Monday, January 15, 2018


                You’d think that a retired guy like me would have lots of time to watch sports on TV, and I do. I choose, however, not to give much of that time to professional football.

                I used to be a big fan of the National Football League, sitting transfixed in front of my tube for hours on Sundays, and on Monday nights. Hooked by a point-spread system that makes every contest an intriguing proposition, I bet on many of the games and won enough to maintain my interest. I could chat knowledgably about things like the West Coast offense and the Tampa 2 defense. I chuckled at the witticisms of Johnny Madden and wished that Dennis Miller would take his act elsewhere.

                I still watch some NFL games but fewer than before, and with less interest. When I watch now I almost always have a newspaper or crossword puzzle close at hand. I don’t think I’ve seen a half-dozen games beginning-to-end all season.  There are whole teams of which I can’t identify more than three or four players—or coaches, for that matter. I no longer bet on the games, saving the money for losing on the horses. Call it a reordering of priorities.

                It’s no news that I’m not alone in my change of heart. The NFL’s television ratings—the league’s bread and butter in what is basically a made-for-TV sport—have been down for two years now, with about a 9% overall ratings drop this season from last following an almost-identical result in 2016 from 2015. The league still is a TV powerhouse, outdrawing all other programming categories, but added up that’s an almost 20% decline, one that you can bet has rattled boardrooms on Madison Avenue and vicinity.

                There are reasons for the slump that have little to do with the game on the field. One is the fractionalizing of the TV audience that’s been in progress for decades. Another is the addition of Thursday- and Sunday-night games in recent years, which may have oversaturated the market. A third is the abandonment of regular TV by people wanting only the sort of quick updates and highlights they can get on their cellphones (I’m told—I don’t use one). Concentrating on one subject for more than a few minutes seems to be beyond many nowadays.  That doesn’t seem like a good thing, does it?

                Our president, Mr. Trump, takes credit for the trend because of his criticism of some NFL players (read that “black athletes”) for being insufficiently patriotic when they knelt during the playing of the national anthem during some early-season games to protest police brutality toward black suspects. He may have a point, but I suspect that his motive (beyond stirring up his “base”) stemmed mostly from personal pique against the league for rebuffing his team-ownership overtures over the years and embarrassing his old U.S. Football League in the courts in the mid-1980s. For more on the latter subject see Jim Byrne’s book, “The $1 League.”
         I’m generally for what Trump is against (and vice versa), so his barbs didn’t affect my thinking. My quarrel is with football itself and how the NFL presents it. Specifically, the league’s mulish insistence on “getting things right” through its endless reviews of game officials’ rulings has ruined the game’s continuity and, often, produces more questions than answers. Further, and more important, recent revelations about football’s physical toll on its players has mixed my admiration of those rugged guys with a big dose of pity. That feeling doesn’t make for happy viewing on a Sunday afternoon.

If you’ve followed my writings you know how I feel about video reviews of field-officials’ calls: I don’t like them. Sports are contested by humans and should be judged by them, period. If mistakes are made, too bad—everyone makes them—and in the long run they balance out.
            I know that technology isn’t going away and will forevermore be part of our games, but in its self-importance the NFL has made much too much use of it, abandoning its product to Talmudic discussions of its rules and their microscopic application. Better than any academic experiment the NFL’s multi-angled replays illustrate the elusive nature of truth.

 Making this exercise worse is the stupidity of some of those rules. A ball-carrier is awarded a touchdown if the nose of the ball grazes the end line, even if it’s immediately fumbled away, but to score a pass receiver not only must catch the ball securely and come down with it in the end zone but, it seems, take it to the sideline and turn it over to an equipment manager. It’s no wonder that every week some fans go away muttering that their teams were robbed.

Football always has been physically dangerous to its participants—more dangerous, I think, than non-players realize. To best appreciate its level of violence an NFL game must be viewed from the sidelines, where the sounds and the very feeling of its collisions can be experienced up close. The central fact of life in the league is that after the second or third week of a season every player plays injured, and few men escape even a short professional career without permanent damage to at least one bodily part. Add in the extra weight many of today’s players must carry to maintain their positions (300-pounders were all but unknown in the game 30 years ago) and you increase the possibility of heart problems.

 And in the last few years, despite the league’s camouflage efforts, the real dangers of head injuries have become clear, upping the ante many fold. Investigations into the subject are just beginning but I think it’s already evident that between a quarter and a third of NFL vets will have cognitive difficulties, i.e., scrambled brains, down the line.  

Yes, NFL players are volunteers, and well-paid ones, but one can only shake one’s head at the risks they run in the name of entertainment. That alone is enough to cause a change of channel.    


Monday, January 1, 2018


                Every year in late July Major League Baseball throws a party in the hard-to-reach little city of Cooperstown, New York, to welcome the new inductees to its Hall of Fame. This year’s party promises to be a big one.

