Wednesday, February 15, 2017


                Everyone I know knows I’m a Chicago Cubs’ fan, and they also know that the Cubs last season broke their epic World Series victory drought. Many of them assume I’ve been on Cloud Nine since the last out of the agonizing Cubs win over the Cleveland Indians in WS game seven last Nov. 2.
                 Not wanting to disappoint, I usually respond positively to questions about my supposed euphoria over my team’s long-awaited success. Yes, I say, my life has improved: I’ve lost 15 pounds, my hair is growing back dark and my step is longer and lighter. I have to carry weights to keep from floating away.

                The truth is that the trophy made me happy but not in any life-changing way. I’ve never been the kind of fan who lives and dies with his teams; if I were I wouldn’t have made it past my bar mitzvah. As a kid I never collected autographs or engaged in other forms of athlete-idolatry, and my term as a sports writer taught me that good guys and jerks are pretty much randomly distributed among the big-time sports-team rosters. Even my long-time antipathy toward the New York Yankees faded when I found Joe Torre, their 1990s’ manager, to be a pleasant and civil man.

                This doesn’t mean I’m not looking forward eagerly to the coming baseball season. The words “pitchers and catchers report,” which herald the start of spring training, are echoing this week through the ballyards of Arizona and Florida, and I am atingle as usual. Indeed, the older I get the more I like baseball, especially the cerebral side of it. The lulls in action between batters and pitches, disliked by many, allows the fan to scheme along with the participants and compare his or her tactical judgements with theirs. No other sport provides such a rich environment for second-guessing.

                And, yes, the prospect of another brilliant Cubs’ season is bracing. Indisputably, the team is loaded, and in the best-possible way—with a roster full of young stars that promises to contend for titles for at least the next few years. Still, I recognize that repeating as champions will not be cakewalk, whatever a cakewalk is; other teams also can play and the Cubs last season were extraordinarily lucky in the injury department, especially with their starting pitching.

 Fat-headedness, too, could mess things up—recall that the football Chicago Bears looked to be on the verge of creating a dynasty after their 1985 Super Bowl victory only to run afoul of the colliding egos in their locker room, not the least of which belonged to their coach, Mike Ditka. I take it as a good sign that Joe Maddon, the Cubs’ manager, spent the off season ‘laxing with his loved ones instead of making the late-night TV-interview-show rounds, and that I’ve heard of no plans to open a restaurant bearing his name in Chi-Town.

There is, however, a fly in the ointment, a cliché that requires no elaboration. The Cubs’ triumph has capped a process that has jacked the prices of their spring-training game tickets beyond the point of reason for this Arizona resident, so much so that I am pretty much opting out of the annual ritual. What used to be a pleasant interlude in the desert has become an expensive hassle, the smell of greed replacing that of suntan lotion on sunny March baseball afternoons.

When wife Susie and I moved to AZ in 1997, spring training was one of the draws. The January day Cubs’ tickets went on sale at their former HoHoKam Park base in Mesa I’d show up about an hour before the box office opened, wait maybe another 30 minutes, and buy prime seats for six or eight spring games, paying about $15 to $18 each, no problem. A few years later my pal Chuck Brusso, my main spring-game companion, developed a connection with a spring season-ticket holder that enabled us to purchase at face value excellent seats (six rows up, just to the third-base side of home plate) to a bunch games without having to queue up. That arrangement lasted until the year before last, and while the per-game price climbed to about $30 I still considered it digestible.

In 2015, though, Theo Epstein’s rebuilding plan yielded fruit with a playoff berth, and Cubs mania took full hold the next spring. The nice person who shared her tix with Chuck and me stopped returning our calls, no doubt finding better customers in the scalper websites that flourish on-line. Indeed, almost from the git-go now individual-ticket buyers no longer deal the Cubs but must buy from the scalpers, and prices of $80 and up for any decent seat at Sloan Park are common with the really good ones listed for as much as $200. Even admissions to the grassy berm beyond the outfield fences fetch $35 to $50 on-line, about three times the rate of a few years ago. 

I circumvented that last year by going to Cubs’ games in other clubs’ spring parks, but a web browse shows that avenue no longer exists. Other teams have wised up and are changing almost as much for the contests as the Cubs do at their Mesa domicile.

