Friday, January 15, 2016


              Carole King (nee, Klein) memorably asked the musical question “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” When the National Football League is involved the answer is “probably not.”
              This has been shown repeatedly in past years and once again this week, when league owners voted to allow the St. Louis Rams to move to the Los Angeles area, gave a “maybe” to the San Diego Chargers if they’d share with the Rams a yet-to-be-built suburban stadium, and a “probably not” to the Oakland Raiders, who could move if the Chargers don’t.  In the process they stiffed fans in one city and left those of two others in limbo. It amounted to musical chairs with only one chair for three contestants, a losers’ game if there ever was one.
             Not only fan loyalties were disregarded. In recent years few NFL stadiums have been built without taxpayer funds or loan guarantees, and even so-called private ones require the local municipality to pay up big in the form of tax breaks, land acquisition, access roads and game-day policing. The NFL puts a gun to cities’ heads and says “Your money or your team.” Even when the answer is “here’s the money” (St. Louis put together a $1.9 billion new-stadium proposal calling for $400 million in public funds), the league can pull the trigger.

              The tenor of the process was best exemplified by Enos Stanley (“Stan”) Kroenke, the real estate and sports billionaire who owns the Rams. In turning down St. Louis’s stadium offer he salted the earth by calling the city a “two-sport town” (the sports being baseball and hockey) and added that any team that might accept its plan was headed for “financial ruin.” Nice guy, huh? Interestingly, Kroenke is a Missouri native who was named for St. Louis (baseball) Cardinals greats Enos Slaughter and Stan Musial.

It’s true that the Rams are the team with the strongest ties to Los Angeles, but historically they’ve been peripatetic. They were started in 1939 as the Cleveland Rams and won an NFL championship in that city in 1945, but the next year moved west in search of sunnier skies and greater revenues. They stayed in L.A. proper until 1980, when they quit the vast Coliseum for Anaheim Stadium, 26 miles to the south. When that didn’t work out either, they moved to St. Louis in 1995. They were lured in part by a new stadium, now called the Edward Jones Dome. It was state-of-the-art when it was built 20 years ago, but that was then and this is now.

              Not being an Angelino I don’t know if any Ram sentiment still resides in the area, but the Rams never were notably successful there. You have to go back the 1950s days of Bob Waterfield and “Crazy Legs” Hirsch—or, at least, to the 1960s and ‘70s “Fearsome Foursome”—to remember much glory. To put the latter era in perspective, Merlin Olsen, the Foursome’s most-noted member, died six years ago at age 69.

              The Raiders were born in 1959 as part of the then-new American Football League. They stayed in Oakland for 22 years, but those were marked by almost continual struggles between their contentious owner, Al Davis, and the perennially hard-up city over the team’s accommodations at the Oakland Coliseum, built in 1966. The team won Super Bowls in 1976 and ‘80, adopted a motorcycle-gang persona and developed a devoted and sometimes bizarre fan base, but those folks loved the Raiders more than the Raiders loved them. Davis tried to move the team to L.A. as early as 1980, and when his fellow owners balked sued them under anti-trust law and moved anyway.  The team did well there initially on the field, winning another SB in ’83, but never caught on with fans and returned to Oakland in 1995.  Oakland has a financial proposal on the table but its funding is uncertain. The itch to move of Mark Davis, the team’s present owner, won’t help in that respect.

               Maybe the saddest story is that of the Chargers. They lived in L.A. only for their initial AFL year—1959-60—before moving south. They’ve been there since, a stretch of 55 years. For the last 49 years they’ve played in what’s currently called Qualcomm Stadium. It might have been spiffy when it was opened in 1967 but now it’s outmoded by any measure. San Diego has upgraded the place over the years but has balked at replacing it. A new-stadium proposal has been developed under NFL prodding, but can’t proceed until a referendum is held in June. Having renounced their long-time home, it’s hard to see how the team can continue to operate there.
               The argument often is made that having an NFL franchise is good for a city’s morale and economy. The first assertion probably is true but the second is questionable. A large stadium- construction project brings a short-term employment spike, but most of the other jobs such a place creates (vendors, ushers, ticket-takers, security people) are occasional and low paying. The big majority of people who attend games are locals who’d be in the city anyway and merely are shifting their spending from one local entertainment to another. If they have a meal on game day they bring it themselves (tailgating) or grab a hot dog in the stadium.
                Further, NFL tickets averaged $85 each (mostly for lousy seats) last season, beyond the reach of many of the families whose tax dollars help build the sports palaces. It’s another example of the poor subsidizing the rich in this land of ours.
                It’s far from clear whether two or even one NFL team will thrive in L.A. The Rams’ new stadium won’t be done until 2019, so they’ll have to play at least three seasons in the old Coliseum, not a formula for success. There’s plenty else to do on Sundays in warm-weather cities, which is partly why L.A. spit out the Rams and Raiders previously. Has that changed?    

