Wednesday, May 15, 2019

PERFECTOIN


                A “perfect game” in bowling is when someone throws strikes in all 12 frames for a score of 300, a feat that’s rare but far from impossible in a sport that rewards consistency of stroke. A “perfect game” in baseball is rarer--when a pitcher doesn't permit a base runner in nine innings-- but it could be a misnomer because his teammate might have botched scoring opportunities and, of course, the other team probably screwed up all over the place.

                   The purpose of the above isn’t just to bandy words but to take note of what I consider a troubling aspect of many sports in this day and age. It’s a quest for officiating perfection that besides being unobtainable is warping our games. The saw about the perfect being the enemy of the good rarely has been more pertinent. Ditto the one about watching what you wish for because you might get it.

                The villain is technology or, rather, its increasing role on our fields of play. Television’s eye in the sky, and it’s instant-replay capacity, has gone from being an interesting accessory of sports’ viewing to the supreme arbiter, sometimes changing whole outcomes as well as their individual parts. In the pursuit of “just getting things right” it’s sometimes turning things sideways for the performers on the field and the folks at home.  

                Nothing illustrated that better than last Saturday’s Kentucky Derby.  As Dizzy Dean used to say, “you seen it on your screen,” Maximum Security’s victory on the track being overturned after 22 minutes of microscopic video analysis by the Churchill Downs stewards, the race’s overseers.  Max’s sin was to wander out a bit in the homestretch and, momentarily, impede the progress of the horses just to his right rear. Then they all righted themselves and he pulled away to win, to the pleasure of the bettors who’d made him a 4-to-1 second favorite.

                It was a foul, all right, but it was questionable whether it deserved the punishment of his being relegated to the rear of the 20-horse field, the first such outcome in the race’s 145-year history. I was one of those who had to tear up a winning ticket, so this may sound like sour grapes, but the ruling left me and, I’m sure, others shaking our heads. Allowances might have been made because the Derby always is a rough race, contested as it is by young horses (three-year-olds are the equivalent of human teens) in a too-crowded field (other classic America races have an entry limit of 14) on a rain-soaked track that made footing uncertain. I’m sure that an analysis of the entire race would have uncovered numerous instances of equine contact as bad or worse than the one that DQed poor Max.

                The outcome was bad for racing on a number of grounds. The declared winner, the longshot runnerup Country House, ever will have an asterisk marking his victory, and no sport wants those. Further, after the race, and maybe out of pique,  the human connections of Max and Country House said their animals wouldn’t be moving on to the Preakness, the second leg in the Triple Crown for three-year-olds, killing the possibility of a Triple Crown winner and depriving racing of one of its few (and much-needed) focuses of public attention.

 Worst, it’ll be awhile before race goers can savor their betting victories without casting a nervous eye toward the tote board to see if the scientists in the video room will undo the result. The thrill of victory is the main reason we racing fans are out there, and anything that dilutes that is a wound for a sport that’s already bleeding heavily.

Professional football isn’t in the popularity soup racing is, but it seems to be riding the technology train in the same direction. That became clear after last season when the NFL, in its never-ending quest for officiating perfection, added pass interference to the list of plays and situations eligible for official instant-replay review. The addition was made after a PI no-call that might have changed the result of a playoff game between the Saints and Rams. The losing Saints raised a stink that could be deodorized only by the change, the league’s owners decreed.

The NFL pioneered video review in 1986 but by 1991 better judgement prevailed and it was repealed.  That stirred up the “just get it right” hounds, who succeeded in returning it in 1999. From there is has mushroomed. Now its games are continually punctuated by Talmudic discussions of things like the meaning of the in-the-grasp rule, or whether a pass receiver put a second tippy-toe in bounds after he caught a pass. Adding pass interference promises to make such interruptions exponentially worse; no other rule is more poorly defined or stirs more controversy.

Baseball came late to electronics, in 2008. Predictably, it has allowed it to metastasize, so that head-phone-wearing umpires have become as much a part of the game as Cracker Jacks. The most-obvious next step will be to do away with human home-plate umpires and electrify balls-and-strikes-calling completely. The technology for this already exists, as does the cry to employ it. Base umpires will be the next to go; it’s only logical.  Goodbye blue, hello Artoo-Deetoo.

