Saturday, September 15, 2012


                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


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 lately, you should. It’s been running lots of lively pieces, including a few by me. A link is above.