S.I. Yanks Flop Leads To Yanks Tix

Despite their success on the field, the Staten Island Yankees, facing declining ticket sales, hired Mandalay Entertainment earlier this month to run their behind-the-scenes operations and will unveil a unique season ticket package to lure fans.

The S.I. Yankees, a minor league affiliate of the New York Yankees and winners of four New York-Penn League championships in their seven years of existence, have seen annual attendance dwindle each year from a franchise-high 188,127 in 2001, their first year at Richmond County Bank Ballpark, and then plummet from 155,531 in 2005 to 115,395 this past season.

A ballpark that was trumpeted by city officials and was expected to be a major attraction to a rejuvenated St. George neighborhood, has thus far been a huge disappointment. According to Comptroller William C. Thompson, Jr., the organization is over half a million dollars in debt.

In an audit issued in April, Thompson asserted that the Staten Island Yankees had failed to pay $570,202 in electricity, water and sewer costs dating back to 2003. The organization’s rebuttal was that it was not required to pay if total attendance dipped below 125,001 persons, as it has.

With an average attendance figure of 3,118 last summer, the 7,500-seat waterfront stadium had just 41 percent capacity each night. Of the 176 minor league teams throughout the country, the franchise ranked 85th in fan turnout.

A July 20 noon game which featured Yankees reliever Octavio Dotel, pitching for the Single-A club to rehab his injured shoulder, drew only 4,560 fans, many of whom were children from summer camps who were given free tickets.

A July 27 game against the Batavia Muckdogs drew only 3,737 people, although it was attended by Yankees star Chien-Ming Wang, who made his first appearance there since he was promoted, and featured a giveaway of a bobble head doll in his likeness.

Unlike Major League teams, who get the bulk of their income from lucrative television and merchandise deals, minor league franchises rely more heavily on fan attendance. On average, close to 80 percent of a club’s revenue is generated from ticket sales and the items sold at concessions stands.

Because the athletes are sometimes unknown to the casual fan, the ballpark sideshows are often the main attraction. The Baby Bombers’ sushi toss, kids vs. mascots race around the bases, between-innings water balloon fights and seventh inning quesadilla giveaways haven’t been alluring enough, though.

Compared to the attendance figures of their New York nemesis, the Brooklyn Cyclones, the Yankees’ numbers seem paltry. The Cyclones, the Mets Single-A affiliate, drew an average of 7,819 people to Keyspan Ballpark. Ironically, Staten Island ’s most attended home game (6,552 people) was against the Cyclones in the season-opening series.

Both stadiums, built with city funding, cost a total of $81 million to construct and opened in 2001.

Keyspan’s capacity was initially 6,500, but ticket demands were so great that the organization added 1,000 seats in a right field bleacher pavilion three weeks after its opening and now sells discounted tickets for standing room. While the majority of the money was allocated to RCB’s construction, Keyspan is larger (two seating decks and five stories compared to one seating level and three floors).

Their stadium had the best attendance of any NY-Penn League team and was 15th overall in the nation, while their in-game promotion ploys aren’t unlike those used in Staten Island. Neither are their ticket or concession prices. Both venues sell field level tickets for between $8 and $11.

The locations of the parks do differ, however. Keyspan was built near Coney Island amusement park, near the beach, and is surrounded by restaurants and stores. RCB, though it’s closer to Manhattan and is just a 5-minute walk from the Staten Island Ferry, is located in a mostly residential area, surrounded by apartment buildings.

“The location of Keyspan plays a large part in attracting a crowd, definitely,” said Margo Berman, a marketing consultant with Sales Training Incorporated. “Obviously when you have other attractions around, it’s going to bring people to the area and that increases your chances.”

The Yankees ballpark has fallen far short of the lofty expectations that had been placed on it at the outset.

“This is an exciting day in the history of this great borough,” then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said on June 8, 2000, during the construction period. “The [ballpark] will be an important component in an overall economic redevelopment plan that will bring enhanced transportation services, shopping, entertainment and waterfront dining opportunities to Staten Island residents and the 60,000 daily commuters and one million tourists who ride the Staten Island Ferry each year.”

The area, however, has not seen the boom that the mayor and other city officials had predicted. The neighborhood surrounding the park is mostly residential and the shopping center adjacent to the stadium – the only one in the area – is a cluster of small food joints and a launderette bunched together.

The operating expenses – stadium maintenance, employees and players salary, etc. – costs the New York Yankees over $16 million annually and the city has yet to recoup on its investment. The government was expected to collect over $2.5 million in yearly taxes and fees from them, but because the ballpark has flopped financially, the organization has been unable to pay.

