Sunday, November 15, 2015


              I’ve written it before but I think it’s worth repeating: the best months to visit Arizona are October and November. The weather then is warm but not hot, breezes are mild, skies usually are a breathtakingly deep blue and the snowbirds have yet to arrive in such numbers as to make traffic difficult. It’s my favorite time of year, a main reason I signed up to live here.
          The icing on the cake (cherry on the sundae? cream cheese on the bagel?) is the Arizona Fall League, whose six-week season runs from early October through middle November, this year ending on Thursday. It’s Major League Baseball’s annual finishing school for young prospects, generally Class A or AA players between the ages of 20 and 24. Each of the 30 big-league teams assigns seven players who are grouped in six teams of 35 players each that play a 32-game schedule. They wear their parent-team’s uniforms and AFL-team caps, making for a colorful show.
           It’s baseball at its purest and spectating at its easiest. The teams play mostly day games in some of the fine spring-training ballparks in the Phoenix area, with none of the expense and hassle that spring training has come to entail. Tickets are $8 ($6 for seniors) and parking is free and close.  Attendance usually runs between 300 and 500 people a game meaning you can sit where you want, and if your voice carries you easily can share your opinions with players, umps and fellow fans. That’s not always a good thing.
           We who are AFL regulars fancy ourselves scouts, and while we lack credentials it’s a game anyone can play. If you recall my previous blogs and website articles on the league you may have been introduced through me to such recent young stars as STARLIN CASTRO, NOLAN ARENADO and GREG BIRD. I also told you about some players who didn’t pan out so well, but let’s not dwell on that.
             My overall impression of the current AFL season is that the pitchers are beating the hitters, continuing the recent trend of the sport as a whole. A decade or so ago most of the young hurlers here could throw heat but not much else.  Now most have an array of pitches, and fastball temps continue to rise. On Wednesday I was at a game at Scottsdale Stadium, which broadcasts speed-gun results, and it seemed that every pitcher who was used could hit 95 mph, Bob Feller-like velocity. Anyone who doubts evolution should take note.
            That said, position players are easier to scout here than pitchers. Each team has 20 or so of those and aside from the starters, who usually go from three to five innings, they’re typically used for an inning an outing, not much to go on. The most-impressive pitcher I saw was NICK BURDI, a tall, skinny 22-year-old chattel of the Minnesota Twins, who pitched two perfect relief innings while I was watching, striking out four. His overall AFL card as of Friday showed no runs, two hits and seven K’s in six IPs, so he also was good at other times. But what can you tell from such scant exposure?
            The best position prospect I saw was GARY SANCHEZ, a 23-year-old catcher in the New York Yankees’ organization. Big (6-3, 230) and solidly built, he’s already a six-year pro, having been signed as a teen in the Dominican Republic, and played at the AA and AAA levels in the just-concluded regular season. As of Friday he led the AFL in home runs (7) and RBIs (19), while batting more than .300, and fielded his position well.  With Brian McCann the Yanks are well set at catcher for at least next season, but Sanchez will play for someone some time.
             High draft choices naturally get the most AFL attention and I think it’s instructive to compare the two highest on this year’s rosters. BUBBA STARLING was the fifth overall choice in the 2011 draft, by the Kansas City Royals, CLINT FRAZIER went fifth in 2013, to the Cleveland Indians, both out of high school.  Both are outfielders. Starling is 23 years old, Frazier is 21, and Starling has had 3 ½ minor-league seasons to Frazier’s 2 ½, meaning he should have an edge by both measures. But while the two have similar AFL stats, Frazier looks to me to be much the better prospect. A flaming redhead with a tightly wound physique, he’s faster afoot than Starling, and when he hits the ball solidly his bat gives off a distinctive ring that bespeaks extraordinary strength. The two previous AFLers whose knocks registered similarly with me were Bryce Harper and Javier Baez, and they’ve been hitting ‘em pretty far.

 Frazier strikes out a lot but, I guess, that comes with the territory these days. Both he and Starling will play in the Majors someday, if only to affirm their drafters’ judgement, but only he looks special. The Indians’ keen young shortstop Francisco Lindor was my top AFL prospect last year, and the team seems to have scored again.

