Saturday, November 15, 2014

SCOUTING REPORT

               Every baseball fan fancies himself a scout and I am no exception. I say that with full knowledge of the fact that predicting the future of players in the diamond sport is difficult, the differences in its levels being steep. The kid who looks great in high school or college often fails in the minors and some minor-league stars never make it in The Show. Adults make a living off trying to overcome the prophetical obstacles, probably more than should.
     
          But scouting is a game anyone can play for fun and I do it yearly at the Arizona Fall League. The AFL is the finishing school to which all 30 Major League teams send some of their more promising young prospects. Each team assigns seven.They’re grouped in six teams of 35 that play a 32-game schedule running from early October through the second week of November, this year ending today.

               It’s baseball at its purest, with individual performance all. The audiences in the Phoenix area’s spring-training parks consist mainly of real scouts and geezers like me with nothing better to do. Starting about the second week we’re joined by the gaggle (giggle?) of girlfriends the players attract in the normal course of things. Six weeks with pay during the desert-lovely autumn, with most nights off, is about as close to paradise as most of these young men will get. It’s a wonder they go home.

               My first general impression of the current season is that the pitchers have it over the hitters, continuing the situation that’s prevailed in the Major Leagues for several years.  A decade or so ago, when I began taking in fall games, most of the young arms here delivered heat and little else. Now many sport a variety of deliveries, to the discomfort of the batsmen. Thus does the game evolve, although the results might not be universally appealing.

               My second take is that I saw no prospects whose talents immediately dazzled. That’s in contrast with past years, when the potential of the fledglings Ryan Braun, Tommy Hansen, Starlin Castro and Nolan Arenado was apparent to anyone who looked. Ditto last season for Kris Bryant, the Chicago Cubs’ phenom now poised on the cusp of the Bigs. This year the crystal ball was hazier.

               Exhibit A in that regard was MARK APPEL, the young man whom the Houston Astros made the No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft and paid a reported $6.35 million to sign.  Like any top draft choice, the 6-foot-5 right-handed pitcher out of Stanford U. came with a can’t-miss label, but he’s struggled in the minors, posting a 5.93 ERA in 121 innings over two seasons in classes A and AA. He started well here, posting 14 straight scoreless innings, and added two more when I saw him in a game on October 31, but the first solid hit he gave up that day (a triple) seemed to unnerve him and he went on to surrender six runs on three more hits and three walks before being pulled with no outs in inning five. His problem seemed to be one of confidence, but that could be the worst kind.

                 Proving a point that baseball makes repeatedly, the three best pitchers I saw had nothing close to Appel’s credentials coming in.  C.J. EDWARDS, a Cubs’ farmhand, was a 48th-round draft choice in 2011 out of a South Carolina high school, but the skinny right-hander has been brilliant in three minor-league seasons through Class AA. I saw him pitch five innings in two starts. He struck out seven and the only run he allowed shouldn’t have been earned because the player who scored it reached on what should have been scored as an error. He throws fastballs in the low-90s but isn’t afraid to throw breakers when he’s behind in the count, and gets most of his strikeouts therefrom. 

               As if the San Francisco Giants don’t have enough pitching, they have a budding closer in STEVEN OKERT. The 23-year-old lefty, a fourth-round draft choice in 2012 from Oklahoma U. with a heavy fastball and good slider, has struck out 17 in 12 innings of relief here while walking just one. I saw him pitch two of those innings and only one batter of the six he faced hit the ball.               

              The mantra of Ray Miller, the old Baltimore Orioles’ pitching coach, was “work fast, change speeds, throw strikes.”  He would have loved CHRISTIAN BERGMAN.  Bergman is 26 years and a bit elderly for the AFL, and doesn’t strictly qualify as a prospect because he started nine games for the Colorado Rockies last season, but I love him because he’s the quickest-working pitcher around next to Mark Buehrle. Bergman doesn’t have great stuff but moves the ball around, pitches to contact and manages to get batters out. I’m rooting for him to succeed.
              
              The best position player I saw was FRANCISCO LINDOR, a shortstop in the Cleveland Indians’ chain. A 21-year-old native of Puerto Rico and a first-round draft choice in 2011, he had four hits the first game I saw him, including a home run and a double. That he didn’t do that well thereafter is attested by his .265 AFL batting average, but every time I was there he made good bat contact with surprising authority for his smallish size. He moved well in the field and his minor-league tab shows stolen-base ability.

