Friday, April 15, 2016


              Whenever people have told me they were turned off by the money professional sports teams and athletes rake in these days, I’ve shrugged. “That’s your problem only if you make it one,” I’ve told them. “We fans are volunteers. The jocks get our money only if we choose to give it to them. If you don’t like it, don’t go to their games or buy their gear.”
               Upon reflection, though, I must confess that statement is false. Many if not most of us are compelled to support our cities’ sports establishments through the tax money that goes to buy and maintain the stadiums in which our teams play. Their paws are in the pockets of fans and non-fans alike; the only way to escape (at least for a while) is to put on camo, grab an AK47 and take to the hills.

              That thought intrudes increasingly of late, especially in the Phoenix, Arizona, area in which I live. Three of the four major-sport teams here—the hockey Coyotes, basketball Suns and baseball Diamondbacks— are agitating for new or upgraded playgrounds, paid for mostly by the taxpayers, of course.  The only local team not queuing up to the trough is the football Cardinals, but that’s only because state and local sources anteed up about $310 million of the $455 million it cost to build them a new stadium that opened in 2006.  Give them a few more years and they’ll be there, too.

              Every other U.S. major-league city is generous to its teams, but a few things set Phoenix apart. One is the lack of accomplishment of the aforementioned four. They have made Arizona their home for a total of 113 seasons and have only one championship—by the 2001 Diamondbacks—to show for them.  It’s a record of ineptitude few can match.

              More basic, however, are the area’s economic and political realities. Although the parts of it most tourists see sparkle with palm-lined wealth, the city remains a low-wage, Sunbelt burg whose average per-capita income trails the U.S. as a whole and is down from what it was in the year 2000. Further, it lacks the sort of corporate-home-office base that supports luxury-box and season-ticket sales in other places.

              The area and the rest of Arizona are notoriously tax averse, a trait that’s been worsened by seven-years-and-counting of one-party, Republican state rule, during which public budgets for education, health care and just about every other social service have been slashed. The state ranks 46th nationally in per-pupil K-12 funding and tuitions at its three four-year universities have about doubled in the last eight years as tax-based support declines. Getting blood from such stones is no mean feat.

              Finally, the once-popular notion that new stadiums are a boon to a locality’s economy has been debunked by just about every study of the subject that’s been published in the past several decades. Any kind of major building project brings a brief employment spike, but the big majority of long-term jobs that teams and stadiums create (ticket sellers, ushers, vendors) are part time and low paying, and almost all the money that passes through their box offices is locally generated and comes at the expense of such other entertainment enterprises as theaters, bars and restaurants. Indeed, the economic importance of sports generally usually is overblown; an analysis by Michael Leeds, a sports economist at Temple University, recently concluded that if Chicago were suddenly to lose all four of its big-league franchises the hit to the city’s economy would amount only to about 1%.

              With such givens it’s hard to rate which of the Phoenix teams exhibit the most chutzpah. That’s also because, while they’ve made clear that they want to leave their 24-year home in downtown Phoenix, the Suns have yet to make their demands clear. Maybe that’s because they had the fourth-worst record in the just-concluded National Basketball League season and want to wait until the odor clears. But maybe not.

              The Coyotes, in the area since 1996, initially shared the Suns’ playpen before quarreling over sight lines and revenue splits and began agitating for one of their own. They want out of the arena in the western suburb of Glendale that they’ve occupied only since 2003. They might qualify in the chutzpah race because theirs was the sweetest deal initially, with taxpayer-backed bonds paying the place’s entire, $180 million cost. They landed there after the arena’s developer, real-estate skate Steve Ellman, teased a subsidy from east-side Scottsdale only to jilt it for the better offer and steal off in the night leaving a derelict shopping center in his wake.

 Alas, but perhaps deservedly, the team has languished in the low-rent west, where it has gone through bankruptcy, National Hockey League receivership and numerous lease squabbles with its host city.  Now it declares that after next season it will stiff Glendale with a 17,000-seat white elephant and a $144 million debt and move to a more-foolish municipality, not yet named. Good luck to all concerned with that.

Until a few weeks ago the Diamondbacks had been laying low in their state-of-the-art, publicly financed ballpark now called Chase Field, where their 30-year lease is supposed to run until 2028. The place cost $364 million to build, of which $253 million has come from a quarter-cent, county-wide sales-tax boost that wasn’t enacted without bloodshed (a county supervisor who supported it was shot in the butt by a deranged citizen after attending a meeting on the subject). Then the team suddenly presented the county with a $187 million bill for improvements it says the stadium needs over the next few years. It’ll sue if the money isn’t forthcoming, it avers.

