Thursday, November 15, 2018

SONS SHINE


               
It’s an old saw that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, but it still cuts plenty of wood. For proof one needn’t look farther than the Arizona Fall League, the baseball exercise that concludes in the Phoenix area on Saturday.

                The AFL is the circuit I write about every year at this time, the minor-league finishing school with a six-week, 35-game schedule to which the 30 Major League clubs send seven of their better young prospects, usually class A or AA players between the ages of 19 and 23.  The young men play at six of the fine spring training ballparks hereabouts, mostly day games. They seem happy to be here, and with many evenings off, and being close to the fleshpots of downtown Scottsdale, who can blame them?

                It’s a good scene for spectators, too. Admission is cheap ($8 for adults, $6 for seniors), you can park right in front of the ballparks, and with an average per-game attendance of about 600 you can sit wherever you want. If you raise your voice a bit you can share your opinions with the umps, players, managers and your fellow fans.

                It’s a milieu that brings out the scout in many, including me. You may recall from past blogs that I picked  Nolan Arenado, Kris Bryant and Francisco Lindor for stardom of their AFL showings, and while it didn’t take an expert to finger those obviously talented guys you might remember me writing about David Bote, the unheralded Chicago Cubs’ chattel who scrapped his way onto the team’s Major League roster and played a key utility role with it last season.

                Applewise, you’ll recognize the names of several of this season’s AFL standouts because their fathers were Majors League standouts. One is VLADIMIR GUERRERO JR., whose dad was inducted into the game’s Hall of Fame last summer. Young Vlad, just 19 years old, came to the AFL highly touted, having thumped minor league pitching for a .331 batting average in three seasons and walking more often than he struck out, a signal achievement in this whiff-soaked baseball era. He didn’t disappoint, batting close to .500 for the first half of the campaign and still topping .350 despite a late-season slump.

                Vlad Jr. is a stocky kid, standing 6-foot-1 and weighing more than his listed 200 pounds. Weight may be a problem for him as he ages. His fielding also has been questioned, but he made a couple of nice plays at third base while I was watching. The Toronto Blue Jays, to whom he belongs, were criticized for not bringing him up last season, and they surely will in the next one.

                Another sure-fire prospect is 21-year-old TYLER NEVIN, the son of Phil Nevin, a long-time Major League player and coach. Tyler was leading the AFL in hitting at .420 as this week began and had a lot more walks (14) than strikeouts (4).  Although the 38th player chosen in the 2015 amateur draft (by the Colorado Rockies), he wasn’t highly touted coming to the AFL, partly because of his injury history, but he’s done everything right here, both at the plate and at first base. In one game I saw he had two hits and a walk in four times at bat, stole a base, scored two runs and batted in two.  At 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds he looks the big leaguer, and he’ll be one by 2020 if not sooner.

                A third rising son is DAULTON VARSHO, whose dad Gary was a journeyman player with several teams over eight Major League seasons (1988-95). In addition to having a big-league last name he likewise has a first, having been named for the ex-Philadelphia Philly great Darren Daulton, one of his dad’s former teammates. Like Daulton, young Varsho, age 22, is a catcher, and an unusual one. He’s small for the position, his listed 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds being an overstatement, but fast, with stolen-base base ability, and  is athletic to boot. He’s from little Chili, Wisconsin, population about 200, and has spent parts of just two seasons in the minors. Catchers typically take longer to develop than other players, so he’s probably a few seasons away from the bigs, but he promises to give his Arizona Diamondbacks parent team some help at a position where it always needs it.

                A bunch of other players also showed well. Cuban-born LUIS ROBERT, 21, one of the Chicago White Sox’s young hopes, is a built-for-speed outfielder who has come on strong at the plate after a slow start, joining the league’s top-10 in hitting (at .361) at this week’s start. BUDDY REED, of the San Diego Padres’ chain, also an outfielder, is a similarly set-up kid who had three hits and a steal in one game I saw. LUCIUS FOX, 21, from the Bahamas and the Tampa Bay Rays, plays a smooth shortstop and hits heavier than his slender frame. COLE TUCKER, a Pittsburgh Pirates property, also looked good at short.

                The top prospect from my team, the Cubs, is NICO HOERNER, their first-round choice in the 2018 draft out of Stanford U. He played only 14 games in the minors last season because of injuries but still impressed here, batting over .300 most of the season. He looks to be the sort of player who does everything well but nothing superlatively. He’s a shortstop, a position at which his big team is well stocked, so he might have trouble finding a place, but he’ll play somewhere, sometime.

