Tuesday, December 14, 2010


Baseball doesn’t like to be reminded of its bungling of the steroids issue, but it will be during next few weeks, and even more around this time the next few years. That’s because December is when Hall of Fame ballots go out to members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America for consideration of the following year’s potential inductees. By virtue of my 10-plus years of active membership during my columnizing days, I’m one of them, and get to vote. It’s one of my few remaining distinctions.

On the current ballot for the first time is Rafael Palmiero, who normally would be a shoo-in for the Hall. In his 20 seasons (1986-2005) with the Cubs, Rangers and Orioles, the first baseman and outfielder exceeded two of the statistical milestones that used to guarantee the game’s version of immortality: 3,000 hits (he had 3,020) and 500 home runs (569). He also was adept enough afield to have received several Golden Glove awards, a nice cherry on his sundae.

Raffy’s name, however, was raised by steroids whistle-blowers during the latter years of his career, so much so that he was called to testify at the broader Congressional hearing into the matter in March, 2005. There, loudly and in no uncertain terms, he said it wasn’t so.

Absent other evidence the denial might have earned him a pass on the issue, but in August of that year, as an Oriole, he tested positive for steroids and was suspended from the game for 10 days. Since he’d already established his legend by that time, getting busted marked him as a dope as well as a doper. Further, the substance that turned up in his urine sample was the potent anabolic stanozolol—real weight-lifter stuff—indicating that he was no mere dabbler in the arcane drug-taking art.

But dopers (or dopes) aren’t excluded from the Hall ballot, so Palmiero is one of 19 first-time nominees in this year’s go-round, and it will be up to us scribes or ex-scribes to make the judgment about his place in the sport’s history. This passing of the buck is all too typical of Major League Baseball, which delayed putting teeth in its anti-steroids rules until 2005, more than a decade after it had been established that use of the drugs was widespread and had definitively altered the way the game was being played.

Thus, baseball deserves the bad ink it will get, and this will increase in future Decembers when the likes of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa appear on the ballot. Unlike Raffy’s, the cases against those guys are circumstantial, but that only ensures a livelier and seamier debate. Swell, huh?

In case you haven’t figured it out, I won’t be making Palmeiro one of my 10 permissible Hall choices in this or probably any other year. Ditto for 17 of the other first-timers, most of whom won’t be admitted to the Cooperstown, N.Y., shrine without a ticket. I gave serious attention to just four of them—Jeff Bagwell, John Franco, John Olerud and Larry Walker—and voted only for the relief-pitcher Franco, whose 424 career saves are fourth all-time and first among left handers. Also in Franco’s favor was his 1.88 earned run average and 2-0 record in 15 post-season appearances, all with the Mets, and the fact that he didn’t allow an earned run in four appearances in the 2000 World Series, the only one in which he competed. The guy got ‘em out when it counted.

The other players I’m voting for I’ve also supported in the past. Roberto Alomar, the best second-baseman of his era (1988-2004), came within a few votes of being elected as a first-timer last year, and probably would have been if not for the 1996 incident in which he spit on umpire John Hirschbeck during a home-plate dispute. He and Hirschbeck made up soon afterward, and the year’s delay in Alomar’s election seems more than adequate further penance.

Also likely to be elected with my help, in his 14th year (of a permissible 15) on the writers’ ballot, is Bert Blyleven, the old Twins’ pitcher. A fellow who was good but not great for most of a very long time (22 seasons), Blyleven was an acquired taste for me, but I finally decided that his 3,701 career strikeouts, fifth on the all-time list, was an achievement worthy of honor, not to mention his 287 victories.

I’m partial to shortstops, who usually are the best athletes on any baseball field, and voted for two of them--the Tigers’ Alan Trammell and the Reds’ Barry Larkin. Both excelled at the plate as well as at their demanding position.

I voted for Edgar Martinez, the longtime designated hitter; even though I’m not crazy about the DH, it’s here to stay and nobody ever handled it better than he. I voted for Lee Smith, a dominant reliever with several teams over 18 seasons

My last choice wasn’t last in any other sense. He’s Jack Morris, the right-handed pitcher, and I can’t figure out why he’s never been mentioned on more than last year’s 52% of the ballots in his 11 years up for election. (It takes 75% to get in.)

Morris won 254 games in his 18 seasons (1977-94) and his 58% victory record has few betters. Even though he pitched at a time when quick hooks were coming into vogue, he completed 175 of his 527 starts. His 162 wins were the most for any Major League pitcher during the 1980s. He was great for the Tigers in the 1984 World Series and better yet for the Twins in their epic victory over the Braves in the 1991 event.

He had one of baseball’s best mustaches, ever. Even though he was from Minnesota, the Coen brothers could have cast him in “True Grit.”

Who could ask for more?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


The parsons of the press box have been working overtime of late, raising weighty questions that impinge upon our enjoyment of the world of fun and games.

How, for instance, should we regard the renewed gridiron brilliance of Michael Vick, the quarterback notorious for his crimes against the canine species? Should we cringe at the prospect of an ex-con becoming an NFL MVP, as do some ink-stained moralists?

Does Tiger Woods’ dismal play over the past year reflect divine retribution for his taste in women? And how about Brett Favre, the renowned good guy and family man --a grandfather, for heaven’s sake!-- propositioning a female New York Jets’ employee during his 2008 season in the Big Apple? Should it at least cost him a jeans’ commercial?

During my columnizing days I took a pass on most such issues, partly because my newspaper generally ignored transgressions of the flesh and partly because I had few illusions about the character of many of the men whose athletic exploits we follow. On an aesthetic level, I have no problem separating the art from the artist and can, say, enjoy a Wagner opera even though the composer was an anti-Jewish putz. Further, no one who has passed a stadium players’ entrance after a big-league game of any sort can doubt the sorry state of monogamy in jockland

However (there’s always a “however”), I confess to being intrigued about the low esteem in which the marvelously talented LeBron James has been held since his July decision to exercise his free-agent rights and, along with fellow free-agent Chris Bosh, jump from the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers to join already-there star Dwayne Wade with the Miami Heat.

Cheers used to follow LeBron wherever he went. Now boos do, and not just from the fans of the team he jilted. The outfit that publishes the “Q Score” popularity ratings puts him on its short list of most-disliked current-day athletes, right up there with the aforementioned Vick and Woods and the blatant me-first guys Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco, of football fame. James is a bonafide public enemy, and if he’s not No. 1 (Vick is) he’s close.

What’s up here, anyway? As far as I know, James has committed no crimes, and his domestic situation (two kids by his “girlfriend”) is par for the course among big-time athletes. If he’s been playing in the bimbo league his partners have yet to reveal themselves to the tabs.

The manner in which he announced his decision to change teams—on an over-hyped and overblown prime-time “special” on ESPN—certainly weighs against him, but he’s a young guy (he’ll turn 26 on Dec. 30) who’s never been to college, so I chalk that one up against his advisors, who should have known better.

Public statements surrounding his move fanned the flames. Cavs’ owner Dan Gilbert’s idiotic rant, in which he called the player “callous,” “selfish,” “heartless” and “cowardly,” among other things, fit into that category. So did James’ own assertion that he was moving primarily because he wanted “to be able to win championships.” Fact is, the Cavs were a good team for most of his seven-season tenure in Cleveland, and made the NBA finals in 2007, so he just as well could have accomplished that by staying. If he’d merely said “Where would you rather work—Miami or Cleveland?” he would have gotten a laugh, and some sympathy.

James has opined that his race has been a factor in the reaction against him, and he’s right—it always is in such matters. But he also was black when he was lionized. The mediocre play of the James-Wade-Bosh Heat has subjected him to criticism, but that followed the furor over his signing and, thus, couldn’t have contributed to it.

Alas for LeBron, his sin isn’t in any book, or easily atoned. It’s against our sense of fandom and taps the unease many have felt since the advent of player free agency. Most of us root for the teams we do for reasons beyond reason or, sometimes, even understanding. Fairly early in life we form an attachment to a team, usually one based in or near a city where we live, and that’s it—we’re stuck with it forever. We can no more change it than we can our skin color, shoe size or other intrinsic attribute. Perversely, failure can strengthen the bond; otherwise, no one would be a Cubs’ fan.

Our allegiance is to the name on our team’s jerseys, not to the players who wear them, and it can blind us to the inequities our team sports perpetrate in the name of competitive balance. If when we left college we’d been told we’d been drafted by, say, a newspaper or accounting firm in Fargo, ND, and had to work for it for several years before thinking of going elsewhere, we’d have called a lawyer, but we smilingly accept it when jocks are so treated.

It’s OK for teams to trade players, whether or not they want to be traded. It’s also OK for the New York Yankees to flex their wallet and sign just about anyone they desire; that’s what teams do and we only wish ours could. But woe be unto the player who picks the team he wants to play for and –horrors!—persuades another good player to join him. Where does he get off doing that?

I mean, it’s downright UnAmerican!

Well, it should be.

HOLIDAY NOTE—‘Tis the season for giving gifts, and I have a recommendation for some really nifty ones. They’re my books in the “For the Love of…” series, published by Triumph Books, wonderfully illustrated by Mark Anderson and suitable for fans of all ages. Titles include the baseball Cubs, Yanks, Mets, Red Sox, Cardinals and Tigers, baseball Hall of Famers, golfing greats, the Green Bay Packers, Ohio State Buckeyes and Georgia Bulldogs. To check them out, click on the Triumph Books or amazon.com links above.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


The Valley of the Sun, which is what Chamber of Commerce types like to call the Phoenix area, has four seasons like most other places, but they’re different from those elsewhere.

Early Summer is the March-April period, when daytime-high temperatures start in the 70s and end in the 90s. It’s our equivalent of spring. Real Summer begins in May and lasts through September. It starts hot and gets hotter, with the later months featuring uncomfortably high humidity (carried on southern winds) as well as daily triple-digit readings. Except for sun-deprived Northern Europeans, visitors generally stay away during these months, and Phoenicians who can head out.

Late Summer is October and November, during which daily highs fall from the 90s to the 70s—the opposite of Early Summer. Winter, as it were, is December, January and February-- highs in the 60s, lows in the 40s. It’s really cold at this time Up North, so it’s the main tourist season. You can spot the outlanders because they wear shorts and t-shirts, while the locals have their parkas on, zipped up.

