THE SNAKE PIT
Last week Rupert Murdoch announced that he had bid $350 million
to buy the Los Angeles Dodgers, whose games would help fill the
hours of cable and satellite television time on his networks in
the U.S., Asia and around the globe. The Australian-born Murdoch
is no stranger to the bare-knuckled ways of business, having
broken the backs of Britain's print unions in the 1980s as he
built his multibillion-dollar media empire. Should he be
approved as a major league owner, however, he will find himself
part of a faltering industry whose captains can compete with
anyone in the world when it comes to animus and ego.
To wit: the lawsuit filed May 6 by the New York Yankees' George
Steinbrenner against his fellow owners, charging that they had
broken antitrust laws by attempting to block a 10-year, $95
million exclusive sponsorship deal the Yankees struck with
Adidas in March. (Adidas is also a plaintiff in the suit.)
Baseball's executive council opposed the deal, ruling that all
licensing agreements must be approved by Major League
Properties, the teams' licensing arm. In his 91-page suit
Steinbrenner saved his most pointed language for the Milwaukee
Brewers, noting that they "have gone 14 years, the longest of
any current club, without winning their division." Less
successful teams like Milwaukee, the suit says, "have embarked
on a concerted and collective effort to achieve in off-field
alliances and committees what they have been unable to achieve
in the marketplace and on the field."
The executive council responded to Steinbrenner's suit by voting
9-0 to suspend him from its ranks. The Boss's smug
perspective--in his suit, he doesn't mention that before 1996
the Yankees had themselves gone 14 years without a division
title--did not endear him to his brethren, but it no doubt felt
like a slap to Brewers owner Bud Selig, who is also acting
commissioner. In '95 it was Selig, as chairman, who had been
instrumental in paving the way for Steinbrenner's return to the
executive council after the Boss had served a three-year
suspension from baseball for making a $40,000 payment to
self-described gambler Howard Spira.
Selig, of course, has been a combatant in baseball's internecine
feuding; he helped oust the last commissioner, Fay Vincent,
almost five years ago. Steinbrenner's suit threatens to deepen
the internal chaos by challenging baseball's antitrust
exemption, which has allowed the owners to control franchise
movement and discourage competition from rival baseball leagues.
It is quite possible that Steinbrenner, by pursuing his own
agenda, could destabilize all of baseball.
KEEP HOPE ALIVE
Bill Futterer, a 46-year-old sports marketer from Rockingham,
N.C., is perhaps the first president of a storied team to run
everything but the team. Hired by the NFL last July, as he says,
"to protect the tradition and logos and history of the Browns
franchise, and to remind Clevelanders that football will be
back," he has a staff of 14 and an office in the Browns' old
training site at Berea, Ohio. Until the league matches Cleveland
with an owner through expansion or relocation--which it promises
to do in time for the new Browns to take the field in
1999--Futterer is in charge of getting things in order. That
includes setting up concession, media and marketing deals,
selling permanent seat licenses and approving details on the new
Cleveland Stadium, for which ground was broken on May 15.
Futterer also has a mandate to psych up fans, a task he pursues
tirelessly. Since coming to Cleveland, he has made 168 speeches
and public appearances, showing up at everything from church
functions to neighborhood parades. He takes the high road,
though, rarely invoking the despised name of erstwhile owner Art
Modell, who moved the old Browns to Baltimore after the 1995
season and rechristened them the Ravens.
Under Futterer's leadership the Browns also sponsor tailgate
parties, cookouts, player reunions and a Web page, which counts
down days until the 1999 season opener. "At first everyone was
just angry," says Futterer. "They hated Modell, hated the
sport--everything was negative. But now we're making strides.
It's amazing what a few cookouts can do."
IN THE WAKE OF THE FLOOD
Life in Grand Forks, N.Dak., and its sister city of East Grand
Forks, Minn., has been dramatically altered since the flooding
of the Red River last month. Some 50,000 citizens had to be
evacuated, and those who love to play have endured an extra
hardship. Athletes at Grand Forks's two high schools, Central
and Red River, have been allowed to compete for their schools
while attending other ones out of town. But because of the
flood, fewer than half the eligible athletes are suiting up, and
several teams have had to forfeit their seasons. Meanwhile, the
University of North Dakota, which is in Grand Forks, canceled
the remainder of the current semester on April 19, thereby
wiping out its spring sports and denying several All-Americas
their senior seasons. The Fighting Sioux's athletic department
has appealed to the NCAA for a hardship ruling that would give
spring-sport athletes another season of eligibility.
