Wednesday, December 14, 2011


One of the cinema’s best lines came in the toga comedy “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” when the slave Pseudolus, played by the great Zero Mostel, picked up a bottle of wine and asked , “Was 1 a good year?”

I can’t recall the answer but I can tell you that when it comes to baseball’s version of immortality the coming year 2012 won’t be vintage. The crop of first timers on the game’s Hall of Fame ballot, just out, is among the weakest in memory. Chances are that few of them will garner the 5% of the sportswriters’ vote needed to appear on next year’s ballot, much less set sculptors to work chiseling reliefs.

It works that way sometimes. Like in other things, there are good years and bad in baseball, and since ballplayers retire more or less randomly there’s no assurance that H of F spots will be filled in a steady manner. Election to Cooperstown in a player’s first year of eligibility isn’t the norm, and we present or former baseball writers who make up the 575-member electorate usually can rally around someone (1996 was the last year no one received the required 75% vote), but I can’t recall a less apt group of new eligibles than this one.

The 13, all of whom retired after the 2006 season, are as follows: Jeromy Burnitz, Vinny Castilla, Brian Jordan, Javy Lopez, Bill Mueller, Terry Mulholland, Phil Nevin, Brad Radke, Tim Salmon, Ruben Sierra, Bernie Williams, Tony Womack and Eric Young. All played the in the Major Leagues for at least 10 years, have been retired for five and were nominated by at least two of the Baseball Writers Association of America’s six-member committee formed for the purpose, the sole requirements for appearance on the ballot.

All had careers that ranged from good to very good and many were (are) nice fellas as well. Still, I’ll vote for none of them and can see only two—Lopez and Williams—even passing muster for a continued ballot presence. If you ever mentioned in the same breath the Hall of Fame and Burnitz, Jordan, Mueller, Mulholland, Nevin, Womack or Young, I’d be astonished. I never did.

It’s true, of course, that the line between good and great in a complex sport like baseball can be thin, and subject to interpretation. That the Hall doesn’t lack for members whose qualifications can be questioned is one of the things that enlivens the voting process and the commentary that always follows it. On every ballot are players whose accomplishments aren’t much different from those of, say, Bill Mazeroski or George Kell, whose plaques hang in Cooperstown, and there always are people who’ll say that if those guys are in there so should good old so and so, naming their choice of the moment.

In my editing days at the Wall Street Journal I’d occasionally find it necessary to tell a writer his piece wasn’t fit for publication. When he’d reply that we’d published worse, I’d tell him that I found that argument unpersuasive. So, too, do most of the Hall’s voters, which is why the Veterans Committee was formed to reconsider players we’d passed over in their permitted 15 years on our ballot. If you have a bone to pick regarding Maz or Kell, or quite a few others, take it up with the Vets, former players, managers and execs whose standards are less stringent than those of us scribes.

Withal, though, what’s bad news for some is good news for others. I’ll be voting for five players this year, all of whom I’ve supported before, and it’s likely that the absence of compelling new names will ease some paths to Cooperstown.

I’m hoping that one of those will be Jack Morris, who’s been knocking on the Hall’s door for 13 years now without being admitted. Why this is so is a mystery to me; he has a sterling won-lost record (254-186) and a mantle full of trophies including a World Series MVP (for 1991), and was a big-game pitcher without peer. His 10-inning shutout for the Minnesota Twins against the Atlanta Braves and John Smoltz in game seven of the ’91 Series was the best such performance I’ve seen.

I have a soft spot in my heart for shortstops, who are the best athletes on most teams, and I’ll be voting for two of them—Barry Larkin and Alan Trammell. The marvelous Larkin, a career Cincinnati Red, came up third in the voting in his first year on the ballot last year—at 62% behind selectees Roberto Alomar and Bert Blyleven-- and is a good bet to make it this time. Trammell’s election would be a surprise because he was mentioned on just 24% of last year’s ballots, but he was at or near the top of his position in most of his 20 big-league campaigns with the Detroit Tigers, and I find him no less worthy than Larkin.

I’ll vote for Lee Smith, a dominant relief pitcher with several teams, and Edgar Martinez, the Seattle Mariners’ peerless designated hitter. I’m not crazy about the DH in general, but it’s here to stay and I see no reason why its best practitioners shouldn’t be honored. On the same ground I’ll be backing Jim Thome when he comes up for a vote several years down the road.

I’m hoping my aforementioned five do well this year because the going is due to get tougher. As dim as this year’s new eligibles were, next year’s will be brilliant, including Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, Mike Piazza, Curt Schilling and Craig Biggio. Room on that bus is going to be scarce.

Thursday, December 1, 2011


The National Basketball Association lockout has been settled and the league says it will resume play on Christmas Day. Good. I enjoy basketball in all its forms and that includes the professional one. No doubt about it, those giraffes can play, and it’s a treat to watch them.

Nonetheless, the delay of the NBA season didn’t much distress me. Our sports calendar is so crowded that entertainment aplenty always is near at hand, and the last several weeks have been no exception. I’ve even tuned in to a few of the international soccer matches that a couple of Fox cable channels regularly offer. I can’t say I watched them whistle-to-whistle, but I liked what I saw. We Yanks stick up our noses at The Game the Rest of the World Loves Best, but we shouldn’t. Those guys can play, too.

So what are we to think of the agreement that ended the NBA unpleasantness? Nothing much that hasn’t occurred already. Conclusion No. 1 is that it’s their game (the owners’ and players’), not ours, and no matter how much we might love our favorite teams we shouldn’t believe otherwise. No. 2 is to remind ourselves that in big-time pro sports the real economic warfare isn’t between the owners and the players but between the owners and the owners, and that their so-called labor agreements are aimed mainly at restraining their own competitive urges. “Stop me before I spend again!” the owners plead, and at some point the players always say “okay.”

That said, though, we must resist the cliché that no one wins in a strike or lockout. Make no mistake, the owners won this one. Raising their cut of their league’s revenues (reportedly about $4.3 billion last season) to about 50% from 43% puts at least $300 million more into their pockets annually over the agreement’s 10-year term, or about what they say they’ve lost collectively in each of the past few seasons. Considering that those losses probably were overstated for bargaining purposes (they always are), the suits will be well ahead of the game.

But the longer the lockout continued the worse it would have been for the players. That’s because youth is fleeting while wealth endures, giving the owners a large and intrinsic edge in all such contests.

The real-world proof of that came from the lockout that cost the National Hockey League its entire 2004-05 season. The year before that showdown players’ salaries accounted for a reported 76% of NHL revenues. The settlement knocked that down to 54% and resulted in pay cuts averaging about 25% for every player then under contract. Team salary caps were instituted with fewer exceptions than the ones that survived the latest NBA settlement. Rookie salaries were severely capped. Add in the loss of an entire year’s salary, or about 20% of the average pro athlete’s career take, and you had a very cold winter in Hockeyland.

We fans know this, of course, but sympathy for the NBA players was scant during the recent bargaining. With an average annual salary of $5.1 million, and a median of about $2.3 million, they’re by far our best-paid team jocks, typically earning more in a year than most of us do in a lifetime. Comments made during the talks by a few players—and their union’s general counsel, for heaven’s sake—comparing the league to a plantation and its employees to slaves drew guffaws all around, undermining their cause and causing many to wonder what planet they were living on..

The talk these days about the 99% versus the 1% doesn’t do justice to the basketball pros’ singularity. In terms of physical attributes as well as income they’re in the top .001%, genetic geniuses whose height and agility set them apart in the most obvious of ways. Yeah, they must “work” to hone their skills and conditioning, but most of that consists of doing things regular people do for fun.

Today’s professional athletes like to compare themselves to entertainers whose unique talents entitle them to lush compensation, but that’s misleading all around. Movie stars can’t shine without the expensive accoutrements of their productions and even a song-and-dance man like Michael Jackson needed a vast array of musicians, other dancers, sound and lighting technicians and special-effects experts to put on a show worth big bucks at the box office.

The athlete’s context is more elaborate still, requiring not only a stage for its proper exhibition but also strong teammates, worthy opponents and contests with historical meaning. This the league provides. I suppose LeBron James could barnstorm with his version of the Washington Generals, but I think the public quickly would tire of that, as would he.

And so the basketballers will be back on court soon, and should be glad of it. The pro-football owners and players signed a new accord a few months ago amid much sturm und drang, and the baseballers are in the process of inking one without it, meaning that an era of labor peace lies ahead. That’ll free up the sports pages for more-interesting stuff, like box scores. Who says there’s no good news?

Thursday, November 10, 2011


Back in 1984 I was still clearing my throat as a sports columnist but had already made a recurring topic of the crimes and deceptions of big-time college sports. My November 9 column of that year was about schools that hoked up their jock-graduation rates for public consumption.

Exhibit A was Penn State. In interviews and in university publications Nittany Lions’ head coach Joe Paterno and his aides, and other university officials, noised it about that the school graduated more than 90% of its varsity football players, a very high figure. As was (is) their wont, most sporting news mediums repeated those claims without verifying them, which amounted to endorsements.

To see what was doing I phoned the Penn State athletics department. I was shuffled around until I wound up with one Dave Baker, its information director. He told me the 90% figure was “pretty accurate,” but only if one counted players who’d reached their senior years at the school. “Actually,” he hedged further, “the figure used to be 90%. We think it’s dropped a shade the past few years but we don’t know. We haven’t calculated it lately.”

I asked about players who flunked out, transferred or otherwise dropped out before their four years of athletic eligibility expired. Baker said Penn State had never kept track of those, yet in the next breath he contested as too low one published report that had put the school’s overall football graduation rate at 67% because he said it miscounted dropouts. He took issue with an NFL Players Association finding that 61% (24 of 39) of the Penn State products who were in the NFL the previous year (1983) were degree holders, on grounds it was based on self reporting. Why he thought anyone with a degree would claim not to have one, he didn’t say.

In the piece I nailed a few other schools for similar fibs, including Alabama and Nebraska, but I’ve since regarded Penn State athletics with special skepticism. That’s because outfits that lie about small things will lie about larger ones. Also, under Paterno’s “Success With Honor” banner, it was one of a handful of universities that make, or have made, special claims to sanctity, a “We Do Things Right” Club that sets itself above the common scrum.

