Tuesday, August 1, 2017

KNUCKLERS

                Even though I’ve lived in Arizona since 1997 I’m true to my Chicago roots and am not an Arizona Diamondbacks’ fan, but my wife Susie is (life-long, I joke), so I wind up watching quite a few of their games. A couple of nights last month I tuned in to the D’backs against the Atlanta Braves and had a rare treat: both contests were started by the Braves’ R.A. Dickey, one of only two knuckleball pitchers currently active at the Major League level. The other is Steven Wright of the Boston Red Sox.
             
   Dickey pitched well that first game, giving up eight hits and one run in six innings and getting the decision in what would be a 4-3 Braves’ home win on July 14. He wasn’t as good in the next one, lasting only 3 2/3 frames in Phoenix and taking the loss in a 10-2 outcome on July 24.  I’m sure that if he’d been asked about the difference between the two starts he’d have replied the way knuckleballers always do, saying “I threw the ball the same both times. It just went different.”

                I’ve been fascinated with the knuckleball about as long as I’ve been fascinated with baseball. It’s a soft, curious pitch that (deceptively) looks easy to throw but is hard to hit. Which of us has not experimented with this piece of exotica while playing catch with our kids? Which of us has not imagined that, given enough practice, we could baffle the mighty of the Majors in seemingly effortless fashion? It very well could be Baseball Daydream No. 1. I’d be surprised if it weren’t.

                Any discussion of the knuckleball must begin by saying that the pitch usually is misnamed. Typically, it is grasped not by the knuckles of the pitching hand but by the tips of the second and third fingers, just behind the seam.  The pitcher pushes the ball forward with little or no wrist action; having no spin of its own the ball floats toward the plate, allowing the action of the prevailing air currents on the seams to give it its deceptive motion. It can flutter, dip, break left or right or (not a good thing) go straight. No one, least of all the pitcher, can predict how it will react in flight.

                What’s difficult about the pitch is controlling it—getting it over the plate with regularity. This is as much an intellectual exercise as an act of physical dexterity, something that is rare in sports.  Pat Jordan, a former minor-league pitcher turned writer, described this best in his 1975 autobiography “A False Spring.” He wrote: “A [knuckleball] pitcher has no control over the peregrinations of the ball. To be successful he must first recognize this fact and then decide that his destiny still lies only with the pitch and that he will throw it constantly no matter what.” 

                Professional athletes like to take the bull by the horns, as it were, so it should come as no surprise that the adoption of the knuckler as a bread-and-butter pitch is almost always an act of desperation, taken after all else fails. Adding to the burden is that knuckleballers aren’t the most-popular of teammates. The delivery is as hard to corral as it is to hit, so catchers must arm themselves with extra-large gloves, a kind of cross between a catcher’s mitt and a first-baseman’s. Bob Uecker, the catcher-turned-broadcaster, used to quip that the pitch really wasn’t all that difficult to tie down. “You just wait until it stops rolling and pick it up,” he’d say. Also, the pitch’s slow speed makes stolen bases easy to come by, and infielders don’t relish standing in the path of spikes-first runners.

Once launched, however, knuckleballers can keep at it almost indefinitely. That’s because their throwing motion involves little of the arm stress that catches up with most pitchers. Hoyt Wilhelm, one of two knuckleballers to be elected to the game’s Hall of Fame, didn’t reach the Majors until age 29 but kept going until he was 49. Phil Niekro, the other, lasted until he was 48. Niekro holds the records for most career wins in the form (324). He also holds the mark for most victories by any pitcher after age 40 (121).

My favorite knuckleballer was Wilbur Wood, the old Chicago White Sox lefty. He’d spent parts of five conventional seasons in Boston and Pittsburgh with only one win to show for it before adopting the pitch in Chicago, where from 1967 through 1978 he starred as both a starter and reliever. He not only threw the knuckler but, baldish of head and round of build, also looked the part. Roger Angell once described his appearance on the mound as “that of an accountant or pastry clerk on a holiday.” I thought he looked like the hardware-store guy who knows all about tools.

