Wayne Gretzky, hockey's alltime leading scorer, announced last week that a herniated disk in his upper back will keep him out of the Los Angeles Kings' lineup for the foreseeable future, perhaps forever. Every time Gretzky, who is only 31, leaned forward to answer a question at his press conference, he winced from the pain brought on, his doctor suggested, by 13 seasons of pounding by NHL goons.
An aching back seems to be the price of stardom in the NHL these days. Mike Bossy, the leading scorer during the New York Islanders' four-year reign as Stanley Cup champions in the early 1980s, had to retire prematurely in '87 because of a similar injury. And Mario Lemieux of the Pittsburgh Penguins, now the league's dominant player, has been hampered by back problems caused by the same type of hitting Gretzky believes has finally caught up with him.
The NHL enacted a rule last year that allows for the ejection of anyone who commits an illegal hit to an opponent's back. The rule doesn't go far enough. "There should also be suspensions," Lemieux says. "Severe suspensions. Severe enough that guys won't even think about hitting from behind."
Lemieux is calling for the NHL to do a better job of protecting its best players. He's right, for both sporting and economic reasons. As Gretzky said, "If you eliminate the people who sell tickets, you're not helping the game."
Like Magic Johnson, who made his retirement announcement less than a year ago in the same room at the Forum, Gretzky leaves a void that will be impossible for his sport to fill. "This is not a time to drown in my sorrow," he said. It is, however, high time for the NHL to get the superstars off the endangered species list.
It's a little disheartening to note that sports is still considered a suitable refuge for televised Battles of the Sexes, the latest of which was joined in Las Vegas last week by those two venerable gender warriors, 40-year-old Jimmy Connors and 35-year-old Martina Navratilova. It was an event that seemed eerily dislocated in time—here we are eight years from the millennium, and you half expected to see Martina brain Jimmy with her skillet—not least because the crowd in the Caesars Palace parking lot seemed to be comprised mostly of Eva Gabor, Joe Namath and a lot of faded lounge singers. The game they played was only loosely based on tennis, so that when Connors beat Navratilova 7-5, 6-2, no great blows were struck for the sexes. It just seemed sort of purposeless.
The exhibition was a television-conceived pay-per-view extravaganza, and the ones who got the most out of it were Connors and Navratilova, who received guarantees of roughly $650,000 in addition to the $500,000 winner-take-all prize. Connors and Navratilova defended this collaboration, which couldn't strictly be called tennis since Connors was handicapped by being permitted only one try each time he served, while Navratilova was allowed to use half the doubles alleys. "The goal is to put butts in the seats," Connors said, indicating where his mind was. Navratilova said, "It's just a fun event that we made a lot of money out of."
Tempting as it was to compare this match to the historic 1973 Battle of the Sexes between then 29-year-old Billie Jean King and 55-year-old Bobby Riggs, which King won in three straight sets, it wasn't the same, primarily because it lacked about two decades' worth of novelty. And as Navratilova noted, "Then the handicap was Riggs's age. Here, we're both old."
Navratilova was so shaky she committed eight double faults and 36 unforced errors. Connors, too, was uncharacteristically nervous. There was a rumor, which he would neither confirm nor deny, that he had placed a considerable sum of cash on himself at 4-1 odds the day of the match.
Only about 100,000 households, less than half the total that was hoped for, bought the pay-per-view package, at an average price of $24.95. That ought to discourage this sort of thing in the future but probably won't. The promoters of last week's event have been trying for a year to match the top-ranked woman, Monica Seles, who is 19, against Connors. Maybe they could get Riggs, who is now 74, and the 48-year-old King to play again. Winner, or whoever is still waddling around at the end, takes all.
The Crudest Mouth
When Seneca (S.C.) High football coach Tom Bass learned that upcoming rival Chamblee (Ga.) High had a split end named Sarah Price, he struck what appeared to be a blow for egalitarianism by recruiting a female defensive back and receiver named April Smith. When Sarah and April came face-to-face in the second quarter of a game between the two schools last week, it was the first time, as far as anyone knew, that two girls had played against each other in the same high school varsity game. Sarah, a 5'9", 155-pound sophomore, wasn't exactly thrilled to hear about April, a 5'3", 135-pound senior, and before the game, confidently predicted, "I'm probably going to kick her little rear."
