Monday, July 15, 2019


               The spate of signings connected to the recent opening of the National Basketball Association’s season for free agency had many people I know blinking in disbelief. Not only has the going rate for a top-level NBA star zoomed to about $30 million a year but the pay for journeymen players has soared apace. Hoopsters we’ve scarcely heard of were pulling down eight-figure annual deals! What’s the world coming to?

                Truth is, of course, we’ve been shaking our heads over jock riches for years, and probably always will. Ever since big-league baseball players in 1975 broke free of their sport’s “reserve clause,” which bound players to their teams until the teams chose to release or trade them, the lines on all athletes’ pay charts have been up, pretty much in a straight line. So, too, has public bewilderment with same, even among people who otherwise champion free-market economics.

               A little math suffices to illustrate the inequities that throwing riches at jocks involves. If the average public-school teacher earns, say, $50,000 a year, the $30 million-a-year the likes of Kyrie Irving or Bryce Harper are getting would cover the entire annual payroll of the 600-teacher public-school system of New Haven, Connecticut. If that isn’t enough to piss someone off, nothing is.

                But it’s equally true that such complaints really aren’t wholly justified. Sports exist in a marketplace peopled solely by volunteers, which is to say that teams and athletes get your money only if you choose to give it to them. (The exception is the use of tax dollars to build sports facilities.)  If you don’t like the games’ economic structures, don’t buy tickets or otherwise support them. It’s as simple as that.

               And fans and nonfans alike can take perverse satisfaction from the knowledge that athletes are notoriously poor handlers of money, people who will revert to economic norms or worse no matter how much they pull down during their salad days. In the maxim “a fool and his money are soon parted,” the word “jock” can be substituted for “fool” with no loss of meaning.

Evidence to support that premise is easy to come by; a few years ago Sports Illustrated magazine reported a study showing that 78% of NBAers and 60% of National Football League players were either bankrupt or experiencing “financial stress” within five years of retiring. Those numbers are large enough to raise questions, but even half the reported rates would be shocking.

In assessing jockonomics, a couple things should be kept in mind. The first is that nobody who works for somebody else is overpaid. Babe Ruth has been credited with saying that to justify his $80,000 salary in 1927, but its truth is self-evident whether he really said it or not.

The second is that published pay figures are grosses, not nets, and thus are misleading. From annual salaries in the seven-figures-and-up range one can immediately deduct about 35% for federal taxes, another 5% to 10% for state and local taxes and still another 10% for agency or legal fees. The state bite can be larger than normal because of the so-called “jock tax” which, pioneered in California, requires that athletes be taxed in just about every state in which they perform and at the rate of that state rather than the one they call home.  If nothing else this often requires them to file a dozen or more state forms at tax time.

Individual-sport athletes such as boxers and tennis players also typically must maintain, at their own expense, coaches, trainers and others that help them in their trades. For boxers training for a big fight this contingent can number in the dozens.

But even so what’s left can be considerable, and it should be noted that young athletes (almost all are huge earners for their age) often come from backgrounds that don’t prepare them to handle sudden wealth. The youngster coming into his first big pro contract typically finds himself surrounded by friends and relatives wishing to share in his good fortune, some with good cases for doing so. With little or no schooling in investment matters he is easy prey for fast-talking operators who tell him that ordinary annual returns of 5% or thereabouts amount to “chump change” and, thus, are beneath his exalted status. Having grown up with the privilege that extraordinary athletic ability brings in this land, this argument becomes easy to swallow.

And having gone from next to nothing to quite a bit in, like, 60 seconds, the newly rich jock easily falls into spending habits that can be sustained only as long as his income stays very high. Shaquille O’Neal, the former basketball player, seems to have emerged from hoops stardom in good financial shape, which is good because an article on his playing-days lifestyle had it that he was spending $l,620 a month for “music and magazines”, $2,305 a for pet care, $6,730 for laundry and cleaning, $24,300 for gasoline and $114,946 for “miscellaneous personal” reasons. And that’s before his mortgage(s) and food kicked in.

