Saturday, August 15, 2015

FEW RUNS, FEW HITS, LOTS OF ERRORS

               Thanks to baseball’s Extra Innings TV package, which brings any game televised anywhere into my home at what I consider a reasonable price (about $200 a season), I watch a lot of baseball these days. This is to say I also hear a lot of complaining.
             
               The sources of the gripes are the TV broadcasters, and their subjects are the umpires, particularly the ones calling balls and strikes on any given day. It’s a regular whineathon, usually starting with the first batter and not ending until the last. Take away the bitching and those guys would be virtually mute. Come to think of it, that wouldn’t be too bad.

               Ordinarily, I dismiss complaints about the officiating in any sport as sour grapes. The idea that the umps, refs, etc., are out to get the teams we root for is embedded in the American psyche, especially these days when distrust of authority runs high, but the mere fact that just about everyone subscribes to it is evidence that it can’t be true. I mean, if everybody is pissed off, somebody must be doing something right.

               When it comes to the calling of baseball’s balls and strikes, though, it seems to me that the beefers have a point, even though it’s not the one they usually make. The game’s strike zone these days appears to be unusually elastic in ways that favor the pitchers over the hitters no matter what uniforms they wear.  I blame this largely for the steep decline in offense that has been the game’s main feature of the past several seasons.

The stats are clear. With the current season about two-thirds over, per-team runs a game average 4.14, the game-wide batting average is .253 and teams are striking out at a rate of 7.59 a contest. Ten years ago (2005) those figures were 4.59, .264 and 6.30, respectively. Fifteen years ago (2000) they were 5.14, .270 and 6.45.  That the bottom-line calculation of runs per game shows an almost 20% drop in this still-newish century amounts to a seismic shift in the venerable National Pastime.

A number of changes in the game help account for the trend. Pitchers today are bigger, throw harder and are technically more proficient than before. Equally as important (and usually overlooked) is the fact that there are more of them. Twenty years or so ago most teams carried nine or 10 pitchers on their 25-man rosters; today it’s 12 or 13.

Time was that starting pitchers routinely went seven innings and complete games weren’t rare. This meant that batters often would face the same pitchers three or four times a game and could put together good lines on their “stuff.” Now, teams now use four or five different pitchers even in low scoring games, and, sometimes, two or more in an inning, even when it seems they don’t have to. The other day one manager, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Clint Hurdle, changed pitchers in the ninth inning of a game his team led 5-1, with one out and nobody on base. Jeez.

Radical defensive shifts that put three or four infielders on the same side of the diamond also once were rare. Now that every batted ball goes into computers programmed to identify hitter tendencies they’re commonplace, and most hitters thus confronted are too bullheaded or self-satisfied to combat them.

Indeed, hitter bullheadedness contributes mightily to pitcher effectiveness; as Chicago White Sox broadcaster “Hawk” Harrelson recently noted, “most batters swing the same way [from the heels] whether the count is 2-0 or 0-2.”  The day when pumped-up batsmen like Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire were machine-gunning home runs is past, but their era’s mantra of “chicks dig the long ball” is very much alive. The corollary of that— chicks dig strikeouts—must be equally true, albeit unsaid.

But my me the umpiring factor is at least a big a factor in the decline as any of the above. In 1997, after a playoff game in which the Florida Marlins pitcher Livan Hernandez struck out 15 Atlanta Braves, many on pitches that looked to be low or wide, home-plate umpire Eric Gregg answered the resulting questions by referring to “my” strike zone. The commissioners’ office came down hard on him for that, so we haven’t heard much such talk since, but the fact remains that each ump has his own strike zone and it’s up to the hitters to learn it daily. Hitting big-league pitching is tough enough without the mental gymnastics this requires.

There’s little argument that most umps are consistent in calling a strike zone that differs markedly from the rule-book prescription that it extend vertically from the midpoint between the shoulders and the belt to the top of the knees. The “high” strike—on pitches much above the belt—rarely is called, and the zone’s real bottom is the bottom of the knee rather than the top. That’s in keeping with the game’s “gentlemen’s agreement” that swaps the high strike for the low one; pitchers these days are taught to keep the ball “down” and hitters have come to expect that.

