Friday, January 15, 2021

PASS THE SPINACH

 

               As any parent knows, give a child a choice between spinach and ice cream and he or she will pick the ice cream. That choice isn’t restricted to kids, of course, nor is it limited to young children, and in the older group it usually doesn’t stem from any lack of information. Just about everybody’s mom makes the point that spinach is the wiser option long run or short, and she has a popular cartoon figure to back her up. Still, in the long run we’re all dead and, meantime, we might as well have as much fun as we can.

               The purpose of that little observation is the change that’s about to happen to big-time college sports. After years of defensiveness and internal hand wringing the NCAA is about to relent and allow college athletes to be paid for the commercial use of their names, images or likenesses. Although action on the matter was delayed this week, it should happen this year and maybe by this fall, in time for the new football season.

               The move will be widely cheered, especially by the “just pay ‘em” crowd that believes that putting a few more dollars in the pockets of some (not all) college athletes will cure most of what ails college sports. That would register on the ice-cream side of the proposition above, an easy fix that won’t change much of anything. At the same time, it won’t include and possibly could set back more worthwhile changes that would register in the spinach category. These relate to putting more college into the college-sports mix and protect the bodies as well as the futures of the young men and women who make up the particularly American institution.

               This is not to say that the change is a bad one. College sports may have begun as healthful outlets for students’ energies but on the big-time level they’ve morphed into a multi-billion-dollar behemoth that has twisted out of shape their sponsoring institutions. The notion that this beast is supported by a work force that has few of the protections of the lowliest civilian employee has, finally, become more than the courts or general public would swallow.  Allowing some athletes to cash in on their fame amounts to simple justice by any measure, when all around them have been doing that for decades.

               To call college jocks unpaid isn’t true, however. Their scholarships have value, both in immediate and long-range terms.  The dollar value of a “free ride” of tuition, books and room and board is substantial, ranging from about $30,000 a year for in-state students at state schools like Ohio State University and the University of Alabama to more than $75,000 a year at private schools such as Duke and Northwestern. Furthermore, since 2015 scholarship athletes have been given cash “cost of attendance” stipends of between $2,000 and $6,000 a year to cover such things as travel from home, local transportation and school supplies their awards don’t provide. Added up, it’s a tidy haul for what amounts to semi-skilled labor.

               Long term, the rewards of a degree from a four-year institution are much greater, by various estimates amounting to something approaching $2 million over a 40-year work life compared with people with only high-school diplomas. And that’s in addition to the broader cultural horizons higher education permits.

               The rub is that participation in a top-level college football or basketball program makes it difficult to get the education the scholarships promise. Counting games, travel, practices and conditioning, it amounts to a full-time job, made all the tougher because many scholarship athletes are marginal students who gained admission on the basis of jock cred. Once on campus, they’re steered to low-content courses by “academic advisors,” and assigned “tutors” who carry them through academe. The kids often contribute to their own exploitation by going along with the program, but their youth is a defense. At age 18 or 19 (or higher), I would have picked shooting baskets (ice cream) over reading some boring textbook (spinach). Wouldn’t you have?

To the above duties the new rules would add commercial responsibilities but, in fact, relatively few would have them. Athletes’ endorsement income is widely overestimated at the pro level and figures to be spread more thinly at the collegiate; young superstars such as Zion Williamson or Trevor Lawrence might have been able to earn serious money as undergrads, but a backup offensive lineman at, say, Purdue wouldn’t cash in similarly. I’d guess that most endorsement money would come from the likes of a booster who might book a few players for an autograph session at his car dealership. The NCAA’s proposed rules would prohibit extra-income offers as recruiting lures, but that is to laugh.

The rules would ban endorsements of products that would conflict with school contracts (read that shoes and apparel) and prohibit kids from using school logos or emblems in their ads or appearances. They could hire agents but only to handle outside-income opportunities. The changes would cost member schools nothing.

It’s not a given that the schools will get their way on all of that. A half-dozen states, including California and Florida¸ have passed laws opening outside-income doors to college jocks, and such bills are pending in a couple-dozen more. The NCAA used to regard with horror Federal legislation touching on its affairs but now it’s pleading for it, if only to keep from having to cope with lots of different state laws.  

Maybe it should watch what it wishes for. A bill introduced in the U.S. Senate by several Democrats including Cory Booker, who played football at Stanford, touches on not only outside income but many other matters. Among other things it would guarantee athletic scholarships to graduation, extend athlete medical insurance past attendance, require independent team trainers and doctors, remove academic advisors and tutors from athletics-department control and set up a commission (not the NCAA) to oversee it all.

