Weather or Not
When the major league baseball season opened last week, the National League had its six "warm-weather" teams playing each other—the Florida Marlins at the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Atlanta Braves at the San Diego Padres and the Montreal Expos (a team with a dome) at the Houston Astros. Meanwhile teams in other ball parkas—excuse us, parks—were left to brave some of April's crudest conditions. The New York Mets swept three from the Chicago Cubs in the frozen confines of Wrigley Field, where the windchill factor ranged between 6° and 11° over the last two days of the series. And the St. Louis Cardinals and the Cincinnati Reds shivered through a steady rain and temperatures in the 30's at Riverfront Stadium on April 6 before their 8-8 game was mercifully called in the top of the sixth.
The American League was no wiser to the weather, losing two games—the Seattle Mariners at the Cleveland Indians and the Texas Rangers at the New York Yankees—to the elements as the warm-weather Rangers and dome-homed Mariners opened on the road.
"We did try to open all warm-weather teams at home one year," says NL spokeswoman Katy Feeney. "But it's not fair for warm-weather and dome teams to open at home every year because if their home schedule is heavy early, it means they'll be short on home games during the summer, when everybody wants them."
O.K. But is it fair to the game, the quality of which suffers, or to fans, who Day major league prices for frostbite? The 52,012 hearties on hand for Opening Day on April 5 in Milwaukee, where the windchill hit zero, might not be thawed out until July.
Somebody, please buy the schedule makers a map and a copy of The Old Fanner's Almanac.
The Fall of Rome
There are two possible explanations for last week's televised tiff on ESPN2 between New Orleans Saint quarterback Jim Everett and talk-show host Jim Rome, in which Rome thrice mockingly called Everett "Chris," thereby provoking Everett to push a table over on his host. Either 1) the scuffle was, as suggested by some skeptics, prearranged to pump up ratings for the fledgling network as well as to somehow pump up Everett's deflated reputation, or 2) Rome simply goaded Everett into losing his temper.
In the first scenario both combatants, as well as the network (if it was in on the farce), should be embarrassed by their lack of professionalism. In the second scenario Rome should be embarrassed by his lack of professionalism. Come to think of it, whatever the story behind the Everett incident, Rome should be embarrassed by his lack of professionalism.
Michael Sudia, a coach in the Lafayette (Calif.) Little League and the father of a nine-year-old son, has invented a batting machine that not only serves up the ball to a hitter but offers audio feedback as well. The machine's chatter ranges from an encouraging "Way to go!" to a scolding "Get focused!"
While your normal pitching machine hurls the ball toward the hitter from a distance, Sudia's Batting Buddy uses a ball tethered by a short cord to the end of an aluminum arm that directs the ball over the plate. When the machine is set to a given height and speed, the same "pitch" can be delivered again and again, allowing the batter, says Sudia, to concentrate on form and consistency.
Sudia, who manages a pet-food store in Lafayette, a suburb of Oakland, has sold two dozen of the $500 machines. There are 22 responses programmed into the generic computer voice. But Sudia hopes to "authenticize" the feedback by getting the voices of some baseball people—he mentions Bay Area managers Dusty Baker of the Giants and Tony La Russa of the A's—into his computer.
Hey, anything Sudia can do to distinguish the voice of his machine from that of the typical Little League father would be much appreciated.
Last summer, when a band of female runners from China's remote Liaoning Province came seemingly out of nowhere to obliterate a clutch of track's most revered world records, their performances were greeted with at least as much suspicion as wonder. When the International Amateur Athletic Federation named its 1993 female athlete of the year, it ignored Wang Junxia—the most spectacular of the spectacular Chinese, with four world records in six days last September—in favor of British hurdler Sally Gunnell. The implication of the IAAF's selection was clear: The phenomenal success of Wang and her teammates was suspected to have stemmed from the use of performance-enhancing drugs.
Ma Junren, the coach of the Chinese women, has consistently and angrily denied all allegations of cheating, offering as explanation for his athletes' accomplishments their peasant stock, their willingness to do arduous workouts and their mysterious diet supplements of worms, fungus and turtle's blood. But Ma's credibility took a blow last week when his runners abruptly pulled out of two major international races. A contingent of Chinese women had been scheduled to compete last Sunday in the Bob Hasan 10K, a road race in Jakarta, Indonesia, that offers a bonus of $500,000 for a world record. Members of Ma's Army were also set for an assault on the April 17 London Marathon, in which a bonus of $250,000 is on the line for any woman breaking 2:20. (Ingrid Kristiansen's world record is 2:21:06.) The possibility—some would say probability—that Wang would crack that barrier had marathon experts salivating.
But then, last Thursday, Bob Hasan, the founder and director of the Jakarta race, received a fax from China announcing that the Chinese delegation of three runners and two coaches would not be coming. The next day an apologetic letter arrived from Huang Zhi, the general secretary of the Chinese Athletic Association, explaining that the athletes had "not had regular training due to bad health." London Marathon officials received a similar message that same morning.
