Saturday, December 15, 2012

CLUCK CLUCK


If you’ve heard clucking sounds as you’ve gone about your rounds of late, don’t be alarmed. It’s probably just some of baseball’s chickens coming home to roost during sportswriter voting in the Baseball Hall of Fame’s 2013 election.
            
            Ordinarily the vote would be occasion for celebration, especially this year with Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa on the ballot for the first time.  Bonds was far and away the best batsman of his time and Clemens was, maybe, the best pitcher. Sosa was the best hitter in the long and rich (but, alas, trophy-short) history of the Chicago Cubs.  Based on their stats each would be a shoo-in for the Hall, the unanimous or near-unanimous choice of adoring scribes. There hasn’t been such a stellar candidate class in years.
            
           What we’ve got instead, though, is a debate about the suitability of the three for a place among their sport’s immortals.  Substantial evidence has linked each to the use of performance-enhancing drugs during their seasons of greatest productivity, drugs that were and are illegal without prescriptions and banned by baseball’s rules. Their accomplishments have been called into question, as have their characters. It’s not pretty from any angle.
            
           Baseball’s overseers have no one but themselves to blame for this. From the early 1990s until 2005—a period I call the HITS (for “Heads In The Sand”) Era-- they closed their eyes to the steroids use that warped their game on the field and in the record books. Their blindness was willful; after Associated Press reporter Steve Wilstein spotted a hormone-laced dietary supplement on an open shelf in Mark McGwire’s St. Louis Cardinals’ locker during his 70-home-run drive in 1998, no one could claim he didn’t know what was going on, but seven more years passed before real tests were instituted. ”Chicks love the long ball,” was the mantra of the day, but team owners and the players-union’s leaders loved it more.

 Indeed, their devotion amounted to an addiction, and now it’s up to the 600 or so present or former baseball writers who form the Hall of Fame elector group to sort out the fallout from the habit. I’m one of them.

 So far, the verdict has been clear: cheaters have no place on the plaque wall in the Cooperstown shrine. Exhibits A and B for this have been the fate of known dopers McGwire (by his own belated admission) and Rafael Palmeiro, who failed a drug test in 2005 just months after testifying to Congress than he never used. Both have ample H of F credentials but in their combined eight years on the ballot neither has come close to reaching the 75% vote needed for induction. McGwire topped out at 23.7% in 2010, Palmeiro at 12.6% last year.

One argument for admitting the dope-connected to the Hall is that everyone was doing it when they played. From the evidence I’ve seen that’s not true; when I was a locker-room regular during HITS I asked more than a few executives, managers and veteran players for their confidential estimates of player drug use, and most put it at about one third.  The other argument—raised strongest in the cases of Bonds, Clemens and Sosa—is that they were so good they deserve entry anyway, but by me that’s unprovable and therefore unconvincing.

In baseball there’s cheating and cheating, and theirs was the wrong sort. It’s one thing for a fielder who traps a fly ball to raise it in triumph as though he’d made a catch, it’s quite another to cold-bloodedly weigh risks and rewards and choose to shoot up. Bonds, Clemens and Sosa all were richly rewarded for their decisions (each was paid between $15 million and $19 million a year in the latter stages of their very lucrative careers), and no one is asking for a refund or trying to erase their records. But no one has a right to a perfect life, and now a bill is coming due.

So I won’t be voting for the three this time around and, apparently, neither will most of my colleagues; in an AP poll of Hall electors two weeks ago (I wasn’t asked), just 48% said they’d include Bonds on their ballots, 43% said they’d list Clemens and 18% yessed Sosa. If that’s as accurate as the presidential-election polls, none of the three will be making an induction speech in July.

 They’re not the only ones on the ballot, though, and this year’s field has extraordinarily depth. I’ll be voting for three first-time listees: Craig Biggio, Mike Piazza and Curt Schilling. Biggio was a gritty little guy who topped the magic 3,000-hits mark in his 20-season Houston Astros’ career while winning Golden Gloves at second base. Piazza was among the best-hitting catchers ever whose 396 home runs (of his 427) is a record for someone at the testing position. Schilling’s 3,116 career strikeouts are 15th on the all-time list and he had a 60% regular-season winning percentage (216-146). What’s more, he was brilliant in the post-season, where he posted an 11-2 record and 2.23 ERA in 19 starts.

We can put up to 10 names on our ballots and I’ll be adding four I’ve voted for previously: Edgar Martinez, the best DH so far; Lee Smith, a relief-pitching nonpareil; Alan Trammell, a brilliant shortstop over a 20-year career; and Jack Morris, the former Tigers’ and Twins’ pitching ace.

I’ll be rooting especially for Morris, in his 14th year on the ballot, who should have been enshrined already. His win total (254) is higher than Schilling’s, and is his proportion of wins (57%) is almost as good. He also was a great big-game pitcher whose 10-inning shutout for the Twins over the Braves in the seventh game of the 1991 World Series was one of the best performances I ever saw.

Also, the old-school Morris had his best years before widespread steroids use and, thus, can safely be considered to have played “clean.” That’s more than can be said for any latter-day star, even the ones I voted for. Maybe the worst thing about HITS is that it put a cloud over everyone who played during the era.  That ought to cost some people at least a few nights’ sleep.


Saturday, December 1, 2012

LABOR PAINS


                For most of my working life-- the 38 years I spent with the Wall Street Journal—I was a union member, first with the independent union that represented only Journal people and later with the national Communications Workers of America. The WSJ (Dow Jones & Co., actually) was a good place to work but it was a large company, with thousands of employees, and many times I was glad I had something bigger than me to represent my interests.

The recent decline in union membership in this land is sad, I think. Without such a buffer, many employers have been emboldened to demand 24/7 devotion from the people they hire while giving back little in the way of loyalty or security. In today’s lucky-to-have-a-job economy, the sign above the door over the typical workplace reads “like it or lump it.”  That’s not a good thing for the 99%.

One realm in which unions not only have survived but flourished, though, is big-time professional sports.  It took the athletes a long time to realize it, but their irreplaceable gifts and skills give them the sort of bargaining power others only can envy, and since they finally hired leaders astute enough to wield it-- most notably Marvin Miller, the ex-baseball-union head who died last week at age 95—they’ve prospered beyond their own or anyone else’s wildest dreams.

In 1967, the year before the Major League baseball union negotiated its first collective-bargaining agreement with the owners, the game’s annual minimum salary stood at $6,000. Today it’s $480,000. The comparable numbers in the National Football League are $7,000 and $390,000. Those gains are records not only for this planet but, I’m sure, also for any others in the universe that might be inhabited.  Any young man who lasts two or three seasons in either sport’s bigs—scrub or star -- will earn more than his father probably will in a lifetime.  Boggles the mind, doesn’t it?

But as successful as the sports unions have been at the bank, they’ve let down their members badly in other ways. Indeed, their single-minded focus on the paycheck has been the cause of the sort of short-sightedness that endangers the players’ enjoyment of their riches.

The baseball union’s main failing was its handling of the use of the performance-enhancing drugs (anabolic steroids, mostly) that shaped their sport for a 15-year period (1990-2005).  Baseball’s rules preluded use of the substances for that entire span, but the ban was toothless because of the game’s failure to implement any sort of effective testing procedures until ‘05. Team owners closed their eyes to the situation because they feared that exposing it might hurt their teams at the gate. The union went along with the charade, declaring drug use a “privacy” issue.

Of the two stances, the owners’ made the most sense; they are, after all, in it only for the money. The union, however, had the additional duty to protect its members’ overall well being, and its complicity forced each player to make the Faustian choice between the possible performance rewards of drug use and the small but real health risks the substances posed, either directly or by exacerbating other conditions. That a wrong decision could be tragic is witnessed by the death of Ken Caminiti, in 2004 at age 41, eight years after his steroids-fueled National League MVP season. The full bill has yet to arrive.    