Late Summer is my favorite season. The air is dry, the sky is blue and while it’s warm the sting has gone out of the heat. Better, it’s time for Arizona Fall League baseball. From early October until late-middle November, young professional players cavort in the spring-training ballparks around the area in a kind of pick-up league with nothing at stake except the day’s final score and (of course) their individual stats. It’s baseball at its purist, shorn of the hassle and hype that surround the diamond sport during regular-season hostilities.

If you follow this space you probably know the Fall League’s nuts and bolts, but I’ll zip through them anyway. Six teams, each with 35-man rosters, play 32-game schedules. Each of the 30 Major League clubs chips in seven promising players, mostly Class-A or –AAers but with a few AAAs and young Major Leaguers in need of innings added for good measure.

Tickets are cheap-- $6 for adults and $5 for seniors—and you can park right in front of the stadiums, free. Attendance usually runs between 200 and 300 people a game. This includes about 50 scouts, a dozen or so predatory baseball-card-autograph seekers and about the same number of players’ girl friends, who add charm to the proceedings. Most of the rest are retired guys like me, with nothing better to do.

It’s a great scene. You can sit where you want and spread out into adjoining seats and rows. If you’d like to share your opinions with the players, umpires and other fans, just raise your voice a notch. Indeed, the audience is part of the show, especially Superfan Susan, a solid, 50ish blonde who regularly sits behind the Scottsdale Scorpions’ dugout and, in a high-decibel baritone, pours praise upon the Scorps with cries like “UNBELIEVABLE!” “AWESOME!” “OUTSTANDING!” and “BEST IN THE UNIVERSE!”

She does the same thing during the regular season at Diamondbacks’ home games. Some people smirk at her antics, but I smile because she’s always upbeat and so obviously pleased with herself.

The real fun at Fall League games is talent-scouting, something most of us fans think we’re pretty good at. Most of the players are in the 21-to-24-year-old age range, and two or three years from the Bigs, but most seasons a few are such standouts that it doesn’t take a Paul Krichell to see that they’ll excel On High, and soon. In that category of late have been the Tampa Bay Rays’ third-baseman Evan Longoria, Atlanta Braves’ pitcher Tommy Hanson, Chicago Cubs’ shortstop Starlin Castro and Washington Nationals’ pitcher Stephen Strasburg.

This year the main focus of attention has been on Bryce Harper, the Nevadan who, as the top choice in last June’s draft, commanded a five-year, $9.9 million contract from the Nationals. At 18 years old he’s the second-youngest Fall Leaguer ever, and has done only part-time duty with the Scorpions, but I saw him play Wednesday afternoon in front of a larger-than-usual crowd in the Peoria ballpark. He went 2-for-5 at the plate, with the two hits being triples, one to right field and the other to left-center. Moreover, his cannon throw from deep right field to third base trying to catch a tagging runner drew oooohs even though its target slid in safely.

At 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds Harper is a big boy, and has a powerful, left-handed batting swing. He’ll probably start next season at Class A and not be brought to the big club until 2012, earliest. Still, it’s easy to see what the Nats, et al, saw in him.

There are other good-looking prospects here, although none has shone as brightly as the young men listed above. Ben Revere is a little (5-9, 175) outfielder from the Minnesota Twins chain who can hit some and run a lot. Brandon Belt, a 6-foot-5 first-baseman belonging to the San Francisco Giants, hits for power and has a great baseball name.

The Chicago White Sox have a quick, switch-hitting Venezuelan shortstop named Eduardo Escobar who can do it all; he went 3-for-5 with a couple of doubles when I saw him the other day, and his two outs were hard hit. Brandon Barnes, an outfielder in the Houston Astros’ system, last week hit a home run that cleared a 30-foot-high centerfield backdrop 410 feet from home plate, a drive than had to measure at least 440 feet end to end. Yeah, the wind was blowing out, but the blast still was Mantlesque..

That’s the great thing about baseball-- you never know what you’ll see when you go to a game. Early Summer, Real Summer or Late Summer.

Monday, November 1, 2010


So much of the high-level sports competition we watch is extraordinary that we come to expect it and often don’t remark about it when it happens. That’s why I want to tip you off about a coming event that’s sure to produce something truly memorable.

I refer to the Breeders Cup Classic, the annual highlight of Saturday’s Breeders Cup card that’s regarded as the world’s championship of Thoroughbred horse racing. In the field will be Zenyatta, a 6-year-old bay mare who’ll be trying to repeat her winning performance in last year’s race. She’s undefeated in 19 career starts, an unprecedented achievement. Saturday’s outing is likely to be her last, and your last chance to see her in action. Better do it while you can.

A heads-up is necessary because, these days, horse racing gets about as much Sports Center time or sports-page ink as volleyball or water polo. ‘Twasn’t always so; in the first half of the last century the erstwhile Sport of Kings ranked with baseball and boxing as America’s favorite sporting interests.

You might be interested to know that this nation’s first sports superstar was equine, not human. Dan Patch, a record-setting pacer (a horse that pulls a buggy), wowed ‘em on the state-fair circuit in the first decade of the 1900s, regularly drawing paying crowds of upwards of 100,000 people for his races. Tens of thousands of folks would come just to watch him work out. Products were named after him, starting with things like animal feed and harness and branching into cigarettes, chewing tobacco, a soft drink and a washing machine, among other items. “The Great” Dan’s owners were said to have reaped some $13 million from him before he died in 1916, a barn-full of money in those days.

In today’s urban society, of course, one rarely encounters horses, and being a serious fan of their endeavors is the sort of scholarly pursuit that’s no longer in vogue. I’m a Saturday regular at the horse book at Turf Paradise race track in Phoenix, and, at 72, I think I bring down the average age of the clientele. It’s occurred to me that in 15 or so years just about all of us will be gone, and few replacements are in sight.

But you don’t have to be a Racing Form nerd to appreciate Zenyatta. For starts, her perfect record is unmatched in racing’s long history, the closest to it being Man o’ War’s 20 wins in 21 starts during his brief, long-ago career (1919-20). By contrast, Citation, another contender for greatest-ever honors, was 32 of 45, Secretariat was 16 of 21 and the late-blooming Seabiscuit was 33 of 88. Furthermore, 14 of Zenyatta’s wins have come at the Grade I level, the sports highest. That’s a record for fillies and mares (a filly becomes a mare, and a colt a horse, at age 5), as are her lifetime earnings of $6.4 million.

Zenyatta’s sex also plays a role in her singularity. Unlike in humans, physiological differences between male and female horses for purposes of running aren’t great, and, indeed, Zenyatta is both taller and heavier than was the famously muscular Secretariat. But while it’s not unheard of for a gal to beat the guys in horse-racing classics, it is highly unusual. For instance, only 39 fillies have started in the Kentucky Derby’s 136 runnings, and just three have won, the last being Winning Colors in 1988. Similarly, Zenyatta’s victory in last year’s Breeders Cup Classic was the first for her sex since the event was inaugurated in 1984.

Lastly, Zenyatta’s running style is the sort most people love to watch. She’ll trail the field most of the way, seemingly out of it, then charge down the home stretch to pass all and sundry. Her 2009 Breeders Cup win, against an otherwise all-male (and quite accomplished) field, fit this mold. Check it out on web video; I get a chill every time I see it.

It wouldn’t be a racing story without a screw-up element, and this one’s is large. Last year’s racing co-sensation was another freakishly fast female, the filly Rachel Alexandra. She beat top-flight colts several times en route to a triumphant season that culminated with her edging Zenyatta in Horse-of-the-Year voting. Rachel’s owners, however, ended her campaign before the Breeders Cup, so the two didn’t meet.

A Zenyatta-Rachel match race this year would have drawn a national and even worldwide spotlight racing sorely needs and rarely gets. Unfortunately, but typically, the doofusses who run the sport couldn’t or wouldn’t make it happen. Rachel returned to the track but never quite matched her 2009 form and wound up being retired in September, still never having faced Zenyatta..

So the best we can do is watch Zenyatta take on the boys again in Saturday’s Classic, with a total purse of $5 million at stake, but that’s okay. History will be made, and you should take the opportunity to be there, if only via TV.

Don’t wait for the movie.

Thursday, October 14, 2010


There are, the joke goes, three things every man thinks he can do better than anyone else: build a fire, run a restaurant and manage a baseball team. I’m not sure about the truth of the first two of those, but the last is beyond dispute.

Just about all of us guys have played baseball at some point in our lives, and feel that the knowledge gleaned thereby transfers easily to the highest level of the game. Silly as that sounds, the repeated evidence of our senses makes it plausible. Again and again we sit before our TV screens, urging our team’s manager to do or not do something, then see him come to grief when he goes against our wishes.

That’s particularly true if you’re a Cubs’ fan, by the way.

Now, it seems, we might get our chance to prove our mettle. No less than 10 Major League teams have had managerial openings since the recent end of the regular season, and while three have been filled (by the Dodgers, Diamondbacks and Braves), seven remain—with the Cubs, Mets, Brewers, Pirates, Mariners, Blue Jays and Marlins—and more could follow. That’s quite a help-wanted list in these job-tight days, and if the lineup of applicants is long it’s surely no longer than that for many less-interesting positions.

Go ahead and send in your application. It couldn’t hurt.

Don’t feel deterred by a lack of baseball smarts, because they’re more common that you might think. Plenty of people inside and outside the professional game know full well when to bunt, steal, hit and run, squeeze, pitch out, change pitchers and do all the other managerial stuff, even the super-difficult double-switch. Most of us easily can do what the ex-pitcher Bill Lee considered the job’s most-frequent duties, namely “sitting on your ass, spitting tobacco and nodding at stupid things.”

Managerial candidates need some positive attributes, of course. One is locker room “cred,” which is helpful in gaining players’ attention. A common way to get this is by having had a good Major League playing career. Two of the fellas who’ve landed managerial jobs of late—Kirk Gibson with the Diamondbacks and Don Mattingly with the Dodgers— qualify on that ground.

But there are other roads to the same destination. Baseball’s is a male society where physical strength and pugnacity are respected, and some of the best managers of yore could go nose-to-nose with players 30 years their junior and not come off second best. Walter Alston, Chuck Tanner, Ralph Houk and Frank Robinson were said to excel in that category, as does the Angels’ Mike Scioscia among present-day skippers.

Billy Martin was in a class by himself here. “A lot of people looked up to Billy. That’s because he’d just knocked them down,” noted Jim Bouton, the ex-Yankee pitcher and author.

