Sunday, January 15, 2017

D'JERKS

                It’s not a good idea for a business to antagonize its customers, but that news hasn’t reached Ken Kendrick, the principal owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball team.  In a startling display of boneheadedness, that organization recently sued its landlord, Maricopa County, to break its 30-year lease on what’s currently called Chase Field, the ballpark in which it plays. In other words, it is suing the taxpayers of the county, who make up the large majority of its fans.
               
               Almost equally head-scratching is the argument the team has employed to support its legal position.  A year ago it demanded that the county undertake $187 million worth of repairs to the facility, including ones it pointedly linked to the facility’s safety. The county demurred, countering that the work required was largely cosmetic and, thus, the team’s responsibility. Not so, the team has declared, leaving people who attend its games to wonder whether the upper deck will collapse while they are sitting on or under it. How’s that for a sales incentive? Throw in the team’s not-so-veiled threat to move if it doesn’t get its way and you have a real trifecta of turnoffs.

                The suit might not be startling if Chase Field were a crumbling wreck, but it ain’t. While it’s not exactly a field of dreams, with dark-green seats lending a gloomy air and exposed metal work making it look industrial, it’s a thoroughly serviceable facility, topped by a retractable roof that’s hailed as state of the art and an efficient air-conditioning system that’s necessary on Phoenix’s many 100-plus-degree spring and summer nights.

                 Completed in 1998, its construction price was $364 million, of which $253 million, or close to 70%, came from a ¼-cent, countywide sales tax devoted exclusively to that purpose. Arizona is a tax-averse state and the levy wasn’t achieved without bloodshed, literally; a county supervisor who favored it was shot in the butt by an irate citizen after a contentious public hearing on the subject.

                Owner Kendrick came to the sports biz after making his pile in computer-software development and banking. He was part of the expansion team’s original partnership and succeeded to the top managerial role in 2004, when the group bought out Jerry Colangelo, the D’backs’ first top dog.

                Colangelo is a unique figure in Phoenix, maybe the city’s leading businessman of the last 50 years. A native of a blue-collar suburb south of Chicago and a basketball player at the U of Illinois, he hustled himself a job in the NBA Chicago Bulls’ front office after college in 1962, and when the then-nickel-and-dime league expanded to Phoenix in 1968 came to town as its general manager.  In due course he acquired a chunk of the Suns and ran them, moved them into a new, downtown arena, helped bring a National Hockey League franchise to the city, brought Major League Baseball there and convinced the citizenry to okay his stadium-financing plan.

                Colangelo knew that baseball would be a hard sell in a desert burg with little history of the game, where low-wage jobs predominate despite the area’s patina of palm-lined wealth and where many transplants maintain their ties to the teams of their cities of origin. Thus, he broke the expansion-team mold by paying up quickly for the likes of the pitchers Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling and surrounding them with a veteran cast. When the D’backs won the World Series in 2001— their fourth year of existence—he gave them instant identity.

                But Colangelo did not endear himself to his D’back partners, who after replacing him with Kendrick did their best to erase his mark on the team, down to changing its colors.  They also went from winners to losers, posting just three plus-.500 seasons in Kendrick’s 13 seasons at the controls. Over the same period they’ve had five general managers and six field managers, seven if you include Kendrick’s initial hire, Wally Backman. He was fired four days after he was hired in 2004 when an arrest record and financial problems that might have been revealed by a routine Google search came to light.

                The team also has distinguished itself by its last-season award of a six-year, $206 million contract to a single player— pitcher Zack Greinke. That deal works out to about $35 million a year, more than one-third of its entire 2015 payroll, and by many accounts has handcuffed the team in making moves that might improve on its 69-93 won-lost record. Greinke’s earned run average last season was 4.37, above average (that’s bad) for all big-league pitchers.

                Maybe worst, the D’backs have been a flop at the box office for more than a decade . Attendance in 2002, the season after its championship, came to 3.2 million, but it’s been downhill since and has hovered around the 2 million mark since 2005, putting it in the game’s bottom third in that category. Not only can’t the team sell tickets, it hasn’t been able to give them away; in 2011, when it was battling for a divisional crown, it offered for $5 each all upper-deck seats at Chase Field for most of the month of September. The deep discount barely moved the attendance needle.

