Wednesday, June 15, 2016

ALI

              Muhammad Ali died a fortnight ago, at age 74, and the response was overwhelming. He was hailed not only as a great athlete but as a great humanitarian as well. African-Americans, including those too young to have known him as a boxer, cited him as a role model both for his prowess and attitude. People of all races testified that the benign presence of his later years was an antidote to the fractious era in which we life.
            
              The outpouring was remarkable to someone my age (78) who can remember when Ali was regarded quite differently—as one whose braggadocio, quirky anti-Vietnam War stance and espousal of an overtly racist religious sect alienated and puzzled many. That all that appears to have been washed away testifies to his own evolution and to the healing powers of time. Shakespeare to the contrary notwithstanding, the good men do can live after them while the evil oft is interred with their bones. So let it be with Ali, we now say.

              But while one must swim upstream this month to suggest that the fighter was less than saintly, any real assessment of his life must be more complex.  The easiest part is its athletic component: as a boxer in his prime he fully lived up to his self-proclaimed title of “The Greatest.”  He might not have punched as hard as some heavyweights but most experts (and I) agree that his speed, grace, resilience and ring acumen were unsurpassed in his weight class. Indeed, the late Jimmy Jacobs, who owned the “Greatest Fights” archive, the world’s largest cache of boxing films dating from the 19th century, and who was Mike Tyson’s first manager, once told me he thought Ali was the fastest fighter ever, of any weight. That was no small feat for a tall man who performed at more than 200 pounds.

               Ali was only slightly less conspicuous outside the ring. Handsome (he’d say “pretty”), glib and charismatic, he attracted crowds wherever he went, and his playfulness was contagious, charming even the skeptical.  At the same time, his outspokenness and refusal to be patronized was startling for his era and set a standard for African-Americans that transcended sports.

              His refusal to be inducted into the military, assertedly on Muslim religious grounds, was puzzling because, then as now, Islam is not a pacific religion. Nonetheless, his stance must be regarded as courageous because it cost him far more than it did most others who followed that course. As a result of it he was stripped of his titles at his fighting peak and couldn’t get a match for 3 ½ years.

              Ali’s love of verse and one-liners, and gift for mimicry, caused him to be widely hailed as a wit. My full time sports-writing career began after his 1981 retirement from the ring, so I never spent time with him up close, but conversations with those who did revealed that many of his jokes were borrowed and repeated endlessly if they got a laugh. Still, they say, he was quick to size up his audiences, and his desire to entertain must be credited.

              But if Ali was smart he was not wise. His personal life was messy, including four marriages and three no-doubt-expensive divorces, and he left seven children by his wives and at least a couple more to duke it out over his estate.  His personal finances were equally chaotic; although his ring income has been estimated at more than $50 million (it would have been many times more in recent years) he was serially scammed by his handlers and had little put aside when his fighting days were done. The way I get it he lived in retirement mostly off latter-day endorsements and appearance fees. About all that remained of his ring income was a trust fund established for him by a group of businessmen in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, shortly after he turned pro in 1961.

              Worse was his management of his career, which lasted much too long. This is typical of athletes generally, including those engaged in his brutal sport, but in his case it had tragic consequences in the Parkinson’s disease and other ills that left him mute and palsied for the last 20 or so years of his life. That was an especially sad fate for one who had been so verbal and agile.

 If a Hollywood screen writer had called the shots Ali’s last fight would have been the one in which he evened the score with Joe Frazier in 1974 at the age of 32.  But needing the money, or seeing nothing better to do, he soldiered on. As he grew older he became easier to hit. Most of his 15 bouts after Frazier II were grueling affairs, 12 of them going 10 or more rounds. Boxers’ ages are better measured in rounds than in years, and those took a mighty toll.

I think that Ali’s influence on the greater world was strongest—and least fortunate—on our notions of sportsmanship, or how we regard winning, losing and competing. Sportsmanship always has been partly sham because no one enjoys losing and hard feelings often arise among competitors. But athletes’ treating opponents with respect cushions them all with the knowledge that sports needn’t be a zero-sum game and that when they lose they’ll receive such consideration in return.

