Tuesday, May 12, 2015

THE SCIENTIST

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

               There’s just no pleasing some people.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


               

Friday, May 1, 2015

ICHIRO!

               At any given time there are a small handful of Major League Baseball players whose talents and accomplishments deserve special attention. These are the guys we’ll tell our grandchildren we saw play, even if we can pick up a phone and tell them so today.  I’m not just talking Hall of Fame-eligible here, I’m talking about men who are making a singular contribution to the sport.
              
              Ichiro Suzuki fits that category. At age 41 the slender man from Japan is playing out the string with the Miami Marlins, but he’s still identifiably Ichiro, punching out hits in his inimitable fashion.  If he stays at it long enough he’ll go out as the most prolific batsman ever, eclipsing Pete Rose’s 4,256 big-league-hits record.

               Yeah, some of his hits were in Japan’s big league, but I’ll leave it to others to debate their relative worth.

               What’s beyond debate is that Ichiro (he goes by just the one name at home, not unlike some Brazilian soccer stars) has brought to the game a unique style and presence, no small feat in an activity that prizes orthodoxy. Not only does the left-handed batter hit off his front foot, a Little League no-no, but he does so with his hips turning forward, seemingly propelling him down the first-base line as the ball is being struck. He gets away with it because he has the best hands since Rod Carew, and the best results.

               He’s a sterling athlete and, as his 10 Golden Gloves attest, nobody of late has played right field better. Few run the bases better, either; his 487 stolen bases going into this season was the most of any active player. It’s tougher to measure throwing ability but he may be No. 1 there, too. For a recent Japanese TV commercial he made three throws from behind home plate to a wire-mesh litter basket near the right-field fence about 300 feet away. He sunk the third after two near misses.

               Few players have arrived in the U.S. majors more hyped—or more closely followed—than Ichiro. At age 27, he showed up in spring training with the Seattle Mariners in 2001 as the best-known sports figure in his sports-crazy land, trailed by a media contingent that would make a Super Bowl quarterback flinch.  So popular was he back home that his wedding two years earlier, to a Japanese-TV personality, had to take place in California to avoid a crush.

               The Mariners issued 100 spring-training press credentials in ’01, 80 of them to Japanese outlets. Every step he took in public was photographed and his daily press conferences were staged outdoors because the team’s Peoria, Arizona, base didn’t have a large enough room to hold them.  The attention lasted into the season and while it cooled with the years it never went away.

               It was merited because, next to the 1960s and ‘70s slugger Sadaharu Oh, Ichiro was Japan’s all-time greatest baseball player, with a .353 batting average in nine seasons with the Orix Blue Wave starting at age 18. Americans snicker over Oh’s towering home-run record (868), noting it was set in smallish Japanese parks, but the big majority of Ichiro’s 1,278 Japanese bingles were singles that would have been singles anywhere.  And indeed, during his 10 seasons in Seattle (2001-10), the meat of his U.S. career, his batting average of .331 wasn’t far below his Japanese mark.

               Ichiro got more than 200 hits in each of those 10 seasons, a record. His 262 hits in 2004 is a record, too.  He was the MVP of the 2007 MLB All-Star game with a three-hit performance including an inside-the-park home run, and got the game-winning hit in Japan’s extra-inning victory over South Korea in the 2009 World Baseball Classic final. For what it’s worth, Japan has won that tournament twice in the three times it’s been run, and the U.S. never has finished better than fourth.

               Ichiro collected 2,844 hits in his 14 Major League seasons before this one. Add in his Japanese safeties and his total came to 4,122, 134 short of Rose and 67 behind Ty Cobb’s 4,189. As a part-time player he doesn’t figure to surpass Rose this year but, barring injury, probably will get past Cobb.  He hasn’t committed to playing beyond this season so the argument over whether he or Rose belongs atop the hit parade might not arise, but no matter. Ichiro is playing now and you owe yourself what may be a last look.

