THEY'RE ALL THUMBS
Lou Piniella has been ejected many times in his major league
career, but until last week he had never been tossed in spring
training for asking an umpire to stop talking to one of his
players. On March 4, one day after Richie Phillips, the head of
the umps' union, announced that the umpires would enforce Rule
9.01(d) to the letter--it allows them to eject anyone who
protests a decision--the normally judicious Ted Hendry, who was
working at second base, threw out Piniella in the eighth inning
of his Seattle Mariners' 14-13 exhibition win over the Milwaukee
Brewers. The reason: Piniella had yelled that Hendry's chatter
was affecting Seattle shortstop Andy Sheets's concentration.
Thus, what began as the umps' justifiably angry reaction to
baseball's lily-livered handling of the Roberto Alomar spitting
incident is threatening to devolve into high-handedness that
could compromise the game. Alomar was suspended with pay for the
Baltimore Orioles' first five games of 1997 for spitting at
umpire John Hirschbeck last September; judging from Phillips's
announcement and Hendry's quick tossing of Piniella, common
sense appears to have been suspended indefinitely. "Why don't
they just come up with a damn firing squad?" San Francisco
Giants manager Dusty Baker said last week. "It's the same thing."
The argument is part of baseball's culture, part of the social
contract. Argue a little, O.K. Curse a little, O.K. Start
kicking like a colt or covering up second base with dirt, you're
outta here. Now, however, the umpires have apparently adopted a
zero-tolerance policy. What exactly constitutes an objection to
a decision? Is dropping the bat or batting helmet at the plate
after a called third strike beyond the limit?
Players and managers have shown a troubling lack of respect for
umpires since long before Alomar let fly. "Discipline has eroded
over the years," says American League ump Don Denkinger, a
28-year veteran. Absolutely correct. But the umpires have
exacerbated on-field tensions by becoming increasingly
confrontational. Although a long-delayed summit held on Feb. 4
failed in its goal of improving the relationship between players
and umps, the umpires should continue to press their points
behind closed doors instead of imperiously on the field. There
is a right way to address the issues--just as there used to be a
right way to argue.
THE SUN DEVIL GAMBLING QUESTION
Questions about point-shaving were directed--perhaps
unjustly--at Jerry Tarkanian's Fresno State basketball program
last week, but more compelling signs of point-shaving were
apparent in Phoenix, where the U.S. attorney is looking into at
least three possibly tainted Arizona State basketball games from
the 1993-94 season.
Though The Fresno Bee wrote in its March 6 editions that the
Bulldogs' program was the "focus of [a] betting probe," there
was, at week's end, no indication that any federal agency was
investigating. Wildly inconsistent play and egregious foul
shooting, neither of which is foreign to any college team, were
the main reasons that rumors of fixing surfaced and eventually
ended up in the Bee. According to oddsmakers and sports-book
supervisors, the type of suspicious betting activity that
generally gets investigators interested (e.g., the betting line
suddenly tilting toward a team as a result of an unusually high
sum being wagered on that team) did not take place in connection
with any of the Fresno State games labeled as suspicious by the
It's a different story in Arizona, where the FBI last week
confirmed reports of an investigation into sports gambling. A
government source told SI that the investigation involves
point-shaving and that subpoenas have been issued by a grand
jury. The source also said that targets of the inquiry include
players from the 1993-94 Sun Devils and at least six gamblers.
The source expects indictments will be returned within several
weeks. According to the FBI, Arizona State coach Bill Frieder,
who has never made a secret of his taste for hitting the tables
in Las Vegas, is not under investigation, nor is any other coach
or official at the university.
The Arizona State episode began to unfold in early 1994, when a
group of three men wagered startlingly large sums against the
favored Sun Devils at several Las Vegas sports books. According
to managers from several of the sports books and an official of
the Nevada Gaming Control Board, the gamblers were a kind of
gang that couldn't bet straight. They pulled out stacks of $100
bills and displayed naivete about betting protocol. The sources
in the federal government, the gaming commission and the sports
books told SI that the gamblers bet heavily on three games: the
Sun Devils' 68-56 loss to nine-point underdog USC on Feb. 19,
their 87-80 loss to 11/2-point underdog Oregon on Feb. 24 and a
73-55 victory over Washington on March 5.
