Monday March 22nd, 2010

Listed by themselves, without context or comment, the two transgressions can be easily ranked in order of severity.

1. Snorting cocaine.

2. Behaving like an absolute anus.

The long, oft-sorry saga of American professional sports is filled with high-profile figures who have stumbled over both societal trip wires with great aplomb. Cocaine was the drug of the 1970s and '80s, choking in its white dust such superstars as Keith Hernandez, Dave Parker, Dwight Gooden and Quintin Dailey. Anus-itis, however, boasts its fair share of noted victims as well, with names ranging from Dave Kingman and Ryan Leaf to Barry Bonds and Paul Gascoigne.

So, with druggies and jerks running amok, what should we make of the recent plights of two so-called sports "leaders" -- Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington, who kept his job after testing positive for (the generally fire-able offense of) cocaine use, and Seton Hall men's basketball coach Bobby Gonzalez, who was (surprisingly) canned for, more or less, being a jerk (and failing to win enough)?

Simply, it is this: Nice guys finish first.

I know ... I know -- such blather flies in the face of real-world logic; of every greedy Wall Street executive cashing a $20 million bonus check and every bully quarterback who scores the hot cheerleader. Yet just as Bonds' staggering downfall was as attributable to a sour demeanor as it was a questionable blood stream, Washington and Gonzalez's divergent plights are odes to sweet vs. sour.

When the news came out that Washington -- entering his fourth year as the Rangers' skipper -- had failed a drug test last season, he was embraced in a way that few others ever have been. After the manager addressed his team in a private mea culpa, Michael Young, the Rangers leader, rose and said, "If you don't stand behind Skip, you're not a Texas Ranger." Truth be told, the words never had to be uttered -- though hardly baseball's most adept game strategizer, Washington is, without little debate, one of its most beloved. He is an unambiguously kind and warm man who treats players and peers with respect; who addresses the media honestly and who seems to see the absolute best in those around him. A former coach with Oakland, Washington was so well thought of that, after Hurricane Katrina destroyed his Louisiana home, Jason Giambi approached him with a check for $25,000 -- no strings attached. "He was a great guy," Andruw Jones, a former Ranger outfielder now playing with the White Sox, told the Chicago Tribune. "He was honest to me, straight up when I was going to play, when he needed me in the lineup. He was straight up."

Gonzalez was straight up, too. Straight-up annoying. Straight-up obnoxious. Straight-up degrading. Straight-up belittling. In his four years at Seton Hall, the man known un-affectionately as "Gonzo" proved himself to be an ordinary coach (a 63-56 record) and a monumental jerk. Akin to far too many of today's sideline-strutting, Armani-wearing, larger-than-life college hoop saviors, Gonzalez fancied himself as above the rules and beyond the norm. Arrogance oozed from his pores; a I'm-more-important-than-you'll-ever-be swagger demeaning to anyone forced to work a regular 9-to-5 job. According to a recent piece in the New York Daily News, Gonzalez "was known to berate the team's bus drivers and alienate office personnel." He is the lone coach in Big East history to be suspended for criticizing officials and for sideline misbehavior, and was universally loathed by former players for his vulgarity and anger and selfishness. "If I were to ever become a coach, I learned a lot of things [from Gonzalez] I wouldn't do," Kenny Minor, a former player for Gonzalez at Manhattan College, told the New York Times. "Even though we won, it was hard to enjoy basketball."

This year's underachieving Pirates faced myriad off-the-court problems, including one player being arrested for driving the wrong way on the Garden State Parkway and another being arrested and charged with kidnapping, robbery, burglary and weapons counts. By all accounts, however, what truly did in Gonzalez was the exact opposite of what truly saved Washington.

He was a bad guy.

And bad guys finish last.

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