Monday, December 15, 2014

VOTING TIME

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

              
              
              
              

               

Monday, December 1, 2014

STIFF ARMED

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

               

Saturday, November 15, 2014

SCOUTING REPORT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, November 1, 2014

BYE BYE BUD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

               

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

HANGING ON

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, October 1, 2014

F-F-FASTER BASEBALL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Monday, September 15, 2014

I HEART NFL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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