Sunday, December 15, 2013


                Electors for the Baseball Hall of Fame can choose up to 10 recently active players for induction out of the 35 or so on our ballots, but in my 17 years of voting I can’t recall choosing more than seven in any one year. Keeping in mind that the Hall is for the greats, not the very goods, helps me focus in that regard.

This year, though, I’ll be picking 10, and my problem hasn’t been who to add but whom not to. It’s the richest candidate list in memory and could yield as many as four inductees, although the requirement that a player be named by 75% of the voters is a steep one.

It’s been a while—since 1991—that as many as three players were elected in the same year by the current or ex sportswriters, and in some years the number has been zero. That happened last year, and we scribes were castigated for spoiling the July induction party in Cooperstown, New York, where the Hall is situated.

 The affair went on as scheduled, and hung three new plaques by vote of one of the veterans’ committees that also decide such things, but the fact that the inductees (umpire Hank O’Day, team owner Jacob Ruppert and 19th-century catcher James “Deacon” White) had been dead a total of 226 years put a bit of a damper on the proceedings. Why the Hall continues to induct players no living person has seen perform is something I can’t understand.

We’ve all seen this year’s ballot first timers, and a great group it is. Heading it are two-thirds of the best baseball-playing golf threesome ever—Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. (The third was John Smoltz, who’ll be up for election next year.) Another newcomer is Frank Thomas, the Chicago White Sox’s all-time best hitter save for Shoeless Joe. I’ll be voting enthusiastically for all three.

Maddux and Glavine anchored the pitching staff that made the Atlanta Braves the National League’s best team in the 1990s, albeit one that won only a single World Series, in 1995. Pitching these days is dominated by 6-foot-6 types who can throw a strawberry through a battleship, but Maddux and Glavine are especially praiseworthy in my book because they’re ordinary-sized guys who got by on skill and guile. Maddux is a sure bet to get in—his 355 career wins are eighth-most all-time and his 3,371 strikeouts rank 10th—but Glavine’s 305 wins weren’t far behind in that most-important category. Between them they won six Cy Young Awards (Maddux had four, Glavine two) and further distinguished themselves with bat (Glavine) and glove (Maddux). Both also are (or were) near-scratch golfers, and I hope they’ll be playing a celebratory round in Cooperstown on induction weekend.

Thomas is a longer shot to win election, partly because some voters are sniffy about designated hitters, which he was for part of his career, but his numbers are of Hall quality. His 521 home runs rank 18th all-time, his 1,704 RBIs are 22nd and his 1,667 walks are 10th, and he won two American League MVP awards, in 1993 and ’94. His star would be brighter if his best year (1994) hadn’t been cut short by the strike that cancelled that year’s last six weeks and World Series and left the White Sox in first place in their division. The big fella was batting .353 with 38 home runs and 101 ribbies in that one, and his figures might have been monumental if the last 50 or so games had been played.

The other seven players I’m naming I’ve named before and see no reason not to again.  I’m rooting hardest for Jack Morris to win election because he’s in his 15th and last year on the sportswriters’ ballot. Last year he fell just short with a 67.7% vote, and it wouldn’t take much more to put him over the top this time.

  It’s beyond me why Morris doesn’t have a plaque already. He was a horse of a starting pitcher, with 254 career victories and 175 complete games, and a big-game performer with few peers. He threw two complete-game World Series wins for the 1984 champion Detroit Tigers and went 2-0 for the Minnesota Twins in the 1991 event. His seventh-game, 10-inning shutout in that one, versus the Braves, capped the best Series I covered.

I’ll be voting for Craig Biggio, the former Houston Astros’ hero who topped the “magical” 3,000-hit mark (with 3,060) in 20 seasons, during which he played catcher and second base. I can’t think of another player who manned both those demanding positions ably. He got a 68.2% vote last year and also needs just a small boost to prevail.

I’m not sniffy about DHs and I’ll be voting for Edgar Martinez, the best ever in the slot. Baseball’s annual Outstanding Designated Hitter Award is named for him. I’ll check the box for Mike Piazza, the best-hitting catcher of his era; the relief pitcher Lee Smith, who ranks third in all-time saves; Alan Trammell, a fine shortstop over a 20-year career; and the pitcher Curt Schilling, who topped the career 3,000-strikeouts mark and whose post-season record (11-2 with a 2.23 ERA in 19 starts) is second to none. That’s 10, isn’t it?

The ballot is so full I didn’t have room for a couple of players I otherwise might have favored. First-time nominee Mike Mussina had 270 pitching victories and a .638 winning percentage that’s sixth among starters with at least 250 victories. Tim Raines was a whirling Dervish on the bases and hit very well, too. Another time, maybe.

Once again I didn’t vote for three players whose otherwise-Hall-worthy careers have a chemical odor. Evidence shows that Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa tainted their feats with steroids use, and while nobody is erasing their records, or demanding a refund of their enormous salaries, the Hall properly remains out of their reach, as their poor showings in their first ballot appearances last year showed (Clemens topped the three at 37.6%).

As I noted last year, in baseball there are two kinds of cheating. It’s one thing for a fielder who traps a fly ball to raise it in triumph as though he’d caught it, but quite another to cold-bloodedly ponder risks and rewards and choose to break the rules by juicing up, as Bonds, Clemens and Sosa apparently did. They’ve had their rewards and their bill is now due.


Sunday, December 1, 2013


             Every so often I read something that stops me cold. One such occasion occurred a week ago last Sunday when I was reading the Arizona Republic’s account of Arizona State U.’s football victory over UCLA the previous day. The paper noted, matter-of-factly, that the win earned ASU head coach Todd Graham $330,000 in bonuses-- $100,000 because it was his team’s ninth of the season and $230,000 more because it clinched a spot in the PAC-12 title game. If ASU wins that game the $230,000 bonus would double to $460,000, or 20% of his $2.3 million annual salary, the paper reported.
             I had to read that twice before it sunk in. A guy making $2.3M per gets a $330,000 bonus for doing what he was hired to do?  And in a state that has cut education funding during the term of its present, severely conservative governor?

 I can summarize my first thought thusly: teeeesh.
                My second thought was of Woody Hayes. Somewhere in my memory file was the fact that the most he ever earned in a season during his 28 years as head football coach at Ohio State U. was $43,000, and even though that tenure ended 30-plus years ago—in 1978—it isn’t exactly ancient history. Moreover, while Graham’s rep and credentials are modest, Hayes was a giant in his field, with multiple national titles to his credit and mythic status on his home campus.

                Woody was offered raises but turned them down on ground that his pay was OK for a college faculty member. When he got bonuses for signal victories he’d divide them among his staff.  If you’d have told him that in 2013 big-time college football coaches would become lordly CEOs routinely being paid in the $2 million-$5 million annual range, he’d have said you were nuts.

                It’s interesting even to me that I’m citing Hayes favorably here, because I didn’t like him much when he coached.  That was partly because his teams usually beat mine (Illinois), but also because I never cared for the way he compared football to war, a much more serious enterprise.  Further, he was the sort of man who demanded discipline from his troops (oops, players)  but couldn’t exercise it himself,  aiming his frequent sideline tantrums at photographers, game officials and inanimate objects such as first-down markers.  He got the gate at OSU when he finally went too far in that department, punching an opposing player who’d strayed into the Buckeye bench area during a game.

                My negative impression of Woody had its origin with my first encounter with him. I was in the press box during the OSU-Illinois game in 1958, making myself useful in various ways, when Bert Bertine, my boss at the Champaign-Urbana Courier, dispatched me to shag a few post-game Buckeye quotes for his story.  With a few minutes remaining I went down to the field, and when the Ohio State players streamed into their locker room at the gun, I streamed with them, as I’d done before with other teams after other games. Notebook and pencil in hand, I was talking to a player when I was confronted by Woody, red-faced angry even in victory.

