Wednesday, July 1, 2015

NEWS & VIEWS

               NEWS: ST. LOUIS CARDINALS ACCUSED OF HACKING HOUSTON ASTROS’ COMPUTERS
             
               VIEWS: ???
             
              The idea that truth is stranger than fiction gains support daily, but rarely more forcefully than with the story above. What can one baseball team learn by stealing another’s data—that so-and-so can’t hit a curve or that whozis has lost a foot off his fastball? Baseball is played in public with everyone invited to watch and analyze-- teams employ large scouting staffs for that purpose. It’s hard to imagine why any organization would risk criminal prosecution to secure such information.
              
                Published accounts of the alleged theft attribute a possible motive to revenge; apparently Jeff Luhnow, a computer whiz who departed the Cardinals to become the Astros’ general manager in 2012, left some personal animus in his wake.  But if the Cards were paying attention to Luhnow during his nine-year tenure with the team, some current employees must know his tricks. Further, few teams receive higher marks than the Cards for managing personnel, so it seems they need little help on that score.

               The FBI investigation into the charge reportedly is stalled because the agency can’t pinpoint who in the Cards’ offices did the hacking. If history is a guide some low-level minion will be fingered, and after some backing and filling business as usual will resume. The real culprit, though, is the paranoia that permeates big-time sports, tied to practitioners’ inflated notions about the importance of what they do. It’s a game for heaven’s sake, not the rocket science that might justify cloak-and-dagger intrigue.

               NEWS: AROD RETURNS, STILL CAN HIT

               VIEWS: …AND THE WICKED FLOURISH LIKE A GREEN BAY TREE

               When Alex Rodriguez returned to the New York Yankees from PED prison this spring, not much was expected of him.  Nearing age 40 (you can sing “Happy Birthday” to him on July 27), with an injury record to rival Evel Knievel’s and having played in only 44 Major League games the previous two seasons, he was widely deemed to be over the hill, playing only to collect what was left of the ridiculous, 10-year contract the team gave him in 2008. The Yanks weren’t happy to have him back, it was reported.

               Surprise! The guy still can hit. After 72 games he was batting .286 with 15 home runs and 45 runs batted in, on a pace to post 35-100 figures in the last two categories, as in former days. This season he has passed Willie Mays’s 660 home runs to rank fourth all-time (he has 669 now) and got his 3,000th career hit.

 Ordinarily such feats would have been celebrated but those weren’t, at least not outside Yankee Stadium. Rodriguez is the Lance Armstrong of baseball, a guy who didn’t just scarf every performance-enhancing drug around for more than a decade but also lied about it persistently and attacked anyone who didn’t buy his story. When finally nailed in the Biogenesis raid, he didn’t initially plead guilty but sued everyone in sight including the players’ union, and organized picketing of the commissioner’s office. That wasn’t endearing.

Then he said “never mind” and took his medicine (ha!), but few were impressed. He’ll be remembered as one of the best baseball players not to have a plaque in the game’s Hall of Fame. Baseball willfully put its head in the sand during the HITS era (1990-2005, for Head In The Sand) but will pay for it forevermore. That will be more than ARod wants to do, because the law firm that carried his legal ball while he was protesting his innocence is suing him for nonpayment of fees.

NEWS: CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS WIN THE STANLEY CUP

VIEWS: SUSIE AND I HELPED

For the last 40 or so years I’ve had a love-hate relationship with hockey and the Chicago Blackhawks. I grew up rooting for the Hawks, and for several years had a piece of a season ticket for their games in old Chicago Stadium, but chafed under the price-gouging ways of Arthur Wirtz, the pirate in a three-piece suit who owned them. When in 1972 Wirtz allowed Bobby Hull, the best Blackhawk ever, to jump to a new league for a salary ($2 million over 10 years) that quickly would be seen as ordinary, I swore off the team, literally.  My aversion to it deepened when ownership passed to Arthur’s son, Bill, who had all his dad’s bad qualities but none of his smarts. 

My feelings about hockey in general were similarly negative. The National Hockey League caters to its fan base’s base instincts by countenancing on-field fighting, and who can respect a sport that has no respect for itself?

Time passed, however, and the NHL’s fighting addiction has lessened. Also, Bill Wirtz joined his father, wherever. He was replaced by his son, Rocky, who became popular by following the obvious plan of doing the opposite of everything his dad and grandpa had done. The team acquired good players and managers. Reverting to my love of all things Chicago, I cheered when they broke a long drought by winning a Stanley Cup in 2010, and 2013.