                It’s hard to get a line on pitchers here because they play only every fourth game or so, and then for just a few innings, but I did see a couple of likely ones. JORDAN YAMAMOTO, 22, an Hawaiian in the Florida Marlins’ system, pitched five scoreless innings while I watched. He has a curve ball that’s unusually well developed for someone his age. JON DUPLANTIER, the Diamondbacks’ top pitching prospect, has strikeout stuff, although he had good and bad innings in my presence. 

                And as always the AFL was a good time, providing me with many entertaining afternoons. Team rosters contained a Daz (Cameron, ex-MLBer Mike’s son) and a Jazz (Chisholm), a Skye Bolt (an Oakland A’s prospect) and a Kieboom, a shortstop first-named Carter. I saw a runner tag up and go from first base to second on a pop foul to the catcher and an infielder lose a ground ball in the sun (OK, it was a high bouncer).  Eleven months is too long to wait for next season.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

IF THE SHOE FITS...


                Do you recognize the names James Gatto, Merl Code Jr. and Christian Dawkins? Probably not, I’d guess, even though they were found guilty of wire fraud a couple of weeks ago in the biggest trial in recent memory involving college-sports corruption.

                Truth is, though, that their anonymity is the point of this piece. Gatto and Code were low-to-mid-level minions of Adidas, the shoe company, and Dawkins was a wanna be sports agent. They were middlemen in the federal-government-exposed plot to use Adidas money to bribe college-basketball recruits to attend schools whose teams use the company’s gear.

                Allegations in the case involved such hoops giants as the U’s of Arizona, Kansas, North Carolina State and Louisville, but except for four hapless assistant coaches, who are supposed to go on trial early next year, no other coaches or other university officials were named in the case, nor were any top execs of Adidas or anyone connected with the NCAA, under whose auspices the collegiate sports-entertainment enterprise proceeds. Assistant coaches almost always take the fall in such matters; it’s part of their jobs and, probably, their job descriptions. The only head coach to be bounced as a result of the revelations was Louisville’s Rick Pitino, and he’d already accumulated a lengthy rap sheet.   

When the initial indictments were announced in September, 2017, people close to the case hinted that those were just the tip of an iceberg and that more and bigger charges would follow, possibly involving schools connected with Adidas rivals Nike and Under Armour. More than a year has passed but the smelly old iceberg remains submerged.

More head-scratching still is the theory prosecutors used to justify their actions; namely, that the victims in the case were the universities, the entities that stood to benefit most from the defendants’ schemes.  Said Robert Khuzami, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, where the trial was held, “The defendants not only deceived universities into issuing scholarships under false pretenses, they deprived the universities of their economic rights and tarnished an ideal which makes college sports a beloved tradition by so many fans all over the world.” A larger load of manure rarely has been delivered in a single sentence.

 It’s no news that our universities can get their way at every governmental level in this land; just about every public official holds a diploma from one or more of them and their loyalty— especially to their sports teams— is de rigueur in matters political. That’s why the NCAA cartel has avoided the Congressional regulation and oversight it richly deserves. That its clout extends to our courts likewise should be unsurprising; judges and lawyers also love their alma maters.

  The prosecutions, however, did provide peeks into two of the seamier aspects of big-time college sports, one of which is the black market that exists in the recruiting of prime collegiate prospects. It’s widely assumed that money changes hands before some recruits sign up with good old Enormous U., but the amounts revealed in testimony and documents related to the case still were enough to startle. Brian Bowen Sr., whose son Brian Jr. was a highly prized 2016 basketball prospect, said in court that a coach from Arizona offered his family $50,000 to enroll their son, a Creighton assistant offered $100,000 plus a good-paying job for him, and one from Oklahoma State offered $150,000 in cash, $8,000 for a car and additional money to help buy a house.

 Young Bowen eventually signed with Louisville for an under-the-table $100,000 to his dad. He dropped out there after the scandal broke and transferred to South Carolina. He never played at either school and now plays professionally in Australia.

Names of nearly a dozen other players surfaced in the trial as possible bribe recipients, including those of Deandre Ayton, who was the No. 1 choice in the 2018 NBA draft after a year at Arizona, and Zion Williamson, Duke’s new hotshot freshman, but there’s little doubt that the number of players receiving payouts go well beyond those. Many top basketball (and football) prospects around the country know each other from the camps and all-star games they attend, and are in contact via texts and tweets. If Prospect A gets a dollar offer it stands to reason that he’ll clue in his buddy, Prospect B, who then will be expecting the same, or better. And why not?