               The notion that draft position isn’t everything was underlined by a couple of 22­-year-old New York Yankees’ power prospects, AARON JUDGE and GREG BIRD. Judge was a first-rounder in 2013, Bird a five-rounder in ‘011, but the left-handed Bird easily was the more-impressive plate performer here, leading the league in home runs (6), runs batted in (21) and total bases (55). A couple of his homers were of tape-measure quality. At 6-feet-7 and 230 pounds Judge is the bigger guy, and may catch up, but Bird’s bat looked quicker and I’m guessing he won’t.

Sons of several former major leaguers are on AFL rosters, including those of Dante Bichette, Dwight Smith, Raul Mondesi and Lee Mazzilli.  There’s also a BOOG POWELL. He’s no relation to the old Orioles’ giant; indeed, at a listed 5-10 and 185 pounds the Oakland A’s prospect is a quite-different physical type from the original. Still, every time I looked he was getting a hit, stealing a base or making a nice catch in center field, and might be one of those scrappy players who finds a major-league niche.

TIM ANDERSON, whom the Chicago White Sox hope will crack their lineup at either shortstop or second base, gets an “A” for being an ath-uh-lete, but a lower grade for his awareness of the strike zone. TREVOR STORY, a Rockies’ second-base prospect, looked good in the field and showed extra-base power, but also was something of a “K” machine. Outfielder EDDIE ROSARIO of the Minnesota Twins chain is a singles hitter in the mold of the Philadelphia Phillies’ Ben Revere, a Fall League standout of a few years back.  Twenty-year-old COREY SEAGER looks Hollywood-cast to be a future L.A. Dodgers’ shortstop, and usually plays like it, too.

When some of the all-caps names I’ve tagged make it to the Bigs, remember where you saw them first.


Saturday, November 1, 2014

BYE BYE BUD

               Bud Selig’s 22 years as baseball commissioner end with this waning annum, so report cards on his tenure are apt. Mine has him doing well, perhaps for reasons you might not expect.
              
             Although it’s tough to sneak up on people amid the glare and blare that continually surround our major team sports, that’s pretty much what Selig did. A car dealer among billionaires, operating from the hinterlands base of Milwaukee, he quietly set an indelible mark on the National Pastime.

 He came on the baseball scene as the political equivalent of a one-issue crusader, hiding behind the potted palms in hotel lobbies (a much-repeated description first used in my front-page Wall Street Journal profile of him years ago) to badger team owners into permitting the Major League game to return to his native city after the absence created by the 1965 exodus of the Braves. He succeeded in 1970 with the transfer and renaming of the Seattle Pilots, under an investment group he headed, then set about embedding himself into the game’s governance.              

Baseball may be a billion-dollar business but its ownership-level functioning most resembles that of a local Rotary Club, where those willing to do the scut work eventually get the top jobs. From the outset Selig raised his hand for every committee assignment available so that by 1992, when he and his fellow owners had had enough of Fay Vincent, he was the logical candidate to succeed him. Characteristically, he sidled into the office instead of storming in, allowing the word “interim” to precede his title for six years, but by the time it was removed there was no doubt who was running the show. 

Although it was little commented upon at the time, the fact that a team owner was named to head a major U.S. sport was nothing short of revolutionary, and marked a sea change in our sporting perceptions. From the advent of the post in 1920, when the jurist Kenesaw Mountain Landis was brought in to cleanse baseball of the Black Sox scandal, commissioners were viewed as having tsar-like powers. That may have been true of the flinty Landis, whose reign ended only with his death in 1944, but it hasn’t been since.

Indeed, what John Helyar called “commissioneritis” in his wonderful 1994 book “Lords of the Realm”—the illusion that those who held the job could exceed the dictates of their owner-employers—is what brought down three of the four men who preceded Selig during the players’-union era (Bowie Kuhn, Peter Ueberroth and Vincent). The fourth –- former Yale U. president A. Bart Giamatti—might have been bit, too, had he lived beyond his 13-month term. Wealth does not bow to intellect, so clashes were predictable.

Selig’s ascent not only set the public straight on the notion that the baseball commissioner is an owners’ man, it also calmed the internal ownership strife that contributed to the seven strikes or lockouts that interrupted play between 1972 and 1990, keeping the sport continually riled. It took the granddaddy of all stoppages—the eight-month, 1994-95 lockout that wiped out the 1994 World Series on his watch—to finally clear the air, but the 20 years of labor peace that have followed is among his biggest achievements.