If you’re a little guy, nastiness can fill the same purpose. “He cussed so awful last year I didn’t want to sit next to him,” Orioles’ pitcher Scott McGregor once said of his famously diminutive and cantankerous manager, Earl Weaver. “The Lord was going to strike him dead if he kept talking like that and I didn’t want to be there when it happened.”

Communications skills help, too, but not in the usual business way. A manager may have wisdom to impart but conveying it to players whose minds are likely to be elsewhere can be difficult. This was true back in The Great McGraw’s day. “One per cent of ballplayers are leaders of men,” he lamented. “The other 99 per cent are followers of women.” Decades later Mayo Smith averred, “Open up a ballplayer’s head and you know what you’d find? A lot of little broads and a jazz band.”

Substitute “rock band” and you’re right up to date.

One thing some players have no trouble concentrating on is their manager, and why they don’t like him. This requires manipulative skill on his part. “The secret to managing a club is to keep the five players who hate you away from the five who are undecided,” Casey Stengel said.

Like in any field, a manager has bosses who must be placated. “Me and my owners think exactly alike,” Jim Fregosi said. “Whatever they’re thinking, that’s what I’m thinking.” Support from your team’s fans can’t be expected; as the football coach Duffy Daugherty put it, “Coaches are responsible to an irresponsible public.”

You live or die not by your own efforts but by those of others. Job security hardly exists--“If you’re looking for job security, drive a mail truck,” said Alvin Dark—and even relative success is no guarantee of continued employment. “They get tired of seeing you. Really, that’s all it is,” said Sparky Anderson.

Still want the job? Sure you do, so you’d better hurry. The line forms on the left.

Friday, October 1, 2010


NEWS—Derek Jeter fakes being hit by a pitch. Gets away with it!

VIEWS-- On September 16, in a road game against the Tampa Bay Rays, Ray’s pitcher Chad Qualls threw inside to the New York Yankees’ Jeter, who spun away from the plate as though the ball had struck him. He was awarded first base by umpire Lance Barksdale.

Videos clearly showed that it was Jeter’s bat that was struck, not his person. Jeter later admitted as much. An uproar ensued, partly because of Jeter’s good-guy reputation and partly because Jeter rhymes so nicely with “cheater.” One website I saw took a poll and 57.5% of those responding said they thought the Yankee captain had sinned, while the rest thought that his “acting” was a legitimate part of baseball.

As usual, the majority is wrong. Getting away with what you can, and pretending to be in the right no matter what the circumstances, are time-honored parts of all our major team sports. While golfers and tennis players descend from a “gentlemanly” tradition and are expected to call fouls on themselves, the base runner who, say, knows he was tagged out but still is called “safe” while advancing would risk his teammates’ scorn and an umpire’s rebuke should he offer an immediate confession.

That’s okay because sports are considered to be little worlds unto themselves, subject to their own customs, and as long as no one gets hurt one should be able to follow them without being seen as dishonorable in the society at large. Remember that the team-sport model—not golf’s and tennis’s—prevails in the broader community. When’s the last time you sent the state a check because you found yourself speeding and no cop was around to ticket you?

NEWS—The Chicago Cubs’ Tyler Colvin is hospitalized after being speared by a piece of a teammate’s broken maple bat while on the third-base line. Baseball continues to “study” the bats issue.

VIEWS—Bats have been exploding all over the Major Leagues since maple, shorter-grained and more brittle than traditional ash, became the game’s wood of choice a decade or so ago. Flying-bat injuries have been numerous, including ones to fans, umpires and coaches as well as players. Several of them have been scary but none more so than Colvin’s, with the bat splinter puncturing his left upper chest and threatening to pierce his lung. He was released from the hospital three days after the September 20 incident in Miami, but the rookie’s season was declared over.

Baseball’s response was the same as it’s always been--“we’re studying it.” That’s what it says when it wants to wish a problem away. Truth is, the players union is as much to blame as the commissioner’s office, because many of its members like maple bats’ combination of hardness and light weight. That’s the same sort of shortsightedness the union displayed for all the years it opposed steroids’ testing on privacy rounds, forcing players to make the Faustian choice of endangering their long-term health for the short-term performance gains steroids can bring.

A few inches up and Colvin might have caught the projectile in his neck. A few inches down and it might have found his heart. Alas, it looks like that’s what it will take to get baseball’s head out of the sand on this one.

NEWS—The Arizona Diamondback’s Mark Reynolds could be the first every-day player whose strikeout number is higher than his batting average for a season.

VIEWS-- Reynolds, the D’Backs’ third baseman, has been my least-favorite ballplayer these past few seasons. That’s partly because he epitomizes the careless, swing-for-the-fences ethos that infects many players today. Just as bad, when he’s asked about his proclivity to whiff, he answers with a rhetorical shrug. That’s his style, he says, in effect. Live with it.

The D’Backs do because he hits more home runs than most, but while power hitters often strike out a lot the not untalented but muscle-headed Mark has taken the negative side of the equation to new heights, or depths. In the 107 years that began the modern game, no player ever struck out 200 or more times in a season. Reynolds did it with 204 in 2008, his first full year up, then upped his record to 223 the next season. So far this year he’s fanned 208 times, bringing his career total to 764 in 2,238 total times at bat. That’s an atrocious once every 2.9 trips.

And while he’s hit 32 home runs this season, his current batting average is.198. That’s below .200-- the so-called Mendoza Line which is the game’s bench mark for ineptitude. It’s named for Mario Mendoza, the utility infielder who dipped below it several times in his nine seasons (1974-82) with Pittsburgh, Seattle or Texas. But Mendoza made his living with his glove, while Reynolds, erratic afield, can’t claim distinction there.

About the only ameliorating factor for Reynolds is that many of his teammates are almost as bad as he is. Five of them have more than 100 Ks so far this season, and with 1,495 of them all told as of yesterday the D’Backs already have set an all-time team swish record, by about a furlong. Strung together that’s enough outs for 55 complete games—more than one-third of a season-- without making contact.

This week the genius who covers the D’Backs for the Arizona Republic did a piece seeking the reasons for their last-place divisional standing and 95 losses to date. He concluded, with player quotes for support, that a “losing mentality” was to blame.

Losing mentality? Maybe, but hitting the ball more often wouldn’t have hurt.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


One of the good things about life these days (the list is shrinking) is Major League Baseball’s Extra Innings package, which for $160 puts on my cable-TV menu just about every ballgame that’s televised anywhere-- more than 2,000 over the course of a season.

That works out to about 12 cents a game, a bargain by any measure. While my viewing is heavily tilted towards the Chicago Cubs and White Sox, my 1 and 1A favorite teams, I’ll sometimes skip around of an evening, watching a couple innings of this contest and a couple of that. That’s particularly true at this time of year, when the pennant and wild-card races are being decided. It puts me into baseball in a way that’s not possible otherwise, something for which I’m grateful.

Extra Innings also has enabled me to listen to most of the broadcasters of the day, a mixed blessing. I’m sorry to report that the state of their art is less than brilliant, consisting mostly of generic TV voices, unreflective homerism and incessant complaining about how the umpires are screwing the broadcasters’ teams. If I didn’t watch most games with half an eye, depending on the broadcasters’ vocal inflections to determine when to look up from my crossword puzzles, I’d turn off the sound altogether.

Part of my problem with today’s baseball voices no doubt stems from my being spoiled in that regard early in life. The first games I heard, on radio, were described by Bert Wilson, the Cubs’ announcer of the 1940s and early ‘50s. Wilson was a blatant homer whose signature line was “I don’t care who wins as long as it’s the Cubs,” but that was okay with my pre-teen and teen selves, which saw baseball just that way. Wilson died of a heart attack while still in his prime, something I blame on the frustrations of having to watch the terrible Cub teams of his later years. I still mourn him.

In 1955, the year of poor Bert’s demise, I went off to college at the U. of Illinois in downstate Champaign-Urbana. There, on St. Louis station KMOX, I was introduced to the jolly, raspy voice of Harry Caray, then the Cardinals’ broadcaster. I hated it when he mouthed the gloating line “the Cardinals are coming tra-la, tra-la” when the Redbirds surged, but came to love him in similar poses in Chicago, both with the White Sox (1971 –81) and Cubs, for whom he held forth from 1982 until his death in 1998.

Harry also was a homer, but his favoritism was that of a fan, not a shill; nothing quite matched the derision in his voice when he’d say “Heeeee popped it up!” after a Cub or Sox player failed with runners in scoring position. He exuded bonhomie, and, after spending an evening with him on Rush Street in the ‘80s, I can attest it was no pose. I also can tell you that his drink of choice was scotch and soda, not the beer he was paid to hawk.

I lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1961 and ’62, when Ernie Harwell was breaking in as the Detroit Tigers’ voice. No one made baseball sound friendlier or more welcoming.

I worked in Pittsburgh from 1963 until mid-1966, where I got to listen to the great Bob Prince. No one made baseball more fun than “The Gunner,” so nicknamed not for any rapid-fire delivery, as many supposed, but because an irate husband once approached him weapon in hand while Prince was chatting up the guy’s wife in a bar. I could do a whole column on Prince. Maybe someday I will.

I lived in New York from mid 1966 into '69 and loved it when Phil Rizzuto would get so wrapped up in one of his goofy stories that he’d miss entire half-innings of the Yankees’ games he called. Rizzuto made scorekeeping history with his notation “ww”—for “wasn’t watching”— which he used for players’ turns at bat he missed.

Next to those giants, most of today’s broadcasters look small. You can’t tell one from another from their voices, their homerism grates rather than amuses, and if you removed the words “incredible” and “unbelievable” from their vocabularies, they hardly could speak. The other day I was watching a Detroit telecast of a Tigers-White Sox game when, in the drowsy second inning of a 0-0 game, Tiger pitcher Max Scherzer slipped a slider past a Sox hitter for a called second strike. “What a pitch! Unbelievable!” cried the Tigers’ announcer, Mario Impemba. “Wow!” chimed in his sidekick, Dan Dickerson.

“Unbelievable!” and “Wow!” for a strike two in a nothing situation? What do those jokers say when something really exceptional happens? Would they know it if they saw it?

