Monday, December 15, 2008


Few duties remain from my days as a working sports writer, but one of them I especially cherish. It showed up again in my mailbox the other day in the form of my annual ballot for the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

I get to vote because of my 10-plus active years in the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, the estimable organization that oversees the election of players who recently have retired from the game. Even though I’m retired I’m still a “lifetime honorary” member with hall-elector status, one of about 575 people so designated.

When I was working I was pestered constantly to vote on all sorts of jock awards. I pitched most such pleas on the ground that those guys already were too-much fussed over. I place the Hall ballot in an entirely different category. Baseball is the sport whose roots go deepest into America’s soil, and the game’s depository of relics in charming Cooperstown, N.Y., uniquely conjures up its glories. It’s said that you visit the Hall to discover baseball’s past and wind up discovering your own. I’ve been there as boy and man and can vouch for the truth of that.

The most interesting thing about the Hall’s election process is how few statutory requirements govern it. To be eligible for the ballot someone must have played at least 10 Major League seasons, be retired five years and be nominated by at least two members of a six-member BWAA screening committee. Period. That means every voter must define greatness in his own way. It’s a challenging task. Kind of daunting, too.

In practice, some statistical accomplishments virtually assure a player’s election, such as 300 career wins for a pitcher or 3,000 hits for a position player, but times change and so do such standards. For instance, 500 home runs used to be a sure ticket to Cooperstown, but the game’s steroids era (roughly 1990 to 2005) ended that. The Bluto-like Mark McGwire showed up on the ballot last year with 583 homers to his credit but was mentioned by just 23% of the voters (and not by me), far short of the 75% required for election. His chemical odor makes him a long shot ever to get in. The same fate may await another accomplished juicer, Rafael Palmeiro (3,020 hits, 569 home runs), when his Hall eligibility begins in 2010. Pending future developments, Barry Bonds may have a tough time, too.

Ten new names are on this year’s ballot: Jay Bell, David Cone, Ron Gant, Mark Grace, Rickey Henderson, Jesse Orosco, Dan Plesac, Greg Vaughn, Mo Vaughn and Matt Williams. Henderson, the all-time stolen bases leader and smacker of 3,055 career hits, should be a first-ballot shoo in. I look forward to his installation speech and hope that in it he’ll refer to himself in the third person, as he often did in interviews. Of the rest, Cone, Grace and Mo Vaughn have the best chance of getting the 5% mentions needed to remain on the ballot for another year. The rest, I’m afraid, are history in another sense.

Electors can put from none to 10 names on their ballots, from the total list of 23. Besides Henderson, I’ll be naming Jack Morris, Andre Dawson, Alan Trammell and Bert Blyleven.

I’ve enthusiastically voted for Morris since he became eligible 10 years ago and can’t understand why many other of my colleagues haven’t (he got just 43% mention last year). Besides a win-heavy 254-186 career record he was one of the best big-game pitchers I’ve seen, the biggest being his 10-inning, 1-0 win for Minnesota over Atlanta in the seventh game of the epic, 1991 World Series.

Dawson was a powerful batsman (he’s 23rd in all-time extra-base hits, 25th in total bases, 30th in RBIs), a heck of an outfielder and had a great nickname (“The Hawk”). I’m partial to shortstops, who generally are the best athletes on a baseball field, and Trammell was one of the best of the best during his 20 seasons in Detroit. He was World Series MVP for the 1984 Tigers, one of the game’s greatest teams.

I’ve wrestled with myself over Blyleven’s qualifications, sometimes including him, sometimes not. He was a good pitcher for a long time (22 seasons), and won 287 games, but never quite reached the sport’s pinnacle. However, I’ve finally concluded that his fifth-place in all-time strikeouts (with 3,701) is an achievement worth honoring.

Among those I’m leaving off is Jim Rice. In his 15th and final year on the writers’ ballot ( a veteran-players’ committee considers candidates 20-plus years out), he fell just short of election last year at 72.2%, and might have been in before if he hadn’t made a habit of stiffing writers after games (yes, some count that), but by me he doesn’t quite measure up overall. Ditto for such other present-ballot notables as McGwire, Lee Smith, Dave Parker, Tommy John, Harold Baines, Dale Murphy, Don Mattingly and Tim Raines.

Think I’m wrong? Let me know. I have a couple more weeks to change my mind.

Or not.

Sunday, November 30, 2008


I voted for Barack Obama and was happy when he won, so happy that I exchanged fist bumps with like-minded friends. As far as I’m concerned he needn’t walk on water to be a successful president, just run a competent administration and show some respect for the truth. He’d be a big improvement over the gang we’ve just had on both those scores.

But although The Elected One is almost two months shy of taking office, I already find myself in disagreement with him. That’s over his call for an annual, eight-team playoff to determine a national major-college football champion. What’s he doing messing with that stuff, anyway? Maybe he’s still in campaign mode and hoping to win over some of the Joe Six-Pack types who join the cheers for such things.

Or maybe his proposal reflects a disappointing lack of understanding of today’s college-athletics’ scene. As anyone who has spent much time around them knows, the trouble with the big-time college “revenue” sports—football and men’s basketball—is that they’re too much about sports and not enough about college. School administrators, alums and even some faculty members have bought into the notion that success on the gridiron or hardcourt confers a status that can’t be gotten elsewhere. To that end they’ve created a monster business that’s taken on a life of its own and diverts resources and attention from what should be their real mission.

To support it they’ve built physical plants that match or exceed in grandeur those of the sports pros, down to (or up to) multi-million-dollar workout facilities and the glassed-in “luxury” boxes that line their stadiums’ rims. Their head coaches receive seven-figure annual income packages and perks that mock their frequent self-descriptions as humble educators. These cats typically have a half-dozen secretaries and offices large enough to house an Olympic swimming pool. It’s easier to get a private audience with Condoleezza Rice than with some of them.

The young men who star in the shows the big-timers produce are no more than grist for the mill. They’re recruited with the promise of receiving a proper academic life-launching only to be immediately saddled with a regimen of practice, game-film watching, weight training, games and travel that amounts to a full-time job and then some. Under such circumstances only the brightest and most highly motivated individuals can obtain an education worth the name, but, sadly, most of the kids involved are neither. Most drift away from campus once their athletic eligibility expires or are whisked out the door with a diploma that’s just a piece of paper. Don’t put much stock in the claims of schools that purport to have high athlete-graduation rates; for my money that means their athletic departments have too much sway over their academic counterparts.

Like those of the pros, college revenue-sport schedules only change in one direction: longer. Hey, if you don’t open the store you can’t do business. Back in the Stone Age, when I went to college, the college-football regular season was nine games and there were maybe a half-dozen New Year’s Day bowls. Now the NCAA-sanctioned Division I regular season is 12 games and there are enough bowl games to provide ESPN with nightly programming from middle December through the first week in January.

That’s not all, though. “Pre-season” games, usually connected to some charity but with the schools getting their shares just the same, aren’t counted in the 12. Neither are the championship contests held by conferences that have been split into divisions. Throw in a bowl and 14-game seasons aren’t uncommon.

Even incorporating present bowls into the mix, the eight-team playoff Obama espouses would tack on another game or two for the teams that qualify, often running their seasons to 15 or 16 outings. Sixteen games is the length of an NFL season, isn’t it? It’d extend the college season through January, making it six months in duration. And this in a sport where the players get the stuffings kicked out of them weekly.

As Obama pointed out repeatedly in his campaign, the U.S. educational system’s many shortcomings have caused us to fall behind other nations in preparing our youth for the knowledge-based economy that’s developing worldwide. Encouraging the further growth of the college-sports behemoth wouldn’t help us a bit there.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


Most people who visit Phoenix and vicinity from the North do so between New Year’s Day and Easter, the better to escape the frigid weather in their regular habitats. It’s nice here then—except for the summers it usually is—but that’s not my favorite time in my adopted home area. If I were coming I’d pick October or November.

Unlike in winter, it almost never rains here during those months, and while early-October temperatures regularly top 90 degrees the business about “dry” heat actually is true and makes conditions far more pleasant than with similar readings elsewhere. By November average highs have dropped into the 70s, perfect by any standard. The sunshine, light air, gentle breezes and deep-blue desert sky conspire to create a Chamber of Commerce dream.

