Tuesday, December 15, 2015


              NEWS: Criticism of National Football League officiating grows by the week.
              VIEWS: It’s justified.
              The more I watch pro football the more I’ve come to recognize that there are three teams on every playing field instead of the supposed two. The third team is the refs and they come out on top all too often.

              The league keeps track of penalties and says that this season’s totals aren’t much different from those of past seasons, but they still seem to me to be more frequent and obtrusive. Every week there are several games whose outcomes depended on a questionable yellow flag, or lack of one.

 Examples abound but one stands out—the phantom face-mask-grab call against a Detroit Lions’ defender on Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers on what was supposed to have been the last play in a close Lions’ victory. Instead, the Packers got one more, untimed shot and completed an end-zone “Hail Mary” pass that changed the result. Replays showed the tackle in question to involve Rodgers’s uniform collar, not his helmet, but they weren’t fully clear, as often happens. My take is that the official who called it, knowing that a dozen or so TV cameras always are peering over his shoulders, decided that he’d rather err by commission than by omission. There’s been too much of that this year.

The blame for this, I think, doesn’t rest with the officials individually. Every football or basketball ref or baseball umpire I’ve known has been able and honorable, and conscientious to a fault. It’s the NFL that’s to blame for the Constant Replay culture it’s created by its growing use of video to conduct microscopic scrutiny of questionable plays.

Football is a game involving 22 large and ferocious men colliding in a confined space like so many protons in a particle accelerator. It simply isn’t amenable to such inspection, and it produces controversy as often as justice. Constant Replay makes NFL football more important than it is, puts a permanent monkey on field-officials’ backs and has turned the games into slogs. When I sit down to watch one I keep a crossword puzzle handy.

NEWS: Russia is barred from international track and field for systematically violating anti-doping rules. It could be excluded from the sport at next year’s Summer Olympics in Rio.

VIEWS: What else is new on the drugs front? And don’t expect any Olympics ban.

The revelations last month, sparked by a German journalist’s reports, were surprising even for a dope-jaded sport. In testing labs in Moscow and at Vladimir Putin’s Sochi Winter Olympics showcase last year, tests for at least 1,500 Russian athletes were destroyed before they could be confirmed, and hundreds of other positive tests were otherwise falsified or covered up. Agents of the FSB (successor to the KGB) posed as lab technicians to ensure that the real techs went along with the plan. Officials exacted bribes from individual athletes who tested positive to keep their identities secret.

Russia’s initial reaction to the disclosures was typical of the way it reacts to any international criticism: it angrily blamed “Western” interests for seeking to denigrate the mighty accomplishments of The Motherland. Interestingly, though, that posture quickly changed to one of conciliation and ostensible cooperation with a probe into the matter by WADA, the Canadian-based World Anti-Doping Agency. That signaled to many that the fix was in and there would be no Olympics ban. After all, the     motto of all the big world-sports extravaganzas is that the show must go on no matter what the contestants are up to.

It’s no news that T & F is messed up. Lamine Diack of Senegal, the most-recent past president of the IAAF, the sport’s world governing body, has been criminally charged in France for receiving bribes to deep-six positive drug tests. (He’s also a member of the International Olympic Committee.) His successor Sebastian Coe, the former great British miler, until a few days ago was on the payroll of Nike, the sports-equipment giant. The IAAF recently awarded its 2021 World Championships to Eugene, Oregon, Nike’s headquarters city, via a no-bid contract. In sports corruption the world truly is joined.

NEWS: Teams with losing records will play in college-football bowl games this season.

VIEWS: It was bound to happen.

Back in the day there were the four major bowls (Rose, Sugar, Orange and Cotton) and maybe a half-dozen strays. A bowl bid was a reward for a season well played, conferring membership in an exclusive club. Now there are 40 bowls, and with only 127 teams eligible for post-season play not enough with the required 6-6 won-lost mark or better could be found to fill them, so three 5-7 units (Nebraska, Minnesota and San Jose State) were drafted into action. They and the likes of Akron, Appalachian State, Middle Tennessee and Georgia Southern will be on your TV screens between now and January 1. Enjoy.

Such an outcome was inevitable because, in their never-ending search to milk greater revenues from the labors of their “student athletes,” our institutions of higher learning have stretched the bowl source until it snapped.  There has been lots of tsk-tsking about the situation, and many wrinkled brows. There’s even been talk about reducing the number of bowls, but I don’t buy it. College revenue-sports’ schedules change in only one way—by getting longer. If we get the eight-team year-end playoff the pigskinheads are pushing, a couple of college teams will play 16-game schedules, just like the pros.  

But hey!--here’s already not much difference between ‘em.




Tuesday, December 1, 2015


I can’t speak for anyone else but I’m guessing that my childhood wasn’t too different from those of most of my middle-class contemporaries. I went to the local public schools, got OK grades and played several sports but none particularly well. I did dumb and wasteful things but survived them, went to a state university and eventually made a living doing something I liked. Chance as much as plan determined my course. That also wasn’t unusual, I daresay.
            Fast forward to a present in which life has become less forgiving. Grades are important from the git-go as are scores on the standardized tests that have become ubiquitous (if they had them back when I don’t remember it).  Children’s off-hours are crammed with lessons and activities designed to gild applications to the sort of colleges that promise a leg up toward career success.  Be clear that I’m reporting here, not knocking; on a crowded planet where competition is global, such measures well might be necessary. As one of my kids once wrote in a grade-school essay, it’s “a doggy dog world” out there.
             Even so, I’m sometimes caught short by a revelation of the extent to which childhood in the U.S. has been professionalized. One such came in September when I read in the New York Times about IMG Academy, a for-profit prep boarding school in Bradenton, Florida, set up to train boys and girls as young as 13 for athletics careers. It is, apparently, a heckuva place, offering the latest in coaching and training to aspirants in eight sports (football, baseball, basketball, soccer, golf, tennis, track and field and (huh?) lacrosse).

 Its football team (unbeaten, natch) plays in a 5,000-seat stadium that has viewing suites and a jumbo video scoreboard. There’s a state-of-the-art weight room that puts many such college facilities to shame, and where out-of-season pros sometimes drop by to swap sweat with the kids. Drinking fountains in the gym offer Gatorade. Who could ask for more?

The academy is run by the company formerly known as International Management Group. It was begun in 1965 by Mark McCormack, a golf-loving Cleveland lawyer who parlayed his links contacts into agency deals that would enrich Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player and, in time, take many top-level athletes into a financial sphere that would make their on-field earnings incidental. IMG quickly morphed from agent to octopus, sponsoring, televising and otherwise packaging sporting events worldwide. Not a sparrow falls on the golf or tennis tours without its notice.

IMG got into the education biz in 1987 when it bought Nick Bollettieri’s tennis academy in Bradenton, already known for cranking out tennis prodigies. Foremost among those was Andre Agassi, who was shipped off to Bollettieri in 1983 at age 13. Agassi made it big all right, but, he’d later aver, that was despite as much as because of the school. In his candid 2009 autobiography “Open”, he described the place, variously, as a prison, boot camp or asylum where book-learning was optional if one played one’s cards right, and had less-than-flattering things to say about its founder.

Agassi ascribed his attraction to Brooke Shields, who’d been a child actor and model before the two married, in part to the fact that neither had a childhood.  Suffice it to say that Agassi Prep, the reportedly stellar K-12 Las Vegas charter school the athlete and now-wife Steffi Graf endowed with their tennis wealth, is not a sports academy.