Also edifying was the attention the trial focused on the links between the Big Three shoe companies and basketball from the schoolboy through the universities levels. The companies sponsor AAU kids’ teams everywhere and seek to ensnare the better prospects from there through their college days and into the pros, where the big endorsement payoffs lie for both .

Shoe money at the college level began flowing in the 1970s, with the coaches as conduits. Those ties remain, and just about every big-time college coach counts considerable shoe dinero in his compensation package. Lately, though, it’s gone far beyond that, as witnessed by the 15-year, $280 million deal Under Armour recently struck with UCLA, the $191 million, 14-year pact Adidas concluded with Kansas, and the $174 million, 15-year arrangement Nike has with Michigan. The NCAA has made noises about limiting shoe-company involvement in college-sports programs, but with sums like those involved it ain’t gonna happen, no way.

One of the amusing parts of the New York trial was testimony that described some U’s as “Adidas schools” and others as similarly bound to Nike and Under Armour. Given the size of their investments, the companies well could seek naming rights, as in, say, the Adidas University of Kansas or the University of Under Armour in Los Angeles. At the least those would have a ring of truth.

Monday, October 15, 2018

BASEBAWL


               
                Fans of my favorite baseball team, the Chicago Cubs, hoped that the recent season would end with a celebration on the Wrigley Field mound, but that just went to show that you’d better watch what you wish for. It ended with not one but two frolics on the Wrigley greensward, but neither were by the Cubs as they lost the division-title tiebreaker to the Milwaukee Brewers there and, the next day, the wild-card playoff to the Colorado Rockies. Talk about a bad week!
                
                 So Cubs’ fans will spend the offseason doing what we do best-- complaining—but we are not alone in our unhappiness. Baseball had a bad year all around, both on the field and at the box office. The diamond sport is an old one to which change comes grudgingly, but it had better come if some unfortunate trends are to be reversed.

                The most eye-popping stat of the 2018 regular season was that, for the first time since the game began serious record-keeping in 1900, strikeouts exceeded hits, 41,207 to 41,019. The Number Two eye-popper was that the all-MLB batting average dropped below .250, to .248, for the first time since 1972. A .248 hitter used to be considered a weak stick. Today he’s Mr. Average.

                That “the people” were unhappy about those things—or something—was seen in attendance figures, which dipped 4% from the year before to the lowest level since 2003. That wasn’t a cliff dive but it was worrisome, especially because 17 of the 30 Major League teams showed declines.  It’s been widely noted that baseball’s stately pace is out of step with other popular entertainments these days, so the game hardly needs an offensive slowdown to add to its deficits.

                  Even the most casual observer knows what’s behind the problems because it’s been apparent for several seasons that the trend of the game is toward the pitcher and away from the hitter. Pitchers today are bigger, stronger and better coached than they used to be, and they’re being employed in relays, so hitters must cope with a greater variety of looks than previously in any given game.

 I can’t quantify it (maybe someone else can), but either fastball velocities have soared or the speed guns are busted; 95 mph deliveries used to be rare but now any pitcher who can’t reach that figure is mocked.  The pitching models today are the likes of Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, guys who stand 6-foot-4 or 5 and can throw a strawberry through a battleship. Of the 120 pitchers on the opening-day rosters of the six teams now competing in the Arizona Fall League, a finishing school for promising young minor leaguers, exactly eight were less than six feet tall and 20 were 6-5 or taller.

                The hitters have contributed to their own decline by their approaches at the plate; most swing for the fences whatever the ball-strike count or playing-field situation. Few will choke up on their bats even when any sort of contact would help their teams-- how many times have you seen batters whiff mightily with a runner on third and fewer than two outs when even a ground ball to the shortstop would score a run?

Contact problems have been exacerbated by the recent attention to the “launch angle” of swings and the effort to increase fly ball (and home run) production by more-elevated swing planes that reduce the ball-contact area. That may work for such very talented hitters as J.D. Martinez or Kris Bryant, but it’s a liability for most who try it.

Batter bullheadedness is made clearest by the reactions to the infield shifts all the teams have come to employ to take advantage of batter tendencies.  Occasionally slapping the ball to an opposite field would counteract the more radical of such moves, but—noooo!—most hitters hack away as usual, trying to squeeze their shots through ever-smaller holes.

