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.

    ********************************************************      
            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?

Sunday, February 1, 2015

?

Last year, when I turned 76, I was feeling smart and filled this space with advice. I’ll be 77 tomorrow and, I guess, am less smart than I used to be, because now I have only questions. If you can answer any of them, let me know. Please.

--Do little kids know what erectile dysfunction is, or what to do if one has a four-hour erection?  Or what Osphena is for? What do they make of their grandparents?

--If driving after drinking is illegal, why do bars have parking lots?

--Why do thirsty green lawns dot neighborhoods in and around desert cities like Phoenix, despite the continuing, long-term drought?

--What happens to the results of the surveys people are asked to participate in after “customer service” phone calls?  The term gets more oxymoronic every year.

--If government-run health care is the abomination Republicans say it is, how come my Medicare works smoothly while dealing with my supplemental policy bought from a good-old private insurer, United Healthcare, is a constant headache?

--If tax money collected from everybody is used to build stadiums for professional sports teams, why are most tickets priced out of most people’s reach?

--Why do some comedians believe that curse words, uttered loudly, are funny in themselves?

--Why does a football team that can’t get out of its own way for the first 28 minutes of a half effortlessly glide down the field to score once it goes into its “two-minute” offense?

-- In a country of more than 300 million people, why can’t someone not named Clinton or Bush get much presidential traction?

--Why is the worst beer supported by the most advertising?

-- Why do so many people say they “can’t” do something when they mean they “won’t”?

--Why do waiters or waitresses always say “there you go” when they bring your food, instead of “here you are”?  Do they teach that in waiter/waitress school?

--Why do clerks ask for my name after I hand them my credit card with my name on it?

-- How can Len Cariou play Tom Selleck’s father on “Bluebloods” when Cariou is 75 years old and Selleck is 70?

-Does anyone under 50 watch the NBC Nightly News? You wouldn’t know it from the ads.

--Where do the viruses that infect my computer come from? Where do they go when they’re purged?  What’s that whole thing about, anyway?

--Is there a better candy than M&Ms?

--What will my heirs do with the office full of reference books I collected before Google came along?

--Why do people who say they hate Congress keep reelecting the same congressmen?

--Similarly, why do people who agree with me that college sports are rotten also believe that their own schools “do things right”?

--Why do TV stations send their reporters out into dangerous storms to do weather stories? Can’t they just point their cameras out a window?

-- Why did Sony believe that the assassination of the North Korean dictator would be a good premise for a comedy?

--Do gun owners know that if their weapon is fired at home the most likely victim will be a family member or themselves?

 --Why do pet owners think their pets’ antics are interesting to other people? Talking about your pets in company should be punishable by life in prison. Okay, maybe 20-to-25 years.

--Why am I depressed when I hear that breakfast cereal is the best thing one can eat?

--Why, after a flood or other recurring natural disaster, do people insist on rebuilding on the same sites?

--Why don’t people who want to advertise get bumper stickers instead of tattoos?

--Is there a bigger waste of air time and newspaper space than that given to speculation about what players NFL or NBA teams will draft?

-- Why are tournament tennis players (especially the women) allowed to grunt or shriek at full volume after every shot, while the paying spectators are expected to be silent during points?

--Do auto racers wear their sponsors’ patches on their pajamas?

--Where are the police when maniacs weave through expressway traffic at high speeds? You’d think they’d nab one in 100.

--Why does every restaurant overfill its pepper shakers?

--How do chains like McDonalds thrive when every town has locally run lunch joints that serve much better food?

--Do people believe that the slim female model types who play cops on TV really can take down bad guys?

--Do Muslims believe that Allah cheers when their co-religionists commit murder in His name?  

Just askin’.


Thursday, January 15, 2015

GONE FISHIN'

               Are the seasons of our major professional sports too long? Of course they are, and they’re going to stay that way.

 The schedules are determined by commerce, not competition, and commerce dictates that you can’t make money if the store isn’t open. So the baseball big leaguers play 162 regular-season games before the playoffs, the basketballers and the hockeyists 82 and the footballers 16. Those numbers will go up before they go down.

