Wednesday, August 16, 2017

BREAKING THE HABIT

I hate to risk spreading misinformation at a time when there’s more than enough of it around, but as a new football season approaches I can’t help thinking about a conversation I had with a sports-chemistry scientist 30 or so years ago, when I was doing one my many columns about the use of performance-enhancing drugs on our playing fields. In my innocence I asked the guy why an athlete would risk his health to hit a few more home runs or shave a few hundredths of a second off his dash times. He answered with a laugh and a snort.
               
               “A few years back someone asked a bunch of world-class athletes what they’d do if they were offered a pill that would enable them to win every competition they entered for the next five years but would kill them when that period ended,” he said. “Most of them said they’d take it.”
             
                 He was, I suspect, embellishing a story to make a point, but the tale contained germs of truth that help illuminate the discussion about football and the brain injuries that, now, are firmly linked to the sport. One is that athletes, like most people, are shortsighted, eager to cash in on short-term opportunities whatever the possible consequences. Another is that jocks figure that, being special people, if worse came to worst they’d think of a way to avoid trouble. After all, bad things are what happen to other people, not to them.

                The immediate trigger for my thought was the release last month of the results of a Boston University study of the brains of 202 deceased former American football players turned over to them to confirm that they had CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, an Alzheimer-like illness caused by the repeated blows to the head the sport entails. Of the 111 former National Football League players involved, 110 of them showed signs of the condition, as did all but 10 of the 92 others who’d played the game at the college or semi-pro levels.

                The BU group was quick to point out that their study was anything but random. The brains had been donated by relatives who’d been concerned about their loved ones’ mental states, so positive results were assumed.  Further, CTE can’t now be diagnosed in living individuals and no scale exists to judge at what level CTE-type damage becomes serious enough to cause pain or alter behavior. Nonetheless, the overwhelming nature of the findings raised (or should have raised) eyebrows, as did the conclusion that people with only a few years’ exposure to football could be susceptible to harm.

                Already punch drunk from CTE studies, the NFL reacted predictably, citing the steps it has taken in recent seasons to prevent or ameliorate head injuries, not to mention the multi-billion-dollar settlement it had reached to settle the lawsuits of the hundreds of ex-players who claimed it previously understated the seriousness of same.  Still, it couldn’t resist its tendency to downplay or change the subject.

                This came through strongest at a pre-training-camp press conference that included several members of the New York Jets and Roger Goodell, the NFL commish. One of the players, 21-year-old rookie defensive back Jamal Adams, used the occasion to state that if he could envision a “perfect” death it would be to die on a football field, a view that wags quickly agreed was likely for him because the Jets get killed every week in season.  Goodell, who couldn’t plead youth as a defense, chimed in with a Donald Trumpian reply, pointing at a reporter and saying “the average NFL player will live five years longer than you probably will.”

                I found that claim interesting and tried to look it up. It traces back to a 2012 study by the Centers for Disease Control, which compared mortality rates of a group of men who had played at least five NFL seasons between 1959 and 1988 with those of American men generally at the time. A couple of differences quickly occurred comparing conditions in the league today with those of nearly 30 years ago. One is that the bigger-faster-stronger syndrome of which the NFL is proud has accelerated greatly since 1988, especially the “bigger” part.  Players weighing 300 or more pounds were rare then (remember the fuss when the Chicago Bears signed “Refrigerator” Perry in 1985?) but they’re commonplace now, with every league roster containing a dozen or more of the behemoths.  

                Less noticed but as important, I think, have been the improvements in playing-field conditions over the last three decades. Back then, both grass and artificial-turf surfaces could be slippery at times, blunting contact. Now the boys almost always have firm footing, meaning that their collisions pack more power, and danger.

                Every season for the last several a number of NFL players in their prime have weighed the odds for and against playing and decided they weren’t favorable. The most notable of these this season was John Urschel, a Baltimore Ravens’ offensive lineman and a three-year vet at age 26. He’s a mathematician in the off-season, an MIT grad student, and he opted to keep his brain intact by quitting the game.

                More typical, though, was Ben Roethlisberger, the 13-season veteran quarterback with the Pittsburgh Steelers. When asked if recent CTE findings affected his career decisions he said yeah, sure, but he’d keep playing as long as he felt OK, even though the effects of brain damage might not manifest themselves until years or decades after the injuries stop.

                Football players today are like cigarette smokers, weighing the pleasure (and profit) of the activity against its undeniable long-term health dangers. While it’s clear that the longer you play (smoke) the greater the chance of trouble down the line, there’s some wiggle room, and not everyone is bitten.  

                That sort of calculation takes time to sink in. In 1964, the year of the U.S. Surgeon General’s initial report linking smoking to lung cancer, more than 40% of American adults smoked. Now the figure is around 17%. Football will be in trouble one of these days, but it’ll take a while.
                   

               

                

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

KNUCKLERS

                Even though I’ve lived in Arizona since 1997 I’m true to my Chicago roots and am not an Arizona Diamondbacks’ fan, but my wife Susie is (life-long, I joke), so I wind up watching quite a few of their games. A couple of nights last month I tuned in to the D’backs against the Atlanta Braves and had a rare treat: both contests were started by the Braves’ R.A. Dickey, one of only two knuckleball pitchers currently active at the Major League level. The other is Steven Wright of the Boston Red Sox.
             
   Dickey pitched well that first game, giving up eight hits and one run in six innings and getting the decision in what would be a 4-3 Braves’ home win on July 14. He wasn’t as good in the next one, lasting only 3 2/3 frames in Phoenix and taking the loss in a 10-2 outcome on July 24.  I’m sure that if he’d been asked about the difference between the two starts he’d have replied the way knuckleballers always do, saying “I threw the ball the same both times. It just went different.”

                I’ve been fascinated with the knuckleball about as long as I’ve been fascinated with baseball. It’s a soft, curious pitch that (deceptively) looks easy to throw but is hard to hit. Which of us has not experimented with this piece of exotica while playing catch with our kids? Which of us has not imagined that, given enough practice, we could baffle the mighty of the Majors in seemingly effortless fashion? It very well could be Baseball Daydream No. 1. I’d be surprised if it weren’t.

                Any discussion of the knuckleball must begin by saying that the pitch usually is misnamed. Typically, it is grasped not by the knuckles of the pitching hand but by the tips of the second and third fingers, just behind the seam.  The pitcher pushes the ball forward with little or no wrist action; having no spin of its own the ball floats toward the plate, allowing the action of the prevailing air currents on the seams to give it its deceptive motion. It can flutter, dip, break left or right or (not a good thing) go straight. No one, least of all the pitcher, can predict how it will react in flight.

                What’s difficult about the pitch is controlling it—getting it over the plate with regularity. This is as much an intellectual exercise as an act of physical dexterity, something that is rare in sports.  Pat Jordan, a former minor-league pitcher turned writer, described this best in his 1975 autobiography “A False Spring.” He wrote: “A [knuckleball] pitcher has no control over the peregrinations of the ball. To be successful he must first recognize this fact and then decide that his destiny still lies only with the pitch and that he will throw it constantly no matter what.” 

                Professional athletes like to take the bull by the horns, as it were, so it should come as no surprise that the adoption of the knuckler as a bread-and-butter pitch is almost always an act of desperation, taken after all else fails. Adding to the burden is that knuckleballers aren’t the most-popular of teammates. The delivery is as hard to corral as it is to hit, so catchers must arm themselves with extra-large gloves, a kind of cross between a catcher’s mitt and a first-baseman’s. Bob Uecker, the catcher-turned-broadcaster, used to quip that the pitch really wasn’t all that difficult to tie down. “You just wait until it stops rolling and pick it up,” he’d say. Also, the pitch’s slow speed makes stolen bases easy to come by, and infielders don’t relish standing in the path of spikes-first runners.

