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.