If you’ve read this blog (or my WSJ columns) you know I’ve opposed TV-replay review from the start, on the simple grounds that sports are played by humans and should be judged by them. Being human means making mistakes, and sports are too trivial to be exempted from that condition.

  If you don’t buy that, try the argument that sports are our main physical expressions of art and that replacing any part of them by artificial means is a sin.  I have no illusions about reversing the electronic tide, but let’s not let it win without complaint. Your grandchildren will thank you if they can pull themselves away from their smart phones long enough.

               
               

                    

Friday, May 3, 2019

I'VE GOT THE HORSE(S) RIGHT HERE


                One of horse racing’s truths is that, year in and year out, favorites win about one-third of the time. That’s also the case in the Kentucky Derby, where the people’s choice has prevailed 16 times in the last 50 years. Thus, it sets folks’ teeth on edge that favorites have won the last six editions of the nation’s annual Big Race, and has fostered the view that retribution must be near. That’s emerged as the dominant theme of the 144th Derby, which goes off Saturday at Churchill Downs.

                There are a couple of problems with that view. One is that, because the fields are completely different every time, no Derby has anything to do with the next. The second is that this Derby won’t have a real favorite, the putative one—Omaha Beach—having been scratched on Wednesday after having been made the morning-line choice at odds of 4-to-1.

                That leaves three colts-- IMPROBABLE, GAME WINNER and ROADSTER—all clustered at about 5-to-1, with a bunch of others not far behind. The odds will change some by race time, and there will be a favorite-in-name, but only in that. That makes for what bettors calls a good betting race, with good payouts in prospect no matter who wins. But it also makes for confusion at the ticket window.

                My plan (if you can call it that) is to approach the race as I would a meal in a Chinese restaurant, picking horses from various odds columns and mixing them in exacta combinations. From column A—the favorites’ line—I’ll go with IMPROBABLE, a tough customer who lost to Omaha Beach by a scant length in the Arkansas Derby. Game Winner was the two-year-old champ but has faded a bit at three. Roadster is a late runner and that kind of horse needs lots of luck to win. By the way, all three of the top group are trained by Bob Baffert, the era’s best big-race trainer, so none can claim an edge on that score.

                One horse I really like from column B—8-to-1 to 10-to-1—is MAXIMUM EFFORT, 8-to-1. He’s unbeaten in four, one-sided races, won the Florida Derby, is one of just two colts in the field to have hit 100 on the Beyer speed scale (Improbable is the other), and likes to run up front, where the traffic is lightest. The knock against him is that he’s had it too easy to date, but that could be testimony to his ability. Another of my choices, also at 8-to-1, is TACITUS, a winner of two Derby preps. He’s shown he can take a licking and keep on ticking, something that’s often necessary in the rough, 20-horse Derby field.

                My fourth horse is from the longer-shot group. He’s VEKOMA, 15-to-1 in the morning line. He won the Blue Grass stakes prep in a field of 14 and might have won another –the Fountain of Youth—if he didn’t have to be checked in the homestretch. He likes to run near the lead, a good thing, and will be ridden by J.J. Castellano, also good.

I reserve the right to change my mind on Derby Day, and maybe add another horse or two to my boxes, but the horses numbered 5-6-7-8 certainly will be in my boxes. Wish me luck, and the same to you.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

CLOUT


                What’s the most-potent lobby in Washington? There are many contenders for the honor.

                The NRA is on the list for sure, leading a minority that continually trumps the will of the majority. Ditto for AARP, which looks out for us oldsters. The AMA tends ably to doctors, the ABA to lawyers. Among corporate players, the one that represents “Big Pharma” stands out, spending millions to heap rewards in the billions.

                But from the standpoint of “W’s” and “L’s”—really the best way to measure such things—no group does better than the NCAA. The outfit that oversees big-time college sports has an enviable record in our nation’s capital as well as in those of the 50 states, keeping it and its constituent institutions largely clear of government intrusion. That most of its actions take place under the radar of public scrutiny is testimony to its effectiveness; in the world of sub-rosa advocacy, no news is the best news. And astonishingly, it operates on a reported annual lobbying budget of about $400,000. That’s less than some industries spend on a single night of Washington revelry.

 The NCAA can do this because it commands the sort of allegiance other advocacy groups can only envy. Just about every member of Congress (95% by published estimates) holds a college degree and, presumably, retains some affection for good old Alma Mammy. Even if their college memories were sour our senators and representatives are well advised to treat kindly the sports interests of the schools for which their constituents root. Any Nebraska legislator who doesn’t profess to live and die with the Cornhuskers won’t have his job for long.

