Thursday, October 1, 2015


               Newspaper reporters don’t (or, at least, shouldn’t) buy anyone’s act whole, and looking back I can see I always was cut out to be one. As a kid I used to go early to Chicago Cubs’ games to watch batting practice, but when my pals gathered along the low brick wall that separated the stands from the field to plead for player autographs, I didn’t join them in latter part of the exercise. I simply wasn’t interested in that sort of thing.
              One summer day in 1950 the 12-year-old me was standing along the wall when Ron Northey, an erstwhile Cubs’ slugger, broke a bat in the cage. Carrying it back to the bench he spied me and thrust the injured instrument into my hands. Initially I was pleased with my prize and the attention it brought, and sat with it on my lap throughout the game that followed, but it occurred to me quickly enough that a broken bat had limited utility. I put it in a trash container on my way out of Wrigley Field.
              But while I’ve never had heroes I’ve always had favorites, and do to this day. I admire good play, of course, but to make my list an athlete has to bring something other than skill to his or her games. Following are my five favorite current baseball players, and the reasons I’ve selected them for the honor.
             MARK BUEHRLE--   Ray Miller, the old Baltimore Orioles’ pitching coach, used to pitch three rules to his charges: Work fast. Change speeds. Throw strikes. Unsaid was another rule most people might have added: Throw hard. ‘Twasn’t necessary if you did the other three, Miller believed. And besides, “what are you going to do if throwing hard doesn’t work—throw harder?” he’d say. “That’s the quickest way to get arm trouble.”

               Nobody in the present-day game personifies Miller’s dicta better than Buehrle.  The 36-year-old Toronto Blue Jays’ left-hander never has broken a speed gun but he’s compiled 213 wins including two no-hitters in his 16 big-league seasons, which is about as good as it gets in this era of five-man starting rotations. He’s as good today as he was when he was 25 or 30 years old, and the winningest pitcher (his record is 14-7) on his division-leading team. With his easy delivery and efficient outlook there’s no reason he shouldn’t be good for three or four more similar seasons, which would put him in Cooperstown range.

               What mostly endears Buehrle to me, though, is his adherence to Miller’s Rule One. His approach to pitching is simple: Get the ball, throw the ball. Two-hour games, once a relic, are possible when he starts. Working fast dictates the pace of a game to a pitcher’s advantage and keeps his fielders on their toes. It also keeps fans’ attentions from wandering, the upshot of the game’s too-slow woes. Oh that there were more like him!

 ANTHONY RIZZO—Yeah, he’s a Cub and a talented one, and I’m a Cubs’ fan, but I like Rizzo especially because he has an old head on his sturdy, 26-year-old body.  Only in season five of what promises to be a long career, he’s by necessity a team leader of a playoff-bound Kiddie Korps that has five rookies among its eight position players some days. How far the Cubs go in October (not far, I fear, because they’re green, strikeout-prone and pitching-short) will depend largely on him.

Whatever he does or doesn’t do in the clubhouse, Rizzo obviously leads by example. He’s an honest-to-gosh power hitter, with 85 home runs to show for his three years as a Cub regular, but unlike most of this ilk he doesn’t aim for the bleachers with every swing. With two strikes or in close-game situations he’s been known to choke up on his bat, shorten his swing and move up in the batter’s box, the better to make the contact needed to start or sustain rallies. Some of his hack-happy teammates should take note.

BRANDON PHILLIPS—He’s accumulated a nice collection of All-Star Game selections and Golden Gloves in a 14-year career, 10 of them with the Cincinnati Reds, but the second baseman stands out for me because he enjoys playing and spreads the joy around. He’s bouncy on the bases, will chat up whichever player comes his way and smiles or frowns as the game situation warrants. His sunny demeanor is a welcome contrast to that of the lunch-box-carrying millionaires who make up baseball’s sullen majority.

Better, he bears adversity well, at least sometimes. In a game about a month ago against the Cubs he was fanned in a critical situation by the effusive Pedro Strop, who greeted strike three with a leap and a whoop. Instead of taking offense, as most players would, Phillips gave Strop a grin and a thumbs up, one hot dog to another.  Pass the mustard.

YAVIER MOLINA—When it comes to this guy, I have to take back what I wrote a few paragraphs up. He’s so good on the field that his qualities there alone qualify him for my faves list.

