Sunday, May 15, 2016


              A Chicago baseball fan, just back from a long trip up the Amazon River, this week would have been shocked to read the Major League standings. There were the Cubs and White Sox in first place in their divisions, and with the best records in their leagues. The guy could be excused if his first reaction was that he’d contracted a tropical disease and was seeing things upside down.
              Yes, the Cubs were supposed to be good this year after last season’s 97-win romp, but not THIS good, starting 25-6 before tailing off a bit. The Sox were a question mark coming in, as they are most seasons, and their fast start surprised everyone, probably including themselves.
               As is well known, baseball prosperity has been rare in Chicago generally, and the across-the-board variety rarer still. The Cubs haven’t won a pennant since 1945 and the Sox just two since 1919, a record of futility that impresses even geologists and others with long frames of reference. What Bob Verdi called “the city of broad shoulders and narrow trophy cabinets” has had two annual chances at the World Series since it began in 1903 and only once—in 1906—did its representatives meet for the sport’s top prize (the Sox won, four games to two). By contrast, New York has enjoyed 14 so-called “Subway Series,” and if it had three shots back in the Dodgers-Giants days that’s still a huge edge. No doubt, the disparity has been a contributor to Chicago’s eternal “Second City” complex.

              Popular wisdom has it that there are two kinds of Chicago baseball fans: Cubs fans who hate the Sox and Sox fans who hate the Cubs. That means that those types’ happiness is being marred by the success of the object of their enmity. I’m here to tell you, though, that some bighearted Chicagoans or ex-pats (like me) are smiling broadly these days, basking in both teams’ good fortune. It probably won’t last but it’s fun while it’s here.             

              I was a Cubs’ fan first, having grown up a short bike ride from Wrigley Field, and as a kid considered the Sox’s South Side bailiwick a foreign and dangerous place, but when I was a teen in the 1950s the Cubs were lousy and the Sox pretty good, so I sometimes braved the trip to Comiskey Park to watch them.  The Cubs still are my team No. 1 to the Sox’s 1A but I cheered when the Sox broke the ancient drought by winning the 2005 championship and I’d cheer just as loudly if they did it again.

              Chicago has been a Cubs’ town for the last 30 or so years, but that wasn’t always the case. The two teams fought it out about equally at the box office into the mid-1980s before the Sox made the ill-fated decision to go off “free” TV and onto cable before most people had cable. The gap widened in the 1990s when the Sox accepted a state-legislature ultimatum and built their new stadium next door to their old one on the sagging South Side while the area around North Side Wrigley Field turned into a year-round fun mecca. Now all the Cubs have to do to draw a crowd is show up, while the Sox have to win, a position no sports team relishes.

              The two teams’ different situations dictated their recent roster strategies. When he took over the going-nowhere Cubs’ front office in late 2011, Theo Epstein felt secure enough to tank the next three seasons in order to stock up on high draft choices and other prospects. He did it brilliantly, drafting Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber and trading for the likes of Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell. With a little luck (like the low-profile trade for late-blooming pitching wonder Jake Arrieta) and young, low-budget lineup in hand he paid up for starting pitchers and a few others to round things out.  He’s got money to play with if new needs arise.

              Always having to produce immediately, the Sox by contrast have rolled the dice with young pitching draftees (Chris Sale, Carlos Rondon) and a big-money slugger spirited out of Cuba (Jose Abreu) while cobbling together an everyday lineup and bullpen with mid-and low-level trades and free agents. They’ve done that before with little effect but this time seem to have scored. They’ll last as long as their pitching does.

              While the Sox’s success this season has been the more surprising, it’s also pretty remarkable that the Cubs are doing as well as they have. In a sport where the best teams win six of 10 and the worst four of 10, their .806 start came despite a lineup that mostly didn’t include young-slugger Schwarber, lost for the season in a first-week injury, and starting catcher Miguel Montero, off for the last few weeks with back ills. Jason Heyward, the team’s big off-season free-agent acquisition, is barely hitting .200 and has no home runs through six weeks. Jorge Soler, their usual left fielder, can’t get his BA above .200.  When (if) those guys start to hit the team really will be dangerous.

