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.