Sunday, October 15, 2017

WANNA BET?

                Sometime this month the U.S. Supreme Court is supposed to hear a case that could change a lot about American sports.  It’s a challenge to a 1992 Federal law called the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, which, like many laws in this land, isn’t about what its title suggests. Rather, it deals with sports gambling, and which states can and can't offer it.
              
                The states that can at present are Nevada, Delaware, Montana and Oregon, all of which had passed legislation permitting the practice before the Federal law was enacted. But that list, too, is misleading, because only in Nevada can people bet on sports on a game-by-game basis, in most of the many casinos that operate in the state. Delaware permits only parlay-card betting on professional football, while Montana and Oregon never used their authority to put gambling mechanisms into place.

                But then came Chris Christie, New Jersey’s estimable governor, with a proposal to break the ban in his state, and in 2014 the legislature there agreed with an eye toward ginning up some tax revenue and reviving the moribund fortunes of the Atlantic City gambling mecca. It sued to do so on constitutional grounds, and even though the last appellate court to take the action ruled against it the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case during its current session.

 A decision should come early next year, and if New Jersey prevails a lot of other states are expected to join it. Eilers & Krejcik Gambling, a firm that tracks state gambling laws, said in a recent report that with a favorable ruling legal sports betting could be offered in as many as 32 states within five years. New York, California and Pennsylvania are among those in which bills to enable this already are being pushed. That’s a big chunk of the country’s population right there.

Now, everyone who’s been paying attention knows that the fact that sports betting is illegal in most parts of the U.S. hasn’t stopped people from doing it—not nearly. Illegal bookmaking and online betting through offshore locations flourish across the country and few people who patronize them feel the least bit guilty about it. I put myself in that category. With all the participants being volunteers, it’s about as close to a victimless crime as you can get.

You also can make a case that having gangsters run the betting has helped keep American sports clean. That’s because the losers in any successful effort to “fix” a game for a betting return would be some faction of Da Mob, and nobody wants to get on the bad side of those guys.

 Even if you don’t buy that reasoning it’s impossible to deny that big-time American sports have an extraordinary record of gambling-related cleanliness compared with those of other countries. Since the massive 1951 scandal involving City College of New York and other schools, point-shaving revelations have been few and far between, quite-small affairs involving local bookies and one or a few college basketball or football players at such schools as Boston College (1979), Tulane (1985) Northwestern (1998) or Toledo  (2003).

Professional team sports have been cleaner yet in the past 50 years with only the 2007 episode involving NBA referee Tim Donaghy to mar them, and Donaghy insisted to his prison cell that he was in the scheme only as a handicapper, not a fixer. Baseball was hurt by Pete Rose’s heavy involvement with bookies, but he never was accused of dumping a game in which he played or managed. Withal, the prosperity of U.S. pro sports in recent decades is seen as the most-potent insurance against any such action; no likely betting score would be big enough to justify the risk a highly paid player or coach would take to join in pulling one off.

The national betting pool is huge and both a cause and effect of sports’ burgeoning popularity. Just how big it is depends on how you measure it. Say someone bets $100 each (forgetting for now the 10% “vig”) against the point spread on five NFL games one Sunday, and wins with three of them. Would the economic activity come to the $500 he wagers or the $100 in winnings that actually changes hands?  

 Either way it’s plenty—billions of dollars—and our perennially strapped states would love to get their tax hooks into some of it. Polls I’ve seen show that most people approve of or have no issue with legal sports gambling, and casinos, lotteries or horse or dog tracks already exist in just about every state. Our major professional leagues used to be unanimous in their disapproval of taking Las Vegas-style sports betting national, but Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner, now says it’d be okay with him, and Rob Manfred, the baseball guy, seems to agree. The NFL remains on the fence officially, but after endorsing fantasy-football websites, approving a franchise for Las Vegas and producing encyclopedic weekly injury reports for gamblers’ perusal it hardly can be seen as anti. The NCAA sham-ams can be counted upon to say “no” while happily benefiting from the widespread gambling interest their games generate.

A green light for state-by-state sports gambling won’t make it magically spring into existence.  In every capitol there will be tugs of war over whether the state will be the bookie or that function will be turned over to casinos or other private interests.  If it’s the latter, look for battles over who’ll get the plums and whether ex-illegals can be involved in their operation. Who, after all, has more experience in the “industry” than the people who’ve been running it forever?

