Monday, February 1, 2016

QUESTIONS

              I turn 78 tomorrow (made it!) but find the world as puzzling as I did a year ago. Here are more questions for which I have no answers.
             
              --If “awful” means “terrible” why does “awesome” mean “wonderful”?
            
             -- So when did so many people start prefacing every remark with the word “so”?

              --Why is it news when an athlete who never has anything to say decides to stop talking to the press?

              --Why do people who decry very-large salaries for athletes not blink at $35m per for Roger Goodell, whom no one would pay to watch?

              --Would you spend big money to air a TV ad for a drug if you had to admit that its possible side effects range from constipation to sudden death?

              --Why does Hillary Clinton need dozens of paid advisers to tell her what she thinks? Most of the Republican presidential candidates receive the same service from just one or two billionaire campaign donors.

              --Why did the Republican presidential-candidate brigade knock itself out to win the goofy Iowa caucuses, whose last two GOP winners were Rick Santorum (2012) and Mike Huckabee (2008)?

--Why does every auto insurer claim that its annual premiums are $400-a-year cheaper than those of every other insurer? If that were true they’d owe us money.

              --Why are autos expected to have mufflers while motorcyclists can make all the noise they want?

              -- Similarly, why do bicyclists feel exempt from obeying the traffic laws that constrain motorists?

              --Why does anyone keep financial information in his computer when it’s clear that criminals can hack into it at will?

              --Has John McCain ever has seen a war he didn’t want the U.S. to join, not to mention the ones he’d like us to start?

              --In discussions of water use in the drought-stricken West, why is so little attention given to the 80%-or-so share that goes to agriculture? Is it worth five gallons of water to grow a single walnut?

              --If American Indians are great stewards of the land, why do they keep coming up with ideas like gondola rides in the Grand Canyon?

               --Why does Major League Baseball insist that team managers wear the same uniforms as the players? If it’s because managers sometimes go on the playing field, couldn’t an outfit be devised that doesn’t make middle-aged men look silly?

              --Isn’t it interesting that people over 100 years old have such different answers when they’re asked for the reasons for their longevity?

              --Isn’t it great that John McEnroe did a commercial for a toenail-fungus remedy? I thought he’d never amount to anything after tennis.

`             --Does any other industry go out of its way to infuriate its customers the way the airlines do?

              --Why must I suppress a snicker every time I see a guy about my age wearing an earring or a pony tail?

              --Has Donald Trump ever uttered a sentence that didn’t contain the words “I” or “me”? Does he have any answers to our national problems besides a vague promise to “fix” them?

              --What’s the big deal over same-sex marriage? As Robin Williams said, everybody who’s married knows it’s always the same sex.

              -- Do the people upset by Atticus Finch’s racist past understand that he’s a fictional character?

              --Could the Internet operate without the “recover webpage” box? You’d think all those smart nerds out there could create websites that wouldn’t keep needing to be recovered.

              --Do people who repeatedly use the word “incredible” think it makes them seem more credible?

              --How did all those little kids happily clacking away on computers learn to type?

              --How come people buy Vladimir Putin’s self-crafted image as a dynamic action figure? He’s playing a bad hand, ignoring mounting domestic problems to fight wars he can’t afford and eventually will lose.

              --How did the vaccines that are among the most important advances in public health become a subject of partisan wrangling in the U.S.? Don’t Republicans think their children can get sick?

              --Do gun owners know that if their weapons are fired in their homes the most likely victims will be family members?

              -- What makes people think that defeating ISIS on the ground would eliminate it as a terrorism threat? Al Qaeda controls no territory but still is able to pull off international nastiness. 

-- Are there any more-dispiriting words in sports than “there’s a flag on the play”? In its never-ending quest for officiating perfection the NFL has turned its game into a slog.

--Why is a short-term stock market decline of 10% or more called a “correction”? Is my new (lower) portfolio balance now more “correct” than it was a month or so ago?  Can I “correct” my bills in the same way?

--Who will back-seat drivers have to criticize when driverless cars come into vogue?

            
            Just askin’. 

Friday, January 15, 2016

UNREQUITED LOVE

              Carole King (nee, Klein) memorably asked the musical question “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” When the National Football League is involved the answer is “probably not.”
         
