Tuesday, October 15, 2019

FALL BALL 2019


               The idea that no change is for the better receives regular support, one of the latest examples coming at the Arizona Fall League. This annual baseball developmental exercise, to which all 30 Major League teams send some of their best young prospects for six weeks of competition, underwent a number of alterations this time around. The net effect has been a minus.

               The biggest change was the movement of the league’s starting date from mid-October to mid-September. The reason—to narrow the time gap with the Labor Day end of the minor-leagues seasons—made sense, but the new calendar ran into the 100-plus-degree daytime temperatures that prevail in the Phoenix area in September. That meant an all-night-game schedule the first two weeks, which in turn meant smaller crowds, the codgers that frequent the games (like me) being mostly day people. 

               In years past the players wore the uniforms of their parent teams, adding color to the proceedings. This year they wore generic whites or grays of bearing their AFL pickup-team designations (the Desert Dogs, Solar Sox, etc.). And in the name of economy, the league didn’t put out the media guides that provided a handy who’s who of the players for both writers and fans. Yeah, the info was available online, but it took a good deal more doing to get than before.

               The final change was a bit ominous, as far as I’m concerned. At Salt River Fields, one of the four spring-training ballparks used by the league, balls and strikes are being called electronically. The home-plate umpire has real decisions to make, on things like checked swings, foul balls and plays at the plate, but on most pitches he receives the calls via signal and his gestures are charades.

MLB uses the AFL to try out ideas, some of which (such as TV reviews) have become part of the game. I have no doubt this one will, too; once the technology exists it’s impossible to resist. Still, this would be one more step in dehumanizing a game that’s already a business first.

As far as talent-scouting goes, this AFL season falls a bit short of previous ones. No player’s skills explodes on the observer, the way Gleyber Torres’s did in 2016, or Ronald Acuna Jr. or Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s last year. But of players worth reporting on there were many.

The most-touted player here has been JO ADELL, a Los Angeles Angels’ possession rated the No. 5 prospect in the game. Only 20 years old, and a first-round draft choice in 2017, he looks the well-muscled part of a future star, but he went 1-for-24 at the plate in his first half-dozen games here, and while he’s caught up some (he was hitting .265 as of Sunday) he hasn’t put on the show that was predicted.

The best player I saw was ROYCE LEWIS, a Minnesota Twins chattel. Also 20, and also a 2017 first-rounder, he was whacking AFL pitching to the tune of .407 as of Sunday, and displaying both power and speed. Further, he’s versatile in the field, in keeping with a present-day trend. In one game I watched he hit and home run and made a circus catch in center field, in another he went 3-for-5 with two doubles and handled third base well. He received a reported $6.725 million signing bonus, so he’s already set for life and could retire today, but I’ll bet he won’t do that. Look for him in the Majors by 2021 for sure, and maybe next year.

My next-best position-player prospect is outfielder BRANDON MARSH, also property of the Angels. He’s 21, a 2016 second-rounder, and he’s posted good minor-league hitting stats over three seasons. He’s a left-handed batter with a Charlie Blackmon-quality beard and a smooth swing who hits for power as well as average. I watched him go 3-for-6 with two doubles and a triple, and he threw in a stolen base for good measure.

Pitchers are hard to scout here because they appear only once every four or five games and then only for a few innings, but I did see a few worth mentioning. One certainly is FORREST WHITELY, 22. That the 6-foot-seven righty has good stuff was made indisputable last year when he led the AFL in strikeouts, but had a clinker of a 2019 season (a 7.99 ERA with four different teams) and was sent by his Houston Astros parent for a rare encore. He’s done all right again, leading the league in Ks with 25 in 16 innings, but his stay has been less than smooth. All five of the outs he recorded in a 1 2/3-inning start here on Friday were by strikeout, but he also gave up two runs on three hits, three walks and three wild pitches before being yanked. He’s Nuke Laloosh reincarnated.
            
            Two pitchers with more stable stuff are SPENCER HOWARD and ALEX WELLS. Howard, 23, is Philadelphia Phillies’ property. He throws fastballs in the 94-97 mph range and can control his curve. Online sources have him in the Phillies’ starting rotation by 2021. Wells is a 22-year-old Australian in the Baltimore Orioles chain. His stuff isn’t as showy as Howard’s but he gets batters out just the same. He has a twin brother, Lachlan, who’s also a pitcher and in the Minnesota  Twins system. Both wear horned-rim glasses. Photos make them look like the Hanson bros of “Slap Shot” fame.