This is not to say that all of today’s broadcasters, uh, suck. Jon Miller, who does the San Francisco Giants’ and ESPN national games, is concise and witty, and a nice counterpoint to his peevish ESPN partner, ex-player Joe Morgan. The L.A. Dodgers’ Vin Scully does a radio broadcast on TV but brings it off with his fine phrasing and elocution. The New York Mets’ Ron Darling is an able analyst, destined for bigger things on the tube

Far and away the most-interesting guy out there, though, is Ken Harrelson, the White Sox’s voice for most of the last 30 years. I have to admit that “The Hawk” is an acquired taste. He’s an awful umpiring whiner and was something of a bully with previous broadcasting partners Tom Paciorek and Darrin Jackson, although his present sidekick, the astute and acerbic Steve Stone, doesn’t let him get away with that. Every other word out of Harrelson’s mouth is a catch-phrase; how many “duck snorts” or “chopper two-hoppers” can you take in a nine-inning game, dadgummit?

Yet much of his shtick is funny and his enthusiasm for the game is infectious. One Saturday afternoon last month I was in a South Lake Tahoe sports book, playing the horses, while an Oakland A’s- Tampa Bay Rays game was running in an adjacent TV lounge. An A’s player hit a home run and two young men—apparently locals in a town that roots for Bay Area teams—arose as one and emitted Hawk’s signature cry, “You can put it on the board, YES!”

I had to laugh, as did everyone else within earshot. And you don’t often see such lines migrate in this era of parochial tastes and interests.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


I’ve never paid much attention to the awarding of the Heisman Trophy, given to the young man voted best college football player for a particular season. Begun in 1935 as an exercise in self-promotion by the Downtown Athletic Club, a now-defunct Manhattan men’s club, it honors individual performance in the quintessential team sport, and is more a product of hype than anything else.

Like many things in our culture, it’s gotten more objectionable as it’s gotten bigger, with the ESPN program that announces its awarding resembling nothing so much as a cheesy game show (“And the winner is….”). Caring who gets it is a sure sign that something’s lacking in your life.

However (and you knew there’d be a “however”), I have a candidate for this year’s award-- Ricky Dobbs of Navy. Not only was he the best and most exciting collegiate player I saw last season, and promises to be that again this year, but there’s every reason to believe that he’s an actual student at a university that exists for reasons other than fielding a football team. If those things eliminate him from consideration by the actual electors, so be it. I’d rather lose with Ricky than win with a more-conventional candidate from some Enormous State U.

The Heisman is about football, so a few words about Mr. Dobbs’ qualifications in that activity are in order. He’s a quarterback, the right position for the award (almost all the winners have been QBs or running backs), but not a usual sort of one, just as Navy isn’t your typical big-time football team. It runs what’s called the triple-option offense, which is based more on deceiving opponents than overpowering them. That’s because Navy doesn’t field the dozens of stud-jock aspiring pros that some of its foes do.

In the triple-option, the quarterback (Ricky) gets the ball from center and then must decide whether to pass it, pitch or hand it off, or run with it himself. It’s a reaction call based on what the defense does, and thus requires decision-making skills as well as physical ones. In practice, Navy’s is a running offense, and last season, en route to a 10-4 won-lost mark, it ran the ball about eight times as often as it threw it, a most-unusual ratio. It depends on crafting long drives with 4-, 5- or 6-yard gains, thus controlling the ball and keeping foes’ offenses off the field.

That doesn’t sound very interesting, but it can be. The best college game I saw last year was Navy versus Missouri in the Texas Bowl. Navy thoroughly flummoxed lummoxy Missou, going through, around and over it for a 35-13 victory, with the bouncy Dobbs running for 166 yards, passing for 130 more and scoring three touchdowns. He scored 27 TDs over the season, a national record for quarterbacks. In other games against the big boys last season, he helped Navy beat Notre Dame and lose narrowly to Ohio State.

It’s remarkable in itself that Navy can compete with the likes of Missouri, ND and OSU. While athletes undoubtedly get preferred treatment for admission to the U.S. Naval Academy (as they also do at Ivy League and other schools that award no athletic scholarships, per se, but still field varsity teams), by all accounts they get no breaks once they’re there. Freshman year at Annapolis begins with seven grueling summer weeks of what amounts to basic training, and every midshipman (that’s what a student is called) has to complete a four-year course load heavy with math and the physical sciences in addition to military subjects.

School days begin with 6:30 a.m. reveille and end with lights out at 11 p.m. Uniforms are worn everywhere and there’s lots of marching and formations. Dorm rooms must meet white-glove neatness standards. (Yours did, too, right?) After graduation there’s a five-year service obligation that can involve getting shot at. You have to wonder how those guys keep their minds on football even part time.

If anyone can juggle multiple obligations, apparently it’s Ricky. Not only is he captain of this year’s Navy team—a signal honor-- he’s also vice-president of his senior class. In high school in his native Douglasville, Georgia, just west of Atlanta, his nickname was “The Mayor,” indicating an active and gregarious nature.

His Navy web-site biography notes that his birth date, January 31, 1988, was the day Doug Williams of the Washington Redskins became the first black quarterback to lead a team to a Super Bowl victory. Young Mr. Dobbs says he’d like to do that, too, once his Navy stint is ended, then go on to be president… of the United States.

The kid doesn’t make it easy on himself, does he? That alone deserves a trophy these days.

Saturday, August 14, 2010


A couple of months ago—when summer was starting—I prayed for an end to the Gulf oil-leak disaster. I reasoned that the daily gush of bad news it engendered was souring the national mood and preventing a return of some much-needed optimism.

Now the leak has been plugged, but the mood is no better. Alas, the hits to our pride just keep on coming.

Among the latest was relayed by the New York Times’ sports page last Sunday. The headline was innocuous enough--“New Strength Atop the PGA Tour”-- but the body of the story related how “international” players, meaning those from countries other than the U.S. of A, had won 17 of the first 34 tournaments on our leading golf circuit, an unprecedented number. It went on to note that “internationals” had captured two of the men’s sport’s first three majors, that 12 of the Tour’s top-30 players were Europeans against 10 Yanks, and that youth appeared to be on the side of the foreigners, portending future setbacks.

Ohmygosh, thought I. If we’ve lost golf, what’s left?

The news was especially bad because it signaled the end rather than the beginning of our surrender of the so-called “country club” sports to alien hordes. Middle-class America used to produce top-flight competitors galore in those polite activities, but, apparently, not so much any more. Arizona could pass a law to fix things—and probably will-- but it wouldn’t help. When, as the poet says, the center cannot hold, we’re in deep doo-doo.

Exhibit A in this regard is tennis, and has been for some time. Where Jimmy, John, Andre and Pete once ruled the men’s side of the sport, a Swiss (Roger Federererer) and a Spaniard (Rafael Nadal) now hold sway, with no end in sight to their reigns. Worse, no American was among the top 10 players in the latest ATP rankings for the first time since the measure was introduced 37 years ago. Andy Roddick was the top Yank at No. 11, and he’ll turn 28 in a couple of weeks, not a good thing in a young man’s game. Behind him are only Sam Querrey and John Isner, a couple of misplaced basketball players with little chance for “major” glory. The outlook isn’t brilliant.

Women’s tennis looks better, but only on the surface. The Williams sisters Venus and Serena (African-Americas and, thus, hardly typical country-club types) still are slugging it out successfully with the Olgas and Svetlanas in WTAland, but Venus turned 30 in June and Serena will be 29 next month, and age probably will mean the same thing to them that it does to Our Andy. Beyond Venus and Serena you have to drop all the way to No. 45 to find the next American in the rankings, and to No. 80 after that.

The best women golfers of this century’s first decade were Annika Sorenstam of Sweden and Lorena Ochoa of Mexico. Now, mostly South Koreans lead the pack. In the early years of the Asian influx a proposal made the rounds that LPGA Tour players be required to speak at least some English. That was shouted down as un-PC and the Tour decided to join rather than fight the trend. Once the LPGA was a just-about all-American affair. Now, 12 of its 27 events are played outside the U.S., and that number grows annually.

The internationalization of men’s golf also has been in progress for some time, but until this year it’s been obscured by the sport’s recent domination by Tiger Woods. Alas again, the bimbo eruption that punctured Our Tiger’s cherished cocoon of control has meant that he no longer can sink his putz (oops, putts) like he used to, and “internationals” have moved quickest to fill the void he left. Maybe Tiger can get his mojo back, maybe not. Meantime, the likes of Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell (June’s U.S. Open winner) and South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen (the British Open champ) are thriving.

There’s no mystery about what’s going on here. Tennis and golf require access to expensive facilities and instruction, tying them to the better-off economically. Talent being spread about equally around the globe (as I believe it is), success thus goes to the youngsters in that group who commit early and put in the hours on the practice courts or tees that almost no one thinks of as fun. Our middle-class kids, with their multiple-choice lives, aren’t willing to put aside their video games and Blackberries long enough to do that. Unless or until that changes, we’d better get used to hearing other national anthems played on the “country-club” victory stands.

Sunday, August 1, 2010


What’s the worst idea in sports? There are so many contenders it’s hard to know where to start.

There’s baseball’s designated-hitter rule, which alters the game’s time-honored rhythms in exchange for a few extra runs. There’s the tie-breaker process in soccer’s World Cup that has important games decided by the equivalent of a free-throw shooting contest. There’s the failure of three of tennis’s four “majors”—Wimbledon and the Australian and French Opens—to adopt the last-set tiebreaker, which led to the ludicrous 138-game set, three-day match in the last Wimbledon go-around. Murphy’s Law is as solid as Newton’s.

By me, though, the prize goes to the National Football League’s summer-training regimen, now gearing up in sweaty encampments around the land. It has the league’s behemoths slugging it out in four so-called pre-season games in preparation for its 16-game regular season. Football being the brutal game it is, the pre-season action insures that, at best, every team will enter for-real combat dinged in some way. At worst, it’ll lose a quarterback or other key player to injury, a loss that will, effectively, end its season before it begins.

The fervent prayer of every pro-football fan is that that last, inevitable outcome-- Murphy’s Law again-- happens to some other team, not his.

It doesn’t have to be that way. College teams, which have bigger rosters than their pro counterparts-- and, thus, require more winnowing-- get by fine without meaningless warmup contests, although big-time teams typically schedule a “cupcake” or two before getting down to serious business. The NFL pre-season schedule itself has varied in length, once stretching to six games before reverting to its present four in 1978.