 Chances are it won’t pass—it makes too much sense—but it’s good to get such ideas into circulation. Maybe some day.

              

              

              

                

              

                

Friday, January 1, 2021

ON DECK

 

               In sports sometimes the important thing isn’t what you do but when you do it. A case in point is the sportswriters’ election for the Baseball Hall of Fame’s class of 2021 now in progress, with the results to be announced later this month.

               Eleven new names are on the ballot and none of them appears likely to come near the 75% approval that brings a plaque in the Cooperstown, New York, shrine. That will increase the chances of success of the 14 holdovers from previous rounds. All those gentlemen have been retired from the game for six years or more, meaning that the objective reasons for their so-far exclusion (their stats) haven’t changed, and never will.  But it’s a beauty contest in which candidates are judged in relation to one another as much as to any set standards, so a fella who wasn’t pretty enough one year might be quite appealing the next.

               This year’s roll stands in sharp contrast to those of the previous seven years, in each of which a first-ballot candidate was elected. Indeed, in 2015 three players made it in that manner (Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz) and in 2014 three also did (Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas). Electors can include up to 10 names on their ballots, so each one selected takes a place another might occupy.

               Of the 2021 newcomers (listed below) only two would merit my approval were I voting. One is the left-handed pitcher Mark Buehrle who in 16 seasons, mostly with the Chicago White Sox, compiled a 216-160 won lost record, pitched a perfect game and another no-hitter and earned a World Series ring (in 2005). He was a canny guy who got along on guile and was personal favorite of mine because of his catch-the-ball, throw-the-ball approach to pitching. When he took the mound a two-hour game was in prospect.

 The other is Torii Hunter, a swift outfielder who hit safely 2,452 times and accumulated nine Golden Gloves in a 19-season career with several American League teams. He also won the 2009 Branch Rickey Award for outstanding community service, something that might not count with some but should. Neither he nor Buehrle, though, dominated the game in the manner of, say, Randy Johnson or last year’s honoree Derek Jeter, and both will fall well short of election this time.

The primary beneficiary of the weak ballot-newcomer list should be the pitcher Curt Schilling. He had a 216-146 won-lost mark over 20 seasons, similar to Buehrle’s, but his 3,116 regular-season strikeouts were more impressive, ranking 15th all-time. Further, he was a playoffs ace extraordinaire, posting a 11-2 record postseason and earning two World Series rings, with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2001 and the Boston Red Sox in 2004.

Schilling’s main problem in his eight seasons of Hall eligibility has been that he’s anything but curt in his off-field utterances, which have made him a regular on right-wing talk radio.  One particularly off-putting remark—an assertion that transsexual individuals lurk in public rest rooms to molest women and children—costs him a job as a baseball analyst on ESPN.

Schilling has bad-mouthed his Hall chances, saying “the writers hate my politics,” but that didn’t keep him from polling a 70% vote last year, and no one who has come that close with time remaining hasn’t gotten over the hump the next time. I don’t agree with his politics but I voted for him three times when I could, in 2013, ’14 and ’15. His Cooperstown acceptance speech should boost the ceremony’s TV ratings.

More interesting should be the votes for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, towering figures in the sport who have been deeply tainted by suspicions of steroid use during their careers, a sin against the game. All-time home-run leader Bonds and 354-win-pitcher Clemens, also in their ninth years of eligibility, have run as a sort of entry in Hall elections since they joined the sportswriters’ ballot in 2013, a year in which Bonds got 36.2% of the vote and Clemens 37.6%. Not much more than 1% has separated them since as they climbed to 60.7% last year (Bonds) and 61% (Clemens).

It’s still quite a leap from those totals to the magic 75%, and both men have but two more years to go before they’re dropped from the writers’ ballot. After that their cases will be in the hands of one of the old-timers’ committees that offer a side door to the Hall. Their acceptance or lack thereof is an annual referendum on how steroid use is regarded by the press-box denizens. Not this year is my guess. Not next year either, I hope.

The next-highest vote getter last year, at 52.6%, was Omar Vizquel, the web-magician shortstop. He figured to get a good bump up this time but recent domestic-violence allegations by his estranged wife probably nixed that.