The Blackhawks’ prospects for another title this year seemed dim for a time, but Providence intervened.  They were down three games to two in the best-of-seven semis with the Nashville Predators when my wife, Susie, found a battered hockey puck in the gravel driveway of our Scottsdale, Arizona, home. We brought it in and clutched it while watching the Hawks sweep the last two games of that series and put away the Tampa Bay Lightning, four games to two, in the finals.

Think about it for a moment: what are the odds of finding a hockey puck lying around in a desert-clime block where the average age of the kids is about 45, on the afternoon of a make-or-break playoff game?  The puck now has a place of honor on a shelf of our family-room etagere. It looks like the Stanley Cup to us.


Saturday, June 13, 2015

PASS THE POPCORN

               I saw a couple of sports movies recently, one I liked and one I didn’t.
               
               The didn’t was “DRAFT DAY,” a paean to one of sports’ most overblown annual events. Kevin Costner plays the harried GM of a fictionalized Cleveland Browns who, with screenwriters’ help, pulls off draft-day miracles to right his listing club. The National Football League must have loved the script because some of its officials appeared in it, including Commish Goodell, playing himself, of course.  The real draft is a crapshoot but the movie treats it with the dead-pan seriousness the league applies to everything it does.  Costner and cast earned their pay by keeping straight faces throughout the flick’s two hours of nonsense.
               
               The one I liked was “RED ARMY,” a documentary about the USSR national hockey team that despite its “Miracle on Ice” loss to the U.S. in the 1980 Olympics probably was the best such squad ever assembled. The Soviet system of recruiting promising children and subjecting them to brutal training regimens in pursuit of adult excellence is well known, but director Gabe Polsky put flesh on the process by taking his cameras to present-day Russia and talking to the aging veterans who survived the ordeal and sometimes even prospered from it. The movie’s star is Vyacheslav Fetisov, the unit’s star defenseman, now 57 years old. Blunt, cynical and funny, his commentary illuminates not only Soviet hockey but life in general in the erstwhile peoples’ republic during the final years of Communist rule.

               That I liked “Red Army” is unusual because I think most sports movies miss the mark. That’s mostly because film writers and directors feel obliged to substitute the ethos of the stage for that of the playing field, creating suspense by making every pivotal screen game come down to a last-of-the-ninth, two-outs, bases-loaded, score-tied situation, or its equivalent. Great moments in sports occur now and then, here and there; that’s why we’ll watch a mid-August baseball game between two going-nowhere teams.  Sports’ dramatic impact owes mostly to its unscriptedness. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

               That said, I’m immediately going to contradict myself with my No. 5 choice in my five-best sports-movies list. That would be “ROCKY” (1976), the Sylvester Stallone opus about the tomato-can boxer who gets it together to vie for the title.

               “Rocky” and its successor films are hokey. Their fight scenes are the opposite of realistic, with more solid punches landed in any one round than in a whole month of actual fight cards. Every film in the series concludes with the hero triumphing or nearly so after taking enough punishment to kill an ox. Still, in Rocky Balboa writer-star Stallone created an archetypical underdog character strong enough to sustain a six-film run, and the flag-waving sock of the original turned the tide against the downer counterculture of the 1960s and early ‘70s.

               My No. 4 film is a quite-different sort. “MAJOR LEAGUE” (1989) is by me the funniest sports film ever, one that tickles almost as much on fourth or fifth viewing as it did the first time. It’s an annual cable-TV staple around baseball opening day and, I hope, always will be.

               The movie is about an ex-show girl who inherits the Cleveland Indians and designs them to bomb so she can break their lease and move them to Miami, something, by the way, LeBron James did by himself years later. Wouldn’t you know it, the Indians up and win, whackily.  Charlie Sheen, the off-the-rails actor, was great as Ricky Vaughn, an off-the-rails relief pitcher. Wesley Snipes plays Willie Mays Hayes, who was so quick he could flick the switch and get in bed before the light went out. Dennis Haysbert, now a sober insurance-company mouthpiece, plays Pedro Cerrano, a voodoo-practicing slugger, and Bob Uecker burlesques himself as broadcaster Harry Doyle. It’s a hoot! Every time I see a pitcher nearly throw one away I find myself saying “jusssst a little outside,” a la Harry.

               “Major League” was played for laughs but my No. 3, “THE NATURAL” (1984), stirs the sense of myth that sports can evoke. The ethereal Roy Hobbes (Robert Redford), wielding his bat “Wonderboy” (i.e., Excalibur), is a hero of old who overcomes corruption and venality to vindicate himself and the game, and win his lady-in-white (Glenn Close).  Baseball’s roots go deeper into American soil than those of any other sport, and this movie brilliantly taps them.

