It's High-Tech Time
There's always a better way to do something, and if it's not the
entrapment of mice, then it's the driving of balls. Americans
are a nation of tinkerers. They can't even let their
Constitution alone, much less their tennis game. Everything's
got to be new and improved, better and bigger. And, at that,
it's still available for amendment. Having invoked the image of
Franklin (Constitution, top tinkerer), we generalize as follows:
It's a short walk from Big Ben to Big Bertha.
Yes, you hate the ping of aluminum bats on summer days, when the
thonk of wooden ones is more likely to remind you of a time when
autographs were free. Tennis rackets the size of manhole covers
are equally off-setting to "purists." Also, ordinary mopes like
you and me probably shouldn't have access to
radioactive-sounding metals that make our mountain bikes light
enough to wear on a charm bracelet. But technology denied is an
unpatriotic idea. Have you ever checked into a hotel and then
realized you'd have to get up out of bed to change the channel?
Life without a remote is a life not worth living, except as part
of a historical reenactment.
See, it's called progress. And you don't want to get in the way.
(Do you, Mr. Kaczynski?) We've got materials, developed for the
space program, that can make our golf balls travel entire zip
codes. Bows (with enough pulleys and cables to equip a Manhattan
sex chamber) that can punch arrows through our neighbor's Kevlar
hunting jacket. Parabolic skis that allow the clumsiest of us to
avoid the trees.
June 21, 1998
Yet people--the purists--are affronted by all this invention
when it comes to competitive sports. Nobody minded when Tang
showed up in the grocery store, but let NASA develop something
that makes the ball explode off our driver, and votes get taken.
Why? It's not like the best players don't still win. It can't be
that technology has deprived us of the joy of finesse. What joy?
When scrawny shortstops began getting 400 feet out of checked
swings in the College World Series, attendance increased in
direct proportion to the crabbing of purists.
Without technology we wouldn't have garage-door openers or
microwave ovens, or even the ability to perform important
operations. We wouldn't have pole vaulters packing oxygen during
competition. We wouldn't have Nintendo or clapskates. We
wouldn't have the Clapper! We wouldn't have sneakers so
specialized that only Imelda Marcos could be a three-sport
Look, anything that makes a game more fun to play or watch
should be welcomed without a vote. Anything that can be
improved, ought to be. It's the American way. --Richard Hoffer
A World Gone Mad
Except in certain ethnic enclaves, where interest is fervid, the
involvement of American sports fans in the World Cup consists
mostly of office-pool sheets completed in eeny-meeny-miney-mo
fashion and an occasional wag sticking his head out of his
office and yelling, "GOOOAAALLL!" It's all but impossible for
the average U.S. fan to grasp the significance of the Cup in
other countries. "Think of the Super Bowl happening every day
for three weeks," says Michael Pins, vice president of Euro
Brokers, a New York investment company, "and you begin--and I
mean only begin--to see the impact."
Pins should know. Last week his company, which buys and sells
bonds for emerging markets in Latin America and Eastern Europe,
found closed offices and absent or, at best, inattentive clients
when brokers made calls. Pins estimates that Euro Brokers lost
30% to 35% of its normal weekly business last week and expects
that volume will "grind down to almost nothing" during the Cup's
final rounds. Action in markets around the world was similarly
tepid, although brokers in Great Britain reported a major gain
(up 19p a share to 355p) on the Cup's first day in one stock:
Ladbrokes, the betting house that was taking significant action
on the Cup.
The intense interest elsewhere in the world became evident in a
variety of other ways:
--In France, the Cup's organizing committee held a phone sale
for the final 160,000 tickets. In the first hour, it received
four million calls from Great Britain alone. One British member
of Parliament admitted he paid 500 pounds (about $850) for a
ticket to the Brazil-Scotland opener in Paris "from a gentleman
in a car-park," i.e., a scalper.
--In Italy, Parliament rejiggered its schedule so as not to be
in session when the Azzurri play. At the Luigi Mangiagalli
maternity hospital in Milan, televisions have been set up near
the delivery room so that mothers, staff and perhaps even
newborns can catch the action.
--In Hong Kong, prison officials decided to show two hours of
World Cup highlights to keep inmates from rioting. Games were
not shown live because of their late hour and also because rival
fan groups among prisoners were thought to be more likely to
fight during live action.