Ali would have none of that. For him boxing wasn’t a test of skills within a confined space and agreed upon rules but psychological warfare that knew no bounds. Like a current presidential candidate he hung insulting nicknames on foes (the glowering Sonny Liston was “The Big, Ugly Bear”, the introverted Floyd Patterson was “The Rabbit,” the long-armed Frazier was “The Gorilla”), most of whom were black men like himself. He taunted them in and out of the ring and exulted in their demise. With his example to commend it, the trash talking, chest pounding and bicep flexing that today punctuates the smallest playing-field triumph took hold. It probably would have happened anyway but he gave it a kick start.

Ali toned down his act as he aged. In his 30s he left the black-separatist Nation of Islam to become a conventional Sunni Muslim, and his racial views moderated. In retirement his smile became permanent and all-encompassing. His humor took nondestructive turns. He loaned his name to and appeared on behalf of worthy causes.

 Because he could not speak in later life we don’t know how he felt about things, but he’d become so likable that we filled this blank slate with good thoughts and intentions.  That’s tribute enough for any man.
  

                  

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

THE RUSSIANS SHOULDN'T BE COMING

              When a sport's governing body assesses a violation of its rules it has two considerations. One is the impact of the violation on the character of the competition it oversees—in other words, the sport’s integrity. The other is how its ruling might affect business. It should come as no surprise that consideration No. 2 almost always prevails.
       
              In the U.S., Exhibit A in this regard regularly is found in the decisions of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which governs our college sports. Time and again serious institutional violations of its rules are punished by slaps on the wrist that cause no more than fleeting inconvenience to the perpetrators— one-year postseason bans, the loss of a scholarship or two, maybe the firing of a hapless assistant coach who has been designated as a scapegoat. The athletics ship of good ol’ Enormous U. is permitted to sail on, heedless of the damage left in its wake.
             
              The NCAA’s international counterpart is the International OIympic Committee, which runs the quadrennial Summer and Winter Games. It, too, can be counted upon to minimize offenses against its codes including corruption in its own ranks, treating them as fly specks on the magnificence of the spectacles it stages. The IOC’s official motto is “Citius, Altius, Fortius”—Latin for “Faster, Higher, Stronger”—but its real motto is “The Show Must Go On,” whatever squalor must be ignored to accomplish that end.

              But now the IOC faces its biggest judicial challenge yet as this August’s Summer Games in Rio approach. Russia, an international sports power, stands creditably accused of elevating the doping of its athletes to a state enterprise that already has altered numerous competitions.  If it chooses the obvious remedy—banning the Russkies—the IOC no doubt will put a dent in its event’s box-office appeal and, thus, its own coffers. Based on its past I’d put the odds on such a ruling at no better than even-money.

              Let’s be clear that the Russians have no corner on the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sports. Many athletes from many lands have done it, some of them such prominent Americans as Marion Jones and Lance Armstrong. Generally speaking, doping is a smart move because well-advised dopers usually are ahead of the testers technologically. Rewards are immediate while penalties come down the road, if at all. Even jocks who are caught usually are allowed to keep the financial gains their crimes produced; nobody has asked Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens for refunds on the huge salaries they pulled down in their juiced-up primes, and their records remain on the books.

              But by most accounts the big majority of dopers have been free-lancers, out for individual gain and backed only by a small coterie of coaches or medical people.  In the Russian case, the practice seemingly was massive, well planned and supported at the highest levels of national sport and government. Indeed, in Vladimir Putin’s Motherland, the dopers and the (so-called) testers were one and the same, the sort of seamless subversiveness not seen since the bad-old days of East Germany.

              Evidence for such conduct is seen in two, quite-separate cases. The first involves only track and field. Although rumors of Russian doping have been rife in the sport for years, they came to the fore only last November, when a German television station aired a documentary in which Yulia Stepanov, a world-class Russian middle-distance runner, testified that she’d regularly used performance-enhancing drugs during her career under the guidance of her national-team coaches and medical people.