Each year, though, the zone seems to get lower, with just about every pitch that’s over the plate but not in the dirt getting strike treatment, and wider to the outside of both left- and right-handed hitters. That’s confirmed daily by the upright rectangle televisers superimpose on the zone during their broadcasts. Some days the outside edge of the plate seems to be the chalked edge of the opposite batter’s box, a difference of three or four inches. Pitches off the inside edge rarely get such latitude.

Why this should be so is easily apparent. Umps invariably set up by placing themselves inside and above the catchers’ heads. This gives them a straight view of the high ball and plate’s inside edge but a sidelong—and, thus, imperfect—view of the bottom-outside. In other words, they’re guessing on low and outside pitches. Often, they don’t guess very well. 

In baseball, “caveat emptor” means “batter beware.” It’ll stay that way until the game figures out how to correct it.
    






Saturday, August 1, 2015

FOR PETE'S SAKE

               When the subject of the Baseball Hall of Fame comes up in my presence, as it often does (I’m an elector), the subject of Pete Rose is sure to follow.  Usually, it’s raised in the form of a question, stated aggressively. To wit: “When are you guys finally gonna let him in?”
              
              As much as I hate to quibble (OK, that’s not true), I preface my answer by taking issue with the question’s premises. Us “guys,” the active and retired members of the Baseball Writers Association of America who guard the front door of the Cooperstown, N.Y., museum (various, more permissive, veterans’ committees guard the side doors), have not kept Rose from being honored, capital “B” Baseball has, by its 1989 decision to bar him from any connection to the game and its institutions. He’s never been on a Hall of Fame ballot, so we writers never have had the opportunity to vote for him, or not. Unless he’s reinstated, we never will.

               The second fallacy is that Rose isn’t “in” the Hall; he very much is, even though no plaque bearing his likeness hangs in the gallery devoted to baseball’s heroes. His exclusion from baseball activities does not mean he’s become a nonperson to the game; his records (most notably his 4,256 career hits) remain on the books and his name and deeds are commemorated in other parts of the Hall. More than 20 bats, balls, gloves, photos and film and video clips associated with his feats are there, ample testimony to a 24-year playing career that had few equals.

               The erstwhile “Charley Hustle” is out otherwise because he “screwed the pooch”—did the unforgivable—by betting on baseball, violating any sport’s bedrock rule.  He can’t say he wasn’t warned because the rule long has been posted on the walls of every locker room in the professional game. It states: “Any player, umpire or club or league official who shall bet any sum…upon any baseball game in which [he] has a duty to perform shall be declared permanently ineligible.” It doesn’t get any clearer than that.

               Pete didn’t just place a few, casual bets on ball games; he was a daily, big-money bettor who, often, conducted his wagering from the clubhouse of the Cincinnati Reds, for whom he played or managed for 22 of his 27 total years in the Bigs.  He always spoke loudly and had lots of shtick, so his habits weren’t unknown to his teammates, players and others who followed the club. They hardly could have missed his weight-room buddies, who doubled as book-maker messengers, running his bets out of the team’s quarters both at home and on the road.

               The evidence against Rose, contained in betting slips and phone records as well as interviews, was voluminous, available to enterprising journalists as well as to baseball’s hired gumshoes. Much of it is recounted in Michael Sokolove’s excellent book “Hustle; The Myth, Life and Lies of Pete Rose.” Published in 2002, it depicts the player as a degenerate gambler who besides betting substantial sums with bookies on any game involving a ball also would shovel four-figure wagers through the windows of Cincinnati-area horse and dog tracks on no more basis than a tip or a whim. River Downs, the old Cincy racetrack, enjoyed his patronage so much it gave him a private box from which to bet and his own teller, Sokolove wrote.

               Rose knew what he’d done—and that others knew, too—but for 15 years after his exclusion he regularly issued heated denials that he’d bet on baseball, coming clean on that score in 2004 only to hype an autobiography he’d written. He’s maintained the pose of never having bet on a Red’s game despite an ESPN piece in June revealing he’d done that, too, repeatedly, as a player as well as a manager, dating from 1984.

So what’s so bad about that? many still ask.  Betting the horses is legal and many otherwise upstanding citizens put an occasional bob on a football or baseball game, albeit with a member of the criminal element. So far it’s never come out that Rose bet on his team to lose.