Stupidity has no cure and pitchers aren’t about to get shorter or ease up, but I think the pitcher-hitter imbalance would be redressed at least in part by reducing the height of the pitcher’s mound from the present 10 inches to, maybe, 6 inches. The Major Leagues reduced mound height to 10 inches from 15 in 1969 after a run of pitcher dominance had shrunk the game’s batting average to .237 and the per-team runs-per-game stat to 3.42. The effect was immediate, with the batting average hopping 11 points and the runs average topping 4 that season.  Much the same thing would happen again.

Baseball’s geometry favors tall pitchers and lowering the mound would offset the advantage that has accrued to the position as average heights have grown. Not only would it make gravity less a factor, it also would flatten deliveries, meaning that pitches would stay in the hitting zone longer. Sure, we’re talking about small differences here, but small differences make a big impact on the game.

Prolonged injuries to key players, which strike just about every team every season, reduce fan ardor, and could be addressed by increasing the team roster size to 27 players from 25. With (probably) one more position player and pitcher to work with, managers could better spread around the work and rest, keeping players keen. The players’ union would love this because it would create more jobs. Owners wouldn’t like it for the same reason, but the additions likely would be paid the salary minimum of $535,000 a year. A million bucks ain’t what it used to be, so the sting wouldn’t be severe.

The best thing that baseball could do for itself would be to reduce the length of the regular season from the present, ludicrous 162 games. That length might have been defensible when it was adopted in 1962, when the post-season consisted of a single, best-of-seven World Series. It no longer is at a time when a team could play as many as 20 post-season games.

The 2018 regular season started on March 29, the earliest date ever. That hubris was rewarded by a deluge of weather-related game postponements—25 in the first three weeks alone—starting a crazy quilt of makeups causing scheduling havoc.  Beginning the season before April 15 is silly, as is running the playoffs into November, which could happen this year with a single World Series rainout.

Reducing the schedule violates the first rule of business, which is that you can’t make any money when the store isn’t open, but knocking a dozen or even 20 games off the per-team MLB slate would increase the importance of each contest and make ticket-price increases more palatable.  They’re inevitable anyway and might as well be in a good cause.


 

Monday, October 1, 2018

THEY'RE BAAAACK!


                You might have missed it because the sports pages these days don’t give much space to such things, but something big happened a couple of weeks ago in the realm of international sports. WADA, which stands for the World Anti-Doping Agency, reinstated Russia’s drug-testing programs, lifting a three-year ban that made it difficult for athletes from that country to compete in Olympic sports. The move came as a surprise because Russia hadn’t met the requirements that had been set before reinstatement could occur.

OK, the agency said in effect, we’ve upset things long enough. It’s time to return to business as usual. Sorry for the inconvenience.

If you don’t follow such things you might ask what inconvenience Russia suffered in the wake of well-founded revelations that it engineered a widespread, state-sponsored  doping assault on the 2014 Winter Games, which it hosted in the Black Sea city of Sochi. Although the allegations surfaced well before the 2016 Summer Games in Rio, the International Olympic Committee punted any penalties for that fest to its individual sports federations, most of which allowed Russians to compete. Before the 2016 Winter Games in South Korea the IOC puffed itself up enough to outlaw Russia flags and anthems, but allowed any qualified Russian athlete who could pass a drug test to compete under the banner of “Olympic Athletes From Russia.” Almost 170 did, making up the third largest national contingent there.

Some penalties had to be imposed because the offenses that led to them were so blatant and crudely executed they couldn’t be ignored. They involved cutting a hole through a wall of the drug-testing lab at Sochi and passing through it “clean” urine samples to be substituted for athletes’ real, dirty ones while Russia’s equivalent of the FBI stood guard.  We had that from various sources, including Grigory Rodchenkov, the head of the lab in question, who fled to the U.S. in fear of his life after other accounts of the scheme began to surface. Subsequent investigations revealed that as many as 100 Russian samples had been tampered with, and 17 of that country’s 33 Sochi medals were taken away.   

In 2015 WADA stripped its certification of Russia’s testing labs and set down two conditions for reinstatement; namely, that Russia admit to the offenses and give it access to the many urine samples and records that weren’t available to initial investigators. Reinstatement came despite neither of those conditions being met, although anyone who thought the country would allow incriminating evidence in its possession to be turned over untouched to other authorities must be daft.

 From the outset Russia followed its usual course when accused of international wrongdoing, which is to deny, deny, deny, and for good measure it cried about “Western” conspiracies to defame it. It even thumbed its nose at accusers by promoting to deputy prime minister Vitali Mutko, who as the nation’s sports minister oversaw the doping operation. That made him the nation’s No. 3 politician, behind only Boss Putin and Putin’s hand-picked prime minister, Dmitri Medvedev. Great job, Vitali.