              This has been shown repeatedly in past years and once again this week, when league owners voted to allow the St. Louis Rams to move to the Los Angeles area, gave a “maybe” to the San Diego Chargers if they’d share with the Rams a yet-to-be-built suburban stadium, and a “probably not” to the Oakland Raiders, who could move if the Chargers don’t.  In the process they stiffed fans in one city and left those of two others in limbo. It amounted to musical chairs with only one chair for three contestants, a losers’ game if there ever was one.
         
             Not only fan loyalties were disregarded. In recent years few NFL stadiums have been built without taxpayer funds or loan guarantees, and even so-called private ones require the local municipality to pay up big in the form of tax breaks, land acquisition, access roads and game-day policing. The NFL puts a gun to cities’ heads and says “Your money or your team.” Even when the answer is “here’s the money” (St. Louis put together a $1.9 billion new-stadium proposal calling for $400 million in public funds), the league can pull the trigger.

              The tenor of the process was best exemplified by Enos Stanley (“Stan”) Kroenke, the real estate and sports billionaire who owns the Rams. In turning down St. Louis’s stadium offer he salted the earth by calling the city a “two-sport town” (the sports being baseball and hockey) and added that any team that might accept its plan was headed for “financial ruin.” Nice guy, huh? Interestingly, Kroenke is a Missouri native who was named for St. Louis (baseball) Cardinals greats Enos Slaughter and Stan Musial.

It’s true that the Rams are the team with the strongest ties to Los Angeles, but historically they’ve been peripatetic. They were started in 1939 as the Cleveland Rams and won an NFL championship in that city in 1945, but the next year moved west in search of sunnier skies and greater revenues. They stayed in L.A. proper until 1980, when they quit the vast Coliseum for Anaheim Stadium, 26 miles to the south. When that didn’t work out either, they moved to St. Louis in 1995. They were lured in part by a new stadium, now called the Edward Jones Dome. It was state-of-the-art when it was built 20 years ago, but that was then and this is now.

              Not being an Angelino I don’t know if any Ram sentiment still resides in the area, but the Rams never were notably successful there. You have to go back the 1950s days of Bob Waterfield and “Crazy Legs” Hirsch—or, at least, to the 1960s and ‘70s “Fearsome Foursome”—to remember much glory. To put the latter era in perspective, Merlin Olsen, the Foursome’s most-noted member, died six years ago at age 69.

              The Raiders were born in 1959 as part of the then-new American Football League. They stayed in Oakland for 22 years, but those were marked by almost continual struggles between their contentious owner, Al Davis, and the perennially hard-up city over the team’s accommodations at the Oakland Coliseum, built in 1966. The team won Super Bowls in 1976 and ‘80, adopted a motorcycle-gang persona and developed a devoted and sometimes bizarre fan base, but those folks loved the Raiders more than the Raiders loved them. Davis tried to move the team to L.A. as early as 1980, and when his fellow owners balked sued them under anti-trust law and moved anyway.  The team did well there initially on the field, winning another SB in ’83, but never caught on with fans and returned to Oakland in 1995.  Oakland has a financial proposal on the table but its funding is uncertain. The itch to move of Mark Davis, the team’s present owner, won’t help in that respect.

               Maybe the saddest story is that of the Chargers. They lived in L.A. only for their initial AFL year—1959-60—before moving south. They’ve been there since, a stretch of 55 years. For the last 49 years they’ve played in what’s currently called Qualcomm Stadium. It might have been spiffy when it was opened in 1967 but now it’s outmoded by any measure. San Diego has upgraded the place over the years but has balked at replacing it. A new-stadium proposal has been developed under NFL prodding, but can’t proceed until a referendum is held in June. Having renounced their long-time home, it’s hard to see how the team can continue to operate there.
             
               The argument often is made that having an NFL franchise is good for a city’s morale and economy. The first assertion probably is true but the second is questionable. A large stadium- construction project brings a short-term employment spike, but most of the other jobs such a place creates (vendors, ushers, ticket-takers, security people) are occasional and low paying. The big majority of people who attend games are locals who’d be in the city anyway and merely are shifting their spending from one local entertainment to another. If they have a meal on game day they bring it themselves (tailgating) or grab a hot dog in the stadium.
             
                Further, NFL tickets averaged $85 each (mostly for lousy seats) last season, beyond the reach of many of the families whose tax dollars help build the sports palaces. It’s another example of the poor subsidizing the rich in this land of ours.
              