Well, most obviously, ordinary citizens aren’t in a position to affect the outcomes of the contests on which they bet, as Pete was. Further, two-handed bettors like him also tend to be losers, and any player or manager who becomes beholden to the books becomes a likely target for manipulation.   Finally, bookies tend also to be bettors, and the knowledge that he bet on the Reds to win on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, but not on Thursday, was valuable information in the subterranean world in which they operate.

Pete’s banishment dates back 26 years, and it’s interesting how little attitudes toward it have changed over that period.  Baseball has been partially responsible for that because it has permitted him to appear on the field at some of its functions, most recently last month’s All-Star Game in Cincinnati. That he gets ovations wherever he goes testifies to the enduring nature of his bad-boy appeal and brassy bearing, each little affected by his age (he’s 74 now).

Rose is a regular on sports-talk radio shows, on which he always plumps for reinstatement. “Charlie Manson gets a parole hearing every year, doesn’t he? So what about me?” is a favorite line.

Fact is, though, Rose’s case is being reheard constantly, and three of the game’s commissioners (Bart Giamatti, Fay Vincent and Bud Selig) have concluded that what he did was outside the bounds of redemption for a sport whose greatest scandal—the 1919 “Black Sox” episode—remains vivid after almost 100 years. If he has any sense, new commish Rob Manfred will line up with his predecessors on this. Otherwise, baseball’s no-gambling rule will be just so much wallpaper.


                

               

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

YOU GO, GIRLS!

               If women’s soccer in America—or women’s sports generally—ever had a better day than Sunday, July 5, I can’t recall it.  That was the day the U.S. team won the Women’s World Cup by beating Japan in the final, 5-2.
             
             Everything went right. The game was high scoring, something we Yanks typically castigate soccer for not being. It had an appealingly animated hero(ine)—Carli Lloyd—who scored three goals in the first 16 minutes, capping a 4-0 spurt that all but secured the victory.

             It was played at a U.S.-friendly time (7 p.m. in the East) before a U.S.-friendly crowd in Vancouver during a rare slow day for sports on television. It later was announced that the total U.S. TV audience of 26.7 million people-- 25.4 million on Fox and 1.3 million on Telemundo—was this country’s highest for any soccer game, and exceeded that of any game in the recent NBA finals or the seventh game in last October’s baseball World Series. It was drinks all around for everyone connected with the team, and deservedly so.

We’re a nation of analysts, though, and it wasn’t long before the question was raised of what the victory might mean for women’s sports in this land; more specifically, why they don’t get a bigger share of the pie. Indeed, that was a topic of discussion throughout the two-week fest.

 As is customary when male-female issues come up, knees immediately start to jerk and the all-purpose shibboleths that often substitute for thinking about such matters are rolled out. We heard about “glass ceilings” and women’s sports being held back by news-media conspiracies. Bill Rhoden, a usually sensible sports columnist for the New York Times, combined those notions in a single sentence. “A confluence of chauvinism and gender bias have made the ceiling they [women’s sports] are up against a particularly difficult one to shatter,” wrote he.

Well. Conspiracy theorists are hard to dissuade, but if a journalists’ cabal to belittle women’s sports exists it never bothered to try to recruit me during my 46-year newspaper career. And while unacknowledged barriers to women’s advancement certainly obtain in some areas, it’s hard to see how they apply to what boils down to a spending choice in an economy in which, many surveys have shown, women make most of the buying decisions.

Further, the market’s preference for men’s sports over women’s isn’t uniform. The women outdraw the men in activities that reward grace more than strength (figure skating and gymnastics) and do about as well in ones where the playing fields in national and international competitions are shared, albeit separately (tennis, swimming, track and field).  Add sustained success to the mix and women can be dominant in many an athletic endeavor; over the last 10 years Serena Williams probably has gotten more ink, and made more money, than all American male tennisers combined.

Two big reasons women’s sports have had a hard time getting traction have to do with the calendar. First, it’s crowded, more crowded than anyone might have imagined just a few years ago. One of sport’s biggest milestones was the creation, in 1979, of ESPN, the all-sports TV network. Before ESPN, sports on television consisted mainly of a few weekend-afternoon hours and the occasional local game. Now it’s wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling.

