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By Bucky Gleason



News Sports Columnist



Let's start with the New Orleans Saints fan who was inching so close to his favorite team that he could almost touch them, see them, interact with them, if not for that damned Facebook account. He was hours from a personal triumph and the story of a lifetime about officiating a Saints game.



Brian Stropolo was a qualified official under the current standards, which state anybody who remains upright, breathing and has watched a football game in his lifetime or a previous lifetime is thereby ready to work in the NFL. If they look the part and act the part, that works for the league.

It's all about perception in the NFL, right? Right.

Stropolo's teeny little problem hours before kickoff was a picture on the internet of him that showed him wearing Saints gear while tailgating before a Saints preseason game. You could only conclude he was a Saints fan, and that wouldn't look so good when he was working a Saints game as a side judge.

What to do? Replace the replacement official.

"To avoid an appearance of conflict," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told Bloomberg News.

Another official came from the Lingerie League, where his duties included making sure the players didn't have uniform malfunctions and . well, um . equipment problems. I'm not sure whether to admonish him or admire him, but he clearly was good enough to keep the NFL chugging along.

"I'll be honest, they're like fans," Eagles running back LeSean McCoy told WIP Radio in Philadelphia. "One of the refs was talking about his fantasy team, like 'McCoy, come on, I need you for my fantasy.' Ahh, what?"

By now, you're aware of the blown calls, the downs miscounted, balls placed on the wrong yard lines, teams given extra timeouts. Blatant penalties have gone uncalled while players have been penalized for nothing. It's embarrassing from any angle, but that's not enough for the NFL to settle a labor dispute with real officials.

The two sides are separated by $4 million, peanuts in a $9 billion industry. The league talks about its commitment to player safety but hires inferior officials for a violent game played by oversized, overaggressive men. But the first two weeks looked like football and sounded like football, so that was good enough.

Remember, it's about perception.

Nearly 50 years after Alex Karras and Paul Hornung were suspended from the 1963 season for betting on football and associating with "undesirables," gambling helped drive the NFL into a money-making machine. Gambling isn't just betting on teams and points. You can include fantasy football, most of which is played for money.

According to a study released last year by the Journal of Sport Administration & Supervision, some 30 million people participate in fantasy football. Betting creates interest, interest translates to eyeballs, eyeballs turn into television ratings, and television ratings turn into revenue for the NFL. And the NFL loves revenue.

It's one reason the NFL hosts fantasy leagues. It drives interest, which drives internet hits, which drives revenue for the league. Did I mention that the NFL loves revenue? I'm not saying fantasy football is wrong. I'm saying the NFL is hypocritical.

Well, that's the perception.

Departing soon

Bobby Valentine hasn't been sent packing just yet, but give him credit for this much: He's doing everything possible to make sure it happens.

Valetine's latest bizarre move was pinch-hitting for rookie Jose Iglesias with a 2-2 count in the seventh inning of a scoreless game Sunday in Toronto. He sent Daniel Nava to the plate for Iglesias, who was trying to build confidence for a last-place team. Worse, Nava was batting .151 with a 2-2 count, or 40 points lower than the AL average.

"He'll get the opportunity to get some hits," Valentine said after the game. "It's not kindergarten here."

Last week, when asked about calling up players from the minors to support the their injury-depleted roster, Valentine said, "Are you kidding me? This is the worst roster we've ever had in September in the history of baseball. We could use help everywhere."

Said Fox analyst and former first baseman Kevin Millar, who won a World Series with the Sox in 2004: "I would've come back with another quote: This is the worst manager the Boston Red Sox ever had in history.'"

Showalter-ing the way

Buck Showalter should be an easy choice for AL manager of the year no matter what happens in their division race with the Yankees. Showalter has been forced to use 52 players this season, including 25 pitchers. Baltimore could become the first team in 25 years to reach the postseason with fewer runs scored than its opponents.

Showalter has kept them in contention without a hitter batting over .300 while playing at least 20 games. The O's have a potential superstar in 20-year-old Manny Machado, who converted from Double A shortstop to big league third baseman. He was batting .272 through his first 36 games and has been nearly flawless in the field.

Showalter has pieced together a pitching staff in which the rotation has been mostly by committee. It could improve drastically if 19-year-old prospect Dylan Bundy finds his way to the big leagues. He throws in the high 90 mph range and spent the season developing offspeed pitches in the minors.

Quoteable

Greg Norman, to The Guardian, on Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy with the Ryder Cup less than a week away: "What I'm seeing is that Tiger's really intimidated by Rory," said Norman. "When have you ever seen him intimidated by another player? Never. But I think he knows his time's up.''

Retweet

""When you think of the NFL, you think of NFL films. When you think of NFL films, you think of Steve Sabol. You will be missed. #RIP, from @BonnieBernstein

Stats

3 - Number of interceptions thrown by Peyton Manning in the first quarter Monday, the most picks in an opening quarter since Trent Edward threw three for the Bills against Cleveland in 2008.

65 - The maximum percentage NHL players can make while playing in the Kontinetal Hockey League, according to TSN.

4 - Consecutive games in which Stanford has beaten USC in college football.

Quick hits

. A hot rumor recently circulating in Philadelphia had the Eagles interested in Chad Johnson, released by the Dolphins during training camp after a domestic dispute. According to local radio, fans claimed to see Johnson - where? - at the Philly airport.

. If you see Chris Kelsay, please let him know the Bills defense is looking for him. He played 39 snaps and failed to make a tackle.

. Don't be surprised if Kellen Winslow resurrects his career with the Patriots after they lost Aaron Hernandez to an ankle injury. Winslow, who had 75 catches last season with Tampa Bay, is precisely the kind of player who thrives under Bill Belichick.