               No. 2 is “RAGING BULL” (1980), which deals with the violence of boxing. Robert De Niro plays Jake La Motta, a real-life middleweight champion of the 1950s, whose turbulent nature finds an outlet in—but can’t be contained by—the ring.  There’s blood in “Rocky” but it comes off as cartoonish. Not so in “Raging Bull,” whose slo-mo fight sequences makes one wince. Martin Scorsese directs this unsparing character study       of a man who tries to punch his way out of his own skin.

               My all-time favorite sports movie centers on an activity many don’t consider a sport. It’s “THE HUSTLER” (1961), which is about pool. It isn’t really about sports, it’s about winning and losing, measuring up and falling short, things that apply to any endeavor. That’s one reason it’s so good.

               Directed in black and white by Robert Rossen (“Raging Bull” is in black and white, too), “The Hustler” has an acridly authentic script, a great cast of principals (Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, George C. Scott and Myron McCormick) and a raft of flavorful character actors.  Its mandatory “big game” scene takes place not in a crowded arena but in a dim, near-empty pool hall, with the Newman-played hero capping his long road back by wearing down his nemesis, played by the superb Gleason.  Such private victories are all most of us can muster.
              


                

Monday, June 1, 2015

LET'S HEAR IT FOR GOLIATH

               “Rest” is a four-letter word in the National Basketball Association, which is why the seven-day break between the semifinal and final rounds of its current playoffs is notable. The league presents its players (and fans) with an annual seven-month grind of travel, one-night stands and lousy weather that tests bodies and souls.  It’s a wonder anyone survives, and everyone doesn’t.
              
               Things got so bad this season that many players, including stars, created or exaggerated injuries to get some relief.  Such things usually go unremarked officially but this time the league took note, saying it would review future calendars to try to eliminate pockets of particular stress. Simply reducing the number of games teams play from the present 82 would be commonsensical but the schedule is determined by commerce, not competition, so look for only marginal changes.
             
              Still, the finals will commence on Thursday, and, somehow, the two best teams—Golden State (i.e., Oakland) and Cleveland—have qualified to play for the Vince Lombardi (oops, Larry O’Brien) Trophy. That’s swell if you live in Oakland or CV but as usual it poses a rooting decision for the rest of us.  

               That decision is especially stark this year because the personifications of Warriors versus Cavaliers boil down to David versus Goliath. Goliath, of course, is the Cavs’ larger-than-life LeBron James, long the NBA’s dominant force. David would be Stephen Curry, the Warriors’ seemingly wispy main man.

 No greater physical contrast between stars has existed in an NBA showdown round within my memory, which takes in the NBA’s entire history.  The 30-year-old James stands a listed 6-feet-8 and 250 pounds and has muscles in places where most people don’t have places. Curry goes 6-3 and 190, and you have to take the latter figure on faith. He’s 27 years old but looks, maybe, 21. No Adonis he; he’d look at home clerking in a men’s-wear store.

 The differences extend to the two players’ biographies. James was born to a single mom of 16 while Curry is NBA royalty, a son of Dell Curry, who had a 16-year career in the league and pulled down seven-figure salaries most of those years. James was a manchild prodigy who entered the league to instant stardom at age 18 as a No. 1 overall draft choice and probably could have made the move earlier had the rules allowed. Curry was so slight of build as a teen that no major college offered him a scholarship out of high school. He played three years at little Davidson College before showing enough growth and chops to interest the pros.

As Wilt Chamberlain said “nobody roots for Goliath,” so it’s safe to assume that the Warriors will be the people’s choice during the coming hostilities. They’re a likeable bunch, led by the silky Curry and his back court mate Klay Thompson, another NBA legacy by virtue of his dad, Mychal’s, tenure in the league. High scoring and close defending, they had the league’s best regular-season record (67-15). Their coach is Steve Kerr, maybe the most civil man in professional sports. He’d make a great secretary of state if he ever gets tired of basketball. The team hasn’t been in a championship final since 1975 and thus is a welcome new addition to the game’s elite rank.

But hey! There’s something to be said for Goliath this time around. LeBron may have been basketball’s best player for the past decade but he’s gathered little love for his efforts and, paradoxically, now may have more to prove than the outlier Warrior gang.

