Sunday, March 1, 2015

NEWS & VIEWS

NEWS: Major League Baseball announces measures to speed play in the new season.

VIEW: Huh?

               Responding to complaints that the increasing length of games (three-hours-plus on average last year) was turning off younger fans (among others), MLB last fall appointed a blue-ribbon committee to suggest remedies. Last week the group’s recommendations were enacted. Instead of an elephant it delivered a mouse.

               The “changes” are as follows:

               --Once he assumes his stance, a hitter will be required to keep one foot in the batter’s box until his turn ends, barring things like foul balls or wild pitches.

               --Managers will be “encouraged” to stay in their dugouts while requesting a TV review of a call.

               --Between-innings breaks will be a limited to 2 minutes 25 seconds for locally televised games and 2:45 for nationally televised ones.

               --Pitching changes will be timed to comply with the break times cited above.

               I put the word changes in quotes because they’re really not. The one-foot-in-the-box rule already exists as do those governing between-inning breaks-- they’re just not enforced. The business about managers staying in their dugouts during challenges refers to the expanded video-replay opportunities put into effect last year; managers would feign disputes with umps while their confederates checked TV monitors to determine if challenges might succeed. Not incidentally, the new replay rules proved to be a drag on game times, each challenge usually taking several minutes to resolve instead of the one minute MLB advertised initially. So much for expeditiousness.

               It’s worth noting that enforcing the new guidelines may slow games further. At the last Arizona Fall League season MLB installed 20-second pitch clocks at one ballpark, and in each of the few instances violations were invoked managers took the field to protest, setting off arguments that more than negated any time savings the clocks produced.  

               Untouched by the committee were the interminable pitcher’s-mound meetings, pitcher- warmup routines and infielder catch playing that make baseball turgid. I devoted a whole blog to this subject last October 1; you can scroll down to see it.  Some of my recommendations were tongue-in-cheek, some weren’t, but any of them would have more impact than the ones announced.  If this is what we can expect from new-commissioner Rob Manfred, only more disappointments loom.

NEWS: The “Power 5” college conferences consider banning freshman eligibility for men’s basketball.

VIEW:  Huh?

               For the non-cognoscenti, the “Power 5” group (the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, ACC and PAC-12), i.e., those whose members are both feet into the sports/entertainment biz, gained autonomy from their less-enterprising NCAA brethren last year and have set about creating their own rules governing the revenue-producing sports of football and men’s basketball.  Some of their proposals, such as multi-year athletics scholarships and $2,000 stipends on top of room, board and tuition to more-fully cover college costs, would seem to benefit so-called student athletes, although some possible upshots, including the elimination of more “non-revenue” sports such as swimming and track-and-field to cover the added costs, would be less friendly.

               Now the group is said to be mulling denying freshman eligibility to male basketballers. That was startling because year to settle into academe without competitive pressures would do more to put the “college” back into college sports than anything that’s taken place in recent decades.

               Before one cheers, however, a couple of caveats are in order. One is its probable motive of removing the “one-and-done” stigma that has attached to men’s hoops since the NBA raised its entrance minimums to age 19 and a year out of high school, causing some youngsters to view college as a kind of double-parking spot between themselves and the pros.   The fact that one-and-done usually is a misnomer—boys in that position rarely finish their second academic semesters—makes the bad publicity all the worse.

               The other is that it probably won’t be enacted. Denying freshmen eligibility would winnow out most if not all young men bent on pro-hoops careers, sending them abroad or to the NBA’s Developmental League for seasoning. That wouldn’t be good for the business the Power 5ers are all about, so don’t hold your breath for any action.

NEWS:  Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota dueled at the National Football League scouting “combine” over which will be the No. 1 choice in the coming draft.

VIEW: Talk about comparing apples and oranges.

               The two quarterbacks—winners of the last two Heisman Awards—were poked and prodded, timed, weighed and measured with the rest of the aspiring herd at the overhyped Indianapolis event. The result was a draw: Mariota ran faster and jumped farther than Winston, but the latter did better in the passing phase. The journalistic consensus was that, all things being equal, Winston emerged as the better prospect.