The St. Louis Cardinals’ catcher is the best player on baseball’s winningest team, playing the game’s toughest position, and in his 12 seasons has established himself as one of the best defensive catchers ever. Moreover, although I’m not privy to the inner workings of the Cardinals’ manager-pitching coach-catcher collaboration, he certainly deserves some credit for guiding the pitching staff that’s been among the game’s best these past half-dozen seasons.

Molina throws out attempted base stealers at a 44% rate, well above the general run of less than 30%. His 52 career pickoffs leads all active catchers.  After a slow start he’s made himself into a better-than-average hitter, and his mien radiates fire across the diamond. Every team wishes it had a player like him.

SAM FULD— Sam gets my over-achiever award, hands down. A little man (5-9, 170 pounds) in what’s increasingly a big man’s game, and lacking much batting power, he’s cobbled together an eight-year, four-team (Cubs, Rays, Twins and A’s) Major League career on sheer chutzpah. He’s the quintessential fourth outfielder, someone who can be inserted into any OF position any time and, somehow, throw out a runner or come up with a single or stolen base. He’s a kamikaze fielder whose eye-popping catches make a great YouTube video.

He has an interesting biography for a ballplayer. He’s from New Hampshire, where the summers are about six weeks long. His dad is a university professor and his mom is a state legislator. He went to Stanford U., where he not only played baseball but also got a degree in economics. He’s been diabetic since age 10 and must monitor his blood-sugar levels continually.

  And he’s Jewish, so he probably knows what chutzpah is. As Joe Paterno once said about an Italian football player, “I don’t like him because he’s Italian, I like him because I’m Italian.”

Tuesday, September 15, 2015


               If it is true that, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “the test of a first-class intellect is the ability to hold opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function,” then many of my friends have first-class intellects. They believe as I do (but usually not as strongly) that big-time college sports reek of hypocrisy and exploitation, but cling to the contradictory view that, somehow, their own schools “do things right.”
             I am under no such illusion. I have no doubt that the University of Illinois, at which I spent four highly formative years (1955-59) and for whose teams I still cheer, engages in the same, pernicious practices as other big schools in stocking and maintaining its playing-field forces. My gripe is that it isn’t very good at them.

We old Illini don’t expect much. Most of us are Chicagoans who, unlike people from such benighted places as Kentucky, Nebraska and Oklahoma, have had many entertainments within easy reach and so don’t look to our university as a primary provider. We don’t strive to create football dynasties the way Ohio State and Michigan have; mere respectability is our goal. But alas, even that modest goal usually is out of reach.

That sad fact is especially true as another college football season begins. Illinois footballers have had just five winning seasons in the last 20, and have won just one Big Ten title in that span (14 years ago), but seem to have little chance of adding to those totals. The school fired its head football coach, Tim Beckman, two weeks before the season began, and now functions under a guy with the word “interim” in his title, meaning that recruiting is pretty much on hold until a permanent replacement is named. That puts us in the doghouse for at least a couple of years past this one.  

Worse, the entire athletics department is under a cloud from allegations that, if true, are appalling.  Two former football players are suing the university for mishandling their gridiron injuries, as is a woman soccer player. Further, a Federal lawsuit alleges that the school’s women’s basketball team discriminated against and otherwise mistreated black players, something that strains credulity in this day and age.  Almost stranger still was a university investigation into those charges that led to the firing of an assistant coach in the program but cleared the head coach, as though that sort of thing could occur without his knowledge. Fat chance.

As a U of I student and reporter for the Daily Illini and Champaign-Urbana Courier, I frequently brushed against athletics-department types. I didn’t consider them brilliant and nothing has happened over the last 56 years to change that view. The first job of any athletics director is to hire good coaches in the so-called revenue sports, and in that period Illinois has had only one football coach (Mike White, 1980-87) and one basketball coach (Bill Self, 2000-03) I considered outstanding. White ultimately tripped over the NCAA’s fat rulebook and Self abandoned ship the first time something better crooked its finger

The current AD is one Mike Thomas, and how he keeps his job is beyond me. Besides the above-mentioned legal horrors, he’s the guy who in 2012 appointed Beckman, who was on nobody’s A-list at the time. Beckman was a flop on the field --his three-year record was 12 wins in 37 games and most of those victories were “schedule wins” over much-smaller schools hired for the purpose (as are his successor’s two wins this season). He also was clumsy in public and given to such odd gaffs as being caught chewing tobacco on the sidelines, which besides being gauche is against the rules.