  Personalitywise, James often has come off as arrogant, an impression that was underscored during ESPN’s overblown coverage of his jump from the Cavs to the Miami Heat in 2010, but he was just 25 years old at the time and, probably, reading from scripts prepared by others. His personal life to date has been exemplary for someone with his immense wealth and fame, and as he’s aged he’s shown increasing humor and insight in his public utterances.

James possesses two championship rings—from the Heat in 2012 and ’13—but he’s so good that most people think he should have more to show for his five previous finals trips. Further, he had to share his Heat title glory with Dwyane Wade, a Hall of Fame-caliber teammate.

This time James has pretty much carried his team alone. His supporting cast originally included Kevin Love, an all-star forward, and Kyrie Irving, an excellent young (22) point guard, but Love is out with an injury suffered in the first playoff round and Irving, while currently ambulatory, has been limited by foot and knee problems. Playing without Love and Irving in game three of the team’s third-round sweep of the very good Atlanta Hawks, James led his team with 37 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists. It was about as good a game as anyone’s ever played.

Indeed, James’s career has reached the point where he is playing largely for posterity and against Michael Jordan for the best-ever crown. That forever will be a tomato-tomahto thing, with no clear winner. James has about two inches and 30 pounds on Jordan in his prime, and probably has superior skills. He can play or defend any position on the court, something the smaller Jordan couldn’t do.

 Jordan came up as a leaper but in his later, championship years got along mainly on the three “g’s” of grace, guile and grit. Tough on himself and on his teammates, he’d literally will his teams to victory even when they didn’t enjoy a physical edge.  James will have to do the same thing to get his depleted squad past the Warriors. If he can manage it he’ll deserve a Goliath-sized cheer.







               

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

THE SCIENTIST

               I swim laps at a municipal pool several times a week, using the locker room to change clothes and shower. As is customary when men assemble for such purposes, discussions take place. When they do I normally remain silent.
              
               I’m not naturally reticent but shy away from locker-room talk. Increasingly, people insist not only on their own opinions but also on their own facts, and attempts at rebuttal can be tedious. Also, the blather sometimes is amusing and I don’t wish to interrupt it.
             
                For instance, a couple of weeks ago a guy was holding forth on the Floyd Mayweather, Jr.-Manny Pacquiao fight that was scheduled for a few days hence. He opined that it was terrible that a man like Mayweather, with several domestic-violence convictions on his rap sheet, was allowed to strut upon the sporting stage and get really big money to do so.
              
               Would he pay the required $100 to watch the bout on TV? he was asked.
   
              “No way,” he replied. “Mayweather doesn’t fight, he runs.”
   
                In other words, Mayweather was too brutal outside the ring but not brutal enough inside it.

               There’s just no pleasing some people.

               Maybe I’m being too hard on the guy because the subject of boxing generally is fraught with difficulties. I’ve always liked the sport but blush to admit as much. At best it’s brutal, and we’d be better off without it, but a hard look at the world tells me that it or something like it probably is necessary. Some men (and some women, too) like things rough and will fight whether it’s permitted or not. Better they should do it in a ring, with padded gloves and a referee present, than al fresco.

                If you legislate against boxing—and some states have—it’ll pop up elsewhere—in back rooms, on barges or across borders. The writer A. J. Liebling’s description of it as the “sweet science” was too cute, but performed properly it’s a legitimate sport, not a mindless brawl. Through instinct and instruction, a skilled boxer knows how to vary the angles of his body and the speed and direction of his footwork to avoid taking solid blows while putting himself in a position to deliver them.  

               Hitting without being hit is what boxing is about, but it’s an elusive goal for the best practitioners. Michael Spinks, a former heavyweight and light heavyweight champion, once told me that “stepping into the ring with another man is like having all 32 teeth pulled without anesthetic,” but he’d slipped and slid through a highly successful career until he met a young Mike Tyson in 1988. After that experience he proved he was smart by quitting.

               As a reporter and fan I’ve seen hundreds of prize fights. The two best fighters I’ve seen were Mayweather and Pernell Whittaker. Like Mayweather, Whittaker performed mostly in the lightweight (135-pound) and welterweight (147-pound) divisions. Nicknamed “Sweetpea”, he was a 1984 Olympic gold medalist whose pro career spanned 13 years (1984-97) before an ill-advised comeback. Lithe and quick, he relished the roll of matador to his opponent’s bull. His specialty was the boxing version of the shutout, in which he’d win every round on every judge’s card. He did that a lot of times while collecting a haberdashery full of championship belts.