             ***************************************************      

               The Kentucky Derby, the latest edition of which will be run on Saturday, is both a feast and a challenge for horse players. It’s a feast because you always get good prices on good horses in what’s usually a stellar field. It’s a challenge because it involves two large unknowns—how the animals will handle its 1¼-miles distance, farther than any of them ever run, and how they’ll cope with a roiling field that will number 20 if there are no scratches.  It’s a real cavalry charge in which “trip” can be as important as talent.

               Complicating matters further this year is perhaps the best field of any recent Derby. On form seven or eight colts could win the race and not surprise anyone, and three or four more could sneak up on them. Putting together a winning ticket will require dexterity as well as knowledge and luck.

               The field is headed by three horses that together have won 14 of 16 career outings and close to $4.5 million in purses, a ton of money for three-year-olds.  They are the presumed favorite (5-2 in the morning line) American Pharaoh, Dortmund (3-1) and Carpe Diem (8-1). American Pharaoh gets the betting nod because he’s won his last four races by a total of 22 lengths and has been training like a champ. Dortmund has won six of six and Carpe Diem four of five. The latter hasn’t shown quite the speed of the other two, but they’re both front runners and he’s comfortable running with the pack for a while, a facility might come in handy on Saturday.

I originally liked Carpe Diem but his No. 2 post-position draw indicated he might be enveloped along the rail early and have difficulty finding running room. Similarly, American Pharaoh will exit No. 17, meaning he’ll have a tough time securing his preferred close-to-the front running position, and will have a long way to go in any case.

From PP8 long-striding Dortmund will have a straight shot out of the gate and should lead or nearly so. Barring late mind-changes I’ll be betting a $1, five-horse exacta box including he, the lightly raced Materiality (12-1) who’s maybe the fastest horse in the field, and three horses that have proven to have some late kick: Frosted (15-1), Upstart (15-1) and El Kabeir (30-1). It’ll cost me $20 but pay off a lot more if any of the double-digit-odds entries come in 1-2.

               

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

TOO FIT?

               Athletes are in better shape than ever these days, so it’s reasonable to conclude that they’re also more durable. That doesn’t seem to be the case.
              
              It doesn’t matter the sport, injury lists seem to go in only one direction-- up. Nobody I know of keeps statistical track of those things, so I can’t prove it, but every season, in every league, the main question isn’t who’s best but who will be healthy at season’s end, when the big games are played. Pre-season forecasts, more abundant than ever, also are more idiotic.   

The situation seems most dire in baseball, the latest season of which is just underway. Pitchers in particular have been affected—it seems that they’re lined up around the block to have Tommy John surgery, the elbow-ligament-replacement operation named for the much-traveled left hander on whom it was first performed in 1974.  Rare is the Major League pitching staff that doesn’t have a member who has undergone—or is undergoing-- the procedure, which usually involves a full season on the sidelines. Some pitchers have had it more than once.
            
              Basketball has no single counterpart to the elbow-ligament plague but its stars are also have been faring poorly, so much so that injury reports challenge its box scores for sports-page space. My blog of January 15, headlined “Gone Fishin’”, speculated that the long National Basketball Association season had prompted some players to feign or magnify injuries to get occasional breathers. The league must have gotten wind of such talk because it’s been discussing making schedule changes.

               Football long has been a petri dish of afflictions, some of which, involving the brain, have scary, long-term implications, and while here’s no doubt that better conditioning protects players from some ills it may contribute to others. The bigger-faster-stronger syndrome of which the National Football League is proud also makes for bigger, louder and more-frightening collisions on the gridirons, the implications of which are easy to imagine.

               Of the improved general fitness of athletes there can be no doubt. Our knowledge of exercise physiology and nutrition have improved vastly in recent decades, as have the devices to implement it. Of at least equal importance is that the torrent of money that has flowed into sports has meant that the pros no longer need off-season jobs to make ends meet and can afford to be in training around the calendar and around the clock.  The results have been apparent to the naked eye, so to speak: walk into any Major League Baseball locker room these days and you’ll see guys who look good in their underwear. Thirty years ago ballplayers were a mixed lot in that respect, looking pretty much like any other group of men their age.

