GOING WHOLE HOG
The NBA starts a new season this week in which the number of teams that qualify for the playoffs will be increased from 12 to 16. This means that the league's 23 teams will labor through an 82-game schedule whose sole purpose will be to eliminate just seven of them. In expanding its playoff format, the NBA is following the dubious lead of the NHL, which renders its regular season similarly meaningless by qualifying 16 teams for the playoffs. And the NHL, remember, has only 21 clubs to begin with. It plays an 80-game schedule to eliminate exactly five teams.
The reason the pro leagues are willing to turn their regular-season games into jokes by qualifying so many teams for the playoffs, of course, is that postseason games are more lucrative. Fine, but we wonder why the pros don't go whole hog, simply dispense with the regular season and launch immediately into playoffs, with everybody qualifying. The scheme we have in mind would go roughly like this: The playoffs would begin with best-of-15 series in the early rounds, then move on to a best-of-25 round and conclude, in the championship round, with a best-of-35-showdown. In the interest of generating the most revenue possible, teams that are eliminated would automatically go into consolation playoffs that would proceed along the same lines as the championship playoffs.
But wait, you haven't heard the best part. When their respective playoffs have finally run their course, the newly crowned NBA and NHL champs would meet in yet another playoff series. A best-of-11 deal for that one sounds just about right to us. Whether the two teams played hockey or basketball would depend on which sport made the most dough during its own playoffs. Who would want it any other way?
BLOCK THAT BLOCK
After his team's 22-19 loss in overtime to the Colts on Sept. 25, Chicago Bears Coach Mike Ditka punched a locker and broke his right hand. During a 23-14 loss to the Vikings on Oct. 9, Ditka berated officials and screamed at his players, some of whom complained publicly after the game about his outbursts. Ditka later promised to be cooler under fire, but that proved easier said than done. His latest excess occurred during a 31-17 loss to Detroit on Oct. 16, when, before a Lions kickoff late in the game, Ditka instructed rookie Safety Dave Duerson to "get" Detroit Kicker Eddie Murray.
The incident happened after the Lions' Eric Hippie scored the game's final touchdown with an eight-yard run on a fake field-goal attempt. Murray was the kicker and Hippie the holder, and they chortled on the field about Hippie's touchdown because, as it turned out, the fake was a mistake; Murray had thought he heard an audible to fake the kick. On Murray's subsequent kickoff, while the other Bears formed a blocking wedge, Duerson shot upfield straight at Murray. The Lion kicker saw Duerson coming and hit the ground, but Duerson drove into him. Murray writhed in pain; he said he suffered a dislocated shoulder that popped back into place.
No penalty was called on the play, and even Lions Coach Monte Clark conceded that the hit by Duerson had been legal. For his part, Ditka said that Duerson's action was "part of football." Ditka also insisted that Duerson had barely hit Murray and that the Lion kicker really wasn't hurt.
But Ditka's attempts to justify his actions weren't persuasive. The hit on Murray may have been "legal," but only because the NFL has no specific rule against deliberate attempts to inflict injury. After the game Ditka was quoted as saying that he'd told Duerson to "block Murray," as one account had it, or to "go out there and take out the kicker," according to another. Duerson said the coach's words were, "Go get him." Although those instructions might ordinarily be interpreted as referring to a blocking assignment, the circumstances of the game suggested otherwise; a 170-pound placekicker is hardly the likeliest man to be singled out for special blocking attention. Ditka seemed to be about the only one who thought the hit was "part of football." Duerson was visibly startled by Ditka's order and said that when the coach told him to get Murray, "I was baffled, but I didn't argue. I'm just a rookie." Two other Bears, Kicker Bob Thomas and Safety Gary Fencik, apologized to Murray for their coach's actions.
An NFL spokesman said that Commissioner Pete Rozelle was reviewing a tape of the play. Under his broad powers to impose discipline for actions detrimental to the game, Rozelle could "block" the Bears' volatile coach with a fine. Better yet, he ought to "take him out" with a suspension.
After a sweltering 100° day topped off by a late-afternoon cloudburst, thousands of crickets swarmed across center court at the Sul Ross Tennis Center in Waco, Texas during the first set of a match on the USTA men's satellite circuit between Robert Trogolo and Rolando Vazquez. As squashed crickets piled up on the court, the footing became so hazardous that the match had to be postponed until the next morning, when Trogolo completed a 6-3, 7-6 victory. Proving himself admirably resourceful at his craft, Art Newcomb, a public relations man for the sponsoring United States Tennis Association, came up with a way for operators of the host club to capitalize on the otherwise embarrassing occurrence. He suggested that they rename their facility the Sul Ross Tennis Center and Cricket Club.
