Monday, January 15, 2018

TURNING AWAY

                You’d think that a retired guy like me would have lots of time to watch sports on TV, and I do. I choose, however, not to give much of that time to professional football.

                I used to be a big fan of the National Football League, sitting transfixed in front of my tube for hours on Sundays, and on Monday nights. Hooked by a point-spread system that makes every contest an intriguing proposition, I bet on many of the games and won enough to maintain my interest. I could chat knowledgably about things like the West Coast offense and the Tampa 2 defense. I chuckled at the witticisms of Johnny Madden and wished that Dennis Miller would take his act elsewhere.

                I still watch some NFL games but fewer than before, and with less interest. When I watch now I almost always have a newspaper or crossword puzzle close at hand. I don’t think I’ve seen a half-dozen games beginning-to-end all season.  There are whole teams of which I can’t identify more than three or four players—or coaches, for that matter. I no longer bet on the games, saving the money for losing on the horses. Call it a reordering of priorities.

                It’s no news that I’m not alone in my change of heart. The NFL’s television ratings—the league’s bread and butter in what is basically a made-for-TV sport—have been down for two years now, with about a 9% overall ratings drop this season from last following an almost-identical result in 2016 from 2015. The league still is a TV powerhouse, outdrawing all other programming categories, but added up that’s an almost 20% decline, one that you can bet has rattled boardrooms on Madison Avenue and vicinity.

                There are reasons for the slump that have little to do with the game on the field. One is the fractionalizing of the TV audience that’s been in progress for decades. Another is the addition of Thursday- and Sunday-night games in recent years, which may have oversaturated the market. A third is the abandonment of regular TV by people wanting only the sort of quick updates and highlights they can get on their cellphones (I’m told—I don’t use one). Concentrating on one subject for more than a few minutes seems to be beyond many nowadays.  That doesn’t seem like a good thing, does it?

                Our president, Mr. Trump, takes credit for the trend because of his criticism of some NFL players (read that “black athletes”) for being insufficiently patriotic when they knelt during the playing of the national anthem during some early-season games to protest police brutality toward black suspects. He may have a point, but I suspect that his motive (beyond stirring up his “base”) stemmed mostly from personal pique against the league for rebuffing his team-ownership overtures over the years and embarrassing his old U.S. Football League in the courts in the mid-1980s. For more on the latter subject see Jim Byrne’s book, “The $1 League.”
       
         I’m generally for what Trump is against (and vice versa), so his barbs didn’t affect my thinking. My quarrel is with football itself and how the NFL presents it. Specifically, the league’s mulish insistence on “getting things right” through its endless reviews of game officials’ rulings has ruined the game’s continuity and, often, produces more questions than answers. Further, and more important, recent revelations about football’s physical toll on its players has mixed my admiration of those rugged guys with a big dose of pity. That feeling doesn’t make for happy viewing on a Sunday afternoon.

If you’ve followed my writings you know how I feel about video reviews of field-officials’ calls: I don’t like them. Sports are contested by humans and should be judged by them, period. If mistakes are made, too bad—everyone makes them—and in the long run they balance out.
            
            I know that technology isn’t going away and will forevermore be part of our games, but in its self-importance the NFL has made much too much use of it, abandoning its product to Talmudic discussions of its rules and their microscopic application. Better than any academic experiment the NFL’s multi-angled replays illustrate the elusive nature of truth.

 Making this exercise worse is the stupidity of some of those rules. A ball-carrier is awarded a touchdown if the nose of the ball grazes the end line, even if it’s immediately fumbled away, but to score a pass receiver not only must catch the ball securely and come down with it in the end zone but, it seems, take it to the sideline and turn it over to an equipment manager. It’s no wonder that every week some fans go away muttering that their teams were robbed.

Football always has been physically dangerous to its participants—more dangerous, I think, than non-players realize. To best appreciate its level of violence an NFL game must be viewed from the sidelines, where the sounds and the very feeling of its collisions can be experienced up close. The central fact of life in the league is that after the second or third week of a season every player plays injured, and few men escape even a short professional career without permanent damage to at least one bodily part. Add in the extra weight many of today’s players must carry to maintain their positions (300-pounders were all but unknown in the game 30 years ago) and you increase the possibility of heart problems.

 And in the last few years, despite the league’s camouflage efforts, the real dangers of head injuries have become clear, upping the ante many fold. Investigations into the subject are just beginning but I think it’s already evident that between a quarter and a third of NFL vets will have cognitive difficulties, i.e., scrambled brains, down the line.  