                It’s far from clear whether two or even one NFL team will thrive in L.A. The Rams’ new stadium won’t be done until 2019, so they’ll have to play at least three seasons in the old Coliseum, not a formula for success. There’s plenty else to do on Sundays in warm-weather cities, which is partly why L.A. spit out the Rams and Raiders previously. Has that changed?    

The bottom line is that the NFL isn’t shy about rallying civic pride when it wants to come to a city, but doesn’t give a hoot about it when it’s leaving. Like many other things these days it’s about money—yours going to them. Keep that it mind the next time you buy an NFL jersey or paint your face in your team’s colors.


  

Friday, January 1, 2016

HANDICAPPING THE HALL

              For 20 years, give or take one or two, I was an elector for the Baseball Hall of Fame, by virtue of my 10-plus years as a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. It was a role I cherished, a chance to have a small part in populating the most hallowed shrine in American sports, and I took it as a serious responsibility. I looked forward to the November arrival of the next year’s ballot.
             
              But alas, all things end and this did, too, for me, when the BWAA last year decided to remove from the voting rolls writers who had been retired from daily journalism for more than 10 years. Fact is, thanks to the MLB Extra Innings cable-TV package, I’ve watched more baseball these past several years than I did when I was a free-ranging sports columnist, but I had no serious beef with the move. Lifetime appointments to any position are a bad idea (see our Supreme Court) and the H of F election roll shouldn’t be an exception.

              About 75 other old writers joined me in exclusion, meaning that the average age of the voters will drop. This has led to speculation that a younger electorate will take a softer approach to players who used performance-enhancing drugs during their careers.  Maybe so, but I don’t think that the likes of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, both of whom flunked the eye and smell tests for steroid use, are due for induction any time soon. Each polled about 37% in the 2015 balloting, about half the required 75%, and even a bump won’t get them over the hump.

              It should be noted that Bonds and Clemens (and Pete Rose) already are well represented in the Cooperstown shrine. They live there in photos and videos, and objects they wore or used are displayed for veneration.  But in my view the fact that their rule-breaking behavior forced their fellow players into a Faustian choice that put their health at risk justifies the pair’s absence from the brass-plaque part of the hall. Their records still stand, and nobody is asking for refunds on their enormous salaries, so it’s an appropriate price for them to pay.

              Last year’s voting produced four inductees (Craig Biggio, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz), the biggest class in many years. This year’s additions will be smaller. Mike Piazza, the long-time Dodgers’ and Mets’ catcher whose 427 home runs are a record for his demanding position, got about 70% of the vote last time, and should make it this time around. I make him a 2-to-5 pick in the results to be announced next Wednesday (Jan.6).

             Among the 15 first-timers on the ballot, Ken Griffey Jr. is a no-brainer, a 1-to-10 shot. His 630 career home runs rank sixth on the all-time list, and he’s in the top 15 in both total bases and runs batted in. Additionally, he was an acrobat in center field whose best catches make a thrilling highlight reel. He was one of best pure athletes to play the game. He’ll lead Piazza in the voting.

              After that the odds grow. First-timer Trevor Hoffman, the long-time San Diego Padres relief ace (remember how they played “Hell’s Bells” when he entered a game?), would be on my ballot if I were voting. He’s second all-time in career saves with 601, behind only Mariano Rivera, and had a lifetime 2.87 ERA over 19 seasons. He’s a seven-time All Star and twice was runnerup in the voting for the National League Cy Young Award. Still, while I’m sure he’ll poll well, his credentials don’t jump off the page the way Griffey’s do, and some writers might want to make him wait a year before induction. I make him an even-money pick.

              The only others of the first-timers I would consider seriously are Jim Edmonds, the ex-St. Louis Cardinals’ centerfielder, and Billy Wagner, the skinny, left-handed relief ace with a number of teams. Edmonds’ batting numbers (.284 lifetime BA, 393 home runs) were very good but not great, but his fielding prowess was truly elite. As the example of Keith Hernandez showed, however, glove men don’t usually impress the electorate. He was the best-fielding first-baseman I’ve seen—indeed, he revolutionized the position-- but never topped 10% in Hall of Fame voting.  Good as he was, Edmonds was no Hernandez, and I wouldn’t have voted for him. I expect he’ll poll in the 20% to 30% range.

              Wagner might do a bit better, but still fall short. He retired in 2010 with 422 saves, now fourth on the all-time list, but Lee Smith, the guy who ranks just ahead of him (with 478), never has gained much traction in the voting and I don’t expect that Wagner will, either.