The NFL Players Association is flunking a similar test in its handling of the player-safety issues that have dominated the sport’s headlines the past couple seasons. When the league uncovered the New Orleans Saints’ appalling bounty scandal last spring, and slapped suspensions on several Saints’ coaches and defensive players (including season-long sentences for head coach Sean Payton and linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who was alleged to have put up money for the aim-to-maim hits), the union sprang into action-- not on behalf of the victims of the scheme but the player perps, getting Vilma’s sentence reduced and supplying lawyers for three other Saints who are contesting their penalties in Federal court.  The players contend that league hearing practices violate their rights, and while I’m a big a due-process fan it would have been nice to hear their union express some concern for the players those guys targeted.

Worse yet as been the union’s championing of the perpetrators of the sort of helmet-to-helmet hits that are the prime cause of the concussions epidemic that poses an existential threat to the sport. The latest of these is the Baltimore Ravens’ safety Ed Reed, a serial headhunter who’s been cited for such offenses three times in as many seasons. Reed was handed a one-game suspension for his smackdown of Pittsburgh Steelers’ receiver Emmanuel Sanders in a November 18 game, but with union help Reed got the penalty reduced to a fine that will keep him on the field while saving him almost $400,000.

 The hit in question took place in the open for all to see--you can check it out online. Nothing about it recommends mitigation. If it’s not worth a suspension, nothing is. Maybe that’s the point.

          Fact is, the concussions problem in football is dire and despite pious rhetoric is getting worse at all levels. Former players are lined up by the hundreds to sue the NFL, charging it did little to prevent head injuries in past years and downplayed their significance once they occurred.  Sensible moms and dads are telling their sons to take up soccer instead. One would think the players’ union would be up in arms, screaming for rules that might allow more of its members to work crosswords puzzles when they’re 40 (like one banning head shots, on penalty of expulsion). Instead it protects the miscreants, making a bad situation worse.

 If I were an NFL player I’d demand a dues refund.

And hire a good lawyer.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

GRRRR!


           I used to be able to watch a National Football League game end to end, with only the usual toilet and beverage breaks.  Not any more. Now when I settle down of a Sunday afternoon I’m armed with my newspaper and a crossword puzzle or two, the better to amuse myself through the frequent breaks in the action.  They also give me an alternative to dwelling on the other things that make me gnash my teeth during a game.
                
           Being a blogger, I need not suffer in silence. Here are five things I’ve come to hate about the NFL.
               
           CONSTANT REPLAY-- Yes, I’ve complained about this before, but in its never-ending quest for perfection the league has doubled down on the practice the last couple of seasons, making it more irritating than ever.  From 1999 until last year, play-call challenges pretty much had to be initiated by coaches’ red flags, which were limited to two a game until the last two minutes of each half, when the replay booth took over. But beginning last season all scoring plays were tabbed for automatic booth review, and this season all plays resulting in turnovers were added to the list, ballooning it.

          Most of those automatic reviews are handled out of the sight of TV viewers, without disturbing the flow of the game, but some aren’t, and together with the ones made necessary by the red flags they’ve slowed some contests appreciably.  On top of the other types of game breaks—for TV commercials, penalties, each team’s three time outs per half and the two-minute warnings—they’ve turned games into stop-and-go- affairs that are far more stop than go.

The NFL has a stock answer for people like me who gripe about all the play reviews:  “You want to get things right, don’t you?” it asks. But even if one’s answer is “yes” it’s far from clear that constant replay achieves that goal. That’s because calls on some plays remain questionable even after being viewed from many angles, and the boys in the booth can still get it wrong when the visual evidence seems clear.

I refer specifically to the celebrated “worst call ever,” the last-play touchdown catch that gave Seattle its victory over Green Bay in a game last September 24. The play came on the last weekend of the league’s ill-conceived “replacement refs” adventure, and was widely viewed as evidence of the novices’ incompetence, but the real bad guys were the replay officials who upheld the catch even though the film showed that the defender clearly had possession and that the receiver had decked another Packer before the ball arrived.  With “right” calls like that who needs wrong ones?


The REAL bad guys, though, aren’t the microscope peerers in the booth but the league’s major suits and their absurdly puffed-up view of their game’s importance.  Jeez, fellas, it’s just football, played and coached by erring humans, and Gibraltar won’t crumble if a zebra makes an occasional mistake. Just let ‘em play the game.

PHANTOM TOUCHDOWNS-- I hate it when a ball carrier stretches the ball toward the goal line and is credited with a score if it breaks the “plane” even though it bounces away when he lands or is swatted away by a defender.  When did that start, anyway?  The word “touchdown” stems from football’s roots in rugby, where a scorer was supposed to touch the ball to the ground in the end zone before his tally could be counted. To be credited with a touchdown, a football player should have to control the ball after the play is completed, not just possess it fleetingly. That’s what the NFL already requires of a pass receiver who makes a diving catch anywhere on the field. Why should a higher standard be required of an ordinary pass completion than of a scoring play?

“THE CRAWL”—I hate the “crawl,” the info that’s scrolled along the bottom of my TV screen while the game is in progress.  Actually, it’s not the crawl I hate but the surfeit of information it contains, no doubt dictated by the unholy partnership of the NFL and the TV networks.

What I want from the crawl are the scores of the other games in progress, the better to follow my bets, but what I get are the endless lines of individual statistics that make an update interminable. Those stats are there to please the army of “fantasy” football players who have turned the game into a nerdish computer exercise.  That’s fine, I guess, but as far as I know only full-game stats count in the “fantasy” models, so why the running tallies? Also, the crawl invariably ignores one game each week, and it’s usually one that I’ve bet on.

“FLOPPING”—That’s a term usually associated with basketball or soccer, describing an exaggerated reaction to minor contact designed to draw a foul call. Footballers are manly men, and so generally don’t flop, but just about any time a pass goes uncaught the would-be receiver throws his arms into the air to feign outrage over a foul against him that he thinks an official missed. Sometimes --usually when the home crowd is in cahoots-- he gets his way. I hate that.

LIP-READER DEFENSE—I hate it when coaches cover their mouths with their charts while calling in a play. Do they think that a lip reader at home can decipher a message that’s coded anyway (“blue, 74, Oklahoma, on 3”) and call it to the opposing sideline for relay to the field before the next play is run? I doubt it. It’s just another example of the self-importance with which football types take their enterprise.

Also, who would do a thing like that? I mean, who besides Bill Belichick?
    



   

Thursday, November 1, 2012

KING OF THE DOPERS


As a columnist I wrote frequently about the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sports—proportionally more than most of my colleagues—so the subject of who might be doping often came up in my presence. The name that surfaced most was that of Lance Armstrong.

I found that interesting because Armstrong wasn’t your run-of-the-mill uberjock. He wasn’t physically imposing and his activity—road cycling—was off the main SportsCenter track. The Tour de France, where he made his bones, is an odd affair, a 2,000-mile journey up, down and around its title country that takes more than three weeks to play out annually. I daresay that few Americans could find the cable channel that aired it, much less watched.

Armstrong’s very ordinariness, though, and his cancer-survivor history, struck a chord with many, as did the idea that pedaling around, as many do, could be viewed as high sport.  Somewhere into his seven consecutive T de F victories (1999-2005) he became an A-lister, and stayed that way after his racing days were done.  Lots of weekend riders, in their bizarre Spandex togs, are there largely because of his example.

Still, Armstrong’s aura always has been patchy; he seemed too good to be legit, which usually is an indication that someone isn’t. When the does-he-or-doesn’t-he question arose, I firmly registered a “yes” vote.  And not only was I convinced the guy was dirty, I had a pretty good idea what he was taking.
          