The bottom line is that the NFL isn’t shy about rallying civic pride when it wants to come to a city, but doesn’t give a hoot about it when it’s leaving. Like many other things these days it’s about money—yours going to them. Keep that it mind the next time you buy an NFL jersey or paint your face in your team’s colors.


Friday, January 1, 2016


              For 20 years, give or take one or two, I was an elector for the Baseball Hall of Fame, by virtue of my 10-plus years as a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. It was a role I cherished, a chance to have a small part in populating the most hallowed shrine in American sports, and I took it as a serious responsibility. I looked forward to the November arrival of the next year’s ballot.
              But alas, all things end and this did, too, for me, when the BWAA last year decided to remove from the voting rolls writers who had been retired from daily journalism for more than 10 years. Fact is, thanks to the MLB Extra Innings cable-TV package, I’ve watched more baseball these past several years than I did when I was a free-ranging sports columnist, but I had no serious beef with the move. Lifetime appointments to any position are a bad idea (see our Supreme Court) and the H of F election roll shouldn’t be an exception.

              About 75 other old writers joined me in exclusion, meaning that the average age of the voters will drop. This has led to speculation that a younger electorate will take a softer approach to players who used performance-enhancing drugs during their careers.  Maybe so, but I don’t think that the likes of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, both of whom flunked the eye and smell tests for steroid use, are due for induction any time soon. Each polled about 37% in the 2015 balloting, about half the required 75%, and even a bump won’t get them over the hump.

              It should be noted that Bonds and Clemens (and Pete Rose) already are well represented in the Cooperstown shrine. They live there in photos and videos, and objects they wore or used are displayed for veneration.  But in my view the fact that their rule-breaking behavior forced their fellow players into a Faustian choice that put their health at risk justifies the pair’s absence from the brass-plaque part of the hall. Their records still stand, and nobody is asking for refunds on their enormous salaries, so it’s an appropriate price for them to pay.

              Last year’s voting produced four inductees (Craig Biggio, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz), the biggest class in many years. This year’s additions will be smaller. Mike Piazza, the long-time Dodgers’ and Mets’ catcher whose 427 home runs are a record for his demanding position, got about 70% of the vote last time, and should make it this time around. I make him a 2-to-5 pick in the results to be announced next Wednesday (Jan.6).

             Among the 15 first-timers on the ballot, Ken Griffey Jr. is a no-brainer, a 1-to-10 shot. His 630 career home runs rank sixth on the all-time list, and he’s in the top 15 in both total bases and runs batted in. Additionally, he was an acrobat in center field whose best catches make a thrilling highlight reel. He was one of best pure athletes to play the game. He’ll lead Piazza in the voting.

              After that the odds grow. First-timer Trevor Hoffman, the long-time San Diego Padres relief ace (remember how they played “Hell’s Bells” when he entered a game?), would be on my ballot if I were voting. He’s second all-time in career saves with 601, behind only Mariano Rivera, and had a lifetime 2.87 ERA over 19 seasons. He’s a seven-time All Star and twice was runnerup in the voting for the National League Cy Young Award. Still, while I’m sure he’ll poll well, his credentials don’t jump off the page the way Griffey’s do, and some writers might want to make him wait a year before induction. I make him an even-money pick.

              The only others of the first-timers I would consider seriously are Jim Edmonds, the ex-St. Louis Cardinals’ centerfielder, and Billy Wagner, the skinny, left-handed relief ace with a number of teams. Edmonds’ batting numbers (.284 lifetime BA, 393 home runs) were very good but not great, but his fielding prowess was truly elite. As the example of Keith Hernandez showed, however, glove men don’t usually impress the electorate. He was the best-fielding first-baseman I’ve seen—indeed, he revolutionized the position-- but never topped 10% in Hall of Fame voting.  Good as he was, Edmonds was no Hernandez, and I wouldn’t have voted for him. I expect he’ll poll in the 20% to 30% range.

              Wagner might do a bit better, but still fall short. He retired in 2010 with 422 saves, now fourth on the all-time list, but Lee Smith, the guy who ranks just ahead of him (with 478), never has gained much traction in the voting and I don’t expect that Wagner will, either.

              Otherwise, I’d ink in five players I’d backed before— Curt Schilling, Smith, Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina and Alan Trammell—but of those only Schilling was named on more than 30% of last year’s ballots and has much chance of eventual election. Two players who came fairly close last time—Jeff Bagwell and Tim Raines (each at about 55%)—might benefit from the weaker ballot and move up (writers can pick up to 10), but I doubt that either will get over the top. I make each about a 4-to-1 shot, but you never can tell.

              I don’t have a vote any more, but I do have opinions. And as Maury Allen once wrote, “there’s no sport righter than a sportswriter.”