                I think it’s worth noting that Kendrick and his wife Randy have been generous donors to the right-wing political network headed by the Koch brothers; indeed, the Kendricks received prominent mention in Jane Mayer’s book “Dark Money,” which traced the influence of the group’s often-subterranean contributions.  The Kochs, et al, hold that government-aid recipients are undeserving moochers. Apparently, Kendrick makes an exception when it’s his hand that’s out.   
               
                 
               
               

                

Sunday, January 1, 2017

BOYCOTT RUSSIA '18

                The notion that sports and politics are separate realms is well entrenched in some circles, but decades of evidence contradicts it. Hitler didn’t think so in 1936 when he used the Summer OIympics in Berlin to highlight his racist and nationalist theories. After World War II the Communist Bloc nations, led by the Soviet Union, made athletic success a cornerstone of their assertions about the primacy of socialism. East Germany in particular carried out a systematic program of doping to enhance its medal counts in Olympic swimming, track and field and other sports.  The primitive state of knowledge in the 1970s and ‘80s about the long-term consequences of steroid use left a trail of genetic damage in that sad country’s wake.
                
                 No nation, however, has manipulated sports and the athletes who play them to the extent that Vladimir Putin’s Russia has. A stream of reports has laid out a pattern of drug abuse that has stretched back for years and corrupted the results of numerous events, including the Summer and Winter Olympic Games dating at least from 2008. The most recent of these, published in December by the World Anti-Doping Agency, said that more than 1,000 Russian athletes in 30 sports have been involved, and this may be only the visible part of the iceberg.

                “It is impossible to know just how deep and far back this conspiracy goes,” said Richard McLaren, WADA’s Canadian point man. He added that “immutable facts” made clear that “for years international sports competitions have been hijacked by the Russians.”

                Although allegations of widespread Russian doping had been circulating for years, the first definitive evidence surfaced last May, just before the Summer Games in Rio. The primary source was none other than Grigory Rodchenkov, who’d directed the country’s athletics-drug-testing laboratory from 2005 through 2015 before escaping for his life to the United States after information about the machinations began to leak. He told the New York Times that not only had he falsified numerous positive drug tests during that period, he also ran the program that prescribed and prepared the potions the athletes took.  In other words, in Putin’s Russia the dopers and the testers were one and the same.

 The effort, Rodchenkov said, peaked at the 2014 Winter Olympics the Russians hosted in Sochi, where clean urine samples by the score were smuggled through a hole in the wall of the main testing facility, to be substituted for tainted samples while agents of Russia’s counterpart of our FBI stood guard. It sounded like something out of an Austin Powers movie, but it rang true.

                That story broke less than 90 days before the start of the Rio Games, leaving Olympics’ officials scrambling for a response. The Games’ formal motto is “Citius, Altius, Fortius,” which is Latin for “faster, higher, stronger,” but the real motto is “the show must go on,” and it applies no matter what the circumstances.  Rather than slapping a much-deserved blanket ban on Russian participation, the International Olympic Committee punted the matter to the individual governing bodies of the fest’s 26 sports. A few—most notably track and field and weightlifting—sent the Russians packing, but most equivocated under one guise or another. In all, 291 Russian athletes were allowed to march and compete. They won 55 medals, the fourth-most on the national table.

                Equally important, no action was taken on the future competitions Russia was schedule to host, including the 2018 soccer World Cup, the most-important (and lucrative) international event outside the Olympic calendar. This was despite Russia’s response to the doping charges, which, typically, has consisted mainly of blustery denials and attacks on those bringing them. Apparently, there’s no Russian word for “shame.”

                But the new allegations, which show that the Russian plot was wider and deeper than was supposed last summer, is having an effect. Interestingly, the gutsiest salvo came not from any of the globe’s athletic superpowers but from little Latvia, a nation of about two million people on the Baltic Sea that spent almost 50 years as an imprisoned Soviet republic and still could be knocked over by a swipe of the Russian bear’s paw.

 Small as it is, Latvia is a factor in winter sports, and a couple of weeks ago its sledding federation announced it would boycott the world skeleton and bobsled championships scheduled for Sochi in February. While previous protests were limited to grumbling by individual athletes, Latvia took a public and forthright stance. Sochi, the Latvian organization declared in a statement, is “the place where the Olympic spirit was stolen in 2014. Enough is enough.”

