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THE INSIDE TRACK | T.J. SIMERS

Chargers Suddenly Feel Very Bullish About Leaf

August 30, 2000|T.J. SIMERS

Ryan Leaf is a lot like our dog, Ralphie.

Neither one is probably going to be selected "best of show," but if you keep it simple and say the same thing over and over again, "Ralphie, go lie down," Ralphie will go lie down.

The Chargers believe they have accomplished the same thing, and this is what is so encouraging about Leaf--he can be a good boy too.

It took a while for the Chargers to understand this, because Bobby Beathard was in charge, and if Ralphie had been his dog, Ralphie would be in the pound right now.

But Beathard has retired, so the training of Leaf has been left to others, and if you immediately thought of the movie, "Bull Durham," so did they.

*

TRUE STORY: The Chargers called Leaf in this summer and discussed the movie with him, then asked him to learn his lines.

Leaf had seen the movie, so he didn't need to be told that Tim Robbins was playing him. After all, isn't Leaf the quintessential Nuke LaLoosh, the big, uncouth clod with the great, but wild arm?

The Chargers took Kevin Costner's part, because they always have fancied themselves as looking better than they really do, and became Crash Davis to their very own Nuke Leaf.

"You got a gift," Crash tells Nuke early in the movie. "When you were a baby, the gods reached down and turned your right arm into a thunderbolt. You've got a Hall of Fame arm, but you're [throwing] it away."

Leaf listened, and said with enthusiasm that he wanted to mend his reputation. Maybe he thought he'd get Susan Sarandon if all went well.

"You're going to have to learn your cliches," Crash tells Nuke. " . . . They're your friends: We've got to play 'em one game at a time. . . . "

*

"PRETTY BORING," says Nuke.

"Of course," replies Crash. "That's the point."

And so the dulling of Leaf began in earnest with the hope that cliche after cliche would stymie the media, and also muzzle all the goofy stuff coming out of Leaf's mouth, stuff that had made him an outcast in his own locker room.

Now, asking Ryan Leaf to protect himself from Ryan Leaf, especially when he has been Ryan Leaf all his life, is like putting Isaiah Rider in charge of the Lakers' wake-up calls on the road. So the Chargers surrounded him, not allowing anyone to interview Leaf one on one for fear he might hurt himself. Overnight, Baby Boy, as linebacker Junior Seau calls him, became Bubble Boy.

The team made him available each day in training camp, but only if a group of reporters wanted to listen to his cliches. In San Diego, of course, there are always reporters who want to listen to cliches.

Funny thing. The duller Leaf became, the more mature people said he had become. By October, someone probably will suggest it's time he run for office.

You still have to credit Leaf, because none of this works if he's still the inebriated lout outside the Pullman, Wash., bar, yelling, "I could buy all your dads." The truth comes out when you're drunk.

The new Leaf has followed the "Say nothing--be boring" script without a single ad lib, and the Chargers believe that's one of the reasons he won the starting job. Good for him. No telling yet if he will throw the ball to the right team, but he won the job because he did not make a distraction of himself in the newspapers--therefore he did not have to contend with distractions.

The lesson here, of course, is whether you're training a puppy or a young quarterback, newspapers play an important role.

*

A DAY HAS passed, but the impression that Tiger Woods left after his loss to Sergio Garcia in the "Battle at Bighorn" remains overwhelming.

Here's a superstar, tired, sick and beaten by a jabbering upstart, and he not only meets his responsibility to report to the postmatch press conference, but sits back and has some fun.

"I've had better days and shorter days," he said, adding a wink for those he recognized in the back of the room.

Woods had just finished three grueling weeks of competition, rising on Eastern Time Monday to put on a clinic and then flying across the country to play in the desert. Asked when was the last time he had been this tired, he said, "Maybe finals week [at Stanford]," and he was smiling, using the microphone in his lap as a golf club to take one more practice swing.

After Garcia offered a long and rambling replay of the 16th hole, which led to his victory, Woods said with a grin, "I didn't like that hole."

Here was someone embracing his dual roles as the game's best present-day player and No. 1 ambassador, and he did so after being stretched to the limits both mentally and physically.

What a striking contrast to Dodger Kevin Brown, who pitched six perfect innings last week before winning, 5-1, on a four-hitter, and then stood in front of his locker looking miserable and mad at the world.

And I hadn't even asked him a question.

*

THE TV RATINGS for golf Monday night were higher than for any one of the three previous Monday night NFL exhibition games, which had the added hype of Dennis Miller's commentary.

Turn out the lights, the experiment's over.

*

AS SOON AS I suggested Davey Johnson was a dead man, the Dodgers came to life. I hope I was in time.

*

TODAY'S LAST WORD comes in an e-mail from Mary Ellen:

"You hacker. Your statement that 'A foursome of women golfers should be put in front of Woods so that he has to wait like the rest of us,' is a convenient sophistry propagated by meatheads like you."

If you were a man--and I knew what sophistry meant--I'd probably have to ask you to step outside.

*

T.J. Simers can be reached at his e-mail address: t.j.simers@latimes.com.

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