Automobiles are a big source of jock extravagance; one piece I saw online had it that Mike Tyson, the boxer, has owned a total of 111 such vehicles during his lifetime. Some he drove himself, others he gave to friends. More than once he abandoned cars after he couldn’t remember where he parked them, according to the article.

 Because they deal with the public individually and directly, boxers top most lists of richest jocks. They also are among the poster boys for financial disaster. Muhammad Ali earned a reported $50 million during his career but late in life lived off appearance fees. Tyson, coming along after the take for big fights had mushroomed because of pay-TV, grossed a reported $700 million. He declared bankruptcy in 2007. Now age 53, he lives off occasional acting gigs and lectures, one of the latter concerning how he blew his money.

Athletes’ typical need for quick gratification can subvert even well-meant financial plans. Businessman Bill Cayton, Tyson’s manager before being elbowed aside by the unscrupulous Don King, told me about setting up a trust fund for one of his earlier fighters, Wilfredo Benitez, that ensured Benitez a good income on retirement. “We made Wilfredo and his relatives sign promises never to invade the principal, but three weeks after the thing was set up he showed up at the bank asking to do just that,” Cayton said. “We told the banker not to let him but the next day he phoned again to say that Wilfredo, his father and a brunch of friends were in his office threatening to riot if they couldn’t get some money. We told the fellow to do what he had to, and inside of six months the whole sum was gone. Sad, but true.”

Monday, July 1, 2019


               I was surfing the web the other day and came across a story about Dick Allen, the former baseball player. It made me think about, uh, Dick Allen.

               The piece said that Allen, one of the leading batsmen of his era (1963-77), was a good bet to win election to the game’s Hall of Fame when one of the hall’s several veterans’ committees meets again next year. It noted that in 2014, the last time the group met, Allen was named on the ballots of 11 of the 16 electors, men who played or were otherwise connected with the game during his service. That was just one vote short of success, and the odds were that this obstacle would be overcome the next time around.

               The information made me gulp a bit because Allen looked like anything but a Hall shoo-in when his memory was more vivid in my mind, or that, I daresay, of most of the sporting public. While he was a helluva hitter (a career 351 home runs and .292 batting average at a time that included the Second Dead Ball Era because of pitcher domination) he also performed amid constant turmoil, much of it of his own making.  Sensitive, moody and confrontational, and chafing under the residues of racism in the game and society, he left a trail of hard feelings wherever he played. Evidence of that was the fact that in 15 years on the sportswriters’ Hall of Fame ballot ending in 1997 he never received as much as 19% of the vote, far less than the 75% required for entrance. Those elections are, in part, popularity contests, and popular Allen wasn’t.

               Allen played before I became a sportswriter, so I can’t testify as one, but I do have a couple of memories of him. The first stemmed from a game I attended when Allen was with the Chicago White Sox. I can’t recall the date or even the year-- 1972, ’73 or ’74-- but I think the foe was the New York Yankees. I was sitting with my kids in a Comiskey Park box seat just to the right of home plate when Allen connected with a fastball, his bat emitting a sound that was qualitatively different from others of its sort. The ball started low and then soared like a jet plane on takeoff, and while it probably violates some law of physics I swear it was still rising when it cleared the left field wall some 370 feet away. I’ve never seen a ball hit harder.

               Years later, in 1989, I spent a day with Allen in Chicago while he was publicizing his autobiography “Crash; The Life and Times of Dick Allen,” which the ballplayer authored with writer Tim Whitaker. Allen, me and our driver attended a couple of book-store signings, had lunch, and sat in on a local radio talk show, where he answered caller’s questions.

  That day he was the soul of affability, signing everything that was thrust before him, adding inscriptions when asked and assuring one and all that Chicago was his kind of town. “I only wish I’d started and ended my career here,” he smilingly repeated.  It might have pointed out that he could have ended it there if he chose; the White Sox made him baseball’s highest-paid player at $250,000 a year over his three-year stint and he was well liked by the fans, unlike those of cantankerous Philadelphia, where he got his start, but courtesy prevailed

 Truth was, though, he walked out on the team without explanation with two weeks to go in the 1974 season. When the walk-out finally came up on the call-in show he treated it summarily, saying “It’s a long story. It’s in the book.  It was about baseball.” It was in the book, but it was a short story and it wasn’t only about baseball. A sportswriter’s pesty questions, a dispute with a teammate, and a manager he said he admired (Chuck Tanner) reminding him that he—the manager—was running things and a baseball paradise turned into a purgatory. The book tells pretty much the same story about the other stops in Allen’s five-team, 15-season career.   