                “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he demanded.

                “Er, I’m press,” gulped the 20-year-old me.

                “Well get the hell out of here until I let you guys in,”   the great man barked.

                Woody was reputed to be a man of parts, however, and years later, as a grown-up columnist (sort of), I thought it might be worthwhile to check in on the old lion in his winter of retirement. I visited him the Friday before the 1984 Ohio State-Michigan game. We spent more than an hour talking in his office in the ROTC Building on the Columbus campus; a longtime student of military history, he was given a faculty appointment in the department after he was bounced as a coach. Then we had lunch in the university’s faculty club, where he seemed to know most of the other diners.

 After that we walked over to the football stadium, where he gave a talk at the Senior Tackle, an OSU ritual in which graduating-senior players take a last, ceremonial whack at a tackling dummy. About 2,000 people showed up to watch in very cold weather, and they gave him ovations coming and going.

At age 71 Woody’s fire still burned, albeit a bit lower than when he was coaching. In his office he told me he was up for the Michigan game as much as in days of yore. “Us versus Michigan! Best doggone rivalry there is!” he said. “Competition is what makes you go, you know? You beat nobody, what have you got? You beat somebody and you’ve done something. Yessir!”

He mused that teaching history to ROTC cadets meant that his life had come full circle from his younger days. The son of a school superintendent in small-town Ohio, he’d grown up thinking of becoming a classroom teacher before football sidetracked him. As far as he was concerned, coaching was more teaching than anything else. “I spent more time with my players in a week than most professors do with their students in a year,” he noted.

He went on: “Football teaches things you don’t learn elsewhere. A player learns to get up after he’s been knocked down. He learns to run the play that’s called, whether he’s carrying the ball or not. And he learns that nothing in life comes easy.”

He left his desk to get a book from a case on a wall. It was a volume that contained the Irwin Shaw short story, “The 80-Yard Run.”  Said he: “Some people think it’s a sad story because that run he made in school was the best thing that fella ever did, but I look at it differently. If he hadn’t made the run he’d have had damned little to look back on with pride.”

That afternoon he expanded on that theme in his talk at the Senior Tackle. “This morning I got a call from Fred Bruney,” he told the players. “He said ‘Coach, remember what I did 32 years ago today?’ I said I sure did. He intercepted three passes that helped us beat Michigan. He’ll smile about that on his deathbed. You do the same thing and you’ll have something to smile about, too”



Friday, November 15, 2013


                William Safire, one of my journalistic idols, said it took three examples to make a column, so I use his dictum to lead into what follows.  To wit:

                THE MIAMI DOLPHINS’ BROUHAHA--  The first thing that was surprising about Jonathan Martin’s flight from the National Football League team is that a 6-foot-5, 320-pound man could be bullied, harassed or otherwise intimidated by a colleague as Martin says he was, by fellow behemoth and offensive-line mate Richie (no longer) Incognito. Exhibit A in his departure was a threatening, profane, racist screed that Incognito chose to text-message to Martin. The second surprising thing was that, apparently, Incognito didn’t know that anything sent electronically these days can be shared with the world instantly.

               The initial response of many, including the Dolphins’ GM to whom Martin complained about his treatment, was that Martin should have settled his dispute with Incognito by punching him in the mouth. Martin, however, is a well-brought-up young man— the son of two Harvard graduates—who doesn’t buy that approach to conflict resolution. That led some to put him down as a wuss, neglecting the facts that he was an All-American at Stanford U., a second-round draft choice by the Dolphins in 2012 and a starter at right or left tackle from his debut in the rock-‘em, sock -‘em pro game, things that should qualify him as manly on any scale.

              What wasn’t surprising about the episode to even passing followers of football was the involvement of Incogito. He’s been such bad news since his college days that it’s a wonder any team would take him on.

                Richie first matriculated at the U. of Nebraska football factory, and played well there, but was kicked off the school’s team after his junior year for “team-rules violations,” the label colleges use to cover up a wide variety of sins. While at Nebraska he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge stemming from a fight at a party, a rap that was bargained down from three felony counts. He also wound up on the list of witnesses against a Lincoln, Nebraska, man charged in 2005 with selling steroids to Cornhusker gridders and others.  He didn’t have to testify but the guy was convicted anyway.

               Richie next turned up at the U. of Oregon to complete his college eligibility, but was bounced before he put on his pads, also for undisclosed rules violations. As a pro he’s changed uniforms three times and has stood out more for his late-hit penalties than for his Pro Bowl-level talents. In 2009, as a Buffalo Bill, he was named the NFL’s dirtiest player in a poll of his peers taken by The Sporting News, no small distinction in that well-stocked zoo.

 It’s recently been revealed that police files in Aventura, Florida, showed that last year a woman complained that Incognito had groped her sexually and otherwise molested her while she was volunteering at a Dolphins’ golf outing. No charges were filed and the woman told reporters she couldn’t comment on the matter because of a confidentiality agreement she’d signed, indicating that she’d been bought off.

                Plenty of sociologizing has been used to explain the Incognito-Martin episode, but the clear facts are that football requires of its players the kind of of aggression that’s unacceptable in society at large, and that for whatever reasons a few of them can’t turn it off when the whistle blows or the game ends. Teams hire these guys (and others cozy up to them) at their risk, as the Dolphins have discovered.

               It’s worth noting that Martin’s mother is a noted lawyer specializing in employment matters in general and workplace harassment in particular.   He thus has at his disposable able, zealous and, no doubt, free representation, something that will make him formidable in any forum.

               BIG YANKEE SPITS BACK AT BIG BASEBALL—The 13 other targets of the Biogenesis doping investigations quietly accepted and served their penalties, but not Alex Rodriguez. The game’s highest-paid performer is fighting his 211-game suspension both in arbitration and in federal court. He’s accused Commish Selig and other MLB officials of conducting a personal vendetta against him, and has played the ethnic card by siccing at least one Hispanic group on baseball’s tail.   That’s a lot nastier than these things usually get.

               ARod can do this because 1) he’s very rich, having been paid about $250 million to play baseball to date, 2) doesn’t have much else to do, and 3) at age 38, a 1 1/3-season suspension, stretching into 2015, probably would end his baseball career, which could endanger the four years (and $86 million) remaining on his Yankees’ contract. With that at stake his decision to take his best shot is understandable.
              Arod is a repeat steroids offender, but isn’t going into battle unarmed. The likely main witness against him, the defunct Miami “anti-aging” clinic’s owner Tony Bosch, is a con man, and much of the game’s documentary evidence either was stolen from Bosch by a disgruntled former employee or purchased from third parties whose backgrounds and motives are murky. Arod’s legal team, headed by the big-heat Washington lawyer and lobbyist Lanny Davis, no doubt will exploit those issues, both in and out of the hearing rooms. Baseball needs off-season attractions and this will be a good one.

               GIVE PEACE A CHANCE—Can you imagine an NFL game without penalties? It’s hard, but conceivable. Fact is, there was half such a game on November 4, when the Green Bay Packers played the Chicago Bears at Green Bay. The Packers were charged with no (as in zero) penalties that Monday night, while the Bears were flagged just four times.  I didn’t realize this until I saw the box score the next day, but I remember enjoying the game, and not only because my Bears won.

               I looked it up and learned that there have been four penaltyless games in NFL history. The last was in 1940, when the league possessed none of its enormous present self-importance. Penalty-free games for single teams are less rare, but happen about once a season. 

                 Can an NFL team really go 60 minutes without breaking any of the league’s fat book of rules?  No, which means that game officials didn’t see any infractions worth calling on the Pack that evening. What a precedent! If it spreads, NFL games might be watchable again.

               Football has been described as violence punctuated by committee meetings. Now it’s violence punctuated by committee meetings and law-enforcement actions, the latter including the Talmudic-style rules discussions that go on while video reviews of officials’ calls spin out endlessly. No good play can be enjoyed until the field is scanned for penalty markers; “there’s a flag on the play” have become the six saddest words in sports. More zebra self-restraint would spare us some of that.    