Once launched, however, knuckleballers can keep at it almost indefinitely. That’s because their throwing motion involves little of the arm stress that catches up with most pitchers. Hoyt Wilhelm, one of two knuckleballers to be elected to the game’s Hall of Fame, didn’t reach the Majors until age 29 but kept going until he was 49. Phil Niekro, the other, lasted until he was 48. Niekro holds the records for most career wins in the form (324). He also holds the mark for most victories by any pitcher after age 40 (121).

My favorite knuckleballer was Wilbur Wood, the old Chicago White Sox lefty. He’d spent parts of five conventional seasons in Boston and Pittsburgh with only one win to show for it before adopting the pitch in Chicago, where from 1967 through 1978 he starred as both a starter and reliever. He not only threw the knuckler but, baldish of head and round of build, also looked the part. Roger Angell once described his appearance on the mound as “that of an accountant or pastry clerk on a holiday.” I thought he looked like the hardware-store guy who knows all about tools.

In one, four-year stint as a starting pitcher (1971-74), Wood won a total of 90 games and never recorded fewer than 320 innings a season, an unheard of figure today. One May day in 1973 he finished the last five innings of a game that had been suspended the night before and started and finished that day’s regularly scheduled game, giving up no earned runs and six hits over the 14 innings. Later that season he started (but, alas, lost) both ends of a doubleheader.

Wood might have challenged Wilhelm’s and Niekro’s longevity records if he hadn’t had his kneecap shattered by a line drive during a game in 1976. He lasted parts of just two more seasons before having to quit at age 37, returning to his hometown of Belmont, Mass. There he spent much of his time fishing, something he liked almost as well as baseball. That suited him, I think.



Saturday, July 15, 2017

A JOCK AND HIS MONEY IS SOON ...

                The July 3 Sports Illustrated is a “Where Are They Now?” issue, tracking the afterlife of several notable sports figures from years past, and Allen Iverson is on the cover. The piece about him is titled “The Answer,” after his nickname, and subheaded “How Allen Iverson Finally Found His Way Home.” The cover photo is of the former fast and fearless basketball star, staring out blankly and clutching two handfuls of long-stemmed, red roses. It’s a funereal-looking pose that suggests that he has, uh, passed, or is about to, although there’s no indication that is true.
               
                 The story itself is similarly confusing. It portrays a man who lives a jumbled life, moving from place to place, splitting and reuniting with his former wife, embracing and rejecting the duties of parenthood of his five children. Apparently, the “home” he has found is BIG3, a new league of former pro hoopsters playing half-court, three-on-three games for a TV audience of people who can’t abide a summer without the sport.  At age 42, that’s all he can think of to do with himself.
           
                  More upsetting still is the picture the piece paints of Iverson’s finances. They’re not spelled out in detail but it shows someone whose published basketball earnings alone in his 17-season NBA career (1996-2010) came to about $154 million, but is living in less luxury than such a figure suggests. It quotes him as saying during his 2013 divorce proceedings that he “couldn’t afford a cheeseburger,” and while men typically plead poverty in such circumstances there must have been some basis for the claim. It goes on to say that while Iverson gets $800,000 a year from a lifetime contract with the shoemaker Reebok, and can access a $32 million trust fund when he turns 55, he’s pretty much pissed away most of the money he’s made.
                
                 The subject of athletes and their money was one I dealt with in my Wall Street Journal columns.  The tale often was a painful one, of reckless spending, excessive generosity and misplaced trust in shady advisers. To many of the young men involved, totally lacking in perspective, the sudden wealth that accompanied their professional status was so large as to be an abstraction, devoid of meaning.
  
It brought to mind the stories of how Don King, the wily and unscrupulous boxing promoter, would visit fighters he wished to underpay with a satchel containing a few thousand dollars in small bills, which he’d spread on his mark’s kitchen table and turn over in return for a signature on a contract. King knew the cash would be seen as real money, something the fighter could relate to, as opposed to the much-larger sum the deal really was worth.

Suede-shoe types swarm over jocks like ants on sugar. Privileged all their lives (albeit maybe poor)—both na├»ve and arrogant-- athletes can be easy prey to those who tell them that ordinary investment returns are for chumps, and that special people like them deserve three or four times the going rate.  If anyone told them that anything that sounds too good to be true probably is, the message usually was forgotten. (The same, I might add, also applied to Bernie Madoff’s investors, most of whom had fewer excuses than a nuevo riche athlete.) 

A further perusal of the SI issue underlined the same theme. Of the six “old” jocks profiled at length (Iverson and way-back basketballer Tom Meschery, ex-footballers Vince Young and Clinton Portis, former hockey star Eric Lindros and golfer Justin Leonard), two more were having serious financial difficulties.

Young is only 34 years old, but his football career seems like ancient history. The quarterback showed up in the NFL in 2006 after a brilliant college stint at the U. of Texas, and was the league’s rookie of the year with the Tennessee Titans, but injuries and emotional problems set in, and by the time he left the league in 2011, after a try in Philadelphia, he was considered a bust. He earned a reported $34 million in NFL salaries, plus about $30 million more for endorsement deals from Reebok and other companies, but in 2014 declared bankruptcy, listing assets between $500,000 and $1 million and debts between $1 million and $10 million.

Young said he gave his finances little thought while he was playing, trusting an uncle to manage them. He said that one bad deal, costing him $600,000, was with a company he couldn’t recall knowing. One anecdote had him spending $15,000 for a single meal he hosted at the Chocolate Factory, a chain operation where the cuisine is less than haute. At last sighting he was trying to revive his gridiron career in the Canadian League, where the pay is far lower than in the NFL.

The saddest story was that of Clinton Portis, who earned a reported $43 million in his nine seasons as an NFL running back (2002-10) with the Washington Redskins and Denver Broncos. He was so distraught over losing $14 million in investments engineered by a couple of financial advisers that he got a gun and stalked one of them with murderous intent (he didn’t pull the trigger). It made him especially angry that the two got off with only professional reprimands.  “No jail time, no nothing. Living happily ever after,” Portis said to the magazine.

But while Portis was unwise in his advisory choices he also wasn’t smart about some of his own actions while he was flush. After turning pro he bought a house for his mother—a move many athletes make—but this one was a 8,400-square-foot affair costing $900,000, and came with the purple Jaguar she always wanted. He himself had “various” homes with such features as indoor waterfalls, stripper poles and giant aquariums, and a “armada” of cars.

When Portis filed for bankruptcy in 2015 his debts included $412,000 in “domestic support” to four women, $170,000 in shopping bills and $287,000 in gambling losses at the MGM Grand casino in Las Vegas.  If he didn’t come away with much money he had fun while he had it.

BUSINESS NOTE--   Another reminder that a new edition of the “For The Love Of The Cubs” book, featuring heroes of the team’s 2016 World Series victory, is just out. The illustrations are by the marvelous Mark Anderson, one of the best, and the verses and fact blocks are by me. It’s a great keepsake and gift item for Cubs’ fans of all ages. You can buy it by clicking on the Triumph Books link above, by going to the amazon.com or barnesandnoble.co websites, or at your local bookstore. 





                

Saturday, July 1, 2017

BIG FIGHTS

                When asked what I liked best about my stint as a free-range sports columnist, I quickly reply that I enjoyed the variety my post offered, being able to write about a baseball game one day, a track meet the next and, maybe, an arm-wrestling tournament the following week. I regarded my brethren who covered the same team (and sport) day in and day out with a mixture of awe and aversion. How did they do that? I asked myself.
               
                 But when inquiring minds want to know more, honing in on my favorite sport to write about, I have a bit of as problem. It’s not in deciding what to say but whether to say it. Although I always feel obliged to apologize when I admit it, I really liked boxing. It’s not the mindless brawl its detractors make it out to be, and while A.J. Liebling’s description of it as the “sweet science” strains credulity, it doesn’t exceed it. Withal, the sport is elemental, rooted in our collective psyche, which is why periodic attempts to ban it have failed. As long as some men (and, lately, some women) want to do it, they’re best off in a ring wearing padded gloves, with a referee present.

