Tuesday, May 12, 2015


               I swim laps at a municipal pool several times a week, using the locker room to change clothes and shower. As is customary when men assemble for such purposes, discussions take place. When they do I normally remain silent.
               I’m not naturally reticent but shy away from locker-room talk. Increasingly, people insist not only on their own opinions but also on their own facts, and attempts at rebuttal can be tedious. Also, the blather sometimes is amusing and I don’t wish to interrupt it.
                For instance, a couple of weeks ago a guy was holding forth on the Floyd Mayweather, Jr.-Manny Pacquiao fight that was scheduled for a few days hence. He opined that it was terrible that a man like Mayweather, with several domestic-violence convictions on his rap sheet, was allowed to strut upon the sporting stage and get really big money to do so.
               Would he pay the required $100 to watch the bout on TV? he was asked.
              “No way,” he replied. “Mayweather doesn’t fight, he runs.”
                In other words, Mayweather was too brutal outside the ring but not brutal enough inside it.

               There’s just no pleasing some people.

               Maybe I’m being too hard on the guy because the subject of boxing generally is fraught with difficulties. I’ve always liked the sport but blush to admit as much. At best it’s brutal, and we’d be better off without it, but a hard look at the world tells me that it or something like it probably is necessary. Some men (and some women, too) like things rough and will fight whether it’s permitted or not. Better they should do it in a ring, with padded gloves and a referee present, than al fresco.

                If you legislate against boxing—and some states have—it’ll pop up elsewhere—in back rooms, on barges or across borders. The writer A. J. Liebling’s description of it as the “sweet science” was too cute, but performed properly it’s a legitimate sport, not a mindless brawl. Through instinct and instruction, a skilled boxer knows how to vary the angles of his body and the speed and direction of his footwork to avoid taking solid blows while putting himself in a position to deliver them.  

               Hitting without being hit is what boxing is about, but it’s an elusive goal for the best practitioners. Michael Spinks, a former heavyweight and light heavyweight champion, once told me that “stepping into the ring with another man is like having all 32 teeth pulled without anesthetic,” but he’d slipped and slid through a highly successful career until he met a young Mike Tyson in 1988. After that experience he proved he was smart by quitting.

               As a reporter and fan I’ve seen hundreds of prize fights. The two best fighters I’ve seen were Mayweather and Pernell Whittaker. Like Mayweather, Whittaker performed mostly in the lightweight (135-pound) and welterweight (147-pound) divisions. Nicknamed “Sweetpea”, he was a 1984 Olympic gold medalist whose pro career spanned 13 years (1984-97) before an ill-advised comeback. Lithe and quick, he relished the roll of matador to his opponent’s bull. His specialty was the boxing version of the shutout, in which he’d win every round on every judge’s card. He did that a lot of times while collecting a haberdashery full of championship belts.

               Mayweather was a 1996 Olympian at age 19, losing in the 125-pound semifinals to a Bulgarian in a decision that was widely viewed as terrible (Olympic boxing is known for that). Boxing is his family’s business, his father Floyd, Sr., and uncles Roger and Jeff also having practiced the trade. He fights in the same style as did Whittaker but he’s faster and stronger. He’s also been more durable, as he showed against Pacquiao at age 38.

               As the pool guy noted, Mayweather is not a nice man, making him tough to root for. He’s boastful and crass (his self-chosen nickname is “Money”) and frequently misbehaves outside the ring, sometimes in ways that attract the police. Many people resent the fact that such a disreputable character is probably the richest athlete ever in terms of payment for direct services; he and his entourage are said to have pocketed $180 million from the Pacquiao go alone.

               But I’ve found I can love the art without admiring the artist, something we’re also asked to do when attending a Wagner opera or listening to Frank Sinatra or innumerable rock stars.  If you can’t do that you miss a lot of good stuff.

               I didn’t pay to see the fight, partly because I’m cheap and partly because I was well acquainted with the contestants’ styles and figured I knew pretty much what to expect. I watched for free on HBO last Saturday and was correct. Pacquiao charged, Mayweather mostly moved and jabbed, sometimes holding his foe when he came close but more often counterpunching sharply. Mayweather clearly had the best of it, landing almost twice as many punches by electronic count and taking nine of the 12 rounds on my scorecard. Pacquiao later said he’d fought with a shoulder injury that would require surgery, but he didn’t look hurt during the action. If the two men fought again I’d expect the same outcome.

               Also predictably, reaction to the fight was poor; echoing the popular mood, a USA Today headline called the bout a “snoozefest.” That may have been true if one’s standard of comparison was a round from any of the “Rocky” movies, but for a real-life fight it wasn’t bad. Mayweather’s formula is tried and true and now has produced 48 wins in as many professional bouts. I’m sure he’s aware of critics who think he should be more aggressive, but he fights to win, not to entertain, and is nothing if not true to himself.

He hasn’t hurt himself at the bank, either.


Friday, May 1, 2015


               At any given time there are a small handful of Major League Baseball players whose talents and accomplishments deserve special attention. These are the guys we’ll tell our grandchildren we saw play, even if we can pick up a phone and tell them so today.  I’m not just talking Hall of Fame-eligible here, I’m talking about men who are making a singular contribution to the sport.
              Ichiro Suzuki fits that category. At age 41 the slender man from Japan is playing out the string with the Miami Marlins, but he’s still identifiably Ichiro, punching out hits in his inimitable fashion.  If he stays at it long enough he’ll go out as the most prolific batsman ever, eclipsing Pete Rose’s 4,256 big-league-hits record.

