Wednesday, March 15, 2017

BAD ON PURPOSE

                A couple of weeks ago, during the first full week of spring training here in Arizona, I drove across town to Glendale to see the Chicago White Sox play the Arizona Diamondbacks. On a perfect sunny day following two days of rain, with a temperature of about 70, the announced attendance was 2,896, but my guess was that the real number was less than 2,000. With enough patience I might have been able to count the house.

               Yes, it was an early-spring game played mostly by reserves, but the opponent was the home-town team and that same week the Chicago Cubs, luxuriating in their new championship, had a couple of 15,000-plus sellouts for similar contests at their spring base in Mesa. The White Sox never have matched the Cubs in spring attendance since they moved to Glendale from Tucson in 2009, but the gate gap this year has been the biggest yet.

                It’s no news that the Sox are the No. 2 team in a two-team town, but as the spring-training example shows their numbertwoness will be tested this season as never before. Mired in mediocrity or worse pretty much since their startling World Series triumph in 2005, and especially for the last four years, they have begun what appears to be a thorough rebuilding phase that ensures poor on-field results for the next two or three seasons. Given their continuing struggles at their home box office, their continued existence in the Second City may depend on the effort’s success.

                The stripping down process began during the off-season when the Sox traded their best pitcher, Chris Sale, and best outfielder, Adam Eaton, for prospects. Further deals for such valuable assets as first-baseman Jose Abreu, outfielder Melky Cabrera and pitcher Jose Quintana have been predicted. Rick Hahn, the team’s front-office baseball chief, has been frank about the likely consequences of such moves. “Our focus is on building something sustainable,” he has said. “In the short term we might have to pay some price at the big-league level.”

                In getting bad to eventually get good, the White Sox are following two notable recent examples. The first was that of the Washington Nationals under Mike Rizzo, which endured three terrible campaigns (2008-10) to acquire the draft choices that allowed them to add the likes of Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg and make the playoffs three times in the past five seasons. The other was the Cubs under Theo Epstein, who tanked in 2012, ’13 and ’14 in order to put together the pieces that led to their trophy run last year.

                The Nats and Cubs, however, had good reason to believe their fans wouldn’t abandon them while they were being lousy on purpose—the Nats because they still were a novelty in D.C., having just landed there from Montreal in 2005, and the Cubs because their fanatical fan base would come to Wrigley Field to watch the grass grow as long as beer was being sold. The Sox have no such assurances; their home attendance last year was 1,746,293, 26th among the Major League’s 30 clubs (the Cubs drew 3,232,420), and the “what have you done for me lately?” vibe has been strong among their followers for a good while.

                Indeed, the Sox are in the position of having to win to draw, an unenviable status in big-time pro sports. They did relatively well in the four decades immediately following WWII, usually outdoing the Cubs on the field and at the gate, but since about 1985 they’ve been the rear end of Chicago’s baseball horse, a victim of demographics, a bad business decision and stadium location.

                The demographics have to do with the “white flight” that sent many of their South Side fans to the suburbs during the 1970s and ‘80s. The business decision put them on cable television in the mid-‘80s, when most Chicagoans didn’t have cable. That left the  “free” TV market to the WGN-aligned Cubs, and WGN’s “superstation” status allowed the team to make its fan reach national.

                The ballpark issue wasn’t of the team’s own making. In the late ‘80s, when it was clear their old Comiskey Park home had had it, the Sox wanted to follow their fans to west-suburban Addison, but the move was blocked by the state legislature, which said it would proffer essential financial support only if the new stadium was built on land adjacent to Comiskey.  Tampa, Florida, beckoned, but the team decided take the local deal and stay put.  That choice wasn’t a bad one—Florida has proved to be a Sargasso Sea for Major League baseball—but it condemned the team to operate in an expressway wilderness devoid of amenities. That’s in stark contrast to the good-time atmosphere of the neighborhood that surrounds Wrigley Field, whether or not there’s a ballgame.

                In backing up the truck, as the saying goes, the Sox’s closest model is that of the Cubs, but they already have veered from the Cubs’ model by emphasizing pitching in their deals to date; Eaton brought three pitching prospects (Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dave Dunning) and Sale brought right-hander Michael Kopech in addition to the highly rated second-baseman Yoan Moncado. It’s baseball common wisdom that young pitchers are riskier than young position players, and the Cubs concentrated on the latter in their rebuild. 

