Stewart driving at a conspiracy

NASCAR accusation latest of sports theories

April 29, 2007|By Bill Ordine | Bill Ordine,Sun reporter

Driver Tony Stewart ripped NASCAR last week, contending that the April 21 race in Phoenix, won by Jeff Gordon, was influenced by officials stopping the action with frivolous caution flags for debris on the track. Stewart lost a duel with Gordon.

"I guess NASCAR thinks, `Hey, wrestling worked, and it was for the most part staged, so I guess it's going to work in racing, too,'" Stewart said on a Sirius Satellite Radio program Tuesday. "I can't understand how long the fans are going to let NASCAR treat them like they're stupid before the fans finally turn on NASCAR.

"I don't know that they've run a fair race all year."

Stewart's accusations about NASCAR aren't the only "grassy knoll" conspiracy theories to swirl around a sports event. Here are a few others that have been surfaced over the decades.

Knicks get lucky

1985, Waldorf-Astoria, New York -- The NBA's first lottery to determine the order for the draft picks was nationally televised with commissioner David Stern selecting envelopes containing team logos from a clear drum. At stake was the right to draft Georgetown's Patrick Ewing, clearly a franchise player. The envelope containing the New York Knicks logo turned out to be the first envelope Stern picked. To this day, conspiracy theorists say the league rigged the lottery to send the best college player to the largest market. You can watch the whole thing on YouTube and decide for yourself.

Chamberlain's perfect record Among the many numerical landmarks associated with Wilt Chamberlain's career, such as scoring 100 points in a game and averaging 48.5 minutes in 1961-62 (he missed just a handful of minutes during a season when his team played in several overtime games), perhaps none is more astounding than this one: In 1,045 NBA games, Chamberlain never fouled out. How could that be? The conspiracy gang contends that there was an understanding between the league and its referees that the most heralded player of all time needed to stay on the court for gate appeal.

Ali-Liston II

1965, Lewiston, Maine -- After Cassius Clay stunned the sports world with a seven-round stop of fearsome Sonny Liston in 1964, the two had a rematch the next year. Having taken a new name, Muhammad Ali threw a short right, seemingly without much leverage, that sent Liston to the canvas in the first round. The blow became known as the phantom punch. Liston started to get up and then slumped to the floor again. A famous photo shows Ali angrily directing Liston to get up. The crowd was audible in its disapproval. Rumors swirled for years that Liston's ties to Las Vegas interests explained his otherwise inexplicable performance. Nothing was ever proved. The fight is on YouTube.

Shot heard 'round the world

1951, Polo Grounds -- Bobby Thomson's three-run shot off Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca in the deciding game of a pennant playoff may be the most celebrated home run in baseball history, but it has a cloud hanging over it. The New York Giants, when playing at home, were doing some espionage from the center-field clubhouse, picking up opposing catchers' signs and then relaying the information back to the New York bench. In turn, the Giants would signal the batter whether a fastball or breaking ball was coming. None of which, by the way, is against the rules. The story of the sign stealing, whispered about for decades, was authenticated by a Wall Street Journal reporter in 2001. But Thomson has said he never got a signal for his famous home run.

Greatest game gamble

1958, Yankee Stadium -- A persistent conspiracy story about "The Greatest Game Ever Played" - the Baltimore Colts' 23-17 overtime win over the New York Giants for the 1958 NFL championship - revolves around gambling rumors and the Colts' forgoing a field-goal attempt. When Baltimore got to the New York 8-yard line in overtime, the first play was a 1-yard run by Alan Ameche, the second a 6-yard Johnny Unitas pass to Jim Mutscheller and the third Ameche's immortal run into NFL history. But why take all that risk? Why not kick a field goal from the outset? The conspiracy theory says then-Baltimore owner Carroll Rosenbloom had a $1 million bet on the Colts but needed his team to win by more than three points. But the accepted explanation is that the Colts lacked faith in kicker Steve Myhra, who was just 4-for-10 on the season. Myhra was 1-for-2 in the title game - including a 20-yarder at the end of regulation to force OT.

Barbaro's fatal step

2006, Pimlico Race Course -- When Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro snapped his right hind leg at the start of last year's Preakness, an injury that led to his death eight months later, conspiracy theorists sounded the alarm. And the fact that Barbaro had broken early from his starting position and had to be brought back to the gate only heightened suspicions. Bettors hyperventilated that Barbaro had been doped as evidenced by his excited behavior before the race, that he had been hurt going into the race, or that TV interests applied pressure to hurry his examination after his premature break from the gate. Clips are on YouTube.

bill.ordine@baltsun.com

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

ONLINE

Starting this week, Sun sportswriter Bill Ordine begins a daily blog that covers the world of sports, from the essential to the quirky. Look for "O, By the Way" beginning tomorrow morning at baltimoresun.com/ordine

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