Thomas’s choice for basketball coach, the next year, was John Groce. Because of his energy Groce was favorably received initially, but he’s come in second in too many recruiting battles and has yet to impart positive momentum to his teams. He’s had terrible luck in the injury department (his putative starting point guard has suffered season-ending injuries before each of the last two campaigns), and his last-year team suffered an embarrassing collapse after showing early foot. If he doesn’t produce this season, with unpromising material, he might be unemployed come March.

To the question of “what’s wrong?” there is no easy answer. Champaign-Urbana, the adjacent corn belt cities in which the University is domiciled, is widely seen as a dull, rural place that’s unattractive to young jocks (it really ain’t bad), but so is Iowa City, Ia., and State College, Pa., and they’ve done well enough, sportswise. The University of Wisconsin, in a state that has far fewer athletic resources than Illinois, has put together recent football and basketball records that put Illinois’s in the shade.

College sports are coaches’ realms and Illinois needs one in football and, perhaps soon, will in basketball. The journalistic consensus is that its history of ineptitude has made the school a Sargasso Sea that no established coach would want to navigate. So OK, Nick Saban won’t be leaving Alabama for Champaign-Urbana any time soon, but the woods teem with smart young assistant coaches and the main trick is to find one whose ties to the school or state would make Illinois a destination rather than a gig.

It also would help if the guy can hunt with the sharks without showing blood on his teeth. Appearances trump reality in a game where everybody cheats, one in which doing things well beats doing them “right.”



Tuesday, September 1, 2015


             Imagine that you run a company with an employee who was arrested for striking his girlfriend during a domestic dispute, but she dropped the charge before it could be prosecuted.  Would you fire the guy or keep him on?
            Now imagine that he was prosecuted but found not guilty. Or prosecuted and found guilty and served his time. Would your response be different from that of the situation above?

I’m guessing that your probable course in all three cases would be to ask around about the on-the-job behavior of the employee involved-- his work performance and his relationships with colleagues and customers. Then you’d see if it was a one-time incident or something that had been repeated. If he passed those tests you might be inclined to keep him around even though you found the incident distasteful. You well could conclude that whatever the man did or didn’t do, it wasn’t up to an employer to take the roles of judge and jury by adding a punishment apart from those exacted by the criminal-justice system.

I’m sure you know that the not-hypothetical National Football League and some of its clubs have faced a number of such decisions in recent seasons, involving things like driving offenses and drug possession as well as domestic abuse. Time was when matters like that were swept under the rug, written off as the sort of “boys will be boys” misdeeds that were irrelevant to their on-field activities. Now we’re in a hypervigilant era in which little goes unnoticed, and segments of the population stand ready to howl if they’re displeased by any action.

The upshot has been a hodgepodge of reactive disciplinary calls that, in sum, make little sense. If Commish Goodell and his team-owner employers have any guidelines for their moves—or any rationale—they’re not apparent to this eye.

Let’s start with the NFL’s most-celebrated recent case, that of the Baltimore Ravens’ running back Ray Rice. Rice last year was given a two-game suspension after being cited for assault for hitting his girlfriend in an Atlantic City elevator, but when a video of the appalling incident surfaced—and was played repeatedly on national television—an outcry forced the league to backtrack and extend the suspension indefinitely. Rice then was summarily cut (fired) by his team, putting him out of a job.

Not long afterward the criminal case against Rice was dropped when the woman involved refused to press charges and he agreed to submit to counseling.  As the season advanced he sued the NFL on grounds he’d been punished twice for the same offense, and a court ordered that his suspension be lifted. He has no criminal record, has apologized publicly and married the woman he struck. Yet convicted by the court of public opinion, he’s unemployed and seemingly employable in his chosen field at age 28.

Now look at Ray McDonald, a veteran defensive lineman. He was arrested twice in 2014, both times on charges concerning violence against a girlfriend, including sexual assault. His team, the San Francisco 49ers, took no action after the first incident but released him after the second. During the off-season he was signed by the Chicago Bears but last May was arrested again for same sort of thing and, again, was released by his team. Last week he was indicted for rape stemming from the May incident. Like Rice he’s currently unemployed, but it is noteworthy that the league never has taken action against him, the most-apparent difference between his cases and Rice’s being that no video camera was rolling during any of McDonald’s alleged transgressions.

