Tuesday, July 15, 2014

DOWN AT THE HEELS

               July usually is a quiet time for college sports, a period in which coaches hide out in dark rooms indulging their game-films obsessions and players take summer classes to make up the credits they can’t get during the fall or spring semesters, when their sports are in season. Boosters are left to their own devices for entertainment, mostly watching TV reruns or speculating about the campaigns ahead.
           
            This year, though, has been lively. The NCAA is defending itself in court over its use of player images in video games and, for a change, is losing. The major conferences are rumbling about making their own rules and threatening to split with the cartel if they don’t get their way.  Rarely a day goes by that a college athlete doesn’t embarrass his school by running afoul of the law, a subject I wrote about a couple of blogs ago. That’s one price the institutions pay for the business they’re in.
            
            The busiest campus is that of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and it wishes it wasn’t. A scandal has been unfolding there that goes back more than 15 years and is appalling even for the cesspool that is college sports. It seems that an entire academic department of the university-- African and Afro-American Studies, or AFAM-- existed mainly to keep jocks eligible for their sports by handing them A’s or B’s for courses that required no class attendance or much other effort. There’s evidence that tutors wrote papers for athletes and, if that failed, grades were changed, sometimes by forging instructors’ signatures. The irregularities date from at least 1997. Since a college generation spans four years, that means it affected about four generations of Tar Heel athletes. That included the school’s 2005 and 2009 national-champion men’s basketball teams.

Some of those allegations were investigated previously by the NCAA, lumped together with those of the more-common sports grist of “impermissible benefits” (i.e., payoffs) to athletes. In 2011 the organization hit the school with penalties to its football program that cost head coach Butch Davis his job, but it determined that the infractions were limited to football and looked no further.  Things might have ended there if two state newspapers—the Raleigh News & Observer and Charlotte Observer—hadn’t kept digging, something that no doubt riled more than a few of their readers and advertisers.

 The papers’ stories uncovered a far-wider mess and resulted in the indictment for fraud of Julius Nyang’oro, the AFAM department chairman from 1992 to 2012, for pocketing $12,000 (on top of his regular yearly salary of $200,000) for teaching a summer course that never met. They also brought forward Mary Willingham, an assistant director of the university’s tutoring arm, who said that pre-written term papers were routinely handed to jocks in several academic disciplines and that for years the university had been keeping eligible athletes who read at grade-school levels.

 Most tellingly, the scandal acquired a face when Rashad McCants, a star of the 2005 hoops-title team, went public in June with allegations that his education at Chapel Hill was a sham, consisting largely of unearned grades achieved in the no-show classes to which he was directed by his coaches and academic advisers. UNC and other schools guard athletes’ grades transcripts like state secrets, but McCants produced a copy of his showing that he’d received  10 A’s, six B’s, one C and one D in his AFAM classes, and six C’s, one D and three F’s in courses outside the department.

“When you go to college you don’t go to class, you don’t do nothing, you just show up and play,” he said on ESPN’s Outside the Lines program. “You’re not there to get an education, though they tell you that. You’re there to make revenue for the college…to put fans in the seats.”

Now the NCAA has reopened its investigation and the university is conducting an inquiry of its own, headed by an ex-U.S. Justice Department official. NCAA and institutional self-investigations often end in whitewashes, but UNC might not have that option. Nyang’oro, who’d refused to talk since his indictment last year, lately has said he’d cooperate with investigators after the criminal charges against him were dropped.  That’s a curious arrangement, indicating that the university’s reach extends into local law enforcement, but he’d likely have many beans to spill should he choose to.

Almost as bad as the charges against UNC has been its reaction to them. Its line has been to blame all irregularities on Nyang’oro and his secretary, and to chide the Carolina newspapers for their reports on the situation. Whistleblower Willingham was stripped of her administrative duties and assigned to shuffle papers in a basement office. She resigned and is suing the school.

Roy Williams, UNC’s much-decorated basketball head coach, channeled Inspector Renault of the movie “Casablanca” by saying at a press conference that he’d reacted to ex-player McCants’ charges with “shock and disbelief.”  “I have somewhat control over the basketball program. I don’t have control of the academic side,” he said in a classic non-denial denial. This is a man who is paid a reported $2.6 million a year to run a 15-player program, and probably knows what his players eat for breakfast every morning. It later came out that six of the 15 young men on Williams’ ’05 squad were AFAM majors, as were many other Tar Heel jocks before and after.

 The affair is especially telling because UNC is one of those chesty schools that likes to brag that it “does things right,” combining classroom and playing-field excellence without breaking the rules of either. The U of Michigan said that before it was learned that Ed Martin, a Detroit numbers racketeer, was the godfather of its Fab Five-era basketball teams.  Notre Dame, too, before it deep-sixed a rape complaint against a footballer by a woman student who committed suicide after the incident, and sent a 20-year-old student manager to his death videotaping football practice from a tower during a windstorm.