Virus permitting, there will be an induction celebration in July even if no one is named when the votes are announced later this month. Last year’s class (Jeter, Larry Walker, Ted Simmons and the late players’ union head Marvin Miller) has one coming because their honors were postponed.  Come to think of it, we have one coming, too.

First-year eligibiles this year besides Buehrle and Hunter are Tim Hudson, Dan Haren, Barry Zito, Aramis Ramirez, Shane Victorino, H. J. Burnett, Nick Swisher, LaTroy Hawkins and Michael Cuddyer.

 

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

UNBEARABLE

 

               Once upon a time, in 1948, the Chicago Bears, my team, had quarterbacks named Luckman, Lujack and Layne. The most accomplished was the estimable Sid Luckman, who’d led the team to four National Football League championships in the decade, but Papa Bear, George Halas, knew that Luckman’s footballing days were numbered, so he looked to rookies Johnny Lujack and Bobby Layne to succeed him.

Lujack was a Heisman Trophy winner who’d gone to Notre Dame, which had (has) a big Windy City following. He was a handsome young man who threw a tight spiral. Layne threw wobbly passes and liked to stay out late partying. At the season’s end, Lujack got the nod and Layne was traded away.

At first the judgement seemed correct. Lujack took over as the team’s starter in 1949 and had the job all to himself after Luckman retired in 1950, playing well that year and the next. Then he quit to coach and, soon afterward, join his father-in-law’s Chevy dealership in Davenport, Iowa. Layne liked football just fine, winning three titles with the Detroit Lions and having a 16-season, Hall of Fame career.

That little recitation came to mind last week when the online Chicago Tribune ran a photo-gallery display of the Bears’ quarterbacks since 1950. Sixty six men were pictured along with a paragraph naming 15 more whose photos weren’t available.  It was a sad display because the team hasn’t had an outstanding quarterback—or a truly first-rate passing game-- since Ol’ Sid’s day. That’s 70 years if you’re scoring, a period in which the erstwhile Monsters of the Midway have won exactly two NFL titles, in 1963 and ‘85. If it weren’t for Chicago’s baseball reps, the Cubs and White Sox, it’s a record of ineptitude that would attract more notoriety than it has.

               Making the wound more painful is that the Bears’ QB failings stand in sharp contrast to the record of their archrival, the Green Bay Packers. There three stellar quarterbacks-- Bart Starr, Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers—shined at the position while the Bears’ revolving door whirled, bringing glory to the self-but-appropriately-named Titletown.  Rodgers still is going strong at age 37, twice a year reminding Chicagoans what they miss. Life is cruel.

               I fancy myself an attentive fan but some of the names in the Tribune’s QB list were unfamiliar to me. Does anyone recall Rusty Lisch, Mike Hohensee, Steve Stenstrom, Henry Burris or Will Furrer? I don’t, and it’s probably just as well.

               The lineup revealed some interesting but little-known Bear facts. Probably the best-named quarterback ever, Willie Thrower, was a 1953 Bear. He played in just one game but still is counted as a black pioneer at the position. The team’s 1987 roster included two QBS who would go on to become notable coaches—Jim Harbaugh and Sean Payton. It had a McNown at the position, Cade in 1999, and a McCown, Josh, in 2011-13. Cade was a first-round bust out of UCLA, Josh is a career backup who is still at it at age 41.

               Some of the QBs, while falling well short of H of F status, had things to recommend them. Foremost, I guess, was Jay Cutler (2009-16). He broke most of Luckman’s team passing records, but mostly because of changes in the game; Cutler threw 3,271 passes in his eight seasons in Chicago while Luckman threw 1,744 in his 12 (1939-50). Cutler was talented but maddeningly erratic, capable of threading the needle on one play while missing the whole sewing box the next.  His exit was mourned by few.

               Jim McMahon (1982-88) capably quarterbacked the 1985 Bears Super Bowl victors, as did Billy Wade (1961-66) for the 1963 champs, but both teams were distinguished mainly by their defenses. Both were dogged by injuries before and after their big years. McMahon never started a full, 16-game slate in Chicago. George Blanda (1949-58) had a Hall of Fame career as a passer and placekicker but had his best years with the Houston Oilers and Oakland Raiders, not the Bears.

               Erik Kramer, Rudy Bukich and Ed Brown all had a good season or two during their briefish tenures. Bobby Douglass (1969-75), a Lil’ Abner type, was a better runner than passer; his 968 yards rushing in 1972 stood as an NFL quarterback record until Michael Vick broke it in 2006.