Yes, NFL players are volunteers, and well-paid ones, but one can only shake one’s head at the risks they run in the name of entertainment. That alone is enough to cause a change of channel.    
               
               

                

Monday, January 1, 2018

HANDICAPPING THE HALL

                Every year in late July Major League Baseball throws a party in the hard-to-reach little city of Cooperstown, New York, to welcome the new inductees to its Hall of Fame. This year’s party promises to be a big one.

                Two ex-players—pitcher Jack Morris and shortstop Alan Trammell—already have been elected by one of the Hall’s several veterans’ committees, and when the results of the annual balloting conducted by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America are announced on January 18 three and possibly four more names should be added to the list. The induction ceremonies are held outdoors, weather permitting, so attendees should be advised to wear hats or other sun protection for what promises to be a long afternoon of speech making.

                By virtue of my membership in the BWAA I was a Hall elector for 20 or so years before the shrine flushed older retirees from its voting rolls a couple of years ago.  Lifetime appointments of any sort are a bad idea so I had no problem with that, but although my votes no longer count I still can, and do, cast them in this, my personal venue. The nice thing about being a writer in this internet age is that one can continue to write, whether or not anyone is willing to pay for the output.

                The Hall’s multi-tier Vets Committee setup is a complicated one I won’t bother to explain here, but suffice it to say that its election of Morris and Trammell was unusual.  The last time it picked someone for a players’ wing plaque was in 2012 when it tabbed Ron Santo, the ex-Chicago Cubs third baseman, and the one before that was Joe Gordon, the ex-New York Yankees second baseman, in 2009. Santo had been dead for two years at his election and Gordon for 31 years at his, and one might ask if posthumous honors are worth presenting, but I’m sure the two men’s descendants appreciated theirs.

               Morris and Trammell are still with us and I thought their elections were justified otherwise, too. I supported both when they were on the writers’ ballot. Morris, a big-game pitcher without peer, was a near-miss with the writers, once (in 2013) having been named on 67% of their ballots (75% is required for election). Trammell never topped 40%, but I thought his record over 20 seasons with the Detroit Tigers was admirable. After his playing days ended in 1996 he stayed in baseball as a coach, manager and exec, and is well-liked in the game. That’s important with the vets, whose previous selections of the likes of Santo, Phil Rizzuto and Richie Ashburn had as much to do with their later-life popularity as broadcasters as with what they did with bat or glove. In my opinion.

Two players whose election by the writers now seems assured are TREVOR HOFFMAN and VLADIMIR GUERRERO. Relief-pitcher Hoffman, in his third year on the ballot, is second on the game’s all-time “saves” list, behind only Mariano Rivera. Last year he polled at 74%-- just five votes short of election among the 430 or so who voted—and no one has come that close without being elected the next year.

Guerrero was named on 71% of the ballots in 2017, his first time around, and likewise figures to get over the top this time. He was a free swinger who nonetheless had a .318 lifetime batting average over 16 Major League seasons, and his 2,590 career hits and 449 home runs also were Hall-appropriate. He was an erratic fielder and played outside the media spotlight (in Montreal and Anaheim) for most of his career. I thought it might take several years for the voters to warm up to him, but they did it quickly.

There are 19 new names on the current ballot, but only three—CHIPPER JONES, JIM THOME and OMAR VISQUEL—deserve serious attention.  Of those, Jones seems the likeliest of election. A third baseman, he was the main offensive engine of the Atlanta Braves teams that dominated the National League East during the 1990s and early 2000s, and his basic numbers (.303BA, 2,726 hits, 468 HRs) are comparable to Guerrero’s.

Sportswriters usually read the rest of their newspapers, so what a player does off the diamonds can weigh on his selection. Jones has a problem here because he’s a conspiracy theorist who opined publicly that the Sandy Hook shootings were a hoax perpetrated by gun-control advocates. In my view being a knucklehead shouldn’t count against one’s Hall credentials, but it does with some; CURT SCHILLING, the pitcher, saw his Hall vote drop to 45% last year from 52% the year before after he was fired by ESPN for firing off objectionable messages on social mediums.  Still, I think Jones will make it despite his baggage.

Thome qualifies because of one number—his 612 home runs, which rank 8th on the all-time list.  His problem is that he spent the last third of his 22-season career as a designated hitter and Hall voters haven’t been partial to these; even EDGAR MARTINEZ, for whom the game’s annual DH award is named, still is on the outside looking in after eight years on the ballot. I’d vote for both Thome and Martinez, but don’t expect either to get in this year.

