Saturday, June 16, 2018

IMMORTALS AMONG US


                I read somewhere that at any given time about 30 future Hall of Famers are on the active rosters of Major League Baseball clubs, and while I haven’t done any independent research on the subject the number seemed high. I’m thinking 15 for sure, maybe 20, but 30 might be a stretch.

                That predicting future Hall membership with any certainty can be hazardous is seen in the cases of Ryan Braun and Robinson Cano. Both had careers that seemed to be Cooperstown bound until they were ensnarled in the game’s drug-testing net. Given the fate of other dopers their immortality now appears to be unlikely, unless a pharmaceutical company takes over the place or they enlist Kim Kardashian to plead their cases.

                That said, though, I think that most of us fans carry a list of future Famers around in our heads and all that remains is to write it down. I’ll do that in the paragraphs to follow. You can, too, if you like-- on your own computer or legal pad, that is.

                My list breaks down into three parts: sure things, maybes, and “not there yet.”  The last category exists because nobody gets on a Hall of Fame ballot without having put in 10 or more  Major League seasons. Contrary to public belief, that and having been retired for at least five years are the only statistical requirements for membership. Players also must pass the muster of a writers’ nominating committee, but that’s a low bar.

                Name Number One on my “sure thing” list is easy to guess. He’s ALBERT PUJOLS, the LA Angels slugger. Nobody fills a batter’s box like big Albert and few have filled the box scores better, as his 3,000-plus career hits and 600-plus home runs attest. Though he has his aches and pains he’s still hitting pretty well and at age 38 isn’t talking about retirement. There’s still time to tell your grandchildren you saw him play.

                My Number 1A is ICHIRO SUZUKI, maybe the best contact hitter ever. He didn’t show up in the U.S. Majors until age 27 but still topped the magical 3,000-hits mark. Throw in his 1,278 hits in the top pro league of his native Japan and you’ve got an Everest-like record. Technically, the 44-year-old Ichiro isn’t active at the moment, having recently joined the Seattle Mariners’ front office after starting this season on the field, but he’s vowed to return and play until he needs a walking cane, and one can only believe him.

                Then there’s MIGUEL CABRERA, the era’s best all-around batsman. His .317 average over 16 seasons is the best of any player with 10 or more years’ service, and his 2012 Triple Crown—leading the Majors in batting average, home runs and runs batted in—was a signal achievement, a 45-year first. Enough said.

                Pujols, Ichiro and Cabrera are certain first-ballot electees. Three other players also seem sure to make it, albeit perhaps not that fast. ADRIAN BELTRE qualifies by having hit safely 3,000-plus times, an accomplishment that may die out if the current, swing-for-the-fences hitting mentality endures. His other batting numbers also are of Hall quality. YADIER MOLINA has been the best defensive catcher of his era, a very good hitter and a fiery team leader whose presence dominates any field on which he performs. JOE MAUER has put in 15 seasons, mostly behind the plate, and has batted better than .300 so far, a rare combo. Playing with the out-of-the-way Minnesota Twins hasn’t helped, but his Gold Gloves, All-Star Game appearances and 2009 MVP have.

                The best three starting pitchers of the current era—JUSTIN VERLANDER, MAX SCHERZER and CLAYTON KERSHAW-- also seem to be headed for enshrinement, even though recent trends in the game dictate a reassessment of starting-pitching stats. Time was when the best starters aimed at 20-win seasons and careers with 250 or more victories. Now starters start every fifth game instead of every fourth and quick hooks are the rule, so those standards are out of date. Verlander, Scherzer and Kershaw have put in a combined total of 36 Major League seasons but have only five 20-win seasons among them, and none has yet recorded 200 career wins.

Verlander was 197-116 in the won-lost column last week, but he’s 35 years old. Scherzer was 151-77 at age 33. Kershaw, 145-68, is the youngest of the trio at 30, but has spent parts of the last two years on the disabled list, so his longevity is questionable. Where have you gone Greg Maddux?