                The WADA decision to let Russia back in the game was consistent with just about all previous rulings by the IOC, its parent organization. Contrary to public view, WADA is not an independent agency but an arm of the IOC, which started it in 1999 to try to bring order to a drug-enforcement regime that differed widely from country to country and sport to sport, and caused widespread derision. That the IOC pulls the strings at WADA is seen in the facts that it directly supplies half the agency’s operating budget and, through its ties to member-nation governments, also supplies the other half. WADA’s founder and first president (1999-2007) was Dick Pound, long a prominent IOC official. Its current president is the Scotsman Craig Reedie, an IOC vice president. 

WADA promulgated a uniform anti-doping code for Olympic sports and oversees its application, but has no research or drug-testing facilities of its own. It leaves that to some 30 national and regional labs which, no doubt, vary in honesty and competence. Further, its political will is no stronger than that of its IOC parent. Time and again, through war, scandal, geopolitical upheaval and even murder (at the 1972 Munich Games), the IOC’s motto has been the show-biz one: “the show must go on.” With it, of course, comes the Olympics’ immense revenues and graft, the latter of which flows easiest in authoritarian regimes like Russian and China. Indeed, the day after the ban was lifted Russia was added to the short list of countries seeking to hold the 2023 European Games.

In creating WADA, the IOC showed it had no intention of surrendering any important function to an outside group that could turn troublesome. In that, by the way, it’s much the same as such American sports organizations as the NCAA, the NFL and Major League Baseball, which also keep a tight grip on drug testing and anything else that might affect their fortunes. The resulting governance in all cases has shown that when the policeman also is the promoter the promoter side rules.

WADA’s Russia call has spurred criticism, mostly from athletes who say they want their playing fields to be level. The most effective protest of it would come in the form of an athlete boycott of any event that includes Russians, but athletes have small windows in which to perform at world-class levels and, in the past, have been loath to narrow it by taking such measures.  So the show will go on and all we can do is hold our noses.


Saturday, September 15, 2018

MVP! MVP?


                Arch Ward was the sports editor of the Chicago Tribune from 1930 until his death in 1955, but his main legacy wasn’t anything he wrote or caused to be written. It’s the MLB All-Star Game, which was launched by his hand in 1933. From his desk in Tribune Tower, backed by his paper’s financial and political clout, he also created the boxing Golden Gloves tournament, the College Football All-Star Game and the All-American Football Conference, the last two of which made a splash before going defunct. His life’s work was nicely encapsulated in the title of a biography of him that was written in 1990: “Arch—A Promoter Not A Poet.”

                The point of that paragraph is to point out that newspaper guys have had a bigger part in shaping America’s sports structure than many people appreciate. One piece of that edifice are the Most Valuable Player awards that our big leagues hand out annually, and over which we fans can be counted upon to obsess.  They (one for the National League, one for the American) were created by the Baseball Writers Association of American in 1931, mostly to give those worthies something to write about during the game’s long off-season. That’s a preoccupation of sportswriters generally and the source of much of what still passes for news when the players aren’t tossing around balls in earnest.
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                In baseball the MVP idea was so good it spawned a cornucopia of other prizes. The Rookie of the Year awards came along in 1947 and the Cy Youngs, for best pitchers, in 1956, both also conducted under BWAA auspices. More recently have come the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards, the ones for “comeback” players, relief pitchers, designated hitters and managers, and the Hank Aaron Award for best hitter. Not surprisingly, commercial sponsors have jumped on board: Rolaids and the DHL delivery company have put their names on the relief-pitcher trophies, and Viagra backs the comebacker awards (tee-hee).

                The MVPs, however, stick out in that crowd, not only for their longevity but also for their ambiguity. The other prizes are pretty straightforward—the Cy’s go to the pitchers that the writers think performed best in the just-concluded season and the rookie one for the first-year man who did the same, even though there could be (and usually are) differences over whom that might be. The MV in the MVP, though, stands for “most valuable,” whatever that means, and instead of providing a clear definition the clever scribes left that to the individual voters. Since sportswriters like nothing better than to quibble, quibble they do, and the rest of us quibble right along.

                  If the award were simply for the best player in each league, it’ll be fairly easy to decide in many seasons. If I were a playground captain choosing sides for a game in this one, I’d pick Nolan Arenado, the Colorado Rockies’ third baseman, to lead my National League squad, and Mike Trout, the LA Angels’ centerfielder, to head the American League group. Both are power hitters with few peers, hit for average, are excellent fielders and are skilled in their sport’s subtler aspects.

