Sunday, January 15, 2017


                It’s not a good idea for a business to antagonize its customers, but that news hasn’t reached Ken Kendrick, the principal owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball team.  In a startling display of boneheadedness, that organization recently sued its landlord, Maricopa County, to break its 30-year lease on what’s currently called Chase Field, the ballpark in which it plays. In other words, it is suing the taxpayers of the county, who make up the large majority of its fans.
               Almost equally head-scratching is the argument the team has employed to support its legal position.  A year ago it demanded that the county undertake $187 million worth of repairs to the facility, including ones it pointedly linked to the facility’s safety. The county demurred, countering that the work required was largely cosmetic and, thus, the team’s responsibility. Not so, the team has declared, leaving people who attend its games to wonder whether the upper deck will collapse while they are sitting on or under it. How’s that for a sales incentive? Throw in the team’s not-so-veiled threat to move if it doesn’t get its way and you have a real trifecta of turnoffs.

                The suit might not be startling if Chase Field were a crumbling wreck, but it ain’t. While it’s not exactly a field of dreams, with dark-green seats lending a gloomy air and exposed metal work making it look industrial, it’s a thoroughly serviceable facility, topped by a retractable roof that’s hailed as state of the art and an efficient air-conditioning system that’s necessary on Phoenix’s many 100-plus-degree spring and summer nights.

                 Completed in 1998, its construction price was $364 million, of which $253 million, or close to 70%, came from a ¼-cent, countywide sales tax devoted exclusively to that purpose. Arizona is a tax-averse state and the levy wasn’t achieved without bloodshed, literally; a county supervisor who favored it was shot in the butt by an irate citizen after a contentious public hearing on the subject.

                Owner Kendrick came to the sports biz after making his pile in computer-software development and banking. He was part of the expansion team’s original partnership and succeeded to the top managerial role in 2004, when the group bought out Jerry Colangelo, the D’backs’ first top dog.

                Colangelo is a unique figure in Phoenix, maybe the city’s leading businessman of the last 50 years. A native of a blue-collar suburb south of Chicago and a basketball player at the U of Illinois, he hustled himself a job in the NBA Chicago Bulls’ front office after college in 1962, and when the then-nickel-and-dime league expanded to Phoenix in 1968 came to town as its general manager.  In due course he acquired a chunk of the Suns and ran them, moved them into a new, downtown arena, helped bring a National Hockey League franchise to the city, brought Major League Baseball there and convinced the citizenry to okay his stadium-financing plan.

                Colangelo knew that baseball would be a hard sell in a desert burg with little history of the game, where low-wage jobs predominate despite the area’s patina of palm-lined wealth and where many transplants maintain their ties to the teams of their cities of origin. Thus, he broke the expansion-team mold by paying up quickly for the likes of the pitchers Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling and surrounding them with a veteran cast. When the D’backs won the World Series in 2001— their fourth year of existence—he gave them instant identity.

                But Colangelo did not endear himself to his D’back partners, who after replacing him with Kendrick did their best to erase his mark on the team, down to changing its colors.  They also went from winners to losers, posting just three plus-.500 seasons in Kendrick’s 13 seasons at the controls. Over the same period they’ve had five general managers and six field managers, seven if you include Kendrick’s initial hire, Wally Backman. He was fired four days after he was hired in 2004 when an arrest record and financial problems that might have been revealed by a routine Google search came to light.

                The team also has distinguished itself by its last-season award of a six-year, $206 million contract to a single player— pitcher Zack Greinke. That deal works out to about $35 million a year, more than one-third of its entire 2015 payroll, and by many accounts has handcuffed the team in making moves that might improve on its 69-93 won-lost record. Greinke’s earned run average last season was 4.37, above average (that’s bad) for all big-league pitchers.

                Maybe worst, the D’backs have been a flop at the box office for more than a decade . Attendance in 2002, the season after its championship, came to 3.2 million, but it’s been downhill since and has hovered around the 2 million mark since 2005, putting it in the game’s bottom third in that category. Not only can’t the team sell tickets, it hasn’t been able to give them away; in 2011, when it was battling for a divisional crown, it offered for $5 each all upper-deck seats at Chase Field for most of the month of September. The deep discount barely moved the attendance needle.

                I think it’s worth noting that Kendrick and his wife Randy have been generous donors to the right-wing political network headed by the Koch brothers; indeed, the Kendricks received prominent mention in Jane Mayer’s book “Dark Money,” which traced the influence of the group’s often-subterranean contributions.  The Kochs, et al, hold that government-aid recipients are undeserving moochers. Apparently, Kendrick makes an exception when it’s his hand that’s out.   