                If I may be permitted a bit of nostalgia, my ties to boxing go way back. My father worked half days on Saturdays in his small downtown Chicago office, and when I was 10 or 11 he’d sometimes take me with him. I’d do odd jobs or amuse myself for a few hours and he’d take me to lunch at Harding’s cafeteria, which had wonderful roast beef sandwiches (and where patrons could roll dice double-or-nothing for the check, although my dad never did that). Then, sometimes, he and I would walk about a block to the Midwest Gym, upstairs in an old, walk-up building on Madison Street, to watch the boxers train.

                Dad wasn’t a sports fan so I don’t know why he did that, but I’m glad he did. Chicago had an active fight scene in the late 1940s and early ‘50s, and local boxers such as Tony Zale and Bob Satterfield regularly trained at Midwest. When a big fight was in town the contestants would join them, as Ezzard Charles and Joe Walcott did before their 1949 heavyweight title match. By age 10 I already was an avid sports-page reader and was thrilled to be close to the heroes I’d read about. I once was introduced to the great Zale, and his autographed photo decorated my bedroom wall until I went away to college.

                Once handed a press card I couldn’t wait to get to ringside, and did so frequently. Besides covering championship bouts I followed the sport in five Summer Olympic Games and scouted young pugilists with promise. I saw a skinny, 16-year-old Oscar De La Hoya (he spelled it De Lajoya then) win a National Golden Gloves title in Knoxville, Tennessee, a 20-year-old Mike Tyson win a prelim bout in a seedy arena in Troy, New York, and a 21-year­ Floyd Mayweather pitch a 10-round shutout in Los Angeles.

                As a cultural experience, nothing in sports beats a big fight. They usually were staged in Las Vegas hotel arenas during my tenure, and I’d show up early to watch arrive what Pierce Egan called “the fancy.” Hollywood and sports stars headed the mix, along with politicians, Vegas big shots, gangstas (especially for the Tyson fights) and assorted pimps and high-priced hookers wearing enough gold chain to stretch from Caesars Palace to Timbuktu.  Even when the fight turned out to be a yawner the show never failed to dazzle, and afterward the host casino literally would roar with action. That’s why the hotels pay up big to have them.

                I haven’t much followed the fights for the last 15 years but, really, there hasn’t been much to follow. That’s a good thing; boxers are recruited from the economic underclass (nobody does it for fun) and its waning in the U.S. stems in large part from a lack of volunteers. The upper-weight divisions have just about vanished from these shores and the lower ones have become largely Hispanic affairs. The number of “names” that can stir a broad American audience has, I think, dwindled to one.

                That would be the abovementioned Mayweather, a consummate craftsman who would have stood out in any era. Nobody I’ve seen better embodies the fight-game aim of hitting without being hit, which is why he’s had a career spanning two decades. He’s unbeaten in 49 pro bouts and according to online sources has a net worth of $340 million, mostly from pay-per-view TV events such as his May, 2015, go with Manny Pacquiao. Mayweather would be richer if he hadn’t had to pay legal fees for the half-dozen female-assault charges he’s faced over the years. A good guy he ain’t, but we’re talking boxing here.

                Mayweather has been retired since the Pacquiao fight but, at age 40, has been lured back to meet the Irishman Conor McGregor in Las Vegas on August 26. It’s testimony to boxing’s decline that McGregor isn’t a square boxer but a “mixed martial arts” specialist, from a “sport” in which it’s okay strike one’s foe with one’s feet, elbows and knees as well as fists, and with just about anything that’s lying around. Contrary to many perceptions, MMA does have rules (no head-butting, biting, hair-pulling, spitting or groin shots) but you wouldn’t know it to watch a match. The description that comes to mind quickest is “mindless brawl.”

                McGregor is 12 years younger than Mayweather, and probably in better shape. He’s undeniably tough, and white, so enough people will pay the expected PPV tab of $100 to gin up a nine-figure gross.  It’ll be a boxing match though, with boxing rules, and, apparently, nobody has told McGregor not to try to beat a man at his own game.  My take is that it’d be worth the $100 to stand outside the arena on fight night, but once the first bell rang I’d go home and wait until the replay gets to free TV.
               


                

Thursday, June 15, 2017

KIDS' STUFF

                The Arizona Republic is my local newspaper and I read its sports pages daily. They’re about par for the course for a regional paper, mixing a basic amount of national coverage (box scores and the like) with a heavier dose of area sports news. Phoenix’s big-league professional teams are covered not only intensively but also breathlessly; almost every day brings a feature describing how brave, clean and reverent one local hero or another is. It seems that the paper’s sportswriters deem themselves lucky to be able to hang out with such swell fellas.
               
               The pages keep their focus on the games at hand, rarely stepping back to ponder larger pictures. That’s why a late-May piece on local high-school sports by the paper’s Richard Obert caught my eye.  Under the neutral headline “Finding Balance in Today’s Landscape” it described a prep sports scene gone mad, with “overworked coaches feeling the strain of carrying a program year-round; administrators pressured by parents; parents spending ungodly amounts of money for [private] camps, coaches and clubs; and athletes pulled in different directions.”  It asks: “How does everybody keep their sanity in today’s high school sports world?”

                I’d guess that the description is quite foreign to anyone over 50 years old, and certainly to anyone my age (79). When I was a high-schooler sports were seasonal and kids spent their summers lifeguarding or bagging groceries, maybe playing some twilight pickup games in the parks.  A (very) few among us were standouts, but we attributed that to inborn abilities—gifts from God or the gods—and just another example of life’s unfairness. The rest of us shrugged and directed ourselves elsewhere.

                I’ve written before about the professionalization of childhood, most lately in a December 1, 2015 piece about IMG Academy, which you can see by scrolling way, way down. It’s a for-profit boarding school in Bradenton, Florida, at which, for tuition and fees topping $70,000 a year, kids starting at age 13 can along with schooling receive intensive coaching in a number of sports, including baseball, football, basketball and, even, lacrosse. The aim is to prepare the youngsters for pro careers or, at least, college-athletics scholarships, although what the place is charging would seem to wipe out any financial gain for parents a “free ride” might bring.

                Now, it seems that public and parochial high schools in Arizona (and probably elsewhere) are providing a similar if not as expensive experience. In football and basketball, seasons have become year-round or close to it, with organized practices carrying into the summers, and when schools don’t do it programs conducted by the AAU or other outside organizations do. “Spring football moves into 7-on-7 passing tournaments and big-man contests,” Obert writes. “Basketball goes into [July] club with June primarily the month coaches spend with their players in leagues and tournaments. …It never stops. There’s always something”

Kids -- boys especially-- are encouraged by coaches and parents to begin specializing at ever-earlier ages. Coaches are pressed to win so their teams will attract the sort of news-media attention that draws college scouts. Parents harass coaches about playing time for their offspring to the extent that some coaches make it known that the subject is off-limits. Schools recruit players away from other schools. Players transfer in search of greater exposure.

 If that isn’t enough the players, tied to social media like most of their contemporaries, compete intramurally for peer celebrity. “The more [college] offers you have the more [Facebook] followers you have and the more people know about you,” one highly-recruited football player was quoted as saying. “There’s definitely more pressure to perform well.”

That alone might be bad enough, but in individual sports such as tennis, golf and (yes) baseball, the drive to mold top-level skills starts well before high school; if a kid isn’t an ace by 13 he might as well forget it. The recent story in Sports Illustrated magazine about Hunter Greene, the suburban-Los Angeles teenage pitcher/shortstop who was the No. 2 choice (by the Cincinnati Reds) in last week’s Major League Baseball draft, tells how the lad has been playing in year-around travel leagues since age eight, logging at least 70 games annually. “He flew with his team to Omaha when he was nine; Florida, South Carolina and New York when he was 10, Ecuador when he was 12.”  Between games he was driven by his parents to L.A. for tutorials with ex-Major Leaguers. He does yoga with a private instructor three times a week and is trained in plyometrics (strenuous jumping exercises) after baseball practice. It might take a seven-figure initial pro contract to get his folks back to even.

