Sunday, January 15, 2023

THE WRONG LESSON

 

               We love giving ourselves pats on the back, and there have been plenty of those in the wake of the heart attack suffered by the Buffalo Bills’ 24-year-old defensive back Damar Hamlin during that game in Cincinnati a couple of weeks ago.

               Rightfully, the main kudos went to the medical personnel who were Johnny-on-the-spot to render aid to the young man. National Football League games are superbly set up for that sort of thing and the response was excellent. If someone is to have a heart attack an NFL field is the perfect place for it. I can think of nowhere else save a hospital ER where help would be so close and effective.

               The NFL itself came out looking well, if only because it did the obvious things that were appropriate in that sort of situation. The game at hand was cancelled, albeit after a bit of dithering, and no play-over that would have knocked the rest of the schedule on its ear was mandated. The league loves complexity so some “maybe” scenarios involving neutral-field playoff games were tossed in, but if we’re lucky they’ll be avoided.

               We fans received plaudits for not demanding that the show go on regardless. At the stadium respect was shown for the occasion and concern for the victim’s condition was then and later manifested abundantly. As it turned out Hamlin was a community-minded person whose toys-for-kids project was buoyed by an outpouring of funds as he recovered.

               At the risk of spoiling the party, though, I think it should be pointed out that the main lesson apparently drawn from the episode was the wrong one.  In classic overstatement, the Arizona Republic declared in a headline it engendered “A Seminal Moment” for how we regard sports, but in fact sudden death or catastrophic injury remain rare on our big-time fields of play, struck-by-lightning occurrences that happen once every several generations.

               Indeed, one reasonably might ask if Hamlin’s heart attack should be blamed on football. The tackle that preceded it was unremarkable and would have gone unremarked if not for its result. One interpretation was that it involved a sharp blow to the chest that upset his heart’s cycle, but an underlying condition might have been involved that further investigation could uncover. If someone suffers a heart attack on the tennis court should it be counted as a tennis injury?

               Only twice have big-league American athletes died as an immediate result of a playing-field injury, and neither involved football: Ray Chapman of the Cleveland Indians succumbed after having been hit on the head by a pitch in a 1920 baseball game and Bill Masterton of the Minnesota North Stars after striking his head on the ice following a check in a 1968 hockey game. Chuck Hughes of the Detroit Lions suffered a fatal heart attack in a 1971 NFL game after a play in which he wasn’t involved.  His death later was ascribed to an advanced case of arteriosclerosis.

               Football is a dangerous sport but ranks well behind others as an immediate cause of death. Besides boxing, which aims to injure, in most risk are thoroughbred-racing jockeys, who are killed at a rate of more than one a year and whose serious-injury stats are cataclysmic. When the great jockey Laffit Pincay retired after a suffering a broken neck in a spill, it was reported he’d sustained 11 broken collar bones, 10 broken ribs, two spinal fractures, two punctured lungs and two broken thumbs, among other things, in a 30-plus-year career. 

               The real danger in football isn’t in any “big bang” but in the sometimes-muted bang, bang, bang of everyday play, in practice sessions as well as in games. That the effects of such injuries were cumulative and often delayed long was suspected and finally made clear as a result of 2005 and 2006 papers by Dr. Bennet Omalu, then of the Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, coroners’ office. Following examinations of the premature deaths of Pittsburgh Steelers’ players Mike Webster and Terry Long, he found evidence of a protein buildup in their brains called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, similar to that of much-older victims of Alzheimer’s Disease. In sports the condition formerly had been associated mainly with boxers.

 Subsequent autopsies of the brains of more than 200 former footballers by Boston University showed the disease to be common among that group. One recent study showed that ex-NFLers in their 50s were 10 times more likely to be diagnosed with dementia than men in the general population.

               The crunch and grind of football, plus the explosion in the body weights of many of the men who compete at its highest level, have had other unfortunate, long-term results. Present and former NFL players have been shown to have 3.5 times more Parkinson’s disease, three times the rate of arthritis and 2.5 times more cardiac disease than other men. Opioid addiction, stemming from years of gulping pain killers to cope with football’s ordinary bruises and sprains, is frequent among the recently retired. Visit any NFL locker room after a game and you’ll see men creeping around like those 30 years older.

