Tuesday, January 15, 2019

BORG VS. MCENROE



                I watch sports movies when an interesting one comes along, and last week, via Netflix, I saw Borg Vs. McEnroe, a 2017 release. It’s not a great movie but it’s a good one, about the two tennis players who dominated their sport in the late 1970s and early ‘80s.
     
           Okay, you’re probably thinking, the contrast between the stolid Swede Borg and the mercurial American McEnroe would be the stuff of good drama. As the movie makes clear, though, that distinction was more apparent than real. Borg also had a fiery temper, he just controlled it better than Mac did.
         
             Indeed, a more-accurate title for the movie would have been Borg Vs. Borg and McEnroe Vs. McEnroe, because both men’s struggles were as much with themselves as with the guys across the net. That sort of inner drama probably is more frequent than we know at sports’ highest levels.
            
            The movie is a Swedish production, directed by a Dane, so it figures it would be more about Borg than McEnroe. Sverrir Gudnason, the Swedish actor who played Borg, is a dead ringer for the bland good looks of the tennis player, as are, I’d guess, a good many other young men in his native land. McEnroe is played by the American actor Shia Lebeouf, who bears only a passing resemblance to the real-life character. That alone made him harder to relate to.
            
            The focus of the movie was the epic 1980 Wimbledon final between the two men, sometimes hailed as the best tennis match ever. Borg, 24 years old at the time to Mac’s 21, won that one in five sets, so it’s ending likely was pleasing to the Swedish audience. The full rivalry was as close as it could be, with each man winning 11 times in their 22 head-to-head meetings. Twelve of those were in tournament finals and, again, their final toll was even at six.

 Mac had the last laugh, though, beating Borg in their last three Grand Slam finals, at the U.S. Open in 1980 and at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 1981. Borg would retire from tennis the year after that, and the case often has been made that his decision stemmed directly from those losses.

The best actor in the film is Stellan Skarsgard, a veteran Swedish performer with a long list of international credits; if you’re a movie fan you’ll recognize him when you see him.  He plays Lennart Bergelin, Borg’s career-long coach and constant companion. Really, the Borg of the movie was a Team Borg, a threesome consisting of him, the coach and Borg’s then-girlfriend and later wife (the first of three) Marianna Simionesca. She’s played by Tuva Novotny, a Swedish actress with a Czech name.e plays LennartH

The function of the coach and girlfriend seemed to have been to keep Borg from slipping off the rails enroute to his tennis destiny. Bergelin spotted the young Borg as a kid prodigy with a temper so volatile as to be potentially destructive; early scenes depicted the teenaged him (played by his real-life son Leo) breaking racquets, slamming doors and assaulting trees in a Swedish forest after tennis setbacks. Bergelin calls him out more than once, telling him to shape up or ship out. He finally does so but not without adopting obsessive routines and doing a lot of staring into space. Winning for Borg wasn’t everything, it was the only thing, and without it there was no point in playing. Thus, his early retirement.

McEnroe was the second banana in the piece. He’s portrayed as being almost as nasty off the court as on, with the disposition of a hornet and a vocabulary to match. At one point in the movie a fellow pro tells Mac “nobody likes you,” but he doesn’t appear bothered by the news. He’s as driven as Borg, only noisier.

Mac's short shrift was a shame because the movie didn’t answer the one question I always had about him, namely, how he could be in full tantrum one moment and a few moments later resume performing at the top of his fine-tuned game. Perhaps relatedly, and also not addressed in the movie, was the fact that McEnroe liked tennis a lot more than Borg did. Mac won his last Grand Slam title at age 25 but stayed on the main pro tour eight years more and then moved on to “masters” and “seniors” levels of competition, even until today.

Additionally, he became a Davis Cup captain and a television commentator on the sport, a role he still fills with distinction. From all appearances he’s become a pretty nice guy, someone, in the current parlance, you’d like to have a beer with.

I recall the Borg-McEnroe era fondly because, back then, tennis still had the stylistic differences that made the sport interesting to watch. The main division there was the baseliner-versus-net rusher one than the two players embodied, Borg the former and Mac the latter. Theirs wasn’t the last such classic men’s matchup (Sampras versus Agassi was) but it was a great one, maybe the greatest.