               Mayweather was a 1996 Olympian at age 19, losing in the 125-pound semifinals to a Bulgarian in a decision that was widely viewed as terrible (Olympic boxing is known for that). Boxing is his family’s business, his father Floyd, Sr., and uncles Roger and Jeff also having practiced the trade. He fights in the same style as did Whittaker but he’s faster and stronger. He’s also been more durable, as he showed against Pacquiao at age 38.

               As the pool guy noted, Mayweather is not a nice man, making him tough to root for. He’s boastful and crass (his self-chosen nickname is “Money”) and frequently misbehaves outside the ring, sometimes in ways that attract the police. Many people resent the fact that such a disreputable character is probably the richest athlete ever in terms of payment for direct services; he and his entourage are said to have pocketed $180 million from the Pacquiao go alone.

               But I’ve found I can love the art without admiring the artist, something we’re also asked to do when attending a Wagner opera or listening to Frank Sinatra or innumerable rock stars.  If you can’t do that you miss a lot of good stuff.

               I didn’t pay to see the fight, partly because I’m cheap and partly because I was well acquainted with the contestants’ styles and figured I knew pretty much what to expect. I watched for free on HBO last Saturday and was correct. Pacquiao charged, Mayweather mostly moved and jabbed, sometimes holding his foe when he came close but more often counterpunching sharply. Mayweather clearly had the best of it, landing almost twice as many punches by electronic count and taking nine of the 12 rounds on my scorecard. Pacquiao later said he’d fought with a shoulder injury that would require surgery, but he didn’t look hurt during the action. If the two men fought again I’d expect the same outcome.

               Also predictably, reaction to the fight was poor; echoing the popular mood, a USA Today headline called the bout a “snoozefest.” That may have been true if one’s standard of comparison was a round from any of the “Rocky” movies, but for a real-life fight it wasn’t bad. Mayweather’s formula is tried and true and now has produced 48 wins in as many professional bouts. I’m sure he’s aware of critics who think he should be more aggressive, but he fights to win, not to entertain, and is nothing if not true to himself.

He hasn’t hurt himself at the bank, either.
 
              


               

Friday, May 1, 2015

ICHIRO!

               At any given time there are a small handful of Major League Baseball players whose talents and accomplishments deserve special attention. These are the guys we’ll tell our grandchildren we saw play, even if we can pick up a phone and tell them so today.  I’m not just talking Hall of Fame-eligible here, I’m talking about men who are making a singular contribution to the sport.
              
              Ichiro Suzuki fits that category. At age 41 the slender man from Japan is playing out the string with the Miami Marlins, but he’s still identifiably Ichiro, punching out hits in his inimitable fashion.  If he stays at it long enough he’ll go out as the most prolific batsman ever, eclipsing Pete Rose’s 4,256 big-league-hits record.

               Yeah, some of his hits were in Japan’s big league, but I’ll leave it to others to debate their relative worth.

               What’s beyond debate is that Ichiro (he goes by just the one name at home, not unlike some Brazilian soccer stars) has brought to the game a unique style and presence, no small feat in an activity that prizes orthodoxy. Not only does the left-handed batter hit off his front foot, a Little League no-no, but he does so with his hips turning forward, seemingly propelling him down the first-base line as the ball is being struck. He gets away with it because he has the best hands since Rod Carew, and the best results.

               He’s a sterling athlete and, as his 10 Golden Gloves attest, nobody of late has played right field better. Few run the bases better, either; his 487 stolen bases going into this season was the most of any active player. It’s tougher to measure throwing ability but he may be No. 1 there, too. For a recent Japanese TV commercial he made three throws from behind home plate to a wire-mesh litter basket near the right-field fence about 300 feet away. He sunk the third after two near misses.

               Few players have arrived in the U.S. majors more hyped—or more closely followed—than Ichiro. At age 27, he showed up in spring training with the Seattle Mariners in 2001 as the best-known sports figure in his sports-crazy land, trailed by a media contingent that would make a Super Bowl quarterback flinch.  So popular was he back home that his wedding two years earlier, to a Japanese-TV personality, had to take place in California to avoid a crush.

               The Mariners issued 100 spring-training press credentials in ’01, 80 of them to Japanese outlets. Every step he took in public was photographed and his daily press conferences were staged outdoors because the team’s Peoria, Arizona, base didn’t have a large enough room to hold them.  The attention lasted into the season and while it cooled with the years it never went away.