The Yankees, in need of a financial remedy, sought out Mandalay, a Hollywood-based company more known for its film production, and hired them to run their marketing and promotion department.

Mandalay first entered the sports realm in 1996 when it formed Mandalay Sports Entertainment and took control of three minor league franchises – the Dayton Dragons, Las Vegas 51s and the Frisco RoughRiders.

Mandalay’s plan, which is already in the works, is to piggyback the parent club’s popularity. They will present a ticket package that will allow Staten Island season ticket holders to get early access to purchase priority seating for New York Yankees regular season and playoff games up to the American League Championship Series.

“It’s without question the best package ever offered in professional sports,” said Kevin Mortesen, Mandalay Baseball’s spokesman.

Mortesen also pointed to the success Mandalay has had with the Dayton Dragons. The Ohio Single-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds, he said, has sold out all of its home games since Mandalay took over its operations in 2001.

“The Yankees are the epitome of sports success,” he added. “They’re the biggest brand in the industry and we’re arguably the best operator. The [stadium] setting is spectacular and it has all the bells and whistles. You combine that with the package we’re going to offer and [we] have every reason to be confident that it will be a good season.”

NBA 2006-2007 Playoff Teams

Eastern Conference1. Pistons

Although they lost Ben Wallace, the rest of the core remains. They’re still the best defensive team in the Eastern Conference and although Nazr Mohammed isn’t as dominant a post defender as Wallace, he is a solid rebounder and a more proficient offensive player. The roster still lacks depth, but the starting five is talented and focused – sans Rasheed Wallace’s projected 104 technical fouls with the new “Don’t talk back” rule having been implemented – enough to breeze through the East.

2. NetsThe up-tempo offense remains, Vince Carter is a great scorer, Richard Jefferson is among the elite small forwards and Jason Kidd, although he’s lost a step, is still the consummate point guard. Barring injury, he will move ahead of Rod Strickland for 7th all-time in assists. They lack inside presence – Kidd led the team in rebounding – but Nenad Krstic, 23, should take on a greater role in the offense and become a better rebounder. Marcus Williams, Eddie House and Clifford Robinson will provide a great offensive spark off the bench.

3. BullsAfter winning a total of 119 games in the first five years of the post-Jordan era, Chicago has become a playoff team. Already a strong defensive squad, they signed Ben Wallace and drafted Tyrus Thomas to sure up the interior defense. Their problem though is a lack of inside scoring. Neither big man can consistently put the ball in the hole and P.J. Brown, at this stage of his career, doesn‘t have much offense outside of the 12-foot jumper. Michael Sweetney, who is capable of scoring, won’t play enough minutes because he lacks conditioning and has trouble avoiding fouls (and fowl). They rely heavily on their perimeter players – namely Kirk Hinrich and Ben Gordon – for points, but those two combine to shoot just 42 percent from the field. Considering Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler are no longer with the team, that trade of Elton Brand isn’t looking too good now – not that it ever did.

4. CavaliersLeBron James (can‘t talk Cavs without starting the sentence with his name), in each of his three seasons has improved greatly. He’s gone from good to great to arguably the best player in the NBA, and at 21, he most likely isn’t a finished product yet. He might not get past Detroit working out in a pool or playing pickup games with the old man and pretty boy versions of himself, but with a healthy Larry Hughes (hand), Zydrunas Illgauskas and Drew Gooden, who should have a bounce-back season, he should lead his team to the fourth seed.

5. HeatTalented, but some of their key players are nearing the twilight of their careers, most notably (and importantly) Shaquille O’Neal. Shaq, who turns 35 during the season, has been on the decline for three years and it’s reflected in his production and minutes. No longer can he be counted on to shoulder the load on offense, and the big games will be fewer and farther between. Dwyane Wade will have carry them. However, they do play tough defense, rebound well and have quality depth along with a great coach.

6. WizardsUnder Eddie Jordan, a former Nets assistant, they use a run ‘n shoot offense similar to New Jersey. The difference is that the Wizards are more perimeter-oriented. And because the team relies so heavily on the jump shot – from Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison – they will be inconsistent. Also, the team considers defense the period of dormancy during which they wait to get the ball back. Although they shoot well from the field, the Wizards allow opponents to shoot 46.5 percent and 36 percent from 3-point range.