               Except for those guys the picture is dark. Rex Grossman quarterbacked the Bears’ 2005 Super Bowl team but that group succeeded in spite of rather than because of him and was soundly beaten in the big game despite scoring a touchdown on an opening kickoff runback. His signature play was the fumbled center snap.

 Jack Concannon (1967-71) lives on because of, maybe, the all-time goofiest NFL play. Under center in a 1969 game against the St. Louis Cardinals Concannon turned to the referee and called for a timeout but his center made the snap on first sound, as instructed. The ball bounced off Concannon’s hip into the air from where Cardinal linebacker Larry Stallings grabbed it and ran 62 yards for a TD. I saw it on TV and still don’t believe it.

   Perhaps the saddest story of all concerns the present incumbent, Mitch Trubisky. Big and strongarmed, but with only one season as a college starter (at North Carolina), Trubisky so transfixed Bear decision markers that they traded their No. 3 draft pick, two third-rounders and a fourth-rounder to move up a single spot in the 2017 draft and make him the second player picked that year, ahead of Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson, for heaven’s sake. Trubisky is not without ability but in his fourth season still looks like a rookie, throwing into crowds, not seeing open receivers and requiring trimmed-back game plans.

 The Bears sought an alternative to Trubisky in the off-season by signing the veteran Nick Foles. As a backup he’d led the Philadelphia Eagles to the 2017 title, but lifting the mediocre Bears seems beyond him, so future travail looms.  Maybe after all these years the Bears could get lucky with a high-round draft choice like Tom Brady, or minor-league refugee like Kurt Warner.

  It could happen, couldn’t it?

 Probably not.

              

              

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

HORSE SENSE

 

               Two entities that rank at or near the bottom of their classes in just about every measure of public approval—the U.S. Congress (politics) and thoroughbred horse racing (sports)--  are getting together to do something that ought to improve the odors of both. Any day now Congress is expected to approve the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, aimed at curing many of the governing defects that have plagued the sport.

               The act would create national standards for such things as track safety and maintenance, injury-data collection and disciplinary processes and sanctions, and put them under the control of an authority overseen by the Federal Trade Commission. More importantly, it would place drug testing and administration in the hands of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), an independent body utilized by many sports.

               The action would replace in large part the hodgepodge of state agencies that govern (or misgovern) thoroughbred racing in the states that permit it. There are 38 of those bodies and they vary widely in competence and honesty. What is banned in one state might be permitted in another, making a shambles of rule enforcement. They’ve been sustained by raw politics—states have been loathe to give up any part of the patronage, perks and power the current system provides.

 The state boards and commissions won’t go away; they’ll still oversee many daily racetrack operations. And they’ll still run things for a while because for some reason the act won’t take effect until 2022. But after that issues that cut across state lines will be decided by a nine-member national authority, five of whose members must be free of ties to the sport.

In a show of nonpartisanship rare in Washington these days, the measure passed the U.S. House by voice vote in September and was sent along to the Senate. There it has quite a few named sponsors including the Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell from the racing mecca of Kentucky, without whose support nothing moves in that body. Approval is expected to come before the January change of administrations. President Trump’s signature is said to be about as sure as anything is with him.

Behind the act are years of malfeasance that have made the sport a synonym for corruption just about everywhere it operates, sustained because of the jobs it provides (about one million nationally) and the state tax money it produces.  If anything, its stink has only increased in recent years, fueled by doping scandals that seem to grow ever larger and more complex.

Last March 27 horse trainers, veterinarians, pharmacists and other track employees were indicted after a wide-ranging FBI investigation into performance-enhancing drug use-allegedly affecting dozens of horses that ran on the New Jersey race tracks. Among the group was the well-known trainer Jason Servis, whose colt Maximum Security won the 2019 Kentucky Derby before being disqualified for cutting off other horses in the race’s homestretch run. He and the other defendants have pleaded not guilty. No trial date has been set.

Doping suspicions have trailed other leading trainers, including Bob Baffert, long the sport’s shining star. He has saddled six Kentucky Derby winners and two winners of the elusive Triple Crown for three-year-olds, American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify in 2018.  Twenty nine of his horses have failed drug tests over the past 40 years including four in the last six months. One of those animals was Gamine, the winner of a million-dollar Breeders Cup race three weeks ago.