An eagerly awaited plan by Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William D. Ruckelshaus to combat acid rain has reportedly been put off indefinitely because of opposition from other influential members of the Reagan Administration. The New York Times quoted unnamed EPA officials as saying that they expected some sort of action to be taken eventually, and one of them insisted, "We are not dead in the water." Considering the damage that acid rain is known to be doing to aquatic life in lakes in the Northeastern U.S. and Eastern Canada, that unintentionally ironic comment could, if Washington's foot-dragging continues, turn out to be a case of wishful thinking.
MULL IT OVER AND ANSWER SLOWLY
The Dumbest Question of the Week Award goes to the fellow on the public address system at Latonia Race Course in Florence, Ky., who, according to Variety, was interviewing a horseplayer who'd just won $10,000 in cash and a lifetime pass to the track in a drawing. The PA. man actually asked him, "What do you intend to do with the money?"
It happened on the Orioles' bus ride back to Baltimore after the fifth and final game of their World Series triumph over the Phillies, and it drew a big laugh from members of baseball's championship team. As the bus reached the Delaware line on Interstate 95, the driver announced on the intercom: "We have just left Pennsylvania, home of the world-champion Philadelphia..." There was a long pause before the driver finished the sentence: "...76ers."
"HE SHOWED EVERYONE WHO WAS BOSS"
The great racehorse Kelso (right,) died last week at the age of 26 at Woodstock Farm near Chesapeake City, Md. Staff Writer Franz Lidz filed this appreciation:
Kelso passed his final days like an old pensioner hanging out with his pals in a park. He shared a pasture with three other thoroughbreds. He was buddies with another gelding. Sea Spirit, who won the New Jersey Futurity in 1961. They grazed in the paddock and ambled across the hillside, and for much of the year they stabled in the same barn. Kelly and Pete, the grooms called them.
Kelso was one of the finest athletes of the 1960s. The five-time Horse of the Year carried as much as 136 pounds yet ran farther and faster than any other thoroughbred of his generation. He ran everything from six furlongs to two miles and was never beaten at the latter distance, breaking the American two-mile record at age seven. He finished in the money 53 times in 63 races, and despite skipping the Triple Crown in 1960 because his trainer, Carl Hanford, decided to bring him along slowly, won $1,977,896. Only John Henry, Spectacular Bid, Trinycarol and Affirmed have won more.
In his heyday Kelso was the most pampered of equine creatures. He bedded down on soft sugarcane shavings. Allaire du Pont, his owner and breeder, had pure spring water flown in for him from Little Rock, Ark., and his admirers sent him personalized sugar cubes with his name on the wrapper. After his retirement busloads of fans used to come to the farm to see him. Five hundred letters a week were stuffed into his private mailbox. For a time he even inspired his own monthly newsletter.
In recent years Kelso would hang his head over the top rail of a fence at Woodstock and watch young horses run on the farm track. He still appeared fit enough to race, though like a boxer out of training, his weight had shifted mostly to his midriff. Actually, he looked a lot better than most retired boxers. His teeth were long, and his ribs and flanks were more dappled than the railbirds at Aqueduct or Belmont would have remembered, but his coat was still a rich dark bay, and his eyes were bright and alert.
Kelso's old companion, Charlie Potatoes, a lopsided stable dog, died a number of years ago. "Kelso was so fond of him," recalls du Pont. "He grieved for Charlie when he died. He sulked about and hung his head and wouldn't eat as heartily."
One of Kelso's favorite grooms was Debby Ferguson, a slim, blonde woman two years younger than he. Kelso, she says, was "partial to girls." Ferguson fed Kelso crimped oats in a big yellow bucket tied to the fence. Kelso was particular about what he ate. He'd only eat apples as an hors d'oeuvre, not as a dessert. A blacksmith came every month to trim his hooves, but Kelso would really only get ornery when the veterinarian came to give him his annual worming. "Kelso had to show everyone who was boss," says Gene Moore, his longtime caretaker.
The mailbox bearing Kelso's name was still there when he died, but the paint was peeling. In his old age, Kelso wasn't forgotten, but his correspondence had dwindled, and his newsletter had been discontinued. "I think Kelso's fans just grew up and had their own things to do," says du Pont. "He'd get a few cards for Christmas and Easter, but nothing like there used to be." But that was O.K., because Kelso never read them anyway.
THEY SAID IT
•Joe Salem, Minnesota football coach, before the 1-6 Gophers lost by a score of 19-8 Saturday to 1-6 Northwestern: "This is the battle of the movable defense versus the stoppable force."
•Robert Finch, California's former lieutenant governor, urging residents of that state to offer housing to visiting midshipmen and cadets when the Army-Navy game is played in Pasadena next month: "These fine young men and women are the best kind of guests. They're experts at making their own beds."
•Jacob Green, Seattle Seahawk defensive end, objecting to the statistical designation of "half-sacks": "What's that—a Baggie?"