Monday, April 14, 2014

THAT'S INCREDIBLE!

                Television in all its facets is primarily an advertising medium, and the people in front of the cameras are so imbued with that ethos that they can’t stop selling even when they’ve got you hooked. Turn on any TV news show—national as well as local—and the talking heads thereon continually use words like “incredible,” “unbelievable” and “astonishing” to characterize the often-quite-predictable developments they describe. It stands to reason that veteran newsfolk like Brian Williams and Norah O’Donnell have been around the block a few times, but to hear their reports it seems that they view the world with the wide-eyed awe of eight-year olds.
               
               Curiously, however, the world of sports—also glimpsed mostly through television’s Big Eye—seems relatively immune to theatrical exaggeration, and that seems to me remarkable because much of its action truly is out of the ordinary. I mean not only the highlight-reels feats but also the minute-by-minute grist of most of the games we watch these days.

                I can’t get through an NCAA men’s basketball tournament without marveling—and I don’t use the term loosely—at the skills of the players.  Some of the things they do at high speed—the dunks, the blocks, the no-look passes—almost defy description, yet as Dizzy Dean used to say, “You seen it on your screen.” The fact that they’re kids—18- to 22-year olds—makes their deeds all the more impressive.

                The professionals of the National Basketball Association are even more remarkable,  but their virtuosity in our most-athletic of sports is muted by its commonality; they’re all so good that they almost cancel one another out. People tell me they hardly watch the NBA—that it’s a kind of track meet for giraffes—and sometimes I feel that way, too. But every time I screw myself down and watch an extended stretch of action I go away dazzled by what I’ve seen. Has any man six-feet-eight-inches tall done even a fraction of the things LeBron James can do? I think not, and he’s not a heckuva lot better than some of the other guys out there.

                Part of our lack of wonder at the skill level of basketball and other sports has to do with television, I think. The home screen reduces human activity to its own scale, making LeBron about eight inches tall instead of 6-8, even on a big set. You can’t really appreciate how good the top hoopsters are until you view them in person from courtside, something I’ve been privileged to do many times. Their height alone is startling—the sight of a man 6-foot-6 or above is enough to stop traffic in a mall and the NBA presents a courtful of them nightly. I still recall the first seven-footer I stood next to, a center for the U. of Colorado basketball team, in a post-game locker room of a U. of Illinois game I covered long ago. The fact that he was wearing a cowboy hat made him especially memorable.

                Field-level viewing is different in kind as well as degree from the views at home or from the stands in other sports as well. You can’t appreciate the level of violence in the National Football League unless you see it close-up; from there the hits that accompany every play are enough to make you wince. The much-tamer activities of golf and tennis present similar perspectives: the games the top pros play look, sound and feel different from the ones the rest of us do. Watching Tigers Woods drive a golf ball from a few feet away is to sense the existence of a dimension that’s foreign to 99.9999% of the population.

                By me, arguments over whether yesterday’s athletes were as good as today’s are sheer nonsense. “Bigger, faster, stronger” may be a cliché, but it’s true. Good high-school teams today could beat good college teams of 30 years ago in all our major men’s team sports. Among the women the comparison hardly exists because women’s teams hardly existed back then.

                Better nutrition plays a role in athletic development, as do better training techniques. Weight training used to be shunned in some sports because it was thought to hinder flexibility, but now it’s universal. About the only area in which regimens lag is in the area of agility; every football linemen should be taught to fast-dance, I think.

                The biggest differences with the recent past have been in the onset and intensity of training.  Kids didn’t use to get serious about sports until puberty, but as Tiger Woods’ example shows (for better or worse), they now sometimes begin while in diapers. Multi-sport athletes used to abound but there’s little room for that today, with early specialization the rule.