“When you got it, flaunt it” has become sports’ byword, and the Cubs are doing at Wrigley Field what they do in Mesa. According to the Chicago Tribune the team raised average 2017 regular-season ticket prices by almost 20% over 2016, with 30% boosts for some of the better seats. A season box seat this year has a price tag of $29,089.76, if you can believe it, or an average of $359 a game. Bleacher seats will average $51; in ancient days when I was a kid they went for 25 cents. You can about double all those current prices if you deal with an Internet shark.

There’s a way around this excess, and I’m glad to share it. For about $165 you can sign up for Major League Baseball’s “Extra Innings” TV package, which will put on your home screen just about every game that’s televised anywhere during the regular campaign. That works out to about seven cents a game, and while you can’t watch them all it’s a bargain if you use it just two or three times a week.

Tell ‘em Fred sent you. You won’t get a discount but we both can feel the smart-move vibe.



Wednesday, February 1, 2017

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I turn 79 tomorrow (made it again!) but am no smarter than I was last year at this time and still have more questions than answers. Here are some of them:

--When did saying “that’s a good question” to a news-media query become a substitute for a good answer?

--When did motorists stop signaling their turns and lane changes, or is that only in Arizona?

--Why do waitresses always say “there you go” when bringing your food, instead of “here you are”? Do they teach that in waitress school?

--How come “further” has replaced “farther” when the usage clearly is one of distance, not rhetoric?

--Why does anyone still use an airline credit card when the miles are almost impossible to redeem for flight tickets?

--Is it possible to slice a bagel or English muffin in two without getting one fat piece and one skinny one?

--Do the people who want to deport all the Latin American “illegals” know that would shut down just about every hotel, restaurant and construction site in the Southwest?

--Why are people always shocked over the frequent mass and accidental shootings in this land? It’s the inevitable result of mixing 300 million people with as many firearms.

--When did hospital billing lose all contact with reality?

--Is there a worse, balkier website on the internet than the Chicago Tribune’s? I can’t check into it without seeing the “recover webpage” box at least a couple of times, suffering through interminable ad downloads, popups and “long-running script” delays (whatever they are), and getting bounced when trying to shift from a story to the home page.  The darned thing doesn’t even scroll well.

--Why does my printer have to crank out four or five pages of extraneous matter every time I want a copy of a simple email receipt?

--Whatever happened to “restless leg syndrome”? Was a magical cure found?

--How will the auto companies sell driverless cars to an American public that, pretty much, likes to drive? How will the two types of vehicles co-exist on the roads? Will driverless cars have horns? Will your insurance premiums go up when your driverless car is involved in an accident? Who will a driver have to curse out when he hits or is hit by a driverless car?
               --Did anyone else notice that an ISIS application form made public contained a check box asking if the applicant wanted to be a suicide bomber?
              --What did people do for entertainment before Netflix?

--Why do computers keep getting less reliable? I used to be able to keep one for three or four years but now two’s the max. If cars were like computers the highways would be littered with derelict vehicles.
            --Relatedly, what’s up with the way Microsoft seizes our computers so it can install “updates” that bring no observable improvements?  If it must do those things, why can’t it do them at night when they would cause a minimum of bother?

-- Have there ever been uglier sports-team uniforms than the all-dark-grays the Arizona Diamondbacks wore on the road last season? They looked like sewer workers on break.

-- When will the NFL realize that the viewership slump for its games has paralleled the rise in video reviews of officials’ calls?  Is there anything more boring than hearing TV commentators debate when a runner’s knee touched the ground?

-Must her roof fall on her head before the Oklahoma governor admits that fracking causes earthquakes?

--Have you noticed that the prices of lots of things have gone up recently, after a very long period of stability?

--So why do so many people still preface every statement with the word “so”?
            --Did Tim Tebow really believe he could launch a baseball career at age 29 after not having played since high school? Did the Mets sign him for any reason other than jersey sales?
             --Why do my brilliant (but infrequent) Facebook posts disappear instantly while ones I find annoying hang around for days?
              --Why do American institutions and companies always seem to be the victims in large-scale computer hacks? Are other countries’ nerds that much smarter than ours?
              --How will Donald Trump’s fans in Appalachia and the Midwest react when they discover that their old mine or factory jobs won’t be returning?  How will they like the higher prices at Walmart when his promised tariffs on Chinese- or Mexican-made goods kick in? Do they believe his millionaire and billionaire cabinet appointees will act in their interests?  Will they be jubilant when the ACA is replaced by the opportunity to open health-care savings accounts?

             --Relatedly, when did subscribing to the New York Times start to feel like a patriotic virtue?