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ESPN gambling series comical

Not to pile on too much against ESPN (in this space last week we questioned its anchors being advertising pitchmen), but we could have lived without the five-part SportsCenter series "Gambling in Sports: The National Pastime" last week.

For one thing, the packaging of it with the ballyhooed Hustle movie was far too cute. We're not stupid, we could see the network trying to work us into a degenerate gambling froth, preferably one that would end Saturday night on the couch with their latest foray into original programming.

Parts of the SportsCenter series were laughable, others lazy and less informative than they should have been. A segment on the point-shaving scandal with the 1993-94 Arizona State men's basketball team relied on old interviews with all parties, failing to show what the guilty are doing now.

A segment on poker's underbelly _ young people spending countless hours and money playing online _ rang hollow considering how much ESPN promotes this foolishness. The network is not to blame for an individual's decision to mortgage the future on card games, but after glorifying poker for hours every week, showing a few minutes on its dark side seems trite.

On the whole, it is hilarious to watch SportsCenter turn into 60 Minutes when "investigating" gambling. The undertones of betting on an all-sports network are constant, either in subtle forms (the never-ending ticker) or in your face ("Hammerin"' Hank Goldberg's Sunday morning football picks).

Perhaps any investigations could start within the Bristol, Conn., offices, where Mike Freeman reported in his 2000 book ESPN: The Uncensored History that gambling was rampant.

Instead, we're subjected to a five-part series ending in a Pete Rose movie. Oh, well, we watched it all, so you win, ESPN. Again.

Baseball's new living legend

Today's baseball is all about the long ball, but true fans have to tip their caps at Ichiro Suzuki for the terrific record he's about to topple.

With 250 hits, going into today's game at Texas, the Mariners star is just seven away from breaking an 84-year-old mark, George Sisler's record of 257 hits in one season.

The number probably does not come to mind immediately for most fans the way 2,632 (Cal Ripken consecutive games), 4,256 (Pete Rose career hits) or 73 (Barry Bonds homers in one season) does, but believe it _ 257 is darned special.

Of course, baseball in 1920 was a different game. Home runs were not hit anywhere near as often as today, but contact hitters thrived in an era in which they could get many looks at one starter who almost always pitched a complete game.

Different indeed: seven players in the 1920s batted over .400 and Sisler played for the St. Louis Browns.

Ichiro almost certainly will break the mark (his 242 hits in 2001 are ninth most in a season), and that's phenomenal any way you look at it. Consider the current game, with specialized pitchers who throw nasty stuff.

Consider playing in Seattle with all the travel and, for Ichiro, the suffocating Japanese media. He has not missed a game this season, which in itself is rare today.

Naysayers may throw out the fact that Sisler amassed his hits in a 154-game season, but forget the asterisk. Ichiro's hits record is the stuff of legend.

_ JOHN SCHWARB, Times staff writer