Sometime soon, the New York State Racing and Wagering Board will render a most important judgment when it decides what to do about the licenses of jockeys Angel Cordero Jr., Jorge Velasquez, Eddie Maple, Mike Venezia, Jaime Arellano and Marco Casteneda and former riders (now trainers) Braulio Baeza, Heliodoro Gustines and Jean Cruguet.
All were accused of fixing races in New York State in the mid-'70s, during the trial of ex-jockey Con Errico, who was convicted in federal court in 1980 on a racketeering charge. Last week the New York board concluded three weeks of highly publicized and long-overdue hearings. Though the proceedings were hampered by the death in 1976 of a prospective key witness, the short memories or unlikely na‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√≤vetè about ways to manipulate races of witnesses who testified, and the board's inability to call still others from outside the state, certain facts were made obvious: Nearly a score of New York races were fixed with more than a million dollars in ill-gotten "winnings" going to mob-connected gamblers. The tooth fairy didn't fix those races.
It was also obvious that if self-described "Master Fixer" Tony Ciulla had not charged in this magazine (Nov. 6, 1978) that, through intermediaries, he paid jockeys, including some of the aforementioned, to rig races. New York's racing Establishment might well have swept the suspect races under the rug.
July 26, 1981
In fact, Ciulla, who's a participant in the Federal Protected Witness Program and whose testimony in race-fixing trials in four states over the past three years has led to 62 indictments, 23 convictions and 16 guilty pleas, says he thought so little of the New York proceedings that he refused to appear at them, unless he was paid $100,000. "But these hearings are a whitewash," he told The New York Times last week. "If there's a case, the Government should be indicting people. If they don't have a case, then why is the board going through this exercise unless it wants to make a big show of being on the up and up, shaking their heads and then sweeping the whole thing away?"
Nonetheless, the racing Establishment now seems to have run out of rug. The board has the authority to revoke or suspend state racing licenses, and the hearings produced possible grounds for such action. While it's uncertain what the board will ultimately do, one thing it can't do, and maintain even a scintilla of credibility, is fail to act. Any suspensions, of course, can be contested in the courts by the jockeys and trainers. But would they be contested? The word along the backstretch is that the last thing the accused jockeys want is to have their activities scrutinized by the courts.
NAME THAT TUNE
The organizers of a recent track meet in Gateshead, England, in which the host country, Scotland, Italy and Ethiopia competed, had the best of intentions, but that hardly mattered to the Ethiopians. After a few bars of the Ethiopian national anthem were played, the 30 members of that nation's team stalked angrily off the track. Meet officials scratched their heads until they were told the reason. The anthem they had chosen was the one first played at the coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1930. The Emperor was deposed by the Ethiopian military in 1974 and, not surprisingly, so was the anthem. The meet's public address announcer tried to soothe the Ethiopians' feelings by saying, "We have played the wrong national anthem and we have done the young Socialist Republic of Ethiopia a great discourtesy." After much rummaging around, another recording was found that sounded quite different, but it turned out to be an alternate version of the same anthem.
Now the announcer tried a different tack. "May we have a few moments of silence for the Socialist Republic of Ethiopia," he said. But that didn't bring the athletes back out, either.
Finally meet organizer Andy Norman entered the Ethiopians' dressing room and asked Manager Nigussie Roba, "Will you bring your team out on the track and get them to sing the anthem to us?"
The Ethiopians proudly filed onto the track and, led by Berhanu Girma, a 21-year-old accountant, sang a slightly stuttering rendition of Ethiopia Kidemi, the new socialist anthem.
He plays the game with great relish, though he never hot-dogs. He may appear clownish at times, but he says he doesn't let the fans get him down, not even when they yell, "Keep your eyes on your fries," as he comes up to bat. The kid deserves a break. His name? Ronald MacDonald, and he plays for the Tidewater Tides, the Mets' Triple A farm team in Norfolk, Va.
