Friday, July 15, 2016

NEWS, VIEWS

NEWS-- KD LEAVES OKC FOR CA

VIEW—WHY NOT?

             The big news of the early free-agency period in the National Basketball Association was the signing of Kevin Durant by the Golden State Warriors, the league’s 2015 champions and this year’s runnerup. Reaction to the move was predictably negative, with most people castigating the player for leaving his Oklahoma City Thunder team for an already-loaded foe. People in OKC responded by burning their “Durant” jerseys and boycotting the restaurant he’d opened there. Maybe he should have thought about that last thing.

But hey, put yourself in Durant’s shoes. How would you have liked it if you’d been drafted out of college by a firm in Seattle, as he was, then traded off to Oklahoma City to practice your trade there for at least the next three years of your career.  You’d have been on the phone to your lawyer (and congressman) pronto.

We fans accept the pro-sports-draft systems reflexively. Most of us root for the teams we do for reasons beyond reason or, even, understanding. Early in life we form an attachment to a team, usually one based in or near a city in which we live, and that’s it, we’re stuck with it. We can no more change it than we can our skin color, shoe size or any other intrinsic personal attribute. Perversely, our team’s failures can act to strengthen the bond; otherwise no one would be a Cubs’ fan.

Our allegiance is to the name on our team’s jerseys, not to the players who wear them. This can blind us to the system’s inequities perpetrated in the name of competitive balance, so when a LeBron James jumps the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat (and, later, the Heat for the Cavs) we howl. It’s okay for teams to trade players, whether or not they want to be traded. It’s also okay for big-money outfits like the New York Yankees to sign just about anyone they desire; we wish only that our teams could do the same. But woe be unto the player who picks a team he wants to play for and follows through on the wish.

The legal bases for free agency are the labor contracts the leagues have with their players’ unions. The NBA’s comes up again in December so, maybe, the matter will be revisited.  Free agency won’t be junked, however. This is America where even athletes get to pursue happiness, eventually.

NEWS—CUBS FADE

VIEW—IT WAS INEVITABLE

The Chicago Cubs got off to a roaring start this season, posting the game’s best record for the first 60 or so games. Then they lost 15 of their 21 games (and eight of their last 10) before the All-Star Game break and had their divisional lead cut to seven games from 12 ½.  Cubs’ fans who thought baseball had become an easy game have had to sober up.

They should have seen this coming, of course. Baseball is the sport of the long haul and the small difference, where the best teams win six of 10 games and the worst four of 10. That norm is inexorable, sparing few.

 Still, some of the reasons behind the Cubs’ slump should be addressable. One is the injury bug that bites just about every team but hit the Cubs’ outfield particularly. Gone for the season or long parts of the first half were Kyle Schwarber, Dexter Fowler and Jorge Soler, who, preseason, shaped up as the team’s usual starters in left and center fields, and the handy man Tommy LaStella. He’s already back and leadoff-man Fowler will be soon; his absence coincided with the team’s decline. Schwarber won’t be back this year. Soler, young and athletic but injury prone, now looks like trade bait for late roster additions.

The Cubs have good depth but, even so, have been hit by the same things that plague all slumping teams, including bad starting and relief pitching and a failure to hit with runners on base. My take is that those things are at least partly attributable to the sort of fat-headedness that often affects the nouveau riche; the team’s early success may have been so easy that the players came to assume it was their due.

The prime example of this, I think, has been the team’s top starting pitcher, Jake Arrieta. Eerily unhittable for most of last season and early this one, he’s become all too mortal of late, his win percentage plummeting as his ERA soars. The reversal coincided with the lavish publicity he’s been receiving and his decision to bare all for ESPN Magazine’s “body issue.” Shifting his focus from his own wonderfulness back to his craft just might help him regain good form.

Cubs’ manager Joe Maddon has been widely praised for his ability to keep his teams focused. That wasn’t much tested during a much-better-than-expected 2015 season and this year’s sprint, but it will be now. Everyone earns his money one way or another.