Keeping in line the rich, egotistical men who own baseball franchises is widely likened to herding cats. Selig has done it through the often-claimed but rarely followed practice of leading from behind. Rumpled, modest and sometimes clueless-appearing, and journalistically derided as “Bud Lite” early in his commissionership, Selig has been an indefatigable worker of the phones, hashing out and building consensus for his goals before revealing them publicly. Thus, the major on-field innovations of his rule, including inter-league play, post-season expansion and making All-Star-Game outcomes determine World Series home-field advantage, slid into being with barely a ripple. So, too, have the measures to expand TV and on-line income that have fueled Major League Baseball’s overall revenue growth to a reported $9 billion this year from $1.2 billion the year Selig became commissioner. Like the movie gangster Hyman Roth, he’s always made money for his partners.

Selig’s greatest accomplishment-- revenue sharing-- is one that couldn’t have happened without his patient politicking. Introduced in 1996, and solidified in the game’s 2011 labor agreement, it provides that teams put about one-third of their local revenues (mostly TV-rights income) into a pot that’s split equally among the 30 teams. That plus the game’s payroll-based “luxury tax” have given an annual revenue boost of some $30 million to the smallest-market teams.

Coupled with the provision that recipients spend the money on payroll or player development (instead of the owners merely pocketing it), revenue sharing has gone far to narrow the haves-havenots gap that rankled Bud in his days as a small-market club owner.  It’s at least partly why  the likes of the Kansas City Royals, Oakland A’s and Pittsburgh Pirates have been playoff teams of late while, this year at least, the big-payroll New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox watched the post season on TV.

               Alas, however, there was one big downside to Selig’s tenure: the blind eye he turned toward steroid use in baseball from the early 1990s to the overdue advent of meaningful drug testing in 2005. I call that span baseball’s HITS era, for Heads In The Sand.

               Selig says that players’ union resistance to testing contributed to the lag, as did a lack of clear understanding of the problem among team executives. The first part of that assertion is correct, the last is not; from the time a steroids-laced dietary supplement was spied on an open shelf in Mark McGwire’s St. Louis Cardinals’ locker in 1998, no one could claim ignorance.

More than any other American sport baseball depends on comparisons with the past to illuminate its present. The steroids blight put an eternal asterisk on the game’s records for 15 years, an entire playing generation. Without that misstep Selig’s commissionership would rate an “A,” the initial of his square first name, Allan. With it he gets a “B,” as in Bud.
                
              

               

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

HANGING ON

               Everyone needs a goal and lately I’ve had one. It’s to complete a walk of about 2 1/4 miles in my Scottsdale neighborhood, from my home to the end of a cul de sac next to the Indian reservation just to the south, and back again. I’ve gotten about two-thirds of the way; next time might be the charm.
             
              Actually, that’s only an interim goal, because what I’d really like to do is hike again in my nearby desert preserve. I know that terrain is everything, and that hiking in the rocky, rolling desert isn’t much like the walking-on-pavement I’ve been doing the last few weeks, but first things first.

               Time was when I could walk just about all day, and I mean three or four years ago, not when I was a kid. I was a kind of hiking professional, having spent six years running the adult hiking program at the local community college and three years beyond that continuing the program after the college dropped it. I got paid for that-- not much but enough to claim the status. I think I’m the only ex-pro athlete in my social circle, no small brag.

               A not-so-funny thing happened to me in my treks around the desert, though. A few years back my legs started to hurt after a few miles, and my feet started to go numb. At first I walked through the discomfort, but that became increasingly difficult. Soon I no longer could do the long hikes, then the medium ones and, about a year ago, the short ones.

 Wife Susie told me to see my doctor. I could get around OK for normal purposes, and could get my exercise from the lap-swimming I’ve been doing for the last 10 years, so I resisted, fearing the three little words no one wants to hear (“see a neurologist”). But last February I went, heard them, and was marched off for an MRI, which the athletes say stands for “maybe really injured.”  Mine was outstanding for its badness.

My next stop was to see a neurosurgeon. He told me that a gunk build up in my spine was squeezing the nerves that led to my lower body, and that my spinal column generally was in poor shape. If I didn’t have spinal-fusion surgery pronto difficulty hiking might be the least of my problems, he said.

Thoroughly scared, I relented, and the operation was performed in early April. My surgeon, a hearty, confident type (they all are, I’d bet), told me it came off brilliantly, meaning, I guess, that if I didn’t get better it was my fault, not his.

  And in fact, my recovery wasn’t difficult. I was on my feet in a few days, ditched my walker (and oxycodone) in about a week, and was back in the pool in three weeks. I’d cancelled a fishing trip for early June for fear I wouldn’t be up to it, but I was, and regretted the decision. Susie and I were off to Lake Tahoe as usual in mid-July, and there we did just about everything we usually do. I even went white-water rafting without a hitch.