Michigan was part of this group until it was revealed that Ed Martin, a Detroit racketeer, was the sugar daddy of its Fab Five-era basketball teams. Notre Dame’s long membership has been punctured many times, most lately by episodes involving a young woman who committed suicide after the university didn’t promptly pursue her claim to have been raped by a Notre Dame football player (no charges have been brought against the player, partly because the woman isn’t alive to testify against him) and another in which a student died after coaches sent him up in a cherry-picker during a wind storm to videotape football practice, and the thing blew over. It doesn’t get worse than that, and it’s beyond me why no Domer heads have rolled as a result.

Strictly speaking, the current Penn State scandal, involving a long-time top assistant of Paterno’s who is accused of sexually molesting (so far) eight boys over a 15-year period, isn’t about sports. Rather, it’s another example of the corporate “damage control” mentality at work in institutions that, supposedly, are devoted to higher things than profit and hierarchal protection. The Roman Catholic Church’s leaders in many countries have fit that mold during the seemingly endless revelations about sexual-predator priests. So has the Boys Scouts of America in its handling of similar matters.

The involvement of Penn State coaches and officials in the alleged predations of former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky pivots on a night in March, 2002, when a graduate-assistant coach, visiting the football locker room to complete some chores, reportedly witnessed Sandusky raping a boy in a shower room. Rather than go to police immediately (or punch out Sandusky), the young man reportedly went home to mull his options. The next day he told his boss, Paterno, who told his boss, the school’s athletics director, who told his boss, a university vice-president, who told his boss, President Graham Spanier.

Apparently, none of them told the cops, meaning that, for at least the last nine years, they engaged in a coverup, allowing Sandusky to pursue his pleasures at the expense of boys involved in the youth charity he’d organized. For that entity’s events he was given the use of Penn State facilities, and he was spotted in the football complex as recently as the week before the allegations surfaced.

Knowing what they did, the thought that the Penn State honchos allowed ol’ Jer to go on doing what he was doing—maybe even under their noses-- boggles the mind. Paterno was rightly fired, along with the AD, VP and prez. Along with Sandusky, the AD and VP face criminal charges for not reporting his violations. Based on available evidence one must wonder why Paterno and Spanier haven’t been charged, too.

Among the many appalling things in this appalling episode was the reaction of some Penn State students. They chanted in Paterno’s support before he was fired on Wednesday night, and rioted in protest after the move was announced. The college-sports Establishment, including its governing body the NCAA, is ruled by the principle that the show must go on, no matter what offenses surround it. Now it seems that some of our young believe this, too.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


What’s up with this National Football League season, now firmly underway? If I knew I’d tell you, but I don’t. What I do know is that the “experts” (note the quote marks) have been wrong, as usual. If I said I knew that would make me an expert, and I’d be wrong, too.

One needn’t look past the standings to make that point. The team that went into the campaign as a Super Bowl favorite as a result of last season’s performance and between-seasons maneuverings was the Philadelphia Eagles. They seemed so well put together someone labeled them the “Dream Team.” Now they are 3-4 in the lost-won column and tied for last in their division.

Ditto, almost, for the New York Jets. Widely picked to finally recapture Namath-era glory, they are having trouble on both sides of the ball and trail both New England and Buffalo in the AFC East. The Atlanta Falcons, tabbed as the up-and-comer on the NFC side, are having similar difficulties gaining traction

Wronger yet have been the experts’ assessments of the likely affects of the owners’ lockout that suspended team activities from last March through July. The talking heads on ESPN and elsewhere unanimously decreed that that period of enforced idleness would weigh heaviest on rookie players and teams with new coaches seeking to install their “systems.” The mavens further intimated that without the endless string of rookie camps, mini-camps and “voluntary” workouts teams use to keep their charges busy during the off-season, the oh-so-sophisticated game would fall into a general state of disorganization.

Regarding the latter, the football still looks like football to me. Regarding the former, the best “stories” of the current season have been the revival of the San Francisco 49ers under first-year-head-coach Jim Harbaugh and the excellent play of Cam Newton, the rookie quarterback of the Carolina Panthers.

It’s noteworthy that Harbaugh, who’d spent the big majority of his previous coaching career in the collegiate ranks, easily is the least experienced of the league’s eight new head coaches, and that Newton, with only two full college seasons as a starter under his belt (one of them at a junior college!) is the rookiest of the rookie QBs. Obviously, some guys just know how to coach or play football.

A couple of other things about the NFL have caught my eye this year. To wit:

PLEADING FOR PENALTIES-- Every year for the past several I’ve been dismayed by the blizzard of penalty flags NFL officials generate, and this season’s storm seems to be the worst so far. For this I blame the league’s growing instant-replay culture. With every play subject to microscopic video scrutiny and analysis, field officials are pushed to err on the side of caution, escaping possible criticism by calling penalties when only the hint of them exists. That raises the unhealthy suspicion that they, not the combatants, most determine scoreboard outcomes.

Last April I wrote about the book “Scorecasting,” by Tobias Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim. Its key thesis, backed by research, is that the home-field advantage that’s universal in team sports results mostly from official bias caused by the human desire of refs, umps, etc., to be agreeable to the people closest at hand; i.e., the home fans.

It seems that many NFL players and fans also have read the book. Instant uproars over adverse calls, or the lack of favorable ones, have become the norm around the league, especially regarding the most-odious call of pass interference. Moreover, such demonstrations seem to be working.

I refer especially to a play in the Pittsburgh Steelers-Arizona Cardinals game on October 23 in suburban Phoenix. When a contested pass to Cardinals’ receiver Larry Fitzgerald fell incomplete, Fitzgerald raised his arms in protest as the current script dictates, and the home crowd howled in agreement. After a good 30 seconds, and an officials’ huddle, a yellow flag against the Steeler defender fluttered to earth.

When do officials confer over a pass-interference call? When the home crowd wants them to, I guess.

HOW MUCH IS ONE PLAYER WORTH? Plenty when the player is Peyton Manning. After a 3-13 rookie break-in season in 1998, the nonpareil quarterback led the Indianapolis Colts to victory in 72% of their regular-season games over the next 12 years (138-54) and into two Super Bowls. This year, with him out with a neck injury, they’re 0-8 and, seemingly, headed toward 0-16.

True, these Colts have defects elsewhere than at quarterback. Their offensive line, long a bulwark, has sprung leaks and there must be something wrong with a defense that allows 62 points in a game, as it did against New Orleans a couple of Sundays ago. Still, Manning’s absence has been the main cause of the abrupt 360 in their fortunes.

There’s a nice touch of irony to the Colts’ situation. If they do go 0-16 (or, even, 1-15) they’ll probably have a crack at the clear No. 1 pick in next April’s draft-- Stanford QB Andrew Luck. The only thing that might bother them about taking Luck is that the experts agree he’s a future star, a Manning in the making. That should give anyone pause.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


Wife Susie and I saw the baseball movie “Moneyball” last week. It starred Brad Pitt, normally not my favorite actor, but I thought he was good in the role of Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s general manager whose adoption of Bill James’s statistical slants on the game helped turn his low-payroll team into a winner in the first years of the present century. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s script excellently captured the content and rhythms of baseball speech, no small feat for an outsider.

We saw the movie in the company of a couple of non-fan friends, and afterward they asked me if I knew which parts of the movie were true and which weren’t. A few discrepancies occurred immediately, but I later did a bit of research and discovered several more. I pass them on here in the interest of sports education.

Let me say first that I understand the difference between life and art and the urge to sometimes improve on the former in the interest of the latter. The movie’s producers wanted to tell a compelling story and, for the most part, did. That’s the business they’re in, and good for them. Still, one shouldn’t confuse “based on truth” for the real thing. It’s not good for one’s mental health.

A main invention of the film was the character of assistant general manager Peter Brand, whom baseball-guy Beane hired to install Jamesian technology into the A’s field operations. Brand’s real-life counterpart is Paul DePodesta, who after his A’s stint became the general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers and now works in the New York Mets’ front office.

Character Brand, played by the actor Jonah Hill, held an economics degree from Yale. DePodesta has an economics degree from Harvard. Hill is plump and nerdy. DePodesta may be nerdy but his photos reveal him to be quite fit looking, and his Wikipedia biography says he played baseball and football at Harvard. Obviously, making Brand a schlub helped the filmmakers cast the movie A’s into a “Bad News Bears” mold, a tried-and-true movie device.

A more-basic and related divergence between film and truth had to do with the makeup of the 2002 A’s team that was the film’s focus. In the movie the A’s had been devastated by the loss to free agency of stars Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon and had to scour the castoff lists to replace them. It portrayed as the new stars of the team the weak-winged first-baseman Scott Hatteberg, the over-the-hill outfielder David Justice and the funny-throwing relief pitcher Cory Bradford, none of whose true value was apparent to anyone but the Beane braintrust.

While Hatteberg, Justice and Bradford were useful role players, the real ’02 A’s had a heckuva lineup otherwise. It included shortstop Miguel Tejada, whose .308 batting average, 34 home runs and 131 runs batted in won him election as the American League’s Most Valuable Player that season, and third-baseman Eric Chavez, another young power hitter (34 homers, 109 RBIs) of All-Star caliber.

Oakland’s starting-pitching rotation that year featured the young stars Barry Zito, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder, whose combined won-lost record was 57-21. Zito (23-5) was the AL’s Cy Young Award winner, giving the team the league’s best pitcher as well as its best overall player. The Bad News Bears they weren’t.

It’s noteworthy that Tejada, Chavez, Zito, Hudson and Mulder (none of whose names I recall hearing in the movie) all were products of the Oakland farm system, signed as draftees or free agents by the team’s scouts, some before the Beane regime began in 1998. The scouts were portrayed in the movie as Neanderthals, sitting around spitting tobacco juice into paper cups and spouting baseball saws. I guess they weren’t so dumb after all.

Equally misleading, I thought, was the relationship between the statistical underpinnings of the “Moneyball” slant on baseball and the feats of the ’02 A’s, especially the 20-game winning streak that propelled them into that season’s playoffs. The streak was a great achievement, all right, but it was a fluke and not the result of sort of calculations on which Beane’s roster was built.