               Ah, but things aren’t equal, especially in the department the league likes to call “character.” That’s because Mariota is said to be a nice kid—a real Boy Scout-- while The Notorious J.W., aka Mr. Winston, uh, ain’t. Indeed, he has a well-known rap sheet and probably would be in jail or on probation if he’d played college ball anywhere except Tallahassee, Florida.

               It thus will be interesting to see what the quarterback-hungry Tampa Bay Buccaneers, holders of the No. 1 pick, do at the April 30 draft. Will they choose talent over character? In this post-Ray Rice era, will they brave the inevitable protests that would come with choosing Winston? Will they invest tens of millions of dollars in a young man who’s been an off-field loose cannon?

 Stay tuned. This should be better than the games on the field.  


              

               

Sunday, February 15, 2015

DEFLATING "DEFLATEGATE"

“Win any way you can as long as you can get away with it.”—Leo Durocher, longtime baseball manager.
               
             “They’ll fire you for losing before they fire you for cheating.”-- Darryl Rogers, former college-football coach.

    ********************************************************      
            When the so-called “Deflategate” scandal broke pre-Super Bowl, I had a couple of immediate reactions. One was a complete lack of surprise that the supposed perps were the New England Patriots and their coach, Bill Belichick. The other was a wish that whoever was coaching my National Football League team, the Chicago Bears (the post has changed hands of late), had been devious enough to try something like that.
              
            Belichick is the modern-day Durocher, a coach who will bend the rules to give his teams an edge. The main difference between them is that Durocher flaunted his roguishness while Belichick hides his behind hooded sweatshirts and a taciturn public persona. You might recall that he and the Pats were the focus of a previous NFL “Gate”-- the 2007 “Spygate”—wherein the team was caught videotaping the New York Jets’ sideline defensive signals with an eye toward using the info in future games.

That ploy mirrored Durocher’s placing a telescope-using spy in the Polo Grounds’ bleachers to steal opposing catchers’ signs during the 1951 season.  Among other things, the effort tipped off Bobby Thomson that Ralph Branca would throw him a fastball on the pitch that led to Thomson’s “Shot Heard Round the World” home run that won the pennant for Leo’s New York Giants, a fact that didn’t emerge for several decades.

The curious thing about both episodes was that the act involved —sign stealing—was and is common in baseball and football, but the use of technology to implement it somehow broke the games’ covenants. That’s the sort of fine line we draw in assessing moral issues in sports, usually without thinking much about it.  When an outfielder traps a line drive but then holds the ball aloft to convince the umpires he caught it, we applaud his presence of mind. When the Pats bleed a pound or two of air from some footballs to give its QB a better grip on a cold day before a playoff game, the parsons of the press box and the imams of the internet (and most fans who don’t live in or around Boston) scream bloody murder.

The jocks like to say “if you ain’t cheatin’ you ain’t tryin’ hard enough,” and, usually, we fans agree. Most of us draw the line on things like steroids use by athletes, which involves altering one’s bodily chemistry in a potentially harmful way with substances illegally obtained, thus forcing other players to make the same Faustian choice. By me, though, playing with balls (tee-hee) is a lesser offense.

Indeed, the idea of using a game’s equipment to give a competitor an advantage long has been endemic in sports. Exhibit A in that regard is golf, whose self-policing ethos gives it the high ground in most discussions of sports morality. There’s been a golf arms race in progress forever, and the U.S. Golf Association, which polices the sport on these shores, maintains an equipment-testing program equal to that of the Federal Aviation Administration to keep competitors within bounds.

Golfers bring their own balls to tournaments, and these vary in composition, construction and dimple alignment. Abetted by equipment makers eager to push the rules in pursuit of expanding market share, players go to great lengths to find the ball they think might give them a few more yards off the tee or straighter flight than those of their competitors. If the difference is just 1%, that’s plenty; over 72 holes a 1% difference in score (about 2.8 strokes) can be worth several places on the leader boards, and many dollars.

  “Deflategate” seems deflated, felonywise, when one notes what NFL teams are permitted to do with game balls placed in their possession. Before 2006 game balls were given only to home teams, but that rule was changed when teams complained it gave the homers too much of an edge. Now, each team gets a dozen new balls the week before each game and can do with them pretty much what they please before kickoff.