 Her account was verified by her husband, Vitali, who’d been a technician in the testing lab that facilitated the process and destroyed or covered up any blood or urine tests that might have revealed it. It gained further credence by a video taken by Julia in which her teammate Maria Savinova, the gold medalist at 800 meters at the 2012 London Games, also admitted to drug use. “Everybody in Russia uses pharma,” Savinova remarked on tape.

The claims set off an investigation by an arm of WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency. Its report found “a deeply rooted culture of cheating” in the Russian sport and has resulted in a suspension of Russian athletes from international track and field competition since November. The IAAF, the sport’s governing body, will rule later this month on whether the ban will continue through the Rio Games.

Worse yet was an article in the New York Times last month in which Grigory Rodchenkov, who directed Russia’s national anti-doping laboratory from 2005 through 2015, said that not only did the facility falsify thousands of drug tests throughout that period under government direction, including during the 2014 Sochi Winter Games that Russia hosted, it also whipped up and administered the drug cocktails the athletes took.

 He said that at Sochi he was part of an elaborate scheme that, amazingly, passed “clean” urine samples through a hole in the wall at the main drug-testing lab that confederates inside swapped for the “dirty” ones Russia athletes submitted after competing. The effort, he said, was the main reason Russia led the national medal table at Sochi after placing a distant 11th at the Winter Games four years earlier, permitting Putin to preen upon the world stage. That a subsequent WADA statement said that Russians accounted for 14 of 31 samples that turned up “positive” after being recently retested from the 2008 Beijing Summer Games using updated methods affirmed the view that the country has been at it for some time. Eight more Russians registered positive in recent retests from the London Games.

Thomas Bach, the German who heads the IOC, has been outspoken since Rodchenkov’s allegations surfaced, calling them a “shocking new dimension in doping” that bespeaks “an unprecedented level of criminality.” They should result in a Russian ban if verified by WADA, he’s said.  Verification, however, might be difficult because witnesses inside Russian figure to be scarce, especially since two close colleagues of Rodchenkov turned up dead within weeks of each other there in February after Rodchenkov had fled to the U.S. (He was sacked after the track-and-field story gained credence.)

Russia has mixed its usual bluster over such matters with denials of institutional responsibility and pledges to cooperate with WADA investigators. Because the Rodchenkov story broke in May, less than 90 days before Rio was to start (on Aug. 5), the IOC might claim it didn’t have time for a thorough probe and let things slide. It also could pass the buck to WADA or the IAAF, even though its leadership is so intertwined with that of those two groups as to make it indistinguishable.

Finally, though, the IOC for once might be forced to back up its high-flown rhetoric about sportsmanship and clean competition with an action supporting it. That would mean doffing its “promoter” hat for the one labeled “policeman.”

 If it can find the “policeman” hat, that is.


 
             
             

               

Sunday, May 15, 2016

MAY MIRACLE

              A Chicago baseball fan, just back from a long trip up the Amazon River, this week would have been shocked to read the Major League standings. There were the Cubs and White Sox in first place in their divisions, and with the best records in their leagues. The guy could be excused if his first reaction was that he’d contracted a tropical disease and was seeing things upside down.
             
              Yes, the Cubs were supposed to be good this year after last season’s 97-win romp, but not THIS good, starting 25-6 before tailing off a bit. The Sox were a question mark coming in, as they are most seasons, and their fast start surprised everyone, probably including themselves.
            
               As is well known, baseball prosperity has been rare in Chicago generally, and the across-the-board variety rarer still. The Cubs haven’t won a pennant since 1945 and the Sox just two since 1919, a record of futility that impresses even geologists and others with long frames of reference. What Bob Verdi called “the city of broad shoulders and narrow trophy cabinets” has had two annual chances at the World Series since it began in 1903 and only once—in 1906—did its representatives meet for the sport’s top prize (the Sox won, four games to two). By contrast, New York has enjoyed 14 so-called “Subway Series,” and if it had three shots back in the Dodgers-Giants days that’s still a huge edge. No doubt, the disparity has been a contributor to Chicago’s eternal “Second City” complex.