Sometimes a player makes you look twice at your program. DOMINIC SMITH is such a one. He’s listed at 6-feet, 185 pounds but looks bigger, and hits bigger, too. The first baseman was the 11th player picked in the 2013 draft, by the L.A. Dodgers. He’s only 20 years old, so he’s probably a few years short of the Bigs, but the talent is there if he can overcome tendencies to not always run out ground balls and roll his eyes after called strikes.

My team, the Chicago Cubs, has been sending its top young hopefuls through the AFL in recent seasons. This year was supposed to be an exception, but the showings of a couple of their less-heralded ones here indicate that their farm system is deeper than I thought. JEIMER CANDELARIA is a 22-year-old infielder from the Dominican Republic who is unprepossessing physically but got hits every time I saw him, including four in one game. The Cubs are loaded with young infielders but he ought to be worth something in trade if he can’t elbow past some of them.

WILLSON CONTRERAS is a 23-year-old catcher from Venezuela who is small for his position (about 6-0, 175) but led the AA Southern League in batting last season (at .333).  He never was in the lineup when I watched his team play, but his AFL stats were good. No team has too many catchers so Theo Epstein must be smiling.

A few others impressed me in passing. TYLER AUSTIN is a 24-year-old first baseman who has spent six years in the Yankees’ system as a low (13th-round) draft pick. He hit two home runs while I was present and could play somewhere. ADAM BRETT WALKER II is a big guy in the Twins system who hits the ball far when he hits it. DANIEL PALKA is an outfield prospect for the Arizona Diamondbacks, who have plenty of outfielders, but he looks like a big-leaguer anyway. 

As I said, the AFL ends Thursday. This will make me unhappy but I’m consoled by the thought that it will reopen in less than 11 months.


Sunday, November 1, 2015


              They say it takes one to know one, but while I’ve been a Chicago Cubs’ fans for, lo, these last 70 years, I’m having a hard time recognizing my fellow fans these days.  They are smiling and their eyes are uncharacteristically bright. They’re pleasantly sated from the champagne they consumed after their favorites put away the archrival Cardinals in the QFs of the late World Series tournament.  When they look ahead they see nothin’ but blue skies.
              It makes me very uneasy.

              I know, I’m a killjoy, as I’ve been told repeatedly, but I can’t shake my innate skepticism or the lessons I’ve learned in my seven decades of fruitless baseball rooting. Further, while I don’t believe in curses, jinxes, hexes or any other otherworldly influences in human affairs, I do believe in psychology, and I’ve concluded that Cubs’ fans’ fecklessness has contributed to the team’s record of futility  (no “world” championships since 1908 or league pennants since 1945) that is unmatched in sporting annals. Unless we shape up we’ll only get more of the same.

              I understand fully the reasons for the current giddiness. In the just-concluded regular season the Cubs upped their victory total over the year before by 24 games (to 97), got through a playoff round (1 ½ if you include the one-game wild-card win over Pittsburgh) and gathered a growing list of individual awards, all with an eight-man lineup that often included five sterling rookies or near-rookies (Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell, Jorge Soler and Javier Baez), none of whom are older than 23. As we were constantly reminded by our journalistic mentors, they “became relevant” and “exceeded expectations.”  Who could ask for more, right?

              Truth is, though, they haven’t won anything yet, baseball awarding no bronze medals, and in the round in which they might have made a mark were brushed aside, four games to zip, by a New York Mets team that outplayed them thoroughly. That series revealed weaknesses not only in short-term hitting but also in the lack of pitching and defense that have plagued the Cubs since time immemorial. Need I remind that since World War II Cubs’ management has been transfixed by the days when the wind blows out at Beautiful Wrigley Field and put its money on sluggers (Sauer, Banks, Williams, Santo, Kingman, Dawson, Sosa) while neglecting baseball’s other facets? During my fandom the team has had only two truly first-rate pitchers -- Fergie Jenkins and Greg Maddux-- and let both slip away while still possessing considerable tread. Theo Epstein has yet to successfully address this issue.