In one, four-year stint as a starting pitcher (1971-74), Wood won a total of 90 games and never recorded fewer than 320 innings a season, an unheard of figure today. One May day in 1973 he finished the last five innings of a game that had been suspended the night before and started and finished that day’s regularly scheduled game, giving up no earned runs and six hits over the 14 innings. Later that season he started (but, alas, lost) both ends of a doubleheader.

Wood might have challenged Wilhelm’s and Niekro’s longevity records if he hadn’t had his kneecap shattered by a line drive during a game in 1976. He lasted parts of just two more seasons before having to quit at age 37, returning to his hometown of Belmont, Mass. There he spent much of his time fishing, something he liked almost as well as baseball. That suited him, I think.



Saturday, July 15, 2017

A JOCK AND HIS MONEY IS SOON ...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





                

Saturday, July 1, 2017

BIG FIGHTS

                When asked what I liked best about my stint as a free-range sports columnist, I quickly reply that I enjoyed the variety my post offered, being able to write about a baseball game one day, a track meet the next and, maybe, an arm-wrestling tournament the following week. I regarded my brethren who covered the same team (and sport) day in and day out with a mixture of awe and aversion. How did they do that? I asked myself.
               
                 But when inquiring minds want to know more, honing in on my favorite sport to write about, I have a bit of as problem. It’s not in deciding what to say but whether to say it. Although I always feel obliged to apologize when I admit it, I really liked boxing. It’s not the mindless brawl its detractors make it out to be, and while A.J. Liebling’s description of it as the “sweet science” strains credulity, it doesn’t exceed it. Withal, the sport is elemental, rooted in our collective psyche, which is why periodic attempts to ban it have failed. As long as some men (and, lately, some women) want to do it, they’re best off in a ring wearing padded gloves, with a referee present.

                If I may be permitted a bit of nostalgia, my ties to boxing go way back. My father worked half days on Saturdays in his small downtown Chicago office, and when I was 10 or 11 he’d sometimes take me with him. I’d do odd jobs or amuse myself for a few hours and he’d take me to lunch at Harding’s cafeteria, which had wonderful roast beef sandwiches (and where patrons could roll dice double-or-nothing for the check, although my dad never did that). Then, sometimes, he and I would walk about a block to the Midwest Gym, upstairs in an old, walk-up building on Madison Street, to watch the boxers train.

                Dad wasn’t a sports fan so I don’t know why he did that, but I’m glad he did. Chicago had an active fight scene in the late 1940s and early ‘50s, and local boxers such as Tony Zale and Bob Satterfield regularly trained at Midwest. When a big fight was in town the contestants would join them, as Ezzard Charles and Joe Walcott did before their 1949 heavyweight title match. By age 10 I already was an avid sports-page reader and was thrilled to be close to the heroes I’d read about. I once was introduced to the great Zale, and his autographed photo decorated my bedroom wall until I went away to college.

                Once handed a press card I couldn’t wait to get to ringside, and did so frequently. Besides covering championship bouts I followed the sport in five Summer Olympic Games and scouted young pugilists with promise. I saw a skinny, 16-year-old Oscar De La Hoya (he spelled it De Lajoya then) win a National Golden Gloves title in Knoxville, Tennessee, a 20-year-old Mike Tyson win a prelim bout in a seedy arena in Troy, New York, and a 21-year­ Floyd Mayweather pitch a 10-round shutout in Los Angeles.

                As a cultural experience, nothing in sports beats a big fight. They usually were staged in Las Vegas hotel arenas during my tenure, and I’d show up early to watch arrive what Pierce Egan called “the fancy.” Hollywood and sports stars headed the mix, along with politicians, Vegas big shots, gangstas (especially for the Tyson fights) and assorted pimps and high-priced hookers wearing enough gold chain to stretch from Caesars Palace to Timbuktu.  Even when the fight turned out to be a yawner the show never failed to dazzle, and afterward the host casino literally would roar with action. That’s why the hotels pay up big to have them.

                I haven’t much followed the fights for the last 15 years but, really, there hasn’t been much to follow. That’s a good thing; boxers are recruited from the economic underclass (nobody does it for fun) and its waning in the U.S. stems in large part from a lack of volunteers. The upper-weight divisions have just about vanished from these shores and the lower ones have become largely Hispanic affairs. The number of “names” that can stir a broad American audience has, I think, dwindled to one.