The same goes for Visquel, a shortstop whose main qualification is the defensive wizardry he showed for a number of teams over 24 years. Glovemen don’t get their due in the Hall but Visquel should; he was the best I’ve seen at his demanding position outside of Ozzie Smith. Chances are he’ll have to inch his way up the ladder to get a plaque.

Electors can put up to 10 names on their ballots, so in addition to Hoffman, Guerrero, Jones, Thome, Visquel, Schilling and Martinez I’d ink in the 270-game-winning pitcher Mike Mussina, whom I’ve supported previously.  Schilling, Martinez and Mussina all have polled in the 50% range and it’s hard to see them breaking through this time. Ditto for the dopers Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, who were smacked down most recently by Joe Morgan.  Sins against the game should be disqualifying, I think. Most others we can live with.
                 
               


Thursday, December 14, 2017

RUSSIA NETS A "NYET"

                The 2018 Winter Olympics will begin its 16-day run in South Korea on Feb. 9 with a surprise absence—official Russia. I say that’s a surprise not because the Russians are undeserving of being booted; their massive, long-running and state-supported flaunting of the doping rules have few parallels. It’s because I didn’t think the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which runs the quadrennial winter and summer fests, had the cojones to do their duty in this matter.
            
               You’ll recall that the IOC faced pretty much the same choice just before last year’s Summer Games in Rio, with pretty much the same evidence. It punted to its constituent sports federations, some of which did the right thing (mainly track and field and weightlifting) but most of which didn’t. The upshot was that the Russkies were able to strut their stuff in Brazil with only minor interruption. In the last six months, however, the case against the odious Putin regime was strengthened to the point where a “da” no longer would pass either the smell or eyeball tests, and stronger action was unavoidable. Thus is justice done in the world of international sport.

                Alas, the ban was less than the total one that many observers, and 37 national anti-doping agencies including the U.S.’s, had called for. Russian flags, anthems and uniforms won’t be displayed in the Games’ base city of Pyeongchang but individual Russian athletes with lily-white drug records will be allowed to compete, if any can be found. They’ll do their things under the banner of OAR, which stands for Olympic Athletes from Russia, but their medals won’t count in the official table. Further, Russian honchos have had their VIP passes yanked, meaning that if Putin wants to show up to cheer his minions he’ll have to buy a ticket and sit with the hoi polloi. That in itself would be worth tuning in to see.

But partial as it was the IOC’s action still was praiseworthy on a couple of grounds, one of which is that it goes against the grain of sports generally. The main problem with sports governance worldwide, from the IOC to the NCAA, is that the regulators wear the two hats of promoter and policeman. The functions are incompatible and, given that it’s bad for business to knock the product you’re selling, the promoter side almost always wins. If most of my sportswriter colleagues understand this they never bother to point it out.

The other is that bucking Russia requires no little personal courage. Putin and his mafia know where their adversaries live and are not averse to playing rough when things don’t go their way. They can and will crash your computers, loot your bank accounts and run up big Mastercard charges in your name, and if they really don’t like you they’ve been known to send around a guy to stab you with a poisoned umbrella tip while you’re going about your business. I’ll bet IOC members are buying devices that start their cars remotely.  I know I would be.

The practices that got Russia in trouble were no less blatant, or carried out with no less an air of impunity. The country’s athletes have been doping for decades, with a long trail of suspensions, but the scheme the country pulled off when it hosted the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi was breathtaking even by those standards. According to the testimony of Grigory Rodchenkov, the man who headed its anti-doping testing programs during the time in question, more than 100 athletes were dosed with a performance-enhancing drugs cocktail washed mixed with sweet vermouth before that event and had “clean” urine samples substituted for their real ones post-competititon.

 The swap was carried out through a hole punched in the testing lab’s wall with state agents on both sides, a “B’ movie device if there ever was one. Crude as it was, the plot might have succeeded it if not for Rodchenkov’s 2016 defection to the U.S. to escape the heat generated when a Russian athlete at another venue was caught for doping.  The scientist still is in this country, hiding out. The icing on the cake came in the release of Rodchenkov’s diaries and a recent leak of internal digital files on the athletes involved. Both were reported in the New York Times, which has led in its coverage of the story.