As people return to homes that will need to be rebuilt, the
prospects of any sporting recreation are dim. The Little League
and adult softball seasons will be delayed; all three of Grand
Forks's bowling alleys were severely damaged by water; the seven
area golf courses are in shambles. "There was 12 inches of mud
around the greens," says the city's superintendent of
recreation, Bill Palmiscno about one municipal course. "That's a
lot of mud."
At least 20-year-old Kraft Field escaped relatively unscathed,
and the June 20 home opener for the Grand Forks Varmints is not
in doubt. "We're finding our services are needed now," says Jim
Swanson, general manager of the independent Prairie League
baseball team. There have been obstacles: The team's offices
were destroyed, and housing has been hard to find for the 21
players. But Swanson doesn't complain. "Our new offices are in a
complex with the Red Cross shelter," he says. "Every time I come
and go, I walk past 400 people sleeping on cots."
THE WRONG MESSAGE
A new Nike TV commercial featuring former U.S. basketball
Olympian Lisa Leslie flashes back to 1990, when she scored 101
points in a single half while a senior at Morningside High in
Inglewood, Calif. Over footage of Leslie shooting baskets, a
narrator says of Morningside's opponents, the Spartans of South
Torrance High, "The other team couldn't stand it, so they left
and went home."
The ad doesn't mention that because of injuries and foul outs,
South Torrance had only four players remaining at halftime. Nor
does it point out that Leslie, at the urging of her coach, Frank
Scott, began taking advantage of undermanned South Torrance High
with the self-glorifying intention of breaking Cheryl Miller's
girls' single-game national high school mark of 105 points, set
in 1982. In fact, when Leslie learned that the second half would
be canceled because the Spartans didn't have enough players, she
asked South Torrance coach Gil Ramirez if he would keep his team
on the floor long enough to let her set the record. Ramirez,
we're glad to say, refused to just do it.
Folks take the waving of pom-poms pretty seriously in Texas,
home state of Wanda Webb Holloway, the infamous Cheerleader Mom,
who in 1991 attempted to have the mother of her daughter's
cheerleading rival murdered. A more benign killer instinct
manifested itself earlier this month at an auction to raise
money for the Trinity School in Midland. When the chance to
become a varsity "Homecoming Cheerleader" for a week went on the
block, two fathers set out to snag the spot for their daughters,
who are in the third and fourth grades at the school. Their
head-to-head bidding began at $100 and reached $15,000 before
Trinity officials decided to let both daughters have a turn
leading cheers on the football sidelines. Both dads proudly paid.
HANGING IT UP
Eric Cantona, the French-born forward for Manchester United
whose brilliance on the field was often eclipsed by his
outrageousness off it--he served a season-long suspension for
kung-fu kicking a fan during a 1995 game--on Sunday announced
his retirement from soccer. Fittingly, he was embroiled in
controversy to the last.
In The Art of the Game, a 10-by-8-foot, lavishly painted
reinterpretation of Piero della Francesca's 15th-century
Resurrection of Christ, British artist Michael Browne has
replaced the figure of Jesus with that of Cantona. Soccer's bad
boy is depicted rising from a tomb surrounded by other United
players and watched over by Alex Ferguson, Manchester's manager.
Ferguson is shown holding a palm frond, symbol of Christ's
triumph over death.
The painting, which was on display last month at Manchester's
City Art Gallery, has caused quite a stir. The Reverend David
Holloway, vicar of Jesmond parish church in Newcastle upon Tyne,
England, and the founder of a group fighting to maintain
traditional standards in the Church of England, dubbed it "both
offensive and blasphemous." Browne maintains that his work is
not meant to be insulting but rather a tongue-in-cheek comment
on the godlike status of sports stars. "It reflects street
humor," he says. "The kind of humor the fans have."
Those fans may hope that life imitates art and Cantona (who, far
from offended by the painting, bought it) makes a comeback. At
least one observer would not be surprised. "Big stars like to
bring the curtain down several times," says Guy Roux, coach of
Auxerre, where Cantona started his pro career in 1983. "I am
sure he will have a few encores."