As a Southern institution, UNC might have been more sensitive than most to its obligations to the black athletes it has been recruiting only with relative recency. Yes, the players involved were complicit in their own exploitation, but their youth was an excuse their adult advisers lacked.

This is a matter that goes beyond sports, casting doubt on the integrity of a university as a whole. The NCAA shouldn’t be investigating it, the national accrediting bodies should.



               

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

THE CUP RUNNETH OVER

                When people ask me to name the best event I ever covered as a sportswriter, I answer without hesitation. It was the 1998 soccer World Cup in France. No 2?  Also easy-- the 1994 World Cup in the United States.
               
              The 1998 fest gets the nod in large part because it enabled me (and wife Susie) to spend five weeks in France on the Wall Street Journal’s dime, but both World Cups stood out from a sporting standpoint. The high athletic level of the games and the color, enthusiasm and good nature of the crowds made both occasions memorable.  To attend a World Cup is to love it.

                Thanks to ESPN’s brilliant, wall-to-wall coverage,   Americans have been getting a virtual World Cup experience this time around that’s almost as good as the real thing, and the results have been startling. We are more into the event than when we were the hosts, with sports bars packed to capacity  when the U.S. team plays and large crowds gathering in open-air urban venues to watch the action communally on big screens, just like in Europe and Latin America. Almost 25 million people watched the U.S.-Portugal match on TV, more than watched any game of the NBA or NHL finals. Little kids say they want to be soccer players when they grow up.

 With this exposure has come a marked increase in soccer literacy. A few years ago about all the typical Yank could tell you about the game was that the English star David Beckham was a cute guy with a cuter wife. Today many of us know what a “striker” is, and the terms “offside,” “cross,” “penalty kick” and “stoppage time” also have become familiar. I heard one radio sports-blab guy give a match score as “one- nil” without a hint of sarcasm. That’s progress.

True to form, however, our burst of soccermania has led some to conclude that the sport is about to rival our traditional Big Three of baseball, football and basketball for our year-around attentions. Not so fast, folks. Soccer is an acquired taste that’s acquired gradually, and will need more than a once-every-four-years goose to truly catch on hereabouts.  Americans who follow the sport (I am one of them) will need to exercise the quite-unAmerican trait of patience before we see it achieve capital-letter popularity.

The patience theme is apparent in the World Cup history of our men’s national team. The U.S. participated in three of the event’s first four renewals (in 1930, ’34 and ’50), before it was a big deal, but the game then receded into irrelevance on these shores and World Cup qualification wasn’t again achieved  until  1990. That team proved how far the U.S. had to go to compete against nations with greater soccer history and dedication; consisting mostly of collegians, it was sent home after three thrashings, outscored two goals to eight.

Things improved thereafter, with qualification coming in 1994 and ’98 and 2002, ’06 and ’10. Instead of with college kids those teams filled their ranks with pros, some of them with European experience. But they weren’t the best players on the best teams there, and although the 2002 edition surprised with a quarterfinals berth it never threatened seriously to bring home the funny-looking champion’s trophy. 

While it lacks the star it never has had, this year’s U.S. team is the deepest and hardest working yet, and probably the best coached. A long shot to advance in a group with Germany, ranked No. 2 worldwide, No. 4 Portugal and good-though-unranked Ghana (the U.S. came in at No. 13), the Yanks beat Ghana and came within a heart-stopping 30 seconds of victory over Portugal and immediate advancement.  They lost to Germany last Thursday, and while the score was 1-0 German domination of the game signaled that the road to the top still was long. Nonetheless, the U.S. made it to the round of 16, no small accomplishment and enough to fuel future optimism.

The long-view requirement is even stronger when it comes to building the sort of domestic professional league necessary for any lasting popularity gains. One pro circuit—the North American Soccer League—was launched in 1968 and made a splash in the 1970s with the high-priced signings of the superannuated international stars Pele and Franz Beckenbauer. It was gone by 1984, the victim of too-large payrolls and too-small attendance.

 The next try was Major League Soccer, started in 1996 with more-modest aims and budgets. MLS struggled until most of its teams abandoned large football stadiums as homes and built or found venues with capacities in the 20,000-to-25,000-seat range that created a snugger, more-intense fan experience for the size of crowds it was attracting.  It also has profited by organizing its hard-core backers into the kind of supporter groups that help European club teams thrive. Team names like Houston Dynamo and Real Salt Lake, however comical, are a further try to recreate a European club atmosphere.