The hiking, however, hasn’t gone well. Back on the track now that the weather has moderated a bit, I’ve found that my leg pain and foot numbness have been reduced from what they were before the surgery, but they’ve been replaced by a sore back, which hurts in ways and places it never used to.  Before, my legs and feet forced me to sit after about 15 minutes of standing activity. Now, I can go for about 20 minutes before an aching back does pretty much the same thing.

I’d guess that about now you’re asking why I don’t just forget about hiking and continue as I am, getting my workouts in friendly, forgiving aquatic environs. The answer is that while I’m aware aging means letting go of things we once enjoyed, I’ve had about enough of that.  

As a teen and young man I played golf, and got good enough to break 80 on a good course, but had to give it up at age 30 when the demands of parenthood and job mounted. I grew up playing 16-inch softball on Chicago’s playgrounds, and, after a decade of wandering among the softball heathen, resumed the game on my return to the city in my robust 30s and 40s, stopping only when my team quit.

 I played tennis for 35 years—from age 30 until 65—and while you’re never really good at any sport you take up as an adult, I became a solid “B” player before my quickness went. I was even better at racquetball but quit when my move to Arizona (in 1997) separated me from my longtime playing partner and Wall Street Journal colleague, Jon Laing. In racquetball a small difference in skill can cause lopsided results, and Jon and I were providentially matched to have competitive games. I still play racquetball in my dreams.

You can roll a bowling ball from one end of Chicago to the other, so nobody there hikes much. I took it up on a dare at age 47, when Ray Sokolov, a veteran hiker and my editor on the WSJ’s Leisure & Arts page, asked me to accompany him on a trek up 14,000-feet-high Mt. Massive in Colorado.

It would be incorrect to say that I found the outing pleasant. I’d never been above Denver, and Ray neglected to tell me about proper hiking shoes, so I did the climb in Hush Puppies.  Further, the trail up Massive petered out about 1,000 feet below the summit and we wound up an hour later in a rocky dead end with afternoon clouds building, forcing us to declare victory and turn back short of our goal. My blisters took two weeks to heal and my calves longer to stop mooing.

But I loved the wilderness and sought it again, doing other (more successful) expeditions with Sokolov and plunging wholeheartedly into the desert and mountains upon arriving in Arizona. I joined a conservancy and took classes in the local flora and fauna, helped on public group hikes and quickly came to lead them.  I loved both the group experience and the clean solitude of hiking alone, which I did often. It’s a cliché to say that the desert called to me, but it did.

It still does, darn it, from right across the street, and it bugs me not to be able to answer. If the answer turns out to be “no,” at least I can say I tried.
   


Wednesday, October 1, 2014

F-F-FASTER BASEBALL

               In what will be among the last actions of his reign, baseball commish Selig has appointed a committee to investigate ways of speeding up play. It’s a blue-ribbon group, made up of six present or former team or league executives plus Tony Clark, the head of the players’ union, who together have some 200 years of experience in the game.  A wiser bunch of wise men would be hard to imagine.
              
              Pardon me while I snicker.  The answers to Selig’s question, if they really are sought, could as easily be obtained from the first seven fans seated any night in any row of any ball park. Indeed, such a group might be a better vehicle for change, being less captive to the customs and traditions that have caused the problem.

The first questions any assemblage of experts or laymen might try to answer is whether baseball really needs speeding up, and if clipping a few minutes off the three-hours-plus length of the average contest would turn on the action-seeking young whom the game’s slowness is said to turn off. My guess is that it wouldn’t-- that baseball is a waltz-time sport in a hip-hop era, and that no fiddling with its rules would give it football’s bash or basketball’s dash, both of which are more in keeping with the current, edgy ethos.
            
           By me, that’s not bad; I’m finding that the older I get, the more I like baseball. I like watching the game best while I’m at the park, scorebook in lap, and with a knowledgeable fan next to me with whom to discuss the play that’s just unfolded, the current situation and the alternatives that might lay ahead. What’s the hurry, anyway?

Yeah, I’m old, and not a member of a “demographic” that some advertisers are said to prize, but my wife and I have little trouble spending money and many store keepers are glad to see us. Maybe baseball could court the same corporations that support the network evening news shows.

That said, however, I get it about baseball’s dawdling pace. No other game is so full of game-delaying shtick, performed for so little reason.  Cleaning it up wouldn’t require the delicate skills of a diplomat, only the ability to see what’s in front of one’s nose.  Come to think of it, though, that’s easier said than found. The trouble with common sense is that it ain’t common.