That Allen was an excellent player is beyond dispute. Average sized at a listed 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds, he was so strong-armed and deep-chested he could twirl his huge (42-ounce)bat like a majorette’s baton.  He won a Rookie of the Year award in one league (with the NL Phillies in 1964) and an MVP in the other, with the AL White Sox in ’72. He was a good fielder at first base and a canny base runner, and even could bunt, as he once did to foil a Nolan Ryan no-hitter bid. Many players with whom he performed said he was a good teammate, although it should be noted that athletes will put up with a lot from immensely talented colleagues.

The other hand, though, was more like a catcher’s mitt. Allen missed practices and games and sometimes stopped at what his book called “watering holes” (i.e., bars) en route to games. His clubhouse brawl with Phillie teammate Frank Thomas remains notable; pro athletes rarely go at it seriously. Nobody was photographed smoking cigarettes in uniform as often as Allen; indeed, a picture of him doing just that adorns the cover of his book.

Allen said that, maybe, the cover picture wasn’t a good idea, reinforcing the notion that he was a rebel without much cause. He said he also didn’t much care for the book’s title, which derived from his habit, begun in Philadelphia where fans sometimes threw things at him, of wearing a batting helmet in the field. Phillie teammates dubbed him “Crash Helmet,” later shortening it to “Crash,” and the name stuck.

“I didn’t crash. I’m here and doing well,” the trim, then-47-year-old told me. “I think a better title would have been ‘Rules.’ “


“Yeah. People always said there was one set of rules for me and another for the other players. Sometimes there was, but not in ways people thought.

“Take the Thomas fight. He broke the players’ rule by swinging a bat at me, but the Philly fans blamed me. Other players smoked and drank but only I was abused for it. And that stuff about calling me ‘Richie’ [a name he disliked] early on. No other player got hassled about his first name.”

If the reports are correct, baseball is ready to let bygones be long gone for the now-77-year-old Allen, and probably for the better. If he gets a plaque in Cooperstown, you can bet it’ll say “Dick” instead of “Richie.”


Saturday, June 15, 2019


               The epithet “most underrated” is flung around widely on the sports pages and the internet, meant to cast spotlights on athletes some consider to be neglected, but I’ve never been happy with it. I mean, If a player is recognized as being underrated, that means he’s valued, doesn’t it? Add the word “most” to the description and it means he’s a downright celebrity. And aren’t we all convinced that the world doesn’t appreciate our wonderfulness?

               So okay, you get my drift about the piece to follow. It’s about baseball players who, for one reason or another, seem to have been, uh, undersung, especially of late. These are guys I’ve come to appreciate  during my daily wanderings around MLB’s “Extra Innings” package, which offers subscribers every Major League game that’s televised anywhere, which is just about all of them. It fills many of the hours left vacant by TV’s summer programming and, at between $150 and $175 a season, is a great bargain to boot.  That’s less than the cost of a single box-seat ticket in many cities.

               The player I think best exemplifies the underrated label is JEAN SEGURA, the shortstop for the Philadelphia Phillies. Here’s a guy who, to paraphrase my old horse-racing guru Sam Lewin, does nothing but hit, but gets scant credit for it. In his six full seasons after his brief (one game) rookie call up with the Angels in 2012 he’s hit safely 981 times, an average of 163 a year, and led the National League in safeties in 2016 with 203. Nevertheless, he’s been traded four times in that span, to the Brewers, Diamondbacks, Mariners and Phillies, where he’s in season one at age 29. In each of the last three seasons he’s topped the .300 mark at the plate, no mean feat in his whiff-happy era. He’s almost on pace to do it again this year, hitting .284 at midweek with his first-place team.

