As the Aug. 6 deadline for a strike by major league players approached, baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth put himself squarely on the spot. In a radio interview last Friday, Ueberroth said, "I just really can't allow there to be a strike that shuts down America's national pastime. It's been shut down too many times in the past." He said much the same thing on Sunday at the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies: "We cannot allow these negotiations to fail."
While Ueberroth's statements conjure up an image of the commissioner riding in on a white charger to rescue the game in the nick of time, it also raises some nettlesome questions. Since Ueberroth has no legal means of preventing the players from striking—just as he couldn't force them to submit to his blanket drug-testing program—he could presumably only prevent a walkout by convincing the owners to capitulate to the players' demands. The commissioner may be a very persuasive man, but he is dealing with very stubborn men. The ultimate leverage he holds, of course, is a threat to resign his post, an embarrassment the owners would certainly like to avoid.
Ueberroth has a flair for the dramatic gesture, and perhaps he will pull this one off, either averting a strike at the 11th hour or settling one after a few days of darkness. He did settle last year's umpires' strike swiftly by coming down forcefully on the side of the umpires. But as one general manager put it last week, "If Peter thinks he can settle this like he settled the umpires' strike, he's smoking something. That was chicken feed compared to this."
Good luck, commissioner.
WHAT IF THEY HELD A PLAYOFF...
The United States Basketball League has found the perfect solution to decades of complaints about the length of sports seasons. It cut short its maiden campaign in mid-dribble. The league began with a 40-game schedule, but the players turned out to be too good. The NBA drafted 42% of them, and the start of this year's rookie camps left the seven USBL teams so shorthanded they couldn't finish the season. So the USBL canceled its last four weeks and crowned the league-leading Springfield Fame as champs without holding those bothersome playoffs. The league promises to be back next year with opening and closing dates that won't conflict with the NBA calendar.
...AND NOBODY PLAYED?
The USBL may have started something. The women's basketball tournament at last week's 12th Maccabiah Games in Israel wasn't played out, either.
The men's and women's finals were supposed to be played at Tel Aviv's Yad Eliahu stadium, which holds 10,000. But when the Canadian men balked at playing their bronze medal game against Brazil in 600-seat Kfar Hamaccabiah pavilion, it was decided that they would switch arenas with the women's finalists, the U.S. and Israel.
The Canadian men wound up winning 74—55 in the splendor of Yad Eliahu, where the U.S. men beat Israel for the gold medal. But not everyone was happy. The Israeli women took the switch to Kfar Hamaccabiah as a slight and forfeited the gold to the U.S., which diplomatically skipped the awards ceremony.
WHERE'D HE GET THEM REAPERS?
When Cyrus McCormack invented the reaper 154 years ago, it probably never occurred to him that someday his creations would be pitted against each other in battles to the death and leaps over cars at 40 mph. But then, old Cyrus never met Ernie Brookins, a canny North Dakota entrepreneur. Concluding that the dwindling popularity of tractor pulls had left a fallow but open field on the Midwestern state-fair circuit, Brookins has come up with two new uses for another piece of timesaving farm machinery, the combine.
The first is the Combine Demolition Derby, in which 12 of the 3½-ton behemoths plow into each other. The one left running wins. "We used to use 'em for thrashin'," says Brookins. "Now we use 'em for smashin'." The second is the Combine Jump, a form of Reaper Madness. Brookins climbs aboard his Coors Light Silver Bullet, guns its custom V-8 Chevy engine and blasts off from the top of a flatbed truck and over an automobile. "It's a 7,000-pound rig flying through the air with 40,000 pounds of thrust," says Brookins, who claims to harvest a fair living from his combine competitions. "It's an exciting thing to see." Suffice it to say, when the combine lands, it performs some serious furrowing.
HE DIDN'T NEED A FANCY PEDIGREE
Racing in an era of megabuck stallion syndications and ludicrously extravagant yearling prices, John Henry proved that a horse didn't need a fancy pedigree to become a champion. If John Henry didn't begin his career in the fashionable prep schools of Santa Anita and Belmont Park, no matter. When his owner, Sam Rubin, decided to retire him last week after he injured a knee in a workout at Hollywood Park, the 10-year-old gelding had been at the top of the game for years.
Born of undistinguished parents and sold as a yearling for $1,100, John Henry was gelded at two to calm his man-eating temper. He hit his stride in the spring of 1977 at an obscure little bullring called Jefferson Downs in Kenner, La., winning his maiden race by a desperate nose.
After letting him beat around in small stakes and claiming races for a year, his handlers put him on the grass. By the time he got off last Oct. 13, with a 2¾-length victory in the Ballantine Scotch Classic at the Meadowlands, the two-time Horse of the Year had won $6,597,947, more money than any thoroughbred in history.
For the last six years John Henry had run exclusively in stakes races, seldom getting an easy outing to tighten him for a harder one. He may have lacked the brilliance of Secretariat, the outrageous lick of Seattle Slew or the sheer ability of Spectacular Bid, but he was about as consistent as top horses get and as tough as hickory.
John Henry had personality, and rail-birds knew it. Returning to the winner's circle after a race, he would often stop and stare at the Teletimer, as if checking his speed. The doughty old campaigner kind of reminded you of Seabiscuit or Stymie. None had much breeding, but all achieved stardom after knocking about in cheap races early in their careers. And each became, in his time, the leading career money-winner.
Big John will most likely be turned out to pasture at the Kentucky Horse Park outside Lexington, in the shadow of Man o' War's statue. One of his neighbors will be Forego, the great gelding of the 1970s. For more years than we had a right to expect, John Henry graced this sport with his speed, pluck and fortitude. He earned his rest, but he'll be missed.
SOMETIMES IT PAYS TO KICK
As a punter for the Cincinnati Bengals and a weekly sports columnist for the Cincinnati Enquirer, Pat McInally has faced blitzing linebackers and frenzied deadlines. But nothing, he insists, is more daunting than room 254, for 10 summers his spartan digs at the team's summer training camp in Wilmington, Ohio. In a recent column titled WHATEVER ITS INADEQUACIES, ROOM 254 HAS A CERTAIN CHARM, McInally wrote that the room had the listless, doldrumy air of solitary confinement.
"Each July as I step through the door, I am greeted by the exact same bareness," he said. "The bed is one of those small, metal-framed, mesh-wire 'spring' models undoubtedly invented for prisons.... [It's] covered by permanently starched white canvas being passed off as sheets and one thin blue blanket which can be seen through and is unfortunately only slightly larger than a bath towel."
Still, McInally admitted, "through all that's happened over the past decade, the wins, the losses, the first-round draft choices, the retirements and the coaching changes, the one constant has been old room 254."
A day after the column appeared, McInally showed up for this year's camp. When he opened the door to his room, he found the bed covered with a hand-sewn quilt and half a dozen stuffed animals. A red velour bathrobe, a pair of fleecy white slippers and a corncob pipe rested on an easy chair. Cheery framed posters and prints hung from the walls. A festive hooked rug covered the floor. There were balloons clustered on the ceiling. Scattered around the room were a plate of cookies, flowers, a lamp, stationery and a banner saying: WELCOME HOME, PAT.
In fact, McInally's warders were so nice they didn't even mention that the room McInally has been staying in all these years is 251, not 254.
THEY SAID IT
•Pam Shriver, objecting to some nasty things that Vitas Gerulaitis has been saying about women's tennis: "He shouldn't pick on girls just because he hasn't had much luck with guys."
•Charley Winner, Miami Dolphins pro personnel director, asked if 285-pound fullback Pete Johnson had a specific team in mind when he requested to be traded: "I assume he wants a team with a good chef."