My “maybe” list is fairly short, including JOEY VOTTO, DUSTIN PEDROIA, BUSTER POSEY, CC SABATHIA, BARTOLO COLON and JON LESTER.  Posey, Pedroia and Votto are good bets if they keep playing at a high level for a few seasons more, but Votto and Pedroia both are 34 years old so that might be difficult for them (Posey is 30). Colon and Sabathia lead active pitchers in career wins—Colon with 243 and Sabathia with 241—but neither has been dominant in the manner of Verlander, Scherzer or Kershaw, so Hall electors might find them to be acquired tastes.  Ditto for Lester, 167-94 at age 34. He can’t throw to first base but his three World Series rings won’t hurt.

 In my “not there yet” category are a bunch of players who have yet to put in 10 seasons. It includes the position players MIKE TROUT, JOSE ALTUVE, BRYCE HARPER, MOOKIE BETTS, MANNY MACHADO, PAUL GOLDSCHMIDT, FRANCISCO LINDOR, AARON JUDGE, GIANCARLO STANTON, KRIS BRYANT and ANTHONY RIZZO, and the pitchers CHRIS SALE, COREY KLUBER, AROLDIS CHAPMAN  and CRAIG KIMBREL.

 Athletic careers are chancy, easily interrupted or ended by injury or other missteps, so there’s no telling who in that group will make it and who won’t. Those with the best chances to compile truly memorable career numbers started youngest—Harper and Trout at age 19 and Altuve at 21, for instance. The currently dominant Kluber, on the other hand, is 32 years and has 85 wins to show for his seven-plus seasons, so conventional Hall credentials may be beyond his reach.  

Still, the fat, jolly Colon is still at it at 45 and just tied Juan Marichal in career wins, so anything’s possible. That’s why we watch, isn’t it?

Friday, June 1, 2018

A CUP HALF EMPTY


                Followers of this space know that I enjoy soccer generally, and the sport’s quadrennial World Cup tournament in particular. As a columnist I covered two World Cups—in the United States in 1994 and in France in 1998—and rank them as Nos. 1 and 1A of the favorite events of my sports-writing tenure. Their color and excitement were unsurpassed, and the skill of the participants at least equaled that of any of the other major global sports fests.

Feet are harder to control than hands, and what the top soccerers do with theirs is remarkable. If you don’t believe that, try kicking any round object with your “off” foot (most of us are right-or left-footed as well as handed). Just making contact is an accomplishment, and watch out that you don’t land on your butt after a swing and miss.

So while you might expect that I’m looking forward mightily to the next World Cup edition, which begins on June 14, you’d be mistaken. I’ll no doubt take in some random games, and be intrigued by some individual matchups, but the event already has been pretty much spoiled for me. I’ll be paying less attention to it than I have in the past.

There are two reasons for this:

--The U.S. isn’t in it.

--It’s in Russia.

The U.S. isn’t in it because it didn’t make the field, falling short in the nearly two-year qualifying phase that ended last October. FIFA, the outfit that runs the Cup, is mindful of the big American TV market and our nation’s contingent of well-heeled traveling fans, and very much wanted the U.S. to make it, but that required winning enough games in our easy, North and Central America play-in division, and we didn’t. Team USA entered the last two games of the six-nation, 10-game tournament needing only one tie to earn a Cup spot, but lost to Costa Rica at home and then bowed to Trinidad and Tobago on the road. The latter loss, by a 2-1 score, ranks as a one of the biggest soccer upsets ever, not only because of T & T’s tiny size (its pop. is about 1.3 million) but also because of its 1-win, 8-loss record going in (the U.S.’s final mark was 3 wins, 4 losses and 3 ties).  It was kind of like a Major League baseball team losing to a Class A club.

     Heads rolled because of the failure-- the two U.S. coaches and the national-federation president during the tournament either were fired or quit under fire—but with the every-four-years Cup format it meant a long slog the wilderness for the entire American sport. Soccer is a minority taste in this land, so the setback wasn’t as catastrophic as it was in the perennial powers Italy and The Netherlands, but not being in the party after a seven-time run stings.

The fact that this year’s tournament is in Russia attests to the corrupt nature of FIFA. Like its multisport counterpart the International Olympic Committee, FIFA is a self-appointed, self-perpetuating body that exists to enable its leaders to stuff their pockets from the deluge of money that has come to big-time world sports, through no special efforts of their own. Like the IOC, FIFA is partial to authoritarian governments like that of Russia and the 2022 World Cup host Qatar, where the graft is conveniently centralized and there’s no danger from pain-in-the-ass citizens’ groups protesting its predations.  The record of both groups forfeits any presumption of innocence in their dealings; one can safety assume that bribery plays a role in all their major decisions.