Reporting by the excellent Joe Drape of the New York Times, one of the few newspapers that cover the sport beyond small-print lists of entries and results, revealed that Justify failed a drugs test after winning the 2018 Santa Anita Derby. This might have made the colt ineligible for the later Triple Crown races, but the California Racing Board, whose chairman had ties to Baffert, stretched its inquiry into the matter over four months, long enough to allow the animal to compete in the series and win. In a closed-door ruling the board eventually attributed the test failure to “environmental contamination,” letting Baffert off the hook. The trainer’s previous infractions have been dealt with similarly, with fines or brief suspensions being the harshest penalties. Most other trainers so apprehended also have received such treatment. 

Really¸ though, the hay bale that broke the holdouts’ backs was the death of 30 horses from training or racing mishaps during the Santa Anita winter meeting of 2018-19. That roused not only the sport’s usual animal-rights critics but also the public at large.  Along with its bureaucratic name, the act now pending in Washington ought to include an “in memoriam” reference to the Santa Anita fallen.

Congress’s willingness to protect equine lives stands in contrast to its unwillingness to do the same for some human athletes, namely boxers. It did pass the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act of 2000, which set national guidelines for medical matters in the sport, fighter-manager contracts and divisional ratings systems, but left enforcement in the hands of the state commissions, some of  whose bumbling helped create the need for such legislation. Boxing’s lack of proper governance mirrors that of horse racing and calls for the same remedy.

 Sen. John McCain led the push for the Ali Act and his death in 2018 left a boxing-advocacy void in Washington. Someone should step up to fill it, and the sooner the better.

 

Sunday, November 15, 2020

HUT HUT-- PARADIGM SHIFT--HUT HUT...

 

               One of the terms favored by people who want to impress is “paradigm shift.”  It’s a fancy way of saying that something has changed fundamentally, at least for a while. One such has been underway in the National Football League for a few years now and has reached full bloom this season. It concerns quarterback, the game’s most important position.

               For just about all of this century and a few years before the beau ideal for the post was Peyton Manning, a tall, rugged, strong-armed sort who knew his place on the gridiron, which was in the “pocket” formed by his protecting linemen. If he carried the ball it was by necessity, when his pocket broke down and no alternative presented itself.  It was as though his career length was measured by the number of times he was tackled, and running served only to increase that risk.

No example is perfect and there were running quarterbacks during Manning’s tenure (1998-2015), Michael Vick being the most prominent. In 2006 he ran for 1,039 yards, breaking the 34-year record for the position held by Bobby Douglass, the lumberjack type who played for the 1970s’ Chicago Bears. Vick was an outlier, though, fit for inclusion in a Malcolm Gladwell book.

But Russell Wilson came along in 2012 and, with the help of the “slide rule” that protects ball carriers who give themselves up feet first, showed that dual threating could be an asset for an NFL signal-caller. In 2018 that rule was extended to include head-first surrenders, increasing the protection option.

 It took a 2014 Super Bowl title for Wilson’s Seattle Seahawks and few more seasons for him to prove his durability, but nine-year-vet Wilson’s role as an exemplar now is firmly established. A cadre of swift, versatile young quarterbacks currently ply their trade in the league and it’s no stretch to say they’re the new models for the post. Listed in no particular order they’re Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens, Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs, Deshaun Watson of the Houston Texans and Kyler Murray of the Arizona Cardinals. Jackson and Murray are 23 years old, Mahomes and Watson are 25, meaning that, with luck, each has many years ahead of him.

That can’t be said for the pocket passers who ruled the league before them and still might not be through. Tom Brady, newly of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is 43 years old, the New Orleans Saints’ Drew Brees is 41, the Pittsburgh Steelers Ben Roethlisberger is 38 and the Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers is 37. They are in various stages of decrepitude, Brady showing the most wear this season, but can’t be expected to stick around much longer under best-case scenarios. Sculptors no doubt already at work fashioning their Hall of Fame busts won’t have to wait long for the unveilings.

               The league’s growing acceptance of dual-threat QBs is reflected in their draft status. Pioneer Wilson wasn’t drafted until the third round of the 2012 draft after a bifurcated college career at North Carolina State and the U. of Wisconsin and I think it’s correct to say the Seahawks weren’t sure what they were getting. Jackson lasted until the 32rd pick in 2018 and Mahomes and Watson were chosen 10th and 12th respectively in their years. By contrast, Murray went No. 1 in 2019 after the Cardinals renounced their top pick of the year before, pocket-passer Josh Rosen, to clear the decks for him.  Such an admission of error is rare in the draft-proud NFL.

