DANGER AT THE PLATE
Four months ago Jack MacKay--call him the mad scientist of
amateur baseball--quit as a design consultant to Hillerich &
Bradsby, taking with him nine years of aluminum-bat research and
the cold-eyed conclusion that the company was making unsafe
bats. He stands with a growing number of coaches, players and
NCAA administrators who, alarmed by soaring offensive statistics
in the college game and several incidents in which pitchers have
been injured by rocketing line drives, feel that too-lively
metal bats are threatening the safety of amateur baseball at all
levels (SCORECARD, Feb. 3, 1997). "I've heard of more pitchers
being hit by line drives in the last three years than in my
previous nine years on the [NCAA baseball rules] committee,"
says Bill Thurston, coach at Massachusetts. "We're going to get
a kid killed."
Ironically, it was MacKay who helped unleash this threat by
spawning a generation of high-performance bats with design
innovations such as lightweight alloys and air-filled barrels.
But as the bats grew more lively, so did MacKay's trepidation
about them, and he says he began driving his employer batty with
warnings about the deadly power of aluminum. MacKay says he
produced data at his Mount Pleasant, Texas, research facility in
1992 that showed balls came off aluminum bats 6% faster than off
wood bats--the difference now is as much as 8% to 12%--but that
Hillerich & Bradsby didn't share his research with the NCAA.
MacKay also claims that about four years ago he developed an
aluminum bat that closely mirrored the performance of wood. The
American Baseball Coaches Association voted unanimously in 1996
to request that the NCAA set specifications for just such a bat,
but MacKay's model still hasn't been marketed by any bat company.
"I don't believe he ever presented anything like that," says
Marty Archer, an H&B vice president. Adds George Manning, the
company's head of technical services: "If he came to us with
safety concerns, they certainly went over my head. I never heard
any hesitation on his part." MacKay and H&B have each sued the
other; the former to have his contract declared invalid, the
latter for breach of contract.
Most college teams are not voluntarily going to stop using
high-performance bats, for fear of being at a competitive
disadvantage. Also, many coaches have endorsement contracts with
Hillerich & Bradsby, Easton or Worth, the companies that
dominate the high-performance bat market. These companies, which
can sell high-performance bats for higher profit margins than
clunkier aluminum and wood models, say any NCAA bat regulations
would cost them millions. They also say that their bats are not
as lively or lethal as feared, and that other factors such as
lively balls and changes in the strike zone are contributing to
the upsurge in offense.
In declaring their aluminum bats safe, bat companies point to a
1995 study performed by New York University physics professor
Richard Brandt. But that study, commissioned by the Sporting
Goods Manufacturers Association, a trade group that represents
bat makers, is tainted. Brandt has admitted to the NCAA that his
test was unreliable for baseball purposes: It used stationary
softball bats at which pitches were thrown at only 60 mph. A
preliminary copy of his report shows that it was circulated
among executives from several bat companies for editing before
it was released to the NCAA.
On Jan. 21 the NCAA baseball rules committee is scheduled to
discuss two new scientific bat studies, one commissioned by the
NCAA and the other by Major League Baseball. But the committee
still seems far from setting new standards for bats. However,
MacKay, who has signed a deal with Rawlings to resume his bat
designing, says the solution is obvious: "We're going to build
and sell safe bats that perform like wood."
NO KID IN THE HALL
No position in baseball has produced fewer great players over
the last half century than catcher. With the exception of Johnny
Bench, the Baseball Writers Association of America hasn't
elected to the Hall of Fame any receiver who was born after 1925
or who debuted in the big leagues after '48--and rightly so. But
when at last presented this year with a Cooperstown-quality
catcher, Gary Carter, too many writers failed to recognize his
greatness with their pens and ballots. Talk about tools of
As one of 473 voting members, I voted for Don Sutton, who was
the only one elected on Monday; Jim Rice, who hit 382 home runs
and had eight .300 seasons; and Carter, who established
Cooperstown credentials over 19 seasons spent mostly with the
Montreal Expos and the New York Mets. Neither Carter nor Rice
came close to being elected.
Granted, Carter's lifetime batting numbers--2,092 hits, 324 home
runs, 1,225 RBIs, .262 average--aren't high on the alltime
lists. But why compare Carter with first basemen and outfielders
and 1930s sluggers? Simply put, Carter was the premier catcher
of his generation, a clutch performer who had more hits than
Bench (2,048) and who trailed his hallowed predecessor in other
key categories by slim margins. (Bench had 389 home runs, 1,376
RBIs and a .267 average.)
I have listened to voters talk enthusiastically about Carlton
Fisk, who will be eligible for the Hall next year in a
blockbuster class that will include Nolan Ryan, George Brett and
Robin Yount. Fisk's candidacy is enhanced by a tip-of-the-tongue
record: most career home runs by a catcher. But Carter was the
better player. He had more 20-home-run seasons (9-8), more
90-RBI seasons (5-2) and more Gold Gloves (3-1).