               After an initial period of denial the NFL has recognized those truths and acted on them. On the gridiron it has improved helmet design, instituted concussion protocols and made it easier for injured players to seek their own medical diagnoses and treatment. It’s reportedly paid out more than $1 billion in additional benefits to ex-players coping with their game’s ravages.   

               None of that, however, changes the fact that football is a gladiatorial sport, one that should come with a warning label. Players should play, and we should watch, with that in mind.

 

                

              

              

Monday, January 2, 2023

WRETCHED EXCESS

 

               “No tree grows to the sky” is a Wall Street adage, applicable in just about all cases. All except sports in these United States, that is. There the trees have penetrated the clouds and are heading starward, with no limit in sight.

               Annual salaries of our leading professional-team athletes have topped the $40 million mark across sport lines, as part of long-term contracts in the low-to-middle nine figures. Basketballers LeBron James and Kevin Durant, footballers Russell Wilson and Kyler Murray and baseballer Aaron Judge are among those in that category—Murray at age 25, for heaven’s sake. Can the first ten-figure contract be far behind?

               Up in the executive suite, the Phoenix Suns just changed hands for a reported (and record) $4 billion, that for a franchise rated by Forbes magazine the 13th most-valuable in the National Basketball Association. One only can imagine what the likes of the New York Yankees, Dallas Cowboys or Los Angeles Lakers might bring when their owners decide to cash out.

                The erstwhile amateur side of the scene has kept pace nicely, thank you. As I noted in my last blog, college-football bowl games continue to climb in number, and the game’s powers-that-be just decreed that the field in the season-ending national-championship football tournament will increase to 12 schools from four beginning in 2024, bringing an estimated $500 million more in revenues to our institutions of higher learning.  Twelve is a bad number for such a go-round, 16 a better one. A college-football season stretching into February seems inevitable.

               The main individual beneficiaries of the college-sports money gusher have been the head football and men’s basketball coaches of the 65 members of the “Power Five” conferences (Big 10, SEC, ACC, Pac-12 and Big 12), plus Notre Dame, that comprise the game’s upper tier. Once looked upon as amiable, whistle-wearing pedagogues, those guys now have all the trappings of corporate CEOs, paychecks included.

               The first college coach to hit $1 million-a-year in base pay was Steve Spurrier of the U of Florida, in 1975. That ceiling didn’t last long—the Gators doubled Spurrier’s salary the next year. Now, some college assistant coaches top the million-dollar mark. The current best-paid college football coach is Alabama’s Nick Saban at a reported base of  $11.7 million a year, followed by Dabo Sweeney of Clemson at $10.5 million and Kirby Smart of Georgia at $9.8 million. Bill Self of Kansas tops the basketball list at $10.2 million, with John Calipari of Kentucky next at $8.6 million.

               The public, me included, used to flinch when coaches landed big-money deals, but no more. Our universities are so entrenched in the entertainment business that little they do in that realm still seems excessive. Nonetheless, I was taken aback a few weeks ago when Arizona State University, my neighborhood Mega U., announced the hiring of a new football head coach to replace old-pro Herm Edwards. The new guy is Ken Dillingham, who at age 32 became the youngest football head coach in the top echelon. 

               ASU noted in announcing the move that Dillingham’s starting annual base salary of $3.85 million would be a tad under the $3.9 million Edwards was making, and about average for his counterparts on other PAC-12 sidelines, but the hire stood out on grounds besides the newcomer’s youth. Dillingham had been offensive coordinator at several schools, most recently the U of Oregon, but never had been a head coach at any level. Indeed, he never played football beyond high school.  

               And as the TV pitchmen say “Wait! There’s more!” According to the Arizona Republic and online sources, Dillingham’s pact contains guaranteed annual base-pay increases of $100,000 for each year of its five-year run, meaning he’ll be paid at least $4.35 million in 2027. He’ll get an extra $200,000 if any of his teams wins nine of its 12 regular-season games, another $300,000 if it wins 10, another $400,000 for 11 and another $500,000 for 12, which would come to $1.4 million for a clean sweep.

               If one of his teams plays in the PAC-12 title game he’ll get a bonus of 10%, or at least $385,000, and 20% ($770,000) if it wins it. If it makes any bowl game, which usually requires a mediocre six regular-season victories, he’ll get a bonus of 10%. That would rise to 15% if the bowl is “major,” whatever that means. He’ll get $100,000 for being named national coach-of-the-year and additional bonuses rising to $300,000 if team players meet certain academic goals. If one of his teams wins a national championship the school will erect a solid-gold statue of him. OK, I made up that last thing.