The first thing baseball’s Round Earth Committee might do is insist on the enforcement of a rule already on the books, the one that says that with no runners on base a pitcher must deliver a pitch within 12 seconds of taking the ball. No active pitcher does this except Mark Buehrle, but to my knowledge the penalty for a violation (an automatic “ball” call) never has been invoked. I know, it’s with runners on base that the game really slows, but an occasional none-on time call would mean that someone has an eye on the clock, which might speed things all around.

   The next thing that ought to be done is the outright banning of committee meetings on the field while an inning is in progress. That’s right, no more trips to the mound by managers, coaches, catchers or other players. I always laugh when a pitching coach trots out in mid-inning to steady a wavering pitcher; what’s he going to tell the guy besides “get the ----in’ ball over the ----in’ plate?”  If it’s how to pitch to the next hitter, the coach or manager probably is calling the pitches anyway, so that should take care of that. More-technical coaching can wait for between innings; pitchers spend more time in their dugouts than they do on the mound.

If the manager wants to make sure his infielders are positioned correctly he could do it with hand or arm signals, the way he positions outfielders.  Catchers who want to get on the same page with their pitchers signalwise also could do it by signal; one’s a fastball two’s a curve easily could be flipped if the situation demands it.

Especially wasteful is the manager’s trip to the mound to remove a pitcher—a simple wave from the dugout would do the trick. Keeping managers off the field also would eliminate the ridiculous practice of having those guys stuff their often-considerable bulk into uniforms. Even the slimmer ones look silly in those get-ups.

The next thing on the list should be batter behavior; in brief, once a batter steps into his box he should stay there until his turn is completed short of medical emergencies or running out foul balls. No more stepping out, craning the neck, stretching the arms, gazing at the heavens. If a batter wants to scratch, he can do it with one foot in the box while the home-plate ump taps his foot.

The most-productive move that could be made affecting batter behavior would be the banning of batting gloves, the tugging and re-fastening of which are among the game’s biggest time wasters. The gloves are affectations in the first place; there’s no evidence they make for better batting. Ted Williams never wore ‘em, nor did Rogers Hornsby, and they routinely posted averages one hundred points higher than those of today’s heroes.

The way to really speed baseball would be to do away with the games of catch that take place while a game is in progress. The custom of infielders tossing around the ball after each out when no one is on base stands out for its kookiness; no other sport has a similar practice. Hey, those guys have been playing the game since age five and they’re not going to forget how to catch and throw if they don’t do it every few seconds.

Ditto and then some for all the warmups pitchers are allowed—eight to begin each inning and the same number when a pitching change takes place. Pitchers can take as many throws as they wish before taking the field, so there’s no need for more once they get there. The argument that they have to “get used” to the game mound doesn’t hold water; if the bullpen mounds aren’t like the one on the field the groundskeepers should be fired.


 The changes I suggest easily could lop 30 minutes off the time of the average game, returning it to 30-years-ago status. By the current reasoning, that ought to please the kids. It would displease the concessionaires, though, because they’d have less time to sell their wares. If it ever came down to it, whose voice do you think would sound loudest? 

Monday, September 15, 2014

I HEART NFL

               The National Football League is riding high financially these days, occupying ever-larger chunks of the TV spectrum, packing its taxpayer-funded stadiums at ticket prices that far exceed the average taxpayer’s budget, and selling its gear to people of all ages and both sexes.  Franchise values have soared, heading into the 10-figure stratosphere. There’s enough spare cash floating around it to take a chunk out of the national debt.
             
              Funny thing, though: the league never has been more defensive, and I’m not talking about the kind of dee-fense that takes place on the field.

               Finding reasons for the posture doesn’t require reading between the lines, to invoke another gridiron term. Daily news accounts and security-cam videos produce recurring evidence that players who are paid to be beastly in uniform can’t always turn off their aggression after they take off their pads. Nothing new there, but we always treat it as though it is. Last season’s Miami Dolphins’ bullying revelations showed that some of those guys aren’t nice even to their teammates.

Worse, the dangers of playing football—always manifest—have become apparent to the most obtuse, as former stars such as Junior Seau and Dave Duerson take their own lives rather than soldier on with the consequences of old injuries, and other ex-players by the score parade their once-hidden wounds and seek redress. It’s not a pretty sight.