Facing a nation-by-nation boycott, the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation withdrew the entire competition. Other, similar actions followed, including the removal of World Cup events in speed skating and cross-country skiing. 

The indictment of Russia continues to mount as retests of urine samples taken at past Summer and Winter Olympics proceed and more of its athletics are stripped of their medals. Sports boycotts are nothing new— witness the U.S. action against the 1980 Moscow Games for the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan and the retaliatory actions against the 1984 Los Angeles Games. Russian’s crimes against sport alone justify another, but if those aren’t enough throw in Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, his abetting of the slaughter in Syria, his suppression of dissent at home and his schemes to undermine the internal politics of the U.S. and Europe.  

The 2018 World Cup should be the target. That would get Putin’s attention, sure enough.



       

                 

Thursday, December 15, 2016

HANDICAPPING THE HALL

                Ballots are out for the 2017 class of the Baseball Hall of Fame, with the results to be announced Jan. 18. I voted in that annual election for a couple of decades but was flushed last year when the Baseball Writers Association of America declared ineligible anyone who hadn’t practiced daily journalism for 10 years. It was a bitter pill but I swallowed it. Lifetime appointments are a bad idea in any sphere and sports writing should be no exception.
                
                But while I can’t vote I still have opinions on the membership of the most-august of our nation’s sports shrines, and am glad to share them. I’m a writer, right?  So putting on my handicapper’s cap I herewith produce a morning line on the current candidates for immortality, or, at least, the version that a bronze plaque in the Cooperstown, New York, museum confers.

                This year’s three most-likely choices were on the ballot last year but came up just short. Interestingly, the guy I think will get the most votes got fewer than did two other players the last time around. He’s Trevor Hoffman, the relief pitcher, who was included on 67.3% of the 2016 ballots, about eight percentage points short of the 75% needed for induction.

Hoffman was outpolled by Jeff Bagwell, the former Houston Astros’ slugger who drew a 71.6% count, and by Tim Raines, who ran the bases fast for a lot of teams over a 23-year Major League career, with 69.8%. A main difference among them, however, was that Hoffman was in his first year on the ballot while Bagwell was in his 6th and Raines his 9th. While to my mind Hoffman was the best qualified of the three, for reasons I’ve never understood some voters make an extra hurdle of first-ballot election and leave off candidates on that ground alone.  That factor will disappear this year for the man with the killer changeup who ranks No. 2 on the all-time “saves” list. By me he’s an odds-on choice—2-to-5-- to be elected.

I never voted for Bagwell or Raines when I had the chance; I considered both excellent players but not quite of Hall stature. Most of my colleagues shared that view initially—Bagwell was mentioned on just 41.7% of the ballots in 2011, his first year up, and Raines on but 24.3 % in his, in 2008. But while their records haven’t changed in retirement their allure has. Bagwell should make it this year, if only because no one has come as close as he and failed the next time around. Raines probably will, too, partly because this is his tenth and last year on the sports writers’ ballot (the limit was changed from 15 years last year). I make Bagwell a 3-to-5 pick and put Raines at even money, which is to say 50-50.  

Among the 19 newcomers on the ballot the best candidates are Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez, Vlad Guerrero and Manny Ramirez. Ramirez clearly has Half of Fame numbers (a .312 lifetime batting average over 19 seasons, 1,831 runs batted in and 555 home runs, the 15th -most ever) but he was busted twice for using performance-enhancing drugs and ended his career before he could serve out a 100-game suspension for the second violation.

  PED use is an eyes-wide-open choice by players who choose to break the rules (and endanger their health) in order to improve or extend their careers and pad their pocketbooks. Most guardians of the Hall (me, too, when I was one) have agreed that users should be denied a plaque no matter what their accomplishments. Barry Bonds, the best hitter of his era, and Roger Clemens, the best pitcher, both flunked the eye and nose tests for steroids and never have topped the 50% mark in Hall voting (Bonds got 44.3% last year, Clemens 45.2%). As a convicted offender, Manny won’t poll nearly that well and probably never will.