Fay Vincent, a former baseball commissioner (1989-92) and a smart guy, has been quoted as saying that betting legalization would be the biggest thing to happen to American sports since the advent of television. I disagree; most of the people who want to bet already are doing it.  It’d be big, though, probably in some ways we can’t foresee. 


Friday, September 29, 2017

UBI EST MEA?

                My dictionary defines the word scandal as “an action or event regarded as morally wrong that causes general public outrage,” but one has to strain to see those elements in the latest college-sports episode involving the arrests of 10 men accused of running a ring to bribe basketball recruits. At best, the moral part of the question is, uh, questionable, and the outrage has been muted if there’s been any at all. As has become increasingly clear to anyone who’s been paying attention, it simply describes business as usual in an enterprise that rivals few in this land for corruption and hypocrisy.

               I and others have been railing for years (decades!) about the failings of college sports, to no avail. They only get worse as the money pot grows and our institutions of higher learning twist themselves out of shape to grab their share of it. Coaches and administrators turn blind eyes to the offenses going on under their noses and lie about their knowledge when they’re exposed. It’s part of their jobs.

The main victims are the so-called student-athletes who fuel the beast and, mostly, are discarded when they’re of no further use. The joke in communist Russia was that the people pretended to work and the state pretended to pay them. In college sports the athletes pretend to go to school and the schools pretend to graduate them.

What’s different about the current matter is its scope and specificity.  Scooped up in a federal probe announced last Tuesday in New York were assistant coaches at four top-flight hoops schools—Arizona, Auburn, Oklahoma State and Southern California-- two employees of the international shoe company Adidas, two financial advisers, a players’ agent and (!) a custom tailor. Making a long story short, it’s alleged that Adidas and the other business types funneled money to the coaches to pay basketball prospects to attend their schools and, later, turn their representation over to them when (if) they turned pro. I’m really interested to know how the tailor figured into this. Are new suits that expensive these days?

Prosecutors said the three-year FBI investigation that led to the charges is continuing and that their net probably would widen in the weeks ahead. That was clear from the inclusion in the arrest documents of two more schools that were described but not named, but were named later as the U’s of Louisville and Miami. It was alleged that basketball prospects or their families received upwards of $100,000 each from Adidas, et al, to enroll there. Rick Pitino, the Louisville coach with a long and sordid rap sheet, was placed on “administrative leave” by the school on Wednesday, so there should be more from that quarter. It also was reported that employees of Nike, another big shoe company, have been subpoenaed, opening another avenue of inquiry.

Legally speaking this is serious stuff, with violations of U.S. bribery, conspiracy, honest-services fraud and wire-fraud statutes involved. One piece I read said that if convicted of all charges the coaches could face maximum sentences of 80 years in prison.  For men in their 40s or 50s, as the coaches seem to be, those are life sentences, the fed-max they’d get for murder. If nothing else that should encourage them to make nice with the prosecutors as the case unfolds.

Really, though, it should be asked who the immediate victims are. They certainly don’t seem to be the willing companies, which regard the bribes as seed money. The public universities for which the coaches worked also deserve no pity because their athletics-first practices created the situation that nurtured the mess. In Arizona, where I live, legislative penury long has starved public higher education, causing tuition at Arizona State University to more than triple in the last 15 years, but the school still has found $300 million to renovate its football stadium.

One of the prosecutors interviewed on TV likened the accused conspirators to a pack of coyotes yipping and nipping at befuddled recruits, but the comparison rang false. That gang didn’t want to eat the kids, it wanted to take them out to dinner, and who could blame them for accepting? Remember that an athlete taking money to attend a college might violate NCAA rules but it ain’t against the law. A stigma may attach but basketballers Chris Webber and Marcus Camby and football player Reggie Bush took illicit money and went on to have lucrative pro careers, with all attendant honors.

 The idea that big-time college basketball and football recruiting involves only the kids and their parents, and maybe a high-school coach, is way out of date. Today the scene is a swamp in which agents’ runners, “street” agents, club-team coaches and their sponsors (mainly the shoe companies) and all sorts of hangers on also swim, and the coach that can’t navigate it doesn’t last long. Word travels fast in that milieu and exchanges of money don’t stay secret long.