That the fix already is in for this year’s Cup is shown in Russia’s inclusion in by far the easiest of the tournament’s eight, four-nation round-robin groups. Russia never has been a world soccer force, and its national team is ranked 66th world-wide going in, but the “draw” blessed it with a group that includes other non-powers Egypt, Uruguay and Saudi Arabia. The Cup’s opening match, pitting the Ruskies against the 70th-ranked Saudis, will be the least-attractive such game ever.

In a better world national virtue would count for something in the award of international sports extravaganzas, but not in this one. Russia under the odious Vladimir Putin leads any list of world evildoers, making war on its neighbors, jailing domestic dissidents, murdering ex-pats and waging cyber attacks against the Western democracies.   

In sports Russia is a pariah, its banners and emblems (but, unfortunately, not all its athletes) barred from the 2016 Summer Olympics as a result of revelations of wholesale doping violations at the 2014 Winter Olympics, which it hosted. Its state-organized doping regime extended well beyond those Games, involving more than 1,000 athletes in some 30 sports, according to numerous sources. It may continue yet, as evidenced by its continuing ban from international track and field competition and its nose-thumbing failure to bring its drug-testing procedures up to standard. Drug testing for the World Cup will be carried out in Switzerland, not Russia.

Russia’s soccer fans behave worse than its athletes, if that’s possible, roaming foreign cities in paramilitary packs and raising bloody havoc when the national team plays abroad. Russia nearly was ejected from the 2016 European Champions in France because of their antics. Last March FIFA again threatened action when fans in St. Petersburg directed racists chants at French player Paul Pogba during a match there; that was just the latest of many such incidents. Such things play poorly on international TV, so Putin, et al, can be expected to rein them in during Cup play, but the nasty undercurrent can’t be whitewashed away.

   There has been some international bounce-back against the Cup, with some corporate-sponsorship slots going unfilled and at least Great Britain refusing to send official delegations to the opening and closing ceremonies. But the “show must go on” mentality that also pervades the Olympics will hold, and the Cup will continue to be the world’s most-watched sporting event, with a peak TV audience estimated at three billion people.

Some of us Yanks will be among that number, and with the U.S.  not represented the question of rooting will arise. Fox Sports, which owns U.S. TV rights, for a while promoted a “root for your roots” approach, which would have Americans pulling for their ancestral homelands, but I’m grateful that my forebears escaped from theirs, so that’s out for me. I’ll give a cheer for England because its team includes several members of Tottenham Hotspur, by club-team favorite, and for Iceland, where my daughter-in-law is from.  But mostly I’ll be rooting for good games, the same as I do for domestic competitions that don’t include my Chicago teams.

And I’ll be flicking through my TV guide to find the broadcasts of the Spanish-language network Telemundo. My Spanish is poor but one doesn’t need much of it to follow Andres Cantor, its lead soccer announcer, and his signature cry of “GOOOOOAAAAAL” requires no translation.  


                 

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

BRAY FOR PAY


                An NCAA panel fronted by Condoleezza Rice, the diplomat turned apologist for big-time collegiate sports, a couple of weeks ago came out with some recommendations for reform of same, prompted by last fall’s revelations of the existence of a widespread black market in the signing of top-level basketball prospects. As could have been predicted, the result was a fizzle, emitting a bang closer to that of a BB gun than a cannon.

 The result brought to mind a quote from the red-nosed Mathias “Paddy” Bauler, a saloon keeper and Chicago alderman of the 1940s and ‘50s who, after the 1955 mayoral election of Richard J. Daley, jubilantly (and correctly) cried “Chicago ain’t ready for reform!”

Instead of shaking up an institution whose corruption surpasses that of old-time Chicago politics, the Rice panel called for things like permitting more contact between college athletes and agents, taking closer control over the summer-basketball camps where the avalanche of shoe-company money behind the fall’s bribery allegations begins, and strengthening penalties for rule-violating schools and coaches beyond the present wrist slaps. Big deal, huh?