Friday, November 1, 2013


                Centuries from now, if our institutions still exist, archeologists wishing to learn what life was like in 2013 would do well to check out our TV commercials. No other medium better encapsulates our values and aspirations. If we don’t like the pictures of ourselves they present, it’s our fault, not its makers’. Those folks are sharp and have money to spend, a tough combination to beat.
                The commercials that have caught by eye especially of late are in Pepsi’s “Are You Fan Enough?” series. There’s been a bunch of them, tied to National Football League teams and games. The kickoff ad, presented in the usual zip-zip-zip fashion, showed energetic-looking men and women wearing NFL gear and waiving team flags, others with painted faces, and a young man getting a team logo (the Pittsburgh Steelers’) shaved onto his head, interspersed with images of people quaffing the sponsor’s sweet, brown beverage. It ends with a shot of a bunch of beefy guys in a crowded stadium, leaning forward, pumping their fists and shouting apoplectically. 
              What if anything is happening on the field while all that activity is going on—the context, don’t you know?—is unseen and unstated. That’s because there is no context. According to the ad, fan fervor is an end in itself and worth celebrating for its own sake.  The French philosopher Rene Descartes defined the human credo as “cogito ergo sum,” which means “I think therefore I am.”  If he were alive today and writing Pepsi ads he’d put “we cheer therefore we are” into Latin, and be well paid for it.
               It’s a whole new ball game out there, one in which I’m not comfortable because I don’t qualify as “fan enough” by Pepsi’s standards. I’ve never painted my face in a team’s colors, own no team flags, don’t have enough hair to have a team emblem cut onto my scalp and never have come close to busting a gut over any sports action, although I’ve seen plenty of it.

                I do own some team gear but received most of it as gifts, from people who think it’s the kind of thing I’d like. I’m politely grateful when I get it but promptly pitch it onto a shelf in my closet, from where it rarely emerges. I have a classic Cubs’ cap I like—blue with a red “C”—and often wear to baseball games. I have a couple Olympic t-shirts from my columnist days that I wear in public from time to time, mostly because they’re good brags. Otherwise the duds get worn only around my house, when I’m in my wood shop or doing my morning exercises.

                   An obvious reason for my unease with the current stadium scene is generational: most people my age (I’m 75) didn’t make a display of their fandom during my formative years. We went to games, all right, and cheered for the home teams, but mostly we kept quiet unless something worth shouting about was taking place on the field. Stated differently, there were the games and there was the audience of which we were a part, and the two were separate.  Ditto for plays, concerts and other forms of public entertainment.

                Now the audience considers itself part of the show. I don’t go to rock concerts but I did go to a play a few weeks ago (“The Importance of Being Earnest,” if you can believe they’re still staging it) and the young fellow seated behind me (about 30 years old, I’d guess) whooped or hollered “Yeah!” at every on-stage verbal putdown, of which there were many. I wondered what Oscar Wilde would have thought.
                 There always have been people who think everything is about them, but today they predominate. In sports I think their ascendancy began in the late 1970s or early ‘80s when the stadium “wave” made its appearance on the West Coast and rolled across the nation.  The wave was nice in a way—a communal expression—but it also made the statement that the sports crowd can have an agenda that has nothing to do with the game before it.

                I feel similarly about the costumes some people wear to athletic events. For pure entertainment the best show in the NFL isn’t put on by Peyton Manning or Tom Brady but by the fans in the parking lot and stands at Oakland Raiders’ home games. People there have embraced the Raiders’ biker-gang image and celebrate it with fierce face paint, real or temporary tattoos, spiked hair, studded belts and collars, and muscle shirts. And that’s just the women!

                The above two examples are harmless, as was that “Rockin’ Rolland” guy who’d show up ubiquitously on TV wearing his rainbow wig and hoisting his “John 3:16” sign. (Where is he? I miss him.) Not so the latest manifestation of crowd exhibitionism, the sustained, ear-splitting roar.

                You may be interested to know that there’s a contest going on for whose fans are loudest, and that those of the NFL Kansas City Chiefs are winning. Their top decibel level during a game last month was measured at 137.5 by the Guinness World Record folks, beating the previous mark of 136.6 for an outdoor stadium set a week earlier at a Seattle Seahawks’ home game. Both readings were about the same noise level a jet passenger plane creates on takeoff, as heard by someone standing on the runway bare eared.

                The object of those clamors is very much game-related, designed to disrupt the signals of the visiting team’s offense, and the false-start and delay-of-game penalties they cause attest to their effectiveness. Is this fair? No, but so far the league hasn’t wanted to rile the beast by telling it to pipe down. Fans want to express themselves even at a risk of hearing loss, and Commish Goodell is letting them.

                The Pepsi people no doubt would rate the K.C. and Seattle screamers as “fan enough,” and worthy of drinking their product.  Me, I don’t care what Pepsi thinks. I prefer Coke.     

                NOTE: I have a new piece on Cub and White Sox prospects in the Arizona Fall League on, which you can check out with the link above. While you’re there see my piece on the old ogre Arthur Wirtz by finding “Wirtz Case Scenario.” 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013


                 When everybody says something should happen, it probably will. But this isn’t necessarily a good thing.
                 What everybody is saying now is that it’s about time big-time college athletes in the so-called revenue sports—football and men’s basketball-- are paid. Time magazine said so in a September cover story. Joe Nocera, the New York Times op-ed columnist who sometimes writes about the NCAA, has agreed on several occasions. Sports-blab radio hosts have been saying it for years; it’s like you can’t join their union if you don’t share that belief. You might think so, too.
                At least, it’s a commonsensical stance. Look around any college stadium on game day and you’ll notice that everyone who didn’t buy a ticket—sportswriters, TV folks, coaches, game officials, ticket takers, concessionaires, vendors and the people who clean up after—are on the clock. In a multi-billion-dollar business that enriches many, what could it hurt to toss a few bucks the kids’ way?   

                But think about it for a minute (I know, it hurts) and complications appear.  How much would be “fair” compensation for the hours the players put in-- $100 a month, $1,000, $5,000?   Should they be paid out of season as well as in? Should a kid who seldom plays be given as much money as a starter, or a starter as much as a star?  Should Johnny Football have a pay class of his own?

                Should players’ injuries be covered by workmen’s compensation, whose benefits can far outlast their college careers? Should the players be permitted to organize?  Should they have a voice in their conditions of employment, such as the duration and content of practices? Should they get to audition cheerleaders?

                I could go on but think the point is made. I also think it’s widely recognized that many if not most of the players already are being paid, only not by check. When I covered the University of Illinois football team for the Daily Illini in 1956 (gasp!), the players joked openly about the “$20 handshakes” they received from alums after games. According to a recent series in Sports Illustrated magazine about a long-term and far-reaching payment system in the Oklahoma State U. football program, it seems those attaboys are worth $200 these days.

                  No-work jobs from boosters were part of the OK St. package, SI averred; nothing new there, either. Ditto for free meals, beers, clothes and whatnot from friendly merchants around any campus. Agents can be counted upon to slip cash to players who might be future clients, as well as to their pals and loved ones; it’s a normal expenditure in that business. A recent piece on Yahoo Sports asserted that five current or recent Southeastern Conference football stars shared some $90,000 in agent payouts over a 15-month period ending last December.

                But even such hauls pale in comparison with the value of what athletes are permitted to receive.  The annual cash value of a “free ride” athletic scholarship to a top-division sports school-- covering tuition, room, board and books-- ranges from $15,000 to $25,000 for students at public universities to more than $50,000 for such high-toned private schools as Duke, Stanford and Northwestern. Multiply that by the four or five years it usually takes a jock to play out his eligibility and you have more-than-ample compensation for semi-skilled labor.