               It was merited because, next to the 1960s and ‘70s slugger Sadaharu Oh, Ichiro was Japan’s all-time greatest baseball player, with a .353 batting average in nine seasons with the Orix Blue Wave starting at age 18. Americans snicker over Oh’s towering home-run record (868), noting it was set in smallish Japanese parks, but the big majority of Ichiro’s 1,278 Japanese bingles were singles that would have been singles anywhere.  And indeed, during his 10 seasons in Seattle (2001-10), the meat of his U.S. career, his batting average of .331 wasn’t far below his Japanese mark.

               Ichiro got more than 200 hits in each of those 10 seasons, a record. His 262 hits in 2004 is a record, too.  He was the MVP of the 2007 MLB All-Star game with a three-hit performance including an inside-the-park home run, and got the game-winning hit in Japan’s extra-inning victory over South Korea in the 2009 World Baseball Classic final. For what it’s worth, Japan has won that tournament twice in the three times it’s been run, and the U.S. never has finished better than fourth.

               Ichiro collected 2,844 hits in his 14 Major League seasons before this one. Add in his Japanese safeties and his total came to 4,122, 134 short of Rose and 67 behind Ty Cobb’s 4,189. As a part-time player he doesn’t figure to surpass Rose this year but, barring injury, probably will get past Cobb.  He hasn’t committed to playing beyond this season so the argument over whether he or Rose belongs atop the hit parade might not arise, but no matter. Ichiro is playing now and you owe yourself what may be a last look.

             ***************************************************      

               The Kentucky Derby, the latest edition of which will be run on Saturday, is both a feast and a challenge for horse players. It’s a feast because you always get good prices on good horses in what’s usually a stellar field. It’s a challenge because it involves two large unknowns—how the animals will handle its 1¼-miles distance, farther than any of them ever run, and how they’ll cope with a roiling field that will number 20 if there are no scratches.  It’s a real cavalry charge in which “trip” can be as important as talent.

               Complicating matters further this year is perhaps the best field of any recent Derby. On form seven or eight colts could win the race and not surprise anyone, and three or four more could sneak up on them. Putting together a winning ticket will require dexterity as well as knowledge and luck.

               The field is headed by three horses that together have won 14 of 16 career outings and close to $4.5 million in purses, a ton of money for three-year-olds.  They are the presumed favorite (5-2 in the morning line) American Pharaoh, Dortmund (3-1) and Carpe Diem (8-1). American Pharaoh gets the betting nod because he’s won his last four races by a total of 22 lengths and has been training like a champ. Dortmund has won six of six and Carpe Diem four of five. The latter hasn’t shown quite the speed of the other two, but they’re both front runners and he’s comfortable running with the pack for a while, a facility might come in handy on Saturday.

I originally liked Carpe Diem but his No. 2 post-position draw indicated he might be enveloped along the rail early and have difficulty finding running room. Similarly, American Pharaoh will exit No. 17, meaning he’ll have a tough time securing his preferred close-to-the front running position, and will have a long way to go in any case.

From PP8 long-striding Dortmund will have a straight shot out of the gate and should lead or nearly so. Barring late mind-changes I’ll be betting a $1, five-horse exacta box including he, the lightly raced Materiality (12-1) who’s maybe the fastest horse in the field, and three horses that have proven to have some late kick: Frosted (15-1), Upstart (15-1) and El Kabeir (30-1). It’ll cost me $20 but pay off a lot more if any of the double-digit-odds entries come in 1-2.

               

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

TOO FIT?

               Athletes are in better shape than ever these days, so it’s reasonable to conclude that they’re also more durable. That doesn’t seem to be the case.
              
              It doesn’t matter the sport, injury lists seem to go in only one direction-- up. Nobody I know of keeps statistical track of those things, so I can’t prove it, but every season, in every league, the main question isn’t who’s best but who will be healthy at season’s end, when the big games are played. Pre-season forecasts, more abundant than ever, also are more idiotic.   

The situation seems most dire in baseball, the latest season of which is just underway. Pitchers in particular have been affected—it seems that they’re lined up around the block to have Tommy John surgery, the elbow-ligament-replacement operation named for the much-traveled left hander on whom it was first performed in 1974.  Rare is the Major League pitching staff that doesn’t have a member who has undergone—or is undergoing-- the procedure, which usually involves a full season on the sidelines. Some pitchers have had it more than once.
            
              Basketball has no single counterpart to the elbow-ligament plague but its stars are also have been faring poorly, so much so that injury reports challenge its box scores for sports-page space. My blog of January 15, headlined “Gone Fishin’”, speculated that the long National Basketball Association season had prompted some players to feign or magnify injuries to get occasional breathers. The league must have gotten wind of such talk because it’s been discussing making schedule changes.