                Further, the two main pitching prospects the Sox secured in the above transactions both carry some baggage. Giolito, at age 22, already has undergone elbow surgery, and Kopech, 20, has served a 50-game suspension for using a banned drug (an amphetamine) and broke his pitching hand in a fight with a minor-league teammate.  I saw Kopech pitch in a Fall League game last November. He walked six batters and hit one in 3 1/3 innings, but didn’t surrender a run. It’s going to be an interesting ride with that kid.

                No doubt, it’s going to be an interesting ride all around with the Sox. It’ll succeed if Hahn, et al, can pick ‘em as well as Epstein and Co. did. If not, well, Las Vegas should be an option.
               

                   
               
                 
               

               
                 


Wednesday, March 1, 2017

ALAN PAGE

                The NFL Network exists to promote the football league that owns it. Its daily programming off-season consists of shows in which commentators, many of whom are former players, obsess over the draft or personnel or front-office moves teams have or haven’t made and their supposed effects on the season to come.  In season the same guys blather about games that have been played and those that lie ahead, mostly without shedding much light on either. Shakespeare’s line about “sound and fury signifying nothing” fully applies.
                
                Occasionally, though, the channel does something that rates as journalism. One such was a recent episode of its “A Football Life” series that focused on Alan Page, the former Minnesota Viking and Chicago Bear defensive lineman. The fact that the life portrayed was about much more than football was what set it above the network’s usual fare.

                Just about everyone over age 50 knows the gridiron side of Page’s saga. An All-American at Notre Dame, 245 pounds of rompin’, stompin’ dynamite (thanks Alex Karras), he joined the Vikings in 1967 and with Carl Eller, Jim Marshall and Gary Larsen formed one of the game’s most-notable defensive lines, remembered as the “Purple People Eaters” after a novelty song of the era.

 Page led that foursome, quickly gained All-Pro status and, in 1971, became both the NFL’s top defender and its Most Valuable Player Award winner, the first man to combine those titles. His Minnesota teams played in four Super Bowls, and although they lost each time it’s the best the franchise ever has done. Waived during the 1978 season at age 33, he quickly signed on with Chicago, where he put in 3 ½ honorable seasons, never missing a start. In due course he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his native Canton, Ohio, a facility that, interestingly, he helped build during a summer construction job as a teenager.

Page’s life would have been remarkable if it had ended with his football retirement, as for practical purposes do those of most famous athletes. The best these guys aspire to is a long and peaceful interlude of golf and perfunctory employment requiring little besides bathing in the adoration to which they think their status entitles them. Indeed, as evidence mounts of the deleterious health effects of collision sports such as football and hockey, ex-players who emerge with their faculties intact can deem themselves lucky. One of the focuses of future research into repetitive brain trauma should be to identify what allows some men to survive those sports whole while others don’t.

As the NFL Network piece showed, Page was an exceptional sort of athlete from the outset. He enrolled in high school without gridiron dreams and the first extracurricular activity for which he was recruited  there was the band. Because of his size he was handed a tuba, an instrument he continues to play and enjoy.

  The football recruiters followed, and he excelled at the activity. When sudden high school BMOC status came with his displays of prowess, it set him to head scratching. “I wondered why this [football] was so important to people,” he recalls thinking.

Page paid attention in class in high school and at Notre Dame, from which he emerged with a degree in political science and academic as well as football honors. He showed up in Minneapolis as the Vikings’ top draft choice that year and immediately set himself apart from his fellow rookies by refusing to participate in a training-camp beer-chugging contest set up by team vets.

He went on to show his independence in other ways, some of which didn’t please his team or league. Among other things, he bridled at training-camp curfew rules, disdained autograph signing (although he’d chat with fans), enrolled in the U of Minnesota Law School while still a player and missed team events when they interfered with his studies, and became a leader of the NFL players’ union that staged strikes in 1970 and ‘74. Before and after he played he made it clear he didn’t like his “Purple People Eater” tag, explaining that he wasn’t purple and didn’t eat people.