Bryce Harper, the 24-year-old Washington Nationals’ slugger and top choice in the 2010 MLB draft, has a similar biography. He, too, hit the travel-team road at eight and was pushed through high school in two years with a GED so he could spend a year at junior college (majoring in baseball) and join the pros at 18 instead of 19.  The father of Kris Bryant, the young Chicago Cubs star, built a back-yard batting cage in which his son could start taking serious cuts at age five.  A former minor leaguer, dad Bryant now rents himself out as a hitting guru.

The poster boy for early prep is Tiger Woods, the golfer. His dad Earl, an ex-Army officer, had him swinging sawed-off golf clubs while still in diapers. The kid broke 50 for nine holes at six and was playing in junior tournaments against teens when he was nine. The regimen, plus the genius-level physical aptitudes without which any amount of sports prep is pretty much useless, paid off for Tiger with early fame, glory and riches, but also with a middle age that, now, seems hellish.  One only can wonder if a different beginning might have led to a different result.


               
               
               

                

Thursday, June 1, 2017

UNBREAKABLE?

                Newspaper reporters meet lots of interesting people, and one of the most interesting I met was Dakin Williams. He was the younger brother of Tennessee Williams, the playwright, and gained most of his celebrity therefrom, but was a notable character in his own right, a delightful wit  and raconteur (you can look this one up). He also was a lawyer in small-town Collinsville, Illinois, who relieved the monotony of legal practice with runs for political office in his home state.

Dakin never expected to win those races but relished the chance to use them to mock a process that was (and is) ripe for satire. Probably his best zinger was one he unleashed on Adlai Stevenson III during their 1974 Democratic senatorial primary match, when he called the son the late presidential contestant “the potato candidate, because the best part of him is in the ground.”

One can say the same about baseball; no other American sport has as much history as the diamond game, or depends so much on it for its appeal. Football may have more fans (according to surveys) but few of them can spew out its most-basic records. By contrast, even only moderately learned baseball fans not only can do this but also can engage in discourse comparing holders of ancient records (such as Hack Wilson’s 1930 RBI mark of 191) with today’s playing-field standouts. Indeed, just summoning up such old names can bring us back to past eras better than any history book.

The subject baseball fans most like to argue is which of the game’s records are likely to stand forever, and which won’t. The ones that often come up quickest in the “will” category are Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, set in 1941, and Johnny Vandermeer’s back-to-back no-hitters, from 1938. Nobody has come close to either of them lately, the reasoning goes, so nobody ever will.

I disagree. I think both marks were freaks and, thus, will be outdone by other freaks. Yes, few players have hit the way the great Joe D. did, but the streak is a contact record and a few modern players, such as Ichiro Suzuki, have been quite good in that department. Someday one of them will freak out and pass 56, says I. And while breaking Vandermeer’s record would require pitching three straight no-hitters—a prospect that strains credulity—someone should match it sooner or later.

Any serious discussion of baseball records, or any other kind, must start from two premises: 1) forever is a long time and 2) things change.  It’s for the latter reason that the records I think will stand are those involving pitching. Topping that list are the marks put up by Denton “Cy” Young during a 22-season career that bridged two centuries (1890-1911). Those included most starts (815) , most complete games (749), most innings pitched (7,356), most wins (511) and, alas, most losses (316).  The reason is that pitchers no longer pitch as often or as long as Cy did, and probably never will.

Similarly, I think it’s safe to say we’ll never see another 30-game-winning season by a pitcher like the last one posted by Denny McLain, who went 31-6 in 1968, or more career shutouts than Walter Johnson’s 110. Working in a four-man rotation, McLain started 41 games that year (and finished 28). Today, with five-man rotations the rule and some teams occasionally going to six, pitchers rarely start more than 32 games in a season, and with bullpens playing a growing role complete games are rare. Denny always will have ‘68 to savor during or between prison stints.

 Johnson’s record, set between 1907 and 1927, will remain for the same reasons. The current Major League leader in career shutouts, with 15, is the L.A. Dodgers’ estimable Clayton Kershaw. He’s 29 years old and has played 10 seasons. At that rate he’d have to pitch 63 more years just to tie Johnson.

Another record in my “forever” category is Cal Ripken Jr.’s consecutive-games streak of 2,632 games, set from 1982 to 1998. That’s because nobody with any sense would want to break it. The former record—Lou Gehrig’s 2,130 games—stood for 56 years and was considered unbreakable until Cal Jr. came along. Last season no Major Leaguer appeared in all 162 games, so there are no current contenders for the mark. Everybody needs a day off now and then, even if he’s feeling okay.

Other changes in baseball seem likely to preserve less-well-known records, such as Sam Crawford’s 309 career triples. Crawford played at a time (1899-1917) when baseballs were “dead,” fielders’ gloves were much smaller than today’s, ballpark outfields were more spacious and outfielders played more shallow, allowing balls hit between them to roll farther.  The active-career leader in the category is the N.Y. Mets’ Jose Reyes, with 123, and at age 33 he’s nearing the end of his playing days.  Ain’t nobody ever gonna top Sam.

Some other baseball records—in the hitting and base-running categories—might seem as unassailable as the ones named above. These include Rogers Hornsby’s single-year batting mark of .424, Pete Rose’s 4,256 career hits, Wilson’s 191 RBIs, Barry Bonds’ 73 single-season home runs and Ricky Henderson’s 1,270 career stolen bases. Hornsby’s mark seems most secure because hitters swing for the fences these days and his 32 strikeouts in 536 official times at bat in his record-setting year (1924) looks like a misprint today. It’s a definite “maybe” in my book.

Otherwise, though, changes in the area of human improvement are coming that we can already glimpse, and they could pitch many of baseball’s standards into the historical dustbin. Bonds’s home-run mark was set when steroid use was widespread in baseball, and nobody in this stricter-testing period has topped the 50 mark since 2007, but what’s forbidden today might not be tomorrow, and who knows what other chemical wonders science has in store? Further, experiments with the genome are proceeding apace, and the supermen (and women) of 2067 probably will joke about the primitive state of today’s game.

And, hey!, we might not have to wait 50 years to see a new age. The coverboy of the Sports Illustrated issue of May 1 was Hunter Greene, a 17-year-old California high schooler who stands 6-foot-4, weighs 210 pounds, hits a baseball 450 feet and throws one 102 mph. He might break a bunch of records, both from the mound and plate.

BUSINESS NOTE: A new edition of “For the Love of the Cubs,” featuring heroes of the team’s 2016 World Series victory, is just out, with drawings by the marvelous Mark Anderson, one of the nation’s leading illustrators (no kidding), and verses and fact blocks by me. It’s a great keepsake and gift item for Cubs fans of all ages. You can get it by clicking on the Triumph Books link above, at amazon.com or barnesandnoble.com, or at your local bookstore. 

  



Monday, May 15, 2017

Three HUHS? and a HMM

                Lots of odd things happening in the sports world and vicinity of late. Time for another News/Views.

               NEWS: Dad of an NBA rookie-to-be announces a line of $495 sneakers.

                VIEW: Huh?

                LaVar Ball, father of Lonzo Ball, the one-and-done UCLA basketball flash who is expected to be a top NBA draft choice in June, has been getting lots of ink and TV time lately, talking up both his son’s and his own hoops prowess. Among other things, he said he could whip Michael Jordan in a one-on-one game, both now and when MJ was in his prime. This from a guy whose sole Division I basketball exposure came in 1986-87 when he averaged 2 (that’s two) points a game at Washington State U.

                Now comes LaVar with his Big Baller Brand shoe, which he says will sell for the above price. That’s about $300 more than the top-priced shoes endorsed by the likes of LeBron James and Steph Curry. If it actually comes out, that is—it’s not scheduled to hit the stores until November.

                It should be noted that whatever their retail prices athletic shoes cost no more than $30 to make in Asia, where just about all of them are manufactured. Any additional value is added by branding and marketing.  To those who scoffed at his, uh, cojones for asking such a markup, Ball scoffed back. “If you can’t afford them you’re not a BIG BALLER,” he tweeted.

                NEWS: Alabama gives head football coach Nick Saban a contract extension worth about $8.625 million a year over the next eight years.

