Monday, December 14, 2009


John Updike said that life was too short for golf and crossword puzzles, but he played golf and wrote about it, and, I’d bet, worked crosswords, too. As a wordsmith, how could he not?

I used to play golf, and not badly, but stopped when the demands of a young family dictated that I no longer could disappear for the best part of a weekend day. Quitting golf was a lot easier than quitting smoking; once away from it I rarely looked back, and quickly cultivated other recreations that provided actual exercise.

I still do crosswords, though, and wouldn’t think of giving them up. Hey, I’m a wordsmith, too, and a sportswriter at that, and no group is better at synonyms—which is what most crossword answers are-- than we sportswriters. You know, the guy didn’t just pitch the ball, he also threw, heaved, hurled, chucked, tossed, flung, slung, fired, pegged or catapulted it. God forbid that we should use the same word twice in a story.

Fact is, I’m something of a crosswords snob, limiting my application to the Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday puzzles in the New York Times and the one in the Wall Street Journal’s Friday Weekend section, which I save for early the next week. The Journal puzzle doesn’t quite match the Times’ offerings; my usual reaction to getting its joke is “oh, no” instead of “aha!” But it gives me something to do on a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday, days when the Times’ puzzles are beneath my notice.

The reason the Times is superior in this regard is Will Shortz, its crosswords’ editor. A man of all word games, Shortz took over the job in 1993 from Eugene Maleska, and quickly created something of an earthquake in Puzzlerville. Maleska’s products tended to be exercises in arcana, requiring knowledge of Mahler symphonies and the names of rivers in Finland. Shortz is hipper, frequently tapping such contemporary subjects as rap music. I’m pretty much in the dark about rap, but most of its performers’ names are mercifully short.

Shortz doesn’t write the puzzles but his hand can be seen in their clues, which differentiate difficult from easy ones. Difficulty can be added by using deep definitions of words (such as the infamous “gob” for “lot” in one Times puzzle last week), but it’s much more fun when clues are oblique, forcing the puzzler to look at things from odd angles. For instance, the answer to the recent clue “it’s well-positioned” was “oil rig,” and “athletes’ foot applications” was “knee socks.” Cute, huh?

I thought I was pretty good at the activity until I saw the movie “Wordplay” a few years ago. A documentary set at a national crosswords contest, and featuring the great Shortz himself, it introduced me to supernerds (I’m just a regular one) who could whip off a Saturday Times offering (typically the hardest) in something like seven minutes and 40 seconds. It often takes me hours to do one of those. My main strength is doggedness, not brilliance; I’ll keep staring at the darned things until they reveal their secrets. I don’t give up, never ever. Well, almost never.

Like most puzzlers, I have my own rules about what’s kosher and what isn’t in seeking solutions. I think it’s okay to look up an answer in the dictionary if I think I know it but must check its spelling, and to ask for help from someone within the reach of my voice (my wife is especially helpful with answers related to food). But it ain’t okay to phone outside experts, and definitely not to type the clue into the Google search box and hit “enter.” Yeah, I’ve done that a few times, but only in rare instances when I’ve been absolutely, positively stuck. I do it as a last resort, to scratch my curiosity itch, and take no pleasure from the solutions reached thereby.

The best puzzles are the ones where I can fill in only “s’s,” “er’s,” and “ed”s” on first scan, and have to scratch out the rest, box by box. That’s masochistic, I know, but I guess there’s that side of me. I told you I played golf, didn’t I?

ALSO: My 2010 Baseball Hall of Fame ballot arrived last week and I sent it back with eight names checked. They were holdovers Bert Blyleven, Andre Dawson, Jack Morris, Lee Smith and Alan Trammell, and ballot newcomers Roberto Alomar, Barry Larkin and Edgar Martinez. Alomar and Larkin were easy picks; they were the best at their demanding positions for most of their long careers.

My choice of Martinez might raise some eyebrows because he spent most of his career as a designated hitter, and, thus, performed only half of baseball’s requirements. But the DH is a real and apparently permanent baseball role and I can see no reason to discriminate against those who fill it. No one has done it better than the ancient Mariner, a true student of the batsman’s art, who is one of only eight players ever with at least 300 home runs (309), 500 doubles (514) , a lifetime batting average of over .300 (.312), an on-base percentage of over .400 (.418) and a slugging average of more than .500 (.515). And he was a nice guy besides.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


I didn’t like Andre Agassi through most of his tennis career. I thought he was a brat who squandered his immense talent with vain display, a rebel without a clue who professed to be a free spirit while slavishly following the dictates of his corporate sponsors. In brief, I wished he’d go away.

I’ve never liked jock biographies, considering them a pure waste of time. The typical compliant that their authors “pull their punches” usually isn’t true because they never throw any punches to begin with. The books mostly are a way for their subjects to pick up a few dollars, pay off some non-monetary debts and prolong their times in the spotlight.

But here comes Agassi with a jockography, and you know what? I liked it. It’s a darned interesting book that appears to live up to its title of “Open.” It’s now on a (very) short list of recent-year sports books I’d recommend, along with Jane Leavy’s biog of Sandy Koufax and Tom Callahan’s marvelous “Johnny U,” about Johnny Unitas and pro football’s gritty 1950s. I feel like the fussy kid Mikey in the old cereal commercial, whose eyes were opened by an unexpected treat.

I wouldn’t be a reviewer if I had no complaints about a book. Like most of its genre, “Open” spends too much space recounting details of matches long forgotten, and doesn’t lack for self-justifying whines by its author. Prominent in the latter category is Agassi’s professed bewilderment that some people reacted negatively to the “image is everything” line he recited in a widely viewed camera ad. While it might have been true that someone put those words in his mouth, it was he who didn’t spit them out.

Those things, however, are quibbles, and “Open” is a pearl among pebbles. One very good thing about it is the work of Agassi’s co-author, J.R. Moehringer, although you have to make your way to the acknowledgments at the end of the book to learn his name. I’d never read anything by Moehringer, but will in the future. His writing brings a spontaneity to the book that makes it come alive.

Another is the undeniable fact that, for a jock, Agassi has had an interesting off-field go of it. That’s led by a tabloid-friendly social life that included dates with Barbra Streisand (he calls her a “passionate friend,” whatever that means) and marriages to the actress Brooke Shields and his now-wife Steffi Graf, who has a bigger trophy cabinet than he does.

Most of the attention the book has gained has focused on Agassi’s admission that he got high on crystal meth for a time during his career and (successfully) lied about it when the tennis tour asked him to explain a positive drug test. Several of his tennis contemporaries have demanded that he be stripped of some titles for the lapse, but that’s off-base. Agassi was stupid to try the brutally addictive stuff, but it hurts rather than enhances athletic performance and is the proper province of the police, not the sports cops.

More revealing by far is Agassi’s account of his childhood, one made no less Dickensian by the relentless sunshine of his native Las Vegas. He depicts his ex-boxer father, a captain in a Las Vegas showroom, as a domineering bully who forced him to spend his childhood on the practice courts and used him to pick up spare cash by hustling matches with unwary adults. Agassi hated tennis (or, as he wrote in several places, “hated hated” it), and stuck with it only for fear of his father’s wrath and lack of alternatives. As an eighth-grade dropout, he had few of the latter.

To be sure, no one can succeed at anything without some enthusiasm for the task, and Agassi admits to that, albeit mostly because he found losing intolerable. When he chose to exercise it his work ethic was impressive, as was his record, which includes eight Grand Slam titles. But so too was the degree of silliness to which he confesses; for instance, his multicolored mullet hairdo, long his public signature, was enhanced by a hairpiece that covered his growing baldness, and he lost his first Grand Slam final partly out of fear the rug would slip on-court and reveal his awful secret.

Mostly, the book is a description of Agassi’s journey from brat to mensch that would do credit to an early Tom Cruise movie. The transformation has been impressive: Andre today is an apparently happy, gracious husband and father of two whose charitable work—most notably his sponsorship of an academy for at-risk kids in his hometown—reflects his appreciation of the education he never had. It’s a tale worth writing, and reading.

BUSINESS NOTE: And speaking of books, those in my “For the Love of…” series make an excellent holiday gift. Titles include the Cubs, Yankees, Red Sox, Cardinals, Mets, Tigers, Packers, Ohio State and Georgia football, golf and Hall of Fame baseballers. You’ll love the illustrations. To see them click on the Triumph Books link on this site or go to amazon,com.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


In the summer of 1997 I drove from Chicago to Madison, Wis., to visit with Al Toon. In his home office whose windows overlooked Lake Mendota we spoke about his eight-season career with the National Football League’s New York Jets, during which he’d achieved All-Pro status several times.

We also talked about the last play of that career—on Nov. 8, 1992—when he caught a pass and turned upfield, only to be crunched between two Denver Broncos’ defenders. He had no memory of that collision.

“I saw the films and it wasn’t that big a hit,” he recalled. “I think most of the damage came when my head hit the ground.”

Toon said the resulting concussion was the seventh, eighth or ninth of his football life, “depending on how you counted them.” Some of the others, dating from high school, sidelined him for a game or two, some for just a couple of plays. But the symptoms of last one got worse instead of better, and he spent much of the next three years in darkened rooms enduring headaches, dizziness, acute sensitivity to light and lapses of memory and concentration.

He thought he was pretty much back to normal at the time of our meeting. Indeed, he’d invested his football earnings wisely and was well into a business career that included ownership of commercial real estate in the city where he’d gone to college, a directorship and vice presidency of a local bank and a partnership in a company that owned 18 Burger King franchises.

He had no illusions about a trouble-free future, however. “I’m told that with head injuries, you never can tell,” he said quietly.

I’ve been thinking about Toon as the impact of football concussions has gained news-media attention of late. Having written a page-one story on head injuries for the Wall Street Journal, I’m something of a journalistic expert—and early whistle-blower-- on the subject. That piece was titled “The Silent Epidemic,” because head-injury victims often didn’t appear to be hurt and treatments for their widely varying complaints were elusive. Despite some advances, that’s apparently still the case.

It’s especially surprising that many people still aren’t fully aware of the risk of head injury that football poses at all of its levels. The violence in the NFL, which tops the sport’s pyramid, is truly frightening, and becoming more so as the game evolves. Not only are the players ever bigger, stronger and faster, but the surfaces on which they’re playing produce far-better footing than the old grass fields, increasing the force of the collisions thereon. To fully appreciate this you have to witness the game from ground level, but it’s obvious even on television.

