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.





Thursday, December 1, 2016

NEWS, VIEWS

               NEWS: Bruce Arena replaces Jurgen Klinsmann as U.S. National Team soccer coach.
               
               VIEW:  It’s back to the future.
  
               Klinsmann’s ouster wasn’t unexpected in light of the U.S. team’s home loss to Mexico and trouncing in Costa Rica in the first two games of the final round of qualifying matches for the 2018 World Cup, but those two outcomes only sealed his doom. The real reason was the U.S.’s persistent failure to crack the upper echelon of the sport, a status many Americans feel is their due.
               
                 Klinsmann was supposed to have remedied that. Good-looking and charismatic, an international star as both a player and coach, the transplanted German took the job in 2011 amid high expectations. He seemingly justified them when his team won the regional Gold Cup in 2013 and in 2014 survived a tough divisional draw to make it to the round of 16 in the quadrennial World Cup, but it relapsed thereafter and never could regain its footing. Run-ins with critics over his lineup selections and training preferences (he clearly thought his players were better off playing with European clubs instead of those in Major League Soccer, the second-tier domestic league) greased the skids for his removal.
              
                In replacing him with Arena the sport’s governing body signaled it was more concerned with salvaging the current World Cup campaign than with seeking new approaches. Arena is a competent pro who coached the team from 1998 to 2006 but was fired under pretty much the same circumstances as was Klinsmann.  If Arena had any revolutionary ideas he would have tried them before.

               The fact is that despite a marked upgrade over the past 20 or so years the U.S. still suffers from a talent deficit relative to that of the major world powers. In countries like Germany, Brazil and Argentina, the best athletes immediately gravitate toward soccer, while here the sport must take what’s left after basketball, baseball and football have done their culling. Until that changes no number of USA! USA! chants will change things.
              
                NEWS: The National Collegiate Athletic Association docks Notre Dame 21 football wins.

                VIEW: Huh?

                In response to 2014 revelations that a member of the university’s athletic-training staff gave “impermissible academic benefits” (i.e., did papers and other course work) for eight football players over a two-year period, the group ordered that the school forfeit all its victories during the 2012 and 2013 seasons.  The absurdity of the penalty was immediately pointed out by Brian Kelly, the team’s blustery head coach, who said, in effect, “Ha!”

                “If that makes you [the NCAA, I guess] feel better, then that’s fine with me,” Kelly really said. “Putting an asterisk next to those games, that’s fine, too. We still beat Oklahoma. We still beat Wake Forest.”

    He could have said as much about the rest of the sentence, a one-year probation and a $5,000 fine. The latter amount probably is less than the team spends annually on that black grease players smear under their eyes on game days.

                Actually, though, the penalty was harsher than the ones (nothing) that attended two previous and much more serious incidents in a Kelly regime that began in 2009. That would be the 2010 death of a student manager who was sent up on a cherry picker in a wind storm to videotape a football practice and the suicide that same year of a woman student from nearby St. Mary’s College after her allegation of rape against a Notre Dame linebacker was deep-sixed by university authorities (the claim died with her and the player never missed a game). What the NCAA will do about the carful of Domer footballers arrested last August for speeding and marijuana and gun possession remains to be seen, or about the lineman who stomped on the leg of a fallen foe during the school’s game last week against Southern California.

                Notre Dame is one of those chesty universities that likes to brag it “does things right” in combining academics with the multi-million-dollar entertainment business it conducts. In truth, it’s a prime example of the degree to which schools will prostitute themselves to maintain such an enterprise. The NCAA’s hollow penalties abet that practice.

                NEWS: The National Hockey League declares that only players on league rosters can appear in its mid-season All-Star Game.

                VIEW: Huh? again.

                The action was dubbed the “John Scott Rule” for the journeyman player whose position (enforcer) appears in no lineup but who fans elected to last season’s game after he’d been demoted to the minor leagues by the Montreal Canadiens. The mockery that attended that selection increased when Scott not only was picked to captain one of the teams in the fest but also went on to win its MVP award.

In case you haven’t noticed, All-Star Games have become touchy affairs in sports in which injuries are rampant; both players and teams have come to conclude that the rewards the events produce don’t justify their risks.  The National Football League has discussed ending its game and allows it to survive only as a pantomime of the real thing. The NHL last season changed its All-Star format to a tournament of two, 20-minute, three-on-three games matching players from each of its four divisions, followed by a same-rules final matching the winners. It ain’t real hockey but now, at least, it’ll be contested by real NHLers.
               
                 
                 
               

                

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

SCOUTING REPORT

                Every baseball fan fancies himself a scout and I am no exception. While my credentials to the title may be lacking in some respects, I’ve seen a lot of ballgames and have this blog with which to broadcast my observations.  I also have close at hand the Arizona Fall League, maybe the best place ever to practice the scout’s art.

                Regular readers of this space know about the Fall League, but for others a brief recap. It’s the minor-league finishing school for top prospects that runs annually for six weeks, from the second week in October through the third week in November, this year ending on Saturday. Each of the 30 Major League teams assigns seven players to the circuit, usually Class A or AAers between the ages of 20 and 23. They are formed into six teams of 35 players that each play a 32-game schedule. Scores are kept, standings are maintained and a champion is crowned, but the real point is individual performance. The kids play for the scouts— the real ones more than the pretenders—with a big-league berth in a year or so as the prize. About 60% of them eventually make it, so it’s a worthwhile exercise.