               One might think a young family man (Dillingham and his wife have one child) could afford some luxuries at $4m+ per annum, but ASU is kicking in some of those, too. They’ll get unlimited use of two cars or a vehicle stipend, free golf at the ASU course, dues at any private golf or social club, free use of a suite at ASU home football games and tickets to any others.

               In an earlier, less-expansive era, journalists would make the point of wretched excess by comparing sports salaries with those of ordinary and even extraordinary people, but the gap has become so great that seems kind of silly now. I’ll do it anyway: like just about every big-time state-school head football or basketball coach Dillingham will be his state’s highest-paid public employee (the governor of Arizona earns $95,000 a year). His $3.85 million base would cover the annual salaries of 70 K-12 public-school teachers in the state averaging $55,000 a year, or 33 ASU profs averaging about $115,000. ASU fans might give those numbers a thought while they cheer.   

                   

                               

Thursday, December 15, 2022

BOWLED OVER OR OVERBOWLED?

 

               In the beginning, 1902, a group of farseeing civic boosters in Pasadena, California, decided to call attention to their balmy environs by inviting a couple of college football teams to supplement their city's Rose Parade and play a New Year’s Day game under the title East-West Tournament. The U’s of Michigan and Stanford accepted, the maize and blue winning, 49-0.

               The game then went into hiatus until 1916, when it was revived on an annual basis at the Tournament Park field near the Caltech campus. In 1923 it was moved to the newly completed Rose Bowl stadium, and renamed.

Pasadena’s Rose Bowl stood alone as a post-regular-season college-football event until 1935, when it was joined by the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. In 1937 the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, the Orange Bowl in Miami and the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas, came aboard.

The idea spread slowly at first­­—in 1950 there were just eight bowl games and in 1970 only 11. From there the line on the graph zoomed, to 20 games in 1997, 30 in 2006, 40 in 2015 and the present 42, 43 if you include the national championship contest, this year set for January 9 in SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California, the new home of the National Football League’s Los Angeles Rams.

 Once a reward for a season well played, bowl games now also celebrate mediocrity, with teams with 6-6 won-lost records qualifying and ones with 5-7 marks annually slipping in (5-7 Rice will grace the Lending Tree Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, on December 17). Once occupying only the Christmas-New Year week, the bowl season now runs from December 16 through the above-noted January 9.  Seemingly, every burg with a whistle to toot, and a corporate sponsor to back it, now has a bowl game, including frosty-clime Boston, Detroit and New York. Orlando, Florida, has three, and several cities have two.

 There are overlapping bowls-- the Armed Forces Bowl in Ft. Worth, Texas, and the Military Bowl, in Annapolis, Maryland. There are enough goofily named ones to amuse someone like me, including the Cheez-It Bowl, the Duke’s Mayo Bowl and the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. The Gasparilla Bowl in Tampa, Florida, celebrates Jose Gasparilla, a pirate who may or may not have plundered the Caribbean during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. If you bought a ticket to the Frisco Bowl you’d better go to Frisco, Texas (it’s near Dallas), not San Fran.

Like everything else about college sports in these United States, bowl games are about money. The main engine in that department is ESPN, the all-sports network group, which airs most of them. The network pays up big for rights to the college football playoffs but considerably less for the lesser bowls that consume much of its air time during the December-January period. Still, its largess, plus that of individual-game sponsors, is what keeps the early games going despite the empty stadium seats you often see when you tune in.

Schools will reap an estimated $500 million in bowl revenues this year. Most of the money is negotiated by and distributed through the sports conferences, with each conference member—bowl-eligible or not—sharing in the proceeds. Each conference involved in the Rose, Orange and Sugar bowls will share $74 million under current contracts.  Expenses of the competing teams will consume about a quarter of the total; football players eat a lot, you know.

And also like everything else in college sports, football-bowl-season numbers go in just one direction—up.  That was made clear a couple of weeks ago when the schools announced that their championship-playoff fields would be expanded to 12 teams from the present four starting in 2024.  That would add two more rounds—and two weeks—to the season and mean that at least two teams’ schedules could stretch to an NFL-length 17 games.

