Saturday, September 15, 2018


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 1, 2018


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 15, 2018


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Wednesday, August 1, 2018


                I’ve long thought that the appropriate United Nations body should declare Las Vegas a World Heritage Site, in recognition of its cultural importance. I’m not saying that its every brick should be preserved in the manner of the Taj Mahal or Machu Picchu; it’s a different sort of place deserving different treatment.  Anyway, the city’s citizens are changing the bricks almost daily, so that wouldn’t be possible.
                But Las Vegas stands out as a unique world shrine to hedonism, and not necessarily in a negative sense. Any trek down Las Vegas Boulevard reveals the gambling capitol’s international appeal both in the faces glimpsed and the languages overheard, and the daily fact that thousands of people from every part of the globe can mix there delightedly attests to its benign aura. Within its cocoon visitors can cast away ordinary concerns and commune with their inner selves, and if that self is saying “Let it roll!”, so be it.

                Until recently Las Vegas also has held a special place in the American sports world, a kind of domestic Switzerland where fans of every stripe could mix without rancor. Nearly everyone there—townie as well as tourist-- is from somewhere else, spreading allegiances broadly, and its neutral air was reinforced by its lack of local home teams. In a LV sports book fans of the Yankees and Red Sox, Steelers and Browns, Lakers and Warriors could chat amiably, united in the belief that when the chips are down their teams were bound to screw them.

                If you read the sports pages, though, you know that idyllic situation is in danger. Las Vegas got a National Hockey League team last year and a year or two from now will have a National Football League club. Indeed, that team—the Raiders—already has committed to the Nevada burg and is just playing out the string in its Oakland, CA, domicile, waiting for a new LV stadium to be completed for the 2019 or 2020 campaigns. That arrangement sets records for chutzpah, but that’s another issue.

                Through its summer league the National Basketball Association annually becomes a greater part of the Las Vegas fabric and nobody would be surprised if a team materializes there, and sooner rather than later. Major League Baseball, with its longer schedule and greater financial, demographic and geographical demands, presents a greater challenge, but is not out of the question.

                It’s all semi-amazing for a city that, in living memory, was a dusty desert town with nothing but a nearby military base or two to count as assets. In 1960 Las Vegas’s population was 64,000, and it had no suburbs to speak of. Now about 650,000 people live in the city proper and the population of its metropolitan area numbers about 2.2 million. It has the 28th largest standard metro area in the U.S., bigger than that of Kansas City, Cincinnati, Cleveland and New Orleans, among other cities. It’s growing fast so it will be moving up on that ladder.

                Las Vegas has thrived on gambling and on its state’s relaxed divorce and sex laws, although, sidewalk card-snappers to the contrary notwithstanding, prostitution isn’t legal within its county limits. Air-conditioning and easy air transport also helped it grow, a lot. Civic boosters don’t like to talk about it but much of the gambling used to be crime-mob controlled, something that, I think, added to the city’s allure. And yes, there is a monument there to Ben “Bugsy” Siegel, an early gangster-casino operator. It’s on the property of the Flamingo Hotel, which he helped build.

                For a long time our major sports leagues held their noses when the subject of gambling arose, even while happily benefiting from the fan interest the practice generated. Now, with lotteries and Indian casinos everywhere, and a failed casino operator in the White House, the smell ain’t nearly so bad, and if any whiff remained it was dissipated by the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling that opened legal sports gambling to all 50 states. Soon, Las Vegas will look like Everytown, USA, or, rather, Everytown will look like Las Vegas. Does it matter which?
            Las Vegas’s ability to support a big-league franchise was underlined by the box-office success of the NHL Golden Knights, which filled 103% of its stadium capacity of about 18,000 in its first season and, even, outdrew the New York Rangers. The expansion team’s miraculous Stanley Cup-finals run surely helped, but most of those tickets were sold before the season began.

