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.