The Toothless Commish
Despite cloaking their work in a shameless piece of creative writing bearing the title "Restructuring Report Enhances Commissioner's Authority," and timing last Friday's announcement in New York City to coincide with the opening of the Winter Olympics, major league owners made a long-overdue admission in redefining and clarifying the commissioner's job. To wit: The commissioner is hired by the owners to serve their interests.
Remember how Fay Vincent tried to order realignment in 1992 under the commissioner's "best interests of baseball" powers? The owners promptly forced him out of office. Now, with this latest missive, they have eliminated the prevailing myth of the great, impartial commissioner who weighs the best interests of everyone—owners, players, managers, umpires, fans. While the commissioner can still act on matters involving the "integrity" of baseball, his powers are spelled out so that he can no longer unilaterally act on the business matters of baseball, such as expansion, interleague play and realignment.
The owners did empower the commissioner to serve as the point person in labor negotiations, but that role is similarly toothless. The commissioner cannot force his will on the owners by acting "in the best interests of baseball" on labor issues either, so no commissioner can, say, order the end to a lockout the way Bowie Kuhn did in 1976.
In short, the commissioner will safeguard the game's image while the owners will mind their wallets.
It wasn't so much that Jim Nantz mistakenly told us that AJ Kitt had won the men's downhill. Nor was it the fact that Pat O'Brien couldn't find anyone to take his hot dog while he took his droll stroll down the Storgaten. What really bothered us about CBS's Winter Olympic Coverage was the copious amount of hot air blowing our way from Lillehammer.
From the moment Charles Kuralt told us on Sunday morning that Tommy Moe of the U.S. had won the men's downhill until the network actually showed his 1:45.75 run, 12 hours and 35 minutes elapsed. In all, CBS had nine hours of Olympic coverage on Sunday, and only about an hour of it was devoted to action. The rest was travelogues, promos for CBS Olympic coverage (including countless reminders that we would indeed see Moe ski—sometime), man-in-the-Storgaten interviews, promos for David Letterman's mom, shots of Hillary and Chelsea, promos for Connie Chung, ice-sculpting exposès and hundreds upon hundreds of commercials.
As a consequence of all this tease and tickle, CBS drained every bit of drama out of Moe's gold medal run. But then, that was to be expected after the lackluster coverage of the opening ceremonies last Saturday night. To borrow a metaphor from the ceremonies, CBS laid an egg. Hosts Andrea Joyce and Greg Gumbel seemed to be covering the Tournament of Roses Parade. Ed Bradley and Kuralt, both in dire need of hat consultants, destroyed much of their journalistic credibility with inane gushing. As Kuralt went on and on and on, we were kind of hoping one of those mythical vetters would push him over.
There were some good features on Sunday: a piece on Moe's upbringing, a re-creation of the assault by neo-Nazis on U.S. luger Duncan Kennedy, a skier's-eye view of the downhill course. But if the level of event coverage had been an EKG, several of the announcers would have been declared dead. For the most part, the people at CBS Sports have gone backward from their last Winter Olympics, in 1992. They were rookies then; no such excuse this time around.
Tim McCarver, please come back. All is forgiven.
After President Clinton hosted the national-champion Florida State football team at the White House last week, U.S. Senator Bob Graham, a Democrat from the Sunshine State, said, "The President has a lot of things on his plate to deal with—health care reform, crime, Bosnia. Now he's gotten to the really important things."
Graham was, we trust, kidding. But given the impact of those first two issues on American society, the human tragedy going on in Bosnia and the tiresome overemphasis put on athletes' visits to the White House, the comment was stupendously stupid. And as a joke, it was distinctly unfunny.
Anatomy of a Rumor
The phones at the offices of the Jacksonville Jaguars, one of the two new NFL franchises, began lighting up like pinball machines one morning last week with callers asking question after question about Dallas Cowboy coach Jimmy Johnson. A local sports talk host, David Lamm of WNZS, had just reported that Wayne Weaver and David Seldin, the owner and president respectively of the Jaguars, had had a 2½-day meeting with Johnson on Weaver's boat in South Florida and that Johnson was on the verge of resigning from the Cowboys to become Jacksonville's coach-general manager. The next day the local paper, The Florida Times-Union, reported that the Jaguars had denied the story, but the paper also said it had confirmed the Johnson meeting with what it calls "a highly reliable source."
The rumor was taken seriously. Dallas owner Jerry Jones threatened action if Jacksonville had tampered with Johnson, and the league office announced it had warned the Jags about dealing with Johnson, who has five years remaining on his contract with the Cowboys.
The thing is, it was all nonsense from the beginning. First, the only time Johnson and Seldin ever met was at a party on Dec. 6 where Johnson offered congratulations on the new franchise. Second, Seldin told SI several weeks ago that Johnson had been eliminated from consideration. Finally, Johnson told SI three days before the Super Bowl that he was no longer interested in pursuing the Jacksonville posts.
How did the story surface? Well, it wouldn't be beyond Johnson, who loves tweaking Jones about his future, to have whispered about his "interest" to someone in Jacksonville, knowing that the info might then be leaked. The story left Seldin and Weaver shaking their heads. "What an awesome enterprise this is, when a false rumor can provoke such a furor," said Seldin, whose job with the Jaguars is his first in football. "I guess there's not much you can do about it."