--In Brazil, between 7,000 and 12,000 workers at a Volkswagen
plant in a Sao Paulo suburb walked off their jobs without
permission to watch the match against Scotland. Bosses chose not
to dock them.
--In Iran, schools postponed examinations--and not just when the
home team was in action. With Iran's state-run television
picking up coverage from French TV, authorities in Tehran have
their usual concerns about propriety. Games are being broadcast
with a 10-second delay to give censors in Iran time to scan
crowd shots for anti-Islamic placards or other unacceptable
sights, such as women in scanty summer dresses. During the June
10 match between Italy and Chile, for example, pictures from
another game showing flag-waving Argentine fans suddenly
appeared on the feed. Iranian viewers had no idea what they had
--In Scotland, the Haymarket Bar laid on a Braveheart Day for
Edinburghers obsessed with the laddies' game against Brazil.
Staffers with faces painted blue and white wore Braveheart garb
as the Mel Gibson movie played continuously on a big screen. A
headline from Edinburgh's Evening News summed up the World Cup
phenomenon: COUNTRY GRINDS TO A DEAD HALT AS GAME IN A BILLION
Baseball and the Bible
A Team Truly Blessed
With John Smiley and Mark Whiten already on their roster, the
Cleveland Indians were overjoyed to pick utilityman Matt Luke
off the waiver wire. Consider their Gospel bases covered.
Front Office Is Up Front
Executives of sad-sack NBA teams often write obsequious
apologies to season-ticket holders, but that wasn't the tack the
Washington Wizards' Wes Unseld took in the 10-paragraph
theya-culpa he recently mailed out. Unseld, Washington's
executive vice president, one of the best players in the
franchise's history and long one of the NBA's most upstanding
citizens, minced few words in addressing his team's
shortcomings, particularly off the court. "First and foremost,
the Wizards organization is not satisfied and will not accept
the results of last season...we [have grown] weary of being in
situations where we were forced to make statements about our
players' off court actions." He vowed to punish players' future
transgressions by "the most extreme measures possible," and
complained that, as a disciplinarian, he was hamstrung by the
NBA's Collective Bargaining Agreement. "With the income bracket
that most of our players fall into, [the permissible] fines are
not as effective in dealing with the problems as we would like."
Unseld, of course, had good reason to uncap the poison pen.
Despite boasting one of the league's most talented rosters,
Washington failed to make the playoffs. Along the way, its point
guard, Rod Strickland, was convicted of driving while impaired
and brawled with teammate Tracy Murray over a woman in their
mutual calling circle. The Wizards' erstwhile star, Chris
Webber, was charged with three misdemeanors and six traffic
violations after being pulled over in January. Webber and fellow
forward Juwan Howard were investigated but not indicted for a
sexual assault complaint filed after a party in April--when
Washington was in the heat of the playoff chase--that police
broke up at 4:30 a.m.
The piece de resistance, however, may have come when several
Wizards--Strickland, Webber and Howard among them--didn't deign
to show up for an autograph session and the shooting of a video
to be given to the season-ticket holders. "Why do we do videos?"
a disgusted Unseld asked rhetorically at the time. "Because they
offer the fans a little entertainment. Since we haven't always
done that on the court, at least we could do it this way."
One might be tempted to call Unseld's missive just more
off-season hot air were it not that, in trading away Webber, as
he did last month, he has already shown he is serious about
revamping the Wizards. Unseld's fierceness as a competitor made
him the kind of player that everyone wanted as a teammate; it
sounds as if Wizards fans are lucky to have him on their team,
Viva Los Vegas!
Maybe all those big, noisy home runs Mark McGwire is hitting is
making it hard to concentrate around the St. Louis Cardinals'
front office. In the 11th round of the draft on June 2, St.
Louis selected lefthanded pitcher Joel Vega from Ohio Dominican
College. The problem? The Cards meant to choose lefthanded
pitcher Rene Vega, from Dominican College of Orangeburg, N.Y.
Rene, 11-1 with a 2.29 ERA this spring, was eventually taken by
the New York Mets in the 31st round, while St. Louis, accepting
responsibility for its Vega vagueness, has said the team will
sign Joel, who had a 3-5 record with a 5.11 ERA. Calling the
mix-up a "clerical error," Cardinals scouting director Ed Creech
said, "I feel sorry for the scout, for the kid we didn't get,
for a lot of people. It's a little bit embarrassing--no, not a
little, a lot embarrassing."