 The probe is sure to enliven the “just pay ‘em” crowd, which believes that salaries for college athletes would solve all problems. I don’t buy that on a number of grounds. Making the kids employees would further devalue whatever the educational side of their scholarships is worth, and if $100,000 is the going rate to rent a blue-chip hoops recruit for a year or two, the price tag would be very high. Too, making people richer doesn’t make them less greedy, so under-the-table deals would continue.  One of the assistant coaches named in the action, Chuck Person of Auburn, had a 14-season NBA career (1987-2001) in which he earned about $23 million, and his Auburn salary was reported at $240,000 a year, so he’s hardly on the dole.

American college sports are like such other corrupt enterprises as the Olympics and international soccer in that they are inundated with money and poorly prepared to deal with it, either philosophically or organizationally. Billions of dollars are raining in from TV-rights sales, gate receipts and shoe-company largess, and plenty of people have their hands out to get some of it, one way or another.

 Surveying the perennially graft-ridden Chicago political scene, the late newspaper columnist Mike Royko wrote that instead of “Urbs in Horto” (meaning “City in a Garden”) Chicago’s Latin motto should be “Ubi Est Mea?”, for “Where’s Mine?” The same goes for our college sports.
 




Friday, September 15, 2017

NEWS & VIEWS

                NEWS: The Red Sox and Yankees swap charges of sign stealing.
               
                VIEW: I’m shocked. Shocked!

                The New York Yankees accused the Boston Red Sox of stealing their catchers’ hand signals during an August series in Fenway Park. The Red Sox pretty much admitted it but countered that the Yanks have been doing pretty much the same thing—so there!  Baseball is investigating.

                This sort of stuff always makes me laugh because sign-stealing is an integral part of many sports, including baseball and football. Further, it’s okay has long as it’s done manually, as it were, using only eyes and hand signals. Probably the most famous hit in Major League Baseball history—Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” home run for the Giants against the Dodgers in a 1951 playoff game—was abetting by a stolen sign. One guy, Joe Nossek, fashioned a 30-year career (1973-2003) as a coach largely around his ability as a sign thief.

                The rules rub comes when electronics are involved, like the buzzer used by the Giants’ center field spy to relay calls to the dugout in that memorable 1951 contest or, apparently, the Apple watch a Red Sox trainer wore to convey tips to his team’s batters. Electronic devices such as cell phones are barred from baseball dugouts but the Apple thing looks like a regular wrist watch rather than the tiny computer it is. So when the trainer’s watch read “curve ball” instead of 3 p.m., he was busted, or somesuch.

                I have no doubt other teams do what the Red Sox and Yanks are accused of; the standard TV shot from center field shows catchers’ signs on every pitch and it’s too much to expect that someone who can read them isn’t watching and passing them along. Ditto, probably, with lip reading, which is why so many mouths are comically covered during baseball’s many mound meetings. As the Madden 18 ads say, it’s in the game, and if you’re not cheating you’re not trying.

    NEWS: All four singles semifinalists in the recent U.S. Open women’s tennis tournament were Americans.
                
                VIEW: That’s really shocking.
                
                Except for two young women named Williams, American tennis has been in eclipse during the current century, with almost no other representation in the game’s upper reaches. Prior to Sloane Stephens’ victory this month no American woman other than Serena or Venus Williams had won a Grand Slam singles title since Jennifer Capriati did it in Australia in 2002, and no U.S. man has done it since Andy Roddick won in Flushing Meadows in 2003.

                That development coincided with some sea changes in the sport, in which more-powerful rackets largely negated the service edge, wiping out stylistic differences and turning every match into a baseline slog, and rising pro prize money broadened its appeal to prospective players. Time was when tennis (like golf) was a country-club sport in which the need for expensive facilities, equipment and instruction largely limited participation to the children of the well-off families that could afford them. Now tennis stresses the sort of stamina and mental toughness that demands players’ total commitment from age 8 or 9 and makes it a target for lower-income parents who see their athletic offspring as meal tickets.  Non-country-club Europeans have taken over men’s tennis and most of the top women’s ranking spots. Not coincidentally, European men have attained parity with Americans in golf and Asians rule that sport’s female side. The U.S. Open tennis breakthrough shows, at least, that more American women have caught up in the dedication category.

