Saturday, February 15, 2020

PITCHERS AND CATCHERS


               The older I get the more I like baseball, so it is with pleasure that I greet this week’s beginning of the game’s spring-training exercises. My pleasure is increased by the fact that some of those exercises take place in Salt River Field, the lovely little ballpark complex where the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies train. It’s about a 15-minute drive from my Scottsdale, AZ, home, and in the first few years after its 2011 opening I’d sometimes show up on a chilly February morning to stroll among the practice fields and soak up the sights and sounds of the diamond sport. I don’t stroll so well these days, but it still makes me happy to know what’s going on there.

               But alas (you knew this was coming, didn’t you?), it seems that I have more than the usual number of complaints about baseball as the new season opens. The game has suffered some self-inflicted wounds, and while none will be fatal they add up at least to a painful charley horse. One only can hope that time and motion will prove healing.

               The gripe that probably isn’t going away is the ultra-commercialization of spring training. I’ve sounded off on this before but it gets worse annually and the trend shows no signs of abating. Time was when ST was a pleasant interlude when fans as well as players could ease into the season in a relaxing way. Now it’s about all the money-based ills that affect our big-time sports generally.

               In Arizona the biggest price-gouger is my team, the Chicago Cubs. In the first years after wife Susie and I moved here in 1997 the team would open spring-training ticket sales on a day in mid-January. I’d get up early and go to their HoHoKam Stadium home in Mesa, stand in line for about an hour and buy tickets—good seats—to a half-dozen games. The price for each was in the $20 to $25 range, not unreasonable. Later I hooked up with a spring-season ticket holder who sold a friend and I some of her tickets for their face values of $30 or so. Her seats where even better than the ones I bought at the box office.

               But in 2014 the Cubs moved to their new (and publicly financed) Sloan Park spring base, and the next year got good. Ticket prices skyrocketed and my season-ticket “in” stopped returning phone calls. Today the team sells just about all its ST tix on a season basis, leaving other buyers to the resale market fueled by seatholders’ profit-taking. At one such site the other day a single box seat for a Feb. 29 game against the Milwaukee Brewers topped at $131 and patches of grass on an outfield “berm” bottomed at $43. I’ll pass, thank you. My only consolation is that things are worse in Chicago, where good seats for regular-season Cubs’ games run to about $700.

               Problem No. 2 is the after-shock of the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal. I addressed it soon after it first came to light (see my blog of December 1) and made light of it, noting that the practice had been around forever and everybody did it, or tried to. Those points still hold but revelations about the scale and success of the Astros’ sins have cast doubt on at least two championship races (2017 and ’18) and shaken public confidence in the sport. While stripping away a team’s victories or titles can seem like a useless exercise (you can’t put toothpaste back in the tube), doing this to the 2017-champion Astros now seems appropriate; as has been suggested, that team should be called the Houston Asterisks. I wish I’d thought of that name.

               What gets me about the episode is why the team thought it could get away with it. Teams often remove players and it was inevitable that some ex-Astro, having become the cheated instead of the cheater, would blow a whistle. The wonder is that it took pitcher Mike Fiers more than two seasons away from Houston to become the first to do so. Apparently, the code of “omerta” is stronger in baseball than in organized crime.

               Gripe No. 3 is fixable, or should be. It’s the power surge that has trampled all other aspects of the game.  Last season 6,776 home runs were struck in regular-season play, a 17.6% increase over the year before and an 11% boost over the 6,105 of the previous record year of 2017.  Not surprisingly, strikeouts (42,823) also set a record by a big margin, and so did stolen bases (2,280) on the downside. Hey, when the next guy up aims only to hit a home run, what does it matter if a baserunner is or first or second?

               Home runs have been the rage since the “chicks dig the long ball” days of the steroids era (roughly, 1990 to 2005), but recent changes in the game have underlined them. Players are athletes 24/7 now and are bigger and stronger than they used to be. Batters swing harder and on a more up-angled plane. Pitchers throw harder, with 90+mph fastballs becoming a norm. High-school physics will tell you that under those conditions batted balls will fly farther. 