            One didn’t need access to Armstrong’s medicine cabinet to reach those conclusions. Performance-enhancing drugs had tainted the insular ranks of top-level bike racing as far back as the 1960s, long before he came on the scene, and continued after he’d left it. By the time he’d become prominent two of his predecessors as Tour de France champions—Bjarne Riis (1996) and Jan Ulrich (1997)—had been linked to drug use and later stripped of their titles. Two that followed him—Floyd Landis (2006) and Alberto Contador (2010)--  met the same fate.

 Even while Armstrong was denying his own drug use (a course he’s continuing) those around him were taking falls; in one on-line compellation I saw, eight of the top-10 finishers in the 2003 Tour have been found to have taken PEDs at some point in their careers, and I suspect that the other two simply beat the rap.  What else could a reasonable person say about someone who was the king of a dopers’ sport?

The main “what” in the Armstrong equation (as well as that of top athletes in other endurance-based sports) was called EPO. That’s short for erythropoietin, a substance that occurs naturally in the human body but has been manufactured in synthetic form since about 1990. Synthetic EPO is intended for people with acute anemia but hardly was out of the bottle before jocks started hijacking it to hype their production of oxygen-carrying (and stamina-increasing) red-blood cells. Overuse could dangerously thicken blood, increasing stroke and heart-attack risk, but that was small concern to some seeking playing-field glory.

The real beauty part about synthetic EPO for athletes was that, because the substance also was naturally occurring, it couldn’t be spotted in the urine tests of the period.  I first wrote about it in 1997 after talking to a California biochemist named Allen Murray. A national-level masters swimmer, Murray had turned an off-hand remark by a fellow swimmer into a challenge and in 1993, with help from a small grant from the U.S. Olympic Committee, developed a molecule that would cling to synthetic EPO but not to the natural variety.  He figured that, with additional financing, his test could be in place for the 1996 Summer Olympics.

Then a funny thing happened—Murray’s phone stopped ringing.  With sports bureaucrats pleading small budgets and other priorities, 1996 came and went with no EPO test, and so, too, would the 1998 Winter Games with its potential EPO clientele of cross-country skiers.  Murray began to hear whispers that the drug-testing “community,” ever hostile to outsiders such as he, was circling its wagons while hustling to catch up with his results. When an EPO test finally was approved for the 2002 Winter Games it would be one developed by a French lab. By then Murray, sadder but wiser, had returned to his day job of modifying cotton-plant seed strains.

 A reliable EPO test wasn’t in place widely until 2004, near the end of Armstrong’s Tour reign, and even then it might have been circumvented by masking agents and an adept user’s dosage timing. (One of sport’s verities is that the users are ahead of the testers.)  Armstrong says he’s never flunked a drug test, but while the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency report that sunk him says that retesting has uncovered indications of his EPO use dating from 1999, it had so much other evidence of his misdeeds that the lab work was all but irrelevant.

  The agency says it has on-the-record statements from 26 people, including 11 former Armstrong teammates, testifying not only to the cyclist’s own dope-taking but also to his drug-distribution activities and pressuring of other cyclists to follow his course.  He was, the report says, not only a user but also a pusher, and an aggressive one at that.

  Armstrong still proclaims his innocence but has chosen not to fight USADA’s findings, in effect pleading nolo contendere. The T de F, suddenly righteous, has taken away his titles and wants its prize money back, about $4 million.  If Lance is smart he’ll fight that because he may need the money to ward off the criminal charges that could result from his drug-store raids.  Even seeing him for what he is, it would be a shame if it came to that, wouldn’t it?
  

Monday, October 15, 2012

VIVA CABRERA


Tennessee Williams had a brother named Dakin, a witty man who spent most of his life lawyering in Collinsville in southern Illinois. Dakin was a perennial candidate for this or that public office, a quest attributable more to his fondness for being clever in public than to any chance of winning.  He’ll be remembered mostly for getting  off one of the best political zingers ever, delivered in a 1970s Democratic senatorial primary in which he called his opponent, Adlai Stevenson III,  “the potato candidate, because the best part of him [dad Adlai II] is in the ground.”
                
That image also fits baseball, although the statistical pile it bestrides is above ground, not below. It’s a veritable mountain, and the opportunities for comparisons it provides fuels most of the game’s conversations.  In baseball the past lives vividly through stats, making every trip to the ballpark a journey down memory lane, the game’s and one’s own. That alone is worth the price of admission. 

The trouble is that, in this computer age, the mountain may be growing too fast. Writers and broadcasters seem to crank out new distinctions daily, telling us, for example, that player X may be better than we thought because he’s the only guy ever to get 10 triples, 20 stolen bases and 75 walks in a season.  It’s enough to make one’s eyes cross.
               
  Further, the deluge may obscure the occasional statistical achievement that’s really worth celebrating.   I refer to Miguel Cabrera’s hitter’s Triple Crown in a season in which he led the American League in batting average (.330), home runs (44) and runs batted in (139). No one had accomplished such a feat in 45 years, since Carl Yastrzemski did it in 1967.  Major League baseball was smaller then, with 20 teams instead of the present 30, and not every pitcher stood 6-feet-5 and could throw a strawberry through a battleship. Cabrera is some hitter, and should be recognized as such.
               
Since 1901, Year One for most modern baseball records (changes in the game make previous numbers less than comparable), the Triple Crown had been won only 13 times by 11 players. They are Nap Lajoie (1901), Ty Cobb (1909), Rogers Hornsby (1922 and ‘25), Jimmy Foxx (1933), Chuck Klein (1933), Lou Gehrig (1934), Joe Medwick (1937), Ted Williams (1942 and ’47), Mickey Mantle (1956), Frank Robinson (1966), Yaz and, now, Cabrera.  Considering that more than 16,000 players have worn Major League uniforms in that span, it’s an exclusive group.

It’s a Who’s Who list made more notable by who isn’t on it. That includes Babe Ruth, the game’s all-time greatest hitter (and player). Six times he led the American League in both homers and RBI (in 1919, ’20, 21, ’23, ’26 and ’28) but never pulled off  the triple even though his batting average topped .370 in four of those years and was .393 in one (’23), when Harry Heilmann hit .403. 

Other near misses have been closer.  The mighty Foxx missed a TC in 1932 by finishing second in the batting race by three points to a player (Dale Alexander) whose 392 official at-bats wouldn’t qualify for the title under today’s rules. Williams could have won in ’49 but went hitless in his last game and lost the batting title to George Kell, .3427 to .3429. Al Rosen led the AL in homers and RBIs in 1953 but finished second in batting average by one point to Mickey Vernon; Rosen almost beat out a chopper to third base in his final at bat when a hit would have given him the award.

More recently, individuals have led their league in two of the three TC categories lots of times since Yaz swept the board in 1967, but few have come close in the third. The main rub most often has been the batting-average race; two of the award’s three categories favor heavy-legged power hitters, but some speed afoot usually is necessary to get the eight or 10 “leg” hits that put valuable points on an average. Additionally, big hitters usually also are big whiffers, and you can’t get a hit if you don’t hit the ball.

It’s curious that Cabrera is the man to break the long TC drought. He’s been an excellent hitter since he broke in with the Florida Marlins in 2003 at age 20, with at least 30 home runs and 100 runs batted in annually since he became a full timer in 2004, and a lifetime BA of .318 through this season. But, playing in Miami or Detroit, he’s been overshadowed by the likes of Albert Pujols, who’s more physically imposing than he is, ARod, who’s richer,  and Manny Ramirez, who’s nutsier.

Cabrera is Venezuelan and doesn’t speak English well, so he doesn’t cut much of a media figure. He’s had problems with alcohol and has a DUI, a rehab stint, a bar brawl or two and a domestic dustup on his rap sheet. His jiggly middle makes him something less than a model of athleticism. He is sometimes confused with another Cabrera—Melky—who was leading the National League in hitting this year before being benched for flunking a drugs test.