 It came out against the much-mocked “one-and-done” regime in college hoops, which allows top pro prospects to double-park in college until they’re NBA-eligible at age 19, but the colleges can’t do that without the cooperation of the NBA and its players’ union and that won’t come until 2020 at the earliest, those entities say.  So don’t worry Kentucky and Duke fans, you’re safe for now.

Also predictably, the loudest voices critical of Rice, et al, came from the crowd that thinks that paying college athletes will cure all ills. Anyone who’s given five minutes’ thought to that position can see that it would raise more issues than it answers, including whom to pay (all college athletes male and female or just football and basketballers?); how much should be paid and on what basis (should starters make more than subs or stars more than ordinary starters?);  and whether, as employees, the athletes should have a voice in their terms of employment, such as practice and games’ scheduling and travel.

Further, students of human nature will note that whatever permissible salary levels would be set above the table, another and more-generous one would quickly develop under it. “What they want to pay you is chump change,” procurer A will tell super-prospect B. “We’ll do better than that.”

Missing from the recommendations is anything having to do with the college side of college sports, which by me and others is what really stinks about NCAA World. The only reported mention of academics in the Rice report came in the threat that if the NBA won’t play ball over one-and-done the colleges could unilaterally deal with it by banning freshman eligibility the way they used to, but that makes so much sense it has little likelihood of enactment.

To find strong and reasoned arguments against college sports’ academic status quo one should to go to the website of the Drake Group, an association of college faculty members and other reform advocates founded in 1999 at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, and now run out of the University of New Haven in Connecticut. It’s founding manifesto leaves no doubt about how it views the current state of affairs.

“The NCAA’s continuing success at professionalizing big-time college athletics puts academic corruption on par with prostitution, illegal gambling and speeding violations as acceptable forms of misconduct in America—it’s okay as long as you don’t get caught” it says. “Athlete are clustered in majors that have easy or no educational content. Most of their course work is phony…masked by grade inflation, outright grade changes and excessive independent study courses.” And you should hear them when they’re really mad.

As any parent of a teen can tell you, a full-ride scholarship to a four-year university is no small thing, worth on its face anywhere from about $100,000 at a public institution to three or four times that amount at a private one. That’s more than adequate compensation for 18-to-22-year-olds and is in addition to the much larger annual income college grads can expect to earn in their professional lives. But for the jock in the so-called “revenue sports,” the bars to getting a degree are high, beginning with the full-time job that team membership entails and including a way-premature dunk into the publicity cauldron that is top-level sports.

  The NCAA contends that its “student-athletes” graduate at a higher rate than students generally, but in an article on the Drake Group website Shaun R. Harper, director of the Center on Race and Equity at the University of Southern California, writes that doesn’t apply to athletes at the 65 universities in the so-called “Power Five” conferences (the SEC, Big 10, Big 12, PAC 12 and ACC), which command almost all the attention and money in college sports. His figures, taken from 2012 through 2016, show that 69.3% of varsity athletes at those schools graduated in six years or fewer compared to 76.3% of all undergraduates, despite their access to easy courses, friendly profs and substantial academic support.

The rub really comes with the black athletes who comprise 55% of the varsity football players and 56% of the men’s basketballers at the “Power Five” schools, Harper’s piece says.  That’s despite the fact that black men make up only 2.4% of the undergraduate student bodies of those institutions. Their graduation rate was 55%, 21 percentage points below that of all students.

Five of the 14 members of the Rice panel were African Americans (Ms. Rice, former basketball stars Grant Hill and David Robinson, ex-coach John Thompson and Gene Smith, a vice president at Ohio State University), but the group didn’t address the specific academic problems of the black athlete or the picture their recruitment paints of higher education in the U.S. The discrepancy between the black male athlete and other students of their race is greatest in the SEC schools of the South; at the Universities of Florida, Auburn, Georgia and Alabama black males made up between 2.2% and 3.6% of the student bodies but between 77.7% and 72.5% of the football and basketball squads.  Something’s out of whack there, don’t you think?    

Thursday, May 3, 2018

DERBY PICKS


                Do you believe that history affects athletic performances? It’s a good question to ask when the athletes are human but maybe not so good when other creatures do the vying.