Rodriguez also has been daubed with the PEDs brush, but less authoritatively.  The source is Jose Canseco, the ex-slugger turned author, who in his 2005 book “Juiced” wrote that he injected the catcher with steroids while both were with the Texas Rangers (1992-94), at the beginning of Rodriguez’s career. I don’t know how good a witness Canseco is; I remember him as a bit of a knucklehead.  I was writing at that time and Pudge never was on my personal “roids” list, which has played out to be pretty accurate.  He is on my short list as one the best defensive catchers I’ve seen--along with Johnny Bench and Yavier Molina—and was a solid hitter as well. If I still were an elector I’d give him the benefit of the doubt and a vote, but I’m guessing that others won’t and he’ll fall short.  I make him 3-to-1 against.

Guerrero also might make the Hall someday, but, probably, not this time. His numbers (.318 B.A., 2,590 career hits, 449 HRs, 1,492 RBIs) are cgose to those of Bagwell and Jim Rice, the former Boston Red Sox strongman who was enshrined in 2009 in his 15th year on the ballot.  Both were acquired tastes and I expect that Guerrero will be one also. This year he’s a longer shot than Pudge.

If I were voting I’d include four ballot holdovers for whom I voted previously—Curt Schilling, Lee Smith, Edgar Martinez and Mike Mussina.  Schilling, a big-game pitcher extraordinaire, polled best among the group last year at 52%. Martinez, a scholarly batsman for whom the game’s annual designated-hitter award is named, got 43%, about the same total as Mussina, whose 270 career wins and 64% win mark deserve respect. Smith was the Major Leagues’ saves leader when he retired in 1997, and ranks third now (with 478). He’s in his last year on the ballot. None of the four figures to be elected but what the heck, electors get to vote for 10.





Thursday, December 1, 2016

NEWS, VIEWS

               NEWS: Bruce Arena replaces Jurgen Klinsmann as U.S. National Team soccer coach.
               
               VIEW:  It’s back to the future.
  
               Klinsmann’s ouster wasn’t unexpected in light of the U.S. team’s home loss to Mexico and trouncing in Costa Rica in the first two games of the final round of qualifying matches for the 2018 World Cup, but those two outcomes only sealed his doom. The real reason was the U.S.’s persistent failure to crack the upper echelon of the sport, a status many Americans feel is their due.
               
                 Klinsmann was supposed to have remedied that. Good-looking and charismatic, an international star as both a player and coach, the transplanted German took the job in 2011 amid high expectations. He seemingly justified them when his team won the regional Gold Cup in 2013 and in 2014 survived a tough divisional draw to make it to the round of 16 in the quadrennial World Cup, but it relapsed thereafter and never could regain its footing. Run-ins with critics over his lineup selections and training preferences (he clearly thought his players were better off playing with European clubs instead of those in Major League Soccer, the second-tier domestic league) greased the skids for his removal.
              
                In replacing him with Arena the sport’s governing body signaled it was more concerned with salvaging the current World Cup campaign than with seeking new approaches. Arena is a competent pro who coached the team from 1998 to 2006 but was fired under pretty much the same circumstances as was Klinsmann.  If Arena had any revolutionary ideas he would have tried them before.

               The fact is that despite a marked upgrade over the past 20 or so years the U.S. still suffers from a talent deficit relative to that of the major world powers. In countries like Germany, Brazil and Argentina, the best athletes immediately gravitate toward soccer, while here the sport must take what’s left after basketball, baseball and football have done their culling. Until that changes no number of USA! USA! chants will change things.
              
                NEWS: The National Collegiate Athletic Association docks Notre Dame 21 football wins.

                VIEW: Huh?

                In response to 2014 revelations that a member of the university’s athletic-training staff gave “impermissible academic benefits” (i.e., did papers and other course work) for eight football players over a two-year period, the group ordered that the school forfeit all its victories during the 2012 and 2013 seasons.  The absurdity of the penalty was immediately pointed out by Brian Kelly, the team’s blustery head coach, who said, in effect, “Ha!”

                “If that makes you [the NCAA, I guess] feel better, then that’s fine with me,” Kelly really said. “Putting an asterisk next to those games, that’s fine, too. We still beat Oklahoma. We still beat Wake Forest.”

