THE SOULS OF THE MACHINE
Exactly when athletes became software is hard to pinpoint. They
were always a little larger than life, but for a long time, no
matter their increasing fame or wealth, it was possible to think
of them as human beings. Maybe it was when the media companies
began buying teams, turning the arenas into theme parks and the
games into programming that the players acquired the flatness of
cartoon characters and became nothing more than the bits and
bytes of entertainment empires.
There doesn't seem to be much that's human about them anymore,
that's for sure.
As the business of sports has grown, to the point where the play
is practically an ancillary activity, the athletes have become
little more than electronic inventory. The clothes they wear,
the fragrances they market--these are what pass for personality
April 12, 1998
Now comes the news that former heavyweight champion Floyd
Patterson has resigned as chairman of the New York State
Athletic Commission because he's suffering from severe memory
loss, probably brought on by his decades in the ring. Our games
have been so shrewdly packaged, so thoroughly sanitized, that
we've lost sight of a truth: The entertainment value of sports
is grounded in the blood and sweat of human beings. Then last
week, here was the 63-year-old Patterson confessing that he
doesn't always remember his wife's name. It was a shock.
Certainly it was a familiar story in the cruelest of sports. But
the repercussions extend far beyond the ring. Patterson, who had
survived the combat to become one of boxing's prominent
statesmen, no longer recalls where he fought to win the title or
who his secretary is. So maybe he didn't survive boxing
entirely. Yet watching him testify--he was, heartbreakingly,
videotaped during a suit over the barring of ultimate fighting
from New York--was to be reminded that athletes do have the
Patterson was returned to our fold, having been snared in
several cruel and bleakly comic ironies. Thirty-three years ago
he suffered 12 rounds of torture at the hands of Muhammad Ali.
Now he and his tormentor reside in, respectively, mental and
physical ruins. This should get a dark laugh: Patterson, who
used to cloak himself in disguises after a humiliating loss, has
now effectively disguised everyone else. He sometimes does not
recognize even his closest aides.
Patterson's confession was a brisk reminder that athletes are
not merely the fodder of corporate broadcast fantasy. It might
be important from time to time to recall, picturing Patterson's
confusion over a sport he loved too much ("I can't remember the
opponent I fought, but I wound up beating him to become
heavyweight champion!"), that athletes are the hardware, too.
Coaches on the Move
HARD LESSON LEARNED
Sean Connolly is only an 18-year-old high school senior, but he's
already a victim of a double standard that permeates big-time
college sports. On March 26 he got a reassuring phone call at
his home in Peabody, Mass. An assistant coach at Providence told
Connolly--a 6'4" shooting guard who four months earlier had
agreed to play basketball for the Friars--that head coach Pete
Gillen was staying. Connolly had received a similar promise from
Gillen himself in November. "Just before I signed my letter of
intent, Coach Gillen signed a five-year contract extension,"
says Connolly. "He said there was no way he was leaving. I
Your mistake, kid. Coaches can lie, break contracts and slip out
of town one day after assuring their players that they are
standing by them forever, as Gillen did when he bolted
Providence to take the head job at Virginia. As for the players
and recruits coaches leave behind, they have a simple choice:
Stay and play for a new coach in a new system or transfer and
sit out a season. "Why can he get out of his contract," wonders
Connolly, who averaged 33.7 points and 11.4 rebounds this
season, "and I can't get out of mine?"
The NCAA has an answer, albeit a lame one. It says that a
recruit chooses a school for many reasons, not just for the
coach. However, a coach is generally at the top of a player's
list, just as Gillen was the main reason Connolly chose
Providence. When Connolly committed to Boston College as a
junior, he did so primarily because of his desire to play for
Jim O'Brien--who promptly jumped to Ohio State. Connolly was
able to rescind that commitment because it was only an oral one.
Connolly says he was "shocked and disappointed" when he heard
the news of Gillen's departure during the Saturday Final Four
broadcast. The next day he got a phone call from Gillen. "He
apologized but said it was an opportunity he couldn't pass up,"
says Connolly. Before he decides whether to stay at Providence,
Connolly will meet with the new coach, Tim Welsh, who left Iona
last week with two years left on his contract. Connolly will
listen to Welsh but will never again look at a coach the same
way. "You just never know when they're telling the truth," he
Agents and Youth Hockey
YOUNGER AND YOUNGER
Already 6'3" and 175 pounds, Tony Williams of Saint Thomas,
Ont., is one of the best 15-year-old hockey players in Canada.
He's also at the center of a debate over whether agents should
be recruiting players at increasingly younger ages in hopes of
cashing in when the players turn pro.
Last August, after fielding inquiries from five other agents,
Tony and his family spent a week at the Cape Cod vacation house
of Hall of Famer Bobby Orr, one of the game's most powerful
agents. While at Orr's, Williams, then 14, met NHL standouts
such as Tony Amonte, Cam Neely and Keith Tkachuk and played golf
with his host. By that time, the Williams family and Orr had
entered into an oral agreement: If all goes well and Tony is
drafted by an NHL team, Orr will be his paid representative.