                It also underlines the remarkableness of the Williams sisters, who together have won 30 Grand Slam singles crowns (Serena has 23) since 1999, plus many Olympic medals and countless doubles trophies. Their athleticism may have been inborn but their longevity at the top has been hard earned.

                I was working when the sisters broke onto the tennis scene and, somehow, often found myself being talked at by their mythomaniacal dad, Richard. He delighted in telling me how his daughters’ court success was due soley to the coaching of himself and his rotund (now ex) wife Oracene even though it was well known that they’d attended top-level tennis academies, and how tennis was just a passing fancy for the girls and that they’d soon be off making their marks in fields as diverse as fashion design and computer programming. Now Venus is 37 years old and still at it while Serena, 35, is plotting her return from childbirth. I guess that, like most kids, they tuned out dad early on.

                NEWS: Cohen and Epstein rumble on the gridirons.

                VIEWS: I’m really, really shocked.

                My two favorite football teams are the Chicago Bears and the University of Illinois, so football seasons long have been unhappy for me. This one began as more of the same, with both struggling as usual to attain a mediocrity that appears to be beyond their reach. 

                Lo and behold, however, the leading running back for the Bears to date is a guy named Tarik Cohen, while one Mike Epstein is the same for the Illini. Notable Jewish football players of any kind are rare, but running backs? No way!

                Cohen was a surprise draftee, a little guy for pro football (5-foot-6, 180 pounds) out of a small college in North Carolina, but he’s freakily athletic (check out a Youtube video of him catching footballs with each hand while doing a back flip), very fast and versatile, a pass-catcher as well as a runner.  He’s been compared to Darren Sproles, another little guy who’s carved out a nice career at the position.

  Alas, I’ve checked around, including contacting a sports writer friend in Chicago, and found that despite his Hebraic last name Mr. Cohen probably isn’t Jewish. I expected as much because he’s African-American and has a Muslim-sounding first name.  Who knows, though—maybe he could switch. If he joined my tribe he’d never lack for Friday-night dinner invitations.

 Freshman Epstein seems to be Jewish, at least by self-identity. He’s from Florida and was highly recruited out of high school. Goodness knows why he picked Illinois, but he’s rushed for 165 yards in the school’s first two games and seems to be the real deal. He’s no immediate Heisman prospect but we old Illini don’t expect that. Pretty good is good enough for us.
               


               

                

Friday, September 1, 2017

KAEPERNICKED

                Would Colin Kaepernick have an National Football League job if he were apolitical?
               
                The answer, in a word, is yes.

                The free agent is 29 years old, in his physical prime, and a six-year-veteran pro quarterback, most of it as a starter. In his first full NFL season (2012) he led his team, the San Francisco 49ers, to the Super Bowl, coming up just short of winning it. The next season the team went 12-4 in the regular season and made it to the conference final. He’s as good a runner as a passer (better, probably), and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. By all accounts he’s been a good and diligent teammate.

                Yeah, his last couple of seasons weren’t great, but he battled injuries and the Niners were in general decline during their course. And we’re talking about a roster spot here—not necessarily a starting job—and backup NFL QBs make big money walking the sidelines wearing baseball caps and holding clipboards on game days. He’s certainly more talented than most of the men slated to do that.

By cultural definition Kaepernick is black, although his birth mother was white and he carries the name of the adoptive white family that raised him. He sports a big afro, which harks back to the days when that was the hairstyle of choice of black militants and still sets some teeth on edge. So, too, did his chosen method of protest, which was to sit or kneel during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner”, the national anthem, before his team’s games.

 His specific issue was the predilection of some policemen to shoot first and ask questions later when dealing with black suspects. A lot of people, whites as well as blacks, also don’t like that, but in messin’ with the anthem he not only changed the subject but also fuzzed his point, which was unfortunate, I think.  Clarity is a virtue in such matters.

If nothing else his plight highlights the unique—and odd—relationship between sports and patriotism in this land. Through the repetition of decades, American sporting events invariably are prefaced by the singing of the anthem, something that obtains in no other kinds of entertainment for which Americans gather. There is no “why” to this custom— it just is—and the lack of sense behind it only increases its force.