"People always ask me how my mother and father could've named me Ronald MacDonald," says the 24-year-old first baseman, who at week's end was batting .262 with seven homers for the Tides. "Well, I was born 10 years before the other Ronald McDonald started hawking hamburgers." Just which Ronald he was came into question recently when he dropped a pop fly with two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the eighth inning against the Columbus Clippers, allowing two runners to score and tie the' game at 7-7. After that the Tides had to play more or less ketchup ball. Few people booed. After all, these are minor league Met fans, and MacDonald may well be the best thing to happen to the organization since Marvelous Marv Throneberry.
"I'm happy to have a name people recognize," says MacDonald. "I'd rather be Ronald MacDonald than John Smith." And why not? While the big-leaguers were out on strike, MacDonald might have reaped a minor McBundle. Tides General Manager Dave Rosenfield has approached one of the club's sponsors to see if it wouldn't like to have Ronald shill for its product. The sponsor was Burger King. The response? Said MacDonald, "They wouldn't bite."
IN SEARCH OF...
Our baseball calendar read "July 14—All-Star Game—Cleveland," so we sent Reporter Franz Lidz to see what he could find there. Here is his report:
Everybody talks about how the fans miss baseball, but the people who are really starving are newspaper editors with five sports pages to fill and TV directors with a six-minute sports news hole. Last Monday, the 13th, hundreds of fans gathered in downtown Cleveland to boo the cancellation of the All-Star Game. A rock band played I Can't Get No (Satisfaction). But the next afternoon the media trooped to Municipal Stadium anyway, where they found a couple of local TV producers hunched over a table at home plate, tossing dice. They were playing Strat-O-Matic, which isn't a vegetable grater sold on late-night TV but a board game with charts and dice that simulates baseball action.
For the average baseball fan that would be about as exciting as dicing carrots, but for the underfed media, it's apparently as scrumptious as free veal piccata. Half a dozen reporters watched, even took notes. A dozen or so photographers and TV cameramen took pictures of rolling dice and cards turning. They reported the action as diligently as they cover each Pete Rose hit that inches him toward Ty Cobb's record. Strat-O-Matic claims to be suitable for everyone "ages 11 & up." "I guess that qualifies us," said one baseball writer, which may or may not have been true.
There were no roaring crowds, no rippling pennants, no Fernando Valenzuela. A teary-eyed Rocco Scotti belted out The Star-Spangled Banner. He wasn't crying over the baseball strike; he just-gets weepy whenever he sings the national anthem. Everything was scaled down, if not out. Instead of an organist, Scotti was accompanied by an accordionist. This was the first All-Star Game that sounded like an Italian wedding.
The great Bob Feller was set to toss out the ceremonial first dice when a TV news photographer pleaded, "Wait a minute. Bob. My battery just went dead."
"Mine has been dead for years," Feller replied.
The two producers rolled on as if they were at a craps table in Vegas. The centerfield scoreboard flashed statistics and an announcer brayed an echoing play-byplay to 77,000 empty seats. When a mock player got a mock hit, a kind of mock bubble-gum card was moved to a mock first base oh a mock diamond on a real folding card table. It was a mockery. The most heated action of the day came in the seventh inning, when a gust of wind blew Mike Easler's card out of the ersatz stadium and into the real world, where the baseball strike was still on.
The National League won 15-2, a score that prompted one reporter to say, "They ought to take this game back to the drawing board."
Up in the stands, stadium worker James Anderson watched while the media stood around home plate trying to pick an MVP for the fantasy game. Anderson brushed cobwebs from a seat unused for the last 40 days. "You know," he said, shaking his head, "it still don't beat the real thing."
HEEEEERE'S JOHN Y!
John Y. Brown may be better known outside his home state for peddling Kentucky Fried Chicken, folding the ABA Kentucky Colonels, trading the NBA Buffalo Braves to San Diego, severely crippling the Boston Celtics before selling them, and marrying the beauteous Phyllis George, than he is for being governor of Kentucky.
And now the fast-food entrepreneur turned sports-owner turned politician has taken it upon himself to turn around the University of Kentucky football team, which has suffered three straight losing seasons, 12 in the last 15, and 16 in the last 30. Not that losing has been the only thing. Rumors of point-shaving, an NCAA probation, and several instances of players being charged with felonies, have turned the Wildcats into something of a cruel state joke. ("Heard that Kentucky went 3-8 last year? Three convictions and eight acquittals.")
