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.”