Kids whose parents can afford it receive individual sports instruction early on, and in a few sports (mainly basketball) it’s available to the talented of any household-income level.  High-school teams used to be the main focus of developmental efforts but now year-around age-group teams function beginning with kids of 10 or 11. The top basketballers entering college have been playing 70 or 80 organized games a year since grade school, attended specialized camps, toured with AAU clubs and, probably, been on ESPN. Indeed, youngsters don’t have to leave their homes to get good instruction—with slow-motion and stop-action, and ex-players or coaches at just about every mike, every televised game is a clinic.

  As I’ve written before, I think the above efforts usually produce more harm than good. Only a tiny fraction of young athletes can expect to earn a living from their games and most would be better off devoting more time to academics or developing other skills.  It’s a sports-crazy land, though, and even if we don’t approve we still can enjoy its fruits.  Some of them really are incredible.
               
               

                

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

THE GAME IT IS A CHANGIN'

                Baseball likes to act as though it never changes, but it does. Pitching mounds move up and down, outfield fences (and sometimes home plates) in and out at some parks. Gloves get bigger, pitchers, too. Drug testing, once weak, now is stronger, most believe. That’s been a big change, one that’s altered the record books.
                 
                More change is coming as the new season opens. Here’s a rundown:

                RULES: Two moves by Major League Baseball represent sharp departures from past eras. One involves the expansion of TV replay to supplement umpires’ decisions and a system whereby managers can challenge calls.

                Baseball got its TV-replay feet wet in 2008 by subjecting home-run boundary and fan-interference calls to mandatory replay review. This season it will expand such automatic surveillance to whether batted balls are fair or foul and whether fly balls are caught or trapped.  Additionally, managers now are empowered to challenge just about any umpire’s call once in the first six innings of any game and twice from the seventh inning on. The major exceptions are ball-strike and checked-swing calls and the often-phantom tag middle infielders make on second base during double-play attempts. That last thing is as much a part of the game as spitting and scratching.

                I’m against using TV replays to second-guess officials in any sport because it makes the games seem more important than they are. Sports are played by humans and should be judged by humans, and if mistakes are made, play on. Commish Selig thinks so, too, but finally has succumbed to the onslaught of technology, which sweeps away all in its path. At least he resisted longer than most.

                A couple of things should make MLB’s replay procedures more palatable than those of the National Football League, which seems hell-bent to make its games all-replay-all-the-time. One is that a manager needn’t throw a stupid flag (red or any other color) to make a challenge. Another is that replay calls will be made by officials monitoring games on TV from a control center and relayed to the umps on the field. This will speed matters by eliminating the under-the-hood ref davening that has become a gag line in the NFL. MLB says replays shouldn’t last much more than a minute.

                The major downside I see from the new policy is a sharp decrease in umpire-manager rhubarbs, an age-old source of fan enjoyment. Less often will a manager charge an ump, calling him a blind blankin’ bandit while spraying him with saliva. Now he just can say “Sir, I beg to differ,” and stand by while the replay boys go into action. What a loss!

                Baseball’s other rule change is designed to reduce the home-plate collisions that have caused major injuries to both catchers and base runners over the years. Simply stated, catchers no longer can block the plate without the ball and base runners can’t leave the base path or come in leading with their heads, shoulders or forearms.

                The wonder is that the new rule took so long to be enacted; one remembers the vicious hit by Pete Rose that ended Ray Fosse’s career in the 1970 All-Star game. The back-breaking straw was the 2011 play that took out Buster Posey, the San Francisco Giants’ brilliant young catcher, and 2 ½ seasons have elapsed since then. Better late than never, though.

                You can look for other new or newish stuff on the diamonds this year. Here is some of it:

                STRAINED OBLIQUES—I can’t remember baseballers even having “oblique” muscles until a few years ago, but now it seems they are a big source of injury. Obliques are somewhere around the rib cage and when they go it’s a big deal, usually sidelining the player for a month or more.  Pitchers are the main victims, possibly, it’s surmised, because the increased body rotation of their higher-velocity deliveries puts particular strain on their rib-cage areas. Those guys’ wives and girlfriends also are affected because it’s supposed to really hurt when they brush their teeth.