It’s well known that the effects of head blows are cumulative, but the extent to which they occur in football remains underappreciated. This came through clearly in a story in the Oct. 19 issue of the New Yorker magazine that, in part, described a University of North Carolina study that monitored with helmet-placed sensors the school’s football team members in games and practices. It said that if you drove your car into a wall at 25 mph and weren’t wearing a seat belt, the force of your head hitting the windshield would register 100 on the applicable scale. In one Tarheel practice—and not a “full-contact” one —eight “hits” registering between 82 and 53 were recorded. “Mini-car crashes” were taking place all over the field, with consequences one can only guess, the author wrote.

Another recent study hinted at those consequences over the long haul. A University of Michigan phone survey of about 1,000 retired NFL players showed that 6.1% of those aged 50 and older reported they’d been diagnosed with dementia, Alzheimer’s disease or other memory-related conditions, a rate five times higher than that of the general population, and the rate for ex-players in the 30-to-49-year-old range was 19 times above the national average. If that’s not bad enough, the kind of self-reporting the survey relied on typically understates a problem’s severity.

To the inevitable question of “What’s to be done?”, good answers are few. Better helmets might help but, given size limitations, there’d be a limit to how much. The league should be tougher on the kind of helmet-on-helmet hits that thrill the TV commentators; expulsion from the game seems more appropriate than the present yardage penalty and (sometimes) fine. A quicker recognition of concussions, and slowing the rush of the injured to return to action, would be a plus, albeit not a cure.

But we who watch, and those who play, like the game too well to press for the only sure cure, abolition. So let’s hope the boys are careful out there.

A bright note: Al Toon’s current Wikipedia biography says he competed in a triathlon a few years ago, and is now a Green Bay Packers’ director, so it seems his recovery has continued apace.

Monday, November 2, 2009


The unfairness of life is brought home to me every spring and summer by the performance of my favorite baseball team, the Chicago Cubs. They always come through in that respect. In recent years, however, the punishment has continued into the fall, delivered by my favorite football team, that of my alma mater, the University of Illinois. Now THAT is unfair.

I’m feeling especially put-upon these days because the erstwhile Fighting Illini are in the throes of a season that’s bad by even their standards. At this writing they are 2 and 6 in the won-lost column with four games to play, and despite Saturday’s welcome win over so-so Michigan, it’s hard to see how they can wind up better than 4 and 8. I’ve put my orange-and-blue gear into storage, and it’ll take a heckuva good basketball season to persuade me to uncrate it.

It’s not as though we Illini expect much from our gridiron representatives—a six- or seven-win season and a dot-com bowl game would satisfy us nicely. But even that modest goal has been elusive. Illinois hasn’t put together successive winning seasons since 1989-90, and have been on the plus side in just five campaigns since then. Over four recent seasons (2003-06) it had a combined won-lost record of 8-38.

It probably wouldn’t be so painful if we were perennially terrible, like Indiana. Then we could simply ignore football and save our enthusiasm for basketball, where we’re usually decent. About once a decade, though, we have a quite-successful year—such as 2007’s 9-4 record and Rose Bowl appearance—and convince ourselves that some magical corner has been turned. Inevitably this proves illusory and we’re back in the pits, where we started.

Why this should be so is a mystery. Illinois is a populous state with a rich annual crop of football talent. Trouble is, the best of it matriculates at places like Notre Dame, Michigan and, lately, even Southern California. Yes, Champaign-Urbana, where the U of I is situated, is widely viewed as a dull, rural place, but it’s not any worse in that regard than Iowa City, Ia., South Bend, Ind., or godawful State College, Pa., for heaven’s sake. Iowa and Wisconsin, which have fewer athletic resources than Illinois, consistently have managed to field good-to-excellent football teams in recent years. If they can do it, Illinois also should be able to.

The usual key factor in such a situation is coaching or the lack of it, and the chair of Illinois’s incumbent headman, Ron Zook, has become quite warm. Zook formerly was the coach at Florida, where he posted a 23-14 won-lost mark over three seasons. While that would have been fine in Champaign it got him fired in Gainesville, where expectations are higher. At Illinois, he’s had but one winning season in five, with the arrow pointing down..

By all accounts Zook’s industry has been exemplary; he’s your typical workaholic football coach for whom putting in a half-day means working 12 hours. He’s said to take his cell phone into the shower for fear of missing a call, and probably sees his family no more than a few hours a week in season. He’s gotten high grades as a recruiter, but this year’s woeful gangs on both sides of the ball put that rep into serious question.

Most disheartening has been the play of quarterback Juice Williams, the team’s leader on offense. He was sprightly as a sophomore during the ’07 Rose Bowl run but before Saturday had been sodden as a senior, a flat-footed and inaccurate passer and heavy-legged runner who had more turnovers than TDs. His regression speaks ill of Zook’s ability to develop talent, a college coach’s primary charge. Zook never has been much praised as a game-day strategist.

So fire the guy, right? OK, but then what? Recruiting (as it is) will be set back further and a new “system” (whatever that is) will have to be installed, meaning at least a couple more very bad years before any turnaround can be expected. And if the new guy succeeds there’s a good chance he’ll be lured away by a stronger program, as was the live-wire basketball coach, Bill Self. No matter how you look at it, the outlook isn’t brilliant.

But so as not to be totally negative, I do have a suggestion for short-term improvement. Illinois is known for slotting players out of position, such as Bobby Mitchell, an NFL Hall of Fame wide receiver who was an underutilized running back at Illinois, and Ray Nitschke, the all-time great pro linebacker who was a second-string fullback in Champaign. At 6-foot-2 and 235 pounds, Williams is bigger than the current Illini linebackers, and, probably, stronger and faster as well. His pro prospects as a QB are slight so let’s try him there next Saturday. It couldn’t hurt him or the team.

Thursday, October 15, 2009


Most places have the usual four seasons, but the Phoenix area, in which I live, has only two. One, from April through September, is The Big Heat, when daily triple-digit temperatures keep sensible people hunkered down in ACed confines. The other, October-through-March, is Hiking Season, or regular summer in other climes.

Hiking Season now is here, and I couldn’t be happier. Mornings there’s a chill in the air, and even if the daytime highs reach into the 90s it’s not so bad because it’s “dry heat,” as we ‘Zonans like to say. At least twice a week I lace up my hiking shoes and head into the desert, immersing myself in its soothing stillness. Hiking is good for both body and soul, an excellent exacta.

One might think it strange that a city boy like me—Chicago born and bred—would have such a yen for the wilderness, and one would be correct. You can roll a bowling ball from one end of Chicago to the other, and few there wish to walk much in such monotonous environs.

I never took to the trail until 1985, at age 47, when Ray Sokolov, the estimable editor of the Leisure & Arts page of the Wall Street Journal, where my sports columns appeared amid the book, theater, movie and dance reviews, proposed an outing in the Rocky Mountains near Aspen, Colorado. Ray, an experienced hiker and climber, painted an alluring word picture of the adventure, and sealed the deal when he said our destination would be the summit of Mount Massive, at 14,421 feet the third-highest peak in the contiguous U.S.

“Mt. Massive!” I thought. “What a name! What a brag!” Considering myself in decent shape from my regimen of tennis and racquetball, I signed on.

Alas, as often was the case, Ray was as short on practical advice as he was long on rhetoric. Knowing no better, I neglected to do any serious training, and undertook the hike wearing Hush Puppies and cotton socks on my unwary feet. Furthermore, I’d never been higher than mile-high Denver, and the air in the 12,000-to-14,000-foot range of the upper Rockies is much thinner than it is there.

We did the hike, all right, getting to within a couple hundred feet of our goal before finding ourselves in a cul-de-sac of boulders with threatening clouds approaching, but I felt anything but wonderful. My feet were brutally blistered, my legs ached and my breath came in short pants. But you know what? Once healed I concluded that I’d loved the experience, and couldn’t wait to do it again.

In the years since I’ve hiked all over the U.S., especially in Arizona; in fact, the lure of the desert was a big reason wife Susie and I decided to set up permanent shop in Scottsdale. We live virtually across the street from a mountain preserve that has many beautiful and interesting trails, and dozens more are within an hour’s drive in any direction. Phoenix is a hikers’ paradise in season; I daresay no U.S. metro area is better.

I’ve taken courses in the local flora and fauna, achieving near-mavenhood on the subjects. I’ve led hikes under various auspices, and this fall, after the local community college cancelled (among many others) a hiking program I led, I ’m continuing it on my own. Tomorrow’s the first outing, and I’m psyched.

Hiking has much to recommend it. Athletically, it requires nothing more than the ability to put one foot in front of the other. It’s cheap, with the basic equipment being only hiking shoes (I buy a $50 pair online from Sierra Trading Post every couple of years) and a $20 fanny or back pack in which to carry water. It’s low-impact, meaning that it’s easy on the frame, and noncompetitive. It enables you to see things you can’t see from your car; indeed, the farther off the road you get the prettier the scenery becomes.

If you get down this way give me a call and I’ll take you out. If you live in or around Chicago you can get started in the Cook County forest preserves, and for a treat drive to Starved Rock State Park, where there are many good trails.

Try it. You’ll like it.

REMINDER: I’ll be speaking at 9:30 a.m. Sunday, Nov. 1, at the book fair at the Jewish Community Center on Scottsdale Rd. just north of Cactus.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009


Friday (10/2) is the big day and I’m excited. The International Olympic Committee is meeting in Copenhagen to vote on the site of the 2016 Summer Olympics and my beloved native city of Chicago is in the running, along with Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo and Madrid.

By me, it figures that Chicago will prevail. Rio is best known for crime and immense slums, Tokyo for $150 airport-to-hotel cab rides, and Madrid for being the seat of the Franco government, which far outlasted those of his buddies Hitler and Mussolini. Looks like a slam dunk right there.

Chicago has many positive things going for it as well. International sports honchos love the U.S.’s restaurants, five-star hotels, limos and rental cars, telephone systems, stadiums, luxury boxes and fans able and eager to buy tickets for whatever event is on tap, and Chi-Town has those in abundance. Anything you can get anywhere you can get there, and I mean anything. Who could ask for more?