                The final figure is much higher for athletes who manage to emerge with degrees. If you estimate that college grads earn about $20,000 a year more than people without degrees over a 40-plus year work life, you see the basis of the claim that a degree is worth a million dollars, not to mention whatever intellectual lamps it lights.  Even those who wish to quarrel with that estimate must admit that a sheepskin is much more valuable monetarily than any salary young jocks might be paid while in school.

                The real scandal of college sports doesn’t concern what the players get— legally or under the table—but what they typically don’t get, which is the ability to pursue the education they sign up for. Playing football or basketball at the top college level is a full-time job, with players so tied up in games, travel and workouts and practices of various kinds that they have little time or, sometimes, energy for schooling.  Add that the youngsters must cope with the sort of news-media attention that would disconcert most of their elders and normal student life becomes an impossibility.

                It’s possible that a strong-minded, persistent and well-advised young man can get through the athletics’ cement mixer with an education worth its name, but most 18-to-22 year-old jocks don’t fit that description. Abetted by their coaches, most are channeled into unchallenging majors whose requirements don’t conflict with their sports schedules, and eased along further by “program-friendly” profs and “academic advisers” who relieve them of the necessity to do much coursework.  Yes, the lads often are complicit in their own exploitation, but their youth is an excuse while the adults who manage them have no such “out.” Putting players on a payroll only would increase the overseers’ leverage.

                 They’re not going to tear down the stadiums, the coaches aren’t going back to being paid like regular teachers and dumb-ass boosters aren’t about to get lives outside of sports,  so remedies are hard to imagine, much less implement. One small thing that could be done, though, is return to the former practice of denying athletic eligibility until a student satisfactorily completes a full academic year. That might discourage college attendance by players who are interested solely in honing their games and give the others a taste of what the rest of the student body is up to. Some might like it and insist on continuing.



Tuesday, October 1, 2013


                The baseball playoffs start today and since my Chicago teams aren’t in them (they rarely are) it’s good to have a Plan B. This year I have one in the Pittsburgh Pirates.
                I lived in Pittsburgh from New Year’s Day, 1963, until Labor Day, 1966, almost four years.  I went there to take a job on the copy desk at the Pittsburgh Press, one of two largish newspapers that offered me employment after I’d completed my six months of active duty with the Army Reserve.

 Working in Pittsburgh hadn’t been my objective but getting on a metropolitan paper was; in my previous jobs in Champaign and Elgin, Ill., and Ann Arbor, Mich., I’d seen too many good newspaper people stuck in small towns past the point they could easily leave, and I’d resolved to escape that trap. My other bid was from the St. Paul Pioneer Press, and for meteorological reasons Pittsburgh seemed the better choice.

It turned out that being chained to a copy desk wasn’t for me, and by the summer of ’63 I was looking for alternatives. Providentially, I got a call from the Wall Street Journal, with whose Chicago bureau chief I’d previously interviewed. I’d scarcely remembered the chat but for some reason he had, and when an opening arose in the paper’s Pittsburgh bureau he passed along my name. I didn’t know a stock from a bond (really), and never had read the paper before I went to work there, but when the Journal offered I accepted, figuring I’d at least get out of the office once in a while.

Life is a series of accidents and this one turned out happily. My new colleagues by example taught me more about reporting in a few months than I’d picked up the previous six years, and I thrived under the paper’s nurturing regime.  My late wife Carol and I liked Pittsburgh, too. It wasn’t the city our native Chicago was but it was livable on our modest budget, and a half-hour’s drive in any direction from our home in suburban Crafton got us out into some pretty, rolling countryside. We had children there, and made friends, and were sad to leave when the paper transferred me to New York.

Carol wasn’t a sports fan, and the kids kept us busy, so I didn’t do much ballgame-going in Pittsburgh, but several times I did make it out to Forbes Field, where the Pirates played. It was a big old park, a remnant of the dead-ball era when shots between the outfielders could roll forever and triples were frequent. Sometimes they’d roll under the batting cage, which after batting practice was stashed on the playing surface in deep-center field because there was no other place to put it.  You don’t see that sort of thing anymore.

I mostly followed the Pirates (or ”Bucs”—short for Buccaneers-- as they’re called in Pittsburgh) on radio and TV. This acquainted me with Bob Prince, one of the best baseball mike-men ever. Prince was smart and clever, a “homer” who nonetheless made baseball fun even if you weren’t a local. He hung whimsical nicknames on Pirate players of the era (the light-footed centerfielder Bill Virdon was “The Quail”; the tall, stooped leftfielder Bob Skinner, who ran with a bent-legged gait, was “The Dog”), crowed “we had ‘em all the way” after close wins, and sometimes interrupted his playing-field narratives to verbally admire females in the stands. It wasn’t PC but you had to smile.

 It didn’t hurt that Prince was a legend in his own time who earned his macho bones with a dive into the swimming pool of a St. Louis hotel from a third-floor balcony, and something of a night-life hero as well. It was said that his nickname “The Gunner” stemmed not from any rapid-fire delivery but from his being threatened by a gun-toting man while he was chatting up the guy’s wife in a bar.

            There are reasons besides personal nostalgia to root for the Pirates this fall. This season they broke an epic, 20-year run of sub-.500 finishes, a record for futility even my Cubs can’t match. Their last playoff appearance was in 1992 and ended in agonizing fashion when they blew a 2-0 ninth-inning lead to the Atlanta Braves in the seventh and deciding game of the National League Championship Series. Pirate fans still can see Sid Bream, a heavy-legged Brave, chugging home with the winning run in that one, just eluding catcher Mike LaValliere’s tag after a Barry Bonds throw. I covered that series and recall the play vividly.
           It’s widely held that Pirate fans are loyal and long-suffering, and thus worthy of occasional success. I agree with the conclusion even though only the last part of that description is true. The steel mills are long gone but the Pittsburgh area remains blue-collar in spirit, an agglomeration of towns around a smallish central city (population about 300,000) where people are careful with their dollars and wary of enthusiasms.

 Sure, they love their football Steelers, but who wouldn’t? The team long has been one of the NFL’s best, and you can fill a big football stadium even in tiny burgs like Clemson, S.C. The Pirates, on the other hand, have topped the 2 million mark in season home attendance just five times in their century-plus history, and this season are averaging only about 28,000 spectators a game, 19th in the majors. The team draws better on the road than at home.

But the people who do show up like what they see and for the nonce, glad to reclaim my Pittsburgh past, so do I.  Go Bucs! Win one for The Gunner.

Sunday, September 15, 2013


                The National Football League has settled the lawsuits against it by the retired players who claim it misled them about the risks of the head injuries they suffered in its employ. The preponderance of journalistic opinion is that the deal is a big win for the league.
             The plaintiffs in the suit—some 4,500 of them—are to split $765 million. That seems like a very large sum until you divide it by the number of teams in the league—32—and the 20-year period over which it will be paid.  Although payment will be front-loaded, with half the money to be distributed during the first three years, each team’s average annual payout will come to about $1.2 million, which is about what it spends for Ben Gay and Ace bandages.

 When you note that the NFL’s revenue last season was about $10 billion, and the figure is expected to rise steeply in the years immediately ahead, the conclusion that it made out like a bandit seems inescapable.

And as the TV pitchmen say—Wait! There’s more! The settlement covers all ex-players, not only those who signed up as plaintiffs, so if one of them develops neurological symptoms years down the road—a not-uncommon occurrence with head injuries—he’ll have to share from the existing pot. Current and future players aren’t included, but they are parties to labor-contract provisions that will subject their claims to arbitration, which typically is less generous to plaintiffs than litigation.

