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.

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