Hockey is a cold-weather niche sport, with no roots in the desert, so it stands to reason that if the Knights could pack ‘em in so could an NBA team, in a sport in which LV has a strong college history.  Full houses also seem assured for the Raiders, when they arrive; if small towns like State College, PA, and Clemson, SC, can fill big stadiums on game days, Las Vegas can, too.

Baseball requires a broader reach to prosper, and beyond its immediate environs there’s not much there there in middle-of-nowhere Las Vegas. This would be especially limiting in the matter of local TV and radio rights, a major source of baseball-team income; squeezed between Los Angeles on the east and Phoenix on the south, any LV club wouldn’t have much of an audience to offer to broadcasters.  Also, its hot desert climate would dictate a pricey indoor or retractable-roofed ballpark. Still, with its average of 100,000 visitors a day looking for evening entertainment, plus the locals, a team would have a good attendance base.

The Supreme Court ruling allowing other states to offer legal sports betting, ending Nevada’s virtual monopoly, is bound to cut into the state’s revenue from that source, making the development of other attractions necessary. More major-league sports would be one such, so look for Las Vegas to make big pushes for that. Partisan neutrality is no asset in such an effort, so bye-bye Switzerland, hello Phoenix-with-casinos, for better or worse.  


Sunday, July 15, 2018


                I discovered Sports Illustrated magazine early in its life and was a faithful subscriber for, maybe, 40 years. Back in the day, when the likes of Gilbert Rogin, Dan Jenkins and Curry Kirkpatrick wrote for it, it epitomized good writing in the sports field, albeit often with a smirky slant. Being a magazine it almost always weighed in on events well after they’d occurred, but usually found ways to add something to their discussion and was well worth whatever it cost.

                About 15 years ago, though, I fell out of the SI habit, and stopped reupping. So did many others in our post-literate, sports-saturated age, and the magazine shrunk and began appearing less often. It got cheaper, too, so cheap that two or three years back it sent me an offer I couldn’t refuse. I mailed in my check and the mag started coming. It hasn’t stopped, even though I can’t remember writing another check.

                I mostly leaf through the SIs I get, not caring much about the subject matter, but every third or fourth issue contains a piece I’m glad I read. One such is in the issue of July 2-9. By the excellent Greg Bishop, it’s titled “The Search For Why.” It’s about the recent suicide of Tyler Hilinski, a football quarterback at Washington State University, and his family’s search to make sense of an act that often seems senseless.

                If you’ve read about Hilinski’s suicide it’s probably because of the news that his autopsy revealed evidence in his brain of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. It’s a condition that has turned up in the brains of many former football players. It can produce chronic and debilitating headaches and Alzheimer-like mental confusion and memory loss, and sometimes leads to suicide. Hilinski, though, was no veteran National Football League battering ram but a lean and agile 21-year-old whose football history included only the youth and high-school sport in his native La Verne, California, near Los Angeles, and a handful of appearances as a sophomore backup QB in college. Bishop wrote that the young man never had a verified concussion, although he suspected he might have suffered one in a practice as a WSU freshman. His family said he’d shown none of the physical symptoms associated with CTE.

                A further wrinkle is that Hilinski’s younger brother, Ryan, was a talented high-school quarterback who soon will begin his freshman year playing football at the University of South Carolina. The Hilinski family’s decision to allow Ryan to play makes up a large part of the article.

                Underlying the piece is the quandary many parents like the Hilinskis face because of how little is known about CTE. First diagnosed 1940s as the “punch-drunk syndrome,” and thought to be associated mainly with boxing, the condition was tied directly to football in the early 2000s by the work of Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian-born pathologist in Pittsburgh who investigated the untimely deaths of ex-Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster and, later, another former Steeler.

             That caused a splash, but research into the condition’s causes and consequences was delayed by the NFL’s attempts first to discredit Omalu (dramatized in the 2015 movie “Concussion,” starring Will Smith) and then to steer studies away from blaming the sport. While the football-CTE link now is firmly established, as well as is the fact that less-than-concussion-level head injuries can contribute to it, it’s still not possible to identify CTE brain patterns in living humans, determine at what levels symptoms kick in, or know which types of individuals are susceptible to it and which aren’t. Many young suicides have no history of brain trauma, so Tyler Hilinksi’s action may have had nothing to do with football.