According Rodchenkov and others, the plot was overseen by Vitaly Mutko, then the nation’s minister of sport and, now, its deputy prime minister. He’s a crony of Putin’s from their days in St. Petersburg city government. That’s testimony to the level of government involvement in doping and the importance Russia assigns to shows of excellence on the world’s sports stage.

Russia’s responses to the probes leading up to the IOC ruling, and to the ruling itself, have been its usual ones to any criticism—bluster and denial. It blames it all on Rodchenkov and wicked and envious foreigners. That’s interesting because any reinstatement to top-level international sports should require a thoroughgoing revamp of its drug-testing facilities and procedures, including the kind of transparency the country resists for any of its actions.  Without it Russia should stay on the outside looking in.

 Not only does Russia resist blame, it also thumbs its nose at the world by such actions as making the above-mentioned Mutko the head of the organizing committee for the soccer World Cup scheduled for Russia next year. Russia has been a darling of both the IOC and FIFA, the outfit that runs world soccer. That’s because all three are (or have been) kleptocracies that like the graft to flow smoothly.  In barring Russia in Korea the IOC has veered from that pattern. Whether it’s a precedent or a one-off remains to be seen.

HOLIDAY NOTE—If you have Chicago Cubs’ fans of any age on your gift list you could do worse than buy them my book, “For the Love of the Cubs,” which celebrates the team’s glorious 2016 World Series championship. They didn’t win it last season so it’s still current. It’s available on amazon or barnesandnoble.com., among other places.


               
               

                

Friday, December 1, 2017

ALI, AGAIN

                Muhammad Ali was, without a doubt, the leading sports figure of the 20th century, and one of the era’s foremost personages. Through sheer force of personality he broke cultural as well as athletic norms-- sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. The fact that he was a black American with obscure roots in Louisville, Kentucky, who barely made it through high school and spent the last 20 or so years of his life palsied and all but mute, makes his saga all the more remarkable. We won’t see his like again.
                
               Ali lived a big life and, now, there’s a biography that fits it. It’s “Ali, A Life,” by Jonathan Eig, all 623 pages of it, including 84 pages of acknowledgements, notes and index. It’s a heckuva book and you should read it. It’s worth the time.

                Eig was a colleague of mine at the Wall Street Journal. Our paths never crossed there but they did later, when he ran a website called ChicagoSideSports, to which I contributed. Sports often are dismissed as trivial, life’s toy department, but they and our reactions to them can illuminate human affairs as well as any other endeavors. Eig showed that in his previous biographies of Jackie Robinson and Lou Gehrig, two other seminal American sports figures. Good reporting and insightful writing know no categorical bounds.

                I never was a fan of Ali. His incessant bragging turned me off, as did the cruel ways he denigrated his opponents, most of whom were black men like himself, and his embrace of a sect of Islam that declared all white people “devils.” As I wrote in a WSJ column when he retired in 1979, and again shortly after his death last year at age 74 (you can scroll down to see my blog of June 15, 2016), boxing for him wasn’t a test of skills within a confined space and agreed upon rules but psychological warfare without limit.  His disdain for conventional notions of sportsmanship was nothing less than revolutionary and reverberates still, to our continuing loss.

                I suspect that others shared those views, but managed to overlook them. Ali’s refusal to be patronized struck a note that lit up the civil-rights movement of the 1960s and ‘70s, which Eig chronicles. Further, the boxer was so handsome (he’d say “pretty”), charismatic and downright likable that many people would forgive him anything. My stint as a full-time sportswriter began in 1983, after Ali had left the ring, and I never spoke with him, but he was a ringsider at a number of fights I covered and his arrival in the arenas never failed to illicit cheers that dwarfed anything the actual bout would elicit.

                Eig’s treatment of his subject is sympathetic but unsparing, highlighting Ali’s many contradictions. Ali’s rhymes made him known as a wit but he was all but illiterate and, probably, dyslexic, someone who received a “certificate of attendance” after high school, not a diploma. He loved money and talked about it incessantly but showed little care for it once it came his way. He was a moralist who divorced his first wife because she refused to bundle up in public as his Nation of Islam’s rules dictated, yet was an open adulterer and an absent and negligent father.
                
                Ali’s boast of being “The Greatest” stood up best in the ring, where his offensive skills and generalship were unmatched. He didn’t hit as hard as some other heavyweight champions or, even some of his contemporaries, but he more than made up for that with his grace, quick hands and speed afoot. The late Jim Jacobs, proprietor of the vast “Greatest Fights” film library and Mike Tyson’s first manager, once told me he thought Ali was the fastest fighter ever, of any weight category. That’s quite a claim for a man who stood 6-foot-3 and in his prime fought at about 215 pounds.