Though the gamblers won on the USC and Oregon games, according
to the sports-book and Nevada gaming sources, the Washington
game, in which the Sun Devils missed their first 14 shots before
storming back and coasting to victory, raised the most
suspicion. Because of the money the three were putting down, the
line in Vegas plummeted from 111/2 points to as low as 3 before
the game was yanked from at least one sports book; the gamblers,
say sports-book officials, kept wagering blithely on the game
even as the spread changed, and ultimately put down more than
$250,000 against Arizona State. These officials say a
regular-season Arizona State game would normally attract no more
than $50,000 of action.
The fact that the gamblers lost big on the Washington game
suggests that if a point-shaving operation was at work at
Arizona State, it somehow went awry. Federal authorities will
have to solve that mystery--and others surrounding the gang that
couldn't bet straight.
FADING IN THE STRETCH
The first 16 mares bred to Cigar at Ashford Stud in Versailles,
Ky., have not gotten pregnant, and tests performed last week
revealed that the 1995 and '96 Horse of the Year might be
sterile. Mating sessions were scheduled to continue this week,
but there's a strong possibility that there will be no offspring
of the would-be stallion, whose sold-to-stud price was $25
million. And so the racing world is left to ponder the immortal
words of Freud: "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."
STILL THE ONE
Columbus Quest players fondly refer to their chattering,
good-natured, all-aches-and-pains 35-year-old center, Valerie
Still, as Old Lady. "Old lady or not," says Taj McWilliams,
Still's 26-year-old counterpart on the Richmond Rage, "she's got
a mean forearm." Indeed, as the first American Basketball League
championship series moved back to Columbus for the fifth and
final game on Tuesday, a blue-collar duel under the hoop had
become the marquee matchup.
The 6'4" McWilliams and the 6'1" Still followed unlikely paths
to the finals. McWilliams became an unwed mother at 17, and, by
the spring of 1989, she had almost forgotten about basketball
and was working the counter at a yogurt store. Her life changed
when a customer took a long look at her. "Are you standing on
anything?" he asked. McWilliams said she wasn't. "Then you need
to come practice with my basketball team," he said.
She didn't. But the customer, a coach at Condordia Lutheran in
Austin, Texas, helped McWilliams catch on at St. Edward's
University, an NAIA school in Austin. After a stellar three-year
career there, McWilliams played three seasons overseas--most
recently for Galilee in Israel in 1995-96--before signing with
the Rage. In the first four games of the championship series she
averaged 20.3 points and 12.3 rebounds, all the while hearing an
endless barrage of take-it-easy-on-me poor-mouthing from Still.
Still established her credentials during a 12-year career in the
Italian women's league. But when Columbus offered her a tryout
last October, she was caring for her six-month-old son, Aaron,
and, in her words, "living the good life" with her husband, Rob,
in Lexington, Ky. After Still got back on the court, she joked
about the toll of old age, and halfway through the season she
had to be talked out of quitting. But in Sunday's stay-alive
fourth game in Richmond, the cagey veteran won her
flesh-smacking duel with McWilliams, scoring 16 of her 22 points
in the first half and playing all 40 minutes in the Quest's
Afterward Still returned to her sandbagging routine. Any game
that ended without her limping or sporting a black eye, she
said, was an unqualified success. When the talk turned to next
year, she rolled her eyes and said, "Oh, god. Let us win this
championship first, then I'll think about it." Then one more
time she said, "You do know how old I am, right?"
The in-limbo status of Hideki Irabu, the hard-throwing Japanese
righthander who wants to pitch for the New York Yankees but
whose rights belong to the San Diego Padres, underscores the
need for baseball to reexamine its policy on players who come
over from Japan. The executive council, heeding an antiquated
1966 treaty that requires major league teams to honor the
contracts Japanese teams have with their players, has bound
Irabu to the Padres, who acquired his rights from the Chiba
Lotte Marines in January. But Irabu, 28, is refusing to report,
and if he's not traded, he says he's prepared to sit out the
year in hopes of being declared a free agent before next season.