 Time was when a week’s sports offerings could be listed on a single page of TV Guide. By contrast, on a recent weekday in Phoenix, with the NFL, NBA and NHL idle,  one could watch summer-league basketball, Canadian football, cycling (the Tour de France), golf, lacrosse, “motorsports,” rugby, men’s international soccer, swimming and Wimbledon tennis. That was in addition to every Major League Baseball game on the “Extra Innings” package and whatever the half-dozen single-sports channels I receive had on. It takes more than a shoehorn to find room on that schedule.

The numbered year on the calendar works against some women’s sports because they’re relatively young and sports watching, like many other things, is at least partly habitual. Women’s team sports in America hardly existed before the passage of the U.S. Education Act of 1972, whose Title IX went a long way toward correcting the vastly unequal funding of men’s and women’s school sports that prevailed to that point. The two biggest U.S. women’s pro-team circuits, the WNBA and the National Women’s Soccer League, date from just 1996 and 2012, respectively.  Soccer generally still is viewed as an immigrant scrambling for a foothold on these shores, and average attendance at NWSL games last season was only about 3,000 a game. Thus, even a double-figure percentage jump during the current July-August campaign wouldn’t put more than a few hundred more fannies in the seats.

Finally, although it’s not fashionable to say it, men and women have physiological differences that make most men’s sports better. That’s apparent to anyone who looks and is why most of the men’s brands outsell the women’s in a bruisingly competitive marketplace, no matter what the sex of the customer.

Many women are fine athletes who deserve applause. Their games aren’t as commercially warped as are many of the men’s, making their competitions purer, and the fact that no huge pot of gold will reward their success causes female jocks to develop their other abilities. Need I say that’s not a bad thing? 







Wednesday, July 1, 2015

NEWS & VIEWS

               NEWS: ST. LOUIS CARDINALS ACCUSED OF HACKING HOUSTON ASTROS’ COMPUTERS
             
               VIEWS: ???
             
              The idea that truth is stranger than fiction gains support daily, but rarely more forcefully than with the story above. What can one baseball team learn by stealing another’s data—that so-and-so can’t hit a curve or that whozis has lost a foot off his fastball? Baseball is played in public with everyone invited to watch and analyze-- teams employ large scouting staffs for that purpose. It’s hard to imagine why any organization would risk criminal prosecution to secure such information.
              
                Published accounts of the alleged theft attribute a possible motive to revenge; apparently Jeff Luhnow, a computer whiz who departed the Cardinals to become the Astros’ general manager in 2012, left some personal animus in his wake.  But if the Cards were paying attention to Luhnow during his nine-year tenure with the team, some current employees must know his tricks. Further, few teams receive higher marks than the Cards for managing personnel, so it seems they need little help on that score.

               The FBI investigation into the charge reportedly is stalled because the agency can’t pinpoint who in the Cards’ offices did the hacking. If history is a guide some low-level minion will be fingered, and after some backing and filling business as usual will resume. The real culprit, though, is the paranoia that permeates big-time sports, tied to practitioners’ inflated notions about the importance of what they do. It’s a game for heaven’s sake, not the rocket science that might justify cloak-and-dagger intrigue.

               NEWS: AROD RETURNS, STILL CAN HIT

               VIEWS: …AND THE WICKED FLOURISH LIKE A GREEN BAY TREE

               When Alex Rodriguez returned to the New York Yankees from PED prison this spring, not much was expected of him.  Nearing age 40 (you can sing “Happy Birthday” to him on July 27), with an injury record to rival Evel Knievel’s and having played in only 44 Major League games the previous two seasons, he was widely deemed to be over the hill, playing only to collect what was left of the ridiculous, 10-year contract the team gave him in 2008. The Yanks weren’t happy to have him back, it was reported.

               Surprise! The guy still can hit. After 72 games he was batting .286 with 15 home runs and 45 runs batted in, on a pace to post 35-100 figures in the last two categories, as in former days. This season he has passed Willie Mays’s 660 home runs to rank fourth all-time (he has 669 now) and got his 3,000th career hit.

 Ordinarily such feats would have been celebrated but those weren’t, at least not outside Yankee Stadium. Rodriguez is the Lance Armstrong of baseball, a guy who didn’t just scarf every performance-enhancing drug around for more than a decade but also lied about it persistently and attacked anyone who didn’t buy his story. When finally nailed in the Biogenesis raid, he didn’t initially plead guilty but sued everyone in sight including the players’ union, and organized picketing of the commissioner’s office. That wasn’t endearing.