              Popular wisdom has it that there are two kinds of Chicago baseball fans: Cubs fans who hate the Sox and Sox fans who hate the Cubs. That means that those types’ happiness is being marred by the success of the object of their enmity. I’m here to tell you, though, that some bighearted Chicagoans or ex-pats (like me) are smiling broadly these days, basking in both teams’ good fortune. It probably won’t last but it’s fun while it’s here.             

              I was a Cubs’ fan first, having grown up a short bike ride from Wrigley Field, and as a kid considered the Sox’s South Side bailiwick a foreign and dangerous place, but when I was a teen in the 1950s the Cubs were lousy and the Sox pretty good, so I sometimes braved the trip to Comiskey Park to watch them.  The Cubs still are my team No. 1 to the Sox’s 1A but I cheered when the Sox broke the ancient drought by winning the 2005 championship and I’d cheer just as loudly if they did it again.

              Chicago has been a Cubs’ town for the last 30 or so years, but that wasn’t always the case. The two teams fought it out about equally at the box office into the mid-1980s before the Sox made the ill-fated decision to go off “free” TV and onto cable before most people had cable. The gap widened in the 1990s when the Sox accepted a state-legislature ultimatum and built their new stadium next door to their old one on the sagging South Side while the area around North Side Wrigley Field turned into a year-round fun mecca. Now all the Cubs have to do to draw a crowd is show up, while the Sox have to win, a position no sports team relishes.

              The two teams’ different situations dictated their recent roster strategies. When he took over the going-nowhere Cubs’ front office in late 2011, Theo Epstein felt secure enough to tank the next three seasons in order to stock up on high draft choices and other prospects. He did it brilliantly, drafting Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber and trading for the likes of Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell. With a little luck (like the low-profile trade for late-blooming pitching wonder Jake Arrieta) and young, low-budget lineup in hand he paid up for starting pitchers and a few others to round things out.  He’s got money to play with if new needs arise.

              Always having to produce immediately, the Sox by contrast have rolled the dice with young pitching draftees (Chris Sale, Carlos Rondon) and a big-money slugger spirited out of Cuba (Jose Abreu) while cobbling together an everyday lineup and bullpen with mid-and low-level trades and free agents. They’ve done that before with little effect but this time seem to have scored. They’ll last as long as their pitching does.

              While the Sox’s success this season has been the more surprising, it’s also pretty remarkable that the Cubs are doing as well as they have. In a sport where the best teams win six of 10 and the worst four of 10, their .806 start came despite a lineup that mostly didn’t include young-slugger Schwarber, lost for the season in a first-week injury, and starting catcher Miguel Montero, off for the last few weeks with back ills. Jason Heyward, the team’s big off-season free-agent acquisition, is barely hitting .200 and has no home runs through six weeks. Jorge Soler, their usual left fielder, can’t get his BA above .200.  When (if) those guys start to hit the team really will be dangerous.

              Even more remarkably, the Cubs have assets they have yet to tap. These include that rarest of commodities, a young catcher who can hit. Willson Contreras, a 24-year-old Venezuelan, led the Double-A Southern League in batting last season, excelled in the Arizona Fall League and was hitting .347 at Triple-A Iowa at midweek. If he keeps it up they’ll have to bring him up before the season is over. Twenty-two-year-old Albert Almora, their top draft choice in 2012, is hitting .322 at Iowa. He’s projected as the Cubs’ center fielder for the next dozen years. Maybe they can loan him to the Sox until they have room for him.

              So yeah, I’m dreaming, but dreaming is free so why not dream big. A Cubs-Sox World Series is as big as it gets.

              DERBY NOTE—If you read the blog below you know I had the Kentucky Derby exacta (1-2) finishers Nyquist and Exaggerator in my boxes. That was swell but my bets cost $40 and my winning tickets paid $30, so I lost on the race. It happens sometimes. 
             
             
             
                  

              

Friday, May 6, 2016

DERBY PICKS

              The Kentucky Derby is Saturday and it’s always a challenge for the handicapper. That’s because the race’s distance of 1 ¼ miles is longer than any of the contestants has run and its big field of 19 or 20 rambunctious colts makes a lot of slamming around inevitable. That’s not good for the animals being slammed or the people who bet on them.
             