    He could have said as much about the rest of the sentence, a one-year probation and a $5,000 fine. The latter amount probably is less than the team spends annually on that black grease players smear under their eyes on game days.

                Actually, though, the penalty was harsher than the ones (nothing) that attended two previous and much more serious incidents in a Kelly regime that began in 2009. That would be the 2010 death of a student manager who was sent up on a cherry picker in a wind storm to videotape a football practice and the suicide that same year of a woman student from nearby St. Mary’s College after her allegation of rape against a Notre Dame linebacker was deep-sixed by university authorities (the claim died with her and the player never missed a game). What the NCAA will do about the carful of Domer footballers arrested last August for speeding and marijuana and gun possession remains to be seen, or about the lineman who stomped on the leg of a fallen foe during the school’s game last week against Southern California.

                Notre Dame is one of those chesty universities that likes to brag it “does things right” in combining academics with the multi-million-dollar entertainment business it conducts. In truth, it’s a prime example of the degree to which schools will prostitute themselves to maintain such an enterprise. The NCAA’s hollow penalties abet that practice.

                NEWS: The National Hockey League declares that only players on league rosters can appear in its mid-season All-Star Game.

                VIEW: Huh? again.

                The action was dubbed the “John Scott Rule” for the journeyman player whose position (enforcer) appears in no lineup but who fans elected to last season’s game after he’d been demoted to the minor leagues by the Montreal Canadiens. The mockery that attended that selection increased when Scott not only was picked to captain one of the teams in the fest but also went on to win its MVP award.

In case you haven’t noticed, All-Star Games have become touchy affairs in sports in which injuries are rampant; both players and teams have come to conclude that the rewards the events produce don’t justify their risks.  The National Football League has discussed ending its game and allows it to survive only as a pantomime of the real thing. The NHL last season changed its All-Star format to a tournament of two, 20-minute, three-on-three games matching players from each of its four divisions, followed by a same-rules final matching the winners. It ain’t real hockey but now, at least, it’ll be contested by real NHLers.
               
                 
                 
               

                

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

SCOUTING REPORT

                Every baseball fan fancies himself a scout and I am no exception. While my credentials to the title may be lacking in some respects, I’ve seen a lot of ballgames and have this blog with which to broadcast my observations.  I also have close at hand the Arizona Fall League, maybe the best place ever to practice the scout’s art.

                Regular readers of this space know about the Fall League, but for others a brief recap. It’s the minor-league finishing school for top prospects that runs annually for six weeks, from the second week in October through the third week in November, this year ending on Saturday. Each of the 30 Major League teams assigns seven players to the circuit, usually Class A or AAers between the ages of 20 and 23. They are formed into six teams of 35 players that each play a 32-game schedule. Scores are kept, standings are maintained and a champion is crowned, but the real point is individual performance. The kids play for the scouts— the real ones more than the pretenders—with a big-league berth in a year or so as the prize. About 60% of them eventually make it, so it’s a worthwhile exercise.

                It doesn’t hurt that the league functions when the Phoenix area is at its best. Prime tourism time here is from Thanksgiving through Easter, but during AFL season the weather is closest to perfect, with temperatures in the 80s or low 90s, low humidity and dreamy blue skies that invite poetic descriptions.  If you’re a ballplayer in your early 20s, getting paid and playing mostly day games, and with the Scottsdale bars to graze in, it’s about as close to paradise as it gets.

                Spectators have it good, too. Admission is cheap ($8 for adults, $6 for seniors), parking is close and free and with attendance of less than 1,000 for most games in our excellent spring-training parks you can sit anywhere you want.  If your voice carries, you can share your opinions with the umps, players and your fellow fans, for better or worse.

                Every Fall League has its star, but this year’s is unusual. It’s TIM TEBOW, the famously pious ex-quarterback who, at age 29 and not having played organized baseball since high school, decided to give the professional game a whirl. The New York Mets indulged him with a minor-league contract and assigned him to the Scottsdale Scorpions, their Fall League club.

                Tebow made an immediate splash by performing a miracle. Before a first-week game a fan in line for his autograph fell to the ground with some sort of seizure. Tebow (and others, I’d guess) prayed for him and the man quickly recovered. That was a miracle, right? Local TV and some social media outlets said it was. You could look it up.