Best of all, October and November are when the Arizona Fall League holds forth in the Valley of the Sun. The AFL is baseball’s—and Arizona’s—best-kept secret, and persists in that distinction even though it’s regularly advertised as such in the local news outlets. That’s fine with me because I like it just the way it is.

The AFL consists of six teams of 35 players each, seven from each of the 30 Major League clubs. It’s a minor-league finishing school for the top Class A and AA prospects in each team’s farm system, with a few AAA players and an occasional young Major Leaguer in need of additional innings thrown in for leavening.

The teams play 38-game schedules, this year beginning Oct. 7 and ending next Saturday, Nov. 22, with daily bills usually consisting of two day games and one at night. The venues are the nicest little ballparks you’ll ever see—the spring-training homes of the Cubs (in Mesa), Giants (Scottsdale), A’s (Phoenix), Padres and Mariners (Peoria) and Rangers and Royals (Surprise). Admission is cheap: $6 for adults, $5 for seniors and kids.

Spring training baseball in Arizona has come to mean crowds, traffic jams and ticket scalpers. Not the Fall League. The parks each seat between 8,000 and 10,000 people but daily attendance rarely tops 300, including the scouts hunched behind home plate aiming their radar guns. That means you can sit just about anywhere, with extra seats for elbow room and foot-propping.

You can park for free right in front of the stadiums, rarely more than a few yards from the gates. Your chances of taking home a foul ball are good, especially if you’re willing to leave your seat to pick one up. If you’re proud of your opinions about the action on the field, you can share them with the players, coaches, umpires and fellow fans merely by raising your voice.

The baseball isn’t Major League, but it isn’t far behind. Much of the fun is in watching the 21-to-24-year-olds play and guessing which will be starring in the Bigs, and when. Sometimes, this isn’t difficult: it didn’t take a Tony Lucadello to pick out the likes of Ryan Howard (AFL 2004), Ryan Braun (2006) or Evan Longoria (2007). Usually, though, the players are two or three years short of bloom, so you can puff your chest a bit if you’re eventually right.

The hitters have it all over the pitchers this season but the best-looking prospect I’ve seen is a pitcher. He’s 22-year-old Tommy Hanson, the property of the Atlanta Braves. The 6-foot-6 right hander throws fastballs and breakers the other kids can’t handle. In 23 2/3 AFL innings he’s allowed 9 hits and 2 earned runs while striking out 39. He’s Kevin Millwood a dozen years younger.

At age 21, first-baseman Logan Morrison, a Florida Marlins chattel, already is a man among boys, hitting .448 with 28 RBI in 21 games. Colorado Rockies’ prospect Eric Young Jr., the 23-year-old son of the ex-Big League second baseman, gets on base and then steals some. Hanson has a prospective battery mate in Tyler Flowers, a big guy (6-4, 245) with home run power to match.

The Cubs have a couple of pretty good middle-infield prospects in Darwin Barney and Nate Spears, but they’re both about the size of Mike Fontenot. The White Sox’s Aaron Poreda, 22, is a 6-foot-6 left hander who throws hard and throws strikes, at least while I’m watching. You can’t tell much from seeing a player once but the one time I saw shortstop Gordon Beckham, the Sox’s 2008 No. 1 draft choice, he went 5-for-5 with 2 home runs and 7 RBI. He’s supposed to be a good polo player besides.

Come on down and check it out for yourself. There’s still a week left.

Friday, October 31, 2008


For most of the year I’m content to watch games without mercenary incentive, but that changes in the fall, when foot meets ball. There’s something about point-spread betting that makes handicapping football irresistible—especially the National Football League variety. I take rating the games as a personal challenge, one that spices my every week from the beginning of September until Super Bowl Sunday in February.

When I tell people I bet on the NFL the first question I get is “How much?” “None of your business,” I reply, but I add that it’s not nearly enough to alter my standard of living, win or lose.

The second question usually concerns with whom I bet. Same answer as the first, but I will say he’s a great sportsman and fine fella who serves a societal need. In that capacity, at least.

If it were up to me sports gambling would be legal in this land in places other than the great state of Nevada. People are going to do it whether or not they’re supposed to, and the activity might as well benefit us all by being taxed. Just about every state already allows casinos and horse and dog tracks, and runs dressed-up numbers games called lotteries, for heaven’s sake, so we voters long ago signed off on the moral issue.

Among sports betting’s loudest foes is the NFL, which, interestingly, also is among its greatest beneficiaries. The league decries anything that would divert fan attention from the simple question or winning or losing while publishing the sort of detailed weekly injury reports only gamblers require. It revels in the title of “America’s Sport” while failing to acknowledge that much of the fervor its contests arouse stems from betting interest. When a team is leading late in a game by two touchdowns and its fans are screaming for it to score again, you know the spread is 14 points.

You can bet on other pro sports, too (I leave the college kids alone), but it’s not like betting on the NFL. Baseball games often are decided by a run or two so the point-spread treatment doesn’t work; rather, it’s commonly bet on a money line that makes one team, say, a 5 ½-6 favorite over another, meaning that a $1 wagered on the underdog returns $1.10 while someone betting the favorite has to put up $1.20 to win $1. It’s a game of small differences that prove out over a 162-game season, but are very hard to predict day by day.

Pro basketball’s 82-game regular season is about half as long as baseball’s but the sport’s one-night-stand travel is brutal and its physical pace is demanding. Even good teams take nights off on court but, of course, don’t announce them. Gambling on basketball and baseball are specialized arts that require agility, stamina and deep pockets. The “don’t try this at home” warning fully applies.

By contrast, the 32 NFL teams play just once a week, which allows us plungers plenty of time to analyze the matchups beforehand and heal our wounds afterward. Further, football’s scoring is ideally suited to equalizing games through point spots, or spreads. The league’s best team may be playing the worst but the spread can turn the game into a challenging betting proposition.

To bet football right you have to do what the people who set the spreads do. That’s to maintain what’s called a “power rating,” which quantities the differences among the contestants. Give each team a grade, or score, with the best ones getting the lowest numbers. Update it at least weekly to reflect the teams’ latest performances and their injury situations, as best as you can figure them out.

Say that your PR puts the Giants at 3 and the Bears at 10. That would make the Giants a 7-point favorite on a neutral field. Then plug in the home-field advantage, usually three points. Playing in New York the Giants would be +10, in Chicago +4. If your number differs from the bookie’s by 3 points or more, or if it’s on the opposite side of such “key” numbers as 3, 4, 6, 7, 10, 14, 17 or 21—point margins by which many games are decided—you’ve got a bet.

At this point I suppose you’d like some betting advice. My record over the last couple of seasons forces me to demur on grounds of modesty, but I can do better by passing along some tips from the estimable Mr. Lem Banker of Las Vegas, my mentor in this regard. Lem is a gen-u-wine expert, maybe the smartest sports bettor ever. He and I collaborated on a 1986 book on the subject (“Lem Banker’s Book of Sports Betting”) that’s considered a classic. Honest.

Sez Lem:

--Don’t be afraid to bet on underdogs. Most people like to back favorites and the spreads reflect this.

--Favor teams with good rushing attacks over those that mostly pass. Football’s a rough-and-tough game and the teams that run best are the roughest and toughest.

--Injuries to quarterbacks, running backs and pass receivers are overrated. Injuries to offensive linemen and defensive backs are underrated.

--If a team has an extraordinarily good or bad game one week, look for it to revert to form the next.

--Most important, bet what you can afford to lose, not what you’d like to win.

And, hey, what are you going to do with your money these days, put it in the stock market?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


Almost every morning I scan a number of sports pages on the Internet and a story (several, actually) in the Chicago papers caught my eye a week or so ago. It was about Ben Gordon, a guard for the Chicago Bulls of the National Basketball Association, and his salary struggles with the team.

Gordon is entering his fifth NBA season and will be eligible for free agency at its end. Teams often try to tie their better players to long-term deals before they gain their contractual freedom and the Bulls did this with Gordon last season, reportedly offering him something around $50 million over five years. Gordon said uh-uh and played out the campaign. More negotiations ensued and the Bulls changed their offer to $58 million over six years, a bit of a drop on an annual basis. Gordon, who is said to have sought an annual paycheck in the vicinity of $12 million, said uh-uh again.