               Official MLB maintains that its baseballs weren’t “juiced” last season, whatever that means, but it allows that new production methods might have flattened their laces, thus making them less wind-resistant. While slower-swinging batters or slower-throwing pitchers aren’t in the cards, the game certainly could dial back its sewing devices a few notches. Lowering the pitcher’s mound a few inches wouldn’t hurt, either, and when more drives are caught on warning tracks some batters may reason that slapping a single is better than making a long out.  At least, that makes sense to me.
              
                

Saturday, February 1, 2020

? ? ?


               I turn 82 tomorrow and still have more questions than answers. Here are some of them:

               --How did “smart” phones go from being pleasant conveniences to a destructive national addiction?

               --Is it possible to survive a long plane trip without catching a cold, flu or worse? How do pilots and crews stay healthy?

               --When did baseball spring training become a more about ticket-price gouging, scalpers and traffic jams than palm trees, sun-tan lotion and easy good times?

               --Will the drive to conquer the dreaded Peyronie’s Disease hinder the fight against other ailments?

               -- Why do road crews close lanes for blocks to accommodate a few yards of repairs?

               -- Isn’t this the golden age of investigative journalism? Before, reporters spent weeks chasing dead-end leads. With the Trump gang, every lead pans out.

               --Have you noticed that every auto or home insurer gives you favorable initial rates but then jacks you up annually until you’re worse off than before?

               --Can anyone tell me why Major League Baseball teams in northern climes schedule night games in April?

--Remember when you thought “W” was the worst thing that could happen to this country?

               --Does anyone still smoke a pipe?

               --With all the technical smarts out there, wouldn’t you think someone would invent a gadget that blocks unwanted sales calls?

               --Doesn’t the Democrats’ primary free-for-all make you nostalgic for the smoke-filled rooms of yore?

               --When will people realize that most of the casualties of the “War on Drugs” are addicted Americans?

               --Does anyone still know the difference between “celebrity” and “notoriety”? And isn’t “reticent” on its way to replacing “reluctant”?

               --Doesn’t it seem that about half the players in Major League baseball hit 30 or more home runs last season?

               --Will driverless cars go the way of personal airplanes as features of a future that never materializes?

               --Doesn’t every dish containing green peppers or black olives come out tasting like green peppers or black olives?

               --Aren’t you eager to watch any movie or TV show Kevin Bacon is in?

               --Is there a more dispiriting moment in sports than seeing the “inquiry” sign go up after your horse wins a race?

               --Doesn’t it seem that insurance companies are having a contest to see which can run the silliest TV ads?

               --What did people do for entertainment before Netflix?

               --Why isn’t it against the law to put ketchup on hot dogs?

               --Where does my computer cursor go when it gets lost?

               --Doesn’t it seem like some websites kick you off at the slightest missed stroke so they can build their “hits” count?

               --Why aren’t contracts with “automatic renewal” clauses illegal?

               --Don’t you think Republicans would have long since become tired of trying to explain away Trump’s mishugas?

               --How did the people who stole my identity breeze past the credit-score agencies while setting up fake bank accounts and credit cards in my name, while I had to jump through hoops trying to rectify the situation?

               --Is there a goofier voting system than the Iowa-primary caucuses? Why do they play a prominent role in presidential elections?

               --Was anyone surprised to learn that vaping is bad for people?

               Just askin’.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

TRANSITIONS


               The start of a new year usually is associated with new beginnings, but this year’s turn smacks more of endings. We’re in a time of transition in each of our three “major” professional sports—basketball, football and baseball.

               The turn in basketball came on New Year’s Day with the death at age 77 of David Stern, his game’s most consequential individual who didn’t dribble or shoot. By that time Stern had been retired as the National Basketball Association’s commissioner for five years, but the changes he wrought outlasted his 30-year term (1984-2014) and will continue to do so. They extend geographically as well as temporally, touching just about all parts of the globe.

               To measure how much the NBA changed businesswise during Stern’s tenure, a look at one team— the Chicago Bulls— should suffice. The team changed hands with little notice several times in the dozen years before 1985, when a group headed by the real estate man Jerry Reinsdorf bought controlling interest for a reported $16 million. Today, says Forbes magazine, it’s worth $2.9 billion, with Reinsdorf still in charge. The league’s overall revenues and TV-rights values have increased apace during that period.

