Do you want to bet that baseball is no longer the national
pastime? Of course you do. America likes nothing better than
laying down some money, as evidenced by all the exciting new
places you can lose your shirt: in cyberspace, on aptly named
cruises to nowhere or even on campus. The American dream has
shrunk to one word--lotto.
Gambling has redefined our taste in sports. We have made
football our favorite because it is three courses in one:
gambling, violence and TV-watching. Hockey aspires to match it,
while basketball is our junk food, empty calories of pleasure
with the requisite garnish of a point spread. Increasingly,
it's not whether you win or lose but whether you cover.
Thankfully, therapeutically, there's baseball, arriving this
week as welcome as spring. It doesn't fit so well with gambling
(it takes a Danny Sheridan--or a Pete Rose--just to figure out
the inscrutable line on baseball games), violence or the tube.
Baseball asks us not only to watch but also to think.
Those who have banished baseball to the uncool list have
mistakenly equated the game with the fine gentlemen who run it.
No other sport's pooh-bahs are more public in their
mismanagement. Bud Selig is a pseudocommissioner without
credibility. The Florida Marlins' Wayne Huizenga, sports' most
dangerous hit-and-run artist, and the Chicago White Sox' Jerry
Reinsdorf are the worst breed in sports: quitters. And now
Reinsdorf, who said his Sox were not fan-friendly when he gave
up on them last year, has set about selling tickets by signing a
wife beater, Wil Cordero.
The game's greatness is only confirmed by such misguided
trusteeship. Baseball can't be killed. For one reason, it's too
ingrained. "Long-suffering" New York Jets fans who cheered the
signing of free-agent running back Curtis Martin last week
should first understand that this baseball season is a triple
witching hour of serious sufferance: Fifty years have passed
since the Cleveland Indians won the Series, 80 since the Boston
Red Sox did and 90 since the Chicago Cubs did.
Baseball is the passion of Barry Bonds and the joy of Ken
Griffey Jr. Yet it requires contributions from so many teammates
that the sport's two best players have appeared in nearly 3,000
games between them without getting to a World Series.
Baseball is as egalitarian as we like to think our country is.
Down to your last chance, you can't call timeout and design a
play for John Elway or Michael Jordan. The baseball gods
typically hand such moments to someone who looks like the kid
who bags your groceries, someone like 170-pound Craig Counsell.
Who can't root for that? --Tom Verducci
The Northwestern Scandal
College sports is stuck on a dated image of the gambler as a
shady street character in a trench coat who approaches athletes
from a darkened alley. It should get unstuck--and fast. In the
latest point-shaving scandal, the one that broke last week on
the tree-lined campus of Northwestern, a person who allegedly
took bets on pro and college sports from former Wildcats
basketball player Kenneth Dion Lee was once a member of the
school's football team. And the guy who allegedly induced Lee to
shave points was a former placekicker for Notre Dame. Thus the
Northwestern gambling scandal brings to mind others at Boston
College (SI, Nov. 18, 1996) and Arizona State (SCORECARD, Dec.
Lee and a teammate, Dewey Williams, both of whom last played for
Northwestern during the 1994-95 season, were charged with
conspiracy to commit sports bribery. Accused of the same offense
was Kevin Pendergast, 27, Notre Dame's leading football scorer
in 1993, who allegedly talked Lee into shaving the points, and
Brian Irving, 27, who allegedly made bets for Pendergast at
Nevada casinos. Named in a separate indictment was Brian
Ballarini, the former Wildcats football player who was charged
with bookmaking and extortion. Authorities say that three of the
Wildcats' games in 1995 are in question: a 70-56 home loss to
Wisconsin on Feb. 15, an 89-59 home loss to Penn State on Feb.
22 and an 81-64 defeat at Michigan on March 1. Northwestern
failed to cover the spread in the first two but did cover
against the Wolverines, losing by 17 when Michigan was favored
by 24 1/2.
The Northwestern scandal was a body shot to college sports,
whose showcase event, the NCAA basketball tournament, ended on
Monday night. In individual sessions held last Friday with each
of the Final Four teams, NCAA representatives warned about
gamblers and gave each player the cell-phone and beeper numbers
of an FBI agent to call if someone approached them looking to
alter the outcome of a game. As praiseworthy as the NCAA's
efforts were, the problem of on-campus gambling can be addressed
only by individual universities, which are incubators for
gambling and point shaving. Student-athletes are sometimes
unsuccessful gamblers (as Lee apparently was) who lapse swiftly
into debt. They are easily approached by their bookie peers and
desperate enough--and sometimes poor enough--to succumb to a
point-shaving plan to recoup their losses.