There are a number of possible explanations for the last-minute no-shows, not all of them sinister. First, the women may really be injured. Second, Ma is a notorious rebel who seems always to be in conflict with Chinese officials. Perhaps the federation wanted a bigger cut of the prize money than Ma was willing to part with. Skeptics, however, will point out that in order to collect any bonus money, Wang needed to do more than just break records: She also had to pass drug tests. And this year, for the first time, the Jakarta samples were to be tested not in Beijing but in Tokyo. Of course, Wang and the other top Chinese women tested clean after several competitions last summer and fall and in a recent surprise test conducted in China by an IAAF traveling drug-testing unit.
Track observers have warned that the sport shoots itself in the foot by hollering drug use every time someone delivers an amazing performance. That's a good point, but last-minute withdrawals such as Wang's don't help either. Now the sport must wait at least until the summer track season for another glimpse of its most compelling and enigmatic athletes.
A Good Skate
To judge from a recent feature in The New York Times, Oksana Baiul, the supremely graceful, supremely tearful Olympic figure skating champion from Ukraine, just may have a future in the diplomatic corps when she hangs up her blades. According to the Times, Baiul had this to say about one of her more colorful and controversial rivals: "There is just no way a person as sweet, as innocent and as decent as Tonya Harding would try to hurt another skater."
Thank you, Ambassador Baiul. Now, what's your take on Amy Fisher?
Supreme Court justice Harry Blackmun, who announced last week that he will step down after 24 years on the bench, will be best remembered for writing the majority opinion in the 1973 abortion case, Roe v. Wade. SI's Lester Munson details Blackmun's role in another historic decision.
In drafting his 1972 opinion upholding Major League Baseball's antiquated reserve clause in the Curt Flood case, Justice Blackmun obviously consulted sources beyond the law library. A lifelong baseball fan who kept a copy of The Baseball Encyclopedia in his chambers, Blackmun relied on that work, as well as Lawrence Ritter's The Glory of Their Times, to produce what was as much a windy history of the national pastime as it was a legal decision.
Blackmun's opinion included a description of a historic early game on Hobo-ken's Elysian Fields in 1846, as well as, in footnotes, a Grantland Rice poem entitled He Never Heard of Casey and Franklin Pierce Adams's Tinker to Evers to Chance. In one section Blackmun listed more than 70 players who, as he put it, "have sparked the diamond and its environs and...provided tinder for recaptured thrills, for reminiscence and comparisons, and for conversation and anticipation in-season and off-season." Order in the court! Some of those names (Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb) were predictable, but Blackmun also invoked Amos Rusie, Bill Wambsganss, Heinie Groh, Stuffy McInnis and Old Hoss Radbourn.
As reported in The Brethren, the 1979 inside-the—Supreme Court book written by Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong. Justice Thurgood Marshall exploded when he saw the list, demanding to know why Blackmun did not name a single black player. Blackmun explained, lamely, that his list was drawn only from the pre-World War II era, when blacks were excluded. That's the point, Marshall replied, and he switched his vote to support Flood even after Blackmun agreed to add to his opinion the names of Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige and Roy Campanella.
Although the game's antitrust exemption that was upheld in Blackmun's opinion remains technically in effect, it is under attack in Congress and was significantly weakened in a 1993 Philadelphia federal court opinion. (The reserve clause itself, of course, was repealed in arbitrator Peter Seitz's 1975 decision in the Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally case.) However rococo Blackmun's opinion, it still stands as the only major defeat suffered by former Players Association chief Marvin Miller at the hands of the baseball establishment. It's a wonder that Blackmun has not been offered the commissioner's job somewhere along the line.
Lefty's Signs That the Apocalypse Is Upon Us
In a profile in the April issue of Philadelphia magazine, legendary Phillie lefthander Steve Carlton is quoted as saying. '¬¨¬®¬¨‚àÇThe revolution is definitely coming." According to the article Carlton, who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this summer, is currently living in a bunker in Durango, Colo., and, it seems, refining a decidedly eccentric world view.
"The Russian and U.S. governments fill the air with low-frequency sound waves meant to control us," Carlton is quoted as saying. Lefty, who used to have pretty good control himself, reportedly believes that AIDS is the creation of a secret biological warfare laboratory in Maryland and that various entities—ranging from a group of "12 Jewish bankers meeting in Switzerland" to the National Education Association to Yale's Skull and Bones—"rule the world."
Jeez, remember when people were upset with Steve Carlton for not talking to the media?
This Week's Sign That the Apocalypse Is Upon Us
An Outdoor advertising company, Van Wagner Communications, has proposed removing damaged basketball backboards from public-school playgrounds across the country and replacing them with new models emblazoned with public-service messages—and sponsors' corporate logos.
They Said It
Former Los Angeles Dodger lefthander, who 20 years ago served up Henry Aaron's record-breaking 715th home run, on living with his place in history: "I never say 'seven-fifteen' anymore. I now say 'quarter after seven.' "