Cabrera spent the season at a stressful fielding position (third base) that wasn’t his natural station (he’s a first baseman). He played the latter part of the campaign with ankle problems that reduced his never-dazzling speed. Still, he maintained his batting average while boosting his power numbers in August and September as his Detroit Tigers overtook the Chicago White Sox to win in the AL Central Division.  All things considered, his was a brilliant performance that deserves to be remembered.  I hope you enjoyed it because it may be another 45 years before we’ll see something like it again.

 
               
                  

Monday, October 1, 2012

P.U.


                The lockout of the National Football League refs has ended, and the sigh of relief at the announcement swayed large trees nationwide.  Now we can get back to watching football and drinking beer without tangential concerns. Who could ask for more?
               
                 But if the unpleasantness is over, the malady lingers on. If you were paying attention you knew that the NFL owners, who run the game, think so little of us fans that they believed we’d swallow a sub-par product without gagging.  You’ll recall that they did that once before in a more-direct way, by fielding so-called replacement-player teams when the players’ union went on strike in 1987. It took a long time for the smell of that rotten fish to dissipate, and it will take a while for this one, too.  The longer the better, I hope.

                 The treatment of the public by the owners is hard to fathom:  in what other business would a manufacturer befoul its product yet continue to offer it at full price? It would be like Mercedes-Benz losing a key engine part but fashioning a new one out of duct tape and popsicle sticks and sending the result to its dealers to peddle as though nothing had changed. I guess the concept of shame is foreign to those guys.
               
                 In true NFL spirit, let’s go to the replay to figure out what happened. What the lockout wasn’t about was money.  According to most reports the difference in the positions on salary and pensions of the league and the refs’ association when the lockout was declared last June amounted to about $3 million, an infinitesimal fraction of 1% of the league’s $9 billion annual take. The teams spend that much on Ace bandages, for heaven’s sake.
                
                To plumb what it was about will take some sociologizing, which I’m qualified to do because I have a degree in the subject (honest).  I think it’s about the chasm that separates the rich and rest in America these days, and about how little regard the former have for the latter.
               
                When I went to work as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal (Dow Jones & Co., actually) in 1963, the boss (president) was Bernard “Barney” Kilgore. He knew what I did because he used to do it himself, before holding various editorships with the paper. He made more money than I did but not by an enormous multiple; once I was driven past his home in Princeton, N.J., and it looked like one I realistically could aspire to own.
               
               Today Dow Jones is headed by Rupert Murdoch. He’s richer than the gods and probably lives better.  Currently he’s busy feeding the employees of his British newspapers to the wolves for carrying out policies adopted under his stewardship.  If he were called to account he’d probably make some remark about crumbling cookies.
               
                 The NFL owners obviously had no appreciation of the referees’ skills or the difficulty of their jobs. They probably felt it beneath their dignity to have to negotiate with such pipsqueaks, the sort of ordinary-looking people they see walking around, antlike, below their tower-office windows. The moguls may tolerate making seven- or eight-figure deals with their players because the players’ arrogance of talent matches their own arrogance of wealth, but game officials lack such cachet. Easily overlooked, they seemed as easy to replace as call-center workers. So they were, and if they didn’t like it they could lump it. 
               
              What the owners did in hiring “replacement” refs was the equivalent of going to the local municipal pool, plucking out a bunch of middle-aged lap swimmers and convincing them to jump into a river full of piranhas. Anyone who’s watched an NFL game from the field knows that analogy isn’t farfetched.

                It was only a matter of time until the owners’ blindness was exposed. Week 1 of the season wasn’t so bad because football’s return was welcomed and the idea of “everyman” officials seemed cute, but by Week 2 their gaffes had become glaring and by Week 3 they were intolerable. It wasn’t so much that they blew moving violations, which the real refs also sometimes do (the main trouble is that so much extracurricular banging around is tolerated that penalizing it often seems arbitrary), but that they couldn’t get the easy stuff right, like the downs, ball spots or the number of permitted challenges or timeouts.

                Further, it was apparent that the newbies didn’t know what they saw even after they’d seen it. Play was repeatedly halted so the game officials could consult with unseen NFL types stationed in the press box areas. Trouble was, those meetings usually resulted in bad decisions being upheld, like that of the “Fail Mary” pass call in last Monday’s Packers-Seahawks game that broke the camel’s back. Coaches and players were wantonly ignoring league edicts for silence on the subject, and just about every sports columnist or blogger in the land was describing the situation with “f” words like “farce,” “fraud” or “fiasco.” The owners had no alternative but to capitulate.

                The truth is that few people on any of our top-level fields of play are more dedicated, competent or honorable than the game officials.  To get where they are they’ve served long apprenticeships that earned them little money or celebrity (my friend the ex-ref Jerry Markbreit started by calling intramural touch-football games at the University of Illinois). Most fully understand that they succeed best when they are noticed least, a difficult posture to maintain in a me-centered era.

                That they are being noticed now is a good thing, even though the reason isn’t. I don’t expect the owners to remember this for long, but the rest of us should.
               
               
                 

Saturday, September 15, 2012

TFF


                I worry about a lot of things, including ones that don’t concern most people.
   
                I worry that global temperatures are rising while sperm counts are falling. I worry that honey bees are going extinct and that rising seas will bring the Pacific Ocean to my Scottsdale door. I worry that in four million years the sun will explode and wipe out the earth.

                What’s that you say? That last thing won’t happen for four billion years? OK, I feel better, but just a little.

                I also worry about more here-now matters, like about the players in the National Football League. I worry that some of them are getting their bells rung so often that it will take a pistol shot to stop the clanging. I worry that the pummeling they receive weekly in season will turn them into old men in middle age.  And—finally and simply—I worry that a lot of them are too, uh, darned fat.

                Chances are that—of the above-mentioned three items—you, too, worry a bit about the first two.  The effect of concussions at all levels of the game has been football’s biggest story of the last year, and anyone who’s known an NFL player knows that the muscular-skeletal complaints he has in his 30s don’t show up in most men until they’re on Medicare.

                 The part about weight, though, is largely ignored. That’s odd because the increase in footballers’ size has been the most obvious trend in the sport—or probably in any sport—of the last 30 years.  According to one on-line piece I saw (which I believe because I did similar comparisons when I was working), NFL rosters had just three players weighing 300 pounds or more on opening day in 1980, but by 1990 the number had climbed to 94. In 2000 it was 301 and in 2009 it was 394. By that progression it’s certainly over 400 now and maybe near 500.

                 Almost all of those very-big guys are linemen, but the size race also has spread to other positions. Linebackers used to weigh in the 215-230-pound range but now 240-250 is more likely.  At 230 pounds Jim Brown was a huge ball carrier back in the day, but he’d be about average now.  In 2007 the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft was JaMarcus Russell, a 270-pound quarterback out of LSU. Yeah, he was bad, but I’m just sayin’.

                The need for size has been dictated by changes in the game, especially the offenses; at both the pro and major-college levels offensive football has moved from run-pass balance to an overwhelming emphasis on the pass. This means that offensive linemen function mainly as obstacles between their quarterbacks and opposing pass-rushers, and have little use for the speed afoot the position used to require.

                Football terminology has changed to reflect this development--when offensive line play is discussed today one hears about “quickness” rather than speed.  What’s valued now is the ability to stay in balance with short, rapid steps to combat the various angles at which defensive linemen attack. OLs still run 40-yard dashes in tryout camps, but that’s pro forma because they almost never run that far in games. A more apt test would gauge their dancing ability.  

                Evolution doesn’t work nearly fast enough to produce the giants modern football demands on both sides of the ball, so most of today’s behemoths are made, not born. They get that way through a combination of intense, year-round weight lifting and huge meals that often include dietary supplements, and sometimes include steroids.  Thirty years ago this process started in earnest in college.  Today it often begins in high school.

 The iron is pumped because muscle weighs more than fat, but it alone won’t suffice to create Frankenjocks. While about 2,500 calories a day are enough to nicely sustain the average American man, footballers’ intakes run from about 5,000 a day to 8,000 or 10,000. You don’t get boosts like just by adding a dessert or drinking a milkshake with lunch.

