Why shouldn't baseball wear its commercial heart on its sleeve?
If the proposal floated last week by Major League Baseball to
sell ad space on uniforms goes through, tomorrow's baseball
player is going to look like a NASCAR driver. Or worse, like
Greg Norman. But where did you think we were headed? It has been
a long time since professional sports have functioned as
anything beyond an advertising vehicle, a flimsy pretext for
some corporate presentation, so nobody should get too excited if
baseball decides to sell commercial space on uniform sleeves.
This isn't the start down a slippery slope. While outrage is
predictable--you think a little barking Chihuahua on pinstripes
might rouse a purist or two?--this is a path we all chose long
ago. If part of our nostalgia is a ballpark with HIT THIS SIGN,
WIN A SUIT emblazoned on its outfield wall, then let GAP signs
in the gaps, as at seven major league parks now, be part of our
sports heritage as well.
The fact that we haven't seen ads on uniforms sooner is the
mystery (or would be, if you didn't know how backward baseball
leaders are). In an age when a player is identified as much by
his shoe company as by his team, it's only natural that his
branding power be flexed on the field. So let PowerBar (or some
other energy booster of choice) buy Mark McGwire's biceps. Short
of sandwich boards, which would compromise baserunning (though
not, presumably, McGwire's), what's the harm? This is America,
baby, home of the 30-second spot.
For traditionalists (old-timers who recall having seen the San
Francisco Giants play in Candlestick Park), I have an idea:
ad-free baseball. It would be an alternate league--the PBS of
sports--that would play in unadorned ballparks. There would be
no signage of any kind. Make George Will the commissioner; give
Ken Burns the broadcast rights.
Of course, as the only revenue would come from disgraced oil
companies eager to regain an aura of civic responsibility, there
would be little money for players. The game would feature lots
of sacrifice bunts and might acquire a following among
academics, who could argue over the hit-and-run, but for the
rest of us it would mostly be dull, hardly worth the bother of a
Rotisserie League. Even the national anthems, with all those
unemployed tenors looking for gigs between PBS fund-raisers,
would be off-putting to us lowbrows.
Anyway, that's not going to happen, is it? America is a nation
based on the idea of commercial opportunity, a country where
Burma Shave signs were part of the pioneer scenery, where ad
jingles are the day-to-day sound track. It's a name-brand
nation, where the real pastime is consumerism, not baseball. So
pardon me if the next time I hear "Batter up!" I think Bisquick,
not Sammy Sosa. --Richard Hoffer
State of Men's Tennis
Where Are the Stars?
Here's hoping that Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras found time to
check the results of the eight Davis Cup ties played last
weekend. The only two players ranked among the ATP tour's top 20
who chose not to represent their country in this, the
competition's centennial year, Sampras and Agassi would have
noticed that the U.S. earned a dramatic upset over Great
Britain, a victory made all the sweeter by their absence. And
that Slovakia stunned Sweden, the defending champ. And that
Brazil knocked off Spain, a team that featured two of the
world's top six players. In short, they might have grasped that
the joke is on them and that the Davis Cup still carries plenty
of prestige. "This is as good as it gets," said Jim Courier
after beating Greg Rusedski 6-4, 6-7, 6-3, 1-6, 8-6 in a
gripping match to clinch the U.S. win.
Alas, the sort of inspired, fight-to-the-death play seen last
weekend has been all too rare in men's tennis lately. A
time-honored complaint on the ATP tour is that there's no
off-season, and this year the male players apparently decided to
take action. Or inaction. Of the top five players at the end of
1998, none have won a tournament this year. Consider Sampras:
His long-avowed career goal has been to eclipse the alltime
record for Grand Slam titles, but he launched the work slowdown
by skipping the Australian Open. Instead of participating in the
first major of the year, he played in a celebrity golf
tournament. In the three months since, he has won seven matches,
as many as he usually wins in two weeks at Wimbledon.
