Friday, August 1, 2014


               NEWS: National Football League pre-season games are about to begin. Fans cringe.

               VIEWS: What’s the best thing that can happen to your favorite NFL team between now and the Sept. 4 start of the regular season? Nothing.

               That’s right, nothing, because 90% of the news that will emerge from every team’s pre-season is bad.  I’m talking about injuries, of course. They’re inevitable when football is played and one only can hope that the mishaps his or her team suffers won’t queer its entire campaign, like a season-ending one to a starting quarterback or left tackle. That’ll happen to some, sure as the sun rises.

               So why does the world’s most-corporate sports league risk its most-valuable assets in contests that don’t count in the standings?  Partly because the boys need a bit of practice before the start of for-real hostilities, but certainly not the four-games’ worth that the schedule dictates. That’s a function of commerce, based on the premise that you can’t turn a buck if the store is closed. NFL teams soak their season-ticket holders full price for pre-season outings, and sell the games’ TV rights as well. For the guys in the owners’ boxes, that’s worth a torn ACL or two.

                The four-game slate dates from a time when salaries were lower and many players needed off-season jobs to supplement their incomes. Training camp and exhibition games were for getting into shape. Now, jocks are jocks 12 months a year and always are in good condition.  A dress rehearsal or two and they should be ready to go.

               The league knows this and has floated the idea of reducing the pre-season to two games while increasing the regular campaign to 18 games from 16. The players’ union says that would be swell if everyone’s salary were increased by 12.5% to compensate for the 12.5% increase in games that count. So far that’s been a no-sale, so the lunacy continues.

               In fact, most of the players who really will play during the regular season put in much less than four full games of pre-season work. Starters typically play just one or two series of downs in the first pre-season contest, about half of games two and three and little or none of game four, the rest of the action going to rookies and fringe vets. Still, any time they strap it on they can get hurt, and some will. That’s why we watch the pre-season through laced fingers.


               VIEWS: Good for him.

               Before I get to the whys, a bit of who. Mr. Mudiay is an 18-year-old native of Congo who came to these shores as a middle-schooler, settling with his family in the Dallas area. Providentially, he grew to 6-feet-5-inches tall and excelled in basketball, so much so that he was the nation’s No. 5-ranked college prospect at the end of last season. A likely one-and-doner, he was widely wooed nonetheless, finally deciding upon sitting at the feet of Larry Brown, the much-traveled coaching guru whose current stop is Southern Methodist U. There, he no doubt would learn more about the jab step and the cross-over dribble than about subjects whose names end in ology.

               But a funny thing happened to him on the way to academe. A pro team in China offered him a reported $1.2 million to join it for a year, and he said yes. At last sighting he was packing and learning to use chopsticks.

                Pro ball abroad is a path more young basketballers should follow if they get the chance. Sport is an iffy business, with disaster always around the corner, and it behooves the talented to seize whatever opportunities are open to them, while they’re there. For its own reasons the NBA has decreed that it won’t accept players under age 19 and at least a year out of high school. For their own reasons colleges have created a charade under which some of those kids pretend to be students and the schools pretend to educate them until the pros beckon. It stinks all around.

               Young Mudiay will have to pay taxes on his $1.2 mil, and, probably, a sizeable agent’s fee, but he should complete his year of foreign study with at least $700,000 in hand. Even after buying mama a house he’ll have about $500,000 for his own use, a nice start in life by any measure. If at some later date he yearns to learn, he can pay his own tuition, pick his own classes and shoot hoops only when the spirit moves him. That’s win-win-win by me.


               VIEWS: Whadidyah expect?

               With the 2014 baseball schedule almost two-thirds over it’s clear that the best rookie pitcher has been the Japanese Masahiro Tanaka of the New York Yankees and the best rookie position player the Cuban first-baseman Jose Abreu of the Chicago White Sox. That result was pretty much predicted by the initial contracts each received—Tanaka’s for  $155 million over seven years and Abreu’s for $68 m over six—but the extent of their success still has been surprising.

               Tanaka, 25 years old, didn’t just handle Major League batters earlier this season, he handcuffed them, starting off 11-1 in the won-lost column with an ERA of 1.99. Then he fell victim to the elbow woes that are mowing down pitchers of all races and creeds. His availability for the remainder of the campaign is in doubt, but he did enough through June to warrant Rookie-of-the-Year consideration. He’s a helluva pitcher and we only can hope he’ll heal and again prosper.

               Based on Tanaka’s price tag the one for every-day-player Abreu, 27, now seems like a bargain, but it was questionable initially. He’d posted otherworldly numbers in his native country— in one season batting .435 with 30 home runs and 76 RBIs in 66 games—but the quality of the competition he faced there was below MLB level. Further, he’d gone almost a year without playing after his escape from the people’s republic, and was coping with sudden wealth and new choices in a quite-different land.

               The big fellow, however, hit with power from the outset in Chicago and currently leads the majors with 31 home runs. Just as impressively, the more Abreu sees of big-league pitching, the better he likes it; after hitting .254 in April and May he went .326 from June 1 through July 28. “The Sox thought they’d get a slugger but what they got was a real good hitter,” team broadcaster Steve Stone recently observed.          

               The success of the two underscores the growing internationalization of sports, including ones we used to claim as our own. In case you haven’t noticed, it’s a whole new ball game out there.

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