To SI's Steve Wulf, the first few days of November seemed like a baseball fantasy week. His report:
The New York Yankees announced that they were improving the quality of their 4,300 best seats, while raising the price of those seats from $17 to $25. The major league owners' expansion committee listened to presentations from four groups willing to ante up $140 million per team. And an entirely new outfit, the United Baseball League, unveiled plans to begin play in 1996.
Helloooo. Anybody home? There is no baseball.
November 14, 1994
Yankee fans are no doubt salivating at the prospect of watching their team from the comfort of those newly cushioned seats as newly hired servers stand by to take their orders. ("Hi, my name is Stump, and I'll be your waiter this evening.") But before fans are asked to pay 47% more for box seats, shouldn't they be given some assurance that there will be a real season, with real players?
Yankee boss George Steinbrenner and other owners certainly seemed to be ignoring reality when they summoned four groups interested in forming two expansion teams, to begin play as early as 1997, to a meeting in Chicago on Nov. 1. Major League Baseball—what's left of it, anyway—likes those big initiation fees so much it's talking of expanding by two more teams around the turn of the century. Don't these prospective suitors realize that they're buying swampland made even oozier by all these periodic labor disputes? Wannabe cities are being played for suckers the same way Yankee fans are.
On the same day that four candidates for expansion—Tampa-St. Pete, Phoenix and two groups from northern Virginia—auditioned for the owners, the United Baseball League held a press conference in a Manhattan hotel. The United League hopes to field 10 teams in 1996 (Year 3 of the Strike) and promises an average franchise fee of $5 million, an average crowd of 17,500 and an average annual player's salary of $520,000, numbers that seem simply made up. The man behind the new league is Dick Moss, a player agent who used to work for the players' association, so you know that the new league has union backing. The players should be careful of what they wish for, though: They just might get it. Until now, TV money has fueled baseball's humongous contracts. If the product is watered down by a players' league competing against an owners' league, no broadcast entity in its right mind is going to give either one big bucks.
Unfortunately the owners and players seem to think that the rest of us are as crazy as they are. Stop the insanity, fellas. As of Nov. 14, there will be 141 days before the 1995 season doesn't start.
Meanwhile, back in baseball reality, Dwight (Doc) Gooden proved again to be one messed-up cat. Only this time, with nine lives gone, Gooden was banished from any season that might take place in 1995 as a result of a reported 10th positive test for cocaine since his last suspension for drug abuse, in June. People may debate whether this latest turn is tragic, unforgivable or both. But it was clearly obscene to hear his agent, Jim Neader, discussing how the enforced layoff would resurrect Gooden's pitching arm. There's only one part of Gooden that anyone should care about right now, and that's his head.
It's Not the Heat
The new Des Moines-based entry in the Arena Football League has put out an APB for suggestions for a team nickname, and the editorial page of an influential Iowa newspaper is lobbying hard for one of the nearly 3,000 submissions: the Humidity. "If the Miami Heat can play in the NBA," opines The Daily Tribune of Ames, "why not the Iowa Humidity?"
Tweeds on Pinstripes
To celebrate Babe Ruth's 100th birthday next year, Hofstra University will devote three days in April to an academic conference on the Bambino. Some 160 papers are expected to touch on issues relating to Ruth's life and times, including the question of whether he had black ancestry, while an entire panel will convene on the subject of the Called Shot. "All papers will go before a reading committee," says conference director Eric Schmertz, 68, a professor at Hofstra's School of Law, who as a six-year-old saw Ruth hit a home run. "Frankly, some will not pass muster."
Among those likely to make the cut: a thesis by a Faulkner specialist who promises to scour The Sound and the Fury and weigh in on the burning question of "Why Jason Compson Hates Babe Ruth." Another scholar is expected to tackle the Ruthian subject of "The Babe and the King: Babe Ruth, Elvis Presley and the American Dream." Among other proposed topics, several sound inscrutable ("Lord of Misrule: Babe Ruth and the Carnivalesque in Mass Culture" and "The Ruthian Epopee"). And one seems inclined to take Ruth's stardom almost literally. It's called "Babe Ruth: Man from Another Planet."
Have No Spear
Memo to NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue: In light of Sunday's spate of vicious hits, including a helmet-first number by Tampa Bay's Thomas Everett on Chicago receiver Tom Waddle, it's time for stiffer measures than mere fines. How about a suspension of at least two games for any tackier who leads with his head?
