I tell you, it's not easy living in the New York area and having to wake up every morning with the burden of oppressing the suburbs of the country. I feel very, very bad that the Yankees got Jason Giambi, the best hitter in the American League over the last two years, and are therefore likely to beat the crap out of everyone else next season, but not nearly so bad as George Vecsey and other New York Times columnists want me to feel. George Steinbrenner made an estimated $120 million in post-season revenue; given the existing basic agreement with the players, what was he supposed to do with it, sit on it and thus risk charges of collusion (which, by the way, the owners are skirting dangerously close to)? The Yankees did what a team is supposed to do that just lost two players to retirement (Paul O'Neill and Scott Brosius) and were about to lose two more to age (Tino Martinez) and incompetence (Chuck Knoblauch): They went out and replaced them with better, younger players. What exactly were they supposed to do, replace them with older, inferior players? The Yankees haven't signed a free agent slugger since Dave Winfield in 1981, and were nearly shut down in the 2001 post-season; is it OK if they sign at least one superstar every quarter-century?
Yes, I feel bad for the rest of the country, but next October, as I'm reclining in my press box seat waiting for Jennifer Lopez to jump up and wiggle in ecstasy, I will realize that there are compensations.
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As Muhammad Ali in Michael Mann's new film, "Ali," Will Smith gives off an infectious rhythm. Pumped up for the role -- there's at least 20 pounds of new muscle in that upper body, and all the muscles are long and smooth like Ali's when he was in his prime -- Smith is given a new set of cheekbones and does a more than passable imitation of Ali's unorthodox boxing techniques. He doesn't really look like Ali -- who possibly could? -- but, like Anthony Hopkins playing Nixon, he's able to suggest a creature of Ali's stature without coming off as an impressionist, which is the important thing. This is no star turn for Smith; the role is much too intimidating for that. His performance is respectful and never really showoffey, which is actually a shame because the person he was playing was perhaps the greatest natural showoff of our time. Smith is more than just good in the role, which is fortunate as he was probably the only man on earth who could have played it. The only thing he really lacks in the part, and this is equally true of the movie as a whole, is a sense of surprise and spontaneity, which hung around nearly everything Muhammad Ali ever did or said.
I don't know that Muhammad Ali really changed the world all that much, at least directly, but he certainly changed the way a lot of people looked at some things in that world. "Ali" is well written (by Erik Roth, Mann's screenwriter for "The Insider") and covers most of the major events between Ali's -- that is, Cassius Clay's -- spectacular upset defeat of Sonny Liston in 1964 and his equally spectacular upset defeat of George Foreman in Zaire in 1974, with his joining the Black Muslims and opposition to the war in Vietnam in between. There's also a great deal of dramatic fill-in that goes a long way toward suggesting, if not altogether illuminating, the inner man and his motives. What's missing from Mann's careful re-creation of these events is the true sense of surprise and outrage that Ali caused in the '60s and '70s. Are we too close to him in time or too far away to fully appreciate his impact? I wanted to like "Ali" even more than I did, so I'm going to suggest the former and hope that the film gets better the more we reflect on it. I'm also going to go back and see it with some teenagers in my family.
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After giving Notre Dame a truly satisfying print-lashing last season, I'm now going to say something about its critics in the aftermath of the George O'Leary farce. First of all, this talk of how Notre Dame has "disgraced" itself during the last few months is asinine. All Notre Dame did was get fooled by a con artist who padded his résumé no more than the average sports columnist has done in his time (Salon, of course, not being average in any way). So they got fooled for being trusting; is that a crime? If it's a crime for Notre Dame, why not a worse crime for Georgia Tech, where O'Leary actually coached for several years without anyone thinking to check his résumé? Is Georgia Tech any less worthy as an institution than Notre Dame?
Sillier than those charges, though, are the ones being lobbed at Notre Dame for its treatment of former coach Bob Davie. For instance, the charges raised by USA Today guest columnist Ian O'Connor, who suggested that N.D. athletic director Kevin White should be fired for granting Davie a five-year extension, threatening Davie's job three games into that extension, then firing him. First of all, White is far from the only person who makes those decisions at Notre Dame, and everyone knows it. Second, contract extensions are what every coach asks for and expects after what he regards as a successful season; you either agree with the coach's evaluation of his performance or you fire him. As for threats of firing, that's what you ought to get after making a public show of how you've turned the program around and then losing your first three games of the season. I'm really sick of hearing pious eulogies for coaches like Bob Davie and legendary bad coach Gerry Faust because they "graduated players and obeyed the rules." It's the university's job to see that rules are obeyed and players graduate; it's the coaches' job to win football games, and Davie and Faust just weren't very good at that. Happy holidays.