 MLS has grown to 19 teams from 10 at its inception, and is said to be making money. Still, it’s a second-tier league with an out-of-synch summer schedule whose quality of play is well below that of the European “majors” in England, Spain, Germany and Italy, and is likely to remain so in the foreseeable future. American players who want to test themselves against the best will have to cross the ocean to do so, as they do now.

There’s no denying, though, that soccer culture is spreading in the U.S., and making a mark. FOX TV and the new NBC Sports channels have been broadcasting a regular stream of top-level European club games into this country, with good ratings.  We’re a big, rich market and it would be no surprise if the people who run, say, the English Premier League were mulling expanding into an American city or two, the way our NBA is said to be eyeing Europe.

 Picture it if you will: the New York Whachamacallits versus Man U in an EPL game.

 It’ll happen. Just be patient.


                

Sunday, June 15, 2014

BOOK 'IM, DANO

                When I joined the staff of The Daily Illini as a University of Illinois freshman in 1955, my first assignment was to the office of the Champaign police magistrate, Virgil Burgess. A police magistrate was a kind of justice of the peace, hearing traffic violations and misdemeanor crimes, and the posting was traditional for a journalistic newbie.
               
               I didn’t get much news from the beat but did get to know Burgess. He was a nice old man (maybe 15 years younger than I am today) who kept a pot of coffee going and liked to talk. Sometimes on Mondays he’d entertain me with accounts of humorous police busts of the weekend before, including those of U of I football players involved in bar fights. One player in particular, who’d later attain professional fame, was a frequent delinquent.         
               
           It never occurred to Burgess that I’d write up such matters. It never occurred to me or to the reporters for the town papers to do so. The view then was that boys would be boys and that jocks were especially boyish.  Underage drinking was no college-town sin and as long as no one was maimed the cops cleaned up and sent home the Saturday night brawlers. It was better for all concerned that way, everyone agreed.
               
            I think about that almost every morning when I peruse the sports pages. You can’t pick up the paper these days without reading about an athlete (or two or three) getting into trouble with the law. Assaults (mostly bar fights) are frequent raps, as are mixing booze and driving and (most distressingly) incidents of domestic violence.

 One football player, former New England Patriots’ tight end Aaron Hernandez, is charged with murdering three people. Another, ex-Pro Bowl safety Darren Sharper, stands accused of being a serial rapist. It seems that there’s a crime wave in progress, with many of the perps being guys we cheered when their teams took the field.
            
             I think the question “What’s going on here?” can be answered in part by the little story that began this piece. Time was when a sort of gentlemen’s agreement shielded well-known athletes from public gaze for bloodless improprieties, just as politicians were given a pass for sexual, uh,  peccadillos. The turning point for the latter issue came in 1987, when Sen. Gary Hart, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, was nailed in the press for flaunting his extramarital affair with model Donna Rice. Ten years later Bill Clinton was impeached for doing something John Kennedy reportedly did just about every day during his presidency. So the planet turns.

 Today we live in a tabloid world where every transgression by anyone with the slightest celebrity is broadcast immediately to an eager public. Almost everyone has become a cell-phone-camera paparazzo and few remarks, no matter how off-hand, go unrecorded.  It’s a wonder we have time to process it all.

That said, though, something clearly is up and needs to be accounted for. One piece of the answer that was absent back in the day but present now is steroids, which make the user antsy, irritable and far more likely than otherwise to fly off the handle. Sports organizations would have you believe that their testing programs have tamed the stuff, but don’t buy it. Scientifically speaking the users always are ahead of the testers, and as long as the stakes remain high they’ll continue trying their luck whatever the possible consequences.

Another factor is the air of permissiveness that surrounds good athletes in an increasingly sports-crazy society. Our most-promising young jocks float through childhood on a cloud of “yes,” their talents shielding them from rebuke by parents, teachers or their contemporaries. A pioneer in that regard was Pete Rose, who as a youngster was rewarded with cash from his parents for his diamond feats and given a pass on schoolwork if he performed well afield. Rose was ineligible for sports his senior year in high school because of classroom failings, but that was okay with his folks because he could play on a semi-pro baseball team instead. Little wonder, then, that in later life he felt free to disregard his sport’s bedrock strictures against gambling, or the tax laws.

 Much the same sort of thing surfaced again earlier this year when it was revealed that seven of the 12 players on the basketball team of Curie High School in Chicago played an entire season, through the city-championship game, while academically ineligible. Apparently, teachers and administrators didn’t want to spoil the kids’ fun with unpleasant news.

The most discouraging aspect of the rising criminal-jock tide is the number of collegians involved; few major schools haven’t been affected, most more than once.  And while the increased willingness of the college-town press to report such matters plays a role (things like Jameis Winston’s crab-legs caper would have been buried a decade ago) I think it also stems from the growing gap between real students and so-called student-athletes at schools in the sports business.