                The article paints the Hilinski family as an affluent and educated one; dad Mark founded a software company and mom Kym is a lawyer. The parents do not look to sports as a “way out” of poverty or stilted ambition for their children; their oldest son, Kelly, is a medical student about to become a physician. The three boys played musical instruments and engaged in various sports as kids, assertedly not pushed in any one direction.

 Kym Hilinski said she’s always viewed her sons’ football playing with trepidation. The couple is aware that if genetics play a role in CTE susceptibility, son Ryan is more likely than most to be harmed. If he were 10 years old “he wouldn’t play football because it’s too scary for me,” she admits.

In the modern way, however, the Hilinskis left the decision to Ryan, who is almost 18, and he’s decided to play, partly because he loves and game and partly as a tribute to Tyler. “I’m going to do everything that Tyler wanted to do with football,” he told Bishop. “I’m going to do that to honor him.”

I’m sure that some other parents, reading the article, will come to a different conclusion. Kids today have many sports alternatives that don’t involve the constant bang-bang of football; ones who like it rough can take up wrestling, whose physical contact is noncranial. In the last few years more of us spectators now wince at rather than applaud the frequent hard hits of the gridiron sport. If it will be difficult to watch Ryan Hilinski play for South Carolina without that reaction, imagine what it will be like for the Hilinskis.

Sunday, July 1, 2018



                VIEW: BIG DEAL, MAYBE

                The most-celebrated basketball player in my adopted home city of Phoenix, Arizona, has yet to score a point or, even, bounce a ball in the uniform of his new team. That, however, hasn’t stopped the press and public hereabouts from obsessing over DeAndre Ayton, the way they have for several months already.

                The team “earned” the right to select Ayton by conscientiously compiling the NBA’s worst won-lost mark (21-61) last season, then converting its 25% chance for the top pick in last April’s draft lottery. That culminated a three-year Suns’ run of losing on purpose, the object of which was to collect the favorable draft choices that might end a playoff drought, which now has lasted for eight seasons. For better or worse, that’s the way things are done in our pro major leagues these days.

 Young Mr. Ayton oned and doned last season down the road at the U. of Arizona in Tucson, thus qualifying as something of a local even enough he was born and raised in the Bahamas.  He’s an athletic seven-footer who looks the part of a basketball-team savior, and eventually may play that role. But such things don’t always turn out as planned.

 His addition gives the Suns a dynamic-looking, three-player “core” of top player/prospects, also including Devin Booker, the 13th pick of the 2015 draft, and Josh Jackson, the 4th pick in 2017. Trouble is, Ayton is just 19 years old and Booker and Jackson both are 21. Add the 20-year-olds Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender, their 2016 first-round draft choices (Nos. 4 and 8) and you have a lineup that would be young for a college team, much less one in the world’s best professional league.

The chancy nature of the draft is best illustrated by the experience of the Philadelphia 76ers, who picked first in both 2016 and last year. Their ’16 No. 1, Ben Simmons, didn’t play as a rookie because of injuries, and their ‘17 prize, Markelle Fulz, appeared in just 14 games his first year for the same reason. Further, Joel Embiid, their 2014 first choice and third pick overall, missed two full years and most of a third before showing up for good last season. It’s not wishing Ayton any bad luck to point out that the same fate could befall him.

Or he could be mediocre, the way Chriss and Bender have been in their two seasons in the league. Or a knucklehead, like the talented but technical-foul-prone Jackson might be. Until they prove otherwise, the Suns will continue to exemplify this old joke:

“What do you call a good, young NBA team?”

“An also-ran.”



You may have missed it but Major League Baseball in May came out with a report from a study by a panel of 10 scientists (physicists and such) that looked into why home runs per team jumped to 1.26 a game last season from .86 in 2014, a truly outlandish increase of 46%. The group’s conclusion was that improvements in the ball-manufacturing process got the credit/blame, rather than playing-field changes or any deliberate plot to make balls livelier.

