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Gordon deserves fans' love

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By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 24, 2001


Even when he outdrives NASCAR nation, Jeff Gordon's ears are dented with boos. Loved by some, No. 24 is loathed by many.

Stock car patrons, in heavy plurality, consider the Californian/Indianan a cutesy, smartsy outsider who has the arrogant audacity to cut in on Good Ole Boys.

Any way he can overcome?

How could Gordon naybellowers not notice, and soften, after what happened at Rockingham (N.C.), a week after Dale Earnhardt was killed in the Daytona 500. Gordon won the pole, then drove a slow, caring lap, waving the black No. 3 cap of the fallen Intimidator.

Ulterior motive?

"I'm certainly not trying to win over Dale's fans," Gordon recently told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "I know people are either going to like me or not. I'm not changing anything, but I am serious about paying proper respect to somebody I admired as much as Dale Earnhardt.

"I recognize what a huge loss it was for our sport. You go with what your heart tells you, and Dale was a guy I thought was the greatest. We were more rivals than best buddies, but there was mutual respect, I think. When he was my competitor, I couldn't afford to show that I cared as much as I do. Certain mind games do go on.

"But, yes, I was heavily pro-Dale."

Any chance, NASCAR nation, of cooling the boos, especially when the 24 car excels, then works overtime to enhance Earnhardt's memory? Jeff gets it. He understands. So would Dale.

HOOKS: With 100,000 pay-TV subscribers buying into a boxing sham (an oxymoron?) between the daughters of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, some schlockmeister is probably now pursuing a $49.95 cable shootout between great grandsons of Al Capone and Elliot Ness. ... Here's hoping Donna Shalala, old Clinton cabinet member and now president of the University of Miami, fully comprehends the whopper accomplishments of her Hurricanes with four national championships in football since 1983 and now four in baseball. ... Jerry Angelo paid major dues. I've held on to the University of Tampa's 1975 football media guide, the final season before the school dropped the sport due to an NFL franchise coming to town. There was Angelo, a boyish assistant coach with bushy hair, who would do splendid personnel work for the Bucs, earning a higher calling. ... Eleven years ago, University of Florida golf coach Buddy Alexander was devastated as his Gators blew a huge NCAA golf lead at Innisbrook, losing to Phil Mickelson and Arizona State. So rallying to the 2001 national championship by his UF underdogs was especially sweet for the 1986 U.S. Amateur winner, son of longtime St. Petersburg club pro (Lakewood) Skip Alexander.

READER'S SHOUT: Benny King of St. Pete Beach writes: "What a low move, Mizell, using thousands of columnist words to sell us, over a period of 10 to 12 years, on baseball's rich possibilities in the Tampa Bay area, then retiring and moving to Virginia, leaving us with the rotten Rays who're losing two games in every three while drawing their customary 11,000. Come back and suffer with what you wished for."

JABS: In two years, Philly replaces Veterans Stadium, the crummiest ballfield in major-league baseball and the NFL, with a 66,000-seat, $395-million stadium. "There's no better sports town," crowed Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, "or a fan base more deserving." Yeah, but won't some of them manage, when amply inspired, to perpetuate the city's historic crowd nastiness, even in such a comfort palace? Those people could rock the Vatican with jeers. . . .

LSU's winningest football coach, Charlie McClendon, is scrimmaging cancer with his typical, admirable humor: "It's a funny thing," said the 1962-79 czar of the Tigers, "because me getting kicked in the rear all those years must've formed a tumor." ... Lee Rose made some enemies at USF, but he accomplished vital stuff in the escalation of Bulls basketball. So, as he retires after 44 seasons as coach, beginning at a high school and then for his alma mater, Transylvania (Ky.), followed by Final Four accomplishments at Charlotte and Purdue, moving on to South Florida and then to the NBA as an assistant, I'll stand and give more than a little cheer.

Whatever happened to Andy Messersmith?

-- To reach Hubert Mizell, e-mail mmizell02@earthlink.net or write to P.O. Box 726, Nellysford, VA 22958.

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