Then he said “never mind” and took his medicine (ha!), but few were impressed. He’ll be remembered as one of the best baseball players not to have a plaque in the game’s Hall of Fame. Baseball willfully put its head in the sand during the HITS era (1990-2005, for Head In The Sand) but will pay for it forevermore. That will be more than ARod wants to do, because the law firm that carried his legal ball while he was protesting his innocence is suing him for nonpayment of fees.

NEWS: CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS WIN THE STANLEY CUP

VIEWS: SUSIE AND I HELPED

For the last 40 or so years I’ve had a love-hate relationship with hockey and the Chicago Blackhawks. I grew up rooting for the Hawks, and for several years had a piece of a season ticket for their games in old Chicago Stadium, but chafed under the price-gouging ways of Arthur Wirtz, the pirate in a three-piece suit who owned them. When in 1972 Wirtz allowed Bobby Hull, the best Blackhawk ever, to jump to a new league for a salary ($2 million over 10 years) that quickly would be seen as ordinary, I swore off the team, literally.  My aversion to it deepened when ownership passed to Arthur’s son, Bill, who had all his dad’s bad qualities but none of his smarts. 

My feelings about hockey in general were similarly negative. The National Hockey League caters to its fan base’s base instincts by countenancing on-field fighting, and who can respect a sport that has no respect for itself?

Time passed, however, and the NHL’s fighting addiction has lessened. Also, Bill Wirtz joined his father, wherever. He was replaced by his son, Rocky, who became popular by following the obvious plan of doing the opposite of everything his dad and grandpa had done. The team acquired good players and managers. Reverting to my love of all things Chicago, I cheered when they broke a long drought by winning a Stanley Cup in 2010, and 2013.

The Blackhawks’ prospects for another title this year seemed dim for a time, but Providence intervened.  They were down three games to two in the best-of-seven semis with the Nashville Predators when my wife, Susie, found a battered hockey puck in the gravel driveway of our Scottsdale, Arizona, home. We brought it in and clutched it while watching the Hawks sweep the last two games of that series and put away the Tampa Bay Lightning, four games to two, in the finals.

Think about it for a moment: what are the odds of finding a hockey puck lying around in a desert-clime block where the average age of the kids is about 45, on the afternoon of a make-or-break playoff game?  The puck now has a place of honor on a shelf of our family-room etagere. It looks like the Stanley Cup to us.


Saturday, June 13, 2015

PASS THE POPCORN

               I saw a couple of sports movies recently, one I liked and one I didn’t.
               
               The didn’t was “DRAFT DAY,” a paean to one of sports’ most overblown annual events. Kevin Costner plays the harried GM of a fictionalized Cleveland Browns who, with screenwriters’ help, pulls off draft-day miracles to right his listing club. The National Football League must have loved the script because some of its officials appeared in it, including Commish Goodell, playing himself, of course.  The real draft is a crapshoot but the movie treats it with the dead-pan seriousness the league applies to everything it does.  Costner and cast earned their pay by keeping straight faces throughout the flick’s two hours of nonsense.
               
               The one I liked was “RED ARMY,” a documentary about the USSR national hockey team that despite its “Miracle on Ice” loss to the U.S. in the 1980 Olympics probably was the best such squad ever assembled. The Soviet system of recruiting promising children and subjecting them to brutal training regimens in pursuit of adult excellence is well known, but director Gabe Polsky put flesh on the process by taking his cameras to present-day Russia and talking to the aging veterans who survived the ordeal and sometimes even prospered from it. The movie’s star is Vyacheslav Fetisov, the unit’s star defenseman, now 57 years old. Blunt, cynical and funny, his commentary illuminates not only Soviet hockey but life in general in the erstwhile peoples’ republic during the final years of Communist rule.

               That I liked “Red Army” is unusual because I think most sports movies miss the mark. That’s mostly because film writers and directors feel obliged to substitute the ethos of the stage for that of the playing field, creating suspense by making every pivotal screen game come down to a last-of-the-ninth, two-outs, bases-loaded, score-tied situation, or its equivalent. Great moments in sports occur now and then, here and there; that’s why we’ll watch a mid-August baseball game between two going-nowhere teams.  Sports’ dramatic impact owes mostly to its unscriptedness. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

               That said, I’m immediately going to contradict myself with my No. 5 choice in my five-best sports-movies list. That would be “ROCKY” (1976), the Sylvester Stallone opus about the tomato-can boxer who gets it together to vie for the title.