Outfielder GREG DEICHMANN, an A’s farm hand, hits with power. He led the AFL in home runs (with 6) and total bases (39) as of Sunday. VIDAL BRUJAN, 21, a second-baseman from the Dominican Republic, with the Tampa Bay Rays, is a little guy (5-9, 155) who hits singles and runs fast. ANDRES JIMENEZ, a New York Mets-chain shortstop from the Dominican Republic, shares those last two characteristics. First-baseman SETH BEER, 23, who came to the Arizona Diamondbacks from the Astros in the Zach Greinke trade, has hit well here and in the minors, but also leads the AFL in errors, with four. 
         
             My team, the Chicago Cubs, was supposed to have been represented by shortstop NICO HOERNER, their top pick in the 2018 draft, but he was called up in September by the big team and played well enough to probably stick. The Cubs have another shortstop here, ZACK SHORT, who’s short (5-10 if you believe the program). He fields well, takes a lot of walks and shapes up as a utility infielder.
             
             Position players usually play about two games of three in the AFL, so you take your chances on whom you’ll see. I wish I’d seen JOEY BART, a catching prospect for the San Francisco Giants. The league runs until October 26, though, so I still might.

 
                

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

A STERLING SKIPPER


               As a writer and fan I’ve done my share of criticizing in sports, but I usually draw the line when it comes to second-guessing managers and coaches. Yeah, they get things wrong, but they usually have good reasons for the things they do and, like every decision-maker, lack the advantage of hindsight that their critics possess.

               It’s my general observation that the differences among coaches is not in their technical knowledge of their sport, which exists in abundance in their class, but in the way they deal with their players, which is to say their psychological aptitudes. This skill (or lack of it) mostly is exercised in private, outside of public view, so it’s tough for an outsider to assess. Further, it doesn’t always show up in the won-lost column, which is the way coaches are ultimately judged. As Casey Stengel once said (or is said to have said) after a loss, “I managed good but they played bad.” I’m sure many another manager has been tempted to say the same thing.

               It is thus with some humility that I declare my choice for the best manager in baseball today. He’s Bob Melvin of the Oakland A’s, who has made a career of turning lemons into lemonade (never ignore a good cliché). His team right now is headed for another post-season with a cast of youngsters and retreads that ranks low on the economic scale by which athletic excellence usually is measured-- their paychecks. In the just-ended regular season the A’s were fifth in the Majors in victories (with 97) while ranking 25th in payroll (at $95.3 million) among the 30 teams. 

               Melvin’s selection shouldn’t surprise because he’s won three “manager of the year” awards in his 15 years at the helm of three teams (the Seattle Mariners, Arizona Diamondbacks and the A’s), all for doing well with unprepossessing rosters. Those seem to be the former catcher’s lot in life. Indeed, his accomplishments with this season’s A’s don’t quite measure up to what he did in Oakland last year, when he took a team that had gone 75-87 the previous season and added 22 games to its win total despite an opening-day payroll ($68.5 million) that ranked dead last in the Bigs. He won a M of the Y prize for that one. The A’s had to ante up a bit this time around, but they’re still paying lower-crust wages for upper-crust results.

               And by me nothing he’s done with the A’s is as amazin’ as what he did with the 2007 Diamondbacks in my new hometown of Phoenix. That gang was outscored by 20 runs over its 162-game regular schedule, 712-732. The Figure Filberts say that statistical difference is supposed to yield a 79-win season, but those D’backs went 90-72, won the National League West title, and went all the way to baseball’s Final Four before bowing. With an offense led by such easily forgotten players as Orlando Hudson and Eric Byrne, they did it by winning a passel of the one-run games that most test a manager’s tactical guile.

               Melvin has been described as a “players’ manager,” whatever that means, and isn’t loath to juggle his lineups to suit conditions. Mostly, though, he’s adapted his approach to fit the more-collegial style of managing that’s been the recent vogue. He admitted as much in a recent interview. “Front offices are more a part of it now. You have to understand that,” he said. He was referring to the increased influence of “analytics” in baseball strategizing, which is to say that just about every team now employs computer people who parse every pitch and produce printouts managers are expected to utilize.

               The A’s former general manager, Billy Beane, pioneered that development, which was chronicled in the best-selling book “Moneyball.” When the book was made into a movie Brad Pitt played Beane, fulfilling the waking dream of just about every American man. Beane now is 57 years old and has the more-dignified title of executive vice president, baseball, for the club. The A’s current GM is 43-year-old David Forst, a Harvard grad who fits the brainy model now in vogue for front-office inhabitants.