                That’s my thought as another Kentucky Derby approaches on Saturday. The two favorites—Justify and Mendelssohn—each would have to overcome historical barriers to win, Justify because no horse unraced as a two-year-old has won the Big Race since 1882 and Mendelssohn because no horse based in Europe ever has turned the trick.

                I suppose that’s interesting but by me it’s irrelevant because horses can’t read and, thus, probably know less history than most Americans, although I’m not entirely sure about that. Both animals will be in my tickets when the starting gate opens at old Churchill Downs.

                The Derby is tough for handicappers because its 1 ¼-mile is longer than any of the three-year-old contestants have run and its field of 19 or 20 is larger, ensuring that some of the runners (we never know which) will be jostled out of their games. The good news is that most years, including this one, an elite field means that very good odds will be available on some very good horses, setting up some lucrative payout possibilities.

                JUSTIFY is 3-1 in the morning line and MENDELSSOHN is 5-1, and you’ll never see odds like those on them again.  Although unraced at two, Santa Anita Derby winner Justify is the fastest horse in the field, with three Beyer speed ratings of 100 or better to show for his three races, all wins. He can’t be overlooked despite his slim credentials. Neither, says me, can UK-based Mendelssohn, who has won on three continents, including last year’s Breeders Cup Juvenile Turf in the U.S.  Both like to run on or near the lead, which is good in a big field. They’ll both be in my two, five-horse, $1 exacta boxes, and if they run 1-2 I’ll about break even. As Joe E. Lewis used to say, that’d be good ‘cause I need the money.
                 
               The horse I’ll really be rooting for is GOOD MAGIC, 12-1 in the morning line. He’s won both the Breeders Cup Juvenile at two and last month’s Blue Grass Stakes, and has logged a 100 Beyer, the gold-standard for top-level Thoroughbreds. Further, and importantly, he beat a field of 15 in the Blue Grass, showing he doesn’t mind a crowd. He’ll also be in both my boxes and will ensure a nice payout if he finishes first or second.
                
                 Barring late scratches or mind changes I’ll round out my boxes with a couple of middle-priced horses and a couple of real longshots, with one in each. The middle-pricers are speedy BOLT D’ORO, who chased but didn’t quite catch Justify in California, and AUDIBLE, a “what’s not to like?” colt who’s won four of five, including the Florida Derby. Both are 8-1 going in. The true longshots, both 30-1, are NOBLE INDY and MY BOY JACK, the latter a Silky Sullivan-style closer. My Derby fantasy has him roaring down the home stretch Saturday, battling Good Magic to the wire. If they go 1-2 I’ll take you out to lunch.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

SHOWIN' 'EM


                Victor Oladipo, who plays for the NBA Indiana Pacers, a couple of weeks ago scored 32 points to leads his team to victory in a first-round playoff game with the Cleveland Cavaliers.  Afterward he was reminded that Dan Gilbert, who owns the Cavs, was quoted as saying the Pacers “could have done better” than getting young Oladipo in an off-season trade that involved the established star Paul George going to the Oklahoma City Thunder.

                Asked after the contest if recalling Gilbert’s comment had motivated his performance, Oladipo agreed. “You could say it added fuel to the fire, I guess you could say,” he elliptically told a reporter for the ESPN website.

                To which I thought, Huh? Here’s a player who excelled in the hectic atmosphere of the NBA playoffs while stewing over an off-hand remark an old-guy team owner had made six months before? If that were true it was a miracle he didn’t trip over his own shoelaces.

                Indeed, of all sports-page clichés, which are far too numerous to begin to recount here, the most irksome to me is the one that portrays an athlete or team as angry over some criticism and striving to succeed in order to “show” the critic—to set things straight, as it were.  Invoking it is a crutch for sportswriters too lazy to seek a better description of what transpired during a game and an easy way for an athlete to get out of an interview. The differences between winning or losing on our most-exalted fields of play are many and complex, often defying explanation.  Those involved seem to agree that it’s better to fob off a quick-and-dirty answer than to explore further.

                The seductive thing about the “showing ‘em” cliché is that it applies to just about every performer. The guy who was picked No. 2 in his sport’s annual draft can be portrayed as seething that he wasn’t No. 1; the No. 6 guy can be pissed off at Nos. 1 through 5. If Joe Jock wasn’t a first-round pick he has a right to be upset with every team in his league for passing him over, including his own.  By that reasoning Tom Brady’s quest for six NFL title rings can be explained by his sixth-round draft position.