                That would be the abovementioned Mayweather, a consummate craftsman who would have stood out in any era. Nobody I’ve seen better embodies the fight-game aim of hitting without being hit, which is why he’s had a career spanning two decades. He’s unbeaten in 49 pro bouts and according to online sources has a net worth of $340 million, mostly from pay-per-view TV events such as his May, 2015, go with Manny Pacquiao. Mayweather would be richer if he hadn’t had to pay legal fees for the half-dozen female-assault charges he’s faced over the years. A good guy he ain’t, but we’re talking boxing here.

                Mayweather has been retired since the Pacquiao fight but, at age 40, has been lured back to meet the Irishman Conor McGregor in Las Vegas on August 26. It’s testimony to boxing’s decline that McGregor isn’t a square boxer but a “mixed martial arts” specialist, from a “sport” in which it’s okay strike one’s foe with one’s feet, elbows and knees as well as fists, and with just about anything that’s lying around. Contrary to many perceptions, MMA does have rules (no head-butting, biting, hair-pulling, spitting or groin shots) but you wouldn’t know it to watch a match. The description that comes to mind quickest is “mindless brawl.”

                McGregor is 12 years younger than Mayweather, and probably in better shape. He’s undeniably tough, and white, so enough people will pay the expected PPV tab of $100 to gin up a nine-figure gross.  It’ll be a boxing match though, with boxing rules, and, apparently, nobody has told McGregor not to try to beat a man at his own game.  My take is that it’d be worth the $100 to stand outside the arena on fight night, but once the first bell rang I’d go home and wait until the replay gets to free TV.
               


                

Thursday, June 15, 2017

KIDS' STUFF

                The Arizona Republic is my local newspaper and I read its sports pages daily. They’re about par for the course for a regional paper, mixing a basic amount of national coverage (box scores and the like) with a heavier dose of area sports news. Phoenix’s big-league professional teams are covered not only intensively but also breathlessly; almost every day brings a feature describing how brave, clean and reverent one local hero or another is. It seems that the paper’s sportswriters deem themselves lucky to be able to hang out with such swell fellas.
               
               The pages keep their focus on the games at hand, rarely stepping back to ponder larger pictures. That’s why a late-May piece on local high-school sports by the paper’s Richard Obert caught my eye.  Under the neutral headline “Finding Balance in Today’s Landscape” it described a prep sports scene gone mad, with “overworked coaches feeling the strain of carrying a program year-round; administrators pressured by parents; parents spending ungodly amounts of money for [private] camps, coaches and clubs; and athletes pulled in different directions.”  It asks: “How does everybody keep their sanity in today’s high school sports world?”

                I’d guess that the description is quite foreign to anyone over 50 years old, and certainly to anyone my age (79). When I was a high-schooler sports were seasonal and kids spent their summers lifeguarding or bagging groceries, maybe playing some twilight pickup games in the parks.  A (very) few among us were standouts, but we attributed that to inborn abilities—gifts from God or the gods—and just another example of life’s unfairness. The rest of us shrugged and directed ourselves elsewhere.

                I’ve written before about the professionalization of childhood, most lately in a December 1, 2015 piece about IMG Academy, which you can see by scrolling way, way down. It’s a for-profit boarding school in Bradenton, Florida, at which, for tuition and fees topping $70,000 a year, kids starting at age 13 can along with schooling receive intensive coaching in a number of sports, including baseball, football, basketball and, even, lacrosse. The aim is to prepare the youngsters for pro careers or, at least, college-athletics scholarships, although what the place is charging would seem to wipe out any financial gain for parents a “free ride” might bring.