               Managerial smarts are a particular requirement for the A’s, who must make do with less long-term. They’re the No. 2 team in their Bay Area market and play in an antiquated stadium best suited to football. Even when they win they don’t draw well, meaning they don’t have the money to compete at the upper levels of the game’s free-agent market. Thus, to succeed they must be clever with personnel.

               And indeed, good drafting has contributed mightily to the A’s standing; their regular first baseman, Matt Olson, was the team’s first-round draft choice in 2012 and their third baseman, Matt Chapman, was its No. 1 pick in 2014. The two young men (Olson is 25 years old, Chapman is 26) are rated as the game’s best power-hitting corner combo, totaling 72 home runs and 182 runs batted in this season.

 The A’s success with using other teams’ discards is seen in their starting pitching rotation. It’s anchored by Mike Fiers, Chris Bassitt, Brett Anderson and Homer Bailey, all of whom had been deemed expendable elsewhere. It’s seen best in the guy who’s probably their best player, shortstop Marcus Semien. Part of a little-noticed 2014 deal with the Chicago White Sox, he’s progressed to All-Star stature both at the plate and in the field. His late-season rating in the arcane WAR (wins over replacement) category was third best in the American League, behind only Mike Trout and Alex Bregman.   

Chances are that the A’s will bow out of the post season somewhere before the end. One Las Vegas website I visited had them a 22-to-1 shot to go all the way, with the Houston Astros, LA Dodgers and NY Yankees all between 2 1/2-to-1 and 4-to-1. Smarts are good but talent is one of the things money can buy. Life is unfair.

              


              
                 
                
              

Sunday, September 15, 2019

BADGER ENVY


               As a fan of Chicago’s sports teams, the notion that life is unfair came to me early. How could some (say, New York Yankees’ fans) have so much while we have so little? I frequently asked myself.

               Then I grew up a bit and went away to college, at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, my state’s flagship U. There the lesson was repeated, only with supporters of Ohio State University and the University of Michigan in the roles of the fortunate. Sixty-plus years later those two institutions still ride high in what is called the Big 10 Conference even though it has 14 members. Even Yankees have had bad stretches in that span, for heaven’s sake.

Worse, though, is that the teams of the university of the state just north of my homeland have prospered for all of this century and more, while my Illini continue to founder (and flounder). I’m talking about Wisconsin, which lately has been the foremost challenger to the Big Ten’s Big Two. In basketball as well as football, the Badgers sup with the mighty while the Illini scrounge the dumpsters for scraps. Oooo, that hurts.

The injustice of this situation is easily seen. Illinois’s population of about 12.7 million is more than twice Wisconsin’s 5.8 M, and Illinois contains the vast Chicago area, long a prep-sports hotbed. Wisconsin is a bucolic place known mostly for cheese, lakes and brandy consumption. If we Ilinoisians think of it at all it’s as a vacation spot, somewhere convenient where we can catch a few fish and hurry home before boredom sets in.

               UW used to be pretty much a sports patsy, with bad teams far outnumbering the good. Then Barry Alvarez came along. Sinister looking (he favors dark glasses) and someone with no Wisconsin ties (he’s from Pennsylvania, his college was Nebraska and he was an assistant coach at Iowa and Notre Dame), he took over Badger football in 1990, and after three losing seasons put them on a track that, now, has led to annual bowl games and conference-title contention. In basketball, the initial magic man was Dick Bennett, whose tenure was short (1995-2001) but whose influence was long, extending to this day.

 Both men succeeded by building on the state’s native strengths.  Alvarez quickly learned that Wisconsin produced an abundance of heifer-sized linemen but few swift “skilled” players, so he fashioned a tough defense and ground-based offense and opened a recruiting pipeline that brought in swifties from the East, mainly New Jersey and New York. Bennett’s plan centered on defense and a disciplined, pass-first offense that could succeed without recruiting classes studded with the McDonald All Americans the state rarely produces. Derided as “white ball,” and leading to low-scoring games, his system not only produced victories but also was more easily replicable than schemes based on individual talents. 

                The Wisconsin plan in both sports emphasizes continuity of style and local loyalties. Alvarez, now the school’s athletics director, might have been an outlander but he planted a coaching tree that produced his immediate successor Bret Bieleman (2006-12), who’d been one of his assistants, and, since 2015, Paul Chryst, who also was promoted from the Badger ranks. Wisconsin football teams look pretty much the same every season, grinding out 300-yard rushing games while squelching the opposition. The school hasn’t had a losing football season since 2001. It’s 2-0 so far this year and ranked 14th nationally.