Alas, by around the year 2000 advances in racquet technology had given a decisive and perhaps permanent advantage to the baseliners that made the serve-and-volley game all but extinct. Using today’s high-powered racquetry, players can return serves with almost as much speed as they’re delivered, turning the net area into a no-man’s (or woman’s) land. Now, everyone plays the same game, and if the players don’t wear different-colored clothes it’s tough to tell them apart. I’m not one to yearn for the good old days, but with tennis I do.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

FOOTBALL, CONTINUED


                By the evening of February 3, aka Super Bowl Sunday, most of us will have had enough of football for a few months, but for those who haven’t help will be at hand. Just six days later, on February 9, something called the Alliance of American Football will make its debut, beginning a 14-week run including playoffs. 

                There already is a “spring” pro-football circuit called the Arena Football League, but because its games are played indoors and on a 50-yard field with eight-man teams, it’s really football with an asterisk. The AAF will be football in the sense it is usually understood.

                The new league’s games will be staged in eight cities, all in the South or West where any weather problems shouldn’t (but still might) be severe. They are Atlanta, Ga., Birmingham, Ala., Memphis, Tenn., Orlando, Fla., Phoenix, Ariz., Salt Lake City, Utah, San Antonio, Tex., and San Diego, Calif. It will play a 10-week regular schedule followed by two weeks of playoffs involving the top four teams.

 Although there is no such formal designation, it will be a football minor league, its rosters peopled by athletes who aren’t judged ready for prime time, or no longer are. The standard contract will pay $250,000 to any player who spends three years in the league, or about $83,000 per. That’s in contrast to the average National Football League salary of about $2.1 million, or median of about $860,000, so the two leagues won’t compete on that score. The AAF has a television commitment from CBS, meaning that its near-term survival shouldn’t be an issue. If any sports entity might consider it to be competition it would be the NBA or NHL, and one suspects they won’t be too worried.

Nonetheless, the AAF inevitably will be measured against such insurgent football leagues past as the All-American Football Conference (1946-49), the American Football League (1960-69), the United States Football League (1983-85) and the XFL, wrestling impresario Vince McMahon’s cartoonish loop that died after one season (2001) but is threatening to be reborn in 2020. The first three of the above-named enterprises also are generally recalled with derision, but shouldn’t be. Two of them made lasting impressions on the professional game and the third survives as a thorn in the saddle of the established league.

You have to be about my age (80) to remember the All-American Conference first hand; I recall going to a Chicago Rockets’ game at which about 5,000 people populated the 100,000-seat Soldier Field, most of them forming thong-like strips up the 50-yard lines. The AAFC was a financial failure, its main sin being prematurity at a time when the football pie was a sliver of what it is today, but the league brought the pro game to new cities and three of its teams-- the Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Colts—were taken into the NFL when it folded. Indeed, its Browns immediately became the game’s best team upon joining the NFL in 1950, winning titles that year and in 1954 and ’55.

The American Football League had its zany aspects getting started in 1960 but solidified itself after a few seasons and eventually forced a full-scale merger with the NFL, increasing that league’s size to 26 teams from 16 starting with the 1970 campaign. The Green Bay Packers of the older league won the first two interleague championship games in 1967 and ’68 (the game wasn’t called the Super Bowl until later), but since then parity has set in, with each conference winning 25 times.

The USFL started as a spring league, and had big-league aspirations, but lasted just three campaigns. Its demise came when its anti-trust lawsuit against the NFL was decided in its favor but resulted in an award of just $1, upped to $3 after treble damages were applied. The USFL lives on through the animosity of one of its team owners, Donald Trump, who suffered a bruised ego when his attempt to come out of the wreckage with an NFL franchise was rebuffed. He’s taken potshots at the NFL since, their affect amplified by his present position.

The AAF has dealt with the nutsy-owner problem by making all its teams league-owned. Its founders are Charlie Ebersol, who has a TV background, and Bill Polian, the former, highly regarded general manager of the Buffalo Bills. Other exNFLers, including players, have executive roles in the organization.

The league’s biggest names going in are coaches: football lifers Mike Singletary, Steve Spurrier, Rick Neuheisel, Dennis Erickson and Mike Martz all will guide AAF entrants. The league already has had player tryouts and drafts and has a “notable players” tab on its website, but I didn’t recognize any names on it and so will not pass any along.  The NFL talent net has holes, meaning that some pretty good players will have slipped through to the AAF, but we’ll have to wait until it plays a few games to learn who they are. 