A Winner, a Teacher
Bud Wilkinson, who earned a master's degree in English from Syracuse University, wanted to be a professor, but he got sidetracked into winning football games. From 1948 through '58, his teams at Oklahoma were the college gridiron equivalent of the New York Yankees, amassing a record of 107-8-2, including 47 consecutive victories, an almost unfathomable number, then and now. Coaches of that era were frequently tyrants, but Wilkinson was a graceful and dignified presence who treated his players like people. "You could feel like quitting school and joining the French Foreign Legion," remembers Billy Pricer, a Sooner fullback from the mid-'50s, "then you'd go over and talk to him for 15 minutes and come out of his office singing Boomer Sooner, thinking you owned half the university."
On Feb. 9, Wilkinson, Oklahoma's Gridiron Galahad as one journalist called him, died of congestive heart failure at the age of 77. He had suffered a series of strokes, the last of which, in November, stole much of his vision. That was a cruel blow for Wilkinson, an avid reader.
His Sooner teams were reflections of himself—quick, organized, well conditioned, creative. Wilkinson, a star quarterback (in those days he called the signals and did the lion's share of the back-field blocking) at the University of Minnesota who in 1937 led the College All-Stars to a win over the professional champions, the Green Bay Packers, continually tinkered to find a new wrinkle on the basic Oklahoma split T. He ran a no-huddle offense, called the Go-Go, in the '50s. "I've only known one genius in my lifetime," says Eddie Crowder, Oklahoma's quarterback in 1950, '51 and '52 and a longtime coach at the University of Colorado. "His name was Bud Wilkinson."
Though his name was associated with winning, Wilkinson also had his setbacks. A registered Democrat who hitched his political star to Republican Barry Goldwater after leaving the university to enter politics, he lost a race for a U.S. Senate seat from Oklahoma in 1964, a victim of the Lyndon Johnson landslide. He gained access to President Richard Nixon's inner circle in '69—he had the title of consultant—but eventually found himself sealed off by Nixon's closest aides, Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, and quit.
And in '79, a year after he jolted the sports world by leaving the comfort of the college football broadcasting booth—where he was actually able to communicate without a lot of volume or a telestrator—and accepting the St. Louis Cardinal coaching job at age 61, Wilkinson was fired by Card owner Bill Bidwill. He had started 0-8 in 1978, finished at 6-10 and was 3-10 with three games left in his second season when Bidwill, who is still looking for the right man, axed him.
Perhaps the best epitaph for Wilkinson comes from former Sooner running back Prentice Gautt, whom Wilkinson recruited in 1957 as the first black athlete at Oklahoma. "I place him completely above words like pettiness and prejudice" says Gautt. "Those things weren't in him."
Break a Leg!
With several New York City police officers looking out for hidden batons, 100 aspiring Tonya and Nancy look-alikes took the ice Monday morning at Manhattan's Rivergate Ice Rink to audition for Comedy Central's Spunk: The Tonya Harding Story, a five-minute spoof of a TV movie. The women skated (sort of) and emoted—"All I ever wanted to do was win the gold for my country," intoned one Tonya wannabe in a black NO COMMENT sweatshirt.
Though casting was not completed by Monday afternoon, two candidates distinguished themselves. Sarah Oliver, 20, a junior at the University of Connecticut and a novice skater, won over the judges with her uncanny resemblance to Kerrigan both in terms of looks and personality. And gum-chewing Tracy Hunt, 26, a Long Island hairdresser, simply was Tonya, with her blond hair pulled back. In a departure from reality, though, Oliver and Hunt quickly became friends.
Spunk, which portrays Kerrigan as a villainous media hog and Harding as a heroic ice princess, will air on Feb. 22, one day before the Lillehammer battle begins.
Veteran Chicago Tribune baseball writer Jerome Holtzman sent us scurrying to the reference books last week when he said that Michael Jordan's attempt to play baseball for the Chicago White Sox organization represented "the greatest hoax since the Cardiff Giant." The Cardiff Giant was supposedly the petrified remains of a giant man, unearthed in 1869 in Cardiff, N.Y., but later proved to be a block of carved gypsum. The Giant now rests in the Farmers' Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., home of the Baseball Hall of Fame, which might be why Holtzman is so familiar with it.
What we still don't understand, however, is Holtzman's use of hoax. A hoax is a deliberate falsehood, sometimes involving a conspiracy. Where is the hoax here? Jordan's bid may be a quixotic quest, an uphill struggle, an absurd undertaking, a lunatic voyage or even a virtual impossibility. But unless Jordan and the White Sox are laughing and whispering, "Ha! We got 'em fooled now. They all think MJ's gonna be a major leaguer. All except Jerome," we fail to see a hoax.
Now, if someone announces that a mysterious 10-foot-tall giant is making his way through the ChiSox organization, that would be a hoax.
Bud Wilkinson 1916-1994
"Nancy" and "Tonya" grabbed the spotlight.
This Week's Sign That the Apocalypse Is Upon Us
A Norwegian, Inge Widar Svingen, who is listed in The Guinness Book of Records for fire-eating, plans to entertain audiences in Lillehammer by pushing 125 Olympic pins into his body in 15 minutes. (Svingen's personal record in that category is 113 needles.)
They Said It
The New Jersey Net forward, on why he turned down an invitation to hunt with teammate Jayson Williams: "I'm not going hunting with anyone who plays the same position as me."