               The home-grown angle has been even stronger on the basketball side. Before coming to Madison Bennett was a Wisconsin high-school coach who’d moved to the college ranks through UW branches in Stevens Point and Green Bay. His successor, Bo Ryan, followed the same career path, putting in 20-plus years coaching in places like Dominican College in Racine and UW Platteville and Milwaukee before ascending to Madison in 2001 at the advanced age of 53. He also followed Bennett’s defense-first game schemes. When Ryan stepped down in 2015, after compiling a 364-130 won-lost record, winning four Big !0 championships and taking two teams to the NCAA Final Four, the school picked Greg Gard, his assistant for 23 years, to replace him.

               By contrast, Illinois has the attention span of a mosquito, flitting from coach to coach and style to style and having to start anew with each new regime. Nice-guy Lou Henson ran the hoops program from 1975 to 1996, with much success, but since he left it’s had five head basketball coaches, none with previous ties to the state or university. A couple of those, Lon Kruger (1997-2000) and Bill Self (2001-03), were certified aces whose teams fared well, but both were mercenaries who fled Champaign as soon as jobs they wanted more beckoned. Bruce Weber (2004-12) did well at first, taking a Self-recruited team to the 2005 NCAA championship game, but was fired after losing too many recruiting battles. Ohioan John Groce (2013-17) took his teams nowhere and under the incumbent, Kansan Brad Underwood, Illinois has had two straight losing seasons, something that hadn’t happened since 1974 and ’75.  Underwood says things will improve once his fast-paced style is established, but we’ve heard that before.

               The chronology in football is no better. The program also has had five head coaches since 2000, one (Ron Zook) a big-school retread (he previously coached at Florida), two smaller-school types (Tim Beckman and Bill Cubit), and two refugees from the NFL, Ron Turner and the present guy, Lovie Smith. None had previous ties to the Illini, and none could or can boast a winning record there.

Smith had been a winner with the Chicago Bears but was long out of the college game. The Illini needed a Pied Piper to resuscitate recruiting after the deplorable Beckham and interim-coach Cubit, but while Lovie might know his X’s and O’s he has the personality of a turnip.  Illinois went 3-9, 2-10 and 4-8 in his first three seasons. It’s 2-1 so far this time, but lost to Eastern Michigan the last time out, and tougher foes loom.

 If Smith doesn’t show something in conference play the school will again be in the coaching market. If it is it would be well-advised to follow Wisconsin’s example and find someone who bleeds orange and blue. It couldn’t do worse than it’s been doing.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

THE WIDE WORLD OF SPORTS


An interesting transaction took place the other day in the National Basketball Association. The Brooklyn Nets were purchased by Joseph Tsai, a Chinese who co-founded the internet-commerce giant Alibaba. He bought the team from Mikhail Prokhorov, a Russian who owns nickel mines.

The deal for the Nets, No.2 in New York’s basketball market, was worth an announced $2.35 billion, a record turnover for any U.S. sports franchise. Prokhorov bought the Nets for $223 million in 2009, meaning that his profit ought to keep him and his family in blini for many generations to come.

What the deal mostly did was illustrate the extent to which American sports have become internationalized, as has just about every other important area of commerce. It’s sure to stay that way. Wishing won’t make it otherwise.

At the management level, at which the Nets swap took place, the movement has barely begun in the U.S.; it’ll be a while before it goes as far as in England, where in the soccer Premier League 14 of the 20 teams are non-English owned. Still, Nintendo, the Japanese gaming company, has owned the baseball Seattle Mariners since 1992, and two other big-league outfits, the hockey New York Islanders and football Jacksonville Jaguars, are owned by foreign-born individuals who made their financial piles on these shores (the Islanders by Chinese-born Charles Wang and the Jags by Shahid Khan, born in Pakistan).

 The NBA Phoenix Suns broke the league’s foreign-coaching barrier last season when it hired Igor Kokoskov, a Serbian national, as its head coach. Major League Baseball has had a number of managers born abroad (e.g., Preston Gomez, Cookie Rojas, Felipe Alou, Ozzie Guillen), but all had played in the Bigs and were well known before they became skippers.