The Olympics would look great in the City by the Lake. I can see the TV cameras focusing lovingly on Buckingham Fountain, Michigan Avenue, Millennium Park, Belmont Harbor and other tourist magnets. Chicago hot dogs and Italian beef sandwiches, the city’s major contributions to world cuisine, finally would get the attention they deserve. So would 16-inch softball, Chicago’s gift to the world of sports; I’m sure they’ll be able to work it into the Olympic schedule. Thillens Stadium would be the perfect venue.

Yes, I know there are naysayers. Their argument is the same as it always is for such endeavors, centering on the immorality of spending millions (billions?) of dollars on a sports extravaganza when so many societal needs go unmet. But hey—why limit that to sports? One can make the same case that a better use could be made of every buck we spend on booze, cigars, cigarettes, chewing gum, candy bars, lattes, comic books, bad movies, massages and cocaine, but the world doesn’t work that way.

As you know if you follow this space, I’m against spending public money for new stadiums for our domestic sports staples of baseball, football and basketball. That’s because the vast majority of the revenues those facilities generate are local and they serve only to funnel money away from other local entertainments and into the pockets of team owners. Money spent on Olympic installations would be different because the Games would be a tourist bonanza for Chicago that would continue well past the time the athletes leave.

Further, from what I’ve seen of the city’s Olympic plans, relatively little money would go into building new facilities. Existing structures would accommodate most events, with the main exception being a sort of erector-set stadium for track and field and the opening and closing ceremonies, slated for Washington Park. After the Games it would be disassembled and a smaller stadium built on the site for local use. That would be a lasting plus. So, too, would the considerable sum of federal cash that would go into updating Chicago’s public-transit system to better serve visitors, and, of course, residents.

The main reason for my optimism, though, has nothing to do with bricks and mortar, civic spirit, or, even, Italian beef. It’s the natural affinity between the two main legislative bodies that would be involved in a Chicago Olympics, the Chicago City Council and the IOC. Although municipal graft wasn’t invented in Chicago, and certainly exists elsewhere, it was brought to such an art in the City Council that the late Royko held that the English translation of the city’s Latin motto—“Urbus en Horto”—is “Where’s mine?” The IOC has a similar rep, similarly well earned; no IOC member ever has been seen exiting the rear door of an airliner.

The good-old boys from Georgia greased many an IOC palm to obtain the 1996 Summer Games for Atlanta, as did Salt Lake City’s agents in landing the 2002 Winter Games. A couple of SLC people resigned in disgrace after that vote, as did 10 IOC members. But the bottom line was that the Games stayed in the virtuous Beehive State.

I see where President Obama plans to be in Copenhagen to make the city’s final pitch to the IOC. That’s great—he’s persuasive. But smart as he is I wouldn’t be surprised if he had a delegation of city councilmen—past and present—surreptitiously accompany him to seal the deal. He should include Alderman Eddie Burke from the current council, and get a prison furlough for ex-Ald. Eddie Vrdolyak so he could make the trip. If those two can’t swing it, nobody can.

I’m just sorry Tom Keane isn’t still around. If he were, it’d really be a slam dunk for my home town.

POSTING A COMMENT: Getting in your two-cents worth via comments is a big part of blogging, and I welcome yours. Several people have told me they’ve tried to comment on my efforts at various times but failed to get theirs posted, so here’s a how-to:
At the end of the column click on the word “comments.” That will take you to another screen. Write your comment in the box, then copy the “verification” letters in the box that’s provided. Skip the stuff about “user name” and “password”—it’s not required. Click on the “name/url” circle. Put your name in the box that’s provided or click on the “anonymous” circle. If you wish, click on “review” to check what you’ve written, or go immediately to “publish.” You can do it!

BUSINESS NOTE: If you’re in or around Scottsdale on Sunday, Nov. 1, you might drop into the book fair at the Jewish Community Center at 12701 N. Scottsdale Rd. I’ll be speaking about my “For the Love of…” books, and other things, starting at 9:30 a.m.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


Being misunderstood is a chronic condition these days, one that many people—famous and not—richly enjoy. Indeed, the plaint that “nobody really knows me” may be the real national anthem in a land where navel gazing outranks TV watching as a source of mass entertainment.

Thus, it wasn’t surprising to hear Mike Tyson, the subject of a recent James Toback documentary movie that bears his name, deliver an opening monologue to his unseen (and unheard) interviewer that asked the question “Who am I?” and answered it by saying “Nobody really knows Mike Tyson.” The fact that “nobody” includes the ex-boxer himself is what gave the movie its punch. He’s always been as much a spectator as a participant in his chaotic life, and as morbidly curious as we are to learn what’ll happen next.

I first met Tyson in February, 1986, when I went to a college hockey arena in Troy, N.Y., to see him fight the journeyman Jesse Ferguson in his 18th professional bout. Tyson, then just 19 years old, had dispatched his previous 17 foes by knockouts, most in the first or second rounds. The tall Ferguson proved a tougher nut, but only because he dedicated himself solely to such survival tactics as running and holding, and in the sixth round was duly disqualified. Still, Tyson showed enough to make the trip worthwhile and presage the more-significant ring triumphs that were to follow.

Ask somebody today about Tyson the fighter and he’ll probably label him a primitive brawler who got by mostly on muscle. That simply wasn’t true. Even as a teen Tyson possessed advanced skills in all facets of his brutal sport. Moreover, he had the fastest hands of any fighter I’ve seen, in any weight class. In my view he’s the only man who could have given Mohammad Ali a good fight if both were in their primes.

At 5-foot-10 or -11 and about 215 pounds, the young Tyson was among the smallest heavyweights of his day, but punching upward from his powerful haunches he could deliver blows of unmatched speed and ferocity, and bobbing and weaving from the hands-high “peekaboo” stance taught to him by his mentor, Cus D’Amato, was hard to hit as well. Ali might put him away if he were able to hold him off for seven or eight rounds, but, by me, that would be a big “if.”

Alas, the Tyson most people remember is the wild man who bit Evander Holyfield’s ear in a fit of frustration during a losing effort, and the one who wrecked his life with choices so self-destructive as to suggest insanity. His downward spiral began with the death of D’Amato in 1985, just as his pro career was being launched, and turned into freefall when Jimmy Jacobs, the ex-handball champion who was his first manager and could speak to him athlete-to-athlete, unexpectedly followed D’Amato in 1988.

Unanchored, Tyson put his professional affairs in the hands Don King, a scoundrel without peer, and devoted himself personally to the scheming actress Robin Givens. The fact that everyone (literally) told him that King would rob him and Givens would use him seemed only to increase his commitments to them. Inside the ring he forgot the precepts that enabled him to unify the heavyweight title at the rare age of 21. Outside of it, problems with women, booze and drugs, and a three-year prison term for a rape conviction, stripped him of his dignity.

Gone, too, is just about all of the $300 milllion (no typo) he grossed during his fistic career. The subject of where it went concerns him so little that it’s barely mentioned in the Toback movie. While allowing that King took much or most of it—“He’s a wretched, slimy motherfucker. He’d kill his mother for a dollar”—he quickly absolves the electric-haired one of blame. “I loved leeches. I associated myself with leeches. I allowed that to happen,” Tyson says with an offhand shrug.

The “why?” of it all wasn’t asked or answered directly in the film, but it’s always been there for those who would listen. In interviews Tyson often would relate how just about all of his partners in crime during his days as a child street thug in Brooklyn were dead, in jail, or hopelessly hooked on drugs, and express the view that he expected a similar fate. Why plan for the future when there probably wouldn’t be one?

“My past is history, my future is a mystery,” the erstwhile Iron Mike tells Toback in conclusion. That’s one of those glib rhymes silly people love, but in this case it contained more truth than poetry.

BUSINESS NOTE: “For the Love of the Bulldogs,” about University of Georgia football, is on the market, the 11th in the “For the Love of…” series published by Triumph Books. Written by me, and beautifully illustrated by Mark Anderson, it’ll make a great gift for Dawgs’ fans of all ages. Barnes & Noble has ‘em, as does Buy a bunch!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009


The U.S. Open tennis tournament is underway in the big complex at the former World’s Fair site in the New York borough of Queens, but I am more concerned with other things, such as the homestretch of the baseball regular season (bye-bye Cubs and Sox) and the start of the NFL’s.

Such wasn’t always the case. During my columnizing days the tournament was a highlight of my year, and not just because it meant I got to spend two weeks in glorious Gotham on an expense account. A tennis player myself then, I loved watching the game in any way, shape or form, and pursued it in as many venues as I could.

The first week of the Open was my favorite because there was action all over the multi-court grounds, involving not only the certified stars but other players, both up-and-comers and old timers on their way out, and I was there watching whether or not I planned to write about what I saw. When I scanned the small-print results of the first- and second-round matches I had well-rounded pictures to go with names that meant little to more-casual fans. Heck, I even knew the juniors, and could converse knowledgably about which might succeed, and which not.

Unfortunately, though, top-flight tennis has changed since, and not for the better. Advances in racket technology have all but erased stylistic differences among players, turning every match into a virtual copy of the one before, and the one after. When the players don’t wear different-colored outfits it’s tough to tell them apart.

The racket revolution began around 1970, when traditional wood frames gave way to steel or aluminum. The initial change was widely noted and much commented upon, and gave players a bit more bang for their bucks, but its effects were small compared with what was to follow. Starting around 1990 such exotically named materials as titanium, boron, Kevlar, graphite and Hypercarbon increasingly came into use, often in combinations. This allowed racket frames to become much bigger, stronger, lighter and more flexible than before, and “sweet spots” (areas of maximum impact) to grow. Grips and strings improved, too, magnifying the results.

In “woody” days, the typical racket had about a 65-square-inch frame and weighed about 13 ounces. Today’s frames run to 145 square inches (although most pros use ones smaller than that) and weights have dropped to 10 or 11 ounces. The term “trampoline effect” has come into use, vividly describing what the new weaponry has wrought in the hands of the athletically gifted.

Most observers initially predicted that better rackets would give the edge to big servers and cause the serve-and-volley game to flourish. The reality has been quite the opposite. Sure, service speeds are up, but today’s top players nullify that by retreating behind the baseline a step or two, then trampolining the serves back faster than they come in, relatively speaking. Rushing the net has become akin to charging a machine-gun nest, and about as productive. It has all but been abandoned as a regular offensive tactic.

The great tennis rivalries of the recent past were between serve-and-volleyers and baseliners, which translated neatly into the puncher-boxer dichotomy that enlivens many sports: think McEnroe-Borg, Navratilova-Evert and Sampras-Agassi. Now there are only baseliners, hitting back and forth, ad infinitum.