               One possible reason for Segura getting short shrifted by many is his physique, which tends toward the chunky. That’s unusual for a shortstop but he’s fielded his position adequately and his mobility is attested to by his 174 career stolen bases. He’s stolen 20 or more bases in each of the last six seasons and in 2013, in Milwaukee, ranked second in the National League with 44 in that department. Base swiping is getting to be another lost art, so thanks to Jean for that, too.

               Another player who deserves more credit than he gets is JOSE ABREU, the Chicago White Sox first baseman. Smuggled out of Cuba under perilous circumstances in 2013, he’s been the very model of power-hitting consistency in Chicago, hitting 146 home runs and driving in 488 runs over his first five Major League seasons (2014-18). He’s one of just three players to average at least 25 home runs and 100 RBIs in his first four seasons in the Bigs, the other two being Albert Pujols and Joe DiMaggio. With 16 homers and 52 ribbies already logged for this 40% completed season, the 32-year-old is on pace to better his career averages.

               Abreu has been overlooked because he plays for the White Sox, a team that’s No. 2 in its home town and hasn’t done much of anything since its surprise, 2005 World Series victory. Abreu’s signing, for an eye-opening $168 million over six years, was based on the gargantuan stats he put up in his native country (he hit .453 one season), and was supposed to help reverse that. It didn’t—the Sox have been losers in all of his years with the team. Still, Abreu survived the talent dump that signaled a ground-up rebuilding program starting in 2017, and while he remains the topic of trade rumors the betting is that the Sox will try to hold on to him now that things have turned for the better. At least he gets some respect in his own locker room.

               NELSON CRUZ was busted in the 2013 raids on the Biogenesis Clinic, the notorious Miami drug-dispensing operation that also netted Alex Rodriguez, and sat out a 50-game suspension that season. But instead of shriveling up he went on to prosper, hitting 40, 44 and 43 home runs in his next three seasons under, one supposes, enhanced surveillance. It makes one wonder why he thought shooting up was a good idea.

               Despite his diminished reputation, Cruz still is going strong at age 38, helping his new club, the Minnesota Twins (his fifth), mount their unexpected surge this season by anchoring the middle of their lineup as a DH. His career home run total (372) puts him fourth among active players, and his power numbers last season with the Mariners (37 HRs, 97 RBIs) showed he hadn’t slowed.  He’s had injuries his year but came off the IL in June to homer in four consecutive games.  Que hombre!

               NICK MARKAKIS has 2,303 base hits in his 14-season career, fourth among active players, but until last season never made an All-Star team. He played nine seasons with mostly bad Baltimore Orioles teams before escaping to the better Atlanta Braves in 2014, but there has been overshadowed, first by fan favorite Freddie Freeman and, more lately, by some very talented youngsters. But on he labors at age 35, with no end in sight.

               Not only is Markakis a rarity of longevity, he’s also one of durability. No one these days goes eons without missing a game, ala Cal Ripken Jr., but Markakis gives it a try, playing in all 162 last season and 160 or more in six others.  Additionally, the outfielder is a three-time Gold Glove winner and set a Major League record by going 398 straight games without an error in the 2012-15 seasons. Throw in the fact he’s a perennial All-Beard and you have someone worth rooting for.

               ELVIS ANDRUS was a boy wonder shortstop with the Texas Rangers’ American League champions of 2010 and 2011. He’s no longer boyish at age 30 but soldiers on in Arlington, the last remnant of those World Series teams. He’s a good fielder, proficient base-stealer and good hitter for a position that usually doesn’t demand that. About the only way he gets attention is by picking the irritating song “Baby Shark” for his walkup music. That’s going a bit far, I think.





Saturday, June 1, 2019


                I can’t recall exactly when it was—maybe four or five years ago—but the sport of soccer took a giant leap forward in these United States when ESPN, the all-sports TV network, began including its international scores on its “crawl,” the info that streams constantly across the bottom of its screens. Suddenly, the real game of the foot took its place in the daily diet of scores and news flashes that Americans breathe in like the air, gaining immeasurably in status. Although nobody I know of marked the event it was a clear signal that finally, and despite the scoffers, soccer had made it hereabouts, with a capital M.