How this works in practice was recently described by Donna Shalala. She’s been on both sides of the relationship as a congresswoman (from Florida) and a former president of the University of Miami and chancellor of the University of Wisconsin. When a school has a legislative interest touching sports “the university president picks up the phone and talks to his state’s senators,” she said in an interview. The politics of college athletics “isn’t red or blue, it’s about conferences,” she added.

The subject of the NCAA’s political influence is appropriate now because some in Congress are growing restive about the economics of college sports. Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat of Connecticut, just put out a report called “Madness, Inc.: How everyone is getting rich off college sports except the athletes.” He promises to have more to say on the subject with an eye toward trying to legislate compensation beyond the minimal for student jocks. (Followers of this space know I disagree with that position, but that requires discussion.) Representative Mark Walker, a Republican from North Carolina, has gone farther by introducing in the House a bill he calls the “Student-Athlete Equity Act,” which would allow college athletes to “profit from the commercial use of their names and likenesses” by such as advertisers and video-game makers. By calling it a “free market” issue he hopes to line up support from his fellow Republicans.

That’s all well and good, but if the past is any guide it’s doubtful that the Walker bill, or any similar one, will get much traction.  The NCAA sees to it that things it doesn’t like don’t get a committee hearing, much less floor action. That was the fate of a bill last year that would have formalized the way colleges report and treat playing-field concussions. Innocuous as it was, the measure wound up in some committee-chairman’s drawer.

Just as important, the NCAA’s clout doesn’t end on the capital steps. Lawyers and judges also love their schools’ teams and can be counted upon to either support or shield them as the situation requires. No better example of this is the trial now in progress in New York that followed an FBI investigation of two years ago that threatened to reveal an extensive black market in college-basketball recruiting involving many if not most big-time U’s. Instead, it has turned into a hiccup with scant impact.

Initial charges in the probe fingered sports agents and would-be agents, a couple of low-level executives of the shoe company Adidas and a half dozen assistant hoops coaches in a scheme to use shoe-company money bribe recruits to sign up at Adidas-connected schools and, later, utilize the agents’ services. More would follow, prosecutors hinted, but not much has. One head coach connected to probe—Rick Pitino of Louisville—lost his job, but that seemed to stem mostly from his long and smelly history of previous depredations. That left only the hapless assistants to hold the bag, the way they do in just about all internally investigated NCAA probes.

 No top-level Adidas executives were hauled into court and nothing came out involving Nike, another big shoe company neck deep in promoting its wares through college sports. Indeed, Nike came off as the victim in Federal criminal actions against the mouthy lawyer Michael Avenatti, charged with using bribery tales to shake down the company.

The current New York trial concerns the sentencing of sports-agent Christian Dawkins and Merl Code Jr., an Adidas consultant, who have pleaded guilty to various charges. Lawyers for the two wanted to call as witnesses the head coaches Sean Miller of Arizona and Will Wade of Louisiana State, both of whom figured prominently in wire-taped phone calls that seemed to further the bribery scheme, but prosecutors moved to do without their testimony and the judge agreed. Miller and Wade have denied any wrongdoing, but putting them on the stand, under oath, almost certainly would have proved edifying.

No such luck, however. Move along folks, nothing to see here, those running the trial said.  The show must go on.
 

               
               

Monday, April 15, 2019

HORSE SENSE


                The Kentucky Derby, horse racing’s annual Big Day, is drawing near, but these days most of the talk around the turf isn’t about the prospects of the likely contestants but about a grimmer topic—race-horse mortality. Specifically, it concerns the spate of equine fatalities that shut down Santa Anita Park outside of Los Angeles, one of the sport’s premier venues, for most of March, and has the entire industry walking on eggs.

                From late December through February 21 horses died at the track from injuries suffered either racing or training. The track shut down for six days to investigate but another fatality quickly occurred after it reopened and a shutdown of 17 more days ensued.  Two days after it fully reopened on March 31 still another death took place to bring the total at the meet to 23.

                Racing continues at Santa Anita but so does the furor over the deaths, and not just animal-rights activists are wondering whether the sport is worth the trouble. It’s a question worth asking even though for economic reasons it isn’t going away easily; with U.S. annual revenues of about $50 billion, close to a million jobs and tax hauls vital to many states, racing is in the “too big to fail” category, at least for now.