The NFL got off without having to apologize or admit fault, things that are dear to the stony hearts of corporate lawyers.  Additionally, the settlement saved it the considerable legal costs trials would have entailed and spared it from having to produce for cross-examination its dubious experts who until recently were telling the players and the rest of the world that there was no proven link between playing football and ailments like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and dementia, even though studies to the contrary have existed for more than 30 years.  Again, rack up a “W” for the Big Team in Suits.

So why did the players agree to such a deal? Because many of the afflicted retirees are broke and hurting, unable to wait out the years that litigation would have taken and justifiably leery about their prospects of proving in court that their illnesses stemmed from injuries they sustained as professionals, not as high-schoolers or collegians.

  The “broke” part pertains mostly to ex-NFL bit-parters who never made much money in the game, but it’s notable that the plaintiffs’ list also included such recent-year stars as Bruce Smith, Tony Dorsett, Art Monk, Harry Carson, Leroy Butler, Fred Taylor, Andre Reed and Jim McMahon, whose medical and care requirements eventually could strain even their once-ample bank accounts. Perhaps they and others looked at the head-injury-related suicides of Junior Seau, Dave Duerson and Andre Waters and decided that if help didn’t come soon it might be too late.

Still, the belief that the NFL got off cheap may be premature. Yeah, the league admitted no guilt, but the Latin phrase “res ipsa loquitur,” meaning “the thing speaks for itself,” seems to apply, with 765 million reasons to back it up. In paying the settlement, the league ratified the idea that playing football has serious potential health consequences.  The action takes the sport out of the category of a healthful exercise that might be appropriate at the school as well as the adult level and ranks it with auto racing and downhill skiing as a daredevil pursuit that should be undertaken only with full appreciation of its risks.

A similar recognition is inherent in the recent changes the league has made to prevent head injuries and better treat ones that occur. While laudable, they also underline the fact that something dangerous is going on between the sidelines, which the evidence of our senses confirms every Sunday.  

  What’s the chance of incurring a debilitating neurological injury at age 50 after, say, 10 or 12 years of playing organized football—1%, 5%, 20%?  How about after four or eight years in the sport? We don’t know now but the data is out there and one day it will be tabulated definitively. If the results don’t deter the players themselves—young athletes are strong and cocky, and think that injuries are things that happen to other people—it might make an impression on the parents who have to approve their participation in schools and colleges.

 These parents might note that young, developing brains are more susceptible to trauma than the more-mature ones of the NFL behemoths. They also might heed some recent research that concludes that an individual needn’t have sustained a “big bang” head blow resulting in a verifiable concussion to suffer lasting neurological damage—that the numerous, smaller “dings” he shrugs off in practice or games can have a cumulative affect that can amount to about the same thing.

 You love football, I love football, and the players and their moms and pops love football, but maybe something similar will happen to perceptions about the game. It may take a while but if it does the NFL won’t be celebrating its “victory.”

Sunday, September 1, 2013


                I hate to see people suffer, so as a sports columnist I avoided events such as marathons and triathlons, whose main point seemed to be to determine how much punishment humans could endure. Even the winners of those things looked like they’d been through a wringer.  Good manners dictated looking away.
                I feel the same way about some of the men’s matches in the U.S. Open tennis tournament, now unfolding at the old World’s Fair grounds in the New York borough of Queens, and on your TV screens. The tourney’s best-of-five set format—like that of the other three tennis “majors” (the Australian and French Opens and Wimbledon)—often results in four-or-five hour contests that can leave their contestants stumbling, gasping, cramping and generally hanging on for dear life. It’s an anachronism whose time has passed.

                Fact is, best-of-five already is history in the big majority of tennis tournaments—men’s as well as women’s—where matches go to the first winners of two sets. It survives in the men’s majors because… well, just because. Tennis, after all, is the sport in which “love” means nothing, and the roots of whose points system—15, 30, 40, game—are lost in antiquity.   I asked around about that “love” thing once, and was told it stemmed from the French “l’oeuf”, which means “the egg.”  But though an egg is roundish, like a zero, it’s too thin a joke to be repeated endlessly.

                Tennis does alter its scoring rules occasionally—about every half-century. The last big one came in 1970 when it changed the win-by-two requirement by adapting the first-to-seven-points tiebreaker to end sets that are tied at six games each. Typically, though, the change has been less than universal, and the U.S. Open is the only major to apply it to a fifth set. That means that while sets no longer can go on indefinitely in Melbourne, Paris and London, matches can.

                  It was only a matter of time before Murphy’s Law, which holds than anything that can go wrong will, would bite tennis with a vengeance. In 2011 at Wimbledon the American John Isner and the Frenchman Nicolas Mahut went at it in a first-round five-setter that lasted 11 hours and five minutes and sprawled over three days, with two continuations for darkness. The game score of the last set was 70-68, if you can believe it.  Because Isner needed a couple of days to recoup for more singles, and both players had doubles commitments that had to be postponed, it screwed up the tourney’s schedule for a week.

                The year 1970 was pivotal for tennis for other reasons. That was about the time when the wooden racquet, the game’s standard forever, began to give way to ones with steel or aluminum frames. Those materials gave players more bang but were only a taste of what would happen when more-exotic substances like graphite, boron and Kevlar came on the scene, sometimes in combination. They allowed racquet frames to become far stronger, lighter and more flexible than previously.  

                Back in “woody” days,   racquets had faces that measured about 65 square inches, weighed 13 ounces and had “sweet spots”—the hitting areas of maximum power and control—about as big as silver dollars. Now face measurements run to 145 square inches (although most pros use smaller), weigh 10 or 11 ounces and have sweet spots as big as grapefruits.  Add the improvements in strings and stringing and the difference between today’s racquets and old-style ones is about the same as that between an Uzi and a B-B gun.

                The early expectation was that the power surge would most benefit big servers, allowing them to blow their foes off the courts. It didn’t turn out that way. Equally well-armed defenders nullified their thrusts by retreating a few feet from the baseline and slinging serves back almost as hard as they came in. That killed serve-and-volley tennis, once an enlivening stylistic staple, and turned every point into a duel of baseline rockets that continues until one player falters.  It’s made matches longer but not, by me, better. When players don’t wear different-colored clothes it’s hard to them apart.  

                Other factors have made tennis a more grueling game than it once was. The sport these days has a year-round schedule, and its most-used surface is “hard court,” which can mean several things but usually boils down to playing on asphalt. As any recreational runner can tell you, pounding away on hard surfaces is tough on legs and feet, and the better traction they provide means more wear on joints.

 Also, there are more good players than there used to be, meaning that the early rounds of the grand-slam events can be testing even for the top seeds. Back in the day those worthies could count on skating through the first three or even four rounds without much resistance, but today some young Slovenian ranked No. 116 can keep numbers one or two scrambling for hours before succumbing, or not. It’s no wonder that just about every top player must play through pain, and few envision grinding on into their late 30s, the way Ken Rosewall or Jimmy Connors did. Roger Federer, the best player of this era, just turned 32 and can’t get through a press conference without being asked about his retirement plans.  Rafael Nadal, Federer’s closest pursuer, is 27, and given his all-out style and injury history isn’t a good bet to be playing at 30.

Best-of-five might have made sense in Jack Kramer’s time, when players played a dozen events a year, but no more. Two and a half or three hours of tennis—the usual length of a well-contested three-setter—is more than enough to determine who’s best at any level. The way it is now, someone should call OSHA on behalf of the guys, or the SPCA. 