Hall of Fame careers are made in a player's prime, not in an
extended twilight. In the 10 years from 1977 to '86, Carter hit
.274, averaged 25 home runs and 89 RBIs and played in 92% of his
teams' games, an astounding rate of durability for a catcher. In
a nearly concurrent prime (1976 to '85), Fisk hit .272, averaged
20 home runs and 70 RBIs and played in 83% of his teams' games.
Moreover, Carter was named to 11 All-Star teams, caught more
National League games than anyone else, holds six league
fielding records, was an extraordinary team leader and played
with unfailing dignity and enthusiasm. Even at the close of his
career, when you could almost hear his worn knees creaking like
rusty hinges, those who knew him best still called him Kid, the
nickname he acquired early in his career because of his boyish
love for the game.
Catching is a unique job that demands its own measuring stick.
Eleven catchers have been enshrined. Carter had more hits than
all of them except Yogi Berra, whom he trailed by only 58. Kid
belongs in Cooperstown. --Tom Verducci
FIVE FOR THE FUTURE
Lost amid the debate over the final college football rankings
were the bowl performances of a new wave of talent. SI's Ivan
Maisel picks five players to watch next fall.
Joe Hamilton, Georgia Tech. The sophomore quarterback threw for
274 yards and a touchdown and ran for 82 yards and two more
scores in a 35-30 Carquest Bowl victory over West Virginia.
Hamilton could always run, but in the second half of the season
he began to master the pro-style attack that offensive
coordinator Ralph Friedgen brought this year from the San Diego
Chargers. Hamilton takes a streak of 151 passes without an
interception into next season.
Sherrod Gideon, Southern Mississippi. The sophomore wide
receiver caught seven passes for 111 yards and three touchdowns
in the Golden Eagles' 41-7 victory over Pittsburgh in the
Liberty Bowl. Gideon and sophomore quarterback Lee Roberts
helped lead Southern Miss (9-3) to a No. 19 ranking, its highest
Rondell Mealey, LSU. The erstwhile third-string tailback stepped
in during the season when Kevin Faulk and Cecil Collins were
felled by injuries, to rush for 664 yards and seven touchdowns.
When Faulk got hurt again in the first quarter of the Tigers'
27-9 Independence Bowl defeat of Notre Dame, Mealey, a 203-pound
sophomore, took over, running for 222 yards and two touchdowns.
If Faulk, as expected, forgoes his senior season to play in the
NFL, LSU won't lose a step.
Dat Nguyen, Texas A&M. In a year of superb linebackers, this
junior didn't receive as much recognition as he should have. His
size (6'1", 215 pounds) and nose for the ball suggest
comparisons with former All-America Derrick Brooks of Florida
State. Nguyen started the best defensive play of the postseason
when he intercepted a UCLA pass in the Cotton Bowl. He returned
the ball 19 yards before lateraling to teammate Brandon
Jennings, who completed an 83-yard touchdown dash that gave the
Aggies an early lead in their 29-23 loss.
Bobby Newcombe, Nebraska. Though he played wingback and returned
punts this season, the lightning-fast freshman is the insider's
choice to replace Scott Frost at quarterback for the
Cornhuskers. He averaged 16.4 yards every time he touched the
ball and showed his versatility in the Orange Bowl when he ran
three times for 16 yards, caught a pass for 22 and returned two
punts for 22 more. The 6-foot, 185-pound Newcombe, who showed a
decent arm as an all-state quarterback in high school, looks as
if he might snap in two should someone put a good lick on him.
But defenders are going to have to catch him first.
THINKING MAN'S COACH
The NFL didn't just lose its 10th-winningest coach or the only
man to guide a team to four straight Super Bowls when Marv Levy,
72, retired last Wednesday from the Buffalo Bills. It also lost
one of the league's few true intellectuals. Levy quoted Byron to
his players; in fact, he lifted some of Byron's poem To Thomas
Moore for his farewell: "Here's a sigh to those who love me, a
smile to those who hate. To whatever sky's above me, here's a
heart for every fate." When Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson
gloated after Levy's fourth Super Bowl loss, a 30-13 thrashing
at the hands of the Cowboys, that "my players are belly-laughing
to The Flintstones while he's reading his guys Shakespeare,"
Levy said, "There should never be any shame in intelligence."
Levy sometimes red-penciled the press releases of Bills p.r. man
Scott Berchtold, who said working for Levy was like working for
some football centaur--half-professor, half-coach. In October,
Berchtold told Levy that Rich Stadium would be unavailable for a
couple of days because of a Rolling Stones concert. "All I know
about the Rolling Stones," Levy said with a wry smile, "is they
gather no moss." Not a surprising comment for a coach who
sometimes sang swing tunes to his team after big wins.
If not the father of special teams, Levy was at least their
uncle, having been among the first in pro football to
exclusively coach them, when he was an assistant with the
Philadelphia Eagles in 1969. In Buffalo he brought unprecedented
sophistication to special teams play. He never met an innovation
he didn't like; quarterback Jim Kelly became a genius at running
the no-huddle offense because Levy gave him the freedom to try
it. For these reasons and a hundred others, it would be a shame
if Levy was remembered only because he went 0 for 4 in Super
THERE'S THE RUB
USA Today last week named its 1997 high school All-USA team.