If you’d ask around you’d probably be told that the anthem is mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but it ain’t.  Indeed, the USA did without an official anthem until 1931, when Congress got around to naming the lyrics the Maryland lawyer Francis Scott Key wrote in 1814 to the tune of an old British drinking song after he’d witnessed the siege of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. Before that the tunes “Hail, Columbia” and “America The Beautiful” often sufficed on occasions when patriotic music was desired. Some people still prefer “America The Beautiful” as an anthem choice; among other things it’s a lot easier to sing than “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Knowing a good thing when they see it, American sports organizations have glommed on to patriotic themes and play them for all they’re worth. Giant flag displays mark the pregame ceremonies of many events and fly-overs by Air Force jets are a frequent touch. After 9/11 some Major League Baseball teams began playing the Irving Berlin song “God Bless America” before the seventh-inning stretch. People are asked to rise and remove their hats while it is played, even though the piece lacks any official status.

 As a sports writer I went to one event (can’t remember which) at which the Lee Greenwood song “God Bless the USA,” also known as the redneck anthem, led things off. The crowd rose for it. That “at least I know I’m free” line grabs ‘em every time, huh?

Federal law mentions the anthem and prescribes a protocol for behavior when it’s played --people should stand, face the flag and put their right hands over their hearts, and men (but not women) should remove their hats—but compliance always is spotty. No penalties are provided for violations, which is a good thing because enforcement would be impossible. It’s not clear whether only people in the stands are supposed to follow the code or folks anywhere on a stadium’s grounds. I’ve seen amusing sights in men’s rooms when the anthem is played.

There’s also no set way to present the anthem. Only opera singers and military bands can be relied upon to play it straight; otherwise, freelance vocal or instrumental shtick is the rule. A good rule of thumb for the correctness of anthem vocal renditions is the number of syllables given to the word “banner.” If it’s four (ba-aa-ner-er) you’re in trouble.
            
              In such a milieu it should be hard to define which anthem violations are worthy of censure, so Kaepernick’s punishment seems unusual at best. During his last-season actions he was joined by teammates from time to time, and none of them were singled out for special condemnation. During the current preseason several individual players (Eric Reid, Marshawn Lynch and Michael Bennett, among them) have mirrored Kaepernick’s actions, and a dozen Cleveland Browns staged a group protest, but as far as I know they’re all still employed.
          
            The day when the dictum “shut up and play” applied to jocks and other entertainers clearly has passed; we’re in a hyper-partisan era when political expression seems more like a duty than a luxury.  A few weeks ago President Trump and wife said they wouldn’t be attending the annual Kennedy Center tribute to outstanding performing artists after it had become clear that no one else would show up if they did.  That’s about as pointed as it gets.


 The NFL employs a variety of miscreants whose offenses make Kaepernick’s seem tame. Any team that hires him can expect some home-fan bounceback, but if the past is any guide it’ll disappear with his first touchdown pass. We fans are funny that way. 
  

                

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 of 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.



Saturday, July 15, 2017

A JOCK AND HIS MONEY IS SOON ...

                The July 3 Sports Illustrated is a “Where Are They Now?” issue, tracking the afterlife of several notable sports figures from years past, and Allen Iverson is on the cover. The piece about him is titled “The Answer,” after his nickname, and subheaded “How Allen Iverson Finally Found His Way Home.” The cover photo is of the former fast and fearless basketball star, staring out blankly and clutching two handfuls of long-stemmed, red roses. It’s a funereal-looking pose that suggests that he has, uh, passed, or is about to, although there’s no indication that is true.
               
                 The story itself is similarly confusing. It portrays a man who lives a jumbled life, moving from place to place, splitting and reuniting with his former wife, embracing and rejecting the duties of parenthood of his five children. Apparently, the “home” he has found is BIG3, a new league of former pro hoopsters playing half-court, three-on-three games for a TV audience of people who can’t abide a summer without the sport.  At age 42, that’s all he can think of to do with himself.
           