Wednesday, August 14, 2013


VIEWS:  That’s the way the news media are playing the penalties meted out to 14 players implicated in the Biogenesis affair. The newsies depict vigilant B-Men banging down the door of the defunct Miami “anti-aging” clinic, rounding up the johns regardless of rank and nailing them with lengthy sentences. Holy J. Edgar!
Trouble is, that doesn’t square with the facts. For one thing, only seven of the Flawed Fourteen are current major leaguers, and one of the remaining seven (Jordan Noberto) is an unemployed free-agent pitcher recovering from elbow surgery.  For another, just one of them—Ryan Braun—ever failed an MLB drug test, and his result was reversed on a technicality. That means that testing-- the game’s main line of pharmaceutical defense-- failed to identify 13 players later revealed as users, hardly an encouraging outcome.
Further, the case that triggered the actions wasn’t uncovered by Baseball but by a whistleblower. According to stories in the New York Times and ESPN, one Porter Fischer, a Biogenesis employee and investor, staged a late-night raid on the company’s files after concluding he was being scammed by Tony Bosch, the outfit’s fake-doctor owner, and turned the trove over to the Miami weekly newspaper that initially published it.  Without his out-of-left-field help the episode might never have come to light.
As for the penalties, c’mon.  After plea bargaining 12 players received the 50-game suspensions they would have gotten as first-time drug-test flunkers even though their PED use seemingly was substantial and prolonged; the major leaguers among them will be eligible to participate in this year’s playoffs if their teams make it that far. Braun’s sentence of 65 games allowed him to end an injury-plagued season with his last-place club and begin work on the new act he’ll unveil at spring training. My guess is that he’ll be a L.A. Dodger by then.
This leaves Alex Rodriguez as the only player whose case still pends. That’s because, at age 38 and with a thick surgical file, ARod’s 200-plus game suspension lasting through 2014, based on his admitted previous drug use and asserted attempt to hamper the investigation, amounts to a career ender, so he might as well seek arbitration. That’s good because it will force Baseball to subject its evidence to scrutiny in a quasi-judicial forum. If it holds up the game at least will have done something right.

 VIEWS: Lots of sports-page stories invite chuckles but few make me laugh out loud. One did the other day, concerning the National Football League’s annual Pro Bowl all-star game that has concluded recent seasons.
It’s no news that fan and player indifference has put the game in jeopardy; I joined those addressing the subject in my blog of July 15, which you can scroll down to read.  The league has taken the criticisms to heart my announcing some changes in the way the contest will be played. The ones that got the most ink were a no-kickoffs rule in the name of player safety, and some tinkering with the game clock to speed play.
The change that got me, though, was the way the teams will be picked. Players still will be selected by a clunky process blending fan, player and coaches’ votes, but once a pool of the worthy is established the top two individual vote getters will be dubbed captains and allowed to choose sides without regard to the NFC-AFC conference divide.
Let me repeat that. The richest, most-buttoned-down, most-self-important sports league in creation will allow its all-star-game teams to be picked by CHOOSING SIDES, just like kids do in the playgrounds. Don’t you love it?

The stories didn’t say who’d get first pick, but I have a couple of suggestions. One would be to take a page from baseball and have one captain flip a bat to the other and then go hand over hand toward the handle until no more room remains and the top hand prevails. The other would have one captain spin a ball behind the other’s back and ask him to choose between laces up or down. That’s more suitable to football but not as much fun as the bat method.  You can’t do chicken claws on a football.

Of all of sports’ prizes the dumbest and most overblown is the Heisman Award, given annually to the “best” college-football player.  It forces an apples-and-coconuts choice among players at different positions facing different competition, with no guidelines except those of the individual electors.  It’s really a contest among team SIDs (short for sports information directors) to see which can drum up the most votes for his candidate. The gap between hype and reality was sharp last season, when the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, offensive tackle Eric Fisher of Central Michigan U., was a player who’d received no Heisman votes.
The guy who won was Johnny Manziel, a quarterback. That was thanks mostly to his catchy nickname of “Johnny Football” and a good-enough season of passing and running. His school, Texas A&M, probably thought it had struck gold because Johnny was a red-shirt freshman whose glow would illuminate the school for seasons to come. It also didn’t hurt that he’s a clean-cut looking white kid.
The glow has been anything but golden because it turns out that Johnny gets rowdy after a few beers, sleeps through obligations and sends rude messages from small electronic devices he carries. Other 20 year olds also do those things but they don’t have multitudes of followers, virtual and real, eager to broadcast their every expression.
Last week Johnny topped himself when it was alleged he pocketed cash for signing photos and gear, in violation of NCAA rules.  If the charge sticks he’d be ineligible for the games ahead. His daddy is a well-off oilman who has hired a lawyer to protect sonny ’s status, shifting the media focus from the gridiron to the conference (or court) room.  That’s just what the college-sports big-timers deserve, huh?


Thursday, August 1, 2013


                Your local pro or college team has a home game scheduled for the evening. The game will be televised. Do you want to go to the expense and trouble of attending or are you content to stay home and watch it on the tube?
           Increasingly, fans are opting for the latter choice, and no wonder. With traffic tough everywhere and ticket prices high and rising, it takes quite a lot to budge us from our living rooms, especially in this day of high-def TV. My set is five years old but its picture still is so sharp I can recognize faces in the crowds of the games I watch.  Plus, the fridge is near at hand and I can use the toilet without having to stand in line.
            Yeah, I know, it’s fun to go to games—to be out with the like-minded crowd that cheers on the home team. We urbanites (that is, just about all of us) live atomized existences these days, penned into a daily round of work or play and home that’s notably short on communal experiences. Instead of going to the movies we use Netflix, instead of shopping at the mall we click on ebay or amazon, instead of voting at a neighborhood polling place we fill in our ballots at our kitchen tables and mail in the results.  Agorophobia used to be an illness but now it’s a national condition.  
             Sports provide an antidote, but one that gets progressively harder to exercise for most people. My own example is a case in point. In 1972 I and three pals went in on a pair of season tickets for the basketball Chicago Bulls, who were just getting established in our home city. The tix were good, in the second row of the first balcony in Chicago Stadium, on a line with the Bulls’ bench. If memory serves they cost $5 or $6 per, or about $100 for my 10 or 11 games, well within my reporter’s budget.
               Our group renewed annually for 22 years, and while ticket prices regularly rose they were in the $25-$28 range through 1993, still affordable. Then the Bulls moved into the vastly larger United Center, whose configuration is quite different from that of the Stadium. The seats in the new place the team considered comparable to ours were in the second balcony, far removed from the action, and almost twice as expensive. Seeing the games from there would have been like watching them on a 12-inch TV screen.  We said no thanks and ended the relationship, and with it my career as a season-ticket holder.

                Twenty-years-ago prices seem quaint now, of course. The average single-game ticket in the NBA now costs about $50 and that’s for a not-good seat; according to the Bull’s current seating chart the ones we gave up now go for $125, and there’s a waiting list to get them. Team Marketing Report says the NFL led the average-price standings last season at $78, followed by the NHL at $61. Major League Baseball was last at $27.  Throw in the usual 20 bucks or so for stadium parking and $30 or $40 more for ballpark food and the game bill for a couple today runs from $100 to more than $200, too rich for my blood.   

                You can beat those numbers, but only if you live in or near a city where sports aren’t a religion. I do, in Scottsdale, AZ, near Phoenix. There, the baseball Diamondbacks usually play to half-filled houses no matter how they’re faring afield, and ticket prices are low. The seats wife Susie and I like best are 10 to 12 rows up in the upper deck behind home plate, from where the field stretches out before us. They go for $16 each, and I know a lot where I can park about two blocks from the back gates for six bucks. Add $11 for a brat with kraut and a Pepsi for me (Susie can’t stomach ballpark food and brings her own) and we get off for about $50, not bad as those things go. We’re usually good for 5-6 games a year.

                That doesn’t work here for the other major sports, though, nor does it ever in places like Chicago, Boston, Dallas and New York, where triple-digit prices for single games are common (especially in the so-called secondary market) and lawyers and commodity traders fill the stands. Add the constant fact that everyone at home sees the games better than anyone in the stadiums and you have the attendance declines of the past few years. The gates in the Big 2 sports of baseball and football both peaked in 2007, and while the declines have been small—averaging about 1% a year in each—they’ve been large enough to attract front-office attention.