               Among the above-mentioned new stars the best ball carrier by far is Jackson. He tucks it in (176 times last season) about twice as often as do Mahomes, Watson or Murray, and averages about six yards a try when he does. He has the mentality of a runner, sometimes lowering his shoulder when contact looms, which generally isn’t a good idea for a quarterback. He’s both speedy and elusive, his better runs making up a riveting highlights reel.  

               By me Mahomes is the best all-around QB of the four, elusive on the ground and able to get off accurate passes on the run and from unpromising positions. He’s the best in the league at those latter skills along with Green Bay’s Rodgers, who continues to wow ‘em at his advanced age.

Mahomes has the additional advantage of size, at a listed 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds being officially bigger than Jackson, Watson or Murray, or Rodgers, for that matter. Caveat here, though:  My distrust of program weights and measures is heightened by the fact that Rodgers looks like the bigger man when he and Mahomes are pictured together in those State Farm commercials.

Watson’s skills seem to be a match for those of either Jackson or Mahomes, but he’s played on worse teams so comparisons are difficult. Suffice it to say that I wish my Chicago Bears had picked him (or Mahomes) instead of Mitch Trubisky in the 2017 draft. Watson’s teams haven’t gone far but he is well represented in the NFL record book, among other things being the fastest player to both pass for at least 6,500 yards and run for 500.

Murray is a case apart, at 5-feet-10 a little man in a big man’s game. While Jackson strides with the ball Murray tiptoes, pitter patting prettily around tacklers and along sidelines. I’d love to see a footrace between the two. Because he played only two collegiate seasons as a starter, one at Texas A&M and one at Oklahoma, Murray is still very much a work in progress, especially in the passing department. He’s a thrill to watch, though, and by himself is worth the price of admission.

A specter hangs over the young quarterbacks in the person of Robert Griffin III. He ran opponents crazy in his 2012 rookie year with the Washington Whatchacallits but was laid low by a late-season knee injury and never has been the same thereafter. Football’s a dangerous game in all cases but especially so for running QBs. Be careful guys, it’s a jungle out there.

              

 

Sunday, November 1, 2020

AS IT IS UNWRITTEN, SO SHALL IT BE

 

               In a National Football League game a couple of weeks ago the Cincinnati Bengals badly trailed the Baltimore Ravens when, stuck in a fourth-down situation with time expiring, they kicked a field goal to make the final score 28-3. Ravens’ coaches and players made a fuss, asserting that a team avoiding the opprobrium of a shutout in such a manner wasn’t being, uh, polite.

               That rough-tough football types can turn into Emily Posts might have caused some to snicker, but really it was old stuff in the sporting realm. As just about every fan older than age eight knows, all sports have two rule books-- one written and official and the other unwritten but supported by custom and based on notions of sportsmanship. A competitor breaking the former is punished immediately by the refs, umps, etc. One breaking the latter is supposed to be judged in the courts of peer and public opinion.

               I’ve been around for a while but I found the Ravens’ beef with the Bengals surprising. What’s the big deal about a shutout, anyway? I guess it’s because taking offense is much in style these days. Everyone’s soooo sensitive.

               One funny thing about sports’ unwritten rules is that they often are written about— just check the Internet. Another is that agreement about some of them isn’t close to unanimous. Take the one about how BASEBALL FANS SHOULD THROW BACK OPPONENTS’ HOME RUN BALLS. That’s the custom in some ballparks—Chicago’s Wrigley Field for one—but not others. Further, it’s common knowledge that some Wrigley bleacherites bring balls with them to throw back should a foe’s home run land in their laps.

               There is agreement about how winners should behave in lopsided games, which is that THEY SHOULDN’T RUN UP THE SCORE. In baseball that means not stealing bases, bunting or hitting on 3-0 counts in the late going, in football abjuring the pass and in basketball slowing things down and dribbling out the final seconds. Trouble is, the definition of what constitutes “lopsided” varies; in baseball, is it 8-0 after inning seven, 10-0 or 12-0? It’s especially a problem in basketball where triple-digit scores and 30-plus-point margins are common. It’s my observation that except for that final-possession thing hoopsters will head hoopward.

