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.