Much of what James contributed to baseball back then (he’s moved on since) stemmed from his fresh focus on on-base percentage (OPB; hits plus walks divided by times at bat) rather than straight batting average as the prime measure of offensive efficiency and defensive emphasis. As Beane succinctly put it in an interview I did with him for a 2003 piece in Sports Business Journal, “we look for batters who take balls and pitchers who throw strikes.” Often, that kind of player was undervalued on the baseball market, giving an edge to teams in the know.

Baseball is the game of the long haul and the small difference, and the difference between a hitter with an ordinary OBP of .330 and one with a quite-good .380 is five hits or walks in 100 plate appearances. That works out to one more scoring opportunity every four or five games, producing, maybe, an extra run or two over that span. A lineup of walk-taking hitters and walk-stingy pitchers might add a half-dozen or so wins for a team over a 162-game campaign. That’s a nice addition but alone is hardly the stuff of epic winning streaks.

The Beane-led A’s had a great run from 2000 through 2006, winning almost 59% of their games and several divisional titles. Alas for them, everyone else now knows what they do, and they haven’t had a winning season since. Now that his daughter is older, divorced-father Beane no longer is tied to the Oakland area, and no one would be surprised if he bails for a larger-market club.

Truth is, “Moneyball” is fine but being rich is better.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

511, 309, 36

When the New York Yankees’ Mariano Rivera broke Trevor Hoffman’s baseball regular-season career saves record of 601 a few weeks ago, a considerable fuss was made, and appropriately. Rivera is a great relief pitcher and we might not see his like again for quite a while.

But the suggestions that his mark (which still is abuilding) might never be broken seemed way off the mark. Yes, he has almost 300 more saves than any other active pitcher (Francisco Cordero is next with 326), but never is a long time, which is why the adage “never say never” is, well, an adage. Rivera isn’t Superman, so some day someone will beat it. Of that you can be sure.

The same can be said of just about every other baseball record. Ty Cobb’s career hits mark of 4,189 stood for 57 years but Pete Rose took it down in 1985; eventually, someone will take down Rose’s 4,256. Joe DiMaggio’s consecutive-games hitting streak of 56, set in 1941, is widely seen as eternal, but heck, it’s already been topped in the minor leagues and the colleges, and it, too, will fall.

However (my favorite word), a few diamond records are highly unlikely to be surpassed, because of the way the sport has changed over the decades. Foremost among these is the 511 wins that Denton “Cy” Young posted in a 22-season Major League career that began in 1890 and ended in 1911. Less noticed, but no less noteworthy, I think, are the marks for the most three-base hits, or triples. For multiple reasons, none of them reversible, the three-bagger has become an endangered species. That’s a sad fate for this most-exciting of baseball’s recurring plays.

First, let’s look at Young’s mark. His towering win total spanned some fundamental changes in baseball’s rules, such as the 1893 movement of the pitcher’s rubber (actually, it was a “box” before then) from 55 feet 6 inches from home plate to its present 60 feet, 6 inches. It came at a time when starting pitchers performed at least every fourth game instead of every fifth or sixth as at present, and were expected to finish what they started. The game’s so-called “dead-ball era”—before the introduction of cork-centered baseballs in 1911 (Young’s last competitive year) — boosted pitchers’ egos by keeping scores low.

Still, no pitcher even then came close to Young’s achievements, making them a unique product of the man and his time. A big right hander, officially listed at 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds although he grew heavier as he aged, the young Cy had such a blazing fastball that his nickname was short for “cyclone,” for the reputed force of his deliveries. His velocity slowed with time, as all pitchers’ do, but he compensated with a rubber arm and the always-superior control that gave him a 1.5 walks-per-game average that few others have matched. “I aim to make the batter hit the ball, and throw as few pitches as possible,” Young noted as his career wound down.

Besides his wins record, 94 greater than anyone else’s, the Ohio farmer holds the career marks for innings pitched (7,356), starts (815), complete games (749) and (uh-huh) loses (316), all also invulnerable. He had 15 seasons with 20 or more victories and five with 30 or more. He threw the first pitch in World Series history, in the 1903 matchup of his Boston Americans and the Pittsburgh Pirates (Boston won it, five games to three), and in 1904 recorded the first perfect game in the new century. Wrote the poet Ogden Nash:

“Y is for Young
The magnificent Cy;
People batted against him
But I never knew why.”

The decline of the triple has so long been part of baseball life that few fans today know the records for the feat, or their holders; they are 309 for a career, by Sam Crawford (1899-1917), and 36 for a season, by the Pirates’ John Wilson, in 1912. The unlikelihood of their being surpassed is seen by the facts that only three currently active Major Leaguers—veterans Carl Crawford, Jimmy Rollins and Johnny Damon— have hit as many as 100, and that no player who performed after 1928 has hit as many as 200. A dozen by one player in a season these days can lead a league.

Lots of triples were the result of an era in which batted balls didn’t carry well, outfielders played shallow and wore little, flat gloves quite unlike the baskets their present-day counterparts tote, and ballparks were huge and, often, oddly shaped. The centerfield fence in the Polo Grounds in New York was a distant 483 feet from home plate; at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field and Cleveland’s League Park they were 460-plus feet away. Balls that got past outfielders there rolled and rolled, and allowed batters to run and run. Inside-the-park home runs were about as common as one’s hit over a fence.

Most baseball statistical records are just that—statistics. Aside from its historical significance Barry Bonds’ 73rd home run in 2001 wasn’t much different from his first that season, or his 22nd, or 46th. The triple, though, is the kind of play-- beginning with a sharply hit ball between the outfielders and, usually, ending in a cloud of dust and an umpire’s close call—that engenders intrinsic and unique excitement. Its eclipse by modern trends is to be mourned.

To appreciate what we’re missing we must turn to the arts, specifically to Philip Roth’s 1973 baseball-themed book “The Great American Novel.” In it Luke Gofannon, Roth’s fictional superstar, had just completed a strenuous bout of lovemaking with a famous beauty. Under her questioning, he professed that she thrilled him more than a stolen base, a shoestring catch or a home run. (“Smack a homer and that’s it, it’s over,” he said.).

But when the woman asked him if she’d been better than a triple, his evaluation changed. “I can’t tell a lie,” he said. “There just ain’t nothing like a triple.”

Thursday, September 15, 2011


Al Michaels qualified for the TV-broadcaster hall of fame when, at the end of the stirring victory of the U.S. national hockey team over the one from the Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics, he cried “Do you believe in miracles?!”

In fact, of course, the outcome of the game involved no overturning of physical laws and so, strictly speaking, wasn’t miraculous. Rather, it was the unlikely triumph of a group of collegians over a seasoned and skilled unit that was professional by any definition save its own, the sort of reversal of form that happens every now and then in sports.

Still, the standards of the arena differ from those of the Vatican, and I’m sure that a poll of Michael’s audience would have revealed the belief that the victory was, indeed, supernatural. And thus it has remained.

So I am invoking Michael’s definition by declaring that at least two miracles have occurred during the Major League baseball season now winding down, one positive and one negative. The positive one involves the Arizona Diamondbacks, who represent my new home town of Phoenix. Last season they finished a distant last in the National League West with a 65-97 won-lost record. In this one they are romping to victory in the same alignment, on pace for 95 regular-season wins and with a playoff spot all but assured.

Worst-to-first reversals aren’t all that unusual in today’s professional leagues, where abrupt changes in team spending can combine with player free agency to quickly alter standings. These D’Backs, though, are the same cheapskate bunch they were last year, with an opening-day payroll (of $53.6 million) that ranked 25th among the 30 Big League teams, and they made no big-name additions to their largely anonymous cast of players. Further, their current rankings in such key statistical categories as team batting and earned-run averages (.250 and 3.86, respectively) both place them in a mid-pack 9th in their league, indicating a .500 team rather than a pennant contender

As miracles go this D’Back team’s showing has to take a back seat to that of a previous Phoenix unit, the 2007 one that won a divisional title despite a league-worst batting average that led it to be outscored by its foes overall. How that gang won 90 regular-season games and advanced to the playoff semis still mystifies. But this one’s run isn’t completed yet, and could wind up being stranger.

The turnaround can be traced in part to the team’s hiring of Kevin Towers as its general manager. A straightforward sort quite unlike some of the Secret Squirrels who typically man that post, Tower is no magician, but he does know talent and how to improve it, albeit marginally. His best move, I think, was the trade of Mark Reynolds, a scruffy slugger whose world-record strikeout habit and “What, me worry?” attitude typified D’Back teams of the recent past, for David Hernandez, a useful relief pitcher.

With Hernandez and the reclamation-project closer J.J. Putz as a base, Towers changed a terrible bullpen into a good one, anchoring the revival. The fortuitous success of Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson, young starters who have risen from prospect status to joint winners of 35 games so far this year, also has helped

Towers has lucked out similarly in the performances of such as Willie Bloomquist, Aaron Hill and Geoff Blum, journeymen infielders picked up for a wing and a prayer. On-field leadership has come from old-footballer Kirk Gibson, the team’s manager. I think that physical intimidation is underrated as a managerial asset in the male society of sports, and Gibson and his muscular coaches Matt Williams and Don Baylor look as though they could put erring players over their knees if they chose to.

Lately, every reserve Gibson fields contributes a key play and every pinch hitter a hit, just like such fellas did for manager Bob Melvin in ’07. The D’Backs look to go into the playoffs with the Phillies, Brewers and Braves as the NL’s lowest-rated team, but as I used to tell my kids, the best teams don’t win, the teams that play best do, and AZ could be one of those. Stranger things have happened.

Miracle No. 2 is a downer, the performance of Adam Dunn of the White Sox from my ex hometown of Chicago. The left-hander showed up in the Windy City this spring as one baseball’s best and steadiest power hitters, having averaged 40 home runs, 100 runs batted in and 100 walks in his previous seven seasons with Cincinnati, Arizona and Washington. At age 31, prime time for sluggers, he seemed to fully justify the four-year, $56 million contract the Sox laid on him to DH. He and resident muscleman Paul Konerko were supposed to make the team a pennant threat.

