A BENNY FOR YOUR THOUGHTS
"It's not that Jack Benny's cheap," Fred Allen used to say, "it's just that he has short arms and keeps his wallet deep in his pocket." Boy, would Benny have hated to own a USFL franchise. As the league prepares to shift next year from a spring to a fall schedule, owners will have to start paying players in March or, under a collective bargaining agreement with their union, risk losing them. And because none of the networks wanted to cover the USFL's fall season, the teams will have little or no TV money coming in to help pay the freight.
But two teams, Los Angeles and San Antonio, don't look to have payroll problems, considering that they don't look to have payrolls. Both may fold after the season or merge with other clubs. Having regularly fallen 85,000 seats short of filling the 90,000-seat Coliseum, the Express played its home finale, a 21-10 loss to Arizona last week, at Pierce College. The Houston Gamblers will soon lower their stakes by dealing out some front-office personnel. The Baltimore Stars, late of Philadelphia, lost their front office altogether. They were evicted from their digs in Philly's Veterans Stadium.
The question of where to play suddenly looms large for two owners, Tampa Bay's John Bassett and Doug Spedding of Denver. They've dropped talk of seceding and forming yet another spring league, but face possible stadium problems and head-on fall rivalries with the resident NFL teams. Which doesn't rule out detente. L.A. Raiders owner Al Davis says he wants the NFL to have a spring farm system. The USFL might be just what Davis has in mind.
That diminished status has already been conferred on the upstart league by the L.A. Rams' Eric Dickerson. When New Jersey's Herschel Walker broke his single-season rushing record Monday, Dickerson said snidely, "I did it in the majors, and he did it in the minors."
MEAT BOMB HITS THE BIG APPLE
This being the 25th anniversary of the sister-city accord between Tokyo and New York (as well as the 30th birthday of Godzilla), Japanese sports officials felt it propitious to introduce the ancient sport of sumo wrestling to America. And so last week New York City was swept by a sumo tsunami. Kimono-clad giants with nicknames like Meat Bomb and Sea Slug obliged TV cameras by stalking the subways and even sanctifying the sidewalk in front of City Hall.
For the occasion, Madison Square Garden, often home to Hulk Hogan and the hokum of pro wrestling, was hung with a Shinto shrine roof flown in from the Far East. Instead of piledrivers and four-figure leg locks and flying metal chairs, the audience got three days of formal etiquette and channeled aggression. Sumo wrestlers play by the rules.
Despite their silken G-strings, pomaded topknots and barrel-bellies, sumotori are not to be laughed at. They're part of an honored tradition. They develop their distinctive stomachs for a reason: It keeps their centers of gravity low.
Sumo is nine-tenths anticipation; a match's drama comes during the rites that precede it. The two contestants enter the 15-foot ring, face each other and crouch, balancing balletically on their toes. They clap their hands, lift their legs to the side, stomp the ground with their feet. Then each retires to his corner, takes up a handful of purifying salt and casts it in the ring before returning to squat and glare. The opponents repeat the cycle several times, like nervous hockey players circling before the face-off.
After all this macho posturing, the bouts are over in a few furious seconds—as soon as one man touches the ground with anything but his feet or goes out of the ring. The long prelude and swift denouement suit the Japanese psychology, according to press handouts, "in the same way that cherry blossoms are profoundly appreciated despite, or because of, their habit of falling to the ground within three days."
Tournament organizers didn't think Garden crowds would be too receptive to some of the ceremony, so they cut down the prebout rituals to two minutes. But spectators cheered lustily for a 21-year-old Hawaiian named Salevaa (Meat Bomb) Atisnoe who, at 490 pounds, is the heaviest wrestler in sumo memory. He's also the only American in the sport.
While in Manhattan, Meat Bomb expounded on break-dancing. "I can pop and I can lock, but I no can break," he told The Wall Street Journal. "That means I can't spin on my head, man."
ROCK IN BOULDER
Bruce Springsteen comes to Boulder about as often as the University of Colorado wins Big Eight football titles. Now the rock star with the rusty-bucket pipes probably won't show at all. The Colorado athletic department refuses to give up Folsom Field for Springsteen concerts scheduled for Sept. 4 and 5, because that would "disrupt preparation" for the Buffaloes' Sept. 7 opener with Colorado State. By giving the Boss the E Street Shuffle, the department is passing up as much as $200,000 in potential revenues from concessions and its share of the gate, and the student body's activities fund loses out on $80,000. And, of course, everyone misses a chance to see somebody play well at Folsom Field.
GOOD NIGHT, SWEET PRINCE
If Curt Gowdy sounds like everybody's brother-in-law, Bob Prince was the favorite uncle. Known as the Gunner, the Pittsburgh Pirates broadcaster, who died last week at 68, scattered opinions like shells from a tommy gun. His loud sport coats tended to resemble test patterns, and his game voice was sandpaperish, as if strained through warning track gravel. In Prince's partisan play-by-play, Bucco line drives landed foul "by a gnat's eyelash." And if his team came back to win on a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth, he'd still crow, "We had 'em all the way."
