Thursday, May 15, 2014


                You’d hardly know it to look at me now but I was a little guy growing up, and acutely aware of the athletic limitations that attached to my stature. Thus, one of my early sports heroes was Nellie Fox, a little guy who made good (very good) on the Major League Baseball stage.
             Little Nell played second base for the Chicago White Sox for most of a long career. He was known mostly for two things:  an ever-present cheek-full of chewing tobacco so large that it made him look unbalanced, and an almost-unerring ability to hit the baseball. In his 19 years in the Bigs (1947-65) he struck out just 216 times, and never more than 18 in any season. His strike-out rate of once in 42.7 plate appearances ranks third on the all-time list, behind two players (Joe Sewell and Lloyd Waner) who performed during much-earlier eras.

                Fox’s ability to make contact was partly inborn, of course, but also partly learned. Knowing that someone his size wasn’t likely to hit many home runs (he’s listed officially at 5-foot-10 and 160 pounds but his height really was closer to 5-foot-8), he used what was called a “bottle bat,” one almost as thick in the handle as in the barrel, and choked up on it a good two inches. The bat’s weight (34 or 35 ounces) and shape enabled him to get “good wood’ on a ball even when he didn’t strike it cleanly, and the choke increased his bat control.  The upshots were 2,663 career hits, 12 All-Star Game selections, the 1959 American League Most Valuable Player award and his election to the game’s Hall of Fame.

                 As you might suspect, I bring up Fox’s name for more than nostalgic reasons. As Simon and Garfunkel yearned in song for Joe DiMaggio’s grace of style and movement, I yearn for Nellie’s ball-hitting ability at a time when the strikeout—the whiff, the Big K—has become baseball’s signature play.  Major Leaguers today are fanning with abandon, grabbing some bench at a rate unprecedented in their sport’s annals. In 2013 the 30 MLB teams each averaged about 7.6 strikeouts a game, capping a rise that began in the 1920s, and this season promises to continue the trend.

Relatedly, overall batting averages have declined for seven straight seasons (to .253 last year from .269 in 2006) and scoring also has waned.  We are in the midst of a Decade of the Pitcher unmatched since the 1960s, when a dearth of runs forced the last major change in the game’s essential math, the 1969 lowering of the pitchers’ mound to 10 inches above field level from 15. The way it’s going, having pitchers throw from below ground level might not be enough to reverse things.

Now as then the hitters’ woes stem mostly from advances in pitching, not so much in the brilliance of the individual performers (the likes of Koufax and Gibson are nowhere to be seen) but in their method of utilization.  Whereas in former days complete games by pitchers were common, managers now employ their arms sequentially, meaning that hitters must begin adjusting to different deliveries each time at bat from the sixth or seventh inning on. That just about every team today has a bullpen full of relievers who stand 6-foot-4 or taller and can throw a peach through an oak tree makes the batsman’s job tougher yet.  Add in the development of the slider, which looks like a fastball coming in but dives at the last moment, and you wonder how anyone manages to hit the ball.

But changes could—and should—be made do to redress the offense-defense balance that keeps people interested in what’s up on the field. Both are things that just about every fan notices but still go largely unremarked because of their ubiquity. One is the de facto expansion of the strike zone, which makes just about every at-bat a guessing game for hitters.

The rule book says the strike zone is 17 inches wide (the width of home plate) and in height from the midpoint between the shoulders and the belt to the bottom of the knees. A few years ago some umpires talked openly about “their” strike zones, as though its boundaries were arbitrary. You don’t hear that any more but you certainly see it. Some umps call the “high” strike and some don’t, most add a couple of inches to the plate’s outside edge whichever way a batter stands, and the zone’s usual height is from the belt to mid-shin.

The zone is supposed to vary with the height and stance of the hitter, but actually it seems fixed. I get a kick out of the way umps call strikes on the same low pitches whether the batter stands 5-foot-10 or 6-6. The low-ball-strike bias is especially helpful to slider pitchers, whose deliveries dip. Enforcing the rules on the books would give hitters a better shake.       