New footballs come out of their boxes hard and waxy, so teams typically brush them vigorously to take off the shine, then soak and/or apply conditioners (vitamin E skin cream is a favorite) to soften their “feel.” Putting them in a sauna reportedly also helps there. So does temporarily overinflating them to stretch their leather skins. It’s all OK.

The rules say game balls should be inflated to a range of 12.5 to 13.5 pounds of pressure per square inch. That’s an 8% difference right off, and sometimes it’s, uh, extended in both directions. “Everyone does it,” said Jeff Blake during Super Bowl week. He ought to know because he played quarterback for seven NFL teams over a 13-season career.

Kickers are tougher on their balls than QBs, repeatedly bashing them nose first into tables or other hard surfaces to increase their “give,” or placing them under boards and jumping up and down on them. The game balls kickers use are marked with a “K.” They’re supposed to be discarded after every game but, it’s said, kickers have been known to erase the league’s discard mark to keep ones they like in play longer.

 Even at that football takes a back seat to baseball when it comes to ball manipulation. Baseballs are thrown into games new but they’re typically rubbed down by pitchers before they’re thrown to remove their “shine.” Any sort of scuff or irregularity can give a pitcher an edge and cause a ball to be discarded, so since time immemorial some pitchers have found ways to alter them surreptitiously.   
            
            The ones who do this best are widely admired for their guile. A celebrated baseball “doctor” was Gaylord Perry, who pitched in the Major Leagues for 22 seasons (1962-83). He was busted once (in 1982) with a 10-day suspension, and was patted down many times by umps, but otherwise won 314 games and gained Hall of Fame election in 1991.
              
            Perry reveled in his rep, in mid-career writing an autobiography titled “Me and the Spitter.” He was widely suspected of using slippery stuff on baseballs, and once sought to endorse Vaseline (no kidding), but after retirement confessed that he found sticky substances like pine tar to be most helpful because they improved his ball grip and put more snap on his curve. He said that wiping his hand on the dugout pine-tar rag could get him through an entire inning.  If that didn’t work he could make his own pine tar on the mound by mixing rosin-bag talc (dried pine tar) with sweat.  He argued, not unreasonably, that batters were allowed to use things to improve their grips on their implements, so why shouldn’t pitchers?

          
            Or, for that matter, quarterbacks?

Sunday, February 1, 2015

?

Last year, when I turned 76, I was feeling smart and filled this space with advice. I’ll be 77 tomorrow and, I guess, am less smart than I used to be, because now I have only questions. If you can answer any of them, let me know. Please.

--Do little kids know what erectile dysfunction is, or what to do if one has a four-hour erection?  Or what Osphena is for? What do they make of their grandparents?

--If driving after drinking is illegal, why do bars have parking lots?

--Why do thirsty green lawns dot neighborhoods in and around desert cities like Phoenix, despite the continuing, long-term drought?

--What happens to the results of the surveys people are asked to participate in after “customer service” phone calls?  The term gets more oxymoronic every year.

--If government-run health care is the abomination Republicans say it is, how come my Medicare works smoothly while dealing with my supplemental policy bought from a good-old private insurer, United Healthcare, is a constant headache?

--If tax money collected from everybody is used to build stadiums for professional sports teams, why are most tickets priced out of most people’s reach?

--Why do some comedians believe that curse words, uttered loudly, are funny in themselves?

--Why does a football team that can’t get out of its own way for the first 28 minutes of a half effortlessly glide down the field to score once it goes into its “two-minute” offense?

-- In a country of more than 300 million people, why can’t someone not named Clinton or Bush get much presidential traction?

--Why is the worst beer supported by the most advertising?

-- Why do so many people say they “can’t” do something when they mean they “won’t”?

--Why do waiters or waitresses always say “there you go” when they bring your food, instead of “here you are”?  Do they teach that in waiter/waitress school?

--Why do clerks ask for my name after I hand them my credit card with my name on it?

-- How can Len Cariou play Tom Selleck’s father on “Bluebloods” when Cariou is 75 years old and Selleck is 70?

-Does anyone under 50 watch the NBC Nightly News? You wouldn’t know it from the ads.

--Where do the viruses that infect my computer come from? Where do they go when they’re purged?  What’s that whole thing about, anyway?

--Is there a better candy than M&Ms?

--What will my heirs do with the office full of reference books I collected before Google came along?

--Why do people who say they hate Congress keep reelecting the same congressmen?