“Eating with us [he and his linemates] got to be a kind of game. We’d have two entrees each at dinner, and sometimes three,” Jay Hilgenberg told me for a story I did on him. He added: “We didn’t eat until we were full, we ate until we were tired.”

Hilgenberg  was the center on the Chicago Bears’ 1985 Super Bowl champion team. If you add about 25 pounds at each level of his development, his story is typical of today’s linemen. The scion of a family of U. of Iowa centers (“we played catch back-to-back and bent over,” he joked) he left high school at a strapping 217 pounds. That wasn’t enough to play in the Big Ten, so through diet and exercise he gained 18 pounds before enrolling in Iowa City and added around 15 more before he was graduated after a distinguished varsity run.

 Two-fifty was too small for the pros and the 6-foot-3 Jay wasn’t drafted out of college. He added 15 more pounds on his own, wangled an invitation to Bears’ camp, and made the team, playing at between 270 and 280 pounds for most of his 13 seasons in the NFL. That was about 50 pounds above his “natural” weight by most calculations.  His career ended in the spring of 1994 when he suffered a heart attack at age 35 while lifting weights in his basement. The first thing he did upon getting out of the hospital was go on a diet.

Heart attacks at 35 are rare even for overweight jocks, but premature health problems aren’t; various studies have shown that ex-NFL players are considerably more likely to die before age 50 than are males in the general population.

 In 2009 the American College of Gastroenterology reported that because of their weight footballers run a higher risk of incurring diabetes or heart or liver disease than a group of professional baseball players it included in a 224-athlete study. It noted that while an active life style generally is a health asset the footballers’ “sheer size overwhelms the positive effects of exercise.”

I like football, you like football, and the players like football, so don’t expect much about the sport to change to satisfy worriers like me.  Still, players can change their individual courses.

 I refer specifically to Alan Page, one of my sports heroes. He was one of the best NFL defensive linemen ever, 250 pounds of rompin’, stompin’ dynamite who terrorized offenses for the Minnesota Vikings in the late 1960s and ‘70s. In his 30s, though, he got tired of filling his mirror, stopped gorging and started running for exercise, and shed 30 pounds. The Vikings objected to his new regimen and cut him in 1978, but the Bears picked him up. He played 3 ½ more seasons in Chicago at his new weight, and did quite well as I recall.

Not every player is as strong minded as Page, a lawyer who’s now a justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court. Not as good on the field, either.  But if he could get off the gravy train others might, too.

It’s possible.
    

Saturday, September 1, 2012

WORMS TURN


The baseball season is headed into its September home stretch as usual, but this year things seem out of whack. I refer, of course, to the National League, where the Washington Nationals lead the East and the Pittsburgh Pirates also are contending for a playoff spot. The natural order has been violated, much like if the sun suddenly rose in the west or a Republican politician had a good word for Obamacare.

Of the two disturbances in the Force, it’s hard to say which is weirder. If the Pirates just finish the campaign with a winning record it would be astonishing because they’ve been on the losing side of the ledger for the last 19 years, the longest such streak in U.S. professional sports history. From 2005 through 2010 they averaged 97 losses a season, another milestone in futility.

 The Nats’ record is all recent, because they only moved to the nation’s capital from Montreal in 2005, but they’ve yet to finish a plus-.500 season there.  And although the Expos are their biological parents their true legacy is that of the Washington Senators,  a franchise so woebegone that in the 1955 musical “Damn Yankees” a guy had to sell his soul to the Devil (Ray Walston, actually) to cop a pennant for the team, and even then almost fell short.

The fact that baseball still is doing business in Washington is surprising.  While the D.C. area has a big population (about 5.5 million) its favorite sport is politics, with much of its professional class consisting of transients who are there for a few years to pad their resumes with public service on their way to more-lucrative employment elsewhere. The city’s two previous shots at the Big Leagues missed: the Senators moved to Minneapolis-St. Paul after a 60-year run (1901-60) and the expansion outfit that replaced them departed for Texas after 12 mostly futile years in 1972. Together the two teams accounted for a grand total of three American League pennants, the last coming in 1933, and one World Series title, in 1924. That record makes even Chicago’s look good.

The Nationals’ name is borrowed from a sometimes-handle of the Senators’ first incarnation, but a more-apt moniker would be the Exemptions, after the anti-trust pass our Government still gives the National Pastime. That freebie isn’t worth what it was before the game’s so-called Reserve Clause bit the dust in the 1970s, but it still gives a legal waiver to some of the game’s dubious employment and administrative practices and packed enough clout to make the city a perennial first in the next-franchise line.

Sportswriters love uplift so it would be nice to report that the two teams grittily bootstrapped their way to improvement, if not yet success. Fact is, luck has had at least as much to do with their rise as skill. The Pirates’ surge owes mostly to the blossoming of Andrew McCutcheon, their 25-year-old centerfielder. A first-round draft choice in 2005, he’s become a star in his fourth Major League season, having a Most-Valuable-Player-type campaign. Slim and swift as well as strong, he reminds of a pre-steroidal Barry Bonds, the star of Pittsburgh’s last contending teams in the early 1990s.   

The major luck part of the Bucs’ equation has come from A.J. Burnett. The team picked the much-tattooed 35-year-old pitcher off the scrap heap after two bad seasons with the New York Yankees, and he’s rewarded them with a 15-5 won-lost mark whose plus-10 standings difference exceeds their  nine-game margin over .500 (70-61).  Hamazing.

The Nats have thrived off doing poorly, which is how it’s supposed to work with the annual amateur-player draft but rarely does. In 2008 their 59-102 won-lost record was baseball’s worst and earned them the No. 1 pick the next year. Often that’s no big deal but that time it allowed them to draft Stephen Strasburg, the most-heralded pitching prospect in memory.

If that weren’t enough they were stinko again on the field  in 2009 (59-103) and the next year got to use another no-brainer pick to corral Bryce Harper, the top-rated position-player prospect since Joe Mauer 10 years earlier. Strasburg’s now their top starter and a Cy Young Award candidate, and while Harper is no star yet at age 19 despite his All-Star Game selection in July, he’s been an everyday starter for the team in center field.

 The guy who was supposed to carry the run-producing load for the Nats is the ex-Phillie Jason Werth, whom they gave an eye-popping contract ($126 million over seven years) in 2011. That hasn’t gone well—Werth had a bad first season in D.C. and has missed most of this one with a broken wrist—but a much-cheaper Adam LaRoche, a first-baseman long on my “most underrated” list, has picked up the slack. Similarly, the young left-handed pitcher Gio Gonzalez, who was passed through three organizations (the White Sox, Phillies and A’s) before landing in Washington, has been almost as good as Strasburg and gives the Nats the second high-quality starter it takes to make serious noise.

Strasburg has been the Nats’ major “story” this season. He both wowed and worried us in his 2010 rookie year, striking out everyone in sight before going on the DL, then returning and DLing again with elbow woes that led to Tommy John surgery.  His last season was pretty much spent rehabbing, but this year he’s been great.

Amazingly again, the Nats may not let Strasburg make it to the postseason. Wary about the 24-year-old’s arm, they’ve put him on a 160-inning limit this year, and since he’s already logged 150 he’s already just about had it. Nat brass has said it figures the team will be a contender for years and wants him around to help.

A couple of points seem worth making here. One is that, given the current state of play, Strasburg and other pitching phenoms probably show up in the Bigs with stressed arms from all the throwing they did in hyper-competitive kids’ leagues starting at age 9 or 10, and anything they do as pros is incidental to that. A better prescription for professional longevity is to let gifted athletes play a variety of sports as children and hold off on specialization until they’re 15 or 16.