                BEARDS-- What’s with all the face-shrubbery ballplayers are sporting these days? I mean real Grizzly Adams’ jobs, not just little chin sprouts. Beards have been a Stanley Cup staple for hockey players in recent years, but they play on ice and, maybe, can use the extra warmth facial hair provides. How does that apply to warm-weather baseball?

                In spring training games in Arizona I was especially shocked to see a couple of full-bearded catchers. You’d think that their face masks would make such growths prohibitively uncomfortable, wouldn’t you? Anything for fashion, I guess.

                NO AROD—For this season at least, the game’s leading diva has been sidelined. Over the winter he appealed his 200-game suspension as a repeat doper, and got it reduced to 162 games, but he still stamped his feet and sued everyone in sight, claiming he’d been conspired against.  Then, perhaps thinking he might want to again associate with some of the targets of his wrath, he said “never mind” about the lawsuit and settled into spending the next seven or so months with his feet up. His future certainly lies ahead, but at age 38 it’s not clear where.

                $25 HOT DOGS—The Arizona Diamondbacks, mediocre on the field and at the gate, have climbed the game’s gastronomic peak by unveiling its “D-Bat Dog,” an 18-inch sausage stuffed with cheese, jalapeno peppers  and bacon—and looking like a pregnant snake-- to be served bunless on a bed of French fries and selling at Chase Field for $25. The item is “really about providing our fans with new options each year,” said Derrick Hall, the team’s perky president. He added: “Every night for us is a successful night because we offer the most affordable food prices in all of baseball.”

                 
                 
                     
               
               

                 

Saturday, March 15, 2014

STILL DREAMING

                If you read the sports pages for more than the scores you might have come across an article about Curie High School of Chicago a couple of weeks ago. It seems that the school’s basketball team, which had posted a 24-win, 1-loss season and won the city’s Public League championship, had the trophy taken away, and its wins turned into losses, because it had played the entire campaign with seven (!) of its 12 players academically ineligible.
               
                From there the story only got stranger. According to news accounts the ineligibility was uncovered not by the Southwest Side school but by an anonymous phone call to the city’s school administration.  That body completed its investigation the day the team was to play in the championship game, but instead of blowing the whistle immediately it let the contest go on, because, well, the tickets had been sold and the TV cameras were in place and it didn’t want to spoil the party.
               
               Further news coverage revealed that city teams were supposed to submit eligibility lists before each game, but the practice had lapsed from disuse.  It also turned out that the eligibility issue might have been avoided if the school had submitted “individual study plans” for the underachieving seven, attesting that they couldn’t handle high school work and needed special help, but nobody had thought to do that.

                An additional layer of lunacy was attained when the Illinois High School Association, the state’s governing body, stepped in to declare that the seven could play in state-tournament qualifying rounds because their grades, while under the “C” average the city requires, made them eligible under its more-lenient rules. But then it looked again and ruled out two starters, and Curie was eliminated in the first round of state play, its season going into the record books at an inglorious 0-26.

                Public and journalistic reaction to the unfolding tale mostly was one of outrage—over the school-officials’ actions that stripped away Curie’s victories and title. Like many things these days the issue had a racial twist (team photos show that 11 of the 12 players are identifiably black), and Jesse Jackson, who lives in Chicago, was quick to leap to the lads’ defense. “[They] didn’t break any rules; adults didn’t do their work,” he declared. 

                “These kids aren’t in gangs. They’re not engaged in violence,” he added, making the curious assertion that in this day and age the absence of vice should be regarded as a virtue.

                As the days went by and the blogosphere went into action, a few voices were heard to say that, maybe, the laggard seven would have been better off spending less time on their shooting and dribbling and more with their schoolbooks. People with good memories might recall the Rev. Mr. Jackson making a similar point decades ago when he proposed “learn baby, learn” as a counterpoint to the “burn baby, burn” mantra that was fueling the urban violence of the late 1960s and early ‘70s. 