Much of the initial interest in the league has come from the rules changes it has adopted. Shooting for a time frame of 150 minutes a game, against the NFL’s 180-plus, it has eliminated TV timeouts and shrunk the number of other commercial breaks. Time between plays has been reduced to 30 seconds from 40.

There will be no kickoffs; the “receiving” team will begin play at its own 25-yard-line after scores and at the game’s beginning and start of the second half. Instead of onside kicks a team wishing to get the ball back after it scores will have a 4th-and-10 opportunity from its own 35-year line. If it makes it it continues, if not it turns over the ball where its play ended.

 Extra points will be two-point plays from scrimmage. Head injuries will be assessed by sideline physicians not working for the league or its teams, a really good move. Single-game tickets will sell for $20 and five-game season packages for $75, both amounts reasonable by any standard.

It’s a shame that the new league didn’t choose to monkey with the game further with an eye to opening it up, like the Canadian League has. Adopting the college game’s 15-yard penalties for pass-interference calls also would have been good. Still, its version should be worth a look or maybe two.  Our sports schedule is crowded but I guess there’s room for a bit more.









    

Thursday, December 13, 2018

HANDICAPPING THE HALL


                Voting materials are out for the 2019 class of the Baseball Hall of Fame and, as usual, the top-of- the-ballot choices are easiest. Among the 20 first-timers the peerless New York Yankees’ reliever Mariano Rivera is a shoo-in, a probable unanimous selection or nearly so. Among the 15 holdovers from previous elections Edgar Martinez and Mike Mussina are the likeliest inductees, having received 70.4% and 63.5% of the vote, respectively, the last time around. When someone gets that close he usually tops the magic 75% mark among the sportswriter electorate the next year.

                Martinez’s selection was all but assured last week when one of the Hall’s Veterans Committees elevated the ex-Chicago White Sox Harold Baines to membership. Baines was a designated higher for most of his career and his election seems to remove whatever bias the Hall holds against players who filled that role. Martinez was the American League’s leading practitioner of the DH art for much of his career (1987-2004). The annual award for the best in that category is named for him.

                Mussina, another ex-Yankee and like Martinez in his sixth year on the ballot, should have been elected by now. His 270 career wins (versus 153 losses) are about the most we’ll be seeing as starting-pitcher roles diminish in the game, and he ranks high in other Hall measures as well. I voted for him (and Martinez) when I was an elector and would do so again.

                For me, though, the real interest in this election is in the down-ballot voting, among the players for whom Hall support is an acquired taste. The recent spate of first-time winners (Chipper Jones and Jim Thome last year, Ivan Rodriguez the year before) obscures the fact that most eventual Famers built their vote totals gradually toward the 75% mark. Mussina, for instance, polled only 20% in his initial listing in 2014, and just 24% the next year. His record hasn’t changed with the years, but perceptions about it have.

                I’ll be watching to see how three other ballot newcomers fare when the results are announced on January 22. Pitchers Roy Halladay and Andy Pettitte are two of them, and first baseman Todd Helton is the third. I don’t expect any of them to gain admission this time but their chances down the road seem pretty good.

                The Halladay-Pettitte matchup is particularly interesting. Lefty Pettitte pitched longer than righty Halladay (18 seasons to 16) and had a lot more wins (256 to 205), but Pettitte played for the mighty Yankees during most of his career while Halladay labored for the usually so-so Toronto Blue Jays and Philadelphia Philllies. The Yankee connection is why a major Pettitte accomplishment, his record for most post-season victories (19), is on his resume. Head-to-head, though, I judge Halladay to have been the superior hurler, and his two Cy Young Awards (Pettitte had none) and two no-hitters (one a perfect game) support that view.

                Halladay died at age 40 in a 2015 private-plane accident, something that brought heightened attention to his career. Pettitte will be hurt by drugs-related blemishes, mostly his admitted use of the banned Human Growth Hormone in treating a mid-career elbow injury. I expect Halladay to outpoll him this time and am curious to see how he’ll fare in future years.

                Helton was a terrific hitter in his 17-year career—2,519 hits, 369 home runs and a lifetime .316 batting average—but all of it was with the Colorado Rockies, perennial also-rans whose rare-air home clime is viewed suspiciously when batting records are assessed. His stats are close to those of another excellent ex-Rockies batsman, Larry Walker, who hasn’t polled higher than 34% in his nine years on the ballot. I think Helton will do better that but not by much at first.