NEWS—MORE SPORTS STARS EXPRESS THEMSELVES ON SOCIAL, POLITICAL ISSUES          

VIEW—AGAIN, WHY NOT?

LeBron James and other NBA players punctuated this week’s ESPY Awards telecast by speaking out against gun violence and racial profiling by police. Other stars, current and ex, are taking sides in the presidential race. This is especially notable at a time when many top athletes see themselves as “brands” to be marketed to the widest possible audiences.

I think the outspokenness is fine—jocks have every right to use their celebrity to support any cause they wish.  They’d better wear raincoats, though, because splashback is inevitable.

  


Saturday, July 2, 2016

nitpicKINGS

            Sports officials always are unpopular— it comes with the territory.

Umps and refs are booed wherever they go, their adverse-to-the-home-crowd decisions remembered, their favorable ones forgotten. Ditto the $2,000-suit stuffers who run our professional leagues. David Stern helped build the National Basketball Association from a cottage industry to a world force during his 30-year tenure as commissioner (1984-2014), but he’ll always be reviled in Phoenix because he enforced a rule against Suns’ bench players joining an on-court fight during a 2007 playoff game.

  Roger Goodell gets the raspberry every time he steps to the podium to announce a choice in the first round of the National Football League draft. Why? Because he’s Roger Goodell, for one thing, but also because almost every ruling he makes displeases someone. As Abraham Lincoln once put it, every time he filled a job he created a dozen enemies and one ingrate.

But sports officials rarely go out of their way to court public enmity, which is why the flap that arose during the recent U.S. Open golf tournament was exceptional.  Dustin Johnson, who would go on to win the tournament, was on the fifth green of the final round when an official detected his ball moving as he was addressing it. The man discussed the matter with the golfer, who denied responsibility. The official ruled no foul and play continued.

Seven holes later, though, another, higher official told Johnson the matter had been reviewed and that a one-stroke penalty might (repeat, might) be levied against him. Johnson and the rest of the field (and the viewing audiences at the course and at home) completed their rounds not knowing how the issue would be resolved. In the end the penalty was assessed but Johnson got everyone off the hook by winning by more than a stroke, making the matter moot trophywise

Several points should here be made. One is that the ball movement involved was so slight that it took me several slo-mo TV replays to detect it. Another was that the movement was backward and, thus, gave the golfer no advantage. Another was that there was no evidence that Johnson either touched the ball with his putter or grounded the club so as to cause the movement; it wasn’t like he kicked his ball out of the rough while no one was looking. But for such a nit the most august of our national golfing events was thrown into disarray.

The episode is understandable only when one realizes that the sport involved was golf, whose rules book makes the New York City phone book look small, and that the tournament in question was held under the auspices of the U.S. Golf Association, which exists to fill that book.  The USGA is staffed largely by country-club types for whom golf is an avocation, and nits is what it does.

 For reasons rooted in antiquity the USGA also runs the annual U.S. Opens for the men, women and seniors, and the national and regional amateur events. The rest of the golf we see, also mostly “open” tournaments (open to amateurs, that is), is run by the Professional Golf Association (PGA) on the men’s side and the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) on the women’s. These are business organizations operated by, and for, the professional golfers themselves. That arrangement, by the way, is unlike that of our professional team sports, which are owned by, uh, owners, and where the players are employees. Just sayin’.

It is axiomatic that no officials are more officious than volunteers, and the USGA exemplifies that point perfectly.  Golf is an outdoor game, played on large acreages open to the elements, so the rulings the group makes must account for many situations. But more than occasionally those rulings are counter-intuitive, to say the least.

Say, for instance, that your ball comes to rest in a bunker right behind a half-eaten pear that someone has carelessly discarded. Can the pear be removed without penalty? Nope, says the rules book. It’s a “natural object” and, thus, is part of the hazard.  I’m not making this up.