The longest schedule is that of the National Football League, even though it’s by far the shortest gamewise. That’s because football players get the you-know-what kicked out of them in every game, and by season’s end they’re all nursing multiple hurts. Having the NFL’s Advil concession for a year would keep one in daiquiris forever.

  The athletes solider on partly because they’re paid very well to do so, and partly because of the jock’s creed, which they’ve ingested since childhood. That holds that there’s a difference between playing hurt and playing injured, and only wimps beg off when they’re merely hurt. It’s a macho bonding thing—there is no “me” in “team.”

 OK, there is, but so what?

Lately, though, the creed has been looking frayed, especially in the National Basketball Association. Basketball isn’t as bruising as football but it’s more strenuous from the waist down with starters running about three miles a game, much of it at full sprint. Add the incessant travel of the one-night-stand schedule, and predictably awful weather, and you have a regimen that would—and does-- wear down the best conditioned.

\It’s a grind that cries out for respite, and this season many of the game’s stars are getting it. With the season about half over the list of those who already have missed more than a few games reads like a league Who’s Who: LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard, Joakim Noah, Al Jefferson, Andrew Bogut.  As the year goes on here will be subtractions and additions, but look for the level to remain fairly constant.

I’m not saying that all the above-mentioned guys are feigning injury to catch a breather, but the shape of least a few of them is suspect. Bryant, brilliant in his prime, is 36 years old now, and coming off a season in which he played in just six games due to injuries. He’s returned but at times has been a shadow of his former self. He missed several games not long ago with what was described as a “sore body.”  I don’t think I’d seen that term in a sports page before.
            
             Anthony, the New York Knicks’ ace, signed a five-year, $124 million contract in the off season, but is sitting now. That there have been questions about his condition was clearly expressed in a New York Times piece that said he’s been “excused…with what the Knicks described as a sore left knee.”   Following a well-worn league practice, the team is in the process of “tanking” the season, stripping its roster of veterans with an eye toward clearing salary-cap space and finishing low enough in the standings to secure a favorable position in the June draft.  It’s not exactly losing on purpose, but it’s not exactly not losing on purpose, and keeping Anthony on the bench furthers the Knicks’s longer-term aims.
          
            The opposite side of the coin—using time off to firm up teams’ title bids—is best seen in the cases of the Chicago Bulls’ Rose and Noah, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ James and the San Antonio Spurs’ stars. Rose missed most of the last two campaigns with knee injuries, and while he’s back this year he’s been walking on eggs to try to make sure he stays. He’s sat out 11 games so far, for stated reasons covering just about his entire anatomy. What’s obvious is that when he experiences any discomfort the team elects to rest rather than test the affected parts.

  Noah has had foot and knee problems in the past and needs occasional time off to keep small aches from becoming large ones. James, the league’s best player, recently was idle for two weeks even though neither he nor his team claimed specific trauma; he’s said he hasn’t “felt well” all season and hopes a rest will help revive both him and the Cavs. The important thing is to have one’s team hale for the playoffs, even if it means shortchanging the paying customers during the regular season.

That strategy was employed last season by Paul Popovich, the Spurs’ canny head coach, en route to the team’s fifth NBA crown since 1999.  Its veteran “Big Three” of Duncan, Parker and Manu Ginobli sat out a total of 36 games in 2013-14 in order to be OK at PO time. Popovich is repeating the pattern this year, although an apparent real injury to Parker (a strained hamstring) has accounted for many of the trio's vacation days.


The usually cited contrast to the current “gone fishin’” syndrome is the Bulls’ Michael Jordan, a Doberman of a competitor who played in 80 or more games in all but three of his 13 seasons in Chicago, with rarely even a momentary letdown. But that ignores the fact that burnout caused him to quit for one entire season (1993-94) and most of the next to play baseball, a leisurely pursuit by basketball standards.  The long season gets to everyone, one way or another.