                As always, much of the fan interest in the voting will concern the fates of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, the no-doubt-doper duo. They’ve performed about in tandem since first appearing on the ballot in 2013, going from an initial 36-37%  to 56-57% last year.  Barring new rules, or some startling development, it’s hard to see how they could vault to 75% this year. If they fail to do so by 2023 they’ll be passed along to one of the Veterans Committees. The ways of those panels are mysterious, so anything can happen after that.

                Sixteen more men are ballot first timers. They are, alphabetically, Rick Ankiel, Jason Bay, Lance Berkman, Jon Garland, Freddy Garcia, Travis Hafner, Ted Lilly, Derek Lowe, Darren Oliver, Roy Oswalt, Juan Pierre, Placido Polanco, Miguel Tejada, Vernon Wells, Kevin Youklis and Michael Young.  All were fine players and, maybe, great fellas, but it’s tough to envision a Cooperstown plaque for any of them. Indeed, most probably won’t get the 5% of the vote necessary to be on next year’s ballot. Berkman, Garcia, Polanco and Tejada seem to me to have the best chance of sticking, but I wouldn’t bet on any of them.

                But Hall electors of various stripe are capable of surprising. The newly elected Baines, for instance, never got more the 6.1% of the vote in his five years on the sportswriters’ ballot. Old timers Gabby Harnett and Charlie Gehringer each got zero votes their first time around, in 1936, before eventually being elected by the scribes, Gehringer in 1949 and Harnett in 1955. That was long ago, and the voting rules have changed, but still…
               
               
                  
               
               

Saturday, December 1, 2018

BOXED OUT?


                Time was when the “Big Three” American sports were baseball, horse racing and prize fighting. That goes to show how much things can change. Baseball still is up there, but now trails football and basketball in popularity by most measures. Horse-race betting has become a pastime for old men (like me).  Boxing has become all but invisible on these shores, largely the province of fans and fighters from Mexico, Central America and the countries of the former Soviet Union.

                In the case of boxing, that’s good news. The brutal sport always was mainly an outlet for poor boys with few other options, and its thinning U.S. ranks are a mark of societal improvement. In a perfect world no one would have to trade punches for a living.

                That said, I blush to admit that I like boxing, and still follow it to some degree. At its upper levels it’s not the mindless brawl its detractors make it out to be, and while A. J. Liebling’s description of it as “the sweet science” strains credulity, it doesn’t exceed it. Withal, the sport is elemental and, thus, unbannable.  Some men (and, lately, some women) want to do it, and if it’s legislated against in one place it will pop up in another—in back rooms, on river barges or across borders. As long as people want to fight it might as well be with padded gloves on, and with a referee present.

                So it’s bad news, too, that boxing may be about to lose one of its best showcases—the Olympic Games. A piece in last Sunday’s New York Times said that the International OIympic Committee is on the verge of expelling the sport from its 2020 edition in Tokyo. It’s doing so not on humanitarian grounds but on administrative ones; the organization that oversees the sport, known by its initials the AIBA, just elected as its president an individual named by the U.S. Treasury Department as “one of Uzbekistan’s leading criminals.”  It doesn’t help that the person this guy replaced in the job, a Chinese, was bounced in a financial scandal that pushed the AIBA to the edge of bankruptcy.

                The man in the middle of the current mess is Gafur Rakhimov, a former boxer who’s a Russian citizen of Uzbek origins. The Treasury Department indictment putting him on its sanctions list wasn’t about polite white-collar crimes; it said he “moved from extortion and car theft” to become “an important person involved in the heroin trade” through a shadowy group known as the “Brothers Circle,” which sounds like something out of an Eric Ambler novel.

 Rakhimov denies the charges, but even if he’s clean Olympic boxing has been deserving of reprimand for as long as I can remember. In the five Summer Games I covered (1984 in Los Angeles, 1988 in Seoul, 1992 in Barcelona, 1996 in Atlanta and 2000 in Sydney) the sport was the smelliest on the calendar, displaying levels of incompetence and dishonesty that at times boggled the mind. The combination of nationalism and sport always has been potentially toxic, putting into question every Olympic sport that involves judging, but boxing stood out even in that company.