              Otherwise, I’d ink in five players I’d backed before— Curt Schilling, Smith, Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina and Alan Trammell—but of those only Schilling was named on more than 30% of last year’s ballots and has much chance of eventual election. Two players who came fairly close last time—Jeff Bagwell and Tim Raines (each at about 55%)—might benefit from the weaker ballot and move up (writers can pick up to 10), but I doubt that either will get over the top. I make each about a 4-to-1 shot, but you never can tell.

              I don’t have a vote any more, but I do have opinions. And as Maury Allen once wrote, “there’s no sport righter than a sportswriter.”
                           

             

              

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

NEWS & VIEWS

              NEWS: Criticism of National Football League officiating grows by the week.
              
              VIEWS: It’s justified.
              
              The more I watch pro football the more I’ve come to recognize that there are three teams on every playing field instead of the supposed two. The third team is the refs and they come out on top all too often.

              The league keeps track of penalties and says that this season’s totals aren’t much different from those of past seasons, but they still seem to me to be more frequent and obtrusive. Every week there are several games whose outcomes depended on a questionable yellow flag, or lack of one.

 Examples abound but one stands out—the phantom face-mask-grab call against a Detroit Lions’ defender on Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers on what was supposed to have been the last play in a close Lions’ victory. Instead, the Packers got one more, untimed shot and completed an end-zone “Hail Mary” pass that changed the result. Replays showed the tackle in question to involve Rodgers’s uniform collar, not his helmet, but they weren’t fully clear, as often happens. My take is that the official who called it, knowing that a dozen or so TV cameras always are peering over his shoulders, decided that he’d rather err by commission than by omission. There’s been too much of that this year.

The blame for this, I think, doesn’t rest with the officials individually. Every football or basketball ref or baseball umpire I’ve known has been able and honorable, and conscientious to a fault. It’s the NFL that’s to blame for the Constant Replay culture it’s created by its growing use of video to conduct microscopic scrutiny of questionable plays.

Football is a game involving 22 large and ferocious men colliding in a confined space like so many protons in a particle accelerator. It simply isn’t amenable to such inspection, and it produces controversy as often as justice. Constant Replay makes NFL football more important than it is, puts a permanent monkey on field-officials’ backs and has turned the games into slogs. When I sit down to watch one I keep a crossword puzzle handy.

NEWS: Russia is barred from international track and field for systematically violating anti-doping rules. It could be excluded from the sport at next year’s Summer Olympics in Rio.

VIEWS: What else is new on the drugs front? And don’t expect any Olympics ban.

The revelations last month, sparked by a German journalist’s reports, were surprising even for a dope-jaded sport. In testing labs in Moscow and at Vladimir Putin’s Sochi Winter Olympics showcase last year, tests for at least 1,500 Russian athletes were destroyed before they could be confirmed, and hundreds of other positive tests were otherwise falsified or covered up. Agents of the FSB (successor to the KGB) posed as lab technicians to ensure that the real techs went along with the plan. Officials exacted bribes from individual athletes who tested positive to keep their identities secret.

Russia’s initial reaction to the disclosures was typical of the way it reacts to any international criticism: it angrily blamed “Western” interests for seeking to denigrate the mighty accomplishments of The Motherland. Interestingly, though, that posture quickly changed to one of conciliation and ostensible cooperation with a probe into the matter by WADA, the Canadian-based World Anti-Doping Agency. That signaled to many that the fix was in and there would be no Olympics ban. After all, the     motto of all the big world-sports extravaganzas is that the show must go on no matter what the contestants are up to.

It’s no news that T & F is messed up. Lamine Diack of Senegal, the most-recent past president of the IAAF, the sport’s world governing body, has been criminally charged in France for receiving bribes to deep-six positive drug tests. (He’s also a member of the International Olympic Committee.) His successor Sebastian Coe, the former great British miler, until a few days ago was on the payroll of Nike, the sports-equipment giant. The IAAF recently awarded its 2021 World Championships to Eugene, Oregon, Nike’s headquarters city, via a no-bid contract. In sports corruption the world truly is joined.

NEWS: Teams with losing records will play in college-football bowl games this season.

VIEWS: It was bound to happen.