--Similarly, why do people who agree with me that college sports are rotten also believe that their own schools “do things right”?

--Why do TV stations send their reporters out into dangerous storms to do weather stories? Can’t they just point their cameras out a window?

-- Why did Sony believe that the assassination of the North Korean dictator would be a good premise for a comedy?

--Do gun owners know that if their weapon is fired at home the most likely victim will be a family member or themselves?

 --Why do pet owners think their pets’ antics are interesting to other people? Talking about your pets in company should be punishable by life in prison. Okay, maybe 20-to-25 years.

--Why am I depressed when I hear that breakfast cereal is the best thing one can eat?

--Why, after a flood or other recurring natural disaster, do people insist on rebuilding on the same sites?

--Why don’t people who want to advertise get bumper stickers instead of tattoos?

--Is there a bigger waste of air time and newspaper space than that given to speculation about what players NFL or NBA teams will draft?

-- Why are tournament tennis players (especially the women) allowed to grunt or shriek at full volume after every shot, while the paying spectators are expected to be silent during points?

--Do auto racers wear their sponsors’ patches on their pajamas?

--Where are the police when maniacs weave through expressway traffic at high speeds? You’d think they’d nab one in 100.

--Why does every restaurant overfill its pepper shakers?

--How do chains like McDonalds thrive when every town has locally run lunch joints that serve much better food?

--Do people believe that the slim female model types who play cops on TV really can take down bad guys?

--Do Muslims believe that Allah cheers when their co-religionists commit murder in His name?  

Just askin’.


Thursday, January 15, 2015

GONE FISHIN'

               Are the seasons of our major professional sports too long? Of course they are, and they’re going to stay that way.

 The schedules are determined by commerce, not competition, and commerce dictates that you can’t make money if the store isn’t open. So the baseball big leaguers play 162 regular-season games before the playoffs, the basketballers and the hockeyists 82 and the footballers 16. Those numbers will go up before they go down.

The longest schedule is that of the National Football League, even though it’s by far the shortest gamewise. That’s because football players get the you-know-what kicked out of them in every game, and by season’s end they’re all nursing multiple hurts. Having the NFL’s Advil concession for a year would keep one in daiquiris forever.

  The athletes solider on partly because they’re paid very well to do so, and partly because of the jock’s creed, which they’ve ingested since childhood. That holds that there’s a difference between playing hurt and playing injured, and only wimps beg off when they’re merely hurt. It’s a macho bonding thing—there is no “me” in “team.”

 OK, there is, but so what?

Lately, though, the creed has been looking frayed, especially in the National Basketball Association. Basketball isn’t as bruising as football but it’s more strenuous from the waist down with starters running about three miles a game, much of it at full sprint. Add the incessant travel of the one-night-stand schedule, and predictably awful weather, and you have a regimen that would—and does-- wear down the best conditioned.

\It’s a grind that cries out for respite, and this season many of the game’s stars are getting it. With the season about half over the list of those who already have missed more than a few games reads like a league Who’s Who: LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard, Joakim Noah, Al Jefferson, Andrew Bogut.  As the year goes on here will be subtractions and additions, but look for the level to remain fairly constant.

I’m not saying that all the above-mentioned guys are feigning injury to catch a breather, but the shape of least a few of them is suspect. Bryant, brilliant in his prime, is 36 years old now, and coming off a season in which he played in just six games due to injuries. He’s returned but at times has been a shadow of his former self. He missed several games not long ago with what was described as a “sore body.”  I don’t think I’d seen that term in a sports page before.
            
             Anthony, the New York Knicks’ ace, signed a five-year, $124 million contract in the off season, but is sitting now. That there have been questions about his condition was clearly expressed in a New York Times piece that said he’s been “excused…with what the Knicks described as a sore left knee.”   Following a well-worn league practice, the team is in the process of “tanking” the season, stripping its roster of veterans with an eye toward clearing salary-cap space and finishing low enough in the standings to secure a favorable position in the June draft.  It’s not exactly losing on purpose, but it’s not exactly not losing on purpose, and keeping Anthony on the bench furthers the Knicks’s longer-term aims.
          