As of Monday, Sampras was still ranked No.1, however, because
the somnambulant players' movement has such solidarity. Pat
Rafter, winner of last year's U.S. Open, had a match record of
7-6 this year. Agassi, his body hair waxed and his confidence
waned, had beaten just one top 40 player in 1999. Marcelo Rios,
ranked No. 1 only a year ago, was down to No. 13. He may be
losing stature, but after getting blitzed by an unseeded foe,
Dominik Hrbaty, at the Lipton Championships two weeks ago, Rios
was holding fast to his Exxon Valdez-like reputation as a
tanker. Alex Corretja, last year's most consistent player, had
dropped seven of his last 10 matches.
The malaise among the top men comes at a time when women's
tennis is hotter than it's been in years. The WTA tour is flush
with a deep field and--get this--top players who regularly bring
their A game. We may have glimpsed the sport's future at the
Lipton when, after the usual spate of top-seed flameouts, the
men's final pitted Richard Krajicek against Sebastien Grosjean
in a match that drew ratings comparable to those for the Yule
log. The women served up the epochal Venus Williams-Serena
Williams title match. Before men's tennis gets blown off the
court by its female counterpart, the top male players would be
well served to make the passion and intensity evinced in the
Davis Cup the rule, not the exception.
The NFL on Y2K
Economies may crumble, nations may collapse, but the NFL will
play on after the millennium. The league's task force on the
year 2000 computer glitch is set to warn teams playing on the
road in the last week of next season--Sunday, Jan. 2, and
Monday, Jan. 3--that they need to get to their destinations by
Dec. 31 to avoid possible disruptions in air service caused by
the Y2K problem.
"We're continuing to plod through all the information we're
gathering and making contingency plans to prepare for the
worst," says Jodi Balsam, NFL counsel for operations and
litigation. As if millennial chaos weren't bad enough, the
Arizona Cardinals now face the daunting task of finding hotel
space in that New Year's Eve hot spot, Green Bay.
NCAA Eligibility Mess
Fear of Commitment
It would seem that college football coaches would be angry that
a federal appeals court in Philadelphia issued a stay in the
Proposition 16 case (SCORECARD, March 22) last week, restoring
for now the NCAA's academic requirements for incoming freshmen.
In fact, a lot of coaches are breathing a little easier. The
NCAA limits schools to 25 football scholarships a year, but many
coaches sign more recruits than that on the assumption that some
won't qualify under the Prop 16 guidelines. The sudden
eligibility of all recruits would put schools on the hook for
those scholarships--and their athletic departments in possible
violation of NCAA scholarship limits.
The practice of overcommitting is widespread in the SEC. For
example, this spring Alabama signed 30 recruits, Auburn and
Georgia 28, Kentucky and LSU 27. The letter of intent is legally
binding, assuming the athlete qualifies academically, but
coaches who overcommit usually identify players on the bubble
and work out an arrangement with them before signing them. They
offer the option of walking on, enrolling in January or going to
junior college (with a promise down the road) if the player
qualifies under Prop 16 but the school has no scholarships left.
The complicated juggling act gives coaches a deeper pool of
players from which to recruit.
The appeals court could still uphold the trial judge's original
ruling, throwing eligibility rules back into chaos. If that
happens before the start of next football season, says an
official close to the NCAA's National Letter of Intent
Committee, "coaches who intentionally oversigned this year might
find themselves in a much graver situation. The door opens for a
free-for-all." Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville remains unfazed.
"We'll oversign as long as they'll let us," he says.
An Age-old Problem
When Missouri basketball coach Norm Stewart, 64, retired last
week after 32 years of guiding the Tigers, he left behind an
impressive record: 731 victories (seventh-highest all time),
eight conference championships and 16 NCAA tournament
appearances. Yet while Stewart is revered in his home state,
storm clouds had been gathering around Stormin' Norman since
midway through last season, when reports of conflicts between
him and his players surfaced. Although Stewart insisted that the
retirement was his decision, many close to the team believe
Stewart left under pressure from athletic director Mike Alden
and several players, who reportedly threatened to transfer if
Stewart's case is one example of a growing trend in which colts
are replacing old (and successful) horses on the coaching
carousel. Despite having taken Marquette to postseason play in
four of his five years there, coach Mike Deane, 47, was fired on
March 5 and replaced by 33-year-old former Michigan State
assistant Tom Crean. After Saint Louis coach Charlie Spoonhour,
59, retired, his spot was filled by former Pepperdine coach
Lorenzo Romar, 30. Then there was the case of Iowa coach Tom
Davis, 60, who was forced out despite taking the Hawkeyes to
nine NCAA tournaments and averaging more than 20 wins a season
in his 13 years in Iowa City. His replacement? Former Southwest
Missouri State coach Steve Alford, 34.