The last straw for the Vikings came in 1977, when on health grounds he took up a regimen of long-distance running that pared his weight to an un-NFL-lineman-like 220 pounds. Midway through the next season the team cut him, a move that led to an estrangement that lasted until just a few years ago. He played at that weight through his 3 ½  seasons with the Bears, in one of which (1980) he was good enough to earn All-Conference honors.

The 1981 end of Page’s football career was the beginning of a what was, maybe, a better one in the law. He returned to Minneapolis to go into private practice, then became an assistant Minnesota attorney general. In 1992 he ran for and won a seat on the state’s supreme court, and was reelected several times before retiring at the mandatory age of 70 in 2015.  No ex-NFLer has climbed higher professionally except for the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Byron “Whizzer” White, who played in an era (1939-42) when pro football was an avocation.

Page did and does other things, including running 10 marathons, writing a couple of children’s books with his school-teacher daughter and sponsoring a national high-school essay contest on the value of education. In 1988, with his wife Diane, he began the Page Educational Foundation, which he’s funded more with his time and energy than with his money (when he played the average NFL salary was about $75,000 a year and he spent most of his legal life in public service).  Over 29 years the foundation has dispensed some $14 million in financial aid to about 6,500 minority-group college students, who in return must serve at least 50 hours a year volunteering in projects tied to elementary or high-school education.   

The awards the foundation makes have nothing to do with playing-field achievement. When a jock does come in for one, Page has advice for him or her. “Don’t major in football” or whatever other sport the kid plays, he tells them.  

Given the odds against any kind of sports career, that line should be on every school’s locker room walls.

    



   


                       

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

PITCHERS AND CATCHERS

                Everyone I know knows I’m a Chicago Cubs’ fan, and they also know that the Cubs last season broke their epic World Series victory drought. Many of them assume I’ve been on Cloud Nine since the last out of the agonizing Cubs win over the Cleveland Indians in WS game seven last Nov. 2.
                
                 Not wanting to disappoint, I usually respond positively to questions about my supposed euphoria over my team’s long-awaited success. Yes, I say, my life has improved: I’ve lost 15 pounds, my hair is growing back dark and my step is longer and lighter. I have to carry weights to keep from floating away.

                The truth is that the trophy made me happy but not in any life-changing way. I’ve never been the kind of fan who lives and dies with his teams; if I were I wouldn’t have made it past my bar mitzvah. As a kid I never collected autographs or engaged in other forms of athlete-idolatry, and my term as a sports writer taught me that good guys and jerks are pretty much randomly distributed among the big-time sports-team rosters. Even my long-time antipathy toward the New York Yankees faded when I found Joe Torre, their 1990s’ manager, to be a pleasant and civil man.

                This doesn’t mean I’m not looking forward eagerly to the coming baseball season. The words “pitchers and catchers report,” which herald the start of spring training, are echoing this week through the ballyards of Arizona and Florida, and I am atingle as usual. Indeed, the older I get the more I like baseball, especially the cerebral side of it. The lulls in action between batters and pitches, disliked by many, allows the fan to scheme along with the participants and compare his or her tactical judgements with theirs. No other sport provides such a rich environment for second-guessing.

                And, yes, the prospect of another brilliant Cubs’ season is bracing. Indisputably, the team is loaded, and in the best-possible way—with a roster full of young stars that promises to contend for titles for at least the next few years. Still, I recognize that repeating as champions will not be cakewalk, whatever a cakewalk is; other teams also can play and the Cubs last season were extraordinarily lucky in the injury department, especially with their starting pitching.

 Fat-headedness, too, could mess things up—recall that the football Chicago Bears looked to be on the verge of creating a dynasty after their 1985 Super Bowl victory only to run afoul of the colliding egos in their locker room, not the least of which belonged to their coach, Mike Ditka. I take it as a good sign that Joe Maddon, the Cubs’ manager, spent the off season ‘laxing with his loved ones instead of making the late-night TV-interview-show rounds, and that I’ve heard of no plans to open a restaurant bearing his name in Chi-Town.