              The Cubs’ dismissal by the Mets recalled their two most-recent playoff ventures, when they were swept by the Dodgers (in 2008) and the Diamondbacks (in ’07).   Moreover, in their fourth trip to the semis since MLB instituted playoffs in 1969, they fared worse than in the other three, when they fell to the Padres in five games in 1984 after taking a two-games-to-none lead, to the Giants 4-1 in 1989 and to the Marlins in seven in 2003 after leading 3-1. That’s nobody’s definition of progress.

              Nonetheless, by most Cubs’ fans’ measurements, 2015 will go down as a “great” year, along with 1984 and 2003, but no team exemplifies their collective psyche better than the 1969 edition. That was the gang that, with four future Hall of Famers on its roster (Banks, Williams, Santo and Jenkins), sprinted to an eight-game mid-August lead in the newly formed National League East only to hit a September wall and finish eight games behind the Mets. A season that would have been judged a colossal bust in most precincts went down in Cubs’ lore as glorious. No stalwart of that crew ever again had to buy himself a drink in Chicago.

              Cubs’ fans’ love for their losers contrasts with the attitudes exhibited by the adherents of the team’s recurring tormentors, the Mets. Yes, New Yorkers came to be fond of Casey Stengel’s comically inept “Amazins” in the years immediately following the team’s expansion birth in 1962, but that didn’t last long.  Since then, the Mets have had to please their adherents in the usual way—by at least occasionally rewarding them with victories. Their log includes two World Series championships (in 1969 and ’86) and two more pennants (in 2000 and this year). That’s two and four more, respectively, than the Cubs have won in that span.

              Both the Cubs and Mets endured losing-season dry spells from 2010 until their resurgences this season, and it’s instructive to compare their fans’ reactions. While the Mets were losing many of their supporters withheld patronage, with annual season attendance at their new (2009) Citi Field home barely exceeding two million for those five annums. Cubs’ fans, despite their team’s worse records than the Mets’ and in a half-as-big metro area, continued to drink the Kool Aid, topping the 2.5 million figure annually and three million in 2010. It’s no stretch to conclude that Cubs’ fans high tolerance for failure is one reason the team has done so poorly for so long. Why should management strive to serve steak when people will pay equally for bologna?

              Cubs’ fans are saying this year’s team is different because of the promise of its gifted young players. They’ll be champs for years, they proclaim. Chicagoans said the same thing after the 1985 Bears dominated the NFL with a young lineup, but fell short thereafter because of injuries and a clash of locker-room egos, not the least of which belonged to their coach, Mike Ditka. The same thing could happen to the Cubs.

              As the 1990s basketball Bulls and the current hockey Blackhawks have shown, Chicago is not a losers’ town, but it takes more than talent to win sports’ biggest prizes. The Bulls won their six NBA titles because of Michael Jordan’s superlative skills but also because he kicked his teammates’ butts when they didn’t perform to his expectations. Jonathan Toews seems to perform the same function for the Hawks in a quieter way. The Cubs will need a similar leader to succeed.

And meantime, it wouldn’t hurt to let them buy their own drinks until they’ve made some additions to the city’s trophy case.   



Thursday, October 15, 2015


               My dictionary defines a scandal as “an action or event regarded as morally or legally wrong and causing public outrage.” By that yardstick it isn’t clear that the numerous allegations of wrongdoing by officials of FIFA, which stages the soccer World Cup and other international events in the sport, qualifies for the epithet.

               Yeah, those guys probably stuffed their pockets to overflowing and beyond, but did they break any laws in the process? And did their actions cause public outrage? Aside from the parsons of the press box, I haven’t noticed many people who are expressing disgust or even surprise at what’s been revealed. It’s business as usual over there in Zurich, I and, I think, most others believe.
        What’s been in the papers certainly sounds bad.  Last May the U.S. Justice Department announced the indictments on racketeering charges of nine FIFA operatives and five corporate executives with whom they did business in what it said was a 24-year scheme that involved bribes and kickbacks worth about $150 million.  Some of those named already have pleaded guilty and can be expected to testify against some or all of the rest, meaning that chances for convictions are good.
           Then last month the Swiss police stepped up and announced they were looking into a criminal bribery charge involving Sepp Blatter, FIFA president since 1998, who last year was elected to a fifth, four-year term. Blatter had announced his resignation after the U.S. indictments were handed down but said it wouldn’t be effective until well into next year, obviously in the hope that the thing would blow over and he’d be allowed to stick around. Not much chance of that now.