               The U’s can do such things unhindered because they have no unions or other organized groups to say nay. While it’s no longer correct to say that college athletes no longer are unpaid—in addition to their scholarships many of them get “cost of attendance” payments of several thousand dollars a year plus whatever they can hustle up for the use of their names, images or likenesses— they have no control over the conditions of their employment. Even the cheesiest football bowl game adds about a month to their practice schedules, time that otherwise could be devoted to studies (for those who care about such things) or to holiday time back home.

               Football being a rough game, it also adds to bodily wear and tear and increases the chance of career-threatening injury. Like powerless people in other situations, college footballers who balk are left to “vote with their feet,” which is to say decline to participate in bowls. A growing number of players with professional aspirations are doing just that every year, and who can blame them?  Sounds like a smart move to me.

       

 

Thursday, December 1, 2022

BARN DOOR II

 

               The drama in the annual elections to the Baseball Hall of Fame used to center on the sportswriters’ mail balloting, which takes place around year end with its results announced in January. Not so the last few years as the so-called veterans’ committees, now renamed, have done the bulk of the electing, accounting for nine of the 11 inductees in 2021 and 2022. The committees once were described as side doors to the Hall but lately they’ve been barn doors.

 For better or worse, that will be the case again this year, when the Contemporary Era Committee, charged with examining the credentials of men who performed mostly after 1980, peruses a slate of eight former players and announces its conclusions on Sunday, December 4. The sportswriters then will do their thing as usual with a different slate, but a less-interesting group of candidates means less attention to their proceedings. So score another for the vets.

The reasoning behind the system is opaque, to say the least. All the player-candidates the vets will examine have been rejected by the sportswriters on at least 10 annual occasions (it used to be 15),  and being retired from the diamonds their objective qualifications haven’t changed since their exits. That can bring into play other, fuzzier considerations, such as the post-career managing or broadcasting jobs and plain old popularity.  With 400 or so men and women doing the sportswriters’ voting, and a 75% vote needed for admission, the peripheral stuff pretty much cancels itself out. The 16-member vets groups also require a 75% vote, but that works out to just 12 yeas, so the table can easily be tilted. Would Benjamin Franklin have approved?

The procedure will get particular attention this time because three of the eight vets’ candidates have sterling objective credentials but were denied election on another ground. That would be their credible connection to the illegal use of performance-enhancing drugs during their playing days. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens were the best hitter and pitcher, respectively, of their era, while Rafael Palmeiro had more than 3,000 hits and 500 home runs over his 20-season career, both numbers formerly automatic Hall triggers. But by reliable accounts all three chose to gild the lily of their abundant talents by juicing up, in the process putting ugly and permanent asterisks on the records that are baseball’s lifeblood.

Bonds and Clemens began their sportswriters-ballot odyssey by getting about a third of the vote in 2012 and ended it last year at about two-thirds, close but no cigars. Palmeiro, who under oath denied steroids use to a Congressional committee before failing a drug test, was rejected out of hand by the writers, flushed from their ballot after four years for failure to get the 5% vote required for retention. Thursday’s voters include seven Hall of Fame players, six executives and three longtime news media members, so their action will measure how what amounts to baseball’s Establishment views the steroids era, roughly 1990 to 2005. I’d be surprised if they welcomed any of the three, but I’ve been surprised before.

Two other vets-ballot members also haul lots of baggage. Albert Belle was an accomplished slugger but also one of the surliest men ever to play the game, a noted smasher of teammates’ boom boxes and upsetter of clubhouse buffet tables. His sportswriters’ vote topped out at 7.7% in 2006 and it’s a mystery why he’s getting another look. Curt Schilling was a fine pitcher but was disliked by other players and has spent his post-baseball career badmouthing minorities and the news media on right-wing political outlets. He got a 71% vote in 2020 anyway just might make it this time.

By me, the remaining three fit into the very-good-but-not-great category of many Hall nominees. Don Mattingly, Dale Murphy and Fred McGriff were also-rans in the writers’ voting, with Mattingly and Murphy never topping a 30% result. Mattingly now has an edge over the other two because of his managerial service and nice-guy rep.

               Of the holdovers on the writers’ ballot Scott Rolen, Todd Helton and Billy Wagner have the best chance of election by virtue of each polling more than 50% last year, but I’d vote only for Helton.  Pitcher Andy Pettitte is an interesting candidate because of his 256 career victories and post-season prominence, but his chances are discounted because of his admitted use of banned HGH in injury rehab and the fact that New York Yankees’ pitchers have a leg up in the wins department.