                Now, it seems that public and parochial high schools in Arizona (and probably elsewhere) are providing a similar if not as expensive experience. In football and basketball, seasons have become year-round or close to it, with organized practices carrying into the summers, and when schools don’t do it programs conducted by the AAU or other outside organizations do. “Spring football moves into 7-on-7 passing tournaments and big-man contests,” Obert writes. “Basketball goes into [July] club with June primarily the month coaches spend with their players in leagues and tournaments. …It never stops. There’s always something”

Kids -- boys especially-- are encouraged by coaches and parents to begin specializing at ever-earlier ages. Coaches are pressed to win so their teams will attract the sort of news-media attention that draws college scouts. Parents harass coaches about playing time for their offspring to the extent that some coaches make it known that the subject is off-limits. Schools recruit players away from other schools. Players transfer in search of greater exposure.

 If that isn’t enough the players, tied to social media like most of their contemporaries, compete intramurally for peer celebrity. “The more [college] offers you have the more [Facebook] followers you have and the more people know about you,” one highly-recruited football player was quoted as saying. “There’s definitely more pressure to perform well.”

That alone might be bad enough, but in individual sports such as tennis, golf and (yes) baseball, the drive to mold top-level skills starts well before high school; if a kid isn’t an ace by 13 he might as well forget it. The recent story in Sports Illustrated magazine about Hunter Greene, the suburban-Los Angeles teenage pitcher/shortstop who was the No. 2 choice (by the Cincinnati Reds) in last week’s Major League Baseball draft, tells how the lad has been playing in year-around travel leagues since age eight, logging at least 70 games annually. “He flew with his team to Omaha when he was nine; Florida, South Carolina and New York when he was 10, Ecuador when he was 12.”  Between games he was driven by his parents to L.A. for tutorials with ex-Major Leaguers. He does yoga with a private instructor three times a week and is trained in plyometrics (strenuous jumping exercises) after baseball practice. It might take a seven-figure initial pro contract to get his folks back to even.

Bryce Harper, the 24-year-old Washington Nationals’ slugger and top choice in the 2010 MLB draft, has a similar biography. He, too, hit the travel-team road at eight and was pushed through high school in two years with a GED so he could spend a year at junior college (majoring in baseball) and join the pros at 18 instead of 19.  The father of Kris Bryant, the young Chicago Cubs star, built a back-yard batting cage in which his son could start taking serious cuts at age five.  A former minor leaguer, dad Bryant now rents himself out as a hitting guru.

The poster boy for early prep is Tiger Woods, the golfer. His dad Earl, an ex-Army officer, had him swinging sawed-off golf clubs while still in diapers. The kid broke 50 for nine holes at six and was playing in junior tournaments against teens when he was nine. The regimen, plus the genius-level physical aptitudes without which any amount of sports prep is pretty much useless, paid off for Tiger with early fame, glory and riches, but also with a middle age that, now, seems hellish.  One only can wonder if a different beginning might have led to a different result.


               
               
               

                

Thursday, June 1, 2017

UNBREAKABLE?

                Newspaper reporters meet lots of interesting people, and one of the most interesting I met was Dakin Williams. He was the younger brother of Tennessee Williams, the playwright, and gained most of his celebrity therefrom, but was a notable character in his own right, a delightful wit  and raconteur (you can look this one up). He also was a lawyer in small-town Collinsville, Illinois, who relieved the monotony of legal practice with runs for political office in his home state.

Dakin never expected to win those races but relished the chance to use them to mock a process that was (and is) ripe for satire. Probably his best zinger was one he unleashed on Adlai Stevenson III during their 1974 Democratic senatorial primary match, when he called the son the late presidential contestant “the potato candidate, because the best part of him is in the ground.”

One can say the same about baseball; no other American sport has as much history as the diamond game, or depends so much on it for its appeal. Football may have more fans (according to surveys) but few of them can spew out its most-basic records. By contrast, even only moderately learned baseball fans not only can do this but also can engage in discourse comparing holders of ancient records (such as Hack Wilson’s 1930 RBI mark of 191) with today’s playing-field standouts. Indeed, just summoning up such old names can bring us back to past eras better than any history book.

The subject baseball fans most like to argue is which of the game’s records are likely to stand forever, and which won’t. The ones that often come up quickest in the “will” category are Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, set in 1941, and Johnny Vandermeer’s back-to-back no-hitters, from 1938. Nobody has come close to either of them lately, the reasoning goes, so nobody ever will.