               Stern had help in achieving those gains from the likes of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and, now, Lebron James, stars with both charisma and supernatural physical skills, but the New York lawyer secured for them the platform on which to display their talents and the mechanisms to spread their acclaim. During the 1980s he literally gave away NBA TV rights abroad to hook the rest of the world on the league and its personalities, an effort that culminated in the U.S. “Dream Team” at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, which captured the world’s attention like few other sporting entities ever. Now revenues flow from many lands and boys there—as well as girls tuned into the WNBA that Stern helped start and nurtured-- go to bed dreaming hoops dreams. Some of them—such as Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Doncic— live out those dreams nightly on their sport’s biggest stages, to the benefit of all.

The switch in football was made clear when the New England Patriots were bumped from the first round of the National Football League playoffs at home by the underdog Tennessee Titans.  The Pats’ season-ending 12-5 won-lost record was good by most measures, but the loss had an ominous ring because it might have marked the last game with the team of Tom Brady, the quarterback who has anchored its success.

The loss to the Titans smarted especially because that team’s coach, Mike Vrabel, used a wrinkle in the rules regarding intentional penalties to milk about two minutes off the clock in the late going while nursing a one-point lead. Steaming on the sidelines while the ploy unfolded was the Pats’ coach Bill Belichick, who’d first exploited it.  Vrabel is a one-time Belichick pupil, having played for eight seasons with the Pats. The league is catching up to wily Bill in many ways.

The Pats’ NFL domination has included six Super Bowl victories between 2001 and 2018, three other trips to pro football’s annual Big Game and 18 straight seasons of winning records. It’s astonishing because the league’s worst-goes-first draft system is designed to promoted parity and the Pats have been draft bottom feeders for just about all of their title run.  The team has thrived by making useful parts out of other team’s discards. That knack seems to have waned of late, leaving it with roster gaps that might not be filled easily.

Brady, a new free agent, says he has “more to prove” and probably will keep playing, but he doesn’t say where. In any case he’ll be 43 years old next season and ain’t the man he used to be (who is?).  Odds are it’ll be a while before a new “Titletown” emerges.

William Safire said it took three examples to support a column theme, and my third is my favorite team, the Chicago Cubs. They’re headed for transition after a five-year run that transformed them from chumps to champs with their 2016 World Series victory but petered out in a near-.500 (84-78) finish last year. Team boss Theo Epstein vowed to shuffle the deck after that one.  That came a season or two late, in my opinion; unused to success, the Cubs celebrated far too long after their trophy triumph.

The ’16 Cubs were a young team, full of players 25 years old or younger, and Chicago fans had visions of a dynasty. That they’ve been disappointed in this isn’t new for their city; the hockey Blackhawks won the 1961 Stanley cup when Bobby Hull was 22 years old and Stan Mikita was 20 but never repeated while those two greats played, and the 1985 football champion Bears were a young bunch that met a similar fate. The Cubs may rise again but it will be with a different cast.

What moves the team make will depend in large part on a soon-to-come arbitrator’s ruling on whether their biggest star and juiciest trade bait, Kris Bryant, will be eligible for free agency after this season or the next one. If the Cubs win they’ll control him for two more seasons and his trade value will be highest. He’s rumored to be on the block because his performance has slacked off since his ’16 MVP season and he might not be worth the enormous contract he’ll demand when he’s free to move. The Cubs will have many mouths to feed over the next few years and don’t figure to be able to satisfy all of them.

Trading Bryant would be just part of the Cubs’ new course. The team already has cast off its championship manager, Joe Maddon, and two of its ’16 cogs, shortstop Addison Russell and utility man Ben Zobrist. Other trade candidates include the young slugger Kyle Schwarber, a natural-born designated hitter, the agile catcher Willson Contreras (hope not), and the once-promising outfielder Albert Almora. We fans root for our teams no matter who wears their uniforms, but any changes to our cast of ’16 heroes will be tough to take. Whatever, none of them ever will have to buy themselves a drink in Chicago.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

IMPUNITY


               We writers like to play with words and ones I’ve been playing with of late stem from “seam.” According to the dictionary “seamy” means sordid or disreputable, while a seam is the line along which two pieces of fabric are joined. Thus, “seamless” means an easy or invisible meld.