                But while the world is older than it was then, apparently it’s not smarter when it comes to getting high-school jocks to view their talents in the context of a broader life plan.  The upshot is that for too many the visions of athletic wealth and glory—the “Hoop Dreams” of the widely viewed 1994 movie documentary of that name—is a snare and a delusion, steering kids away from more promising paths for the like-getting-hit-by-lightning chance for a National Basketball Association career.

                Indeed, if anything the disconnect between athletics and education is wider than it used to be, and our nation’s colleges are complicit in the development. I refer to their reaction to the NBA’s dictum of 2005 that it would henceforth draft only players who were at least 19 years old and out of high school for a year.

 The league did that because it had grown weary of taking the gamble involved in drafting kids right out of high school. That was understandable for an entity that exists to present entertainment and profit therefrom.  The colleges have (or should have) other, loftier aims, but opted to accommodate the NBA by setting aside classroom space for young men who intend merely to double-park in academe before getting on with their “real” lives. Thus, we have the “one-and-done” phenomenon that has become the main topic of conversation during every NCAA basketball tournament since the rule went into effect.

Interestingly, the Curie team was led by Cliff Alexander, a 6-foot-9 center who, as one of the top-half-dozen recruiting prospects in his class, is a prime “one-and-done” prospect, and whose signing- day nod to the U of Kansas was televised nationally.  The names of the players whom the city and state declared ineligible weren’t made public, so it’s not known if Alexander’s was among them. This was an instance where protecting the privacy of some tarred all.

Hoop dreamers might get a dose of reality if they use their computers to learn about the later lives of William Gates and Arthur Agee, the two Chicago high-school prospects featured in the “Hoop Dreams” film. Gates’ prowess earned him a scholarship to Marquette, where he played but did not star. He got no closer to the NBA than a tryout camp and spent almost a decade in sporadic employment before getting a divinity degree and becoming pastor of a South Side church.

 Agee played in junior college and at Arkansas State and likewise bounced from job to job after his college days, apparently degreeless. His latest venture is a clothing company called “Hoop Dreams” which offers t-shirts for sale on-line. He also gives talks to youth groups in which he tries “to help kids to understand that their role models shouldn’t be professional athletes but their parents at home.”

That’s good advice if the parents really are at home, and on the job. Too many aren’t.

               
               

                

Saturday, March 1, 2014

PACKING IT IN

                Some years ago I was in Las Vegas to write about a boxing match and staying in a hotel just off the city’s Strip. Sugar Ray Leonard, then-recently retired from the ring and doing a TV stint, was in the same hotel. One morning around 10 I left on my pre-fight reporting rounds and saw him on the place’s tennis courts, hitting balls spit out by a machine. He was still out there when I returned four hours later, causing me to conclude that he was seriously bored and not likely to stay retired for long. Sure enough, after a couple of months he announced his intention to fight again.
             
            The recollection was stirred by Derek Jeter’s recent announcement that he’d be leaving the baseball fields at the end of the season just ahead. Jeter has had about the perfect baseball career, with lots of hits (3,316), World Series rings (five) and individual honors in his 19 big-league seasons so far. He’s also survived the New York news-media cauldron without being scalded, no small feat for a single man with a reportedly active social life.

It would be nice to say that the Yankee hero is going out on top, but it wouldn’t be true. He could have done that after breaking an ankle in the playoffs of his remarkable 2012 season, in which he challenged for Most Valuable Player honors at age 38, but he returned for what would be an injury-plagued 2013 during which he appeared in just 17 games, and probably will do only part-time duty this time around.  The fact that he was paid $17 million last season and is due to receive $12 million in this one—on top of the more than $200 million he’d previously earned-- no doubt figured into his calculations.  Hey, a guy’s got to pay the rent.

