Friday, January 15, 2010


I used to read the newspaper sports pages at breakfast, but no more. So many items caused me to chuck my Cheerios that I now read them before or after my morning meal. With fewer cleanups to contend with, I’m a happier man.

I mean, sports figures say the darnedest things, and they’re not nearly as cute or funny as the kids’ quotes Art Linkletter used to trot out. Some of the stuff they come up with is so incredible it’s unbelievable. They do it, I guess, because in the “Me” universes they inhabit they never are contradicted and rarely are questioned seriously. Some sportswriters view the circus they cover with a jaundiced eye and occasionally puncture their bubbles, but too few.

Exhibit A in this regard was a story I came across a couple of weeks ago. It seems that the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles annually vote to give a teammate a “courage” award and named the ex-con quarterback Michael Vick, of dog-fighting infamy, as this season’s recipient.

It got better from there. Instead of mumbling his thanks and hurrying offstage, Vick saw fit to declare himself worthy of the honor. “I’ve overcome a lot, more than probably any single individual can handle or bear,” said he.

Overcome a lot? You’d think he’d battled back from brain surgery or being hit by a truck. The fact that nobody put him in prison but himself seems to escape him.

Then, this week, I read where Pete Carroll abruptly quit as the head football coach at the University of Southern California to take a similar job with the NFL Seattle Seahawks. That wasn’t shocking—it’s what coaches at his level do. It also wasn’t surprising that his departure from academe came at a time when the NCAA was investigating his USC program, or that his move will increase his annual salary to $7 million from the $5 million he was earning as a humble prof.

The kicker was Carroll’s goodbye press conference in Los Angeles, where he said he was wooed away from the school and players he loved not by the 40% raise, or by the threat posed by NCAA gumshoes, but by the “challenge” the Seattle job presented. Meaning, I guess, that he considers coming out on top from among the 32 NFL teams a greater achievement than besting the 100-plus college football big-timers for that national title.


But the recent sports-blather champ is Mark McGwire, the Sultan of Squat. In several lengthy and sometimes teary interviews orchestrated by Ari Fleischer, who was schooled in disaster management in the Bush 43 Administration, McGwire this week fessed up to the steroid use he’d refused to discuss since his retirement from the game after the 2001 season.

Sort of.

McGwire said he wished he could have made his confession at the 2005 Congressional hearing where he famously announced he intended to look forward, not back, but was dissuaded by his lawyers. This is despite that fact that no major jock has been prosecuted for using steroids, only for lying about it under oath. He also said his confession was delayed by the pain it would cause “family members, friends and coaches,” as though they couldn’t look at his Blutto-like physique and adult-onset acne and reach the same conclusion everyone else did.

McGwire gave a time line for his steroids use designed to minimize it. He said he used them “very briefly” after the 1989 season, when he was recovering from an injury, and again for the same duration and purpose in 1993. And—oh yeah-- “on occasion” throughout the 1990s. But what does “on occasion” mean, and didn’t the ‘90s include 10 of his 16 big-league seasons, including his 70-homer 1998 campaign?

He said he wished he’d never played during baseball’s “steroid era,” thus blaming the times for his sins and ignoring that more than anyone else he defined them.

Big Mac’s biggest whopper, though, was his claim that he took steroids strictly for health purposes. “There’s no way I did this for any type of strength use,” he averred. Ye gads—what did he think when he looked in the mirror and saw that his chest was six inches bigger around than it used to be, that his arms had gained two or three inches each and that his collar size had jumped to 21 from 18? That he was literally bursting with good health?

I’d like to end this with the “Say it isn’t so, Joe” line some kid supposedly laid on Joe Jackson of the old Black Sox, but I know I must adjust to the times. When an athlete these days is moved to say it isn’t so, you know that it is.

Friday, January 1, 2010


The National Football League playoffs are upon us and, as usual, my team—the Chicago Bears—isn’t in them. In a weird season made no less weird by their upset win over the Vikings last Monday night, the Bears went from hopeful to hopeless in about 6.4 seconds. It’ll take a smarter person than I to figure out that bunch. Also smarter than Jerry Angelo or Lovie Smith, I fear.

But the NFLers will soldier on for a while, leaving open the question of a rooting interest for those of us whose favorites have been sent home. My solution is two-fold: I’ll root for the teams I bet on, and for the Indianapolis Colts.

The second of those criteria requires explanation. I have no history with the Colts and, although I’ve enjoyed Shapiro’s Delicatessen there many times, no great affection for its home base of Indiana-No-Place. The reason I like them can be summarized in two words: Peyton Manning.

By me, Manning is the best at what he does, which is play quarterback. I can’t say with confidence that he’s the best ever, because the likes of Sammy Baugh, Otto Graham and Sid Luckman did their best work before I was paying attention. But I can say he’s the best I’ve seen, and that’s saying quite a lot because I’m quite old. I love the guy— in a properly masculine way, of course.

Previous to Manning’s blossoming I’d been undecided in the best-QB department. The best passing arms I’d seen belonged to Sonny Jurgensen and Joe Namath; both could put the ball any place, any time. The best at getting the job (winning) done howsoever was Joe Montana. While the scrawny ex-Notre Damer might not have been the perfect model for a QB statue, no opponent’s lead was safe with him on the field.

Manning, though, throws like Sonny and Joe N. and wins like Joe M., and is statuesque besides. At 6-foot-5 and 230 or so pounds, he’s the exemplar of what a quarterback should look like, and he makes good use of every inch and pound.

Ordinarily, a bunch of statistics would go here to help prove my point. I’ll let you off with a few: Manning has passed for at least 4,000 yards in 10 of his 12 pro seasons and annually throws twice as many touchdowns as interceptions, and his Colt teams have won more than twice as many games as they’ve lost. It hasn’t mattered much who his receivers have been. In his early days in Indy he and Marvin Harrison formed football’s best pitcher-catcher partnership. Now Harrison is gone and Manning is throwing mostly to Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark, no problem.

Manning is more than just an arm. Although he looks kind of klutsy afoot and almost never runs on purpose, he’s also rarely sacked, which indicates that he’s fairly agile. His durability is attested to by the fact that’s he’s never missed a start. The NFL is the world’s most coach-driven entity, but Colt coaches apparently give him exceptional latitude when it comes to calling or changing plays; hey, all that barking and gesturing he does at the line of scrimmage must amount to something. I’d like it better if he’d kneel down and draw a play in the dirt once in a while, but today’s football fields don’t lend themselves to that sort of thing.

My boy Peyton has a pleasing off-field image as well. His persona in his many TV ads is that of a half-smart country boy, but although this clashes with his on-field accomplishments he brings it off well. He’s hosted Saturday Night Live, no mean standup feat, and his “commercial” mocking the NFL’s syrupy ads for United Way—in which he knocks kids down with bullet passes and then berates them for performing poorly— not only is a classic but also showed his ability to mock himself. You’ve never seen Tiger Woods do that.

It’s possible that Manning could pull a Tiger and wind up in the tabloid headlines in an unflattering way. The internet is full of rumors that he and Ashley, his wife of eight years, are headed for Split City. It’s been observed that, unlike many high-profile players’ wives, Ashley Manning rarely attends Colts’ games, or, at least, is rarely photographed doing so.

But maybe there’s a good explanation for that. Maybe she’s a pacifist, or a Tom Brady fan.

He must have some.