I disagree. I think both marks were freaks and, thus, will be outdone by other freaks. Yes, few players have hit the way the great Joe D. did, but the streak is a contact record and a few modern players, such as Ichiro Suzuki, have been quite good in that department. Someday one of them will freak out and pass 56, says I. And while breaking Vandermeer’s record would require pitching three straight no-hitters—a prospect that strains credulity—someone should match it sooner or later.

Any serious discussion of baseball records, or any other kind, must start from two premises: 1) forever is a long time and 2) things change.  It’s for the latter reason that the records I think will stand are those involving pitching. Topping that list are the marks put up by Denton “Cy” Young during a 22-season career that bridged two centuries (1890-1911). Those included most starts (815) , most complete games (749), most innings pitched (7,356), most wins (511) and, alas, most losses (316).  The reason is that pitchers no longer pitch as often or as long as Cy did, and probably never will.

Similarly, I think it’s safe to say we’ll never see another 30-game-winning season by a pitcher like the last one posted by Denny McLain, who went 31-6 in 1968, or more career shutouts than Walter Johnson’s 110. Working in a four-man rotation, McLain started 41 games that year (and finished 28). Today, with five-man rotations the rule and some teams occasionally going to six, pitchers rarely start more than 32 games in a season, and with bullpens playing a growing role complete games are rare. Denny always will have ‘68 to savor during or between prison stints.

 Johnson’s record, set between 1907 and 1927, will remain for the same reasons. The current Major League leader in career shutouts, with 15, is the L.A. Dodgers’ estimable Clayton Kershaw. He’s 29 years old and has played 10 seasons. At that rate he’d have to pitch 63 more years just to tie Johnson.

Another record in my “forever” category is Cal Ripken Jr.’s consecutive-games streak of 2,632 games, set from 1982 to 1998. That’s because nobody with any sense would want to break it. The former record—Lou Gehrig’s 2,130 games—stood for 56 years and was considered unbreakable until Cal Jr. came along. Last season no Major Leaguer appeared in all 162 games, so there are no current contenders for the mark. Everybody needs a day off now and then, even if he’s feeling okay.

Other changes in baseball seem likely to preserve less-well-known records, such as Sam Crawford’s 309 career triples. Crawford played at a time (1899-1917) when baseballs were “dead,” fielders’ gloves were much smaller than today’s, ballpark outfields were more spacious and outfielders played more shallow, allowing balls hit between them to roll farther.  The active-career leader in the category is the N.Y. Mets’ Jose Reyes, with 123, and at age 33 he’s nearing the end of his playing days.  Ain’t nobody ever gonna top Sam.

Some other baseball records—in the hitting and base-running categories—might seem as unassailable as the ones named above. These include Rogers Hornsby’s single-year batting mark of .424, Pete Rose’s 4,256 career hits, Wilson’s 191 RBIs, Barry Bonds’ 73 single-season home runs and Ricky Henderson’s 1,270 career stolen bases. Hornsby’s mark seems most secure because hitters swing for the fences these days and his 32 strikeouts in 536 official times at bat in his record-setting year (1924) looks like a misprint today. It’s a definite “maybe” in my book.

Otherwise, though, changes in the area of human improvement are coming that we can already glimpse, and they could pitch many of baseball’s standards into the historical dustbin. Bonds’s home-run mark was set when steroid use was widespread in baseball, and nobody in this stricter-testing period has topped the 50 mark since 2007, but what’s forbidden today might not be tomorrow, and who knows what other chemical wonders science has in store? Further, experiments with the genome are proceeding apace, and the supermen (and women) of 2067 probably will joke about the primitive state of today’s game.

And, hey!, we might not have to wait 50 years to see a new age. The coverboy of the Sports Illustrated issue of May 1 was Hunter Greene, a 17-year-old California high schooler who stands 6-foot-4, weighs 210 pounds, hits a baseball 450 feet and throws one 102 mph. He might break a bunch of records, both from the mound and plate.

BUSINESS NOTE: A new edition of “For the Love of the Cubs,” featuring heroes of the team’s 2016 World Series victory, is just out, with drawings by the marvelous Mark Anderson, one of the nation’s leading illustrators (no kidding), and verses and fact blocks by me. It’s a great keepsake and gift item for Cubs fans of all ages. You can get it by clicking on the Triumph Books link above, at amazon.com or barnesandnoble.com, or at your local bookstore. 

