Wednesday, November 15, 2017


                Regular readers of this space know that I regard fall as the best season in the Arizona desert around Phoenix, my home for the last 20 years. The weather is warm but not hot, the breezes are gentle, the skies come in blues that defy artistic reproduction and the snowbirds have yet to return in force, meaning it’s still easy to get around. If I were visiting I’d do it in October or November instead of the February-March period when most cold-weather refugees choose to come.
              My regulars also know that October-November around Phoenix brings an added attraction: the Arizona Fall League. That’s the minor-league baseball finishing school to which the 30 Major League teams send some of their brightest young (mostly 20-23-year-old) prospects for extra seasoning against their better peers. Headquartered in six of the area’s fine spring-training ballparks, AFL teams each play 35-game schedules, mostly day games, in a six-week span that this year ends on Saturday (11/18). Admission is cheap ($8 for adults, $6 for seniors) and parking is free and close, and with an average attendance of about 600 a game everyone can have a great seat. If you have an opinion about the play at hand you can share it with your fellow fans merely by raising your voice.

                Lots of real baseball scouts show up—that’s a main reason the league exists—as well as lots of people who aspire to the title. I’m one of the latter and have a pretty good claim, if I must say so myself.  During the regular season I get a kick out of pointing out to friends the young players I’d tabbed for stardom through my Fall League observations. Through previous annual blogs on the subject I’ve brought to your attention the likes of Kris Bryant, Nolan Arenado, Evan Longoria, Francisco Lindor and Gary Sanchez, ex-AFLers who quickly made it big in the Bigs. Maybe you didn’t need to be Tony Lucadello to tab those guys, but there still is satisfaction in being able to say that you remember them when.
        No one I saw this season showed me the sort of can’t-miss talent those young men displayed. Plenty of future Major Leaguers strutted their stuff here—historically, about 60% of Fall Leaguers have made Major League rosters at one time or another-- but there were no eye-popping performances in the dozen games I attended during the league’s first five weeks. I’m thinking of the 2012 game in which a 21-year-old Billy Hamilton, the current Cincinnati Reds’ speedster, scored from first base on a ground-out to the pitcher. Yeah, he was off on a steal when the ball was pitched, but still…
             Among the better players I saw this season were a couple of shortstops, NICKY LOPEZ from the Kansas City Royals’ chain and THAIRO ESTRADA, with the New York Yankees. That’s not surprising because many of the best athletes at baseball’s lower levels start out at short and sometimes are moved to other positions as they climb the game’s ladder.

 Lopez, 22, is from Naperville, Illinois, and Creighton U., a fifth-round draft choice in 2016. He’s quick afoot and while he’s not big (5-foot-11, 185 pounds) he hits the ball with authority, as his seven extra-hits among his first 22 here attest. Also, his two-year minor-league log shows more walks than strikeouts, a rarity in this swing-for-the-fences era.
                Estrada, 21, is from Venezuela, and is built and plays like Lopez. Like many players born in Latin America he was signed and started playing professionally at age 16, and, thus, has a leg up developmentally on American players the same age. He’ll have to stand in line to play shortstop for the Yanks; last year’s AFL standout Gleyber Torres is only 20 and ranks ahead of him even though he lost much of last season to injury. Still, Estrada will play some place somewhere, in 2019 or sooner.

                RONALD ACUNA, 20, also from Venezula, in the Atlanta Braves’ chain, came here as a highly touted prospect and has justified the billing. In the one game I saw him play he walked twice, flied out to deep center and drove in the winning run with a solid single. A couple of nice catches in left field highlighted his athleticism. He’s listed 6-feet tall and 180 pounds but still led the league in home runs (with 7) at the start of this week.

JOSH NAYLOR, 20, from Canada, is a stocky left-handed hitter with good bat control and power potential, although finding a position for him may be a problem (he’s listed as a first baseman but also DHed here). He’s San Diego Padres’ property. SHELDON NEUSE (pronounced “noisy”), 23, an Oakland A, plays a nice third base and hits the ball hard. ERIC FILIA, a Seattle Mariner, another third baseman, is 25 years old—old for the AFL—and has a contorted batting stance, but straightens out well enough to be third in the league in hitting (at .373) during week five.

 ALEX JACKSON, 21, a big, solidly built catcher in the Atlanta Braves chain, will play in the Majors, if only to justify his being picked sixth overall in the 2014 draft. He’s not the slickest behind the plate but can hit with power, as his five AFL home runs show.  Skinny VICTOR REYES, 23, with the Arizona Diamondbacks, can hit for average, run and play the outfield. Outfielder YONATHAN DAZA, 23, with the Colorado Rockies, ought to be Major League-ready after seven minor-league seasons. Like Reyes he’s short on home-run power but makes good contact and uses the whole field.

Being a Chicago fan I always give special attention to Cubs and White Sox hopefuls, but this year neither sent their top prospects. The standout among them was an odd one—DAVID BOTE, a smallish, 24-year-old Cubs-chain second baseman. He was an 18th round pick in the 2012 draft and has a mediocre, six-year minor-league record capped last season at AA Knoxville, but has hit very well here, excelled in the field and made the league’s All-Star game. The Cubs seem to have a forever second baseman in Javier Baez so Bote probably is trade bait, but he looks like the scrappy type who’ll figure out how to make a Major League roster.