The playing fields, however, have become a true melting pot, the sole exception being football, which no other country has embraced. In baseball, almost 30% of the players have been foreign-born in recent seasons, mostly from Latin America but with an occasional Australian or Dutchman thrown it. The Dominican Republic and Venezuela lead among foreign nations of origin; only two states in the U.S. (California and Florida) produced more major leaguers than the DR’s 102 this season.

The NBA had a foreign player in 1946, the year it began. He was Henry Biasatti, born in Italy and raised in Canada. He played a few games for the Toronto Huskies of the new league before deciding that his sport was baseball, and he would have a short stay with the Philadephia Athletics. The invasion commenced in earnest beginning in the 1980s, and last year 108 players from a mind-boggling 41 different countries made up almost a quarter of the league’s rosters. Gianni Antetokoumpo, from Greece, was the NBA’s Most Valuable Player last season, and Luca Doncic, from Slovenia, was Rookie of the Year. Last year’s top draft choice in the league was Deandre Ayton, from the Bahamas.

In hockey it’s mostly the U.S. that’s been doing the invading. From its founding in 1917 into the 1970s the National Hockey League’s ice was almost exclusively a province of Canadian blades, but the expansion to 12 teams from six in 1967 created more jobs and dictated a wider talent pool. From 90- percent-plus dominance the share of Canadian players in the league fell below 50% a few seasons ago. Last year it stood at 47%, with 25% of the players American-born and those from a dozen or so other lands (mostly Sweden and Russia) making up the rest. One web site I visited said that if present trends continue U.S.-born players will outnumber Canadians by 2050.

Sport is a product of prosperity and leisure, and through the first half of the 20th century the U.S. and Great Britain had a corner on those things. World War II pretty much wrecked Europe and Asia, leaving the games to Americans while those continents dug themselves out. The extent to which they’ve succeeded is best seen in the country club sports of tennis and golf. If not for a man named Woods and two women named Williams, the U.S. has been absent from the upper reaches of those activities in century 21.

               Men’s golf’s foremost international bauble is the Ryder Cup, begun in 1927, pitting teams of professionals from the U.S. against those from, first, Great Britain, and, since 1979, Europe. Americans won 22 of the first 25 of those, but since 1985 the Euros have racked up a commanding 12-5 edge. The Davis Cup, a wider-ranging tournament involving many nations, long has been men’s tennis’s biggest world go-round. The U.S. used to win it frequently but has done so only once since 1995.

               No American man has won a singles title in a tennis “grand slam” (the Australian, French and U.S. Opens and England’s Wimbledon) since Andy Roddick won at Flushing Meadow in 2003. Just one American woman besides Serena or Venus Williams (Sloane Stephens in 2017) has won at a “slam” since 2002.  The only American man among the 32 seeds at the current U.S. Open was John Isner, at 14. Just five of the 32 women’s seeds were Yanks.

               Women’s pro golf has become largely an Asian domain, with eight Koreans among the LPGA Tour’s current top 20 (to five Americans) and Japanese, Chinese and Thais in the mix. The top player, by far, has been J.Y. Ko, whose last-name-first Korean name is Ko Jin-Young.

I used to know quite a bit about women golfers when Babe Zaharias, Carole Mann or Nancy Lopez played, but not much now, so I googled Ms. Ko. Not much personal there: she’s 24 years old, turned pro at 18, isn’t married and isn’t a lesbian (as one site noted), and her zodiac sign is Cancer. Apropos romance, she has confessed to having a crush on husky Brooks Koepka, from the men’s tour. “I like big guy,” she said.

 Hey, she’s learning. How much Korean do you speak?


                


Thursday, August 15, 2019

NEWS & VIEWS


               NEWS—The National Football League’s silly season—otherwise known as the preseason—is in full swing.

               VIEW—Fans have their fingers crossed that their teams can survive it without calamity.

               The old saw “no news is good news” never applies more strongly than during the NFL’s August exercises. Everyone, the owners included, has come to believe that four practice games in preparation for the regular season is excessive, but by contract and greed they’re trapped in it for at least this year.  The only headlines that come out of the games concern injuries, which are inescapable whenever football is played. Every team will suffer losses, the only question being how many.

               The league and its players association already have begun talks about the labor pact that expires in March, 2021, and the owners reportedly have proposed cutting the preseason by two games while adding two to the now-16-game regular campaign. Uh-uh, say the players (so far), the season is plenty long enough as it is.  Simply eliminating two August games is an unlikely option because of the revenues they generate, the teams continuing their odious practice of adding them to season-ticket packages. At full price, of course.

