, is that the Knicks have to make this hurt a little, just on general principle. Marbury didn't help the team win games on the court and embarrassed the organization grievously off it. If he wants his freedom, let him sacrifice some cash for it.

Then, after a period of silence, Marbury pops up courtside at a Knicks/Lakers game last week, doing everything within his power to distract an organization that seems finally to have settled into some approximation of normalcy. And I think: who's giving this guy advice? Isn't there somebody, anybody in his life who can sit him down and say, "Dude. Enough?" I'm torn between wanting to see him spend the next nine months in professional limbo and wanting to stage an intervention.

3. Matt Vasgersian: He and broadcast partner J.C. Pearson have had the calamitous fortune to be assigned to four St. Louis Rams games this season. When they haven't been on Bulger concussion watch, they've been graced with the Chiefs (hopeless), Raiders (godless) and Lions (defiant of characterization with a single adjective).

But rather than toeing the NFL's "anything can happen on any given Sunday" line, Vasgersian has popped off about his lot in life, telling the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he and his crew "know how to polish up a turd pretty good." Even better, owing to the NFL's byzantine TV-blackout rules, a percentage of the Vasgersian games aren't broadcast in the loserhead team's home market. This frees him to let fly with comments like "bone-jarringly stupid decision there by Herm Edwards, who is to tactical decrees what the McRib is to barbecue." I love this guy.

2. Gary Bettman: All I know is that few papers send hockey writers on the road with the local teams anymore and that NHL games can only be found on my cable system between TV Land Jr. and the channel devoted to cautionary tales about gastric-bypass surgery. Nobody cares. This depresses me profoundly.

1. Rod Marinelli: His postgame press conferences have become the most exquisite little symphonies of misery. He starts out with a volley along the lines of "well, we just didn't get it done," then patiently answers tens of loaded questions about the Lions' sublime incompetence before heading into the dark, dismal night. Much to his credit, Marinelli backs his players to the end and maintains his composure, even when an idiotic local columnist asks if he wished his daughter had married a better defensive coordinator than current Motown whipping boy Joe Barry.

Marinelli deserves better. Detroit fans deserve better. Anybody who suffered the massive indignity of having to watch a frame of Lions football in 2008 deserves better. And still Marinelli approaches that podium every Sunday afternoon, steely and composed, his eyes firmly fixed on the person addressing him. He's a Greek tragedy in a Reebok windbreaker.

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