  



Monday, May 15, 2017

Three HUHS? and a HMM

                Lots of odd things happening in the sports world and vicinity of late. Time for another News/Views.

               NEWS: Dad of an NBA rookie-to-be announces a line of $495 sneakers.

                VIEW: Huh?

                LaVar Ball, father of Lonzo Ball, the one-and-done UCLA basketball flash who is expected to be a top NBA draft choice in June, has been getting lots of ink and TV time lately, talking up both his son’s and his own hoops prowess. Among other things, he said he could whip Michael Jordan in a one-on-one game, both now and when MJ was in his prime. This from a guy whose sole Division I basketball exposure came in 1986-87 when he averaged 2 (that’s two) points a game at Washington State U.

                Now comes LaVar with his Big Baller Brand shoe, which he says will sell for the above price. That’s about $300 more than the top-priced shoes endorsed by the likes of LeBron James and Steph Curry. If it actually comes out, that is—it’s not scheduled to hit the stores until November.

                It should be noted that whatever their retail prices athletic shoes cost no more than $30 to make in Asia, where just about all of them are manufactured. Any additional value is added by branding and marketing.  To those who scoffed at his, uh, cojones for asking such a markup, Ball scoffed back. “If you can’t afford them you’re not a BIG BALLER,” he tweeted.

                NEWS: Alabama gives head football coach Nick Saban a contract extension worth about $8.625 million a year over the next eight years.

                VIEW: Huh?

                It’s no news that big-time college football and basketball head coaches make big money, but the extent of their haul becomes more eye-popping annually. Their salaries had reached the seven-figure mark when I turned in my press card in 2003 but they’ve ballooned since, rivaling those of the heads of Fortune 500 companies. These days, none of those guys at the so-called “Power Five” conferences (the SEC, Big 10, Big 12, ACC and PAC-10) makes less than a million annually, and the median seems to be around $3 million. Not bad for someone who, in the case of basketball, directs a 12-player “program,” as they call their teams these days.

                The package for Saban, whose ‘Bama teams have won four national championship in the past seven years, stands out even in that milieu. It’ll will pay him $8.125 million a year for the next eight straight up, plus a $4 million “signing bonus” this year. Prorating the bonus over eight years produces the $8.625 figure, although getting the full $4 mil up front makes the deal sweeter.  And remember that college coaches’ deals typically contain such additional lollipops as free country club memberships, private planes for personal use and free auto use, as if they can’t afford to buy their own.

                Writers wanting to make a point usually compare college coaches’ salaries with those of other public officials in their states, or profs on their campuses. The Alabama governor is paid $119,950 a year and a full prof at the U. of A. makes $186,636, each of which figure probably wouldn’t cover Saban’s car-park tips.  More telling is the fact that the two top-paid head coaches in the NFL—Pete Carroll and Sean Payton—make $8 million a year each, or less than Saban will pull down. If the pros call him again (he coached there before) he could turn them down on financial grounds.

                NEWS: Jay Paterno, Joe’s son, is elected to Penn State University’s board of trustees.

                VIEW: Huh?

                Paterno, 48, won election last week to the university’s governing body by vote of the school’s alumni, who pick nine of the unit’s 38 members. This is despite a work history consisting mainly of 17 years as an assistant on the school’s football staff (1995-2011) while his dad was head coach. He was fired in 2011 with other football staffers after the arrest of assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. Sandusky’s serial predations upon young boys, conducted under Joe Paterno’s regime and often in university facilities, led to a far-reaching scandal that resulted in a 60-year prison term for Sandusky and, recently,  lesser terms for three high Penn State officials, including the school’s president at the time. Joe Paterno, who died of cancer in 2012 at age 85, never was charged, but if he knew what his longtime top aide was up to he never called the cops.