               Both apply to the season of college basketball that’s now playing out in the wake of the two-year FBI investigation and later trials that revealed under-the-table payments of up to six figures to recruits at a large handful of schools by the shoe company Adidas, funneled through various intermediaries. That’s seamy, huh?

               Alas, if ever an investigation promised much but yielded little it was this one. The Feebs went deep-sea fishing but landed minnows, the only people finally charged being college assistant coaches, would-be player agents and mid-level Adidas functionaries. This was consistent with past NCAA probes of misdeeds by the schools it oversees, which rarely touch the sports’ leaders. One coaching big-timer—Louisville’s Rick Pitino—lost his job as a result of the revelations, but his really was a sort of lifetime-achievement penalty, culminating a long trail of professional and personal slime.

               Two other top coaches-- Kansas’s Bill Self and Arizona’s Sean Miller—were implicated in the probe through intercepted texts and wiretapped telephone conversations, but neither was charged or, even, called as a witness. That’s a head-scratcher if there ever was one. Miller was suspended by his school but quickly reinstated, Self slipped through unscathed except, maybe, reputation-wise.  Both continue to float seamlessly to victory on the floor and in recruiting, Kansas ranking 3rd nationally in the latest Associated Press poll and Arizona 25th with a mostly freshman cast. The wicked flourish like green bay trees, especially ones with winning records, right?

               At this point one legitimately might ask just what those involved in the Adidas matter did wrong. Giving money to prospective college students is prohibited only to athletes governed by NCAA rules, so what laws were shown to have been violated? Moreover, crimes require victims and it was hard to discern any here, all the participants in the schemes seemingly benefitting.

 To answer those questions the cases’ prosecutors, with judicial approval, had to turn the law on its ear, first by giving criminal force to the NCAA rule book and then by declaring the colleges involved to have been victims of fraud, even though it was their coffers that would be filled by the young basketballers recruited with Adidas dollars. Never raised as an issue were the billions of dollars that directly flow from shoe companies, plural, to college athletics departments in return for their using (and, thus, advertising) their brands. For instance, the U. of Kansas is in the early years of a 14-year, $196 million contract calling for its teams to use Adidas gear exclusively.  It’s no wonder that it and the other schools involved in the cases were referred to as “Adidas schools.”

The biggest individual beneficiaries of shoe-company largess are the head coaches of big-time college basketball and football teams, many of whom individually clear seven-figure annual sums from the deals.  Those payments are part of what turns public employees such as Self and Miller into plutocrats, Self’s annual income reported at about $4 million and Miller’s at almost $3 million. According to CNNMoney, at most NCAA “power-conference” schools the salaries of head basketball and football coaches exceed the dollar value of all the athletics scholarship the institutions award. It’s such things that spread a smell of hypocrisy and exploitation over college sports generally.

But while it might be excessive to chant “lock him up” in the presence of Self or Miller, “kick him out” might be apt. Each violated the first rule of the sort of conspiracy in which they were involved, namely “don’t get caught.”  The NCAA rule on the subject is clear: a “head coach is presumed to be responsible for the actions of all staff members who report, directly or indirectly, to the head coach.”  That rule has been honored mostly in the breach because the people who occupy the job are careful to preserve deniability by placing others between themselves and any improper acts within their regimes. That was pretty much blown in the trials stemming from the investigation.

In Miller’s case, one of his assistants, Emmanuel “Book” Richardson, was sentenced to three months in prison and fined for accepting $20,000 for steering players toward an agent, an arm of the larger plot. Richardson said after sentencing that he had “no knowledge” of Miller paying players or attempting to do so, but wiretapped evidence was presented in which he and the agent Christian Dawkins discussed Miller having “bought” former Arizona star Deandre Ayton and “taking care of” Rawle Alkins, another UA player. Other testimony had Ayton’s family receiving $10,000 a month during his year in Tucson.

