- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 23, 2001

It's one thing for Sandy Koufax to beg off pitching on Yom Kippur, like he did during the '65 World Series. But what are we to make of Mario Lemieux's scaled-back schedule for the coming NHL season? Is this the start of a new trend in sports? Will an NFL star soon be negotiating a contract that lets him skip preseason games and any scrums at Veteran Stadium? How far do you suppose the players can push this?

In case you missed it, Super Mario said the other day that he didn't envision any situation in which he would play two nights in a row in '01-'02. Since the Penguins play back-to-back 17 times this season, Lemieux's pronouncement means he will miss more than 20 percent of his team's games. Not surprisingly, all but one of these Mario-less games will be on the road.

"I've got to do what's best for myself and [the] team and fans here," he explained. "If I go to Nashville and get injured and can't play here the next night before the people who support us, it's not very smart."

Funny he should mention Nashville. That's one of the back-to-backers he plans to blow off (on Nov. 23, so he can be primed for a Nov. 24 date with New Jersey at Mellon Arena). The poor fans in Music City have yet to see Mario in action. Maybe the following season, eh?

Washington is also being deprived of No. 66. He'll sit out both games at MCI Center this season the Dec. 11 battle (the day before the Penguins play Boston) and the Dec. 22 clash (the day after the Pens meet the Caps at home). So you can forget about seeing Lemieux and old friend Jaromir Jagr square off until the playoffs, that is. Mario thinks it's more important to get his beauty rest.

And at his age (36), it probably is. Let's face it, Lemieux is hockey's most precious commodity, and you don't want to wear him out before the Real Games begin. Better to let him pick his spots during the regular season lest he be driven to premature retirement again.

I just find it amusing that sports has reached this point, that we actually have an athlete saying, "I'll play here but not there and I'm definitely not playing there." Think about it: In the space of six years, we've gone from Cal Ripken breaking Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record to this: Player's Choice.

The Detroit Tigers had an outfielder in the '50s and '60s named Charlie Maxwell who did wondrous things on Sundays. One such day, in a doubleheader against the Yankees, Charlie homered in four consecutive official at-bats, tying the major-league mark. But that was just the beginning. He went on to hit a homer on five of the next eight Sundays, each of them either tying the score or winning the game. Which makes me wonder: Would Charlie Maxwell, "the Sabbath Smasher," have made the Hall of Fame if he had told the Tigers, "I only want to play on Sunday"?

I'm reminded, too, of Ken Holtzman, a southpaw with the Cubs (and later the A's) about a decade later. In 1967, Holtzman was in the military and limited to pitching on weekends but what a season he had. In 12 appearances, all starts, he went 9-0 with three complete games and a 2.52 ERA. Which raises the question: Might Ken Holtzman have become one of the all-time greats if he insisted on working just on weekends?

See? This Lemieux situation opens up a whole can of worms. I mean, if a hockey player can sit out 20 percent of his club's games announcing it in advance, for goodness sakes who knows what can happen? Imagine opening the newspaper one morning and reading stories like these:

COLUMBUS, Ohio Jim Schoenfeld returned to the NHL coaching ranks yesterday when he was hired by the Blue Jackets. Schoenfeld's contract stipulates that he doesn't have to coach in any games refereed by "Doughnut" Don Koharski… .

CHICAGO Sammy Sosa has negotiated a groundbreaking deal with the Cubs that requires him to appear only in night games. Sosa is hitting .366 and slugging .840 under the lights this season. In the daytime, his numbers dip to .280 and .630 (through Tuesday and you can look it up)… .

LOS ANGELES To quell the growing feud between Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, the Lakers have agreed to let them play in alternate games. "We'll have Shaq for the odd-numbered ones and Kobe for the even-numbered ones," owner Jerry Buss said. "Arrangements for the playoffs are still being worked out." …

WASHINGTON Michael Westbrook and the Redskins are putting the finishing touches on a new pact. It's for half his previous salary but allows him to take off any eight weeks he wants… .

Ah, sports. Just when you're wondering if you've seen it all, something like this comes along to brighten your day.

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