Athletes long have enjoyed privileged status on campus, but as athletics budgets have soared, and with them the stakes for winning, colleges are taking greater chances on the kids they recruit while not providing these often-marginal students with the time and help they need to succeed in the classroom. In embracing the one-and-done model in basketball, and countenancing not-much-longer campus tenures for top pro-football prospects, colleges are conceding that they are mere stopping-off places for young men whose goals have nothing to do with academic proficiency. While many of these guys are in college they’re not of college, meaning they may be less than receptive to education’s civilizing influences.

NCAA “reform” is in the air now, but I hold little hope for it. It’ll probably end with the schools tossing a few more dollars the kids’ way. That’ll satisfy most critics but won’t deal with the system’s real problem, which is the sacrifice of the schools’ educational mission on the altar of playing-field revenues. Until that’s addressed we can expect more academic scandals of the sort that’s playing out at the University of North Carolina, and more jocks’ names on police blotters.     



                 
               
               

               

                

Sunday, June 1, 2014

GOOOOOAL!!

                
BY MIKE KLEIN

In assessing the world’s take on the World Cup, the once-every-four-years football* festival that reconvenes June 12 in Brazil, the words of Bill Shankly, a Scotsman and long-passed manager of the Liverpool football club, are apt. “Football isn’t a matter of life and death,” he said. “It’s more important than that.” (*I use the term “football” instead of “soccer” because to do otherwise would mark me as a lightweight in these matters.)

With that, a few observations:

THE #USMNT

As an expat American living on KLM flights between Amsterdam and Copenhangen, nothing would warm my heart more than an unexpected strong World Cup performance by the land of my birth. The reason is simple. During the year, when I am involved in football-related banter, I invariably am mocked for my accent and origin and asked about the prospects of the “San Diego Patriots.”  A good run by the U.S. men’s national team,  better known to its Twitter supporters by the hashtag #USMNT, would alleviate my sense of disconnect and humiliation better than citing my adult-onset British passport as my right of entry into such conversations.

Unfortunately for me and “muh fellow Uhmericans,” legitimacy likely will elude us for another four years. That is because, following its first match against Ghana in the city of Natal, the #USMNT faces post-Natal depression with successive matches against superstar-heavy Portugal and powerhouse Germany while racking up the tournament’s highest number of frequent-flyer miles, making unlikely the prospect of its being one of the two teams that will advance from its group of four. A lack of stardust should breed caution among Yank partisans, with “star striker” (forward) Jozy Altidore having commanded mostly bench time at the club team, England’s lowly Sunderland. Nearly half of the American players ply their trade in the domestic Major League Soccer (MLS). It long has been said that “Brazil is the country of the future…and always will be.” The same can be said for the MLS, and the Yanks appear to be outgunned.

ENGER-LIND

Despite 18 years of abject mediocrity, supporters think England’s questionable, one-goal home victory in then1966 World Cup final should earn the game’s birthplace an automatic berth in each Cup championship match, or at least automatic consideration as a top contender.  But this year’s crew, while coached by the competent Roy Hodgson, lacks spark other than the perennially fearsome Wayne Rooney. Italy and Uruguay will contend with Enger-Lind (as Blighty is called by its throng of lager-fueled enthusiasts) for the two next-round places in Group D. Costa Rica seems the most-likely win for Hodgson’s crew.

A SWARM OF B’s

As I see it, the tournament’s three most interesting teams are Brazil, Belgium and Bosnia.

Brazil always is interesting because it reloads rather than rebuilds, having access to an infinite talent pipeline, and even the mockery that’s likely to fail on the nation for staging the event in mostly half-built stadiums shouldn’t deter enthusiasm once the samba gang takes the pitch. Veteran coach Luiz Felipe Scolari is back on the sidelines, guiding the usual plethora of fast, inventive players. The country’s second team could beat most countries’ varsities.

Belgium is an outside contender, enthusiasm in “de Hart van 
Europa/la Coeur de l’Europe” being tempered by uninspiring results following the brilliant qualifying campaign that earned the Diables Rouges/Rode Duivels their first Cup berth since 2002.  Belgium is long on stars, with defender Vincent Kompany the brightest.

Striker Edin Dzeko, Kompany’s teammate on the club-team Manchester City, the English Premier League champion, anchors Bosnia, the only country making its World Cup debut. While the lineup is think after Dzeko, the team has considerable public sympathy following its recent floods and a war, which while more than 20 years past is still in the front of many minds. I hope Bosnia’s tournament run will create a positive vibe for a misunderstood country that is one of Europe’s most attractive and interesting destinations.