The Irabu situation could have consequences within the baseball
world. But it's a far cry from what Irabu's agent, Don Nomura,
would have you believe. "They're holding his rights in an
internment camp in San Diego," he told New York's Daily News
last week. "It's just like World War II when the Japanese were
held in camps in California."
We're not about to tell Irabu where to pitch, but, Hideki, we do
have this advice: Gag your agent.
Miles per hour of a Mark Philippoussis serve at the Franklin
Templeton Tennis Classic in Scottsdale, Ariz., the fastest in
Pro seasons in which Warren Moon will have played when he suits
up for his new team, the Seattle Seahawks.
Years between major international wins for a white U.S. sprinter
after Kevin Little won the 200 meters at the World Indoor
Championships in Paris.
Average age of the gold (Yekaterina Podkopayeva, 44) and the
silver medalists (Mary Slaney, 38) in the women's 1,500 meters
Average age of the 10 other women in the 1,500 final.
Weight, in pounds, of National League umpire Eric Gregg at the
start of spring training, 100 less than a year ago.
Basketball games as teammates for College of Wooster (Ohio)
seniors Rowell Fernandez and Greg Morris, who started playing
together in 1986 as seventh-graders.
Dollars paid at auction by Avalanche goalie Patrick Roy for an
autographed Michael Jordan jersey.
Nellie Fox, who was elected to the Hall of Fame last week along
with former Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda and Negro
leagues star Willie Wells, is best remembered for two things:
planting a wad of tobacco in his cheek and almost never striking
out. Fox, a second baseman who spent 14 of his 19 major league
seasons with the Chicago White Sox, holds the record for most
seasons (15) with at least 400 plate appearances and fewer than
20 strikeouts. Here are a few others who rarely heard the
dreaded "STEE-rike three!"...and one who heard it more often
than anyone else.
The infielder for the Cleveland Indians (1920 to '30) and the
New York Yankees ('31 to '33) boasts baseball's four best
single-season ratios of strikeouts to plate appearances,
including the record of one K every 192 appearances, in '32,
when he struck out just three times in 576 trips to the plate.
The Cincinnati Reds' outfielder didn't fan in 34 World Series
plate appearances, tops in that category. All of Roush's
whiffless appearances, however, were in 1919, when he batted
against the Black Sox.
Joltin' Joe, who finished his 13-year career with only eight
fewer career dingers (361) than strikeouts, had seven seasons in
which he amassed more home runs than whiffs. Fellow Yankee Yogi
Berra ranks second, with five.
Baseball's alltime whiffmeister struck out a whopping 2,597
times in 21 seasons. Well behind him, in second place, is Willie
Stargell, with 1,936, also in 21 years.
With the NASCAR season getting into gear, pit crews are honing
their motor skills. Here's a look at who does what and how they
The anatomy of a pitstop:
Seven crew members jump over the retaining wall as soon as their
car reaches the pit area just before theirs. If they jump early,
their car is penalized 15 seconds.
Gas-can man inserts nozzle of 11-gallon (80-pound) can into
tank. Catch-can man holds it in place as gas-can man grabs
At the same time, jack man raises right side of car, so tires
can be changed...
...by tire changers at front and back, who unscrew lug nuts.
Tire carriers hand them new tires, each of which weighs about 75
Jack man raises left side; tires are changed there. Jack man
drops car off jack, signaling driver to leave pits.
Total time in flawless stop: 18 seconds.
THIS WEEK'S SIGN THAT THE APOCALYPSE IS UPON US
Green Bay Packers defensive back Tyrone Williams, who is serving
six months at Lancaster County Jail in Lincoln, Neb., for
shooting at an occupied car in 1994, is being released for 20
hours each week so he can help run conditioning sessions for
Nebraska football players.
Five-year-old son of Orlando Magic coach Richie, offering his
dad advice on adding new plays to the team's offense: "Put in
the ones the Bulls use, because they always seem to work."