               The plus side is that, increasingly, NFL teams are deemphasizing the preseason in other ways. Regulars—especially quarterbacks-- play little if at all and contact drills are employed sparingly, as they are between the games that count. Spurred by the growing awareness of the dangers of head-butting whenever it occurs, they’ve come to believe that the benefits of the rock-‘em, sock-‘em practice sessions of yore aren’t worth the cost. Hey, even stopped clocks are right twice a day.

               NEWS: More Major League Baseball teams extend the protective netting in front of their stadium seating areas.

               VIEW—It’s about time.

               MLB this season decreed that all of its teams install nets reaching to the ends of the dugouts, but four—the Chicago White Sox, Washington Nationals, Detroit Tigers and Houston Astros—have extended them farther, even to the foul poles. That came after a two-year-old girl was severely injured in May by a foul ball hit into the stands at Houston’s Minute Maid Stadium.  A half-dozen more teams have said they’ll be installing extensions beginning next season.

               That’s good because people in the lower seating areas just past the dugouts are at greatest risk from the sort of line-drive fouls that can cause the most damage. The pop-up kind travel at lesser speeds and, at least, give people time to either protect themselves or get out their mitts.

               I’m a big fan of staying behind the netting at ballparks, partly because I think behind-the-plate seats are best and partly because I keep a scorecard and don’t want to always be on alert for flying objects. My favored seats for AZ Diamondback games at Chase Field are in the upper deck, where few fouls reach.

               Foul-ball tip: when a player fouls one off to any part of the park he’s a pretty good bet to do it again to about the same area during the same at-bat.

               NEWS—The minor leagues’ hottest young hitting prospect belongs to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

               VIEW—Them that has gets.

               The young man in question is Gavin Lux, a 21-year-old, lefty-hitting middle infielder from Kenosha, Wisconsin. He was the Dodgers’ first pick in the 2016 amateur draft, the 20th player chosen overall. Signed as a skinny 18-year-old, he got off to an unremarkable start in the rookie and low-A leagues, but while adding 40 pounds (to 205) blossomed into a formidable batsman, hitting a combined .324 in A and AA ball in 2018, .313 in AA early this season, and an eye-popping .456 in his first 32 games  (136 at bats) at AAA Oklahoma City. You’ll be able to see him soon because the Dodgers say they’ll call him up to the Majors in September.

               Lux is said to play older than his years, probably because of the life-long attention he’s received from his uncle, Augie Schmidt. Schmidt was the No. 2 player chosen in the 1982 draft, by the Toronto Blue Jays, but never made it to the Bigs after five seasons in the minors and left the game to finish college. Gravitating to coaching thereafter, he’s been head baseball coach at Carthage College in Kenosha since 1988, posting a 67% winning average and collecting lots of Division III trophies.  Schmidt’s father coached at the school before him, suggesting deep baseball genes.

               An internet search quotes observers likening Lux to Cody Bellinger as a hitting threat for the already-potent Dodgers, MLB’s currently winningest team. We’ll see about that but YouTubes of some of the youngster’s home runs are impressive. And if that isn’t enough, the kid kinda looks like Leonardo DiCaprio.
              
              

Thursday, August 1, 2019

THE FACTS OF LIFE


               The gender pay gap in the United States—the difference in wages between men and women in the work force—amounts to about 20%, which is to say that women are paid about 80 cents for each dollar men make. The gap has proved stubborn to overcome but it’s declining and could someday disappear. Maybe.

               For now, however, Average Worker Jane is much envied by her sisters who make their living in sports. There the gap is more like a chasm, a veritable Grand Canyon. Peering into it, 80 cents on the buck only can seem like a really good deal.

               The issue of pay equity in sports was raised forcefully during the recent Women’s World Cup of soccer, won by the U.S. for the second straight time and forth in seven editions. Even before cash-in time members of the victorious team were publicly asserting that however they fared they’d come out worse financially than their male counterparts would have done with similar results.

Despite their triumph, played out before large and appreciative domestic television audiences, the American gals each pocketed $250,000 in prize money for their win, compared to the seven-figure sums that went to members of the French team that took home the men’s version of the cup the year before. Additionally, the women claimed that on an annual basis their federation paid them less than members of the U.S. men’s national team, which last year bombed out ignominiously before the final rounds of their quadrennial competition.

               Is this fair?, the women asked. Is it? Is it?