                But Tebow’s chances for sainthood appear better than his baseball outlook. He’s a big, impressive-looking guy, an athlete for sure, but while he looked like Tarzan he’s played like Jane. As of Sunday he was 8 for 51 at the plate with just two extra-base hits and 15 strikeouts, and his .157 batting average was the league’s second-worst for players with an appreciable number of at-bats.

                I saw him play twice, once as a designated hitter and once in left field. He had two fielding chances while I watched, one a fly ball that clanked off his glove after a short run and another on which he turned the wrong way twice and allowed to drop. Neither was scored as an error but both could have been.  One only can hope he has a Plan C.

                Among the actual prospects, GLEYBER TORRES, a Venezuelan shortstop in the New York Yankees’ chain, was the clear standout.  This was no surprise because he was the Yanks’ key acquisition in the mid-season trade that bought the monster relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman to the Chicago Cubs. Not yet 20 years old, Torres is quick of both foot and bat and led the AFL in hitting (at .382) as of Sunday. The Cubs could give up Torres because their brilliant Addison Russell has a 10-year lease on the position, but I’m sure the separation was painful nonetheless.

                Shortstops are the best athletes on most teams, and two more excelled here. NICK GORDON, a look-alike of older brother Dee Gordon, is a skinny, live-bodied 21-year-old who was the Minnesota Twins’ first choice in the 2014 amateur draft. He’s played well in 2 ½ minor league seasons, and should be a Twin by 2018. Another Venezuelan, 20-year-old FRANKLIN BARRETO, also appears to have the goods for the Oakland A’s, even though his arm marks him as a probable second baseman.

                 A trio of outfielders showed well when I was watching. ANTHONY ALFORD was primarily a college football player (at quarterback) for his first two years out of high school in Mississippi before opting for full-time baseball in the Toronto Blue Jays’ chain.  He has a way to go fundamentally, but he’s athletic and, at age 21, has time to develop.  GREG ALLEN, 23, a Cleveland Indians’ chattel, is swift and hits the ball hard. TYLER O’NEILL, 21, of the Seattle Mariners, is a kind of pocket rocket at 5-foot-10 and 210 pounds, but takes his at-bats seriously and swings big. His 56 home runs in his last two minor-league seasons (at Class A and AA) showed what he can do when he connects.
             
                There’s always room in the Bigs for good catchers and the Minnesota Twins’ MITCH GARVER looks like one. Solidly built, and possessing some batting power, he threw out three consecutive would-be base stealers in a game I attended, a rarity even at the Major League level. He’s 25, old for a Fall Leaguer, but catchers usually take longer than other players to develop.
               
               As a Cubs’ fan I take particular interest in their Fall Leaguers, but this year’s group didn’t sparkle. IAN HAPP, their first-round draft choice (the ninth pick overall) in 2015, looked competent but not exceptional at second base, and VICTOR CARATINI, from Puerto Rico, performed similarly at catcher and first base. The Cubs are well-stocked at all those positions so probably will use the two youngsters in trade.

                
               Pitchers are hard to scout in the AFL because they perform only every third or fourth game, and then for but a few innings, but I saw a couple I liked. FRANKIE MONTAS, 23, from the Oakland A’s chain by way of the Dominican Republic, is a big, heavy guy in the C.C. Sabathia mold, and while the right-hander didn’t blow batters away he got all but one out in the five innings I saw him.
        
               MICHAEL KOPECH, 20, does blow them away but sometimes lets a few slip. I watched him pitch 3 1/3 remarkable innings in which he walked six hitters and hit one but allowed no runs. The Boston Red Sox farmhand has struck out 20 in 17 innings here, and will be dangerous once he gets his act together.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

TIZ A PUZZLEMENT

                Can you spell “vichyssoise,” the potato soup? I couldn’t, so I looked it up. Then I put it in the answer boxes of a recent New York Times crossword puzzle.
                
                Did I cheat when I did that? Some might say yes but I say no. I think it’s okay to check the spelling of a crossword answer that I’m pretty sure is right. I do that for some foreign words and for English words of which I’m not sure, such as whether a feudal lord is a “leige” or, correctly, a “liege.”  That’s why they print dictionaries.
        