Quitting at the peak of one’s game is an ideal in sports, but it’s rarely realized. I can think of only four men who’ve done it—Rocky Marciano, Jim Brown, Sandy Koufax and Pete Sampras-- and Koufax deserves an asterisk because while he won 27 games and had a 1.73 earned run average as an L.A. Dodger in 1966, the last year he played, the great lefty’s pitching elbow was so sore he had to scratch his left ear with his right hand for many years thereafter. 

The truth is that most athletes struggle to continue as long as they can in their sports, at any level. Contrary to popular belief, big-time pros on average have short careers, ranging from about 3 1/2 years in the National Football League to about 5 years in Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association, and the baseball minors and their hoops counterparts abroad are littered with ex-big leaguers trying to hang on for another season, and another.

 Even some of the greats aren’t immune to the “keep on keepin’ on” syndrome. The above-mentioned Leonard abandoned and returned to his brutal sport three or four times depending on how you counted, and Michael Jordan twice “retired” from the Chicago Bulls (in 1993 and ’98) but had to give basketball one more try with the woebegone Washington Wizards (2001-03) before hanging it up for good. I’d bet that he’d give it another shot if the phone rang today.

The money the big-timers make these days is mighty motivation for sticking around as long as possible, but the reluctance to leave the sporting life preceded that. Ask an old jock what he misses most about his playing days and he’ll probably tell you it’s the camaraderie he enjoyed with his fellow athletes, but the loss of applause and status certainly are other reasons. Perhaps more important, playing either team or individual sports means sticking to strict regimens of workouts, practices, games and travel, and while active jocks might chafe under their requirements they usually miss them when they’re gone.  The question “What shall I do today?” is one most of us quickly learn to answer for ourselves, but for many ex-athletes it’s confounding.

Athletes usually are on their way out by their mid-30s, the time when most people’s careers are gaining steam. That puts them weirdly out of synch with their contemporaries. The idea of going back to school to continue the educations sports careers interrupted can be off-putting for a similar reason; would you like to sit in classes daily with people about half your age?

Given today’s salary levels for even fledgling major-leaguers (baseball’s minimum annual salary is $500,000, the NFL’s is $420,000), one would think that a few years in the bigs would set up someone for life, but, sadly, that’s often not the case. Young jocks tend to be unsophisticated financially and, thus, easy marks for dubious get-richer-quicker schemes. Wishing to be good guys, they’re often eager to share their good fortune with friends and relatives, a ruinous practice when indulged in to excess. And—oh, yeah—they tend to spend big, with the Mercedes dealer their first stop after their initial bank deposit.

In a way, athletes might have had it better in the old (pre-1975) days, before the salary explosion. Most jocks then understood that the game-playing would be brief, and planned accordingly. I once did a piece on Sonny Hertzberg, an early NBA star (1946-51) who, as an executive with the Wall Street firm of Bear Stearns, conducted league-sponsored investment classes for later-day NBAers. “Everybody in my day had an off-season job or sideline because we knew we’d have to go out and earn a living sooner or later,” he told me in 2001. “It may sound funny but I think we had fewer fears about our futures than players now do.”





   


Saturday, February 15, 2014

BATTLEBALL

                My first paying job in journalism was at age 19 with the Champaign-Urbana Courier in the home cities of the University of Illinois, where I was a student. I received $1.25 an hour to cover the Champaign High School teams. I felt myself richly rewarded, the sum being more than adequate to pay for gas for my ‘53 Ford, movies and almost-nightly trips to the Chuck Wagon, my diner of choice. Life was good.
                
               One of my first “enterprise” features came in 1958, my second year on the job. In a football game that season, a player on the CHS team kicked a field goal, about a 20-yarder. The feat was so unusual I asked around to see if anyone could remember the last time it had been done locally. No one could with certainty. I searched the paper’s ragged files and found that a field goal had been kicked against the school four or five years earlier but that no Champaign lad had done it during that period. I already knew that even kicked points-after-touchdown were rare at the high-school level, so using the FG as a point of departure my piece investigated the sad state of the placekicking art. I recall it being well received.