When the new season approached with no deal in sight, the Bulls made the young man a “qualifying” offer of $6.4 million that would retain his services for this season only, after which he’d be free to try to better his lot elsewhere. Gordon wound up taking it, but not with good grace. “I can go into a long list of things I’m surprised about that didn’t happen,” he remarked upon his appearance at training camp, using the elliptical language with which jocks often express themselves these days.

What Gordon really is “worth” in his league is an open question. He’s a quick-draw jump shooter who scores and runs the floor well but isn’t especially good at handling the ball, passing, penetrating or defending. In his mind he’s Allen Iverson, driving the lane and making shots from every conceivable angle, but when he tries an Iverson-like move he usually gets stripped or stuffed. I wouldn’t give him $12 mil per to play on my team.

The point I want to make, though, has to do with Gordon’s apparent disdain for the salary for which he’s forced to labor this season and the fact that his attitude toward it is typical rather than exceptional among today’s big-time professional athletes. Six point four million dollars a year is an enormous amount of money by any standard other than theirs, or, maybe, Angelina Jolie’s. Treating it as chump change boggles the mind.

The jock-salary explosion already had started when I began writing regularly about sports in the mid-1980s, with the average Major League Baseball player’s salary hovering around $500,000 a year. That number seems quaint now but was more than enough for me to note that the typical ballplayer probably was earning more in a year than his father did in a lifetime.

Impressive as it was, the comparison no longer holds. The current average-annual-pay figures— about $3.2 million in baseball, $3.7 million in the NBA and $1.5 million in the National Football League--probably are more than every father on the jock’s block ever will make. Looked at another way, even after taxes one year as an “average” NBA player should be enough to insure that the recipient and his family can live comfortably forevermore, without again needing to work. And that’s for doing something others do for fun.

In good economic years and bad, salaries at pro sports’ upper levels have risen to the point where, I’m sure, the sums involved are abstractions to the people who receive them, losing all relationship to human needs. They’re a source of competition in an already competitive milieu, with players asking for more at least partly because they want to outdo the guy across the locker room. The type of consumption that often goes with the lush pay is competitive, too, which is one reason jock fortunes sometimes disappear quickly. It’s only monopoly money, after all.

What should we make of this? A few in my acquaintance say they’re so disgusted with the big-money aspects of sports that they’ve turned them off, but most of us are able to separate the cash and the games and enjoy the latter anyway. Otherwise, we can invoke wise sayings about life’s unfairness, such as Mel Brook’s “It’s good to be king,” or ponder the line (Babe Ruth’s, I think) about how nobody who works for anybody else is overpaid.

And remember, being a fan ain’t like playing taxes, it’s voluntary. They only get your money if you give it to them.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008


The baseball playoffs are underway and I’m sure you’re thrilled with the fact the ballparks involved have been wired to permit TV “instant” replay to determine whether home run-like blows are fair or foul, in or out.

I put the word “instant” in quotes because they belong there. Baseball first implemented TV replays on questionable home runs late last month. In each of the few times the system was used, play was halted for about five minutes while the umpires went wherever they did to examine the tapes and reach their decision. While they were out, the paying customers in the stands and the folks at home in televisionland amused themselves as best they could.

But—hey!—the calls came out right, didn’t they? Maybe. As anyone who has seen the movie “Rashomon” knows, reality can be complex, viewpoint is important and seeing isn’t necessarily believing. Often, a replay adds another level of controversy to one that already exists.

Worse, subjecting playing-field doings to microscopic video analysis gives them vastly more importance than they deserve. They’re games, for heaven’s sake, and no matter what the sports crazies think the fate of the republic doesn’t hang on their outcome. Players and coaches make mistakes—plenty of them. Officials can be excused an occasional miscue.

That was why Major League Baseball’s surrender to the replay clamorers particularly pained me. Commish Selig previously had resisted nobly, holding with his sainted predecessors that baseball was played by humans and should be judged by them. No more needed to have been said. But now that the camel has its nose in the tent, can its whole bulky, smelly body be far behind?

The National Basketball Association adopted video replay (on shots or fouls at or near the buzzers) in 2002, but the blame for the mania rests squarely with the National Football League, which adopted it earlier and uses it far more often. This was only to be expected from our most corporate and grandiose sporting entity. It forever gained the latter distinction some years ago when it sponsored a national student essay contest on its place in American history. The subject could have been covered in a single word: none.

The NFL’s bureaucratizing bent is best seen in its handling of pre-game player-injury reports. In the old days teams issued these haphazardly, creating an underground market for the real scoop among the gamblers whose attentions add much to the sport’s popularity. The league responded by requiring public disclosure, but has tinkered with the process so much that the categories have become blurry and the lists bewilderingly long. And guess what? The underground market lives again.

The league already litters its fields of play with seven game officials, all with yellow penalty handkerchiefs at the ready. This contrasts with soccer, where a single referee oversees as many players on a larger greensward. It’s a wonder that the football zebras don’t get tangled up in plays more than they do. Being an NFL umpire (the guy who usually positions himself behind the defensive line) is akin to smoke jumping in terms of dangerousness.

It’s a natural law that if you give someone a job he’ll do it whether or not it needs doing, so many NFL contests are veritable penalty fests. The game encourages players to commit acts against the opposition that would qualify as felonies in the square world, and it’s impossible to loose 22 amped up and overmuscled young men on such missions without some rule being broken. The question then becomes not who is breaking the rules but which violations deserve censure. Knowing that the camera always is watching, and judging, can only prompt officials to be overzealous.

So the hankies flutter down like confetti at a political convention, the worst being the red ones coaches use to seek justice when they feel they’ve been wronged. Off goes the ref to daven under the cover of the replay machine while the TV commentators dissect the play in question and argue about what they see, or don’t see, or think they see.

Throughout the land toilets flush and Sunday newspaper crossword puzzles are revisited.

This is not what Pete Rozelle intended when he invented the game.

Monday, September 15, 2008


Okay, people, ‘fess up. Did you think this season would be easy for the Cubs?

I mean as recently as late August, when they were 35 games over .500 and the media mouths were lavishing praise on them and talking about a “dream season.” Did you think they’d float to baseball supremacy after all their years of also-running?

If you said “yes,” you’re not a real Cubs’ fan. Real Cubs fans expect only catastrophe; it’s all we’ve ever experienced. If God had wanted our lives to be happy, He (or She) would have made us Yankees’ fans. Or, at least, Cardinals’ fans.

September brought the cold wind of reality, or should have. The team ended August and began this month by losing eight of nine games, and only the Brewers’ equal ineptitude prevented their divisional lead from evaporating. Cub bats went cold, fielders developed the muffs, pitchers couldn’t hold leads. Just like in the old days.

The boys have strung together a few wins since, and seem sure to make the playoffs, but their recent form indicates that their post-season prospects might not be brilliant. Despite his no-hitter last night, a sore-shoulder cloud hangs over Carlos “Big Baby” Zambrano, their top starting pitcher. Rich “Handle With Care” Harden, starter No. 3, has been as fragile as advertised. He can’t go past six innings and seems to require a couple of weeks’ rest between starts. “Closer” Kerry Wood? Kyra Sedgwick has been better lately.

Derrek Lee, their putative Big Bopper, no longer can get around on good fastballs; he’s been hitting into so many double plays his uniform number should be 643. Kosuke Fukudome, the early-season hitting hero, can’t get around on anything; his batting style would shame a Little Leaguer. Aramis Ramirez takes week-long naps. Any pitcher who gives Alfonzo Soriano anything but an eye-high fastball or slider in the dirt should lose his job.

I knew this was coming because I’m a real Cubs’ fan, which is to say that I always think the glass is totally empty. It’s a defense mechanism, of course; if you expect nothing you’re not disappointed when that’s what you get. Cubs’ fans are said to “live and die” with their team, but that’s nonsense because our shells are so hard armadillos envy us. If I’d have died every time the Cubbies did I never would have made it to my Bar Mitzvah.

I know people who do live and die with the Cubs, albeit figuratively. Eddie Cohen, my classmate at Roosevelt High, got so frustrated with the team that some years ago he started Cubs Anonymous, a 12-step program to rid ones' self of Cubs’ addiction. He’s got a website and would be glad to sell you a t-shirt and membership card if you ask.