That last situation concerns more than just NFL alums; in last Sunday’s New York Times magazine, under the headline “Hating The Game,”  the “The Ethicist” column dealt with a reader’s question of whether it’s okay to support a league that seems to know it is detrimental to the health of its participants. The (long) answer by columnist Chuck Klosterman boiled down to the observation that NFLers are well-paid, adult volunteers who by playing take an “elective physical risk” similar to that of the practitioners of other dangerous trades, so it’s permissible to cheer them on.

That’s my take, too, but the reasoning breaks down when it’s applied to the kids’ and high-school games that are the sport’s foundation.  The participants there are below the age of informed consent and any parent worth the name these days must think long and hard before signing the forms that send their sons off to battle. Making that choice more difficult are recent studies that show it doesn’t take a Big Bang concussion to trigger lasting brain damage, that the cumulative, small-b bangs inevitably sustained during football practice and seemingly eventless games can have the same effect. 

The NFL doesn’t take adversity idly. It’s countering its risks-to-kids problem by pushing a program called “Heads Up Football” that involves teaching young players not to lead with their heads while tackling, blocking or carrying the ball. Instruction techniques are available at a NFL-sponsored website called USAFootball.com, which it plugs in TV ads featuring smiling youngsters. Interestingly, the site carriers a $25 charge for coaches and others wishing to learn the program, meaning that the league has turned safety into a revenue source. And while anything that might reduce head and neck injuries is good, it’s disingenuous to imply (as the “Heads Up” ads do) that it sanitizes the sport.

Further, the NFL isn’t satisfied with a provisional pass, it wants mushy and unconditional love from its followers. That’s the message of its “Together We Make Football” campaign, which, through a website of the same name, offers Super Bowl trips for the best testimonials to the positive impact of the gridiron game on people’s lives.

I’ve checked out the site and it’s a hoot.  Many of the letters shown break new ground in inventive grammar, spelling and word use; those are regarded as evidence of sincerity, I guess. For example Allen, a Cincinnati Bengals fan (last names aren’t used), writes that he and his neighbors in Westwood, Ky., love the local high-school team because “they go out and give it there all.” He adds: “We’re happy when they win and sad when they lose to the point their is tears.”

Serita, a Green Bay Packers fan, recalls her introduction to the sport thusly: “I remember when I was younger me and my mom used to watch the game all the time. I ask my mom what’s on TV and my mom said sat down and watch it and I been liking the game since.”


Most of the letters credit football for being a focal point of pleasant gatherings of family and friends, but some say it brought more-specific benefits. Baltimore Colts fan Tommy writes: “I was always a shy guy growing up until one day I saw Peyton Manning play during the 2009 season. After that day I became a fan and my social circles have increased.”

There are tales of courage: “My son Spencer has been playing football since he was 7.  Even sore with echilis tendinitis he never complained FOR THE LOVE OF THE GAME,” writes New York Giants fan Connie.

And of developmental milestones: “Our baby was born August 9, 2013,” writes Packers fan Jasmine. “Two months later we were watching a Packers game and I was screaming because they scored. And I hear by two-month-old baby go “OHHHHHH!” Her first word. All because of Green Bay.”

It’ll be tough, however, to top the testimony of Dallas Cowboys fan Anna. Her missive rambled, and is hard to excerpt, so I’ll paraphrase. It seems that she also was a New York Jets fan when Boomer Esiason played there. In one Jets’ game she watched with friends, while in the late stage of a difficult pregnancy, her darlings blew a lead, causing her to become apoplectic. Her friends, alarmed, rushed her to a hospital, where her child was born through an emergency c-section.

 Later, the doctor told her that if she hadn’t delivered when she did, blood clots might have formed that would have threatened her life and her child’s, so the dog-ass Jets’ collapse could have saved them both. If that story isn’t worth a Super Bowl trip I don’t know what would be.



Monday, September 1, 2014

MO'NE!

               They didn’t have Little League when I was growing up in Chicago during the 1940s and early ‘50s.  We played 16-inch softball because it was best suited to the small playgrounds and parks that were handiest, and didn’t require much gear. But play ball? We did lots of that in season, mornings, afternoons and evenings until it got too dark.
              
              We played mostly choose-up-- three-against-three, four-against-four, or whatever alignments our numbers that day allowed. We tailored the rules to suit the circumstances, usually requiring pitcher’s hands out, right field out and the batting team supplying the catcher and umpire. Those last two things might seem iffy, but they almost always worked out okay.