There is, however, a fly in the ointment, a cliché that requires no elaboration. The Cubs’ triumph has capped a process that has jacked the prices of their spring-training game tickets beyond the point of reason for this Arizona resident, so much so that I am pretty much opting out of the annual ritual. What used to be a pleasant interlude in the desert has become an expensive hassle, the smell of greed replacing that of suntan lotion on sunny March baseball afternoons.

When wife Susie and I moved to AZ in 1997, spring training was one of the draws. The January day Cubs’ tickets went on sale at their former HoHoKam Park base in Mesa I’d show up about an hour before the box office opened, wait maybe another 30 minutes, and buy prime seats for six or eight spring games, paying about $15 to $18 each, no problem. A few years later my pal Chuck Brusso, my main spring-game companion, developed a connection with a spring season-ticket holder that enabled us to purchase at face value excellent seats (six rows up, just to the third-base side of home plate) to a bunch games without having to queue up. That arrangement lasted until the year before last, and while the per-game price climbed to about $30 I still considered it digestible.

In 2015, though, Theo Epstein’s rebuilding plan yielded fruit with a playoff berth, and Cubs mania took full hold the next spring. The nice person who shared her tix with Chuck and me stopped returning our calls, no doubt finding better customers in the scalper websites that flourish on-line. Indeed, almost from the git-go now individual-ticket buyers no longer deal the Cubs but must buy from the scalpers, and prices of $80 and up for any decent seat at Sloan Park are common with the really good ones listed for as much as $200. Even admissions to the grassy berm beyond the outfield fences fetch $35 to $50 on-line, about three times the rate of a few years ago. 

I circumvented that last year by going to Cubs’ games in other clubs’ spring parks, but a web browse shows that avenue no longer exists. Other teams have wised up and are changing almost as much for the contests as the Cubs do at their Mesa domicile.

“When you got it, flaunt it” has become sports’ byword, and the Cubs are doing at Wrigley Field what they do in Mesa. According to the Chicago Tribune the team raised average 2017 regular-season ticket prices by almost 20% over 2016, with 30% boosts for some of the better seats. A season box seat this year has a price tag of $29,089.76, if you can believe it, or an average of $359 a game. Bleacher seats will average $51; in ancient days when I was a kid they went for 25 cents. You can about double all those current prices if you deal with an Internet shark.

There’s a way around this excess, and I’m glad to share it. For about $165 you can sign up for Major League Baseball’s “Extra Innings” TV package, which will put on your home screen just about every game that’s televised anywhere during the regular campaign. That works out to about seven cents a game, and while you can’t watch them all it’s a bargain if you use it just two or three times a week.

Tell ‘em Fred sent you. You won’t get a discount but we both can feel the smart-move vibe.
 


                                     
               
                 
               
               
               

                    

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

? ? ? ? ?

I turn 79 tomorrow (made it again!) but am no smarter than I was last year at this time and still have more questions than answers. Here are some of them:

--When did saying “that’s a good question” to a news-media query become a substitute for a good answer?

--When did motorists stop signaling their turns and lane changes, or is that only in Arizona?

--Why do waitresses always say “there you go” when bringing your food, instead of “here you are”? Do they teach that in waitress school?

--How come “further” has replaced “farther” when the usage clearly is one of distance, not rhetoric?

--Why does anyone still use an airline credit card when the miles are almost impossible to redeem for flight tickets?

--Is it possible to slice a bagel or English muffin in two without getting one fat piece and one skinny one?

--Do the people who want to deport all the Latin American “illegals” know that would shut down just about every hotel, restaurant and construction site in the Southwest?

--Why are people always shocked over the frequent mass and accidental shootings in this land? It’s the inevitable result of mixing 300 million people with as many firearms.

--When did hospital billing lose all contact with reality?

--Is there a worse, balkier website on the internet than the Chicago Tribune’s? I can’t check into it without seeing the “recover webpage” box at least a couple of times, suffering through interminable ad downloads, popups and “long-running script” delays (whatever they are), and getting bounced when trying to shift from a story to the home page.  The darned thing doesn’t even scroll well.

--Why does my printer have to crank out four or five pages of extraneous matter every time I want a copy of a simple email receipt?

--Whatever happened to “restless leg syndrome”? Was a magical cure found?