               “Rocky” and its successor films are hokey. Their fight scenes are the opposite of realistic, with more solid punches landed in any one round than in a whole month of actual fight cards. Every film in the series concludes with the hero triumphing or nearly so after taking enough punishment to kill an ox. Still, in Rocky Balboa writer-star Stallone created an archetypical underdog character strong enough to sustain a six-film run, and the flag-waving sock of the original turned the tide against the downer counterculture of the 1960s and early ‘70s.

               My No. 4 film is a quite-different sort. “MAJOR LEAGUE” (1989) is by me the funniest sports film ever, one that tickles almost as much on fourth or fifth viewing as it did the first time. It’s an annual cable-TV staple around baseball opening day and, I hope, always will be.

               The movie is about an ex-show girl who inherits the Cleveland Indians and designs them to bomb so she can break their lease and move them to Miami, something, by the way, LeBron James did by himself years later. Wouldn’t you know it, the Indians up and win, whackily.  Charlie Sheen, the off-the-rails actor, was great as Ricky Vaughn, an off-the-rails relief pitcher. Wesley Snipes plays Willie Mays Hayes, who was so quick he could flick the switch and get in bed before the light went out. Dennis Haysbert, now a sober insurance-company mouthpiece, plays Pedro Cerrano, a voodoo-practicing slugger, and Bob Uecker burlesques himself as broadcaster Harry Doyle. It’s a hoot! Every time I see a pitcher nearly throw one away I find myself saying “jusssst a little outside,” a la Harry.

               “Major League” was played for laughs but my No. 3, “THE NATURAL” (1984), stirs the sense of myth that sports can evoke. The ethereal Roy Hobbes (Robert Redford), wielding his bat “Wonderboy” (i.e., Excalibur), is a hero of old who overcomes corruption and venality to vindicate himself and the game, and win his lady-in-white (Glenn Close).  Baseball’s roots go deeper into American soil than those of any other sport, and this movie brilliantly taps them.

               No. 2 is “RAGING BULL” (1980), which deals with the violence of boxing. Robert De Niro plays Jake La Motta, a real-life middleweight champion of the 1950s, whose turbulent nature finds an outlet in—but can’t be contained by—the ring.  There’s blood in “Rocky” but it comes off as cartoonish. Not so in “Raging Bull,” whose slo-mo fight sequences makes one wince. Martin Scorsese directs this unsparing character study       of a man who tries to punch his way out of his own skin.

               My all-time favorite sports movie centers on an activity many don’t consider a sport. It’s “THE HUSTLER” (1961), which is about pool. It isn’t really about sports, it’s about winning and losing, measuring up and falling short, things that apply to any endeavor. That’s one reason it’s so good.

               Directed in black and white by Robert Rossen (“Raging Bull” is in black and white, too), “The Hustler” has an acridly authentic script, a great cast of principals (Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, George C. Scott and Myron McCormick) and a raft of flavorful character actors.  Its mandatory “big game” scene takes place not in a crowded arena but in a dim, near-empty pool hall, with the Newman-played hero capping his long road back by wearing down his nemesis, played by the superb Gleason.  Such private victories are all most of us can muster.
              


                

Monday, June 1, 2015

LET'S HEAR IT FOR GOLIATH

               “Rest” is a four-letter word in the National Basketball Association, which is why the seven-day break between the semifinal and final rounds of its current playoffs is notable. The league presents its players (and fans) with an annual seven-month grind of travel, one-night stands and lousy weather that tests bodies and souls.  It’s a wonder anyone survives, and everyone doesn’t.
              
               Things got so bad this season that many players, including stars, created or exaggerated injuries to get some relief.  Such things usually go unremarked officially but this time the league took note, saying it would review future calendars to try to eliminate pockets of particular stress. Simply reducing the number of games teams play from the present 82 would be commonsensical but the schedule is determined by commerce, not competition, so look for only marginal changes.
             
              Still, the finals will commence on Thursday, and, somehow, the two best teams—Golden State (i.e., Oakland) and Cleveland—have qualified to play for the Vince Lombardi (oops, Larry O’Brien) Trophy. That’s swell if you live in Oakland or CV but as usual it poses a rooting decision for the rest of us.  