We played some organized softball, too, in my case mostly at the gravel-surfaced McPherson School playground I frequented.  The playground director was a rotund political appointee named Ed Uhlich, whom we kids nicknamed “Uncle Ed” because he was anything but avuncular. He did, however, bestir himself to schedule occasional practices, hit fungoes to us and make out the lineups when we played other playground teams at the “midget” (ages 8, 9 and 10) and “junior” (11-13) levels.

 We had only so-so success in those leagues until the last year, when a couple of miraculously talented kids, including Billy Haig, who would become a basketball star at DePaul U., joined our ranks, and we won a city title. That’s the way I remember it, anyway. I’d feel better about the brag if I still had the medal to prove it, but, alas, it’s been lost.

By “we” I mean the boys my age who lived in the Northside neighborhood around the school.  There were girls in the nabe, of course, but we guys never (as in never) played sports with them. It wasn’t that we rejected them, it was that the subject never came up. Girls did other things for fun back then. I mean, they must have.

The pattern continued at Roosevelt High School, which I attended (1951-55); it had varsity sports for boys but not for girls. Ditto for the other Chicago public high schools then, as far as I know.  Any controversy engendered by that situation was all but unvoiced. Girls were cheerleaders, and that was that.

Now things are different; indeed, the spread of women’s sports has been the biggest change in the sports world since—well—ever. Simple equity demanded it, pushed along by the example of the Olympics (the one really worthwhile thing that institution has done) and Title IX, the 1972 Civil Rights Act amendment that prohibited discrimination by sex in any educational program or activity that received Federal funding. Forty-plus years later we’re still arguing about what Title IX means, but for thousands of woman and girls it’s certainly meant the opportunity and wherewithal to express themselves athletically.

   Mostly, separation rules on the fields of play: girls play girls and boys play boys. Once in a while, though, the pattern gets broken, as it did in the Little League Baseball World Series a week or so ago. There, in full view of ESPN, 13-year-old Mo’ne Davis, representing a Philadelphia team, not only pitched a complete game in the diamond sport’s annual kids’ classic but shut out her foe, busting 70 mph fastballs past bewildered boys. As they say, the crowd went wild. That included Sports Illustrated magazine, which put the youngster on its cover.  
            
             People get excited whenever girls (or women) beat boys (or men) in sports, even in horse racing, where the physiological differences between the sexes are less important athletically than they are in humans. I guess that’s because everyone loves an underdog. Truth is, though, that in the Little League eligibility ages of 11 through 13 girls are in the least-underdoggy phase of their lives, being on average a bit taller and heavier than boys of the same age (no kidding). Girls usually mature (i.e., go through puberty) earlier than boys, and thus have their growth spurts earlier. By mid-teens, however, boys usually have passed them, and by adulthood have about a 50% edge in “lean body mass” (i.e., muscle). That’s the basis of male athletic superiority.
          
            Every so often a promoter will turn a buck by challenging the above verity and staging a so-called Battle of the Sexes. The most notable of these came in 1973 when Bobby Riggs, a tennis champion in his youth but by then a 55-year-old hustler, ginned up (and won) a match with Margaret Court, a top-ranked woman. Having captured the media’s attention, he then took on a 29-year-old Billy Jean King, the reigning women’s Wimbledon champ, in a nationally televised match in the Houston Astrodome involving side deals that were much more lucrative than the $100,000 match prize.

 King wasn’t impressed by Riggs’ dink-and-lob game and whipped him, sending women everywhere off in search of tennis gear and instruction.  That was great but a more-accurate measure of the courtly difference between the sexes was a 1992 match between Jimmy Connors, only slightly over the hill at 40, and a closer-to-her-prime Martina Navratilova, then 35. Connors won 7-5, 6-2, despite getting only one serve a point in his service games and allowing Martina to hit into the doubles alleys.

Plenty of women can beat plenty of men in plenty of sports, but at the top level of sports in which both sexes participate in pretty much the same events (mainly track and field and swimming), men’s records are uniformly about 15% better than women’s.  That’s also about the year-in, year-out difference in average drives on the PGA and LPGA tours, which is why the women compete on shorter championship courses than the men.

Mo’ne Davis seems like a terrific kid, poised and pleasant. Her team made the semi-finals of the Little League tournament, no small achievement. Interviewed on TV after one game in Williamsport she said that she likes to play basketball, too, and that her ambition is to be the first woman to play in either Major League Baseball or the NBA.  It’s good that she’s keeping her options open. 


Thursday, August 14, 2014

TIGER, AGAIN

               For years golf fans have speculated about the day when the sport would have to carry on without Tiger Woods to carry it. It seems that day has come, before most expected.

