Monday, April 14, 2014


                Television in all its facets is primarily an advertising medium, and the people in front of the cameras are so imbued with that ethos that they can’t stop selling even when they’ve got you hooked. Turn on any TV news show—national as well as local—and the talking heads thereon continually use words like “incredible,” “unbelievable” and “astonishing” to characterize the often-quite-predictable developments they describe. It stands to reason that veteran newsfolk like Brian Williams and Norah O’Donnell have been around the block a few times, but to hear their reports it seems that they view the world with the wide-eyed awe of eight-year olds.
               Curiously, however, the world of sports—also glimpsed mostly through television’s Big Eye—seems relatively immune to theatrical exaggeration, and that seems to me remarkable because much of its action truly is out of the ordinary. I mean not only the highlight-reels feats but also the minute-by-minute grist of most of the games we watch these days.

                I can’t get through an NCAA men’s basketball tournament without marveling—and I don’t use the term loosely—at the skills of the players.  Some of the things they do at high speed—the dunks, the blocks, the no-look passes—almost defy description, yet as Dizzy Dean used to say, “You seen it on your screen.” The fact that they’re kids—18- to 22-year olds—makes their deeds all the more impressive.

                The professionals of the National Basketball Association are even more remarkable,  but their virtuosity in our most-athletic of sports is muted by its commonality; they’re all so good that they almost cancel one another out. People tell me they hardly watch the NBA—that it’s a kind of track meet for giraffes—and sometimes I feel that way, too. But every time I screw myself down and watch an extended stretch of action I go away dazzled by what I’ve seen. Has any man six-feet-eight-inches tall done even a fraction of the things LeBron James can do? I think not, and he’s not a heckuva lot better than some of the other guys out there.

                Part of our lack of wonder at the skill level of basketball and other sports has to do with television, I think. The home screen reduces human activity to its own scale, making LeBron about eight inches tall instead of 6-8, even on a big set. You can’t really appreciate how good the top hoopsters are until you view them in person from courtside, something I’ve been privileged to do many times. Their height alone is startling—the sight of a man 6-foot-6 or above is enough to stop traffic in a mall and the NBA presents a courtful of them nightly. I still recall the first seven-footer I stood next to, a center for the U. of Colorado basketball team, in a post-game locker room of a U. of Illinois game I covered long ago. The fact that he was wearing a cowboy hat made him especially memorable.

                Field-level viewing is different in kind as well as degree from the views at home or from the stands in other sports as well. You can’t appreciate the level of violence in the National Football League unless you see it close-up; from there the hits that accompany every play are enough to make you wince. The much-tamer activities of golf and tennis present similar perspectives: the games the top pros play look, sound and feel different from the ones the rest of us do. Watching Tigers Woods drive a golf ball from a few feet away is to sense the existence of a dimension that’s foreign to 99.9999% of the population.

                By me, arguments over whether yesterday’s athletes were as good as today’s are sheer nonsense. “Bigger, faster, stronger” may be a cliché, but it’s true. Good high-school teams today could beat good college teams of 30 years ago in all our major men’s team sports. Among the women the comparison hardly exists because women’s teams hardly existed back then.

                Better nutrition plays a role in athletic development, as do better training techniques. Weight training used to be shunned in some sports because it was thought to hinder flexibility, but now it’s universal. About the only area in which regimens lag is in the area of agility; every football linemen should be taught to fast-dance, I think.

                The biggest differences with the recent past have been in the onset and intensity of training.  Kids didn’t use to get serious about sports until puberty, but as Tiger Woods’ example shows (for better or worse), they now sometimes begin while in diapers. Multi-sport athletes used to abound but there’s little room for that today, with early specialization the rule.

Kids whose parents can afford it receive individual sports instruction early on, and in a few sports (mainly basketball) it’s available to the talented of any household-income level.  High-school teams used to be the main focus of developmental efforts but now year-around age-group teams function beginning with kids of 10 or 11. The top basketballers entering college have been playing 70 or 80 organized games a year since grade school, attended specialized camps, toured with AAU clubs and, probably, been on ESPN. Indeed, youngsters don’t have to leave their homes to get good instruction—with slow-motion and stop-action, and ex-players or coaches at just about every mike, every televised game is a clinic.

  As I’ve written before, I think the above efforts usually produce more harm than good. Only a tiny fraction of young athletes can expect to earn a living from their games and most would be better off devoting more time to academics or developing other skills.  It’s a sports-crazy land, though, and even if we don’t approve we still can enjoy its fruits.  Some of them really are incredible.


