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Empires of ink

Yankees, Barcelona rule papers no matter the news

Posted: Monday February 26, 2007 12:27PM; Updated: Monday February 26, 2007 12:53PM
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Whether it's Ronaldinho's (left) weight or Samuel Eto'o's fiery temper, Barcelona rules the sports pages in Catalonia.
Whether it's Ronaldinho's (left) weight or Samuel Eto'o's fiery temper, Barcelona rules the sports pages in Catalonia.
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BARCELONA, Spain -- It took an epic journey, nearly 5,500 miles from Las Vegas to New York City to Barcelona, to realize exactly what the New York Yankees mean to the United States.

Here in Catalonia, talk centered around Samuel Eto'o and Ronaldinho. Eto'o is Barça's fiery striker, a man who once said, "Beckham might be better-looking than me, but I'm a better player." Back in 2002, when Eto'o became Real Mallorca's all-time leading scorer, he dedicated the honor to "everyone who loves me," adding that "everyone else can go f--- themselves."

Beckham may be more famous than Eto'o, but Eto'o is definitely a better scorer. A nagging knee injury has kept Eto'o out of action for much of the Spanish Primera Division season. After he allegedly refused to enter a match against Racing Santander as a late substitute, Barcelona coach Frank Rijkaard deactivated Eto'o for two key matches last week, both tough losses for Barça.

The Catalonian papers fanned the flames of Eto'o's discontent, especially when he seemed to criticize Ronaldinho for not always showing up on time for training sessions. This was followed days later by a photo of Eto'o and Ronaldinho goofing around in practice, a snapshot created to show there's no actual bad blood.

Late last week, the Barcelona sports pages decided that Ronaldinho was fat, illustrating their position with a timeline of Ronaldinho photos, ending the series with a recent photo of a shirtless Ronaldinho in which his stomach appeared to tempt the belt line of his shorts.

The final photo was taken from a strange angle, and one could argue that it was simply an unflattering shot, the kind that Perez Hilton would have a field day with. (Rijkaard carefully and diplomatically downplayed the "fat Ronaldinho" photo, noting, "When the photo is taken quite close by, with inadequate light or if there is some movement, it can vary the reality a lot and, in this instance, for me there are doubts.")

It apparently doesn't matter that Ronaldinho has already tallied 16 goals this season, three times as many as the next closest Barcelona player and second most in all of La Liga. If the shorts don't fit, the press cannot acquit. The papers led into Sunday's game with a cartoon of Eto'o returning to Nou Camp with a scale for Ronaldinho. Monday morning, despite a big derby match last night in Madrid, one of the Barcelona-based sports newspapers devoted its first 21 pages to Barcelona. The Real Madrid-Atlético Madrid match was relegated to page 22.

Back to New York City. I moved to the Big Apple in the summer of 2000, and I can probably tally on one hand the number of times since that the New York Yankees have not been glorified on the back cover the New York Post. Britney, Paris and Lindsay may get front-page love, but the back page always seems to find something pinstriped to chew on.

The Mets might be signing old guys, the Knicks might be imploding, even as the Nets marched to the NBA Finals: The Yanks, for better or hopefully worse, always rule the roost. They were covered so frequently that I had to ask several native New Yorker friends why the Yankees had such overwhelming popularity in the papers; were they really that beloved? No, I was told, it's just a recent phenomenon.

As pitchers and catchers recently reported to Yankees training camp in Tampa, the story that drove the news in New York all last week wasn't the Yankees attempting to return to American League prominence or the rebuilding of the pitching staff without Randy Johnson, but the level of friendship between Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter. Really. They've been friends for 14 years, A-Rod said, but they aren't as close as they used to be. Disregarding the fact that hardly anyone stays tight for 14 years, the New York media seized upon this and began milking it for all it was worth (which wasn't much, honestly).

The more interesting admission from A-Rod was, predictably, swept under the rug. "I just found myself trying to say always the right things and trying not to screw up," said Rodriguez. "And I think that came across for some people as very disingenuous and phony perhaps -- those are the things you hear. If you're going to get chopped up into pieces, you might as well be as honest as you can and get ripped for it."

Finally, a Yankee speaks something close to the truth. Because the truth is, A-Rod has sounded like a big phony for the last few years. (Though I love that he used the qualifier "perhaps," like a reticent columnist hedging his bets.) The last few years, you could find A-Rod on local TV news most nights spouting innocuous words that carried absolutely no weight ... like all of the Yankees, actually. The next time Jeter or Giambi or Pavano or any of the Yanks say something candid, wake me up.

Until then, we've been subjected to a collection of columns in which writers try to read between the lines and sift fact from conjecture. But why? Do readers really care about the level of dedication in the friendship between Jeter and A-Rod? Probably not. But the Yankees are Gotham's royalty, our Big Brother contestants, our starlets. Results don't matter as much as how they were achieved. The deterioration of relationships, and the media's role within, will always create headlines.

This morning, Barcelona remains in first place, after a 3-0 win Sunday night, capped by typically sparkling play from Ronaldinho and a goal from Eto'o in his return to the starting lineup. The Yankees will soon return to the diamond to battle the Red Sox. Gallons of ink will be used on both teams, trying to explain why we should care about either of them. The words within the stories will not matter that much, as it will be a combination of bold letters and color photos on the back page that will move product.

And whether its in Spanish or English, it's the commerce that matters, after all.

Lang Whitaker is the executive editor of SLAM magazine and writes daily at SLAMonline.com.

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