"Bobby Orr isn't an agent to us; he's an adviser," says Tony's
uncle and guardian, Winston Williams, a 53-year-old police
constable, who emphasizes that no money changed hands and that
Tony needs someone like Orr to counsel him on decisions
involving school and training.
Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Ken Dryden disagrees. "There
are various ways of getting that information--it doesn't have to
come from an agent," Dryden says. "Having an agent is an immense
distraction for a 14-year-old." Adds NHL Players Association
(NHLPA) executive director Bob Goodenow, "Hockey players don't
make decisions that require the assistance of an agent until
they're 16." Canada's junior leagues draft players as young as
16, though a player must be 18 to be taken in the NHL draft.
Anyone planning to suit up at an NCAA school would forfeit his
eligibility by agreeing to let an agent represent him in the
Orr isn't alone in recruiting 14-year-olds. Since January 1996,
when the NHLPA began requiring agents to register, their number
has nearly doubled, from 125 to 240. With the agent pool
expanding much faster than the talent pool, agents are snapping
up younger and younger players. "I've seen people who call
themselves representatives standing in the hallways of rinks
waiting to meet a 14-year-old after a game," says David Branch,
commissioner of the Ontario Hockey League, one of the main
sources of talent for the NHL.
Orr would not comment, but Jay Fee, the hockey director at Orr's
Boston-based Woolf Associates agency, argues that the dramatic
increase in NHL salaries has prompted parents of young players
to seek more help in structuring their children's career paths.
"Someone like Bobby can share his experiences," Fee says. "If
it's recruiting, fine. We're in the business of giving advice,
so that's what we're going to do."
For now, Goodenow says the NHLPA has no plans to introduce rules
forbidding contact between agents and players in their early
teens. But Dryden maintains that it's up to the players'
association to take action. "You can be watchful in different
ways," Dryden says. "Set a standard, and if complaints arise,
then that's the risk an agent takes."
NEVER FORGET THE HOME TEAM
The Tucson Citizen's story on Kentucky's 78-69 victory over Utah
in the NCAA final carried the following headline: UA WIN BLOCKS
A KY. DYNASTY. It was followed by a subhead that read: ARIZONA'S
TITLE PREVENTED A UK "THREE-PEAT." Confused? The headlines
referred to Arizona's 84-79 victory over Kentucky in the 1997
final. Now, that's finding the local angle.
CARAYING ON AT WRIGLEY
Opening Day at Wrigley Field was an opportunity for Chicago Cubs
fans to say a benediction and an invocation, to bid farewell to
a bombastic legend named Harry Caray and to say hello to his
grandson Chip, who will carry on the family name. Harry and
longtime partner Steve Stone were to have added Chip as a third
partner for 50 of their WGN telecasts this season. But on
Valentine's Day, Harry collapsed at a nightclub in Rancho
Mirage, Calif., while on a date with Dutchie, his wife of 22
years. He died four days later.
Both Caray men--their generational bridge, Skip Caray, is the
television voice of the Atlanta Braves--broadcast their first
major league game in St. Louis, albeit decades apart (Harry in
1945 at Sportsman's Park, Chip in '90 at Busch Stadium). Both
wear or wore glasses, but the similarities stop there. Harry's
specs had lenses as thick as double-paned windows, while Chip,
33, doesn't even wear his all the time. Harry, who was said to
have kept a fridge in the booth at Wrigley stocked with
Budweiser, loved to go out for a few beers or martinis after the
game. Chip, who sipped hot cocoa during Chicago's 6-2 win over
the Montreal Expos last Friday, likes to "come home and run 10
miles," according to his wife, Susan. Harry was short, stout and
loud. Chip is tall, lithe and restrained. For sure, the new
voice of the Cubs is a Caray but no Harry.
"Knowing we had come so close to the dream of working together
and having it taken away seems unbelievably cruel," said Chip
last Friday. But as five-month-old Summerlyn Caray--his daughter
and Harry's great-granddaughter--cooed away in the adjacent
booth, Chip soldiered on. "I'm not as big a people person as my
grandpa was, not as gregarious," said Chip. "But who could be?"
Three NCAA Champions
SCHOOL FOR SUCCESS
Maybe there was something in the drinking water at Walden
Elementary in the late 1980s. The one-story brick building in
Deerfield, Ill., might be the first elementary school to have
produced three classmates who were part of national championship
college teams in the same year.
The first to earn his ring was Bob Fraumann, a linebacker for
Michigan, which won the AP version of the national crown. Then
came Tamika Catchings, a standout forward on the Tennessee
women's basketball team that went 39-0 and breezed to the NCAA
title. Completing the trio was Ryan Hogan, a backup guard for
Kentucky, the men's basketball champ. All are freshmen who were
in the same class back at Walden.
"Tamika was a strong, tremendous athlete even at that age,"
remembers Hogan of the fifth-grade girl who could beat anyone,
boys included, in the 50-yard dash. Catchings eschewed the jump
rope for the basketball court, where she was the only one,
remembers Fraumann, who had a chance of shutting down Hogan.