                As Eig notes, however, some of Ali’s boxing strengths would turn into weaknesses. As a young fighter his speed and upper-body flexibility gave him all the defense he needed so he never bothered to learn such basic skills as the bob and weave or the use of his gloves and arms to block punches. As he aged and slowed he became easier to hit. That led to his discovery of his unusual ability to take a punch, the basis of his “rope-a-dope” ploy of his later bouts, especially his epic victory over the powerful George Foreman. Ali’s belief that allowing sparring partners to hit him freely because it increased his resilience further hastened the neurological problems that disabled him beginning in middle age. One only could conclude that the real “dope” in Ali’s cutely named tactic was he, not his foes.

                The outlines of Ali’s life and career are well known to just about any potential reader of Eig’s book, but like in any good biography the author’s research justifies the read. The details of Ali’s free-spending ways and disdain for good financial advice are mind boggling. One story has him going with a friend to buy a Rolls-Royce and plunking down $88,000 for one (this was in 1976). On the way out of the dealership he remembered that he needed a birthday gift for his then-wife Veronica, so he got her an Alfa Romeo. When he got the Alfa home Veronica said she didn’t want it because she couldn’t drive a stick shift. Instead of returning the Alfa Ali gave it to the friend and promptly bought his wife a Mercedes instead.

                A six-page transcript of an impromptu conversation between Ali and Joe Frazier, recorded in 1970 when the two ring greats were young and on speaking terms, illuminates the complex relationship between the two men.  There’s an eye-opening story of how two U.S. Supreme Court justices saved Ali from prison in his draft-refusal case by fashioning a one-off verdict spurred by their realization that a not-guilty finding would justify his leaky reasons for refusing service, while a guilty one might set off riots.  The court certainly does read the newspapers.

                I do have a couple of nits to pick with the book. One is common to sports biographies generally, its excess of information on athletic contests long forgotten. The other is the author’s failure to adequately explain how Ali was able to continue his allegiance to Nation of Islam head Elijah Muhammad after the brutal murder of his close friend Malcolm X by followers (agents?) of Mr. Muhammad. But maybe there was no explanation for that.


                In sum, Eig has done us a favor by writing this book and we should do him a favor by reading it. You can buy one on Amazon for $17.34, no big deal.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

SCOUTING REPORT

                Regular readers of this space know that I regard fall as the best season in the Arizona desert around Phoenix, my home for the last 20 years. The weather is warm but not hot, the breezes are gentle, the skies come in blues that defy artistic reproduction and the snowbirds have yet to return in force, meaning it’s still easy to get around. If I were visiting I’d do it in October or November instead of the February-March period when most cold-weather refugees choose to come.
                
              My regulars also know that October-November around Phoenix brings an added attraction: the Arizona Fall League. That’s the minor-league baseball finishing school to which the 30 Major League teams send some of their brightest young (mostly 20-23-year-old) prospects for extra seasoning against their better peers. Headquartered in six of the area’s fine spring-training ballparks, AFL teams each play 35-game schedules, mostly day games, in a six-week span that this year ends on Saturday (11/18). Admission is cheap ($8 for adults, $6 for seniors) and parking is free and close, and with an average attendance of about 600 a game everyone can have a great seat. If you have an opinion about the play at hand you can share it with your fellow fans merely by raising your voice.

                Lots of real baseball scouts show up—that’s a main reason the league exists—as well as lots of people who aspire to the title. I’m one of the latter and have a pretty good claim, if I must say so myself.  During the regular season I get a kick out of pointing out to friends the young players I’d tabbed for stardom through my Fall League observations. Through previous annual blogs on the subject I’ve brought to your attention the likes of Kris Bryant, Nolan Arenado, Evan Longoria, Francisco Lindor and Gary Sanchez, ex-AFLers who quickly made it big in the Bigs. Maybe you didn’t need to be Tony Lucadello to tab those guys, but there still is satisfaction in being able to say that you remember them when.
         
