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.