Self-importance is another USGA trait. Every other golf tournament on the planet has long settled end-of-regulation, first-place ties with immediate playoffs of one or a few holes, but not U.S. Opens. If their 72 holes end with players deadlocked a next-day, 18-hole playoff is ordained.  The tournaments are attended by a small army of auxiliaries, including the news corps, TV crews and technicians and the hundreds of people who provide on-course staffing, many of whom come from outside the tourney area. These folks must rebook their plane reservations and hotels and rearrange their work schedules to accommodate the USGA’s notion of fairness.

Their sole consolation is that it used to be worse: until 1931 the group required a next-day, 36-hole playoff to resolve first-place ties. That year Murphy’s Law kicked in and George Von Elm and Billy Burke again tied after the extra 36. They were sent out the next day to play another 36, with Burke eventually winning. I’m not making that up, either.

After ‘31 the playoff was reduced to 18 holes but only with the provision that ties after that required 18 more holes.  The additional 18 wasn’t lifted until the 1950s, when sudden-death after 90 holes finally was introduced. Some blue-blazer types still are tut-tutting about that, no doubt.





Wednesday, June 15, 2016

ALI

              Muhammad Ali died a fortnight ago, at age 74, and the response was overwhelming. He was hailed not only as a great athlete but as a great humanitarian as well. African-Americans, including those too young to have known him as a boxer, cited him as a role model both for his prowess and attitude. People of all races testified that the benign presence of his later years was an antidote to the fractious era in which we life.
            
              The outpouring was remarkable to someone my age (78) who can remember when Ali was regarded quite differently—as one whose braggadocio, quirky anti-Vietnam War stance and espousal of an overtly racist religious sect alienated and puzzled many. That all that appears to have been washed away testifies to his own evolution and to the healing powers of time. Shakespeare to the contrary notwithstanding, the good men do can live after them while the evil oft is interred with their bones. So let it be with Ali, we now say.

              But while one must swim upstream this month to suggest that the fighter was less than saintly, any real assessment of his life must be more complex.  The easiest part is its athletic component: as a boxer in his prime he fully lived up to his self-proclaimed title of “The Greatest.”  He might not have punched as hard as some heavyweights but most experts (and I) agree that his speed, grace, resilience and ring acumen were unsurpassed in his weight class. Indeed, the late Jimmy Jacobs, who owned the “Greatest Fights” archive, the world’s largest cache of boxing films dating from the 19th century, and who was Mike Tyson’s first manager, once told me he thought Ali was the fastest fighter ever, of any weight. That was no small feat for a tall man who performed at more than 200 pounds.

               Ali was only slightly less conspicuous outside the ring. Handsome (he’d say “pretty”), glib and charismatic, he attracted crowds wherever he went, and his playfulness was contagious, charming even the skeptical.  At the same time, his outspokenness and refusal to be patronized was startling for his era and set a standard for African-Americans that transcended sports.

              His refusal to be inducted into the military, assertedly on Muslim religious grounds, was puzzling because, then as now, Islam is not a pacific religion. Nonetheless, his stance must be regarded as courageous because it cost him far more than it did most others who followed that course. As a result of it he was stripped of his titles at his fighting peak and couldn’t get a match for 3 ½ years.

              Ali’s love of verse and one-liners, and gift for mimicry, caused him to be widely hailed as a wit. My full time sports-writing career began after his 1981 retirement from the ring, so I never spent time with him up close, but conversations with those who did revealed that many of his jokes were borrowed and repeated endlessly if they got a laugh. Still, they say, he was quick to size up his audiences, and his desire to entertain must be credited.

              But if Ali was smart he was not wise. His personal life was messy, including four marriages and three no-doubt-expensive divorces, and he left seven children by his wives and at least a couple more to duke it out over his estate.  His personal finances were equally chaotic; although his ring income has been estimated at more than $50 million (it would have been many times more in recent years) he was serially scammed by his handlers and had little put aside when his fighting days were done. The way I get it he lived in retirement mostly off latter-day endorsements and appearance fees. About all that remained of his ring income was a trust fund established for him by a group of businessmen in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, shortly after he turned pro in 1961.