Turn next to the shocker of the current pre-season, the punch that broke the jaw of Geno Smith, the New York Jets’ quarterback, by teammate Ikemefuna Enemkpali, a backup linebacker, after a dispute over a Smith debt.  Smith required surgery and reportedly could be sidelined for up to two months.

 The Jets cut Enemkpali post haste, but before the week was over he was signed by the Buffalo Bills, whose coach, Rex Ryan, coached the Jets last year. Ryan said he’d talked to Enemkpali and was convinced the young man would sin no more. Ryan’s Bills, incidentally, also are the new employer of Richie Incognito, the main perp in the Miami Dolphins’ 2013 teammate-bullying and harassment mess.  That ought to be some lively locker room.

No criminal charges have been filed in the Enemkpali-Smith matter because Smith says he won’t pursue them, but the incident took place before witnesses at the Jets’ training facility so it’s hard to see where that rules them out. The blow was described as a “sucker punch” that didn’t result from a fight. Although Enemkpali’s target was a man, not a woman, it was as much an assault as Rice’s smacking his sweetie, and because Smith was a putative starter at the game’s most-important position it had significant football impact. Nonetheless, the NFL has taken no action, and none is said to be pending.

Maybe that’s because the league is up to its elbows seeking to punish Tom Brady, the New England Patriots’ quarterback, for the non-violent offense of causing a bit of air to leak from some footballs used in a last-season playoff game. Goodell came down hard on the Pats’ star, socking him with a four-game suspension, a quarter of the regular season. The issue is in federal court now, and the judge has chaffed at having to spend his time on such trivia, but the NFL’s self-importance knows no bounds, so on it rolls.

In truth, the league has only itself to blame for “Deflategate.” In most other sports opponents share the same game balls, but the NFL lets its teams have their “own” and gives them a week to doctor them before they’re used (for details see my blog of February 15). The stuff that’s permitted exceeds what’s prohibited.

Brady probably did something wrong and should be penalized (15 yards?), but didn’t I read somewhere that the punishment should fit the crime?  He’d have been better off cold-cocking a teammate.

Saturday, August 15, 2015


               Thanks to baseball’s Extra Innings TV package, which brings any game televised anywhere into my home at what I consider a reasonable price (about $200 a season), I watch a lot of baseball these days. This is to say I also hear a lot of complaining.
               The sources of the gripes are the TV broadcasters, and their subjects are the umpires, particularly the ones calling balls and strikes on any given day. It’s a regular whineathon, usually starting with the first batter and not ending until the last. Take away the bitching and those guys would be virtually mute. Come to think of it, that wouldn’t be too bad.

               Ordinarily, I dismiss complaints about the officiating in any sport as sour grapes. The idea that the umps, refs, etc., are out to get the teams we root for is embedded in the American psyche, especially these days when distrust of authority runs high, but the mere fact that just about everyone subscribes to it is evidence that it can’t be true. I mean, if everybody is pissed off, somebody must be doing something right.

               When it comes to the calling of baseball’s balls and strikes, though, it seems to me that the beefers have a point, even though it’s not the one they usually make. The game’s strike zone these days appears to be unusually elastic in ways that favor the pitchers over the hitters no matter what uniforms they wear.  I blame this largely for the steep decline in offense that has been the game’s main feature of the past several seasons.

The stats are clear. With the current season about two-thirds over, per-team runs a game average 4.14, the game-wide batting average is .253 and teams are striking out at a rate of 7.59 a contest. Ten years ago (2005) those figures were 4.59, .264 and 6.30, respectively. Fifteen years ago (2000) they were 5.14, .270 and 6.45.  That the bottom-line calculation of runs per game shows an almost 20% drop in this still-newish century amounts to a seismic shift in the venerable National Pastime.

A number of changes in the game help account for the trend. Pitchers today are bigger, throw harder and are technically more proficient than before. Equally as important (and usually overlooked) is the fact that there are more of them. Twenty years or so ago most teams carried nine or 10 pitchers on their 25-man rosters; today it’s 12 or 13.