I was there at the ’84 Games when Evander Holyfield, later an illustrious professional champion, knocked out a foe in a light-heavyweight semifinal match only to be disqualified on the spot by a Yugoslavian referee for hitting on a break. Having been knocked out, the so-called victor in that match could not fight again in the tournament. That gave the gold medal in the class to the other semifinal winner, a Yugo.

I was there in ’88 when Roy Jones Jr., also a pro champ-to-be, dominated a South Korean opponent in a light-middleweight gold-medal match only to have three of the five judges give the nod to the Korean. The decision was so outrageous it was booed by the victor’s home crowd as the abashed “winner” held Jones’s hand aloft. Later, one of the judges confessed that he knew Jones had won the fight but voted for the Korean because he didn’t want the young man to be embarrassed by a 5-0 loss.  The other two judges who went against Jones never explained why, but one could guess that their bankers knew.

By the next (1992) Olympics subjective judging had been replaced by a system in which five ringside judges registered punches electronically and a fighter got a point when three of them scored a hit within a second of one another. Alas, many of the people pushing the buttons were the same ones who’d miscalled previous years’ bouts, and allegations of “fixed” fights continued. These were so persistent that at the Sydney Games the boxing federation offered any judge or referee who reported being approached with a bribe a reward of twice the amount offered (I’m not making this up).  No official was reported to have asked for such recompense, proving again that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

By 2016 in Rio the sport had gone back to subjective judging with the 10-point-must system used in most professional jurisdictions, but the corruption beat went on. Complaints about bad decisions were so numerous that all 36 refs and judges who participated in those Games were suspended. As of this year none had been reinstated.

How the current situation will play out is anybody’s guess. The outfit making the call—the IOC—is an historic den of thieves that might be expected to sympathize with its fellow miscreants, and getting on with the show always has superseded other considerations, so some sort of compromise might be worked out. If boxing does get the boot, though, don’t worry about its overall survival. It’s ever been with us and probably ever will be. 




               
               

Thursday, November 15, 2018

SONS SHINE


               
It’s an old saw that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, but it still cuts plenty of wood. For proof one needn’t look farther than the Arizona Fall League, the baseball exercise that concludes in the Phoenix area on Saturday.

                The AFL is the circuit I write about every year at this time, the minor-league finishing school with a six-week, 35-game schedule to which the 30 Major League clubs send seven of their better young prospects, usually class A or AA players between the ages of 19 and 23.  The young men play at six of the fine spring training ballparks hereabouts, mostly day games. They seem happy to be here, and with many evenings off, and being close to the fleshpots of downtown Scottsdale, who can blame them?

                It’s a good scene for spectators, too. Admission is cheap ($8 for adults, $6 for seniors), you can park right in front of the ballparks, and with an average per-game attendance of about 600 you can sit wherever you want. If you raise your voice a bit you can share your opinions with the umps, players, managers and your fellow fans.

                It’s a milieu that brings out the scout in many, including me. You may recall from past blogs that I picked  Nolan Arenado, Kris Bryant and Francisco Lindor for stardom of their AFL showings, and while it didn’t take an expert to finger those obviously talented guys you might remember me writing about David Bote, the unheralded Chicago Cubs’ chattel who scrapped his way onto the team’s Major League roster and played a key utility role with it last season.

                Applewise, you’ll recognize the names of several of this season’s AFL standouts because their fathers were Majors League standouts. One is VLADIMIR GUERRERO JR., whose dad was inducted into the game’s Hall of Fame last summer. Young Vlad, just 19 years old, came to the AFL highly touted, having thumped minor league pitching for a .331 batting average in three seasons and walking more often than he struck out, a signal achievement in this whiff-soaked baseball era. He didn’t disappoint, batting close to .500 for the first half of the campaign and still topping .350 despite a late-season slump.

                Vlad Jr. is a stocky kid, standing 6-foot-1 and weighing more than his listed 200 pounds. Weight may be a problem for him as he ages. His fielding also has been questioned, but he made a couple of nice plays at third base while I was watching. The Toronto Blue Jays, to whom he belongs, were criticized for not bringing him up last season, and they surely will in the next one.