              Worse was his management of his career, which lasted much too long. This is typical of athletes generally, including those engaged in his brutal sport, but in his case it had tragic consequences in the Parkinson’s disease and other ills that left him mute and palsied for the last 20 or so years of his life. That was an especially sad fate for one who had been so verbal and agile.

 If a Hollywood screen writer had called the shots Ali’s last fight would have been the one in which he evened the score with Joe Frazier in 1974 at the age of 32.  But needing the money, or seeing nothing better to do, he soldiered on. As he grew older he became easier to hit. Most of his 15 bouts after Frazier II were grueling affairs, 12 of them going 10 or more rounds. Boxers’ ages are better measured in rounds than in years, and those took a mighty toll.

I think that Ali’s influence on the greater world was strongest—and least fortunate—on our notions of sportsmanship, or how we regard winning, losing and competing. Sportsmanship always has been partly sham because no one enjoys losing and hard feelings often arise among competitors. But athletes’ treating opponents with respect cushions them all with the knowledge that sports needn’t be a zero-sum game and that when they lose they’ll receive such consideration in return.

Ali would have none of that. For him boxing wasn’t a test of skills within a confined space and agreed upon rules but psychological warfare that knew no bounds. Like a current presidential candidate he hung insulting nicknames on foes (the glowering Sonny Liston was “The Big, Ugly Bear”, the introverted Floyd Patterson was “The Rabbit,” the long-armed Frazier was “The Gorilla”), most of whom were black men like himself. He taunted them in and out of the ring and exulted in their demise. With his example to commend it, the trash talking, chest pounding and bicep flexing that today punctuates the smallest playing-field triumph took hold. It probably would have happened anyway but he gave it a kick start.

Ali toned down his act as he aged. In his 30s he left the black-separatist Nation of Islam to become a conventional Sunni Muslim, and his racial views moderated. In retirement his smile became permanent and all-encompassing. His humor took nondestructive turns. He loaned his name to and appeared on behalf of worthy causes.

 Because he could not speak in later life we don’t know how he felt about things, but he’d become so likable that we filled this blank slate with good thoughts and intentions.  That’s tribute enough for any man.
  

                  

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

THE RUSSIANS SHOULDN'T BE COMING

              When a sport's governing body assesses a violation of its rules it has two considerations. One is the impact of the violation on the character of the competition it oversees—in other words, the sport’s integrity. The other is how its ruling might affect business. It should come as no surprise that consideration No. 2 almost always prevails.
       
              In the U.S., Exhibit A in this regard regularly is found in the decisions of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which governs our college sports. Time and again serious institutional violations of its rules are punished by slaps on the wrist that cause no more than fleeting inconvenience to the perpetrators— one-year postseason bans, the loss of a scholarship or two, maybe the firing of a hapless assistant coach who has been designated as a scapegoat. The athletics ship of good ol’ Enormous U. is permitted to sail on, heedless of the damage left in its wake.
             
              The NCAA’s international counterpart is the International OIympic Committee, which runs the quadrennial Summer and Winter Games. It, too, can be counted upon to minimize offenses against its codes including corruption in its own ranks, treating them as fly specks on the magnificence of the spectacles it stages. The IOC’s official motto is “Citius, Altius, Fortius”—Latin for “Faster, Higher, Stronger”—but its real motto is “The Show Must Go On,” whatever squalor must be ignored to accomplish that end.

              But now the IOC faces its biggest judicial challenge yet as this August’s Summer Games in Rio approach. Russia, an international sports power, stands creditably accused of elevating the doping of its athletes to a state enterprise that already has altered numerous competitions.  If it chooses the obvious remedy—banning the Russkies—the IOC no doubt will put a dent in its event’s box-office appeal and, thus, its own coffers. Based on its past I’d put the odds on such a ruling at no better than even-money.