--How will the auto companies sell driverless cars to an American public that, pretty much, likes to drive? How will the two types of vehicles co-exist on the roads? Will driverless cars have horns? Will your insurance premiums go up when your driverless car is involved in an accident? Who will a driver have to curse out when he hits or is hit by a driverless car?
             
               --Did anyone else notice that an ISIS application form made public contained a check box asking if the applicant wanted to be a suicide bomber?
           
              --What did people do for entertainment before Netflix?

--Why do computers keep getting less reliable? I used to be able to keep one for three or four years but now two’s the max. If cars were like computers the highways would be littered with derelict vehicles.
               
            --Relatedly, what’s up with the way Microsoft seizes our computers so it can install “updates” that bring no observable improvements?  If it must do those things, why can’t it do them at night when they would cause a minimum of bother?

-- Have there ever been uglier sports-team uniforms than the all-dark-grays the Arizona Diamondbacks wore on the road last season? They looked like sewer workers on break.

-- When will the NFL realize that the viewership slump for its games has paralleled the rise in video reviews of officials’ calls?  Is there anything more boring than hearing TV commentators debate when a runner’s knee touched the ground?

-Must her roof fall on her head before the Oklahoma governor admits that fracking causes earthquakes?

--Have you noticed that the prices of lots of things have gone up recently, after a very long period of stability?

--So why do so many people still preface every statement with the word “so”?
            
            --Did Tim Tebow really believe he could launch a baseball career at age 29 after not having played since high school? Did the Mets sign him for any reason other than jersey sales?
               
             --Why do my brilliant (but infrequent) Facebook posts disappear instantly while ones I find annoying hang around for days?
               
              --Why do American institutions and companies always seem to be the victims in large-scale computer hacks? Are other countries’ nerds that much smarter than ours?
              
              --How will Donald Trump’s fans in Appalachia and the Midwest react when they discover that their old mine or factory jobs won’t be returning?  How will they like the higher prices at Walmart when his promised tariffs on Chinese- or Mexican-made goods kick in? Do they believe his millionaire and billionaire cabinet appointees will act in their interests?  Will they be jubilant when the ACA is replaced by the opportunity to open health-care savings accounts?

                
             --Relatedly, when did subscribing to the New York Times start to feel like a patriotic virtue?

Sunday, January 15, 2017

D'JERKS

                It’s not a good idea for a business to antagonize its customers, but that news hasn’t reached Ken Kendrick, the principal owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball team.  In a startling display of boneheadedness, that organization recently sued its landlord, Maricopa County, to break its 30-year lease on what’s currently called Chase Field, the ballpark in which it plays. In other words, it is suing the taxpayers of the county, who make up the large majority of its fans.
               
               Almost equally head-scratching is the argument the team has employed to support its legal position.  A year ago it demanded that the county undertake $187 million worth of repairs to the facility, including ones it pointedly linked to the facility’s safety. The county demurred, countering that the work required was largely cosmetic and, thus, the team’s responsibility. Not so, the team has declared, leaving people who attend its games to wonder whether the upper deck will collapse while they are sitting on or under it. How’s that for a sales incentive? Throw in the team’s not-so-veiled threat to move if it doesn’t get its way and you have a real trifecta of turnoffs.

                The suit might not be startling if Chase Field were a crumbling wreck, but it ain’t. While it’s not exactly a field of dreams, with dark-green seats lending a gloomy air and exposed metal work making it look industrial, it’s a thoroughly serviceable facility, topped by a retractable roof that’s hailed as state of the art and an efficient air-conditioning system that’s necessary on Phoenix’s many 100-plus-degree spring and summer nights.

                 Completed in 1998, its construction price was $364 million, of which $253 million, or close to 70%, came from a ¼-cent, countywide sales tax devoted exclusively to that purpose. Arizona is a tax-averse state and the levy wasn’t achieved without bloodshed, literally; a county supervisor who favored it was shot in the butt by an irate citizen after a contentious public hearing on the subject.

                Owner Kendrick came to the sports biz after making his pile in computer-software development and banking. He was part of the expansion team’s original partnership and succeeded to the top managerial role in 2004, when the group bought out Jerry Colangelo, the D’backs’ first top dog.