 The other is that things don’t always go as expected. My first sports awareness came at age 7 with the Chicago Cubs’ 1945 pennant drive, and I recall not being terribly upset by their World Series loss that year because I assumed they’d have lots of other chances. You know how that’s worked out.

NOTE: If you haven’t visited chicagosidesports.com lately, you should. It’s been running lots of lively pieces, including a few by me. A link is above. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

ACT II?


                One of my more pleasant writing assignments came about 20 years ago when an acquaintance at Lyons & Buford Press in New York told me his firm was publishing an American paperback edition of Roger Bannister’s book “The Four-Minute Mile”, and asked me if I’d do an introduction.

 I accepted quickly even after he’d apologized in advance for the pay he was offering for my 1,500 words—low three figures I now recall. The clincher was that I’d also receive an autographed copy from the author.  Truth to tell, I might have done it just for that.

I’d long admired Bannister, not just for his signal athletic achievement but for the manner in which he accomplished it and for what he did afterward.  No single-(or simple-) minded jock, he was a medical student engaged in serious study when he broke the magical mile mark in 1954. When he retired from sport later that year, after defeating his archrival John Landy at the Commonwealth Games in a mile that’s still worth replaying, he embarked on a career as a neurologist that included research accomplishments as well as private practice.  A lecture hall at his medical school is named for him, something he’s said he ranked ahead of his running honors.

 Sir Roger’s example came to mind many times as I watched the just-concluded Olympic Games. As one after another of the young winners exulted in their glories, I kept wondering what they might do for encores, and not on the playing fields.  F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that there are no second acts in American lives, and while the line qualifies mainly as a cute misstatement it’s usually all too true when it comes to athletes.   Worse, I have the feeling that I care more about that than do most of the people immediately involved.

Many things have changed since Roger Bannister’s day, and for many years thereafter.  Until about 30 years ago participation in high-level sports still was considered to be an interlude between youth and adulthood, with practitioners routinely pursuing off-season education or jobs that turned into livelihoods once their playing days were done. If you frequented Chicago’s LaSalle Street during the 1980s you might have bumped into Terry Brennan, Glenn Beckert or George Seals, ex-jocks plying their new trades in the financial canyon. Old athletes were all over the area, turning a buck on their names (like the putative restauranteurs Mike Ditka, Michael Jordan and Jim McMahon) if not their labors.  Ex-Bear Bill Osmanski had a long dental career in the area, ex-Cub pitcher Rich Nye was a veterinarian and Ken Holtzman ran an insurance brokerage. The list went on.

Today, of course, so much money is available even in Olympic sports that receive scant attention at other times that any necessity to earn a living post-sports is negated for some. Michael Phelps, the swimming hero, is retiring at age 27 with a reported $40 million in the bank from endorsements and with additional contracts in hand worth that much or more.  All he needs now are some tax tips from Mitt Romney and a stockbroker who’ll  explain to him the principles of risk and reward and how they apply to everyone, including him. The cautionary tale is necessary because many (most?) jocks possess the combination of ignorance and arrogance that make them easy marks for financial predators. It’s a jungle out there.

  But there’s more to life than money, and if the prospect of retirement at 27 isn’t daunting to Phelps, it should be.  The actuarial tables say that he has at least 50 more years on Earth, and he’ll have to fill them somehow.  I remember being in Las Vegas some years ago, a few days in advance of a fight I was covering, and leaving my hotel at mid-morning on my reporting rounds. The place had a tennis complex and as I left I saw Sugar Ray Leonard, newly retired from the ring and there to make appearances, on the court smacking shots against a ball machine. Five or six hours later I returned to find him still at it. The guy is seriously bored, I told myself, and a few months later wasn’t surprised to learn that he’d reneged on his retirement, preferring the rigors of his brutal sport to idleness. A swimming pool has to look very good compared with that.

It’s better to fill the hours in interesting ways, and that’s where education comes in. Last week I chuckled at an Al Michaels TV interview with the American gymnastics darlings Gabby Douglas, who’s 16 years old, and Aly Raisman, 18.  When Michaels asked them about their future plans, both cheerfully said they’d be taking their circus on the road in the coming months and sticking with their sport thereafter.  Better answers would have been high school for Gabby and college for Aly.  Athletically speaking, maturity won’t be their friend, but it could be intellectually if they play their cards right.  Their parents should clue them in on that.

Gabby and Aly—and Michael, too— can find good examples aplenty if they choose to broaden their horizons. Seb Coe, the man in charge of the London Olympics, was a gold-medal-winning middle-distance runner in the 1980 and ’84 Games and later a member of the British Parliament. Jim Scherr, a freestyle wrestler for the U.S. at Seoul in 1988, spent 10 years as chief executive officer of the U.S. Olympic Committee.   

Dot Richardson, a star softballer in 1996 and 2000, is an orthopedic surgeon. Figure skater Peggy Fleming ran a winery and paints landscapes. Magic Johnson is involved in numerous profitable and worthwhile enterprises.  Boxer George Foreman got behind a wonderful grill. Bruce Jenner, the 1976 decathlon champion, became a Kardashian.

OK, skip that last one.

Required reading for every Olympian—and for other jocks as well—should be the Irwin Shaw short story, “The 80-Yard Run.” It’s about a man who looks back in middle age to realize that his proudest achievement was a football play he made in college. It’s a sad story, but that’s the point. Forewarned is forearmed.
 





Friday, July 27, 2012

TOO BIG TO FAIL


                
I like to check out the on-line polls newspapers run, and did so a couple weeks ago at the Chicago Tribune sports-page site. The question concerned what decision the NCAA should reach in the Penn State case. The alternatives were nothing (it’s not a sports matter), the “death penalty” (no football for a year or two), and lesser sanctions.  More than 70% of the previous voters had checked the “death penalty” box. I joined the less than 10% that opted for nothing.
             
   I did so not because I thought the offenses involved—centering on the now-well-known predations of former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky-- weren’t deserving of punishment. Quite the contrary, they were so heinous they transcended the confines of sport in which the NCAA functions. What Sandusky and the cover-up perpetrators did was a matter for the courts and the Pennsylvania legislature to deal with, and the process already had begun with Sandusky’s criminal conviction. Even the so-called death penalty would have trivialized the matter.

                The penalties that were handed down this week only underscored that conclusion. Measuring Sandusky’s victims’ travail in bowl-game bans, scholarship reductions and victory forfeitures (ha!) put them in the category of the recruiting violations and grades cheating that the organization usually handles. The $60 million fine, which will go to child-protection agencies, was a nice touch, but Penn State should have thought of that itself.

                The whole exercise illustrated the self-importance of the cartel that manages big-time college sports, and its essential nature.  Lost in just about any discussion of the NCAA’s role is the fact that it is both the promoter and policeman of the activities it governs, and when there’s a conflict between the two functions the promoter always wins. That’s also the case with our professional sports leagues, by the way.

 The idea that the death penalty might be invoked was na├»ve in the extreme. Any such action would have been bad for business, not only for Penn State but also for the 12 schools its football team plays annually, creating intolerable holes in their schedules and athletics-department budgets, and the NCAA is all about business.   To use a line that emerged from another, larger lapse of governance, Penn State was too big to fail. Any of the 100 or so other college-sports programs that fit the “big-time” label also fit that category.

 The usual image used by college-sports’ critics is that of the tail wagging the dog. Trouble is, these days it can be hard to tell which is which. The gag line that a university should strive to be a credit to its football team is funny because it’s so often true. At Penn State the university didn’t measure up.

The term the NCAA usually uses to justify the imposition of its harshest penalties is a lack of “institutional control” at the university in question, meaning that a school’s higher-ups didn’t properly oversee the athletics-department types. That couldn’t be claimed at Penn State, where according to the report by former FBI director Louis Freeh the university president, a vice president, the athletics director and the football head coach—the venerable Joe Paterno—were in cahoots in covering up Sandusky’s crimes.  There was institutional control aplenty in Happy Valley, all aimed at protecting the football program at the expense of the boys Sandusky raped over the 13-year span of the conspiracy. Making it all the more appalling was the fact that it concerned an entertainment enterprise that falls outside any rational definition of a university’s mission.