               As any competent trainer can tell you, however, top-level fitness is a double-edged sword. With nothing much else to do except watch cartoons on TV, some athletes will train to excess, crossing the invisible line that separates fitness and breakdowns. The “no pain, no gain” mantra that permeates some weight rooms is a dangerous one, most experts now say. “Quit when you’ve got one more in ya’” is a better one, they agree.

               More dangerous still is the very-early commitment to single sports that pushy parents are pressing on their talented offspring. Time was (remember?) when kids pretty much played in-season pickup games with their playground pals, never getting uniforms or trained coaching until high school. Little League accelerated that process in baseball, but its schedules—like those of Babe Ruth or American Legion ball for teens--  rarely exceeded 30 games a year, and ended before Labor Day.

               Now there are “traveling” youth leagues in several sports, including baseball, basketball and soccer, which for annual fees of up to several thousand dollars provide coaching, training and competition for children as young as age eight; in baseball these circuits book as many as a 100 games a year in Sunbelt locales. The leagues have cut deeply into Little League baseball participation and are supplanting the high schools as the main recruiting grounds for college basketball. Except for the live-in part, they mirror the practice-and-play-intensive private “academies” that have been stocking the pro-tennis ranks for years.

               That sort of commitment requires kids to specialize in a sport from their pre-teens, leading to repetitive-stress injuries such as the carpal-tunnel syndrome that befalls people who spend long hours on computer keyboards. The condition that requires Tommy John surgery is one of these; the more pitches one throws the more likely it is to develop, studies show.

               Worry over pitchers’ arm overuse has changed baseball radically. While the likes of Robin Roberts, Bob Gibson and Fergie Jenkins once cranked out 300-inning seasons, any pitcher today who logs 200 innings is considered a workhorse. Teams’ starting rotations used to number four; now they’re at five and in spring training the New York Yankees were talking about going to six. Pitch counts dictate managers’ mound tactics as much as opponents’ hits.  

               Such moves haven’t stemmed the injury tide and probably won’t. Young athletes today are better physical specimens than those of the past, but having played more games and pumped more iron they also show up in the big leagues carrying much more mileage.

               Interestingly, a golfer—Tiger Woods—might be the best illustrator of the “too much, too soon” development. Under the tutelage of his father, Earl, he began swinging a golf club while still in diapers, and was playing tournaments by 10. No one ever appeared on the pro tour more ready to win, and no one achieved as much as quickly.

               But while his lost mojo, resulting from his exposure as a serial adulterer, played a role in Tiger’s decline, so has a multifaceted physical breakdown. He won his last “major” at age 32 and now, at 38—prime time for some golfers-- is eternally recovering from one injury or another. Old timers like Snead, Hogan and Nicklaus weren’t as good at 21 as Tiger was, but they lasted longer.


  
              
              

               

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

PRIORITIES

               If your image of a college coach was formed by old movies, you probably visualize a benign gent wearing a sweatshirt and a whistle around his neck, urging his boys to do or die for Old Siwash.  His wife is a sweet-faced lady who, occasionally, invites team members to the couple’s modest campus home for milk and cookies.  As my mom used to say, butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths.
             
              Flash forward to the present and you get a quite-different picture. Mr. Big-Time-College-Basketball-or-Football Coach today holds forth in an office half as large as a football field and fronted by three or four secretaries. A half-dozen assistant coaches (a dozen in football) also scurry to do his bidding. He lives in a mansion, drives one or more luxury “courtesy cars” and belongs to a country club dues-free (the last two are typical perks of his job), and his wife knows Rodeo Drive better than the local malls.  When butter enters his mouth it’s usually as an accompaniment to lobster tail.

               Maybe better, his lordly aura allows him to escape responsibility for whatever mess his “program” makes; he’s likely to be a control freak, overseeing every facet of his players’ lives, but when something goes wrong he’s nowhere to be seen.  Jim Calhoun, the long-time basketball head coach at the U. of Connecticut, sailed serenely into retirement despite his team’s record of NCAA rules violations and sub-normal graduation rates. Roy Williams of North Carolina and Jim Boeheim of Syracuse, other acclaimed “deans” of their profession, are following similar paths in the face of worse transgressions, Carolina’s involving almost two decades of organized academic fraud. (See my blog of July 15 for details.) 