Further, the evolution of professional sports generally has made any league’s final preparation period far less important than it used to be. Back in the day, when pros were part-timers, the notion of “getting in shape” for the season ahead had merit, but with today’s seven-figure average salaries jocks are jocks full-time, ready to go on short notice. The NFL’s off-season rookie camps, “mini-camps” and “voluntary” group-workout periods underline that broader trend. Class is in session year-around, and the coaches have good books on all their players.

Every sport has a large component of tradition, and—for reasons no one much ponders-- pro football’s dictates that summer training be as unpleasant as possible. Players are bused off to godawful places like Bourbonnais, Illinois, where they shoehorn their massive frames into tiny dorm rooms, bunk with room mates who have objectionable personal habits, and made to do hard physical labor in punishing heat.

If August is, indeed, the “dog days” month, the footballers are the dogs. It’s no wonder that players with a modicum of clout maneuver their contract signings so they’ll miss as much of summer camp as possible. That’s what Brett Favre’s annual will he-won’t he charade mostly is about.

You could, of course, preserve the sacred summer-camp-torture ritual without the pre-season games, but here is where economics come in. Even though each team’s two pre-season home outings don’t count, NFL owners charge their customers full price for them. They do it because they can—one of many things in that category.

The revenue thus obtained is what keeps the four-game pre-season intact despite good-sense considerations. There’s a move afoot to reduce the pre-season by two games but add them to the regular schedule, increasing it to 18 games. That wouldn’t help at all—the season is long enough to begin with, especially when a team can play as many as four playoff games.

The central fact about life in the NFL is that every player hurts starting with Game 1, pre-or regular-season. Without Advil or (much) stronger, the game could not exist. Sure, the players are volunteers, but they still need protection. The league last week finally ditched its flat-earth stance on head injuries by posting notices in its locker rooms recognizing their impact and urging players to report them immediately. But concussions aren’t the only way players wind up with serious, long-term health problems, and less football is the only remedy.

The NFL players’ union, traditionally as short sighted as its counterparts in other sports, should wake up and get behind this. A 16-game schedule without the pre-season wouldn’t be hard to put into effect because the owners could regain most of their lost revenues in the usual way, through higher ticket prices and TV-rights fees.

They do that almost every season anyway—just because they can. This time, for a change, it would be in a good cause.

Thursday, July 15, 2010


Watching the baseball All-Star Game Tuesday night, my mind wandered…back, back, back to the distant past, and another kind of All-Star game, one I played myself as a kid, lots of times.

This one was a board game—All-Star Baseball by Cadaco. It consisted mainly of a cardboard baseball diamond and a spinner, over which you placed a disc for each player in your lineup, in turn. The circle’s 360 degrees were divided into 15 or so parts, each representing an outcome for a time at bat. For example, “1” was a home run, “2” a groundout, “3” a base-on-error, “4” a fly out, and so on. You’d flick the spinner and record outs, base moves and runs as chance dictated. All the rules of baseball applied.

Described like that, it doesn’t sound like much of a game. It certainly wasn’t by the standards of today’s electronic marvels, which, I’m told, include “virtual” contests as vivid as the real things. Really, though, I remember the board game as captivating. On each disc was the name of a notable player, and its divisions conformed to his career batting statistics. When, say, you had the National League All-Stars, and Stan Musial was your batter, his chances of hitting a single, double, triple or home run—or making an out—were the same as they’d be in real life.

What’s more—and more important—when Stan was on your team, he was YOUR man. You could see him in the batter’s box, in his menacing, coiled stance, waiting like a cobra to strike at the next pitch. It was theater of the mind, a common exercise in those radio days, and at least as real as anything today’s computer mavens can produce.

Further interest could be gained by mixing lineups. Most of our games matched the then-current National League All Stars (circa 1948) against the Americans, but you could obtain discs from players of previous eras and use them as you chose. Thus, your first baseman could be Johnny Mize, and your centerfielder Ty Cobb. Or Tris Speaker. What talent at your call! What fun!

You’re only young once but you always can be immature, so I reached for pen and pad and began to jot my own All-Star lineups, unfettered by the calendar. The effort was a bit taxing because comparing players of different eras is difficult. I subscribe unreservedly to the idea that today’s baseball players—and other athletes—are better than those who went before. That’s because of advances in nutrition and exercise physiology, and because today’s high salaries enable jocks to be jocks—and train--- year around. But some of the old-timers could play in any era, and deserved attention.

My All-Star first basemen are Lou Gehrig for the American League and Albert Pujols for the Nationals. Gehrig is a BMT (before my time) guy, but his stats reveal a power hitter with few peers, and he was a real gent to boot. Still, I’d give the nod to Pujols, the game’s current monster, who averaged almost 40 homers a year in his first nine Big League seasons against higher-powered pitching than Gehrig faced. That last thing is what most distinguishes the current game from that of the past.

At second base I’d have old-timer Rogers Hornsby for the Nationals and Rod Carew for the Americans. Hornsby was the best right-handed hitter ever (with a lifetime average of .358), and can’t be ignored. Carew was a good glove and great singles guy, albeit not as good as Ichiro in the latter department. If Ichiro played second base I’d slot him here. Alas, he’s a right fielder, where the competition is tougher.

At third base I’d have Mike Schmidt for the Nationals and ARod for the Americans, edge to the latter. The steroids use of ARod and others muddies one’s judgment about some present-day stars, but we’re playing a board game here so I’ll shelve that issue for now. The NL shortstop would be Honus Wagner, the best player of the 1910s, with Cal Ripken for the AL’s, edge to Honus. If I were picking a team in the playground I’d choose Ozzie Smith, the best glove man ever, as my shortstop. But only hitting counts in the Cadaco game, so Wagner’s da man.

At catcher I’d have Johnny Bench for the NLs and Yogi Berra for the Americans, edge to Bench. My NL outfield would have Barry Bonds in left, Willie Mays in center and Hank Aaron in right. Their AL counterparts would be Ted Williams, Cobb and Babe Ruth. Edge to the AL, if only because of Ruth. He was the best baseball player ever, a great pitcher as well as a great hitter. His power numbers were astonishing for his time; in 1920, when he hit 54 home runs, the entire American League hit only 369. His contemporaries must have thought he was an alien.

Pitching didn’t count in the board game, but I picked some nonetheless: Walter Johnson for the AL and Warren Spahn for the Nationals. Johnson pitched before speed guns, but could hum ‘em anyway. “Something went by me that made me flinch,” said Cobb (who was not much given to complimenting foes) of his first at-bat against the young “Big Train.” Johnson won 417 games, with mostly mediocre Washington Senators’ teams, and finished an amazing 531 of his 666 career starts with a 2.17 ERA. ‘Nuf said.

Lefty Spahn never won a Big League game before age 25, but wound up winning 363 of them. I once shared a cart with him at a celebrity golf tournament and was charmed by his friendly manner and nonstop dumb jokes.

If you’d like to play the game I’ve outlined, or one of your own devising, you can; an Internet scan reveals that Cadaco (or someone) still is out there selling them. Some things, though, are better left to the imagination.

Friday, July 2, 2010


One of the best things about life these days is the website amazon.com. Through it you can order just about any book ever written, usually at prices well below those at which it originally was offered. Even some of my old books still are kicking around on it, one for as little as 69 cents. Shipping, of course, is extra.

I mention this not to promote my chestnuts but to recommend other books you may have missed the first time around. The joke has it that the shortest book ever was “Great Jewish Sports Heroes,” but any reputable list of sports books worth reading would be shorter yet. The four to follow belong on it, and in any proper sports-book library. Check them out on Amazon and you won’t be sorry

The first is Volume 1 of “Boxiana,” by Pierce Egan, one I’ll bet none of you has read. Egan-- born 1772, died 1849-- was perhaps the first modern sportswriter. His specialties were boxing and horse racing, the dominant sports of his day, but in writing about them he also chronicled the racy side of the London he knew, and with style and flair. Dickens was said to have been influenced by him. So was A.J. Leibling, whose great, later-day book on boxing, “The Sweet Science,” was in part a tribute to the Englishman who invented that phrase.

Many another common sports-page usage can be traced to Egan; remember that today’s cliché originally was thought to be brightly apt. He coined the adjective “game” to denote fortitude, a “set-to” was a fight, “stuff” meant skills, and a fighter who was knocked down was “floored.” Most people think the word “fan” is short for “fanatic,” but it ain’t. It stems from Egan’s milder word “fancier,” which he helpfully defined as “any person who is fond of a particular amusement.” In Egan’s prose, the fight crowd was “the fancy,” no matter how fanatical it might be.

“Boxiana” is a four-volume compilation, published between 1818 and 1824, but Vol. 1, at a hefty 497 pages in paperback, will give you an ample sample of Egan’s oeuvre. It’s worth perusing even though the pugilists he writes of are long forgotten.

The segue from the first sportswriter to the best moves us easily to Walter Wellesley Smith, known universally as “Red, ” whose prose graced American sports pages from 1928 until his death, at age 76, in 1982. Two excellent books recall him: “The Red Smith Reader” (Random House, 1982), and “Red; A Biography of Red Smith,” (Times Books, 1986), by Ira Berkow, a Smith colleague on the New York Times.

Should one first read the writer, or read about him? The former, probably. “Reader,” a collection of Smith’s columns, shows his range across the sports spectrum as well as the command of language and deft, lively touch that made his work stand out even in the part of the newspaper that gives writers their best showcase.

Unlike many of his colleagues past and present, Smith didn’t regard his subjects —or himself—with undo seriousness, and while he saw them warts and all he usually managed to find something likeable about them. In “Reader,” I recommend especially his piece on “Papa Bear” George Halas, which in about 1,000 words renders that profane, cheap, irascible, determined gent as roundly as others could in a book-length treatment.

It’s tough to write about writers because their work-a-day activity is anything but dramatic, but Berkow’s biography shows Red at work as well as could be done. Berkow was helped by the fact that few people have written or spoken as well or amusingly about writing as Smith.

“I’ve read about Flaubert rolling on the floor for three days, groping for the right word,” Smith said. “I haven’t rolled on the floor. I can’t afford three days. I’ll blow two deadlines if I do.” He joked on another occasion: “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at the typewriter and open a vein.”