               Among the 14 writers-ballot newcomers only Carlos Beltran has first-ballot playing-field credentials, with 2,725 hits and 435 home runs in a 20-year playing career, but he carries his own potent negative—involvement in the 2017 Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scandal. Indeed, he was the only player named in the commissioner’s report on the matter, and it caused him to be fired as the New York Mets’ manager shortly after he was hired in 2018. How Beltran fares in the voting will presage how other Astros’ stars such as Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman will do when their names come up in retirement.

               It’s possible that the sportswriters could refrain from electing any new Hall members this time, as they’ve done in some past years, and that’s a reason the vets committees are given the sway they have. The biggest event on the Hall’s annual calendar is its July induction ceremony, a weekend fest of baseball and speeches, and it wouldn’t be much of an occasion with no inductees. On such matters does immortality hinge.

    Epilogue-- On Sunday the 16-member vets group unanimously elected McGriff to the Hall, his blameless life helping boost his very-good-but-not-great batting stats. A two-thirds vote was required for election. Mattingly gathered eight votes, Schilling seven and Murphy six. None of the other four candidates received more than three votes. McGriff never topped 40% over 15 years on the sportswriters' ballot.   


 

 

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Tuesday, November 15, 2022

A LO-FUN CUP

 

               When I’m asked about the best events I covered in my 20-plus years as an active sports writer, I have a ready answer. It’s a two-way tie, I say. Number 1 was the 1994 soccer World Cup in the United States.  Number 1A was the 1998 edition of that tournament in France.

               The 1994 event was a revelation to me. Before it I had no great background in soccer and was stunned by the athleticism of the participants and the zest and color generated by the polyglot crowds. The Cup was a month-long carnival that far outdid any such fest I’d witnessed, Olympics included. The ’98 event was equally memorable, made especially so by the five-week stay in France it afforded me and wife Susie, who was along for the ride. The food alone would have sufficed to put the trip atop my list.

               It’s World Cup time again, starting this Sunday, November 20, and running through December 18, but I’m afraid it won’t be much of a treat for all concerned. That’s because it’s in Qatar, a tiny, dusty kingdom on the Arabian Gulf with no history in the sport whose award took “sportswashing” to a new high, as a result of an international bribe-o-rama for the ages. That’s saying quite a bit, because the previous record was held by the 2018 World Cup in Russia, although there most of the widely reported graft stayed home among Putin’s pals.

This Cup has been attended by criminal proceedings in the U.S., Switzerland and Brazil, among other lands. Those charged with bribe taking included Sepp Blatter, the longtime top man at FIFA, the sport’s world governing body, and Michel Platini, the No. 2.  Both were acquitted in a Swiss trial but the prosecution is appealing the verdict, and both still are banned from the sport by the organization that nurtured them.  A dozen cases in the U.S. resulted in guilty findings against corporate and soccer officials and some $40 million in fines and forfeitures.

Some criminal trials still pend, including one scheduled for January against two executives of Fox TV charged with bribing soccer officials to grease the network’s successful bid to televise the proceedings in the U.S.  Like a good little partner, Fox has said it will air Cup games without reference to the offenses that surround them. Maybe its own involvement in them had something to do with that, huh?  

A less likely place for the world’s most-inclusive sporting event (some 200 national teams competed at one stage or another) would be hard to find. Oil-rich Qatar is more a company than a country, the property of the Thani family, a hereditary monarchy whose head appoints the prime minister and his cabinet and all members of the judiciary. Of a total population of about three million people only about 300,000 are citizens, the rest being ex-pats and migrant workers. Stoning and flogging are legal punishments; homosexual acts are punishable by death.

When Qatar was awarded the Cup in 2010 it had just one suitable soccer stadium. It’s dotted the desert around Doha, its only city worth the name, with seven more since, their construction accounting for the bulk of the reported $220 billion it’s spending to stage the event. The grunt work on those was performed by workers imported from Asia who labored, and died, under near-slavery conditions until international condemnation forced some reforms a few years ago.

 Tourist accommodations have been slapped together similarly, with cruise ships and a tent city enlisted to help serve the expected influx. Alcohol use is prohibited in most of Qatar but for the nonce the country is creating “fan zones” around stadiums where visitors can indulge. Those who overindulge will be carted off to sober-up zones, there to stay under threat of arrest.  I’m not making this up.