               That decision is especially stark this year because the personifications of Warriors versus Cavaliers boil down to David versus Goliath. Goliath, of course, is the Cavs’ larger-than-life LeBron James, long the NBA’s dominant force. David would be Stephen Curry, the Warriors’ seemingly wispy main man.

 No greater physical contrast between stars has existed in an NBA showdown round within my memory, which takes in the NBA’s entire history.  The 30-year-old James stands a listed 6-feet-8 and 250 pounds and has muscles in places where most people don’t have places. Curry goes 6-3 and 190, and you have to take the latter figure on faith. He’s 27 years old but looks, maybe, 21. No Adonis he; he’d look at home clerking in a men’s-wear store.

 The differences extend to the two players’ biographies. James was born to a single mom of 16 while Curry is NBA royalty, a son of Dell Curry, who had a 16-year career in the league and pulled down seven-figure salaries most of those years. James was a manchild prodigy who entered the league to instant stardom at age 18 as a No. 1 overall draft choice and probably could have made the move earlier had the rules allowed. Curry was so slight of build as a teen that no major college offered him a scholarship out of high school. He played three years at little Davidson College before showing enough growth and chops to interest the pros.

As Wilt Chamberlain said “nobody roots for Goliath,” so it’s safe to assume that the Warriors will be the people’s choice during the coming hostilities. They’re a likeable bunch, led by the silky Curry and his back court mate Klay Thompson, another NBA legacy by virtue of his dad, Mychal’s, tenure in the league. High scoring and close defending, they had the league’s best regular-season record (67-15). Their coach is Steve Kerr, maybe the most civil man in professional sports. He’d make a great secretary of state if he ever gets tired of basketball. The team hasn’t been in a championship final since 1975 and thus is a welcome new addition to the game’s elite rank.

But hey! There’s something to be said for Goliath this time around. LeBron may have been basketball’s best player for the past decade but he’s gathered little love for his efforts and, paradoxically, now may have more to prove than the outlier Warrior gang.

  Personalitywise, James often has come off as arrogant, an impression that was underscored during ESPN’s overblown coverage of his jump from the Cavs to the Miami Heat in 2010, but he was just 25 years old at the time and, probably, reading from scripts prepared by others. His personal life to date has been exemplary for someone with his immense wealth and fame, and as he’s aged he’s shown increasing humor and insight in his public utterances.

James possesses two championship rings—from the Heat in 2012 and ’13—but he’s so good that most people think he should have more to show for his five previous finals trips. Further, he had to share his Heat title glory with Dwyane Wade, a Hall of Fame-caliber teammate.

This time James has pretty much carried his team alone. His supporting cast originally included Kevin Love, an all-star forward, and Kyrie Irving, an excellent young (22) point guard, but Love is out with an injury suffered in the first playoff round and Irving, while currently ambulatory, has been limited by foot and knee problems. Playing without Love and Irving in game three of the team’s third-round sweep of the very good Atlanta Hawks, James led his team with 37 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists. It was about as good a game as anyone’s ever played.

Indeed, James’s career has reached the point where he is playing largely for posterity and against Michael Jordan for the best-ever crown. That forever will be a tomato-tomahto thing, with no clear winner. James has about two inches and 30 pounds on Jordan in his prime, and probably has superior skills. He can play or defend any position on the court, something the smaller Jordan couldn’t do.

 Jordan came up as a leaper but in his later, championship years got along mainly on the three “g’s” of grace, guile and grit. Tough on himself and on his teammates, he’d literally will his teams to victory even when they didn’t enjoy a physical edge.  James will have to do the same thing to get his depleted squad past the Warriors. If he can manage it he’ll deserve a Goliath-sized cheer.







               

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

THE SCIENTIST

               I swim laps at a municipal pool several times a week, using the locker room to change clothes and shower. As is customary when men assemble for such purposes, discussions take place. When they do I normally remain silent.
              
               I’m not naturally reticent but shy away from locker-room talk. Increasingly, people insist not only on their own opinions but also on their own facts, and attempts at rebuttal can be tedious. Also, the blather sometimes is amusing and I don’t wish to interrupt it.
             
                For instance, a couple of weeks ago a guy was holding forth on the Floyd Mayweather, Jr.-Manny Pacquiao fight that was scheduled for a few days hence. He opined that it was terrible that a man like Mayweather, with several domestic-violence convictions on his rap sheet, was allowed to strut upon the sporting stage and get really big money to do so.
              