“A change in the aerodynamic properties” of the balls “reduced drag for given launch conditions,” the panel wrote. The likely causes of this was a better centering of the rubber pill at the heart of each ball and a general improvement in ball-making that produced a rounder sphere that would travel farther. The jump was “not due to a livelier, ‘juiced’ ball or any change in batter/pitcher behavior,” the scholars wrote.

So okay¸ let’s discount the fact that more hitters swing for the fences these days against more pitchers that throw in the 95-100 mph range. What physics I know tells me that the faster a ball comes in the faster it will come out when struck, but my background in the subject is meager. Let’s also throw out some hitters’ changes in swing angle to create more fly balls, some of which leave the parks.  But how about the also-well-known fact that chicks dig the long ball? Until that changes I’ll remain dubious about any juicing disclaimers from MLB.

Incidentally, the report also pointed out that for some years now all baseballs used in Major League games have been made in Costa Rica, under the Rawlings label. Keep that in mind the next time you hear discussions about what the world is like, tradewise.



Landon Donovan, the U.S.’s best international soccer player ever, caught some flak a few days ago by saying that, with the U.S. not in the competition, he was rooting for Mexico to succeed in the World Cup that’s now unfolding. The country is our biggest hemispheric rival in the sport so why boost it? the flak shooters argued.

To that I say phooey. If ever a country needed a boost it’s Mexico. The folks down there are caught in a drugs war that’s worse than most armed conflicts and stuck geographically between a northern neighbor that once regarded them fondly but now abuses them daily and a bunch of crime-ridden banana republics to the south. They produce peppy music and a tasty, spicy cuisine. What’s not to like?

Alas, from here Mexico’s championship hopes look less than bright. They kicked off their World Cup bid by shocking Germany, the defending champ and world No. 1, and then won their second game, but with advancement on the line got their butts kicked by Sweden and made the round of 16 only because South Korea also upset Germany. Big-time improvement will be needed for “El Tri” to beat Brazil in a “knockout” game Monday (7/2). But hey! Stranger things have happened, like them and S. Kor. beating Germany.

Saturday, June 16, 2018


                I read somewhere that at any given time about 30 future Hall of Famers are on the active rosters of Major League Baseball clubs, and while I haven’t done any independent research on the subject the number seemed high. I’m thinking 15 for sure, maybe 20, but 30 might be a stretch.

                That predicting future Hall membership with any certainty can be hazardous is seen in the cases of Ryan Braun and Robinson Cano. Both had careers that seemed to be Cooperstown bound until they were ensnarled in the game’s drug-testing net. Given the fate of other dopers their immortality now appears to be unlikely, unless a pharmaceutical company takes over the place or they enlist Kim Kardashian to plead their cases.

                That said, though, I think that most of us fans carry a list of future Famers around in our heads and all that remains is to write it down. I’ll do that in the paragraphs to follow. You can, too, if you like-- on your own computer or legal pad, that is.

                My list breaks down into three parts: sure things, maybes, and “not there yet.”  The last category exists because nobody gets on a Hall of Fame ballot without having put in 10 or more  Major League seasons. Contrary to public belief, that and having been retired for at least five years are the only statistical requirements for membership. Players also must pass the muster of a writers’ nominating committee, but that’s a low bar.

                Name Number One on my “sure thing” list is easy to guess. He’s ALBERT PUJOLS, the LA Angels slugger. Nobody fills a batter’s box like big Albert and few have filled the box scores better, as his 3,000-plus career hits and 600-plus home runs attest. Though he has his aches and pains he’s still hitting pretty well and at age 38 isn’t talking about retirement. There’s still time to tell your grandchildren you saw him play.