7. KnicksFew teams, if any, have as much offensive firepower. The Knicks have six players capable of scoring over 15 points per game. However, they lack defensive talent (and effort, in some cases), are undersized in the backcourt, don’t have a consistent shooter or a dominant rebounder and might turn the ball over more often than they did last season. But Isiah Thomas’ system will take advantage of the talent on offense, Eddy Curry will “man up” some, and they’ll outscore enough opponents to finish around .500. Plus it’s the Eastern Conference, where mediocre means “good enough.”

8. MagicThey aren’t a high-scoring team and Jameer Nelson, whose strength is not ball distribution, is unproven as a starter, but Dwight Howard might be one of the three best centers in the league. The 21-year-old is already one of the top rebounders (led the NBA in total rebounds) and is quickly developing a low-post game. Grant Hill, for as many games as he can play, and Hedo Turkoglu will be scorers on the wing. Also, youngsters Trevor Ariza, Darko Milicic and J.J. Redick will contribute off the bench.

Western Conference1. Mavericks

They were the best team in the NBA last year – though they have nothing to show for it – having improved defensively and found secondary (Jason Terry) and tertiary (Josh Howard) scorers to compliment Dirk Nowitzki. DeSagana Diop also emerged late in the season and during the playoffs as a rebounder and shot-blocker, giving them an inside toughness they’ve lacked. After watching his team choke a way a championship, Avery Johnson will have his foot on the throttle. And they’ll play hard, if for no other reason than to avoid hearing the coach’s banshee-like screaming.

2. SpursThe best defensive team in the league (although Memphis held opponents to 0.3 fewer points per game), they didn’t add many players, but they will have Tim Duncan (plantar fasciitis) and Manu Ginobili (various leg injuries) back healthy. With Duncan dominating the paint, if Tony Parker is as proficient at slashing to the basket as he was last season, they could be one of the higher scoring teams. That in addition to the defense will make them title contenders again.

3. SunsPhoenix was the best offensive team (scoring and field goal percentage) in 2005, and they did it with Amare Stoudemire (26 points per game) on the bench in button-down shirts and Joe Johnson (20.2) in a Hawks uniform. Boris Diaw and Raja Bell emerged as scorers while Shawn Marion and Steve Nash had their best seasons. This year, Stoudemire is back. After having undergone microfracture knee surgery, he may no longer be “The Dunk Monster,” but he is still athletic and skilled enough to be a threat in the post. Their weakness, as it was a year ago, is defense (ranked 28th) and rebounding.

4. NuggetsAll the team is lacks is consistent outside shooting and a low-post banger. Carmelo Anthony, after a tumultuous sophomore season (marijuana arrest, an alleged saliva-sparked scuffle and a “Stop Snitching” DVD), had his breakout last year, averaging over 26 points. Andre Miller is one of the better assist men in the NBA, Kenyon Martin, when healthy, gives them a fiery and athletic defender at power forward and the ever-injured Marcus Camby seems to have found panacea in the Denver water.

5. ClippersAfter winning 47 games and taking the fifth seed last season, they’re no longer the punch line of jokes. Elton Brand, though undersized for his position, has become even more of a scorer in the paint and Cuttino Mobley gives them a mid-range game. Sam Cassell, who provides leadership and a consistent jumper, and Chris Kaman (12 points, 9 rebounds) give the Clippers the two of the scariest faces in professional sports. Tim Thomas will be a scorer off the bench and if Corey Maggette can return to form, he’s another guard capable of putting up 20 points. They were ranked 11th defensively last season.

6. GrizzliesMemphis was statistically the best shut-down defense in the league and this year, they should be more potent offensively. The return of Damon Stoudamire (knee) gives them veteran leadership at point guard, Mike Miller is one of the best 3-point sharpshooters in the league and when at full strength, their frontcourt of Pau Gasol (foot), Rudy Gay (8th pick in the draft), Stromile Swift and Hakim Warrick is one of the most athletic.

7. RocketsLast season, though battling foot injuries, Yao Ming took that step from “good” to “very good,” asserting himself more in the post and averaging over 20 points and 10 rebounds for the first time. If he can continue to play at that level and Tracy McGrady’s back holds up (and he stops settling for 20-foot fadeaways), the two could be the most dynamic duo in the NBA. Their supporting cast hasn’t improved much though. Shane Battier, whom Houston traded Rudy Gay for (why?), will give them solid defense at the small forward, but he is limited offensively. They were the fourth best defensive team a year ago, but they continue to lack the scoring (second worst) needed to elevate themselves amongst the top teams.