Alas, Dunn has plunged to depths yet unfathomed in his game’s statistical sea, and the Sox’s fortunes sunk with him. His batting average (.162) is down almost 90 points from his previous norms. His power numbers (10 HRs and 40 RBIs) have been similarly dismal.

It’s rare that any baseball regular hits below .200; Figure Filberts had to go back to the 1909 Brooklyn Superbas (no kidding) to find a full-season mark-- catcher Bill Bergen’s .139-- lower than Dunn’s present one, and Bergen is said to have made his living as a gloveman. Also, he earned much closer to $1,400 a year than to Dunn’s $14 million.

Some of Dunn’s breakdown stats are even more mind-boggling. He’s batted just .159 in home games this season, .036 (3 for 83) against left-handed pitchers and .127 (13 for 102) with base runners in scoring position. His strikeout total is so high (160) that Sox fans took to cheering when he merely hit the ball.

Various reasons have been advanced for Dunn’s sudden ineptitude. His move to the American League is one and his switch to DH from full-time position player (at first base) is another. Some say he took too little off-season batting practice, some say too much. Maybe he needs a shrink.

My observation is simpler--at 6-foot-6 and, apparently, more than 300 pounds he’s too fat, and seems to have reached an age when he can no longer handle such suet.

The Sox should sign him up with the Jenny Craig folks. I’m told they can work miracles.

Thursday, September 1, 2011


Whenever someone takes big-time college sports to task for their failings—as I do frequently— some are ready with a cure-all answer. Just pay the players, they say, and all will be well.

It’s the remedy du jour, every jour. You hear it not only from casual fans but also from the “experts” who hold forth endlessly on the subject on sportsblab radio and TV. On any college-football Saturday, these folks note, everybody in the stadium—coaches, ushers, ticket-takers, vendors, cops and the kids who sell programs—is getting paid, so why shouldn’t the stars of the show? It’s only FAIR! they cry.

To that I say “teeesh.” Founded on the dubious premise that the poor are more easily corrupted than the rich, paying the players would cause more problems than it would solve while opening up a vast new area for potential abuse. Worse, it would increase the subservient status of college athletes that’s at the root of the real problems of the present, deplorable system.

Let’s look at what’s wrong with the proposal, starting with the easy stuff. Pay the players, you say? Okay, who do you pay? Footballers and basketballers for sure, I guess, but how about baseballers, lacrossers, wrestlers, swimmers and fencers? Just the men, or the women jocks, too? They all put in their time.

What would you pay them-- $100 a month, $500, $1,000? In season or year-round? Should starters receive more than reserves, or stars more than mere starters? Should the athletes themselves have a say in setting pay scales (can you spell U-N-I-O-N?)? Would injured players be eligible to receive workmen’s compensation payments, which could continue long past their college careers?

And how about the tax-exempt status of contributions to university athletics departments, without which big-time programs couldn’t be maintained at near present levels? If the players are salaried how would, say, Ohio State football legally differ from that of the NFL? If you think no one would be so bold as to raise that question, think again because it’s already surfaced.

Further, college athletes already are being paid, and terrifically well for teenagers or young adults whose marketable skills still are being developed. The cash value of the full-ride scholarships (tuition, room and board) they receive ranges from $20,000-to-$25,000 a year at state-supported institutions to as much as $55,000 per at such posh private schools as Duke or Northwestern. If you’re scoring, that works out to between $100,000 and $200,000 over the normal, four-year academic run.

Beyond that, even in these parlous times holders of bona fide college degrees can look forward to a lifetime of higher earnings than their degreeless counterparts. Even positing a difference of just $10,000 a year over a 40-year work life, that works out to $400,000. Not bad recompense for a few years of game-playing on some leafy campus, I’d say.

The rub, of course, is that the time and energy demands of big-time-college revenue sports can preclude the young men who play them from taking advantage of the promises they’ve been made. Often coming from poor homes, and lacking basic academic skills, they’re funneled into Mickey Mouse courses designed to preserve their eligibility, then cast adrift when their use to their institution ends. Many of them buy into the system because they believe it serves their desire to get a lucrative professional contract after college. For all but a few hundred out of many thousand, that’s a vain hope.

Turning the athletes into employees would exacerbate this situation by making them more chattel-like than they already are. Right now a strong-minded jock (I’m sure there are some) can opt for a serious course of academic study that might conflict with his coaches’ victory goals, involving, say, a lab course that interferes with his team’s practice schedule, but putting the lad on the payroll only could complicate such a stance.

The answer, then, is to make the system better serve the long-term interests of the young people involved in it, which is what college is supposed to be about. The optimum solution would be to tear down the stadiums, disband the conferences and turn the games into vehicles for healthful student recreation, which is what the rest of the world does. That ain’t gonna happen, so I propose the following steps, none of which would spoil the public fun:

ELIMINATE FRESHMAN ELIGIBILITY— Mandating that a student complete one-fourth of his degree requirements before beginning varsity competition would establish the primacy of education in the student-athlete equation. Future eligibility should hinge on the student’s continuing academic progress. An athlete still could compete for four years, but the fourth would come as a reward for achieving grad-student status. This would mark a sea change in a process that now allows a freshman football player to complete a full season of competition before earning a single academic credit. Incidentally, it also would eliminate the “one-and-done” phenomenon that now pollutes college basketball.

RESTRICT TEAM PRACTICES TO A SPORT’S SEASON— Such sessions should last no more than two hours a day and be conducted no more than five times a week, beginning two weeks before a team’s first intercollegiate game and ending with the last. No more spring football. Summers should be free, allowing athletes to take the sort of jobs other students use to finance their incidental (and sometimes other) campus expenses. Hey, they may even learn something in the process.

NO MORE ATHLETES’ DORMS, TRAINING TABLES OR EXCLUSIVE TRAINING FACILITIES--- In college, like at every other level of formal education, kids learn at least as much from the other kids as they do from what goes on in the classrooms, and ghettoizing jocks cuts them off from much of this good stuff. There’s a big world out there and it’s not all about sweat. Re the training tables, don’t worry, they won’t starve.

By the way, I’m available to any university that would like to take me on as a consultant to implement the above measures. My rates will be reasonable. Whatever I make will be more than I’m making now.

Monday, August 15, 2011

ESP (no N)

I’ve never held much with what’s called extrasensory perception, the notion that some people have the ability to see, or otherwise sense, things that aren’t apparent to the rest of us. Certainly, some are better observers than others, but that stems from the application of the senses we all have, not the possession of additional ones. I regard claims to the contrary as hokum.

Nonetheless, as autumn approaches I often sniff a whiff of sulfur in the air, and I’m not sure everyone else does. It coincides with the beginning of preparations for the college football season, annually the grandest of the entertainment offerings of our institutions of higher education. It ain’t the football (or its co-“major” basketball) I’m smelling but the hypocrisy that surrounds it.

This year the odor is especially strong. In months past the list of universities that have been fingered as athletic wrongdoers is long, and includes some of the major brands on the national scene. Ohio State is on it, along with Southern California, Tennessee, Oklahoma, UConn, Auburn, North Carolina and—yes—even Duke. I could go on but I think the point has been made.

If your alma mater isn’t mentioned above, or isn’t on any similar current list, I’m sure you’re smiling, if not smirking. Unfortunately, the claim that “my school does things right” stems from ignorance, not virtue. All the college sports big-timers are in the same stew, recruiting and exploiting the same kids with about the same methods. There are no good guys or bad guys in this play, only ones that have or haven’t been caught off. Every president of an NCAA Division I school goes to bed praying that the next sports scandal won’t be his to deal with.

I wrote about this state of affairs frequently in my professional sports-writing career—proportionally more than most of my peers, I’d wager—but my experience with the subject dates back farther. As an undergrad at the U. of Illinois (1955-59) I covered football for the student newspaper The Daily Illini, and helped out around the university’s press boxes as a fledgling pro. I knew some of the players and other actors in the shows, both there and at the U. of Michigan, where I was a grad student (1961-62).

Even then, in times that now seem rosily innocent, stuff happened. I knew about the $20 handshakes between players and alums after games and could tell you which courses enlisted jocks in search of eligibility-ensuring A’s or B’s. I knew that, say, Bobby Mitchell didn’t wind up playing football at Illinois because he innocently wandered astray from his native Arkansas.

Filling in as a reporter on the police beats in both Champaign, Ill., and Ann Arbor, Mich., furthered my education. Arrests of jocks for off-campus fighting and DUI weren’t infrequent, but by gentlemen’s agreements (which I accepted) they weren’t reported. The notion of “no harm (i.e., no one killed or maimed) no foul” obtained in such matters. Boys will be boys, you know.

Now, of course, the stakes are higher, the spotlight is brighter and the phone-book-sized NCAA rule book ever fatter, the last because schools don’t trust one another to follow simple regulations. Indeed, the very number of rules, and their intricacy, has created a widespread myopia about violations, allowing many to be shrugged off as technicalities while ignoring other, more serious transgressions.

The recent Ohio State football scandal provides a perfect case in point. To the ostensible cause of it-- football players swapping their memorabilia (jackets, game jerseys, championship rings) for tattoos (?!) — one’s immediate reaction is “So what?” The gear, after all, belonged to the players, and they could have sold or traded it without penalty the day after their football service to their university had ceased. Still, cashing in the way they did violated the NCAA rule about athletes receiving benefits not available to the student body at large, so the offending Buckeyes had to pay with suspensions.

According to a piece in Sports Illustrated magazine, though, darker forces were involved. The tattoo parlor in question was owned by one Edward Rife, a drug dealer and money launderer, and the place doubled as a players’ social center, somewhere they could “order in chicken” and “play tunes” under pleasant auspices, the article noted.

Any professional athlete accepting the hospitality of a lowlife like Rife would at least have some ‘splainin’ to do, but the NCAA rulebook doesn’t prohibit this sort of thing so it wasn’t on the bill of particulars the players or university had to answer for. Meanwhile, do you think Tattoo Daddy might have placed an occasional bet on an OSU game based on the info gleaned from his guests?