But April prevented her trash-talking rival from catching a pass in seven plays and caught one of her own for five yards in Seneca's 48-0 victory. "She was telling me, 'You can't hit, you can't hit,' " April said later. "But I can hit." Bass awarded her the game ball—and then threw her off the team. "I don't think the girls are capable of playing football," he said, suddenly not sounding quite so progressive. "They have the heart, but they don't have the physical tools. April played as well as she could play tonight, but now she's history." Chamblee coach Scott Doss said, "It was a ploy that totally took away from what Sarah's accomplished. I was disappointed he would try to upstage everything like that."
A Mister and a Miss
The Mighty Ducks and Mr. Baseball have much in common besides the fact that both are sports movies that open at a theater near you this week. Both rely on The Big Game for a big finish—as almost all sports movies do. Both use the old newspaper-headline device and, for some reason, both feature an actor named Steven Brill in a supporting role. There is, however, a big difference between these two new movies: One of them is original.
The one that isn't, The Mighty Ducks, was written by Brill, but it is so derivative it could have been written by a computer. This is The Bad News Bears Play Hockey. The rip-offs from that better 1976 movie include the reluctant coach who finds redemption (Emilio Estevez instead of Walter Matthau), the villainous coach of the dirty team (Lane Smith in the Vic Morrow role), the girl player, the scary player, the fat player, the Jewish player, the black player and the wisecracking player with glasses. Ducks might have been more charming if it weren't quite so familiar.
Mr. Baseball is the story of Jack Elliot—played by Tom Selleck—an aging first baseman for the New York Yankees who gets shipped off to Japan, despite this eloquent argument in his own defense: "But I led the team in ninth-inning doubles in the month of August!" Upon joining the Chunichi Dragons, Elliot does his best to insult his teammates and challenge the manager's authority. When asked to lead the other players in exercises, he teaches them the hokey-pokey.
There are some funny mix-ups, both cultural and linguistic. At one point Elliot tries to encourage the Dragons by telling them, "It ain't over till the fat lady sings," which his puzzled interpreter translates as "When the game is over, a fat lady will sing to us." But Mr. Baseball also has some thoughtful things to say about the lack of respect Japan and the U.S. have for each other's cultures. There were reports that the script was changed after the studio, Universal, was bought by Matsushita two years ago, but this is by no means a Japanese propaganda film.
Predictably, Elliot bends to become part of the team, and the manager—played magnificently by Ken Takakura—learns to have fun. Yet their transformations ring true, and so does much of the movie. Thanks to technical advisers Leon Lee and Doug DeCinces, both of whom played in the U.S. and in Japan, the baseball is extremely realistic. Umpires do widen the strike zone on foreign batters, and opposing foreign players really do let one another know that a pickoff is coming.
Over the years the engaging Selleck appeared in so many major league batting cages that he became known as Magnum, B.P. But practice made perfect because in Mr. Baseball he not only swings like the real deal but also carries himself like a big leaguer. He deserves some sort of baseball Oscar—call it the Oscar Gamble.
GRETZKY: PAUL BERESWILL
Gretzky has often been down, but never out.
NAVRATILOVA: MANNY MILLAN
Errors haunted Navratilova throughout the match.
SELLECK: E. LARI-UNIVERSAL CITY STUDIOS, INC.
Selleck (center) is a fire-breathing gaijin Dragon in the new movie "Mr. Baseball."
SARAH AND APRIL: NANCY GILSTRAP/ANDERSON INDEPENDENT-MAIL
Sarah (left) talked tough, and April hung tough.
They Said It
Sam Wyche, Tampa Bay Buccaneer coach, on the desire of 35-year-old quarterback coach Turk Schonert to suit up: "We're the only team in the history of the league that has a quarterback coach controversy."
Jose Canseco, comparing his former team, the Oakland A's, with his new one, the Texas Rangers: "It's more relaxed here. It's an atmosphere I can relate to. In Oakland it was always win, win, win, and you get fed up with it."