               Also on the good-winner’s list are codes of individual behavior best summarized in the baseball dictum DON’T PIMP YOUR HOME RUNS, which means don’t celebrate individual triumphs excessively. That one has come to be honored mostly in the breach across the sports spectrum. It’s especially true in football, where the slightest achievement is marked by dancing, muscle flexing, chest pounding or other display. Baseball used to take the line seriously but no more, as witnessed by the late World Series. Bat flipping after home runs now is de rigueur, as are pitcher fist pumps after key strikeouts. Baseballers haven’t advanced to football’s level of choreographed touchdown celebrations, but I don’t doubt they soon will.

               Just as there are rules about winning, there also are rules about losing graciously or, at least, stoically. Baseball pitchers are expected NOT TO SHOW DISPLEASURE WHEN A TEAMMATE MAKES AN ERROR and all baseballers are obliged NOT TO RUB THE AFFECTED AREA WHEN HIT BY A PITCH. As little sense as that last one makes it’s almost universally observed.

 On a team level, losers are instructed NOT TO LEAVE THE FIELD OR FLOOR BEFORE A GAME OFFICIALLY ENDS.  A violation there sparked one of sport’s most-notorious feuds, between the basketballers Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls and Isiah Thomas of the Detroit Pistons. It began when some Pistons headed for the lockers before the final whistle after being swept in a 1991 NBA playoff series by the Bulls, a team it had bedeviled for several years previously.  Jordan blamed it on Thomas, the Pistons’ team leader, and is said to have used his considerable influence to keep Thomas off the 1992 U.S. Olympic “Dream Team.” The bad blood between the two greats continues to this day.

Athletes sometimes lose their tempers in the heat of play and turn to fisticuffs. That’s a topic of a couple of seemingly contradictory unwritten rules. One is that TEAMMATES MUST RUSH TO ONE ANOTHER’S AID WHEN A FIGHT BREAKS OUT. The other is that LATECOMERS TO THE FRAY MUST NOT THROW PUNCHES.  That last dictum makes special sense at the pro level because the last thing a highly paid jock needs is to risk injury in someone else’s silly fight. The funny thing about team fights is that they seem to be the least frequent in football, the sport where the most legal man-to-man combat is allowed. My guess is that’s because a footballer with a beef against a foe can take it out in one of the game’s every-play pileups.

Baseball pitchers are expected to RETALIATE WHEN A TEAMMATE IS INTENTIONALLY HIT BY A PITCH, but since pitchers rarely admit to hitting someone the “intentional” part often is in question, and as in real life the notion of revenge easily can get out of control. Further, giving a foe a free baserunner hardly adds up to settling a score.

Baseball leads all sports in unwritten rules and nothing in the game surpasses the prospect of a no-hitter to roll them out. Teammates are ordered NOT TO SAY A WORD TO THE PITCHER AFTER THE FIFTH INNING, and broadcasters are cautioned never to say that a no-no is in progress after that point. I don’t know what goes on in the dugouts but, in recent years at least, broadcasters seem to never have heard of the ban. That’s a good thing.

More controversial is the rule that BATTERS SHOULDN’T TRY TO BREAK UP A LATE-INNING NO-HITTER BY BUNTING. That one came up most prominently in a 2001 game between the Arizona Diamondbacks and San Diego Padres when D-back pitcher Curt Schilling took a perfect game into the eighth inning only to have it ruined by a bunt single by Padres’ Ben Davis.

 The D-backs went ballistic during and after the contest. Davis wasn’t having it, pointing out that the score was 2-0 at the time and his hit brought the tying run to the plate. Interviewed years later the otherwise undistinguished catcher said the still-famous incident worked out well for him. “It’s better to be known for something than for nothing,” he said.

 

                                                                         

 

 

 

                   

 

              

 

              

Thursday, October 15, 2020

BETTER BASEBALL

 

               Necessity, it’s said, is the mother of invention, and 2020 having been one motha of a baseball season it followed that it included a lot of inventions. Circumventing the virus took some doing, as did stuffing a regular-season race into a 60-game box. The game’s decades-long struggle to make itself faster and sleeker continued to hover, as did the trends toward more strikeouts and fewer base hits.  Attention had to be paid.

               Attend the MLB’s leaders did, and pretty well, too. The no-fans regime was the biggest change ever for the National Pastime, and while the vast stretches of empty seats were jarring they were ameliorated by the fan cutouts and piped-in crowd noises that, on TV at least, almost substituted for the real thing.  The game’s dugouts-and-sidelines covid protocols were widely ignored but the players surprised many (including me) by their admirable adherence to monastic rules outside the ballparks in no-bubble settings. This permitted the makeshift schedule to play out about as planned, with only two teams (the Miami Marlins and St Louis Cardinals) committing major breaches. Interestingly, both of them rallied to make the playoffs.