              Even more remarkably, the Cubs have assets they have yet to tap. These include that rarest of commodities, a young catcher who can hit. Willson Contreras, a 24-year-old Venezuelan, led the Double-A Southern League in batting last season, excelled in the Arizona Fall League and was hitting .347 at Triple-A Iowa at midweek. If he keeps it up they’ll have to bring him up before the season is over. Twenty-two-year-old Albert Almora, their top draft choice in 2012, is hitting .322 at Iowa. He’s projected as the Cubs’ center fielder for the next dozen years. Maybe they can loan him to the Sox until they have room for him.

              So yeah, I’m dreaming, but dreaming is free so why not dream big. A Cubs-Sox World Series is as big as it gets.

              DERBY NOTE—If you read the blog below you know I had the Kentucky Derby exacta (1-2) finishers Nyquist and Exaggerator in my boxes. That was swell but my bets cost $40 and my winning tickets paid $30, so I lost on the race. It happens sometimes. 


Friday, May 6, 2016


              The Kentucky Derby is Saturday and it’s always a challenge for the handicapper. That’s because the race’s distance of 1 ¼ miles is longer than any of the contestants has run and its big field of 19 or 20 rambunctious colts makes a lot of slamming around inevitable. That’s not good for the animals being slammed or the people who bet on them.
              The Derby’s length makes many handicappers look especially for horses with “late” run but that can be a mistake, I think. The saying that the lead dog has the best view still applies; he also has the easiest trip. That’s why one of my go-to horses on Saturday will be the favorite NYQUIST, who likes to press the pace. Although his name suggests a cold remedy (he’s really named for a hockey player), he’s done nothing but win so far, having gone seven of seven, and hasn’t been cowed by large fields or big events. He’ll be in my tickets.

              But Nyquist is 3-to-1 in the morning line so to make some money I’ll be pairing him with longer shots in combination bets. The horse I’ll really be rooting for is DESTIN, who is 15-to-1 in the morning line. He runs on the pace and has won three of five starts including the Tampa Bay Derby, where he beat a very good field. I’ll also include EXAGGERATOR. Although he’s a closer his winning run in the Santa Anita Derby was eye popping and his nine races to date (he’s won four) give him an experience edge on the field. His morning-line odds of 8-to-1 seem like a bargain. A Beyer Speed Rating of at least 100 is a usual prerequisite for Derby contention and each of those three horses has achieved it, as has only one other entry.

              I’ll be betting two five-horse, $1 exacta boxes, which means my picks must come in 1-2.  I’ll put Nyquist, Destin and Exaggerator in both boxes, barring late scratches, of course. In one box I’ll add the 12-to-1 MOR SPIRIT, who always runs well (three firsts and four seconds in seven starts) and MO TOM (20-to-1), who might have challenged in the Louisiana Derby if he didn’t have to be pulled up twice. That will be a 4-9-11-13-17 ticket by post position. In the other I’ll add the 15-to-1 OUTWORK, who has early speed, and MOHAYMEN (10-to-1), a winner of four of five. That’ll be 9-11-13-14-16.

My bets will cost me $40, which is more than I usually put on a race, but it’s the Derby, so what the heck.


Sunday, May 1, 2016


              My dictionary defines a “draft” as “a current of air,” but that doesn’t nearly do justice to the National Football League’s version, the latest edition of which wrapped up on Saturday. The NFL Draft has become a veritable hot-air hurricane, one that sweeps all other hype before it.
       ESPN and sports pages throughout the nation obsess for weeks about which NFL teams will choose which players in the three-day annual draw and TV gab fest, which in any endeavor other than sports would be illegal. (How would you like to have been “drafted” by, say, an accounting firm in Green Bay, Wisconsin, when you completed college?) The thing has become has become a capital “E” Event, with last week’s host city, Chicago, renaming itself “Draft Town” for the occasion and setting aside parkland to  stage satellite entertainments to surround it.