                VIEW: Huh?

                It’s no news that big-time college football and basketball head coaches make big money, but the extent of their haul becomes more eye-popping annually. Their salaries had reached the seven-figure mark when I turned in my press card in 2003 but they’ve ballooned since, rivaling those of the heads of Fortune 500 companies. These days, none of those guys at the so-called “Power Five” conferences (the SEC, Big 10, Big 12, ACC and PAC-10) makes less than a million annually, and the median seems to be around $3 million. Not bad for someone who, in the case of basketball, directs a 12-player “program,” as they call their teams these days.

                The package for Saban, whose ‘Bama teams have won four national championship in the past seven years, stands out even in that milieu. It’ll will pay him $8.125 million a year for the next eight straight up, plus a $4 million “signing bonus” this year. Prorating the bonus over eight years produces the $8.625 figure, although getting the full $4 mil up front makes the deal sweeter.  And remember that college coaches’ deals typically contain such additional lollipops as free country club memberships, private planes for personal use and free auto use, as if they can’t afford to buy their own.

                Writers wanting to make a point usually compare college coaches’ salaries with those of other public officials in their states, or profs on their campuses. The Alabama governor is paid $119,950 a year and a full prof at the U. of A. makes $186,636, each of which figure probably wouldn’t cover Saban’s car-park tips.  More telling is the fact that the two top-paid head coaches in the NFL—Pete Carroll and Sean Payton—make $8 million a year each, or less than Saban will pull down. If the pros call him again (he coached there before) he could turn them down on financial grounds.

                NEWS: Jay Paterno, Joe’s son, is elected to Penn State University’s board of trustees.

                VIEW: Huh?

                Paterno, 48, won election last week to the university’s governing body by vote of the school’s alumni, who pick nine of the unit’s 38 members. This is despite a work history consisting mainly of 17 years as an assistant on the school’s football staff (1995-2011) while his dad was head coach. He was fired in 2011 with other football staffers after the arrest of assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. Sandusky’s serial predations upon young boys, conducted under Joe Paterno’s regime and often in university facilities, led to a far-reaching scandal that resulted in a 60-year prison term for Sandusky and, recently,  lesser terms for three high Penn State officials, including the school’s president at the time. Joe Paterno, who died of cancer in 2012 at age 85, never was charged, but if he knew what his longtime top aide was up to he never called the cops.

                Since leaving coaching six years ago Jay Paterno has been concerned primarily with refurbishing his father image, with a book he wrote and lawsuits he’s joined against the university for its handling of the case. He’s also pushed something called Paterno Legacy beer, which has been sold around Pennsylvania at football season the last few years with “Joe Pa’s” picture on the can.  If nothing else, his election ensures that, welcome or not, the Sandusky episode’s aftermath will continue to burn brightly in State College, Pa., during his three-year term.

                NEWS: A proposal to wipe out all world track-and-field records set before 2005 is making the rounds.

                VIEW: Hmm.

                Pierce O’Callaghan, chairman of the European unit of the IAAF, track’s world governing body, says the move would mark the start of a “new, clean, credible era” for the sport, which has been beset with doping scandals. If adopted it would limit records to ones established at approved international events Involving only athletes who had been subjected to the drug testing and urine-or-blood sample-storing rules begun in 2005. Records predating such requirements would remain on a “historical list” but no longer would be considered official, O’Callaghan said. IAAF President Sebastian Coe said the rule would be “a step in the right direction,” indicating it might be adopted.

                The idea calls to mind baseball’s struggle with records set in what I call its HITS (for “Heads In The Sand”) Era, stretching from about 1990, when steroid use seriously invaded the game, to the institution of credible drug-testing standards in 2005. Power-hitting numbers swelled in that period, setting them apart from those that had been set before, or will be set after. These include the top six annual home run counts topped by Barry Bonds’s 73, all of which were posted by him, Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa between 1998 and 2001.

                Baseball lives off its records so a purging of HITS Era marks probably would go too far, but marking them with asterisks would be a good move. They were set under unusual conditions and should be recognized as such.
               


Thursday, May 4, 2017

DERBY PICKS

Saturday is the Kentucky Derby, the one horserace non-fans of the sport notice, and as one of the shrinking  corps of racing aficionados I annually feel obligated to hype it. It’s a great event, a cultural phenomenon better experienced in person at rambling old Churchill Downs than on TV, and one that should be on everyone’s bucket list. I ticked it off mine in 1986 and went to the next 14, so that’s no longer a concern for me.

This year’s running shapes up as wide open, a change from the last two when strong favorites (American Pharoah in 2015 and Nyquist last year) prevailed. You can make a winning case for six or eight of Saturday’s 20 entrants without serious objections from me. The good news is that with the favorites expected to go off at odds of 4-or 5-to-1, and several juicy offerings at 15-to-1 or better, it should be a good betting race, with nice payouts for the astute (and lucky).

The Derby’s main handicapping challenges are its 1 ¼-mile length, 1/8-mile longer than most entrants have run, and large field of rambunctious colts that makes a lot of banging around inevitable. If your horse is among the badly banged, too bad and better luck next time.

Horses running at or near the lead (such as Pharoah and Nyquist) get bumped around less than others, so I’m picking one of them to anchor my two exacta boxes. He’s ALWAYS DREAMING, 5-to-1 in the morning line. I like him because he easily won the Florida Derby, the best Derby prep, has been training well in Louisville and will have Hall of Fame jockey John Velasquez on his back. My other anchor will be McCRAKEN, also 5-to-1. “Horses for courses” is a racetrack saw and his course is Churchill, where he’s won three of three. ‘Nuf said.

One of my four-horse exacta boxes also will contain THUNDER SNOW (20-to-1) and GUNNEVERA (15-to-1). Thunder Snow is from the Godolphin stable, based in Dubai. It has sent previous horses to the race to no avail, but Thunder Snow seems to be a cut above those. He’s run eight races in three different countries, has won at 1 3/16th miles, 1/16th longer than any other entry has run, and has handled fields of up to 16, so he’s not easily cowed. I think he’s worth a play even though he’ll start from the No. 2 gate position, a tough draw. GUNNEVERA is a late runner who promises to be charging down the Derby homestretch. His backers must hope he doesn’t run too late, as most  late runners do.

My other box will be filled out by late-running HENCE (15-to-1) and PRACTICAL JOKE (20-to-1), a solid performer who always tries and who Dave Toscano, my handicapper pal, likes particularly.

Those picks, of course, assume no late scratches, and I’ll probably throw in a few other bets as the race approaches. But what the heck, it’s the Derby. As Joe E. Lewis used to say, “I hope I break even, I need the money.”



Monday, May 1, 2017

IN THE SWIM

             When I meet someone for the first time, and he or she asks me what I do, I tell them simply that I’m retired. If they press for more information (“I mean what do you DO?”), as occasionally happens, I ponder a moment and say, “I swim.”
                
            Yes, I also do other things, such as produce this twice-monthly blog, but my week-in, week-out occupation, no matter the season, is swimming. If I’m ambulatory I show up at about 11 a.m. at the outdoor, year-around-heated Cactus Park municipal pool in Scottsdale, Arizona, where I live, four times a week, usually Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

  My routine is to swim 50 lengths of 25 meters each, doing three cycles of eight lengths by “crawl” stroke and eight by kicking and finishing with one length each way. That works out to about three quarters of a mile and takes me about 31 minutes, aided by training fins. The sessions are the anchors of my days and I schedule all other things around them.  Ain’t retirement grand?

I do it because I can, and because it’s good for me. I’m convinced that the two best things one can do for oneself is to exercise regularly and not smoke. I broke that last rule for about 25 years until 1979, not counting the occasional cigar I puffed until a few years ago. My chest x-rays are clean so, apparently, I got away with the misdeeds. Not everyone is so lucky.