Yet there seems to be scant interest paid by campus authorities
to rooting out gamblers and bookies. Bill Jahoda of Washington,
D.C., a former big-time bookmaker who now makes speaking
appearances for Americans Against Gambling, has tried to arrange
engagements on campuses but says he's been largely unsuccessful.
"The hardest sell is the athletic department," says Jahoda.
Arnie Wexler, who has been doing compulsive-gambling workshops
for 29 years and has tirelessly solicited campus work, hasn't
had a college nibble in more than a year. (One of the schools
that did invite Wexler was Northwestern; alas, his speech to
Wildcats athletes, in the fall of 1995, was too late.)
Campus authorities have all sorts of hot-button issues to deal
with: drinking, drugs, date rape. It would behoove them to make
on-campus gambling another.
WNBA vs. ABL
HANGIN' CLOSE IN K.C.
At the women's Final Four, the parties hosted by the ABL and the
WNBA reflected the rival leagues' images. Fittingly, the ABL
held the first party, much as it had tipped things off in U.S.
women's pro basketball in the fall of 1996. Just as fittingly,
the WNBA came along the next night and threw a gig that was
flashier and better attended.
Both leagues made their presence known, particularly to this
year's top seniors. During last Saturday's All-Star Game, the
stands were dotted with suitors: Carol Blazejowski, general
manager of the WNBA's New York Liberty, sat one row up from Pam
Batalis, general manager of the ABL's New England Blizzard.
Brian Agler, who has guided his Columbus Quest to two straight
ABL titles, was there, as was Liberty coach Nancy Darsch.
Connecticut's Nykesha Sales sat on the East team's bench, still
recovering from her famously torn Achilles. But she didn't have
to worry about missing a chance to impress the pros. The leagues
were represented at every UConn game last season, and after
injuring herself on Feb. 21, Sales received cards from coaches
in both leagues. Like the other leading players, Sales says she
hasn't made a choice between the ABL and the WNBA. She'll have
to soon. The WNBA will hold its predraft camp, admission to
which is a signed contract, from April 16 to 18. The ABL has an
invite-only predraft combine April 22-26.
At least no one in Kansas City had to choose between parties,
and Sales, among many others, hit both. Even league employees
didn't stick to the party line. "I feel a supportive
environment," said Darsch, who chatted with coach Lin Dunn of
the ABL's Portland Power at the WNBA wingding. The ABL bash drew
high-profile WNBA players Lisa Leslie and Rebecca Lobo. Former
Stanford stars Jennifer Azzi (ABL) and Jamila Wideman (WNBA)
hung together at the WNBA fete while highlights from that
league's first season played on screens in the background. "We
all know each other from college," Azzi said, "and we're not
going to let a professional decision stand in the way of whether
or not we go to a party." --Dana Gelin
NEW ROLE FOR NBA GIANT
In the vacuous My Giant, which opens in theaters next week,
Washington Wizards center Gheorghe Muresan, filmdom's most
accomplished 7'7" expatriate-Romanian actor, plays his celluloid
role as he does his basketball role: with a stiffness that's
painful to watch. We haven't heard an actor deliver his lines
less intelligibly since that other Eurobehemoth, Andre the
Giant, appeared in The Princess Bride. But Muresan, by his
account, "enjoyed very much the whole experience" and even
proved to be a quick study of Hollywood parlance. Asked if he
plans on making another film, he responded, "If I find a script
I like." With uncharacteristic seriousness he added, "I like
being in movie, but I would rather play basketball because that
is what gives me most pleasure."
Sadly, he may have to stick to acting. The Wizards won't say so
publicly, but the word inside the Beltway is that the
27-year-old Muresan may have blocked his last shot. He won't
play a single minute this season because of a stretched tendon
in his right ankle, and Washington's doctors wonder if his legs
might simply be unable to support his titanic body. Without the
tallest player in NBA history swatting shots and dunking with
his feet practically riveted to the floor--giggling all the
while--the Wizards are struggling to gain the final playoff spot
in the Eastern Conference (page 70). Muresan, though, borrows a
line from another curiously proportioned athlete turned thespian
when he assesses his basketball future. "I'll be back," he vows.
The Eddie-Carmen Feud
FOES CHANGE IN BAY BATTLE
Back when Eddie DeBartolo's magnanimity and Carmen Policy's
ingenuity were helping to sustain one of the NFL's
longest-running dynasties, the two top officers (owner DeBartolo
and president Policy) of the San Francisco 49ers used to joke
that they were twin brothers. The longtime friends from
Youngstown, Ohio, were often mistaken for each other in
newspaper photo captions--and in life--and enjoyed a
relationship so full of trust it could have been described as
fraternal. Now, as a result of the legal and financial cloud
that has hung over the 49ers for several months, DeBartolo and
Policy have apparently gone splitsville. They haven't spoken
since shortly before the Super Bowl and are engaged in a
down-and-dirty struggle for control of the franchise.