8. LakersThey’ll once again be the Los Angeles Kobes, but Bryant, wearing No. 24 this season, will get more help from his teammates. Lamar Odom’s scoring should improve, the super-talented 19-year-old Andrew Bynum has supplanted Kwame Brown at center (what was worse, Michael Jordan’s decision to draft Brown first overall or his acting in Space Jam?), and on the bench, Ronny Turiaf, Vladimir Radmanovic and Chris Mihm will add solid depth. Phil Jackson’s hip replacement will have no bearing on the season. He’ll still be able to waddle up the sidelines with pomposity, whistle to his players and yell, “Stop being selfish…give the damn ball to be Kobe!”

The Jets Suck; It’s Clemens’ Times

The big issue surrounding the Jets now is when, or whether, Kellen Clemens will take over for the struggling Chad Pennington.

Pennington has thrown 21 interceptions in his last 18 games, but the coaching staff has been patient, so Jets fans shouldn’t expect to see Clemens unless the team is completely and incontrovertibly out of it at the bye week.

At 1-6, they’re just about done. If you play the “Win, Loss, Win” game, the outlook might be: Bills (W), Redskins (L), which would put them at 2-7 entering their week off. Realistic hopes of a division title are gone – the Patriots are the Patriots – and with seven losses in the AFC, the team would probably be out of wild card contention. At that point, the pressure from the fans would be great and Eric Mangini would have no reason or excuse to not make the quarterback switch. Plus, the bye would give them two weeks to prepare Clemens, and the second-year signal-caller would get seven-game audition.

Although Mangini said on Wednesday that Pennington would start against the Bills, the coach’s previously obstinate support of Pennington wavered somewhat after last week’s loss to the Bengals, and the quarterback is now most likely on a short leash (ESPN jumped the gun on that one, too, last week).

Pennington is 31, has been a starter for five seasons and is familiar with the league, and his arm isn’t getting any stronger. At this point, it’s safe to say that he is what he is.

The youngster will have his struggles, but he should be able to attack the intermediate range and hit some completions downfield to Laveranues Coles and Jerricho Cotchery. Clemens will probably throw more interceptions than Pennington, but he’ll also get the team into the end zone more often.

The job should have probably been given to Clemens to start the season, but the Jets went 10-6 in 2006, and that bought Pennington a commitment from the coaching staff.

But the team wasn’t that good last season, either. Going into 2006, if someone had told you that the quarterback would have three more turnovers than touchdowns (16 INTs and four fumbles lost), the leading rusher would have 650 yards, they’d start rookies at center and left tackle, the offense would rank 25th and the defense would rank 20th overall (16th in turnovers forced), you’d probably be thinking it sounds like the recipe of 6-win team, or worse. Even with the easy schedule, that record with those stats was an anomaly. And it might have set the Jets back a season.

Fuck Joe Torre

With his spurning of the Yankees’ contract offer, Joe Torre has tarnished his previously pristine imagine.

Only in American sports would a potential two-year, $16 million deal be deemed unfair and scoffed at. In fact, only in the Yankee realm would a manager be offered an incentive-laden contract that would allow him to pocket $5 million even if the team fell on its face. The proposed contract stipulated that if the Yankees made the playoffs, Torre would get an extra million, and an additional million for each round the team advanced.

Lou Piniella, the league’s second-highest paid manager, made $3.5 million last season, and 22 managers make less than $2 million per year. Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who has had comparable success to Torre, will make $4.2 million this season. His job requires longer work hours and more strategy than Torre’s, and he coaches in a league with a restrictive salary cap that would kibosh any hope of a $200 million team payroll.

Torre was paid $7.5 million to squeeze into a uniform, make out a lineup card, watch baseball for three hours while sipping Bigelow green tea, make pitching changes when it was obvious the pitcher needed to be changed, and play nice with the media afterwards. The hardest part of his job was avoiding boredom during the 162-game season.

But the Yankees front office, the ol’ Evil Empire, was rancorous in its dealings with Gentleman Joe. How cruel of them to have offered him a one-year deal that would have made him the highest paid skipper in the majors. After falling short of the organization’s goal – a championship – for seven years, including three consecutive first round exits, it would be unrealistic and unfair to expect the Yankees to maintain status quo.

Whether or not the Yankees’ offer was perfunctory or done as a PR move, it was an offer that Torre should have accepted, and would have, if he didn’t consider a $5 million deal insulting. He felt that he was above being on the managerial hot seat; above a possible pay cut. He took it as a big enough insult that he walked away from his dream job.