                  More upsetting still is the picture the piece paints of Iverson’s finances. They’re not spelled out in detail but it shows someone whose published basketball earnings alone in his 17-season NBA career (1996-2010) came to about $154 million, but is living in less luxury than such a figure suggests. It quotes him as saying during his 2013 divorce proceedings that he “couldn’t afford a cheeseburger,” and while men typically plead poverty in such circumstances there must have been some basis for the claim. It goes on to say that while Iverson gets $800,000 a year from a lifetime contract with the shoemaker Reebok, and can access a $32 million trust fund when he turns 55, he’s pretty much pissed away most of the money he’s made.
                
                 The subject of athletes and their money was one I dealt with in my Wall Street Journal columns.  The tale often was a painful one, of reckless spending, excessive generosity and misplaced trust in shady advisers. To many of the young men involved, totally lacking in perspective, the sudden wealth that accompanied their professional status was so large as to be an abstraction, devoid of meaning.
  
It brought to mind the stories of how Don King, the wily and unscrupulous boxing promoter, would visit fighters he wished to underpay with a satchel containing a few thousand dollars in small bills, which he’d spread on his mark’s kitchen table and turn over in return for a signature on a contract. King knew the cash would be seen as real money, something the fighter could relate to, as opposed to the much-larger sum the deal really was worth.

Suede-shoe types swarm over jocks like ants on sugar. Privileged all their lives (albeit maybe poor)—both na├»ve and arrogant-- athletes can be easy prey to those who tell them that ordinary investment returns are for chumps, and that special people like them deserve three or four times the going rate.  If anyone told them that anything that sounds too good to be true probably is, the message usually was forgotten. (The same, I might add, also applied to Bernie Madoff’s investors, most of whom had fewer excuses than a nuevo riche athlete.) 

A further perusal of the SI issue underlined the same theme. Of the six “old” jocks profiled at length (Iverson and way-back basketballer Tom Meschery, ex-footballers Vince Young and Clinton Portis, former hockey star Eric Lindros and golfer Justin Leonard), two more were having serious financial difficulties.

Young is only 34 years old, but his football career seems like ancient history. The quarterback showed up in the NFL in 2006 after a brilliant college stint at the U. of Texas, and was the league’s rookie of the year with the Tennessee Titans, but injuries and emotional problems set in, and by the time he left the league in 2011, after a try in Philadelphia, he was considered a bust. He earned a reported $34 million in NFL salaries, plus about $30 million more for endorsement deals from Reebok and other companies, but in 2014 declared bankruptcy, listing assets between $500,000 and $1 million and debts between $1 million and $10 million.

Young said he gave his finances little thought while he was playing, trusting an uncle to manage them. He said that one bad deal, costing him $600,000, was with a company he couldn’t recall knowing. One anecdote had him spending $15,000 for a single meal he hosted at the Chocolate Factory, a chain operation where the cuisine is less than haute. At last sighting he was trying to revive his gridiron career in the Canadian League, where the pay is far lower than in the NFL.

The saddest story was that of Clinton Portis, who earned a reported $43 million in his nine seasons as an NFL running back (2002-10) with the Washington Redskins and Denver Broncos. He was so distraught over losing $14 million in investments engineered by a couple of financial advisers that he got a gun and stalked one of them with murderous intent (he didn’t pull the trigger). It made him especially angry that the two got off with only professional reprimands.  “No jail time, no nothing. Living happily ever after,” Portis said to the magazine.

But while Portis was unwise in his advisory choices he also wasn’t smart about some of his own actions while he was flush. After turning pro he bought a house for his mother—a move many athletes make—but this one was a 8,400-square-foot affair costing $900,000, and came with the purple Jaguar she always wanted. He himself had “various” homes with such features as indoor waterfalls, stripper poles and giant aquariums, and a “armada” of cars.

When Portis filed for bankruptcy in 2015 his debts included $412,000 in “domestic support” to four women, $170,000 in shopping bills and $287,000 in gambling losses at the MGM Grand casino in Las Vegas.  If he didn’t come away with much money he had fun while he had it.

BUSINESS NOTE--   Another reminder that a new edition of the “For The Love Of The Cubs” book, featuring heroes of the team’s 2016 World Series victory, is just out. The illustrations are by the marvelous Mark Anderson, one of the best, and the verses and fact blocks are by me. It’s a great keepsake and gift item for Cubs’ fans of all ages. You can buy it by clicking on the Triumph Books link above, by going to the amazon.com or barnesandnoble.co websites, or at your local bookstore.