Time was that starting pitchers routinely went seven innings and complete games weren’t rare. This meant that batters often would face the same pitchers three or four times a game and could put together good lines on their “stuff.” Now, teams now use four or five different pitchers even in low scoring games, and, sometimes, two or more in an inning, even when it seems they don’t have to. The other day one manager, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Clint Hurdle, changed pitchers in the ninth inning of a game his team led 5-1, with one out and nobody on base. Jeez.

Radical defensive shifts that put three or four infielders on the same side of the diamond also once were rare. Now that every batted ball goes into computers programmed to identify hitter tendencies they’re commonplace, and most hitters thus confronted are too bullheaded or self-satisfied to combat them.

Indeed, hitter bullheadedness contributes mightily to pitcher effectiveness; as Chicago White Sox broadcaster “Hawk” Harrelson recently noted, “most batters swing the same way [from the heels] whether the count is 2-0 or 0-2.”  The day when pumped-up batsmen like Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire were machine-gunning home runs is past, but their era’s mantra of “chicks dig the long ball” is very much alive. The corollary of that— chicks dig strikeouts—must be equally true, albeit unsaid.

But my me the umpiring factor is at least a big a factor in the decline as any of the above. In 1997, after a playoff game in which the Florida Marlins pitcher Livan Hernandez struck out 15 Atlanta Braves, many on pitches that looked to be low or wide, home-plate umpire Eric Gregg answered the resulting questions by referring to “my” strike zone. The commissioners’ office came down hard on him for that, so we haven’t heard much such talk since, but the fact remains that each ump has his own strike zone and it’s up to the hitters to learn it daily. Hitting big-league pitching is tough enough without the mental gymnastics this requires.

There’s little argument that most umps are consistent in calling a strike zone that differs markedly from the rule-book prescription that it extend vertically from the midpoint between the shoulders and the belt to the top of the knees. The “high” strike—on pitches much above the belt—rarely is called, and the zone’s real bottom is the bottom of the knee rather than the top. That’s in keeping with the game’s “gentlemen’s agreement” that swaps the high strike for the low one; pitchers these days are taught to keep the ball “down” and hitters have come to expect that.

Each year, though, the zone seems to get lower, with just about every pitch that’s over the plate but not in the dirt getting strike treatment, and wider to the outside of both left- and right-handed hitters. That’s confirmed daily by the upright rectangle televisers superimpose on the zone during their broadcasts. Some days the outside edge of the plate seems to be the chalked edge of the opposite batter’s box, a difference of three or four inches. Pitches off the inside edge rarely get such latitude.

Why this should be so is easily apparent. Umps invariably set up by placing themselves inside and above the catchers’ heads. This gives them a straight view of the high ball and plate’s inside edge but a sidelong—and, thus, imperfect—view of the bottom-outside. In other words, they’re guessing on low and outside pitches. Often, they don’t guess very well. 

In baseball, “caveat emptor” means “batter beware.” It’ll stay that way until the game figures out how to correct it.

Saturday, August 1, 2015


               When the subject of the Baseball Hall of Fame comes up in my presence, as it often does (I’m an elector), the subject of Pete Rose is sure to follow.  Usually, it’s raised in the form of a question, stated aggressively. To wit: “When are you guys finally gonna let him in?”
              As much as I hate to quibble (OK, that’s not true), I preface my answer by taking issue with the question’s premises. Us “guys,” the active and retired members of the Baseball Writers Association of America who guard the front door of the Cooperstown, N.Y., museum (various, more permissive, veterans’ committees guard the side doors), have not kept Rose from being honored, capital “B” Baseball has, by its 1989 decision to bar him from any connection to the game and its institutions. He’s never been on a Hall of Fame ballot, so we writers never have had the opportunity to vote for him, or not. Unless he’s reinstated, we never will.

               The second fallacy is that Rose isn’t “in” the Hall; he very much is, even though no plaque bearing his likeness hangs in the gallery devoted to baseball’s heroes. His exclusion from baseball activities does not mean he’s become a nonperson to the game; his records (most notably his 4,256 career hits) remain on the books and his name and deeds are commemorated in other parts of the Hall. More than 20 bats, balls, gloves, photos and film and video clips associated with his feats are there, ample testimony to a 24-year playing career that had few equals.