Chuck Brusso, my pal in Scottsdale, so despairs of the team’s day-to-day prospects that he can’t bring himself to watch it play, following its progress (or lack of it) on Sports Center or in the newspapers. He says the last time he peeked at a Cubs’ game on TV-- inadvertently, in a restaurant-- he saw someone named Bartman reach out of the stands and snatch a foul fly from Moises Alou. He still blames himself for that.

But to my mind the ultimate Cubs’ fan was someone much younger than Cohen, Brusso or, even, I. He was Steve Goodman, a skinny North Side kid who played the guitar and sang—mostly his own compositions—in Chicago’s Old Town and Lincoln Avenue folk bars in the 1970s. He was very good at what he did, and although he died young (at age 36, of leukemia, in 1984) made a mark that still remains. If you’ve never heard Willie Nelson’s recording of Steve’s “The City of New Orleans,” about the Illinois Central train, you’re missing a treat.

Steve often performed wearing a Cubs’ cap. He wrote several songs about the team. One of them was the upbeat “Go, Cubs, Go” which is played at Wrigley Field after each Cub victory these days, although it was written to be played before games.

But Steve was clear-eyed about the object of his affections. The chorus of his song “A Dying Cubs’ Fan’s Last Request,” says it all about the team:

“Do they still play the blues in Chicago,
When the baseball season rolls around?
When the snow melts away, do the Cubbies still play,
In their ivy-covered burial ground?
When I was a boy they were my pride and joy,
But now they only bring fatigue
To the home of the brave,
The land of the free
And the doormat of the National League.”

Even so, Go Cubs!

Monday, September 1, 2008


The National Football League starts for real this week but I can’t say I’m looking forward to it. That’s because I’m a Chicago Bears fan, and watching those guys play vies with having one’s fingernails pulled as a painful experience.

It’s not just that the Bears are bad, although they certainly promise to be that in the weeks ahead. It’s also that they are dull, and have been as long as I can remember. A good offense—or, more specifically, a smooth-working passing game—is by me what makes football entertaining, and the Bears have no prospect of presenting one.

Indeed, the failure to move the ball in the easiest way—via the air—is so woven into the team’s ethos that it qualifies as a tradition. Some years ago a klutzy edition of the baseball White Sox made a motto of “Winning Ugly.” The Bears always win that way (when they win), and lose that way, too. A typical Bears’ outcome is a score of 16-13, either way. Wake me when it’s over. And never—ever—give the points.

It’s hard to believe but the team’s last great quarterback was Sid Luckman, who retired in 1950. Saint Sid played so long ago that he’s a legend, back there with Jim Thorpe and King Arthur, but he still holds the team records for most passing yards (14,686), touchdowns (137) and yards per reception (8.42). Fifty eight years have passed, along with entire eras of offensive evolution, but they’ve bypassed the Bears’ passing game entirely.

Yes, the team has had a few okay QBs in that span. Johnny Lujack, Ed Brown, Rudy Bukich and Erik Kramer all enjoyed a decent year or two. Billy Wade handed off ably for a 1963 championship team that ran on defense, and Jim McMahon did all right in 1985 when football’s maybe-best defensive unit ever won the team’s only Super Bowl.

Mostly, though, we’ve had to put up with the likes of Bob Williams, Bobby Douglas, Steve Walsh, Dave Krieg, Shane Matthews, Cade McNown, Mike Tomczak, Steve Fuller, Vince Evans, Mike Phipps, Bob Avellini, Gary Huff, Jack Concannon, Jim Miller, Kent Nix, Jim Harbaugh, Rick Mirer, Greg Landry, Virgil Carter and Rusty Lisch. I could go on but I think the point is made.

The Bears’ current quarterbacks, Kyle Orton and Rex Grossman, fit comfortably into the above list. Orton took the Bears to the playoffs in 2004, but mostly by doing little harm; so limited are his aspirations that the Soldier Field crowd cheers every time he throws a pass beyond the line of scrimmage. Grossman can sling the ball, but not always off the right foot or to the right person. His signature play is the fumbled center snap. The Bears got to the Super Bowl with him two years ago, but people still can’t figure out how they did it.

The usual reason given for the Bears’ eternal failure to muster a consistent passing attack is the weather: Solider Field’s often cold and blustery conditions don’t lend themselves to the aerial game, many say. To that I say, “Phooey!” Fran Tarkenton rewrote the NFL’s passing records in colder and blusterier Minneapolis (the Vikings played outdoors in his day) and Brett Favre blew on his fingers, wiped the snow off his faceguard and topped Fran’s marks up in Green Bay. The Bears were a frequent patsy for both.

A better reason is that Bear execs through the years have bought into the team’s rough-tough “Monsters of the Midway” image and eschewed the pass in favor of “D” and the run. While it’s okay if fans spout “real men don’t pass” nonsense, it’s inexcusable from the guys who call the shots.

Another reason, I think, may be the “Curse of Bobby Layne.” If you’re old enough you’ll vividly recall Layne, a quarterback who was short on style but long on results. It was said of him that he never lost a game, time just ran out a few times before he could correct the scoreboard.

Layne originally was a Bear, a first-round draft choice out of the U of Texas who joined Luckman and fellow-rookie Lujack on the 1948 club. Luckman was in his athletic dotage and team owner George Halas, a noted nickel nurser, saw no sense in paying two top prospects to replace him, so after that season he dubbed the handsome ex-Notre Dame hero and traded away Layne. Lujack played three more years, then married a car-dealer’s daughter and quit football to go into his father-in-law’s business. Layne led the Detroit Lions to multiple championships during the 1950s, titles that rightly belonged to the Bears.

The combative Layne never was one to hide his feelings. When the Lions traded him to the woebegone Pittsburgh Steelers in 1958 he cursed them, saying they'd never win again. Lo and behold, they haven’t. He was just a kid when the Bears dumped him, so no one was much concerned with his mutterings, but I’ll bet he said the same thing about their quarterbacking future.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008


The Olympics begin in Beijing in about a week and I’d like you all to make me a promise. It’s that you won’t say you wish that the political and business sides of the enterprise wouldn’t overshadow the sports.

At the least, that will show you are an actual adult who isn’t diverted by an event’s sizzle. Within the memory of living man, the O Games always have been more about politics and business than sports, and the trend in that direction only accelerates. First and foremost, it’s a bragging-rights show for the host country, a chance to push whatever agenda that land happens to be pushing. Be assured that China did not put up an estimated $40 billion for facilities and other Olympic costs to stage a track meet.

Also know that most of what immediate financial return the Chinese will get while strutting its stuff on the world stage will come from the U.S. of A. NBC paid $1.5 billion for the rights to televise the 2006 Winter and 2008 Summer Games, with the bulk of that aimed at the summer festivities. That’s more than the rights fees of the rest of the world’s TV networks combined, and doesn’t include the tens of millions of dollars that NBC will spend in China to equip and supply the army it dispatches to cover such things.

Further, six of the 12 “Worldwide Olympic Sponsors,” which are paying nine-figure tolls to use the five-ring Olympic symbol in their ads, are U.S.-based companies (Coca Cola, Kodak, GE, McDonald’s, Visa and Johnson & Johnson), as are many lower-tier sponsors. A lot of those bucks go to the host nation, which will reap other benefits from such deals. For instance, a recent New York Times story had it that McDonald’s and Coke will use its Chinese domestic ads before and during the Games to rally the masses behind the Big Red Machine. Remember that the next time you drive by Mickey D’s.

The fact that the Chinese government stifles political dissent at home and spends its international capital propping up the murderous rulers of Zimbabwe, Myanmar and Sudan, among others, didn’t deter the International Olympic Committee from giving it the largest gift it can bestow. Indeed, Beijing’s selection was in keeping with the IOC’s longtime predilection for rewarding regimes that make the trains run on time, no matter how nasty they are.