                Coaches—or, at least, those lacking in motivational skills—feed the resentment theme by maintaining bulletin boards on which to post every published comment on their team or its players that isn’t fulsome praise.  Champion teams do it, too—hey!, everybody’s got critics. It’s even okay if the naysayers are not only nameless but also unnamable-- they’re “the doubters,” whomever they may be. The sports world seems to be filled by Rodney Dangerfields, straightening their neckties and muttering about how they “don’t get no respect.”

                The late Vince Lombardi, the NFL’s guiding spirit, said “there’s nothing that stokes the fire like hate,” and, certainly, genuine animosity can arise between teams that bump heads often, like his Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears. On the collegiate level, ancient rivalries such as Ohio State-Michigan and Alabama-Auburn can stir the blood both on and off the field and hike the victory stakes. But I don’t think St. Vince had remarks like that of the above-mentioned Mr. Gilbert in mind when he spake as he did. Not nearly.

                The springs of athletic motivation begin very simply with the satisfaction of winning and the pain of losing. I daresay that every weekend warrior can attest to this; the guy across the net might be your best friend in the world but when the ball is in play you want to kick his butt. I’m sure it works similarly among elite athletes, with the pain side usually outweighing the elation one; biographies of champions reveal that not wanting to lose is an especially potent motivator.

                Among professional athletes or pros-to-be the lure of fame and riches kick in. In his post-diamond days as a coach Ernie Banks said “I like my players to be married and in debt. That’s the way you motivate them.” Today’s pros pull down salaries so far above the subsistence level that the line about having to “feed the family” is ludicrous, but the principle still holds.  The money that top performers make today is so large that the figures often are abstractions even to their recipients, but athletes know pretty much what their teammates and competitors earn and the desire to move up on this most-basic scoreboard is an excellent reason to run the extra sprint or do more weight-room reps.
              
               The most-telling point to make on this subject is the growing body of knowledge that holds that athletes do their best when they are the least self-conscious, when thoughts of revenge or self-justification disappear and are replaced by a laser-like concentration on the job at hand.
           
               The psychologist Andrew Cooper, who has written extensively about this, coined the phrase “in the zone” to describe it. It’s a Zen-like place where limitations are forgotten, extraneous sights and sounds vanish, time seems to slow and the game takes on a life of its own.
            
             If this sounds like airy-fairy theorizing, it isn’t. Recall if you will the first game of the 1992 NBA finals playoffs pitting the Chicago Bulls against the Portland Trail Blazers, when the Bulls’ Michael Jordan scored 35 first-half points composed mostly of the six-straight three-point shots he sank. After the last of those three-pointers Jordan, who never lacked for ego,  turned toward the scorer’s table, raised his eyebrows and shrugged in genuine dismay, as if to ask “Did I do that?”

The game has been known since as the “Shrug Game.” It stands as Youtube testimony to what an athlete can do when he ain’t hardly tryin’.
               
                  
               

                 
                 
               
                  
                     

Sunday, April 15, 2018

PAYING DEARLY


                The Chicago Tribune, to which I subscribe online to keep up with news from my homeland, last week ran a couple of stories about the ticket prices of the Chicago Cubs, my favorite baseball team. Both made me blink.

                The first was that the Cubs this season will set aside 60 “lower terrace” (i.e., not the worst) seats at their Wrigley Field base for each home game and sell them for $10 each to winners of a lottery the team has set up. Those who want them will sign up at a website 48 hours before the game they wish to see, with the winners announced 24 hours later. It’ll be a two-to-a-customer deal so winners won’t have to attend alone—a nice touch, I thought.

                The second, appearing a few days later, was the counterpoint to the first. It announced the opening of “Club 1914” at Wrigley, a bar-restaurant named for the ballpark’s inaugural year whose membership will be limited to the people who purchased the 700 or so most-expensive Cubs’ season tickets this year, at prices ranging from $695 a game ($56,295 a season) to $400 ($32,400). The glass-and-mahogany affair, situated underground behind the home plate area, will dispense food and drink to the expense-account set while giving them pre-and-post-game hangout space, lockers, access to uncrowded restrooms and their own team-merchandise shop. No computer-lottery victory will be required for access to the place, the members having already won the grand lottery that entitles them to their enviable lifestyle.