The World Cup usually takes place in June while the world’s top club leagues are on break. It’s too hot for soccer in Qatar in or around that month so FIFA honchos, their pockets stuffed to overflowing, switched the thing to its November start. Among other things that will mean that players will be joining their national teams hot off competitive regimens, with a larger number than usual nursing injuries.  

The good news for us Yanks is that the U.S. team is in the field. It missed the 2018 fest in ignominious fashion after losing a final qualifying match to a team from little Trinidad & Tobago (pop. 1.3 million) when a tie would have sufficed to advance. A thorough shakeup of team management resulted.

The bad news is that U.S. prospects aren’t brilliant. The team goes to Qatar ranked 16th internationally, but that may be higher than justified. It qualified for the Cup by finishing third in its regional group, behind Mexico and newly potent Canada, was shut out by lower-ranked Japan and Saudi Arabia in its two most-recent practice outings and has been beset by a number of injuries large by any standard. Its best players aren’t among the international elite, and it lacks the standout goaltending of previous U.S. elevens.

 The team opens on Monday, November 21, against Wales, meets England on Friday, November 25, and finishes group play on Tuesday, November 29, against Iran.  Traditional-power England, fifth in the world rankings, is the group favorite, and Wales and Iran rank just behind the U.S. in 19th and 20th places, respectively. It probably will take at least a win and a tie in the three matches to advance to the single-elimination round of 16, and that’ll take some doing.

The saving grace may be a team’s youth—it’s the youngest in the field by one recent measure. That means—who knows?-- it could outperform expectations. It also could bode well for 2026, when the U.S. will co-host the Cup with Canada and Mexico. Meantime, most of us can be glad we’ll be watching at home, out of range of Qatari beer patrols. Have another, if you want.

 

              

Tuesday, November 1, 2022

FALL BALL '22

 

               If you’ve been following this space for a while you know that my favorite time of year in Arizona, my home for 25 years now, is October and November. The weather is warm but, usually, not hot, the skies are deep blue and the snowbirds have yet to arrive in force and clog the roads. Best, it’s when the Arizona Fall League, baseball’s minor-league finishing school, convenes.

               It’s baseball at its purest, without most of the commercial clutter that attends the rest of the professional game. Six teams with 35 players each, mostly between ages 20 and 24 who’ve just completed Class A or AA seasons, are playing a six week, 36-game schedule ending November 12 in six of the wonderful spring-training ballparks in the Phoenix area. Admission is cheap, parking is free and easy and the local news media ignore it so crowds are small and you can sit where you want.

               The Majors use the league in part to test or preview rules changes.  In the preview category this year have been the bigger bases (18-inches square versus the previous 15 inches) that will be used beginning in 2023, enforced pitch clocks (15 seconds with the bases empty, 20 seconds with runners on) and—most notably—a requirement that each pitch begins with two infielders on each side of second base, eliminating the radical shifts that have helped throttle offenses in recent annums.  S’all good, I think.

               A wrinkle that’s being tested is a ball-strike challenge, giving each team three TV-replay looks a game at home-plate umpires’ calls if a pitcher, catcher or batter requests them. Glad to report, it’s been sparingly used here, and when it has the umps’ calls mostly have been upheld. I’d like to see all electronic second-guessing of umps’ decisions junked, but I know that ain’t gonna happen, and one day robots or somesuch will take over all officiating. I’m glad that isn’t here yet.

               The best thing about the Fall League is that it gives fans like me a license to pretend to be scouts, a role I embrace. Through my blogs I’ve tipped off my readers to the likes of Nolan Arenado, Kris Bryant, Francisco Lindor and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., flaming talents who as youngsters lit up the AZ circuit. Nobody this year has stood out like those guys did, but as usual some good-looking kids have strutted their stuff.

                  The two best I’ve seen are Jordan Lawlar, a shortstop in the Arizona Diamondbacks’ chain, and Zac Veen, an outfielder property of the Colorado Rockies. Both are 20 years old, meaning they probably won’t see the Bigs in earnest for a couple of years, but it might be hard for their hard-up teams to keep them down that long.

               Lawlar, from Texas, was the D’backs’ top pick in the 2021 draft, the sixth player chosen. He’s got a live bat and arm and good speed afoot. In one game I saw he had a single, home run, two walks and two stolen bases. In another he went 3-for-4 with a triple, and had another steal. The D’backs drafted another shortstop, Dansby Swanson, first in 2015, but in a typical dumb move traded him (to Atlanta, where he’s starred) before he reached the Majors. Let’s hope they hang on to this kid.