                Another sure-fire prospect is 21-year-old TYLER NEVIN, the son of Phil Nevin, a long-time Major League player and coach. Tyler was leading the AFL in hitting at .420 as this week began and had a lot more walks (14) than strikeouts (4).  Although the 38th player chosen in the 2015 amateur draft (by the Colorado Rockies), he wasn’t highly touted coming to the AFL, partly because of his injury history, but he’s done everything right here, both at the plate and at first base. In one game I saw he had two hits and a walk in four times at bat, stole a base, scored two runs and batted in two.  At 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds he looks the big leaguer, and he’ll be one by 2020 if not sooner.

                A third rising son is DAULTON VARSHO, whose dad Gary was a journeyman player with several teams over eight Major League seasons (1988-95). In addition to having a big-league last name he likewise has a first, having been named for the ex-Philadelphia Philly great Darren Daulton, one of his dad’s former teammates. Like Daulton, young Varsho, age 22, is a catcher, and an unusual one. He’s small for the position, his listed 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds being an overstatement, but fast, with stolen-base base ability, and  is athletic to boot. He’s from little Chili, Wisconsin, population about 200, and has spent parts of just two seasons in the minors. Catchers typically take longer to develop than other players, so he’s probably a few seasons away from the bigs, but he promises to give his Arizona Diamondbacks parent team some help at a position where it always needs it.

                A bunch of other players also showed well. Cuban-born LUIS ROBERT, 21, one of the Chicago White Sox’s young hopes, is a built-for-speed outfielder who has come on strong at the plate after a slow start, joining the league’s top-10 in hitting (at .361) at this week’s start. BUDDY REED, of the San Diego Padres’ chain, also an outfielder, is a similarly set-up kid who had three hits and a steal in one game I saw. LUCIUS FOX, 21, from the Bahamas and the Tampa Bay Rays, plays a smooth shortstop and hits heavier than his slender frame. COLE TUCKER, a Pittsburgh Pirates property, also looked good at short.

                The top prospect from my team, the Cubs, is NICO HOERNER, their first-round choice in the 2018 draft out of Stanford U. He played only 14 games in the minors last season because of injuries but still impressed here, batting over .300 most of the season. He looks to be the sort of player who does everything well but nothing superlatively. He’s a shortstop, a position at which his big team is well stocked, so he might have trouble finding a place, but he’ll play somewhere, sometime.

                It’s hard to get a line on pitchers here because they play only every fourth game or so, and then for just a few innings, but I did see a couple of likely ones. JORDAN YAMAMOTO, 22, an Hawaiian in the Florida Marlins’ system, pitched five scoreless innings while I watched. He has a curve ball that’s unusually well developed for someone his age. JON DUPLANTIER, the Diamondbacks’ top pitching prospect, has strikeout stuff, although he had good and bad innings in my presence. 

                And as always the AFL was a good time, providing me with many entertaining afternoons. Team rosters contained a Daz (Cameron, ex-MLBer Mike’s son) and a Jazz (Chisholm), a Skye Bolt (an Oakland A’s prospect) and a Kieboom, a shortstop first-named Carter. I saw a runner tag up and go from first base to second on a pop foul to the catcher and an infielder lose a ground ball in the sun (OK, it was a high bouncer).  Eleven months is too long to wait for next season.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

IF THE SHOE FITS...


                Do you recognize the names James Gatto, Merl Code Jr. and Christian Dawkins? Probably not, I’d guess, even though they were found guilty of wire fraud a couple of weeks ago in the biggest trial in recent memory involving college-sports corruption.

                Truth is, though, that their anonymity is the point of this piece. Gatto and Code were low-to-mid-level minions of Adidas, the shoe company, and Dawkins was a wanna be sports agent. They were middlemen in the federal-government-exposed plot to use Adidas money to bribe college-basketball recruits to attend schools whose teams use the company’s gear.

                Allegations in the case involved such hoops giants as the U’s of Arizona, Kansas, North Carolina State and Louisville, but except for four hapless assistant coaches, who are supposed to go on trial early next year, no other coaches or other university officials were named in the case, nor were any top execs of Adidas or anyone connected with the NCAA, under whose auspices the collegiate sports-entertainment enterprise proceeds. Assistant coaches almost always take the fall in such matters; it’s part of their jobs and, probably, their job descriptions. The only head coach to be bounced as a result of the revelations was Louisville’s Rick Pitino, and he’d already accumulated a lengthy rap sheet.   

When the initial indictments were announced in September, 2017, people close to the case hinted that those were just the tip of an iceberg and that more and bigger charges would follow, possibly involving schools connected with Adidas rivals Nike and Under Armour. More than a year has passed but the smelly old iceberg remains submerged.