Back in the day there were the four major bowls (Rose, Sugar, Orange and Cotton) and maybe a half-dozen strays. A bowl bid was a reward for a season well played, conferring membership in an exclusive club. Now there are 40 bowls, and with only 127 teams eligible for post-season play not enough with the required 6-6 won-lost mark or better could be found to fill them, so three 5-7 units (Nebraska, Minnesota and San Jose State) were drafted into action. They and the likes of Akron, Appalachian State, Middle Tennessee and Georgia Southern will be on your TV screens between now and January 1. Enjoy.

Such an outcome was inevitable because, in their never-ending search to milk greater revenues from the labors of their “student athletes,” our institutions of higher learning have stretched the bowl source until it snapped.  There has been lots of tsk-tsking about the situation, and many wrinkled brows. There’s even been talk about reducing the number of bowls, but I don’t buy it. College revenue-sports’ schedules change in only one way—by getting longer. If we get the eight-team year-end playoff the pigskinheads are pushing, a couple of college teams will play 16-game schedules, just like the pros.  

But hey!--here’s already not much difference between ‘em.




                                                                                     






   




               

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

GOING PRO

I can’t speak for anyone else but I’m guessing that my childhood wasn’t too different from those of most of my middle-class contemporaries. I went to the local public schools, got OK grades and played several sports but none particularly well. I did dumb and wasteful things but survived them, went to a state university and eventually made a living doing something I liked. Chance as much as plan determined my course. That also wasn’t unusual, I daresay.
           
            Fast forward to a present in which life has become less forgiving. Grades are important from the git-go as are scores on the standardized tests that have become ubiquitous (if they had them back when I don’t remember it).  Children’s off-hours are crammed with lessons and activities designed to gild applications to the sort of colleges that promise a leg up toward career success.  Be clear that I’m reporting here, not knocking; on a crowded planet where competition is global, such measures well might be necessary. As one of my kids once wrote in a grade-school essay, it’s “a doggy dog world” out there.
            
             Even so, I’m sometimes caught short by a revelation of the extent to which childhood in the U.S. has been professionalized. One such came in September when I read in the New York Times about IMG Academy, a for-profit prep boarding school in Bradenton, Florida, set up to train boys and girls as young as 13 for athletics careers. It is, apparently, a heckuva place, offering the latest in coaching and training to aspirants in eight sports (football, baseball, basketball, soccer, golf, tennis, track and field and (huh?) lacrosse).

 Its football team (unbeaten, natch) plays in a 5,000-seat stadium that has viewing suites and a jumbo video scoreboard. There’s a state-of-the-art weight room that puts many such college facilities to shame, and where out-of-season pros sometimes drop by to swap sweat with the kids. Drinking fountains in the gym offer Gatorade. Who could ask for more?

The academy is run by the company formerly known as International Management Group. It was begun in 1965 by Mark McCormack, a golf-loving Cleveland lawyer who parlayed his links contacts into agency deals that would enrich Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player and, in time, take many top-level athletes into a financial sphere that would make their on-field earnings incidental. IMG quickly morphed from agent to octopus, sponsoring, televising and otherwise packaging sporting events worldwide. Not a sparrow falls on the golf or tennis tours without its notice.

IMG got into the education biz in 1987 when it bought Nick Bollettieri’s tennis academy in Bradenton, already known for cranking out tennis prodigies. Foremost among those was Andre Agassi, who was shipped off to Bollettieri in 1983 at age 13. Agassi made it big all right, but, he’d later aver, that was despite as much as because of the school. In his candid 2009 autobiography “Open”, he described the place, variously, as a prison, boot camp or asylum where book-learning was optional if one played one’s cards right, and had less-than-flattering things to say about its founder.

Agassi ascribed his attraction to Brooke Shields, who’d been a child actor and model before the two married, in part to the fact that neither had a childhood.  Suffice it to say that Agassi Prep, the reportedly stellar K-12 Las Vegas charter school the athlete and now-wife Steffi Graf endowed with their tennis wealth, is not a sports academy.

IMG Academy today is a much bigger and, one hopes, better place than Old Nick’s tennis farm of 30-plus years ago. Certainly it’s more expensive, with full tuition and fees topping $70,000 a year, and although scholarships are available they’re not universal because it’s there to make money.