               The erstwhile “Charley Hustle” is out otherwise because he “screwed the pooch”—did the unforgivable—by betting on baseball, violating any sport’s bedrock rule.  He can’t say he wasn’t warned because the rule long has been posted on the walls of every locker room in the professional game. It states: “Any player, umpire or club or league official who shall bet any sum…upon any baseball game in which [he] has a duty to perform shall be declared permanently ineligible.” It doesn’t get any clearer than that.

               Pete didn’t just place a few, casual bets on ball games; he was a daily, big-money bettor who, often, conducted his wagering from the clubhouse of the Cincinnati Reds, for whom he played or managed for 22 of his 27 total years in the Bigs.  He always spoke loudly and had lots of shtick, so his habits weren’t unknown to his teammates, players and others who followed the club. They hardly could have missed his weight-room buddies, who doubled as book-maker messengers, running his bets out of the team’s quarters both at home and on the road.

               The evidence against Rose, contained in betting slips and phone records as well as interviews, was voluminous, available to enterprising journalists as well as to baseball’s hired gumshoes. Much of it is recounted in Michael Sokolove’s excellent book “Hustle; The Myth, Life and Lies of Pete Rose.” Published in 2002, it depicts the player as a degenerate gambler who besides betting substantial sums with bookies on any game involving a ball also would shovel four-figure wagers through the windows of Cincinnati-area horse and dog tracks on no more basis than a tip or a whim. River Downs, the old Cincy racetrack, enjoyed his patronage so much it gave him a private box from which to bet and his own teller, Sokolove wrote.

               Rose knew what he’d done—and that others knew, too—but for 15 years after his exclusion he regularly issued heated denials that he’d bet on baseball, coming clean on that score in 2004 only to hype an autobiography he’d written. He’s maintained the pose of never having bet on a Red’s game despite an ESPN piece in June revealing he’d done that, too, repeatedly, as a player as well as a manager, dating from 1984.

So what’s so bad about that? many still ask.  Betting the horses is legal and many otherwise upstanding citizens put an occasional bob on a football or baseball game, albeit with a member of the criminal element. So far it’s never come out that Rose bet on his team to lose.

Well, most obviously, ordinary citizens aren’t in a position to affect the outcomes of the contests on which they bet, as Pete was. Further, two-handed bettors like him also tend to be losers, and any player or manager who becomes beholden to the books becomes a likely target for manipulation.   Finally, bookies tend also to be bettors, and the knowledge that he bet on the Reds to win on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, but not on Thursday, was valuable information in the subterranean world in which they operate.

Pete’s banishment dates back 26 years, and it’s interesting how little attitudes toward it have changed over that period.  Baseball has been partially responsible for that because it has permitted him to appear on the field at some of its functions, most recently last month’s All-Star Game in Cincinnati. That he gets ovations wherever he goes testifies to the enduring nature of his bad-boy appeal and brassy bearing, each little affected by his age (he’s 74 now).

Rose is a regular on sports-talk radio shows, on which he always plumps for reinstatement. “Charlie Manson gets a parole hearing every year, doesn’t he? So what about me?” is a favorite line.

Fact is, though, Rose’s case is being reheard constantly, and three of the game’s commissioners (Bart Giamatti, Fay Vincent and Bud Selig) have concluded that what he did was outside the bounds of redemption for a sport whose greatest scandal—the 1919 “Black Sox” episode—remains vivid after almost 100 years. If he has any sense, new commish Rob Manfred will line up with his predecessors on this. Otherwise, baseball’s no-gambling rule will be just so much wallpaper.



Wednesday, July 15, 2015


               If women’s soccer in America—or women’s sports generally—ever had a better day than Sunday, July 5, I can’t recall it.  That was the day the U.S. team won the Women’s World Cup by beating Japan in the final, 5-2.
             Everything went right. The game was high scoring, something we Yanks typically castigate soccer for not being. It had an appealingly animated hero(ine)—Carli Lloyd—who scored three goals in the first 16 minutes, capping a 4-0 spurt that all but secured the victory.