Sunday, January 1, 2017


                The notion that sports and politics are separate realms is well entrenched in some circles, but decades of evidence contradicts it. Hitler didn’t think so in 1936 when he used the Summer OIympics in Berlin to highlight his racist and nationalist theories. After World War II the Communist Bloc nations, led by the Soviet Union, made athletic success a cornerstone of their assertions about the primacy of socialism. East Germany in particular carried out a systematic program of doping to enhance its medal counts in Olympic swimming, track and field and other sports.  The primitive state of knowledge in the 1970s and ‘80s about the long-term consequences of steroid use left a trail of genetic damage in that sad country’s wake.
                 No nation, however, has manipulated sports and the athletes who play them to the extent that Vladimir Putin’s Russia has. A stream of reports has laid out a pattern of drug abuse that has stretched back for years and corrupted the results of numerous events, including the Summer and Winter Olympic Games dating at least from 2008. The most recent of these, published in December by the World Anti-Doping Agency, said that more than 1,000 Russian athletes in 30 sports have been involved, and this may be only the visible part of the iceberg.

                “It is impossible to know just how deep and far back this conspiracy goes,” said Richard McLaren, WADA’s Canadian point man. He added that “immutable facts” made clear that “for years international sports competitions have been hijacked by the Russians.”

                Although allegations of widespread Russian doping had been circulating for years, the first definitive evidence surfaced last May, just before the Summer Games in Rio. The primary source was none other than Grigory Rodchenkov, who’d directed the country’s athletics-drug-testing laboratory from 2005 through 2015 before escaping for his life to the United States after information about the machinations began to leak. He told the New York Times that not only had he falsified numerous positive drug tests during that period, he also ran the program that prescribed and prepared the potions the athletes took.  In other words, in Putin’s Russia the dopers and the testers were one and the same.

 The effort, Rodchenkov said, peaked at the 2014 Winter Olympics the Russians hosted in Sochi, where clean urine samples by the score were smuggled through a hole in the wall of the main testing facility, to be substituted for tainted samples while agents of Russia’s counterpart of our FBI stood guard. It sounded like something out of an Austin Powers movie, but it rang true.

                That story broke less than 90 days before the start of the Rio Games, leaving Olympics’ officials scrambling for a response. The Games’ formal motto is “Citius, Altius, Fortius,” which is Latin for “faster, higher, stronger,” but the real motto is “the show must go on,” and it applies no matter what the circumstances.  Rather than slapping a much-deserved blanket ban on Russian participation, the International Olympic Committee punted the matter to the individual governing bodies of the fest’s 26 sports. A few—most notably track and field and weightlifting—sent the Russians packing, but most equivocated under one guise or another. In all, 291 Russian athletes were allowed to march and compete. They won 55 medals, the fourth-most on the national table.

                Equally important, no action was taken on the future competitions Russia was schedule to host, including the 2018 soccer World Cup, the most-important (and lucrative) international event outside the Olympic calendar. This was despite Russia’s response to the doping charges, which, typically, has consisted mainly of blustery denials and attacks on those bringing them. Apparently, there’s no Russian word for “shame.”

                But the new allegations, which show that the Russian plot was wider and deeper than was supposed last summer, is having an effect. Interestingly, the gutsiest salvo came not from any of the globe’s athletic superpowers but from little Latvia, a nation of about two million people on the Baltic Sea that spent almost 50 years as an imprisoned Soviet republic and still could be knocked over by a swipe of the Russian bear’s paw.

 Small as it is, Latvia is a factor in winter sports, and a couple of weeks ago its sledding federation announced it would boycott the world skeleton and bobsled championships scheduled for Sochi in February. While previous protests were limited to grumbling by individual athletes, Latvia took a public and forthright stance. Sochi, the Latvian organization declared in a statement, is “the place where the Olympic spirit was stolen in 2014. Enough is enough.”

Facing a nation-by-nation boycott, the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation withdrew the entire competition. Other, similar actions followed, including the removal of World Cup events in speed skating and cross-country skiing. 

The indictment of Russia continues to mount as retests of urine samples taken at past Summer and Winter Olympics proceed and more of its athletics are stripped of their medals. Sports boycotts are nothing new— witness the U.S. action against the 1980 Moscow Games for the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan and the retaliatory actions against the 1984 Los Angeles Games. Russian’s crimes against sport alone justify another, but if those aren’t enough throw in Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, his abetting of the slaughter in Syria, his suppression of dissent at home and his schemes to undermine the internal politics of the U.S. and Europe.  

The 2018 World Cup should be the target. That would get Putin’s attention, sure enough.