Stylistic contrast hasn’t been the only casualty of the new era. The term “touch” is little heard any more, and smallish players like Ken Rosewall, Tracy Austin and Martina Hingis, who depended on it, are all but extinct. The top level of the women’s game has come to be the sole province of such strapping bashers as the Williams sisters and the East European “evas” and “ovas” who have the muscle to stay on the court with them.

Among the men stamina is all, with matches in the brutal, best-of-five-set Grand Slam format often topping three grueling hours. Injuries are rife and just about everybody has them some of the time. To me, the most remarkable thing about Roger Federer’s recent dominance of the sport hasn’t been his considerable skill but his ability to soldier on as those about him falter.

Golf also has undergone a technological revolution but has accommodated itself to it by lengthening and tightening championship courses. Tennis can’t change its dimensions, and with the money at stake in its equipment business it’s not about to turn back the clock, so like it or not only more of the same is in prospect. I’ll probably be watching the Open finals, but not much until then.

Friday, August 14, 2009


Remember Hillary’s 2008 campaign ad that asked whom you wanted to answer when the White House phone rang at 3 a.m.? The joke was that she’d be best at it, because she’d be waiting up for Bill to come home.

Middle-of-the-night calls are a trial for coaches as well as politicians, especially coaches of the football variety. Few of those fellas crawl between the sheets without fearing that their slumber will be interrupted with the information that one of their players had drunkenly wrapped his Escalade around a tree or been arrested for being involved in a bar fight, beating up his girlfriend, or worse. Wise coaches keep an all-purpose statement at hand, expressing concern for both victims and perps and promising that the team would make a thorough inquiry into the matter before commenting further.

Football players being what they are (overmuscled and overamped), that’s ever been so. I recall in my 1950s reportorial salad days learning that the newspapers in my beloved college home of Champaign, Illinois, had a gentleman’s agreement with the local authorities to keep quiet the less-than-felonious antics of University of Illinois athletes. A main beneficiary of this policy was Ray Nitschke, the linebacker who enjoyed taking on all comers in townie bars before moving on to a more menschlike existence as a pro in Green Bay.

These days tabloid values rule and mum isn’t the word where jock misdeeds are concerned. True or not, it also seems as though there are more of them. Outrage of all sorts is up, too, and the leaders of our sports leagues feel moved to respond to it by doing, well, something. Thus it is that they have become self-appointed extensions of the law’s long arm, kind of like the pincers grocers use to get cans off their top shelves.

This is a windy way to get around to the cases of the footballers Michael Vick, Donte Stallworth and Plaxico Burress, which currently are vexing many. Vick and Stallworth committed criminal offenses and have served prison or jail time for them—Vick 18 months for staging dog fights and Stallworth 24 days for killing a pedestrian while driving drunk. (Make what you will of THAT difference.) Roger Goodell, the corporate lawyer who is commissioner of all the NFLs, piled on by banning the released Vick for the first five games of the league’s current season and docking Stallworth a full year’s play.

He’ll be doing much the same for Burress once the regular law gets done dealing with the wide receiver for carrying an unregistered handgun into a New York nightclub and wounding himself with it there. You’d think that prison and the title of World’s Biggest Doofus would be punishment enough for the guy, but I guess it won’t be.

Where Goodell, et al, get off wielding extra-judicial power for the laws that govern us all is beyond me. Their charge—subject to players’ union acquiescence—is to enforce their league’s rules, which puts penalties for offenses such as on-field fights, gambling and the use of performance-enhancing drugs within their proper scope. That, plus negotiating multi-billion-dollar TV contracts and arranging team-owners’ meetings in fetching places, ought to be enough to kept them busy.

The fact is that while quarterback Vick’s dog-fighting business was illegal, and disgusting to many, it had nothing to do with football’s integrity or his ability to play the game. It’s not like he’s in the animal-shelter business. Similarly, receiver Stallworth never should be permitted to drive a school bus or even a cab, but—by me— he can catch as many passes as he’s able to if someone will hire him to do it.

Professional sports are entertainment, pure and simple, and to hold its practitioners to standards higher (or lower) than the rest of us makes the enterprises more important than they are. It’s also worth noting that our outrage tends to be short, and selective. What’ll happen with Vick will be what’s happening now with the baseballer Manny Ramirez, whose offense was against his sport: if Vick plays well he’ll be cheered by the fans of whatever team he plays for, no matter how others may react. Our desire for retribution runs a distant second to our lust for W’s.

Thursday, July 30, 2009


I used to be able to get a regular chuckle out of the newspaper funny pages, but not so much these days. For, I’m sure, reasons of economy, papers have shrunk their cartoon strips to the point where their word balloons are tougher to read than the stock tables. It’s tough to laugh when you’re squinting.

Not to worry, though, because the sports pages can be counted upon to produce full-throated yuks. I had one such the other day when I read a piece headlined “Paterno Hopes Bowden Can Keep Wins.” It was about Joe Paterno, the Penn State football coach, opining that his fellow-old-guy colleague, Bobby Bowden of Florida State, was being mistreated because the NCAA was considering removing 14 wins from the school’s—and Bowden’s-- record after 25 FSU football players were caught in an exam-cheating scandal involving athletics department employees. That penalty was deemed appropriate because some of the players would have been ineligible if not for the ill-gotten grades.

It’d be downright unfair to penalize Bowden for the misdeeds, declared the venerated Joe Pa, who’s known in part for long claiming to have graduated 90-plus percent of his players but not including flunk-outs, drop-outs and run-offs in the calculation. “I’ve known Bobby for 40 years. He’s my kind of guy,” Paterno said. “He’s a very humble and very, very religious guy. He’s just a good person and a heck of a football coach.”

Bowden agreed with Paterno’s conclusion, but on different ground from personal virtue. “Why do we [he and the other-sport FSU coaches whose players also were snagged] deserve it [being docked wins]?” he asked the Orlando Sentinel. “We didn’t know anything about it.”

Didn’t know anything about it? HA HA HA! This guy probably can tell you that his third-string fullback has a right foot that’s a half-size bigger than his left, likes cold spaghetti for breakfast and has a girlfriend whose youngest brother’s name is Jerome, yet he didn’t know that about one third of his squad was being coached to cheat by their so-called academic advisers. You believe that and I have a piece of land in Cave Creek I want to show you.

Funnier still-- but not in a ha-ha way-- is that the folks in charge will pretend to believe Bowden. That’s despite the fact that the latest scandal is the umpteenth during his tenure at FSU, an institution that seems to exist mainly to fill a football stadium six or seven Saturdays a year. When the stuff hits the fan, coaches like him (winners) stay clean, with the blame falling on some assistant coach or athletics department flunky whose salary is maybe 1/50th of theirs. That’s the way things are done at the big-time college level.

A head coach occasionally gets nabbed, but only when he does something truly stupid. Kelvin Sampson got the boot as Indiana University basketball boss when about 1,000 impermissible long-distance calls to recruits were traced to his phones, and Tim Floyd just quit as Southern Cal hoops coach in the wake of allegations that he’d slipped $1,000 to O.J. Mayo, the recruit who caused more damage in L.A. than a Hollywood Hills mudslide. If Sampson had watched “Law and Order,” he’d have known that the first thing detectives do when they identify a suspect is check his “luds.” If Floyd hadn’t slept through that class in Coaching 101, he’d have known to keep his fingerprints off the cash.

Do not weep for Sampson or Floyd; the former is serving his penance as a well-paid NBA assistant coach, biding his time until the dust settles and some win-hungry school calls, and the latter no doubt will do the same.

But usually there’s no penalty for rule-breaking, and the wicked flourish like so many bushy green bay trees. Exhibit A in that regard is John Calipari, who left a trail of slime from his previous jobs at U Mass and Memphis to the basketball throne (and a $4 million-plus annual salary) at the U of Kentucky, one of college sport’s premier perches. I check my wallet every time I see him, even on my television screen.

As much as I despair about ever seeing the coaching stable cleaned, there may be a symbolic remedy. I read that there’s a Spanish judge who indicts prominent wrongdoers from other lands, willy-nilly; maybe he can be prevailed upon to issue a blanket charge against every big-time U.S. college football or basketball coach for violating laws against soliciting minors for immoral purposes. At the least, it’d keep those guys from visiting Spain.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


To Cubs’ fans, this year’s All-Star Game break brings to mind the story about the man who incessantly banged his head against a wall. Asked why he did it he’d reply, “Because it feels so good when I stop.”

The annual respite, however, can have other purposes, such as to assess the baseball season to date and the portents for its remainder. In that department, there’s a good possibility that the present campaign could stand out in a most-auspicious way, by producing the game’s first Triple Crown winner in quite a long time.

You don’t hear much about the Triple Crown because this most difficult of batting feats is such a rarity. Since the Red Sox’ Carl Yastrzremski last did it in 1967, few hitters have come close to leading their league in batting average, home runs and runs batted in during the same season, and the few bids that have occurred weren’t sustained enough to get the kettle drums of hype in full rumble.

But now comes Jose Alberto Pujols Alcantara, aka Albert Pujols, of the Dominican Republic and St. Louis, Missouri, with aptitudes and accomplishments that suggest that a breakthrough might be in the cards, or, at least, a Card. At this writing Sr. Pujols leads the National League in homers (with 32) and ribbies (with 87), and his .332 batting average is just 17 points behind that of the league leader, the Marlins’ Hanley Ramirez. Two and a half more months of similar results and Pujols will be bidding fair to hit the elusive Tri.

If he does it he’ll join the 11 men who achieved the distinction over 13 seasons. They are Nap Lajoie (1901), Ty Cobb (1909), Rogers Hornsby (1922 and 1925), Jimmy Foxx and Chuck Klein (1933), Lou Gehrig (1934), Joe Medwick (1937), Ted Williams (1942 and 1947), Mickey Mantle (1956), Frank Robinson (1966) and Yaz. All of them were among the best of their eras, a distinction Pujols clearly shares. They’re also Hall of Famers, and he’ll be there, too.

There are a lot of interesting things about the Triple Crown, enough to fill a book. In fact, I proposed just such a volume several years ago, and even enlisted an agent (hi, John) in the quest. Alas, there were no takers, but nothing is lost to a writer, and thus this blog.