Do I enjoy swimming? As Bill Clinton might say, it depends what you mean by “enjoy.” I’ve loved being in the water since childhood, but I must admit that the constant up and back can be boring, and when my mind drifts I sometimes lose count of the laps. But I’ve learned that the first rule of regular exercise is never to ask yourself if you feel like it, either before or during the activity. Gloria Steinem has been quoted as saying, “I don’t enjoy writing, I enjoy having written,” and although I think I heard that line before her heyday I often apply it to my swimming (and to my writing).

Swimming has not been my first exercise choice. As I kid I pretty much grew up in my school playground doing whatever was in season. In my teens and 20s I played golf and got pretty good at it, but by age 30 home and work duties precluded this expensive, frustrating and time-consuming sport and I gave it up with hardly a backward glance. I turned instead to tennis and softball when the weather was warm and racquetball when it wasn’t.

 I played organized softball in the Chicago-area parks into my mid-40s and would have played longer if my teams hadn’t disbanded. I dropped racquetball when wife Susie and I moved to Arizona in 1997 and I no longer had ready partners at my skill level. Racquetball is a great game but small skill differences translate into big scoring gaps. I loved the game and still play it in my dreams (really).

I took up hiking on a dare at age 45, climbing a 14,000-foot Colorado mountain wearing Hush Puppies. It took about two weeks for my blisters and muscles to heal, but I loved the experience and tried to repeat it when I could. Living in Arizona opened vast new hiking vistas. I signed up with a land conservatory and soon was leading hikes and running its hiking program, as well as that of the local community college. Those duties soon pushed aside tennis, although I must admit that at about the same time (I was 65) I’d stopped beating players with whom I’d been competitive. No more losing helped make up for no more tennis.   

You can’t hike every day so I took up occasional lap swimming to fill the gaps. I never was much for repetitive exercise but found that the water and sunshine made the pill tastier. When I turned 70 neurological problems began constricting my hiking range and after about three more years increasing foot numbness and back pain made the activity undoable. I still get around all right but about 10 minutes is my limit for standing or walking without a sit-down. That left swimming as my sole exercise option.

That’s not bad because, I think, lap swimming is the one exercise to have if you’re having only one. It affords a full-body workout with low impact in pleasant surroundings. You can find just about anything you want on the Internet and I’m happy to report that one website, healthfitnessrevolution.com, ranked swimming as the No. 1 fitness sport, one that’s “absolutely awesome for heart health, calorie burning and increasing lung capacity.” How about that?

There are other reasons to swim:

--It’s safe, with an annual injury rate of .l%, according to one on-line source. (Golf’s rate was 1%, 10 times higher.)

--It’s cheap. At the wonderful Cactus Pool I pay $72 for 30 swims, or close to two months’ worth. A couple of $25 Speedo suits every other year, and occasional new goggles and fins, and that’s it.
--You do it alone so there’s no need to accommodate other people’s schedules.

--It’s not competitive unless you make it so. A bad tennis game could ruin my day but I never swim bad.

--It provides a nice tan, which hides many of my dermatological imperfections.

I’ve tried hard to come up with swimming negatives but can think of only one—it doesn’t provide much to talk about. Sports like golf and tennis have thriving professional arms that allow participants to chatter away for hours about the attributes of their favorite players, but swimming pierces the national consciousness for only a couple of weeks every four years—during the Summer Olympics. And then there’s not much to say about the stars except that they swim really fast.

But enough about talk—we do that too much anyway. Gotta go swim!



                                                                             

Saturday, April 15, 2017

BAYLOR BARED

If you haven’t already seen it, you should check out the movie “Disgraced” on the Showtime cable-TV channel. It’s about the 2003 murder of Baylor University basketball player Patrick Dennehy by a teammate, Carlton Dotson, and the investigation that followed. It shouldn’t be hard to find if you’ve got Showtime—it reruns such programs repeatedly.

The murder itself was about as straight forward, and tragic, as those things usually are. Dennehy and Dotson were roommates as well as teammates, and, according to the “docudrama” and contemporary news accounts, shared a fondness for marijuana and guns. One day, at the remote location near Baylor’s Waco, Texas, campus, where they went to shoot, Dotson turned his gun on Dennehy, then dragged his body into some underbrush. It took police about a month to find it but when they did Dotson swiftly pleaded guilty and was whisked off to prison to serve a 35-year sentence.

As is often the case in such matters, complications came more from an attempted coverup than from the event that triggered them. Dennehy was on the Baylor campus under peculiar circumstances, not on scholarship but with considerable and improper financial help supplied or funneled through the school’s head basketball coach, Dave Bliss. Bliss was afraid the murder investigation would uncover this, and moved to blunt the probes by urging his assistant coaches and team members to lie by telling investigators that Dennehy got his money from drug dealing. This came out because Abar Rouse, the young assistant coach who was coerced into aiding Bliss’s scheme under threat of firing, secretly taped Bliss’s talks with players and turned the tapes over to authorities.

 Rouse was fired anyway and, interviewed for the program, said he’d been blackballed from basketball since. He now works as a teacher in a prison.  Interestingly, a number of prominent college hoops coaches, including Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, also were interviewed and said they’d never hire someone like Rouse because they considered his whistle-blowing method to have been underhanded. Fancy that.

Bliss was fired, too, and in 2005 was handed a 10-year NCAA coaching ban, but he fared better than Rouse after Baylor. First he was hired to coach in the professional Continental Basketball Association, and later at a prep school. In 2015 became head coach at Southern Christian U., in Oklahoma City, a job he kept until reaction following the release of the Showtime movie, in which he was interviewed at length and uncomfortably, caused him to resign.

Most interestingly, Bliss never was charged criminally even though his coverup attempt easily could have led to charges of obstruction of justice and suborning perjury. Relatedly, the program strongly implied that Baylor and Waco police and prosecutors hustled Dotson’s trial through the courts with an eye toward minimizing its public-relations effects on the university; among other things, Dotson got his plea-deal sentence without having to describe his offense or be questioned in open court, and despite the fact that his obviously addled mental state suggested an insanity defense. Said a Waco television-news reporter interviewed on the show, ”It was one of those things people here don’t talk about.”

Now fast forward to the 2008-15 tenure of Art Briles as Baylor’s head football coach. Briles’s teams thrived on the gridiron (they won 31 of 38 games in his last three seasons at the school), but that success was accompanied by what only can be described as a crime wave unleased by some of the young men he recruited. Its extent was summed up in a lawsuit against the university recently filed in Federal court charging that 52 sexual assaults had been committed by “not less than” 31 Baylor football players between 2011 and 2014. That action was just the latest of several that now pend in the courts over such allegations.

The revelations led to the 2016 firings or resignations of Briles, the school’s athletics director and its president, Kenneth Starr of Clinton-impeachment fame, as well as several other athletics department officials, but that didn’t end things. One of the men fired sued the university for libel, and in response three Baylor trustees compiled a 54-page report detailing some of the offenses that occurred during the Briles regime. Reported on in February by the ESPN.com website, the document said the coach and his staff created a “disciplinary black hole into which reports of drug use, physical assault, domestic violence, brandishing of guns, indecent exposure and academic fraud disappeared.”

The document cited cases in which Briles and other coaches sought to downplay or suppress further proceedings when presented with player-misconduct complaints, or didn’t notify police or university-discipline units about them.  When told by a third party of one allegation of a gang rape against a female student by several players, Briles’s first response was “Those are some bad dudes. Why was she around those guys?” the ESPN report says. When another player was arrested for assaulting and threatening to kill a non-athlete student, the victim was urged by a football staffer not to file criminal charges. Briles then contacted police in an effort to “keep things quiet,” the document states.

The document details the case of Tevin Elliott, a Baylor defensive lineman who in 2011 was suspended from the university for twice plagiarizing papers. Briles appealed the decision to President Starr, who bypassed usual procedures and overturned the ruling, keeping Elliott in school and on the field. The next year Elliott was convicted of raping a woman and sentenced to 20 years in prison. His trial revealed he’d been accused of rape three times previously and had a misdemeanor physical assault conviction on his record.