             It was played at a U.S.-friendly time (7 p.m. in the East) before a U.S.-friendly crowd in Vancouver during a rare slow day for sports on television. It later was announced that the total U.S. TV audience of 26.7 million people-- 25.4 million on Fox and 1.3 million on Telemundo—was this country’s highest for any soccer game, and exceeded that of any game in the recent NBA finals or the seventh game in last October’s baseball World Series. It was drinks all around for everyone connected with the team, and deservedly so.

We’re a nation of analysts, though, and it wasn’t long before the question was raised of what the victory might mean for women’s sports in this land; more specifically, why they don’t get a bigger share of the pie. Indeed, that was a topic of discussion throughout the two-week fest.

 As is customary when male-female issues come up, knees immediately start to jerk and the all-purpose shibboleths that often substitute for thinking about such matters are rolled out. We heard about “glass ceilings” and women’s sports being held back by news-media conspiracies. Bill Rhoden, a usually sensible sports columnist for the New York Times, combined those notions in a single sentence. “A confluence of chauvinism and gender bias have made the ceiling they [women’s sports] are up against a particularly difficult one to shatter,” wrote he.

Well. Conspiracy theorists are hard to dissuade, but if a journalists’ cabal to belittle women’s sports exists it never bothered to try to recruit me during my 46-year newspaper career. And while unacknowledged barriers to women’s advancement certainly obtain in some areas, it’s hard to see how they apply to what boils down to a spending choice in an economy in which, many surveys have shown, women make most of the buying decisions.

Further, the market’s preference for men’s sports over women’s isn’t uniform. The women outdraw the men in activities that reward grace more than strength (figure skating and gymnastics) and do about as well in ones where the playing fields in national and international competitions are shared, albeit separately (tennis, swimming, track and field).  Add sustained success to the mix and women can be dominant in many an athletic endeavor; over the last 10 years Serena Williams probably has gotten more ink, and made more money, than all American male tennisers combined.

Two big reasons women’s sports have had a hard time getting traction have to do with the calendar. First, it’s crowded, more crowded than anyone might have imagined just a few years ago. One of sport’s biggest milestones was the creation, in 1979, of ESPN, the all-sports TV network. Before ESPN, sports on television consisted mainly of a few weekend-afternoon hours and the occasional local game. Now it’s wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling.

 Time was when a week’s sports offerings could be listed on a single page of TV Guide. By contrast, on a recent weekday in Phoenix, with the NFL, NBA and NHL idle,  one could watch summer-league basketball, Canadian football, cycling (the Tour de France), golf, lacrosse, “motorsports,” rugby, men’s international soccer, swimming and Wimbledon tennis. That was in addition to every Major League Baseball game on the “Extra Innings” package and whatever the half-dozen single-sports channels I receive had on. It takes more than a shoehorn to find room on that schedule.

The numbered year on the calendar works against some women’s sports because they’re relatively young and sports watching, like many other things, is at least partly habitual. Women’s team sports in America hardly existed before the passage of the U.S. Education Act of 1972, whose Title IX went a long way toward correcting the vastly unequal funding of men’s and women’s school sports that prevailed to that point. The two biggest U.S. women’s pro-team circuits, the WNBA and the National Women’s Soccer League, date from just 1996 and 2012, respectively.  Soccer generally still is viewed as an immigrant scrambling for a foothold on these shores, and average attendance at NWSL games last season was only about 3,000 a game. Thus, even a double-figure percentage jump during the current July-August campaign wouldn’t put more than a few hundred more fannies in the seats.

Finally, although it’s not fashionable to say it, men and women have physiological differences that make most men’s sports better. That’s apparent to anyone who looks and is why most of the men’s brands outsell the women’s in a bruisingly competitive marketplace, no matter what the sex of the customer.

Many women are fine athletes who deserve applause. Their games aren’t as commercially warped as are many of the men’s, making their competitions purer, and the fact that no huge pot of gold will reward their success causes female jocks to develop their other abilities. Need I say that’s not a bad thing? 

Wednesday, July 1, 2015


               VIEWS: ???
              The idea that truth is stranger than fiction gains support daily, but rarely more forcefully than with the story above. What can one baseball team learn by stealing another’s data—that so-and-so can’t hit a curve or that whozis has lost a foot off his fastball? Baseball is played in public with everyone invited to watch and analyze-- teams employ large scouting staffs for that purpose. It’s hard to imagine why any organization would risk criminal prosecution to secure such information.
                Published accounts of the alleged theft attribute a possible motive to revenge; apparently Jeff Luhnow, a computer whiz who departed the Cardinals to become the Astros’ general manager in 2012, left some personal animus in his wake.  But if the Cards were paying attention to Luhnow during his nine-year tenure with the team, some current employees must know his tricks. Further, few teams receive higher marks than the Cards for managing personnel, so it seems they need little help on that score.

