Thursday, December 15, 2016


                Ballots are out for the 2017 class of the Baseball Hall of Fame, with the results to be announced Jan. 18. I voted in that annual election for a couple of decades but was flushed last year when the Baseball Writers Association of America declared ineligible anyone who hadn’t practiced daily journalism for 10 years. It was a bitter pill but I swallowed it. Lifetime appointments are a bad idea in any sphere and sports writing should be no exception.
                But while I can’t vote I still have opinions on the membership of the most-august of our nation’s sports shrines, and am glad to share them. I’m a writer, right?  So putting on my handicapper’s cap I herewith produce a morning line on the current candidates for immortality, or, at least, the version that a bronze plaque in the Cooperstown, New York, museum confers.

                This year’s three most-likely choices were on the ballot last year but came up just short. Interestingly, the guy I think will get the most votes got fewer than did two other players the last time around. He’s Trevor Hoffman, the relief pitcher, who was included on 67.3% of the 2016 ballots, about eight percentage points short of the 75% needed for induction.

Hoffman was outpolled by Jeff Bagwell, the former Houston Astros’ slugger who drew a 71.6% count, and by Tim Raines, who ran the bases fast for a lot of teams over a 23-year Major League career, with 69.8%. A main difference among them, however, was that Hoffman was in his first year on the ballot while Bagwell was in his 6th and Raines his 9th. While to my mind Hoffman was the best qualified of the three, for reasons I’ve never understood some voters make an extra hurdle of first-ballot election and leave off candidates on that ground alone.  That factor will disappear this year for the man with the killer changeup who ranks No. 2 on the all-time “saves” list. By me he’s an odds-on choice—2-to-5-- to be elected.

I never voted for Bagwell or Raines when I had the chance; I considered both excellent players but not quite of Hall stature. Most of my colleagues shared that view initially—Bagwell was mentioned on just 41.7% of the ballots in 2011, his first year up, and Raines on but 24.3 % in his, in 2008. But while their records haven’t changed in retirement their allure has. Bagwell should make it this year, if only because no one has come as close as he and failed the next time around. Raines probably will, too, partly because this is his tenth and last year on the sports writers’ ballot (the limit was changed from 15 years last year). I make Bagwell a 3-to-5 pick and put Raines at even money, which is to say 50-50.  

Among the 19 newcomers on the ballot the best candidates are Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez, Vlad Guerrero and Manny Ramirez. Ramirez clearly has Half of Fame numbers (a .312 lifetime batting average over 19 seasons, 1,831 runs batted in and 555 home runs, the 15th -most ever) but he was busted twice for using performance-enhancing drugs and ended his career before he could serve out a 100-game suspension for the second violation.

  PED use is an eyes-wide-open choice by players who choose to break the rules (and endanger their health) in order to improve or extend their careers and pad their pocketbooks. Most guardians of the Hall (me, too, when I was one) have agreed that users should be denied a plaque no matter what their accomplishments. Barry Bonds, the best hitter of his era, and Roger Clemens, the best pitcher, both flunked the eye and nose tests for steroids and never have topped the 50% mark in Hall voting (Bonds got 44.3% last year, Clemens 45.2%). As a convicted offender, Manny won’t poll nearly that well and probably never will.

Rodriguez also has been daubed with the PEDs brush, but less authoritatively.  The source is Jose Canseco, the ex-slugger turned author, who in his 2005 book “Juiced” wrote that he injected the catcher with steroids while both were with the Texas Rangers (1992-94), at the beginning of Rodriguez’s career. I don’t know how good a witness Canseco is; I remember him as a bit of a knucklehead.  I was writing at that time and Pudge never was on my personal “roids” list, which has played out to be pretty accurate.  He is on my short list as one the best defensive catchers I’ve seen--along with Johnny Bench and Yavier Molina—and was a solid hitter as well. If I still were an elector I’d give him the benefit of the doubt and a vote, but I’m guessing that others won’t and he’ll fall short.  I make him 3-to-1 against.

Guerrero also might make the Hall someday, but, probably, not this time. His numbers (.318 B.A., 2,590 career hits, 449 HRs, 1,492 RBIs) are cgose to those of Bagwell and Jim Rice, the former Boston Red Sox strongman who was enshrined in 2009 in his 15th year on the ballot.  Both were acquired tastes and I expect that Guerrero will be one also. This year he’s a longer shot than Pudge.

If I were voting I’d include four ballot holdovers for whom I voted previously—Curt Schilling, Lee Smith, Edgar Martinez and Mike Mussina.  Schilling, a big-game pitcher extraordinaire, polled best among the group last year at 52%. Martinez, a scholarly batsman for whom the game’s annual designated-hitter award is named, got 43%, about the same total as Mussina, whose 270 career wins and 64% win mark deserve respect. Smith was the Major Leagues’ saves leader when he retired in 1997, and ranks third now (with 478). He’s in his last year on the ballot. None of the four figures to be elected but what the heck, electors get to vote for 10.