When such things are revealed the usual response is to blame them on individual “bad dudes” or a faulty “culture” on a single campus, but by now it should be apparent that the problems go farther and deeper. Both Briles and Bliss had held other head coaching jobs before coming to Baylor (Briles at Houston, Bliss at Oklahoma, Southern Methodist and New Mexico), and it’s doubtful they behaved differently in those posts. Indeed, Bliss was cited for paying players at SMU in the mid-1980s but the NCAA didn’t press its inquiry because the school already was under “death penalty” sanctions for its football-program violations.

In big-time college sports winning absolves any sin; Kentucky basketball hired John Calipari despite his teams at UMass and Memphis having to vacate Final Four appearances because of players’ financial or academic misdeeds, and Louisville embraces Rick Pitino even though his program entertained recruits with strippers and prostitutes on campus grounds.

The Baylor regents’ filing recounts a meeting of regents with alumni and other athletic donors while the Briles scandal was unfolding. When the regents explained that the coach’s recruiting of thugs  and trying to skirt the justice system didn’t square with the religious and educational “mission” of the Baptist-affiliated university, one donor responded thusly: “If you mention Baylor’s mission one more time I’m going to throw up. I was promised a national championship.”

 

   

Saturday, April 1, 2017

GALE & DICK, MUHAMMAD & GEORGE

                When Gale Sayers’s wife revealed a couple of weeks ago that the former great football running back has dementia, the Chicago Tribune website story was accompanied by a picture of Sayers and his Chicago Bears teammate Dick Butkus, standing side by side at some event or other. The photo looked recent and both men looked hale. That goes to show that looks can be deceiving, because Mrs. Sayers said that her husband had been displaying signs of the condition for the past several years.
                
               In Bears’ lore Butkus and Sayers personify the rough and smooth of their violent sport, their careers and lives uncannily parallel.  Born six months apart (Butkus turned age 74 in December, Sayers will in May), the two were drafted moments apart by the team in 1965-- Butkus with the No. 3 overall pick, Sayers at No. 4. Both were All Pro selections before being shot down by knee injuries. Both gained first-ballot election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

                Looking at the picture I wondered why their lives had diverged of late—why Sayers fell victim to the brain-injury scourge that is affecting many football veterans, while as far as is generally known Butkus thus far has been spared.  The ferocious Butkus, after all, played two years longer than the elusive Sayers, and at his linebacker position probably sustained the more and harder hits. If either man came away addled it would seem more likely to have been him.

                The same sort of comparison, I think, should be the new focus of research into sports-connected brain injuries, the subject that leads any current discussion of boxing, hockey and even soccer in addition to football. Except to the willfully obtuse, it now has been firmly established that the blows to the head that are routine in those activities can cause cognitive and communicative damage or worse, sometimes surfacing years after the athlete’s career has been completed. What needs to be established are the factors that separate those who fall victim to such tragic outcomes and those who don’t.

                Concern about the long-term effects of head trauma is nothing new; I wrote about them in a 1982 front-page story in the Wall Street Journal headlined “Silent Epidemic.”  Most of the examples in that piece were of people who’d experienced falls or car or motorcycle accidents, but the medical profession long has been aware that sports also can cause such injuries. What physicians call “dementia pugilista,” the Latin name for “punch drunk,” has been in the literature for decades, and it requires no great mental leap to equate the bang-bang-bang of football with what goes on in the prize ring.

                Surprisingly, the link didn’t much register on the national consciousness until the work of Dr. Bennet Omalu became public a dozen years ago. Dr. Omalu was a pathologist in the Alleghany County coroner’s office in Pittsburgh who was on duty in 2002 when the body of the former Pittsburgh Steelers’ center Mike Webster was brought in for autopsy. The Nigerian-born doctor, not a football fan, wondered why a robust-looking man of 50 was homeless and destitute, and prematurely dead of a heart attack. His examination of Webster’s brain revealed evidence of a type of brain injury called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, something previously found in boxers. When he later discovered the same pattern in the brain of Terry Long, another former Steeler who committed suicide at age 45, he published his findings in a 2005 medical journal article that gained attention.

                Dr. Omalu’s discoveries, and the pushback against them from the National Football League, were chronicled in an HBO documentary and in the 2015 movie “Concussion,” starring the popular actor Will Smith. By that time Omalu’s work had been widely confirmed and soon formed the basis of a lawsuit settlement in which the NFL agreed to pay about $1 billion to former NFL players who claimed they’d been misled by the league over the seriousness of their head injuries.

                Evidence of the link between football and the various forms of dementia continues to mount. A Boston University study of the brains of 91 deceased former NFL players showed that 87 of them showed signs of CTE, although perhaps not enough to cause acute symptoms. A 2016 Florida State University study of 40 living retired NFLers who’d averaged seven seasons in the league, using MRI scans and concentration and memory tests, showed that 17 of them (43%) had “measurable” impairments. Anyone who now considers pro-level contact sports to be healthful exercise probably also is a member of the Flat Earth Club.   

                Still, many and seemingly most men who engage in such sports walk away mentally whole; for one such example scroll down a couple of pages and see my blog on Alan Page, who followed 14 seasons of  battle in the NFL’s trenches with a distinguished career as a lawyer and jurist. Learning what characteristics Page had that his less-fortunate brethren lacked would do more to advance gridiron safety that any­ of the helmet improvements the NFL is said to be studying.

                Or look at George Foreman, the former heavyweight boxing champion who, after finally quitting the ring at age 48 after a 19-year career separated by a 10-year hiatus, today is bright and chirpy at age 68, continuing as pastor of a church he founded, pitching commercial products and occasionally appearing as a TV boxing commentator.

There’s painful irony in contrasting Foreman’s outcome with that of his most-famous opponent, Muhammad Ali.  Before their “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire in 1974, Ali hung the mocking title of “The Mummy” on Foreman, then a suspicious and inarticulate younger man uneasy in the spotlight. Now Foreman sails on while the once-glib Ali has died, having spent the last 25 years of his life palsied and all but mute from his boxing-related Parkinson’s disease.

Ali fought 61 pro bouts to Foreman’s 81. Ali was hard to hit for most of his career while Foreman was slower and more vulnerable.  Ali was the more favored in every easily visible way. But now it’s time to go beyond appearances to the molecular and find out what really separated the two men.

               
               




                  

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

BAD ON PURPOSE

                A couple of weeks ago, during the first full week of spring training here in Arizona, I drove across town to Glendale to see the Chicago White Sox play the Arizona Diamondbacks. On a perfect sunny day following two days of rain, with a temperature of about 70, the announced attendance was 2,896, but my guess was that the real number was less than 2,000. With enough patience I might have been able to count the house.

               Yes, it was an early-spring game played mostly by reserves, but the opponent was the home-town team and that same week the Chicago Cubs, luxuriating in their new championship, had a couple of 15,000-plus sellouts for similar contests at their spring base in Mesa. The White Sox never have matched the Cubs in spring attendance since they moved to Glendale from Tucson in 2009, but the gate gap this year has been the biggest yet.

                It’s no news that the Sox are the No. 2 team in a two-team town, but as the spring-training example shows their numbertwoness will be tested this season as never before. Mired in mediocrity or worse pretty much since their startling World Series triumph in 2005, and especially for the last four years, they have begun what appears to be a thorough rebuilding phase that ensures poor on-field results for the next two or three seasons. Given their continuing struggles at their home box office, their continued existence in the Second City may depend on the effort’s success.

                The stripping down process began during the off-season when the Sox traded their best pitcher, Chris Sale, and best outfielder, Adam Eaton, for prospects. Further deals for such valuable assets as first-baseman Jose Abreu, outfielder Melky Cabrera and pitcher Jose Quintana have been predicted. Rick Hahn, the team’s front-office baseball chief, has been frank about the likely consequences of such moves. “Our focus is on building something sustainable,” he has said. “In the short term we might have to pay some price at the big-league level.”