                Colangelo is a unique figure in Phoenix, maybe the city’s leading businessman of the last 50 years. A native of a blue-collar suburb south of Chicago and a basketball player at the U of Illinois, he hustled himself a job in the NBA Chicago Bulls’ front office after college in 1962, and when the then-nickel-and-dime league expanded to Phoenix in 1968 came to town as its general manager.  In due course he acquired a chunk of the Suns and ran them, moved them into a new, downtown arena, helped bring a National Hockey League franchise to the city, brought Major League Baseball there and convinced the citizenry to okay his stadium-financing plan.

                Colangelo knew that baseball would be a hard sell in a desert burg with little history of the game, where low-wage jobs predominate despite the area’s patina of palm-lined wealth and where many transplants maintain their ties to the teams of their cities of origin. Thus, he broke the expansion-team mold by paying up quickly for the likes of the pitchers Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling and surrounding them with a veteran cast. When the D’backs won the World Series in 2001— their fourth year of existence—he gave them instant identity.

                But Colangelo did not endear himself to his D’back partners, who after replacing him with Kendrick did their best to erase his mark on the team, down to changing its colors.  They also went from winners to losers, posting just three plus-.500 seasons in Kendrick’s 13 seasons at the controls. Over the same period they’ve had five general managers and six field managers, seven if you include Kendrick’s initial hire, Wally Backman. He was fired four days after he was hired in 2004 when an arrest record and financial problems that might have been revealed by a routine Google search came to light.

                The team also has distinguished itself by its last-season award of a six-year, $206 million contract to a single player— pitcher Zack Greinke. That deal works out to about $35 million a year, more than one-third of its entire 2015 payroll, and by many accounts has handcuffed the team in making moves that might improve on its 69-93 won-lost record. Greinke’s earned run average last season was 4.37, above average (that’s bad) for all big-league pitchers.

                Maybe worst, the D’backs have been a flop at the box office for more than a decade . Attendance in 2002, the season after its championship, came to 3.2 million, but it’s been downhill since and has hovered around the 2 million mark since 2005, putting it in the game’s bottom third in that category. Not only can’t the team sell tickets, it hasn’t been able to give them away; in 2011, when it was battling for a divisional crown, it offered for $5 each all upper-deck seats at Chase Field for most of the month of September. The deep discount barely moved the attendance needle.

                I think it’s worth noting that Kendrick and his wife Randy have been generous donors to the right-wing political network headed by the Koch brothers; indeed, the Kendricks received prominent mention in Jane Mayer’s book “Dark Money,” which traced the influence of the group’s often-subterranean contributions.  The Kochs, et al, hold that government-aid recipients are undeserving moochers. Apparently, Kendrick makes an exception when it’s his hand that’s out.   
               
                 
               
               

                

Sunday, January 1, 2017

BOYCOTT RUSSIA '18

                The notion that sports and politics are separate realms is well entrenched in some circles, but decades of evidence contradicts it. Hitler didn’t think so in 1936 when he used the Summer OIympics in Berlin to highlight his racist and nationalist theories. After World War II the Communist Bloc nations, led by the Soviet Union, made athletic success a cornerstone of their assertions about the primacy of socialism. East Germany in particular carried out a systematic program of doping to enhance its medal counts in Olympic swimming, track and field and other sports.  The primitive state of knowledge in the 1970s and ‘80s about the long-term consequences of steroid use left a trail of genetic damage in that sad country’s wake.
                
                 No nation, however, has manipulated sports and the athletes who play them to the extent that Vladimir Putin’s Russia has. A stream of reports has laid out a pattern of drug abuse that has stretched back for years and corrupted the results of numerous events, including the Summer and Winter Olympic Games dating at least from 2008. The most recent of these, published in December by the World Anti-Doping Agency, said that more than 1,000 Russian athletes in 30 sports have been involved, and this may be only the visible part of the iceberg.

                “It is impossible to know just how deep and far back this conspiracy goes,” said Richard McLaren, WADA’s Canadian point man. He added that “immutable facts” made clear that “for years international sports competitions have been hijacked by the Russians.”