One name you might have noticed as missing from the above list is that of Babe Ruth, the game’s all-time best batsman (and player, by me). He led the American League in both home runs and RBIs in six different seasons, but never claimed a TC even though he hit between .372 and .393 in four of those years.

Williams, the second-best hitter ever (by me), missed a third TC because he went hitless in the final game of the 1949 season and lost the AL batting championship to Detroit’s George Kell, .3427 to .3429. The Cardinals’ Stan Musial won NL batting and RBI titles in 1948 but was one blast short of tying for the HR crown. Cleveland’s Al Rosen led the 1953 AL in HRs and RBIs, but finished a point behind Washington’s Mickey Vernon in the BA race, .336 to .337. If Rosen had been a half-step faster on a chopper to third in his final at-bat of that season, he’d have had it.

A Cubbie, Henry “Heinie” Zimmerman, made the TC list for a while years ago with his 14 HRs, 103 RBIs and .372 BA in 1912, but an official revisit to his stats shaved his RBI count to a less-than-league-leading 99. That was probably just as well, because Heinie was kicked out of baseball in 1921 for being part of a game-fixing scheme and wound up as a partner of the gangster Dutch Schultz in a New York speakeasy.

The near-miss list goes on, but not in recent decades. That’s at least partly because the modern game’s accent on power has batters of all sorts swinging for the fences, not a prescription for getting the kind of batting average that might supply the third leg of the TC stool. The massively built Pujols, who fills a batter’s box like few others, swings big, too, but when the situation calls for it he also swings smart, and is the rare power hitter who walks more than he strikes out. That’s why he’s been a TC threat since he came to the Major Leagues at age 21 in 2001.

Indeed, what leaps out at you from Pujol’s baseball biography (along with the fact that he wasn’t picked until the 13th round of the 1999 draft)is his consistency at the plate. In his first eight seasons in the Bigs he never batted below .314 or hit fewer than 32 home runs. Moreover, while big guys often are poor fielders and base runners, he’s come to excel in both those areas, a tribute to his dedication to his craft.

Yes, he’s a Cardinal, a wearer of the hated red, but let’s be big and put that aside. He’s one of the greats and we should consider ourselves lucky to share the planet with him just now.


Wednesday, July 1, 2009

1 and 1A

Popular Wisdom has it that there are two kinds of Chicago baseball fans: Cubs’ fans who hate the White Sox and White Sox’ fans who hate the Cubs. The view gains credence whenever the two teams play (as they did last week) and the TV cameras roam the sports bars in search of incendiary statements from supporters of each side. There’s no lack of them, loudly voiced.

Look to the sides of the pictures, though, and you’ll see people hunched low over their drinks, keeping mum. They are members of the tolerate minority that wishes both teams well. Silence is a good strategy for them because it saves them from dealing with the zealots, and they know the TV types won’t use their quotes anyway. But they do exist, and probably in greater number than you’d expect.

I know because I’m one of them. Yes, having grown up a short bike ride from Wrigley Field, I’m primarily a Cubs’ fan, and a Cubs’ win is enough to make my day. But I like the Sox, too, and when both Chicago teams prevail it’s a great day, made all the better by its rarity.

Like most Northsiders, as a youngster I considered the South Side as terra incognita, and dangerous to boot. But once I grew up a bit and got my own wheels (a much-used Ford, around age 19) I began visiting Comiskey Park and watching the likes of Nellie, Little Looie, Jungle Jim and Big Klu do their things. What was not to like, especially in a prolonged era of Cub decline?

Some of my most-memorable baseball moments came at what has come to be called “Old” Comiskey Park. The most impressive home run I ever saw was hit by the wayward slugger Dick (“Don’t Call Me Richie”) Allen in a 1971 or ’72 game at Comiskey against the Yankees, an awesome blow that started low and seemed to be still rising when it cleared the left-field wall 370-or-so feet away. Years later I spent a day with Allen reporting a column, and told him of the memory. “I hit a lot of them like that,” he said with a smile. “If they cleared the shortstop, they were gone.”

Chicago has been a Cubs’ town for the last 20-plus years, and many assume that’s always been the case. Not so. The Sox were the better and more-popular team through most of the 1950s, ’60s and ‘70s, and even outdrew the Cubs in 1984, the Wrigleys’ break-through, divisional-title year. The Sox lost their edge because of two fateful decisions: going to cable (and off “free”) TV in the ‘80s, before many people had it, and the civic-minded choice of the South Side of Chicago over the west side of Florida when a new ballpark became imperative.

They’ve reaped precious little good will for the latter action. The team did enjoy a several-season attendance spurt after New Comiskey Park (now U.S. Cellular Field) opened in 1991, but soon the stadium’s legislature-mandated location in an expressway wilderness dragged it down, and despite Chicago’s first-in-a-century World Series title (in 2005) it’s in the position of having to win to draw. That’s somewhere no sports enterprise wants to be.

To the Sox’ credit, they’ve done their best with what they have. Despite being a middle-market team in a major market, they’ve paid up for players, and their GM, Kenny Williams, isn’t afraid to pull the trigger on moves that might improve their lot. They’ve visited the post-season about as often as the bigger-payroll Cubs during the playoff era, and done much better once there. That includes last season, when they not only matched the Cubs’ noisier divisional title but also won a playoff game.

This season has been painful for followers of both Chicago teams, but more so for Cubs’ fans. When I think of the Cubs these days I think of Milton Bradley, batting .230 and mad at the world despite being paid $10 million a year to play baseball. When I think of the Sox I think of Steve Stone back in the booth and of such bright young prospects as Gordon Beckham, Aaron Poreda and Tyler Flowers, the latter a catcher currently battering fences in the minors. It’s not much to smile about, but it’s something.

Saturday, June 13, 2009


A baseball milestone was passed about a week ago, and few people noticed it. When the Atlanta Braves released Tom Glavine it became the first time since 1987 that either he, John Smoltz or Greg Maddux were not on the team’s roster.

Although some may argue the point, I believe that Glavine, Smoltz and Maddux were the three best pitchers to perform for the same team at the same time (1993-2003), which is saying quite a lot. The Braves won 14 divisional championships with two or more of them on board, and five National League pennants, in 1991, ‘92, ’95, ’96 and ’99. The fact that only one of their World Series appearances (in ’95) ended in victory was as much a product of the baseball vicissitudes as anything else.

I’m not a Braves’ fan but I’ve always been a fan of their erstwhile Big Three. I like athletes whose actions debunk the conventional wisdom in their sports, and Maddux and Glavine certainly did that. The past 30 years have been (among other things) the “Radar Gun Era” in baseball, with young pitchers judged primarily by how high they can make the gadget’s electronic digits jump. Any kid who’s shorter than 6-foot-4 and can’t throw a strawberry through a battleship hardly gets a glance from scouts any more. Maddux and Glavine—both ordinary-sized fellas with extraordinary “stuff”— put the lie to such nonsense.

Maddux was particularly unjockish in appearance. His program height was six-feet even, but I am (or was) that tall and stared him in the forehead many times. Off duty, he often wore glasses. He’d have looked more at home in a cubicle in front of a computer screen than on a pitcher’s mound.

At 6-foot-3 and 200-plus pounds, Smoltz just about fit the cookie-cutter mold, and his high-90s fastballs thrilled the gun-toters. But he also had guile and “heart” in abundance, and could be counted upon to stick around the locker room until the last question was asked. Maybe that last thing shouldn’t count in assessing players, but we news guys are human (really).

Which of the three was best? The usual answer would be Maddux, and it’s hard to dispute. His 355 career regular-season victories rank eighth on the all-time list, and his trophy annex (I’m sure he has one) contains four Cy Young Awards. Watching him pitch was watching an artist at work. His fastball may have topped out in the 80s, but no matter—he worked batters high and low, in and out, fast and slow. He rarely delivered consecutive pitches at the same speed or in the same place

Ask the typical knuckleheaded thrower (think Kerry Wood) to describe his perfect game and he’d likely say 27 Ks. Maddux would say 27 first-pitch grounders to the shortstop. Still, his deliveries were so elusive that his 3,371 strikeouts are 10th on the career list. Why the Cubs let him go to the Braves via free agency in 1993 will remain one of the game’s enduring mysteries.

Maddux kept hitters off balance with his variety. Lefty Glavine’s trick was tougher: he got most of them out with the same basic pitch, a slider or changeup on the outside corner of the plate at the knees. Glavine would throw his first pitch there, and if he got the call he’d throw the next one an inch farther outside. And the next an inch farther. Batters waiting for him to come to them would wait in vain; in 22 seasons he never did. He was the 24th pitcher to top 300 wins. If he doesn’t return to the game, he’ll finish with 305.

Smoltz’s win total of 210 is a furlong behind those of his ex-mates and golfing buddies, but he did something few other pitchers have done, which is switch successfully to relief after a successful starting career. He became a bullpen closer after elbow surgery cost him the 2000 season and part of 2001, and in 3 1/2 seasons in the role was among the best, recording 154 saves. Then he returned to starting with nary a hitch.

Moreover, Smoltz was one of the best big-game pitchers ever, posting a 15-4 post-season record, and a 2.65 ERA. He was among the parties of the second part in the best World Series game I’ve seen, Minnesota’s (and Jack Morris’s) 10-inning, 1-0 win in the seventh game of the 1991 Classic, throwing a shutout into the eighth inning. I’ve voted for Morris for the Hall of Fame several times, largely off that performance.

If I’m around I’ll cast the same vote for Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz when their times come. I’m in no hurry; Smoltz is still at it (he’s now with the Red Sox, rehabbing) and I wish him luck.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009


They’ll play the next U.S. Open golf tournament in a couple of weeks at the penitential Bethpage State Park course on Long Island, and Tiger Woods will be favored to win. That’s because he’s favored to win every tournament he enters.

Tiger is unquestionably the best golfer of his era and, to my mind and that of many others, the best ever. Your position on the latter issue depends largely on how you compare modern athletes with those of previous periods, and, by me, it’s no contest. Thanks to advances in nutrition and exercise physiology, and the fact that their remuneration allows them to devote themselves to their sports year-round, today’s jocks are uniformly better than those of the past. A golfer is like a baseball pitcher in that he spends all his time perfecting a single motion, so all the athletic virtues aren’t necessary for his success. But they don’t hurt, and no golfer has them to the extent Tiger has.