NO TO THE NORDICS

A notable absence from this yrear’s Cup field will be the Nordic countries, fixtures in past events. Thanks to their teams’ failure to qualify talents like Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Denmark’s Christian Eriksen will be watching on their flat screens, with their horn-helmeted countrymen left to weep in their overpriced Carlsberg beers. Their color will be missed.

ORANJE!

My longtime favorite international team is Holland, mainly because I found the players’ accents spellbinding when I started paying attention to the Cup in the 1980s, well before #USMNT started participating regularly. Expectations of this year’s squad are low, but top-shelf coach Louis van Gaal has a record of wringing the most from his available talent. Oranje’s first test will be a rematch of last year’s Cup-final defeat by Spain. That likely will set Holland’s tone for the rest of its campaign, although its remaining matches against weak Australia and Chile should mean a decent shot at the next round.

 With 32 teams, long travel distances, unpredictable weather and iffy facilities and accommodations, anything can happen.  For me, the two biggest questions are who will lose to Brazil in the final and whether the tournament will pass without major incident.

THE BELMONT (me again)—Don’t get carried away by California Chrome’s bid for the Triple Crown, which is scheduled to conclude Saturday (June 7) with the Belmont Stakes in New York.  Since Affirmed last accomplished the triple in 1978, 12 colts have won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness only to fail in the finale. Besides the race’s length of 1 ½ miles—a distance longer than 99% of American race horses ever run—CC will be facing fresher foes on a track over which he’s never raced. At likely odds around even money he’ll be a tough bet despite his ability.

As far as I’m concerned, the sooner racing dumps the Triple Crown format the better. Horse today are a fragile lot, neither bred nor trained to contest three long, hard races in a five-week period, and even trying them puts an animal’s career in jeopardy. I’ll be happy if CC completes the run unscathed. 


Thursday, May 15, 2014

YER OUT!!!

                You’d hardly know it to look at me now but I was a little guy growing up, and acutely aware of the athletic limitations that attached to my stature. Thus, one of my early sports heroes was Nellie Fox, a little guy who made good (very good) on the Major League Baseball stage.
            
             Little Nell played second base for the Chicago White Sox for most of a long career. He was known mostly for two things:  an ever-present cheek-full of chewing tobacco so large that it made him look unbalanced, and an almost-unerring ability to hit the baseball. In his 19 years in the Bigs (1947-65) he struck out just 216 times, and never more than 18 in any season. His strike-out rate of once in 42.7 plate appearances ranks third on the all-time list, behind two players (Joe Sewell and Lloyd Waner) who performed during much-earlier eras.

                Fox’s ability to make contact was partly inborn, of course, but also partly learned. Knowing that someone his size wasn’t likely to hit many home runs (he’s listed officially at 5-foot-10 and 160 pounds but his height really was closer to 5-foot-8), he used what was called a “bottle bat,” one almost as thick in the handle as in the barrel, and choked up on it a good two inches. The bat’s weight (34 or 35 ounces) and shape enabled him to get “good wood’ on a ball even when he didn’t strike it cleanly, and the choke increased his bat control.  The upshots were 2,663 career hits, 12 All-Star Game selections, the 1959 American League Most Valuable Player award and his election to the game’s Hall of Fame.

                 As you might suspect, I bring up Fox’s name for more than nostalgic reasons. As Simon and Garfunkel yearned in song for Joe DiMaggio’s grace of style and movement, I yearn for Nellie’s ball-hitting ability at a time when the strikeout—the whiff, the Big K—has become baseball’s signature play.  Major Leaguers today are fanning with abandon, grabbing some bench at a rate unprecedented in their sport’s annals. In 2013 the 30 MLB teams each averaged about 7.6 strikeouts a game, capping a rise that began in the 1920s, and this season promises to continue the trend.

Relatedly, overall batting averages have declined for seven straight seasons (to .253 last year from .269 in 2006) and scoring also has waned.  We are in the midst of a Decade of the Pitcher unmatched since the 1960s, when a dearth of runs forced the last major change in the game’s essential math, the 1969 lowering of the pitchers’ mound to 10 inches above field level from 15. The way it’s going, having pitchers throw from below ground level might not be enough to reverse things.

Now as then the hitters’ woes stem mostly from advances in pitching, not so much in the brilliance of the individual performers (the likes of Koufax and Gibson are nowhere to be seen) but in their method of utilization.  Whereas in former days complete games by pitchers were common, managers now employ their arms sequentially, meaning that hitters must begin adjusting to different deliveries each time at bat from the sixth or seventh inning on. That just about every team today has a bullpen full of relievers who stand 6-foot-4 or taller and can throw a peach through an oak tree makes the batsman’s job tougher yet.  Add in the development of the slider, which looks like a fastball coming in but dives at the last moment, and you wonder how anyone manages to hit the ball.