They played the PGA Championship last week—the fourth and last of the game’s annual “majors”—and Tiger wasn’t around for the weekend, having missed the 36-hole cut. His game, once a source of awe, has become an object of derision. “He’s not even limping properly,” quipped TV analyst David Feherty, as the sore-backed golfer hobbled off after yet another poor shot in the tournament.

Between 1997 and 2008 Woods won 14 majors.  After the last, at age 32, he was deemed a sure bet to break Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 in that august category. He hasn’t won one since in what should have been his most-productive years, and the line on his chart is pointing down.

If you follow this space you know that I’ve written about Tiger before. It’s hard not to because the arc of his career has been so spectacular. He was a golfing prodigy whose early deeds exceeded even inflated expectations; similarly, his decline has had elements of Greek tragedy.  I’ve never rooted for him because, from close up during my working-press days, I found him arrogant, mercenary and controlling, but it’s still hard to see him as he is today.

His initial successes only made the reversal more startling.  His first major victory—at the 1997 Masters-- was jarring, with a record-setting score and 12-stroke margin that caused the moss-backed custodians of Augusta National to lengthen and reconfigure their course to the point where comparing recent and past performances there have little relevance. Three years later he topped that by blowing away the U.S. Open field at venerable Pebble Beach by 15 strokes, a performance that caused a collective shudder among his links foes. For the next several years no touring pro would tee up in a tournament in which he participated without feeling his shadow looming over him. Not even Nicklaus in his prime inspired such fear.

I’ve long held that a main reason for Woods’ dominance was the simple fact that he was a better athlete than any of his foes, and they knew it. Unlike sports that prize speed, strength and agility, golf is about rhythm and timing, and some unlikely looking types have excelled at it, but golfers still are jocks at heart and worship the traditional athletic virtues. I recall that when the powerful slugger Dick Allen was with the Chicago White Sox in the 1970s he broke every clubhouse rule, often showing up for games late, hung over or both, and disappearing between innings to cop smokes. No Sox teammate was heard to criticize him, however, tickled as all of them were to have him on their side.
            
           Tiger’s physical edge began to slip with knee surgeries in 2007 and ’08, the price he paid for the effort he put into his dynamic swing. Worse yet was the blow to his psyche that resulted from the 2009 revelations that he’d been a serial adulterer with a taste for bimbos that put Bill Clinton’s in the shade. That came out in the most-humiliating way, when the golfer wound up in a hospital emergency room with injuries suffered after backing his car into a fire hydrant while being chased from his home by his wrathful, golf-club-wielding wife.
             
             From a carefully honed image for discipline and rectitude, Woods became a long-running gag for the Internet and late-night-TV comedians. Sample joke: Did you hear that Tiger wrote a book called “My Favorite 18 Holes”? A lot of people returned it after they found out it was about golf.

That would have been tough for anyone to take, but especially for Tiger, a prototypical ducks-in-a-row kind of guy. Thanks to the mythmakers at Nike and IMG who’d packaged him from the time he turned pro, and abetted by Sports Illustrated, he’d been presented as someone with gifts that transcended sports. His father and mentor Earl described him for the magazine’s profile written when he was 21 as “The Chosen One.” Said dad: “He’ll have the power to impact nations. Not people. Nations. The world is just getting a taste of his power.” If the golfer questioned that assessment he kept it to himself, as he did everything else that didn’t permit him to turn a buck.

Tiger scurried off for “sex-addiction treatment” after his fall from grace, and while he’s won some tournaments since his return-- five of them in 2013 alone-- he’s rarely been in the running in the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open or PGA, the only events he really cares about. This year he was sidelined for four months with back surgery to repair a pinched nerve. He returned (probably too soon) to play in the British Open, where he finished 69th, and in the PGA. Yesterday he pulled out of Ryder Cup consideration, saying he’d stay away from golf until his rehab was complete. Stay tuned.

Golfers can play at a high level well into their 40s (Nicklaus won his last major at age 46; Julius Boros won one at 48), so the 38-year-old Woods is by no means washed up by the calendar. Maybe he’ll regain his mojo and storm the heights again, maybe not.  

There’s a new phenom around in Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, the 25-year-old winner of this year’s PGA and British Open, and two other majors before that. Nicklaus, who wants his record to stand forever, stuck a needle in the young man recently by saying there was no reason he couldn’t win “15 or 20” of the shiny baubles. TV ratings for the closely contested PGA Championship were better than they had been for years, so fans may be finding new reasons to watch.  Still, for a long time they’ll probably be doing it with an eye out for Tiger.