               Football long has been a petri dish of afflictions, some of which, involving the brain, have scary, long-term implications, and while here’s no doubt that better conditioning protects players from some ills it may contribute to others. The bigger-faster-stronger syndrome of which the National Football League is proud also makes for bigger, louder and more-frightening collisions on the gridirons, the implications of which are easy to imagine.

               Of the improved general fitness of athletes there can be no doubt. Our knowledge of exercise physiology and nutrition have improved vastly in recent decades, as have the devices to implement it. Of at least equal importance is that the torrent of money that has flowed into sports has meant that the pros no longer need off-season jobs to make ends meet and can afford to be in training around the calendar and around the clock.  The results have been apparent to the naked eye, so to speak: walk into any Major League Baseball locker room these days and you’ll see guys who look good in their underwear. Thirty years ago ballplayers were a mixed lot in that respect, looking pretty much like any other group of men their age.

               As any competent trainer can tell you, however, top-level fitness is a double-edged sword. With nothing much else to do except watch cartoons on TV, some athletes will train to excess, crossing the invisible line that separates fitness and breakdowns. The “no pain, no gain” mantra that permeates some weight rooms is a dangerous one, most experts now say. “Quit when you’ve got one more in ya’” is a better one, they agree.

               More dangerous still is the very-early commitment to single sports that pushy parents are pressing on their talented offspring. Time was (remember?) when kids pretty much played in-season pickup games with their playground pals, never getting uniforms or trained coaching until high school. Little League accelerated that process in baseball, but its schedules—like those of Babe Ruth or American Legion ball for teens--  rarely exceeded 30 games a year, and ended before Labor Day.

               Now there are “traveling” youth leagues in several sports, including baseball, basketball and soccer, which for annual fees of up to several thousand dollars provide coaching, training and competition for children as young as age eight; in baseball these circuits book as many as a 100 games a year in Sunbelt locales. The leagues have cut deeply into Little League baseball participation and are supplanting the high schools as the main recruiting grounds for college basketball. Except for the live-in part, they mirror the practice-and-play-intensive private “academies” that have been stocking the pro-tennis ranks for years.

               That sort of commitment requires kids to specialize in a sport from their pre-teens, leading to repetitive-stress injuries such as the carpal-tunnel syndrome that befalls people who spend long hours on computer keyboards. The condition that requires Tommy John surgery is one of these; the more pitches one throws the more likely it is to develop, studies show.

               Worry over pitchers’ arm overuse has changed baseball radically. While the likes of Robin Roberts, Bob Gibson and Fergie Jenkins once cranked out 300-inning seasons, any pitcher today who logs 200 innings is considered a workhorse. Teams’ starting rotations used to number four; now they’re at five and in spring training the New York Yankees were talking about going to six. Pitch counts dictate managers’ mound tactics as much as opponents’ hits.  

               Such moves haven’t stemmed the injury tide and probably won’t. Young athletes today are better physical specimens than those of the past, but having played more games and pumped more iron they also show up in the big leagues carrying much more mileage.

               Interestingly, a golfer—Tiger Woods—might be the best illustrator of the “too much, too soon” development. Under the tutelage of his father, Earl, he began swinging a golf club while still in diapers, and was playing tournaments by 10. No one ever appeared on the pro tour more ready to win, and no one achieved as much as quickly.

               But while his lost mojo, resulting from his exposure as a serial adulterer, played a role in Tiger’s decline, so has a multifaceted physical breakdown. He won his last “major” at age 32 and now, at 38—prime time for some golfers-- is eternally recovering from one injury or another. Old timers like Snead, Hogan and Nicklaus weren’t as good at 21 as Tiger was, but they lasted longer.


  
              
              

               

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

PRIORITIES

               If your image of a college coach was formed by old movies, you probably visualize a benign gent wearing a sweatshirt and a whistle around his neck, urging his boys to do or die for Old Siwash.  His wife is a sweet-faced lady who, occasionally, invites team members to the couple’s modest campus home for milk and cookies.  As my mom used to say, butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths.
             
              Flash forward to the present and you get a quite-different picture. Mr. Big-Time-College-Basketball-or-Football Coach today holds forth in an office half as large as a football field and fronted by three or four secretaries. A half-dozen assistant coaches (a dozen in football) also scurry to do his bidding. He lives in a mansion, drives one or more luxury “courtesy cars” and belongs to a country club dues-free (the last two are typical perks of his job), and his wife knows Rodeo Drive better than the local malls.  When butter enters his mouth it’s usually as an accompaniment to lobster tail.