               Joe Paterno, Penn State’s venerated “JoePa”, almost made it to retirement before it was revealed that his chief assistant coach had perpetrated a long-running, multi-victim child-sex-abuse scheme under his nose. Paterno was fired and died soon afterward, and his statue was yanked from the campus posthumously. Predictably, though, his cult has rallied. The NCAA has restored the gridiron victories it removed from his record, and look for the statue to be polished and reinstalled any day now.

               The rise in college coaching salaries and status in recent years has been startling. Around the century’s turn, while I was still columnizing professionally, top annual contracts in the $500,000 area were beginning to raise eyebrows. In no time the average annual figure shot through $1 million. It now presses $2 million with no lid in sight as the elite conferences cash in big from their television networks. 

Vexingly, that surge has come at a time when education in America—and especially public education—is under unprecedented financial stress. Thanks to the 2008 recession and the advent of small-government Republican administrations in many statehouses around the land, school budgets from kindergarten through college have been slashed just about everywhere.  The crowning irony is that college football’s highest-paid head coach—Nick Saban of the U. of Alabama, who rakes in $7.1 million a year— is employed by the state that has cut school spending most enthusiastically since 2007, the year he was hired. The average teacher in Alabama earns about $45,000 a year, which means that Saban’s salary alone would equal the entire payroll of a good-sized school district in that benighted state.

Things aren’t much different in Arizona, where I live. School budgets there have been under relentless attack in the state legislature in recent years. While taxes are being cut, class sizes rise, “frill” courses such as music and art have been eliminated and many districts charge fees for student participation in extra-curricular activities such as band, theater and sports. Four-day school weeks are being discussed in some cities and school-bus safety is being compromised by the re-tread tires many districts are purchasing to cut costs.

 Arizona school funding at the K-12 grades fell so low that in 2013 the state’ s supreme court ruled that it hadn’t been reaching minimum levels mandated by the state’s constitution and ordered that $1.6 billion in reparations be paid out over the next five years.  That hasn’t happened; indeed, more education cuts have been instituted while statehouse leaders and the court “negotiate.” 

Arizona’s four-year public universities—Arizona State U., the U. of Arizona and Northern Arizona U.—haven’t been spared, their state support declining by 32% between 2007 and last year, and by $99 million more, or about 14%, in the 2015-16 budget just enacted in Phoenix. Yearly in-state tuition at ASU was about $5,000 in 2007. It’s $9,300 now and surely will rise again next term.

 Meantime, Arizona’s big-time coaches are doing just fine, thanks. The top-paid two are ASU football boss Todd Graham and U of A basketball coach Sean Miller, each at $2.3 million a year. Rich Rodriguez makes $1.5 million per to coach football at U of A and ASU’s basketball coach Herb Sendek made $1.2 million before he was fired last week. That last action wasn’t good news budgetwise, because Sendek reportedly is due to receive full pay for the remaining two years on his contract, and his successor probably will get a better deal than he did.

  Those salary figures don’t include the value of the free cars and club memberships noted above, or, probably, the rent-free use of university facilities for the coaches’ summer camps or income from their booster-sponsored radio and TV shows. Each also gets six-figure annual raises and bonuses for exceeding certain victory totals or achieving post-season appearances. If chopping any of their checks was part of the recent budget discussions it escaped news-media attention.

And as the TV pitchmen say “Wait! There’s more!”  ASU’s athletics department is raising $256 million to renovate Sun Devil Stadium, where the football team plays, and while tax money supposedly won’t be used for that purpose the private funds that will be might otherwise have gone elsewhere. After that project is done a similarly costly update is on deck for Wells Fargo Arena, the school’s basketball home.

 Arizona kids may be sharing desks, and its families increasingly are buried in college debt, but nothing’s too good for our big-U jocks and their leaders, right? It’s all a matter of getting our priorities straight.