                My Number 1A is ICHIRO SUZUKI, maybe the best contact hitter ever. He didn’t show up in the U.S. Majors until age 27 but still topped the magical 3,000-hits mark. Throw in his 1,278 hits in the top pro league of his native Japan and you’ve got an Everest-like record. Technically, the 44-year-old Ichiro isn’t active at the moment, having recently joined the Seattle Mariners’ front office after starting this season on the field, but he’s vowed to return and play until he needs a walking cane, and one can only believe him.

                Then there’s MIGUEL CABRERA, the era’s best all-around batsman. His .317 average over 16 seasons is the best of any player with 10 or more years’ service, and his 2012 Triple Crown—leading the Majors in batting average, home runs and runs batted in—was a signal achievement, a 45-year first. Enough said.

                Pujols, Ichiro and Cabrera are certain first-ballot electees. Three other players also seem sure to make it, albeit perhaps not that fast. ADRIAN BELTRE qualifies by having hit safely 3,000-plus times, an accomplishment that may die out if the current, swing-for-the-fences hitting mentality endures. His other batting numbers also are of Hall quality. YADIER MOLINA has been the best defensive catcher of his era, a very good hitter and a fiery team leader whose presence dominates any field on which he performs. JOE MAUER has put in 15 seasons, mostly behind the plate, and has batted better than .300 so far, a rare combo. Playing with the out-of-the-way Minnesota Twins hasn’t helped, but his Gold Gloves, All-Star Game appearances and 2009 MVP have.

                The best three starting pitchers of the current era—JUSTIN VERLANDER, MAX SCHERZER and CLAYTON KERSHAW-- also seem to be headed for enshrinement, even though recent trends in the game dictate a reassessment of starting-pitching stats. Time was when the best starters aimed at 20-win seasons and careers with 250 or more victories. Now starters start every fifth game instead of every fourth and quick hooks are the rule, so those standards are out of date. Verlander, Scherzer and Kershaw have put in a combined total of 36 Major League seasons but have only five 20-win seasons among them, and none has yet recorded 200 career wins.

Verlander was 197-116 in the won-lost column last week, but he’s 35 years old. Scherzer was 151-77 at age 33. Kershaw, 145-68, is the youngest of the trio at 30, but has spent parts of the last two years on the disabled list, so his longevity is questionable. Where have you gone Greg Maddux?

My “maybe” list is fairly short, including JOEY VOTTO, DUSTIN PEDROIA, BUSTER POSEY, CC SABATHIA, BARTOLO COLON and JON LESTER.  Posey, Pedroia and Votto are good bets if they keep playing at a high level for a few seasons more, but Votto and Pedroia both are 34 years old so that might be difficult for them (Posey is 30). Colon and Sabathia lead active pitchers in career wins—Colon with 243 and Sabathia with 241—but neither has been dominant in the manner of Verlander, Scherzer or Kershaw, so Hall electors might find them to be acquired tastes.  Ditto for Lester, 167-94 at age 34. He can’t throw to first base but his three World Series rings won’t hurt.

 In my “not there yet” category are a bunch of players who have yet to put in 10 seasons. It includes the position players MIKE TROUT, JOSE ALTUVE, BRYCE HARPER, MOOKIE BETTS, MANNY MACHADO, PAUL GOLDSCHMIDT, FRANCISCO LINDOR, AARON JUDGE, GIANCARLO STANTON, KRIS BRYANT and ANTHONY RIZZO, and the pitchers CHRIS SALE, COREY KLUBER, AROLDIS CHAPMAN  and CRAIG KIMBREL.

 Athletic careers are chancy, easily interrupted or ended by injury or other missteps, so there’s no telling who in that group will make it and who won’t. Those with the best chances to compile truly memorable career numbers started youngest—Harper and Trout at age 19 and Altuve at 21, for instance. The currently dominant Kluber, on the other hand, is 32 years and has 85 wins to show for his seven-plus seasons, so conventional Hall credentials may be beyond his reach.  

Still, the fat, jolly Colon is still at it at 45 and just tied Juan Marichal in career wins, so anything’s possible. That’s why we watch, isn’t it?