Many Penn Staters don’t see it that way, of course.  Neither do the millions of deluded others who equate a university’s standing with that of its sports teams. The Pennsylvania legislature, which really runs the school, should have shelved football indefinitely, out of atonement and to make the point that the sun would come up without it.  It hasn’t because the voters wouldn’t stand for it. Go Lions!

    The NCAA must shoulder blame for helping create the monster that college sports have become.  So should the nation’s sporting press for elevating Paterno to sainthood before the stuff hit the fan. We news people like to say we revere the truth, but we love an easy story line more, and buying Joe’s self-proclaimed “Success With Honor” mantra was as natural as taking a second helping at the press-box game-day buffet.  

I had no idea what Joe, et al, would hide later on, but I never bought his sanctity act. In 1984, when I was just starting my Wall Street Journal column, I took note of his repeated claim of 90% graduation rates for his footballers with a piece debunking it, pointing out that it didn’t include players who’d flunked out, dropped out, were flushed or turned pro before their senior years. As best as I could determine, the team’s real rate was a quite-respectable 60% or so, but Joe felt compelled to gild the lily anyway. Anyone who’d lie about small things probably also wouldn’t be straight about bigger ones, I figured.

The truth about Joe—and about every other successful big-time college coach—wasn’t that he was bad or good but that he was a hard man who made it in a hard business, one in which the only results that count are on the scoreboard.  The motto “Whatever It Takes” hangs on many locker-room walls, and applies to coaches as well as to players.  We should remember that before casting our heroes in bronze.


Sunday, July 15, 2012

WHO'S IN FIRST?


            The Olympics begin in London in a couple of weeks (July 27), and I’ll be just where I want to be, which is in front of a television set. While it’s generally true that everyone at home sees sporting events better than anyone in the stadium, it’s especially true for the Summer Games, a smorgasbord so large that no one can down it whole.

            As a free-range columnist at five such fests (in Los Angeles, Seoul, Barcelona, Atlanta and Sydney), I would peruse each day’s crowded calendar and pick the venue I thought would yield the most interesting results. I didn’t always choose right, so I missed a lot of really good stuff.

            The joke that every Olympics news person knows is about the reporter who calls his desk during the Games. “What’s happening at the Olympics?” his editor asks. Replies the reporter, “How should I know? I’m at the Olympics.”

            A hi-def TV, comfortable lounger and clear personal schedule won’t solve all Olympic-spectating problems, however. At these Games, as at its predecessors, the question of who’s winning will be problematic, not so much in individual events as in the national standings that summarize them.

Nationalism is a touchy subject on Olympia, which like Billy Martin in the old Bud Lite commercials, feels very strongly both ways about the matter. On the one hand, the official Olympic creed proclaims that the most important thing about the Games is participating, not winning, but on the other hand their administrators stoutly resist doing anyway with the national uniforms, flags and victory-stand anthems that stir popular passions, sometimes in unpleasant ways, but are good for business. So while the national medal standings are unofficial, they’re mentioned prominently and without protest in every account of the proceedings, and followed avidly.

Trouble is, the standings can raise almost as many questions as they answer. A case in point was the last Summer Games in Beijing, where athletes from the United States collected the most overall medals—110 to 100 for runnerup China-- but the Chinese won more gold medals, 51 to 36. Further, the fairness of the whole system is questionable when one notes that a 10-second effort in the men’s 100-meter dash final counts for the same number of medals (3-- one gold, one silver and one bronze) as the basketball tournaments in which 12-person teams must prevail over a grind of eight 40-minute games. How about a count that gives the basketball-medalist nations 12 medals each instead of one, huh? Huh?

  The U.S., of course, is a large and rich nation with a deep gene pool, so it always does well in the summer standings, no matter how they’re tallied. Since the modern Games began in 1896 we lead the medals list with 2,302 overall and 929 golds to l,l22 and 440 for second-place USSR/Russia and 725 and 208.5 for third-place Great Britain. We’ll again will be in the hunt for the top spot in London, along with Chinese, whose emerging economy has been harnessed to produce athletic glory from its abundant human stock.

Do not, however, expect to see American and Chinese jocks vying head-to-head in many events; rather, they’ll mostly be playing different games, as they did in 2008. The Summer Olympics encompasses 302 medal events spread over 26 sports. They’re really not one event but many, and which are most important depends on where you sit.

 For example, Americans traditionally have been very good at track and field and swimming. That’s fortunate for us because T&F (called “athletics” in Olympic parlance) is the main medals source in the Games, with 47 events offering 141 medals, and swimming is second with 34 and 102. In ’08, we won 23 medals in track and 31 in swimming, while the Chinese, with 2 and 6 respectively, were pretty much a non-factor in each.

So why weren’t we runaway victors in the medals count? Because the Chinese put their energies elsewhere, collecting a total of 36 medals in diving, weightlifting, badminton and table tennis, sports in which the U.S. registered a big “O.” You can bet that those activities received mucho TV time in the People’s Republic, maybe as much as T&F and swimming got in our land.

The Chinese approach to the Olympics is reminiscent of that of the former East Germany, another odious regime. With a population of less the 20 million people, the East Germans set out to demonstrate the superiority of their system by pouring their resources into winning big on the Olympic stage. They succeeded by finishing second or third in the medals count in four Summer Games (1972, 1976, 1980 and 1988) and collecting more metal than the U.S. in two of those (’76 and ’88).

They did it mostly by zeroing in on sports where participation and performance standards were relatively low, namely women’s track and field, women’s swimming, rowing and canoeing. They eschewed team sports because these yielded too few rewards (see above). And—oh, yeah—they doped like crazy.

About the only sport that’s important in both the U.S. and China—and where the two nations will clash directly for superiority in London—is gymnastics. The Chinese got the better of that contest in Beijing, winning 18 medals to the U.S.’s 10, but the U.S. will field strong squads on both the men’s and women’s sides this year, and should make a game of it. I’m sure you’ll be tuned in.

As usual, women’s gymnastics will get lots of TV time in the U.S. That’s because its participants are young, tiny and cute, and do the sort of circus tricks that boggle the mind. But while gymnastics is fun to watch it’s brutally hard to do, and its fearsome injury rate makes its label of “football for girls” apt. I watch, but through the fingers that cover my eyes. Real football is getting to be like that, too.






  

Sunday, July 1, 2012

FINDING TIGER'S MOJO


As a writer I enjoyed covering golf, partly because its deliberate pace encouraged analysis and partly because its participants—mostly nice, middle-class guys—were unusually articulate for athletes. Also, golf courses are pleasant places to stroll once the necessity to hit the ball has been removed. For newsies the game provides a good walk unspoiled. 

I don’t watch it very often now.  I don’t know most of the tour players anymore and sans that contact find them hard to warm up to. I hate to sound like Andy Rooney, but it seems to me that most past-era golfers had more personality in their big toes than the present ones have in their whole bodies. Every young American player these days is a country-club kid who majored in greens maintenance at some Sunbelt U., and every European contestant has been a pro since puberty. What can you say about these guys once you’ve given their scores?

But I do tune in occasionally, and a couple of Sundays ago turned on the last round of the U.S. Open about when the leaders were teeing off. The first guy on my screen was Tiger Woods, which wasn’t surprising. Wherever he’s played the last 15 years, in contention or not, he’s been the star, and he was among the top-dozen low scorers teeing off this day.  Surprise, though; the announcers were saying that Tiger was having a really bad round and had dropped well off the pace. They mentioned his name only in passing during the four hours that remained in the telecast.