  



Sunday, March 15, 2015

CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM

               The Chicago Cubs, my baseball team, always have been blind to symbolism when it comes to spring training in Arizona. Their long-time base in the Phoenix suburb of Mesa was across the street from a cemetery, a fitting setting for a famously moribund franchise.  Now they have a spiffy new complex in another part of the same town but, for cash, just named it Sloan Park, for a company whose main products are toilet valves. Need I say more?
         
      That’s one reason I’m resisting being swept up in the hype surrounding the team as it heads into a new season. After five consecutive last-place finishes in the National League’s Central Division—the last three on purpose—Cubs’ brass has signaled the intention of being serious about winning again.  During the late off season they pirated manager Joe Maddon from the Tampa Bay Rays, where he’d made lemonade with lemons for nine seasons, traded for genuine major leaguers at catcher (Miguel Montero) and center field (Dexter Fowler), and paid ridiculously big money ($155 million over six years) for stud starting pitcher Jon Lester.  With a pipeline filled by prime prospects accumulated during the latest string of bad years, they have declared themselves ready to rock and roll.

               Most of the coots and codgers attending the teams’ spring games at Flush Field appear to be lapping it up, anticipating great things. The fact that the Cubs were winless after their first seven outings has mattered not a bit, with SRO crowds showing up for every gate opening. A t-shirt reading “THIS IS NEXT YEAR” summed up the positive vibe.   

               By reasons of temperament and training, though, I’m a harder sell. Even as a kid I took fandom with a grain of salt, which was a good thing because if I’d lived and died with the woebegone Cubbies I’d never have made it to my bar mitzvah. My outlook was further leavened by my stint as a sports writer, during which I learned that good guys and jerks are about evenly distributed among big-league rosters in every sport. Thus, I had no trouble complying with the “no cheering in the press box” rule.

               Casting a beady eye on Cub prospects is easy when it comes to their pitching, baseball’s most-important element.  Lefty Lester, a rugged and stoic sort in his prime (he’s 31), is their only proven starter, while the other three gents currently penciled into the team’s rotation (Jason Hammell, Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks) have question  marks after their names. Hammell pitched well enough for the Cubs last year, but not so well that he wasn’t traded away before being re-signed in the off season. Arrieta was in and out of the Baltimore Orioles’ rotation for four seasons before landing in Chicago, and just once has logged more than 150 innings in a season. Hendricks has had only 13 Major League starts. There is no No. 5 starter yet, and the position probably will change hands as the season goes on.

               The Cubs’ bullpen is even iffier, composed of a mixed bag of youngsters lacking proven records and vets coming back from injuries. In that respect the team is no different from most, the cobbling together of a bullpen being every front office’s biggest annual challenge. But while the reward for success can be great—witness the amazing run of last year’s bullpen-driven, American League-champion Kansas City Royals—the usual result is less auspicious.  Spring returns have been less than favorable.

               The Cubs look to be okay at least at four other positions—catcher and center field with the above-mentioned Montero and Fowler, first base with Anthony Rizzo and shortstop with Starlin Castro. Rizzo has emerged as a solid if not exceptional power hitter and, at age 25, looks set for years to come barring injury. Castro seems to be a more complex sort. The team’s best player since he arrived in Chicago in 2011 at a tender 21, and still only 25 years old, he has star-level talent, but his interest in the game at hand often seems to wander and he attracts off-field problems. The trade rumors that have accompanied his last couple of seasons attest to the fact that the team might believe he’s not a long-term fixture.

               To succeed mightily the Cubs will need some of their prospects to bloom. By far the best of these is Kris Bryant, the No. 2 pick in the 2013 amateur draft. Bryant is Roy Hobbes come to life, a tall and powerful hitter who has excelled at bat at every level at which he’s played. He was a college All-American at the U. of San Diego, MVP in the 2013 Arizona Fall League and Minor League Player of the Year last season, and he’s kept it up this spring with six home runs and a .450 batting average in his first eight games.