Their relationship deteriorated after DeBartolo became entangled
in a federal investigation of a gambling license he obtained in
Louisiana last fall (Scorecard, Dec. 15, 1997). Policy helped
devise a plan under which DeBartolo would cede control of the
franchise to his sister, co-owner Denise DeBartolo York, with
Policy gaining increased power and a 5% stake in the 49ers. For
several weeks there was friction between DeBartolo and DeBartolo
York, but it subsided after both came to believe that Policy was
playing them off against each other. Though neither sibling
would comment for the record, sources close to the family say
both are convinced that Policy betrayed DeBartolo and DeBartolo
York by assembling a group of investors to purchase the team and
making himself the group's managing partner. Policy denies it.
"If anything, I've gotten several calls from people who have
shown interest," says Policy. "I've advised those people that
the team is technically not for sale."
The apparent victor is DeBartolo, who, sources say, has a
tentative agreement to buy out DeBartolo York and regain control
of the 49ers. The deal, expected to be finalized by the middle
of this week, would allow DeBartolo to purge Policy and initiate
a front-office overhaul. Former San Francisco coach Bill Walsh
would assume an executive position, and DeBartolo ally Joe
Montana would come aboard as a minority owner with front-office
Policy, however, may have some cards left to play. One league
executive says the NFL is concerned about DeBartolo's personal
debt; he reportedly owes the DeBartolo Corporation upward of $50
million. Also, if DeBartolo is indicted by a grand jury in
Louisiana--an indictment was expected in December, but the
investigation has dragged on--either Tagliabue or the other 29
owners could attempt to block DeBartolo's return.
If Policy loses out in this struggle, sources believe he and his
backers may attempt to secure an expansion franchise for Los
Angeles. Meanwhile, Policy is playing hardball with his former
mock twin. Policy gave Steve Young a $7.5 million bonus as part
of a restructured deal; DeBartolo found out about it in the
THE BELLY OF THE BEAST
Australian cricket star Shane Warne, his sport's premier bowler,
is, with his handsome features and shock of dyed blond hair, a
sex symbol in his native land--at least from the neck up. It's,
well, down under that he has a problem--the 28-year-old Warne
has cultivated what can only be described as a paunch. A
prodigious paunch. O.K., a huge gut. Recently Warne stormed out
of a Melbourne press conference at which his wax figure, bound
for Madame Tussaud's in London, was being unveiled. The
sculpture was an Adonis, and, after a reporter asked him if he
preferred the wax figure's figure to his own, Warne bolted. Now
a cartoon of a naked Warne mimicking the oft-spoofed pregnant
Demi Moore pose from the cover of Vanity Fair has been named
winner of the Bald Archy, a spoof of a serious art prize in
Australia. It hardly seems cricket.
Roberto Clemente Tribute
A TEAM EFFORT
It has taken a quarter of a century, a little luck and the help
of some baseball players who weren't even born when it all
began, but Hartford is at last completing its tribute to Roberto
Clemente. When Clemente--a Pittsburgh Pirate throughout his
career but a hero to fans, particularly Hispanic fans,
everywhere--was killed in a plane crash on the last day of 1972,
members of Connecticut's Hispanic community set out to honor his
In 1973 Joe Grimalt, the owner of radio stations in Hartford and
Bridgeport, led a fund-raising drive that brought in $25,000,
and a committee commissioned two identical monuments to
Clemente. One was installed in Bridgeport's Seaside Park; the
other was intended for Hartford. Before it was delivered,
however, Grimalt moved to California, leaving the
three-foot-tall granite block in what he thought would be the
brief care of Bridgeport businessman Luis Hernandez. But no one
from Hartford ever came for it. For 25 years it sat in the dirt
behind Luis Furniture and Appliance--by chance, just across East
Main from the Roberto Clemente housing project.
Two years ago a Bridgeport policeman noticed the stone and
contacted the Connecticut Post. A story about the monument
caught the eye of Hartford city councilman Luis Ayala, who found
a site for the stone in the city's Colt Park. Transporting the
2,000-pound slab was another matter--and that's when the
University of Hartford baseball team stepped in. The players
arranged for a heavy-equipment company to provide a hoist and
truck, and on March 10, the team accompanied the monument on its
50-mile journey to Hartford, where the dedication will take
place this spring. "It was a chance to get involved and give
back to the community," says coach Bob Nenna. Something of which
Clemente would have approved.