        No one I saw this season showed me the sort of can’t-miss talent those young men displayed. Plenty of future Major Leaguers strutted their stuff here—historically, about 60% of Fall Leaguers have made Major League rosters at one time or another-- but there were no eye-popping performances in the dozen games I attended during the league’s first five weeks. I’m thinking of the 2012 game in which a 21-year-old Billy Hamilton, the current Cincinnati Reds’ speedster, scored from first base on a ground-out to the pitcher. Yeah, he was off on a steal when the ball was pitched, but still…
            
             Among the better players I saw this season were a couple of shortstops, NICKY LOPEZ from the Kansas City Royals’ chain and THAIRO ESTRADA, with the New York Yankees. That’s not surprising because many of the best athletes at baseball’s lower levels start out at short and sometimes are moved to other positions as they climb the game’s ladder.

 Lopez, 22, is from Naperville, Illinois, and Creighton U., a fifth-round draft choice in 2016. He’s quick afoot and while he’s not big (5-foot-11, 185 pounds) he hits the ball with authority, as his seven extra-hits among his first 22 here attest. Also, his two-year minor-league log shows more walks than strikeouts, a rarity in this swing-for-the-fences era.
            
                Estrada, 21, is from Venezuela, and is built and plays like Lopez. Like many players born in Latin America he was signed and started playing professionally at age 16, and, thus, has a leg up developmentally on American players the same age. He’ll have to stand in line to play shortstop for the Yanks; last year’s AFL standout Gleyber Torres is only 20 and ranks ahead of him even though he lost much of last season to injury. Still, Estrada will play some place somewhere, in 2019 or sooner.

                RONALD ACUNA, 20, also from Venezula, in the Atlanta Braves’ chain, came here as a highly touted prospect and has justified the billing. In the one game I saw him play he walked twice, flied out to deep center and drove in the winning run with a solid single. A couple of nice catches in left field highlighted his athleticism. He’s listed 6-feet tall and 180 pounds but still led the league in home runs (with 7) at the start of this week.

JOSH NAYLOR, 20, from Canada, is a stocky left-handed hitter with good bat control and power potential, although finding a position for him may be a problem (he’s listed as a first baseman but also DHed here). He’s San Diego Padres’ property. SHELDON NEUSE (pronounced “noisy”), 23, an Oakland A, plays a nice third base and hits the ball hard. ERIC FILIA, a Seattle Mariner, another third baseman, is 25 years old—old for the AFL—and has a contorted batting stance, but straightens out well enough to be third in the league in hitting (at .373) during week five.

 ALEX JACKSON, 21, a big, solidly built catcher in the Atlanta Braves chain, will play in the Majors, if only to justify his being picked sixth overall in the 2014 draft. He’s not the slickest behind the plate but can hit with power, as his five AFL home runs show.  Skinny VICTOR REYES, 23, with the Arizona Diamondbacks, can hit for average, run and play the outfield. Outfielder YONATHAN DAZA, 23, with the Colorado Rockies, ought to be Major League-ready after seven minor-league seasons. Like Reyes he’s short on home-run power but makes good contact and uses the whole field.

Being a Chicago fan I always give special attention to Cubs and White Sox hopefuls, but this year neither sent their top prospects. The standout among them was an odd one—DAVID BOTE, a smallish, 24-year-old Cubs-chain second baseman. He was an 18th round pick in the 2012 draft and has a mediocre, six-year minor-league record capped last season at AA Knoxville, but has hit very well here, excelled in the field and made the league’s All-Star game. The Cubs seem to have a forever second baseman in Javier Baez so Bote probably is trade bait, but he looks like the scrappy type who’ll figure out how to make a Major League roster.

Pitchers are hard to scout in the AFL because they appear only every fourth or so game, and then for just a few innings. Two I saw a lot of were MAX FRIED, a 23-year-old lefty owned by the Braves, and MICKEY JANNIS, an ancient 29, with the New York Mets.

 Fried didn’t blow away hitters but has a full array of pitches and used them well. He was a first-rounder (in 2012) and, thus, will get a chance in the Bigs. Righty Jannis was drafted by Tampa Bay in the 44th round way back in 2010. He bombed out by 2011, spent three seasons honing a knuckleball in independent leagues and got back in the mix as a knuckler. He got AFL kids out so he’s doing something right, and I wish him luck moving ahead. The world needs more knuckleballers.

   

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

BROUGHT TO HEEL

                The cable-news people tell me that when politicians want to slip something past the public they release it on a Friday afternoon, when people are distracted by thoughts of weekend pleasures. It appears that the National Collegiate Athletic Association goes by the same playbook.