Self’s involvement came through most clearly in the testimony of T. J. Gassnola, an Adidas consultant who was sentenced to probation for his role in the schemes after admitting he made payments to several sought-after recruits for agreeing to attend Kansas, one totaling $90,000. Gassnola said Self not only acknowledged the efforts but also encouraged it.

One exchange put into evidence had Gassnola texting Self about a prospect he was paying, with Self asking “We good?” and Gassnola answering “Always. That’s light work.” Later, Gassnola texted Self bragging about keeping him and Kansas supplied with future NBA lottery picks. Self responded, “That’s how it works... at UNC and Duke.”

The trials are just about over but the NCAA has stepped in by announcing investigations of its own into the matter, with both Kansas and Arizona among the targets. Self and Miller have vehemently denied any wrongdoing and their schools are supporting them. In the past, about the most individual head coaches have paid when their schools were caught in major rules violations were a few games’ suspensions, on top of such institutional wrist-slaps as victory forfeits, scholarship reductions and post-season bans. To do more might be bad for business and that’s the last thing the NCAA wants.






              

              
                

Sunday, December 15, 2019

HANDICAPPING THE HALL


               Few things are certain in life, but one of the best bets concerns the voting for the Baseball Hall of Fame’s class of 2020, the results of which will be announced next month.  Derek Jeter is on the ballot and he’ll be elected. You can bet your house on it, if you can get anyone to bite.

               The only suspense involves whether the verdict of the baseball writers will be unanimous. That never happened until last year, when shortstop Jeter’s New York Yankees’ teammate Mariano Rivera, the sterling relief pitcher, swept the table. Not even Babe Ruth had done that; the game’s best player ever was named on just 95.1% of the votes cast for the Hall’s first class, in 1936.  That figure, however, and others that year, should contain asterisks because it was a helluva ballot and limits on the number of names the scribes could list probable cost many worthies unanimous consent. For example, Cy Young polled just 49%.

               Jeter might not have matched Young’s never-to-be-topped pitching stats but his are well beyond those of the “normal” star, among them 3,465 regular-season hits, 14 All Star Game selections in a 20-year career and five World Series rings, although he had help getting those last things. Perhaps equally impressive, he survived his lengthy bachelorhood in the tabloid capital with his good name pretty much unscathed. They ought to etch that into his Cooperstown plaque.

               Jeter’s is one of 18 first-time names on the 2020 ballot and the only one likely to come close to the 75% approval rate of the 400-plus electors needed for election. Indeed, only four others—Paul Konerko, Cliff Lee, Bobby Abreu and Adam Dunn—likely to approach the 5% vote needed to survive until the 2021 voting. If I were still voting I’d include only Jeter and Konerko among my 10 choices, with Pauly getting a nod mostly on the sentimental ground of leading the Chicago White Sox to their long-sought 2005 World Series victory.

               Most of the interest in this year’s balloting will center on players who have been found wanting previously but whose vote totals suggest future hope. They are the pitchers Curt Schilling and Roger Clemens, shortstop Omar Visquel and the sluggers Barry Bonds and Larry Walker.  Clemens and Bonds should be lumped together because both were, without doubt, the best at what they did during their common era, but whose reps were damaged by their well-established use of performance-enhancing drugs while they played, in violation of  baseball’s rules.

               The two run as a sort of entry—1 and 1A—and their vote totals have risen in tandem, from about 37% in 2013, their first year on the writers’ ballot, to about 59% last year, their seventh. If they don’t make it this year they’ll get two more tries, after which their cases will be moved to one of the Hall’s veterans’ committees. 

               The votes for Bonds and Clemens serve as a referendum on what I call baseball’s HITS era—for Heads In The Sand—regarding steroids use, roughly 1990 to 2005. Negative feelings about that period were strong initially, as shown by Bonds’ and Clemens’ two-thirds 2013 rejection rate, but they’ve softened in more-recent years. I didn’t vote for either of them when I had a ballot, and never would. It’s wrong to think they’ve been exiled from the Hall because their records are celebrated there and their photos and videos are displayed; it’s just their plaques that are absent. My guess is they won’t make it this time but will eventually, alas.