               Maybe better, his lordly aura allows him to escape responsibility for whatever mess his “program” makes; he’s likely to be a control freak, overseeing every facet of his players’ lives, but when something goes wrong he’s nowhere to be seen.  Jim Calhoun, the long-time basketball head coach at the U. of Connecticut, sailed serenely into retirement despite his team’s record of NCAA rules violations and sub-normal graduation rates. Roy Williams of North Carolina and Jim Boeheim of Syracuse, other acclaimed “deans” of their profession, are following similar paths in the face of worse transgressions, Carolina’s involving almost two decades of organized academic fraud. (See my blog of July 15 for details.) 

               Joe Paterno, Penn State’s venerated “JoePa”, almost made it to retirement before it was revealed that his chief assistant coach had perpetrated a long-running, multi-victim child-sex-abuse scheme under his nose. Paterno was fired and died soon afterward, and his statue was yanked from the campus posthumously. Predictably, though, his cult has rallied. The NCAA has restored the gridiron victories it removed from his record, and look for the statue to be polished and reinstalled any day now.

               The rise in college coaching salaries and status in recent years has been startling. Around the century’s turn, while I was still columnizing professionally, top annual contracts in the $500,000 area were beginning to raise eyebrows. In no time the average annual figure shot through $1 million. It now presses $2 million with no lid in sight as the elite conferences cash in big from their television networks. 

Vexingly, that surge has come at a time when education in America—and especially public education—is under unprecedented financial stress. Thanks to the 2008 recession and the advent of small-government Republican administrations in many statehouses around the land, school budgets from kindergarten through college have been slashed just about everywhere.  The crowning irony is that college football’s highest-paid head coach—Nick Saban of the U. of Alabama, who rakes in $7.1 million a year— is employed by the state that has cut school spending most enthusiastically since 2007, the year he was hired. The average teacher in Alabama earns about $45,000 a year, which means that Saban’s salary alone would equal the entire payroll of a good-sized school district in that benighted state.

Things aren’t much different in Arizona, where I live. School budgets there have been under relentless attack in the state legislature in recent years. While taxes are being cut, class sizes rise, “frill” courses such as music and art have been eliminated and many districts charge fees for student participation in extra-curricular activities such as band, theater and sports. Four-day school weeks are being discussed in some cities and school-bus safety is being compromised by the re-tread tires many districts are purchasing to cut costs.

 Arizona school funding at the K-12 grades fell so low that in 2013 the state’ s supreme court ruled that it hadn’t been reaching minimum levels mandated by the state’s constitution and ordered that $1.6 billion in reparations be paid out over the next five years.  That hasn’t happened; indeed, more education cuts have been instituted while statehouse leaders and the court “negotiate.” 

Arizona’s four-year public universities—Arizona State U., the U. of Arizona and Northern Arizona U.—haven’t been spared, their state support declining by 32% between 2007 and last year, and by $99 million more, or about 14%, in the 2015-16 budget just enacted in Phoenix. Yearly in-state tuition at ASU was about $5,000 in 2007. It’s $9,300 now and surely will rise again next term.

 Meantime, Arizona’s big-time coaches are doing just fine, thanks. The top-paid two are ASU football boss Todd Graham and U of A basketball coach Sean Miller, each at $2.3 million a year. Rich Rodriguez makes $1.5 million per to coach football at U of A and ASU’s basketball coach Herb Sendek made $1.2 million before he was fired last week. That last action wasn’t good news budgetwise, because Sendek reportedly is due to receive full pay for the remaining two years on his contract, and his successor probably will get a better deal than he did.

  Those salary figures don’t include the value of the free cars and club memberships noted above, or, probably, the rent-free use of university facilities for the coaches’ summer camps or income from their booster-sponsored radio and TV shows. Each also gets six-figure annual raises and bonuses for exceeding certain victory totals or achieving post-season appearances. If chopping any of their checks was part of the recent budget discussions it escaped news-media attention.

And as the TV pitchmen say “Wait! There’s more!”  ASU’s athletics department is raising $256 million to renovate Sun Devil Stadium, where the football team plays, and while tax money supposedly won’t be used for that purpose the private funds that will be might otherwise have gone elsewhere. After that project is done a similarly costly update is on deck for Wells Fargo Arena, the school’s basketball home.

 Arizona kids may be sharing desks, and its families increasingly are buried in college debt, but nothing’s too good for our big-U jocks and their leaders, right? It’s all a matter of getting our priorities straight.