               Bryant is a third baseman, a position requiring quickness at which his height (6-feet-5) might be a liability.  A bigger short-term obstacle to his promotion seems to be a kink in the MLB contract system that would reward the team down the road for keeping him in the minors through April, but if it’s serious about winning it’ll burn that bridge when it comes to it. A team that hasn’t won a pennant since 1945, or a World Series since 1908, can’t be playing contract games.

               The Cubs’ other two Great Young Hopes seem a good deal less sure-fire than Bryant. Jorge Soler was plucked out of Cuba at age 20 in 2012, and did well as the team’s starting right fielder last September. Tall, broad and lean, his 6-foot-4 physique screams ATH-UH-LETE. The trouble is that despite his youth and apparent vigor he’s been plagued with leg problems since he arrived on these shores, suggesting congenital weakness.

               Javier Baez’s problems may be greater. The team’s top amateur pick in 2011, and currently plugged in at second base, he’s enormously strong, popping eyes with towering home runs both in the minors and as a late-season Cub. But when he’s not homering the 22-year-old usually is striking out with swings that cause passing airliners to wobble. This bespeaks an all-or-nothing mindset that rarely leads to stardom, and could be tough to change.

               Worse, Baez has a weight problem that last season added 45 pounds to his program weight of 190. He’s said he’s back down to about 210 pounds now, but let’s face it, anyone who struggles with his weight at age 22 is doomed by 30. The Cubs should trade this guy soonest, maybe for a relief pitcher who’s shown he can get people out.  Sans a good bullpen, finishing much above .500 only will be a dream in 2015.
                 

               

Sunday, March 1, 2015

NEWS & VIEWS

NEWS: Major League Baseball announces measures to speed play in the new season.

VIEW: Huh?

               Responding to complaints that the increasing length of games (three-hours-plus on average last year) was turning off younger fans (among others), MLB last fall appointed a blue-ribbon committee to suggest remedies. Last week the group’s recommendations were enacted. Instead of an elephant it delivered a mouse.

               The “changes” are as follows:

               --Once he assumes his stance, a hitter will be required to keep one foot in the batter’s box until his turn ends, barring things like foul balls or wild pitches.

               --Managers will be “encouraged” to stay in their dugouts while requesting a TV review of a call.

               --Between-innings breaks will be a limited to 2 minutes 25 seconds for locally televised games and 2:45 for nationally televised ones.

               --Pitching changes will be timed to comply with the break times cited above.

               I put the word changes in quotes because they’re really not. The one-foot-in-the-box rule already exists as do those governing between-inning breaks-- they’re just not enforced. The business about managers staying in their dugouts during challenges refers to the expanded video-replay opportunities put into effect last year; managers would feign disputes with umps while their confederates checked TV monitors to determine if challenges might succeed. Not incidentally, the new replay rules proved to be a drag on game times, each challenge usually taking several minutes to resolve instead of the one minute MLB advertised initially. So much for expeditiousness.

               It’s worth noting that enforcing the new guidelines may slow games further. At the last Arizona Fall League season MLB installed 20-second pitch clocks at one ballpark, and in each of the few instances violations were invoked managers took the field to protest, setting off arguments that more than negated any time savings the clocks produced.  

               Untouched by the committee were the interminable pitcher’s-mound meetings, pitcher- warmup routines and infielder catch playing that make baseball turgid. I devoted a whole blog to this subject last October 1; you can scroll down to see it.  Some of my recommendations were tongue-in-cheek, some weren’t, but any of them would have more impact than the ones announced.  If this is what we can expect from new-commissioner Rob Manfred, only more disappointments loom.

NEWS: The “Power 5” college conferences consider banning freshman eligibility for men’s basketball.

VIEW:  Huh?

               For the non-cognoscenti, the “Power 5” group (the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, ACC and PAC-12), i.e., those whose members are both feet into the sports/entertainment biz, gained autonomy from their less-enterprising NCAA brethren last year and have set about creating their own rules governing the revenue-producing sports of football and men’s basketball.  Some of their proposals, such as multi-year athletics scholarships and $2,000 stipends on top of room, board and tuition to more-fully cover college costs, would seem to benefit so-called student athletes, although some possible upshots, including the elimination of more “non-revenue” sports such as swimming and track-and-field to cover the added costs, would be less friendly.