 Things could to be done to make racing safer for both its animal and human participants, race jockeying being among the most hazardous of occupations. The costs would be to slow down the sport and necessitate a revision in the calculations that go into the betting that sustains it. Paying it will be much discussed in the months ahead.

Truth is, however, that equine fatalities always have been and probably always will be a part of racing. The thoroughbred race horse is poorly constructed for its tasks, with skinny legs that barely support the weight they carry (between 1,000 and 1,300 pounds) at the speed at which they run, which is more than 40 miles per hour at best. A horse’s legs are complex things, containing about 80 of the animal’s 200 bones. These and the muscles and ligaments that support them are put together in ways that are easily disturbed; a single misstep on track or in pasture can cause a catastrophic break.

Further, unlike humans and other animals, when a horse breaks a leg he usually must be destroyed. Surgical advances have added to the list of leg-bone breaks that can be repaired, but because horses spend their lives standing, and don’t like standing still, the immobilization needed to heal fractures often is impossible. Euthanasia thus becomes necessary.

 One change recommended in the Santa Anita investigation—a ban on race-day medications—is likely to be implemented. This would affect mostly Lasix, a drug that reduces the common pulmonary bleeding that can impede performance and is widely used in the U.S. but not in other countries. Increased limitations on anti-inflammatory medicines, and on anabolic steroids, also have been proposed. They can amp up performances and mask injuries.

Track conditions also were examined, and while no firm conclusions were drawn some trainers thought that the heavy rains in California this winter made Santa Anita’s dirt strip dangerous. This might seem counterintuitive because mud is assumed to be softer than dirt, but as the noted trainer Bob Baffert told Sports Illustrated magazine, a heavier track tires horses and “when horses get tired, and they’re struggling to get around, that’s when they get hurt.”

There’s a solution to the track question, but it’s been resisted. Beginning about a dozen years ago, in name of safety, some tracks replaced their dirt strips with so-called synthetic surfaces, usually consisting of sand, recycled carpeting, rubber pellets and plastics. The blend permits better drainage and just about eliminates muddy racing conditions. It worked to cut horse fatalities about in half from the year-in, year-out North American average of about two in 1,000 starts reported by the Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Data Base. It still does at Woodbine Park near Toronto, Canada, where it remains in use.

 But some horsemen complained that the synthetics varied too much by time of day, tracks complained about costs and maintenance difficulties and bettors said it spoiled their calculations, so most of the bigger tracks that tried it, including Santa Anita and Del Mar in California and Keeneland in Kentucky, had it removed. Reviving it is sure to be part of the current debate.

The overriding safety problems, of long-term origin, are the sport’s emphasis on speed and reverence for its speed records. They are the main reasons North American tracks have insisted on keeping their jockeys tiny, in contrast with the European ovals that permit higher body weights. It’s also why the tracks don’t permit such common-sense jockey-safety measures as additional uniform padding and protective gear. It’s a wonder that the Jockeys Guild doesn’t insist on such protections.

The need for speed has led breeders to emphasize swiftness over stamina in their mating decisions. Old-time horses used to race far more often than existing ones; the great Seabiscuit ran 89 times in his six-year career (1935-40), three or four times the annual rate of current racers.  But while trainers race their horses less frequently than did their decades-ago counterparts, they send them out for more timed workouts, which may be more stressful. Indeed, the theory of some human-exercise experts that the closer an athlete comes to peak condition the greater is his chance of injury also might apply to horses.

As a horse player I’d hate to have picking winners become tougher than it already is, but as a human being I only can support a safer sport. Whatever the changes, we’ll figure them out eventually. If we weren’t persistent and long-suffering we wouldn’t be there in the first place.
               


  

Monday, April 1, 2019

THE SIDE DOOR


                It’s hard to shock people these days about the corrupt ties between sports and academe, but a case now playing out seems to be doing just that. This time the money isn’t going from the schools and their supporters to top-jock kids but the other way around. Rich people have been gaming the system by using bribes and phony sports credentials to get their children into schools that otherwise wouldn’t accept them. The fact that a couple of those people are well-known actresses has amped up the attention, and the outrage.

