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Silly season

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Maybe it is only what we should expect as we slog through the dog days of August, so named by the Romans because their hounds invariably got louder, more combative, and generally obnoxious during the steamiest month of the year.

Or maybe it's just that civility has been steadily ebbing away from the entire culture for at least a century. So why should the Kingdom of Sports be an exception?

Hey, it's for the sociologists to figure out the why's and wherefore's of such things. What remains clear is that nastiness lately abounds in the games we play, both on and off the fields. As temperatures rise to 105 in the shade in the ballparks and football camps of the midlands, tempers have little trouble keeping apace. Anger is the coin of the realm. The scene is rich with acrimony.

Take the brawl the Cardinals and Reds staged the other night. Now there's nothing new about ballplayers swarming around the field pushing and shoving one another while venting a cuss or two after one of the kiddies gets a close shave with a fast ball. But as Bill Lee, vagabond lefty and erstwhile Red Sox philosopher, famously observed, most bench-clearing baseball rumbles are about as violent as a pillow fight staged by giddy sophomores at an upscale prep school.

But not this one. It raged up and down the field. Everyone attached to both teams including trainers, ball boys, and travelling secretaries appeared to be involved. It was mayhem inspired by malice with all of it provoked by extraordinarily vicious comments by the Reds' peppery infielder Brandon Philips, gleefully printed in the local newspaper. These two teams profess to hate one another. A resumption of hostilities is widely anticipated when next they meet in September.

If endeavoring to punch out your opponent has always been approved conduct wasting your own teammate in the middle of a game was decidedly frowned upon the first century and a half baseball was played. Billy Martin, of course, once memorably tangled with Reggie Jackson, but that was Yankee ragtime and didn't count. You may further recall Manny Ramirez trying to waste Kevin Youkilis while endeavoring to get himself exiled two years ago but we naturally assumed that was just another of Manny's pet idiosyncrasies. Turns out Manny may have simply been ahead of the times because dugout fisticuffs are suddenly all the rage.

In a corker in Seattle, Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu duked it out with Chone Figgins, a high-priced free agent acquisition who has totally bombed. It mattered not how much Figgins might have deserved a thrashing. The fracas cost Wakamatsu his job, giving new meaning to the time-honored thesis that it's much easier to fire the manager. Similar mid-game dugout tantrums have embarrassed the White Sox, Marlins and Mets.

The scariest though was the Vesuvian dugout eruption of moody Cubs' hurler Carlos Zambrano who apparently can put the fear of God in the bravest of baseball men when he becomes unglued. While he hasn't quite come out and said so, Zambrano's epic meltdown was apparently the last straw for Lou Piniella, a legendarily unflappable baseball man who, like many before him, discovered Wrigley Field was his Waterloo. Lou, who in his time blithely endured three raucous runs with the Yankees when George Steinbrenner was at his utter zaniest, is calling it quits at the end of the season.

It's not only been baseball that has been stalked this long, hot summer by the sort of nasty stuff that ought not be allowed to enliven daily sports pages. The incredibly vulgar give and take of the Rick Pitino trial on rape charges might have humiliated college basketball had not that sordid enterprise long ago slipped beyond the reach of mere shame. Then, Lorenzen Wright, retired NBA basketball player, got himself murdered after being last seen -- according to his wife -- lumbering around with a brief case full of drugs. We long ago recognized the age of the Frank Merriwells and Chip Hiltons had passed, but may we still ask, ''Is there no end to this stuff?''

It's been relatively quiet so far, but these are no less nervous times at the NFL training camps. The Commissioner, seemingly determined to clean up his league, is poised to drop the hammer given the merest excuse. Those currently on probation include Steelers' glamour QB Ben Roethlisberger who hasn't completely beaten his second sexual misconduct rap. One more night on the town and Eagles' glamour QB Michael Vick will be back in the dog-house and should that happen the Commissioner will throw away the key. Then there are those loveable Cincinnati Bengals who may have more parolees on their roster than draft picks. Hey, it's a hard game.

The Feds are going after biker Lance Armstrong because they are convinced he won all those wonderful races on dope. The NCAA is going after USC's 2004 national championship because they have concluded Reggie Bush is a cheat. All of Argentina is going after fallen idol, Diego Maradona, because that's what sportsmen do in Argentina. And FIFA is thinking of divorcing itself from the World Cup. That'll be the day!

Dumbest caper has been the collected antics of Rex Ryan, loudmouth coach of the New York Jets. In his relentless campaign to talk his team to the heights, Ryan allowed his huge ego to run amuck on an HBO pre-season show that gleefully featured him spewing profanity laden tirades that shocked even his own mother, who scolded him publicly. Do you think Bill Belichick is aching to take this clown to the cleaners? Tune in the second week of the regular season.

But my pick for the silly season's very goofiest sporting feud is the heated confrontation of Corey Pavin, Ryder Cup Captain, and Jim Gray, self-professed investigative sports reporter-extraordinaire who currently works for the Golf Channel. Gray quoted Pavin as saying Tiger Woods was a lock for the 10-man, U.S Ryder team. Pavin denies he said it, noting the squad won't be picked until next month.

On the surface it's no big deal. People quibble about who said what all the time in sports. But Gray made a terrible mistake. He angrily encountered Pavin and accused him of lying and then said in front of witnesses, ''You're going down.'' For a reporter to threaten to use our precious media powers to ruin a jock purely out of revenge only lowers us to the level of the very worst of ''them''. In this particular contretemps, I choose to believe Pavin, whom I don't know, over Gray, because alas I do.

Which brings us to the grand prize; Booth's now annual "Dog Day of the Year Award".

It goes to Francisco Rodriguez, accomplished reliever of the deeply dysfunctional New York Mets, who punched out his common-law wife's 58 year-old father outside what is lovingly called "the family lounge" at the Mets nice new ball yard, Citi Field, after yet another painful Mets' loss.

Explanations of what precisely inspired this nightmare remain sketchy but the fact that K-Rod did a whale of a number on the grandfather of his two kids is beyond dispute. After smacking him a few times, according to witnesses, the 28-year-old pitcher rammed the old boy's head against a wall. Hey, you need to understand that the games are stressful. Cooling off ain't easy. K-Rod has sort of apologized although some regard his effort as limp.

Still, he'll probably be forgiven. Sympathy extends to the Mets who are having a frightful year. Their other premier and very high-priced pitcher -- the once estimable and much coveted Johan Santana -- has lately been nailed with a rape charge stemming from a messy incident on a Florida golf course last Fall and while the Law appears indifferent civil law suits of major-league proportions are brewing, nonetheless.

Ah, the adversity of it all. There is just no end to it.

It was Grantland Rice who once noted: "It matters not who won or lost but how you played the game."

What a silly fellow.

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