Sunday, June 15, 2008


My dear wife Susie and I have our differences. She likes it warm and I like it cool. She wants to save things and I want to throw them away. I like “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and she can’t stand to be in the room while it’s on.

So, you say, what else is new? How is this marriage different from any other? Well, there’s one more thing: I’m a Chicago Cubs fan and she roots for the Arizona Diamondbacks.

This is serious business, the stuff of which splits are made. Only my generous and forgiving nature has kept us together for, lo, these many years.

The situation is even worse than it may seem, because our different baseball allegiances stem from fundamental differences in our natures. I’m Chicago born and raised, and while I’ve lived in other cities-- Scottsdale, AZ, being the latest— I’m true to any team that wears the Chicago name on its jerseys. Period. End of story.

Susie, on the other hand, is as changeable as the winds. As a girl in Toledo, Ohio, she favored the Tigers, which makes sense because Detroit was the nearest Major League city. But she also rooted for the Dodgers because they frequently played the New York Yankees in the World Series during her formative years, and she hated the Yankees.

Her list of favorite teams expanded to three when she began visiting her uncle Sam in Chicago. He rooted for the White Sox and she followed suit. Like many another primitive Sox fan, that also meant she hated the Cubs. Susie and I lived together in Chicago for 17 years, and you can imagine what things were like around that household.

Since arriving in Arizona she’s become a lifelong D’backs fan, with the White Sox playing a faint second fiddle. The loyalty transfer took about a week. Actually, since the Sox wear “Chicago” on their jerseys, I like them, too (although not as much as the Cubs), and these days I’m a bigger Sox fan than she is. How’s that for a switch?

But like I said, I’m a generous fella, and a fan of baseball generally, so Susie and I go to D’Backs’ games together fairly frequently. A big reason I like to go is that it’s easy. Phoenix’s downtown empties after 5 p.m., so it’s usually a breeze to drive to the stadium and park for a night game. Once there, our favorite cheap seats ($16 per) in the upper deck behind home plate always await us. That’s because the Diamondbacks draw poorly, with crowds averaging less than half the 49,000-seat capacity of their retractable-roofed and industrial-looking home, currently named Chase Field.

Phoenix’s sports teams have a tough time securing a fan base because just about everyone here comes from somewhere else, but there has to be more to it than that. While the Diamondbacks’ history is brief (10 years) they won the World Series in 2001, seven years ago but a mere wink in the geological scale by which Cub fans measure such things. They’ve had other good teams including last year’s, which had the best regular-season record in the National League despite having the lowest team batting average and scoring fewer runs than they allowed. That’s miraculous, and would have stirred fan interest in other cities, but Phoenicians merely yawned, and the team’s 2007 attendance ranked 20th among the 30 Big League clubs.

The yawning continues at the park. D’Back fans come late, leave early and are the sweetest and quietest in baseball. Noise must be coaxed from them by messages on the giant electronic scoreboard that dominates the premises. About their only spontaneous outbursts are for the between-innings t-shirt giveaways and video hot-dog race. By contrast, in Wrigley Field where my Cubs play, and where the scoreboard merely displays the scores, full-house crowds fairly throb with excitement these days, and cheers, chants and boos are strictly extempore.

This season is shaping up as a particularly tense one in Chez Klein. The Cubs and Diamondbacks had the best records in the National League for the first two months of the campaign, and while the D’Backs have slacked off lately the two teams still are good bets for the playoffs. The Cubs’ lineup has the more thump but the D’Backs have baseball’s best 1-2 starting-pitcher combo in Brandon Webb and Dan Haren, a good closer in Brandon Lyon, and the sort of young, lively and motivated (i.e., not terribly overpaid) players that can take them far.

They beat the Cubs in last year’s playoffs and I give them the edge in any showdown this year.

But don’t tell Susie I said that.

Sunday, June 1, 2008


A couple of news stories caught my eye in recent weeks. Maybe you saw them, too.

One was about O.J. Mayo, the young basketball player. He played for the University of Southern California as a freshman last season, and very well. Then, having reached the magic age of 19 that enables him to turn pro under NBA rules, he declared for the June draft.