                In getting bad to eventually get good, the White Sox are following two notable recent examples. The first was that of the Washington Nationals under Mike Rizzo, which endured three terrible campaigns (2008-10) to acquire the draft choices that allowed them to add the likes of Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg and make the playoffs three times in the past five seasons. The other was the Cubs under Theo Epstein, who tanked in 2012, ’13 and ’14 in order to put together the pieces that led to their trophy run last year.

                The Nats and Cubs, however, had good reason to believe their fans wouldn’t abandon them while they were being lousy on purpose—the Nats because they still were a novelty in D.C., having just landed there from Montreal in 2005, and the Cubs because their fanatical fan base would come to Wrigley Field to watch the grass grow as long as beer was being sold. The Sox have no such assurances; their home attendance last year was 1,746,293, 26th among the Major League’s 30 clubs (the Cubs drew 3,232,420), and the “what have you done for me lately?” vibe has been strong among their followers for a good while.

                Indeed, the Sox are in the position of having to win to draw, an unenviable status in big-time pro sports. They did relatively well in the four decades immediately following WWII, usually outdoing the Cubs on the field and at the gate, but since about 1985 they’ve been the rear end of Chicago’s baseball horse, a victim of demographics, a bad business decision and stadium location.

                The demographics have to do with the “white flight” that sent many of their South Side fans to the suburbs during the 1970s and ‘80s. The business decision put them on cable television in the mid-‘80s, when most Chicagoans didn’t have cable. That left the  “free” TV market to the WGN-aligned Cubs, and WGN’s “superstation” status allowed the team to make its fan reach national.

                The ballpark issue wasn’t of the team’s own making. In the late ‘80s, when it was clear their old Comiskey Park home had had it, the Sox wanted to follow their fans to west-suburban Addison, but the move was blocked by the state legislature, which said it would proffer essential financial support only if the new stadium was built on land adjacent to Comiskey.  Tampa, Florida, beckoned, but the team decided take the local deal and stay put.  That choice wasn’t a bad one—Florida has proved to be a Sargasso Sea for Major League baseball—but it condemned the team to operate in an expressway wilderness devoid of amenities. That’s in stark contrast to the good-time atmosphere of the neighborhood that surrounds Wrigley Field, whether or not there’s a ballgame.

                In backing up the truck, as the saying goes, the Sox’s closest model is that of the Cubs, but they already have veered from the Cubs’ model by emphasizing pitching in their deals to date; Eaton brought three pitching prospects (Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dave Dunning) and Sale brought right-hander Michael Kopech in addition to the highly rated second-baseman Yoan Moncado. It’s baseball common wisdom that young pitchers are riskier than young position players, and the Cubs concentrated on the latter in their rebuild. 

                Further, the two main pitching prospects the Sox secured in the above transactions both carry some baggage. Giolito, at age 22, already has undergone elbow surgery, and Kopech, 20, has served a 50-game suspension for using a banned drug (an amphetamine) and broke his pitching hand in a fight with a minor-league teammate.  I saw Kopech pitch in a Fall League game last November. He walked six batters and hit one in 3 1/3 innings, but didn’t surrender a run. It’s going to be an interesting ride with that kid.

                No doubt, it’s going to be an interesting ride all around with the Sox. It’ll succeed if Hahn, et al, can pick ‘em as well as Epstein and Co. did. If not, well, Las Vegas should be an option.
               

                   
               
                 
               

               
                 


Wednesday, March 1, 2017

ALAN PAGE

                The NFL Network exists to promote the football league that owns it. Its daily programming off-season consists of shows in which commentators, many of whom are former players, obsess over the draft or personnel or front-office moves teams have or haven’t made and their supposed effects on the season to come.  In season the same guys blather about games that have been played and those that lie ahead, mostly without shedding much light on either. Shakespeare’s line about “sound and fury signifying nothing” fully applies.
                
                Occasionally, though, the channel does something that rates as journalism. One such was a recent episode of its “A Football Life” series that focused on Alan Page, the former Minnesota Viking and Chicago Bear defensive lineman. The fact that the life portrayed was about much more than football was what set it above the network’s usual fare.

                Just about everyone over age 50 knows the gridiron side of Page’s saga. An All-American at Notre Dame, 245 pounds of rompin’, stompin’ dynamite (thanks Alex Karras), he joined the Vikings in 1967 and with Carl Eller, Jim Marshall and Gary Larsen formed one of the game’s most-notable defensive lines, remembered as the “Purple People Eaters” after a novelty song of the era.

 Page led that foursome, quickly gained All-Pro status and, in 1971, became both the NFL’s top defender and its Most Valuable Player Award winner, the first man to combine those titles. His Minnesota teams played in four Super Bowls, and although they lost each time it’s the best the franchise ever has done. Waived during the 1978 season at age 33, he quickly signed on with Chicago, where he put in 3 ½ honorable seasons, never missing a start. In due course he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his native Canton, Ohio, a facility that, interestingly, he helped build during a summer construction job as a teenager.

Page’s life would have been remarkable if it had ended with his football retirement, as for practical purposes do those of most famous athletes. The best these guys aspire to is a long and peaceful interlude of golf and perfunctory employment requiring little besides bathing in the adoration to which they think their status entitles them. Indeed, as evidence mounts of the deleterious health effects of collision sports such as football and hockey, ex-players who emerge with their faculties intact can deem themselves lucky. One of the focuses of future research into repetitive brain trauma should be to identify what allows some men to survive those sports whole while others don’t.

As the NFL Network piece showed, Page was an exceptional sort of athlete from the outset. He enrolled in high school without gridiron dreams and the first extracurricular activity for which he was recruited  there was the band. Because of his size he was handed a tuba, an instrument he continues to play and enjoy.

  The football recruiters followed, and he excelled at the activity. When sudden high school BMOC status came with his displays of prowess, it set him to head scratching. “I wondered why this [football] was so important to people,” he recalls thinking.

Page paid attention in class in high school and at Notre Dame, from which he emerged with a degree in political science and academic as well as football honors. He showed up in Minneapolis as the Vikings’ top draft choice that year and immediately set himself apart from his fellow rookies by refusing to participate in a training-camp beer-chugging contest set up by team vets.

He went on to show his independence in other ways, some of which didn’t please his team or league. Among other things, he bridled at training-camp curfew rules, disdained autograph signing (although he’d chat with fans), enrolled in the U of Minnesota Law School while still a player and missed team events when they interfered with his studies, and became a leader of the NFL players’ union that staged strikes in 1970 and ‘74. Before and after he played he made it clear he didn’t like his “Purple People Eater” tag, explaining that he wasn’t purple and didn’t eat people.

The last straw for the Vikings came in 1977, when on health grounds he took up a regimen of long-distance running that pared his weight to an un-NFL-lineman-like 220 pounds. Midway through the next season the team cut him, a move that led to an estrangement that lasted until just a few years ago. He played at that weight through his 3 ½  seasons with the Bears, in one of which (1980) he was good enough to earn All-Conference honors.

The 1981 end of Page’s football career was the beginning of a what was, maybe, a better one in the law. He returned to Minneapolis to go into private practice, then became an assistant Minnesota attorney general. In 1992 he ran for and won a seat on the state’s supreme court, and was reelected several times before retiring at the mandatory age of 70 in 2015.  No ex-NFLer has climbed higher professionally except for the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Byron “Whizzer” White, who played in an era (1939-42) when pro football was an avocation.

Page did and does other things, including running 10 marathons, writing a couple of children’s books with his school-teacher daughter and sponsoring a national high-school essay contest on the value of education. In 1988, with his wife Diane, he began the Page Educational Foundation, which he’s funded more with his time and energy than with his money (when he played the average NFL salary was about $75,000 a year and he spent most of his legal life in public service).  Over 29 years the foundation has dispensed some $14 million in financial aid to about 6,500 minority-group college students, who in return must serve at least 50 hours a year volunteering in projects tied to elementary or high-school education.   

The awards the foundation makes have nothing to do with playing-field achievement. When a jock does come in for one, Page has advice for him or her. “Don’t major in football” or whatever other sport the kid plays, he tells them.  

Given the odds against any kind of sports career, that line should be on every school’s locker room walls.