Monday, May 14, 2012


                Have a yen for mayhem? There are places you can satisfy it without fear that the law will intervene.
I’m talking about our fields of play, all of them. What happens in Vegas may or may not stay in Vegas, but what happens in sports—no matter how appalling-- stays in sports. You can get away with just about anything short of murder without the cops taking much notice.
Recent examples abound. Last month in a Stanley Cup playoff game the Phoenix Coyotes’ Raffi Torres blindsided the Chicago Blackhawks’ Marian Hossa with a leaping blow to the head that left Hossa concussed and ended his season. Torres was ejected and suspended but not otherwise charged.

                A few days later the curiously self-named Metta World Peace of the L.A. Lakers, a thug formerly known as Ron Artest, celebrated a dunk by viciously elbowing the Oklahoma Thunder’s James Harden in the ear, leaving Harden writhing on the court.  Peace, too, has escaped any punishment except the one imposed by his sport.

 You may recall that the pre-Peace Artest also was a central figure in basketball’s biggest recent-year explosion of lawlessness, the 2004 “Malice in the Palace” brawl that spilled over into the stands of the Detroit Pistons-Indiana Pacers NBA game in Detroit. Yet he happily dribbles on, wreaking havoc and paying his fines from his ample purse (his contract will pay him about $7 million this season).

Then there’s the granddaddy of them all, the “bounty” scandal involving the football New Orleans Saints.  This one spans several  years and involves coaches and team executives as well as players.  If evidence of criminal intent sometimes has been lacking in other instances of playing-field violence, it certainly is present here, with coaches caught on tape exhorting their charges to go beyond the rules of the game to injure key opponents in return for direct cash rewards.

 Properly, the National Football League has cracked down hard on some of the perpetrators, issuing an open-ended suspension on Saints’ ex-defensive coordinator Greg Williams and sitting head coach Sean Payton and linebacker Jonathan Vilma for a season. But while the organized nature of the scheme raises the possibility of conspiracy charges as well as those against individuals, the criminal authorities have been silent on the matter to date.

The reasons that you can get away on the field with acts that would bring prison time if committed on the street or in a bar are several. One is our tradition, however goofy, that holds that sports are a realm apart and gives their overseers wide latitude in dealing with infractions of all sorts. Another is the political nature of criminal prosecutions in this land; athletes generally are popular and elected law-enforcement officials are loath to pursue them. It’s noteworthy in this regard that in the rare instances where prosecutions have followed on-field criminal acts it’s usually been visiting-team players who were targeted.  Five Pacers were hauled into court after the ’04 Palace fight, and while their sentences were laughably light (probation and a few hours of community service) that was more than the Piston combatants got, which was nothing.

Mostly, though, boys are allowed to be boys in sports because of the long-established legal doctrine of assumed consent, which states that people who engage in risky activities knowingly accept the dangers inherent therein.  These include the physical pummeling participants inevitably get in the normal course of sports like boxing, football, hockey and basketball.

 Thanks to recent revelations about the long-term consequences of concussions, it now turns out that those risks are greater than once was supposed.  In any case, though, they generally haven’t been interpreted to cover injuries that result from blatant rules violations. For example, when Evander Holyfield entered a Las Vegas boxing ring against Mike Tyson in November of 1998 he might have expected to get smacked around some, but he probably didn’t anticipate having a chunk of an ear bitten off.  Tyson could have been prosecuted criminally for doing that but, typically, he wasn’t. His sole penalties were a one-year suspension from his sport and a $3 million fine, payable to the Nevada Athletics Commission. That amount looks large until it’s noted that his purse from the fray was $30 million.

 Indeed, what screams out at anyone who looks into such matters are the consistent discrepancies between the treatment of the perps and their victims.  Nothing makes this point better than the February, 2004, episode in which Todd Bertuzzi, of the hockey Vancouver Canucks, punched the  Colorado Avalanche’s Steve Moore from behind during a game and drove him head-first into the ice, breaking three of Moore’s neck vertebrae and giving him a severe concussion. Don’t view the tape of this unless you have a strong stomach.

Bertuzzi was criminally charged in Canada and got off with the usual slap on the wrist—probation and public service. He was fined and suspended for 17 months by the National Hockey League but missed only 20 games because of the players’ strike during that period.  Reinstated in 2005, he was named to the Canadian Olympic team the next year, putting his country’s stamp of approval on his character. He’s still in the NHL.

Moore never played hockey again, and still suffers from his injuries. He sued Bertuzzi for damages  in 2005. Seven years later, his suit has yet to come to trial.

NOTE: To see my prescription for saving the Chicago Cubs, check out my latest piece on  


Tuesday, May 1, 2012


Every year when the Kentucky Derby approaches I think about the weather. On a nice day in Louisville it’s a glorious affair, full of prettily dressed women and the smells of horse, flowering trees, bourbon and risk that makes it unique in sports. When it rains it’s a soggy mess that’s best avoided.

 When I think of horses and rain I think of my old friend and race-track mentor, Sam “The Genius” Lewin. Sam had few peers as a handicapper but he couldn’t beat the mud, and knew it. He had an ego as big as all outdoors, and that admission was as close as he ever came to acknowledging fallibility.