Last week in Chicago, show-horse trainer Michael Hunter and businessman Allen Levinson became the first of 16 defendants to face sentencing in a series of horse killings for insurance money (SI, Nov. 16, 1992). Both men had pleaded guilty to fraud in connection with the 1989 electrocution of Rainman, a jumper Levinson had bought for $50,000 from Hunter before the horse became temperamentally unmanageable. And no doubt both men had hoped that by admitting their involvement and cooperating with investigators they would receive lenient treatment from the bench.
They could not have anticipated, however, that their case would come before U.S. District Judge Suzanne Conlon. Conlon is owner of a $25,000 show horse named Libretto and a member of the American Horse Shows Association, the organization that had already suspended Hunter, Levinson and 20 others following their indictments on charges related to the killings. Conlon, who never addressed her equestrian connections during the case, sentenced Levinson to 12 months in prison and fined him $20,000, stiff punishment for someone who had never before been in trouble with the law, and who had already repaid the $50,000 in insurance money. She then slapped Hunter with an eight-month term and a $5,000 fine, despite prosecutor Steve Miller's plea for a lighter sentence. For the others charged in Chicago—another dozen indictments are expected early next year—there was at least some good news: Conlon is not scheduled to preside over any future sentencing in the scandal.
Weight and See
Lesley Visser is a crack reporter for ABC and ESPN and one of the most capable sports journalists of her generation. She also appears in a new commercial for diet pills. "If you want to lose weight, here's a great way," she says in a 30-second spot for Maximum-Strength Dexatrim Plus Vitamins. In both sports and journalism we often find ourselves praising versatility. But journalists who report the news and pitch a product erode both their integrity and that of the news-gathering profession. And the product in this case seems particularly ill-suited for endorsement by a sports reporter, especially a woman.
According to information distributed by the Women's Sports Foundation, of which Visser is a trustee, as many as 62% of the female athletes participating in such "appearance" sports as gymnastics and figure skating may suffer from eating disorders. "Yes, I was concerned," says Visser, who had never made a commercial before and says she was curious about what it would be like. "But most of the women I know who diet struggle with nutrition. I only got involved because it's vitamin-enhanced. As someone who has worked out all her life, I'm not advocating diet pills in place of eating well and exercising regularly."
Visser's role as pitchwoman is more visible as a result of her gender. Certainly, many other sportscasters have flogged products without attracting much comment, and Chris Barman's annual shill turn at the Bud Bowl is at least as unsettling as Visser's spiel for Dexatrim. But because Visser comes with a newspaper pedigree and does more than read scores on the air, we hold her to a higher standard. And what if Visser were dispatched to cover, say, the death of an anorexic young gymnast whose obsession with her weight included an entanglement with diet pills? "On the surface [objections to Visser's endorsement] might seem like a double standard applied to a female journalist," says Donna Lopiano, the executive director of the Women's Sports Foundation. "But the fact is, men aren't the ones suffering from drugs that perpetuate the aesthetic value of thinness."
Taking their cue from the NFL's hapless Cincinnati Bengals, college football teams in Ohio are setting some sort of record for futility. The Akron Zips, giving new meaning to their nickname, are 0-9. The Bobcats of Ohio University are also 0-9 and having to deny rumors that they'll change their name to the Goldthwaits. Even Division III Otterbein (0-9) and Oberlin (0-8) are still looking for a victory. With the University of Cincinnati (1-7-1) picking up its first win with a 28-24 defeat of mighty Troy State on Saturday, and the Bengals winning their first by beating Seattle 20-17 in overtime a day later, Ohio's remaining 0-fers can only hope that whatever has gotten into teams from the Queen City makes its way northeast.
Crime & Misdemeanor
Just weeks ago folks in Rolling Fork, Miss., were looking forward to a terrific basketball season. The Braves of Rolling Fork High are the defending state 3A boys champions, and coach Pat Olmi had high hopes for this year's team. Now the season, which opened last Saturday with a loss to Shelby Broadstreet High, hardly seems to matter.
On Oct. 13 detectives came to the school and arrested Kevin Williams, an 18-year-old senior transfer student from Jackson and a prospect at guard for the Braves. The police charged Kevin with three counts of murder in the Oct. 4 shootings in Jackson of a man, a woman and a two-week-old baby. He spent 48 hours in the Jackson jail before his family and Olmi were able to persuade law-enforcement officials that Kevin couldn't have committed the killings because he was 70 miles away at Rolling Fork High, shooting baskets. "I told them we were having basketball tryouts," says Olmi. "Kevin was right there in the gym practicing with the rest of the team."