               There also were changes aplenty in the game on the field—more than in any season in memory for the change-averse sport.  MLB expanded the playoffs to 16 teams from  12; forced the designed-hitter rule on the National League; increased rosters to an initial 30 players (from 25 last season) and 28 for the playoffs; made double-header games seven-inning affairs; required relief pitchers to face at least three batters or stay until an inning’s end; and began extra innings with a “free” runner on second base.

None of those changes are sure to carry over to future seasons, but some might.  I heretofore have fancied myself a baseball “purist” but you know somethin’? I liked them all. Taking them one at a time, here are my takes:

EXPANDED PLAYOFFS— A good idea, and overdue, although it was spurred by the immediate need for more TV revenue to compensate for the lack of gate monies. This season’s 16 qualifiers in a 30-team mix was a bit much, so until MLB expands to 32 teams 14 would be a nice compromise, and I read it probably will happen. No more one-and-done wildcard rounds was good, too.

THE DH FOR THE NL—The designated hitter has been the rule in the American League since 1973, and while the AL-NL split on the matter has been an ever-present bone for baseball fans to chew, it has tasted like cardboard for a long time. The votes are in and they are nearly unanimous, the DH having been adopted in just about every level of organized baseball—the schools, colleges, amateurs, minor leagues and international play. The only two entities still holding out against it are the U.S. National League and Nippon Professional Baseball’s Central League, one of two such circuits in that land.

The DH promotes offense, something that’s needed especially now, and prolongs careers.  Few things in baseball are sadder than a pitcher with a bat in his hands; some act like they don’t know which end to hold. Most can’t even bunt, for heaven’s sake. The NL came within a whit of adding it in 1980 when, in a confused and confusing action, the 12 league owners voted four for and five against, with three abstentions, to uphold the status quo. I once enjoyed the tactical differences the AL-NL split created, but they’re just tiresome now. It’s about time the NL joined the party.

INCREASED ROSTER SIZES— Rosters were scheduled to be upped to 26 players from 25 this season but the disruptions caused by the virus threat supersized that—to 30 at the start of the 60-game schedule and 28 for the playoffs. The original plan of 26 is supposed to be reinstated for 2021, but I think it falls a man short. With 27 players—one more pitcher and one position player—teams could spread around playing time in a way that makes sense over the game’s long, long season. The players’ union, which can act on all such changes, would go along happily, and the probable cost—one more minimum-wage player—shouldn’t be too large for the owners to swallow.

SEVEN-INNING GAMES FOR DOUBLEHEADERS—This was pretty much of a one-off change because two-for-the-price-of-one doubleheaders in the majors are relics of bygone eras, for 40 or so years and counting. This season was an exception because of the narrow scheduling window and the log jams created by the multiple positive-test cancellations of the Marlins and Cardinals. The odd doubleheader these days comes about because of the need to make up weather-caused cancellations, and if players and managers could vote they’d adopt the seven-inning rule. That’s already the way things are done in the minor leagues and colleges, where doubleheaders are more frequent.

A THREE-BATTER RULE FOR RELIEVERS—I’m for just about anything that moves games along, and nothing slows them like mid-inning pitching changes. This is a good rule, but the rub is that with the end-of-inning exception it rarely applies. More helpful would be to mandate that relievers be driven to the mound quickly by cart and limited to two or three warmup pitches instead of the present six. What have they been doing in the bullpen, anyway?

A MAN-ON-SECOND-BASE START TO EXTRA INNINGS—This is the most unbaseballlike of the 2020 rule changes but I liked it a lot, just as I did when it was used in last year’s Fall League. Before when games went into extras I’d say “Oh, nuts” or something similar. This season I found myself saying “Oh, goodie!”

Giving teams a “free” runner is a wrench, and scoring it put some Figure Filberts’ noses out of joint, but so what?  The freebie is scored as an error even though none is charged to the team or any player; if the run scores it’s unearned to the pitcher. The situation sets up an interesting tactical question for the first-up team: bunt the guy over or swing away? In keeping with the ethos of the times, most teams this season chose option two, but with a strong pitcher of its own on the mound option one could be preferrable.  

A complaint about the rule is that it puts a sort of clock on the game-without-a-clock, but that ain’t necessarily so. If teams match each other run for run games could run indefinitely. They don’t figure to for long, though, which suits me fine.