               The FBI investigation into the charge reportedly is stalled because the agency can’t pinpoint who in the Cards’ offices did the hacking. If history is a guide some low-level minion will be fingered, and after some backing and filling business as usual will resume. The real culprit, though, is the paranoia that permeates big-time sports, tied to practitioners’ inflated notions about the importance of what they do. It’s a game for heaven’s sake, not the rocket science that might justify cloak-and-dagger intrigue.



               When Alex Rodriguez returned to the New York Yankees from PED prison this spring, not much was expected of him.  Nearing age 40 (you can sing “Happy Birthday” to him on July 27), with an injury record to rival Evel Knievel’s and having played in only 44 Major League games the previous two seasons, he was widely deemed to be over the hill, playing only to collect what was left of the ridiculous, 10-year contract the team gave him in 2008. The Yanks weren’t happy to have him back, it was reported.

               Surprise! The guy still can hit. After 72 games he was batting .286 with 15 home runs and 45 runs batted in, on a pace to post 35-100 figures in the last two categories, as in former days. This season he has passed Willie Mays’s 660 home runs to rank fourth all-time (he has 669 now) and got his 3,000th career hit.

 Ordinarily such feats would have been celebrated but those weren’t, at least not outside Yankee Stadium. Rodriguez is the Lance Armstrong of baseball, a guy who didn’t just scarf every performance-enhancing drug around for more than a decade but also lied about it persistently and attacked anyone who didn’t buy his story. When finally nailed in the Biogenesis raid, he didn’t initially plead guilty but sued everyone in sight including the players’ union, and organized picketing of the commissioner’s office. That wasn’t endearing.

Then he said “never mind” and took his medicine (ha!), but few were impressed. He’ll be remembered as one of the best baseball players not to have a plaque in the game’s Hall of Fame. Baseball willfully put its head in the sand during the HITS era (1990-2005, for Head In The Sand) but will pay for it forevermore. That will be more than ARod wants to do, because the law firm that carried his legal ball while he was protesting his innocence is suing him for nonpayment of fees.



For the last 40 or so years I’ve had a love-hate relationship with hockey and the Chicago Blackhawks. I grew up rooting for the Hawks, and for several years had a piece of a season ticket for their games in old Chicago Stadium, but chafed under the price-gouging ways of Arthur Wirtz, the pirate in a three-piece suit who owned them. When in 1972 Wirtz allowed Bobby Hull, the best Blackhawk ever, to jump to a new league for a salary ($2 million over 10 years) that quickly would be seen as ordinary, I swore off the team, literally.  My aversion to it deepened when ownership passed to Arthur’s son, Bill, who had all his dad’s bad qualities but none of his smarts. 

My feelings about hockey in general were similarly negative. The National Hockey League caters to its fan base’s base instincts by countenancing on-field fighting, and who can respect a sport that has no respect for itself?

Time passed, however, and the NHL’s fighting addiction has lessened. Also, Bill Wirtz joined his father, wherever. He was replaced by his son, Rocky, who became popular by following the obvious plan of doing the opposite of everything his dad and grandpa had done. The team acquired good players and managers. Reverting to my love of all things Chicago, I cheered when they broke a long drought by winning a Stanley Cup in 2010, and 2013.

The Blackhawks’ prospects for another title this year seemed dim for a time, but Providence intervened.  They were down three games to two in the best-of-seven semis with the Nashville Predators when my wife, Susie, found a battered hockey puck in the gravel driveway of our Scottsdale, Arizona, home. We brought it in and clutched it while watching the Hawks sweep the last two games of that series and put away the Tampa Bay Lightning, four games to two, in the finals.

Think about it for a moment: what are the odds of finding a hockey puck lying around in a desert-clime block where the average age of the kids is about 45, on the afternoon of a make-or-break playoff game?  The puck now has a place of honor on a shelf of our family-room etagere. It looks like the Stanley Cup to us.