               Schilling’s case is different. Everyone agrees he was an excellent pitcher day in and out and a great big-gamer, and apparently drug-free. His problem has been his mouth, which he can’t manage to keep shut. Among his many targets (women, Muslims, liberals) have been the news media, and it isn’t a good idea to piss off the writers when they’re the ones who vote for the Hall. I voted for him when I could because I thought his being a jerk shouldn’t be disqualifying. He got about 61% in 2018 and probably won’t get in this time, but just might before he’s off the ballot after 2022.

               Walker is in his last year on the writers’ ballot and hit a high of 54% last year. He was a very good hitter, with a .313 lifetime average over 17 seasons, but his other stats aren’t overwhelming. Also, his best years (1995-2004) were in the Colorado Rockies’ light-air Denver ballpark, which many believe makes hitters look better than they are.

 Visquel got 43% last year, and won’t make it this time either, but will eventually, I hope. Wizard fielders like him are underrepresented in Cooperstown.

There will be two more inductees at the Hall’s summer ceremony, Ted Simmons and the late Marvin Miller, both chosen by one of the Hall’s veterans committees. Their stories are quite different. Simmons was a durable (21-season) catcher whose hitting stats and other qualifications were always very good but never great. He had one shot at the writers’ ballot, in 1993, but didn’t reach the 5% survival floor. After he retired as a player in 1988, though, he stayed around the game as a coach, scout and executive and, apparently, made many friends. Hall election at every level is in part a popularity contest that doesn’t end when the spikes are hung up.

Miller, a former economist for the United Steel Workers union, which I once covered, became the head of the game’s players’ association in 1966 and led it for 16 years. In that span it went from a vest-pocket operation to one of the nation’s most visible and potent unions, one that won pay raises and work-rule agreements that opened the way for revolutionary changes to the economics of baseball and all other American sports. Along with Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson he was one the most-influential sports figures of the 20th century.

  Miller made few friends among the game’s leaders; in fact, he told his members that if the execs liked him he wasn’t doing his job. Animosity towards him blocked his Hall membership for years. He took that as a badge of honor and promised not to attend an induction ceremony if he were elected and swore his children to keep that pledge. That’s okay, though. His Hall plaque will be a necessary reminder of the change his efforts wrought.
                
              

              
              

Sunday, December 1, 2019

DRAWING THE LINE


               In sports, what happens on the field stays on the field. Usually.

               A couple of times when it didn’t have punctuated the news of late. One involved Myles Garrett, a Cleveland Browns defensive end who, in a tussle at the end of a game with the Pittsburgh Steelers, yanked off the helmet of Steelers’ quarterback Mason Rudolph and whacked Ruddolph over the head with it.  The other involved allegations that the Houston Astros, baseball’s 2017 world champs and 2019 runnersup, engaged in a three-season campaign of electronic sign stealing.

               Garrett’s misdeed, a crime of the flesh, occurred in full view of the 67,000 or so spectators at the football game in Cleveland plus the millions of folks at home watching on TV, for whom it was replayed many times. There was no doubt what happened, so the National Football League quickly stepped in and whacked the player with an “indefinite” suspension that will include the Browns’ six remaining  regularly scheduled games this season plus whatever playoffs they might quality for, and, maybe, some games next season as well.

 The Astros’ business is more complicated and no doubt will require prolonged investigation by Major League Baseball. That’s the way it can be with white-collar (white jersey?) crimes, where lawyers often succeed in painting offenses in shades of gray that defy easy adjudication. They earn big money for doing that.

 But back up a second and take another look at the supposedly open-and-shut Garrett matter. If the young man had been caught doing what he did on the street he’d now be in jail or out on bond, faced with a criminal assault charge. We’ve become so accustomed to our sports organizations being laws unto themselves that we take for granted their power to make rules that, in their own spheres, replace the force of law. That power is grounded in the fact that sports participation is consensual and people choose to compete with the knowledge that they take out-of-the-ordinary risks. In practice that covers just about everything that happens on a football field.