The Catchings family left Deerfield for Buffalo Grove, Ill.,
after fifth grade. Fraumann and Hogan teamed up in seventh and
eighth grade to lead Shepard Junior High to a 48-0 record in
basketball. At Deerfield High, Fraumann concentrated on
football, though he and Hogan remained close. One of the first
congratulatory calls Fraumann got after the Rose Bowl was from
They've grown apart from Catchings, who has the biggest national
reputation of the Walden Three, but she's still in their
thoughts. "When we went to Tennessee this season, it was in the
back of my mind that she'd pop up at the game," says Hogan.
"Maybe next year."
--That the recent spate of brawling by pugnacious NHL netminders
doesn't give rise to a new league stat: shots on goalie.
--That North Carolina coach Bill Guthridge had shown some guts
and publicly censured Tar Heel Makhtar Ndiaye for falsely
accusing a Utah player of uttering racial slurs during the
Heels-Utes NCAA tournament game.
Hat tricks scored by Dong-hwan Song in Korea's 92-0 victory over
Thailand in the Asia-Oceanic junior ice hockey championships.
Ballots cast by fans in mail and Internet voting to choose the
starting lineups for Texas Tech's spring football game.
Soccer games in England and Wales that British fan Daniel James
can legally attend under a two-year punishment handed down for
racist remarks he made to black players.
Age, in years, of Arizona law against spitting in public cited
by Diamondbacks fan Joe Paul, who wants to stop players from
Green jackets to be awarded this weekend, one to the Masters
champion in Augusta and two in Fairfield, Conn., to the men's
and women's winners of the U.S. Open bowling tournament.
Applicants for a radio station license in the Czech Republic
whom Penguins star Jaromir Jagr will have to beat out to start
Florida runs scored before Kentucky got the first out in the
second inning of a 32-10 Gators win.
DID REGGIE WHITE GET OFF TOO EASILY?
Fuzzy Zoeller's "humor" got him canned as an endorser, but the
Rev's stereotype-riddled, homophobic ramblings drew only brief
national finger-wagging. Sure, CBS opened no spot in its lineup
for White, who had auditioned for a commentator's job, but
Campbell's Soup and Edge shaving cream have so far declined to
sack the Packer, and the NFL stayed mum. As a role model and
preacher, White should be held accountable for his words.
White was chided, derided and portrayed as a fool after his
Archie Bunker monologue. Isn't that punishment enough? The idea
that a public figure should be economically executed at the
first light of dawn, as Zoeller, Jimmy the Greek and Al Campanis
were, for every ill-conceived remark is asinine. Those three,
too, should have been allowed to apologize and start fresh.
Shooting yourself in the foot should be only a flesh wound, not
fatal. --Leigh Montville
The accomplishments of the San Antonio Spurs' Tim Duncan have
been prodigious enough to rank him high on our fabled Wilt
Index. Based on his percentage of his team's totals in four
categories, Duncan has had one of the best NBA rookie seasons
since 1973-74, when the league began keeping track of blocked
shots. The index is named after the estimable Chamberlain
because his rookie totals would have obliterated all others' had
anyone been jottin' down what he was swattin' down.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR POINTS* REBOUNDS* ASSISTS* BLOCKS* WILT INDEX
1992-93 21.9 31.1 7.8 61.2 122.0
1989-90 22.9 27.0 8.1 57.6 115.6
DUNCAN 22.0 26.9 12.0 35.7 96.6
1983-84 19.0 24.8 7.4 38.3 89.5
*Percentage of team's totals in each category. Total of the
A Brand-new Ballpark
Peanuts and Cracker Jack were enticement enough for previous
generations, but today's baseball fans expect a few more perks
before they do any rooting for the home team. Here's a lineup of
cutting-edge stadium amenities. Who cares if we ever get back?
The Ballpark at Arlington, Texas
Season's worth of curbside valet service at $1,660 a pop
Gives new meaning to the phrase "parking one"
Bank One Ballpark, Phoenix
A centerfield pool with a swim-up bar
Ticket and concession prices aren't the only way to soak a fan
Comiskey Park, Chicago
Fun-damentals, a baseball instructional area for kids
Let your child hit and throw with other whining brats--just like
the big leaguers
Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego
Interactive computer screens on seats to view replays and check
Can you play NBA video games on them?
3Com Park, San Francisco
Giant Rewards, a frequent-fan program that gives away tickets
based on number of games attended
If we have enough points, can we upgrade from a Phillies game to
a Braves game?
Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg
A full-service bank open during games
Visit the loan officer on the way to the concession stand
THIS WEEK'S SIGN THAT THE APOCALYPSE IS UPON US
Saying that endorsers must "fit our brand persona," Puma will
use high school basketball stars for its Back to the Game ad
campaign, paying the youngsters' expenses to and from commercial
THEY SAID IT
Cincinnati Reds manager, on being asked to take part in a
release of white doves on Opening Day: "I've released plenty of
players, but I've never released a pigeon."