The Diamondbacks have taken heat for killing its season-opening buzz with its heist demand. It’s also been noted that the team is flush, having just inked a $1.5 billion local TV contract and committed a reported $206.5 million to a six-year contract with a single player, and a pitcher at that (Zack Greinke).

The cherry on the sundae is that the team’s principal owner, data-tech billionaire Ken Kendrick, is a generous donor to right-wing politicians and causes that say they want to get government off people’s backs.

And replace it with sports teams, apparently.



Friday, April 1, 2016


              Back in my working days I was among a small group of reporters interviewing Ken Griffey Jr. in the Seattle Mariners’ locker room after a home game. As we spoke Griffey’s small son, maybe five or six years old, did what kids his age do, which was jump around, interrupt and pull on daddy’s leg.

 Griffey good naturedly tried to shoo him away. “Go play a machine,” he told the boy. “I gave you $50 this morning. You can’t have spent it all.”

The remark stuck with me long after the subject of the interview had faded. The notion that a parent would give a little kid $50 for a day’s spending money boggled my mind, and still does. Even 15 or so years go rich athletes like Griffey lived in a different world from most of the rest of us, one in which normal calculations of money and privilege don’t apply.

That thought returned forcefully a couple of weeks ago when the Adam LaRoche story hit the baseball spring-training news. It seems that LaRoche’s 14-year-old son, Drake, had been a Chicago White Sox clubhouse fixture since the veteran first baseman and designated hitter joined the team last season, wearing his own uniform, having his own locker, sitting in the dugout during games, joining in team drills and even accompanying it on road trips. When a White Sox executive told the player that professional considerations dictated that the boy should be an occasional rather than a constant presence with the club, LaRoche abruptly announced that he was quitting the team and the game. Family came first, he declared.

The episode led me to wonder how a 14-year-old could hang out all day with dad from March to October instead of being in school. It raised other questions as well, such as in what other business could a mid-level employee expect to take his child to work daily, get him a desk, have him take trips and sit in on meetings.  I can’t think of one.

Much was made of the fact that LaRoche forfeited the $13 million left on his two-year contract to make his statement, but less of the almost $72 million he’d already collected in a 12-season big-league career during which he never much rose above the rank of journeyman. aH Even after taxes that’s enough money to secure his family’s future for several generations if no member of it worked another day. A ballplayer who is a household name only in his own household is a card-carrying member of the top one-tenth of 1% of the nation financially and more than rich enough, at age 36, to tell his bosses to take their job and shove it.

Also instructive, I think, were the reactions of LaRoche’s fellow athletes both outside and inside the White Sox clubhouse, or at least of those who spoke for attribution. Several Sox players were vociferous in support of his action and rumors that the team would boycott a spring-training game in his honor made the papers (but they didn’t). Bryce Harper and Chipper Jones tweeted their approval. Derrick Rose of the basketball Chicago Bulls called the team’s stance “devastating.” By their lights, apparently, no athlete of any stature should ever hear the word “no.”

The same sense of entitlement pervades other facets of life in the jockocracy. Most adults understand the relationship of risk to reward when making investment decisions, but some (many?) rich athletes believe that reasonable returns on their money amount to “chump change” and are beneath them. They thus are easy marks for hustlers with the pie-in-the-sky promises. Just last week an “investment adviser” to whom ex-basketball star Scottie Pippen entrusted $20 million was sentenced to three years in prison for fraud. That was only the most recent in a long string of such developments.

Similarly, while the dollar amounts of the contracts top athletes sign now are routinely reported publicly, the non-monetary perks some get don’t receive as much attention. These can include  private hotel rooms when their teams travel, season tickets or a stadium suite for family and friends, team contributions to favorite charities and the use of the team’s or owner’s private airplanes.

Perks are especially important to the big-time college football and basketball coaches whose riches belie their sports’ amateur pretentions. Their seven-figure annual salaries often are supplemented by cash bonuses based on wins or home attendance, country club memberships, free use of autos, sneaker deals and fat fees to sit still for an hour or so of softball questions on their weekly TV or radio shows. I read that when Mack Brown reupped as the football coach at the University of Texas a few years ago he got a $750 gun-shop gift certificate in addition to the aforementioned swag.

About the only edifying part of the LaRoche affair was the light it shone on how baseball clubhouses are run these days. When players or teams want to limit news-media access their digs, as they do from time to time, they’re fond of saying that their inner sanctums are sacrosanct places where only serious business is conducted. In fact, they’re more like sports bars to which pre- or post-game credentials routinely are issued to players’ kids, male pals, agents and other business associates, “personal assistants” (i.e., gofers) and anyone else to whom favors are owed.

 When Pete Rose managed the Cincinnati Reds his weight-room buddies, who doubled as his bet runners, had free run of the place.  Try getting away with that at work sometime.