 I met Sam on purpose through several references in the winter of 1968, pursuing my interest in writing stories about people who lived off their wits. His “office” that day was a table in the clubhouse dining room of the old Tropical Park Race Track in Miami. There he sipped iced tea and chatted with his cronies (who included Saul Silberman, the track’s owner), rising occasionally to place a bet or two on the equine contestants.

 His afternoons were leisurely because he did his serious work in the mornings, rising before dawn to spend a couple of hours hobnobbing around the stables, then poring over the past performances of the day’s entries in The Morning Telegraph, a precursor of The Daily Racing Form. He pretty much knew how he was going to bet before he got to the track but attended to watch the races and make mental notes for future reference. He agreed with Yogi that you could see a lot just by looking.

 Sam was a big, hulking man with a voice to match. If he liked you, you were a prince, and if he didn’t, you were a bum. If he really didn’t like you, you were a “pure bum,” and he let you know it. People put up with him because of the benefits: he’d mark the programs of just about any nonbum who asked. They asked because his nickname wasn’t ironic. While he had a “square” job as manager of a rich friend’s racing stable, it was mainly a way of getting the credentials that admitted him to the horsemen’s parking lots and the tracks’ working areas. He made his living by betting, and quite a good one. Then as now, that was very, very rare.

 I wrote a front-page story about Sam for The Wall Street Journal that year. A publisher saw it and asked if we’d like to do a book together. We agreed, and “The Education of a Horseplayer” came out in 1969. It’s still around on the internet, and while the human actors we wrote about are long gone, and some of the tracks Sam frequented no longer exist (Tropical Park, Hialeah, Garden State, Atlantic City), it’s still a good primer on weighing the many variables that go into a race-track bet. Add the reminiscences of a guy who knew gangsters by their first names and was on J. Edgar Hoover’s Christmas-card list, and you had a pretty good read besides.

 The book was fine as far as it went, but it didn’t contain all the reasons for Sam’s success; indeed, it couldn’t. In his four decades of daily attendance at the tracks he came to know everyone and anyone, and what they were up to. He knew which horses were sound and which sore, which trainers were running their nags for real on a particular day and which for exercise, which jockeys were showing up hung over. It all went into his calculations stew.

 His main analytical tool was his application of the dictum “Pace Makes the Race.” That means that the manner in which a race is run determines its outcome. In every race one or more horses will try to lead, some will lurk just off the pace and some will lag, hoping to prevail with a late charge. With that model as a guide, Sam would mentally preview every race. When he could see the winner clearly, and the odds were right (he almost never took a horse that went off at less than 2-to-1), he’d bet. When he couldn’t he wouldn’t.

 I summon up Sam’s example every time I’m at the races, as best I can. Like most recreational bettors I lack his patience and discipline; while he could pass race after race waiting for an optimal situation, I’m there once a week for fun and take more than an occasional flier. I do play the “race-in-the- mind” game, though, and it mostly determines where my money will go.

 Let’s look at the current Derby field through this lens. It’s always a tougher-than- usual race to handicap because its distance of 1 ¼ miles is 1/8-mile longer than any of the contestants will have run, and because its big field of 20 or so makes inevitable the kind of banging around that can sidetrack worthy contenders. On the other hand—and definitely this year, when every major Derby prep race had a different winner—there’s usually no clear favorite, meaning than you can get good odds on some very good horses. That as much as anything else makes it the sport’s biggest betting race.

 When the gate opens on Saturday I expect three horses to burst out ahead—Bodemeister, Hansen and Trinniberg. Of the three, Bodemeister seems to have the best chance to also finish in front. His 9 ½-length victory in the Arkansas Derby—all on the lead-- was an eyepopper and will attract a lot of betting support, so expect him to go off at about 5 to 1. The early fractions should determine how far he or any other leader can go. If the first quarter-mile is run in less than 23 seconds, chances are he’ll be too pooped to last. Anything over 24 seconds and he’ll have a chance. Remember that the simplest way to win any race is from the front.

 Right behind the leaders should come a group of five or six, including Union Rags, Gemologist, El Padrino, Mark Valeski and Creative Cause. Union Rags should go off as the favorite at around 4-to-1. He would have been a stronger choice if he’d won the Florida Derby, but he ran almost the entire race in a box, never breaking free until it was too late but still showing enough to justify his likely favored status on Saturday. Gemologist must be considered because, as Sam would have said, he does nothing but win (he’s 5 for 5), but he doesn’t seem to have quite the speed of some other contenders.

 Among the closers should be Dullahan, Alpha and Went The Day Well. Dullahan, the Bluegrass Stakes winner, looks to be the best of these, but Alpha also might be attractive at good odds. While I won’t make my final betting choices until just before race time, I’ll probably take one each from my Columns A, B and C—Bodemeister, Union Rags and Dullahan—and throw in a longshot to make a four-horse exacta box costing $24. At the least, that should give me something to root for at every stage of the race.

 I’ll also be rooting for sunshine. According to the Weather Bureau, there’s about a 20% chance of rain at Derby time, meaning it’s 80% against. That’s about as good odds as you ever get at the track.