                Although allegations of widespread Russian doping had been circulating for years, the first definitive evidence surfaced last May, just before the Summer Games in Rio. The primary source was none other than Grigory Rodchenkov, who’d directed the country’s athletics-drug-testing laboratory from 2005 through 2015 before escaping for his life to the United States after information about the machinations began to leak. He told the New York Times that not only had he falsified numerous positive drug tests during that period, he also ran the program that prescribed and prepared the potions the athletes took.  In other words, in Putin’s Russia the dopers and the testers were one and the same.

 The effort, Rodchenkov said, peaked at the 2014 Winter Olympics the Russians hosted in Sochi, where clean urine samples by the score were smuggled through a hole in the wall of the main testing facility, to be substituted for tainted samples while agents of Russia’s counterpart of our FBI stood guard. It sounded like something out of an Austin Powers movie, but it rang true.

                That story broke less than 90 days before the start of the Rio Games, leaving Olympics’ officials scrambling for a response. The Games’ formal motto is “Citius, Altius, Fortius,” which is Latin for “faster, higher, stronger,” but the real motto is “the show must go on,” and it applies no matter what the circumstances.  Rather than slapping a much-deserved blanket ban on Russian participation, the International Olympic Committee punted the matter to the individual governing bodies of the fest’s 26 sports. A few—most notably track and field and weightlifting—sent the Russians packing, but most equivocated under one guise or another. In all, 291 Russian athletes were allowed to march and compete. They won 55 medals, the fourth-most on the national table.

                Equally important, no action was taken on the future competitions Russia was schedule to host, including the 2018 soccer World Cup, the most-important (and lucrative) international event outside the Olympic calendar. This was despite Russia’s response to the doping charges, which, typically, has consisted mainly of blustery denials and attacks on those bringing them. Apparently, there’s no Russian word for “shame.”

                But the new allegations, which show that the Russian plot was wider and deeper than was supposed last summer, is having an effect. Interestingly, the gutsiest salvo came not from any of the globe’s athletic superpowers but from little Latvia, a nation of about two million people on the Baltic Sea that spent almost 50 years as an imprisoned Soviet republic and still could be knocked over by a swipe of the Russian bear’s paw.

 Small as it is, Latvia is a factor in winter sports, and a couple of weeks ago its sledding federation announced it would boycott the world skeleton and bobsled championships scheduled for Sochi in February. While previous protests were limited to grumbling by individual athletes, Latvia took a public and forthright stance. Sochi, the Latvian organization declared in a statement, is “the place where the Olympic spirit was stolen in 2014. Enough is enough.”

Facing a nation-by-nation boycott, the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation withdrew the entire competition. Other, similar actions followed, including the removal of World Cup events in speed skating and cross-country skiing. 

The indictment of Russia continues to mount as retests of urine samples taken at past Summer and Winter Olympics proceed and more of its athletics are stripped of their medals. Sports boycotts are nothing new— witness the U.S. action against the 1980 Moscow Games for the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan and the retaliatory actions against the 1984 Los Angeles Games. Russian’s crimes against sport alone justify another, but if those aren’t enough throw in Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, his abetting of the slaughter in Syria, his suppression of dissent at home and his schemes to undermine the internal politics of the U.S. and Europe.  

The 2018 World Cup should be the target. That would get Putin’s attention, sure enough.



       

                 

Thursday, December 15, 2016

HANDICAPPING THE HALL

                Ballots are out for the 2017 class of the Baseball Hall of Fame, with the results to be announced Jan. 18. I voted in that annual election for a couple of decades but was flushed last year when the Baseball Writers Association of America declared ineligible anyone who hadn’t practiced daily journalism for 10 years. It was a bitter pill but I swallowed it. Lifetime appointments are a bad idea in any sphere and sports writing should be no exception.
                
                But while I can’t vote I still have opinions on the membership of the most-august of our nation’s sports shrines, and am glad to share them. I’m a writer, right?  So putting on my handicapper’s cap I herewith produce a morning line on the current candidates for immortality, or, at least, the version that a bronze plaque in the Cooperstown, New York, museum confers.