But changes could—and should—be made do to redress the offense-defense balance that keeps people interested in what’s up on the field. Both are things that just about every fan notices but still go largely unremarked because of their ubiquity. One is the de facto expansion of the strike zone, which makes just about every at-bat a guessing game for hitters.

The rule book says the strike zone is 17 inches wide (the width of home plate) and in height from the midpoint between the shoulders and the belt to the bottom of the knees. A few years ago some umpires talked openly about “their” strike zones, as though its boundaries were arbitrary. You don’t hear that any more but you certainly see it. Some umps call the “high” strike and some don’t, most add a couple of inches to the plate’s outside edge whichever way a batter stands, and the zone’s usual height is from the belt to mid-shin.

The zone is supposed to vary with the height and stance of the hitter, but actually it seems fixed. I get a kick out of the way umps call strikes on the same low pitches whether the batter stands 5-foot-10 or 6-6. The low-ball-strike bias is especially helpful to slider pitchers, whose deliveries dip. Enforcing the rules on the books would give hitters a better shake.       

 The other change would be tougher to implement because it would affect the way batters go about their business. The notion that “chicks dig the long ball,” impressed during the steroids-and-homers-happy 1990s, remains alive and well in baseball despite the dip in the power supply. Just about every batter, it seems—little guys as well as big—swings for the fences no matter what the score or situation. And if the result often is a “K”—the most-wasteful of outs—well, that’s the price of glory.

It’s axiomatic in baseball that power hitters strike out a lot, but it’s not true. History’s three most prolific home-run producers—Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth—recorded as many as 100 strikeouts just once in their combined 62 seasons as big-league regulars, the  exception coming in Bonds’ 1986 rookie year. By contrast, “banjo” hitters commonly rack up 100 whiffs these days, and boomers like Adam Dunn and Chris Davis top or push the 200K mark. One free-swinging palooka, Mark Reynolds, struck out 834 times in a recent four-year span (2008-11), and the miracle is that he still is being paid to play the game.

 Most hitters today use light (31- or 32-ounce), whippy bats that are big in the barrel and narrow at the handle, grip them down all the way and put everything into every swing. The fact that the approach usually makes no sense tactically doesn’t seem to penetrate their brains, or those of their coaches’.

 C’mon guys, be more like Nellie. Get a bat with some heft, choke up a bit (as Bonds did in the later stages of his career), and strive for contact. The result will be more runs, not fewer. 





Thursday, May 1, 2014

BLACK, WHITE AND GRAY

                Race is the third rail of American politics, and of other areas of national discourse as well.  As  Donald Sterling and Cliven Bundy have learned of late, to be overheard making an assertion that’s disparaging to any racial or ethnic group is to go directly to the jail of public opinion, without passing Go. The best advice to those on even the fringes of any spotlight is to follow mom’s advice and say nothing if you can’t say something good. 
               
               Whenever the subject arises I think about Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder. I did a piece on him some years ago, and even though we were about as different as two humans could be we became friends. I stayed in his home in Las Vegas, and got to know his wife Joan, and son Anthony and daughter Stephanie, youngsters then. Often when Jimmy and I wound up in the same city at the same time he’d call and propose a get-together. We spent one memorable evening on Rush Street in Chicago in the company of Harry Caray and “Fabulous Howard,” a limo driver who specialized in chauffeuring the notable. Jimmy, Harry and “Fab” could hold their own in any conversational company.

                Jimmy was the kind of person I loved to write about, a self-invented guy who not only created a unique persona but never stopped selling it. Born Demetrious Synodinos, he grew up in gritty Steubenville, Ohio, running bets for local bookmakers. Before he was done he’d climbed the heap of the national betting scene and established himself as a major sports-TV personality. They say that in Las Vegas the action speaks louder than words, but it doesn’t.  Jimmy bet surprisingly little but talked a whole lot, and while he regarded most of the rest of the world as audience it was a willing one.

                As you may recall, Jimmy got in trouble by opining in a 1988 chat with a reporter that blacks were superior athletes in part because in slavery they were bred to produce stronger offspring. It was the kind of careless remark that rattles around barrooms daily-- more a misdemeanor than a crime-- but Jimmy was Jimmy and it went viral, costing him his high-profile job with CBS’s NFL pre-game shows. Protests from friends that he was no racist (he wasn’t) availed little. He died a few years later from the diabetes he sometimes paid attention to, and sometimes didn’t.