 That line, however, blurs when the mayhem goes beyond what is usually defined as egregious; in those cases the criminal authorities can intervene. That’s what has happened at least three times in the National Hockey League, all involving incidents that took place in Canada.  In 1988, Dino Ciccarelli of the Minnesota North Stars was fined $1,000 and spent a day in jail after being convicted of assault for a slashing attack on Luke Richardson of the Toronto Maple Leafs.  In 2000 Marty McSorley of the Boston Bruins got 18 months’ probation for similarly bashing Donald Brashear of the Vancouver Canucks and in 2004 Steve Moore of the Colorado Avalanche got a year’s probation and 80 hours of community service for a from-behind attack on the Canucks’ Todd Bertuzzi that left Bertuzzi with three broken vertebrae and ended his career.  That last attack also resulted in a sizable civil judgement in Bertuzzi’s favor.

If he were so inclined the Steeler’s Rudolph might have marched over the nearest police station and accused Garrett of assault. He didn’t, and it probably never occurred to him to so. He didn’t appear to be hurt too badly and, no doubt, subscribes to the boys-will-be-boys ethos that pervades the game. It is on such a permissive basis that our sports proceed at all levels, for better or worse.

The business about baseball sign stealing is interesting because the act involved is as much a part of the game as pine tar. Stealing signs go back as far as, well, signs, and everyone does it. The rub is supposed to come when a team employs mechanical or electronic devices in its pursuit, but even then the offense usually isn’t reported publicly. In a recent piece on the subject Paul Sullivan, the estimable baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, called it a “club-on-club” crime that, when suspicions arise, is dealt with through informal channels,  in a sort of “hey, we’re on  to you, so quit it” mode. That’s because no team’s hands are clean.

Sign stealing’s part in baseball is best exemplified by the roll it played in one of the game’s biggest moments, Bobby Thomson’s 1951 “shot heard round the world” home run that decided the National League pennant playoff between his New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers. According to accounts pieced together some 60 years later by my old newspaper, the Wall Street Journal, Giants coach Herman Franks picked off the Dodgers’ sign with a telescope in center field and relayed it to the Giants’ dugout through a buzzer system, and from thence it went to Thomson.  Thomson went to his grave insisting he wasn’t clued in, but some teammates’ later accounts contradicted that.

Sneaky as it was, though, that sort of thing wasn’t against baseball’s rules until 1961, and then only when technology is involved. This being the 21st century the Astros case probably involves some of that but, amusingly, some old-fashioned means also might have been employed. One story had it that after picking off a catcher’s signals with a video camera and flashing it to the dugout, the team passed it along to its hitters by banging on a trash can.

If found guilty by the commissioner’s office the Astros probably will suffer the usual sports penalties— fines, loss of draft choices and the like. It’s none of the courts’ business, and rightly so. In a society that values property, though, the world of fun and games ends and the real world begins when actual stuff is involved. In 2016 Christopher Correa, the St. Louis Cardinals’ scouting director, was found to have looted the Astros’ computer system for such things as the team’s draft evaluations. Instead of a wrist slap and whispered “attaboy” he was sentenced to spend 46 months in a Federal prison.  





 
              

Friday, November 15, 2019

HOT TIX


               As a Depression baby, born in 1938, I’ve always had a thrifty streak-- okay, a cheap one. As someone once described the golfer Sam Snead, I like to know the price of my breakfast before I eat it. That is to say I don’t mind spending money if I get value in return but draw the line on frills. For instance, having a Lexus isn’t worth its $10,000 difference with my Toyota, which gets me where I’m going just fine, thank you.

               Thus it is that I’m regularly revulsed at what has been happening with sports- ticket prices. The Wall Street saw that no tree grows to the sky doesn’t seem to apply to them. Just when you think they’ve topped out, they shoot up again, and people stand in line to pay them.

               I admit that my perspective may be warped by my earliest box-office experiences. I got into my first Chicago Cubs’ games for nothing, as in zero, and did it legally. Back around 1950, when I was 11 or 12, other kids and I would ride our bikes over to Wrigley Field at around 3 p.m. in season and wait until the gates were opened to let the paying customers leave. While they were going out we’d go in, to watch late-inning play. Sometimes games would go into extra innings and we’d get a bonus.
            