Exhibit A in that regard was Hitler’s Germany, which got to host the 1936 Summer Games. Der Fuhrer’s helper in that regard was Avery Brundage, the Nazi sympathizer who was president of the U.S. Olympic Committee from 1929 to 1953 and of the IOC from 1953 through 1972. Japan and Italy, two other members of the original Axis of Evil, were similarly blessed, Japan with both the 1940 Winter and Summer Games and Italy with the 1944 winter event (none of which were held due to WWII). The Soviet Union got the 1980 Summer Games and Mr. Putin’s efforts to return Mother Russia to the good old days of dictatorship received an IOC attaboy in the form of the 2014 Winter Games for Sochi, on the Black Sea.

It will be interesting to see how China presents itself during its extended fortnight in the spotlight. It’s said to be taking drastic measures to clean up at least some of the air pollution that makes Beijing notorious. It also has announced that about 100,000 “security” people will be deployed around the city during the Games. While safety is far from a given anywhere during this terror-vulnerable era, no one would be surprised if that force also were put to work squelching grieving Chinese parents who might like to protest the state’s shoddy school construction that caused their children’s deaths in the recent Sichuan earthquakes.

It’s uncertain what the news media will be allowed to report while they are in the People’s Republic. As a condition for getting the Olympics the Chinese promised to allow unfettered press access in and around Beijing during the Games, but the pledge must have been asked and given with mutual winks. Already the government is playing games with journalists’ visas and declaring areas around town off-limits to the press at various times. Moreover, with 100,000 cops and troops ahover, Wang Q. Public might not feel comfortable baring his soul to foreigners carrying cameras or notepads.

I don’t mean to spoil the Games for you, though. I covered eight of those things and know full well that everyone at home sees thembetter than anyone who’s there, so enjoy.

You might even check out the sports once in a while.

BUSINESS NOTE: Two new books in my “For the Love of the…” series are out, one on the Buckeyes (Ohio State U. football) and the other on the Packers (Green Bay, of course). You can view them on the Triumph Books or websites, or, probably, at Barnes & Noble. Mark Anderson’s illustrations are brilliant, as usual. I’m sure you’ll agree they’re handsome items. Previous books were about the Cubs, Yankees, Red Sox, St. Louis Cardinals, Baseball Hall of Famers, and golf. These also are available.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


My son Michael is a clever guy, given to making apt observations and coining funny lines. Many times I’ve stolen his stuff for my published writings-- without attribution, of course. What’s he gonna to do, sue me?

But this time I’ll give him credit. A few years back, on a visit to my home in Scottsdale, Arizona, he observed that “ethnic” restaurants in this city of American transplants are defined differently from those in Chicago, our common city of origin.

“In Chicago, you have Italian, Chinese or Greek places,” he said. “In Scottsdale they’re Chicago, New York or Los Angeles.”

Michael may have been righter than he knew. My travels in recent years have taught me that many of the “ethnic” foods I’ve come to love really were fashioned in my own backyard, figuratively speaking. I refer specifically to such treats as pizza, Italian beef and gyros, all staples of my lunch-time diet.

Now, I’m sure some of you disdain such dishes on grounds they are greasy, unhealthful, “fast” food. Greasy they may be (that’s why they’re so tasty), and, maybe, unhealthful, although except for such obvious horrors as French fries and onion rings I regard food as food. But I beg to differ about that last epithet.

To my mind a distinction should be made between “fast” food and “mass” food. “Fast” food consists of items that can be served quickly, period. No generalizations about quality should attach to the word. Plates are put together individually so diners can tailor them to their wishes. Most of the establishments that serve them are locally owned, meaning that their fare can vary widely, even day to day. But while you take your chances with such places, rewards can be great.

“Mass” food, on the other hand, is prepared by robotic teenagers to the specifications of faraway corporate kitchens. Chain-ownership of its purveyors is the rule; uniformity is the goal. The upside is that you know what you’re getting. The downside is that it ain’t much. I avoid such places religiously. Any decent-sized city is sure to have several local joints that serve a better pizza than Pizza Hut.

But from whence does pizza come? Italy, I once thought, but a couple of visits to that land have shown me that what the Italians call pizza isn’t what I do. In Chicago, pizza contains so much cheese, tomato sauce and meat that the crust bends under their weight. It’s main-course all the way. The pizza I ate in Italy was lighter—a smear of cheese and various other ingredients on a thin, cracker-like crust. It usually was served as an appetizer.

And Italian beef? Better put quotes around “Italian” because I never saw it in Italy. The marinated, simmered, thin-sliced meat, whose savory juices soak through the sternest bun, must be a Taylor Street invention.

My culinary education continued last month on a visit to Greece. Although the ruins I saw were pretty well ruined (among the ancients, the Romans built best), it was a great trip. I loved paddling in the gorgeously blue Aegean Sea. I also loved the food, especially the cheese, olives and tomatoes. Especially the tomatoes, which tasted—ohmygosh!—like tomatoes.

In one respect I was disappointed, though: the gyros I ate in Greece wasn’t much like its U.S. counterparts. American gyros comes off a cylinder of compacted lamb and beef that’s cooked on a vertical rotisserie, cut in long strips and served wrapped in pita bread with tomatoes, onions and tzaziki sauce, a mixture of yogurt, garlic and grated cucumbers. In Greece the other ingredients were the same but the meats were pork or chicken and the slices were small—chunks really. They tasted okay but I had a tough time keeping them in the bread. It was a quite-different experience, all around.

On my return home I went to my favorite Scottsdale gyros place, Gyros Express, hidden away in a shopping-center labyrinth near Scottsdale Rd. and Shea Blvd. After a proper, tasty sandwich I sought out the proprietor, a taciturn, middle-aged man with a thick mustache who sticks mostly to the kitchen (his more-cheerful daughters wait the tables). I’d eaten there maybe 100 times but never exchanged more than nods with him.

This time I introduced myself, said I’d just returned from Greece, and opined that his gyros was quite different from what I’d eaten there.

“Better here,” he said, ending that subject.

I’d noticed on his menu that his food was billed as “Chicago style.” Seeking common ground, I asked him where in Chicago he’d lived.

“I’m from Michigan,” he said.

“Then why does your menu say ‘Chicago?’ ” I asked.

“Chicago is capital of Greek food!” he declared.

‘Nuf said.

NOTE: To enjoy Michael’s writing first hand, click on his blog at It’s worth it for the beer reviews alone.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008


The notion is afoot (again) that Major League baseball games are too slow. Even the commish for life, Bud Selig, has picked up on it, and has ordered that it be studied. This ensures that any answers will be a long time coming, but that’s appropriate, don’t you think?

My view is that yessssss, baseball is too slowwwww, but this is not to say that it’s too dull. That’s mostly a matter of perception. Nonfans of horse racing tell me they can’t abide the gaps between races (20-to-25 minutes at most tracks on weekdays), but if you’re poring over the numbers in the Daily Racing Form, hoping to make them speak to you, it’s not long enough.

Ditto for baseball if between pitches you are running through your mind the relative abilities of the immediate actors and the many ways any particular play might play out. That’s the main reason that the older I get the more I like the game without a clock. As Yogi said, “Ninety per cent of baseball is 50 per cent mental.” At least.

Still, here are things that could be done to bring a welcome speed-up to the game without affecting its essential nature or lessening its money-making capacity. The latter consideration is why the sport’s biggest too-long issue—the length of the season—is off limits for rational discussion. Nobody argues that it takes 162 games to determine which eight of the 30 teams deserve to make the playoffs, but it’s not a competitive question, it’s a financial one, and the main law of business is that you can’t make money if the store ain’t open. The dictum’s sports corollary is that schedules never shrink, they only expand.

The same goes for the length of time between innings. That’s when the radio and TV commercials run, and without them baseball wouldn’t get the broadcasting revenues that keep the owners and players happy. So live with it.

But there’s a lot of on-field fooling around that could be eliminated, with the only injuries being to a few of baseball’s many silly traditions. I refer mostly to all the games of catch that go on while the players are, supposedly, poised for real action.

In what other sport, for instance, do the players whip around the ball during stoppages of play, as baseball’s infielders do after an out with the bases empty? Those guys have been playing catch since age 5 so they’re not likely to forget how if they don’t do it every couple of minutes.

And what’s with the six warm-up throws pitchers get to start each half-inning and relievers get when they enter a game? Does the forget-how-to-do-it argument apply here, too? C’mon.