              Let’s be clear that the Russians have no corner on the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sports. Many athletes from many lands have done it, some of them such prominent Americans as Marion Jones and Lance Armstrong. Generally speaking, doping is a smart move because well-advised dopers usually are ahead of the testers technologically. Rewards are immediate while penalties come down the road, if at all. Even jocks who are caught usually are allowed to keep the financial gains their crimes produced; nobody has asked Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens for refunds on the huge salaries they pulled down in their juiced-up primes, and their records remain on the books.

              But by most accounts the big majority of dopers have been free-lancers, out for individual gain and backed only by a small coterie of coaches or medical people.  In the Russian case, the practice seemingly was massive, well planned and supported at the highest levels of national sport and government. Indeed, in Vladimir Putin’s Motherland, the dopers and the (so-called) testers were one and the same, the sort of seamless subversiveness not seen since the bad-old days of East Germany.

              Evidence for such conduct is seen in two, quite-separate cases. The first involves only track and field. Although rumors of Russian doping have been rife in the sport for years, they came to the fore only last November, when a German television station aired a documentary in which Yulia Stepanov, a world-class Russian middle-distance runner, testified that she’d regularly used performance-enhancing drugs during her career under the guidance of her national-team coaches and medical people.

 Her account was verified by her husband, Vitali, who’d been a technician in the testing lab that facilitated the process and destroyed or covered up any blood or urine tests that might have revealed it. It gained further credence by a video taken by Julia in which her teammate Maria Savinova, the gold medalist at 800 meters at the 2012 London Games, also admitted to drug use. “Everybody in Russia uses pharma,” Savinova remarked on tape.

The claims set off an investigation by an arm of WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency. Its report found “a deeply rooted culture of cheating” in the Russian sport and has resulted in a suspension of Russian athletes from international track and field competition since November. The IAAF, the sport’s governing body, will rule later this month on whether the ban will continue through the Rio Games.

Worse yet was an article in the New York Times last month in which Grigory Rodchenkov, who directed Russia’s national anti-doping laboratory from 2005 through 2015, said that not only did the facility falsify thousands of drug tests throughout that period under government direction, including during the 2014 Sochi Winter Games that Russia hosted, it also whipped up and administered the drug cocktails the athletes took.

 He said that at Sochi he was part of an elaborate scheme that, amazingly, passed “clean” urine samples through a hole in the wall at the main drug-testing lab that confederates inside swapped for the “dirty” ones Russia athletes submitted after competing. The effort, he said, was the main reason Russia led the national medal table at Sochi after placing a distant 11th at the Winter Games four years earlier, permitting Putin to preen upon the world stage. That a subsequent WADA statement said that Russians accounted for 14 of 31 samples that turned up “positive” after being recently retested from the 2008 Beijing Summer Games using updated methods affirmed the view that the country has been at it for some time. Eight more Russians registered positive in recent retests from the London Games.

Thomas Bach, the German who heads the IOC, has been outspoken since Rodchenkov’s allegations surfaced, calling them a “shocking new dimension in doping” that bespeaks “an unprecedented level of criminality.” They should result in a Russian ban if verified by WADA, he’s said.  Verification, however, might be difficult because witnesses inside Russian figure to be scarce, especially since two close colleagues of Rodchenkov turned up dead within weeks of each other there in February after Rodchenkov had fled to the U.S. (He was sacked after the track-and-field story gained credence.)

Russia has mixed its usual bluster over such matters with denials of institutional responsibility and pledges to cooperate with WADA investigators. Because the Rodchenkov story broke in May, less than 90 days before Rio was to start (on Aug. 5), the IOC might claim it didn’t have time for a thorough probe and let things slide. It also could pass the buck to WADA or the IAAF, even though its leadership is so intertwined with that of those two groups as to make it indistinguishable.

Finally, though, the IOC for once might be forced to back up its high-flown rhetoric about sportsmanship and clean competition with an action supporting it. That would mean doffing its “promoter” hat for the one labeled “policeman.”

 If it can find the “policeman” hat, that is.