               Fact is that when it comes to sports dollars, the concept of gender equity has little meaning. Men’s games take in much (much) more money from ticket sales, television revenues, sponsorships and any other source than do women’s, so they pay out more. Political considerations to the contrary notwithstanding, that’s not likely to change any time soon.

               The clearest example of this comes in basketball, which also has the most successful of the U.S.’s several women’s professional sports leagues. That status is due in part to the WNBA’s close relationship with the NBA, which launched it in 1997. Seven of the 12 WNBA teams are considered to be “sister” teams to NBA clubs, sharing ownership with the men’s teams in their cities; all 12 receive NBA help with various management functions. In the WNBA’s early years the NBA covered the WNBA’s losses. Bottom lines are better now but men’s league still kicks in where needed.

               WNBA teams average about 7,000 people a game in attendance over its 34-game, May-to-September season, about 40% of the average crowds the men pull, but other differences between the entities are less favorable. The women’s average salary this season will be about $75,000, versus about $6 million among the men; the women’s maximum is $113,500 to about $40 million for the likes of Kevin Durant and Lebron James.

               Playing in the WNBA is a second job for most of its enlistees-- last season 90 of the 144 women on its rosters also played overseas during the fall and winter months, mostly in Europe where six-figure salaries are the rule. In 2015 Diana Taurasi, the WNBA’s best player in recent seasons, sat out the entire WNBA schedule to rest up for her Russian team’s campaign, for which she reportedly was paid $l.5 million.

               From there the comparisons only get worse. In soccer, pay in the six-year-old, nine-team National Women’s Soccer League, where most of the American national-team members perform, the minimum salary is $16,538, the maximum $46,200 and the average about $30,000. That’s less than a tenth of the $414,803 average in the men’s top U.S. league, Major League Soccer, and a pittance compared to the $7.2 million take of the LA Galaxy star Zlatan Ibrahimovic, MLS’s top-paid player.

               In hockey, one North American women’s circuit, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, went out of business early this year after 11 seasons. That left only the National Women’s Hockey League of the U.S., started in 2015, but it, too, is in trouble as a result of a player’s boycott begun in May. Boycotters want salaries in the five-team loop lifted from present levels (averaging about a $5,000-a-season, according to online sources), and players complain about things like having to supply their own tape and skate laces. Prosperous it ain’t.

               The picture is somewhat better in the individual sport of golf, which can trace its women’s pro roots back to the founding of the Ladies Professional Golf Association in 1950 and its competitive history to a century before that.  The women golfers do okay compared to their sister athletes, with median winnings of $114,000 on the LPGA Tour last year and 14 players collecting $1 million or more. Still, that’s peanuts compared to the U.S. men’s tour, where $1 million-plus- prizes are awarded weekly and 114 guys topped the $1 million-a-season earnings mark in 2018.

               The women do best in tennis, where they also have a long history and share venues and dates with the men at all four of the game’s “majors” (the Australian, French, British and U.S. Opens), events at which pay equity is mandated. Last year’s Women’s Tennis Association money list was headed at $7.4 million by Simona Halep, and while that would place her only fifth on the men’s list it’s not bad comparatively. According to Forbes magazine, eight of the top 10 highest-earning women athletes last year were tennis players, and they also led their gender in off-field earnings.

               But another Forbes list—of the world’s top 100 overall jock earners in 2018—put the pay-gap issue in better perspective. It contained only one female—tennis player Serena Williams—and she ranked 63rd overall. As the old Virginia Slims ads had it, women may have come a long way “baby,” but they’ve still got a long way to go.

Monday, July 15, 2019

MONEYMONEYMONEYMONEY


               The spate of signings connected to the recent opening of the National Basketball Association’s season for free agency had many people I know blinking in disbelief. Not only has the going rate for a top-level NBA star zoomed to about $30 million a year but the pay for journeymen players has soared apace. Hoopsters we’ve scarcely heard of were pulling down eight-figure annual deals! What’s the world coming to?

                Truth is, of course, we’ve been shaking our heads over jock riches for years, and probably always will. Ever since big-league baseball players in 1975 broke free of their sport’s “reserve clause,” which bound players to their teams until the teams chose to release or trade them, the lines on all athletes’ pay charts have been up, pretty much in a straight line. So, too, has public bewilderment with same, even among people who otherwise champion free-market economics.

               A little math suffices to illustrate the inequities that throwing riches at jocks involves. If the average public-school teacher earns, say, $50,000 a year, the $30 million-a-year the likes of Kyrie Irving or Bryce Harper are getting would cover the entire annual payroll of the 600-teacher public-school system of New Haven, Connecticut. If that isn’t enough to piss someone off, nothing is.

