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.