               That became clear a couple of Fridays ago when the organization announced that it had completed a multi-year investigation of academic fraud at the University of North Carolina by ruling that the issue was outside its purview and required no penalties worthy of the name.  Sports are sports and academics are, uh, academic, it said, in case anyone had been silly enough to think otherwise. Let’s forget this mess and move on to our real purpose of staging entertainments and counting the revenues therefrom.

                Perhaps also aided by the much-showier recent scandal involving the use of shoe-company money to bribe prospective college basketballers—one that prosecutors say has yet to fully unfold—the NCAA pretty much got its wish. Folks in Tar Heel Land were pleased that the fraud issue finally went away, and only a few perennial scolds registered disapproval. Haters are gonna hate, ya know? There’s just no pleasing some people.

                Truth is, though, the North Carolina case ranks as maybe the worst instance yet revealed of institutional-mission abuse in the name of sports. Over a period of 18 years—1993 to 2011—the university harbored an academic shell department whose main purpose was to keep its athletes eligible. Other black-letter NCAA scandals— Penn State’s silence over an assistant football coach’s serial child molestations, Michigan’s reliance on a numbers-racketeer to keep its “Fab Five” basketball stars in spending cash, a Baylor basketball coach’s subornation of perjury in a murder investigation— were one-offs, outside the usual order of things. This was a day-in, day-out matter perpetrated by the eyes-wide-open officers of a university charged with acting in the best interests of their students.

                Making the action more loathsome was that the department involved was called African and Afro-American Studies (AFAM for short) and thus targeted the black students who comprise a large part of the varsity basketball and football manpower pools of a university that embraced desegregation slowly and reluctantly (others did, too). Some 3,100 students took classes in the department and about half of them were varsity athletes. That group made up just 4% of UNC’s undergrad population.

 College basketball and football players often are admitted to their schools despite academic shortcomings, meaning that many of them need special help to succeed in class. Instead, through AFAM North Carolina passed out A’s and B’s to enrollees who didn’t have to attend class and whose term papers, when required, could be written by others, various investigations showed.

                Further, these credits often were more than just stop-gaps for the otherwise qualified. This came out in 2014 when Rashad McCants, a star of UNC’s 2005 NCAA men’s national basketball championship team, sued UNC for pressing him into a sham education. Under the guise of privacy rules colleges guard their athletes’ transcripts like state secrets, but McCants included his in his filings. It showed that he’d received 10 A’s, six B’s one C and one D in the AFAM courses his coaches and team advisers recommended, and six C’s, one D and three F’s in courses he took outside the department.

                “When you go to college you don’t go to class, you don’t do nothing, you just show up and play,” McCants told one TV interviewer after filing his suit. “You’re not there to get an education, though they tell you that. You’re there to make revenue for the college—to put fans in the seats.”

                The “Alice In Wonderland” nature of the NCAA inquiry is seen in its definition of UNC’s no-show courses as a “benefit” to the athletes who received them, and in its failure to punish the school for them on grounds that some non-athletes also were permitted to enroll.   As a college freshman I might have thought that a free “A” was a wonderful thing, but the adults who ran the university and the panel that judged it knew better.

 Equally weird was the panel’s abdication on the simple and obvious point that anything amiss had taken place. “The NCAA defers to its member schools to determine whether academic fraud had occurred,” it stated, meaning, I guess, that in matters academic something is wrong only when the wrongdoer agrees it is. If this serves as a precedent, anything any unrepentant school does for or to its athletes in the classroom is off limits to future inquiry.

The span covered by the fraud included the terms five head football coaches at UNC and four head basketball coaches, including the late and sainted Dean Smith (1961-97) and the incumbent (and saint-to-be) Roy Williams, who was hired in 2003. It also covered the tenure of several top academic officers. Still, the only individuals singled out for rebuke in the probe were AFAM’s chairman and his secretary, both of whom are long gone from the university. They can be considered the equals of the hapless assistant coaches who typically take the brunt of the group’s sports penalties. The operative rule in college sports is the higher one ranks in an institution the less one is presumed to know, and the less responsibility one bears.

  Given its group’s history, the NCAA panel had plenty of precedence for ruling that classroom matters are none of its business; college sports long have been more about sports than about college. The case should have been the province of a national accrediting body, and UNC should have been labeled the diploma mill it was, or, maybe, still is.  You don’t hear much about those outfits, though, so college governance generally seems to be a lost cause.



Sunday, October 15, 2017

WANNA BET?

                Sometime this month the U.S. Supreme Court is supposed to hear a case that could change a lot about American sports.  It’s a challenge to a 1992 Federal law called the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, which, like many laws in this land, isn’t about what its title suggests. Rather, it deals with sports gambling, and which states can and can't offer it.
              