All of these callow coaches could turn out to be successful, but
the luster of youth may be fool's gold, warns Pete Newell, who
coached college basketball for 21 years and led Cal to the '59
NCAA title. "There's a tendency to come to the answer that older
coaches can't relate to younger players," says Newell, an
83-year-old who's still immensely popular with the young players
who attend his annual big men's camp. "The truth is they relate
to them in a different way. Some of these younger coaches are
all buddy-buddy, but that doesn't get it done. The most
important thing a coach can have from his team is respect. If
they respect you, they won't dislike you. But I think those
kinds of things are getting lost these days."
Just ask Stewart. At week's end the leading candidate to replace
him was Quin Snyder, who has been an assistant at Duke for four
years. Snyder is 32.
Connecticut's NCAA Title
The Key to Victory
Connecticut may owe its national basketball championship to
divine intervention--in the form of Bowie Kuhn. That's right.
In March 1998, Kuhn, the former commissioner of major league
baseball, donated his memorabilia collection to the Baseball
Hall of Fame, which, according to Kuhn's wishes, in '98
forwarded some items that it didn't want to Sister Shaun
Vergauwen, 64, the vicar general of the Franciscan Sisters of
the Eucharist in Meriden, Conn., and the director of the
Franciscan Life Center. One of the tchotchkes in the Kuhn stash
was a gold tie clip connected to a small key bearing the
inscription ST. PETERSBURG. Instead of including the tie clip
and key in the annual silent auction to raise funds for the
Franciscan Life Center, in April '98 Sister Shaun sent it to a
friend she thought could use it.
That friend was Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun, who has known
Sister Shaun since she invited him to speak at the nuns' spring
banquet in 1988. Mindful that St. Pete was hosting the '99 Final
Four, she enclosed a note. "Here's the key," she wrote. "We'll
be here next year."
Jim's wife, Pat, carried the talisman in her pocket during every
UConn game this season and kept it next to the Madonna in the
Calhouns' bedroom the rest of the time. True to her word, Sister
Shaun was on hand in St. Petersburg on March 29 to watch the
Huskies win the title. "It was the best game I've ever seen,"
says Sister Shaun, who told Kuhn of the cosmic connection last
That leaves one obvious question: Will the woman in the habit
make gifts to Calhoun a habit? Does she have a key to
Indianapolis, site of next year's Final Four? "I haven't found
anything yet," says Sister Shaun. "I'm keeping my eyes open,
TWO COLOR ILLUSTRATIONS: ILLUSTRATIONS BY FRED HARPER
COLOR PHOTO: AP/ALASTAIR GRANT HOWDY, DUTY Courier brilliantly answered America's Davis Cup call.
COLOR PHOTO: STEVE SPATAFORE
COLOR PHOTO: AP/LOUIS LANZANO MAURICE ASHLEY
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN CUNEO
--That we never get stuck behind Jim Harrick in the drive-thru
lane at McDonald's.
--That the Bronx Zoo resident dubbed a "fat toad" by the Boss
turns into a prince this season.
--That we get through one day of Masters coverage without
hearing the phrase "golf's cathedral."
Age of Fran Pinhey, a grandmother and an assistant coach for the
Coast Guard Academy baseball team.
Price of the handmade suit each U.S. Ryder Cup player will wear
to social functions during the matches this September, according
Combined free throw percentage through Sunday of Sonics center
Vin Baker (44 of 106) and forward Olden Polynice (19 of 75).
Rank of Jordan in popularity among first names of boys born in
the U.S. in 1983.
Rank of Jordan in 1998.
Emergency room visits annually by Americans injured in bleacher
Rank that Pittsburgh's Jaromir Jagr would hold in NHL scoring,
through Sunday, counting only his assists (82).