More head-scratching still is the theory prosecutors used to justify their actions; namely, that the victims in the case were the universities, the entities that stood to benefit most from the defendants’ schemes.  Said Robert Khuzami, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, where the trial was held, “The defendants not only deceived universities into issuing scholarships under false pretenses, they deprived the universities of their economic rights and tarnished an ideal which makes college sports a beloved tradition by so many fans all over the world.” A larger load of manure rarely has been delivered in a single sentence.

 It’s no news that our universities can get their way at every governmental level in this land; just about every public official holds a diploma from one or more of them and their loyalty— especially to their sports teams— is de rigueur in matters political. That’s why the NCAA cartel has avoided the Congressional regulation and oversight it richly deserves. That its clout extends to our courts likewise should be unsurprising; judges and lawyers also love their alma maters.

  The prosecutions, however, did provide peeks into two of the seamier aspects of big-time college sports, one of which is the black market that exists in the recruiting of prime collegiate prospects. It’s widely assumed that money changes hands before some recruits sign up with good old Enormous U., but the amounts revealed in testimony and documents related to the case still were enough to startle. Brian Bowen Sr., whose son Brian Jr. was a highly prized 2016 basketball prospect, said in court that a coach from Arizona offered his family $50,000 to enroll their son, a Creighton assistant offered $100,000 plus a good-paying job for him, and one from Oklahoma State offered $150,000 in cash, $8,000 for a car and additional money to help buy a house.

 Young Bowen eventually signed with Louisville for an under-the-table $100,000 to his dad. He dropped out there after the scandal broke and transferred to South Carolina. He never played at either school and now plays professionally in Australia.

Names of nearly a dozen other players surfaced in the trial as possible bribe recipients, including those of Deandre Ayton, who was the No. 1 choice in the 2018 NBA draft after a year at Arizona, and Zion Williamson, Duke’s new hotshot freshman, but there’s little doubt that the number of players receiving payouts go well beyond those. Many top basketball (and football) prospects around the country know each other from the camps and all-star games they attend, and are in contact via texts and tweets. If Prospect A gets a dollar offer it stands to reason that he’ll clue in his buddy, Prospect B, who then will be expecting the same, or better. And why not?

Also edifying was the attention the trial focused on the links between the Big Three shoe companies and basketball from the schoolboy through the universities levels. The companies sponsor AAU kids’ teams everywhere and seek to ensnare the better prospects from there through their college days and into the pros, where the big endorsement payoffs lie for both .

Shoe money at the college level began flowing in the 1970s, with the coaches as conduits. Those ties remain, and just about every big-time college coach counts considerable shoe dinero in his compensation package. Lately, though, it’s gone far beyond that, as witnessed by the 15-year, $280 million deal Under Armour recently struck with UCLA, the $191 million, 14-year pact Adidas concluded with Kansas, and the $174 million, 15-year arrangement Nike has with Michigan. The NCAA has made noises about limiting shoe-company involvement in college-sports programs, but with sums like those involved it ain’t gonna happen, no way.

One of the amusing parts of the New York trial was testimony that described some U’s as “Adidas schools” and others as similarly bound to Nike and Under Armour. Given the size of their investments, the companies well could seek naming rights, as in, say, the Adidas University of Kansas or the University of Under Armour in Los Angeles. At the least those would have a ring of truth.

Monday, October 15, 2018

BASEBAWL


               
                Fans of my favorite baseball team, the Chicago Cubs, hoped that the recent season would end with a celebration on the Wrigley Field mound, but that just went to show that you’d better watch what you wish for. It ended with not one but two frolics on the Wrigley greensward, but neither were by the Cubs as they lost the division-title tiebreaker to the Milwaukee Brewers there and, the next day, the wild-card playoff to the Colorado Rockies. Talk about a bad week!
                
                 So Cubs’ fans will spend the offseason doing what we do best-- complaining—but we are not alone in our unhappiness. Baseball had a bad year all around, both on the field and at the box office. The diamond sport is an old one to which change comes grudgingly, but it had better come if some unfortunate trends are to be reversed.

                The most eye-popping stat of the 2018 regular season was that, for the first time since the game began serious record-keeping in 1900, strikeouts exceeded hits, 41,207 to 41,019. The Number Two eye-popper was that the all-MLB batting average dropped below .250, to .248, for the first time since 1972. A .248 hitter used to be considered a weak stick. Today he’s Mr. Average.