Torre also played the “Upper Hand” game on his way out. In the 10 days between Steinbrenner’s edict and the Tampa meetings, Torre could’ve opted to retire or leave – his contract was up, after all. He didn’t, because he wanted the Yankees to (a) kick him to the curb, which would elicit the sympathy of the fans, most of whom consider him a deity, and have them unleash their anger on the front office, or (b) come to him humbled and make an offer that he could refuse. In either scenario, he would walk away with upper hand and the support of the fans.

It has and will continue to be said amongst fans: “Well, of course he walked away. He values dignity over money. And after George came out and disrespected him like that, no amount of money was going to bring him back.”

The Yankees may have played the PR game, but Torre played it even better. But he smeared his once-spotless veneer in the process.

On Saturday, Hank Steinbrenner defended the front office and its decision:

“Where was Joe’s career in ’95 when my dad hired him?”
“Let’s not forget what my dad did in giving him that opportunity — and the great team he was handed.”

“You can’t take credit for success when you’re going good, and then not take at least some of the blame when things change.”

Word up. Torre got credit for skippering a team that had the highest payroll in the sport for every season that he was at the helm. He got credit for the four World Series titles. So why doesn’t he get some of the blame for the seven consecutive failed seasons, four of which ended in embarassing first round ass-kickings?

“You don’t make an offer bluffing. What if he says yes?” Steinbrenner added.

That was a good response to the people saying the offer was just a perfunctory “save face” move. Even if it was, that’s a great fire-back. And if it was, it’d have been like calling someone you don’t want to talk to. You hope to get the voicemail, but you know they could pick up and you’re stuck in a shitty conversation. And in this case, they’d have been stuck with a manager they didn’t want. Not a smart business move. Why risk bringing back a guy they don’t want, making him the highest-paid manager in the league (still) and, if the incentives were met, have him for another two years at $16 million? Just to look like nice guys? If you dislike a mother fucker that much, you don’t want that scenario being a possibility.

If I were Hank, I’d have gotten at Joe even more. I’d have pointed out specific instances where his mistakes cost the team — and there were a lot — and aired his arrogant ass out. These people worry about perception and the reaction from the public (most of whom make judgment based on who they like) too much.

Marvin Lewis

Marvin Lewis needs to shut the fuck up. Please. Every week after a loss, he talks about the selfishness of certain players and other impertinent bullshit. Some of his players might be selfish, but is that the reason his defense can’t stop anyone? I just watched Laveranues Coles break a tackle then run between two defenders for a long touchdown. When the team loses and he makes a statement like that, people (much of the media and clueless finger-pointing fans) automatically think, “Chad Johnson is tearing the team apart with his antics.” I disagree with that. And even if his 5-second post-TD slapstick or his whining on the sidelines does have an effect on the offense (not sure how it would, because he and Houshmanzadeh are on a record pace), what does it do to the defense? The defense has been shit since shit was being shat. Even when they went 11-5, that team was carried by the offense. Marvin doesn’t take any blame for that. And I mean, it’s not as if the police are being a distraction. I don’t think any Bengal has been arrested through 6 weeks. Most or all of their recent 1st round picks have been spent on defense. Has any of them paid off?

Can’t knock what he did with the Ravens, but I’ve lost a lot of respect for him this season. Blame-deflecting, red herring-pushing bitch.

Giants Made A Good Diehl

Last spring, in a somewhat surprising move, newly-appointed general manager Jerry Reese released Luke Petitgout, who was due to make $5 million this season. In July, Reese, who has adopted a young-&-healthier aphorism, explained the decision and zinged the former left tackle.

“People are so worried about left tackle… I think that’s so overrated,” said the irritated GM about Petitgout, who gave up 4 ½ sacks in nine games last year before his season was ended with a broken leg. “People act like Petitgout was the second coming. He never made the Pro Bowl, and I don’t think he ever was a first alternate. Now all of a sudden he’s the savior? That’s ridiculous. I don’t think we’re that bad off without [him]. He was not a star left tackle. He was a solid left tackle on some occasions and other times he wasn’t. Luke has been a marginal player for a long time.”

Although Reese made a prudent decision especially since Petitgout is lost for the year again he underrated the former first round pick. The penalty-prone Petitgout was never more than a solid pass-blocker (he gave up six sacks in 15 games in 2005), but he was one of the top run blockers at the position. In 2005 and a truncated 2006, he was ranked as the 7th best run blocker at left tackle in the NFL. Think of how many of Tiki Barber’s long scampers went to the left side.