                It doesn’t hurt that the league functions when the Phoenix area is at its best. Prime tourism time here is from Thanksgiving through Easter, but during AFL season the weather is closest to perfect, with temperatures in the 80s or low 90s, low humidity and dreamy blue skies that invite poetic descriptions.  If you’re a ballplayer in your early 20s, getting paid and playing mostly day games, and with the Scottsdale bars to graze in, it’s about as close to paradise as it gets.

                Spectators have it good, too. Admission is cheap ($8 for adults, $6 for seniors), parking is close and free and with attendance of less than 1,000 for most games in our excellent spring-training parks you can sit anywhere you want.  If your voice carries, you can share your opinions with the umps, players and your fellow fans, for better or worse.

                Every Fall League has its star, but this year’s is unusual. It’s TIM TEBOW, the famously pious ex-quarterback who, at age 29 and not having played organized baseball since high school, decided to give the professional game a whirl. The New York Mets indulged him with a minor-league contract and assigned him to the Scottsdale Scorpions, their Fall League club.

                Tebow made an immediate splash by performing a miracle. Before a first-week game a fan in line for his autograph fell to the ground with some sort of seizure. Tebow (and others, I’d guess) prayed for him and the man quickly recovered. That was a miracle, right? Local TV and some social media outlets said it was. You could look it up.

                But Tebow’s chances for sainthood appear better than his baseball outlook. He’s a big, impressive-looking guy, an athlete for sure, but while he looked like Tarzan he’s played like Jane. As of Sunday he was 8 for 51 at the plate with just two extra-base hits and 15 strikeouts, and his .157 batting average was the league’s second-worst for players with an appreciable number of at-bats.

                I saw him play twice, once as a designated hitter and once in left field. He had two fielding chances while I watched, one a fly ball that clanked off his glove after a short run and another on which he turned the wrong way twice and allowed to drop. Neither was scored as an error but both could have been.  One only can hope he has a Plan C.

                Among the actual prospects, GLEYBER TORRES, a Venezuelan shortstop in the New York Yankees’ chain, was the clear standout.  This was no surprise because he was the Yanks’ key acquisition in the mid-season trade that bought the monster relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman to the Chicago Cubs. Not yet 20 years old, Torres is quick of both foot and bat and led the AFL in hitting (at .382) as of Sunday. The Cubs could give up Torres because their brilliant Addison Russell has a 10-year lease on the position, but I’m sure the separation was painful nonetheless.

                Shortstops are the best athletes on most teams, and two more excelled here. NICK GORDON, a look-alike of older brother Dee Gordon, is a skinny, live-bodied 21-year-old who was the Minnesota Twins’ first choice in the 2014 amateur draft. He’s played well in 2 ½ minor league seasons, and should be a Twin by 2018. Another Venezuelan, 20-year-old FRANKLIN BARRETO, also appears to have the goods for the Oakland A’s, even though his arm marks him as a probable second baseman.

                 A trio of outfielders showed well when I was watching. ANTHONY ALFORD was primarily a college football player (at quarterback) for his first two years out of high school in Mississippi before opting for full-time baseball in the Toronto Blue Jays’ chain.  He has a way to go fundamentally, but he’s athletic and, at age 21, has time to develop.  GREG ALLEN, 23, a Cleveland Indians’ chattel, is swift and hits the ball hard. TYLER O’NEILL, 21, of the Seattle Mariners, is a kind of pocket rocket at 5-foot-10 and 210 pounds, but takes his at-bats seriously and swings big. His 56 home runs in his last two minor-league seasons (at Class A and AA) showed what he can do when he connects.
             
                There’s always room in the Bigs for good catchers and the Minnesota Twins’ MITCH GARVER looks like one. Solidly built, and possessing some batting power, he threw out three consecutive would-be base stealers in a game I attended, a rarity even at the Major League level. He’s 25, old for a Fall Leaguer, but catchers usually take longer than other players to develop.
               
               As a Cubs’ fan I take particular interest in their Fall Leaguers, but this year’s group didn’t sparkle. IAN HAPP, their first-round draft choice (the ninth pick overall) in 2015, looked competent but not exceptional at second base, and VICTOR CARATINI, from Puerto Rico, performed similarly at catcher and first base. The Cubs are well-stocked at all those positions so probably will use the two youngsters in trade.

                
               Pitchers are hard to scout in the AFL because they perform only every third or fourth game, and then for but a few innings, but I saw a couple I liked. FRANKIE MONTAS, 23, from the Oakland A’s chain by way of the Dominican Republic, is a big, heavy guy in the C.C. Sabathia mold, and while the right-hander didn’t blow batters away he got all but one out in the five innings I saw him.
        
               MICHAEL KOPECH, 20, does blow them away but sometimes lets a few slip. I watched him pitch 3 1/3 remarkable innings in which he walked six hitters and hit one but allowed no runs. The Boston Red Sox farmhand has struck out 20 in 17 innings here, and will be dangerous once he gets his act together.