Old adage: never, everTrifle with a columnist!

Aug 20, 2002 7:56 AM

It is 36 years ago this month that Lenny Bruce cashed in and then cashed out talking dirty intellectually. Since then a host of would-be imitators, trying to follow his road to notoriety but ill-equipped mentally to do so, have stumbled around trying, with foul mouths and little else.

The shock value of dirty talk may have worn off a trifle in the years since Lenny died naked and doped out, but it now has made multi millionairesses of the lithe and libertine ladies of Sex in the City, who get a million a show for spicing up the set with four-letter words.

Professional athletes, who use dirty talk as normal conversation on field and in locker rooms, frequently have trouble eliminating it in polite conversation, just as many.

Recently one of the highest paid and most successful of them ”” swinging Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs ”” got himself into trouble talking dirty, to the wrong man as it turned out.

Sosa, like Charles Barkley of basketball fame, has a problem with the notion that his skills with a round ball make him ”” like it or not ”” a role model. Unlike the dirty talking ladies of prime time, who are selling cinematic sex ”” always a thriving commodity ”” star athletes are a breed apart, placed on pedestals by kids, including aging and balding kids of all ages and all colors. The athletes are admired for their bulk and their batting and their battling, bruising play, and since kids revere them it still is a little jarring to hear their heroes using the language of the gutters.

Some weeks back, Sosa was being interviewed by Rick Reilly of Sports Illustrated, one of the masters of the writing trade. The subject of drugs came up, not surprising given the issue of steroids and other muscle builders and blood enhancers that are so prevalent in today’s sports world.

Things were progressing smoothly until Reilly said, "You’ve said that if baseball tests for steroids, you want to be first in line, right?" Sosa said yes. Then Reilly asked, "Well, why wait?"

Sosa said, "What?" And when Reilly asked, "Why wait to see what the players’ association will do? Why not step up right now and be tested, and show the fans that all these great numbers you’re putting up are real," Sosa went ballistic.

Reilly said the veins in Sosa’s neck started to bulge. Using the crudest, foulest epithet of the mean streets, Sosa told Reilly the interview was over. In an aside, Reilly advised young sportswriters to always make their steroid question the last question of their interviews.

Sosa’s biceps may have made him rich, but his instincts, if not his intellect, should have told him not to mess with Rick Reilly. Guys with big muscles should not mess with guys with big minds, particularly not with guys with big minds who have big national platforms like Reilly does with Sports Illustrated. Reilly chopped Sosa up and spit him out, in bold black type.

It was interesting, shortly after all this went on, to see a long feature on another, and different, athlete, a profile of Mike Piazza in the New York Times Sunday magazine. Piazza may or may not talk dirty in the Mets’ locker room, but he has the good sense to talk intellectually in interviews. In this one, he referred to major league celebrities, of which he obviously is one of the most affluent and successful, as "the new American centurions."

It may have been a bit far reaching for Piazza to invoke Roman history in talking about major league athletes of today, but it was an interesting case of introspection. I doubt many major leaguers think of themselves as centurions, or even know who they were, but I suppose there is a comparison at that. I imagine the centurions possessed more than a little of the imperious arrogance of some of the ball players of today.

It is unlikely that is what Mike Piazza meant, but after reading Rick Reilly’s account of his encounter with Sammy Sosa, I’ll settle for that interpretation.