               Veen, from Florida, was the ninth player picked in the 2020 draft. He’s skinny-strong at 6-foot-4 and a listed 190 pounds. He takes his at-bats seriously, swinging lustily from a coiled stance, and once on base itches to steal. He’s batted around .400 for most of the season here and through four weeks led the league with 13 stolen bases in as many games. He’ll probably fill out as he ages, and slow down, but should do well with the bat in the light air of the Mile High City.

               The biggest celebrities among the players here are catcher Henry Davis and right-handed pitcher Kumar Rocker, and while both will see the Majors as a result of their lofty draft status they’ll need more seasoning before they ascend.  Davis, the first pick overall in the 2021 draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates out of the U. of Louisville, has a solid build and latent power at age 23, but hasn’t impressed in the minors, batting .207 at AA last season. He hasn’t distinguished himself here.

 The 6-foot-5, 245-pound Rocker, 22, wowed ‘em at Vanderbilt U., leading the Commodores to an NCAA title, but has been injury-plagued since and missed all but a few games of the just-concluded regular season following shoulder surgery. The third pick overall in the ’22 draft by the Texas Rangers, and awarded a reported $5.2 million signing bonus, he’s been on a strict innings diet here, logging just 10 2/3 in five outings. He went three innings on Monday , showing an effective variety of pitches while giving up no runs and one hit and striking out five, and while patience will be required to allow him to show at his best it’s apparent that his upside is high.

Good catchers always are at a premium and one who can hit is Drew Millas, a seventh-round draftee (2019) from the Washington Nats. Switch-hitting from a widespread stance, he regularly makes strong contact, and has been employed as a DH when he’s not behind the plate. He went 3-for-4 in each of two games I watched, with a homer and 9 runs batted in, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t clue you into him.

 Jordan Walker, 20, a St. Louis Cardinals outfield prospect, looks like a young Jason Heyward at 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, but would be advised to run out ground balls. Middle-infielder Ronny Simon , 22, with the Tampa Bay Rays via the Dominican Republic, is a genuine “pocket rocket”  at a listed 5-9 and 150. He hit 22 home runs at A and AA last season, but also strikes out a lot.

Pitchers appear only a few innings every four or five games, and therefore are tough to scout, but even in a few innings it’s been clear that Alek Jacob is my kind of hurler. His fastball tops out in the mid-80s but he mixes it with effective slow stuff and a variety of deliveries that keep batters off balance. At age 24 he’s a bit elderly for the AFL, but his sub-3.00 minor league ERAs, with 17 walks to 106 strikeouts last season, marks him as a keeper for the San Diego Padres despite his 16th round draft slot.

My team, the Chicago Cubs, sent two touted position players. One is Brennen Davis, a rangy outfielder who missed most of the 2022 regular season with a back injury. He was injured again here and bowed out after five games, not a good sign. First-baseman Matt Mervis is a sleeper, an undrafted player who was a pitcher for much of his college career at Duke U. At a husky 6-4 and 230, he smoked minor-league pitching in rising from Class A to AAA in the regular season, hitting a total of 36 home runs in 137 games. He’s kept it up here, tying for the league lead with five homers in 11 games through week four.

 Minor-league power doesn’t always transfer to the Bigs but, fingers crossed, it could with him. The Cubs could use help at first base, among other places.

              

Saturday, October 15, 2022

WORLD BALL

 

               We don’t think about it much but sports haven’t always been part of Planet Earth. They are the product of leisure, which in turn is the product of prosperity. A society that’s worried about where its next meal is coming from doesn’t have the wherewithal for fun and games.

               That little intro sets the stage for the present—in much of the world, at least. Whatever else globalization has brought it also has resulted in a geographic spread of athletic accomplishment that has no historic precedent.  If you believe as I do that genius of every sort—scientific, intellectual, artistic and athletic-- is sprinkled randomly around the globe, needing only opportunity, instruction and encouragement to bloom, you find affirmation every day in the sports pages. While the world might be smaller in many ways, it’s larger in others.

               The Modern Age began with a global setback—World War II. It left much of Europe and Asia in ruins, while Africa and Latin America struggled with technological deficits and the colonialism that sent their resources elsewhere. Triumphant and intact, the USA pretty much stood alone atop the various medal platforms for a quarter of a century, leading many to believe the status was permanent.