                The main way teams are attempting to lure the couch-bound is by making their stadiums more like living rooms.  Jumbotrons—huge video display units—decorate stadiums coast to coast. The biggest so far is the one that hangs in Cowboy Stadium in Dallas, that capital of crass. It measures 72 feet by 160 feet. It’s due, however, to be dwarfed by a 55-by-301 unit ordered by the NFL Jacksonville Jaguars. You’ll note that width is one foot longer than the football playing field.

           Jumbotrons carry some of the video replays fans get at home, along with game stats and various between-innings or timeout entertainments. Mostly, though, they’re billboards that turn paying customers into captive audiences for whatever ads home teams can book. A Jumbotron is being planned for Wrigley Field, that erstwhile temple of baseball purity, and Cubs’ owner Tom Ricketts makes no bones about declaring that he wants it for the ad revenue it will generate. That’s honest but it doesn’t make me like him better.

Worse by me is the way the huge TV screens dominate any premises they occupy, turning the action on the field into an afterthought. Their 1984 aspect is magnified when they take to exhorting crowd reactions. At Chase Field in Phoenix, my home park of late, the ovine fans rarely budge unless Jumbo tells them to stand, clap or dance, or sounds that silly “charge” bugle.

 I’m embarrassed for them. I’ve known how to behave at ball games since I was 10 and need no prompting. At least when I’m watching at home no one tells me what to do, unless it’s to take out the garbage or something similar.


Monday, July 15, 2013


The Major League Baseball All-Star Game is tomorrow (Tues., 7/16) and unless wife Susie has other plans for me I’ll probably be watching on TV, a crossword puzzle in my lap. I’m interested enough to tune in and hope to see something memorable, just as I do every time I watch an athletic event, but I don’t care who wins. It’s an evening’s entertainment, nothing more.
            I’d guess that most people feel the same way I do about the game, despite the hype that surrounds it. I’d also guess that many of the participants are less than enthusiastic; if that perception didn’t exist MLB wouldn’t spend money running ads to counter it.

The baseball regular season is long, packing 162 games into about 180 days, and while I don’t feel sorry for men who earn princely salaries for playing a kid’s game I can see where the prospect of a four-day holiday might be more attractive than schlepping off to play an exhibition. The players who aren’t picked have all the best of it.

In brief, I’m asking whether tomorrow’s trip—or that for any all-star game in our major spectator sports—is necessary.  While it’s no big deal either way, I suspect we could get along fine without it, or them.

All-star games seem to me to be an idea whose time has passed.  Baseball’s version no doubt sounded dandy in 1933 when Arch Ward, the promotion-minded sports editor of the Chicago Tribune, hatched and brought it to fruition.  The series got off to a grand start in Comiskey Park in Chicago with a 4-2 American League victory sparked by a home run by Babe Ruth, who always rose to the occasion. It’s been held every season since except for the war year of 1945. During four seasons – 1959 through 1962—there were two all-star games, although I can’t imagine why.

The game made sense in the pre-TV dark ages because it brought some of baseball’s stars within reach of fans who otherwise never might see them. The same held true to a lesser extent until 1997, when interleague play began. Now, with an odd number of teams (15) in each league, there is interleague play almost daily, and thanks to the miracle of MLB’s Extra Innings package (to which I subscribe), every game that’s televised anywhere is televised everywhere. I live in a National League city but with a click of my remote any night I can watch Albert Pujols or Miguel Cabrera play in games that count in the standings.  The All-Star Game can’t offer that.

The business about counting also has occurred to baseball’s honchos. Their epiphany came in 2002 when the game ended in a 7-7 tie after 11 innings because the two managers ran out of subs. Boos and beer bottles rained upon the field in Commish Selig’s home town of Milwaukee, and he responded by decreeing that henceforth the league that wins the All-Star Game would have home-field advantage in that season’s World Series, instead of alternating it by year as before. I like Bud, and think he’s been a pretty good commissioner, but that was dumb. Maybe if the ’02 game had been played elsewhere he might have reacted differently.

   Even with something at stake participant zeal for the game often is lacking. Every year a few players beg off, pleading injury, and managers routinely shuffle their pitching rotations so that pitcher-selectees work the Sunday before the game and thus may not be deemed fit for duty on all-star Tuesday.

Putting a question mark on the whole affair is a hokey election system that encourages repeated balloting; when I read that a player has received, say, 6 million fan votes I figure it’s more likely that 6,000 people voted for him 1,000 times each than 6 million picked him once. This month I voted several dozen times on the MLB web site, and I was just fooling around.

Baseball being a non-contact sport at least allows it to stage a real game between its top players; in our other big leagues injury risk dictates that only half a game (offense) ensues. The worst charade is in football, where the annual NFC-AFC contest is played after a typically brutal season from which no one emerges unscathed. Player defections are numerous, rules changes include no blitzing and legal intentional grounding, no one cares about the outcome and participants seek mainly to escape in one piece. Of the 2012 contest one reporter wrote that the two sides “hit each other as though they were having a pillow fight.” Commissioner Goodell threatened to cancel the series after that one, but relented. He should have stuck to his guns.

The NBA All-Star game is a three-day rappers’ convention capped by a game whose only suspense centers on whether the two teams together will top 300 points (they did in 2012, 152-149). NHL star fests run to 12-10 scores in which goalies are changed after each period so none should suffer shellshock.  It is to laugh.

Players like the honor of being selected for the games, so the elections could continue even if the games don’t. They can do just about anything with electronic games these days so maybe they could program ones around the lineups and put the results on TV. Then the players could watch from the comfort of their homes, like we do. After a couple of years no one will notice the difference.



Monday, July 1, 2013


Dear Fred--  Hi. My name is Marvin and I’m a seagull. Lately I’ve been spending some afternoons hanging out at Wrigley Field, where the Chicago Cubs play.  Maybe you’ve seen me on TV; I’m the one with the black dot over his left eye. People think all us seagulls look alike but they’re wrong. They just don’t look closely enough.

I’m contacting you because I hope you’ll help me break into journalism. I’ve read your blog and find it simpatico. By that I mean it’s for the birds, which by me is a good thing.

You might ask what a seagull is doing wanting to write.  Actually, we have a literary history, thanks to that Jonathan Livingston guy. I read his book and it was pretty good, but I never liked him much. He was a pretentious jerk, and a showoff. Lots of us can do the flying tricks he could but they’re too much trouble, so we don’t.  Score a good meal and take the rest of the day off, that’s my motto.

I’ll tell you something else about the so-called Jonathan Livingston: his real name was Sheldon Bernstein. Always wanted to be a WASP, if you can believe it. The name change didn’t help him much, though. The real WASP seagulls chased him away every time he tried to visit the yacht club.

Another question you probably have is about how a bird can write. It’s easy, really, because we have two wings and a beak to work with. Talk about hunt and peck, huh? We even can do upper case, unlike that stupid cockroach archy .  Once I found an old Radio Shack computer in a landfill I was in business. Truth is, I type faster than some sportswriters. I’ve peeked into the Wrigley press box, so I know.

Anyway, I have a regular routine on game days. I show up around 3:30 p.m.—around the seventh inning-- and find a nice perch on top of the upper deck along the right-field line. That gives me a good view of who’s eating what below.  I look mostly for popcorn—it’s the world’s greatest food.  When I first started going I’d eat anything that was left behind, but learned quick not to. Bits of hotdog bun are tasty but if they have even a speck of mustard, they’re trouble. Ditto for pizza crust with tomato sauce. I’ve had cases of heartburn from them you wouldn’t believe.

Other places I avoid like the plague—and I mean that literally-- are the floors of the two teams’ dugouts.  They can be tempting because the players always leave lots of uneaten sunflower seeds behind, but they’re usually mixed with so much spilled Gatorade, tobacco juice and plain old spit that they’re inedible. Mix in the dirt those slobs track in and it’s Typhoid City!