                I bring this up because I love to do crosswords and spend a good deal of time at it; an inordinate amount, really. John Updike famously said that life is too short for crosswords, and I’m sure he was right, but I’m also sure he did them, because he was a wordsmith. I’m one, too (albeit a lesser one than he), and am similarly driven.

                Indeed, as I wrote in a previous (2009) blog that a few faithful readers might recall, I’m a kind of crossword snob, deigning to do only the Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday puzzles in the New York Times. (I used to do the Wall Street Journal’s Friday puzzle but stopped when they canceled my legacy subscription.)  I pay up (close to $1,000 a year) to subscribe to the Times, and while I’m a great fan of the paper I’m not sure I’d continue it if the crossword were dropped or changed in any substantial way.  I’m certain there are many people like me, so I don’t think they’ll be doing that. I’m further heartened by the knowledge that Will Shortz, the Times’ wonderful puzzles editor, is a good bet to outlive me.
   
             I don’t claim to be the sort of whiz who can zip through the Saturday offering (usually the toughest) in something like six minutes and 40 seconds. Rather, I’m a grinder who wears ‘em down through tenacity. I usually can finish a puzzle in one sitting of, maybe, an hour, but when I can’t I’m content to put it aside, rest my mind, and have more goes at it until I succeed. I’ve been stumped for longer than a day before the light goes on and I can fill in the remaining boxes. More than once that’s happened at 3 a.m. or somesuch, but it’s worth waking up for.

                Nonpuzzlers should know that what makes a puzzle difficult isn’t so much its answers as its questions. The tougher ones make one stretch for the third or fourth definitions of a word or look at the clues obliquely to discern their meaning.  When done cleverly, as often is the case with the Times’ offerings, a right answer can elicit a smile. For example, the answer to the clue “one may be built around a police station” was “tvdrama.“  The answer to the clue “it’s well positioned” was “oil rig.”  Cute, huh?

                Just about every puzzle worth doing contains clues one can’t quickly decipher. Ideally, one reasons them out with the help of letters from answers that have been completed.  Nobody knows everything, though, so sometimes that doesn’t work and outside help is needed. That’s where ethical questions arise.

                I’ve given this matter some thought (hey, I’m retired and have little else to do) and have come up with a list of do’s and don’ts to govern my puzzling. I think it’s okay to:

                --Use my regular dictionary to confirm the spelling of words with which I’m not familiar (see above).

--Use my crossword dictionary to find tedious matters of fact one can’t figure out on one’s own, such as the names of Nobel Prize winners long past or the capitals or currencies of obscure countries. (For example, Rabindranath Tagore was the 1913 Nobelist in literature, the capital of Zambia is Lusaka and the country’s monetary units are the ngwee and the kwacha.)

--Use my library to fill out or confirm things like quotations from Shakespeare or the Bible.

--Ask for help from anyone within the sound of my unamplified voice. (Wife Susie is an expert on food and stepson Marc, when he’s handy, knows about all there is to know about rock, blues and pop music.)

It’s not okay to:

--Phone or email outside experts for help.

--Use the crossword dictionary for help with synonyms, the stuff of most puzzle answers.

--Type the clue into my computer’s Google box and go to one of the numerous puzzle help sites for the answer.

Are my rules more lax than those of more-accomplished puzzlers? Probably, but I don’t aspire beyond my limits. Do I ever break them? Of course I do, as a last resort, to scratch the itch of curiosity, but I take no pleasure from any solutions obtained thereby. Crosswords, after all, are games one plays against oneself, so the cheater and victim are one and the same.

               

                 

Saturday, October 15, 2016

ARNIE

                Arnold Palmer died two weeks ago, at age 87, and while the sports world mourned his passing it also celebrated a life that was well lived by any measure. Arnie played great golf, saw the world, made a lot of money and, by all accounts, had a lot of fun. No one could ask for more.
                
               He wasn’t the best golfer of his era—Jack Nicklaus was—and another contemporary, Gary Player, also won more “major” championships. Indeed, Palmer’s period of golf dominance was roughly comparable to Sandy Koufax’s in baseball, a 1958-to-1964 span during which he went from age 29 to 35 and won all seven of his major titles.  That must be considered brief in a sport in which it’s not uncommon for men to play at a top level well into their 40s.
               