There's no way of saying whether those young stars will go on to
glory in the NFL. But at least one, a running back from Spring,
Texas, has an endorsement deal awaiting him if he does make it
to the pros. His name? Ben Gay.
AN AMERICAN ORIGINAL
Long before Martina Hingis astounded the tennis world with her
precocity, there was Helen Wills Moody. Long before Steffi Graf
overpowered opponents with a mighty forehand, there was Helen
Wills Moody. Long before Billie Jean King, Chris Evert or
Martina Navratilova dominated their sport with distinctive
shotmaking and distinctive personality, there was Helen Wills
Moody. A giant of America's Golden Age of Sports, the female
counterpart to Ruth, Dempsey and Grange, the woman known as
Little Miss Poker Face and Queen Helen died last Thursday at a
convalescent hospital in Carmel, Calif. She was 92.
Like many female tennis champions, Wills Moody was a prodigy.
Growing up in California, she learned the game by watching
players at the Berkeley Tennis Club. At age 15, two years after
she began playing, she won the girls' national 18-and-under
title, and two years later she became the youngest U.S. women's
singles champion. She never had a formal lesson and certainly
never adopted the conditioning regimen of modern-day players.
But from '23, when she won the first of her seven U.S. crowns,
until '38, when she won the last of her eight Wimbledon titles,
she was almost unbeatable, a force of nature, particularly from
the forehand side, who rarely changed expressions or showed an
opponent mercy. She once had a streak of 180 matches in elite
competition during which she didn't lose a set. "Her footwork
didn't have to be great," said tennis great Don Budge, "because
she controlled play by hitting the ball so hard."
Wills Moody had a certain icy elegance that predated Evert's.
Generations of female players wore white eyeshades because Wills
Moody did. She was an artist whose drawings and paintings were
exhibited in the U.S. and abroad and, as Navratilova later did,
she wrote a mystery novel, Death Serves an Ace.
After her retirement Wills Moody stayed out of the headlines,
surfacing only occasionally to reveal that she had remained a
fan of tennis and had a special fondness for Navratilova, whose
ninth Wimbledon singles title in 1990 broke Wills Moody's
record. But Wills Moody's Garbo-like mystique was not the reason
she will remain an almost mythic American sports figure--for
that, credit her extraordinary tennis game.
COLOR PHOTO: FRED HARPER Experts like MacKay, who say high-tech bats are dangerous, have set their sights on creating safer models. [Drawing of hitter with metal bat looking at pitcher in cross-hairs]
COLOR PHOTO: RICH CLARKSON [Pete Maravich]
COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON Unreasonable standards for catchers blocked the gritty Carter from Cooperstown. [Gary Carter]
TWO COLOR ILLUSTRATIONS: KIRSTIN HOLUM [Two paintings of ice skates by Kirstin Holum]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Levy's legacy is far greater than his four memorable losses. [Marv Levy]
B/W PHOTO: UPI/CORBIS-BETTMANN Wills Moody was foremother to power players like Navratilova. [Helen Wills Moody]
Monday was the 10th anniversary of Pete Maravich's death. We
remember the Pistol numerically.
Players (Maravich, Paul Arizin, Rick Barry) who have led the
NCAA and the NBA in single-season scoring.
College players (No. 1 Maravich, No. 7 Oscar Robertson and No.
10 Elvin Hayes) among the top 10 in career scoring who played
before the era of freshman eligibility.
College players (Maravich) who averaged more than 40 points a
game in each of three seasons.
College seasons in which Maravich, whose scoring averages from
1967-68 to 1969-70 were 43.8, 44.2 and 44.5 points per game,
played with the three-point field goal and a shot clock.
Games in which Maravich scored, respectively, at least 50 points
and at least 40 points, both NCAA records.
Free throws (out of 31 attempts) made by Maravich on Dec. 22,
1969, against Oregon State, still an NCAA record and two more
than Wilt Chamberlain's NBA mark.
ART ON ICE
Kirstin Holum, a senior at Pius XI High in Milwaukee who holds
the U.S. speed skating record in the 3,000 meters, says she will
retire after the Winter Olympics and has applied to several art
schools. She has designs on a career as an illustrator.
Herewith, two examples of her work:
THIS WEEK'S SIGN THAT THE APOCALYPSE IS UPON US
Twenty-five years after his celebrated catch in the Pittsburgh
Steelers' victory over the Oakland Raiders in the first playoff
game held at Three Rivers Stadium, Franco Harris is hawking a
cellular-phone service that promises "immaculate reception."
THEY SAID IT
Seattle SuperSonics broadcaster, calling the action during a
recent game against the Sacramento Kings: "Corliss [Williamson]
is going to go the amphibious route, changing from the right to
the left hand."