                In the latest go-round 50 people-- parents, coaches or athletics administrators-- have been federally charged in a scheme in which some $25 million changed hands to secure admission to such high-toned U’s as Yale, Georgetown and Stanford. Some of the money went to ringers who took college-admission tests for the kids or simply changed their scores. Most of the rest went to coaches who were paid to set aside team places for teens with no prowess in their sports. The fakery went so far as to include “photoshopped” pictures incorporating the kids’ faces into sports-action shots.

                The episode has brought into play the term “side door” as it applies to college admissions. That refers to the special ties between coaches and admissions offices that exist at just about every American college or university. We’re not talking about the big-time men’s revenue sports of football and basketball; recruits there tend to be so well known that unfamiliar names can’t be slipped into the mix.  But in the so-called “minor” sports --the likes of tennis, soccer or water polo-- admissions people usually take coaches’ words for who does and doesn’t qualify for special treatment, opening the door to abuses. The fact that this preference exists at all testifies to the long-standing hold sports have had over American higher education, for better or worse. Mostly worse.

                The side door grew enormously in 1972 with the passage of Title IX of the Federal Education Act banning discrimination by sex in programs at colleges and universities that take Federal funds (which is to say about all of them). Women’s teams, formerly marginal, suddenly blossomed because of the requirement that sports opportunities be equal between the sexes.

                That goal remains more aspirational then real, but still has real consequences. Because large-roster football commands by far the biggest chunk of institutional backing, schools have scrambled to create or expand offsetting programs for women, so at most schools women’s teams have come to outnumber men’s. For example, Stanford now supports 20 teams for women to 16 for men, including beach volleyball, field hockey and synchronized swimming. The school’s sailing coach was implicated in the latest scandal.

                One upshot of this situation has been the stellar performance of American women’s teams on international stages; college seasoning has been the main driver of repeated world’s championships by U.S. women’s basketball and soccer squads. Another has been the plethora of women’s athletic-scholarship opportunities, many of which go begging.

The same is true to a lesser extent for male athletes of below-elite skills. A boy who stands 5-foot-10 can’t expect to play center on the UCLA basketball team, but if he’s good enough some school, somewhere, will find a spot for him. Even schools in the Ivy League, the military academies and NCAA Division III, which don’t award athletic scholarships per se, give special enrollment opportunities to boys and girls with athletic talents. They also may secure financial help for them for reasons other than sports, whether or not they’re the most qualified for them academically.

“If a kid has bona fide athletic credentials, is reasonably intelligent and a coach wants him, schools will find a way to get him in,” says Bill Serra Jr. He heads the College Athletic Placement Service (CAPS) in Ramona, California, a firm which, for a fee (it’s legal), helps parents find athletic-scholarship help for their children.

He continues: “Poor grades or test scores narrow the range of places a kid can go, but don’t close the door. Some junior colleges will accept kids without high school diplomas-- they let them pass equivalency tests once they’re in. Flexibility is the key; the kid might not wind up at his dream school but if I say I can get him or her a ride I will, although it might be to a junior college in Nebraska.”

CAPS was started in 1971 by Mr. Serra’s father, Bill Sr., who died a few years ago.  I did a column about him in 1989. The extent to which colleges all of sorts will stretch their entrance requirements to give preference to athletes was an eye-opener for me. No money need change hands; it’s just the way things are done.

“The athletic-scholarship world is like an iceberg—only the tip is visible,” he says. “The minor-sports coaches at most schools, and just about all the women’s team coaches at the smaller ones, have zero recruiting budgets. To get players they roam the halls outside of classes looking for prospects.”

How low will they go?  “I’ve had calls from tennis coaches asking me if I had any girls who can hit the ball over the net,” he says. He goes on: “I once got a scholarship to a school in Missouri for a kid for his ability as an equestrian. They even let him bring his horse.”

   


               
                 
                 

Friday, March 15, 2019

THE ENEMY WITHOUT


                In my early years in Arizona, when I was a lot sprier than I am now, I ran a couple of hiking programs, one part of which took Scottsdale public-school 4th graders, aged nine or 10, into the local environs. We’d cover, maybe, three miles, stopping often to talk about the flora we saw and the fauna we didn’t see, desert animals being notoriously people-shy.

                The hikes were popular with the kids, teachers, parents and our volunteer leaders, who enjoyed the youngsters’ curiosity about subjects with which most were unaware. That was strange, I thought, because the desert was, literally, the back yard of many of them, but it seems that parents these days keep the kind of tight rein on their children that discourages individual exploration. Too bad, huh?

