Monday, October 25, 2010

National Baseball Day: The Campaign Continues

Posted By on Mon, Oct 25, 2010 at 9:41 AM

Somebody’s listening. After nearly a decade of campaigning for National Baseball Day, I have quantifiable evidence that baseball’s powers that be are finally on the right track. Earlier this month, Major League Baseball announced that Game 3 of the World Series — to be played this Saturday in Arlington, Texas — will start before 7 p.m. Eastern Time. Yes, after more than 20 years without sunshine over the Fall Classic, the first pitch for Game 3 this year will be hurled ... at 6:57 ET. An hour earlier than all other Series games.

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So it goes. If a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, the path to National Baseball Day — a new holiday centered around this country’s original national pastime — surely begins with sixty extra minutes for kids to watch this Saturday night. And if little Tommy or baby Sue can’t stay up for all nine innings, the seventh-inning stretch seems reasonable. So brush up on the lyrics to “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

The last time natural shadows could have been seen during the World Series was Game 6 between the St. Louis Cardinals and Minnesota Twins in 1987, a contest that started at 4 p.m., but under the roof of the abominable Metrodome. That cruel coincidence gave birth to an era of baseball’s signature event being decided long after the boys and girls who make it popular are put to bed. The solution is National Baseball Day.

Americans love sports. And we love holidays. How is it that no holiday — one where schools and government offices close — has been created to honor recreation, the nurturing of our bodies that today especially should be among our highest priorities? Furthermore, how is it that American workers haven’t found an excuse to break from the office between Labor Day and Thanksgiving? National Baseball Day is the answer.

The new holiday would fall on a Wednesday, coinciding with Game 1 of the World Series. Government offices closed, schools closed. Heck, the New York Stock Exchange could use another day off. The baseball game would begin at 3:00 Eastern, allowing every child from Portland, Oregon, to Portland, Maine, to watch every last pitch before bedtime if he or she so chooses.

And choice is an important part of National Baseball Day. There are Americans who’d rather schedule a colonoscopy than endure nine innings of baseball. For this holiday, instead of a doctor’s appointment, schedule a picnic at a nearby park with your family, or a visit to a museum (if open) that you’ve been meaning to make. Go see a movie you otherwise wouldn’t, or start a book — that thick one — you’ve been meaning to read. However you choose to invest the leisure time, just remember it was baseball that got you there.

Despite the progress in start time this Saturday, there’s a long way to go, and television decision-makers will do all they can to prevent this holiday from happening. The Fox network will turn away from prime-time ad revenue the day Glenn Beck turns away from a Sarah Palin speech. And the allegiance is just as blind. Consider the expanded demographic a national telecast — on a holiday, remember — would reach. Think there might not be a few advertisers who would reconsider a World Series spot if they knew entire families would be watching? (Have you seen any Super Bowl commercials?) The game would be talked about at least the next two days at work, and those sponsored messages would be part of the discussion.

I’ve already written Congress on this matter. Do the same, if the concept strikes your fancy. The aim is a good one: to see the final out of a World Series game live with my children, before they’re too old to sit in my lap.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Dog Bites Man!

Posted By on Mon, Oct 18, 2010 at 9:34 AM

I considered titling this column, “Agent Pays College Player!,” but decided such an obvious headline might dissuade news-hungry surfers. Surely the relative lightning strike of a canine feasting on human flesh would grab some attention.

Sports Illustrated devoted its October 18th issue to the “confessions” of a former sports agent by the name of Josh Luchs. The editors devoted the cover to a single quote from Luchs: "I will never forget the first time I paid a player ... " All-type magazine covers aim at drawing attention to the heaviest of issues. Say, for instance, a debate on the existence of God. This cover carries about as much weight as a Keith Richards memoir on the first time he took a sip of Jack.

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As obvious as the “confessions,” may be (the story is written in first person, as told to SI’s George Dohrmann), the details make for a compelling read, however dirty your fingers may feel as you turn the pages. A few sample quotes on how prevalent — and how easy — money has become in the world of college athletes:

• “I saw how magical those athletes were, how people responded to them, and knew I wanted to be associated with athletes in the future.”

• “I filled out the paperwork required by the [NFL Players Association], just a few forms, and paid about $300.”

• “I had to give smaller amounts each month so the player would stay in regular touch.”

• “Most of the time the player or someone from his family approaches us.”

• “It’s no secret in the agent business that some college coaches steer players to certain agents.”

None of those items should shock a college sports fan out of his or her seat. But every one of those items should make that fan reconsider what the NCAA truly is, and the legitimacy of any achievement, from a collection of SportsCenter highlights to a national championship. Particularly in the sports of football and basketball, the NCAA is nothing less than a feeder system — a minor league — for the professional entities that earn billions on what the NCAA feeds them. Obvious? Sure, as obvious as the quote on this magazine cover.

I’ve written on this subject before, and my stance hasn’t changed: the only cure for the illicit paying of big-time college athletes is to formally legitimize the partnerships between the NFL, NBA, and NCAA. Not unlike the Great Marijuana Debate, this is an issue that demands honesty, and the long-overdue admission that more can be gained from opening a dirty closet than by keeping it sealed behind a quaint definition of “amateur.”

