Thursday, June 15, 2017


                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


                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 or, or at your local bookstore.