Thursday, December 1, 2016


               NEWS: Bruce Arena replaces Jurgen Klinsmann as U.S. National Team soccer coach.
               VIEW:  It’s back to the future.
               Klinsmann’s ouster wasn’t unexpected in light of the U.S. team’s home loss to Mexico and trouncing in Costa Rica in the first two games of the final round of qualifying matches for the 2018 World Cup, but those two outcomes only sealed his doom. The real reason was the U.S.’s persistent failure to crack the upper echelon of the sport, a status many Americans feel is their due.
                 Klinsmann was supposed to have remedied that. Good-looking and charismatic, an international star as both a player and coach, the transplanted German took the job in 2011 amid high expectations. He seemingly justified them when his team won the regional Gold Cup in 2013 and in 2014 survived a tough divisional draw to make it to the round of 16 in the quadrennial World Cup, but it relapsed thereafter and never could regain its footing. Run-ins with critics over his lineup selections and training preferences (he clearly thought his players were better off playing with European clubs instead of those in Major League Soccer, the second-tier domestic league) greased the skids for his removal.
                In replacing him with Arena the sport’s governing body signaled it was more concerned with salvaging the current World Cup campaign than with seeking new approaches. Arena is a competent pro who coached the team from 1998 to 2006 but was fired under pretty much the same circumstances as was Klinsmann.  If Arena had any revolutionary ideas he would have tried them before.

               The fact is that despite a marked upgrade over the past 20 or so years the U.S. still suffers from a talent deficit relative to that of the major world powers. In countries like Germany, Brazil and Argentina, the best athletes immediately gravitate toward soccer, while here the sport must take what’s left after basketball, baseball and football have done their culling. Until that changes no number of USA! USA! chants will change things.
                NEWS: The National Collegiate Athletic Association docks Notre Dame 21 football wins.

                VIEW: Huh?

                In response to 2014 revelations that a member of the university’s athletic-training staff gave “impermissible academic benefits” (i.e., did papers and other course work) for eight football players over a two-year period, the group ordered that the school forfeit all its victories during the 2012 and 2013 seasons.  The absurdity of the penalty was immediately pointed out by Brian Kelly, the team’s blustery head coach, who said, in effect, “Ha!”

                “If that makes you [the NCAA, I guess] feel better, then that’s fine with me,” Kelly really said. “Putting an asterisk next to those games, that’s fine, too. We still beat Oklahoma. We still beat Wake Forest.”

    He could have said as much about the rest of the sentence, a one-year probation and a $5,000 fine. The latter amount probably is less than the team spends annually on that black grease players smear under their eyes on game days.

                Actually, though, the penalty was harsher than the ones (nothing) that attended two previous and much more serious incidents in a Kelly regime that began in 2009. That would be the 2010 death of a student manager who was sent up on a cherry picker in a wind storm to videotape a football practice and the suicide that same year of a woman student from nearby St. Mary’s College after her allegation of rape against a Notre Dame linebacker was deep-sixed by university authorities (the claim died with her and the player never missed a game). What the NCAA will do about the carful of Domer footballers arrested last August for speeding and marijuana and gun possession remains to be seen, or about the lineman who stomped on the leg of a fallen foe during the school’s game last week against Southern California.

                Notre Dame is one of those chesty universities that likes to brag it “does things right” in combining academics with the multi-million-dollar entertainment business it conducts. In truth, it’s a prime example of the degree to which schools will prostitute themselves to maintain such an enterprise. The NCAA’s hollow penalties abet that practice.

                NEWS: The National Hockey League declares that only players on league rosters can appear in its mid-season All-Star Game.

                VIEW: Huh? again.

                The action was dubbed the “John Scott Rule” for the journeyman player whose position (enforcer) appears in no lineup but who fans elected to last season’s game after he’d been demoted to the minor leagues by the Montreal Canadiens. The mockery that attended that selection increased when Scott not only was picked to captain one of the teams in the fest but also went on to win its MVP award.

In case you haven’t noticed, All-Star Games have become touchy affairs in sports in which injuries are rampant; both players and teams have come to conclude that the rewards the events produce don’t justify their risks.  The National Football League has discussed ending its game and allows it to survive only as a pantomime of the real thing. The NHL last season changed its All-Star format to a tournament of two, 20-minute, three-on-three games matching players from each of its four divisions, followed by a same-rules final matching the winners. It ain’t real hockey but now, at least, it’ll be contested by real NHLers.