                Of late, of course, every decent-sized high school has a good kicker, and the specialty has blossomed fully in the colleges and pros. Indeed, one of football’s seminal events was the day in 1961 that a young Pete Gogolak kicked a 41-yard field goal for Cornell University using the “soccer-style” movement he’d learned on the pitches of his native Hungary.  By adding hip torque to leg strength, the technique vastly increased kickers’ range and accuracy. Its later development by Gogolak and others at the pro level revolutionized the game.

                Now a counter-revolution is stirring, led by the National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell, of all people. As last season wound down he noted aloud that kicked points-after-touchdown in the league had become so monotonously successful that they might better be eliminated, replaced by the awarding of seven points for a TD or giving the scoring team the option of going for two points with a play from scrimmage while forfeiting a point for failure. Since the commish’s musings are taken as seriously as Chairman Mao’s once were, league officials can be expected to consider the change before next season commences.

                To that I say fine, but why stop at examining just extra points? I’ve long held that football would be a better game without the foot, one with no kicking at all, punting as well as placekicking. You could start each game by putting the ball at midfield, lining up a player from each team on the 40s and letting them race and claw for possession. The winner’s team would possess the spheroid until it goes four-downs-and-out or scores a touchdown. Then the other guys would give it a go from the point of surrender or from its own 30-yard line after a TD, back and forth until time expires, with the usual quarter- and half-time breaks.

                Extra points would be regular plays from the 2 1/2-yard line, just like they’re sometimes done now. Field goals are copouts and dull to boot (they’re either good or they’re not), and no big loss. No punting would enhance the importance of every play and make fourth-down plays—the game’s most exciting—more frequent.  With no way out under the rules, coaches would have to shed the play-calling conservatism that soddens the present-day game. It’d be a true 100-yard war without quarter. Call it “Battleball” and let the boys go at it!

                I’m sure your eyes are rolling by now, but steady them if you can. If eliminating kicked extra points is justifiable by their frequency of success (99.something% in recent years), field goals haven’t been far behind.  In the years immediately before 1974,  when NFL goal post were placed at the back of the end zone and their widths narrowed to 18 ½ feet, field goals were good roughly 50% of the time. Now the overall success rate is at about 85% and climbing.

Field goals of 50 yards or more were rare in the 1960s and ‘70s but last season they were good about 65% of the time. Six of the 14 NFL FGs of 60-yards or more were kicked in the last three seasons, including Matt Prater’s 2013 record 64-yarder. At the rate things are going, any team that reaches midfield soon will be in scoring range, offering reward for slight achievement. Is this the sort of lesson we should be teaching our children?

              NFL kickoffs already have come in for deemphasis, with player safety the objective. In 2011 the league moved the kickoff spot up five yards to the 35-yard line; in consequence, the number of touchbacks rose to about 44% last season from about 16% the season before the change. The complete absence of the play, with its high-velocity collisions, only could aid the league’s effort to reduce concussions and other serious injuries.   

Taking the foot out of football would have other beneficial results. One would be to eliminate kickers, specialists who fit into the game about as well would Chihuahuas at a convention of Dobermans. With few exceptions kickers are pale, frail guys whose lives seem at risk every time they make contact with the big-bodied types who staff most of the other positions. If not for the money, most probably would be glad to be elsewhere.
                
                Finally, by calling the sport “Battleball,” the U.S. could join the rest of the world to whom “football” means the real game of the foot. That would erase the name “soccer” (derived from the old term AsSOCiation Football), one of the ugliest words around.

Addition by subtraction! Who could ask for more?


               
                 
               
               



                 

Saturday, February 1, 2014

WORDS TO LIVE BY

                Old people love to give advice, and since I turn age 76 tomorrow, and thus qualify firmly as old, I am indulging myself with what follows.  Stick with me and your life will improve, or your money back.