                 The observation is pertinent because soccer will be much with us in the coming weeks and many will be paying attention. Later today (Saturday, June 1) the English clubs Liverpool and Tottenham will have it out in Madrid in the final of the European Champions League, the game’s biggest annual event. It will be carried in the U.S. by TNT and the Spanish-language network Univision, and a large audience is expected. The game hyped itself in the best way by the semifinal matches that preceded it, with both finalists gaining upset victories with late goal surges that bordered on the incredible. The highlight films of those games elbowed out domestic contests for U.S. sports-show air space.

                And starting the following week, on June 7, the game’s Women’s World Cup kicks off a month’s run in France, with the U.S. team favored to repeat as champions. Women’s soccer, like women’s sports generally, usually doesn’t fare well on the American tube, but the combination of patriotism, pulchritude and possible victory has made the quadrennial fest a big draw. The U.S.-Japan final in 2015, won by the Yanks, 5-2, had a U.S. audience of about 26 million people, more than the number that tuned in to any NBA finals or baseball World Series game that year. You can win a bar bet with that one.

                What really is noteworthy, though, is how the day-in, day-out popularity of soccer has taken off in recent years. The sport has supplanted ice hockey as America’s fourth-favorite spectator sport (behind football, basketball and baseball) and in the 2018 Gallup Poll it ranked third among people in the 18-to-54-year-old age category, outpacing the diamond sport. Figures on youth participation are similar, with soccer coming in behind only basketball and baseball among kids six to 12 years old.

                Behind the popularity growth is a mushrooming of soccer offerings on TV; according to various sources the U.S. television audience for the sport has about tripled in the last decade, suggesting the maxim “if you air it, they will watch.” NBC, Fox, ESPN, TNT, Univision and a host of national or regional cable outfits present soccer on a regular basis, and all four of the sport’s international “major” leagues—England’s Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, Italy’s Serie A and the German Bundesliga—have U.S. outlets.

                That’s significant because most of the viewer growth is coming from leagues based abroad. Major League Soccer, the biggest U.S. professional league, does okay on the tube (on ESPN) and at the gate, but its American audience is about half of that of the Premier League (on NBC), and only about a third the size of Liga MX, the Mexican pro league. And just to show that it’s not only Hispanics that follow the Mexican circuit, Fox last year added English-language broadcasts of Liga MX games. Many Americans—especially kids-- have become fluent in the language of the sport, calling zero scores “nil” and a field a “pitch,” and arguing over whether Messi or Ronaldo is the game’s best player. And what about Harry Kane, huh?

                That I am among the group that tunes in regularly to soccer is a source of wonder to me. I have no background in the sport, my only childhood rubs with it coming when I wandered by Winnemac Park near my Chicago home on Sunday mornings and saw teams representing ethnic social clubs kick the balls around. My main takeaway from those games was geographical; they were how I discovered that countries such as Armenia and Croatia existed.
                Like many Americans, my first immersion involved the 1994 Men’s World Cup in the U.S., covering the American team’s pre-Cup exertions and the main competition itself. Watching entire contests at the sport’s highest level put me in tune with soccer’s rhythms and taught me to appreciate its fine points, which can make even low-scoring games interesting. Moreover, I thoroughly admired the players’ athleticism, finding amazing the things they could make the ball do using just their feet.  (If you don’t agree, try kicking a soccer ball with your “off” foot.  You’ll be as likely to take a pratfall as make contact.)  My admiration was solidified before and during the 1998 World Cup in France. It was the best event I ever covered, although much of the pleasure stemmed from being able to spend five weeks in or around Paris on the Wall Street Journal’s dime.

                Further, I have a favorite European club team to help me sustain interest in non-World Cup years. It’s Tottenham Hotspur, one of the teams in today’s Champions League matchup.  I came to the club by way of my ex-pat son Michael, who lives near Amsterdam after a long stint in England, and my Anglophile friend Mike Levy. Our common allegiance had made for many hours of quality bonding.

                It was, I believe, fated that I become a Spurs supporter. For one thing, the team has a Jewish connection, the North London neighborhood from which it sprang being a one-time Jewish base. For another, the club often is likened to my Chicago Cubs baseball favorites in that it has gone an epochal period (59 years) without a Premier League title.