Brown decided the problem was Fran Curci, who has coached the Wildcats since 1973, so he quietly set in motion a scheme to replace him—with George Allen, the up-tempo former Los Angeles Ram and Washington Redskin coach, who now happens to work on CBS' pro football telecasts, as does Phyllis George Brown. It just so happened that Brown's plan didn't sit well with the university's president, Otis Singletary.
In an interview last week with Billy Reed of the Louisville Courier-Journal Brown said that his intrusion into university business was part of his job as governor—ensuring that the state has a positive image in all areas, including football. "A losing team for 30 years isn't good for the state," Brown said. He insisted that his displeasure with Curci has nothing to do with Curci's refusal to support Brown during Brown's 1979 gubernatorial campaign. "I like Fran," said Brown. "I just don't like his program."
And, not coincidentally, Phyllis likes George (Allen) and his program. A Washington Post reporter remembered that when Phyllis (George) profiled George (Allen) for CBS while he was with the Redskins, "He rolled out the red carpet for her, let her run laps with the team and she gushed all over him."
"Curci isn't the issue," said Singletary. "The issue is university control over university affairs."
By early last week it was rumored that the money to buy up the rest of Curci's five-year contract was already in a Lexington bank account. But the whole business ended when Allen suddenly announced that he was no longer interested in the job.
"Well, the establishment won out," said Brown. "Now we can look forward to [preserving] the great tradition of 30 years of losing."
Singletary and Curci weren't talking, but Brown kept on. "If I wanted to do it, it could have been done," he said.
FREE, WHITE AND 30
Since the NBA's Right of First Refusal system took effect this June, six free agents—from All-Stars to also-rans—have signed contracts that average more than $630,000 a season. So what are the chances that a highly marketable (read white), five-time all-star guard will land one, too? Pretty good, right?
Wrong, says lawyer Howard Slusher, who claims that one of his clients, free agent Paul Westphal, is being snubbed by even the league's biggest spenders. Last season, while with Seattle, Westphal suffered a stress fracture in his right foot and appeared in only 36 games, but after surgery he was given a clean bill of health. That's not the meat of the problem, according to Slusher.
"We sent letters out to seven teams about a month ago, and there hasn't been one inquiry about Paul's condition," he says. Slusher claims that there's little interest in Westphal because—are you sitting?—Westphal is white and approaching his 31st birthday. "What's happening is the stereotyping of white ballplayers," says Slusher. "Owners hear stress fracture and they immediately think of Doug Collins or Bill Walton. They're both white, so owners get scared."
Westphal says he "isn't ready to cry race by a long shot." Instead, he feels that the Right of First Refusal system—whereby a free agent's previous team can retain the player's services by matching the best offer from among the NBA's other clubs—is keeping interest low. Seattle owner Sam Schulman has reportedly said he will match any offer, which has had a tendency to make other teams reluctant to waste time courting Westphal.
While racial discrimination seems highly unlikely in light of the oft-heard complaint that there are too few white stars in the NBA, it's curious that teams that have expressed a desire for white players—New York and Boston are two that could use a backcourtman of Westphal's offensive prowess—haven't even taken a nibble at Westphal yet.
Come on, guys, they don't all heal alike.
THEY SAID IT
•Paul Harvey, ABC news commentator, after Jack Nicklaus shot an 83 in the first round of last week's British Open: "All my life I wanted to play golf like Jack Nicklaus, and now I do."
•Jonathan Kovler, managing partner of the Chicago Bulls, predicting that inflated contracts, like Magic Johnson's $25-million-for-25-years deal, will kill all but three NBA teams by 1987: "I'll own one and Magic will own the other two."
•Dan Pastorini, quarterback, who was traded last year by the Houston Oilers to the Oakland Raiders, reflecting on the fact that the man who traded him. Coach Bum Phillips, was subsequently fired by the Oilers: "I'm living proof that Bum always tries to keep his word. He said I'd be his quarterback as long as he coached the Oilers, and he only missed it by one year."