Everybody makes a big deal about starters’ pitch counts these days-- it’s as if they risk turning into pumpkins if the number exceeds 100. But if pitch-count is so important why aren’t the between-inning throws counted? They wear down arms, too. A pitcher’s official six-inning tally may be 100 but it would be 136 if the warm-up throws were included. Maybe without them there would be more complete games.

Nothing slows a game more than changing pitchers during an inning and scratching the reliever’s warm-up throws would make that process more efficient. Other sports don’t stop dead so a substitute can practice on the field and there’s no reason for baseball be the exception. If the on-field warm-up’s purpose is to get the pitcher used to the mound, the groundskeepers should take a load of dirt to the bullpen and make the mounds there identical to the real one.

Other small changes could help. Zip relievers to the mound in golf carts, as some teams already do. Stop hitters from stepping out of the batter’s box between pitches and constantly fiddling with their hitting gloves. Heck, ban the gloves—The Babe and Stan the Man never needed them. Stop managers and coaches from visiting pitchers on the mound; other sports don’t permit such on-field confabs.

I’m guessing that taken together those changes would clip 10 minutes or so off the length of a typical game, and that’s nothing to sneeze at. Ten minutes times the 2,430 games in the regular season equals 24,300 minutes, or 405 hours, or almost 17 days.

You could do a lot with those days: paint a picture, visit Yellowstone Park, work for world peace. Or you could watch more “Law and Order” reruns.

It’s a free country.

Sunday, June 15, 2008


My dear wife Susie and I have our differences. She likes it warm and I like it cool. She wants to save things and I want to throw them away. I like “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and she can’t stand to be in the room while it’s on.

So, you say, what else is new? How is this marriage different from any other? Well, there’s one more thing: I’m a Chicago Cubs fan and she roots for the Arizona Diamondbacks.

This is serious business, the stuff of which splits are made. Only my generous and forgiving nature has kept us together for, lo, these many years.

The situation is even worse than it may seem, because our different baseball allegiances stem from fundamental differences in our natures. I’m Chicago born and raised, and while I’ve lived in other cities-- Scottsdale, AZ, being the latest— I’m true to any team that wears the Chicago name on its jerseys. Period. End of story.

Susie, on the other hand, is as changeable as the winds. As a girl in Toledo, Ohio, she favored the Tigers, which makes sense because Detroit was the nearest Major League city. But she also rooted for the Dodgers because they frequently played the New York Yankees in the World Series during her formative years, and she hated the Yankees.

Her list of favorite teams expanded to three when she began visiting her uncle Sam in Chicago. He rooted for the White Sox and she followed suit. Like many another primitive Sox fan, that also meant she hated the Cubs. Susie and I lived together in Chicago for 17 years, and you can imagine what things were like around that household.

Since arriving in Arizona she’s become a lifelong D’backs fan, with the White Sox playing a faint second fiddle. The loyalty transfer took about a week. Actually, since the Sox wear “Chicago” on their jerseys, I like them, too (although not as much as the Cubs), and these days I’m a bigger Sox fan than she is. How’s that for a switch?

But like I said, I’m a generous fella, and a fan of baseball generally, so Susie and I go to D’Backs’ games together fairly frequently. A big reason I like to go is that it’s easy. Phoenix’s downtown empties after 5 p.m., so it’s usually a breeze to drive to the stadium and park for a night game. Once there, our favorite cheap seats ($16 per) in the upper deck behind home plate always await us. That’s because the Diamondbacks draw poorly, with crowds averaging less than half the 49,000-seat capacity of their retractable-roofed and industrial-looking home, currently named Chase Field.

Phoenix’s sports teams have a tough time securing a fan base because just about everyone here comes from somewhere else, but there has to be more to it than that. While the Diamondbacks’ history is brief (10 years) they won the World Series in 2001, seven years ago but a mere wink in the geological scale by which Cub fans measure such things. They’ve had other good teams including last year’s, which had the best regular-season record in the National League despite having the lowest team batting average and scoring fewer runs than they allowed. That’s miraculous, and would have stirred fan interest in other cities, but Phoenicians merely yawned, and the team’s 2007 attendance ranked 20th among the 30 Big League clubs.

The yawning continues at the park. D’Back fans come late, leave early and are the sweetest and quietest in baseball. Noise must be coaxed from them by messages on the giant electronic scoreboard that dominates the premises. About their only spontaneous outbursts are for the between-innings t-shirt giveaways and video hot-dog race. By contrast, in Wrigley Field where my Cubs play, and where the scoreboard merely displays the scores, full-house crowds fairly throb with excitement these days, and cheers, chants and boos are strictly extempore.

This season is shaping up as a particularly tense one in Chez Klein. The Cubs and Diamondbacks had the best records in the National League for the first two months of the campaign, and while the D’Backs have slacked off lately the two teams still are good bets for the playoffs. The Cubs’ lineup has the more thump but the D’Backs have baseball’s best 1-2 starting-pitcher combo in Brandon Webb and Dan Haren, a good closer in Brandon Lyon, and the sort of young, lively and motivated (i.e., not terribly overpaid) players that can take them far.

They beat the Cubs in last year’s playoffs and I give them the edge in any showdown this year.

But don’t tell Susie I said that.

Sunday, June 1, 2008


A couple of news stories caught my eye in recent weeks. Maybe you saw them, too.

One was about O.J. Mayo, the young basketball player. He played for the University of Southern California as a freshman last season, and very well. Then, having reached the magic age of 19 that enables him to turn pro under NBA rules, he declared for the June draft.

But it turns out he’s been a pro for some time. One Louis Johnson, a former member of a sleazy adult clique that surrounds Mayo, stepped forward to reveal that the young man had received some $30,000 in cash and gifts from a sports-agent’s “runner,” with the payments dating to Mayo’s high school days. In return the kid promised to employ the agent once his pro status became official, which he did before the agent backed out after the arrangement was aired.

The other concerned Arizona State University, my friendly, local mega-U. It announced it was dropping three men’s varsity sports—wrestling, swimming and tennis—for financial reasons, although private givers later gave wrestling at least a temporary reprieve. The move would clip $1.1 million from its $42 million athletics budget, the school said. That sum, incidentally, is a good deal less than the annual compensation of a single ASU athletics-department employee—football coach Dennis Erickson.

If you were surprised by either item, you haven’t been paying attention the last several decades. Under-the-table payments to college athletes are as American as the Mafia, and as enduring. Jocks got handouts in the 1950s when I went to college, if only in the form of “$20 handshakes” from alums outside the locker rooms after games. The stakes have risen since: investigations have been plodding along for a couple years over an agent’s alleged payments of some $300,000 to Reggie Bush, the Heisman Award-winning football player, during his days at—yes!—USC. One can only conclude that Mayo should have hooked up with Bush’s guy.

Cuts in college “minor-sport” programs also are old news, owing both to budgetary concerns and the male-female athletic-scholarship equality mandated by the Federal statute known as Title IX. That’s a problem for big-time football schools because the women have no numerical equivalent to their 85-player teams in that sport.

Whatever you think of that last matter, the conclusion is inescapable that things are out of whack on campus. First, while there’s money aplenty (both licit and il-) for the sports that bring in the money, there’s little for the ones that exist mainly to provide students with healthful recreational opportunities, which is what college sports were supposed to be about. Moreover, it’s universally acknowledged that minor-sports athletes—the ones who are getting the axe—are far more apt to be actual students than the football and basketball players who get the juice. In a better world that might count for something.

What’s really out of whack, though, is the gross imbalance between the attention paid to what various sugar daddies do for college “revenue-sport” athletes and what their colleges do to them. Properly cast, the roles of villains and heroes in the drama would be reversed.

To understand that let’s change the usual scenario a bit. Say that my neighbor has a son who’s a budding piano virtuoso but needs further schooling to develop his art. Then say his parents have fallen on hard times and can’t afford to give him that training. Mr. Nice Guy (me) comes to the rescue, offering to put the kid through State U’s excellent music school and buying him a car besides if the family agrees to make me the young man’s partner for a few years once he hits the concert trail.

