Sunday, February 15, 2015


“Win any way you can as long as you can get away with it.”—Leo Durocher, longtime baseball manager.
             “They’ll fire you for losing before they fire you for cheating.”-- Darryl Rogers, former college-football coach.

            When the so-called “Deflategate” scandal broke pre-Super Bowl, I had a couple of immediate reactions. One was a complete lack of surprise that the supposed perps were the New England Patriots and their coach, Bill Belichick. The other was a wish that whoever was coaching my National Football League team, the Chicago Bears (the post has changed hands of late), had been devious enough to try something like that.
            Belichick is the modern-day Durocher, a coach who will bend the rules to give his teams an edge. The main difference between them is that Durocher flaunted his roguishness while Belichick hides his behind hooded sweatshirts and a taciturn public persona. You might recall that he and the Pats were the focus of a previous NFL “Gate”-- the 2007 “Spygate”—wherein the team was caught videotaping the New York Jets’ sideline defensive signals with an eye toward using the info in future games.

That ploy mirrored Durocher’s placing a telescope-using spy in the Polo Grounds’ bleachers to steal opposing catchers’ signs during the 1951 season.  Among other things, the effort tipped off Bobby Thomson that Ralph Branca would throw him a fastball on the pitch that led to Thomson’s “Shot Heard Round the World” home run that won the pennant for Leo’s New York Giants, a fact that didn’t emerge for several decades.

The curious thing about both episodes was that the act involved —sign stealing—was and is common in baseball and football, but the use of technology to implement it somehow broke the games’ covenants. That’s the sort of fine line we draw in assessing moral issues in sports, usually without thinking much about it.  When an outfielder traps a line drive but then holds the ball aloft to convince the umpires he caught it, we applaud his presence of mind. When the Pats bleed a pound or two of air from some footballs to give its QB a better grip on a cold day before a playoff game, the parsons of the press box and the imams of the internet (and most fans who don’t live in or around Boston) scream bloody murder.

The jocks like to say “if you ain’t cheatin’ you ain’t tryin’ hard enough,” and, usually, we fans agree. Most of us draw the line on things like steroids use by athletes, which involves altering one’s bodily chemistry in a potentially harmful way with substances illegally obtained, thus forcing other players to make the same Faustian choice. By me, though, playing with balls (tee-hee) is a lesser offense.

Indeed, the idea of using a game’s equipment to give a competitor an advantage long has been endemic in sports. Exhibit A in that regard is golf, whose self-policing ethos gives it the high ground in most discussions of sports morality. There’s been a golf arms race in progress forever, and the U.S. Golf Association, which polices the sport on these shores, maintains an equipment-testing program equal to that of the Federal Aviation Administration to keep competitors within bounds.

Golfers bring their own balls to tournaments, and these vary in composition, construction and dimple alignment. Abetted by equipment makers eager to push the rules in pursuit of expanding market share, players go to great lengths to find the ball they think might give them a few more yards off the tee or straighter flight than those of their competitors. If the difference is just 1%, that’s plenty; over 72 holes a 1% difference in score (about 2.8 strokes) can be worth several places on the leader boards, and many dollars.

  “Deflategate” seems deflated, felonywise, when one notes what NFL teams are permitted to do with game balls placed in their possession. Before 2006 game balls were given only to home teams, but that rule was changed when teams complained it gave the homers too much of an edge. Now, each team gets a dozen new balls the week before each game and can do with them pretty much what they please before kickoff.

New footballs come out of their boxes hard and waxy, so teams typically brush them vigorously to take off the shine, then soak and/or apply conditioners (vitamin E skin cream is a favorite) to soften their “feel.” Putting them in a sauna reportedly also helps there. So does temporarily overinflating them to stretch their leather skins. It’s all OK.

The rules say game balls should be inflated to a range of 12.5 to 13.5 pounds of pressure per square inch. That’s an 8% difference right off, and sometimes it’s, uh, extended in both directions. “Everyone does it,” said Jeff Blake during Super Bowl week. He ought to know because he played quarterback for seven NFL teams over a 13-season career.

Kickers are tougher on their balls than QBs, repeatedly bashing them nose first into tables or other hard surfaces to increase their “give,” or placing them under boards and jumping up and down on them. The game balls kickers use are marked with a “K.” They’re supposed to be discarded after every game but, it’s said, kickers have been known to erase the league’s discard mark to keep ones they like in play longer.