            The opposite side of the coin—using time off to firm up teams’ title bids—is best seen in the cases of the Chicago Bulls’ Rose and Noah, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ James and the San Antonio Spurs’ stars. Rose missed most of the last two campaigns with knee injuries, and while he’s back this year he’s been walking on eggs to try to make sure he stays. He’s sat out 11 games so far, for stated reasons covering just about his entire anatomy. What’s obvious is that when he experiences any discomfort the team elects to rest rather than test the affected parts.

  Noah has had foot and knee problems in the past and needs occasional time off to keep small aches from becoming large ones. James, the league’s best player, recently was idle for two weeks even though neither he nor his team claimed specific trauma; he’s said he hasn’t “felt well” all season and hopes a rest will help revive both him and the Cavs. The important thing is to have one’s team hale for the playoffs, even if it means shortchanging the paying customers during the regular season.

That strategy was employed last season by Paul Popovich, the Spurs’ canny head coach, en route to the team’s fifth NBA crown since 1999.  Its veteran “Big Three” of Duncan, Parker and Manu Ginobli sat out a total of 36 games in 2013-14 in order to be OK at PO time. Popovich is repeating the pattern this year, although an apparent real injury to Parker (a strained hamstring) has accounted for many of the trio's vacation days.


The usually cited contrast to the current “gone fishin’” syndrome is the Bulls’ Michael Jordan, a Doberman of a competitor who played in 80 or more games in all but three of his 13 seasons in Chicago, with rarely even a momentary letdown. But that ignores the fact that burnout caused him to quit for one entire season (1993-94) and most of the next to play baseball, a leisurely pursuit by basketball standards.  The long season gets to everyone, one way or another.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

ALL THE NEWS

               Around the newsrooms of the Wall Street Journal, where I used to work, the saying was that the New York Times could do two things for a reporter that the Journal couldn’t: make him or her rich and famous. That said, however, not every Journal minion yearned to make the jump to our main journalistic rival.
             
              I was a prime example. During my tour with the paper in New York (1966-69) I received a feeler to join the Times’ metropolitan staff, and while I was flattered I turned it down without moving past the hand-holding stage.

One of my reasons for saying no was geographical: going to work for the Times would have wedded me to New York, and while I enjoyed my stay in that wonderful, messy city I didn’t wish to make it my family’s permanent home. The other reason, I confess, was a reluctance to test the unknown. I’d been with the Journal for about five years at that point and felt that my abilities were being recognized and appreciated. I was loath to have to prove myself to a whole new cast of editors.

I never regretted my choice (well, hardly ever), but it had nothing to do with my estimation of the Times. It may have been IA to the Journal’s 1 in quality or vice versa (the ranking depended on whom you asked and when), but the Times was and is a great newspaper by any measure. Now that I’m retired it’s my main window to the world. I pay upwards of $800 a year for a subscription and believe the money to be well spent.

I don’t buy the Times primarily for its sports coverage; I get the paper’s national edition, which is thin in that department. Further, I’m not much interested in the doings of Mets, Jets, Nets or the other New York teams that consume much of its space. True to its mission, though, the Times applies some real journalism to sports, delving into subjects and issues most papers merely scan if they mention at all. If you want to be informed about the National Football League’s actions (or inactions) on player concussions, reading the Times is a must. Ditto about the long-running athletics scandals at Florida State University and the University of North Carolina, medication abuse in horse racing and the chicanery in FIFA, soccer’s world-governing body.  Compared with those of the Times, most other sportswriters are kids wearing propeller beanies.

The best piece I’ve read in quite a while on the NFL, and on the costs of playing there, was in the Times’ on December 18. It was by staffer Bill Pennington about Chris Snee, a New York Giants’ offensive guard who’d retired at this campaign’s start after a 10-year run in the league.

 Snee was not the sort of player most fans notice. About the only times the TV cameras focus on offensive linemen is when they incur holding penalties and he didn’t get many of those, never much rising above the anonymity of his position despite two Super Bowl rings and four Pro Bowl selections. He’s best known as the son-in-law of Tom Coughlin, the Giants’ head coach, and for being a kind of iron man, missing just one start in an eight-year span (2005-12) before injuries ended his 2013 season and led to his leaving the game.