Between the two of them I’d give the edge to Arenado because of his glove (five “gold” ones in his five Major League seasons to date).  Oddly, though, he’s never won an MVP and the best he’s done in any election is fourth. Trout, on the other hand, has won two (in 2014 and ’16) in his seven full campaigns.

But we’re not talking “best” player here (or are we?) we’re talkin’ “most valuable.” I guess that means most valuable to his team, but what does THAT mean? The measure seems to favor the best player on a league’s best team, or at least on a strong pennant contender, but it doesn’t always turn out that way; when Trout won the AL award in 2016 his team finished a non-playoff fourth in its division, and in 1987 Andre Dawson won with the Chicago Cubs, who finished in last place in theirs. Sure, Dawson had a monster year (48 HRs, 137 RBIs), but it didn’t do his team much good  ‘cause you can’t do worse than last.

Baseball has heeded such questions and has included in its stats of late a newfangled measure called WAR, which stands for wins above replacement. It’s based on how a player compares statistically to the hypothetical bench player or high minor-leaguer who would replace him if he were unavailable. Far and away the leader in the all-majors WAR ratings for the current season is Mookie Betts, the Boston Red Sox’s centerfielder, with a 9.8 on Thursday (Trout’s was at 9.0), and he’s a good bet in the AL MVP race. But how the score is calculated is a mystery to most fans, including me, and thus it isn’t widely cited.

Moreover, WAR is little help in this season’s NL MVP race, with the six leading position-player contenders (Arenado; the Arizona Diamondbacks’ first-baseman Paul Goldschmidt; Chicago Cubs’ infielder Javier Baez; St. Louis Cardinals first-baseman Matt Carpenter; Atlanta Braves’ first baseman Freddie Freedman; and Milwaukee Braves’ outfielder Christian Yellich) all ranking between 5.9 and 5.1.  Two NL pitchers, the Washington National’s Max Scherzer and the Philadelphia Phillies’ Aaron Nola, both have WARs of 9 or better, but how can any once-every-five-days starting pitcher be almost twice as valuable to his team as a top everyday player?  Huh? Huh?

So the MVP electors (two BWAA members in every league city) have their work cut out for them in the post-season. If it were a best-player election I’d pick Arenado. For “most fun” I’d pick Baez, who at any given moment can hit a home run, score from first base on a single or strike out on a pitch two feet wide. For steadiest I’d take Goldy, once again the anchor in his team’s erratic voyage.

 But ambiguity is a good thing, right?  Anything that gets people talking is good for the game, as the old-time writers knew.


Saturday, September 1, 2018

BUSINESS AS USUAL


                I’d say that for people about my (advanced) age the old picture of a college coach was one not of a real coach but of an actor, Pat O’Brien. He starred in the 1940s movie “Knute Rockne, All-American,” about the Notre Dame football mentor who was legendary even then. It was a typical Hollywood biopic of the era, sketchy and idealized, but memorable nonetheless.

O’Brien often played Catholic priests so his characters inevitably had that tinge. His Rockne also was part Army drill sergeant, but in a benevolent sort of way.  Usually wearing a plain, gray sweatshirt, with a whistle hung around his neck, he was gruff but approachable and took an individual interest in his players. His wife, played by the sweet-faced Gail Page, sometimes had the boys over for milk and cookies after practice.

Cut now to the present, where a quite-different picture predominates. If a movie exemplifies today’s big-time coachly breed it’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” about the hell-bent pursuit of success and profit. Today’s top practitioners are more CEOs than Mr. Chips, pulling down seven-figure salaries, flying around in private planes and holding forth in regal offices behind a half-dozen secretaries and a dozen assistants. Rules are bent or broken when convenient, violations are deep-sixed. Occasionally, there are bodies to be stepped over.  You’d entrust your children to Paul Manafort before one of them.

If that rhetoric sounds excessive, you haven’t been reading the sports pages lately, or in recent years. The words “college sports” and “scandal” have become inseparable as universities pull out all stops in attempts to enhance their entertainment enterprises, and their education missions be damned. One much-admired state school (the University of North Carolina) for almost 20 years maintained an academic shell department whose purpose was to keep its athletes eligible without the bother of having to learn anything. Another (Penn State) turned a blind eye to a serial sexual predator on its football staff to avoid rocking a winning boat.  Still another (Louisville) employed strippers and prostitutes to entertain basketball recruits and kept on the coach (Rick Pitino) under whose regime the practice went on, at least until it came out that his team was buying players in the underground market where many other schools also shop. That last business still is playing out in a continuing FBI investigation.