                Alas, however, the program was canceled one fall because the insurance policy that covered the school-bus transportation of the kids between their schools and the trailheads no longer covered such extracurricular trips and the schools didn’t wish to pay extra to provide them. Insurance problems ruled the playgrounds and had curtailed other school activities, we were told with a shrug.

                Insurance came up again several weeks ago in a story on the excellent ESPN web site by the brothers’ reporting team of Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada, and the focus was a lot larger than a few kids’ hikes. It was the entire sport of football and most particularly the National Football League.  Liability for the head injuries that have enveloped the American sport have sent insurers running for the hills, and without insurance the games can’t go on.  That’s not an immediate threat to the professional league but it already has happened here and there, and looks to get worse before it gets better.

                Reporting by the Fainarus revealed that the NFL no longer has general-liability insurance covering head traumas, and just one carrier is willing to sell it the workers’-compensation coverage the laws mandate; before the concussions’ uproar began in earnest in 2011 at least a dozen carriers vied for the league’s business, their story said. To continue to get coverage last season the NFL had to double its per-claim deductible for head injuries to $1 million and “significantly” increase the amount of damages it would self-cover before its insurer’s share kicked in. The NFL and its present and former insurers currently are embroiled in lawsuits over who will pay what in the $1 billion-plus settlement the league reached in 2013 with dozens of former players who claimed they were misled about concussions’ long-term dangers.

 The story went on that the insurance market for the junior, high school and college leagues that provide the sport’s underpinning is similarly pinched, as was the liability coverage for football-helmet makers, which also is down to a single carrier.  Last spring the Maricopa County Community College system in Arizona, which covers the area in which I live, eliminated football at its four schools after it determined that the insurance bill for its 358 varsity football players accounted for nearly one-third of all the insurance costs for its 200,000 students.

The Pop Warner organization, a non-profit that oversees leagues involving 225,000 youth players, could face a similar outcome. “People say football will never go away, but if we can’t get insurance it will,” Jon Butler, Pop Warner’s executive director, is quoted as saying.

What scares insurers most about head injuries is that the entire subject is pretty much terra incognito. The Fairanus pointed out that there are roughly 300,000 football-related concessions annually, but research into the effects of CTE, the Alzheimer’s-like brain condition most associated with them, is just getting started.  CTE can’t be diagnosed until after death and its triggers, and the factors that determine which players will or won’t develop it, remain a mystery. Further, research could enlarge the area of risk, linking football to other forms of dementia.

Worse, CTE’s symptoms might not become evident for years or even decades after an injury is sustained, making it the sort of open-ended, “long-tail claim” insurers fear most. Last June, the first of many head-injury-related lawsuits against the NCAA went to court. It resulted in a settlement with the widow of a former University of Texas linebacker and defensive tackle who was diagnosed with CTE after his death in 2015, 44 years after he last played.

“Thirty years from now you could be on the hook, and that’s a very difficult situation for an insurance company to be in,” the piece quotes James Lynch, chief actuary for the Insurance Information Institute of New York, as saying. “This is why the industry is concerned about it. You want to be able to box up that risk.”

As dire a situation as the story describes, there’s little doubt in my mind that it alone won’t bring down the NFL or the NCAA. The central fact about big-time football in the U.S.—both the pro and college varieties-- is that people like it despite (or perhaps because of) its gladiatorial aspects. By itself the NFL is a $15 billion-a-year business with immense market and political power. It can deep-pocket its way out of any number of problems and, now that the dangers of concussions are widely known, probably could get Congress to pass laws absolving it of blame for injuries to the players it enlists, volunteers all.

Chances are, though, that gnawings from without, both financial and moral, can undermine it to the point where it no longer commands the influence it has today.  Football will outlive me but, maybe, not my grandkids.


               

Friday, March 1, 2019

SAY IT AIN'T SO, GOLDY


                I’ve long had a theory that some people are born with a one-city-fan gene, and offer myself as proof. I’ve lived in the Phoenix area for 21 years (where does the time go?) but have yet to shake my loyalty to all teams Chicago, the city of my birth.