I’ve also learned to wait to make my move until the game is over and the people have begun to leave. Some birds who couldn’t wait have paid dearly for it. My granddad told me Dave Winfield killed one of us playing catch in the outfield between innings during a 1983 game in Toronto, and I’ve seen the video of the poor guy that got in the way of a Randy Johnson fastball in a 2001 spring training game in Arizona. Poof! Brutal.

 Lemme tell you, though, we got even with both those bastards. My Uncle Gus says he bullseyed a huge dump down Johnson’s collar at Wrigley and another guy I know says he saw Winfield wearing a suit downtown one day and nailed him good a couple of times. Got the pigeons after him, too. I bet neither of them still go outdoors without an umbrella.

Things at the park have changed a bit in the time I’ve been coming out. A few years back crowds were bigger and hung around longer than they do now. I even learned the words to that song the people sing when the players in white win, although from what I know it’s supposed to be sung before a game, not after.

 These days the players in white usually bat last, and crowds are smaller and leave earlier. That’s okay because sometimes I can fly into the stands and pick off a morsel or two before a game’s over, but not usually. Not much good can happen from being around people, I’ve learned.

I had a perfect day about a week ago. A woman who sat right underneath my perch left behind about a half a box of popcorn—with butter!  Yum! I was there first and had it all to myself for about 10 minutes before the flock gathered, more than enough time for a swell feed.

 By bird standards that was a great moment in sports, good enough for an ESPN highlights reel for sure. Next time I’m at the landfill I’ll rummage around for a video camera.  I hear there’s a better future in TV than in print anyway, and that I’d be better off putting my efforts there. True?





Saturday, June 15, 2013


NEWS: Major League Baseball threatens 100-game suspensions for players caught in Miami drug net.

VIEWS: For a long time (1990-2005) capital B Baseball took a see-no, hear-no, speak-no evil stance toward the PED (performance enhancing drugs) users on its diamonds, an infamous period I call its HITS era, for Heads In The Sand. Now it’s hell-belt to get ’em, leaking possible sentences for alleged wrongdoers before the first gavel has been dropped.

That’s admirable in a way, because it shows a seriousness about the issue heretofore lacking. That’s especially true because the 20 players on its “get” list includes Ryan Braun, Alex Rodriguez, Melky Cabrera, Gio Gonzalez, Nelson Cruz and other bright stars in its current firmament. That means the game is willing to shake up its pennant races to give the cheaters their due, a considerable ante.

Trouble is, justice may prove more elusive than many—perhaps including Bud Selig—may think. That’s because the main witness for the prosecution at the hearings that inevitably will follow any formal accusations is a good deal less than estimable. He’s Tony Bosch, a scruffy-looking sort whom Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News recently described as looking like “some loser on Collins Avenue trying to give you a tip on the third race at Hialeah.” 

 Bosch owned the now-defunct Biogenesis Anti-Aging Clinic in Miami that allegedly served as the conduit between the players and their PEDS. That ought to tell you something right away because rejuvenation is Florida’s oldest scam, dating from Ponce de Leon’s visit to the state in 1513. Bosch previously had been connected with a few other such outfits, but they, too, went bust.

Published reports say that at various times Bosch has claimed to be a physician, which he isn’t. One story had it that before he agreed to turn state’s evidence for Baseball he sought a “loan” of several hundred thousand dollars from ARod, but was refused. Can you spell S-H-A-K-E-D-O-W-N?

Probably worse is the deal Baseball is said to have made to obtain Bosch’s cooperation. That includes dropping its own civil lawsuit against him, indemnifying him against judgments resulting from other related suits and putting in a good word for him if he’s held to account for the criminal aspects of his drug-dealing.  I’m not a lawyer but I’ve seen lots of episodes of “Law and Order” and know the prosecution always takes a hit when a defense attorney asks a witness if he’d been promised anything for his testimony, and the answers is, um, yes.

It’s usually true that it takes a crook to catch a crook, and it’s said that Baseball has evidence to back up Bosch’s words. It had better because in this litigious era everyone has a lawyer and I’s must be crossed and T’s dotted before convictions can stand. Baseball’s drug-enforcement efforts suffered a setback when Braun’s lawyers successfully challenged an earlier suspension ruling on grounds that chain-of-custody rules for his urine samples had been violated. If it swings and misses again future cases will be hard to bring.

 NEWS: Serena Williams wins big in Paris.

VIEWS: No doubt about it, Serena is at the top of her game. At age 31 she buzzed through the French Open field like an army barber with his clippers, cementing her world No. 1 ranking.  I’ve seen a lot of tennis but never have witnessed a more dominating performance than her 6-0, 6-1 victory over Sara Errani at Roland Garros. This wasn’t a first-round match against a qualifier but a Grand Slam semi against the world’s No. 5. Serena served at 120 mph.—Pete Sampras’s speed in his heyday—and hit her ground strokes with similar power. No woman out there can beat her except herself.

But the good news for American tennis ends with Ms. Williams. You have to drop to No. 17 (Sloane Stephens) to find the next American woman in the world rankings, and on the men’s side only three Yanks (Sam Querry, 19; John Isner, 21; and Mardy Fish, 43) are among the top 50. All are known quantities with little chance of substantial improvement, and no young U.S. phenoms lurk beneath them. 

The situation is much the same in golf. There, Asians dominate the women’s game and behind Tiger Woods a thoroughly international male pack skirmishes. Europe has won seven of the nine Ryder Cups contested since 1995, reversing long-time U.S. hegemony.

Tennis and golf are middle-class sports in this land so it’s tempting to ascribe the recent U.S. declines in them to societal factors; to wit, well-off American kids today would rather twitter, tweet or text than put in the long hours of individual labor required for playing-field excellence.  I’ve said that myself. Trouble is, young Americans of both sexes and various economic strata do fine in international team sports as diverse as soccer, basketball, hockey and volleyball, so something else must be up.  Maybe it’s that the “me” generation really wants to be part of an “us” and, thus, its members thrive best in social situations.

Just sayin’.

NEWS: Horse racing’s Triple Crown events are won by three different horses.

VIEWS: It’s no news that the Triple Crown is tough to win; it hasn’t happened since 1978. Indeed, in this space and elsewhere I’ve  argued that because of long-term changes in breeding and racing horses today lack the stamina to win three grueling, competitive races in a five-week span, and that the sport is ill served by placing so many of its promotional eggs in such a leaky basket.

But now it seems that just trying the TC can put in jeopardy a horse’s career, or life. Barbaro won the 2006 Kentucky Derby but died trying to win the Preakness two weeks later. Big Brown won the Derby and Preakness in 2008 but came in last in the Belmont and was retired soon afterward. Last year I’ll Have Another was scratched from the Belmont after winning the Derby and Preakness, and never raced again. Union Rags won the ’12 Belmont, but it was to be his last race.

In light of that I was especially intrigued by the behavior of Claude “Shug” McGaughey, the trainer of Orb, the recent Derby winner. He’s widely praised as an “old-school” sort who cares about his horses, and before the Derby he fretted openly about the danger of putting his tender charge into such a long (1 ¼-mile), difficult race so early in life (the TC is contested only by three-year-olds, who are equivalent to 16-year-old humans). But after Orb won the Derby he was sent back for the Preakness, and after finishing fourth to Oxbow there he was sent back again for the longer (1 ½-miles), harder Belmont, even though no Triple Crown was in prospect.  (He finished third to a rested Palace Malice, who skipped the Preakness.)  It’ll be interesting to see if we see Orb again, or the winners of the other two TC legs, for that matter.

 Racing needs its Triple Crown celebs to remain in action for its big summer and fall races, and that hasn’t been happening of late. Maybe the entrance forms for the races should carry a health warning, like cigarette packs do.