But the real crime of big-time college sports isn’t what’s done for the so-called student athletes, but what’s done to them. Often ill-prepared for college to begin with, they’re saddled with full-time jobs and then some, then hustled through “gut” courses designed to protect their eligiblity, not prepare them for the 21st Century economy. While the handful who land pro contracts are—or ought to be—okay, many of the rest are up the creek without a paddle when their playing days are done. Keep that in mind while you’re rooting for Old Siwash in the months ahead.

Monday, August 1, 2011


Back in the 1970s the Chicago Bears were noising about the possibility that they might move to a new stadium in the suburb of Arlington Heights, Ill. That disturbed Richard J. Daley, Chicago’s mayor at the time.

Fine, let ‘em go, Daley said, in effect. But he added that if the team moved there he’d see to it that it would have to call itself the Arlington Heights Bears.

Everyone had a good laugh at Da Mayor’s declaration, because neither he nor any other municipal authority owned a copyright on a city’s name, and it was available to any rock band, pizzeria or dry cleaner that wished to use it. Perhaps inadvertently, though, he did raise a worthwhile question: What do professional sports entities owe to the cities and fans that sustain them?

Alas, while the question is interesting the clear and self-evident answer ain’t. It’s nothing, nada, zilch. You may think that the Bears, or Cardinals (baseball or football), or Lakers are “our” teams, but they aren’t. They belong to the people who own them, and to no one else.

That is—or should have be-- the clear message of the lockouts that have dominated the sports pages these last several months. When our national professional football and basketball leagues failed to get the give-backs they demanded from their players’ unions (a broader trend, in case you haven’t noticed), they closed their doors and suspended doing business. I didn’t get to vote on it, and neither did you.

Last week the footballers bridged their differences and went back to work in time for their games to proceed, as everyone figured they would. Their enterprise, with annual revenues of about $9 billion, is just too profitable to stay closed when money is to be made. The owners started by asking for an additional $1 billion off the top of the league’s revenue pie before it’s divided. They wound up increasing their slice to 53% from 50%, a more-modest gain, while also agreeing to institute annual team-salary floors as well as ceilings.

The part of the contract that most interested fans—the owners’ bid to increase the regular season to 18 games from 16—was put off until at least 2013. Players balked, partly on ground that the move would increase injury risks, but their union historically has sacrificed health issues for more do-re-mi, so look for it to cave eventually in return for some kind of sweetener.

The lockout in the National Basketball Association is regarded as more likely to draw real blood. The NBA has about half the total revenues of the NFL (reportedly about $4.3 billion yearly) and team owners claim their combined bottom line showed a $300 million loss last season, with more than half their 30 clubs in the red individually.

The players pooh-pooh that, and we should, too. Few sports teams are publicly owned so they don’t have the auditing or reporting requirements public companies do. Further, basketball is a second (or third or fourth) business for most NBA team owners, so they can shift expenses (such as their own salaries) between or among these to suit themselves. For bargaining purposes it suits them to claim poverty, and they are demanding things like a “hard” team-salary cap and limits on contract lengths and guarantees that, theoretically, would hit players in their wallets.

But the thing to remember about today’s sports-money conflicts is that most of them aren’t owner-player but owner-owner. Team owners may be partners for some purposes, but they’re big-ego competitors for others, and bitter ones at that. The rules they seek are intended to restrain their own competitive instincts, with the players little more than interested observers. Yeah, the average NBA player salary is an eye-popping $5.15 million a year (the median is much lower), but the adage that nobody who works for somebody else is overpaid fully applies.

The NBA already has a team-salary cap, but it has so many exceptions and exemptions (all owner-approved) that it resembles a target on a police pistol range. Last season’s cap was about $58 million, and teams were taxed for exceeding $70 million, but actual payrolls ranged from the L.A. Lakers’ $95.3 million to the Minnesota T-Wolves’ $37.6 million, a Grand Canyon-like gap. Posture as the owners might, it’s unlikely that anything they’ll agree to will seriously alter the drives that account for the upper end of that imbalance.

But posture they will, and the players are taking it seriously. Several hoops stars are dickering with European teams for fallback employment and one—Kevin Love—says he might play professional beach volleyball.

You also might make plans to seek alternate entertainment come basketball time. It may be their game, but it’s your money.

Thursday, July 14, 2011


Wife Susie and I visited New York in early June, sopping up the sights and sounds of the big city for a week and then heading west to Buffalo for a few days with son Andrew, who lives there. The trip reminded me that, despite its many pleasures, few places are more uncomfortable than Gotham when the temperatures top 90. I also learned that Buffalo is a lot more interesting than I suspect most people suspect.

Along the way, Andrew in tow, we stopped in Cooperstown to see the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. It was my third time there, the first coming as a 12-year-old with my parents in 1950 and the second, with my own children, in 1980. If the progression continues my next visit will come around 2040, but I’m not taking bets I’ll make it.

They say—correctly-- that you visit the Hall to relive baseball’s past but wind up reliving your own. It’s a wonderful place, full of the relics of the sport whose roots run deepest into American soil and soul. It’s in out-of-the-way Cooperstown—30 miles from any major road—because baseball is said to have been invented there, in 1839, by Abner Doubleday. That all three of those claims have been debunked takes nothing away from the red-brick shrine or its bucolic setting.

The place I toured last month was quite different from the one I’d seen 30 (and 60) years before. I recall the old Hall as a messy sort of place, its mountains of memorabilia unartfully arrayed in store-window-type enclosures along dim corridors. Now its displays are much-better lighted, labeled and framed—more “user-friendly” in the current phrase.

That’s good in a way, but in a way not. Unlike the updated Hall, which telegraphs its punches, the old place had the capacity to surprise and, in doing so, delight. I remember coming across, unaware, things like Ty Cobb’s cracked little glove or Shoeless Joe’s battered bat, and thinking how their haphazard display added to their allure. When something is too neat the “Wow!” factor dissipates.

The visit also clarified something I’ve been telling hardheaded Pete Rose fans for years-- that while their hero does not have a plaque in the Hall (baseball bars him from the sportswriters’ ballot for his crimes against the game) he is amply represented in photo and film, and his records are celebrated. No amount of grousing can obscure the fact that bad-boy Pete is getting his due immortalitywise, maybe and then some.

As one strolls the Hall, the current game naturally comes to mind, as does the question of which active players someday will be honored in its galleries. It’s fashionable to declare that today’s players lack the grittiness of those of days past, and that the game’s talent level generally ain’t what it used to be, but once it comes to list making many names present themselves.

A half-dozen of the current performers, I think, qualify as first-ballot shoo-ins when their playing days are done, if they can keep their noses clean. By my order of distinction they are Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Omar Visquel, Albert Pujols. Ichiro Suzuki and Pudge Rodriguez. That, of course, assumes that Visquel and Rodriguez eventually will retire as active players, which they may not.

After that comes some present and recent-day stars that might be called the asterisk group because of their links with revelations of steroid use, which is to say cheating. ARod is on it, along with the recent retirees Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Manny Ramirez and Roger Clemens. There’s nothing keeping them off the Hall ballot when they are five years removed from the fields, but there’s also nothing to require that the writer-electors vote for them.

To date (and happily), juicers haven’t fared well with the scribes, with the bloated slugger Mark McGwire never topping 24% of the vote in his four years of eligibility (75% is needed to elect) and Rafael Palmeiro, a 500-homer, 3,000-hit guy who normally would have been an easy “yes,” getting just 11% in 2010, his first year. Some of the above-named fellas might fare better than those two; one could argue that Bonds was a Hall-caliber player before he turned to the needle. Chances are, though, that they’ll all have to sweat to get in no matter what their accomplishments were.

Finally, there’s a larger category of players who are still cooking, showing Hall potential but having borderline stats or lacking the large body of excellent work usually required for admission. Vlad Guerrero is on it, along with Jim Thome, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Joe Mauer, Ryan Braun, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Tim Lincecum.

Before some of them get in—mainly the pitchers—standards might have to change. Halladay is the best current-day starting pitcher but checks in with 180 wins over an already-long career of 14 seasons. Lee, the second best, has just 111 in 10. Five-man rotations and managers’ quick hooks have changed the parameters for pitching greatness. Still, it makes you wonder how Greg Maddox and Randy Johnson won 300 plus, doesn’t it?

Friday, July 1, 2011


It’s no news that the 162-game baseball regular season is too long by any reasonable standard. It’s also no news that it never will get shorter, no matter how many new layers of playoffs are added. That’s because the schedule is guided by the dictates of commerce, not competition, and reducing it would violate the first rule of business, which is that you can’t make any money if the store isn’t open.

For the followers of some teams, though, the schedule can be too short. One of those usually is my Chicago Cubs, who again this season are out of it even though the campaign is only about half completed. Yogi said (or is said to have said; Joe Garagiola invented many of the so-called Yogiisms) “It’s never over ‘til it’s over,” but he was mistaken.

Fact is, the Cubs have been OOI from the outset this year, and I could have written this piece any time since opening day. I’ve attended their spring training games in Mesa, Arizona, for, maybe, 25 years now, and I’ve never seen Cubdom as dispirited as it was this March, or for better reason. No amount of the innate optimism that is a requisite for being a Cubs’ fan could survive the sloppy play and dead-ass decorum the team displayed during its vernal exercises. To think that would change with the start of serious hostilities would have been delusional.

Expectations were low to begin with coming off last year’s 75-87 won-lost record, and weren’t helped by the team’s naming Mike Quade to succeed Lou Piniella as manager. With an inflated and unproductive payroll leaving little room for roster maneuver, a new manager with some pizzazz might have helped rouse the faithful, but Quade had gathered so little celebrity in his 35-plus years in the game that many couldn’t pronounce his name (it’s kwa-dee). At the rate he’s going he’ll be gone before they can.

General Manager Jim Hendry’s bad personnel decisions brought about the current mess. Alas, they didn’t end with the Major League club. That was apparent as soon as the team needed to fill early-season openings created by the sort of injuries every team has. The best Hendry could do to fill a starting-pitching hole was to dredge up the veteran punching bag Doug Davis, and his first outfield call-up was Luis Montanez, a 29-year-old minor-league lifer whose upside was negligible. If Montanez is the best the farm system can offer, our epic title drought only will continue.