                  This rather lengthy preface is to introduce my thoughts on a piece that ran in USA Today a couple of weeks ago, near the start of the new baseball season. The headline read “MLB—DIVERSITY TAKES A BIG HIT.” It was about the fact that the proportion of African-American Major League players on opening-day rosters amounted to 7.8% of the total, unchanged from a year ago but less than half that of its 1981 peak (18.7%) and the average of about 17% it maintained  during most of the 1980s and ‘90s. It portrayed baseball commish Selig as being “sickened” by the numbers and vowing to reverse them. The downtrend, the piece concluded, was a big deal all around, well worthy of concern.

                Like most, of course, I’d noticed fewer blacks in baseball lineups in recent seasons, but found dubious the notion that it came at the expense of racial or ethnic diversity in the game. While the number of American blacks has declined the numbers of every other national or racial group have increased to the point where 223 players (26%), from 16 different countries, wore opening-day uniforms this year.  It’s a regular United Nations out there.

 Every season since 2000 between 25% and 28% of Major Leaguers have been classified as “Latino” or “Hispanic,” and because people of that designation run the full skin-color gamut, figuring out who’s who racially (should one wish to) would be a guessing game.  No one alleges that the drop in African-American participation has resulted from the policies or attitudes of those who run the sport. By any reasonable definition baseball never has been more diverse than it is today.

The USA Today article said that “myriad complicated” reasons underlie the trend, but, by me, they are neither. It’s just that young black men today prefer to concentrate on other sports, namely basketball and football. For the last dozen or so years the proportion of African-American players in the NBA has hovered around 75% annually, and it’s been around 66% in the NFL for almost as long.  Black domination of those sports has been so well established it’s rarely noted any more, and notions of increasing their diversity are mentioned only wryly.  Like baseball, big-time basketball and football are meritocracies, so one must assume that the people who qualify to play them deserve to.    

                Basketball’s special appeal to the big-city athlete has been well documented. While to be played properly baseball takes a lot of land, expensive equipment and the sort of strong organizing hand supplied by Little League in small towns and urban suburbs, basketball requires only a ball and a hoop and backboard, although a net makes it more fun. A kid can have a good time shooting and dribbling by himself, and instant pickup games can be had among any even number of players up to 10. A street light   can permit play to continue after dark.

                Basketball’s frenetic “beat” is a better fit for the 21st century than that of bucolic baseball; basketball is hip-hop, baseball is the two-step.  The sport’s allure has sucked talent from many athletic pursuits; it’s common currency that many a potential world-class soccer or tennis player is knocking himself out trying to be a backup point guard in the NBA.

                Further, basketball has come to play a unique role in African-American life, serving as a kind of touchstone of male status. When I was out and about as a writer I often was struck by the number of black men I’d meet—outside of sports as well as in-- who’d pridefully bring up, unbidden, their youthful involvement with “the game.” I think you can include our President in that number.

                Baseball has taken steps to recruit more young black players, setting up the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program across the country to introduce them to the sport. That’s good. I hope it produces fun for many and more major leaguers. But if it doesn’t it’s no big deal. Political correctness aside, the world changes and so do the people in it.
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                DERBY PICKS--Favorites don’t often win the Kentucky Derby because the race always contains a lot of good horses in the early stage of their development and its 1 ¼-mile distance and big (20-horse) field create a dynamic of their own, but it’s tough to ignore the likely favorite CALIFORNIA CHROME in Saturday’s renewal. He’s won all four of his starts this year (including the Santa Anita Derby) by a total of 24 lengths and has the field’s two highest Beyer speed ratings, a 107 and 108.  He likes to run near the lead, which means he’ll probably encounter fewer “trip” problems than those trailing him. It’d be difficult not to bet on him.

                Trouble is, he’s the morning-line betting choice at 5-to-2, so to make money you’ll have to combine him with longer-priced horses and hope one of them finishes second or—better!—edges him for first to make good a combo bet.  One horse I wanted to pair him with in my four-horse exacta box is WICKED STRONG, the impressive winner of the Wood Memorial whose late-running style might put him in position to challenge the favorite in the long Churchill Downs homestretch, but he drew post-position 20 on the far outside, which means he’ll have extra ground to cover in an already-long race, and I don’t want to buck that.

                Replacing Wicked Strong as my late-running pick is DANZA (10-to-1), the Arkansas Derby winner. My friend Dave Toscano, once called America’s best handicapper, likes him, and who am I to argue? Dave and I also agree on SAMRAAT at 15-to-1, a tough New York campaigner with five wins in six starts. I like a horse up front so I’ll round out my box with early running WILDCAT RED, 15-to-­1. He has four firsts and three seconds to show for his seven starts, and when he loses it’s not by much. Maybe he can’t go the distance, but he’ll try.