Add to that a single-minded dedication to golf and a literal lifetime spent in honing his skills and you have a combination that can’t be beat. Tiger is 33 years old, young for his sport, but because he’s been swinging a club since he was in diapers he has an edge in savvy over players eight or 10 years older.

Victory in professional golf’s “majors” (the Masters, PGA Championship and U.S. and British opens) is how golfing greatness most often is measured. Tiger has 14 of those titles, just three fewer than Jack Nicklaus. Jack won his last major at age 46 while Tiger still is going strong, so short of a catastrophe he’ll break Jack’s record. But even if Tiger’s career ended tomorrow he’d still be No. 1 all-time on any other objective scale.

The above paean, however, doesn’t mean I root for Tiger. In fact, on the occasions when I tune in golf and he’s in contention, I usually pull for the other guys. Maybe that traces to a young life rooting against the Yankees. Maybe I’m a crypto racist—crypto even to myself-- but I don’t think so. There’s always been something about the guy that puts me off.

Part of it is my visceral reaction against the way he was raised, which seems more like an experiment in conditioning than what’s normally thought of as a childhood. Many are charmed by the tales of daddy Earl, a former Army officer, handing Tiger a sawed-off club at age six months, taking him to the driving range at 18 months and beaming as he broke 50 for nine holes at 3, but I think it’s weird. Worse, the example has caught on and we now frequently read about kids being channeled into high-powered sports-training regimens while still in grade school. Lots of ambitious parents are thinking that what worked for ol’ Earl might work for them.

Further, the Tiger who first appeared on the PGA tour in 1996 was no ordinary young man embarking on a great adventure but one with multi-million-dollar endorsement contracts in hand who’d been packaged for maximum financial return by IMG, the sports-agency and promotional octopus. Like his fellow tourists, Tiger usually would show up in the press tent after rounds to review his day’s shots, but any journalist wanting more would have to go through IMG, and the answer usually would be “no.”

That’s still the case, I’m told, and even those permitted to ask don’t get much in the way of answers. Tiger’s an adult now—married and the father of two—and spent two years at Stanford U., an estimable educational institution, but he’s still in the IMG cocoon, and if he has opinions on anything besides golf he keeps them to himself. Hey, they might hurt business. Similarly, while he must have friends (just about everyone does), they apparently take a vow of silence to stay in his circle. What goes on with Tiger stays with Tiger, or so it seems.

Tiger’s domination has been a mixed blessing for golf. There really are two PGA Tours: the regular one and the Tiger Tour, which has about half as many events. When Tiger plays the crowds are large and TV ratings are high, and when he doesn’t, they’re not. Other guys out there can play— probably more than in any past era—but the spotlight is so focused on him that they’re in permanent shadow. Sean O’Hair, Nick Watney, Paul Casey and Geoff Ogilvy probably could stump a “What’s My Line?” panel, but they were among the Top 10 on the year’s PGA money list last month.

It’s not just me that’s lukewarm about Tiger. As excellent as he is he suffers from a charisma deficit, and while his galleries always are large they lack the emotional connection to him that “Arnie’s Army” had to Palmer or “Lee’s Fleas” had to Trevino. People love an underdog and there’s nothing about Tiger that suggests that quality. Chances are, there never will be.

Indeed, his career so far recalls the line from the old shampoo commercial, where the gorgeous blonde pleads “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.” While the parallel isn’t perfect, that also applies to Tiger.

Friday, May 15, 2009


NEWS: Mine That Bird wins the Kentucky Derby at odds of 50-to-1.
VIEWS: When a long shot wins a race and a handicapper doesn’t have him, he’ll go back to the Form to try to see what he might have overlooked. Then he’ll either smack his head in frustration for missing clues or shake it in disbelief that such a thing could happen.

Each of the two 50-to-1 shots that have won the Derby in the race’s last five runnings fits into one of those categories. Giacomo, the 2005 winner, had won just one of seven pre-Derby starts, but he’d challenged in several other good races while consistently staging late rallies that indicated he might be helped by the 1 ¼-miles Derby distance, 1/8-mile longer than any contestant had run. Further, he’d recorded four over-90 scores, topped by a 98, in the Beyer speed ratings that are the most-reliable gauge of a horse’s ability. He was the first Derby winner not to have achieved at least a 100 on that scale beforehand, but he’d been close. He was an underappreciated horse, and anyone who bet on him (alas, I didn’t) could take a bow.

Mine The Bird wasn't underappreciated. Yes, he’d won four of his eight previous starts, but all the victories had come in slow times against so-so opposition at Woodbine Park in Canada, a track that doesn’t rate with the best in the U.S. He’d displayed no consistent running style, meaning either he was hard to control or his trainer didn’t know what to do with him. Moreover, his highest pre-Derby Beyer was an 81, for heaven’s sake, the sort of score posted by contestants in $10,000 claiming races. How the guy won I have no idea. There oughta be an investigation.

Also, Mine That Bird is a terrible name.

NEWS: New York Yankees cut ticket prices on the best seats in their new stadium.
VIEWS: To the many reasons not to like the Yankees, a couple more were added when they opened their new stadium in the Bronx last month. One is that, like many other teams before them, they extorted public funds and credit to build themselves a new playground and then priced John and Joan Q. out the place. The other was their audacity in pricing the tickets in their new digs, with a breathtaking top of $2,500 per.

Mulling the idea of paying $2,500 to watch a single sporting event is discombobulating, giving us middle-class Americans a sense of what it’s like to be a Somali goat herder watching a rerun of “The Price Is Right.” I’d consider writing a four-figure check for a ringside seat to see Muhammad Ali fight Mike Tyson if were both magically restored to their primes, but certainly not to watch the Yanks play the Orioles on a chilly Wednesday night in May. The Yanks offer a comfortably padded chair with a good view of the action and easy access to food and lavatories, but that sounds like watching a game on television from home, doesn’t it? Hey, for twenty five hundred bucks you can buy a state-of-the-art TV set and watch all 162 Yankee games on cable, plus the playoffs should they qualify. And you could flick over to Nickelodeon between innings.

But now, faced with the recession and embarrassing rows of empty prime seats, the team has halved its top to $1,250 and reduced other “premium” tiers accordingly. That’s much better, don’t you think? Just kidding. My idea of a properly priced evening at the ballpark is paying $20 for an upper-deck, behind-home-plate seat to watch the D’backs at Chase Field here in the Desert Metropolis. If they raise it to $25, they lose me.

NEWS: Manny Ramirez gets a 50-game suspension after a drug that restores gonad function after steroid use is found in his medical records.
VIEWS: Revelations about ballplayers using steroids or related drugs are old stuff, but the Manny affair is different. That’s because his drug use came this season, not in the pre-2005 days before Major League Baseball began making a serious show of combating the potent muscle builders. It showed that “juicing” is alive and well in the erstwhile National Pastime.

That should come as no real surprise because the rewards for successful cheating remain high, as witnessed by the Dodger slugger’s current two-year, $50 million contract. This very definitely was true during the game’s long head-in-the-sand period. It still holds because the dopers always are ahead of the testers technologically. Steroid use is as smart a move now as it was then, albeit a riskier one.

Before the Manny bust, many people regarded baseball’s Steroids Era as a 1990-2005 phenomenon. Power-hitting records of that period are suspect; now the suspicions expand. It used to be that juicers like Mark McGwire were seen as exceptions to the “clean” rule, but a couple of veteran players of that time told me (off the record, of course) that they guessed that about one-third of their fellow Big Leaguers were users, and the true figure could have been higher. Users once were seen as edge-seekers, but maybe they were just trying to keep up with the competition.

Maybe they still are.

Friday, May 1, 2009


The Kentucky Derby is tomorrow (Saturday, 5/2) and I’ll be there as usual-- or, at least, my money will. I’ll be at a table in the clubhouse at Turf Paradise in Phoenix, my local track, watching the proceedings through the miracle of simulcast. The experience doesn’t beat the real thing at big, barny old Churchill Downs in Louisville, where I’ve been many times, but it’s a respectable second.

The Derby is America’s foremost horse race, which is kind of too bad because it isn’t the best contest the sport presents annually. It’s in the spring, near the beginning of the racing season, and its field is limited to three-year-olds, who are equine teenagers. The Breeders’ Cup Classic, an open-age event staged in November, is a truer championship test, but it lacks the Derby’s weight of tradition and hype and so goes off less sung.

But because the Derby is an Event with a capital “E” it has something no other horse race can match: an audience whose demographics pretty much mirror that of other mass entertainments. By that I mean it attracts people of both sexes and all ages in the adult range. Especially welcome at Churchill or the simulcast outlets are young or youngish women, often bedecked in the elaborate hats that have become part of the Derby scene. There’s nothing like a fashion show to bring out the ladies.

That’s in marked contrast to the usual racing crowd, which is overwhelmingly male and dowdy and predominantly, uh, elderly. Okay, old. I’m a regular in the TV carrels at Turf Paradise on Saturdays, when many of the better races are run, and at 71 I think I bring down the average age of the house. It doesn’t take a crystal ball to foresee a time when the erstwhile Sport of Kings will be in even worse shape than it is now.

It’s no mystery why racing has become the preserve of the long in tooth. Picking winners is a scholarly pursuit that involves the diligent study of the Daily Racing Form, whose dense pages of numbers contain the histories of every horse running at every track in the nation on a given day. It requires an iron butt and the ability to concentrate, two things notably lacking among today’s young. Generations brought up on video games that deliver kills or their equivalent every few seconds—and with easy access to casino games that offer payoffs at a similar rate—are not about to strain their eyes and brains trying to dope out the third race at Santa Anita.

By me that’s too bad, because the reward of being right at the track goes beyond any monetary return. Most gambling games are exercises in statistical probability, with the only skill being the ability to recognize the true odds of any choice. Picking a winner at the track involves weighing such diverse factors as speed, distance, venue, age, weight, track condition, the fitness of the animals and the relative abilities of their human connections. When you’re successful you have real reason to pat yourself on the back.

I got my schooling in the handicapper’s art from the best possible source, Sam “The Genius” Lewin. Sam, a smart man and an expansive character, made a nice living living up to his nickname at the East Coast tracks in days past. In 1968 I did a feature story on him for the Wall Street Journal, and a publisher saw it and ordered up a book written by me in Sam’s voice. The product, titled “The Education of a Horseplayer,” came out the next year. Used copies—some fetching more than their original price-- are still offered on the internet. The book’s approaches remain valid even though its examples are long out of date.