I’m sure that by now you’re thinking “enough, already.” Cubs’ fans’ laments are old stuff and I can’t pretend that mine adds much to the genre. This time, however, I offer a solution as well as a complaint. It comes by way of Eddie Cohen, a pal from our long-ago days at Roosevelt High School.

As those who know him can attest, Eddie is a Cubs’ fan without peer. He is venerable, with his allegiance dating from the 1940s. He is knowledgeable, able to call your Ransom Jackson and raise you a Peter LaCock. His good nature and cheerfulness are legendary, despite the blows regularly delivered by the objects of his baseball affections.

But along the way Eddie also acquired some wisdom, and put it to use. His epiphany came in 1997 when the Cubbies, despite a lineup that included Ryne Sandberg, Sammy Sosa and Mark Grace, opened the season with a 14-game losing streak that killed hope aborning. “I was miserable,” Eddie recalls. “I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat.”

He adds” OK, I ate, but I didn’t enjoy it much.”

From this depth of despair Eddie founded Cubs Anonymous, a 12-step program to cure Cubs addiction. He opened a website and, for a relative pittance, offered t-shirts, membership cards and bumper stickers to those in need. He even convened a meeting in which CA members confessed their failures and professed their determination to overcome them, although an excess of laughter discouraged repeats of such sessions.

Eddie laughed along because—of course—CA was meant to be fun, but he says the venture helped put his misery into perspective and allowed him to better roll with the punches. You, too, can share his improvement by going to and clicking on “join.” There you can peruse and contemplate the 12 steps and learn how following them will improve your life.

The website often is balky, so if you can’t make it work you can send $14 to Eddie at Apparel Resources, 1125 Lake Cook Rd. #208, Northbrook, Ill., 60062, and he’ll mail you a handsome CA t-shirt.

It’ll turn heads when you wear it at Wrigley Field.

Thursday, June 16, 2011


Newspaper reporters don’t have heroes among the people they write about, or, at least, aren’t likely to admit it if they do. That would break the objectivity rule that governs most American news organizations, one that’s honored far more strictly than most believe.

Also, we newsies aren‘t worshipful types, a trait that sometimes gets us into trouble around the house.

However (my favorite word), in my travels in the world of sports I did encounter people I thought were worthy not only of praise but also of emulation. Mostly, these were not the big-time athletes who attained fame by capitalizing on inborn, genius-level physical attributes but never would admit as much, or the control freaks who directed their movements. I preferred sports folks who’d thought about their places in the Great Scheme of Things and concluded that the sun didn’t rise to see them get out of bed. Here are three of them, and you have to be a real fan to recognize their names.

-- The winningest college-football coach ever isn’t Joe Paterno, Bobbie Bowden or some other CEO of a football “program” at one or another Enormous State U. It’s JOHN GAGLIARDI, who, at age 84, still coaches the sport at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., where he’s been since 1953. His teams have won 478 games—77 more than Joe Pa’s-- and four national small-college championships. He’s done it by breaking just about every rule in the coaches’ handbook.

Gagliardi got his first coaching job—and framed his philosophy—as a 16-year-old high schooler in his native Trinidad, Colorado, where, in 1943, he was elected by his teammates to replace the coach who’d suddenly been drafted into the military. With teenage chutzpah he decided he’d run the show by jettisoning everything the previous coach did that he didn’t like. That included contact scrimmages, heavy calisthenics and long drills of any kind. His judgment was confirmed with a league title.

Gagliardi added to his “no” list when coaching became his adult occupation. He eschews compulsory running and weightlifting, informing players that it’s up to them to get in shape. He limits players’ film viewing to game-before successful plays that affix a positive image. He spurns the title of “coach,” preferring that his players call him “John” (“when one calls me ‘coach’ I want to call him ‘player,’” he says). His players, none of whom are on athletic scholarship (NCAA Division III doesn’t permit them), run through their plays 90 minutes a day four days a week in season, period. When appropriate, some of those minutes are spent in his “nice-day drill,” where they lay on their backs admiring the sunny sky.

He’s had offers to leave St. John’s, including one from the Minnesota Vikings, but turned them down. “I doubt if I’d find better kids elsewhere, so why move?” he reasons.


-- DOT RICHARDSON was an athletic genius, so good at softball that at age 10 she was playing on women’s teams. The shortstop was even better when she grew up, becoming the best softballer of her era and starring on two gold-medal-winning U.S. Olympic teams. The photo of her rounding bases after hitting the home run that won the 1996 O Games final, arms raised and face alight, remains a glowing image of that fest.

When she wasn’t playing games, though, Dot was doing things that she came to believe were more important. She got through college (at UCLA) and medical school, eventually becoming an orthopedic surgeon. She became a full-time doc after her 2000 athletic retirement and now, in addition to a private practice, is medical director at the U.S. Triathlon Training Center in Florida and a member of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. In her spare time she gives motivational talks to adults and kids.

I spent the best part of a day with her in 2000, and sports talk occupied, maybe, an hour of it. She said she probably was lucky that she played a sport that offered few financial opportunities, because otherwise she might not have developed her other talents. “My parents raised me to believe that gifts should be shared, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have two,” she said. And who knows? she added-- maybe as time goes by she’d discover others.

--- DICK BAVETTA wasn’t much of a basketball player, but he loved the game so much that, in full adulthood, he quit a good-paying stockbrokers’ job to referee in the Eastern League, a circuit that was so tough he had to bring along his brother, a New York cop, for post-game protection. When Dick’s wife complained about his travel he decided he liked basketball better than her, and the pair split. This might not have been admirable, but it was honest.

For nine years he was rejected as an NBA ref, partly because of his scrawny physique. He finally made it in 1975, at age 36, when the base pay for new refs was $200 a game (it’s about $130,000 a year now, but vets make a lot more). His first 30 years in the league, he never missed a game while moving from the bottom of the efficiency chart to the top. He’s still at it at 71, staying in shape by running eight miles on his off days and in the summers, in addition to the four or five miles a contest he logs over the eight-month season. He takes a day off after each campaign “just so nobody can say I never take a vacation.”

Unlike many sports figures, Bavetta has a sense of fun. That was on display during the 2007 NBA All-Star Game weekend, when he and Charles Barkley, 25 years younger but many pounds heavier, engaged in a foot race on court, for a charity purse. Barkley won—he always has been quicker than he looked—and afterward kissed the top of Bavetta’s bald head. Bavetta stood still for that, too, enshrining himself forever in the Good Sport’s Hall of Fame.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


As a nation we are into the new, always eager to declare the latest to be the greatest. The annual antidote to this error is the NBA playoffs, the current edition of which now is entering its final stage.

When the playoffs began some weeks ago many believed they would signal a changing of the guard in our basketball major league. The best record in the regular season was earned by the Chicago Bulls, led by their whirling dervish guard Derrick Rose, at age 22 the league’s youngest-ever MVP. In the West the up and comers were the Oklahoma City Thunder and their duo of precocious 22 year olds, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

The notion that a new age was aborning was underscored when the two best teams of the last decade—the L.A. Lakers and S.A. Spurs-- were shoved aside rudely in preliminary rounds.

But here we are at finals time and who’s still standing? The Dallas Mavericks, surely one of the oldest aggregates ever, and the Miami Heat, a younger but still solidly veteran crew. As I’ve been noting for years, the NBA victory stand is no place for young men. Another name for a “good, young” NBA team is “also ran.”

This state of affairs stems in large part from basketball’s status as our best-played sport. Those of us with memories of times long past can only marvel at the skills and athleticism of today’s players, which dwarf those of previous eras. High-school teams today would beat top college teams from my younger days, and the wonders the pros perform routinely surpass understanding.

Television has spurred basketball’s growth by turning every game into a clinic for young players, but I think that by scaling it down to screen size the medium also diminishes the sport. Only when viewed “live” from courtside can the size, speed and strength of NBA players be fully appreciated. I know that such seats are expensive (us press got ‘em free), but sitting in one once is worth a place on every sports fan’s bucket list.

If you play in the NBA you almost certainly have the combination of agility and spring the players call “hops”—at least initially-- but the game has evolved far past the point where that alone suffices for success. A range of skills must be cultivated, along with judgment, which translates roughly into the ability to know when to do what. They take time to acquire.

Michael Jordan, the best basketball player (and maybe the best athlete) ever, was in his seventh season in the league before he hoisted a championship trophy. The Heat’s LeBron James, the current best, already has played in eight without earning the privilege. Dirk Nowitzki, the Mav’s ace and one of the all-time most-versatile offensive big men, is a 13-season vet still vying for his first ring.

Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, All-Pros all, put in a total of 36 seasons before the basketball gods allowed them to combine to win in 2008 in Boston. Lakers’ great Kobe Bryant won his first championship in his fourth pro campaign, but he had help from guys like Shaquille O’Neal, Glen Rice, Ron Harper and A.C. Green, who’d been around the block a time or three.

It’s not just a team’s starters who require seasoning; when a coach peers down his bench late in a playoff game he’s not looking for dewy youth but for the grizzled likes of Robert Horry, who could sit on his butt for two hours, then step on court and immediately nail a three, grab an offensive rebound or plant a strategic elbow. Horry collected seven NBA rings with three different teams over a 16-year career, most of them in latter-day supporting roles.

It’s often asked around Chicago how new-hero Rose stacks up against old-hero Jordan at the same, early stage of Rose’s development. Pretty evenly, I’d say. Both came into the league with hops a mundo and the ability to see openings and angles to the hoop invisible to lesser basketball intellects. Jordan went on to improve his straight-on shooting ability, as has Rose, although so far to a lesser extent.

But six or seven years into his career Jordan developed the fade-away jump shot that rounded out his game by making him lethal from mid-range—the same shot, by the way, that has sustained Nowitzky and Bryant in productive hoops maturity. Young Derrick ought to give the shot a try while he’s sweating through his summer drills. Like many a good young baseball pitcher, he’ll soon be realizing that his fastball alone won’t get him and his mates where they want to go.

Saturday, May 14, 2011


One of the nice things about living in the Phoenix area is that there are many real people—i.e., Chicagoans—here; so many, in fact, that the place would pretty much empty out if we all had to go back.