But more surprising that Petitgout’s release was Reese’s negligence to sign or draft a replacement. Instead, he left the roster with question marks in raw second-year tackle Guy Whimper, whom he had campaigned for in the fifth round in 2006, and David Diehl, who was developing into a top right guard.

It was Diehl, the four-year veteran, who got the job and held it with an impressive-enough showing in training camp.

Left tackle would be the fourth offensive line position that Diehl had played, but what worried fans was the fact that he had never protected a quarterback’s blindside before, and he struggled at right tackle in 2004. Diehl, who looked slow out of his stance, gave up nine sacks and committed 10 penalties that season. So, regardless of the confidence he and the coaching staff had in him, it was a risky move, especially for Eli Manning.

But through five games, Diehl has disproved the doubters and proved Reese right. He has given up just one sack and the Giants backs are averaging 4.92 yards per carry running behind him good for eighth in the league. Not bad for a 27-year-old who hasn’t missed a game and is under a 5-year, $14 million contract. Younger, healthier, cheaper and possibly better.

I spoke with Diehl about his switch to left tackle and the progress he has made.

On how the transition to left tackle is going:

The more you practice, the better you feel. I’m definitely feeling much more comfortable out there. You always strive to improve and become a better player, and that’s what I’m doing. I’m taking each week and each game to learn and to improve because all of the guys on the field are depending on me, and I understand that.

The biggest difference between guard and tackle:

Just in pass protection, you’re working in a lot more space. At guard you can be a lot more aggressive because things happen so much quicker, but at tackle you have to be a lot more patient. You’re playing up against a defensive end, you want to be aggressive but you can’t be overaggressive because usually you’re out there by yourself and you have to be patient and put yourself in the right position.

How different is the pass-blocking technique at tackle:

They’re a lot different. You’re kicking vertical and trying to beat the defensive end to a point. It’s a lot different than it is at guard just because you can set flat at guard and get away it, but if you set flat on a defensive end, you’re giving him a short corner.

A review of his performance thus far:

I feel comfortable. The more work I get the better I feel. But I’m never going to be satisfied with the game. I’ll learn from it and I’m definitely going to see if there are things I can do differently to improve myself. It’s great to be in game situations where you’re not thinking, you just go out there and react. That’s the best thing about it.

Going against Osi Umenyiora in practice:

It’s extremely beneficial. To be able to play up against a guy like that day in and day out, it’s extremely helpful to me because if you’re preparing against a Pro Bowl type of player who’s got an extremely fast first step and an extreme burst off the ball, that can only help you. So for the development of me, it’s great to be able to play against a guy like that.

Cheater!

With last week’s revelation of the Patriots using video cameras to spy on opposing coaches during games, Bill Belichick now has more in common with Barry Bonds than initials and a surly attitude.

Bonds, who averaged 33 homers, had a .410 on-base percentage, 471 stolen bases, three MVP and eight Gold Glove awards through the first 15 years of his career, before the steroid allegations arose, was already en route to the Hall of Fame. Belichick, with his brilliant game-planning, immaculate draft record and innovative schemes, was regarded as a coaching genius, and his .704 winning percentage with the Patriots and three Super Bowl titles reinforced that. The Pats, for a while, were the de facto “America’s Team” with Tom Brady its golden boy and Belichick the sagacious sensei. But like Bonds, Belichick has besmirched his own legacy.

And like Bonds, whose rapid muscle growth, subsequent power surge and links to BALCO, have cast a cloud of cynicism over his records, Belichick’s espionage tactics should cost him as much. Take nothing away from his abilities, and don’t doubt how astute a strategist he is, but we should question how much cheating has padded his stats and bolstered his reputation.

Using such a clandestine scheme to steal signals is as much, if not more of a performance-enhancer in football than steroids are in baseball. Even a juiced-up batter must have enough of a discerning eye, coordination and impeccable timing to make perfect contact with a ball moving at 90 mph and changing direction. A steroid-using pitcher still requires precision to hit his spots and to control the movement of his breaking pitches. But in football, the gridiron chess match in which each play is carefully designed and strategy is paramount, knowing the opposition’s next move and being able to gear up for it is a tremendous advantage. The quick slant can be thwarted by a zone blitz; the square-in route can beat the Cover 2 defense. It’s simply a matter of knowing when to use what.

