Mercury RisingHank
One guy played the game. The other guy didn’t. One guy still works in the business; the other one doesn’t. They both still have the itch, the passion, the unceasing desire to stand in the spotlight and earn their laurel as winner. And so both of these men bravely spout declarations and pronouncements without the plague of having to stop and listen to their words. It’s understandable when you’re out of the limelight for a long time, and then one day you get a phone call from a reporter, which becomes two, than three, than throngs. A fair mix of blowhards and enablers called national sports media remains all too eager to hold out the tape recorder and focus the camera. Mercury Morris, Hank Steinbrenner, welcome to the Quotable Club!

A quick rehash. In case the rock you’ve been living under lacks ESPN, the New England Patriots survived a race to the bottom with the Baltimore Ravens on Monday night to improve their would-be-record record to twelve and no (losses,Pats Over Ravens mercy, way). The thought of an undefeated season is now a real possibility, and will be a real probability if the Patriots can handle Pittsburgh at home this week and then a road test at Giants Stadium to end the year. Here in Boston fans are giddy, almost as if the mayor announced free inbound T fares to Paradise, and while it’s certainly not a given that everyone is behind New England–most of the country is pretty damn tired of them, to tell the truth–you’d be hard-pressed to find someone that wasn’t intrigued at the chance that the Pats could do it.

Well, you wouldn’t be hard-pressed if you met Mercury Morris. Tuesday on “Sportscenter”, the popular, catch-phrase laden sitcom set at a sports television program, the running back for the undefeated 1972 Dolphins squad went off during an interview with reporter Josh Elliot. “Number 2 is all they (The Patriots) can get out of this whole deal, as the number one spot has already been taken.” He added, “On the any given Sunday rule, which is an exception in ’72, any given Sunday, any team can defeat anybody else.” When Elliot brought up a 19-0 season, two more wins than Miami’s 17-0, Morris shouted “Objection!” He was seemingly unaware that he had a microphone on, or else he was auditioning for Around The Horn. This isn’t the first time he’s sought out the microphones; after the Colts blew a 13-0 start to San Diego in 2005, Morris crowed “It’s like trying to describe to someone what it’s like to walk on the moon. It’s only a description. They’ll never know until they go.” Even this season, he appeared to be cutting a wrestling promo on a local news clip after the Pats’ hot start.

He’s a weird case. Morris was a 1,000 yard rusher on the undefeated team, and when injuries cut his career short he became an ardent, passionate crusader for players’ disability rights. He defends his legendary squad with an understandably similar amount of vigor. He’s a bit too defensive; when the NFL Network Mercury Bookintroduced its greatest teams of all-time program “America’s Game”, he wrote and recorded a rap called “Do U Wonder” in support of the ’72 Fins squad. Morris has no formal musical training. Morris has no informal musical training.

With the Patriots somewhat gleefully playing the role of the NFL’s villain this year, Morris’s dogged, fanatical Dolphin gospel actually makes the New England players appear as sympathetic heroes. He’s not alone in his vitriol; during last Monday’s game in Baltimore Tony Kornheiser admitted in-game guest Don Shula (coach of that ’72 squad) was “clapping his hands on my back” after a key Ravens touchdown. No one’s saying that the Miami representatives should turtle over and confess their team as less than what it was, the only unbeatens in modern history. However, it may be prudent for Morris to stop insulting the present-day competition while denying their famed “champagne toast” ritual. You don’t need to pop the bubbly to have bad taste.

The only man making louder and more baseless claims right now is one Hank Steinbrenner, combining the best of his father (last name) with the worst (grand bluster). As our own Willis has pointed out this week, there’s a left-handed pitcher named Santana CySantana on the market during the owners’ meetings in Tampa this week. The Yankees, after a season just like the last few, desperately need a shutdown number one starter; the last ace in his prime they boasted was, and you can look this up, Ron Guidry. That was around 1978. Since then successful Yankee teams have been patient at the plate and loaded with a lot of good to very-good #2 and #3 starters. Some of their aces have been a shade over the hill, and, to be fair, the young Andy Pettite had two or three very good years, but in three decades the Yankees have lacked a fear of God ace.

And, if not for Steinbrenner’s big yap, enter Santana. New York was the early front runner for the Twins’ all-everything and very-well still could be were it not for the Hank in carMiniboss’s desperation to make a big splash while new at the helm. Hank has done his share to dissuade Santana and his no-trade clause, from publicly discussing trade rumors to crowing in the press about a trade window deadline, to rescinding the deadline, to re-implementing the deadline a day later. The deal hinged on minor prospects including pitcher Ian Kennedy. As of this evening, the Yankees are out of the Santana sweepstakes, and moving in line to pay for the pitcher’s services are the defending champion Red Sox, poised to establish a new dynasty with this acquisition. Whoops! Yankee GM Brian Cashman seems to hold fast in not giving up more than prospect Phil Hughes and outfielder Melky Cabrera; Steinbrenner seems to hold fast in not giving up the back page of the New York Post.

Something will give this season in the Bronx. Cashman, for all of his brilliance, represents the Torre-era old guard, though in what will be some sort of bizarre time loop he may find an ally in new-guard manager Joe Girardi, who himself was a catcher for the old guard 90s dynasty. Joe GirardiGirardi already has a well-publicized beef with a meddling owner (the odious Jeffrey Loria), and was fired after the 2006 season, where he earned the NL Manager of the Year award as a rookie skipper. Girardi doesn’t need approval to get his job done; this won’t be a present day Big Stein – Bill Martin dysfunctional marriage. No, Girardi is entering a clubhouse virtually devoid of players in their prime; A-Rod is 31 but the other hitting stars are either older or younger than 26; he will impose his will fairly quickly, 2008 be damned.

Steinbrenner seems to have moved on to a new flame, young Oakland ace Dan Haren. According to Newsday, Hank’s already described a similar package as “ridiculous” for Haren, and stated he wouldn’t make a similar trade. Hank’s barking has already been shown to be toothless; he endeared himself to no one by lambasting Joe Torre on his way out, and the self-imposed deadlines and recriminations over the Alex Rodriguez opt-out were laughable and held all the fearsome sanctity of a pre-school teacher counting to three by putting a series of fractions after two. Doubtless A’s GM Billy Beane is thrilled by the prospect of negotiating with Steinbrenner while Cashman is forced to sit silently in his office playing minesweeper; Beane has made a career out of fleecing proud baseball men, and Hank’s the newest sucker born this minute.

Two men on the downside of the roller coaster. Both have tasted success, but success doesn’t always translate to relevance. And without relevance, old men have to sit quietly and wonder aloud, “Did this really happen? What will people think years from now?” And so they stand up and search out a listening ear. Hide your cameras.

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