IMG Academy today is a much bigger and, one hopes, better place than Old Nick’s tennis farm of 30-plus years ago. Certainly it’s more expensive, with full tuition and fees topping $70,000 a year, and although scholarships are available they’re not universal because it’s there to make money.

Enrollees, whom the school’s website calls “student-athletes” in the dubious NCAA terminology, live a regimented existence that includes dormitory bunks and cafeteria meals. They spend their weekday mornings in academic classes and afternoons and weekends practicing or training for their sports under professional eyes, putting in much more time on that than they would in a normal school setting. The boys’ football and basketball teams play schedules that involve out-of-state travel. Tennis players and golfers of both sexes crisscross the land playing junior tournaments. It’s the logical next step for kids who as young as eight have been pushed to specialize in a single sport and perform on “traveling teams” that play 60- to 80-game annual schedules in baseball, basketball or soccer.  See my blog of April 15 for comment on that.

Being a rich and famous sports star is wonderful, of course, and some moms and dads (mostly dads, I’d say) like to live vicariously through their children’s playing-field exploits, but it’s hard to find any economic math that would justify the kind of expenditure an IMG Academy education requires. A college-athletics scholarship would seem to be the first expected return, but even at IMG half-tuition ($35,000 a year for four years) the payback wouldn’t seem to justify the payout.

Beyond that comes the inexorable winnowing process that always makes the odds against a professional-sports career a struck-by-lightning sort of proposition. One on-line source calculates that only one of every 200 senior boys who play high-school varsity baseball is drafted by a Major League team, and the chance of reaching a big-league locker room from even that talented pool is greater than one in 30.  The odds are worse still in basketball, which more kids play but where big-league rosters are smaller. Factors such as injury or burnout can intervene.  It’s a long shot even with an IMG Academy diploma in hand.

It still might be worth considering if sports offered long-term employment, but the opposite is true: the average career in the NFL is about 3 ½ seasons, in the NBA about 4 ½ and in MLB about 5 ½. That means that most jocks are over the hill before age 30 and must fashion new careers when those of their contemporaries are just taking off. As many ex-jocks will tell you, that’s not a good place to be, no matter how you got there.

Caveat parentes.

Sunday, November 15, 2015


              I’ve written it before but I think it’s worth repeating: the best months to visit Arizona are October and November. The weather then is warm but not hot, breezes are mild, skies usually are a breathtakingly deep blue and the snowbirds have yet to arrive in such numbers as to make traffic difficult. It’s my favorite time of year, a main reason I signed up to live here.
          The icing on the cake (cherry on the sundae? cream cheese on the bagel?) is the Arizona Fall League, whose six-week season runs from early October through middle November, this year ending on Thursday. It’s Major League Baseball’s annual finishing school for young prospects, generally Class A or AA players between the ages of 20 and 24. Each of the 30 big-league teams assigns seven players who are grouped in six teams of 35 players each that play a 32-game schedule. They wear their parent-team’s uniforms and AFL-team caps, making for a colorful show.
           It’s baseball at its purest and spectating at its easiest. The teams play mostly day games in some of the fine spring-training ballparks in the Phoenix area, with none of the expense and hassle that spring training has come to entail. Tickets are $8 ($6 for seniors) and parking is free and close.  Attendance usually runs between 300 and 500 people a game meaning you can sit where you want, and if your voice carries you easily can share your opinions with players, umps and fellow fans. That’s not always a good thing.
           We who are AFL regulars fancy ourselves scouts, and while we lack credentials it’s a game anyone can play. If you recall my previous blogs and website articles on the league you may have been introduced through me to such recent young stars as STARLIN CASTRO, NOLAN ARENADO and GREG BIRD. I also told you about some players who didn’t pan out so well, but let’s not dwell on that.
             My overall impression of the current AFL season is that the pitchers are beating the hitters, continuing the recent trend of the sport as a whole. A decade or so ago most of the young hurlers here could throw heat but not much else.  Now most have an array of pitches, and fastball temps continue to rise. On Wednesday I was at a game at Scottsdale Stadium, which broadcasts speed-gun results, and it seemed that every pitcher who was used could hit 95 mph, Bob Feller-like velocity. Anyone who doubts evolution should take note.
            That said, position players are easier to scout here than pitchers. Each team has 20 or so of those and aside from the starters, who usually go from three to five innings, they’re typically used for an inning an outing, not much to go on. The most-impressive pitcher I saw was NICK BURDI, a tall, skinny 22-year-old chattel of the Minnesota Twins, who pitched two perfect relief innings while I was watching, striking out four. His overall AFL card as of Friday showed no runs, two hits and seven K’s in six IPs, so he also was good at other times. But what can you tell from such scant exposure?
            The best position prospect I saw was GARY SANCHEZ, a 23-year-old catcher in the New York Yankees’ organization. Big (6-3, 230) and solidly built, he’s already a six-year pro, having been signed as a teen in the Dominican Republic, and played at the AA and AAA levels in the just-concluded regular season. As of Friday he led the AFL in home runs (7) and RBIs (19), while batting more than .300, and fielded his position well.  With Brian McCann the Yanks are well set at catcher for at least next season, but Sanchez will play for someone some time.
             High draft choices naturally get the most AFL attention and I think it’s instructive to compare the two highest on this year’s rosters. BUBBA STARLING was the fifth overall choice in the 2011 draft, by the Kansas City Royals, CLINT FRAZIER went fifth in 2013, to the Cleveland Indians, both out of high school.  Both are outfielders. Starling is 23 years old, Frazier is 21, and Starling has had 3 ½ minor-league seasons to Frazier’s 2 ½, meaning he should have an edge by both measures. But while the two have similar AFL stats, Frazier looks to me to be much the better prospect. A flaming redhead with a tightly wound physique, he’s faster afoot than Starling, and when he hits the ball solidly his bat gives off a distinctive ring that bespeaks extraordinary strength. The two previous AFLers whose knocks registered similarly with me were Bryce Harper and Javier Baez, and they’ve been hitting ‘em pretty far.

 Frazier strikes out a lot but, I guess, that comes with the territory these days. Both he and Starling will play in the Majors someday, if only to affirm their drafters’ judgement, but only he looks special. The Indians’ keen young shortstop Francisco Lindor was my top AFL prospect last year, and the team seems to have scored again.

Sometimes a player makes you look twice at your program. DOMINIC SMITH is such a one. He’s listed at 6-feet, 185 pounds but looks bigger, and hits bigger, too. The first baseman was the 11th player picked in the 2013 draft, by the L.A. Dodgers. He’s only 20 years old, so he’s probably a few years short of the Bigs, but the talent is there if he can overcome tendencies to not always run out ground balls and roll his eyes after called strikes.

My team, the Chicago Cubs, has been sending its top young hopefuls through the AFL in recent seasons. This year was supposed to be an exception, but the showings of a couple of their less-heralded ones here indicate that their farm system is deeper than I thought. JEIMER CANDELARIA is a 22-year-old infielder from the Dominican Republic who is unprepossessing physically but got hits every time I saw him, including four in one game. The Cubs are loaded with young infielders but he ought to be worth something in trade if he can’t elbow past some of them.

WILLSON CONTRERAS is a 23-year-old catcher from Venezuela who is small for his position (about 6-0, 175) but led the AA Southern League in batting last season (at .333).  He never was in the lineup when I watched his team play, but his AFL stats were good. No team has too many catchers so Theo Epstein must be smiling.

