Wednesday, March 15, 2017


                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


                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.