Enrollees, whom the school’s website calls “student-athletes” in the dubious NCAA terminology, live a regimented existence that includes dormitory bunks and cafeteria meals. They spend their weekday mornings in academic classes and afternoons and weekends practicing or training for their sports under professional eyes, putting in much more time on that than they would in a normal school setting. The boys’ football and basketball teams play schedules that involve out-of-state travel. Tennis players and golfers of both sexes crisscross the land playing junior tournaments. It’s the logical next step for kids who as young as eight have been pushed to specialize in a single sport and perform on “traveling teams” that play 60- to 80-game annual schedules in baseball, basketball or soccer.  See my blog of April 15 for comment on that.

Being a rich and famous sports star is wonderful, of course, and some moms and dads (mostly dads, I’d say) like to live vicariously through their children’s playing-field exploits, but it’s hard to find any economic math that would justify the kind of expenditure an IMG Academy education requires. A college-athletics scholarship would seem to be the first expected return, but even at IMG half-tuition ($35,000 a year for four years) the payback wouldn’t seem to justify the payout.

Beyond that comes the inexorable winnowing process that always makes the odds against a professional-sports career a struck-by-lightning sort of proposition. One on-line source calculates that only one of every 200 senior boys who play high-school varsity baseball is drafted by a Major League team, and the chance of reaching a big-league locker room from even that talented pool is greater than one in 30.  The odds are worse still in basketball, which more kids play but where big-league rosters are smaller. Factors such as injury or burnout can intervene.  It’s a long shot even with an IMG Academy diploma in hand.

It still might be worth considering if sports offered long-term employment, but the opposite is true: the average career in the NFL is about 3 ½ seasons, in the NBA about 4 ½ and in MLB about 5 ½. That means that most jocks are over the hill before age 30 and must fashion new careers when those of their contemporaries are just taking off. As many ex-jocks will tell you, that’s not a good place to be, no matter how you got there.

Caveat parentes.




Sunday, November 15, 2015

SCOUTING REPORT

              I’ve written it before but I think it’s worth repeating: the best months to visit Arizona are October and November. The weather then is warm but not hot, breezes are mild, skies usually are a breathtakingly deep blue and the snowbirds have yet to arrive in such numbers as to make traffic difficult. It’s my favorite time of year, a main reason I signed up to live here.
           
          The icing on the cake (cherry on the sundae? cream cheese on the bagel?) is the Arizona Fall League, whose six-week season runs from early October through middle November, this year ending on Thursday. It’s Major League Baseball’s annual finishing school for young prospects, generally Class A or AA players between the ages of 20 and 24. Each of the 30 big-league teams assigns seven players who are grouped in six teams of 35 players each that play a 32-game schedule. They wear their parent-team’s uniforms and AFL-team caps, making for a colorful show.
              
           It’s baseball at its purest and spectating at its easiest. The teams play mostly day games in some of the fine spring-training ballparks in the Phoenix area, with none of the expense and hassle that spring training has come to entail. Tickets are $8 ($6 for seniors) and parking is free and close.  Attendance usually runs between 300 and 500 people a game meaning you can sit where you want, and if your voice carries you easily can share your opinions with players, umps and fellow fans. That’s not always a good thing.
             
           We who are AFL regulars fancy ourselves scouts, and while we lack credentials it’s a game anyone can play. If you recall my previous blogs and website articles on the league you may have been introduced through me to such recent young stars as STARLIN CASTRO, NOLAN ARENADO and GREG BIRD. I also told you about some players who didn’t pan out so well, but let’s not dwell on that.
             
             My overall impression of the current AFL season is that the pitchers are beating the hitters, continuing the recent trend of the sport as a whole. A decade or so ago most of the young hurlers here could throw heat but not much else.  Now most have an array of pitches, and fastball temps continue to rise. On Wednesday I was at a game at Scottsdale Stadium, which broadcasts speed-gun results, and it seemed that every pitcher who was used could hit 95 mph, Bob Feller-like velocity. Anyone who doubts evolution should take note.
         
            That said, position players are easier to scout here than pitchers. Each team has 20 or so of those and aside from the starters, who usually go from three to five innings, they’re typically used for an inning an outing, not much to go on. The most-impressive pitcher I saw was NICK BURDI, a tall, skinny 22-year-old chattel of the Minnesota Twins, who pitched two perfect relief innings while I was watching, striking out four. His overall AFL card as of Friday showed no runs, two hits and seven K’s in six IPs, so he also was good at other times. But what can you tell from such scant exposure?
           