 The cherry atop that particular sundae is that the party of the second part in Blatter’s suspected scheme is Michel Platini, the former star player who’s the head of UEFA, the game’s European overseer, and an announced “reform” candidate to succeed Blatter when the election finally comes off. Both men have been suspended from their offices for 90 days pending the results of the probe, but the point remains that in FIFA even a scorecard can’t help you separate the reformers from the crooks.

What’s happening in FIFA (which stands for Federation Internationale de Football Association) pretty much mirrors what’s happened in the International Olympic Committee, another dubious international sports organization domiciled in Switzerland.  Over the last half century—but especially in the last 20 years—both groups have been inundated with cash, mostly from the soaring value of TV rights to their attractions. As a gauge, check out U.S. rights sales alone: in 1990 TNT paid $7.75 million to televise that year’s World Cup, while this year Fox paid $425 million for rights to the 2018 and 2022 editions.  Last year FIFA reportedly took in $2.4 billion in world TV rights fees and another $1.6 billion in sponsorship deals with companies eager to bathe in the World Cup glow. The Olympics reap even larger returns. When it’s raining money like that it’s no wonder many umbrellas are turned upside down.

The IOC wraps itself in a flag and such lofty goals as the promotion of sportsmanship and world amity. For a long time it purported to be run by volunteers (no longer), but the hands-out rep of its honchos was well known. It culminated in revelations that resulted in the ouster of 10 executive committee members for taking bribes tied to the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. Its president from 1980 through 2001 was the lordly Juan Antonio Samaranch, a former functionary of Franco Spain whose non-paid status was belied by the $1.5 million-a-year hotel suite the IOC maintained for him in its headquarters city of Lausanne. Samaranch demanded that he be treated like a head of state and addressed as “your excellency.” Neither he nor any other IOC big shot ever got off the back of a plane.

The 79-year-old Blatter has kept a lower profile. Although you’d never know it from his obtuse public statements, he’s a public-relations man by trade who got into sports bureaucracy through the Swiss ice hockey federation. His best career move came in 1981 when he married the daughter of FIFA’s secretary general, its No. 2 post. That same year he had that job himself, and got the top one 17 years later.

All 209 national members of FIFA have the same vote whatever their populations or rankings in the sport. Blatter has kept power largely through the “development grants” he’s empowered to issue to promote soccer in small countries. If the organization’s culture is a guide, much of that money sticks in the pockets of local satraps, who reciprocate by hugging Blatter and giving him political support.

FIFA’s doings got mostly local notice until 2010 when, in a swoop, it awarded the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 tournament to Qatar. Russia under the odious Vladimir Putin is a kleptocracy where nothing much happens without money changing hands. Qatar is a lump of hot sand on top of Persian Gulf oil with no soccer tradition and a population of 1.8 million people, about as many as in metropolitan Nashville, Tennessee.  That award stunk from so many angles that FIFA’s own ethics committee felt moved to investigate, and it issued a report that was said to be critical of the bidding process. Blatter stepped in, though, and the document was squelched.

Still, the question of who has been hurt by FIFA misdeeds isn’t easily answered. The TV networks whose money fuels the organization and corporate sponsors such as Coca-Cola, Visa and McDonalds are savvy international players who know how business is done around the world. Their recent, belated demand that Blatter step down immediately only goes to show they’d rather be robbed than embarrassed.
             What probably bothers Blatter most about mess he’s in is the participation of the Swiss authorities. It’s no accident that both FIFA and the IOC are based in that land-locked land, where banking secrecy is an economic pillar and extradition of citizens for financial crimes isn’t easily granted. When only U.S. prosecutors were involved his supporters could write off their actions as sour grapes over the loss of the 2022 Cup (as Putin did publicly, while recommending Blatter for a Nobel Prize), but, evidently, he’s also done something to upset the home folks.  The earthy old saw “don’t, uh, defecate where you eat” seems to hold in Switzerland, too.

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.