 The other change would be tougher to implement because it would affect the way batters go about their business. The notion that “chicks dig the long ball,” impressed during the steroids-and-homers-happy 1990s, remains alive and well in baseball despite the dip in the power supply. Just about every batter, it seems—little guys as well as big—swings for the fences no matter what the score or situation. And if the result often is a “K”—the most-wasteful of outs—well, that’s the price of glory.

It’s axiomatic in baseball that power hitters strike out a lot, but it’s not true. History’s three most prolific home-run producers—Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth—recorded as many as 100 strikeouts just once in their combined 62 seasons as big-league regulars, the  exception coming in Bonds’ 1986 rookie year. By contrast, “banjo” hitters commonly rack up 100 whiffs these days, and boomers like Adam Dunn and Chris Davis top or push the 200K mark. One free-swinging palooka, Mark Reynolds, struck out 834 times in a recent four-year span (2008-11), and the miracle is that he still is being paid to play the game.

 Most hitters today use light (31- or 32-ounce), whippy bats that are big in the barrel and narrow at the handle, grip them down all the way and put everything into every swing. The fact that the approach usually makes no sense tactically doesn’t seem to penetrate their brains, or those of their coaches’.

 C’mon guys, be more like Nellie. Get a bat with some heft, choke up a bit (as Bonds did in the later stages of his career), and strive for contact. The result will be more runs, not fewer. 

Thursday, May 1, 2014


                Race is the third rail of American politics, and of other areas of national discourse as well.  As  Donald Sterling and Cliven Bundy have learned of late, to be overheard making an assertion that’s disparaging to any racial or ethnic group is to go directly to the jail of public opinion, without passing Go. The best advice to those on even the fringes of any spotlight is to follow mom’s advice and say nothing if you can’t say something good. 
               Whenever the subject arises I think about Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder. I did a piece on him some years ago, and even though we were about as different as two humans could be we became friends. I stayed in his home in Las Vegas, and got to know his wife Joan, and son Anthony and daughter Stephanie, youngsters then. Often when Jimmy and I wound up in the same city at the same time he’d call and propose a get-together. We spent one memorable evening on Rush Street in Chicago in the company of Harry Caray and “Fabulous Howard,” a limo driver who specialized in chauffeuring the notable. Jimmy, Harry and “Fab” could hold their own in any conversational company.

                Jimmy was the kind of person I loved to write about, a self-invented guy who not only created a unique persona but never stopped selling it. Born Demetrious Synodinos, he grew up in gritty Steubenville, Ohio, running bets for local bookmakers. Before he was done he’d climbed the heap of the national betting scene and established himself as a major sports-TV personality. They say that in Las Vegas the action speaks louder than words, but it doesn’t.  Jimmy bet surprisingly little but talked a whole lot, and while he regarded most of the rest of the world as audience it was a willing one.

                As you may recall, Jimmy got in trouble by opining in a 1988 chat with a reporter that blacks were superior athletes in part because in slavery they were bred to produce stronger offspring. It was the kind of careless remark that rattles around barrooms daily-- more a misdemeanor than a crime-- but Jimmy was Jimmy and it went viral, costing him his high-profile job with CBS’s NFL pre-game shows. Protests from friends that he was no racist (he wasn’t) availed little. He died a few years later from the diabetes he sometimes paid attention to, and sometimes didn’t.

                  This rather lengthy preface is to introduce my thoughts on a piece that ran in USA Today a couple of weeks ago, near the start of the new baseball season. The headline read “MLB—DIVERSITY TAKES A BIG HIT.” It was about the fact that the proportion of African-American Major League players on opening-day rosters amounted to 7.8% of the total, unchanged from a year ago but less than half that of its 1981 peak (18.7%) and the average of about 17% it maintained  during most of the 1980s and ‘90s. It portrayed baseball commish Selig as being “sickened” by the numbers and vowing to reverse them. The downtrend, the piece concluded, was a big deal all around, well worthy of concern.

                Like most, of course, I’d noticed fewer blacks in baseball lineups in recent seasons, but found dubious the notion that it came at the expense of racial or ethnic diversity in the game. While the number of American blacks has declined the numbers of every other national or racial group have increased to the point where 223 players (26%), from 16 different countries, wore opening-day uniforms this year.  It’s a regular United Nations out there.