Just about anything you can get in Chicago, you also can get here. My favorite lunchtime treats, including Chicago-style hotdogs, Italian beef and gyros, are close at hand, often at places with “Chicago” in their names. Besides excellent brisket sandwiches, Goldman’s Deli at Hayden and Indian Bend in Scottsdale has Cubs, Sox, Bulls and Bears photos on its walls. I’m in one of them, watching a patented Michael Jordan slam dunk at a long-past NBA All-Star-Weekend contest.

Although the natives don’t like to hear it, we Chicagoans also feel right at home in Arizona when it comes to politics. Pocket-stuffing politicians are as much a part of the desert landscape as they are on the gray streets of the famously corrupt Windy City, and maybe more so.

There’s a difference in the latter regard, though, and an important one. Chicago pols look, talk and act like crooks, and don’t much care who knows it. In Arizona they come off as family-values, law-and-order pillars of the community; as my mother would have put it, “butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths.” Still, when it comes to pillage, they can hold their own in any league.

Some of the scams pulled off here have been breathtaking even by Chicago standards. Topping the list is the so-called alternative-fuels caper of 2000. Jeff Groscost, then the blow-dried State House speaker from suburban Mesa, snuck through the legislature a bill to give rebates from state coffers of up to 40% of the price of new SUVs and pickup trucks to buyers who had propane or natural-gas systems installed in the vehicles, whether or not they ever used them. Then he spread the word among friends and neighbors, along with the name of a henchman whose company did such installations. Before the whistle was blown this crowd bilked the state treasury out of $200 million, a Haul of Fame haul. Best, even after it was revealed, nobody went to jail, proving that, in Arizona, if you make the law you aren’t breaking it.

Now fast-forward to the present past numerous similar episodes, including the current investigations of our beloved “World’s Toughest Sheriff” Joe Arpaio for, among other things, misappropriating $100 million in county funds. Maybe you’ve read about our Fiesta Bowl scandal, which didn’t approach the alternative-fuels mess in depth but certainly exceeded it in breadth.

The Fiesta Bowl was begun in 1971, partly as a way to make sure that our local U., Arizona State, had a New Year’s date; the Sun Devils played in its first three editions, and in four of the first five. From there it clambered to big-time status, eventually joining the long-established Rose, Orange and Sugar bowls as venues for the annual national championship game for our nation’s football-playing scholars. In the process it brought many tourist dollars to the Phoenix area.

But while the Fiesta Bowl was doing good it also was doing well for those in and around it. It turns out that the non-profit, tax-exempt bowl corporation was a goodie bag for those in the know, providing excessive salaries and expense accounts to its administrators and game tickets, junkets, backdoor campaign contributions and other nifty gifties to pal-pols. Among its internal beneficences were a four-day, $33,000 birthday bash at Pebble Beach Golf Club for its executive director, John Junker; $13,000 in wedding expenses for a Junker aide; and a $1,200 outing for visiting firemen at a local strip club.

The names of the politicians on the bowl’s freebies list included the president of the State Senate and the speaker of the House. They, and others, have been busy writing belated reimbursement checks and updating their financial-disclosure forms in an effort to wash off some of the resulting publicity stink. In that category is Jim Lane, the mayor of my home city of Scottsdale. The bowl hosted and catered a fund raiser for him while he was running for the office in 2008, and he only lately got around to paying for it. He didn’t pay sooner because he never got a bill, he’s explained.

The hits kept on coming even after the scandal’s first inklings broke in the Arizona Republic. The bowl paid $55,000 to Grant Woods, a former state attorney general, to conduct an internal audit of its operations. He swiftly produced a document that found no wrongdoing by anyone. When continuing reports of misdeeds finally forced a fuller investigation, it came out that Woods had paid $20,000 from his fee for assistance to a bowl lobbyist, who went on to “prep” the employees Woods interviewed. “Key people may have lied to me,” Woods sheepishly told The Republic.

Incidentally, that newspaper’s publisher, John Zidich, should have had a front-row seat for the shenanigans because he’d been a Fiesta Bowl director for six years before resigning last month.

Yes, the sun shines here every day, and the area sparkles with a day-before-yesterday newness foreign to cities Back East. But the winds carry the same odors we Chicago transplants are used to.

In a way, it’s comforting.

Thursday, May 5, 2011


Usually, there’s good news and bad news about trying to pick a Kentucky Derby winner, and this year is no exception. It’s always difficult because the entrants are equine adolescents who are still growing and developing, none will have run the Derby distance of 1 ¼ miles, and the big field of 20 horses makes bumping and jostling inevitable, putting a premium on racing luck. The good news is that, in the absence of a strong favorite, the above factors conspire to ensure a good payout no matter who wins.

Betting on favorites isn’t much fun, so I’m planning to ignore the likely, lukewarm betting choices—Dialed In and Uncle Mo—in favor of a four-horse, $2 exacta box of mid-range picks, costing me $24. My selections will be Archarcharch, the Arkansas Derby winner whose morning-line odds are 10-1; Shackleford, who should be at or near the early lead at 12-1; Midnight Interlude (10-1), who won the Santa Anita Derby from a far-outside post after being momentarily knocked off stride in the home stretch; and late-running Nehro (6-1), who came up just short in a couple of 1 1/8-milers and should benefit from the added distance, despite a poor post position.

That’ll be a 1-14-15-19 ticket. In order of preference my picks are 1. Nehro, 2. Archarcharch, 3. Midnight Interlude and 4. Shackleford. The exacta should be worth more than $100 if any of the four finish 1-2.

I’ll also put a what-the-heck $5 win ticket on Pants on Fire, who won the tough Louisiana Derby. I like his odds of 20-1 and his rider, Rosie Napravnik, who’d be the first female jockey to win the race.

The best idea, of course, is to make your own choices, but even if you don’t, try to watch the race. It’s always a great show.

Sunday, May 1, 2011


Never is a long time, during which many unlikely things can happen, so the saying “never say never” probably is apt. Still, when applied to thoroughbred racing’s annual Triple Crown series, it’s hard to avoid using the “n” word.

No horse has won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont since Affirmed did it in 1978, and from the looks of things none is likely to do it in the cycle that begins with next Saturday’s Derby (May 7). That’s not so much a commentary on the immediate field as it is on the general state of my favorite participant sport (when you bet, you participate).

Few enterprises anywhere are as badly run as the erstwhile Sport of Kings, and its clinging to tradition in staging the Triple Crown races, its best yearly shot at attention in an ever-more-crowded sports’ calendar, is the best evidence. That’s because the timing and conditions of the TC’s components, established willy-nilly in years long past, run directly contrary to recent and current trends at the ovals. The fact that everyone in the sport knows this has made not a whit of difference.

To win a Triple Crown today a colt or filly (a colt officially becomes a horse and a filly a mare at age five) would have to overcome his or her own history in addition to strong competition and the vicissitudes of racing luck. Worse, given the fate of some of those who have vied seriously for the honor of late, owners and trainers risk the careers or even the lives of their most-valuable animals to even try it.

The Triple Crown never has been easy to win, which is one reason it’s one of sports’ most cherished prizes. Since 1930, when the writer Charles Hatton of The Daily Racing Form coined the name, it has been captured but 10 times, and that number jumps by just one if you go back to 1919, when Sir Barton won it unawares.

It starts the first Saturday in May with the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, which at 1 ¼ miles is the farthest by 1/8-mile any competitor will have run. Two weeks later comes the 1 3/16ths-miles Preakness Stakes at the old Pimlico Race Track in Baltimore. The final leg, staged three weeks after that, is the hardest—the Belmont Stakes in New York, which, at 1 ½ miles, covers a longer distance than all but a few American thoroughbreds ever run. Winning three grueling, highly contested races in a five-week span becomes all the harder when it’s noted that the three-year-olds that are eligible for the series are the equivalent of 16-year-old humans, well short of their mature strength and development.

In years long past, such a feat was at least thinkable. Race horses then, well, raced. Citation, the 1948 TC winner, came to Churchill Downs on Derby Day with 16 starts under his cinch. The great Secretariat, the 1972 champ, had 12 pre-Derby races and Affirmed 13. By contrast, most of the entrants in Saturday’s go will have stepped on a track in earnest only four or five times, all at distances shorter than that of any of the Triple Crown tests.

That’s mostly because the economic focus of the sport long since has changed from racing to breeding. Racing may be in permanent decline on these shores, but it thrives in parts of Europe, the Middle East and Asia, and bidding for elite equine prospects has gone global. That’s meant that just about any horse that scores big on the track is whisked off to the breeding shed, post haste. Consequently, thoroughbreds these days are bred for speed, not stamina, meaning not only that they can’t stand up to frequent racing but also that they’re more prone to catastrophic breakdowns.

American racing’s biggest story of recent years was a sad one—of the colt Barbaro, who decisively won the 2006 Derby but broke a leg trying to win the Preakness and later died of the injury. One recent winner of the Derby and Preakness-- Smarty Jones in 2004—never raced again after failing in the Belmont. Big Brown accomplished the same double in 2008 but dragged in last at the Belmont and raced only twice more before being retired. “Too much too soon” applied to them all.

There’s a simple way to make the Triple Crown viable again. That would be to put more space between its parts, keeping the Derby in its traditional first-Saturday-in-May slot but running the Preakness the first Saturday in June—four week later—and the Belmont on July 4, about four weeks after that. That would give the contestants time to catch their breaths and, maybe, heal from the small hurts that can turn into larger ones.

I’m not nearly the first to propose this, but racing being racing, what makes sense counts for little in the decision-making process. Tradition is one obstacle to progress, as is the politics that always surrounds the awarding of racing dates in states with more than one track (including Kentucky, Maryland and New York). The fact that the sport lacks a national governing body with clout is a third.

But overriding is the plain ineptitude that kept from happening a match race in 2009 or 2010 between Zenyatta and Rachael Alexander, two sensational fillies who singly put a rare spotlight on the sport in those years. Like an updated Triple Crown series and the attention a winner would bring, that could have been a lifeboat for an activity that’s drowning, but in racing the only sounds you hear are “glub, glub, glub.”