                But it’s equally true that such complaints really aren’t wholly justified. Sports exist in a marketplace peopled solely by volunteers, which is to say that teams and athletes get your money only if you choose to give it to them. (The exception is the use of tax dollars to build sports facilities.)  If you don’t like the games’ economic structures, don’t buy tickets or otherwise support them. It’s as simple as that.

               And fans and nonfans alike can take perverse satisfaction from the knowledge that athletes are notoriously poor handlers of money, people who will revert to economic norms or worse no matter how much they pull down during their salad days. In the maxim “a fool and his money are soon parted,” the word “jock” can be substituted for “fool” with no loss of meaning.

Evidence to support that premise is easy to come by; a few years ago Sports Illustrated magazine reported a study showing that 78% of NBAers and 60% of National Football League players were either bankrupt or experiencing “financial stress” within five years of retiring. Those numbers are large enough to raise questions, but even half the reported rates would be shocking.

In assessing jockonomics, a couple things should be kept in mind. The first is that nobody who works for somebody else is overpaid. Babe Ruth has been credited with saying that to justify his $80,000 salary in 1927, but its truth is self-evident whether he really said it or not.

The second is that published pay figures are grosses, not nets, and thus are misleading. From annual salaries in the seven-figures-and-up range one can immediately deduct about 35% for federal taxes, another 5% to 10% for state and local taxes and still another 10% for agency or legal fees. The state bite can be larger than normal because of the so-called “jock tax” which, pioneered in California, requires that athletes be taxed in just about every state in which they perform and at the rate of that state rather than the one they call home.  If nothing else this often requires them to file a dozen or more state forms at tax time.

Individual-sport athletes such as boxers and tennis players also typically must maintain, at their own expense, coaches, trainers and others that help them in their trades. For boxers training for a big fight this contingent can number in the dozens.

But even so what’s left can be considerable, and it should be noted that young athletes (almost all are huge earners for their age) often come from backgrounds that don’t prepare them to handle sudden wealth. The youngster coming into his first big pro contract typically finds himself surrounded by friends and relatives wishing to share in his good fortune, some with good cases for doing so. With little or no schooling in investment matters he is easy prey for fast-talking operators who tell him that ordinary annual returns of 5% or thereabouts amount to “chump change” and, thus, are beneath his exalted status. Having grown up with the privilege that extraordinary athletic ability brings in this land, this argument becomes easy to swallow.

And having gone from next to nothing to quite a bit in, like, 60 seconds, the newly rich jock easily falls into spending habits that can be sustained only as long as his income stays very high. Shaquille O’Neal, the former basketball player, seems to have emerged from hoops stardom in good financial shape, which is good because an article on his playing-days lifestyle had it that he was spending $l,620 a month for “music and magazines”, $2,305 a for pet care, $6,730 for laundry and cleaning, $24,300 for gasoline and $114,946 for “miscellaneous personal” reasons. And that’s before his mortgage(s) and food kicked in.

Automobiles are a big source of jock extravagance; one piece I saw online had it that Mike Tyson, the boxer, has owned a total of 111 such vehicles during his lifetime. Some he drove himself, others he gave to friends. More than once he abandoned cars after he couldn’t remember where he parked them, according to the article.

 Because they deal with the public individually and directly, boxers top most lists of richest jocks. They also are among the poster boys for financial disaster. Muhammad Ali earned a reported $50 million during his career but late in life lived off appearance fees. Tyson, coming along after the take for big fights had mushroomed because of pay-TV, grossed a reported $700 million. He declared bankruptcy in 2007. Now age 53, he lives off occasional acting gigs and lectures, one of the latter concerning how he blew his money.

Athletes’ typical need for quick gratification can subvert even well-meant financial plans. Businessman Bill Cayton, Tyson’s manager before being elbowed aside by the unscrupulous Don King, told me about setting up a trust fund for one of his earlier fighters, Wilfredo Benitez, that ensured Benitez a good income on retirement. “We made Wilfredo and his relatives sign promises never to invade the principal, but three weeks after the thing was set up he showed up at the bank asking to do just that,” Cayton said. “We told the banker not to let him but the next day he phoned again to say that Wilfredo, his father and a brunch of friends were in his office threatening to riot if they couldn’t get some money. We told the fellow to do what he had to, and inside of six months the whole sum was gone. Sad, but true.”