 Even at that football takes a back seat to baseball when it comes to ball manipulation. Baseballs are thrown into games new but they’re typically rubbed down by pitchers before they’re thrown to remove their “shine.” Any sort of scuff or irregularity can give a pitcher an edge and cause a ball to be discarded, so since time immemorial some pitchers have found ways to alter them surreptitiously.   
            The ones who do this best are widely admired for their guile. A celebrated baseball “doctor” was Gaylord Perry, who pitched in the Major Leagues for 22 seasons (1962-83). He was busted once (in 1982) with a 10-day suspension, and was patted down many times by umps, but otherwise won 314 games and gained Hall of Fame election in 1991.
            Perry reveled in his rep, in mid-career writing an autobiography titled “Me and the Spitter.” He was widely suspected of using slippery stuff on baseballs, and once sought to endorse Vaseline (no kidding), but after retirement confessed that he found sticky substances like pine tar to be most helpful because they improved his ball grip and put more snap on his curve. He said that wiping his hand on the dugout pine-tar rag could get him through an entire inning.  If that didn’t work he could make his own pine tar on the mound by mixing rosin-bag talc (dried pine tar) with sweat.  He argued, not unreasonably, that batters were allowed to use things to improve their grips on their implements, so why shouldn’t pitchers?

            Or, for that matter, quarterbacks?

Sunday, February 1, 2015


Last year, when I turned 76, I was feeling smart and filled this space with advice. I’ll be 77 tomorrow and, I guess, am less smart than I used to be, because now I have only questions. If you can answer any of them, let me know. Please.

--Do little kids know what erectile dysfunction is, or what to do if one has a four-hour erection?  Or what Osphena is for? What do they make of their grandparents?

--If driving after drinking is illegal, why do bars have parking lots?

--Why do thirsty green lawns dot neighborhoods in and around desert cities like Phoenix, despite the continuing, long-term drought?

--What happens to the results of the surveys people are asked to participate in after “customer service” phone calls?  The term gets more oxymoronic every year.

--If government-run health care is the abomination Republicans say it is, how come my Medicare works smoothly while dealing with my supplemental policy bought from a good-old private insurer, United Healthcare, is a constant headache?

--If tax money collected from everybody is used to build stadiums for professional sports teams, why are most tickets priced out of most people’s reach?

--Why do some comedians believe that curse words, uttered loudly, are funny in themselves?

--Why does a football team that can’t get out of its own way for the first 28 minutes of a half effortlessly glide down the field to score once it goes into its “two-minute” offense?

-- In a country of more than 300 million people, why can’t someone not named Clinton or Bush get much presidential traction?

--Why is the worst beer supported by the most advertising?

-- Why do so many people say they “can’t” do something when they mean they “won’t”?

--Why do waiters or waitresses always say “there you go” when they bring your food, instead of “here you are”?  Do they teach that in waiter/waitress school?

--Why do clerks ask for my name after I hand them my credit card with my name on it?

-- How can Len Cariou play Tom Selleck’s father on “Bluebloods” when Cariou is 75 years old and Selleck is 70?

-Does anyone under 50 watch the NBC Nightly News? You wouldn’t know it from the ads.

--Where do the viruses that infect my computer come from? Where do they go when they’re purged?  What’s that whole thing about, anyway?

--Is there a better candy than M&Ms?

--What will my heirs do with the office full of reference books I collected before Google came along?

--Why do people who say they hate Congress keep reelecting the same congressmen?

--Similarly, why do people who agree with me that college sports are rotten also believe that their own schools “do things right”?

--Why do TV stations send their reporters out into dangerous storms to do weather stories? Can’t they just point their cameras out a window?

-- Why did Sony believe that the assassination of the North Korean dictator would be a good premise for a comedy?

--Do gun owners know that if their weapon is fired at home the most likely victim will be a family member or themselves?

 --Why do pet owners think their pets’ antics are interesting to other people? Talking about your pets in company should be punishable by life in prison. Okay, maybe 20-to-25 years.

--Why am I depressed when I hear that breakfast cereal is the best thing one can eat?

--Why, after a flood or other recurring natural disaster, do people insist on rebuilding on the same sites?

--Why don’t people who want to advertise get bumper stickers instead of tattoos?

--Is there a bigger waste of air time and newspaper space than that given to speculation about what players NFL or NBA teams will draft?

-- Why are tournament tennis players (especially the women) allowed to grunt or shriek at full volume after every shot, while the paying spectators are expected to be silent during points?

--Do auto racers wear their sponsors’ patches on their pajamas?

--Where are the police when maniacs weave through expressway traffic at high speeds? You’d think they’d nab one in 100.

--Why does every restaurant overfill its pepper shakers?

--How do chains like McDonalds thrive when every town has locally run lunch joints that serve much better food?

--Do people believe that the slim female model types who play cops on TV really can take down bad guys?

--Do Muslims believe that Allah cheers when their co-religionists commit murder in His name?  

Just askin’.