Eventually all charges against Kevin were dropped, but the Braves' problems were only beginning. A rule instituted this year by the Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) forbids its members from starting after-school basketball practice before Oct. 10. Despite Olmi's contention that Rolling Fork never received a copy of the revised calendar, the MHSAA, which learned of Rolling Fork's improper practices from news coverage of the murder case, barred the Braves from defending their state championship. "This has been really hard on the kids," the coach says. "Still, one good thing about it is, I guess we saved a young man's life."
Kevin remains shaken by his brush with the law. He says he's through with basketball, though he's still a student at Rolling Fork and remains close to Olmi and the players who were briefly his teammates. "When we meet up, we just shake hands and maybe give each other a hug," he says. "As long as I'm trying to smile, they all try to smile too."
Wayne Huizenga, owner of the Marlins and the Panthers, is planning an amusement complex around a ballpark and hockey arena in Florida. Detroit Red Wing owner and pizza mogul Mike Hitch envisions a Little Caesars Palace that would double as a theme park. COMSAT, owner of the Nuggets, will build a sports-and-entertainment complex in Denver, and Disney wants to pair a sports complex in Orlando with two sports-themed projects. Now that sports is getting into the theme park business, what are we going to do next? Why, we're going to....
Kids will thrill to the 80-foot drop of Take-a-Dive, Mom can visit the Primo Camera Kissing Booth and Dad will love the Magic Don Kingdom ("Only in Box-America!"). At Palookaville, see lifelike figures of your favorite stiffs set against backdrops of the gas stations and bars at which they ended up. Once a day all the over-hyped, undertalented Caucasians in boxing history march down the Great White Hope Way.
Admission is $200, parking $50, and the prices go up weekly, so work off your anger at the Fehr-Ravitch Pie Throw. The Brock-for-Broglio Tunnel of Tears features tableaux of the trades that have broken fans' hearts; in the Fans' Hall of Shame, have your picture taken alongside cardboard cutouts of Jack Nicholson, Spike Lee and Morganna and see a gallery of obnoxious spectators from Dancin' Barry to Robin Ficker. At the Virtual Reality attraction, feel what it's like to get speared by a 275-pound lineman and plunked by a 95-mph fastball while a guest athlete heckles you. And say a prayer for your team in the (Rockin') Rollen Stewart Chapel, where the Scripture passage of the day is always John 3:16.
Even the big hosses'll be shouting "Whoa, Nellie!" on the Keith Jackson roller coaster. At Telestration Station, behold the best graphic breakdowns from Madden and Fratello. Test your wits at Go to the Headset of the Class (match lines like "Yes!" and "How about that!" with the immortals who uttered them) and Three on a Set (try to get a word in edgewise on Monday Night Football). And you have our express written consent to visit Vitale Bald Mountain, provided you qualify (YOU MUST BE TALLER THAN BOB COSTAS TO RIDE THIS RIDE).
Wet 'n' Sporty
Frolic in the wave pool, where family members can douse one another with Gatorade coolers. Ride a river of ersatz knee fluid in the Floating Cartilage Barge. And you'll have a blast at the Rick Dempsey Rain-Delay Sliding Puddle.
Twenty-two Flags over the Bronx
Ride the Iron Horse, take a cruise on the Yankee Clipper and visit the Seraglio of the Sultan of Swat. Kids can ride the backs of Martin, Howser, Michael and Lemon at the Managerial Carousel. Order a soda with that Rickey Henderson hot dog and get a free Reggie Jackson Straw That Stirs at Yogi's Jellystone Park picnic area (even if it's so crowded that nobody goes there anymore). Lost the kids? Meet 'em by the monuments at the Jimmy Piersall Lost and Found.
This Week's Sign That the Apocalypse Is Upon Us
At Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo, Calif., the uniforms of the men's basketball team will bear the logo of Discovery Dining, a West Coast restaurant club, which has paid $5,000 to become the Cougars' "official sponsor."
They Said It
Sportswriter for the San Francisco Chronicle, after his paper went on strike last week: "I always wanted to know what it would be like to be a major league baseball player."