The current poster boy for college-sports depravity is one D.J. Durkin, the third-year head football coach at the University of Maryland. He’s been suspended since an ESPN investigation revealed that he and some assistants routinely mocked and intimidated players whose body weights or practice performances didn’t please them. The piece followed the death of a 19-year-old Maryland lineman who died of an apparent heatstroke after running ten 110-yard sprints in very hot weather at a team practice in late May. The boy’s family lawyer says the team didn’t call emergency services for almost an hour after the player collapsed.

It’s interesting, I think, that in 2016, at age 37, Durkin was given a five-year, $12.5 million contract at Maryland despite having no previous head-coaching experience. A New York Times story about his suspension said he was hired in part because of a recommendation from Jim Harbaugh, the highly regarded U. of Michigan head coach for whom Durkin worked as an assistant. “I always get a smile when I think of D.J. because I think of the foam coming out of the side of his mouth, snot bubbles percolating when he’s really intense,” the paper quoted Harbaugh as saying. “He’s a great competitor.”

Durkin also had worked for Urban Meyer, Ohio State’s exalted football coach who’s also sidelined for his belated firing of an assistant coach who was accused by his wife of spousal abuse over a several-year period, and lying at a press conference when asked about his knowledge of the episodes. After being suspended for the first three games of this season (owie!), Meyer issued a classic nonapology apology: “I’m sorry we’re in this situation,” said he. Only the next day, after he was widely criticized, did he express sympathy for the victimized wife.

The coverup culture extends to the so-called minor sports whose success or failure have little bottom-line impact on their institutions. Kathy Klages, a former Michigan State U. gymnastics coach, last week was accused by police of not reporting what she knew about the horrendous predations of Dr. Larry Nasser, the MSU team physician who is serving a long prison sentence for sexually molesting numerous female gymnasts under the guise of treatment. Showing that male athletes aren’t immune to such things, more than 100 former Ohio State wrestlers now say they were groped by Richard Strauss, their team doctor for 20 years before his 2005 suicide.

That situation has received heightened attention because Ohio Congressman Jim Jordan, an OSU wrestling assistant coach from 1986 through 1994, has denied any knowledge of what went on, despite direct challenges from several wrestlers he coached. You’ll recall that the former Congressman Dennis Hastert, speaker of the U.S. House from 1999 to 2007, was imprisoned in 2015 from charges related to his molestation of boys while he was a high-school wrestling coach decades earlier.
The possibilities of abuse in college sports stem from the power coaches wield. The athletes involved mostly are aged 18 to 23 and living away from home for the first time. They owe their special (scholarship) status on campus to their coach-overseers, with their parents often absent, no union or agents to protect them and school administrators looking the other way, at best.  Even the option to transfer is encumbered by rules not affecting other students. And it’s on their performance that the jobs and sometimes very high incomes of their coaches hinge.

The Washington Post recently ran an article reporting that since 2000 40 college athletes have died doing “conditioning” for their sports, a period in which the National Football League, known for its physical rigor, had no such fatalities. Dozens more have been seriously injured; in 2011 13 U. of Iowa football players were hospitalized for up to a week, some with temporary paralysis, for tissue breakdowns caused by an over-the-top, off-season workout session.

                The university investigated the case and issued a long report but found no reason to fault any of its coaches or trainers. Much the same thing happened after three U. of Oregon footballers suffered the same fate in 2017, or two more at the U. of Nebraska earlier this year.

 Nothing to see here folks, move on, the schools said. Just business as usual in college sports. 






Wednesday, August 15, 2018

BEARS DOWN


My pro-football team, the Chicago Bears, has a fight song called “Bear Down Chicago Bears,” and it’s well known by its supporters. It’s a short ditty that’s easy to memorize, mostly because of the repetitions of the “Bear down” theme. Its best lines go as follows: “We’ll never forget the way you thrilled the nation/ With your T-formation.” That’s in reference to the team’s pioneering role introducing the “T” to the football world, ushering in the modern passing game. The period in question was the 1940s, when the Bears rode high with championships in 1940, ’41, ’43 and ’46.

 But ironically, the “T” and the ‘40s teams that honed them turned out to be the apexes of the National Football League’s oldest continuous franchise. Its chesty and history-loving fans to the contrary notwithstanding, the Bears for decades have been one of the league’s sad-sackiest outfits, one that hasn’t developed a first-rate passing game since the leather-helmeted quarterback Sid Luckman left the fold in 1950. Indeed, the great Sid held most of the Bears’ passing records until just a few seasons ago, a 60-plus-year skein that was unmatched in NFL annals, and I think even he might have been put off by the chronic aerial ineptitude of his former club.