 It’s done pretty well of late, joining the half-dozen clubs that annually vie for the English crown, but it hasn’t been able to shake a rep for playing poorly when the stakes are high. Son Mike says that none of his Spur-fan friends believes the team will win today—it never does in such a match. But—hey!—if Americans can get to like soccer, anything’s possible.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019


                A “perfect game” in bowling is when someone throws strikes in all 12 frames for a score of 300, a feat that’s rare but far from impossible in a sport that rewards consistency of stroke. A “perfect game” in baseball is rarer--when a pitcher doesn't permit a base runner in nine innings-- but it could be a misnomer because his teammate might have botched scoring opportunities and, of course, the other team probably screwed up all over the place.

                   The purpose of the above isn’t just to bandy words but to take note of what I consider a troubling aspect of many sports in this day and age. It’s a quest for officiating perfection that besides being unobtainable is warping our games. The saw about the perfect being the enemy of the good rarely has been more pertinent. Ditto the one about watching what you wish for because you might get it.

                The villain is technology or, rather, its increasing role on our fields of play. Television’s eye in the sky, and it’s instant-replay capacity, has gone from being an interesting accessory of sports’ viewing to the supreme arbiter, sometimes changing whole outcomes as well as their individual parts. In the pursuit of “just getting things right” it’s sometimes turning things sideways for the performers on the field and the folks at home.  

                Nothing illustrated that better than last Saturday’s Kentucky Derby.  As Dizzy Dean used to say, “you seen it on your screen,” Maximum Security’s victory on the track being overturned after 22 minutes of microscopic video analysis by the Churchill Downs stewards, the race’s overseers.  Max’s sin was to wander out a bit in the homestretch and, momentarily, impede the progress of the horses just to his right rear. Then they all righted themselves and he pulled away to win, to the pleasure of the bettors who’d made him a 4-to-1 second favorite.

                It was a foul, all right, but it was questionable whether it deserved the punishment of his being relegated to the rear of the 20-horse field, the first such outcome in the race’s 145-year history. I was one of those who had to tear up a winning ticket, so this may sound like sour grapes, but the ruling left me and, I’m sure, others shaking our heads. Allowances might have been made because the Derby always is a rough race, contested as it is by young horses (three-year-olds are the equivalent of human teens) in a too-crowded field (other classic America races have an entry limit of 14) on a rain-soaked track that made footing uncertain. I’m sure that an analysis of the entire race would have uncovered numerous instances of equine contact as bad or worse than the one that DQed poor Max.

                The outcome was bad for racing on a number of grounds. The declared winner, the longshot runnerup Country House, ever will have an asterisk marking his victory, and no sport wants those. Further, after the race, and maybe out of pique,  the human connections of Max and Country House said their animals wouldn’t be moving on to the Preakness, the second leg in the Triple Crown for three-year-olds, killing the possibility of a Triple Crown winner and depriving racing of one of its few (and much-needed) focuses of public attention.

 Worst, it’ll be awhile before race goers can savor their betting victories without casting a nervous eye toward the tote board to see if the scientists in the video room will undo the result. The thrill of victory is the main reason we racing fans are out there, and anything that dilutes that is a wound for a sport that’s already bleeding heavily.

Professional football isn’t in the popularity soup racing is, but it seems to be riding the technology train in the same direction. That became clear after last season when the NFL, in its never-ending quest for officiating perfection, added pass interference to the list of plays and situations eligible for official instant-replay review. The addition was made after a PI no-call that might have changed the result of a playoff game between the Saints and Rams. The losing Saints raised a stink that could be deodorized only by the change, the league’s owners decreed.

The NFL pioneered video review in 1986 but by 1991 better judgement prevailed and it was repealed.  That stirred up the “just get it right” hounds, who succeeded in returning it in 1999. From there is has mushroomed. Now its games are continually punctuated by Talmudic discussions of things like the meaning of the in-the-grasp rule, or whether a pass receiver put a second tippy-toe in bounds after he caught a pass. Adding pass interference promises to make such interruptions exponentially worse; no other rule is more poorly defined or stirs more controversy.