            The best position prospect I saw was GARY SANCHEZ, a 23-year-old catcher in the New York Yankees’ organization. Big (6-3, 230) and solidly built, he’s already a six-year pro, having been signed as a teen in the Dominican Republic, and played at the AA and AAA levels in the just-concluded regular season. As of Friday he led the AFL in home runs (7) and RBIs (19), while batting more than .300, and fielded his position well.  With Brian McCann the Yanks are well set at catcher for at least next season, but Sanchez will play for someone some time.
            
             High draft choices naturally get the most AFL attention and I think it’s instructive to compare the two highest on this year’s rosters. BUBBA STARLING was the fifth overall choice in the 2011 draft, by the Kansas City Royals, CLINT FRAZIER went fifth in 2013, to the Cleveland Indians, both out of high school.  Both are outfielders. Starling is 23 years old, Frazier is 21, and Starling has had 3 ½ minor-league seasons to Frazier’s 2 ½, meaning he should have an edge by both measures. But while the two have similar AFL stats, Frazier looks to me to be much the better prospect. A flaming redhead with a tightly wound physique, he’s faster afoot than Starling, and when he hits the ball solidly his bat gives off a distinctive ring that bespeaks extraordinary strength. The two previous AFLers whose knocks registered similarly with me were Bryce Harper and Javier Baez, and they’ve been hitting ‘em pretty far.

 Frazier strikes out a lot but, I guess, that comes with the territory these days. Both he and Starling will play in the Majors someday, if only to affirm their drafters’ judgement, but only he looks special. The Indians’ keen young shortstop Francisco Lindor was my top AFL prospect last year, and the team seems to have scored again.

Sometimes a player makes you look twice at your program. DOMINIC SMITH is such a one. He’s listed at 6-feet, 185 pounds but looks bigger, and hits bigger, too. The first baseman was the 11th player picked in the 2013 draft, by the L.A. Dodgers. He’s only 20 years old, so he’s probably a few years short of the Bigs, but the talent is there if he can overcome tendencies to not always run out ground balls and roll his eyes after called strikes.

My team, the Chicago Cubs, has been sending its top young hopefuls through the AFL in recent seasons. This year was supposed to be an exception, but the showings of a couple of their less-heralded ones here indicate that their farm system is deeper than I thought. JEIMER CANDELARIA is a 22-year-old infielder from the Dominican Republic who is unprepossessing physically but got hits every time I saw him, including four in one game. The Cubs are loaded with young infielders but he ought to be worth something in trade if he can’t elbow past some of them.

WILLSON CONTRERAS is a 23-year-old catcher from Venezuela who is small for his position (about 6-0, 175) but led the AA Southern League in batting last season (at .333).  He never was in the lineup when I watched his team play, but his AFL stats were good. No team has too many catchers so Theo Epstein must be smiling.

A few others impressed me in passing. TYLER AUSTIN is a 24-year-old first baseman who has spent six years in the Yankees’ system as a low (13th-round) draft pick. He hit two home runs while I was present and could play somewhere. ADAM BRETT WALKER II is a big guy in the Twins system who hits the ball far when he hits it. DANIEL PALKA is an outfield prospect for the Arizona Diamondbacks, who have plenty of outfielders, but he looks like a big-leaguer anyway. 

As I said, the AFL ends Thursday. This will make me unhappy but I’m consoled by the thought that it will reopen in less than 11 months.

               

Sunday, November 1, 2015

CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM II

              They say it takes one to know one, but while I’ve been a Chicago Cubs’ fans for, lo, these last 70 years, I’m having a hard time recognizing my fellow fans these days.  They are smiling and their eyes are uncharacteristically bright. They’re pleasantly sated from the champagne they consumed after their favorites put away the archrival Cardinals in the QFs of the late World Series tournament.  When they look ahead they see nothin’ but blue skies.
             
              It makes me very uneasy.

              I know, I’m a killjoy, as I’ve been told repeatedly, but I can’t shake my innate skepticism or the lessons I’ve learned in my seven decades of fruitless baseball rooting. Further, while I don’t believe in curses, jinxes, hexes or any other otherworldly influences in human affairs, I do believe in psychology, and I’ve concluded that Cubs’ fans’ fecklessness has contributed to the team’s record of futility  (no “world” championships since 1908 or league pennants since 1945) that is unmatched in sporting annals. Unless we shape up we’ll only get more of the same.

