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.

Monday, March 1, 2010


Avery Brundage was less than admirable in many respects. The former head of the U.S. Olympic Committee (1929-52) and International Olympic Committee (1952-72) was a fan of Hitler and instrumental in awarding Olympic Games to all three members of the original Axis of Evil (Germany, Japan and Italy). He stood for a brand of amateurism that amounted to social elitism. He thought women’s sports had no place in the Olympics, or anywhere else.

He wasn’t nice, either; despite his image of starchy rectitude, it was revealed after his death in 1975 that he’d had two children by a longtime mistress, and left them all out of his will.

But even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and I agree with Brundage about one thing: he thought that while coaches might be allowed on the practice fields, they should have to buy tickets to get into the arenas on game days.

OK, maybe that’s a bit extreme. Some coaches are decent-enough people and ought to be given a free seat on their teams’ benches, down at the end. Come NCAA basketball tournament time, however, I often wish they’d go away altogether, and leave their players alone.

This desire emerges especially in the last few minutes of any college-hoops game that’s competitive. Although timeouts seem plentiful enough while the contests unfold, they’re downright ubiquitous in the home stretch, stopping play every few seconds for coachly strategizing. Action grinds to a halt, toilets flush throughout TVland, and the question changes from how the game will end to whether it will. By the time things are decided I’ve sometimes lost interest.

Overcoaching is particularly a problem for school sports, I think. While our professional leagues exist solely to entertain the public and enrich their participants, the games schoolkids play are supposed to have an educational component, preparing young athletes to make their way on later-life stages.

The rest of the educational process is—or should be—geared to this end. Students read, attend lectures and engage in give-and-take with their teachers, but at “crunch time”-- when papers are written and exams taken—they’re on their own. That’s turned on its head in sports when the teachers (that is, coaches) take over decision-making when a game’s outcome is at stake.

What lesson is being taught— when in doubt look for some boss to tell you what to do? What’s practice for, anyway?

Furthermore—and Dick Vitale to the contrary notwithstanding-- the efficacy of time-out play calling is anything but clear. I have this on the authority of a couple of coaches I came to admire during my columnizing days.

My favorite college basketball coach was Abe Lemons, a droll character whose 599 career victories came mostly at institutions in Texas and Oklahoma, states in which, he said, “men love their families and football, not necessarily in that order.”

Abe claimed he never went in much for X’s and O’s, noting “If my X is Michael Jordan, your whole team of O’s won’t stop him.” He’d add: “I don’t have any tricky plays. I’d rather have tricky players.”

And anyhow, “There really are only two plays: ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘put the darned ball in the basket.’ I don’t need to call a time out to give my kids that last one.”

Dale Brown, who spent many years coaching basketball at Louisiana State U., agreed, pretty much. “I’d call time out late in a game, draw up a play and give every player an assignment,” he once told me. “Invariably, just before they’d run out on the court, at least one of them would ask me what he was supposed to do.

“The play never would run as planned, and a kid would wind up taking a terrible, off-balance shot. I’d go ‘No…No…No… Great Shot!’ Afterward I’d tell the reporters it happened just the way I’d laid it out.”