My last recommendation is a quite-different sort of work-- “Heaven is a Playground,” by Rick Telander, which I recently reread after a gap of 30-or-so years. Telander, now a Chicago Sun-Times sports columnist, was just out of Northwestern in the summer of 1974 when he took his pony tail, note pad, camera, tape recorder and middling jump shot to Foster Park in ghetto Brooklyn to hang with the teenaged hoopsters who frequented the place. The result was a portrait of the boys and their relationship to basketball that’s yet to be matched.

Despite its upbeat title, “Heaven” is a sad story. Telander’s playground kids may have been wise and tough in some ways, but they were remarkably naïve in others; even Manhattan, a 20-minute subway ride away under the East River, might as well have been in another country. Their lives were so circumscribed by their circumstances—and the expectations they engendered—that they saw basketball as their sole “way out,” and not much of a way at that. Telander emphasizes that point by interweaving their stories with those of such New York playground legends as “Fly” Williams, “Goat” Manigault and “Helicopter” Knowings, whose manifest talents were undermined by the chaos inside and around them.

Have things changed much at Foster Park and places like it since the book was published in 1976? Not for the better, I fear. From what I see and read, “hoops dreams” are as alluring now as they were then, while surer but less sparkly paths go untrod. One wishes that “Heaven” were out of date, but it doesn’t seem to be.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


NEWS— Nebraska joins the Big 10, Colorado jumps to the PAC 10, other conference changes are predicted.

VIEWS—The tectonic plates of college sports are shifting again, promising a thoroughgoing change in the landscape. With Nebraska’s addition, the erstwhile Big 10 now has 12 teams, and could add more. Ditto for the PAC 10, which besides Colorado might expand further in the days ahead. The SEC also could grow, while the Big 12, the former domicile of the Huskers and Buffs, seems destined for the dust bin of history.

What’s up? Jim Delaney, the Big 10 commish, got off a good one when he said his league’s marriage with Nebraska was all about their shared “culture and values.” That’s like a guy saying he hooked up with Miss Universe because they both enjoy Bach. The addition increases the Big 10’s size to 12 schools, the threshold at which the NCAA permits a conference to split into divisions and stage a post-season football championship game. That’ll give member schools another big pay day at the gate plus whatever comes from the sale of TV rights to the event. Ditto again for the PAC-10.

Also—but not incidentally—expansion increases the range of the Big 10’s very own, round-the-clock TV sports network, which it launched in 2008. It’s been a bonanza for the conference’s members, adding a reported $20 million a year to the athletic-department coffers of each. That hasn’t escaped the notice of the other college major leagues—and, maybe, Texas all by itself--who are looking to also get into the TV business directly. That’s entertainment!

Will the jock-meisters cut in their English Department colleagues? Not likely. Big-time college sports always have been about sports, not college, and the trend only goes in one direction.

And a thought: At this writing the Big 10 has 12 members and the Big 12 has 10. Shouldn’t they switch names?

NEWS—Ben “Who, me?” Roethlisberger, quarterback and playboy, promises to change his ways.

VIEWS-- Big Ben’s so-called social life has twice earned headlines in the past couple of years, once resulting in a civil suit for sexual assault by a woman who worked in a Lake Tahoe hotel where he’d stayed, and more lately in a criminal rape investigation based on the complaint of a college student after her encounter with the footballer in a small-town Georgia bar. No indictment was brought in Georgia, and both women ultimately withdrew their charges, but we’re free to draw our own conclusions about why.

Anyway, Ben last week gave a brief press conference at the training center of his employer, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and while admitting to nothing said the fusses caused him to ponder his ways. He declared: “I’ve put a lot of thought into my life, the decisions I’ve made in the past. I’m evaluating what I need to do and be smarter when it comes to certain things.”

That’s cant at its best, or worst. A bad decision is what I made last week by fishing on the Wisconsin-Michigan border, freezing my butt and other parts in the rainy, 50-degree weather that can happen Way Up North in early June. Decisions that lead to rape charges are of an entirely different order. Ben’s moral compass—if he ever had one-- is broken. Nothing short of a year or so in the wilderness, complete with sack cloth, fasting and self-flagellation, seems apt to smarten him up.

NEWS—Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup!

VIEWS-- Normally I root for any team with the name “Chicago” on its jerseys, but I’ve long made an exception for the Blackhawks. That wasn’t always the case; I used to be a fan, and in the late 1960s and early ‘70s had a piece of a season ticket for their games. But that introduced me to Arthur Wirtz, the team’s greedy owner, and his yearly price increases on everything in or around its Chicago Stadium home made me spit out the tix.

When Wirtz let Bobby Hull, Chicago’s greatest-ever hockey star, jump to a new league rather than pay him a salary that quickly proved to be a pittance ($100,000 a year), I swore off the team for good. Later, when the National Hockey League turned its game into a punch line by winking at on-ice brawling, I said good riddance to the entire sport. As a columnist, I wrote about the NHL only to mock it and remark about how it had fallen while its seasonal rival, the NBA, flourished.

Wirtz died in 1983 and was succeeded by his son Bill, who was both greedy and dumb. Nicknamed “The Commodore” for his yachting interests, Bill let the team run down while finding new ways to alienate its fans. By the time he exited in 2007, the franchise was pretty much moribund.

Then Bill’s son Rocky took over. Maybe he’s really someone else’s son because he turned things around promptly, and this year’s Stanley Cup run resulted. I paid little attention to it until the playoffs, but once back in I became hooked and was quite pleased at the Hawks’ triumph. Still, when I hear that they now will win lots of Cups because their stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are only 22 and 21 years old, respectively, I recall that Hull was 22 and his brilliant co-star Stan Mikita was 20 when the team last won the trophy in 1961, and they never got to hoist it again.

NEWS—World Cup gets underway.

VIEWS—It’s mostly been fine so far, with tight (albeit low-scoring) games and excellent TV coverage on ESPN and ABC. But what’s with those plastic horns the South Africans continuously blow? The games sound like they’re taking place in a hornets’ nest. Enough, already.

And I hope you noticed that son Michael correctly predicted the U.S.- England tie. That’s my boy!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010


By Mike Klein

With the few non-artificial snowflakes of Vancouver 2010 having long since melted, it’s time to look at this year’s really most-important sporting event, the football World Cup beginning this month in South Africa.

The World Cup is a one-sport Super Olympics, eclipsing the O-Games’ disciplinary breadth with its unparalleled fan fervor and journalistic over-analysis, and the economic paralysis caused by the billions of people worldwide who will drop their tools for the duration of its 62 matches. Anyone who’s tried to hail a cab or buy a meal in any European or South American city when the national team is playing knows exactly what I mean.

I first became a football fan in 1982 in my native Chicago; I call the sport “football” because I now live in Europe and prefer to avoid the mockery associated with the use of the word “soccer” there. (When I lapse and call it “soccer,” the response is “saaahhhccer…that’s a girl’s game, isn’t it?” offered back in a flat, fake-American accent.)

Football wasn’t easy to see in Chicago circa ‘82—the World Cup was offered only in tape delay on a newly minted, Spanish-language UHF station with dismal reception. I didn’t have to wrap the antenna in foil but I did have to stay up until 2 a.m. to watch the likes of Irlanda del Norte and Corea del Sud. I vividly remember Italy’s Paolo Rossi, who was the event’s best player, and Argentina’s Jorge Burruchaga, who had the best name. (Forget about “goooooooooool!” Try“Buuuuuurrrrrrrrruuuuuuuuchaaagaaa!”)

I watched that World Cup on the basis of a Chicago Tribune sportswriter’s recommendation, following the U.S.’s biggest-ever international sports victory, the ice-hockey win over the USSR at the 1980 Winter Olympics. Wrote he: “Did you like the U.S.-USSR hockey game? Well, the World Cup is just like that. Every match.” I couldn’t pass on that. Still can’t.

In this World Cup, the U.S. will open its play with a potential “Herb Brooks moment” against England, a perennial power in the sport. (Brooks, for the uninitiated or non-American, was the coach of the Commie-beating hockey team of ‘80). The England match will be the U.S.’s first in its four-nation, round-robin group, the other two members being Slovenia and Algeria.

While most commentators think the U.S. will lose to England and beat Slovenia and Algeria, group play is extremely hard to predict. Part of this has to do with expectations; in countries where football is the only sport that matters, the main goal is to out-perform them, which usually means reaching the 16-team, single-elimination round. In 2002, Ireland came home to a parade for making the round of 16, while higher-touted England made the quarterfinals and returned to a sequestered section of an out-of-the way airfield.

This drives tactics. Underdog teams (i.e., most of the 32 in the field) typically play defensively, hoping to keep things close enough to luck out a low-scoring tie or victory. Sometimes it works: Greece, which is in the current field, managed to win the 2004 European Championships with an entirely defensive approach, conjuring up just enough goals to move through the tournament. Its example is not lost on other teams, particularly America’s group rival Slovenia, which has a similar roster makeup.

This World Cup won’t be all defense; there will be some spectacular players, the kind that people watch the sport to see. Brazil, as usual, reloads rather than rebuilds, and one could make up a viable Cup contender from the players it’s leaving behind. One such is the former World Player of the Year Ronaldinho, who didn’t merit a spot on its bench.

England’s Wayne Rooney, still nursing a dodgy ankle, is expected to be ready to contend for the “Golden Boot,” the award for most goals scored in a tournament, along with Argentina’s Lionel Messi, whose club team is Barcelona, and Ivory Coast and Chelsea’s Didier Drogba.

Little is expected of host South Africa, particularly after a deal to have Matt Damon come in and captain its team was scrubbed after Damon kept picking up the ball and running with it. Still, in a lackluster group with Uruguay, Mexico and long-in-tooth France, it could make the next round.

Here are a few other predictions:

1) U.S. Draws With England, Then Slips Against the Slovenes

Even in its dismal 2006 Cup showing the U.S. managed a draw against eventual-champion Italy. In a similar vein, the U.S. will do what it takes to get a point from England in their first match, shocking the American public. However, post-draw euphoria will be short-lived as tough, defensive-minded Slovenia grinds out a one-nil upset, sending the U.S. into an all-or-nothing match against Algeria, with Algeria carrying the vociferous support of the Arab and Muslim worlds.

2) D = Death

My vote for most competitive group is Group D, comprising Germany, Serbia, Ghana and Australia. While the Germans are favorited, they are a beatable side. Ghana is one of the best African teams and will have strong home-continent support, and the Serbians never have been known to lack fighting spirit. Further, Australia is a real wild card—indeed, one of the more interesting pre-tournament exhibition matches will be between Australia and the U.S.