 
             
             

               

Sunday, May 15, 2016

MAY MIRACLE

              A Chicago baseball fan, just back from a long trip up the Amazon River, this week would have been shocked to read the Major League standings. There were the Cubs and White Sox in first place in their divisions, and with the best records in their leagues. The guy could be excused if his first reaction was that he’d contracted a tropical disease and was seeing things upside down.
             
              Yes, the Cubs were supposed to be good this year after last season’s 97-win romp, but not THIS good, starting 25-6 before tailing off a bit. The Sox were a question mark coming in, as they are most seasons, and their fast start surprised everyone, probably including themselves.
            
               As is well known, baseball prosperity has been rare in Chicago generally, and the across-the-board variety rarer still. The Cubs haven’t won a pennant since 1945 and the Sox just two since 1919, a record of futility that impresses even geologists and others with long frames of reference. What Bob Verdi called “the city of broad shoulders and narrow trophy cabinets” has had two annual chances at the World Series since it began in 1903 and only once—in 1906—did its representatives meet for the sport’s top prize (the Sox won, four games to two). By contrast, New York has enjoyed 14 so-called “Subway Series,” and if it had three shots back in the Dodgers-Giants days that’s still a huge edge. No doubt, the disparity has been a contributor to Chicago’s eternal “Second City” complex.

              Popular wisdom has it that there are two kinds of Chicago baseball fans: Cubs fans who hate the Sox and Sox fans who hate the Cubs. That means that those types’ happiness is being marred by the success of the object of their enmity. I’m here to tell you, though, that some bighearted Chicagoans or ex-pats (like me) are smiling broadly these days, basking in both teams’ good fortune. It probably won’t last but it’s fun while it’s here.             

              I was a Cubs’ fan first, having grown up a short bike ride from Wrigley Field, and as a kid considered the Sox’s South Side bailiwick a foreign and dangerous place, but when I was a teen in the 1950s the Cubs were lousy and the Sox pretty good, so I sometimes braved the trip to Comiskey Park to watch them.  The Cubs still are my team No. 1 to the Sox’s 1A but I cheered when the Sox broke the ancient drought by winning the 2005 championship and I’d cheer just as loudly if they did it again.

              Chicago has been a Cubs’ town for the last 30 or so years, but that wasn’t always the case. The two teams fought it out about equally at the box office into the mid-1980s before the Sox made the ill-fated decision to go off “free” TV and onto cable before most people had cable. The gap widened in the 1990s when the Sox accepted a state-legislature ultimatum and built their new stadium next door to their old one on the sagging South Side while the area around North Side Wrigley Field turned into a year-round fun mecca. Now all the Cubs have to do to draw a crowd is show up, while the Sox have to win, a position no sports team relishes.

              The two teams’ different situations dictated their recent roster strategies. When he took over the going-nowhere Cubs’ front office in late 2011, Theo Epstein felt secure enough to tank the next three seasons in order to stock up on high draft choices and other prospects. He did it brilliantly, drafting Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber and trading for the likes of Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell. With a little luck (like the low-profile trade for late-blooming pitching wonder Jake Arrieta) and young, low-budget lineup in hand he paid up for starting pitchers and a few others to round things out.  He’s got money to play with if new needs arise.

              Always having to produce immediately, the Sox by contrast have rolled the dice with young pitching draftees (Chris Sale, Carlos Rondon) and a big-money slugger spirited out of Cuba (Jose Abreu) while cobbling together an everyday lineup and bullpen with mid-and low-level trades and free agents. They’ve done that before with little effect but this time seem to have scored. They’ll last as long as their pitching does.

              While the Sox’s success this season has been the more surprising, it’s also pretty remarkable that the Cubs are doing as well as they have. In a sport where the best teams win six of 10 and the worst four of 10, their .806 start came despite a lineup that mostly didn’t include young-slugger Schwarber, lost for the season in a first-week injury, and starting catcher Miguel Montero, off for the last few weeks with back ills. Jason Heyward, the team’s big off-season free-agent acquisition, is barely hitting .200 and has no home runs through six weeks. Jorge Soler, their usual left fielder, can’t get his BA above .200.  When (if) those guys start to hit the team really will be dangerous.

