- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 4, 2001

NFL officials must be feeling awfully replaceable these days. The league locks them out, brings in substitute whistle-blowers and, wonder of wonders, the world goes on. There were no reported riots in the final week of the preseason, no controversial calls that determined the outcome of games. The "integrity of the game" didn't seem threatened at all.
(I love the "safety" issue the officials keep bringing up the idea that regular NFL zebras make the game safer for the players. They must be forgetting about the time referee Jeff Triplette nailed Cleveland offensive tackle Orlando Brown in the eye with a penalty flag, essentially ending his career.)
Anyway, this standoff between the NFL and its game officials got me thinking: What are the most replaceable things in sports? Which things have achieved a stature all out of proportion to their actual worth? (Besides sportswriters, that is.)
Here, in no particular order, is my Top 10:
1. First base coaches "Coaches are an integral part of any manager's team," Earl Weaver once said. "Especially if they're good pinochle players." That goes double for first base coaches. What do these guys do, exactly, other than pat fannies, tell the base runner to "Get back" every now and then and help retrieve the ball after some player gets his first major league hit? Anybody could be a first base coach. In fact, I keep waiting for some team, as a promotion, to pick a fan's name out of a hat and let him (or her) be First Base Coach For A Night.
2. Agents With rookie contracts being "slotted" and players associations making all kinds of salary information available, a lot of the mystery has gone out of negotiating a deal. Just about any old agent will do nowadays. (That's why players are forever firing one and hiring another.)
3. Marching bands If you've heard one marching band, you've heard 'em all. They all play the same songs. They all sound the same. (If you were blindfolded and asked to identify the band playing a certain selection, you wouldn't have a prayer of coming up with the right answer.)
4. Blimps Goodyear blimp, Fuji blimp, MetLife blimp. Does it matter? They all give you an identical shot of Touchdown Jesus and the 17th hole at Pebble Beach.
5. Public address announcers I'm not entirely convinced that all P.A. announcers aren't the same person. (Except maybe for that yo-yo who worked the Redskins' games last season, the one who said, "Ravens fans suck.") OK, some P.A. guys are better than others Bob Sheppard, who does the Yankees and football Giants sounds like "the Voice of God," as Reggie Jackson put it. But you don't have to be Demosthenes to say, "Tackle by Taylor."
6. Mascots If you went down to a homeless shelter, asked one of the residents to put on a turtle outfit and had him cheer for Maryland on Saturday, would anyone notice that the regular mascot was missing?
7. Highlight shows It's gotten to the point where it's almost impossible to tell them apart. ESPN, ESPN News, Fox Sports, CNN, local stations (e.g. George Michael's Sports Machine on WRC-4) everybody has 'em now. When a game runs late on, say, ESPN, it's no big deal to switch to another channel for the daily sports roundup.
8. Pace car drivers Jay Leno drove the pace car at the Indianapolis 500 two years ago and again last month at the Brickyard 400. How many people with a valid license couldn't do that? (Sorry, no minivans allowed.)
9a. Game captains Who hasn't had the "distinction" of being a game captain at one time or other in his athletic career?
9b. Honorary captains.
10. All non-BCS bowl games It would be much more fun, I think, if they just had a blind draw to pair up the teams for these other games. You might get some interesting matchups in some interesting places such as Michigan and Tennessee in the Gallery Furniture Bowl or Boise State and Fresno State squaring off in the Cotton.
Some things aren't as replaceable as they seem, though such as caddies in golf. In 1999, after winning two majors the previous year, Mark O'Meara dumped his longtime bag handler, convinced he could find someone just as good for less money.
"The governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, makes $125,000," he explained smugly, "so I decided it was time for me to evaluate the situation."
O'Meara hasn't won a tournament since. Another couple of years like that, and he'll be replaceable.

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