Anything wrong with that? Not that I can see. The real-world difference is that big-time college sports are a nasty business in which the competitors (my school and yours) have zero trust in one another, so they make rules banning anyone from taking anything above the scholarship basics, then cross their fingers and hope no one notices all the late-model SUVs in the jocks’ parking lot. Every big-school president goes to bed praying that the next sports scandal won’t land in his lap.

Worse yet is how the colleges treat the youths entrusted to their care. It’s by saddling them with practices, film study, year-round conditioning programs, games and trips that all but negate any chance they’ll have to receive an education worth the name, which would be worth more than whatever graft that might come their way. If the kid is an O.J. Mayo he’ll get a seven-figure pro contact that will (or should) put him in Phat City for life, but if his first step is a bit slow, tough luck. Once his eligibility is gone a player is old news, just like the stories I mention here.

So is his school’s likely reaction to him. It’s “Go away, kid. You bother me.”

CORRECTION: NBA exec Brian McIntyre informs me that the singer who fouled up the National Anthem before the 1978 Chicago Bulls game I described in my last blog was Ferlin Husky, not Conway Twitty. He says he knows this because he was employed by the Bulls at the time and had to shepherd Mr. Husky through a trying day before pushing him out on the floor to do his singing bit. Next time you see Brian you should ask him to tell you the whole story because it’s a good one. Meantime, I apologize to the late Mr. Twitty, his heirs and assigns.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


National anthem quiz:
1) How many syllables are in the words “oh,” “that,” “yet” and “wave”?
2) How about “banner”?
3) What are the song’s last two words?

Answers are at the end of this piece.

Back in the day, when I was introduced to someone as a sportswriter, the person often remarked that I must know a lot about sports. “Not that much,” I’d reply, modestly. “I’m more interested in the writing part.”

My 20 years on the beat, however, did qualify me as a gen-u-ine expert on a couple of things. One was travel. I knew how to finagle airline upgrades or bulkhead or exit-row seats, which airports were easy or difficult to navigate, where to rent a car and where to take cabs, where to get a quick but tasty meal after any night game. If Fodor hadn’t already been invented, I coulda been him.

Another was “The Star Spangled Banner,” our national anthem. I’ve heard it thousands of times-- sung fast and slow, well and poorly, in this country and abroad. The SSB and sports go together like hot dogs and mustard. You could spend a lifetime attending movies, concerts, plays and such and never hear it, but in the ballparks’ oft-gamy precincts, it’s ubiquitous.

One can’t experience a thing repeatedly without coming to some conclusions about it. My main observation is that the anthem’s position as the theme song of the world’s foremost nation is questionable, at best. Its meter is lumpy and its words are difficult to get your tongue around. They’re also tough to memorize—so tough that a couple of years ago the Government felt moved to launch an effort to teach them to adults. It didn’t succeed totally; I hear people make mistakes even when the words are printed on a stadium’s electronic scoreboard while the piece is being played.

The music of the one-time English drinking song also leaves something to be desired. On a world-anthems scale I’d rank the tune no higher than a many-way tie for third place behind France’s glorious “La Marseillaise” and Russia’s national hymn, which was junked in 1991 after the Commies were ousted but restored by Putin nine years later. If Americans were polled on their favorite patriotic song I’d wager that “America the Beautiful,” “God Bless America” and “The Stars and Stripes Forever” (my favorite) would do well, and that even the red-neck anthem, Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA,” would get votes. That last was played before one event I attended-- an Olympics trial, for heaven’s sake. Everyone stood, just like for the SSB.

You’d think that with all the repetition sports fans would have the anthem’s protocols down cold, but they don’t. People are supposed to stand and remove their hats while it’s played, but while just about all the men bear their heads, women often don’t. Further, while it’s clear what to do when you’re in your seat at the park, how about when you’re in a concourse, a concessions-stand line or a wash room? I’ve witnessed amusing confusion over the issue in those places.

I’m told that in other countries the national anthem always is sung straight, but in this one it’s become a performer’s plaything where anything goes. A good, respectful SSB can be belted out in 75 seconds or less, but through vocal gymnastics it can be stretched considerably. Paul Zimmerman of Sports Illustrated used to put a stop watch to the thing in football press boxes, and announce the results. I recall him once getting a reading of two minutes five seconds.

The gold standard for SSB performances was set by the late opera singer Robert Merrill at Yankee Stadium, which always handles ceremonies well. The hearty baritone Wayne Mesmer currently does a nice job of it at Wrigley Field. My personal nadir came at a long-ago Chicago Bulls game when the country singer Conway Twitty first sang the song badly off key and then had to stop because he’d forgotten the words. The worst end-to-end anthem I’ve heard sung (on tape) was by Carl Lewis, the Olympic sprinter, before a Houston Rockets’ game. Mere words can’t convey its awfulness. Suffice it to say that Lewis’s singing career died aborning.

The awfulness doesn’t always stop with the music. At a San Diego Padres’ game in 1990, Roseanne Barr capped a screechy rendition of the anthem by clutching her crotch and spitting-- in homage to baseball, she said. The Law of Unintended Consequences dictates that something like that was bound to happen. You have to watch who you hang out with, and where.

Quiz answers: 1) Two: “Oh oh,” “tha-at,” “ye-et” and “way-ave.” 2) Four: “ba-a-ner-er.” 3) “Play ball.”
Business note: Updated versions of three of my “For the Love of…” books—on the Cubs, Yankees and Red Sox—are on the shelves, with new covers and pages. Mark Anderson’s artwork is wonderful, as usual. They make great Father’s Day gifts. Click on the Triumph Books or Amazon links for details.

Thursday, May 1, 2008


My first year as a baseball fan—at the sweet and tender age of seven—was 1945. The Cubs won the National League pennant. Baseball’s an easy game, I thought.

My first year as a football fan was the next one, 1946. The Bears, with the marvelous (and Jewish!) Sid Luckman at quarterback, won the National Football League championship. Football, too, seemed easy.

The first year I was aware of the NFL draft was 1947. Despite having won the title the year before (and for reasons I still can’t explain) the Bears had the No.1 pick in the entire affair. With it they chose Bob Fenimore, a several-time All-American tailback from Oklahoma A & M, now Oklahoma State U.

Nicknamed the “Blond Bomber,” Fenimore came suitably hyped. Just give him the ball and get out of his way, the newspapers said. The Bears did that in ’47, but not often and with little effect. Apparently still hampered by a knee injury he’d suffered the year before, the Bomber carried just 53 times for 189 yards in his first season as a pro. (I looked that up.). It also was his last season, because afterward he went home to Stillwater and began what was to be a lifelong career as an insurance agent.

I thought the NFL draft was weird and anything but easy.

All these years later, I still think so. That’s why I annually scratch my head in wonder over all the fuss made over the player drafts of our major sporting entities. Crap shoots is what they are, but that doesn’t keep them from gaining in importance and attention among us fans. That’s testimony to our love of hype, because in that category the drafts stand alone at the top. No events are involved. They’re all hype.

Yes, the newspapers overplay the things, but I trace this development mostly to ESPN, the all-sports cable TV channel whose 1979 launch transformed not only sports but all of American culture. Before ESPN, sports were mainly a weekend diversion in this land, something to occupy a few hours on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Men chatted with their wives, helped their kids with their homework, watched “Bonanza,” maybe even read a book.

ESPN’s 24/7 sports format changed all that. Total immersion, theretofore a dream, became reality. Soon imitators popped up and created other all-sports fonts, both national and local. Guys today needn’t spend an idle hour watching or thinking about anything except the world of fun and games.

Still, they don’t play the National Anthem much between midnight and noon, so ESPN has to hustle to fill its airtime. What better way to do this but with draft blather? Production costs are low—a couple of guys in a studio will suffice. Any two will do as long as they’re loud enough. No scripts are needed; a question like whether the Raiders need a running back more than a defensive lineman easily can fill a half hour.

The NFL is nothing if not adaptable, so it leaped to the opportunity by allowing ESPN to air its entire, two-day draft, round by tedious round, which the channel promotes with months of on-air speculation. The league’s passion for pseudo science gives the network’s commentators plenty to yak about all those hours. In Bob Fenimore’s day pro football teams did much of their scouting by reading newspaper clippings. Today they weigh, measure, calibrate, clock, prod and poke prospects, subject them to intelligence and psychological tests (“Would you rather climb a mountain or eat a banana?”), and interview their parents, teachers, coaches, parole officers and present- and ex-girlfriends to plumb their “character.”