Sadly, the condition is worsening. In 1999, the NFLPA actually changed a rule that required athletes found to have taken money from agents in college to pay that agent back. With no repercussions for taking the money and running, what incentive does a college athlete have for loyalty, even when the relationship is out of bounds by NCAA standards? A sanctioning body that might be able to define some margins for the practice of paying amateurs has actually created an open field for competition among agents who already know they’re breaking NCAA rules.

Memphis is a big college town. Just ask the 18,000 people who filled FedExForum last Friday night to see their favorite college hoops team practice. (You gotta wonder where they were Saturday, though, when fewer than 19,000 showed up to see the same school’s football team play its oldest rival — in a real game — on a cloudless Saturday.) Any publicity given to the maneuvering of agents around college prospects should be considered by a fan base ready to cheer Will Barton, Wesley Witherspoon, and Joe Jackson toward the Final Four. Not that any of those three players has taken a red cent to play for the U of M. But each of those players could well sign a seven-figure NBA contract in the next two years. Why wouldn’t an agent know where they live? How their family is managing financially? When they’ll be turning pro? It’s capitalism . . . the commodity just happens to be human.

One more quote, this one from a former USC receiver named R. Jay Soward (ever hear of him? I hadn’t), who took money from Luchs during his days as a Trojan: “I would do it again. I have four sons, and if somebody offered my son money in college and it meant he didn’t have to be hungry, I would tell him to take it.”

Monday, October 4, 2010

Fantasy Football: What's the Deal?

Posted By on Mon, Oct 4, 2010 at 9:36 AM

I don’t get fantasy football.

Now, I generally understand the draw of the enterprise for so many millions. (Like Lady Gaga, whether or not you enjoy the phenomenon, it’s large enough that you better pay attention.) I’ve been at a blackjack table, and I’ve bet on horses in the Kentucky Derby. There’s a thrill to “being in the game” that’s hard to match, even if your vantage point is a bar stool. But I can’t grasp the attraction of splitting my rooting interest in any number of directions, with the primary goal of appearing more clever for having chosen those disparate interests.

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On the playgrounds where I grew up, kids were ripped apart for waffling on their favorite team. (I did some of the ripping.) The quickest ticket to exile from the Island of True Fans were the words, “But my second-favorite team is ... .” Even as a child, I was all-in when it came to the teams I cheered, be it baseball season, football season, or those exotic glimpses of professional hockey (the Atlanta Flames!) I caught, courtesy of Ted Turner’s super-station. The idea of cheering a quarterback wearing different colors than my team of choice was as foreign to my way of fandom as would be a Batman-Joker crime-fighting partnership. “Team first!” was the battle cry.

But now in the realm of fantasy football, the Joker and Batman can be fast friends, with no collateral damage to “real-world” football as we view the standings on Monday morning. Somewhere, there’s a Tennessee Titan fan — probably a season-ticket holder — who “owns” Eli Manning for his (or her) fantasy team. On September 25th, that fan had to be giddy over his team’s real-world victory over the Giants, an easier-than-expected 29-10 road win. But then, Peyton’s kid brother threw a pair of interceptions with nary a touchdown pass against the Titans. This couldn’t help the fan’s fantasy score, could it? (Well, Eli did pass for 386 yards, so all was not lost. A real-world win, a fantasy wash, at worst.) But what if Manning had led the Giants to victory that Sunday? How does our Titan fan go to bed that night? A better-looking score for his fantasy league ... and one game less likely to see a playoff team in a stadium he can actually visit.

I don’t mean to beat up on the Titans, but let’s consider Chris Johnson’s 2009 season. Tennessee’s star tailback became just the sixth man in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards in a season. Add the 16 touchdowns Johnson scored, and he had to be a fantasy gold mine for “owners” savvy enough to have “drafted” him before the season began. Back in real-world football, though, Johnson’s exploits were good enough to earn his team an 8-8 record, mediocrity defined. Fantasy football, it turns out, is just that.

When I was in sixth grade, I decided a way I could fully engage in every Major League Baseball game or NFL contest would be to rank every team — 26 baseball clubs at the time, 28 football — in order of my personal preference. I’d then have a rooting interest whether it was the St. Louis Cardinals against the Chicago Cubs, or the Cleveland Indians against the Seattle Mariners. When I showed the rankings to my dad, he laughed. Out loud. It’s the only time I can remember my father laughing at something I took seriously. He was wise enough to explain the wasted energy of creating an emotional connection where it didn’t already exist. Passion steers us enough over the course of our lives without having to be injected into a game between one’s 14th- and 22nd-ranked football teams.

When I have my journalist’s hat on, it’s a challenge to be objective — dispassionate, neutral — at an event where thousands of other people are cheering one team or the other. Sports are more about what our hearts tell us than any message our brain might try and get across. Fantasy football requires a fan to go the opposite extreme from “no cheering in the press box.” In fantasy football, you’re expected to cheer every game, or more precisely, every player in every game who might stand to gain you points, and another step toward a fantasy championship.

Whether it’s “old-school” or anachronistic, I remain a team-first guy. (In modern parlance, “It’s the name on the front of the jersey.”) Jerry Seinfeld would surely scoff at my choosing a certain color of laundry over another. But being all-in has its virtues. The only points I add up at game’s end are those on the scoreboard. And when my team of choice happens to have more than its opponent ... well, it feels real.

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