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“They couldn’t have written a better script.”

—Dale Earnhardt Jr., after winning NASCAR’s Pepsi 400

“Who wrote this script?”

—ESPN Radio commentator Charlie Steiner’s call of Cal Ripken’s All-Star Game homer

“I couldn’t script it any better.”

—Philadelphia 76ers coach Larry Brown, on his injured team’s reaching the NBA Finals

The fix is in. In vogue, that is. Not since the Black Sox scandal has there been so much talk of rigged events.

The father of the current fixing fad is surely Vince McMahon. In 1993, while testifying under oath during a bogus steroid-distribution trial brought by misguided federal prosecutors, the wrestling impresario admitted that the results of WWF matches were indeed predetermined. McMahon’s genius showed when he decided that rather than try to carry on any charade that his sport, or whatever you want to call it, was on the up and up, he would flaunt its phoniness. Soon enough, viewers were even allowed in on the behind-the-scenes scripting of WWF events.

And professional wrestling’s audience skyrocketed.

McMahon’s only failure as a showman came with the XFL, the football league that closed after a single-season engagement on NBC. In the months leading up to the inaugural kickoff, McMahon, possibly under pressure from network brass, assured everybody that the games would be kosher. Nobody ever accused the XFL of being rigged. Nobody watched, either.

The moral of McMahon’s experiences over the last decade is that viewers, no matter what they tell you, really don’t care if the ending of an athletic event is as preconceived as the ending of a Broadway play or a feature film. They just want to be entertained. And more people will watch a stirring sham of an event than a boring bona fide one.

But with wrestling’s penetration into the mainstream consciousness, folks no longer put much faith in any result. Take the Pepsi 400 from last weekend. Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s win, at the very track where his father, Dale Earnhardt Sr., met his maker in February, spurred all sorts of suspicion.

Little E put it best after pulling his No. 8 Budweiser Chevy into the Daytona winner’s circle for the first time in his career: NASCAR couldn’t have supplied a finer finish to its first event held there since the tragedy. Even better, the Pepsi 400 also happened to be the first race televised under NBC’s new billion-dollar broadcasting deal with NASCAR.

Earnhardt wasn’t the only one saying the win was just too good to be true. Rival driver Jimmy Spencer also told reporters he thought officials might have provided Earnhardt with a restrictor plate—the horsepower-reducing device mandated by NASCAR for races at superspeedways to limit competitors’ top speeds—that didn’t rein in Dale Jr.’s horses as much as it should have.

Whether the race was fixed or not, ratings for NBC’s broadcast were spectacular. In fact, the Pepsi 400 drew the largest prime-time audience in NASCAR history. Budweiser—Dale Jr.’s primary sponsor and the biggest spender in sports broadcasting—had given Earnhardt’s car a custom paint job especially for the race, promoting baseball’s then-upcoming Major League All-Star Game, which the brewery also sponsored.

Talk of a fix followed the money to Seattle.

Even as Cal Ripken’s shot was leaving Safeco Field, ESPN’s Charlie Steiner wondered aloud who had scripted the event. Well, whoever had probably had seen The Natural. The celluloid Roy Hobbs, played by Robert Redford, homers in the last big game of his career, long after everybody’s counted him out. Just as Ripken, who had hit only two home runs since April, did last Tuesday. (In Bernard Malamud’s novel, which served as the basis for the movie, Hobbs actually strikes out in his last at-bat. The book didn’t gross as much as the film.)

In fairness to Ripken, he’s always been a prime-time player, having hit a homer and won the MVP award in the 1991 All-Star Game, as well as going deep in the games before, during, and after breaking Lou Gehrig’s Ironman streak in 1995.

Such accusations also ignore the difficulty of hitting a homer on demand. Only a day before Ripken’s tater, Troy Glaus failed to go yard with any of his cuts at balls lobbed to the plate by the batting-practice pitcher, whom the Angels’ third baseman had brought to Seattle just to serve up meat during the league’s annual home-run derby. Ripken’s latest highlight, by the way, came on a 90-plus-mile-an-hour fastball.

Whether the game was fixed or not, ratings for the Fox telecast were through the roof, up nearly 10 percent over last year. The peak viewership came in the innings immediately following Ripken’s homer. This during a year in which the broadcasts of all-star games for all other big-league sports were disasters: The latest NFL Pro Bowl ratings were down 45 percent from last year, the 2001 NHL All-Star Game attracted 35 percent fewer viewers, and the audience for the NBA showcase in February fell 25 percent in one year.

Maybe somebody in the NBA’s offices is a McMahon disciple.

The basketball playoffs were dogged with fixing talk as never before. The fixers, conventional wisdom held from early in the “second season,” wanted the Sixers to get to the finals. Fans weren’t the only ones who thought that NBC and the league would stop a small-market squad from reaching the championship round by any means necessary. Players from Toronto publicly wondered if there was more than bad luck behind all the calls going Allen Iverson’s way in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

When calls kept favoring Philly in the conference finals, Milwaukee coach George Karl and power forward Glenn Robinson both implied a fix. Robinson didn’t shoot a single free throw until Game 5 of the series with the Sixers, at which point Philadelphia had a 134-77 edge in free-throw attempts and the small-market Bucks had been whistled for eight technical fouls, compared with just one for Philly. NBC aided and abetted the Nielsen Conspiracy theorists who frequent sports talk shows by failing to show replays of controversial foul calls throughout the playoffs.

Whether the playoff was fixed or not, ratings for the NBA finals were way up. The matchup between the big-market Sixers and the bigger-market Lakers drew the biggest television audience since 1998, Michael Jordan’s final finals appearance.

The McMahon influence now transcends sports radio. On the latest installment of This Week, Sam Donaldson asked his panel of pundits to discuss whether Beijing could have been awarded the 2008 Olympics because of a bogus vote. Donaldson then directed the discourse toward the recent New York Times report that asserts that Florida officials were more likely to count absentee ballots for George W. Bush than for Al Gore during the recount. Like somebody could fix a presidential election… —Dave McKenna