 Then, once the picking is done, the abovementioned news outlets scurry to grade the teams on how well they did, heedless of the fact that no one has much idea how, or if, the young men involved will perform in actual professional football.  So thick is the dust cloud the blow generates that it takes weeks to dissipate.

The draft succeeds as show biz because, as we illustrate in many ways, we love to be conned, and because the NFL has mastered the art of conning.  It does this partly by exploiting another national trait, our fascination with technology. Not content with merely scouting its prospects in action the way our other professional sports do (pretty much), it has erected an elaborate structure it would have us believe has made drafting into a science. The February before the selections are made it summons candidates to a week-long “combine” in Indianapolis in which they are measured, weighed, timed, tested, poked and prodded, all the better to take chance out of the drafting equation. This has become a news-media event in itself and things like weight-room reps and vertical-leap heights are breathlessly reported, as though they held the keys to gridiron excellence.

If some teams are to be believed, they’ve also developed techniques to discern a prospect’s “character,” which in NFL Speak means ferreting out the predilection of these big, aggressive and over-trained individuals to do things like beat up their girlfriends or drive while intoxicated. You’d think that the frequency with which such things occur anyway might cause skepticism of such claims, but usually it doesn’t.

 Quarterback is football’s most important and closely inspected position, and most drafts hinge on quarterback prospects. This year’s was no exception, with Jared Goff from the U. of California and Carson Wentz from North Dakota State U. (!?), being the top two overall picks. Nonetheless, the big brains who do the selecting frequently err on QBs, registering a long list of high-choice failures (JaMarcus Russell, Ryan Leaf, Rick Mirer, Akili Smith, Tim Couch, Matt Leinart, Cade McNown, Johnny Manziel, etc., etc.). It’s worth noting that the best pro quarterback of recent years, Tom Brady, didn’t go until the sixth round of his draft year (2000), with 198 players picked ahead of him.

Top defensive selections often don’t fare much better. Jadeveon Clowney, the lineman/linebacker from the U. of South Carolina who was the most-hyped defensive player in recent years, was the first player chosen in 2014, but he’s proven to be a fragile sort who has missed almost as many games (15) as he’s played (17) in his first two seasons with the Houston Texans and hasn’t starred in most of the ones in which he’s appeared.

Further, the crapshoot that the draft always was has become more so in recent seasons. That’s because of the gap that’s developed between the NFL’s game and the one being played at most of the colleges that happily serve as the league’s feedlots.

Sports Illustrated magazine devoted a recent article to this subject. It’s worth quoting at length:

“On Saturdays, most college games are high-scoring affairs ruled by simple schemes on both sides of the ball and even simpler techniques. Quarterbacks rarely call plays or take snaps under center. The receiving routes are basic and offensive linemen don’t often get into the three-point stances which are the norm in the NFL.

“This affects the defensive side as well.  Ends can’t develop pass-rush moves because the ball gets out so quickly. Defensive backs need to protect space so few of them have ever played man coverage, again the norm in the NFL. Linebackers in college are more adept at dropping into a passing zone than shedding a blocker. College safeties are like goal keepers in soccer, just trying to keep the ball in front them.

“Sundays, on the other hand, are a chess match. Quarterbacks bark out complicated play calls in the huddle and then change them at the line. Defenses bluff in and out of different looks and then bring an unorthodox blitz with press-man coverage. The offensive line has to execute double teams from three-point stances or the running game doesn’t go anywhere.”

“A [prospect] can have all the talent in the world but our [NFL] game is all about fundamentals and these players don’t have them,” summed up Dave Gettleman, the Carolina Panthers’ general manager.

“In my 25 years in the NFL I’ve never seen a larger disparity between the college and pro games,” added Stephen Jones, director of player personnel for the Dallas Cowboys.

So I hope you enjoyed the show but save the grades for later; your team’s prize selection probably will look like Tarzan but might play like Jane. To paraquote Forrest Gump: “The draft is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.”