              The Derby’s length makes many handicappers look especially for horses with “late” run but that can be a mistake, I think. The saying that the lead dog has the best view still applies; he also has the easiest trip. That’s why one of my go-to horses on Saturday will be the favorite NYQUIST, who likes to press the pace. Although his name suggests a cold remedy (he’s really named for a hockey player), he’s done nothing but win so far, having gone seven of seven, and hasn’t been cowed by large fields or big events. He’ll be in my tickets.

              But Nyquist is 3-to-1 in the morning line so to make some money I’ll be pairing him with longer shots in combination bets. The horse I’ll really be rooting for is DESTIN, who is 15-to-1 in the morning line. He runs on the pace and has won three of five starts including the Tampa Bay Derby, where he beat a very good field. I’ll also include EXAGGERATOR. Although he’s a closer his winning run in the Santa Anita Derby was eye popping and his nine races to date (he’s won four) give him an experience edge on the field. His morning-line odds of 8-to-1 seem like a bargain. A Beyer Speed Rating of at least 100 is a usual prerequisite for Derby contention and each of those three horses has achieved it, as has only one other entry.

              I’ll be betting two five-horse, $1 exacta boxes, which means my picks must come in 1-2.  I’ll put Nyquist, Destin and Exaggerator in both boxes, barring late scratches, of course. In one box I’ll add the 12-to-1 MOR SPIRIT, who always runs well (three firsts and four seconds in seven starts) and MO TOM (20-to-1), who might have challenged in the Louisiana Derby if he didn’t have to be pulled up twice. That will be a 4-9-11-13-17 ticket by post position. In the other I’ll add the 15-to-1 OUTWORK, who has early speed, and MOHAYMEN (10-to-1), a winner of four of five. That’ll be 9-11-13-14-16.

My bets will cost me $40, which is more than I usually put on a race, but it’s the Derby, so what the heck.

              

Sunday, May 1, 2016

HOT-AIR HURRICANE

              My dictionary defines a “draft” as “a current of air,” but that doesn’t nearly do justice to the National Football League’s version, the latest edition of which wrapped up on Saturday. The NFL Draft has become a veritable hot-air hurricane, one that sweeps all other hype before it.
       
       ESPN and sports pages throughout the nation obsess for weeks about which NFL teams will choose which players in the three-day annual draw and TV gab fest, which in any endeavor other than sports would be illegal. (How would you like to have been “drafted” by, say, an accounting firm in Green Bay, Wisconsin, when you completed college?) The thing has become has become a capital “E” Event, with last week’s host city, Chicago, renaming itself “Draft Town” for the occasion and setting aside parkland to  stage satellite entertainments to surround it.

 Then, once the picking is done, the abovementioned news outlets scurry to grade the teams on how well they did, heedless of the fact that no one has much idea how, or if, the young men involved will perform in actual professional football.  So thick is the dust cloud the blow generates that it takes weeks to dissipate.

The draft succeeds as show biz because, as we illustrate in many ways, we love to be conned, and because the NFL has mastered the art of conning.  It does this partly by exploiting another national trait, our fascination with technology. Not content with merely scouting its prospects in action the way our other professional sports do (pretty much), it has erected an elaborate structure it would have us believe has made drafting into a science. The February before the selections are made it summons candidates to a week-long “combine” in Indianapolis in which they are measured, weighed, timed, tested, poked and prodded, all the better to take chance out of the drafting equation. This has become a news-media event in itself and things like weight-room reps and vertical-leap heights are breathlessly reported, as though they held the keys to gridiron excellence.

If some teams are to be believed, they’ve also developed techniques to discern a prospect’s “character,” which in NFL Speak means ferreting out the predilection of these big, aggressive and over-trained individuals to do things like beat up their girlfriends or drive while intoxicated. You’d think that the frequency with which such things occur anyway might cause skepticism of such claims, but usually it doesn’t.