               Now the group is said to be mulling denying freshman eligibility to male basketballers. That was startling because a year to settle into academe without competitive pressures would do more to put the “college” back into college sports than anything that’s taken place in recent decades.

               Before one cheers, however, a couple of caveats are in order. One is its probable motive of removing the “one-and-done” stigma that has attached to men’s hoops since the NBA raised its entrance minimums to age 19 and a year out of high school, causing some youngsters to view college as a kind of double-parking spot between themselves and the pros.   The fact that one-and-done usually is a misnomer—boys in that position rarely finish their second academic semesters—makes the bad publicity all the worse.

               The other is that it probably won’t be enacted. Denying freshmen eligibility would winnow out most if not all young men bent on pro-hoops careers, sending them abroad or to the NBA’s Developmental League for seasoning. That wouldn’t be good for the business the Power 5ers are all about, so don’t hold your breath for any action.

NEWS:  Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota dueled at the National Football League scouting “combine” over which will be the No. 1 choice in the coming draft.

VIEW: Talk about comparing apples and oranges.

               The two quarterbacks—winners of the last two Heisman Awards—were poked and prodded, timed, weighed and measured with the rest of the aspiring herd at the overhyped Indianapolis event. The result was a draw: Mariota ran faster and jumped farther than Winston, but the latter did better in the passing phase. The journalistic consensus was that, all things being equal, Winston emerged as the better prospect.

               Ah, but things aren’t equal, especially in the department the league likes to call “character.” That’s because Mariota is said to be a nice kid—a real Boy Scout-- while The Notorious J.W., aka Mr. Winston, uh, ain’t. Indeed, he has a well-known rap sheet and probably would be in jail or on probation if he’d played college ball anywhere except Tallahassee, Florida.

               It thus will be interesting to see what the quarterback-hungry Tampa Bay Buccaneers, holders of the No. 1 pick, do at the April 30 draft. Will they choose talent over character? In this post-Ray Rice era, will they brave the inevitable protests that would come with choosing Winston? Will they invest tens of millions of dollars in a young man who’s been an off-field loose cannon?

 Stay tuned. This should be better than the games on the field.  


              

               

Sunday, February 15, 2015

DEFLATING "DEFLATEGATE"

“Win any way you can as long as you can get away with it.”—Leo Durocher, longtime baseball manager.
               
             “They’ll fire you for losing before they fire you for cheating.”-- Darryl Rogers, former college-football coach.

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            When the so-called “Deflategate” scandal broke pre-Super Bowl, I had a couple of immediate reactions. One was a complete lack of surprise that the supposed perps were the New England Patriots and their coach, Bill Belichick. The other was a wish that whoever was coaching my National Football League team, the Chicago Bears (the post has changed hands of late), had been devious enough to try something like that.
              
            Belichick is the modern-day Durocher, a coach who will bend the rules to give his teams an edge. The main difference between them is that Durocher flaunted his roguishness while Belichick hides his behind hooded sweatshirts and a taciturn public persona. You might recall that he and the Pats were the focus of a previous NFL “Gate”-- the 2007 “Spygate”—wherein the team was caught videotaping the New York Jets’ sideline defensive signals with an eye toward using the info in future games.

That ploy mirrored Durocher’s placing a telescope-using spy in the Polo Grounds’ bleachers to steal opposing catchers’ signs during the 1951 season.  Among other things, the effort tipped off Bobby Thomson that Ralph Branca would throw him a fastball on the pitch that led to Thomson’s “Shot Heard Round the World” home run that won the pennant for Leo’s New York Giants, a fact that didn’t emerge for several decades.

The curious thing about both episodes was that the act involved —sign stealing—was and is common in baseball and football, but the use of technology to implement it somehow broke the games’ covenants. That’s the sort of fine line we draw in assessing moral issues in sports, usually without thinking much about it.  When an outfielder traps a line drive but then holds the ball aloft to convince the umpires he caught it, we applaud his presence of mind. When the Pats bleed a pound or two of air from some footballs to give its QB a better grip on a cold day before a playoff game, the parsons of the press box and the imams of the internet (and most fans who don’t live in or around Boston) scream bloody murder.