              I understand fully the reasons for the current giddiness. In the just-concluded regular season the Cubs upped their victory total over the year before by 24 games (to 97), got through a playoff round (1 ½ if you include the one-game wild-card win over Pittsburgh) and gathered a growing list of individual awards, all with an eight-man lineup that often included five sterling rookies or near-rookies (Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell, Jorge Soler and Javier Baez), none of whom are older than 23. As we were constantly reminded by our journalistic mentors, they “became relevant” and “exceeded expectations.”  Who could ask for more, right?

              Truth is, though, they haven’t won anything yet, baseball awarding no bronze medals, and in the round in which they might have made a mark were brushed aside, four games to zip, by a New York Mets team that outplayed them thoroughly. That series revealed weaknesses not only in short-term hitting but also in the lack of pitching and defense that have plagued the Cubs since time immemorial. Need I remind that since World War II Cubs’ management has been transfixed by the days when the wind blows out at Beautiful Wrigley Field and put its money on sluggers (Sauer, Banks, Williams, Santo, Kingman, Dawson, Sosa) while neglecting baseball’s other facets? During my fandom the team has had only two truly first-rate pitchers -- Fergie Jenkins and Greg Maddux-- and let both slip away while still possessing considerable tread. Theo Epstein has yet to successfully address this issue.

              The Cubs’ dismissal by the Mets recalled their two most-recent playoff ventures, when they were swept by the Dodgers (in 2008) and the Diamondbacks (in ’07).   Moreover, in their fourth trip to the semis since MLB instituted playoffs in 1969, they fared worse than in the other three, when they fell to the Padres in five games in 1984 after taking a two-games-to-none lead, to the Giants 4-1 in 1989 and to the Marlins in seven in 2003 after leading 3-1. That’s nobody’s definition of progress.

              Nonetheless, by most Cubs’ fans’ measurements, 2015 will go down as a “great” year, along with 1984 and 2003, but no team exemplifies their collective psyche better than the 1969 edition. That was the gang that, with four future Hall of Famers on its roster (Banks, Williams, Santo and Jenkins), sprinted to an eight-game mid-August lead in the newly formed National League East only to hit a September wall and finish eight games behind the Mets. A season that would have been judged a colossal bust in most precincts went down in Cubs’ lore as glorious. No stalwart of that crew ever again had to buy himself a drink in Chicago.

              Cubs’ fans’ love for their losers contrasts with the attitudes exhibited by the adherents of the team’s recurring tormentors, the Mets. Yes, New Yorkers came to be fond of Casey Stengel’s comically inept “Amazins” in the years immediately following the team’s expansion birth in 1962, but that didn’t last long.  Since then, the Mets have had to please their adherents in the usual way—by at least occasionally rewarding them with victories. Their log includes two World Series championships (in 1969 and ’86) and two more pennants (in 2000 and this year). That’s two and four more, respectively, than the Cubs have won in that span.

              Both the Cubs and Mets endured losing-season dry spells from 2010 until their resurgences this season, and it’s instructive to compare their fans’ reactions. While the Mets were losing many of their supporters withheld patronage, with annual season attendance at their new (2009) Citi Field home barely exceeding two million for those five annums. Cubs’ fans, despite their team’s worse records than the Mets’ and in a half-as-big metro area, continued to drink the Kool Aid, topping the 2.5 million figure annually and three million in 2010. It’s no stretch to conclude that Cubs’ fans high tolerance for failure is one reason the team has done so poorly for so long. Why should management strive to serve steak when people will pay equally for bologna?

              Cubs’ fans are saying this year’s team is different because of the promise of its gifted young players. They’ll be champs for years, they proclaim. Chicagoans said the same thing after the 1985 Bears dominated the NFL with a young lineup, but fell short thereafter because of injuries and a clash of locker-room egos, not the least of which belonged to their coach, Mike Ditka. The same thing could happen to the Cubs.

              As the 1990s basketball Bulls and the current hockey Blackhawks have shown, Chicago is not a losers’ town, but it takes more than talent to win sports’ biggest prizes. The Bulls won their six NBA titles because of Michael Jordan’s superlative skills but also because he kicked his teammates’ butts when they didn’t perform to his expectations. Jonathan Toews seems to perform the same function for the Hawks in a quieter way. The Cubs will need a similar leader to succeed.

And meantime, it wouldn’t hurt to let them buy their own drinks until they’ve made some additions to the city’s trophy case.