But behind Snee’s indestructible fa├žade was a medical history that might make an Iraq War veteran flinch. The physical toll the NFL exacts starts before some players take the field. Like many football big men, Snee wasn’t naturally big, and it took year-round weight lifting and gorge eating for him to maintain the 300-frame required to be an offensive lineman in the league.

That subject was familiar to me because in 1994 I did a piece on Jay Hilgenberg, the center on the Chicago Bears’ 1985 championship team whose 13-season NFL career had just ended because of a heart attack he suffered at age 35. He blamed the attack in large part on playing the strenuous sport about 50 pounds above what he considered to be his natural weight of 230 pounds. “I didn’t eat until I was full, I ate until I was tired,” he said ruefully. Snee told Pennington pretty much the same thing. “To keep my weight over 300 pounds I basically had to eat something bad for me all the time,” said he.

Snee’s list of medical procedures includes full-scale surgeries on both hips and three on his right elbow, arthroscopic surgeries on his knees, regular epidermal shots for bulging back discs and cortisone injections with foot-long needles to lubricate sore joints. He carries in his cell phone a picture of a dinner plate filled with the bone fragments removed in his last elbow surgery; I didn’t know there was that much bone in the joint. He still can’t straighten the elbow, and, at age 32, his weak hips make walking down stairs “unpredictable and hazardous.” He’ll need hip replacements eventually.

All that was in addition to the normal banging around every NFLer experiences in season. “The first couple of years in the league, the day after the game would be fine,” said Chris’s wife, Kate. “Five years after that he wouldn’t feel good for a couple of days afterward. Ten years in, he’d be miserable for a full week.”

Snee considers himself lucky that he sustained only one concussion he knew about, although he’s probably aware that the cumulative effect of lesser blows to the head might lead to problems down the road.  He’s lost 55 pounds since his July retirement and says he feels better all around.  He’s running two miles a day, something that would have been impossible six months ago, and enjoys playing with his three sons, aged 11, 8 and 4.

 The holder of a degree in accounting from Boston College, he’s pondering his employment future, although his last Giants’ contract, signed in 2008, paid him $40 million, meaning that if he exercises normal prudence making ends meet never should be a problem. He told Pennington he was glad he played football but also is glad he’s done.

 “I’ve had stress for the last how many years?” he asked rhetorically. “I’m not pushing myself now.”

 e’s running two milesHe

Monday, December 15, 2014

VOTING TIME

               Have some players made the Baseball Hall of Fame in part because they were nice guys? The short answer is yes.
              
               Exhibits A, B and C in this regard are Phil Rizzuto, Richie Ashburn and Ron Santo. All had very good baseball careers—excellent, in fact—but none boasted the sort of credentials that screamed “Cooperstown!” Each was on the annual sportswriters’ ballot for 15 years, but none was mentioned on more than half of those 600 or so worthies’ votes in any one year, far short of the 75% needed for induction. The best Rizzuto ever did was 38%, in 1976.
             
              But there’s a back door to the Hall called the Veterans’ Committee, a much-cozier group or groups (there are three of them now, covering different eras of the game’s past) that meet behind closed doors. One of them gave each a nod, more than 30 years after their playing days had ended.

               The stats of the three didn’t change in that span but other things did. Each stayed in baseball and had careers as broadcasters with their former teams, Rizzuto with the New York Yankees, Ashburn with the Philadelphia Phillies and Santos with the Chicago Cubs. Each made friends and influenced people among his peers and the fans. Each was a nice guy, something to which I can attest.  Their eventual elections were generally applauded even though they were the sort of “life achievement” awards that couldn’t be fully justified by what they did on the field. So does the world turn.

               But how about the other side of that coin: have players been denied Hall status because they weren’t nice? That question is tougher to answer because it would require some mind reading, but I feel safe in saying that it might not have taken Jim Rice, the old Boston Red Sox strongman, 15 years to gain entrance if he hadn’t routinely ducked the press after games. And some years ago, after I’d written a column extolling the Hall credentials of Keith Hernandez, the best-fielding first baseman I (and maybe anyone) had seen, I got a letter from a fellow writer saying he thought Hernandez didn‘t deserve a plaque because he was a jerk.