Tuesday, April 1, 2014


                Baseball likes to act as though it never changes, but it does. Pitching mounds move up and down, outfield fences (and sometimes home plates) in and out at some parks. Gloves get bigger, pitchers, too. Drug testing, once weak, now is stronger, most believe. That’s been a big change, one that’s altered the record books.
                More change is coming as the new season opens. Here’s a rundown:

                RULES: Two moves by Major League Baseball represent sharp departures from past eras. One involves the expansion of TV replay to supplement umpires’ decisions and a system whereby managers can challenge calls.

                Baseball got its TV-replay feet wet in 2008 by subjecting home-run boundary and fan-interference calls to mandatory replay review. This season it will expand such automatic surveillance to whether batted balls are fair or foul and whether fly balls are caught or trapped.  Additionally, managers now are empowered to challenge just about any umpire’s call once in the first six innings of any game and twice from the seventh inning on. The major exceptions are ball-strike and checked-swing calls and the often-phantom tag middle infielders make on second base during double-play attempts. That last thing is as much a part of the game as spitting and scratching.

                I’m against using TV replays to second-guess officials in any sport because it makes the games seem more important than they are. Sports are played by humans and should be judged by humans, and if mistakes are made, play on. Commish Selig thinks so, too, but finally has succumbed to the onslaught of technology, which sweeps away all in its path. At least he resisted longer than most.

                A couple of things should make MLB’s replay procedures more palatable than those of the National Football League, which seems hell-bent to make its games all-replay-all-the-time. One is that a manager needn’t throw a stupid flag (red or any other color) to make a challenge. Another is that replay calls will be made by officials monitoring games on TV from a control center and relayed to the umps on the field. This will speed matters by eliminating the under-the-hood ref davening that has become a gag line in the NFL. MLB says replays shouldn’t last much more than a minute.

                The major downside I see from the new policy is a sharp decrease in umpire-manager rhubarbs, an age-old source of fan enjoyment. Less often will a manager charge an ump, calling him a blind blankin’ bandit while spraying him with saliva. Now he just can say “Sir, I beg to differ,” and stand by while the replay boys go into action. What a loss!

                Baseball’s other rule change is designed to reduce the home-plate collisions that have caused major injuries to both catchers and base runners over the years. Simply stated, catchers no longer can block the plate without the ball and base runners can’t leave the base path or come in leading with their heads, shoulders or forearms.

                The wonder is that the new rule took so long to be enacted; one remembers the vicious hit by Pete Rose that ended Ray Fosse’s career in the 1970 All-Star game. The back-breaking straw was the 2011 play that took out Buster Posey, the San Francisco Giants’ brilliant young catcher, and 2 ½ seasons have elapsed since then. Better late than never, though.

                You can look for other new or newish stuff on the diamonds this year. Here is some of it:

                STRAINED OBLIQUES—I can’t remember baseballers even having “oblique” muscles until a few years ago, but now it seems they are a big source of injury. Obliques are somewhere around the rib cage and when they go it’s a big deal, usually sidelining the player for a month or more.  Pitchers are the main victims, possibly, it’s surmised, because the increased body rotation of their higher-velocity deliveries puts particular strain on their rib-cage areas. Those guys’ wives and girlfriends also are affected because it’s supposed to really hurt when they brush their teeth.

                BEARDS-- What’s with all the face-shrubbery ballplayers are sporting these days? I mean real Grizzly Adams’ jobs, not just little chin sprouts. Beards have been a Stanley Cup staple for hockey players in recent years, but they play on ice and, maybe, can use the extra warmth facial hair provides. How does that apply to warm-weather baseball?

                In spring training games in Arizona I was especially shocked to see a couple of full-bearded catchers. You’d think that their face masks would make such growths prohibitively uncomfortable, wouldn’t you? Anything for fashion, I guess.

                NO AROD—For this season at least, the game’s leading diva has been sidelined. Over the winter he appealed his 200-game suspension as a repeat doper, and got it reduced to 162 games, but he still stamped his feet and sued everyone in sight, claiming he’d been conspired against.  Then, perhaps thinking he might want to again associate with some of the targets of his wrath, he said “never mind” about the lawsuit and settled into spending the next seven or so months with his feet up. His future certainly lies ahead, but at age 38 it’s not clear where.

                $25 HOT DOGS—The Arizona Diamondbacks, mediocre on the field and at the gate, have climbed the game’s gastronomic peak by unveiling its “D-Bat Dog,” an 18-inch sausage stuffed with cheese, jalapeno peppers  and bacon—and looking like a pregnant snake-- to be served bunless on a bed of French fries and selling at Chase Field for $25. The item is “really about providing our fans with new options each year,” said Derrick Hall, the team’s perky president. He added: “Every night for us is a successful night because we offer the most affordable food prices in all of baseball.”