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?