                Since leaving coaching six years ago Jay Paterno has been concerned primarily with refurbishing his father image, with a book he wrote and lawsuits he’s joined against the university for its handling of the case. He’s also pushed something called Paterno Legacy beer, which has been sold around Pennsylvania at football season the last few years with “Joe Pa’s” picture on the can.  If nothing else, his election ensures that, welcome or not, the Sandusky episode’s aftermath will continue to burn brightly in State College, Pa., during his three-year term.

                NEWS: A proposal to wipe out all world track-and-field records set before 2005 is making the rounds.

                VIEW: Hmm.

                Pierce O’Callaghan, chairman of the European unit of the IAAF, track’s world governing body, says the move would mark the start of a “new, clean, credible era” for the sport, which has been beset with doping scandals. If adopted it would limit records to ones established at approved international events Involving only athletes who had been subjected to the drug testing and urine-or-blood sample-storing rules begun in 2005. Records predating such requirements would remain on a “historical list” but no longer would be considered official, O’Callaghan said. IAAF President Sebastian Coe said the rule would be “a step in the right direction,” indicating it might be adopted.

                The idea calls to mind baseball’s struggle with records set in what I call its HITS (for “Heads In The Sand”) Era, stretching from about 1990, when steroid use seriously invaded the game, to the institution of credible drug-testing standards in 2005. Power-hitting numbers swelled in that period, setting them apart from those that had been set before, or will be set after. These include the top six annual home run counts topped by Barry Bonds’s 73, all of which were posted by him, Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa between 1998 and 2001.

                Baseball lives off its records so a purging of HITS Era marks probably would go too far, but marking them with asterisks would be a good move. They were set under unusual conditions and should be recognized as such.
               


Thursday, May 4, 2017

DERBY PICKS

Saturday is the Kentucky Derby, the one horserace non-fans of the sport notice, and as one of the shrinking  corps of racing aficionados I annually feel obligated to hype it. It’s a great event, a cultural phenomenon better experienced in person at rambling old Churchill Downs than on TV, and one that should be on everyone’s bucket list. I ticked it off mine in 1986 and went to the next 14, so that’s no longer a concern for me.

This year’s running shapes up as wide open, a change from the last two when strong favorites (American Pharoah in 2015 and Nyquist last year) prevailed. You can make a winning case for six or eight of Saturday’s 20 entrants without serious objections from me. The good news is that with the favorites expected to go off at odds of 4-or 5-to-1, and several juicy offerings at 15-to-1 or better, it should be a good betting race, with nice payouts for the astute (and lucky).

The Derby’s main handicapping challenges are its 1 ¼-mile length, 1/8-mile longer than most entrants have run, and large field of rambunctious colts that makes a lot of banging around inevitable. If your horse is among the badly banged, too bad and better luck next time.

Horses running at or near the lead (such as Pharoah and Nyquist) get bumped around less than others, so I’m picking one of them to anchor my two exacta boxes. He’s ALWAYS DREAMING, 5-to-1 in the morning line. I like him because he easily won the Florida Derby, the best Derby prep, has been training well in Louisville and will have Hall of Fame jockey John Velasquez on his back. My other anchor will be McCRAKEN, also 5-to-1. “Horses for courses” is a racetrack saw and his course is Churchill, where he’s won three of three. ‘Nuf said.

One of my four-horse exacta boxes also will contain THUNDER SNOW (20-to-1) and GUNNEVERA (15-to-1). Thunder Snow is from the Godolphin stable, based in Dubai. It has sent previous horses to the race to no avail, but Thunder Snow seems to be a cut above those. He’s run eight races in three different countries, has won at 1 3/16th miles, 1/16th longer than any other entry has run, and has handled fields of up to 16, so he’s not easily cowed. I think he’s worth a play even though he’ll start from the No. 2 gate position, a tough draw. GUNNEVERA is a late runner who promises to be charging down the Derby homestretch. His backers must hope he doesn’t run too late, as most  late runners do.

My other box will be filled out by late-running HENCE (15-to-1) and PRACTICAL JOKE (20-to-1), a solid performer who always tries and who Dave Toscano, my handicapper pal, likes particularly.

Those picks, of course, assume no late scratches, and I’ll probably throw in a few other bets as the race approaches. But what the heck, it’s the Derby. As Joe E. Lewis used to say, “I hope I break even, I need the money.”