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.