 Quarterback is football’s most important and closely inspected position, and most drafts hinge on quarterback prospects. This year’s was no exception, with Jared Goff from the U. of California and Carson Wentz from North Dakota State U. (!?), being the top two overall picks. Nonetheless, the big brains who do the selecting frequently err on QBs, registering a long list of high-choice failures (JaMarcus Russell, Ryan Leaf, Rick Mirer, Akili Smith, Tim Couch, Matt Leinart, Cade McNown, Johnny Manziel, etc., etc.). It’s worth noting that the best pro quarterback of recent years, Tom Brady, didn’t go until the sixth round of his draft year (2000), with 198 players picked ahead of him.

Top defensive selections often don’t fare much better. Jadeveon Clowney, the lineman/linebacker from the U. of South Carolina who was the most-hyped defensive player in recent years, was the first player chosen in 2014, but he’s proven to be a fragile sort who has missed almost as many games (15) as he’s played (17) in his first two seasons with the Houston Texans and hasn’t starred in most of the ones in which he’s appeared.

Further, the crapshoot that the draft always was has become more so in recent seasons. That’s because of the gap that’s developed between the NFL’s game and the one being played at most of the colleges that happily serve as the league’s feedlots.

Sports Illustrated magazine devoted a recent article to this subject. It’s worth quoting at length:

“On Saturdays, most college games are high-scoring affairs ruled by simple schemes on both sides of the ball and even simpler techniques. Quarterbacks rarely call plays or take snaps under center. The receiving routes are basic and offensive linemen don’t often get into the three-point stances which are the norm in the NFL.

“This affects the defensive side as well.  Ends can’t develop pass-rush moves because the ball gets out so quickly. Defensive backs need to protect space so few of them have ever played man coverage, again the norm in the NFL. Linebackers in college are more adept at dropping into a passing zone than shedding a blocker. College safeties are like goal keepers in soccer, just trying to keep the ball in front them.

“Sundays, on the other hand, are a chess match. Quarterbacks bark out complicated play calls in the huddle and then change them at the line. Defenses bluff in and out of different looks and then bring an unorthodox blitz with press-man coverage. The offensive line has to execute double teams from three-point stances or the running game doesn’t go anywhere.”

“A [prospect] can have all the talent in the world but our [NFL] game is all about fundamentals and these players don’t have them,” summed up Dave Gettleman, the Carolina Panthers’ general manager.

“In my 25 years in the NFL I’ve never seen a larger disparity between the college and pro games,” added Stephen Jones, director of player personnel for the Dallas Cowboys.

So I hope you enjoyed the show but save the grades for later; your team’s prize selection probably will look like Tarzan but might play like Jane. To paraquote Forrest Gump: “The draft is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.”


              

Friday, April 15, 2016

A TAXING SITUATION

              Whenever people have told me they were turned off by the money professional sports teams and athletes rake in these days, I’ve shrugged. “That’s your problem only if you make it one,” I’ve told them. “We fans are volunteers. The jocks get our money only if we choose to give it to them. If you don’t like it, don’t go to their games or buy their gear.”
             
               Upon reflection, though, I must confess that statement is false. Many if not most of us are compelled to support our cities’ sports establishments through the tax money that goes to buy and maintain the stadiums in which our teams play. Their paws are in the pockets of fans and non-fans alike; the only way to escape (at least for a while) is to put on camo, grab an AK47 and take to the hills.

              That thought intrudes increasingly of late, especially in the Phoenix, Arizona, area in which I live. Three of the four major-sport teams here—the hockey Coyotes, basketball Suns and baseball Diamondbacks— are agitating for new or upgraded playgrounds, paid for mostly by the taxpayers, of course.  The only local team not queuing up to the trough is the football Cardinals, but that’s only because state and local sources anteed up about $310 million of the $455 million it cost to build them a new stadium that opened in 2006.  Give them a few more years and they’ll be there, too.

              Every other U.S. major-league city is generous to its teams, but a few things set Phoenix apart. One is the lack of accomplishment of the aforementioned four. They have made Arizona their home for a total of 113 seasons and have only one championship—by the 2001 Diamondbacks—to show for them.  It’s a record of ineptitude few can match.