Space prohibits me from relaying much of Sam’s wisdom here, but I can pass on his guiding principle. It’s the motto “Pace Makes the Race.” That means that the manner in which a race is run determines its outcome.

To elucidate, horses generally exhibit one of three distinct running styles: they like to take the lead in the early going, stay with the pack or trail the field before making their runs. A front-runner who goes unchallenged almost always wins. When two or more horses vie for the early lead, the late runners come into the picture.

Cigarette holder jutting, Sam would pore over the DRF tables, seeking to envision which horse or horses would move out smartly, which would challenge at mid-race, which would surge late. When his mental picture was clear he’d put his money down, sometimes quite a lot.

As I’ve said, it’s usually more complicated than that, but sometimes it’s less so. On some days the numbers just sit on the pages, unresponsive, but on other, rarer, days—when you aren’t diverted by the tote board, your companions’ conversation or your dinner plans-- they seem to talk to you. You become powerful, omnipotent. You float to the windows to collect. You fill out the IRS forms required of big winners.

A day like that is wonderful in a way that never gets old. It keeps you coming back far more often than it should.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009


The Cubs’ best hitter last season wasn’t Derrek Lee or Alfonso Soriano, who were paid to hit. It was Carlos Zambrano, who was paid to pitch. Z’s .337 batting average (in 83 official times up) led the team, as did his .554 slugging percentage. Still, every game he started his manager, Lou Piniella, put him ninth and last in the order, the worst batter’s place. Why? Because Zambrano is a pitcher and pitchers always bat last.

The conclusion is inescapable: much of what passes for wisdom in baseball really is just calcified habit. If John McGraw always batted his pitchers ninth, so did Connie Mack, Joe McCarthy, Walter Alston, Sparky Anderson, Bobby Cox, Piniella and just about every other great managerial mind. Even though Tony La Russa sometimes breaks the mold, the point still holds.

The same can be said for beliefs about the game’s mechanics. Do curve balls “break”? Can an overhand fast ball rise on its way to the plate? Does a ball hit with topspin pick up speed when it skips off an artificial playing surface? Are home runs necessarily hit harder than singles or doubles? Will a “corked” bat propel a ball farther than an uncorked one? If you answered “yes” to any of those questions, you’ve chosen to believe folklore over science.

I have that on the very good authority of the science in a couple of books, “The Physics of Baseball,” by Robert K. Adair, a professor of physics at Yale University, and “Newton at the Bat,” edited by the science writers Eric W. Schrier and William F. Allman. They went into the laboratory to test some baseball saws. Their findings include the following:

--Curve balls don’t “break,” if that means changing direction abruptly during flight. They do curve, but in a smooth arc, in the direction of their diagonal spin. If there were no gravity the typical curve would transcribe a circle with about a 2,000-foot diameter and wind up back in the pitcher’s hand, but because of gravity the pitch loses velocity and drops as well as curves as it approaches the plate, creating the illusion of “break.”

--Fastballs don’t really rise, or “hop.” Like the curve, the overhand fastball follows a smooth and downward trajectory to the plate, but the backspin imparted by a hard thrower will somewhat offset its predictable loss of speed as it travels, and that can be perceived by a batter as a rise. A ball thrown by a knuckle-dragging “submariner” will rise as it begins its journey, but, typically, will be on a downward path by the time it reaches the hitter.

--Topspin will propel a ground ball faster than one hit without it, but the ball still will lose velocity once it strikes the ground, no matter how slick the surface.

--The force applied to a batted ball is a result of the weight (mass) of the bat, the speed with which it is swung and the speed of the pitch coming in. Those are independent of the trajectory of the swing, which determines the ball’s flight path. Singles hitters like Rod Carew, Wade Boggs or Ichiro Suzuki employ or employed “flat” swings that deviate upward from the horizontal by about 10 degrees through the strike zone. Home-run hitters usually have swings that follow an upward path of about 35 degrees. So while the likes of, say, Adam Dunn, may drive a ball 400-plus feet, that doesn’t mean he hits it any harder than his singles-hitting colleagues. Also, since an uppercut swing intersects a pitched ball’s path for a shorter time than a flatter swing, the uppercutter is likely to strike out more.

--Some players, like our old friend Sammy Sosa, illegally drilled about a six-inch-deep cylinder into their bat’s barrel and filled it with cork or hard-rubber balls, substances with more elasticity than the bat’s wood, and then recapped it to avoid detection. The theory was that the change would impart more “spring” to the bat and drive the ball farther. Trouble is, taint so. Drilling the bat and filling it with a lighter material reduces its weight, enabling the batter to swing it faster, but this is at least offset by the bat’s reduced mass. Further, the ball is in contact with the bat for only about 1/1,000 of a second, making any “spring” effect negligible. Prof. Adair suggests that batters could achieve the same feel by loping about ¾-inch off the ends of their bats or by choking up their grips about an inch from the handles.

Choking up on the bat? Barry Bonds, the all-time home run leader, did that, but few other players follow his example. Why is that, do you suppose?

Wednesday, April 1, 2009


In my columnizing days I had a round of important sports events I covered annually. It included the World Series, Super Bowl, NCAA Final Four, Kentucky Derby, U.S. Open golf and tennis championships and the Masters Golf Tournament. Now that I’m retired I’m sometimes asked if I miss going to any of them. I give the most-emphatic “yes” to the Masters.

The main reason I loved the event was where it was played—- the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia. The place is so beautiful they could charge admission even if they weren’t playing golf there. The grass is the greenest, pine needles soften the foot paths and the dogwood, azalea and other flowering plants are in glorious bloom during the tourney’s early-April staging.

In the odd year when the weather doesn’t cooperate, no problem-- the club picks up the phone and orders potted plants by the thousands to be arranged around its course. Those guys are so rich they think nothing of transplanting fully grown trees if they think it might improve the looks of their pampered acres.

Additionally, Augusta National treats the press well. The press center is first rate, the food is okay and everyone connected with the club is cooperative and Southern-gracious. Favored reporters (I was one) were allowed to buy (for $90 at the time) a coveted tournament pass for an accompanying friend. My wife Susie, who always made the trip with me, doesn’t care much for golf but would use it to ogle the fairway flora on opening-day Thursdays, and I’d have golf-loving pals down for the other three days. That created much good will and some nice IOUs.

But—and there’s always a “but” in pieces like these—the fly in the ointment was buzzard-sized. It was the knowledge that, once the tournament was over, I and my fellow scribes would be shooed from the club like so many aluminum-siding salesmen. I could think of several reasons that would bar me from membership, and there probably were others I wasn’t aware of. You have to be on the inside to get the full flavor of things like that.

Other golf tournaments are held at “exclusive” country clubs, but ANGC stands out even in that company. That’s because of the standing of the Masters, the prominence of many of the club’s members and the code of silence that surrounds its policies and practices. Clifford Roberts, the dour banker who founded the club in 1933 with the “Grand Slam” champion Bobby Jones, long exercised dictatorial control over every aspect of its operation, and any member who publicly questioned him could expect to see his locker emptied forthwith. Roberts died more than 30 years ago but his successors as chairman continue to exercise such authority. George Schultz, Melvin Laird and Sam Nunn spoke out forcefully on matters of national import while helping lead our great republic, but they and their fellow members keep their mouths shut when the subject is Augusta National. They shame the Mafia when it comes to observing omerta.

For most of its history ANGC closely followed a 3W (white, WASPy and wealthy) membership policy, and is men-only to boot. A dozen or so years ago, under pressure, it admitted a small handful of blacks, but it pretty much has resisted further change. The National Council of Women’s Organizations (which, its name suggests, doesn’t object to women-only groups), launched a full-frontal assault on it in 2001 and 2002, but was repulsed. ANGC may admit a woman or two some day, but in its own sweet time.

Lots of others are on the outside looking in. A few years ago USA Today published the names of the club’s 292 members along with the ages and corporate affiliations of most. Surnames can be misleading but only two could readily be identified as Jewish and just three others ended in vowels, indicating a paucity of men of Italian or Hispanic origins. Names pointing to Southern Europe, Asia or the Middle East were similarly lacking

The most-discriminated-against group besides women were men under age 40: there was just one of those, and just five under age 50, for heaven’s sake. Golf pro-ams teem with show-biz types, but no one prominent in Hollywood or the theater was on the ANGC roster. A few members listed academic affiliations but it’s safe to assume they were administrators, not profs. No artists, musicians or men of letters (much less journalists) were included. High-tech entrepeneurs also were absent, except for Bill Gates. The dominant profile was that of a 70ish WASP who made his pile lawyering, in an old-economy corporation or in one of those banks that lately have been screwing things up for all of us. It doesn’t sound like scintillating company.

There are two ways to react to this. One is to grab a picket sign and head for the ANGC gates when Masters play begins next Thursday. The other is to join Groucho Marx in declaring that we wouldn’t want to be part of any club that would have us as a member. I favor the latter course, if only because you don’t have to leave home to take it.

Sunday, March 15, 2009


Cubs’ pitcher Sean Marshall had thrown two perfect innings in an early-March spring-training game in Mesa before coming to bat in the bottom of the second inning with runners on first and second and one out. He tried to bunt the runners along but instead put the ball in play in front of home plate, allowing the catcher to start an easy double play. On his way back to the dugout, Marshall was roundly booed.

Okay, it was a bad bunt, but a barrage of boos? In a spring-training game? After the young lefty had set down six batters in order? Clearly, this is going to be an unusual Cubs’ season.

If you’ve been a Cubs’ fan for any length of time you’ve known two things. One is that your favorites are hopelessly and eternally doomed. The other is that to survive with such knowledge you have to take pleasure in small things, like the occasional victory or brilliant individual performance. Having a realistic outlook is what Cubs’ fandom is all about. Life, too, mostly.

But here we are in the year 2009 C.E.—101 years past the last Cub “world” championship—and the paradigm seems to have changed, as the eggheads would put it. The 2007 Cubs won their division and made the playoffs. Last season’s team did that and led the National League in victories (with 97) to boot. Despite our boys’ post-season swoons both years, that’s heady stuff. A period of rising expectations is at hand, and it won’t be pretty.