And the Patriots certainly have the talent to execute, which makes it more of a crime and reflects poorly on the so-called genius’ judgment. New England, which has arguably the most stacked roster in the NFL, was taking on a Jets team with an ill-fitting 3-4 defense that ranked 29th against the run and an offense with a deteriorated line. With such an advantage in skill and coaching, it was a stupid risk to cheat. Not to mention, Jets coach Eric Mangini was Belichick’s assistant less than two years ago. If the cheating had been going on for years, as many in the league suspect, Mangini would have known about it. Why then would Belichick, who has given his former protégé the cold shoulder since he took the Jets job, not think that his plan could easily backfire?

“Although it remains a league matter, I want to apologize to everyone who has been affected, most of all ownership, staff and players,” Belichick said last week.

That’s an admission of guilt, and given the precedence that Commissioner Roger Goodell has set with his iron-fisted castigation of players, the NFL was too lenient on the Patriots. Belichick will earn $4.2 million this season, so a $500,000 fine isn’t enough of a financial sting. The Patriots franchise is worth an estimated $1.4 billion (third wealthiest in the league), so $250,000 from them is like scooping a pint of water from the Atlantic Ocean.

Videogate is as much of a blow to the league’s image as players’ police records. So Belichick should have been fined $1.5 million, the organization $5 million, and the team made to forfeit the week one victory and be stripped of its first two picks in next April’s draft. That, like the lengthy suspensions of Pacman Jones, Michael Vick and Chris Henry, would send a message to the rest of the league that those shenanigans will not be tolerated. The cheaters have already prospered, so it’s only right that they suffer callous consequences.

Capt’n Eli Needs To Step Up

Heading into training camp, Eli Manning has a lot to prove. He deemed himself the team leader earlier this month and said that his squad has enough weapons to do without Tiki Barber, who accounted for almost 41 percent of the offense’s total yards. So now the quarterback must prove it.

“I’m ready to step up,” Manning said. “Leadership is something you earn from your teammates, and I think I’ve earned that. We’ve won enough games and had big comeback wins. [Teammates] know the way I prepare and how I go about my business. I’ve earned the respect.”

Such a bold quote from the typically demure Manning was a great sound byte for reporters, and an almost dulcet tune to the ears of most fans. But as his head coach said on the first day of mini-camp, “talk is cheap.”

Manning said what he did to a group of reporters and rapt onlookers in Grand Central terminal — he was there on July 11 for an HSBC-sponsored charity put-off — but there’s a difference between saying it there and saying it in the locker room; a big difference between telling the public what it wants to hear and telling his teammates what he needs them to believe.

And he’s got some convincing to do.

“I’m thinking of winning right now,” said Michael Strahan, who turns 36 in November. “They say Eli is going to mature. Well, I need him to mature now.”

Last month, Jerry Reese described Manning’s infamous pose of dejection as “that hangdog look” and said that it needs to change.

The self-proclaimed honcho had no response to those comments. Instead, he pooh-poohed the loss of Barber — who was a leader on the field and a heard voice in the locker room — and lauded his young garrison. He said they’ve got enough weapons to compensate, and they do.

In mini-camp Manning worked mostly with fledglings Sinorice Moss and Michael Jennings because Amani Toomer and Plaxico Burress, both recovering from off-season surgery, couldn’t participate.

“It was a big opportunity for me and [Moss] to get on the same page, timing-wise,” said Manning, who hooked up with the receiver just five times in 2006. “I’ve had three years with Amani and Plaxico, so we understand each other’s body motion. But the young guys got a chance to learn on the move.

“Sinorice has great quickness. He’s good off the ball, has great speed and can make the play downfield. He’s also great after the catch.”

He also described rookie receiver Steve Smith, who ran with the second team in mini-camp, as “a real smooth route-runner.”

The running game should be good enough, too. By all accounts, Brandon Jacobs is capable and poised for a breakout season, and Reuben Droughns is solid.

And even seventh rounder Ahmad Bradshaw drew the quarterback’s adulation: “He catches the ball effortlessly, and he’s quick at making adjustments and reading me,” said Manning of Bradshaw, who consistently burned Gerris Wilkinson in one-on-one pass drills. “I tell him something and he doesn’t forget, he executes it every time after that. I think he’s going to be a real good third down back.”

Add that crop to Burress, Toomer and Jeremy Shockey and the Giants could potentially be a dominant offense; at least more efficient than they have been. There are questions at left tackle, but Manning has enough talent around him to make most quarterbacks jealous. And he says he’s comfortable with Kevin Gilbride’s play-calling. According to him, the playbook hasn’t been altered much because “a lot of what we did before was based on [Gilbride’s] philosophy,” so he’s familiar with the system and doesn’t have to digest a whole lot in a short period.

