Friday, June 1, 2012


                NEWS: Kerry Wood retires.
                VIEWS:  All athletes retire eventually, either on purpose or by necessity, but this one came as a jolt. That’s not because of Wood’s age (34) or professional longevity (14 seasons in the Major Leagues), both of which were appropriate to his announcement. It’s because of the image that I and, I’m sure, others carry of the pitcher.

                It stems from the May 6, 1998, weekday afternoon in which Wood, a 20-year-old Chicago Cubs’ rookie, tied a record by striking out 20 Houston Astros en route to a one-hit, 2-0 victory. Memorable days like that have been rare in the annals of his woebegone team, but this certainly was one. Working at home I was able to watch the game on TV, and it was marvelous to behold.

The Astros that day were a formidable bunch, their lineup including the probable future Hall of Famers Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, but the tall right-hander handled them like the big kid pitching to little ones in a Little League matchup. His fastballs hissed and his sliders seemingly took 45-degree turns. And he was so young! His—and his team’s—future glowed rosily.

It didn’t work out that way. Wood missed a month with arm problems before his rookie year ended, and he sat out the entire next season with elbow surgery.   While he managed to have a few decent seasons after that, he spent so much time on the Disabled List that some thought his initials were D.L. His career victory total of 86 fell about 200 short of what many might have predicted after his signal achievement.

Steve Stone said when Wood retired that the pitcher’s body failed him, but I think the canny broadcaster was being disingenuous. My take is that Wood’s problem was mental, and perhaps rooted in his May glory day. He didn’t want to just retire the batters he faced, he wanted to blow them away, every one, and in consequence strained and restrained his arm while never bothering to develop the subtler ascents of his art.  His focus seemed always to be on the “K,” not on the “W,” which, as you may have noticed, are his actual initials.

NEWS: Joe Ricketts doesn’t like President Obama.

VIEWS: Most billionaires don’t, of course, and some of them are bankrolling ad campaigns to persuade people that the Prez is a freedom-hating Kenyan socialist who is either a Muslim or an acolyte of the black-liberationist Christian preacher Jeremiah Wright (never mind which). But most billionaires don’t head a family that owns a Big League sports team, as Ricketts does.

 When poppa’s political plans surfaced, his offspring who run the Cubs dived for cover, and eventually took him with them. That was after someone pointed out that the team was seeking city and state financing for a proposed $300 million Wrigley Field renovation, and that the city and state involved are led by Democrats who might not appreciate their patriarch’s activities.

In truth, though, the government-off-my-back political stance Ricketts espouses has been thoroughly trashed by his family’s ball club. While the Cubs are looking for taxpayer bucks in Illinois they already are getting them in Arizona, the otherwise famously conservative state where they make their spring headquarters. There the city of Mesa is putting up $84 million of the $99 million it’s supposed to cost to build the team new spring-training digs, replacing the ones the city had built for it previously. The deal also includes a Cub option to buy city land for commercial development around the stadium, at lower-than-market prices.

The Cubs have trained in Mesa since 1979, yet like most enterprises angling for a government handout they threatened to move (to Naples, Florida) if they didn’t get one. This is from a low-rent burg that’s as hard up as most these days and has had to lay off employees to close budget gaps. But what are political principles when there’s money to be made, right Joe?

NEWS: I’ll Have Another goes for horse racing’s Triple Crown.

VIEWS: No three-year-old has won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes in the same year since Affirmed in 1978, but I’ll Have Another could end that drought at the Belmont in New York on June 9. That would give his sport a needed shot of favorable publicity, albeit probably a short-lived one.

Don’t get your hopes too high, though. Since Affirmed’s feat, 10 other colts have won the Derby and Preakness but failed in the grueling (1 ½-mile) Belmont, and trends in equine breeding and training that emphasize speed over stamina make its accomplishment less likely than in past years. Also, the Derby co-favorite Union Rags and Dullahan, the fast-closing third-place finisher in the Kentucky race, should be on hand to challenge, and because they skipped the Preakness will have the advantage of freshness.

Further, and typically for racing, I’ll Have Another’s tale has a dark side. That would be the history of his trainer, Doug O’Neill, who last week was slapped with a 45-day suspension and $15,000 fine for doping another horse in California, his usual stomping grounds. The penalty was the fourth levied against the man whom my Turf Paradise race-book cohorts say is known back home as Doug O’Needle.

O’Needle (oops, O’Neill), however, is an angel compared with Rick Dutrow, who in 2008 saddled the last Derby-Preakness winner, Big Brown. That fella has been cited for various violations 64 times in nine states since 1979, and last October in New York was socked with a big one that includes a 10-year suspension. Still, he trains on while his appeals pend and was the second-winningest trainer in the last meet at Aqueduct. Similarly (and conveniently), O’Neill’s most-recent penalty won’t kick in until after the Belmont.

Racing’s big story in recent decades has been the rise in the use of medications, legal and otherwise, to keep horses running, and the related upswing in on-track spills that threaten the lives of horses and jockeys. The underlying problem is that the sport is run by a hodgepodge of state governing bodies that vary greatly in honesty and competence. It and boxing need the most regulation but get the least. No Triple Crown should obscure that.   


1 comment:

Constant Reader said...

I enjoyed your Derby preview column but don't remember reading much about I'll Have Another. Since you are obviously well informed on the subject, this underscores to me the risky nature of equine handicapping and wagering. Presumably even "The Genius" would have overlooked this horse and bet accordingly, or perhaps sat this race out. No wonder so few can make a living at the track.