  By post position my ticket will read 4 (Danza), 5 (California Chrome), 6 (Samraat) and 10 (Wildcat Red).  Good luck to all.
               
                  
                  

               

                

Monday, April 14, 2014

THAT'S INCREDIBLE!

                Television in all its facets is primarily an advertising medium, and the people in front of the cameras are so imbued with that ethos that they can’t stop selling even when they’ve got you hooked. Turn on any TV news show—national as well as local—and the talking heads thereon continually use words like “incredible,” “unbelievable” and “astonishing” to characterize the often-quite-predictable developments they describe. It stands to reason that veteran newsfolk like Brian Williams and Norah O’Donnell have been around the block a few times, but to hear their reports it seems that they view the world with the wide-eyed awe of eight-year olds.
               
               Curiously, however, the world of sports—also glimpsed mostly through television’s Big Eye—seems relatively immune to theatrical exaggeration, and that seems to me remarkable because much of its action truly is out of the ordinary. I mean not only the highlight-reels feats but also the minute-by-minute grist of most of the games we watch these days.

                I can’t get through an NCAA men’s basketball tournament without marveling—and I don’t use the term loosely—at the skills of the players.  Some of the things they do at high speed—the dunks, the blocks, the no-look passes—almost defy description, yet as Dizzy Dean used to say, “You seen it on your screen.” The fact that they’re kids—18- to 22-year olds—makes their deeds all the more impressive.

                The professionals of the National Basketball Association are even more remarkable,  but their virtuosity in our most-athletic of sports is muted by its commonality; they’re all so good that they almost cancel one another out. People tell me they hardly watch the NBA—that it’s a kind of track meet for giraffes—and sometimes I feel that way, too. But every time I screw myself down and watch an extended stretch of action I go away dazzled by what I’ve seen. Has any man six-feet-eight-inches tall done even a fraction of the things LeBron James can do? I think not, and he’s not a heckuva lot better than some of the other guys out there.

                Part of our lack of wonder at the skill level of basketball and other sports has to do with television, I think. The home screen reduces human activity to its own scale, making LeBron about eight inches tall instead of 6-8, even on a big set. You can’t really appreciate how good the top hoopsters are until you view them in person from courtside, something I’ve been privileged to do many times. Their height alone is startling—the sight of a man 6-foot-6 or above is enough to stop traffic in a mall and the NBA presents a courtful of them nightly. I still recall the first seven-footer I stood next to, a center for the U. of Colorado basketball team, in a post-game locker room of a U. of Illinois game I covered long ago. The fact that he was wearing a cowboy hat made him especially memorable.

                Field-level viewing is different in kind as well as degree from the views at home or from the stands in other sports as well. You can’t appreciate the level of violence in the National Football League unless you see it close-up; from there the hits that accompany every play are enough to make you wince. The much-tamer activities of golf and tennis present similar perspectives: the games the top pros play look, sound and feel different from the ones the rest of us do. Watching Tigers Woods drive a golf ball from a few feet away is to sense the existence of a dimension that’s foreign to 99.9999% of the population.

                By me, arguments over whether yesterday’s athletes were as good as today’s are sheer nonsense. “Bigger, faster, stronger” may be a cliché, but it’s true. Good high-school teams today could beat good college teams of 30 years ago in all our major men’s team sports. Among the women the comparison hardly exists because women’s teams hardly existed back then.

                Better nutrition plays a role in athletic development, as do better training techniques. Weight training used to be shunned in some sports because it was thought to hinder flexibility, but now it’s universal. About the only area in which regimens lag is in the area of agility; every football linemen should be taught to fast-dance, I think.

                The biggest differences with the recent past have been in the onset and intensity of training.  Kids didn’t use to get serious about sports until puberty, but as Tiger Woods’ example shows (for better or worse), they now sometimes begin while in diapers. Multi-sport athletes used to abound but there’s little room for that today, with early specialization the rule.

Kids whose parents can afford it receive individual sports instruction early on, and in a few sports (mainly basketball) it’s available to the talented of any household-income level.  High-school teams used to be the main focus of developmental efforts but now year-around age-group teams function beginning with kids of 10 or 11. The top basketballers entering college have been playing 70 or 80 organized games a year since grade school, attended specialized camps, toured with AAU clubs and, probably, been on ESPN. Indeed, youngsters don’t have to leave their homes to get good instruction—with slow-motion and stop-action, and ex-players or coaches at just about every mike, every televised game is a clinic.

  As I’ve written before, I think the above efforts usually produce more harm than good. Only a tiny fraction of young athletes can expect to earn a living from their games and most would be better off devoting more time to academics or developing other skills.  It’s a sports-crazy land, though, and even if we don’t approve we still can enjoy its fruits.  Some of them really are incredible.