              Even more remarkably, the Cubs have assets they have yet to tap. These include that rarest of commodities, a young catcher who can hit. Willson Contreras, a 24-year-old Venezuelan, led the Double-A Southern League in batting last season, excelled in the Arizona Fall League and was hitting .347 at Triple-A Iowa at midweek. If he keeps it up they’ll have to bring him up before the season is over. Twenty-two-year-old Albert Almora, their top draft choice in 2012, is hitting .322 at Iowa. He’s projected as the Cubs’ center fielder for the next dozen years. Maybe they can loan him to the Sox until they have room for him.

              So yeah, I’m dreaming, but dreaming is free so why not dream big. A Cubs-Sox World Series is as big as it gets.

              DERBY NOTE—If you read the blog below you know I had the Kentucky Derby exacta (1-2) finishers Nyquist and Exaggerator in my boxes. That was swell but my bets cost $40 and my winning tickets paid $30, so I lost on the race. It happens sometimes. 
             
             
             
                  

              

Friday, May 6, 2016

DERBY PICKS

              The Kentucky Derby is Saturday and it’s always a challenge for the handicapper. That’s because the race’s distance of 1 ¼ miles is longer than any of the contestants has run and its big field of 19 or 20 rambunctious colts makes a lot of slamming around inevitable. That’s not good for the animals being slammed or the people who bet on them.
             
              The Derby’s length makes many handicappers look especially for horses with “late” run but that can be a mistake, I think. The saying that the lead dog has the best view still applies; he also has the easiest trip. That’s why one of my go-to horses on Saturday will be the favorite NYQUIST, who likes to press the pace. Although his name suggests a cold remedy (he’s really named for a hockey player), he’s done nothing but win so far, having gone seven of seven, and hasn’t been cowed by large fields or big events. He’ll be in my tickets.

              But Nyquist is 3-to-1 in the morning line so to make some money I’ll be pairing him with longer shots in combination bets. The horse I’ll really be rooting for is DESTIN, who is 15-to-1 in the morning line. He runs on the pace and has won three of five starts including the Tampa Bay Derby, where he beat a very good field. I’ll also include EXAGGERATOR. Although he’s a closer his winning run in the Santa Anita Derby was eye popping and his nine races to date (he’s won four) give him an experience edge on the field. His morning-line odds of 8-to-1 seem like a bargain. A Beyer Speed Rating of at least 100 is a usual prerequisite for Derby contention and each of those three horses has achieved it, as has only one other entry.

              I’ll be betting two five-horse, $1 exacta boxes, which means my picks must come in 1-2.  I’ll put Nyquist, Destin and Exaggerator in both boxes, barring late scratches, of course. In one box I’ll add the 12-to-1 MOR SPIRIT, who always runs well (three firsts and four seconds in seven starts) and MO TOM (20-to-1), who might have challenged in the Louisiana Derby if he didn’t have to be pulled up twice. That will be a 4-9-11-13-17 ticket by post position. In the other I’ll add the 15-to-1 OUTWORK, who has early speed, and MOHAYMEN (10-to-1), a winner of four of five. That’ll be 9-11-13-14-16.

My bets will cost me $40, which is more than I usually put on a race, but it’s the Derby, so what the heck.

              

Sunday, May 1, 2016

HOT-AIR HURRICANE

              My dictionary defines a “draft” as “a current of air,” but that doesn’t nearly do justice to the National Football League’s version, the latest edition of which wrapped up on Saturday. The NFL Draft has become a veritable hot-air hurricane, one that sweeps all other hype before it.
       
       ESPN and sports pages throughout the nation obsess for weeks about which NFL teams will choose which players in the three-day annual draw and TV gab fest, which in any endeavor other than sports would be illegal. (How would you like to have been “drafted” by, say, an accounting firm in Green Bay, Wisconsin, when you completed college?) The thing has become has become a capital “E” Event, with last week’s host city, Chicago, renaming itself “Draft Town” for the occasion and setting aside parkland to  stage satellite entertainments to surround it.