                Two ex-players—pitcher Jack Morris and shortstop Alan Trammell—already have been elected by one of the Hall’s several veterans’ committees, and when the results of the annual balloting conducted by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America are announced on January 18 three and possibly four more names should be added to the list. The induction ceremonies are held outdoors, weather permitting, so attendees should be advised to wear hats or other sun protection for what promises to be a long afternoon of speech making.

                By virtue of my membership in the BWAA I was a Hall elector for 20 or so years before the shrine flushed older retirees from its voting rolls a couple of years ago.  Lifetime appointments of any sort are a bad idea so I had no problem with that, but although my votes no longer count I still can, and do, cast them in this, my personal venue. The nice thing about being a writer in this internet age is that one can continue to write, whether or not anyone is willing to pay for the output.

                The Hall’s multi-tier Vets Committee setup is a complicated one I won’t bother to explain here, but suffice it to say that its election of Morris and Trammell was unusual.  The last time it picked someone for a players’ wing plaque was in 2012 when it tabbed Ron Santo, the ex-Chicago Cubs third baseman, and the one before that was Joe Gordon, the ex-New York Yankees second baseman, in 2009. Santo had been dead for two years at his election and Gordon for 31 years at his, and one might ask if posthumous honors are worth presenting, but I’m sure the two men’s descendants appreciated theirs.

               Morris and Trammell are still with us and I thought their elections were justified otherwise, too. I supported both when they were on the writers’ ballot. Morris, a big-game pitcher without peer, was a near-miss with the writers, once (in 2013) having been named on 67% of their ballots (75% is required for election). Trammell never topped 40%, but I thought his record over 20 seasons with the Detroit Tigers was admirable. After his playing days ended in 1996 he stayed in baseball as a coach, manager and exec, and is well-liked in the game. That’s important with the vets, whose previous selections of the likes of Santo, Phil Rizzuto and Richie Ashburn had as much to do with their later-life popularity as broadcasters as with what they did with bat or glove. In my opinion.

Two players whose election by the writers now seems assured are TREVOR HOFFMAN and VLADIMIR GUERRERO. Relief-pitcher Hoffman, in his third year on the ballot, is second on the game’s all-time “saves” list, behind only Mariano Rivera. Last year he polled at 74%-- just five votes short of election among the 430 or so who voted—and no one has come that close without being elected the next year.

Guerrero was named on 71% of the ballots in 2017, his first time around, and likewise figures to get over the top this time. He was a free swinger who nonetheless had a .318 lifetime batting average over 16 Major League seasons, and his 2,590 career hits and 449 home runs also were Hall-appropriate. He was an erratic fielder and played outside the media spotlight (in Montreal and Anaheim) for most of his career. I thought it might take several years for the voters to warm up to him, but they did it quickly.

There are 19 new names on the current ballot, but only three—CHIPPER JONES, JIM THOME and OMAR VISQUEL—deserve serious attention.  Of those, Jones seems the likeliest of election. A third baseman, he was the main offensive engine of the Atlanta Braves teams that dominated the National League East during the 1990s and early 2000s, and his basic numbers (.303BA, 2,726 hits, 468 HRs) are comparable to Guerrero’s.

Sportswriters usually read the rest of their newspapers, so what a player does off the diamonds can weigh on his selection. Jones has a problem here because he’s a conspiracy theorist who opined publicly that the Sandy Hook shootings were a hoax perpetrated by gun-control advocates. In my view being a knucklehead shouldn’t count against one’s Hall credentials, but it does with some; CURT SCHILLING, the pitcher, saw his Hall vote drop to 45% last year from 52% the year before after he was fired by ESPN for firing off objectionable messages on social mediums.  Still, I think Jones will make it despite his baggage.

Thome qualifies because of one number—his 612 home runs, which rank 8th on the all-time list.  His problem is that he spent the last third of his 22-season career as a designated hitter and Hall voters haven’t been partial to these; even EDGAR MARTINEZ, for whom the game’s annual DH award is named, still is on the outside looking in after eight years on the ballot. I’d vote for both Thome and Martinez, but don’t expect either to get in this year.

The same goes for Visquel, a shortstop whose main qualification is the defensive wizardry he showed for a number of teams over 24 years. Glovemen don’t get their due in the Hall but Visquel should; he was the best I’ve seen at his demanding position outside of Ozzie Smith. Chances are he’ll have to inch his way up the ladder to get a plaque.

Electors can put up to 10 names on their ballots, so in addition to Hoffman, Guerrero, Jones, Thome, Visquel, Schilling and Martinez I’d ink in the 270-game-winning pitcher Mike Mussina, whom I’ve supported previously.  Schilling, Martinez and Mussina all have polled in the 50% range and it’s hard to see them breaking through this time. Ditto for the dopers Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, who were smacked down most recently by Joe Morgan.  Sins against the game should be disqualifying, I think. Most others we can live with.