It took a while to sink in, but it’s occurred to me since that an era might be over. Tiger ‘s 75-73 finish in the Open, which dropped him from a first-place tie to a final 21st place, and coming on top of his 40th-place finish in last April’s Masters Tournament, seems to have convinced even the TV people that he’s no longer the whole story in golf. The days of all-Tiger-all-the-time appear to be over, at least for the time being.  

Don’t get me wrong, Tiger still can play. He’s won a couple of events on the PGA Tour this year, might add another this weekend, and ranks high on several of the circuit’s statistical categories. He’s a threat to win in any given week but, then, so are Bubba Watson, Rory McIlroy, Lee Westwood and Phil Michelson, among others. Not only has the Tour’s A list been lengthened to eight or 10 names, from one, but the idea that Tiger will beat Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 career victories  in the game’s “majors” (the Masters, U.S. and British Opens and PGA Championship) no longer is taken for granted. Tiger has 14 but none since 2008, and any future wins promise to be harder to achieve than his previous ones.

 If you follow this space you probably know that I’ve never been a Tiger fan; I never wished him bad luck but I always found him hard to root for. Part of that has been my reaction to his upbringing as a golfing prodigy by his soldier-father Earl, a process that was more an exercise in conditioning than anything resembling a childhood. When he first appeared on the PGA Tour in 1996, at age 20, Tiger was not simply a talented young man embarking on an adventure but a tycoon with multi-million-dollar endorsement contracts in hand and surrounded by a posse of handlers from IMG, the sports agency and marketing octopus. Anyone wishing a moment of his time had to run a gauntlet of IMG trolls, and few made it.  He’s always been more of a brand than a person, and neither the passage of time (he’s 36 now) nor adversity in various forms has changed that.

One reason for Tiger’s decline has been physical.  Like baseball pitchers, golfers spend their time honing a single motion, so it’s a stretch to call many of them athletes. The young Tiger, though, was a jock in every way, and his superior strength and flexibility gave him an advantage over his competitors that, I believe, never has been recognized properly.  The years, however, inevitably take their toll, and two knee surgeries plus a variety of muscle strains have showed he’s not exempt. Even though one can play top-level golf well into one’s 40s, Tiger ain’t the man he used to be, and probably knows it better than anyone.

The main stones in Tiger’s shoe, of course, are the revelations that changed him from a sports-page character to a tabloid star. They came to light in the most-humiliating way after he rammed his Escalade into a tree near his driveway in the wee hours of a November, 2009, morning, fleeing a wrathful wife who’d discovered his infidelities. The bimbo explosion that followed cost him his family and a divorce settlement reportedly worth $750 million. It made Bill Clinton look like a friar, destroyed Tiger’s carefully groomed image of rectitude and discipline and turned his name into a punch line.

That would be painful for anyone, but must be especially so for Tiger, a man for whom control is everything. The fellow who exacted a code of omerta from friends and associates suddenly found that, rather than being in a row, his ducks had scattered, probably never to be realigned.  He’s living the popular nightmare of appearing in public in his Jockey shorts.

Tiger dropped from view for six months, receiving “treatment” for “sex addiction.”  When he returned to the links the depth of the injury to his psyche was apparent in his two-year (2010 and 2011) failure to win on a Tour he once dominated. He’s become more accessible now, but in a stilted sort of way, as though he’s had to be schooled to handle normal conversations. On the course he presents a cranky, peevish mien that bespeaks dissatisfaction with his lot.

Tiger ought to read Andre Agassi’s biography, “Open.” Like Tiger, the tennis player was a wonderchild who wrapped himself in a profitable but stifling corporate mantle for much of his career. In his 30s, though, he found his own voice, which led to pleasure in his work and a post-sports existence that seems altogether worthwhile. If Andre can do it, maybe Tiger can, too.     




  




Saturday, June 16, 2012

SCORING


                A distinction often is made between participant and spectator sports, but the line between them needn’t be as firm as it’s usually drawn. For instance, horse racing is a participant sport in my book because without betting there’s no racing, and anyone who takes the trouble to bet intelligently is participating, even though he doesn’t get manure on his shoes doing it.
               
              Similarly, one can participate in baseball from the stands by keeping score, or, more precisely, keeping a scorecard. I’ve been doing this since I was a kid, and it’s one of the main things that draws me to the game. With pen or pencil in hand, I not only record each play but also describe and evaluate it.  Indeed, in some hands scoring can approach art, and if the artist usually is the sole appreciator of the work, much of art is like that.

                It’s worth noting, I think, that of our Big Three sports (baseball, football and basketball) baseball is the only one that offers the evaluator role to its fans. Every ballpark in the land has scorecards for sale, and a fair number (albeit, sadly, a shrinking one) of people use them.

 You can buy scorebooks for basketball, and I used one as a young reporter who had to produce his own box scores for high school games.  Eventually I became a pretty fair hand at it. But the hectic pace of most games pretty well precludes their employment by the folks in the stands.

 There’s no standard way to keep track of football action, leaving everyone in the press boxes to his own devices. I had my own play-by-play format, using players’ uniform numbers and abbreviations, but the product served mainly to tide me over until the home team distributed its official, spelled-out sheets.  I’ve never seen a football fan even try this.

Baseball lends itself particularly to scorecard keeping because of its leisurely tempo and static player positioning.  Its basis is a system that assigns a number to each player on the field, to be used when he figures in a play. Pitcher is 1, catcher is 2, first baseman 3, second baseman 4, third baseman 5, shortstop 6, left fielder 7, center fielder 8 and right fielder 9. A shortstop-to-first groundout is recorded as 6-3, a routine fly ball to the left fielder as a 7.

Hits normally are inscribed by tracing the outline of a diamond with each base advanced; some score sheets come with faintly outlined diamonds in each box to facilitate that process. An extra fillip, which I use, involves noting to which field a hit was made; for instance, I record a single to center as /8.  If you want to be more detailed you can note whether the hit was a line drive (8L), grounder (8G) or bloop (8B).

 One way of scoring a home run is to trace the full outline of the diamond and either fill it in or put a dot in its center. I circle the letters HR and add the number of the field to which it was hit (e.g, HR9). I find that it stands out better that way.

Additional standard symbols come into play. “E” is for an error, “W” for a walk, “IW” for an intentional walk, SB for a stolen base, HB for a hit batsman, U for an unassisted putout and “K” for a strikeout.  That last thing was the invention of Henry Chadwick, an early baseball writer and historian, who thought that “K” was the most prominent letter in the word strikeout.  Many scorekeepers use a straight “K” for a swinging strikeout and a backward version of the letter when strike three is called. Alternatively, you can score them as Ks or Kc.

There’s plenty of room in scoring for creativity and individuality. I reward a particularly good fielding play with a star or an asterisk; others use an exclamation point.  If a fly ball is deep, I score it, say, 7D. If it’s to the warning track it’s 7WT, or to the wall 7W.

If you think a batter reached base on an error, and the official scorer gives him a hit (that happens quite a lot), you can mark the play with a question mark or just go ahead and record an error. It’s your card, so why not?

When Phil Rizzuto, the old Yankee broadcaster, went off on one of his tangents, he marked the boxes of the batters he missed with the notation “WW,” for “wasn’t watching.” He had a lot of those.

Back in the day, getting a proper scorecard was easy; I recall that the Cubs used to sell a really good one—large and made of sturdy cardboard—for 15 cents. Having lived in Arizona for the last 15 years, I haven’t been to Wrigley Field lately, but they probably don’t do that anymore. I’ve noticed that some parks now offer score sheets only in ad-filled, slick-papered programs that are bulky, hard to write on and sell for several bucks, so I’ve bought by own scorebook and take it with me to games. I know that’s nerdy, but I don’t care.

A main advantage of scorekeeping is that it keeps your attention on the field, where it belongs.  With all the distractions today’s game offers, that can be hard to do. I once asked Jerome Holtzman, the great baseball writer, if he ever got bored covering a couple hundred games a year, year in and year out. “When I get bored with baseball I watch the game,” he replied.