That more basketball coaches at big-time programs were like
Kansas's Roy Williams, who offered to go on the road first in a
series with Penn.
That before his next bucket, the Kings' Olden Polynice, who spit
on the Forum floor during a tiff with coach Eddie Jordan, be
issued a pail and mop.
That Ickey Woods gets royalties every time Venus Williams does
her victory dance.
Revenue, in dollars, that San Antonio expected to reap from the
Revenue, in dollars, that Kansas City expected from the women's
Revenue, in dollars, that South Bend, Ind., estimates it took in
from the NCAA fencing championships March 19-22.
Three-year record of Shannon Miller, who was fired as Canadian
women's ice hockey coach after her favored squad lost the gold
medal game to the U.S.
Sum, in dollars, that the British government denied the English
Basket Ball Association while granting funding to badminton and
table tennis governing bodies as part of an effort to promote
NAIA women's basketball champion Union University's winning
percentage against Pat Summitt, who lost to the Jackson, Tenn.,
school three times in 1974-75, her first season at Tennessee.
German League soccer matches called off last weekend because so
many policemen (30,000) were needed to patrol a protest over
Is It Time for Baseball to Phase Out the DH?
Here's hoping the owners' notification that they want to abolish
the designated hitter has legs far better than Harold Baines's.
Lose the DH and you lose two thirds of a run per game. Big deal.
These World Series games were memorable because they were played
without the DH: Game 6, 1986; Game 4, 1996; Game 7, 1997. The
embarrassment of one sport with two sets of rules must end.
Just as no one wants to see Jose Canseco on the mound again,
only a masochist (or a pantywaist National League fan) would
prefer watching Pat Hentgen bat in place of Canseco in Toronto.
Besides, with union boss Donald Fehr calling the owners' plan a
"warning shot" and a "threat," do we need any more
labor-management friction over something as silly as the DH?
With a ninth victory last week, the Denver Nuggets needed, as of
Monday night, only one more in their final 10 games to avoid
tying the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers for the worst winning
percentage in NBA history. A further consolation: As miserable
as they've been, the Nuggets don't lag as far behind as past
underachievers. Here's how Denver stacks up against other NBA
single-season train wrecks, the teams that finished the furthest
below the league's offensive and defensive averages.
Scoring POINTS PER GAME NBA AVG. DIFFERENCE
Timberwolves 95.2 107.0 -11.8
Knicks 98.7 110.2 -11.5
NUGGETS 88.9 95.3 -6.4
Defense POINTS ALLOWED PER GAME NBA AVG. DIFFERENCE
Nuggets 130.8 106.3 +24.5
Nuggets 126.5 108.6 +17.9
NUGGETS 101.2 95.3 +5.9
Shooting FG PCT. NBA AVG. DIFFERENCE
1989-90 Nets .426 .476 -.050
1975-76 Bulls .414 .458 -.044
NUGGETS .417 .449 -.032
THIS WEEK'S SIGN THAT THE APOCALYPSE IS UPON US
Angry that public funds were used to build Bank One Ballpark in
Phoenix, the chairman of the county Libertarian Party says he
will hire a witch to put a hex on Arizona Diamondbacks players
and their fans.
Major Leaguers step to the plate this week for the start of
another season, which means armchair general managers are
digging in for a summer of box score combing and number
crunching in fantasy baseball leagues. Looking to show off your
baseball savvy? Having trouble finding a quality long reliever
who fits into your budget? Here are some sites that let you join
the ownership game without having to cough up $350 million and
offer some sage advice for when you do.
Set up your own league and manage against friends in the on-line
fantasy community organized by Small World Sports, or operate an
independent team. Either way you will be competing with owners
from all over the world for cash prizes at the end of the
season. Each team gets $50 million to spend building and
maintaining a roster. Small World takes care of stats, standings
and player values, meaning all you have to do is wheel and deal.
This site (left) produced by Prime Sports Interactive features a
fantasy game licensed by the Major League Baseball Players
Association. It also lets you view episodes of Fantasy Baseball
Weekly, Prime Sports' television show for seamheads. Tune in for
stats and player news, and get insider info from noted diamond
scholars John Kruk and Yogi Berra, who will share their wit and
wisdom on the broadcast each week.
sites we'd like to see
Home page for NFL-starved Cleveland fans.
Chat room for ethno/cultural theorists.
Charlotte Hornets forward, claiming that the Hornets' offense
works best when run through him in the low post: "I don't need
the ball to score."