               This rather-lengthy preface brings us to the newest Hall of Fame ballot, which includes a number of outstanding first-time nominees. Easily the most-outstanding of these is Randy Johnson. With 303 career wins and 4,875 strikeouts, the latter figure the game’s second highest, the very tall (6-foot-10) lefty was the one of the two or three best pitchers of his era (1988-2009), someone whose sizzling stuff and intimidating mound presence caused proud batters’ knees to shake. Check out the You Tube video of him facing John Kruk in the 1993 All-Star Game. Kruk all but waves a white flag in that one.

               Johnson deserves further props because he was anything but a natural at baseball. Choreographing his lanky frame took a lot of effort so he didn’t make the majors to stay until age 26, and it would be three more years before he’d harness his control.  The fact he was a late starter makes his career accomplishments all the more remarkable. He should be a Hall shoo-in, maybe a unanimous pick.

               Chances are, though, that he’ll be left off of some ballots because he wasn’t a nice guy. The snarling mien he presented from the mound often reflected his off-field persona as well. He was disdainful of fans and the press (he once stiffed me for an interview I’d arranged in advance), and it was said that his teammates tiptoed around him when his familiar black cloud was in evidence. A widely circulated picture showed him stiff-arming photographers who dared disturb his walk on a New York street after his trade to the Yankees.

               But I’ll be voting for Johnson, not because I’m a nice guy but because he was a terrific pitcher who belongs in the Hall. That’s the best reason I can think of.

               I’ll be voting for two more ballot first-timers, John Smoltz and Pedro Martinez. The right-handed Smoltz had a singular career, becoming the only pitcher to record more than 200 wins (213) and 150 saves (154), and with a 15-4 post-season won-lost mark, and 2.67 earned run average, he was a big-game performer without peer. He’s more than deserving to be enshrined along with his Atlanta Braves rotation mates Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine.

               Martinez, also a righty, was small for a Major League pitcher (he listed at 5-feet-11 and 170 pounds), and was dogged by injuries during many of his 18 Big League seasons, but when he was on his candle burned brightly.  Three times he won American League Cy Young Awards (in 1997, ’99 and 2000), his career winning percentage of .687 (219-100) is sixth-best all-time and his 3,154 strikeouts rank 13th. His electric stuff made watching him pitch a treat.

               I’ll fill out my ballot with six players I’ve supported before—Craig Biggio, Edgar Martinez, Mike Piazza, Curt Schilling, Lee Smith and Alan Trammell—and one I didn’t—Mike Mussina. Again, I won’t include three ex-players—Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa—who made the eyes-wide-open choice of using banned drugs to enhance their skills and paychecks. They were good enough as it was and should have left things there.

               Biggio topped the 3,000-hit mark in 20 seasons with the Houston Astros. He fell just two votes short of election last year and should make it in this one. Edgar Martinez was a scientist with the bat who was the best designated hitter ever. Piazza was the best-hitting catcher of his era, Schilling topped the 3,000 career-strikeout mark and was at his best on the biggest stages. Smith ranks third in all-time saves, Trammell was a great shortstop for 20 years. Smith is in his 13th year on the ballot, Trammell in his 14th. Neither has come close to the 75% mention required for election, and I fear they never will, but I’m stickin’ with ‘em anyway.

               I didn’t vote for Mussina when he made his ballot debut last year but on reconsideration think his 270 career victories deserve a plaque, especially because the total is about as good as we’ll be seeing in this five-man-rotation era. Like Smith and Trammell, he’s probably a Veterans' Committee kind of player, but I say why wait. He might not want to be a broadcaster.

              
              
              
              

               

Monday, December 1, 2014

STIFF ARMED

               There are many foolish, overhyped things in American sports, but few can match the annual Heisman Award in either regard.
           
              The Heisman supposedly goes to the year’s best college football player, but that’s pretty silly to begin with. College football these days is a 50-players-a-team game manning 11 positions on each side of the ball, with each position requiring quite-different abilities and duties. Multiply that by about 700—the number four-year institutions that field teams—and figuring out which individual performs best taxes credulity.

               The Heisman folks solve that problem by not addressing it.  They eliminate all but the 70 or so schools that perform in the five “power” conferences (the SEC, Big Ten, PAC-12, Big 12 and ACC), then cross out just about everyone who plays defense or is an offensive ”down” lineman. Aside from a small handful of tight ends or wide receivers and one defender (Michigan DB Charles Woodson in 1997), all of the 78 winners to date have been quarterbacks or running backs. The next selectee, I’m sure, also will be one of those.