3)The New Zealand All-Whites Will Become the Surprise Package

Australia’s defection to Asia for qualifying left New Zealand as the remaining “power” in the Oceania group, even though New Zealand had to go into a playoff with Bahrain for the last position on the World Cup table. Success in the playoff has the country in a frenzy for the “All-Whites” (in chromatic contrast to the country’s long-time rugby stalwarts, the All-Blacks), and an agreeable pairing with Slovakia and Paraguay, along with defending-champ Italy, puts NZ within a couple of good results of the second round.

4)Brazil Wins

Not an adventurous projection, I know, but there’s simply no one out there with the talent or consistency to be seen as a credible challenger to the Samba Kings. Of the 18 World Cups contested since 1930, Brazil has won five, and unless the unexpected occurs (and I hope it does), on July 11 it’ll win No. 6, beating Spain in the final.

Saturday, May 15, 2010


NEWS: Arizona’s new anti-immigrant law jeopardizes the 2011 baseball All-Star Game for Phoenix, where I live.

VIEWS: After Obama won the presidency, Janet Napolitano, Arizona’s Democratic governor, abandoned the last two years of her second term to go to Washington to head the Homeland Security Department, turning the state’s government over to her Republican No. 2 and the Republican-controlled legislature. They’ve proceeded to enact their brand of right-wing sharia in the Grand Canyon State.

Most of the stuff they’ve done mainly affects Arizonans. Among other things, they’ve made it okay to pack guns—openly or concealed—just about anywhere without a permit, ordered the removal of the photo-radar cameras that have calmed traffic and saved lives on the state’s major highways, and filed lawsuits to block implementation of the new Federal health-care law.

They’ve also passed a law requiring local police to demand proof of citizenship or immigration documents from anyone whom they might “reasonably suspect” of being here illegally; having brown skin or speaking Spanish might qualify someone for such treatment. That one has caused an uproar in many precincts, accompanied by threats to boycott all things Arizona. This includes Arizona Iced Tea, which is made by a company based in New York.

In reality, the “show ID” law is political theater, pure and simple. A couple of years ago Arizona passed a law making it illegal to employ illegals, but hasn’t bothered to enforce it. The sheer number of people residing in the state without “papers” (an estimated 400,000 to 500,000, mostly from Mexico or elsewhere in Central American), long winked past the border to provide employers with a malleable work force for dirty or poor-paying jobs, precludes any serious enforcement of the latest statute. If such were attempted every restaurant in the Phoenix area would have to close.

Still, chest-pounding can have its price. It’s easy for people not to do something, and enough of them are deciding not to have any truck with Arizona to put a dent in the state’s tourist business, a pillar of its already-weak economy. This probably won’t include removal of baseball’s All-Star Game, but in a sport where some 30% of the players come from Hispanic countries and another sizeable chunk are U.S. citizens with Hispanic roots, a player boycott of some sort seems likely. At the least, it’s sure to keep the flap over the law, and its repercussions, in the news for the foreseeable future.

But y’all nice folks needn’t be put off, so come on down. Just remember to be armed (if you can’t get your guns through airport security you can buy ones here), carry your passport (especially if you’ve got a tan) and bring a crash helmet. And rest assured that we’re not all bigots—only 60%.

NEWS: John Calipari, who last year signed a long-term contract to coach basketball at the U. of Kentucky, has been mentioned in the whispers over who’ll be the next to coach the NBA Chicago Bulls or Philadelphia 76ers. This spurred Kentucky to reopen, and possibly sweeten, his pact there.

VIEWS: Calipari took his trail of recruiting slime to Lexington from his previous jobs at UMass and Memphis. His specialty is luring top-drawer phenoms who haven’t hit the NBA-mandated age of 19 for “one-and-done” college seasons that allow them to hone their hoops skills without being much troubled with academics (few schools flunk out anyone in just a year). For that he’s reportedly being paid $4 million a year, tops for the college-coach rat pack and probably more than the salaries of the math profs at all the Southeastern Conference schools combined.

But is he satisfied? Noooooo. He’ll likely pull the flirtation scam annually until he cuts loose from UK for greener pastures. And you know what? Kentucky is getting what it deserves.

NEWS: The Kentucky Derby is run in the rain with its favorite on the sidelines. And that’s not all.

VIEWS: The news for thoroughbred horse racing, my favorite participation sport (when you bet you participate), usually is bad, but lately it’s only gotten worse. Not only was Derby Day, the sport’s annual showcase, a soggy downer with the likely clear favorite Eskenderaya out with injury (for good, it turns out), but a potentially enormous future race now is in danger. That’s because of the mediocre performance so far this year of Rachel Alexander, the filly whose sensational 2009 campaign earned her Horse of the Year honors.

You may recall that the elegant Rachel won all eight of her starts last year, including victories over the boys in the important Preakness, Haskell and Woodward stakes. Those last feats, highly unusual in the equine world, earned her attention beyond the sport’s normal public. Wonder of wonders, so did the doughty filly (now mare; she’s turned 5) Zenyatta, who’s unbeaten in 16 career starts and put on maybe the best show in recent memory with her last-to-first run against the strongest possible male competition in the Breeders Cup Classic, the sport’s fall championship.

A Rachel-Zenyatta matchup—maybe in a prime-time, womano-a-womano format—would have turned the country on its ear, but Rachel has been beaten by other girls in her two 2010 outings (while Zenyatta has gone a triumphant 2-for-2), taking the shine off such a race. It’s possible that Rachel might regain her top form and allow a match to be staged, but that doesn’t seem to be in the cards now. Woe is us.

Saturday, May 1, 2010


Baseball changes about as frequently as the faces on Mt. Rushmore, but every once in a while it entertains ideas to improve itself, and this is one of those times.

Last December the Major Leagues formed a 14-member committee to tweak its format, including such diamond wisemen as Joe Torre, Tony LaRussa and Frank Robinson. The political columnist George Will also is involved. Will throws right but I’ve long thought highly of his intelligence, especially after he gave one of my books a generous blurb. His participation bodes well for the endeavor.

As you might expect, I, too, have pondered such issues, and have reached a few conclusions. Here they are, for the committee’s (and your) consideration:

STAY OFF THE MOUND; STAY IN THE BOX— A persistent criticism of baseball is that it’s too slow, and that its pace turns off the action-craving young. That’s in part unavoidable—it’s a waltz-time game in a hip-hop era—but it’s partly correctable, at least when it comes to clipping the no-action parts.

I’d start by eliminating trips to the pitcher’s mound by everyone—coaches, managers and other players—while an inning is in progress. What the heck can those guys tell a struggling pitcher, anyway: Settle down? Throw strikes? How to pitch to the next batter? If a pitcher is on a big-league mound he ought to be able to figure out those first two things for himself, and managers can deal with the next hitter by relaying pitch signs through the catcher, as they’re probably doing anyway. Furthermore, the pitcher is on the bench half the time (while his team bats), leaving more than ample opportunity for advice to be imparted.

Especially wasteful is the manager’s ritual trip to the mound to change pitchers; a simple call or wave from the dugout would accomplish the same thing quicker and spare us fans the sight of the likes of Lou Piniella hauling his huge gut across the foul lines. If managers stayed in the dugouts they wouldn’t have to wear uniforms, which make even the slimmer ones look silly.

The game also would lose irksome down time if, once in his box, a batter would be required to stay there until his turn is resolved. I guess he could step out with one foot while he tugs on his batting gloves, but umps could discourage this by calling strikes for excessive tugging. The gloves are merely affectations in the first place. Ted Williams never wore them, nor did anyone else until about 20 years ago, and batting averages haven’t improved with their use.

SHORTER REGULAR SEASONS; MORE PLAYOFFS; BALANCE THE LEAGUES-- Everyone agrees the 162-game regular season is too long, but reducing it would violate the first rule of any business, which is that you can’t make any money if the store isn’t open. I’d cut it to 148 or 150 games nonetheless, but balance that somewhat by qualifying 16 teams for the post-season, thus adding the extra layers of games needed to run the extended playoffs that would be sure to stir more excitement than the obligatory September exercises of teams going nowhere.

Taking two weeks off the schedule would allow the season to end around September 15. Add a month of playoffs and the World Series could conclude around October 15. That would reduce the chance of teams playing through snowflakes, as they’ve done with the present late-October, early-November Series finishes Up North. Abner Doubleday never intended that, I’m sure.

My expanded playoff format would work best with two16-team leagues divided into four divisions in each, instead of the current 16 (NL)-14 (AL) setup. Each divisional winner would qualify, along with the teams in each league with the next-four-best won-lost records. The asymmetrical setup we have is unfair to National League teams in general (each starts with a 1 in 16 chance of winning a pennant against 1 in 14 for each ALer) and to members of the NL Central Division in particular. There are six of them, meaning that each of their chances of winning a division title is about 9 percentage points worse than teams in the AL’s four-member Western Division. Whose idea was that?

Where should the two new teams be placed? Northern New Jersey could support one, and for the other I think the time might be ripe for a two-city franchise, maybe Las Vegas-Salt Lake City, Charlotte-Nashville or Indianapolis-Columbus. Hey, half a loaf is better than … well, you know.

I’ve got other ideas. I’d like to see more day games, in part to woo young fans. I’d like to see the Saturday national TV game abolished so fans wouldn’t be blacked out of watching their local teams during that time. And I’d like to see play calls based on TV replays ended, forevermore. The replays generally are inconclusive and always waste time, and both demean and demoralize the human arbitrators.

Sure, replay-based judgements now are limited in baseball, but unless they’re nipped they’ll spread. Pretty soon electronic gadgets will replace the umps altogether. Then robots will replace the players. Why not? They’ll be easy to maintain, won’t have agents and won’t join unions. Think about that the next time you pass through an automated highway toll booth.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


The National Basketball Association playoffs start this weekend and I have it on good authority that they’re fixed for the New York Knicks to win.

What’s that you say? The Knicks aren’t in the playoffs and haven’t been since 2004? Oh well, never mind. Maybe I misheard and they’re fixed for the L.A. Lakers to win.


The idea that the NBA pulls the strings to facilitate a predetermined outcome in its playoffs—and instructs its game officials to tailor their foul calls accordingly— was strongest when the Knicks were serious contenders, but it never goes away entirely. It’s a full-blown urban legend, right up there with the giant white alligators in the New York sewer system and the fiends who booby-trap kids’ trick-or-treat candies at Halloween. You’d think that the every-day realities of big-city life would be scary enough, but apparently they aren’t.