--Smile when another car passes you on the road because you never want to be the fastest guy out there.

--When someone is tailgating you slow down gradually by taking your foot off the accelerator. The jerk will go around you and bother someone else.

--In your first visit to any Italian restaurant, order lasagna. If it’s not good don’t return because it’s unlikely that the place will make anything else well, either.

--If you’re writing anything that could get you into trouble, hold it overnight before sending.

--Be grateful if you’re happy in the water because swimming is the best exercise. It provides a full-body workout without stressing your frame.

--Netflix is the best company. It offers 100,000-odd movie or TV titles, its delivery system is seamless and you can keep the discs as long as you like. Plus, when you need to call, an American will answer.

--If I had my life to live over I’d pay more attention in foreign-language classes and take better care of my teeth.

--Wear as few clothes as possible. I like Arizona because I can get away with shorts, t-shirts and sandals nine months of the year.

--When your wife calls you “sweetheart” you can be pretty sure something else is coming.

--The only way to know what’s going on is to read the New York Times. You may not agree with its editorials but it’s the only U.S. newspaper that covers the world.

--Playing the horses makes you an expert on your own failings, but the knowledge does you little good.

--If you have a choice, get in the line with the fewest women.

--Don’t expect star athletes to be outstanding (or even upstanding) human beings. Most have been spoiled since early childhood and behave accordingly.

--Professional sports teams are businesses and make most decisions with an eye to the bottom line. Remember that before you give one your heart.

--Credit cards are a great deal if you can pay your balances in full every month. That way you get a free loan with every purchase. Otherwise you might as well be borrowing from the Mafia.

--The more any program strives for “fairness” the more complicated and less workable it becomes. I’m thinking specifically of Obamacare and the NFL’s TV-review system.

--When someone prefaces a remark with “with all due respect” or “no offense meant,” you know you’re going to be dissed.

-- Anyone who holds up big companies as efficiency models for government probably never worked in a big company.

--I don’t carry a cell phone and don’t feel a lack. Very few calls can’t be returned an hour or even a day later.  (Yes, I’m retired, but I worked without one for close to 50 years.)

--The best seats in any baseball park are behind home plate, from where the action spreads out before you and you can see what the pitchers are throwing. Surprisingly, they’re often among the cheapest and easiest to get. My favorite ones in the upper deck at Chase Field in Phoenix usually sell for $16 per, about one-fifth of what some people downstairs are paying for inferior views.

--The best seat for any football game is in front of your TV set.

--If one of your elected representatives does something you really don’t like, let him or her know about it. It probably won’t make a difference but will make you feel better.

--I rarely sign up for anything where I pay up front and must hustle to receive the benefits. Disneyland makes big money from that system.

--Brussel sprouts are the best vegetables. If you don’t like them you probably aren’t cooking them right; cut in half and fried in butter is one good way.

--If you can see retirement coming, line up a few things to keep you busy when the days arrive. Just vegging out can get old fast.

--Relatedly, if you’re retired and have two errands to run, don’t do both the same day.

--Try to enjoy whatever you do because that’s the only reward you’re likely to get.

--Advice is much easier to give than to take.



Wednesday, January 15, 2014

OLYMPICS PUTINESCA

                The International Olympic Committee, the snooty gang that stages summer and winter world-sports extravaganzas at four-year intervals, is nothing if not predictable. Those guys never have met a dictatorship they didn’t not only like but also trip over themselves to support. To the Olympic motto of citius, altius, fortius (“faster, higher, stronger” for those who don’t speak Latin) should be added a forth word, for whatever the old Romans called despotism. Nero, Caligula, Commodus—the IOC would have jumped into bed with any of them.
           