                Four of Palmer’s major titles came in the Masters Tournament in Augusta, Georgia, whose wide-open acres suited his powerful but less-than-precise game. Two more came at British Opens played over similar layouts. He won just one U.S. Open (in 1960) and never did capture a PGA Championship. Player won all four of those crowns, as did Nicklaus, many times.
                
              Palmer, however, was far-and-away golf’s most popular performer as long as he competed, and one of the most popular athletes of any time. The son of a golf-course superintendent from small-town Latrobe, Pennsylvania, and with a flailing swing to go with his working-class origins, he exuded the sort of everyman appeal that was rare in what was, and still is, a predominantly country club sport.

When he flicked away his cigarette, hitched his pants, gazed intently at the flagstick and squared away to bash, we rooted for his every shot to go in, and despaired when it didn’t. The straightforward and unfeigned friendliness of his off-course manner reinforced his appeal. His “Army” included millions of people who never set foot on a golf course.

Still, Palmer’s most-lasting legacy has come not on the links but in the counting houses. With the visionary Mark McCormack, the late Cleveland lawyer and golf aficionado who founded the International Management Group, which under the initials IMG now just about runs golf, tennis and several other sports, Palmer became the first athlete to fully cash in on his celebrity. In doing so he set the pattern that Michael Jordan, David Beckham and Tiger Woods, and many lesser lights, have followed. It’s a whole new financial ball game these days, and they can thank McCormack and Arnie for that.

I had various contacts with Palmer over the years, starting with the front-page story on him I did for the Wall Street Journal in 1966, as a reporter in New York before my columnizing days.  Slugged “Arnold Palmer, Inc.”, it detailed the many business ventures in which the golfer had become involved under McCormack’s guidance.

Previously, golfers’ and other jocks’ non-competitive income had been pretty much limited to signing equipment lines, playing exhibitions and, maybe, being quoted on how much they enjoyed smoking Lucky Strikes. Sam Snead, whose Wilson-brand golf clubs topped the sales charts for decades, was paid no more than $200,000 a year for the use of his name and technical advice.

The revolutionary McCormack decided to turn the tables on all that. “Any time you sell an endorsement you know that the man doing the buying will benefit from it more than you,” he told me about his epiphany. “We figured, why shouldn’t we be on the other side?”

Because of his unique popularity, Palmer was the perfect instrument for McCormack’s thrust. Soon, not only was he endorsing products ranging from ice rinks to a dry-cleaning chain (no kidding), he also came out with his own lines of golf clubs, balls, bags and sportswear and took an ownership share in the companies that made them. Those ventures still were taking off in 1966 but his annual income the year before approached $800,000, of which only $57,000 came from his winnings on the PGA Tour.  By his death his net worth was $675 million, according to Internet sources, a figure that dwarfed his lifetime Tour earnings of $2.1 million and the $6.9 million he took in when his international and PGA Senior Tour prize money is included.

Through it all, and remarkably, Palmer remained much the same, approachable figure he was when he was younger. While some jock-tycoons (e.g., Tiger Woods) wrap themselves in corporate cocoons and parcel out their time and attentions parsimoniously, he was generous with his. A few years ago I wrote a book titled “For the Love of Golf” as part of the “For the Love of…” series of illustrated books I did for Triumph Books. The publisher asked me to contact Palmer to “write” the foreword; I put the word in quotes because the usual practice is for the author, or someone, to do the writing and the celeb to sign it.

I called Donald “Doc” Giffin, the ex-sportswriter who was Palmer’s long-time factotum. He said sure, send it over. I next inquired about what sort of compensation Arnie might expect. Not to worry, said Doc, a couple cartons of the book would do fine.
I can’t help but contrast that reaction with the one I received in 1996 when I was doing a piece for a Wall Street Journal golf supplement on the 1986 Masters, which I covered and which Nicklaus won in memorable fashion. Wanting a few quotes to flesh it out, I phoned Nicklaus’s “people” about setting up a brief interview with the golfer.

 The guy I spoke to asked me what companies were advertising in the issue. I didn’t know and said so. Nobody’d ever asked me that. He said to find out and call him back. I did, and named Cadillac among several others. He said in that case Jack wouldn’t be speaking with me.

 “Why?” I asked.

“Jack endorses Chrysler,” the guy replied.