I’m not saying that Cub fans will become like those in, say, New York or Philly, ready to boo the Easter bunny if one of his eggs is cracked, but it could get close to that. No matter how well the team does this term it will be judged a failure if it doesn’t make it to at least the seventh game of the World Series. Every Cub strikeout with runners in scoring position will be seen as unforgivable, every error a betrayal, every two-game losing streak a disaster. Cub players had better line their caps with aluminum foil because if the going gets tough the Wrigley Field vibes will make their fillings ache.

The contrast with past attitudes will be marked. Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Ron Santo never have had to buy themselves a drink in Chicago even though the best they ever did in their long Cub careers was finish second, and never a close second at that. Heck, Jose Cardenal was a fan favorite just because of how cute his cap looked perched atop his afro (what kept it on, bobby pins?). This season will be bottom-line driven, with less wiggle room than in a worm hole.

Making things better (or worse) is the fact that the Cubs again seemed primed to do well. There are four proven veterans in their starting-pitching rotation when most other teams have two or fewer, and their eight-man lineup appears similarly well fortified. The Milwaukee Brewers, their main divisional rival the past two seasons, have lost without replacement their two top starting pitchers, and the St. Louis Cardinals, the division’s longtime masters, also are in decline. The Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds remain mired in Small-Market Hell, leaving only the Houston Astros to contend. If the Cubs can’t beat out the Astros they’ll deserve whatever obloquy they get.

But the Cubs being the Cubs, there are reasons to worry. One of their Big Four starters—Carlos “Big Baby” Zambrano—needs steam vents in his hat, and another—Rich Harden—comes stamped “Fragile” and “Remove After Five Innings.” Lou Piniella is the only man in the world who thinks Alfonso Soriano should bat leadoff, and the bullpen has been stocked largely with so-so vets acquired in the hope that one or two of them have something left.

The Cubs’ biggest off-season move was the signing of Milton Bradley—for a handsome $30 million over three years-- to fill the right-field hole that’s existed since Sammy Sosa’s 2004 departure. Bradley’s left-handed bat fills a widely perceived Cub need, and it’s hoped his “edgy” personality will make the Cubs less cuddly, but his injury history makes his availability suspect and a better word to describe his personality might be “nutsy.” In the latter regard it’s noteworthy that the main objects of his considerable wrath over a checkered career haven’t been opposing players but umpires, his own managers and—yes—fans who didn’t suitably appreciate his efforts.

The mix of the combustible Bradley and the newly critical Cub faithful could be explosive. One can easily imagine Milton having a bad day, being booed by the right-field bleacherites, and scaling the ivy to attack them.

Stay tuned. It’ll be interesting.

Sunday, March 1, 2009


I know I spend a lot of time ragging on big-time college sports, but I can’t help it. Every time I want to take a break I come across something else that’s appalling.

That’s what happened last week while I was waiting in my orthopedist’s office to get the last in the annual series of shots that keeps my right knee more or less functional. There I picked up a Sports Illustrated magazine and was introduced to Lane Kiffin, the new head football coach at the University of Tennessee.

I’d subscribed to SI for most of my life, and it’s, but let it lapse several years ago after it began editing itself primarily for ADD sufferers. But this piece, by John Ed Bradley, was meaty enough. The most remarkable thing about it was what its subject, uh, volunteered, apparently without undue prompting. When trailed by a magazine writer taking notes, most people try to put their best foot forward. Not old Lane. This guy is a piece of work, and not a pretty one.

I’d heard of Kiffin before, but sketchily. He’d made his coaching bones as an assistant to Pete Carroll at the University of Southern California, so impressing Al Davis that in 2007 he made him head coach of his NFL Oakland Raiders, when Kiffin was but 31 years old. That gig lasted one full season and first four games of last one, after which Kiffin was bounced with a cumulative 5-15 won-lost record.

Not only did Davis fire him, he also made a point of saying it was “for cause,” meaning that he wouldn’t willingly be paying what was left on Kiffin’s contract. That’s unusual. Among the things Davis called Kiffin in an all-around-unusual press conference was a liar. Davis is 79 years old, and some believe he’s a bit dotty. Even so, a stopped clock is right twice a day.

In some professions such an ouster would raise red flags, but not in coaching. Kiffin immediately jumped to the head of the college game’s “A” list and was interviewed for the top jobs at Clemson, Syracuse and Washington, among other schools. In late November he got the nod at Tennessee. That fiiine institution had just bum-rushed Phillip Fulmer, who’d sinned by posting his second losing season in 17 in Knoxville, a span in which he’d won almost 75% of his games (152 of 204), taken teams to 15 post-season bowls and won the 1998 national championship.

Kiffin’s Tennessee salary arrangement, as outlined in SI, is worth noting. Despite his youth (he’s 33 now) and meager credentials the magazine said he might have vaulted immediately to near the top of the head-coaching pay scale in the Southeastern Conference—the $4 million that Alabama’s Nick Saban makes annually—but instead accepted a mere $2 million per with a higher-than-usual allowance for assistant coaches’ salaries. Among the assistants he lured with this lucre were ones from LSU, South Carolina and Mississippi State, Tennessee’s rivals in the SEC crab bucket. Then he crowed publicly about “stealing” the opposition’s “best guys,” calling it “addition by subtraction.” So much for collegiality among gridiron foes.

Once he’d hired the aides, though, Kiffin canned the compliments and moved several into the temporary living quarters he’d taken so he could personally enforce the 5:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. workdays he demands. “I don’t have to be their buddy,” he told Bradley. “I don’t have time to watch some TV show with them.”

There’s no doubt Tennessee is getting a hard workin’ man for its money. When he took his new job in November Kiffin left his wife and two young children in California. He’s visited them but once since-- for the birth of child number three in January. While he was present in body, however, his mind was elsewhere. “I was in labor and Lane was in the room with me, but he was on the phone the whole time,” his wife, Layla, told SI. “I’m having the baby and he’s recruiting.”

If it’s any consolation to Layla, Kiffin treats others worse. When he returned to Knoxville from California the person who was supposed to pick him up at the airport was 25 minutes late. Kiffin said the first thing he did when he got to his office was fire the man who’d sent the tardy driver. “Here’s the point: We need to win,” he explained. “That was 25 minutes that Nick Saban and Urban Meyer [the Florida head coach] had that I lost because somebody was late picking me up at the airport.”

He showed similar regard for members of the university’s athletics-department support staff he inherited. “You can’t count the number of people we’ve run off because they couldn’t keep up, and I’m including secretaries,” he bragged. “They had to go because they weren’t going to make it, and they knew it.”

There was more along the same lines in the article, but you get the idea. My guess is that Kiffin differs from most of his big-time-coaching colleagues more in style than in substance, but that’s difference enough. I don’t much care about the SEC, but from now on I’m rooting for one S.O.B. there to lose

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Sunday, February 15, 2009


They play the NBA All-Star game in Phoenix today (2/15), and some of you might have noticed something about the rosters of the teams that are contesting it. Of the 24 players involved—the best of the world’s best basketball league—20 are African-Americans and four are natives of other countries, specifically China, Germany, Spain and France. No Americans of the Caucasian persuasion are represented.

If you did notice that you probably refrained from mentioning it in any open forum. Public observations on the racial makeup of our more-prominent sports teams and leagues aren’t much circulated these days; at best you can be labeled a racist jerk for making them and at worst you can lose your job, as my late pal Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder did some years back.

Still, something definitely is up, and it deserves comment. I confess that race in sports is a subject I didn’t much tackle in my Wall Street Journal columnizing days, when I had two million readers instead of fewer than 200. I did this both out of caution and for reasons I thought were principled.

I recall particularly my coverage of the 1987 NFL playoffs, when the African-American Doug Williams was leading the Washington Redskins to the Super Bowl title. The strongest story line of the period was the novelty of a black quarterback in a Super Bowl-contending role. I consciously avoided the tack, reasoning that even to mention it would support the belief that such a feat should be considered remarkable at that late date. My editors on the Journal’s op-ed page disagreed and, after the game, ran a contributor’s piece celebrating Williams’ blackness. I considered that to be pandering, but maybe I was wrong.

Anyway, the main reason the subject is avoided is that it inevitably hinges on theories about the “natural” superiority of one race over another in athletics in general and quick-burst sports such as basketball and sprinting in particular. “Bar-room” science is full of these, generally holding that, by virtue of millennia of fighting or fleeing ferocious animals in Africa, and surviving the rigors of slavery on these shores, American blacks have it all over whites genetically in terms of size, speed, strength and other athletically useful traits.

Some black bar-room denizens second these views but don’t often press them publicly for fear of devaluing the dedication and hard work that their racial brethren put into high-level athletic achievement. Still, the idea of the racial “edge” has worked its way into American culture through such as the movie title “White Men Can’t Jump” and the nickname “White Chocolate” that was affixed to ex-NBAer Jason Williams because he had “moves” whites weren’t supposed to possess. Getting beat by an “Opie,” the stereotypical white kid personified by the Ron Howard character in the old TV sitcom “Mayberry RFD,” is said to be a disgrace in black athletic circles.

Trouble is, real evidence to support claims of black athletic superiority is lacking. Many of the older studies in the field were, simply, hokum, while others failed to take into account such obvious factors as diet and the quality of available health care. The few seemingly solid physiological differences that have been uncovered amount to a pinch of testosterone here or a centimeter of muscle or bone there, hardly enough to account for black domination of entire sports. Those wishing to pursue this subject might read the book “Darwin’s Athletes,” by John Hoberman. The title is meant to be ironic.

Further, one needn’t be much of a sports historian to recall white American basketballers like Jerry West, Larry Bird, John Stockton and Bob Cousy, who had both “hops” and “chops.” The growing European presence in the NBA further debunks racial myths. Maybe the “blackest” player ever in terms of on-court flair and showmanship was a white guy, Pete Maravich.

Evolution doesn’t move fast enough to erase whatever DNA produced “Pistol” Pete, but today’s American white kids don’t seem moved to explore their capacities. One only can conclude that the idea of the black “edge” has become a self-fulfilling prophesy that discourages young whites from competing seriously in some sports, to their detriment.

More injurious has been the African-American community’s response. The athletic chauvinism that exists there has encouraged several generations of boys to grow up believing that to show physical prowess is to be “black” while to succeed academically—or even to pay attention in school—is to “act white.” The unrealism of many young blacks’ “hoop dreams” is seen in the statistic that 90 people in this land are killed by lightning in the average year while only 50 or so join the NBA as rookies. One must hope that the “smart is cool” message new-President Obama exudes will resonate.