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.


Saturday, June 1, 2013


                New freshmen didn’t have much clout at the University of Illinois in Champaign when I was there. Among other things we had to register last, after everyone else had picked over the course offerings. That meant we got more than our share of undesirable classes, meaning those that began at 8 a.m. or 4 p.m.
              We also had last crack at courses in P.E.-- short for physical education-- which every freshman and sophomore had to take. That was why I wound up taking wrestling in my first semester at the school, in the fall of 1955.
              Wrestling was a drag from a couple of standpoints. One was that it was a sweaty and unwelcome intrusion on the school day. Another was that it was taught only at Men’s Old Gym (which we scholars naturally called Old Men’s Gym), on Springfield Avenue at the edge of the main campus.

  My wrestling class met at 2 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. On those days I also had a three o’clock class at Lincoln Hall, about three-quarters of a mile away, and the 15-minute class break allowed no time to shower. Once there I had to stew in my own juices, feeling about as welcome as a skunk.

The bad news continued on the Old Gym’s mats. You’d never guess it to see me now but I was a little guy as a frosh, standing about 5-feet-8 and weighing about 135 pounds. The next smallest kid in the class was a good 10 pounds heavier than I, and stronger. We were made workout partners, which meant that I spent just about every class with my head in his armpit or similarly offensive juncture as we acted out the moves of the sport. I counted the days until the end of the semester.

Near the end, though, a funny thing happened. The course’s finale was a tournament among the wrestling classes, and for the first time I got to fight people my own size. I won my first two matches with pins, got a decision in the third, and found myself in the finals of my weight group, one win from glory. Trouble was, the whole tournament took place the same day, and by match four I was pooped. I went for a quick pin and missed it, then was reversed and saw the lights myself. 

Still, I came away from the experience with a tad more self-confidence than previously, and an understanding of and liking for real wrestling, as opposed to the theatrical variety. Once I got a sports column I devoted occasional but regular space to the sport, something few of my big-paper peers did. I got to know some of its top-level performers over five Olympiads and found them to be praiseworthy examples of the athletic virtues, and nice guys to boot. That was in keeping with my general observation that the more obscure the sport, the nicer the participants.

Wrestling isn’t important enough at U.S. colleges to justify institutional cheating, so the wrestlers I knew were or had been actual students. Most had occupational goals beyond their sport and one of them—the 1988 Olympian Jim Scherr—got to be CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee in 2003 at age 42. Most could converse about things other than themselves, a rare attribute in jockdom.

That’s why I was dismayed in February when the International Olympic Committee voted to kick wrestling off the Olympic schedule after 2016.  The grapplers had been part of the Games since 708 B.C., and longer if you include the tussles among the gods on the sacred Greek mountain. The sport is about as close to pure athletics as you can get and as democratic, pursued as it is by many thousands of people in hundreds of lands, including women since the start of the new century.  That last thing is in contrast to such elite pastimes as sailing and dressage, which the titled (and entitled) twits who make up the IOC consider sacrosanct.  

 Wrestling can’t entirely plead not guilty to its exclusion. In recent years the sport has enacted so many scoring changes that even aficianados find it hard to follow, and high-level matches tend to be low-scoring and technical as evenly matched contestants maneuver for the tiny edge in leverage that can swing the outcome.  Published accounts hint that its international leadership has been poor, meaning, I guess, that its honchos haven’t been kissing the right butts in Lausanne. If true that’s inexcusable. What else do those guys have to do?

Happily, the sport’s emergency has kicked its supporters into action, and the results have been impressive. Last month wrestlers from the U.S., Iran and Russia, showing amity notably lacking in other spheres, joined at the United Nations in New York to state wrestling’s case, and staged a well-attended exhibition the next day at Grand Central Station. Indeed, one of the best things about covering wrestling at the Olympics was seeing its audience of thick-necked types from usually hostile lands, including Cuba and North Korea in addition to the above-named three, joining in pursuit of non-lethal interests. It looked like the bar scene from “Star Wars” but was uplifting nonetheless.

Wrestling got a boost Wednesday when an IOC subcommittee voted to include it among the sports eligible to fill the schedule void left by its absence (goofy, huh?), but the final decision won’t come until the full committee meets in September.  Sending wrestlers to clamp headlocks on IOC members might help persuade them to do the right thing, but putting together a bribe fund probably would help more.

 I’d contribute.