A few others impressed me in passing. TYLER AUSTIN is a 24-year-old first baseman who has spent six years in the Yankees’ system as a low (13th-round) draft pick. He hit two home runs while I was present and could play somewhere. ADAM BRETT WALKER II is a big guy in the Twins system who hits the ball far when he hits it. DANIEL PALKA is an outfield prospect for the Arizona Diamondbacks, who have plenty of outfielders, but he looks like a big-leaguer anyway. 

As I said, the AFL ends Thursday. This will make me unhappy but I’m consoled by the thought that it will reopen in less than 11 months.


Sunday, November 1, 2015


              They say it takes one to know one, but while I’ve been a Chicago Cubs’ fans for, lo, these last 70 years, I’m having a hard time recognizing my fellow fans these days.  They are smiling and their eyes are uncharacteristically bright. They’re pleasantly sated from the champagne they consumed after their favorites put away the archrival Cardinals in the QFs of the late World Series tournament.  When they look ahead they see nothin’ but blue skies.
              It makes me very uneasy.

              I know, I’m a killjoy, as I’ve been told repeatedly, but I can’t shake my innate skepticism or the lessons I’ve learned in my seven decades of fruitless baseball rooting. Further, while I don’t believe in curses, jinxes, hexes or any other otherworldly influences in human affairs, I do believe in psychology, and I’ve concluded that Cubs’ fans’ fecklessness has contributed to the team’s record of futility  (no “world” championships since 1908 or league pennants since 1945) that is unmatched in sporting annals. Unless we shape up we’ll only get more of the same.

              I understand fully the reasons for the current giddiness. In the just-concluded regular season the Cubs upped their victory total over the year before by 24 games (to 97), got through a playoff round (1 ½ if you include the one-game wild-card win over Pittsburgh) and gathered a growing list of individual awards, all with an eight-man lineup that often included five sterling rookies or near-rookies (Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell, Jorge Soler and Javier Baez), none of whom are older than 23. As we were constantly reminded by our journalistic mentors, they “became relevant” and “exceeded expectations.”  Who could ask for more, right?

              Truth is, though, they haven’t won anything yet, baseball awarding no bronze medals, and in the round in which they might have made a mark were brushed aside, four games to zip, by a New York Mets team that outplayed them thoroughly. That series revealed weaknesses not only in short-term hitting but also in the lack of pitching and defense that have plagued the Cubs since time immemorial. Need I remind that since World War II Cubs’ management has been transfixed by the days when the wind blows out at Beautiful Wrigley Field and put its money on sluggers (Sauer, Banks, Williams, Santo, Kingman, Dawson, Sosa) while neglecting baseball’s other facets? During my fandom the team has had only two truly first-rate pitchers -- Fergie Jenkins and Greg Maddux-- and let both slip away while still possessing considerable tread. Theo Epstein has yet to successfully address this issue.

              The Cubs’ dismissal by the Mets recalled their two most-recent playoff ventures, when they were swept by the Dodgers (in 2008) and the Diamondbacks (in ’07).   Moreover, in their fourth trip to the semis since MLB instituted playoffs in 1969, they fared worse than in the other three, when they fell to the Padres in five games in 1984 after taking a two-games-to-none lead, to the Giants 4-1 in 1989 and to the Marlins in seven in 2003 after leading 3-1. That’s nobody’s definition of progress.

              Nonetheless, by most Cubs’ fans’ measurements, 2015 will go down as a “great” year, along with 1984 and 2003, but no team exemplifies their collective psyche better than the 1969 edition. That was the gang that, with four future Hall of Famers on its roster (Banks, Williams, Santo and Jenkins), sprinted to an eight-game mid-August lead in the newly formed National League East only to hit a September wall and finish eight games behind the Mets. A season that would have been judged a colossal bust in most precincts went down in Cubs’ lore as glorious. No stalwart of that crew ever again had to buy himself a drink in Chicago.

              Cubs’ fans’ love for their losers contrasts with the attitudes exhibited by the adherents of the team’s recurring tormentors, the Mets. Yes, New Yorkers came to be fond of Casey Stengel’s comically inept “Amazins” in the years immediately following the team’s expansion birth in 1962, but that didn’t last long.  Since then, the Mets have had to please their adherents in the usual way—by at least occasionally rewarding them with victories. Their log includes two World Series championships (in 1969 and ’86) and two more pennants (in 2000 and this year). That’s two and four more, respectively, than the Cubs have won in that span.

              Both the Cubs and Mets endured losing-season dry spells from 2010 until their resurgences this season, and it’s instructive to compare their fans’ reactions. While the Mets were losing many of their supporters withheld patronage, with annual season attendance at their new (2009) Citi Field home barely exceeding two million for those five annums. Cubs’ fans, despite their team’s worse records than the Mets’ and in a half-as-big metro area, continued to drink the Kool Aid, topping the 2.5 million figure annually and three million in 2010. It’s no stretch to conclude that Cubs’ fans high tolerance for failure is one reason the team has done so poorly for so long. Why should management strive to serve steak when people will pay equally for bologna?

              Cubs’ fans are saying this year’s team is different because of the promise of its gifted young players. They’ll be champs for years, they proclaim. Chicagoans said the same thing after the 1985 Bears dominated the NFL with a young lineup, but fell short thereafter because of injuries and a clash of locker-room egos, not the least of which belonged to their coach, Mike Ditka. The same thing could happen to the Cubs.

              As the 1990s basketball Bulls and the current hockey Blackhawks have shown, Chicago is not a losers’ town, but it takes more than talent to win sports’ biggest prizes. The Bulls won their six NBA titles because of Michael Jordan’s superlative skills but also because he kicked his teammates’ butts when they didn’t perform to his expectations. Jonathan Toews seems to perform the same function for the Hawks in a quieter way. The Cubs will need a similar leader to succeed.

And meantime, it wouldn’t hurt to let them buy their own drinks until they’ve made some additions to the city’s trophy case.   



Thursday, October 15, 2015


               My dictionary defines a scandal as “an action or event regarded as morally or legally wrong and causing public outrage.” By that yardstick it isn’t clear that the numerous allegations of wrongdoing by officials of FIFA, which stages the soccer World Cup and other international events in the sport, qualifies for the epithet.

               Yeah, those guys probably stuffed their pockets to overflowing and beyond, but did they break any laws in the process? And did their actions cause public outrage? Aside from the parsons of the press box, I haven’t noticed many people who are expressing disgust or even surprise at what’s been revealed. It’s business as usual over there in Zurich, I and, I think, most others believe.
        What’s been in the papers certainly sounds bad.  Last May the U.S. Justice Department announced the indictments on racketeering charges of nine FIFA operatives and five corporate executives with whom they did business in what it said was a 24-year scheme that involved bribes and kickbacks worth about $150 million.  Some of those named already have pleaded guilty and can be expected to testify against some or all of the rest, meaning that chances for convictions are good.
           Then last month the Swiss police stepped up and announced they were looking into a criminal bribery charge involving Sepp Blatter, FIFA president since 1998, who last year was elected to a fifth, four-year term. Blatter had announced his resignation after the U.S. indictments were handed down but said it wouldn’t be effective until well into next year, obviously in the hope that the thing would blow over and he’d be allowed to stick around. Not much chance of that now.

 The cherry atop that particular sundae is that the party of the second part in Blatter’s suspected scheme is Michel Platini, the former star player who’s the head of UEFA, the game’s European overseer, and an announced “reform” candidate to succeed Blatter when the election finally comes off. Both men have been suspended from their offices for 90 days pending the results of the probe, but the point remains that in FIFA even a scorecard can’t help you separate the reformers from the crooks.