Pitchers are hard to scout in the AFL because they appear only every fourth or so game, and then for just a few innings. Two I saw a lot of were MAX FRIED, a 23-year-old lefty owned by the Braves, and MICKEY JANNIS, an ancient 29, with the New York Mets.

 Fried didn’t blow away hitters but has a full array of pitches and used them well. He was a first-rounder (in 2012) and, thus, will get a chance in the Bigs. Righty Jannis was drafted by Tampa Bay in the 44th round way back in 2010. He bombed out by 2011, spent three seasons honing a knuckleball in independent leagues and got back in the mix as a knuckler. He got AFL kids out so he’s doing something right, and I wish him luck moving ahead. The world needs more knuckleballers.


Wednesday, November 1, 2017


                The cable-news people tell me that when politicians want to slip something past the public they release it on a Friday afternoon, when people are distracted by thoughts of weekend pleasures. It appears that the National Collegiate Athletic Association goes by the same playbook.

               That became clear a couple of Fridays ago when the organization announced that it had completed a multi-year investigation of academic fraud at the University of North Carolina by ruling that the issue was outside its purview and required no penalties worthy of the name.  Sports are sports and academics are, uh, academic, it said, in case anyone had been silly enough to think otherwise. Let’s forget this mess and move on to our real purpose of staging entertainments and counting the revenues therefrom.

                Perhaps also aided by the much-showier recent scandal involving the use of shoe-company money to bribe prospective college basketballers—one that prosecutors say has yet to fully unfold—the NCAA pretty much got its wish. Folks in Tar Heel Land were pleased that the fraud issue finally went away, and only a few perennial scolds registered disapproval. Haters are gonna hate, ya know? There’s just no pleasing some people.

                Truth is, though, the North Carolina case ranks as maybe the worst instance yet revealed of institutional-mission abuse in the name of sports. Over a period of 18 years—1993 to 2011—the university harbored an academic shell department whose main purpose was to keep its athletes eligible. Other black-letter NCAA scandals— Penn State’s silence over an assistant football coach’s serial child molestations, Michigan’s reliance on a numbers-racketeer to keep its “Fab Five” basketball stars in spending cash, a Baylor basketball coach’s subornation of perjury in a murder investigation— were one-offs, outside the usual order of things. This was a day-in, day-out matter perpetrated by the eyes-wide-open officers of a university charged with acting in the best interests of their students.

                Making the action more loathsome was that the department involved was called African and Afro-American Studies (AFAM for short) and thus targeted the black students who comprise a large part of the varsity basketball and football manpower pools of a university that embraced desegregation slowly and reluctantly (others did, too). Some 3,100 students took classes in the department and about half of them were varsity athletes. That group made up just 4% of UNC’s undergrad population.

 College basketball and football players often are admitted to their schools despite academic shortcomings, meaning that many of them need special help to succeed in class. Instead, through AFAM North Carolina passed out A’s and B’s to enrollees who didn’t have to attend class and whose term papers, when required, could be written by others, various investigations showed.

                Further, these credits often were more than just stop-gaps for the otherwise qualified. This came out in 2014 when Rashad McCants, a star of UNC’s 2005 NCAA men’s national basketball championship team, sued UNC for pressing him into a sham education. Under the guise of privacy rules colleges guard their athletes’ transcripts like state secrets, but McCants included his in his filings. It showed that he’d received 10 A’s, six B’s one C and one D in the AFAM courses his coaches and team advisers recommended, and six C’s, one D and three F’s in courses he took outside the department.

                “When you go to college you don’t go to class, you don’t do nothing, you just show up and play,” McCants told one TV interviewer after filing his suit. “You’re not there to get an education, though they tell you that. You’re there to make revenue for the college—to put fans in the seats.”

                The “Alice In Wonderland” nature of the NCAA inquiry is seen in its definition of UNC’s no-show courses as a “benefit” to the athletes who received them, and in its failure to punish the school for them on grounds that some non-athletes also were permitted to enroll.   As a college freshman I might have thought that a free “A” was a wonderful thing, but the adults who ran the university and the panel that judged it knew better.

 Equally weird was the panel’s abdication on the simple and obvious point that anything amiss had taken place. “The NCAA defers to its member schools to determine whether academic fraud had occurred,” it stated, meaning, I guess, that in matters academic something is wrong only when the wrongdoer agrees it is. If this serves as a precedent, anything any unrepentant school does for or to its athletes in the classroom is off limits to future inquiry.

The span covered by the fraud included the terms five head football coaches at UNC and four head basketball coaches, including the late and sainted Dean Smith (1961-97) and the incumbent (and saint-to-be) Roy Williams, who was hired in 2003. It also covered the tenure of several top academic officers. Still, the only individuals singled out for rebuke in the probe were AFAM’s chairman and his secretary, both of whom are long gone from the university. They can be considered the equals of the hapless assistant coaches who typically take the brunt of the group’s sports penalties. The operative rule in college sports is the higher one ranks in an institution the less one is presumed to know, and the less responsibility one bears.

  Given its group’s history, the NCAA panel had plenty of precedence for ruling that classroom matters are none of its business; college sports long have been more about sports than about college. The case should have been the province of a national accrediting body, and UNC should have been labeled the diploma mill it was, or, maybe, still is.  You don’t hear much about those outfits, though, so college governance generally seems to be a lost cause.