                The gentrification of professional sports is no news, already stretching back several decades, but its manifestations still can startle. As a Great Depression baby raised in leaner times, I never fail to marvel at the extent to which people at various income levels are willing to pay to support their teams, even though a flick of a remote can bring the games into their living rooms at little or no cost.  The thrill of joining one’s voice to the roar of the crowd packs a punch that defies quantification or, to me, reason.

                In the 1980s and ‘90s my press pass got me into games for free, but my spectating long predated that. As a kid I saw a lot of Cubs’ games at Wrigley, paying the 65-cent grandstand kids’ ticket price well past the 12-years-old cutoff (I must have looked young), and as a dad years later took my own kids to see quite a few Cubs and White Sox games.

 For 22 years—1972-94—I had a piece of a couple of season tickets to see the NBA Chicago Bulls, receiving also an education in how such things are priced. The initial tag on our seats (second row, first balcony in the old Chicago Stadium, where the balcony hung quite close to the court) was, I recall, $5 each at a time when the fledgling Bulls were a poor draw, but the figure rose steadily until it hit about $30 during the first few of the Michael Jordan title years. Despite my ingrained cheapness I gulped and paid up until the team moved into a new home, called the United Center. When management kicked my group into the upper reaches of the vastly larger arena and about-tripled our seat prices I balked, never to return.

I’ve lived in the Phoenix area for 20 years now and have yet to pay to see an NFL, NBA or NHL game—too pricey! The baseball Arizona Diamondbacks have one of the lowest price scales of any Major League team and draw so poorly that the logistics of attendance at their downtown home park are easy. Wife Susie and I see about a half-dozen games a season, always sitting in the upper deck behind home plate where the ticket tag rarely exceeds $20 per.  By me they’re the best seats in the house, so maybe I should keep quiet about this.  Anyway, figuring in parking and my bratwurst and Pepsi (Susie is allergic to ballpark food and brings her own) the two of us get away for about $60.

The rest of humanity pays quite a bit more. Team Marketing Inc., a company that tracks such things, reported that in 2016, the latest year for which its figures are available, the average cost for a family of four to attend a Major League Baseball game was $212. That included the average prices of two adult and two kids’ tickets, hotdogs, beverages, parking, two programs and two adult-sized baseball caps, and while most people probably would do without the caps it’s still a sizable amount.

In some cities the $212 figure is a dream; according to an online source the average price of a ticket alone at Wrigley Field last season was $151, and it topped $100 at three other parks (Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park and the Atlanta Braves’ Sun Trust Park). The Diamondbacks were in the bottom quarter of the 30-team list at $58, while the Chicago White Sox brought up the rear at $30.

It’s further noteworthy that MLB is the bargain among our major team sports; the family-of-four bill for the average NBA game in 2016 was $329, with $358 for the NHL and $473 for the NFL.  Those figures change in only one direction, so they’re undoubtedly higher now. They’ve all increased by at least a third since 2000.

 It’s ironic that the cost of going to a game is soaring at a time when more teams are seeking (and getting) public financing for their stadiums. That means that a lot of people are being taxed to build playgrounds for teams whose games they can’t afford to attend. Even when the stadium is privately owned (such as Wrigley Field) taxpayers must support the infrastructure improvements and extra policing the games demand.

Buy hey!, if you’ve got 10 bucks, and you’re lucky, you might get to see a Cubs’ game this year.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

THE LONG SEASON(S)


                Passover and the new Major League Baseball season arrived in a near dead heat a few days ago, so I think it’s apt to apply a signature question about the former to the latter; namely, “How is this season different from all other seasons?”

                The answer is that this MLB campaign had an earlier start (March 29) than any previous one, if you don’t count the couple of years when teams went to Japan or Australia to play a series before the rest of the teams got underway. The jump was part of a collective-bargaining agreement that provided for three or four more days off for each club during the regular schedule. It also ensures that, absent rain outs, the World Series will end before November begins, the better to avoid the possibility that mittens might replace mitts in the annual classic.