Don’t get me wrong, the Bears are not the NFL’s sorriest franchise. Thirteen of its clubs never have won a Super Bowl trophy since that bauble first was contested in 1967, and four of them (the Detroit Lions, Cleveland Browns, Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars) never have qualified for the game. The league’s all-time worst won-lost record (255-404, or .387) belongs to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and they’re so far in the last-place hole they might never crawl out of it.

But the Bears certainly rank in the league’s bottom quadrant by most standards since their 1946 championship run. They’ve won only two league titles since (in 1963 and 1985) and have just one other SB appearance to their credit, in 2006. Since that year they’ve posted just three winning records and have finished below .500 the last four seasons.  With a new and untried head coach and young roster, they’ll again be hard-pressed to reach that mark in the season that starts next month.

Further, the post-WWII era Bears have been dull as well as bad, owing most of whatever success they’ve had to defensive prowess. The 1963 champions, led by linebacker Bill George and defensive lineman Doug Atkins, won a bunch of games by scores of 14-10 or so, as did the 2006 crew, led by linebacker Brian Urlacher. The latter team was quarterbacked by Rex Grossman, whose signature play was the fumbled center snap. It may have been the worst to have qualified for a Super Bowl, losing 29-17 there to the Peyton Manning Indianapolis Colts despite being spotted a seven-point lead by Devin Hester’s TD return of the opening kickoff.

Defense with a capital “D” was the hallmark of the 1985 Bears’ champs, a team so dominant that its fans’ eyes still glaze when recalling it.  That unit annihilated its opponents, leading the league in about every defensive category and allowing only 10 points in three playoff wins. No member of that outfit has bought himself a drink in Chicago since, it was that good.

Alas, the ’85 performance was a one-off. It was a young club that could and probably should have repeated, but its locker room wasn’t big enough to contain its leaders’ egos, especially that of its head coach, Mike Ditka. Its aura remains, and allows Bears’ fans to pipe up when the great Patriots, Steelers and Cowboys teams are discussed, but the episode was a footnote in NFL history, not a chapter.

It takes no expert analyst to pinpoint the cause of the Bears’ recent ineptitude; it’s simply that they haven’t had enough good players. Every year the ESPN website makes up a list of the league’s 100 best players regardless of position, and the last two years no Bear has made it, as in zero. That would be hard to do even if it were an objective.

Coaches come and go (three since 2013), and a new general manager came on board in 2015, but the talent dearth remains. The current team has pegged its hopes on Mitch Trubitsky, a quarterback for whom it paid up big to acquire with the second choice of the 2017 collegiate draft, despite the fact he’d been just a one-year starter for a mediocre college team (North Carolina).

The plan was for the young man to carry a clipboard his first season while the veteran Mike Glennon ran the offensive show, but Glennon was so bad that Trubitsky was pressed into starting service in game five and stayed there the rest of the season. Trouble was, the coaching staff had so little faith in him that it installed a high-school-level offense that required (and revealed) few of his abilities, so he enters the current campaign as big of a question mark as he was at this time last season. That’s not exactly a model for player development.

Much the same could be said of Roquan Smith, the linebacker who was the team’s top 2018 draft choice. Alone among the league’s latest draftees he held out for a month over an arcane contract dispute, missing the sweatiest month of training camp. That should endear him to his new teammates.

Overseeing this long-running mess are the descendants of George Halas, the team’s founder. He died in 1983, four years after the death of his son and intended heir George Jr., a/k/a Muggs. That left the team to the family of his daughter, Virginia McCaskey, and her brood of 11 kids.

 Most other NFL teams are owned by big-ego billionaires who have succeeded mightily in other fields. Not the Bears, whose owners scored big only by picking the right parents.  Virginia’s son, George, now is team chairman, having succeeded his brother, Michael, in 1999. Virginia, now 95 and widowed, still is a board of directors member, as are Michael and George. Three others bearing the family name round out the nine-member unit, mirroring the family’s 80% ownership share.

  There have been recurring rumors of the team being for sale, but all have been quickly shot down. Virginia McCaskey has been quoted as saying her family will run the team “until the second coming,” and with 21 grandchildren and 26 great-grandchildren she has the troops to back it up. It’s enough to make one hope for a messiah.