The jocks like to say “if you ain’t cheatin’ you ain’t tryin’ hard enough,” and, usually, we fans agree. Most of us draw the line on things like steroids use by athletes, which involves altering one’s bodily chemistry in a potentially harmful way with substances illegally obtained, thus forcing other players to make the same Faustian choice. By me, though, playing with balls (tee-hee) is a lesser offense.

Indeed, the idea of using a game’s equipment to give a competitor an advantage long has been endemic in sports. Exhibit A in that regard is golf, whose self-policing ethos gives it the high ground in most discussions of sports morality. There’s been a golf arms race in progress forever, and the U.S. Golf Association, which polices the sport on these shores, maintains an equipment-testing program equal to that of the Federal Aviation Administration to keep competitors within bounds.

Golfers bring their own balls to tournaments, and these vary in composition, construction and dimple alignment. Abetted by equipment makers eager to push the rules in pursuit of expanding market share, players go to great lengths to find the ball they think might give them a few more yards off the tee or straighter flight than those of their competitors. If the difference is just 1%, that’s plenty; over 72 holes a 1% difference in score (about 2.8 strokes) can be worth several places on the leader boards, and many dollars.

  “Deflategate” seems deflated, felonywise, when one notes what NFL teams are permitted to do with game balls placed in their possession. Before 2006 game balls were given only to home teams, but that rule was changed when teams complained it gave the homers too much of an edge. Now, each team gets a dozen new balls the week before each game and can do with them pretty much what they please before kickoff.

New footballs come out of their boxes hard and waxy, so teams typically brush them vigorously to take off the shine, then soak and/or apply conditioners (vitamin E skin cream is a favorite) to soften their “feel.” Putting them in a sauna reportedly also helps there. So does temporarily overinflating them to stretch their leather skins. It’s all OK.

The rules say game balls should be inflated to a range of 12.5 to 13.5 pounds of pressure per square inch. That’s an 8% difference right off, and sometimes it’s, uh, extended in both directions. “Everyone does it,” said Jeff Blake during Super Bowl week. He ought to know because he played quarterback for seven NFL teams over a 13-season career.

Kickers are tougher on their balls than QBs, repeatedly bashing them nose first into tables or other hard surfaces to increase their “give,” or placing them under boards and jumping up and down on them. The game balls kickers use are marked with a “K.” They’re supposed to be discarded after every game but, it’s said, kickers have been known to erase the league’s discard mark to keep ones they like in play longer.

 Even at that football takes a back seat to baseball when it comes to ball manipulation. Baseballs are thrown into games new but they’re typically rubbed down by pitchers before they’re thrown to remove their “shine.” Any sort of scuff or irregularity can give a pitcher an edge and cause a ball to be discarded, so since time immemorial some pitchers have found ways to alter them surreptitiously.   
            
            The ones who do this best are widely admired for their guile. A celebrated baseball “doctor” was Gaylord Perry, who pitched in the Major Leagues for 22 seasons (1962-83). He was busted once (in 1982) with a 10-day suspension, and was patted down many times by umps, but otherwise won 314 games and gained Hall of Fame election in 1991.
              
            Perry reveled in his rep, in mid-career writing an autobiography titled “Me and the Spitter.” He was widely suspected of using slippery stuff on baseballs, and once sought to endorse Vaseline (no kidding), but after retirement confessed that he found sticky substances like pine tar to be most helpful because they improved his ball grip and put more snap on his curve. He said that wiping his hand on the dugout pine-tar rag could get him through an entire inning.  If that didn’t work he could make his own pine tar on the mound by mixing rosin-bag talc (dried pine tar) with sweat.  He argued, not unreasonably, that batters were allowed to use things to improve their grips on their implements, so why shouldn’t pitchers?

          
            Or, for that matter, quarterbacks?