Percent rise in the average price of a ticket to a big league
ball game since 1991.
Percent rise in the consumer price index since '91.
Do It Yourself
Before donning a flight suit, customers of Flyaway Indoor
Skydiving in Las Vegas sign a waiver that warns, "You can be
seriously injured or even killed." For $35 you get a thrilling
but strenuous three-minute flight in a vertical wind tunnel on a
120-mph column of air created by a DC-3 propeller driven by a
1,000-horsepower engine. Outfitted with elbow pads, a baggy
jumpsuit, earplugs, goggles and helmet, you lie on the wire-mesh
floor and wait for the wind's lift, then extend perpendicular to
the airflow with chin up, arms and legs forming an X, toes
pointed, knees bent slightly. And, oh, yeah, you can be
seriously injured or even killed (though no one has bought the
farm, so far). Don't forget to smile.
UNLIKE MANY top chess players, Maurice Ashley wasn't a prodigy.
The Brooklynite didn't pick up a pawn until he was 14, but once
he started playing, he was hooked. "It was like falling in
love," he says. "It was electrifying." Ashley sought to carry
his passion to kids in the inner city. "The great thing about
chess is the more you play, the more you develop critical
thinking skills," he says. "You set goals, solve problems and
strategize. These translate into real life." For six years
Ashley coached youth teams with names like the Dark Knights and
the Raging Rooks before deciding to focus on his own game. Last
month at a Manhattan Chess Club tournament he beat Romania's
Adrian Negulescu to become the first African-American
grandmaster. "The community is so happy and proud," says Ashley,
33, "and I'm happy to make other people happy."
RIDER'S RAP SHEET
ON MARCH 31 the NBA hit Portland's Isaiah Rider with a one-game
suspension for entering the stands during a 93-90 loss to Golden
State. The same day he and the Blazers were sued by a fan who
says Rider spit on him during a 1997 game. That wasn't the first
time Rider ran afoul of league or law. Some highlights (space
precludes listing all of his team suspensions):
March 1993 Suspended by UNLV for turning in papers that were in
someone else's handwriting and had his first name misspelled
October 1993 Arrives hours late to first NBA practice, with
T-Wolves; says he was caught in traffic and missed flight from
March 1994 Kicks woman during dispute at mall; later convicted
of misdemeanor assault
December 1994 Calls press conference to respond to Minnesota
coach Bill Blair's suggestion that he grow up; asks
rhetorically, "What's growing up have to do with basketball?"
January 1995 Tells reporter who asks him about a missed flight,
"I know people who can take you out"
August-September 1995 Serves four days in jail for violating
parole on the '94 assault conviction
March 1996 Argues after getting tossed from game with the Jazz;
chided by mother, Donna, who strides onto court and tells him to
take ejection like a man
June 1996 Cited for possession of illegal cell phone while
hanging out in Oakland with pal Donnie Ray Davis, convicted
rapist and crack dealer
July 1996 Arrested for shooting craps on Oakland street corner
March 1997 Misses Blazers' charter to Phoenix; when charter
reps refuse his demand to fly him there on another plane, shouts
obscenities, spits at an employee, smashes a cell phone; catches
commercial flight to Phoenix the next day; misses team bus to
America West Arena
November 1997 Serves two-game NBA suspension after conviction
for marijuana possession
November 1997 Suspended by NBA for three games for spitting at
February 1998 Suspended by Blazers for one game for walking out
of arena before the end of a win over Lakers
February 1998 Speculates that FBI or "racist sniper" is after him
February 1999 Cited by Portland police for speeding, careless
driving, driving without license
March 1999 Suspended by NBA for one game for kneeing Kings' Jon
March 1999 Cited by Portland police for driving without
license, driving without insurance, "speed racing"
THIS WEEK'S SIGN THAT THE APOCALYPSE IS UPON US
The Tallahassee Democrat's Web site features a clock that counts
down the time in days, hours, minutes and seconds until Aug. 28,
the date of the Florida State football opener.
THEY SAID IT
Mavericks forward: "We're 9-18, but we could easily be 19-9."