What’s happening in FIFA (which stands for Federation Internationale de Football Association) pretty much mirrors what’s happened in the International Olympic Committee, another dubious international sports organization domiciled in Switzerland.  Over the last half century—but especially in the last 20 years—both groups have been inundated with cash, mostly from the soaring value of TV rights to their attractions. As a gauge, check out U.S. rights sales alone: in 1990 TNT paid $7.75 million to televise that year’s World Cup, while this year Fox paid $425 million for rights to the 2018 and 2022 editions.  Last year FIFA reportedly took in $2.4 billion in world TV rights fees and another $1.6 billion in sponsorship deals with companies eager to bathe in the World Cup glow. The Olympics reap even larger returns. When it’s raining money like that it’s no wonder many umbrellas are turned upside down.

The IOC wraps itself in a flag and such lofty goals as the promotion of sportsmanship and world amity. For a long time it purported to be run by volunteers (no longer), but the hands-out rep of its honchos was well known. It culminated in revelations that resulted in the ouster of 10 executive committee members for taking bribes tied to the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. Its president from 1980 through 2001 was the lordly Juan Antonio Samaranch, a former functionary of Franco Spain whose non-paid status was belied by the $1.5 million-a-year hotel suite the IOC maintained for him in its headquarters city of Lausanne. Samaranch demanded that he be treated like a head of state and addressed as “your excellency.” Neither he nor any other IOC big shot ever got off the back of a plane.

The 79-year-old Blatter has kept a lower profile. Although you’d never know it from his obtuse public statements, he’s a public-relations man by trade who got into sports bureaucracy through the Swiss ice hockey federation. His best career move came in 1981 when he married the daughter of FIFA’s secretary general, its No. 2 post. That same year he had that job himself, and got the top one 17 years later.

All 209 national members of FIFA have the same vote whatever their populations or rankings in the sport. Blatter has kept power largely through the “development grants” he’s empowered to issue to promote soccer in small countries. If the organization’s culture is a guide, much of that money sticks in the pockets of local satraps, who reciprocate by hugging Blatter and giving him political support.

FIFA’s doings got mostly local notice until 2010 when, in a swoop, it awarded the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 tournament to Qatar. Russia under the odious Vladimir Putin is a kleptocracy where nothing much happens without money changing hands. Qatar is a lump of hot sand on top of Persian Gulf oil with no soccer tradition and a population of 1.8 million people, about as many as in metropolitan Nashville, Tennessee.  That award stunk from so many angles that FIFA’s own ethics committee felt moved to investigate, and it issued a report that was said to be critical of the bidding process. Blatter stepped in, though, and the document was squelched.

Still, the question of who has been hurt by FIFA misdeeds isn’t easily answered. The TV networks whose money fuels the organization and corporate sponsors such as Coca-Cola, Visa and McDonalds are savvy international players who know how business is done around the world. Their recent, belated demand that Blatter step down immediately only goes to show they’d rather be robbed than embarrassed.
             What probably bothers Blatter most about mess he’s in is the participation of the Swiss authorities. It’s no accident that both FIFA and the IOC are based in that land-locked land, where banking secrecy is an economic pillar and extradition of citizens for financial crimes isn’t easily granted. When only U.S. prosecutors were involved his supporters could write off their actions as sour grapes over the loss of the 2022 Cup (as Putin did publicly, while recommending Blatter for a Nobel Prize), but, evidently, he’s also done something to upset the home folks.  The earthy old saw “don’t, uh, defecate where you eat” seems to hold in Switzerland, too.

Thursday, October 1, 2015


               Newspaper reporters don’t (or, at least, shouldn’t) buy anyone’s act whole, and looking back I can see I always was cut out to be one. As a kid I used to go early to Chicago Cubs’ games to watch batting practice, but when my pals gathered along the low brick wall that separated the stands from the field to plead for player autographs, I didn’t join them in latter part of the exercise. I simply wasn’t interested in that sort of thing.
              One summer day in 1950 the 12-year-old me was standing along the wall when Ron Northey, an erstwhile Cubs’ slugger, broke a bat in the cage. Carrying it back to the bench he spied me and thrust the injured instrument into my hands. Initially I was pleased with my prize and the attention it brought, and sat with it on my lap throughout the game that followed, but it occurred to me quickly enough that a broken bat had limited utility. I put it in a trash container on my way out of Wrigley Field.
              But while I’ve never had heroes I’ve always had favorites, and do to this day. I admire good play, of course, but to make my list an athlete has to bring something other than skill to his or her games. Following are my five favorite current baseball players, and the reasons I’ve selected them for the honor.
             MARK BUEHRLE--   Ray Miller, the old Baltimore Orioles’ pitching coach, used to pitch three rules to his charges: Work fast. Change speeds. Throw strikes. Unsaid was another rule most people might have added: Throw hard. ‘Twasn’t necessary if you did the other three, Miller believed. And besides, “what are you going to do if throwing hard doesn’t work—throw harder?” he’d say. “That’s the quickest way to get arm trouble.”

               Nobody in the present-day game personifies Miller’s dicta better than Buehrle.  The 36-year-old Toronto Blue Jays’ left-hander never has broken a speed gun but he’s compiled 213 wins including two no-hitters in his 16 big-league seasons, which is about as good as it gets in this era of five-man starting rotations. He’s as good today as he was when he was 25 or 30 years old, and the winningest pitcher (his record is 14-7) on his division-leading team. With his easy delivery and efficient outlook there’s no reason he shouldn’t be good for three or four more similar seasons, which would put him in Cooperstown range.

               What mostly endears Buehrle to me, though, is his adherence to Miller’s Rule One. His approach to pitching is simple: Get the ball, throw the ball. Two-hour games, once a relic, are possible when he starts. Working fast dictates the pace of a game to a pitcher’s advantage and keeps his fielders on their toes. It also keeps fans’ attentions from wandering, the upshot of the game’s too-slow woes. Oh that there were more like him!

 ANTHONY RIZZO—Yeah, he’s a Cub and a talented one, and I’m a Cubs’ fan, but I like Rizzo especially because he has an old head on his sturdy, 26-year-old body.  Only in season five of what promises to be a long career, he’s by necessity a team leader of a playoff-bound Kiddie Korps that has five rookies among its eight position players some days. How far the Cubs go in October (not far, I fear, because they’re green, strikeout-prone and pitching-short) will depend largely on him.

Whatever he does or doesn’t do in the clubhouse, Rizzo obviously leads by example. He’s an honest-to-gosh power hitter, with 85 home runs to show for his three years as a Cub regular, but unlike most of this ilk he doesn’t aim for the bleachers with every swing. With two strikes or in close-game situations he’s been known to choke up on his bat, shorten his swing and move up in the batter’s box, the better to make the contact needed to start or sustain rallies. Some of his hack-happy teammates should take note.

BRANDON PHILLIPS—He’s accumulated a nice collection of All-Star Game selections and Golden Gloves in a 14-year career, 10 of them with the Cincinnati Reds, but the second baseman stands out for me because he enjoys playing and spreads the joy around. He’s bouncy on the bases, will chat up whichever player comes his way and smiles or frowns as the game situation warrants. His sunny demeanor is a welcome contrast to that of the lunch-box-carrying millionaires who make up baseball’s sullen majority.