              The 2014 Winter Os begin Feb. 7 in Sochi, Russia, under the auspices of that put-upon land’s latest political strong man, Vladimir Putin. Yes, the gulags are gone and political dissidents no longer are dispatched with bullets to the brain in the basement of the Lubyanka Building, but anyone disputing pale-browed Vlad had better keep his or her bag packed for a prison trip, sometimes after being beaten on the street by thugs who never are caught. The ex-KGB operative learned his lessons well enough to be able to run things in the old way without the old, collectivist rhetoric.

                Olympia’s dictators’ waltz began with the award of both the 1936 winter and summer Games to Nazi Germany. The other members of the original Axis of Evil were similarly blessed, Imperial Japan with the summer and winter Games of 1940 and Fascist Italy with the 1944 winter fest, although those events were cancelled by the war those nations helped start. Closer to present times, the Soviet Union got to host the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow and the dour committee that runs China welcomed the world to the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing. Idi Amin’s Uganda might have gotten a nod had he stuck around long enough.

                The IOC’s real motto is politics shmolitics, as long as the trains run on time. It’s easier for it to deal with a guy—or small handful of guys—than with the messy cast of characters any democracy presents. Build venues lickety split? Sweep the Olympic area of people who might make tourists uncomfortable?  Clean the air, if only for a couple of weeks? Put a dozen cops on every street for 100 miles around? Poof, it’s done, and let the Games begin.

                Putin has gone all out for the production aimed at showcasing his “new” Russia and himself, spending a reported $50 billion on stadiums and infrastructure. That’s a record for any Olympics and an impressive sum even if many of those dollars did wind up in the pockets of his cronies.  Lately he’s tried to get on the world’s good side by having his ministers say soothing words about easing enforcement of Russia’s anti-gay laws for the duration, and he’s opened his dungeons a crack, releasing the ex-billionaire critic Mikhail Khodorkovsy and the all-girl band Pussy Riot, which in 2012 scandalized Moscovites with an impromptu punk-rock show in a cathedral.  But hey, with a name like Pussy Riot it’s a miracle the police let them off the Metro.

                What Putin’s billions will buy remains to be seen as O-day approaches. Sochi was an odd Winter Games choice because the Black Sea city is best known as a subtropical summer resort with average day-time February high temperature of around 50, so keeping the snow and ice cold might be a bigger problem than keeping spectators warm.   

                The main run-up to the Games, the traditional Olympic torch relay, was more comic than epic, casting doubt on the efficacy of Russian technology (surprise!). Manufactured in Siberia by a company called KrasMash, which ordinarily makes ballistic missiles, the torches went out a dozen times by confirmed count and 50 or so times reportedly, one having to be relit by a guard’s cigarette lighter. Three times torch fuel spilled onto carriers’ clothing and caught fire. One poor torch bearer—a 73-year-old coach—staggered away and died of a heart attack moments after his brief stint.

                As always, the quality of sport in the Winter Games also shouldn’t be taken for granted. These WOs will consist of 98 events in 15 sports—many with small constituencies-- against more than 300 events in 26 sports in the Summer Games. Television dictates that each span 17 days and three weekends, so the dirty little secret of the WOs is that on many days not much is on the card.

                The O bosses have padded the schedule in their usual way, by adding events that really are variations of existing ones, like the three-legged and sack races of company picnics. Letting women do dumb things men do, such as ski jumping, put one more event on the tube, and pirating various daredevil stunts from ESPN’s X-Games added several more. The main suspense in these centers not on who’ll win but on whether contestants will land feet or head first.

                There will be “team” figure skating, which doesn’t involve teams but the usual individual and pairs performances with the scores added together. The question of whether figure skating is a sport goes undebated at O time. If it is, so is ballet.

                Races mostly are singles or pairs against the clock, with the real drama being in the tick tick ticking in (usually) the lower right-hand corner of your TV screen. Hans Brinker would have been dismayed. Then there’s bobsledding, a 90-mph carnival ride in a $50,000 sled with a gold medal (not a brass ring) as the prize, or luge, which is bobsledding with no protective chassis.

                Look out below, but as they say, sometimes you win and sometimes you luge.