But it turns out he’s been a pro for some time. One Louis Johnson, a former member of a sleazy adult clique that surrounds Mayo, stepped forward to reveal that the young man had received some $30,000 in cash and gifts from a sports-agent’s “runner,” with the payments dating to Mayo’s high school days. In return the kid promised to employ the agent once his pro status became official, which he did before the agent backed out after the arrangement was aired.

The other concerned Arizona State University, my friendly, local mega-U. It announced it was dropping three men’s varsity sports—wrestling, swimming and tennis—for financial reasons, although private givers later gave wrestling at least a temporary reprieve. The move would clip $1.1 million from its $42 million athletics budget, the school said. That sum, incidentally, is a good deal less than the annual compensation of a single ASU athletics-department employee—football coach Dennis Erickson.

If you were surprised by either item, you haven’t been paying attention the last several decades. Under-the-table payments to college athletes are as American as the Mafia, and as enduring. Jocks got handouts in the 1950s when I went to college, if only in the form of “$20 handshakes” from alums outside the locker rooms after games. The stakes have risen since: investigations have been plodding along for a couple years over an agent’s alleged payments of some $300,000 to Reggie Bush, the Heisman Award-winning football player, during his days at—yes!—USC. One can only conclude that Mayo should have hooked up with Bush’s guy.

Cuts in college “minor-sport” programs also are old news, owing both to budgetary concerns and the male-female athletic-scholarship equality mandated by the Federal statute known as Title IX. That’s a problem for big-time football schools because the women have no numerical equivalent to their 85-player teams in that sport.

Whatever you think of that last matter, the conclusion is inescapable that things are out of whack on campus. First, while there’s money aplenty (both licit and il-) for the sports that bring in the money, there’s little for the ones that exist mainly to provide students with healthful recreational opportunities, which is what college sports were supposed to be about. Moreover, it’s universally acknowledged that minor-sports athletes—the ones who are getting the axe—are far more apt to be actual students than the football and basketball players who get the juice. In a better world that might count for something.

What’s really out of whack, though, is the gross imbalance between the attention paid to what various sugar daddies do for college “revenue-sport” athletes and what their colleges do to them. Properly cast, the roles of villains and heroes in the drama would be reversed.

To understand that let’s change the usual scenario a bit. Say that my neighbor has a son who’s a budding piano virtuoso but needs further schooling to develop his art. Then say his parents have fallen on hard times and can’t afford to give him that training. Mr. Nice Guy (me) comes to the rescue, offering to put the kid through State U’s excellent music school and buying him a car besides if the family agrees to make me the young man’s partner for a few years once he hits the concert trail.

Anything wrong with that? Not that I can see. The real-world difference is that big-time college sports are a nasty business in which the competitors (my school and yours) have zero trust in one another, so they make rules banning anyone from taking anything above the scholarship basics, then cross their fingers and hope no one notices all the late-model SUVs in the jocks’ parking lot. Every big-school president goes to bed praying that the next sports scandal won’t land in his lap.

Worse yet is how the colleges treat the youths entrusted to their care. It’s by saddling them with practices, film study, year-round conditioning programs, games and trips that all but negate any chance they’ll have to receive an education worth the name, which would be worth more than whatever graft that might come their way. If the kid is an O.J. Mayo he’ll get a seven-figure pro contact that will (or should) put him in Phat City for life, but if his first step is a bit slow, tough luck. Once his eligibility is gone a player is old news, just like the stories I mention here.

So is his school’s likely reaction to him. It’s “Go away, kid. You bother me.”

CORRECTION: NBA exec Brian McIntyre informs me that the singer who fouled up the National Anthem before the 1978 Chicago Bulls game I described in my last blog was Ferlin Husky, not Conway Twitty. He says he knows this because he was employed by the Bulls at the time and had to shepherd Mr. Husky through a trying day before pushing him out on the floor to do his singing bit. Next time you see Brian you should ask him to tell you the whole story because it’s a good one. Meantime, I apologize to the late Mr. Twitty, his heirs and assigns.