                This year’s three most-likely choices were on the ballot last year but came up just short. Interestingly, the guy I think will get the most votes got fewer than did two other players the last time around. He’s Trevor Hoffman, the relief pitcher, who was included on 67.3% of the 2016 ballots, about eight percentage points short of the 75% needed for induction.

Hoffman was outpolled by Jeff Bagwell, the former Houston Astros’ slugger who drew a 71.6% count, and by Tim Raines, who ran the bases fast for a lot of teams over a 23-year Major League career, with 69.8%. A main difference among them, however, was that Hoffman was in his first year on the ballot while Bagwell was in his 6th and Raines his 9th. While to my mind Hoffman was the best qualified of the three, for reasons I’ve never understood some voters make an extra hurdle of first-ballot election and leave off candidates on that ground alone.  That factor will disappear this year for the man with the killer changeup who ranks No. 2 on the all-time “saves” list. By me he’s an odds-on choice—2-to-5-- to be elected.

I never voted for Bagwell or Raines when I had the chance; I considered both excellent players but not quite of Hall stature. Most of my colleagues shared that view initially—Bagwell was mentioned on just 41.7% of the ballots in 2011, his first year up, and Raines on but 24.3 % in his, in 2008. But while their records haven’t changed in retirement their allure has. Bagwell should make it this year, if only because no one has come as close as he and failed the next time around. Raines probably will, too, partly because this is his tenth and last year on the sports writers’ ballot (the limit was changed from 15 years last year). I make Bagwell a 3-to-5 pick and put Raines at even money, which is to say 50-50.  

Among the 19 newcomers on the ballot the best candidates are Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez, Vlad Guerrero and Manny Ramirez. Ramirez clearly has Half of Fame numbers (a .312 lifetime batting average over 19 seasons, 1,831 runs batted in and 555 home runs, the 15th -most ever) but he was busted twice for using performance-enhancing drugs and ended his career before he could serve out a 100-game suspension for the second violation.

  PED use is an eyes-wide-open choice by players who choose to break the rules (and endanger their health) in order to improve or extend their careers and pad their pocketbooks. Most guardians of the Hall (me, too, when I was one) have agreed that users should be denied a plaque no matter what their accomplishments. Barry Bonds, the best hitter of his era, and Roger Clemens, the best pitcher, both flunked the eye and nose tests for steroids and never have topped the 50% mark in Hall voting (Bonds got 44.3% last year, Clemens 45.2%). As a convicted offender, Manny won’t poll nearly that well and probably never will.

Rodriguez also has been daubed with the PEDs brush, but less authoritatively.  The source is Jose Canseco, the ex-slugger turned author, who in his 2005 book “Juiced” wrote that he injected the catcher with steroids while both were with the Texas Rangers (1992-94), at the beginning of Rodriguez’s career. I don’t know how good a witness Canseco is; I remember him as a bit of a knucklehead.  I was writing at that time and Pudge never was on my personal “roids” list, which has played out to be pretty accurate.  He is on my short list as one the best defensive catchers I’ve seen--along with Johnny Bench and Yavier Molina—and was a solid hitter as well. If I still were an elector I’d give him the benefit of the doubt and a vote, but I’m guessing that others won’t and he’ll fall short.  I make him 3-to-1 against.

Guerrero also might make the Hall someday, but, probably, not this time. His numbers (.318 B.A., 2,590 career hits, 449 HRs, 1,492 RBIs) are cgose to those of Bagwell and Jim Rice, the former Boston Red Sox strongman who was enshrined in 2009 in his 15th year on the ballot.  Both were acquired tastes and I expect that Guerrero will be one also. This year he’s a longer shot than Pudge.

If I were voting I’d include four ballot holdovers for whom I voted previously—Curt Schilling, Lee Smith, Edgar Martinez and Mike Mussina.  Schilling, a big-game pitcher extraordinaire, polled best among the group last year at 52%. Martinez, a scholarly batsman for whom the game’s annual designated-hitter award is named, got 43%, about the same total as Mussina, whose 270 career wins and 64% win mark deserve respect. Smith was the Major Leagues’ saves leader when he retired in 1997, and ranks third now (with 478). He’s in his last year on the ballot. None of the four figures to be elected but what the heck, electors get to vote for 10.