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN DYKES Even Murdoch may be startled by the backroom battles between Selig and Steinbrenner. [Drawing of Rupert Murdoch walking in on fight between Bud Selig and George Steinbrenner]
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID LIAM KYLE The Browns-to-be are already wooing Dog Pounders, whose kennel won't be open until '99. [Cleveland Browns fans]
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO [John Starks with middle finger raised to crowd]
COLOR CHART: CHART BY NIGEL HOLMES [Chart not available--diagram depicting dollar amounts earned per second in various sporting events]
COLOR PHOTO: MICHAEL BROWNE 1997 Cantona, the messiah of soccer's Manchester United, has retired. Will he return? [Painting Art of the Game by Michael Browne depicting Alex Ferguson, Eric Cantona as Jesus Christ, and other Manchester United soccer players]
Average payroll, in dollars, of major league teams in 1976, the
first year of free agency.
Current major league players making $1.2 million or more per
Dollars donated to Fordham University, for the construction of
an athletic training center, by William Walsh, a Menlo Park,
Calif., investment manager who in 1947 was cut from the Rams'
freshman football squad by coach Vince Lombardi.
Dollars spent in a charity auction by a Tennessee sophomore for
a date with Volunteers quarterback Peyton Manning.
Increase in cap size for Chicago White Sox rightfielder Dave
Martinez, who was hospitalized with a concussion after colliding
with centerfielder Lyle Mouton.
Push-ups that coach Ed t'Sas requires each member of the
baseball team at Antelope Valley High in Lancaster, Calif., to
perform at every practice, which caused senior pitcher Sean
Douglass, a projected early round pick in next month's amateur
draft, to quit the team.
THE GARDEN'S CROP OF COACHES
The Celtics may be in need of an outsized overhaul--starting,
say, with two of the top six picks in the 1997 draft and a new
coach worth $50 million--but that hasn't stopped the old
mystique from spreading to benches outside Boston. Five players
who won NBA championship rings as Celtics will be head coaches
in the pros next season:
DANNY AINGE, Phoenix Suns
A Blue Jays infielder before joining the Celts in 1981, he
inherited 0-8 Suns in November and guided them to the playoffs.
LARRY BIRD, Indiana Pacers
Best trash talker and long-range marksman of the 1980s, Larry
Legend now gets chance to coach best trash talker and long-range
marksman of the '90s, Reggie Miller.
DAVE COWENS, Charlotte Hornets
Undersized and ultracompetitive pivotman in Boston in 1970s, Big
Red passed on his fiery temperament and went 54-28 in his rookie
year as full-time coach.
CHRIS FORD, Milwaukee Bucks
Won a title in '81 with Boston and later coached Celtics to
222-188 record, but needs leprechaun's charms after 33-49 debut
season in Milwaukee.
K.C. JONES New England Blizzard
Defensive stopper during his decade-long playing career with the
Celtics, whom he later coached to titles in 1984 and '86, Jones,
64, switches tracks from NBA man-to-man to ABL woman-to-woman.
Not so long ago an athlete letting fly with a middle finger (or
two) was sure to ruffle feathers. Lately, this ornithological
gesture scarcely raises eyebrows. In the last two weeks alone
we've seen a digitally enhanced salute from New Jersey Devils
Lyle Odelein and Doug Gilmour, a flippant X-Gamer on ESPN2 ads
and this salute from New York Knick John Starks. Hey, can't we
eliminate the middle man?
The winner of the Michael Johnson-Donovan Bailey 150-meter
showdown on June 1 in Toronto will go home with not only the
title of World's Fastest Human but also a million bucks--not bad
for about 14 seconds' work. Here are the per-second wages of
some of sport's speediest stars:
89-second KO of Peter McNeeley, 1995
$280,898 per second
JOHNSON VS. BAILEY WINNER
$71,000 per second
1997 Preakness winner, in 1:54.8
$4,282 per second
1996-97 regular season, 3,106 minutes played
$160.97 per second
1997 Boston Marathon women's champion, in 2:26:24
$8.54 per second
THIS WEEK'S SIGN THAT THE APOCALYPSE IS UPON US
Though finally conceding the correctness of tests taken at the
1995 French Open that showed traces of cocaine in their systems,
tennis players Mats Wilander and Karel Novacek said they had
consumed the drug unknowingly.
THEY SAID IT
Milwaukee Brewers manager, on Seattle Mariners fireballing
lefthander Randy Johnson, who beat Milwaukee despite throwing a
wild pitch, hitting two batters and striking out only three:
"Even when he's below average, he's above average."