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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