 Every season since 2000 between 25% and 28% of Major Leaguers have been classified as “Latino” or “Hispanic,” and because people of that designation run the full skin-color gamut, figuring out who’s who racially (should one wish to) would be a guessing game.  No one alleges that the drop in African-American participation has resulted from the policies or attitudes of those who run the sport. By any reasonable definition baseball never has been more diverse than it is today.

The USA Today article said that “myriad complicated” reasons underlie the trend, but, by me, they are neither. It’s just that young black men today prefer to concentrate on other sports, namely basketball and football. For the last dozen or so years the proportion of African-American players in the NBA has hovered around 75% annually, and it’s been around 66% in the NFL for almost as long.  Black domination of those sports has been so well established it’s rarely noted any more, and notions of increasing their diversity are mentioned only wryly.  Like baseball, big-time basketball and football are meritocracies, so one must assume that the people who qualify to play them deserve to.    

                Basketball’s special appeal to the big-city athlete has been well documented. While to be played properly baseball takes a lot of land, expensive equipment and the sort of strong organizing hand supplied by Little League in small towns and urban suburbs, basketball requires only a ball and a hoop and backboard, although a net makes it more fun. A kid can have a good time shooting and dribbling by himself, and instant pickup games can be had among any even number of players up to 10. A street light   can permit play to continue after dark.

                Basketball’s frenetic “beat” is a better fit for the 21st century than that of bucolic baseball; basketball is hip-hop, baseball is the two-step.  The sport’s allure has sucked talent from many athletic pursuits; it’s common currency that many a potential world-class soccer or tennis player is knocking himself out trying to be a backup point guard in the NBA.

                Further, basketball has come to play a unique role in African-American life, serving as a kind of touchstone of male status. When I was out and about as a writer I often was struck by the number of black men I’d meet—outside of sports as well as in-- who’d pridefully bring up, unbidden, their youthful involvement with “the game.” I think you can include our President in that number.

                Baseball has taken steps to recruit more young black players, setting up the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program across the country to introduce them to the sport. That’s good. I hope it produces fun for many and more major leaguers. But if it doesn’t it’s no big deal. Political correctness aside, the world changes and so do the people in it.

                DERBY PICKS--Favorites don’t often win the Kentucky Derby because the race always contains a lot of good horses in the early stage of their development and its 1 ¼-mile distance and big (20-horse) field create a dynamic of their own, but it’s tough to ignore the likely favorite CALIFORNIA CHROME in Saturday’s renewal. He’s won all four of his starts this year (including the Santa Anita Derby) by a total of 24 lengths and has the field’s two highest Beyer speed ratings, a 107 and 108.  He likes to run near the lead, which means he’ll probably encounter fewer “trip” problems than those trailing him. It’d be difficult not to bet on him.

                Trouble is, he’s the morning-line betting choice at 5-to-2, so to make money you’ll have to combine him with longer-priced horses and hope one of them finishes second or—better!—edges him for first to make good a combo bet.  One horse I wanted to pair him with in my four-horse exacta box is WICKED STRONG, the impressive winner of the Wood Memorial whose late-running style might put him in position to challenge the favorite in the long Churchill Downs homestretch, but he drew post-position 20 on the far outside, which means he’ll have extra ground to cover in an already-long race, and I don’t want to buck that.

                Replacing Wicked Strong as my late-running pick is DANZA (10-to-1), the Arkansas Derby winner. My friend Dave Toscano, once called America’s best handicapper, likes him, and who am I to argue? Dave and I also agree on SAMRAAT at 15-to-1, a tough New York campaigner with five wins in six starts. I like a horse up front so I’ll round out my box with early running WILDCAT RED, 15-to-­1. He has four firsts and three seconds to show for his seven starts, and when he loses it’s not by much. Maybe he can’t go the distance, but he’ll try.

  By post position my ticket will read 4 (Danza), 5 (California Chrome), 6 (Samraat) and 10 (Wildcat Red).  Good luck to all.