              When I paid for Cubs’ tickets back then I’d ante up 65 cents for a grandstand seat. Kids could get into the bleachers for a quarter, but I thought the better view was worth the extra money. What can you see from the bleachers, anyway?  If memory serves the adult price for the grandstands at the time was something like $1.50.  

Even as an adult I could attend games for what today amounts to pocket change. In 1972, recently back in Chicago after a decade elsewhere, I was part of a group of four that shared a couple of season tickets to games of the Chicago Bulls, then still a fledgling team in the NBA. Our seats were excellent, in the second row of the first balcony, behind the Bulls’ bench in compact Chicago Stadium, and went for $5 per.  We held the same seats through 22 years and three NBA championships (1991, ’92, ’93), and while the team raised prices regularly ours didn’t top $30 in that span. We bailed when the Bulls moved into the new and vastly larger United Center in 1994 and proposed to kick us up to the nosebleed level at more than double the price. Seats comparable to the ones we used to have go for about $200 today.

What sent me off on this latest rant was an internet posting I came across during a recent browse. An outfit called “promocodesforyou,” which offers discount coupons on a variety of products, put together four very neat graphs showing the average (repeat, average), one-person cost of attending a game last season for each team in our four major sports leagues-- the NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball. Topping the list, at $925.80, was the New England Patriots of the NFL. Baseball was headed by the Cubs at $170, the NBA by the New York Knicks at $176 and hockey at $600.66 (!) by the Vegas Golden Knights.

Now, I don’t know anything about the research that went into the chart and must note that its prices included not only admission but also the “average” spending for food, beer and parking that a stadium trip often entails.  As any fan can vouch, parking can come to a hefty slice of an outing’s cost, but the prices still startled.

The Patriots’ tab came to close to $1,000 per, so I looked a little deeper into it. Sure enough, a visit to a ticket resale site showed that two lower-deck, midfield seats for the team’s Sunday (Nov. 17) home game with the Philadelphia Eagles were offered for $2,025.98, without any trimmings. As for parking, although cheaper berths are available far from Gillette Stadium, reserved-spot prices ranged from $67 to $486. I had trouble believing that last figure, but there it was.  I bought my first car for a price not much above that.

As for baseball, my prime example of wretched excess came last year when my Cubs opened an in-stadium eatery and drinkery for holders of the 700 or so most-expensive seats in Wrigley Field. Admission to the place began at the single-game ticket price of $400 and topped out at $695. That’s to see a baseball game—one! For those prices a free open bar wouldn’t be too much to supply.

The picture strains credulity even at the average-guy level. The Pittsburgh Steelers were in the middle of promocodesforyou’s NFL scale at about $400 a seat. A pair for the team’s 10 home games (eight regular-season and two preseason), thus would come to $8,000. For a couple earning an above-average $100,000 a year, that would come to more than 10% of its annual after-tax pay.

That many people are willing to take such a hit is seen in the attendance figures of the NFL, NBA and NHL, all of which have held about steady at over 90% the last dozen years. In each of those sports, though, demand is relatively inelastic due to the shortness of the football season and the smallish (17,000-20,000) seating capacity of the two indoor sports in their big-city settings. It’s a standing joke in Chicago that hockey has 20,000 local fans and each has a Blackhawks’ season ticket.

Baseball has long (81-game) home schedules and large stadiums, so there’s more room for fluctuation. Its attendance has been declining, with this year’s total gate of 68.5 million ticket sales off about 4% from the season before and 14% from the 2007 high of 79.5 million. MLB has turned itself inside out trying to account for the drop, mostly fingering the sport’s deliberate pace and length of games, but it seems to me that economics also are to blame. To paraphrase Jimmy McMillian, who a few years ago ran for mayor of New York on a rent-control platform, ticket prices are too damn high!

 I recommend doing what I do, which is watch on TV. Everyone at home can see a game better than anyone in the stadium, and there are no lines for the bathrooms.