              More basic, however, are the area’s economic and political realities. Although the parts of it most tourists see sparkle with palm-lined wealth, the city remains a low-wage, Sunbelt burg whose average per-capita income trails the U.S. as a whole and is down from what it was in the year 2000. Further, it lacks the sort of corporate-home-office base that supports luxury-box and season-ticket sales in other places.

              The area and the rest of Arizona are notoriously tax averse, a trait that’s been worsened by seven-years-and-counting of one-party, Republican state rule, during which public budgets for education, health care and just about every other social service have been slashed. The state ranks 46th nationally in per-pupil K-12 funding and tuitions at its three four-year universities have about doubled in the last eight years as tax-based support declines. Getting blood from such stones is no mean feat.

              Finally, the once-popular notion that new stadiums are a boon to a locality’s economy has been debunked by just about every study of the subject that’s been published in the past several decades. Any kind of major building project brings a brief employment spike, but the big majority of long-term jobs that teams and stadiums create (ticket sellers, ushers, vendors) are part time and low paying, and almost all the money that passes through their box offices is locally generated and comes at the expense of such other entertainment enterprises as theaters, bars and restaurants. Indeed, the economic importance of sports generally usually is overblown; an analysis by Michael Leeds, a sports economist at Temple University, recently concluded that if Chicago were suddenly to lose all four of its big-league franchises the hit to the city’s economy would amount only to about 1%.

              With such givens it’s hard to rate which of the Phoenix teams exhibit the most chutzpah. That’s also because, while they’ve made clear that they want to leave their 24-year home in downtown Phoenix, the Suns have yet to make their demands clear. Maybe that’s because they had the fourth-worst record in the just-concluded National Basketball League season and want to wait until the odor clears. But maybe not.

              The Coyotes, in the area since 1996, initially shared the Suns’ playpen before quarreling over sight lines and revenue splits and began agitating for one of their own. They want out of the arena in the western suburb of Glendale that they’ve occupied only since 2003. They might qualify in the chutzpah race because theirs was the sweetest deal initially, with taxpayer-backed bonds paying the place’s entire, $180 million cost. They landed there after the arena’s developer, real-estate skate Steve Ellman, teased a subsidy from east-side Scottsdale only to jilt it for the better offer and steal off in the night leaving a derelict shopping center in his wake.

 Alas, but perhaps deservedly, the team has languished in the low-rent west, where it has gone through bankruptcy, National Hockey League receivership and numerous lease squabbles with its host city.  Now it declares that after next season it will stiff Glendale with a 17,000-seat white elephant and a $144 million debt and move to a more-foolish municipality, not yet named. Good luck to all concerned with that.

Until a few weeks ago the Diamondbacks had been laying low in their state-of-the-art, publicly financed ballpark now called Chase Field, where their 30-year lease is supposed to run until 2028. The place cost $364 million to build, of which $253 million has come from a quarter-cent, county-wide sales-tax boost that wasn’t enacted without bloodshed (a county supervisor who supported it was shot in the butt by a deranged citizen after attending a meeting on the subject). Then the team suddenly presented the county with a $187 million bill for improvements it says the stadium needs over the next few years. It’ll sue if the money isn’t forthcoming, it avers.

The Diamondbacks have taken heat for killing its season-opening buzz with its heist demand. It’s also been noted that the team is flush, having just inked a $1.5 billion local TV contract and committed a reported $206.5 million to a six-year contract with a single player, and a pitcher at that (Zack Greinke).

The cherry on the sundae is that the team’s principal owner, data-tech billionaire Ken Kendrick, is a generous donor to right-wing politicians and causes that say they want to get government off people’s backs.

And replace it with sports teams, apparently.
  


             
    
             
             
             

              

Friday, April 1, 2016

SPOILED SPORTS

              Back in my working days I was among a small group of reporters interviewing Ken Griffey Jr. in the Seattle Mariners’ locker room after a home game. As we spoke Griffey’s small son, maybe five or six years old, did what kids his age do, which was jump around, interrupt and pull on daddy’s leg.