               Yeah, some of his hits were in Japan’s big league, but I’ll leave it to others to debate their relative worth.

               What’s beyond debate is that Ichiro (he goes by just the one name at home, not unlike some Brazilian soccer stars) has brought to the game a unique style and presence, no small feat in an activity that prizes orthodoxy. Not only does the left-handed batter hit off his front foot, a Little League no-no, but he does so with his hips turning forward, seemingly propelling him down the first-base line as the ball is being struck. He gets away with it because he has the best hands since Rod Carew, and the best results.

               He’s a sterling athlete and, as his 10 Golden Gloves attest, nobody of late has played right field better. Few run the bases better, either; his 487 stolen bases going into this season was the most of any active player. It’s tougher to measure throwing ability but he may be No. 1 there, too. For a recent Japanese TV commercial he made three throws from behind home plate to a wire-mesh litter basket near the right-field fence about 300 feet away. He sunk the third after two near misses.

               Few players have arrived in the U.S. majors more hyped—or more closely followed—than Ichiro. At age 27, he showed up in spring training with the Seattle Mariners in 2001 as the best-known sports figure in his sports-crazy land, trailed by a media contingent that would make a Super Bowl quarterback flinch.  So popular was he back home that his wedding two years earlier, to a Japanese-TV personality, had to take place in California to avoid a crush.

               The Mariners issued 100 spring-training press credentials in ’01, 80 of them to Japanese outlets. Every step he took in public was photographed and his daily press conferences were staged outdoors because the team’s Peoria, Arizona, base didn’t have a large enough room to hold them.  The attention lasted into the season and while it cooled with the years it never went away.

               It was merited because, next to the 1960s and ‘70s slugger Sadaharu Oh, Ichiro was Japan’s all-time greatest baseball player, with a .353 batting average in nine seasons with the Orix Blue Wave starting at age 18. Americans snicker over Oh’s towering home-run record (868), noting it was set in smallish Japanese parks, but the big majority of Ichiro’s 1,278 Japanese bingles were singles that would have been singles anywhere.  And indeed, during his 10 seasons in Seattle (2001-10), the meat of his U.S. career, his batting average of .331 wasn’t far below his Japanese mark.

               Ichiro got more than 200 hits in each of those 10 seasons, a record. His 262 hits in 2004 is a record, too.  He was the MVP of the 2007 MLB All-Star game with a three-hit performance including an inside-the-park home run, and got the game-winning hit in Japan’s extra-inning victory over South Korea in the 2009 World Baseball Classic final. For what it’s worth, Japan has won that tournament twice in the three times it’s been run, and the U.S. never has finished better than fourth.

               Ichiro collected 2,844 hits in his 14 Major League seasons before this one. Add in his Japanese safeties and his total came to 4,122, 134 short of Rose and 67 behind Ty Cobb’s 4,189. As a part-time player he doesn’t figure to surpass Rose this year but, barring injury, probably will get past Cobb.  He hasn’t committed to playing beyond this season so the argument over whether he or Rose belongs atop the hit parade might not arise, but no matter. Ichiro is playing now and you owe yourself what may be a last look.


               The Kentucky Derby, the latest edition of which will be run on Saturday, is both a feast and a challenge for horse players. It’s a feast because you always get good prices on good horses in what’s usually a stellar field. It’s a challenge because it involves two large unknowns—how the animals will handle its 1¼-miles distance, farther than any of them ever run, and how they’ll cope with a roiling field that will number 20 if there are no scratches.  It’s a real cavalry charge in which “trip” can be as important as talent.

               Complicating matters further this year is perhaps the best field of any recent Derby. On form seven or eight colts could win the race and not surprise anyone, and three or four more could sneak up on them. Putting together a winning ticket will require dexterity as well as knowledge and luck.

               The field is headed by three horses that together have won 14 of 16 career outings and close to $4.5 million in purses, a ton of money for three-year-olds.  They are the presumed favorite (5-2 in the morning line) American Pharaoh, Dortmund (3-1) and Carpe Diem (8-1). American Pharaoh gets the betting nod because he’s won his last four races by a total of 22 lengths and has been training like a champ. Dortmund has won six of six and Carpe Diem four of five. The latter hasn’t shown quite the speed of the other two, but they’re both front runners and he’s comfortable running with the pack for a while, a facility might come in handy on Saturday.

I originally liked Carpe Diem but his No. 2 post-position draw indicated he might be enveloped along the rail early and have difficulty finding running room. Similarly, American Pharaoh will exit No. 17, meaning he’ll have a tough time securing his preferred close-to-the front running position, and will have a long way to go in any case.

From PP8 long-striding Dortmund will have a straight shot out of the gate and should lead or nearly so. Barring late mind-changes I’ll be betting a $1, five-horse exacta box including he, the lightly raced Materiality (12-1) who’s maybe the fastest horse in the field, and three horses that have proven to have some late kick: Frosted (15-1), Upstart (15-1) and El Kabeir (30-1). It’ll cost me $20 but pay off a lot more if any of the double-digit-odds entries come in 1-2.