Like all legends, the one about the NBA’s “fixed” playoffs has a plausible base. The nation’s largest metropolitan areas have the most TV sets, so it follows that success by their hoops representatives would translate into higher TV ratings, more profits for the networks that carry the games and, ultimately, bigger rights fees for the league.

It’s credibility is heightened by the nature of play in the NBA, which has become so physical that most contact between players necessarily goes unwhistled. Some fouls (such as palming the ball on the dribble) rarely are called and others (3 seconds in the free-throw lane) are called only intermittently, and when a dribbler and defender collide it’s often unclear whether it’s a charge or a block. Either way the call goes someone is likely to have a beef, and it’s tempting to ascribe ones that go against your team to ulterior motives. That tendency is underlined when coaches and players berate the officials off-court, as is their wont at playoff time.

But a “fix” that would involve the NBA’s entire, 67-person officials’ roster, plus a half-dozen administrators? Please. It’s tough enough to keep a secret involving just you and me without cluing in 70 other guys. If Nixon and Clinton had kept that in mind they could have ended their presidential terms more gracefully.

Notions of a “fix” also commonly occur when the sport of horse racing is fresh in mind, as it always is at this time of year as the Kentucky Derby nears. Last year’s Derby was won by Mine That Bird, a truly outlandish 50-to-1 shot, and when this blog expressed shock over that overcome I got a call from a reader eager to chasten me for my naivete.

“Wake up, Klein! The race was fixed for Mine That Bird to win,” the guy said.

“How do you figure that?” I inquired.

“Everyone loves it when long shots win big races. It’s great for the sport,” he replied.

I pointed out to him that the racing odds are set by the public’s wagers and that when a horse goes off at 50-to-1 he carries only 2% of the betting pool. That means that when he wins roughly 98% of the bettors lose, hardly a formula for widespread happiness. I also noted that a fixed race requires the connivance of the other competitors, and asked what motive they might have had to forego a chance at the $1.2 million winner’s share of the $2 million Derby purse so a long shot could make a one-day headline.

I can’t recall the guy’s exact response, but it was dismissive. “Don’t bother me with facts when I’m arguing,” he said, in effect.

Fact is, though, that for all the “fix” talk you hear bandied about involving big-time American professional sports, darned little of it has much basis in fact. Steroids aside, baseball has been “clean” since the Black Sox scandal of almost a century ago, and it’s been 64 years since “fix” rumors (unproved, involving the 1946 championship game) scarred pro football. NBA ex-ref Tim Donaghy spent 15 months in prison for fixing games in 2006 and 2007, but his treason was a first and by all accounts it served to benefit no one but himself.

And while it would be genuinely naïve to think there never has been any other hanky panky involving the above activities, much less horse racing—never say “never”—even dedicated conspiracy theorists can find a bright side. I mean, for all they know, the games could be fixed for their teams to win.

Thursday, April 1, 2010


We Americans don’t often think about it, but in terms of our sports preferences we’re like the Galapagos Islands, inhabited by species that scarcely exist elsewhere. Football, our opinion-poll fan favorite, is played nowhere but in the U.S. and Canada, and baseball’s international appeal is so narrow it’s been pulled from the Olympic schedule. Among our Big Three sports only basketball has a world following, and it’s of recent origin.

The real world sport is real football—which we almost uniquely choose to call soccer. It thrives in just about all of the planet’s 200-odd nations and is the major sport in most of them. It is at once a game, a passion and a common language shared by humans of all stripes and polka dots. To be truly “globalized” means to be counted in that number.

It’s easy for us Yanks to shrug off the above with a “so what?” After all, our sports calendar is nicely filled and needs no further padding. In every fourth year, however, it’s possible to be a citizen of the larger world for a time investment of no more than a month. That opportunity again is fast approaching. It’s the 32-nation final rounds of the soccer World Cup, which will be held in South Africa from June 11 to July 11.

The World Cup is one event that always lives up to its hype. I covered two of them—in the U.S. in 1994 and France in 1998—and they rank 1 and 1A as my most- memorable sports, uh, memories. The competition was fierce, the quality of play was amazingly high and the crowds were uniformly large, colorful and festive. People cared who won to a degree that was exponentially greater than that exhibited in our own annual showdowns such as the Super Bowl and Final Four, its force pulling everything around it into its vortex. To be in Paris when France claimed the ’98 Cup was to walk on air, Frenchman or not. It must have been close to what VE Day was like in that magical city 53 years before.

Americans historically have resisted soccer’s allure. No doubt that’s partly on purpose, expressing the exceptionalism that caused our forbears to reshape English cricket into baseball and rugby into football before embracing them. It’s partly semantic, I think, a reaction to the word “soccer,” which was clunkily derived from the term “association football” (“soc”—get it?) to distinguish it from our domestic variety. An uglier word hardly exists.

I’d also offer a mysterious, biological reason: American children enjoy soccer well enough to make it a leading youth sport, but when they turn age 13 (especially the boys) a genetic change seems to take place that turns them into football players and fans. The NIH should look into this.

Then there’s the nature of the game itself, which is low-scoring and tactical rather than All-American slam-bang, but the tactics are appealing if understood, and the rarity of goals makes each one all the more thrilling. Soccer is the simplest of games to understand, and anyone who is sports-savvy and takes the trouble to watch one good contest from beginning to end will not only soak up its plot but also will appreciate its drama. Try it and you’ll like it, I guarantee.

A final reason for us not to like soccer is that our men never have been much good at it, but that’s changing. Partly because of the interest stirred by the ’94 Cup on these shores, the American game has been improving, and while the pace of that improvement hasn’t been even (our 2002 national team reached the Cup quarterfinals but the ’06 unit laid an egg) it’s been solid nonetheless. Major League Soccer, our domestic pro league, finally seems to be on solid footing, and Americans now perform on good teams in various European major leagues.

The U.S. men’s team placed first in its Cup qualifying group, beating out perennial regional power Mexico, and in a tournament in South Africa last summer it defeated world No. 1 Spain and lost by a goal in the final to always-powerful Brazil after leading, 2-0. Some desultory international showings since have dropped the U.S.’s world ranking to 18th, but it probably deserves to be several notches higher.

Even so it’ll be the second-highest-ranked team in its four-nation Cup division (behind England and ahead of Slovenia and Algeria), so it has a fair chance to advance to the knockout rounds. It has an able veteran leader in the midfielder Landon Donovan, and the 20-year-old forward Jozy Altidore, Florida-born of Haitian parents, is the sort of young star it’s long sought. The team likes to score and is fun to watch, a good combination.

All the games in the tournament will be televised live by ESPN. Eastern starting times will be 7 a.m., 9:30 a.m. and 2 p.m., which ain’t terrible for an event so far away. My son Mike, who lives in Belgium and follows soccer on a daily basis, will handicap the World Cup field in this space come June, but, meantime, I urge you to point your antennae in its direction.

Believe me now, thank me later.

Monday, March 15, 2010


Spring training is underway here in Arizona and, as usual, I’m going to games. It’s one of the good things about living here. I’ve seen the Cubs three times so far and have tickets for two more of their contests, among others.

I wish I could update you on the Cubs’ progress or lack of it, but you can’t tell much about a team from a few games, spring or regular season. Generally speaking, no news is good news at this time of year because, when news happens, it’s usually about injuries, which aren’t good. It looks like relief pitcher Angel Guzman is lost for the season with arm woes, but that’s been it so far in Cubbyland. If that’s its last such setback the team can consider itself lucky.

But one thing I have noticed around HoHoKam Park—as I have in previous years-- is Cubs’ fans’ attachment to their team’s past. A lot of them show up wearing uniform shirts with players’ names on the back, and ones inscribed with the likes of “Banks,” “Sandberg,” “Grace” and even “Wood” far outnumber those honoring current team members. That’s curious, because Cub history has been famously unhappy, and while the above-named individuals usually played very well (except for the knuckleheaded Wood) their eras were anything but glorious.

We’re stuck with the history we have, of course, but it’s hard to see how dwelling on it can help present prospects. Cub players often are questioned about the burden of their team’s unique record of failure, and always reply that they give it little thought. How can it not weigh on them, though? It’s a bigger and darker cloud than the one Milton Bradley dragged around last season.

Look at the team’s annals and what do you see? Babe Ruth’s “called shot.” The Collapse of 1969. The Collapses of 1984, 2003 and 2008. The dreaded “Billy Goat’s Curse.” The black-cat incident of ’69 at Shea Stadium. The Bartman Goof. It’s enough to depress Mary Poppins.

Worse, it’s all such silly stuff. Ruth homered against everyone. Plenty of teams have contended for pennants and fallen short but haven’t let such things define them. The famous curse didn’t emanate from a goat but from its owner, saloon-keeper Sam Sianis, who was peeved that the Cubs wouldn’t allow his pet into a 1945 World Series game, but nobody could blame the team for expelling a smelly, four-legged animal from its premises. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to sit next to it.

Black cats? They’re all over the place and we’d all be dead if encountering one were immediately fatal. A cat didn’t cause the Mets to win the 1969 National League pennant and World Series title, Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Tug McGraw and timely hitting did.

As for poor Bartman, one can only be sorry for the guy. My feelings for him run so deep I’ve put them to rhyme, to wit:


The ball traced an arc
Through the inky night air.
The fans watched its flight—
Was it foul or fair?

Alou drifted right,
Almost touching the wall.
He stuck out his glove,
But where was the ball?

Bartman reached it first
From his seat in the stand,
And deflected its course
With his outstretched right hand.

The fans first were stunned,
Then reacted with boos.
Bartman fled the scene;
Each boo left a bruise.

He made for the El,
Went home, packed a case.
Donned false nose and mustache,
Checked out of his place.

He’s still on the lam
And his life is no garden,
Up in Tora Bora
With Osama bin Ladin.

But isn’t it time
We eased up on the guy?
Give him a break.
Let sleeping dogs lie.

Because, ask yourself,
Just what was his shame?
If you’d been there instead
You’d have done the same.

Let’s repatriate Bartman and have a day for him at Wrigley Field. Give him a new glove and a season ticket, although not on the left-field line. Forgive and forget; we’d all feel better for it.

Maybe the Cubs would, too.