The phrase "Shut up, Prince!" found wide currency in Pittsburgh during the talk-talk-talk of his 41-year broadcasting career. "I've got to get to the booth," he once told a dinner companion. "A million people are waiting to turn me off."
Prince was at his wiliest when broadcasting games he didn't actually see. He and early partner Rosey Rowswell would take the action pitch by pitch from Western Union at a studio in Pittsburgh's Keystone Hotel. Prince would improvise everything from outfield collisions to run-ins with umpires. When a Pirate hit a homer, Rowswell would scream, "Get upstairs. Aunt Minnie, and open the window." Prince, perched on a chair, would drop a tray of nuts and bolts on the floor. "Ah," Rowswell would say glumly. "Too late."
In those days, if the Pirates played at night, Prince was also expected to do an afternoon game off the ticker. But he insisted nobody was listening. To prove his point, Prince faked a game between the Giants and Cubs. "We had the wrong people hit home runs, the wrong score and then had it called by rain," he recalled. "The next day, after the true story of the game came out in the newspapers, the station didn't get a single letter protesting what we had done." Once again, Prince had 'em all the way.
THE EMBATTLED HYMN OF REPUBLIC
In the great actuarial tradition of Lloyd's of London, which wound up footing the bill for Bill Walton's punky left foot and took a bath in 1983 on a rain insurance policy for the Baltimore Orioles, Republic Insurance of Dallas has been taken for a ride by Spend a Buck. The 3-year-old colt's victories in the Cherry Hill Mile, the Garden State Stakes, the Kentucky Derby and the Jersey Derby entitled him to a $2 million bonus. Garden State Park officials hedged their bet by paying Republic a reported $150,000 premium to protect against the possibility of one horse sweeping all four races.
This was the firm's first and probably last venture into horse racing insurance. Republic has apparently decided racing claims are even less profitable than claiming races.
SERPENTS IN THE GARDEN BRING ON A GUAMIAN PLAGUE
A decade ago the jungly, volcanic island of Guam was aflutter with brightly plumed tropical birds. But since then island-hopping snakes have threatened to wipe out the avian population of the U.S. territory. The Guam rail was once so profuse that it was legally hunted, but now about the only place you can find one is a stateside zoo. The same goes for the Micronesian kingfisher and the Marianas crow. Three other species that evolved there—the bridled white-eye, the Guam broadbill and the rufus-fronted fantail—are extinct.
At first scientists scoffed when locals reported that snakes were eating the birds. They figured disease, pesticides or encroaching development was behind the bird loss. But ornithologists have come to blame Guam's growing number of brown tree snakes, a species indigenous to the South Pacific. The snakes may have established a beachhead on Guam with U.S. troops during World War II, though nobody knows for sure. In Indonesia, 1,400 miles south of Guam as the Marianas crow used to fly, birds fool brown tree snakes by building their nests on twigs too small for the snakes to slither across. And black apes find the reptiles to be pretty good eating. But on Guam there are no apes or other natural enemies for the tree snakes, which have found the local birds plump, tasty and as innocent as Eve about the wiles of serpents. That's why Guam's current census is 115,000 humans, three million tree snakes and fewer and fewer birds. In fact, there are so many snakes that people often return home to find one of them wrapped around their budgie cage.
The U.S. has sent a team of biologists to the Solomon Islands to study the boigaus irregularis in its native haunts. Some folks have suggested bringing in mongooses to combat the plague of snakes, but that hasn't worked anywhere else. Nor is there much enthusiasm for importing black apes from Indonesia. "We don't think it's advisable to dabble with nature," said Dr. Tom Fritz, a herpetologist with U.S. Fish and Wildlife. "All too often the introduction of an animal, insect or reptile to combat an existing problem merely results in another problem that could be even more serious."
Even if Guam can get rid of its tree snakes, there's still the challenge of reintroducing the birds to the island. If the case of Guam's lone surviving rail is any indication, reacclimating the birds to their original habitat won't be easy. According to Philadelphia Zoo ornithologist Larry Shelton, the rail was raised in captivity and seems to think he's human. "He loves to go for car rides," says Shelton. "But he doesn't identify with the other birds. When they put him in with females, he beats them up."
THEY SAID IT
•Benny Ayala, Cleveland Indians outfielder, after taking a called third strike with a 2 and 1 count on the scoreboard: "You can't trust anything these days."
•Jim Valvano, North Carolina State basketball coach, told by the owner of a luggage store in Florence, Italy that the Pope had shopped there: "I didn't know the Pope shopped."