                The states that can at present are Nevada, Delaware, Montana and Oregon, all of which had passed legislation permitting the practice before the Federal law was enacted. But that list, too, is misleading, because only in Nevada can people bet on sports on a game-by-game basis, in most of the many casinos that operate in the state. Delaware permits only parlay-card betting on professional football, while Montana and Oregon never used their authority to put gambling mechanisms into place.

                But then came Chris Christie, New Jersey’s estimable governor, with a proposal to break the ban in his state, and in 2014 the legislature there agreed with an eye toward ginning up some tax revenue and reviving the moribund fortunes of the Atlantic City gambling mecca. It sued to do so on constitutional grounds, and even though the last appellate court to take the action ruled against it the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case during its current session.

 A decision should come early next year, and if New Jersey prevails a lot of other states are expected to join it. Eilers & Krejcik Gambling, a firm that tracks state gambling laws, said in a recent report that with a favorable ruling legal sports betting could be offered in as many as 32 states within five years. New York, California and Pennsylvania are among those in which bills to enable this already are being pushed. That’s a big chunk of the country’s population right there.

Now, everyone who’s been paying attention knows that the fact that sports betting is illegal in most parts of the U.S. hasn’t stopped people from doing it—not nearly. Illegal bookmaking and online betting through offshore locations flourish across the country and few people who patronize them feel the least bit guilty about it. I put myself in that category. With all the participants being volunteers, it’s about as close to a victimless crime as you can get.

You also can make a case that having gangsters run the betting has helped keep American sports clean. That’s because the losers in any successful effort to “fix” a game for a betting return would be some faction of Da Mob, and nobody wants to get on the bad side of those guys.

 Even if you don’t buy that reasoning it’s impossible to deny that big-time American sports have an extraordinary record of gambling-related cleanliness compared with those of other countries. Since the massive 1951 scandal involving City College of New York and other schools, point-shaving revelations have been few and far between, quite-small affairs involving local bookies and one or a few college basketball or football players at such schools as Boston College (1979), Tulane (1985) Northwestern (1998) or Toledo  (2003).

Professional team sports have been cleaner yet in the past 50 years with only the 2007 episode involving NBA referee Tim Donaghy to mar them, and Donaghy insisted to his prison cell that he was in the scheme only as a handicapper, not a fixer. Baseball was hurt by Pete Rose’s heavy involvement with bookies, but he never was accused of dumping a game in which he played or managed. Withal, the prosperity of U.S. pro sports in recent decades is seen as the most-potent insurance against any such action; no likely betting score would be big enough to justify the risk a highly paid player or coach would take to join in pulling one off.

The national betting pool is huge and both a cause and effect of sports’ burgeoning popularity. Just how big it is depends on how you measure it. Say someone bets $100 each (forgetting for now the 10% “vig”) against the point spread on five NFL games one Sunday, and wins with three of them. Would the economic activity come to the $500 he wagers or the $100 in winnings that actually changes hands?  

 Either way it’s plenty—billions of dollars—and our perennially strapped states would love to get their tax hooks into some of it. Polls I’ve seen show that most people approve of or have no issue with legal sports gambling, and casinos, lotteries or horse or dog tracks already exist in just about every state. Our major professional leagues used to be unanimous in their disapproval of taking Las Vegas-style sports betting national, but Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner, now says it’d be okay with him, and Rob Manfred, the baseball guy, seems to agree. The NFL remains on the fence officially, but after endorsing fantasy-football websites, approving a franchise for Las Vegas and producing encyclopedic weekly injury reports for gamblers’ perusal it hardly can be seen as anti. The NCAA sham-ams can be counted upon to say “no” while happily benefiting from the widespread gambling interest their games generate.

A green light for state-by-state sports gambling won’t make it magically spring into existence.  In every capitol there will be tugs of war over whether the state will be the bookie or that function will be turned over to casinos or other private interests.  If it’s the latter, look for battles over who’ll get the plums and whether ex-illegals can be involved in their operation. Who, after all, has more experience in the “industry” than the people who’ve been running it forever?

Fay Vincent, a former baseball commissioner (1989-92) and a smart guy, has been quoted as saying that betting legalization would be the biggest thing to happen to American sports since the advent of television. I disagree; most of the people who want to bet already are doing it.  It’d be big, though, probably in some ways we can’t foresee.