Better, he bears adversity well, at least sometimes. In a game about a month ago against the Cubs he was fanned in a critical situation by the effusive Pedro Strop, who greeted strike three with a leap and a whoop. Instead of taking offense, as most players would, Phillips gave Strop a grin and a thumbs up, one hot dog to another.  Pass the mustard.

YAVIER MOLINA—When it comes to this guy, I have to take back what I wrote a few paragraphs up. He’s so good on the field that his qualities there alone qualify him for my faves list.

The St. Louis Cardinals’ catcher is the best player on baseball’s winningest team, playing the game’s toughest position, and in his 12 seasons has established himself as one of the best defensive catchers ever. Moreover, although I’m not privy to the inner workings of the Cardinals’ manager-pitching coach-catcher collaboration, he certainly deserves some credit for guiding the pitching staff that’s been among the game’s best these past half-dozen seasons.

Molina throws out attempted base stealers at a 44% rate, well above the general run of less than 30%. His 52 career pickoffs leads all active catchers.  After a slow start he’s made himself into a better-than-average hitter, and his mien radiates fire across the diamond. Every team wishes it had a player like him.

SAM FULD— Sam gets my over-achiever award, hands down. A little man (5-9, 170 pounds) in what’s increasingly a big man’s game, and lacking much batting power, he’s cobbled together an eight-year, four-team (Cubs, Rays, Twins and A’s) Major League career on sheer chutzpah. He’s the quintessential fourth outfielder, someone who can be inserted into any OF position any time and, somehow, throw out a runner or come up with a single or stolen base. He’s a kamikaze fielder whose eye-popping catches make a great YouTube video.

He has an interesting biography for a ballplayer. He’s from New Hampshire, where the summers are about six weeks long. His dad is a university professor and his mom is a state legislator. He went to Stanford U., where he not only played baseball but also got a degree in economics. He’s been diabetic since age 10 and must monitor his blood-sugar levels continually.

  And he’s Jewish, so he probably knows what chutzpah is. As Joe Paterno once said about an Italian football player, “I don’t like him because he’s Italian, I like him because I’m Italian.”

Tuesday, September 15, 2015


               If it is true that, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “the test of a first-class intellect is the ability to hold opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function,” then many of my friends have first-class intellects. They believe as I do (but usually not as strongly) that big-time college sports reek of hypocrisy and exploitation, but cling to the contradictory view that, somehow, their own schools “do things right.”
             I am under no such illusion. I have no doubt that the University of Illinois, at which I spent four highly formative years (1955-59) and for whose teams I still cheer, engages in the same, pernicious practices as other big schools in stocking and maintaining its playing-field forces. My gripe is that it isn’t very good at them.

We old Illini don’t expect much. Most of us are Chicagoans who, unlike people from such benighted places as Kentucky, Nebraska and Oklahoma, have had many entertainments within easy reach and so don’t look to our university as a primary provider. We don’t strive to create football dynasties the way Ohio State and Michigan have; mere respectability is our goal. But alas, even that modest goal usually is out of reach.

That sad fact is especially true as another college football season begins. Illinois footballers have had just five winning seasons in the last 20, and have won just one Big Ten title in that span (14 years ago), but seem to have little chance of adding to those totals. The school fired its head football coach, Tim Beckman, two weeks before the season began, and now functions under a guy with the word “interim” in his title, meaning that recruiting is pretty much on hold until a permanent replacement is named. That puts us in the doghouse for at least a couple of years past this one.  

Worse, the entire athletics department is under a cloud from allegations that, if true, are appalling.  Two former football players are suing the university for mishandling their gridiron injuries, as is a woman soccer player. Further, a Federal lawsuit alleges that the school’s women’s basketball team discriminated against and otherwise mistreated black players, something that strains credulity in this day and age.  Almost stranger still was a university investigation into those charges that led to the firing of an assistant coach in the program but cleared the head coach, as though that sort of thing could occur without his knowledge. Fat chance.

As a U of I student and reporter for the Daily Illini and Champaign-Urbana Courier, I frequently brushed against athletics-department types. I didn’t consider them brilliant and nothing has happened over the last 56 years to change that view. The first job of any athletics director is to hire good coaches in the so-called revenue sports, and in that period Illinois has had only one football coach (Mike White, 1980-87) and one basketball coach (Bill Self, 2000-03) I considered outstanding. White ultimately tripped over the NCAA’s fat rulebook and Self abandoned ship the first time something better crooked its finger

The current AD is one Mike Thomas, and how he keeps his job is beyond me. Besides the above-mentioned legal horrors, he’s the guy who in 2012 appointed Beckman, who was on nobody’s A-list at the time. Beckman was a flop on the field --his three-year record was 12 wins in 37 games and most of those victories were “schedule wins” over much-smaller schools hired for the purpose (as are his successor’s two wins this season). He also was clumsy in public and given to such odd gaffs as being caught chewing tobacco on the sidelines, which besides being gauche is against the rules.

Thomas’s choice for basketball coach, the next year, was John Groce. Because of his energy Groce was favorably received initially, but he’s come in second in too many recruiting battles and has yet to impart positive momentum to his teams. He’s had terrible luck in the injury department (his putative starting point guard has suffered season-ending injuries before each of the last two campaigns), and his last-year team suffered an embarrassing collapse after showing early foot. If he doesn’t produce this season, with unpromising material, he might be unemployed come March.

To the question of “what’s wrong?” there is no easy answer. Champaign-Urbana, the adjacent corn belt cities in which the University is domiciled, is widely seen as a dull, rural place that’s unattractive to young jocks (it really ain’t bad), but so is Iowa City, Ia., and State College, Pa., and they’ve done well enough, sportswise. The University of Wisconsin, in a state that has far fewer athletic resources than Illinois, has put together recent football and basketball records that put Illinois’s in the shade.

College sports are coaches’ realms and Illinois needs one in football and, perhaps soon, will in basketball. The journalistic consensus is that its history of ineptitude has made the school a Sargasso Sea that no established coach would want to navigate. So OK, Nick Saban won’t be leaving Alabama for Champaign-Urbana any time soon, but the woods teem with smart young assistant coaches and the main trick is to find one whose ties to the school or state would make Illinois a destination rather than a gig.

It also would help if the guy can hunt with the sharks without showing blood on his teeth. Appearances trump reality in a game where everybody cheats, one in which doing things well beats doing them “right.”



Tuesday, September 1, 2015


             Imagine that you run a company with an employee who was arrested for striking his girlfriend during a domestic dispute, but she dropped the charge before it could be prosecuted.  Would you fire the guy or keep him on?
            Now imagine that he was prosecuted but found not guilty. Or prosecuted and found guilty and served his time. Would your response be different from that of the situation above?

I’m guessing that your probable course in all three cases would be to ask around about the on-the-job behavior of the employee involved-- his work performance and his relationships with colleagues and customers. Then you’d see if it was a one-time incident or something that had been repeated. If he passed those tests you might be inclined to keep him around even though you found the incident distasteful. You well could conclude that whatever the man did or didn’t do, it wasn’t up to an employer to take the roles of judge and jury by adding a punishment apart from those exacted by the criminal-justice system.

I’m sure you know that the not-hypothetical National Football League and some of its clubs have faced a number of such decisions in recent seasons, involving things like driving offenses and drug possession as well as domestic abuse. Time was when matters like that were swept under the rug, written off as the sort of “boys will be boys” misdeeds that were irrelevant to their on-field activities. Now we’re in a hypervigilant era in which little goes unnoticed, and segments of the population stand ready to howl if they’re displeased by any action.