 Griffey good naturedly tried to shoo him away. “Go play a machine,” he told the boy. “I gave you $50 this morning. You can’t have spent it all.”

The remark stuck with me long after the subject of the interview had faded. The notion that a parent would give a little kid $50 for a day’s spending money boggled my mind, and still does. Even 15 or so years go rich athletes like Griffey lived in a different world from most of the rest of us, one in which normal calculations of money and privilege don’t apply.

That thought returned forcefully a couple of weeks ago when the Adam LaRoche story hit the baseball spring-training news. It seems that LaRoche’s 14-year-old son, Drake, had been a Chicago White Sox clubhouse fixture since the veteran first baseman and designated hitter joined the team last season, wearing his own uniform, having his own locker, sitting in the dugout during games, joining in team drills and even accompanying it on road trips. When a White Sox executive told the player that professional considerations dictated that the boy should be an occasional rather than a constant presence with the club, LaRoche abruptly announced that he was quitting the team and the game. Family came first, he declared.

The episode led me to wonder how a 14-year-old could hang out all day with dad from March to October instead of being in school. It raised other questions as well, such as in what other business could a mid-level employee expect to take his child to work daily, get him a desk, have him take trips and sit in on meetings.  I can’t think of one.

Much was made of the fact that LaRoche forfeited the $13 million left on his two-year contract to make his statement, but less of the almost $72 million he’d already collected in a 12-season big-league career during which he never much rose above the rank of journeyman. aH Even after taxes that’s enough money to secure his family’s future for several generations if no member of it worked another day. A ballplayer who is a household name only in his own household is a card-carrying member of the top one-tenth of 1% of the nation financially and more than rich enough, at age 36, to tell his bosses to take their job and shove it.

Also instructive, I think, were the reactions of LaRoche’s fellow athletes both outside and inside the White Sox clubhouse, or at least of those who spoke for attribution. Several Sox players were vociferous in support of his action and rumors that the team would boycott a spring-training game in his honor made the papers (but they didn’t). Bryce Harper and Chipper Jones tweeted their approval. Derrick Rose of the basketball Chicago Bulls called the team’s stance “devastating.” By their lights, apparently, no athlete of any stature should ever hear the word “no.”

The same sense of entitlement pervades other facets of life in the jockocracy. Most adults understand the relationship of risk to reward when making investment decisions, but some (many?) rich athletes believe that reasonable returns on their money amount to “chump change” and are beneath them. They thus are easy marks for hustlers with the pie-in-the-sky promises. Just last week an “investment adviser” to whom ex-basketball star Scottie Pippen entrusted $20 million was sentenced to three years in prison for fraud. That was only the most recent in a long string of such developments.

Similarly, while the dollar amounts of the contracts top athletes sign now are routinely reported publicly, the non-monetary perks some get don’t receive as much attention. These can include  private hotel rooms when their teams travel, season tickets or a stadium suite for family and friends, team contributions to favorite charities and the use of the team’s or owner’s private airplanes.

Perks are especially important to the big-time college football and basketball coaches whose riches belie their sports’ amateur pretentions. Their seven-figure annual salaries often are supplemented by cash bonuses based on wins or home attendance, country club memberships, free use of autos, sneaker deals and fat fees to sit still for an hour or so of softball questions on their weekly TV or radio shows. I read that when Mack Brown reupped as the football coach at the University of Texas a few years ago he got a $750 gun-shop gift certificate in addition to the aforementioned swag.

About the only edifying part of the LaRoche affair was the light it shone on how baseball clubhouses are run these days. When players or teams want to limit news-media access their digs, as they do from time to time, they’re fond of saying that their inner sanctums are sacrosanct places where only serious business is conducted. In fact, they’re more like sports bars to which pre- or post-game credentials routinely are issued to players’ kids, male pals, agents and other business associates, “personal assistants” (i.e., gofers) and anyone else to whom favors are owed.

 When Pete Rose managed the Cincinnati Reds his weight-room buddies, who doubled as his bet runners, had free run of the place.  Try getting away with that at work sometime.