               Would he pay the required $100 to watch the bout on TV? he was asked.
   
              “No way,” he replied. “Mayweather doesn’t fight, he runs.”
   
                In other words, Mayweather was too brutal outside the ring but not brutal enough inside it.

               There’s just no pleasing some people.

               Maybe I’m being too hard on the guy because the subject of boxing generally is fraught with difficulties. I’ve always liked the sport but blush to admit as much. At best it’s brutal, and we’d be better off without it, but a hard look at the world tells me that it or something like it probably is necessary. Some men (and some women, too) like things rough and will fight whether it’s permitted or not. Better they should do it in a ring, with padded gloves and a referee present, than al fresco.

                If you legislate against boxing—and some states have—it’ll pop up elsewhere—in back rooms, on barges or across borders. The writer A. J. Liebling’s description of it as the “sweet science” was too cute, but performed properly it’s a legitimate sport, not a mindless brawl. Through instinct and instruction, a skilled boxer knows how to vary the angles of his body and the speed and direction of his footwork to avoid taking solid blows while putting himself in a position to deliver them.  

               Hitting without being hit is what boxing is about, but it’s an elusive goal for the best practitioners. Michael Spinks, a former heavyweight and light heavyweight champion, once told me that “stepping into the ring with another man is like having all 32 teeth pulled without anesthetic,” but he’d slipped and slid through a highly successful career until he met a young Mike Tyson in 1988. After that experience he proved he was smart by quitting.

               As a reporter and fan I’ve seen hundreds of prize fights. The two best fighters I’ve seen were Mayweather and Pernell Whittaker. Like Mayweather, Whittaker performed mostly in the lightweight (135-pound) and welterweight (147-pound) divisions. Nicknamed “Sweetpea”, he was a 1984 Olympic gold medalist whose pro career spanned 13 years (1984-97) before an ill-advised comeback. Lithe and quick, he relished the roll of matador to his opponent’s bull. His specialty was the boxing version of the shutout, in which he’d win every round on every judge’s card. He did that a lot of times while collecting a haberdashery full of championship belts.

               Mayweather was a 1996 Olympian at age 19, losing in the 125-pound semifinals to a Bulgarian in a decision that was widely viewed as terrible (Olympic boxing is known for that). Boxing is his family’s business, his father Floyd, Sr., and uncles Roger and Jeff also having practiced the trade. He fights in the same style as did Whittaker but he’s faster and stronger. He’s also been more durable, as he showed against Pacquiao at age 38.

               As the pool guy noted, Mayweather is not a nice man, making him tough to root for. He’s boastful and crass (his self-chosen nickname is “Money”) and frequently misbehaves outside the ring, sometimes in ways that attract the police. Many people resent the fact that such a disreputable character is probably the richest athlete ever in terms of payment for direct services; he and his entourage are said to have pocketed $180 million from the Pacquiao go alone.

               But I’ve found I can love the art without admiring the artist, something we’re also asked to do when attending a Wagner opera or listening to Frank Sinatra or innumerable rock stars.  If you can’t do that you miss a lot of good stuff.

               I didn’t pay to see the fight, partly because I’m cheap and partly because I was well acquainted with the contestants’ styles and figured I knew pretty much what to expect. I watched for free on HBO last Saturday and was correct. Pacquiao charged, Mayweather mostly moved and jabbed, sometimes holding his foe when he came close but more often counterpunching sharply. Mayweather clearly had the best of it, landing almost twice as many punches by electronic count and taking nine of the 12 rounds on my scorecard. Pacquiao later said he’d fought with a shoulder injury that would require surgery, but he didn’t look hurt during the action. If the two men fought again I’d expect the same outcome.

               Also predictably, reaction to the fight was poor; echoing the popular mood, a USA Today headline called the bout a “snoozefest.” That may have been true if one’s standard of comparison was a round from any of the “Rocky” movies, but for a real-life fight it wasn’t bad. Mayweather’s formula is tried and true and now has produced 48 wins in as many professional bouts. I’m sure he’s aware of critics who think he should be more aggressive, but he fights to win, not to entertain, and is nothing if not true to himself.

He hasn’t hurt himself at the bank, either.