 Then, once the picking is done, the abovementioned news outlets scurry to grade the teams on how well they did, heedless of the fact that no one has much idea how, or if, the young men involved will perform in actual professional football.  So thick is the dust cloud the blow generates that it takes weeks to dissipate.

The draft succeeds as show biz because, as we illustrate in many ways, we love to be conned, and because the NFL has mastered the art of conning.  It does this partly by exploiting another national trait, our fascination with technology. Not content with merely scouting its prospects in action the way our other professional sports do (pretty much), it has erected an elaborate structure it would have us believe has made drafting into a science. The February before the selections are made it summons candidates to a week-long “combine” in Indianapolis in which they are measured, weighed, timed, tested, poked and prodded, all the better to take chance out of the drafting equation. This has become a news-media event in itself and things like weight-room reps and vertical-leap heights are breathlessly reported, as though they held the keys to gridiron excellence.

If some teams are to be believed, they’ve also developed techniques to discern a prospect’s “character,” which in NFL Speak means ferreting out the predilection of these big, aggressive and over-trained individuals to do things like beat up their girlfriends or drive while intoxicated. You’d think that the frequency with which such things occur anyway might cause skepticism of such claims, but usually it doesn’t.

 Quarterback is football’s most important and closely inspected position, and most drafts hinge on quarterback prospects. This year’s was no exception, with Jared Goff from the U. of California and Carson Wentz from North Dakota State U. (!?), being the top two overall picks. Nonetheless, the big brains who do the selecting frequently err on QBs, registering a long list of high-choice failures (JaMarcus Russell, Ryan Leaf, Rick Mirer, Akili Smith, Tim Couch, Matt Leinart, Cade McNown, Johnny Manziel, etc., etc.). It’s worth noting that the best pro quarterback of recent years, Tom Brady, didn’t go until the sixth round of his draft year (2000), with 198 players picked ahead of him.

Top defensive selections often don’t fare much better. Jadeveon Clowney, the lineman/linebacker from the U. of South Carolina who was the most-hyped defensive player in recent years, was the first player chosen in 2014, but he’s proven to be a fragile sort who has missed almost as many games (15) as he’s played (17) in his first two seasons with the Houston Texans and hasn’t starred in most of the ones in which he’s appeared.

Further, the crapshoot that the draft always was has become more so in recent seasons. That’s because of the gap that’s developed between the NFL’s game and the one being played at most of the colleges that happily serve as the league’s feedlots.

Sports Illustrated magazine devoted a recent article to this subject. It’s worth quoting at length:

“On Saturdays, most college games are high-scoring affairs ruled by simple schemes on both sides of the ball and even simpler techniques. Quarterbacks rarely call plays or take snaps under center. The receiving routes are basic and offensive linemen don’t often get into the three-point stances which are the norm in the NFL.

“This affects the defensive side as well.  Ends can’t develop pass-rush moves because the ball gets out so quickly. Defensive backs need to protect space so few of them have ever played man coverage, again the norm in the NFL. Linebackers in college are more adept at dropping into a passing zone than shedding a blocker. College safeties are like goal keepers in soccer, just trying to keep the ball in front them.

“Sundays, on the other hand, are a chess match. Quarterbacks bark out complicated play calls in the huddle and then change them at the line. Defenses bluff in and out of different looks and then bring an unorthodox blitz with press-man coverage. The offensive line has to execute double teams from three-point stances or the running game doesn’t go anywhere.”

“A [prospect] can have all the talent in the world but our [NFL] game is all about fundamentals and these players don’t have them,” summed up Dave Gettleman, the Carolina Panthers’ general manager.

“In my 25 years in the NFL I’ve never seen a larger disparity between the college and pro games,” added Stephen Jones, director of player personnel for the Dallas Cowboys.

So I hope you enjoyed the show but save the grades for later; your team’s prize selection probably will look like Tarzan but might play like Jane. To paraquote Forrest Gump: “The draft is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.”