He knows what his problems are physically, and he’s worked with quarterbacks coach Chris Palmer on improving his footwork and overall mechanics. Palmer paid close attention to him during drills, making sure he followed through properly, releasing high and finishing with his right hand by his left hip. And Manning said that he spent the off-season trying to get better at throwing on the move.

He looked good in drills, nailing the targets (his accuracy was second only to Anthony Wright’s), but he struggled in scrimmages. He didn’t complete enough of his passes, forced open receivers to make adjustments on the ones he did complete, and he threw six interceptions – it should’ve been eight because Gibril Wilson and Sam Madison dropped would’ve-been picks.

Shockey chided him during one of the scrimmages, yelling, “This is [bleeping] mini-camp. You’re not supposed to miss those!” Manning didn’t respond with words or his play.

If he is the leader — if he wants to be — he’ll have to. He’ll need to have more command of his offensive players. He isn’t a vocal leader, and he won’t suddenly become one. If he tries, the people who know him will see right through it. In the locker room, he sits in the back corner and keeps to himself. Believe it or not, he’s even more quiet and reserved than people say he is. Jared Lorenzen and Burress, whose locker is next to his, are the only teammates who converse with him regularly. Nobody would buy that guy transforming into “Randy Ra-Ra” or “Harry Hardass” overnight.

He’ll have to lead by example, and through his play, inspire confidence in his teammates. He doesn’t have to be more vivacious or charismatic, just more accurate, more consistent and more reliable. His offense will trust him; and from trust grows respect and admiration. There’s a difference between being in a position of leadership (as the signal-caller, he already is), and being the de facto captain. The latter is what he wants.

And it starts with training camp.

Manning is in his fourth season, and there are no more excuses. The honeymoon is over and this marriage (with all the Giants gave up to acquire him, it’s a long-term commitment) is in its honey-do stage. He needs to do well from the outset and show everyone that this season will be different. With his play, get everyone to believe that his fundamentals aren’t as flawed, that there won’t be another second-half swoon, that he not only realized what he’s done wrong, but has found ways to correct it.

After talking the talk in a red Polo shirt, he must walk the walk in a red practice jersey to convince the team, the fans and himself that anything has changed. Otherwise, he’ll be making the same comments in response to the same questions this time next year.

Akon Auditioning For WWE

Well, this man obviously doesn’t like being embraced by the mainstream. First he got in trouble for dry-humping a 15-year-old preacher’s daughter on stage at a concert in April. Granted, it was an 18+ club that she sneaked into so he assumed she was legal. But this time, he’s body-press tossing what looks to be a skinny teenager off stage. Granted, the kid threw something at him during the performance, but he overreacted. Akon asked the audience to point out the perpetrator then had his security guards grab him. As the young’n was hauled to the stage, the singer removed his chain and shirt – and the ladies screamed and swooned – then went Brock Lesnar on the kid. A simple punch to the gut would’ve sufficed (in my book), but he picked him up and hurled him into the crowd. Expect a lawsuit to be filed by the punk and some of the people he might’ve landed on.

Stupid, stupid move. You don’t heave a whiteboy off stage at a concert and not suffer the repercussions. Different story if there’d been a mosh pit around. But there wasn’t. And Verizon, whom Akon had signed on to do VCast commercials for, can’t be too happy about this.

Allison Stokke Collage

We (you and I) don’t care about high school poll vaulting, but we all like cute 18-year-old girls, and that’s the purpose of this post and the new “For the Pervs” category. I put “18″ in bold so the soapboxers (and middled-aged mothers in Iowa) can’t wave the finger at us.

Allison Stokke, as I’m sure most of you already know, is a high school poll vaulting star from Newport Beach, Calif. whose popularity has risen immensely in recent months – like the penises of males in the 14 to 65 demographic who Google her name at 2 0′clock in the morning. And I’m guessing there’s a connection. And there’s no Kournikova in her game: she won a state title in 2004, has broken five records and earned a scholarship to the University of California. So, of course, men have been stalking her online and her MySpace - now set to private – was bombarded with, we assume, dirty comments and requests. It’s gotten to the point where her father thinks she’s being stalked and Allison has begun searching for media consultants.

BDSB won’t stalk her, but I’ll give you this:

I’d just like to add that if you get an erection from these pictures, you’re a sicko. Or you don’t know any good porn sites.

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