               The provenance of the award is equally questionable. From its origin in 1935 it has carried the imprimatur of the Downtown Athletic Club, a private group of besuited jock sniffers based in Lower Manhattan, N.Y., but that outfit went bust a dozen years ago and it has bounced around since. Now it’s pretty much owned by ESPN, which stages its culminating, Oscar-style award ceremony in one mid-town venue or another. It’s always a long broadcast leading to a short conclusion (“and the winner is….”) whose result usually has been anticipated. It’s good to prepare for the evening (December 13 this year) by having a Netflix disc at the ready.

               The DAC’s first award carried its own name and considered only players from schools east of the Mississippi River. It went to halfback Jay Berwanger of the U. of Chicago, an institution that dropped big-time sports in 1939, thus keeping its skirts clean of the muck that has followed. The next year the prize went national and took the name of John Heisman, a leather-helmet-era football coach who ended his days as the club’s athletics director.

               Heisman may have been a fine fella, but his credentials as a sportsman are suspect. He made his rep by coaching some good Georgia Tech teams from 1904 through 1919, and was on the Engineers’ sideline on the October day in 1916 when they racked up football’s most-lopsided win at any level, a 220-0 trouncing of much-smaller Cumberland College.

              The story has it that Heisman had it in for Cumberland because he believed it had used ringers in defeating Georgia Tech in baseball the spring before. Cumberland had discontinued football before the 1916 season began but Tech threatened to sue if it didn’t fulfill its contract, so the Tennessee school reluctantly sent a 14-man squad. Tech ran 40 plays from scrimmage in that game, all runs, netting 978 yards and all of its 32 touchdowns that didn’t result from fumble runbacks. Cumberland registered minus-28 yards in 41 plays. Tech scored 42 of its points in the last quarter.

               Possession of the stiff-armed trophy is decided by an electorate of 929, including 870 sportswriters or broadcasters and 58 former winners. The final vote (yes, one) is determined by an ESPN poll. The writers and broadcasters are divided among six geographic regions, 145 for each. That must mean that in some sparsely populated areas just about every weekly newspaper sportswriter has a vote. Each elector can name three players with the top choice getting three points, the second two and the third one.  Some years, the last being in 2009 when Alabama RB Mark Ingram was selected, the winner gets fewer than 50% of the available points.

               Electors do not make their choices in a vacuum—far from it. The Heisman is more a contest of sports information directors than of football players, with the SID of every school that thinks it has a candidate pouring out publicity supporting his kid, beginning before the season’s start. I never had a vote but I used to get some of the stuff anyway. One school (can’t remember which) Fedexed me a sturdy, wood-handled fan consisting of the photographed face of the player it was hyping.  I kept it around to swat flies.

               It’s up to the fans to decide how well the process works, but it’s worth noting that some non-legendary players have been honored. A few include Colorado RB Rashaan Salaam (1994), Florida QB Danny Wuerffel (1996), Nebraska QB Eric Crouch (2001) and Oklahoma QB Jason White (2003). The year that last guy won his competition included Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger and Larry Fitzgerald.

               College football (and college sports in general) gets seamier by the year, and some of its shmutz has rubbed off on the Heisman. The 2005 award, to USC running back Reggie Bush, later was revoked when it was revealed he’d received more than $300,000 in cash and gifts from an agent while in school, including the rental cost of the limo he rode to receive his Heisman.

               Bush, however, seems like a pretty straight guy compared with the two most-recent winners. Johnny “Boys Just Wanna Have Fun” Manziel, the 2013-winning QB from Texas A & M, left school for the pros a year later in a cloud of rude tweets, empty beer bottles and allegations of autograph selling. Jameis Winston, the Florida State QB, won last year despite having been accused of rape by a fellow student whose charges were deep-sixed by the local and university police. Since then he’s added to his rap sheet by being caught shop lifting and helping terrorize his campus neighborhood in a pellet-gun war, although that’s no big deal at a school where footballers are issued “get out of jail free” cards.

               Last year’s Heisman reminded of a Second City sketch in which an actor playing a Chicago politician sang “If indicted I will run, if convicted I will serve.”  I wonder what kind of encore we can expect this year.