                That’s not true of all the Chicagoans I know who now reside in or around the desert metropolis. My friend Chuck Brusso is such a Cubs’ fan he can’t watch the team play for fear of disappointment, but has adopted the local Diamondbacks as his team 1A. It took my wife, Susie, all of a few months to shed her allegiance to the White Sox and become a D’backs’ rooter, and her closet now boasts D’back t-shirts in several colors and styles. She even backs the team vocally in front of our home TV set, a habit I wish she’d lose. I could cite other examples, but you get the point.

                The Arizona teams might have been tougher for me to resist if they’d been good these last two decades, but such usually has not been the case. The D’backs remarkably won the World Series in 2001, their fourth year of existence, but mostly have been so-so, perennially chasing the Dodgers and Giants in the National League West. Ditto for the football Cardinals except for one Super Bowl dash (in 2008); their holding the top pick in this year’s NFL draft bespeaks their present condition. The basketball Suns are a punch line to a bad joke and the hockey Coyotes lead their league only in rumors that they’ll move. Hockey is about as appropriate to our clime as an aquarium. And yeah, we have one of those, too.

                It’s not only that the D’backs have been bad, they’ve also been dumb. Their record in player trades is dismal, highlighted by the 2009 deal that sent double-Cy Young Award-winner-to-be Max Scherzer to the Detroit Tigers for Edwin Jackson and Ian Kennedy, a couple of mediocrities. Recent trades have cost them Jean Segura, Didi Gregorio, Trevor Bauer, Dansby Swanson and Mitch Hanigar, all of whom have thrived elsewhere.

                 For my money the worst D’back move was their letting go of Bob Melvin, their manager from 2005 to 2009. In 2007 Melvin achieved what only could be called a miracle by winning the NL West and advancing to the league-championship round with a team that gave up more runs than it scored during the regular season. The sterling skipper has since impressed annually by getting the most from his money-starved Oakland A’s clubs.

                But while you wouldn’t know it from the above, the intent of this piece is to defend a D’back move rather than to condemn one. I’m talking about their trading away Paul Goldschmidt to the St. Louis Cardinal during the last off-season. Goldy, as he’s known hereabouts, was a beloved figure, ranking with Luis Gonzalez atop the team’s all-time popularity pantheon. A six-time All Star in his eight-year career, the power-hitting first-baseman was a seeming nice guy to boot, admired by fans of all ages and sexes. The deal was greeted with outrage, with the smell of burning D’backs jerseys permeating the air for weeks after it was announced.

                Like just about everything else these days in baseball (and other big-time sports), Goldy’s departure was dictated by economics. He was in the final year of a six-year, $46.5 million contract that, including a $14.5 million club option this year, would expire at this season’s end and make him eligible for free agency.  Rather than risk losing him outright, the team dealt him for what it could get. This turned out to be a young starting pitcher with upside, an apparently serviceable back-up catcher, a minor-league infielder and a 2019 draft choice, not a bad haul for what could be a one-year rental by the Cards.

                That, however, was not the only possible outcome of Goldy’s AZ saga. In a teary, full-page ad in the Arizona Republic after being traded the player said it was hard to bid goodbye to his local fans, but say goodbye he did. I have no doubt he could have stayed if he wished, and at a nice raise over his fat, option-year wage, but instead he chose to try to maximize his return in the marketplace. It’s tough to blame him for that but he’s already swimming in money, so his stance hardly could be called admirable. For jocks at his level money is an abstraction, divorced from human needs, and serves mainly as a professional measuring stick. On that stage does the bidding proceed.

                The D’backs couldn’t go all in for Goldy because they already did that for pitcher Zack Greinke in 2016, giving him a six-year, $206 million deal that has three years left to run. That has earmarked between 25% and 35% of the team’s recent annual payrolls for someone who plays only one game in five. Greinke has been successful by just about any standard (his won-lost mark in AZ is 45-25) but he isn’t much loved here, mostly because he’s considered overpaid.  Talk about irony.

                Indeed, the failure to ride the Greinke-Goldy axis to glory these last few seasons has caused the D’backs to entrench generally. Besides losing Goldy in the off-season they allowed their next-best two players, pitcher Patrick Corbin and outfielder A.J. Pollack, to escape via free agency, with only stop-gap replacements available. To say that their prospects aren’t brilliant until they rebuild is to put it mildly.

                And really, that’s OK with me. Like I said, I’m a Cubs’ fan, and while I don’t wish the D’backs ill I like the fact that their losing will keep both attendance and ticket prices low at their Chase Field home, making it easier for me to go to games. Easy is good in my book.