Baseball came late to electronics, in 2008. Predictably, it has allowed it to metastasize, so that head-phone-wearing umpires have become as much a part of the game as Cracker Jacks. The most-obvious next step will be to do away with human home-plate umpires and electrify balls-and-strikes-calling completely. The technology for this already exists, as does the cry to employ it. Base umpires will be the next to go; it’s only logical.  Goodbye blue, hello Artoo-Deetoo.

If you’ve read this blog (or my WSJ columns) you know I’ve opposed TV-replay review from the start, on the simple grounds that sports are played by humans and should be judged by them. Being human means making mistakes, and sports are too trivial to be exempted from that condition.

  If you don’t buy that, try the argument that sports are our main physical expressions of art and that replacing any part of them by artificial means is a sin.  I have no illusions about reversing the electronic tide, but let’s not let it win without complaint. Your grandchildren will thank you if they can pull themselves away from their smart phones long enough.



Friday, May 3, 2019


                One of horse racing’s truths is that, year in and year out, favorites win about one-third of the time. That’s also the case in the Kentucky Derby, where the people’s choice has prevailed 16 times in the last 50 years. Thus, it sets folks’ teeth on edge that favorites have won the last six editions of the nation’s annual Big Race, and has fostered the view that retribution must be near. That’s emerged as the dominant theme of the 144th Derby, which goes off Saturday at Churchill Downs.

                There are a couple of problems with that view. One is that, because the fields are completely different every time, no Derby has anything to do with the next. The second is that this Derby won’t have a real favorite, the putative one—Omaha Beach—having been scratched on Wednesday after having been made the morning-line choice at odds of 4-to-1.

                That leaves three colts-- IMPROBABLE, GAME WINNER and ROADSTER—all clustered at about 5-to-1, with a bunch of others not far behind. The odds will change some by race time, and there will be a favorite-in-name, but only in that. That makes for what bettors calls a good betting race, with good payouts in prospect no matter who wins. But it also makes for confusion at the ticket window.

                My plan (if you can call it that) is to approach the race as I would a meal in a Chinese restaurant, picking horses from various odds columns and mixing them in exacta combinations. From column A—the favorites’ line—I’ll go with IMPROBABLE, a tough customer who lost to Omaha Beach by a scant length in the Arkansas Derby. Game Winner was the two-year-old champ but has faded a bit at three. Roadster is a late runner and that kind of horse needs lots of luck to win. By the way, all three of the top group are trained by Bob Baffert, the era’s best big-race trainer, so none can claim an edge on that score.

                One horse I really like from column B—8-to-1 to 10-to-1—is MAXIMUM EFFORT, 8-to-1. He’s unbeaten in four, one-sided races, won the Florida Derby, is one of just two colts in the field to have hit 100 on the Beyer speed scale (Improbable is the other), and likes to run up front, where the traffic is lightest. The knock against him is that he’s had it too easy to date, but that could be testimony to his ability. Another of my choices, also at 8-to-1, is TACITUS, a winner of two Derby preps. He’s shown he can take a licking and keep on ticking, something that’s often necessary in the rough, 20-horse Derby field.

                My fourth horse is from the longer-shot group. He’s VEKOMA, 15-to-1 in the morning line. He won the Blue Grass stakes prep in a field of 14 and might have won another –the Fountain of Youth—if he didn’t have to be checked in the homestretch. He likes to run near the lead, a good thing, and will be ridden by J.J. Castellano, also good.

I reserve the right to change my mind on Derby Day, and maybe add another horse or two to my boxes, but the horses numbered 5-6-7-8 certainly will be in my boxes. Wish me luck, and the same to you.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019


                What’s the most-potent lobby in Washington? There are many contenders for the honor.

                The NRA is on the list for sure, leading a minority that continually trumps the will of the majority. Ditto for AARP, which looks out for us oldsters. The AMA tends ably to doctors, the ABA to lawyers. Among corporate players, the one that represents “Big Pharma” stands out, spending millions to heap rewards in the billions.