               Not so, it’s turned out; the revolution has been quiet but relentless. In the 1948 Summer Olympics, the first after the war, athletes from 23 different countries won gold medals. The last time around, at Tokyo in 2020, that number was 65, almost three times as many, albeit in an expanded schedule.

               Today, the world’s best soccer player is Lionel Messi, from Argentina, or Cristiano Ronaldo, from Portugal, depending on whom you ask. The world’s top track-and-field athlete in this century has been Usain Bolt, the sprinter from Jamaica, and women from that small island finished 1-2-3 in the 100-meter dash at Tokyo.

 In the so-called “country club” sports Iga Swiatek, a Pole, is the top-ranked woman tennis player, and Novak Djokovic, a Serb, tops the men’s chart. There are more Asians (5) than Americans (2) among the current top-10 of women’s golf, and five nations are represented among the top 10 male linksters.

In basketball, a sport we Yanks invented, African-Americans still dominate, but any listing of the world’s dozen best players must include Giannis Antetokounmpo, from Greece, Nikola Jokic, from Serbia, Luca Doncic, from Slovenia, and Joel Embiid, from Cameroon. Touted as the best current young player is 18-year-old Victor Wembanyama, raised in France by a French mother and Congolese dad. He stands anywhere from 7-foot-2 to 7-foot-5, depending on what you read.  

But a couple of other examples of internationalization are more striking, straining credulity. The world’s best baseball player, with skills not seen since Babe Ruth, is Shohei Ohtani, from Japan. And reversing the usual order of ascension the best ice-hockey player is Auston Matthews, raised in Scottsdale, Arizona, a desert burg with a climate closer to that of Timbuktu than Medicine Hat.

Ohtani, born to athletically unremarkable parents in the small northern-Japan city of Oshu, is a kind of unicorn, a combination hitter-pitcher who is not just rare but unique over the last 100 years. Comparing athletes of different generations is a fool’s task because conditions are so different; while great athletes would be great in any era, today’s jocks are so much stronger and better coached than those of the past that they should dominate any imaginary competition. Further, Ruth’s Major League career spanned 22 seasons (1914-1935), while Ohtani’s so far numbers five (2018-22), and in two of those (2019 and ’20) he started just two games on the mound because he underwent reconstructive elbow surgery.  The kid (OK, he’s 28 years old) is just getting started.

But Ohtani bids fair to become the first player to both hit and pitch at a high level in the Bigs over an extended period. Ruth’s career had two, distinct segments: in five of his first six seasons, with the Boston Red Sox, he was a pitcher, and one of the best of the time, but once sold to the New York Yankees in 1920 he became a fulltime position player, making just a handful of foolin’ around mound appearances in his 16 seasons in New York. He seriously combined the two skills in just one year—1919—when he hit a then-record 29 home runs while pitching 133 innings.

After surgical recovery Ohtani has posted two excellent hit-pitch years—2021, when he won the American League Most Valuable Player award after pitching 130 innings with a 3.18 earned run average while hitting 46 home runs and batting in 100, and this season, when he upped his innings pitched to 166 while lowering his ERA to 2.33 and had power numbers of 34 and 95. He probably won’t repeat as MVP this season—Aaron Judge looks likely to get it—but he also might receive Cy Young Award votes. If he stays healthy that’s likely to be an annual occurrence for quite a while.

Auston Matthews was born in California, also to athletically unremarkable parents, and was moved to Scottsdale at age two months. He stayed there until, in hockey’s Dickensian youth-development system, he was packed off at 15 to join a U.S. national age-group team in Plymouth, Michigan. Children who grow up in frosty northern climes can have their own ice rinks in winter if they have a back yard and a garden hose. Most of the ice in Arizona is in drinks, with the flat variety confined to a few indoor venues that charge fees to use.

Young Auston played baseball as well as hockey but found the diamond sport too slow. His innate hockey aptitudes brought him to the attention of coaches. He went from kid phenom to National Hockey League pro, with the Toronto Maple Leafs, at age 19. He was a star from the outset and last season, at 25, scored 60 goals and won the Hart Trophy, the NHL’s version of the MVP prize. Hockey’s equivalent of pitching is catching—that is, playing goalie. He probably could do that, too.