Some of the results are nonsense; for instance, my track-and-field friends assure me that no human being can run 40 yards in 4.5 seconds from a stationary start in football gear. Nonetheless, that doesn’t stop such figures from being parroted. And “character”? I guess Michael Vick’s dogs ate his test.

So hey, friends, how did you enjoy last weekend’s festivities? Did your team score big or get guys who look like Tarzan but play like Jane? What grade did they get from the pundits? Truth to tell, the world won’t know how well they fared for two or three years, soonest. But keep that under your hat or you’ll spoil the fun.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Baseball's HITS List

I first wrote about steroids in sports in a May, 1985, column that followed a visit to a gym near New Haven, Conn. I went there expecting to get some laughs from watching a tryout for aspiring wrestlers of the theatrical (i.e., pro) variety, but the thing was postponed and instead I spent an informative afternoon with Ken Passariello.

Besides owning the gym, Passariello was a wrestler and many-titled bodybuilder. He also was a steroids guru with a how-to book to his credit-- a self-styled Dr. Schweitzer to athletes pondering the mysteries of the performance-enhancers.

“I know steroids carry health risks and I don’t recommend their use,” he averred. “I’m not a doctor so don’t write prescriptions. I don’t sell the stuff. I don’t take money for my advice. But steroids work. Every athlete knows it and many are ready to run risks to use them. I’m one of the few athletes who’s really looked into the subject and is willing to talk about it. When someone has questions, I answer them. I look on it as a service.”

That Passariello named body-builders among his advisees was no surprise; even then the sport was known to be steroids-soaked. But he said that Olympic weight lifters and throwers oftimes called him, and many National Football League players as well. Given time, he opined, they’d be ubiquitous in sports.

I, too, would read up on steroids and sometimes write about them, more than most of my colleagues, I daresay. I made a list of attributes common to users-- among them a pumped-up physique, adult-onset acne, irritability and antsiness—and began to keep my own list of users.

In baseball, it wasn’t short. Ballplayers may have been slower than others to adopt the substances because theirs was thought to be a sport of reactions rather than strength, but it wasn’t long before they realized that being stronger was a plus. Baseball locker rooms began looking like Gold’s Gyms and it seemed reasonable to assume that the boys weren’t interested only in looking good in their underwear.

Baseball publicly lost its innocence in 1998 when Steve Wilstein, a sharp-eyed Associated Press reporter, spied a container of androstenedione on an open shelf in the locker of Mark McGwire, the Blutto-like slugger then locked in an epic home run duel with Sammy Sosa. “Andro” was sold over the counter and thus wasn’t on baseball’s short and very general forbidden list, but it was outlawed by the IOC, NCAA and other sports entities. It was potent stuff, most experts agreed, and probably just the tip of an Antarctic-sized iceberg.

Baseball reacted predictably, putting its collective head in the sand and hoping the subject would go away. It ordered a study, then another. The game’s players’ union, declaring that steroids use was a privacy issue, was only too happy to play along. Years passed without meaningful action. Players got bigger and snarlier and home runs flew farther; in an era when one good season could set up a player (and all future generations of his family) for life, steroids’ use was a smart move. It wasn’t until criminal investigations, tell-all autobiographies and Congressional pressure finally forced the game to set up a testing program with teeth, five years into the 21st century.

Under further outsider pressure, the game last week moved to increase its testing regimen, but its program still falls short in important ways. Blood tests to detect HGH, the current drug of choice, weren’t included. And like the NFL and NCAA, baseball still controls its own testing, and you can’t expect a promoter to be an effective policeman. Enforcement credibility won’t come until it’s in the hands of an agency that’s completely independent of the sport’s commercial interests.

Meantime, through one means of disclosure or another, the list of baseball players linked to steroid use grew like Jack’s beanstalk. It includes Barry Bonds, the best recent-years’ hitter, and Roger Clemens, the best pitcher. McGwire is on it, also Sosa. Also Canseco, Sheffield, Giambi, Tejada, Pettitte, Gagne, and on and on. The real number never will be known but it’s surely in the hundreds. After a interview on another subject I once asked Mark Grace, the longtime first baseman with the Cubs and Diamondbacks, what proportion of ballplayers he thought had used steroids at one time or another. He said about one-third, and I got the impression he was being conservative.

But while all the games go on, as they must, baseball faces a special problem with its drug history. More than any other sport its appeal is tied to its statistical records, some of which have an almost mystical quality. Foremost among these are Bonds’ single-season home run record of 73, set in 2001, and his career mark of 762. A cry has gone up to mark those with asterisks signifying that they were set under dubious circumstances, but the same objection can be raised about everything that’s happened in the game during the last two decades. Baseball has had many eras in its long history, marking changes in playing conditions. The current one should be labeled the HITS Era, for “Head In The Sand.”

You could start it in 1990. It would be nice to say that the year 2008 would complete the bracket, but it’s too early to say.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008


They are playing baseball for real now, but all minds are not on the diamond. Many still are pondering the biggest show of the off-season, the one that pitted the word of Roger Clemens, a pitcher of note, against that of his erstwhile personal trainer, Brian McNamee.

In several venues, including the Congress of these United States, McNamee swore that he stuck needles containing steroids and HGH, a banned, steroid-like substance for which there is no test, into the buttocks of Clemens in years past, thus giving the pitcher supernatural powers.

Clemens denied taking anything illegal. McNamee did shoot him up on occasion, he averred, but only with vitamin B12, a legal substance generally favored by the elderly as a pick-me-up. He has threatened to sue McNamee for besmirching his good name, although from accounts of the current state of the trainer’s business, he’d have a hard time collecting much if he won.

Other evidence is involved. Weirdly, McNamee produced needles, vials and gauze that he said he used in the Clemens injections. This material presumably contained the pitcher’s DNA, although the whats, whens and wheres of the procedures still would be in doubt. Andy Pettitte, Clemens’ one-time pitching partner and pal, said he took HGH shots from McNamee (for purely therapeutic reasons, naturally) and understood that Clemens had, too. But Pettitte admitted he never was present when the Clemens’ hide was pierced, so he didn’t know for sure.

So it’s pretty much a he said-he said, and you can take your pick. Interestingly, most of Democrats on the Congressional committee that heard the two men testify last month sided with McNamee and most of the Republicans took Clemens’ part. While that’s in keeping with the two parties’ general stances (the Dems usually side with little guy publicly, the GOP with the fat cats), it also might reflect seven years of reflexive Republican head nodding to the babble of their leader, Mr. Bush.

Whatever, my take is that Roger ain’t telling the truth. Not only does he come across as a rich, blustery jock used to having his version of things accepted uncritically, but some of his on-field actions tipped off the pissed-off persona of a steroids user. I refer specifically to the incident in the 2000 World Series when the New York Mets’ Mike Piazza splintered his bat fouling off a Clemens pitch and a jagged segment rolled toward the mound. Clemens picked it up and flung it at Piazza. A few feet to the right and he might have speared the poor guy.

In the back-and-forth over McNamee’s claims the pitcher’s wife, Debbie, fessed up that she once took HGH so she’d look better for a 2003 photo shoot in which she was to wear a bikini. Do you think Debbie took it to enhance her looks while Roger didn’t to advance his (and her) livlihood? C’mon. I stopped believing the sprinter Marion Jones’s denials of steroid use when her then-husband, the massive shot putter C.J. Hunter, was busted for taking the stuff in a test announced just before the 2000 Olympics, in which Jones was to star. What did the two of them discuss at the dinner table—the price of sweat socks?

The clincher for me, though, was provided by a Chicago Tribune column written by the estimable Bob Verdi. When Clemens said he didn’t attend a party at Jose Canseco’s house that figured in the drug-use allegations because he was playing golf that day, and produced a green-fee receipt to prove it, Verdi guffawed mightily in print. No big-time jock ever pays for his own golf, declared Verdi, who has hung around more than his share of courses.

In baseball lore, a kid asked the Black Sox wrongdoer “Shoeless” Joe Jackson to “Say it isn’t so, Joe.” Clemens is all too ready to say that, but it’s tough to believe him.

April 1, 2008