                That “the people” were unhappy about those things—or something—was seen in attendance figures, which dipped 4% from the year before to the lowest level since 2003. That wasn’t a cliff dive but it was worrisome, especially because 17 of the 30 Major League teams showed declines.  It’s been widely noted that baseball’s stately pace is out of step with other popular entertainments these days, so the game hardly needs an offensive slowdown to add to its deficits.

                  Even the most casual observer knows what’s behind the problems because it’s been apparent for several seasons that the trend of the game is toward the pitcher and away from the hitter. Pitchers today are bigger, stronger and better coached than they used to be, and they’re being employed in relays, so hitters must cope with a greater variety of looks than previously in any given game.

 I can’t quantify it (maybe someone else can), but either fastball velocities have soared or the speed guns are busted; 95 mph deliveries used to be rare but now any pitcher who can’t reach that figure is mocked.  The pitching models today are the likes of Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, guys who stand 6-foot-4 or 5 and can throw a strawberry through a battleship. Of the 120 pitchers on the opening-day rosters of the six teams now competing in the Arizona Fall League, a finishing school for promising young minor leaguers, exactly eight were less than six feet tall and 20 were 6-5 or taller.

                The hitters have contributed to their own decline by their approaches at the plate; most swing for the fences whatever the ball-strike count or playing-field situation. Few will choke up on their bats even when any sort of contact would help their teams-- how many times have you seen batters whiff mightily with a runner on third and fewer than two outs when even a ground ball to the shortstop would score a run?

Contact problems have been exacerbated by the recent attention to the “launch angle” of swings and the effort to increase fly ball (and home run) production by more-elevated swing planes that reduce the ball-contact area. That may work for such very talented hitters as J.D. Martinez or Kris Bryant, but it’s a liability for most who try it.

Batter bullheadedness is made clearest by the reactions to the infield shifts all the teams have come to employ to take advantage of batter tendencies.  Occasionally slapping the ball to an opposite field would counteract the more radical of such moves, but—noooo!—most hitters hack away as usual, trying to squeeze their shots through ever-smaller holes.

Stupidity has no cure and pitchers aren’t about to get shorter or ease up, but I think the pitcher-hitter imbalance would be redressed at least in part by reducing the height of the pitcher’s mound from the present 10 inches to, maybe, 6 inches. The Major Leagues reduced mound height to 10 inches from 15 in 1969 after a run of pitcher dominance had shrunk the game’s batting average to .237 and the per-team runs-per-game stat to 3.42. The effect was immediate, with the batting average hopping 11 points and the runs average topping 4 that season.  Much the same thing would happen again.

Baseball’s geometry favors tall pitchers and lowering the mound would offset the advantage that has accrued to the position as average heights have grown. Not only would it make gravity less a factor, it also would flatten deliveries, meaning that pitches would stay in the hitting zone longer. Sure, we’re talking about small differences here, but small differences make a big impact on the game.

Prolonged injuries to key players, which strike just about every team every season, reduce fan ardor, and could be addressed by increasing the team roster size to 27 players from 25. With (probably) one more position player and pitcher to work with, managers could better spread around the work and rest, keeping players keen. The players’ union would love this because it would create more jobs. Owners wouldn’t like it for the same reason, but the additions likely would be paid the salary minimum of $535,000 a year. A million bucks ain’t what it used to be, so the sting wouldn’t be severe.

The best thing that baseball could do for itself would be to reduce the length of the regular season from the present, ludicrous 162 games. That length might have been defensible when it was adopted in 1962, when the post-season consisted of a single, best-of-seven World Series. It no longer is at a time when a team could play as many as 20 post-season games.

The 2018 regular season started on March 29, the earliest date ever. That hubris was rewarded by a deluge of weather-related game postponements—25 in the first three weeks alone—starting a crazy quilt of makeups causing scheduling havoc.  Beginning the season before April 15 is silly, as is running the playoffs into November, which could happen this year with a single World Series rainout.

Reducing the schedule violates the first rule of business, which is that you can’t make any money when the store isn’t open, but knocking a dozen or even 20 games off the per-team MLB slate would increase the importance of each contest and make ticket-price increases more palatable.  They’re inevitable anyway and might as well be in a good cause.