The upshot has been a hodgepodge of reactive disciplinary calls that, in sum, make little sense. If Commish Goodell and his team-owner employers have any guidelines for their moves—or any rationale—they’re not apparent to this eye.

Let’s start with the NFL’s most-celebrated recent case, that of the Baltimore Ravens’ running back Ray Rice. Rice last year was given a two-game suspension after being cited for assault for hitting his girlfriend in an Atlantic City elevator, but when a video of the appalling incident surfaced—and was played repeatedly on national television—an outcry forced the league to backtrack and extend the suspension indefinitely. Rice then was summarily cut (fired) by his team, putting him out of a job.

Not long afterward the criminal case against Rice was dropped when the woman involved refused to press charges and he agreed to submit to counseling.  As the season advanced he sued the NFL on grounds he’d been punished twice for the same offense, and a court ordered that his suspension be lifted. He has no criminal record, has apologized publicly and married the woman he struck. Yet convicted by the court of public opinion, he’s unemployed and seemingly employable in his chosen field at age 28.

Now look at Ray McDonald, a veteran defensive lineman. He was arrested twice in 2014, both times on charges concerning violence against a girlfriend, including sexual assault. His team, the San Francisco 49ers, took no action after the first incident but released him after the second. During the off-season he was signed by the Chicago Bears but last May was arrested again for same sort of thing and, again, was released by his team. Last week he was indicted for rape stemming from the May incident. Like Rice he’s currently unemployed, but it is noteworthy that the league never has taken action against him, the most-apparent difference between his cases and Rice’s being that no video camera was rolling during any of McDonald’s alleged transgressions.

Turn next to the shocker of the current pre-season, the punch that broke the jaw of Geno Smith, the New York Jets’ quarterback, by teammate Ikemefuna Enemkpali, a backup linebacker, after a dispute over a Smith debt.  Smith required surgery and reportedly could be sidelined for up to two months.

 The Jets cut Enemkpali post haste, but before the week was over he was signed by the Buffalo Bills, whose coach, Rex Ryan, coached the Jets last year. Ryan said he’d talked to Enemkpali and was convinced the young man would sin no more. Ryan’s Bills, incidentally, also are the new employer of Richie Incognito, the main perp in the Miami Dolphins’ 2013 teammate-bullying and harassment mess.  That ought to be some lively locker room.

No criminal charges have been filed in the Enemkpali-Smith matter because Smith says he won’t pursue them, but the incident took place before witnesses at the Jets’ training facility so it’s hard to see where that rules them out. The blow was described as a “sucker punch” that didn’t result from a fight. Although Enemkpali’s target was a man, not a woman, it was as much an assault as Rice’s smacking his sweetie, and because Smith was a putative starter at the game’s most-important position it had significant football impact. Nonetheless, the NFL has taken no action, and none is said to be pending.

Maybe that’s because the league is up to its elbows seeking to punish Tom Brady, the New England Patriots’ quarterback, for the non-violent offense of causing a bit of air to leak from some footballs used in a last-season playoff game. Goodell came down hard on the Pats’ star, socking him with a four-game suspension, a quarter of the regular season. The issue is in federal court now, and the judge has chaffed at having to spend his time on such trivia, but the NFL’s self-importance knows no bounds, so on it rolls.

In truth, the league has only itself to blame for “Deflategate.” In most other sports opponents share the same game balls, but the NFL lets its teams have their “own” and gives them a week to doctor them before they’re used (for details see my blog of February 15). The stuff that’s permitted exceeds what’s prohibited.

Brady probably did something wrong and should be penalized (15 yards?), but didn’t I read somewhere that the punishment should fit the crime?  He’d have been better off cold-cocking a teammate.

Saturday, August 15, 2015


               Thanks to baseball’s Extra Innings TV package, which brings any game televised anywhere into my home at what I consider a reasonable price (about $200 a season), I watch a lot of baseball these days. This is to say I also hear a lot of complaining.
               The sources of the gripes are the TV broadcasters, and their subjects are the umpires, particularly the ones calling balls and strikes on any given day. It’s a regular whineathon, usually starting with the first batter and not ending until the last. Take away the bitching and those guys would be virtually mute. Come to think of it, that wouldn’t be too bad.

               Ordinarily, I dismiss complaints about the officiating in any sport as sour grapes. The idea that the umps, refs, etc., are out to get the teams we root for is embedded in the American psyche, especially these days when distrust of authority runs high, but the mere fact that just about everyone subscribes to it is evidence that it can’t be true. I mean, if everybody is pissed off, somebody must be doing something right.

               When it comes to the calling of baseball’s balls and strikes, though, it seems to me that the beefers have a point, even though it’s not the one they usually make. The game’s strike zone these days appears to be unusually elastic in ways that favor the pitchers over the hitters no matter what uniforms they wear.  I blame this largely for the steep decline in offense that has been the game’s main feature of the past several seasons.

The stats are clear. With the current season about two-thirds over, per-team runs a game average 4.14, the game-wide batting average is .253 and teams are striking out at a rate of 7.59 a contest. Ten years ago (2005) those figures were 4.59, .264 and 6.30, respectively. Fifteen years ago (2000) they were 5.14, .270 and 6.45.  That the bottom-line calculation of runs per game shows an almost 20% drop in this still-newish century amounts to a seismic shift in the venerable National Pastime.

A number of changes in the game help account for the trend. Pitchers today are bigger, throw harder and are technically more proficient than before. Equally as important (and usually overlooked) is the fact that there are more of them. Twenty years or so ago most teams carried nine or 10 pitchers on their 25-man rosters; today it’s 12 or 13.

Time was that starting pitchers routinely went seven innings and complete games weren’t rare. This meant that batters often would face the same pitchers three or four times a game and could put together good lines on their “stuff.” Now, teams now use four or five different pitchers even in low scoring games, and, sometimes, two or more in an inning, even when it seems they don’t have to. The other day one manager, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Clint Hurdle, changed pitchers in the ninth inning of a game his team led 5-1, with one out and nobody on base. Jeez.

Radical defensive shifts that put three or four infielders on the same side of the diamond also once were rare. Now that every batted ball goes into computers programmed to identify hitter tendencies they’re commonplace, and most hitters thus confronted are too bullheaded or self-satisfied to combat them.

Indeed, hitter bullheadedness contributes mightily to pitcher effectiveness; as Chicago White Sox broadcaster “Hawk” Harrelson recently noted, “most batters swing the same way [from the heels] whether the count is 2-0 or 0-2.”  The day when pumped-up batsmen like Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire were machine-gunning home runs is past, but their era’s mantra of “chicks dig the long ball” is very much alive. The corollary of that— chicks dig strikeouts—must be equally true, albeit unsaid.

But my me the umpiring factor is at least a big a factor in the decline as any of the above. In 1997, after a playoff game in which the Florida Marlins pitcher Livan Hernandez struck out 15 Atlanta Braves, many on pitches that looked to be low or wide, home-plate umpire Eric Gregg answered the resulting questions by referring to “my” strike zone. The commissioners’ office came down hard on him for that, so we haven’t heard much such talk since, but the fact remains that each ump has his own strike zone and it’s up to the hitters to learn it daily. Hitting big-league pitching is tough enough without the mental gymnastics this requires.

There’s little argument that most umps are consistent in calling a strike zone that differs markedly from the rule-book prescription that it extend vertically from the midpoint between the shoulders and the belt to the top of the knees. The “high” strike—on pitches much above the belt—rarely is called, and the zone’s real bottom is the bottom of the knee rather than the top. That’s in keeping with the game’s “gentlemen’s agreement” that swaps the high strike for the low one; pitchers these days are taught to keep the ball “down” and hitters have come to expect that.