Thursday, April 14, 2011


At times during my journalistic career I was told after misfiring in print that “you guys never get anything right.” I would answer that we reporters did make mistakes, but that our error percentage probably was no worse than that of the practitioners of other professions. It was just that we made our mistakes in public, where anyone with the four bits (it’s two bucks now) to buy my newspaper could see them, whereas others err pretty much in secret.

The same can be said for sports figures. It may seem that they do dumb things in extraordinary numbers, but it just may seem so because they’re public performers with no place to hide when they go awry.

During these past few weeks, though, sport’s dumbness quotient seems to have gone way up—so high that one suspects that something unusual is afoot. Maybe it’s the cold spring in many climes, or the radiation wafting across the ocean from that damaged nuclear plant in Japan, but the movie “Dumb and Dumber” appears to be replaying madly on our playing fields, sort of like “Groundhogs’ Day.”

There’s no difficulty in identifying one guy who has ranked high on the dumbness scale of late. He’s the one-time slugger Manny Ramirez, who last week announced that he was retiring from baseball rather than serve a 100-game suspension resulting from his testing positive for using a performance-enhancing drug. This was the second drug test Ramirez had failed, the first —of 50 games-- coming in 2009.

That first conviction came four years after baseball announced it finally was going to start testing in earnest for the substances that had warped its playing fields for the previous 15 years. Before 2005, taking steroids in baseball was a good percentage play for the talented, balancing a real but probably manageable long-term health risk against the sure riches a “big” season or two would bring. Afterward, with the risk of detection higher, the calculation was closer, even given the technological edge users always have over testers.

Steroids still exist in baseball but the guy who usually gets caught these days is the poor teenager from the Caribbean looking to impress the scouts rather than the established star. Big-star Manny could afford the best chemistry and guidance but, apparently, didn’t pop for it. With one strike against him he should have, but, I guess, that was “Manny being Manny.” It’s said that only dopes get caught doping. Now we’ll have to think of a name for someone who gets caught twice.

Vying with Manny are people who should have known better, the Federal prosecutors in the San Francisco case against another one-time slugger, Barry Bonds, for lying to a grand jury about his steroids use and obstructing justice in a previous case against the drug lab BALCO. The Feds’ case, in the works for years, was circumstantial but substantial, involving testimony from Bonds’ former teammates, business associates and, even, a mistress. These folks said they witnessed physical changes in the player that could only result from steroids use, or dealt in drugs with Bonds’ former personal trainer and boyhood pal, Greg Anderson. One witness, described as Bonds’ personal shopper, said she saw the trainer give Bonds a shot, directly countering the player’s claim that no one except physicians did that.

Then the prosecution put on the stand Dr. Arthur Ting, Bonds’ orthopedist. Steve Hoskins, Bonds’ ex-business manager, had testified he’d discussed the player’s steroid use with Ting many times, but Ting denied having had such conservations. And -- oh, yes—the good doctor volunteered that he’d prescribed “legal” steroids for Bonds that could have had caused the changes described.

What were those prosecutors thinking? A simple Google search of Ting would have revealed his run-ins with California medical overseers, one of which resulted in him serving a five-year probation for allowing others to write prescriptions in his name and keeping inadequate records for “dangerous” drugs he’d prescribed. It also would have informed them that two of Ting’s sons had quit the U. of Southern California football team amid allegations of steroid use.

Any watcher of “Law and Order” knows that no lawyer puts up a witness whose testimony he can’t predict. The government got a “guilty” verdict on their obstruction charge but the jury, probably confused by Ting’s statements, deadlocked on the lying counts, with some concluding that maybe Bonds really did believe that flaxseed oil accounted for the adult growth spurt that caused his head, feet, muscles and home-run numbers to swell. It’s possible, huh?

Exhibit C in this little exposition (it takes three examples to make a column) is my favorite baseball team, the Chicago Cubs. I nominate them not because of their history of futility that impresses Tibetan monks, Australian aborigines and others with a longer time perspective than ours, but what they’ve done lately. They enter the current season with the game’s sixth-highest payroll but, by all indications, the 15th or 20th best team. They owe that discrepancy largely to their general manager, Jim Hendry, whose judgment consigned more than a third of their $125-million payroll (37% to be exact) to three players who’ll be of little or no use in the campaign ahead.

One is Alfonso Soriano, who’ll make $19 million this year. Hendry signed The Fonz to an eight-year, $136 million contract in 2007, and got only two decent seasons from him before he lapsed into mediocrity at the plate and ineptitude in the field. In 2008, the GM made a similar blunder by wooing Kosuke Fukudome from Japan with a four-year, $48 million deal. Fuku was mediocre from the outset and now is a fourth outfielder earning (as it were) $14.5 mil.

The worst, however, was yet to come: the 2009 deal that brought in Milton Bradley, an addled outfielder who was bad news both on the field and in the clubhouse. Bradley was peddled after the season to the Seattle Mariners for starting-pitcher Carlos Silva in a swap of bad contracts. Silva turned out to be a modest find, going 10-6 in wins and losses after an 8-0 start, and had been penciled into this year’s rotation, but was cut from the team after a few bad early outings in spring training. He’ll draw a $12,750,000 salary from the Cubs this year while playing elsewhere, if at all.

Hendry, et al, no doubt thought they could get along without Silva, but a week into the season two members of the Cubs’ five-man starting-pitching rotation were down with injuries, forcing the team to scrounge the minors and retirement lists for live-body throwers. Hey, the Cubs didn’t get where they are by being smart.

So who’s your pick for dumbest— Manny, the Feds or the Cubs? You can’t make a wrong choice.

Friday, April 1, 2011


I don’t know about you but I can’t remember getting much out of school. I had a good-enough time, I guess, and escaped more or less unscathed, but can’t recall any teacher doing or saying much that struck a chord. That led to my belief that school mostly is a place where kids get together with other kids, from whom they learn. The continuing national hysteria over education goes down easier with that in mind.

However (you knew there’d be one), one line from my years at Roosevelt High on Chicago’s great Northwest Side has stayed with me. It was uttered by Captain Seabury, the school’s band director, whose military title, which everyone used, stemmed from his WWI service.

I was thoroughly unmusical but encountered the droll captain in a freshman study hall he monitored. Sometimes apropos and sometimes not, he’d ask us kids “Do you know what you know?”

Now as then, it’s an excellent question. Much of what rattles around in our brains is garbage, the residue of stereotypes, wishful thinking and downright misinformation. Along with the few actual facts we’ve managed to absorb, it’s all mixed together into the goo that makes us the lovable creatures we are.

The sub-world of sports, my usual focus of discourse, is not immune to conceptual distortion; in fact, a case can be made that its conventional wisdom contains more nonsense than that of most subjects. Now come Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim to make that case with the book “Scorecasting; the Hidden Influences Behind How Sports are Played and Games are Won” (Crown Books, New York, 278 pages).

Using statistics from many sources—not the least of which were the major sports leagues themselves-- boyhood chums Moskowitz, a professor of finance at the University of Chicago, and Wertheim, a writer for Sports Illustrated magazine, put to the test many things that sports fans and participants think they know for sure. They concluded that, often, they really don’t.

In a way I found the book satisfying, and in a way not. The satisfying stuff, naturally, came when the duo’s data confirmed examples of sports’ home truths that I’ve long suspected were wrong. For instance:

-- Batters always should “take” a 3-0 pitch. Not so, the authors concluded from voluminous data; umpires increase the strike zone enormously in such instances, so the “taking” batter probably just concedes a strike. (Conversely, the zone narrows on 0-2 pitches.)

--- A punt usually is the best fourth-down call. Nope; risk-reward analysis (you can read the book for details) usually dictates that it’s best to go for it on fourth down, even in a team’s own territory. I liked this chapter particularly because it cited approvingly the example of the Tennessee high school coach Kevin Kelley, whose teams never punt and have compiled an overwhelmingly winning record and won several state titles. The remarkable Kelley was the subject of my blog on Jan. 1, 2009. You can find it by scrolling down.

-- When a basketball player gets within a foul of fouling out in the final quarter, it’s a good idea to bench him so he’ll be available during a game’s final minutes. No again. The average NBA player with five fouls picks up a sixth just 21% of the time, and a “star” (defined as one who has been among the top 10 in any year’s Most Valuable Player voting) just 16%. Either way, taking him out deprives his team of his services for as long as he sits and lessens its chance of winning

--In football and basketball a good offense is nice but (as Michael Jordan always declared) defense wins championships. Actually, offense-- as determined by statistical rankings-- turns out to be an equally good a title predictor in both those sports.

--It’s smart for a coach to call a timeout to “ice” a shooter or kicker just before a key free-throw or field-goal attempt. Actually, “iced” and “uniced” competitors succeed at almost exactly the same rate.

But harder for me to swallow was the book’s showiest thesis: that the home-field advantage-- sports’ unquestioned central verity—is caused not by such things as home cooking, familiar routines and playing conditions, and the encouragement of friendly crowds, but by game-official bias. The last, the authors assert, accounts for almost everything that measurably favors home clubs.

Moscowitz and Wertheim have stats aplenty to back up that contention, including home-visitor differences in foul calls in basketball and football, ball-strike calls in baseball and the awarding of injury time in soccer. Moreover, they say their data shows that the more crucial the game situation, the more umps, refs, etc., help the home team.

It’s not that officials are instructed to be ‘homers” or that the phenomenon is part of any conscious intent, the authors say. It’s because of a psychological concept called “influence conformity.” This holds that in pressurized situations decision makers will lessen the pressure on themselves by siding with what feels like the majority view of any issue. In other words, in sports they get along by going along with the home crowd. It’s human nature, the authors aver.

Maybe so, but I have my doubts. It’s been my observation that a certain personality type— let’s call it a “screw you” guy or gal—tends to gravitate toward certain occupations. Policing is one, also news reporting. Sports officiating is a third. These are people who enjoy going against the grain, who’d just as soon say “f---, er, screw you,” as make nice. In the ninth inning of game seven of a World Series, with the home team down by a run, two outs, the bases loaded and a 3-2 count on the batter, my money would be on the ump calling a borderline pitch “Strike three!” instead of “Ball four!”.

I have no data, of course, just a gut feeling.

If you don’t agree, screw you.