                But from the standpoint of “W’s” and “L’s”—really the best way to measure such things—no group does better than the NCAA. The outfit that oversees big-time college sports has an enviable record in our nation’s capital as well as in those of the 50 states, keeping it and its constituent institutions largely clear of government intrusion. That most of its actions take place under the radar of public scrutiny is testimony to its effectiveness; in the world of sub-rosa advocacy, no news is the best news. And astonishingly, it operates on a reported annual lobbying budget of about $400,000. That’s less than some industries spend on a single night of Washington revelry.

 The NCAA can do this because it commands the sort of allegiance other advocacy groups can only envy. Just about every member of Congress (95% by published estimates) holds a college degree and, presumably, retains some affection for good old Alma Mammy. Even if their college memories were sour our senators and representatives are well advised to treat kindly the sports interests of the schools for which their constituents root. Any Nebraska legislator who doesn’t profess to live and die with the Cornhuskers won’t have his job for long.

How this works in practice was recently described by Donna Shalala. She’s been on both sides of the relationship as a congresswoman (from Florida) and a former president of the University of Miami and chancellor of the University of Wisconsin. When a school has a legislative interest touching sports “the university president picks up the phone and talks to his state’s senators,” she said in an interview. The politics of college athletics “isn’t red or blue, it’s about conferences,” she added.

The subject of the NCAA’s political influence is appropriate now because some in Congress are growing restive about the economics of college sports. Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat of Connecticut, just put out a report called “Madness, Inc.: How everyone is getting rich off college sports except the athletes.” He promises to have more to say on the subject with an eye toward trying to legislate compensation beyond the minimal for student jocks. (Followers of this space know I disagree with that position, but that requires discussion.) Representative Mark Walker, a Republican from North Carolina, has gone farther by introducing in the House a bill he calls the “Student-Athlete Equity Act,” which would allow college athletes to “profit from the commercial use of their names and likenesses” by such as advertisers and video-game makers. By calling it a “free market” issue he hopes to line up support from his fellow Republicans.

That’s all well and good, but if the past is any guide it’s doubtful that the Walker bill, or any similar one, will get much traction.  The NCAA sees to it that things it doesn’t like don’t get a committee hearing, much less floor action. That was the fate of a bill last year that would have formalized the way colleges report and treat playing-field concussions. Innocuous as it was, the measure wound up in some committee-chairman’s drawer.

Just as important, the NCAA’s clout doesn’t end on the capital steps. Lawyers and judges also love their schools’ teams and can be counted upon to either support or shield them as the situation requires. No better example of this is the trial now in progress in New York that followed an FBI investigation of two years ago that threatened to reveal an extensive black market in college-basketball recruiting involving many if not most big-time U’s. Instead, it has turned into a hiccup with scant impact.

Initial charges in the probe fingered sports agents and would-be agents, a couple of low-level executives of the shoe company Adidas and a half dozen assistant hoops coaches in a scheme to use shoe-company money bribe recruits to sign up at Adidas-connected schools and, later, utilize the agents’ services. More would follow, prosecutors hinted, but not much has. One head coach connected to probe—Rick Pitino of Louisville—lost his job, but that seemed to stem mostly from his long and smelly history of previous depredations. That left only the hapless assistants to hold the bag, the way they do in just about all internally investigated NCAA probes.

 No top-level Adidas executives were hauled into court and nothing came out involving Nike, another big shoe company neck deep in promoting its wares through college sports. Indeed, Nike came off as the victim in Federal criminal actions against the mouthy lawyer Michael Avenatti, charged with using bribery tales to shake down the company.

The current New York trial concerns the sentencing of sports-agent Christian Dawkins and Merl Code Jr., an Adidas consultant, who have pleaded guilty to various charges. Lawyers for the two wanted to call as witnesses the head coaches Sean Miller of Arizona and Will Wade of Louisiana State, both of whom figured prominently in wire-taped phone calls that seemed to further the bribery scheme, but prosecutors moved to do without their testimony and the judge agreed. Miller and Wade have denied any wrongdoing, but putting them on the stand, under oath, almost certainly would have proved edifying.

No such luck, however. Move along folks, nothing to see here, those running the trial said.  The show must go on.