Each year, though, the zone seems to get lower, with just about every pitch that’s over the plate but not in the dirt getting strike treatment, and wider to the outside of both left- and right-handed hitters. That’s confirmed daily by the upright rectangle televisers superimpose on the zone during their broadcasts. Some days the outside edge of the plate seems to be the chalked edge of the opposite batter’s box, a difference of three or four inches. Pitches off the inside edge rarely get such latitude.

Why this should be so is easily apparent. Umps invariably set up by placing themselves inside and above the catchers’ heads. This gives them a straight view of the high ball and plate’s inside edge but a sidelong—and, thus, imperfect—view of the bottom-outside. In other words, they’re guessing on low and outside pitches. Often, they don’t guess very well. 

In baseball, “caveat emptor” means “batter beware.” It’ll stay that way until the game figures out how to correct it.

Saturday, August 1, 2015


               When the subject of the Baseball Hall of Fame comes up in my presence, as it often does (I’m an elector), the subject of Pete Rose is sure to follow.  Usually, it’s raised in the form of a question, stated aggressively. To wit: “When are you guys finally gonna let him in?”
              As much as I hate to quibble (OK, that’s not true), I preface my answer by taking issue with the question’s premises. Us “guys,” the active and retired members of the Baseball Writers Association of America who guard the front door of the Cooperstown, N.Y., museum (various, more permissive, veterans’ committees guard the side doors), have not kept Rose from being honored, capital “B” Baseball has, by its 1989 decision to bar him from any connection to the game and its institutions. He’s never been on a Hall of Fame ballot, so we writers never have had the opportunity to vote for him, or not. Unless he’s reinstated, we never will.

               The second fallacy is that Rose isn’t “in” the Hall; he very much is, even though no plaque bearing his likeness hangs in the gallery devoted to baseball’s heroes. His exclusion from baseball activities does not mean he’s become a nonperson to the game; his records (most notably his 4,256 career hits) remain on the books and his name and deeds are commemorated in other parts of the Hall. More than 20 bats, balls, gloves, photos and film and video clips associated with his feats are there, ample testimony to a 24-year playing career that had few equals.

               The erstwhile “Charley Hustle” is out otherwise because he “screwed the pooch”—did the unforgivable—by betting on baseball, violating any sport’s bedrock rule.  He can’t say he wasn’t warned because the rule long has been posted on the walls of every locker room in the professional game. It states: “Any player, umpire or club or league official who shall bet any sum…upon any baseball game in which [he] has a duty to perform shall be declared permanently ineligible.” It doesn’t get any clearer than that.

               Pete didn’t just place a few, casual bets on ball games; he was a daily, big-money bettor who, often, conducted his wagering from the clubhouse of the Cincinnati Reds, for whom he played or managed for 22 of his 27 total years in the Bigs.  He always spoke loudly and had lots of shtick, so his habits weren’t unknown to his teammates, players and others who followed the club. They hardly could have missed his weight-room buddies, who doubled as book-maker messengers, running his bets out of the team’s quarters both at home and on the road.

               The evidence against Rose, contained in betting slips and phone records as well as interviews, was voluminous, available to enterprising journalists as well as to baseball’s hired gumshoes. Much of it is recounted in Michael Sokolove’s excellent book “Hustle; The Myth, Life and Lies of Pete Rose.” Published in 2002, it depicts the player as a degenerate gambler who besides betting substantial sums with bookies on any game involving a ball also would shovel four-figure wagers through the windows of Cincinnati-area horse and dog tracks on no more basis than a tip or a whim. River Downs, the old Cincy racetrack, enjoyed his patronage so much it gave him a private box from which to bet and his own teller, Sokolove wrote.

               Rose knew what he’d done—and that others knew, too—but for 15 years after his exclusion he regularly issued heated denials that he’d bet on baseball, coming clean on that score in 2004 only to hype an autobiography he’d written. He’s maintained the pose of never having bet on a Red’s game despite an ESPN piece in June revealing he’d done that, too, repeatedly, as a player as well as a manager, dating from 1984.

So what’s so bad about that? many still ask.  Betting the horses is legal and many otherwise upstanding citizens put an occasional bob on a football or baseball game, albeit with a member of the criminal element. So far it’s never come out that Rose bet on his team to lose.

Well, most obviously, ordinary citizens aren’t in a position to affect the outcomes of the contests on which they bet, as Pete was. Further, two-handed bettors like him also tend to be losers, and any player or manager who becomes beholden to the books becomes a likely target for manipulation.   Finally, bookies tend also to be bettors, and the knowledge that he bet on the Reds to win on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, but not on Thursday, was valuable information in the subterranean world in which they operate.

Pete’s banishment dates back 26 years, and it’s interesting how little attitudes toward it have changed over that period.  Baseball has been partially responsible for that because it has permitted him to appear on the field at some of its functions, most recently last month’s All-Star Game in Cincinnati. That he gets ovations wherever he goes testifies to the enduring nature of his bad-boy appeal and brassy bearing, each little affected by his age (he’s 74 now).

Rose is a regular on sports-talk radio shows, on which he always plumps for reinstatement. “Charlie Manson gets a parole hearing every year, doesn’t he? So what about me?” is a favorite line.

Fact is, though, Rose’s case is being reheard constantly, and three of the game’s commissioners (Bart Giamatti, Fay Vincent and Bud Selig) have concluded that what he did was outside the bounds of redemption for a sport whose greatest scandal—the 1919 “Black Sox” episode—remains vivid after almost 100 years. If he has any sense, new commish Rob Manfred will line up with his predecessors on this. Otherwise, baseball’s no-gambling rule will be just so much wallpaper.



Wednesday, July 15, 2015


               If women’s soccer in America—or women’s sports generally—ever had a better day than Sunday, July 5, I can’t recall it.  That was the day the U.S. team won the Women’s World Cup by beating Japan in the final, 5-2.
             Everything went right. The game was high scoring, something we Yanks typically castigate soccer for not being. It had an appealingly animated hero(ine)—Carli Lloyd—who scored three goals in the first 16 minutes, capping a 4-0 spurt that all but secured the victory.

             It was played at a U.S.-friendly time (7 p.m. in the East) before a U.S.-friendly crowd in Vancouver during a rare slow day for sports on television. It later was announced that the total U.S. TV audience of 26.7 million people-- 25.4 million on Fox and 1.3 million on Telemundo—was this country’s highest for any soccer game, and exceeded that of any game in the recent NBA finals or the seventh game in last October’s baseball World Series. It was drinks all around for everyone connected with the team, and deservedly so.

We’re a nation of analysts, though, and it wasn’t long before the question was raised of what the victory might mean for women’s sports in this land; more specifically, why they don’t get a bigger share of the pie. Indeed, that was a topic of discussion throughout the two-week fest.

 As is customary when male-female issues come up, knees immediately start to jerk and the all-purpose shibboleths that often substitute for thinking about such matters are rolled out. We heard about “glass ceilings” and women’s sports being held back by news-media conspiracies. Bill Rhoden, a usually sensible sports columnist for the New York Times, combined those notions in a single sentence. “A confluence of chauvinism and gender bias have made the ceiling they [women’s sports] are up against a particularly difficult one to shatter,” wrote he.