                Baseball’s move follows that of the National Basketball Association, which also started its 2017-18 season a week earlier than before, although that was little noted at the time. The extra week allowed the NBA to eliminate such inhumane practices as having teams play four games in five nights, or 18 games in 30. It also reduced the number of back-to-back contests teams play and threw in an occasional extra off day.
    
            The issue of schedule length has been very much alive in all our major team sports these past few years, matching the concern about a perceived increase in player injuries. Just about everyone agrees that the annual schedules of our premier professional baseball, football, basketball and hockey leagues are too long, but everybody also recognizes that it’s highly unlikely that will change anytime soon. That’s because schedule length is governed by commerce, not competition, and both the players and owners know that nobody makes money when the store isn’t open. The only one of our Big Four pro loops to reduce its calendar in recent decades was the National Hockey League, which went to its present 82 games a team from 84 in 1995-96. The reason for the move was obscure, as is the reasoning behind much of what the NHL does.
        
            Professional athletes are paid to do things other people do for fun so it’s hard to gin up much sympathy for claims they are overworked, but one can make that case nonetheless. Athletes are bigger, faster and stronger than they used to be, and while they get paid more they work harder, too, following the year-around training schedules they need to maintain their places.  It’s a sports paradox that the closer an athlete comes to peak fitness the more susceptible he is to injury and the less it takes to push him over the edge. The wise trainer includes a good amount of rest in his regimens but athletes are as likely as not to ignore it. The motto “no pain, no gain” still resonates despite being largely discredited.
            
             It’s ironic that the sport that has the biggest injury problem has been least amenable to making schedule changes to address it. That would be football, where after the second or third week of the season every player hurts some place all the time. The National Football League went to a consistent 12-game regular season in 1947, to 14 games in 1961 and to the present 16 games in 1978, and while it cut its summer training-game schedule to four games from six in that last year it’s budged no further since.

 The discussion about cutting football players’ workload has of late focused on cutting the so-called preseason, which almost all observers agree is too long. The owners resist, mostly because they charge their season-ticket holders full price for the two exhibitions each hosts annually. That embodies the “because we can” philosophy that rules the league.

The NBA’s regular-season schedule has stood at 82 games since 1967-68, a time when, in retrospect, the players looked smaller and the games were run at slower-mo. This season’s early start hasn’t seemed to have had much effect on contending teams’ practice of sitting healthy veterans (and, thus, shortchanging fans) to preserve them for the playoffs, Nor has it noticeably affected the injury rate; in one recent game the defending-champion Golden State Warriors sat their four best players (Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Clay Thompson and Draymond Green) for various causes. The league is coming to rival the NFL in the role injuries play in determining playoff outcomes.

Baseball is the least strenuous of our major sports but it’s also the one with the longest regular season– a 26-week, 162-game grind before this season’s one-week extension.  A little math shows that worked out to 20 days off a season for each team, or less than one a week, and the numbers were worse when you note that four of the days off came together, at All Star Game time.

 Between about 1920 and 1960 the baseball regular season was 154 games, with each team in the 16-team, two-league setup playing each of its seven league rivals 22 times. The 162-game format was established when the Majors expanded to 20 teams in 1961 and 1962, with each team playing its nine league foes 18 times. Now, with 30 teams and interleague play, the neat arithmetic has been scraped, but the number 162 has become sacrosanct, as do most baseball numbers that have been around for a while.

Baseball players stand (and sit) around a lot during their games, but between the contests their exercise routines are far tougher than they used to be, and their body shapes show it.  Add the facts that pitchers throw harder than they once did, and batters swing harder, and you have a physically more-demanding game than in years past.

 Adding a few more rest days to the schedule is a plus, but a better answer would be to also increase each team’s in-season roster size to 27 players from 25.  Baseball managers tend to use their benches more than other sport’s coaches and dressing one more pitcher and position player would spread the work around more, to the benefit of all. One reason sports schedules never contract is that the players, through their unions, won’t abide the salary cuts that might result, but they’d be sure to like the extra jobs larger rosters would create.  The owners would have to pay two more guys (probably at MLB minimums), but, heck, a 10-cent increase in ballpark beer prices probably would cover that.