Bill Conlin: Saluting the Williams sisters on strange Fourth of July

Manny Ramirez returned to the Los Angeles Dodgers' lineup this past weekend after a 50-game suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs. (Denis Poroy/AP)

THERE MAY have been weirder Fourth of Julys in the 233-year history of the Republic. But none come to mind.

Not even July 4, 1826. John Adams, America's second president, and Thomas Jefferson, the nation's third, marked the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence - written by Jefferson - by dying just hours apart.

Can you imagine the field day CNN would have had with that?

"Coming up at the top of the hour, Larry King's exclusive interview with Thomas Jefferson's mistress, Sally Hemmings . . . ''

But enough of dead presidents . . . And, yeah, the young nation's fifth chief executive, James Monroe, exited a hemisphere secured by his hands-off Monroe Doctrine on July 4, 1831.

You may have noticed something just a tad unusual during the Fox telecast of the Phillies' second straight victory over the Mets. If Manny Ramirez so much as flicked a dreadlock out of an eye during the Dodgers' game against the Padres in San Diego's jammed - with Dodgers fans, that is - Petco Park, the screen went split. On Fox, you got some of Manny all-of-the-time. On CNN, it was continued all MJ Memory/Inquest all-the-time.

Fireworks don't play well in broad daylight, but freak shows play 24/7.

Give Fox analyst Tim McCarver credit for stepping up. He's getting on in years and hardly has been a Phillies cheerleader in recent seasons, but he came about as close as is healthy to ripping Fox's pandering to a cheater's every move, including each at-bat.

And Timmy was harshly critical of the hero worship bathing the eccentric slugger's return from a 50-day suspension after getting nailed for enhancement-tainted wee-wee in an MLB testing jar. McCarver questioned how a man suspended for breaking baseball's substance-abuse rules rated conquering hero treatment in Baja Mannyland. Tim emphatically pointed out that Ramirez is back from "the suspended list, not the disabled list," but that a number of suspected enhancement abusers, including Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa and Rafe Palmeiro, while never suspended or punished in any way, "have been ostracized."

Then again, McCarver has never been shy about sharing his old-school opinions on the Big Bertha of loose cannons. Before calling the Phillies' NLCS matchup with the Dodgers last October, the former Phils catcher and broadcaster dropped a few choice opinions on the Inquirer.

"It's extraordinary," Tim said, " . . . the dichotomy between what he was in Boston and what he is in Los Angeles, I mean, talk about wearing out your welcome in a town, and it was a long welcome with the Red Sox. But some of the things he did were simply despicable, despicable - like not playing, refusing to play. Forgetting what knee to limp on. And now it's washed, it's gone."

There are few things unwashable in SoCal, however, where a few strokes of a director's pen can turn a "Dexter" from serial killer to society-cleansing vigilante. A one-trick dancer with a boy-soprano falsetto has ignited with his predictably early demise a national outpouring of grief once reserved for men with initials like JFK and MLK . . . "Wait, here's a friend of a friend of the part-time nurse's friend we haven't interviewed yet. Be right back with that" . . . The celebrity culture has somehow succeeded in elevating a steroid cheat and an eternal man-child trapped in a grotesque fairy tale - grim, not Grimm - to darlings of the voracious ESPN and CNN news cycles.

But Fox had Manny Saturday afternoon, which left ESPN with niche sport flatliners. The Big E sent a rugby World Cup qualifier against Fox's regional baseball lineup. The Deuce featured LPGA action and Strongest Man. I happened to be watching rugby between Phillies-Mets innings when they announced that due to "breaking news," the rugby would be moving to the Deuce at 5 p.m.

The breaking news, of course, was the death by handgun of former NFL star and co-MVP Steve McNair in Nashville, where he led the Tennessee Titans within inches of a Super Bowl title. As the ESPN news desk sprang to life in Bristol, Conn., a lazy holiday afternoon interrupted, the Blogisphere also lit up. This is how it hit the Internet at 4:57 p.m., courtesy of a Titans fan site:

"UPDATE: The woman found dead at the scene might be McNair's wife. Rumor and speculation, via an NFL fansite, says that McNair's wife shot and killed McNair. Then, she turned the gun on herself. Again, that is NOT confirmed."

Then, minutes later, the OOPS!

"UPDATE: Police has [sic] confirmed in Pacman Jones that the second victim is NOT Steve McNair's wife, Mechelle."

Now how could anybody not trust a site named "Pacman Jones?"

So even before Charlie Manuel enjoyed the rare event of a Brad Lidge save, the Fourth of July headlines had triangulated into adulation for Manny in Petco, the unexplained shooting death of McNair involving a 20-year-old woman who was not his wife, and preparations for tomorrow's Staples Center memorial for Michael Jackson. Authorities have been beefing up for as many as a quarter-of-a-million fans converging on the home of the Lakers for the Glovefest.

It remained for the Williams sisters, Serena, the upset Wimbledon ladies singles winner, and older sis Venus, the favored runner-up, to inject an element of dignity into an unruly Fourth where the most dangerous and unstable nation on earth fired off seven test missiles capable of striking anywhere in South Korea or Japan. All the Williams gals did was fire aces at each other in an annual ritual where they climb into white costumes and do for cash and glory on Centre Court what they did daily on public courts as kids under the tutelage of their mad genius dad.

The tennis monsters Richard Williams created against all odds, stocky bulldog Serena, lean and elegant Venus, were the only rockets worth an oooh and ahhh on July 4, 2009. *

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