Well. Conspiracy theorists are hard to dissuade, but if a journalists’ cabal to belittle women’s sports exists it never bothered to try to recruit me during my 46-year newspaper career. And while unacknowledged barriers to women’s advancement certainly obtain in some areas, it’s hard to see how they apply to what boils down to a spending choice in an economy in which, many surveys have shown, women make most of the buying decisions.

Further, the market’s preference for men’s sports over women’s isn’t uniform. The women outdraw the men in activities that reward grace more than strength (figure skating and gymnastics) and do about as well in ones where the playing fields in national and international competitions are shared, albeit separately (tennis, swimming, track and field).  Add sustained success to the mix and women can be dominant in many an athletic endeavor; over the last 10 years Serena Williams probably has gotten more ink, and made more money, than all American male tennisers combined.

Two big reasons women’s sports have had a hard time getting traction have to do with the calendar. First, it’s crowded, more crowded than anyone might have imagined just a few years ago. One of sport’s biggest milestones was the creation, in 1979, of ESPN, the all-sports TV network. Before ESPN, sports on television consisted mainly of a few weekend-afternoon hours and the occasional local game. Now it’s wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling.

 Time was when a week’s sports offerings could be listed on a single page of TV Guide. By contrast, on a recent weekday in Phoenix, with the NFL, NBA and NHL idle,  one could watch summer-league basketball, Canadian football, cycling (the Tour de France), golf, lacrosse, “motorsports,” rugby, men’s international soccer, swimming and Wimbledon tennis. That was in addition to every Major League Baseball game on the “Extra Innings” package and whatever the half-dozen single-sports channels I receive had on. It takes more than a shoehorn to find room on that schedule.

The numbered year on the calendar works against some women’s sports because they’re relatively young and sports watching, like many other things, is at least partly habitual. Women’s team sports in America hardly existed before the passage of the U.S. Education Act of 1972, whose Title IX went a long way toward correcting the vastly unequal funding of men’s and women’s school sports that prevailed to that point. The two biggest U.S. women’s pro-team circuits, the WNBA and the National Women’s Soccer League, date from just 1996 and 2012, respectively.  Soccer generally still is viewed as an immigrant scrambling for a foothold on these shores, and average attendance at NWSL games last season was only about 3,000 a game. Thus, even a double-figure percentage jump during the current July-August campaign wouldn’t put more than a few hundred more fannies in the seats.

Finally, although it’s not fashionable to say it, men and women have physiological differences that make most men’s sports better. That’s apparent to anyone who looks and is why most of the men’s brands outsell the women’s in a bruisingly competitive marketplace, no matter what the sex of the customer.

Many women are fine athletes who deserve applause. Their games aren’t as commercially warped as are many of the men’s, making their competitions purer, and the fact that no huge pot of gold will reward their success causes female jocks to develop their other abilities. Need I say that’s not a bad thing? 

Wednesday, July 1, 2015


               VIEWS: ???
              The idea that truth is stranger than fiction gains support daily, but rarely more forcefully than with the story above. What can one baseball team learn by stealing another’s data—that so-and-so can’t hit a curve or that whozis has lost a foot off his fastball? Baseball is played in public with everyone invited to watch and analyze-- teams employ large scouting staffs for that purpose. It’s hard to imagine why any organization would risk criminal prosecution to secure such information.
                Published accounts of the alleged theft attribute a possible motive to revenge; apparently Jeff Luhnow, a computer whiz who departed the Cardinals to become the Astros’ general manager in 2012, left some personal animus in his wake.  But if the Cards were paying attention to Luhnow during his nine-year tenure with the team, some current employees must know his tricks. Further, few teams receive higher marks than the Cards for managing personnel, so it seems they need little help on that score.

               The FBI investigation into the charge reportedly is stalled because the agency can’t pinpoint who in the Cards’ offices did the hacking. If history is a guide some low-level minion will be fingered, and after some backing and filling business as usual will resume. The real culprit, though, is the paranoia that permeates big-time sports, tied to practitioners’ inflated notions about the importance of what they do. It’s a game for heaven’s sake, not the rocket science that might justify cloak-and-dagger intrigue.



               When Alex Rodriguez returned to the New York Yankees from PED prison this spring, not much was expected of him.  Nearing age 40 (you can sing “Happy Birthday” to him on July 27), with an injury record to rival Evel Knievel’s and having played in only 44 Major League games the previous two seasons, he was widely deemed to be over the hill, playing only to collect what was left of the ridiculous, 10-year contract the team gave him in 2008. The Yanks weren’t happy to have him back, it was reported.

               Surprise! The guy still can hit. After 72 games he was batting .286 with 15 home runs and 45 runs batted in, on a pace to post 35-100 figures in the last two categories, as in former days. This season he has passed Willie Mays’s 660 home runs to rank fourth all-time (he has 669 now) and got his 3,000th career hit.

 Ordinarily such feats would have been celebrated but those weren’t, at least not outside Yankee Stadium. Rodriguez is the Lance Armstrong of baseball, a guy who didn’t just scarf every performance-enhancing drug around for more than a decade but also lied about it persistently and attacked anyone who didn’t buy his story. When finally nailed in the Biogenesis raid, he didn’t initially plead guilty but sued everyone in sight including the players’ union, and organized picketing of the commissioner’s office. That wasn’t endearing.

Then he said “never mind” and took his medicine (ha!), but few were impressed. He’ll be remembered as one of the best baseball players not to have a plaque in the game’s Hall of Fame. Baseball willfully put its head in the sand during the HITS era (1990-2005, for Head In The Sand) but will pay for it forevermore. That will be more than ARod wants to do, because the law firm that carried his legal ball while he was protesting his innocence is suing him for nonpayment of fees.



For the last 40 or so years I’ve had a love-hate relationship with hockey and the Chicago Blackhawks. I grew up rooting for the Hawks, and for several years had a piece of a season ticket for their games in old Chicago Stadium, but chafed under the price-gouging ways of Arthur Wirtz, the pirate in a three-piece suit who owned them. When in 1972 Wirtz allowed Bobby Hull, the best Blackhawk ever, to jump to a new league for a salary ($2 million over 10 years) that quickly would be seen as ordinary, I swore off the team, literally.  My aversion to it deepened when ownership passed to Arthur’s son, Bill, who had all his dad’s bad qualities but none of his smarts. 

My feelings about hockey in general were similarly negative. The National Hockey League caters to its fan base’s base instincts by countenancing on-field fighting, and who can respect a sport that has no respect for itself?

Time passed, however, and the NHL’s fighting addiction has lessened. Also, Bill Wirtz joined his father, wherever. He was replaced by his son, Rocky, who became popular by following the obvious plan of doing the opposite of everything his dad and grandpa had done. The team acquired good players and managers. Reverting to my love of all things Chicago, I cheered when they broke a long drought by winning a Stanley Cup in 2010, and 2013.

The Blackhawks’ prospects for another title this year seemed dim for a time, but Providence intervened.  They were down three games to two in the best-of-seven semis with the Nashville Predators when my wife, Susie, found a battered hockey puck in the gravel driveway of our Scottsdale, Arizona, home. We brought it in and clutched it while watching the Hawks sweep the last two games of that series and put away the Tampa Bay Lightning, four games to two, in the finals.

Think about it for a moment: what are the odds of finding a hockey puck lying around in a desert-clime block where the average age of the kids is about 45, on the afternoon of a make-or-break playoff game?  The puck now has a place of honor on a shelf of our family-room etagere. It looks like the Stanley Cup to us.