Canadian Horns Of Plenty
In an effort to find a natural, safe alternative to anabolic
steroids, researchers at the University of Alberta are feeding
some of the school's football players pills made from the
ground-up velvet from elk antlers. "A smart food as opposed to a
smart drug" is how Alberta physical education professor Brian
Fisher terms what he and his team are seeking.
Fisher, described in the Toronto Globe and Mail as "one of
Canada's leading elk-velvet researchers," says that the
2,000-year-old Chinese remedy, which can be found here and there
in Chinese markets, contains 17 amino acids that can help
increase muscle mass and promote recovery from hard workouts.
The efficacy of velvet will be tested in the Alberta study, in
which 10 Golden Bears players, along with 27 cadets from the
Edmonton police academy, will take six elk-antler pills a day
for 10 weeks while continuing their normal workout programs. "I
hope," says Fisher, "we'll have stronger, bigger football
players in September."
If the stuff works, we just hope that unlike steroids it's
approved for use in the U.S. After all, no one wants a velvet
That TV eliminate golf's most treacherous hazard--the
post-tournament sponsor schmooze.
That sometime before the 22nd century we see J.D. Drew, agent
Scott Boras's favorite holdout, in a major league uniform.
That Oscar De La Hoya, who drew 45,368 fans for his "fight"
against palooka Patrick Charpentier, decides to see how many
tickets a bout against a real foe would sell.
Days after John Fogerty postponed a concert in Chicago so as not
to go up against Game 5 of the Finals that the former Creedence
Clearwater Revival frontman and Michael Jordan fan will perform
in the Windy City.
Dollars refunded by the Stella Artois Grass Court Championships
in London after rain severely shortened two days of play.
Operations, including 15 on his knees, that Broncos offensive
lineman Mark Schlereth, who won the George Halas Award for
overcoming adversity, has had during a nine-year career.
Percent of times since 1992 that top-seeded wrestlers, who get a
bye into the finals, have won in the U.S. world freestyle team
qualifying tournament, after 58 of 66 did so last week.
Bid, in dollars, that earned Don King control of the Call and
Post, a Cleveland weekly that had gone bankrupt.
Chefs employed by the 22-man French team for the World Cup.
Dollars more per season the Bulls pay Michael Jordan ($33.14
million) than the Jazz pays its entire roster.
Should Every Team Have an All-Star Rep?
Baseball spends all year splintering itself; the All-Star Game
is the one night when the haves and have-nots get together.
Let's keep it that way, if only to remind everyone there are
still teams in places like Minnesota and Montreal. We know
talent is concentrated on a handful of oligarchic clubs, so no
one needs a midsummer classic clogged with Braves and Yankees.
That's what the World Series is for. --Stephen Cannella
What a radical idea: pick the best players instead of treating
this showcase as if it's an every-homeroom-gets-represented
student council. The rule made an All-Star out of .272 hitter
Tony Womack last year, while worthies such as Tony Clark and
Trevor Hoffman have never suited up. Faux-stars in 1998 might
include Edgar Renteria (above), when everyone knows "All-Star
Marlin" is an oxymoron. --Tom Verducci
Patience is a virtue, you say? Good luck persuading Karl Malone
and John Stockton. Not only have they pick-and-rolled the Jazz
into the playoffs every season since 1985-86 without winning a
title, but they've also had to watch as bench warmers on other
teams decorated their fingers with rings. Here are the five
players with the lowest minutes-to-rings ratios during Malone's
and Stockton's Sisyphean era.
Career Minutes per
Player Playoff Minutes Rings Ring
Billy Thompson, Lakers 27 2 13.5
Mike Smrek, Lakers 72 2 36.0
Jud Buechler, Bulls 433 3 144.3
Bill Wennington, Bulls 572 3 190.7
Wes Matthews, Lakers 384 2 192.0
MALONE 5,719 0 --
STOCKTON 5,220 0 --
Here's a Bad Magic Act
Late Night Talk's Latest Entry Is Pretty Poor Showtime
Magic Johnson has always been the master of the debut. As a
freshman at Michigan State, he led the Spartans to a Big Ten
title; as a rookie with the Los Angeles Lakers he earned the
first of five NBA rings; and as a novice coach with the Lakers,
he won his first game.
Well, the run is over. The Magic Hour, Johnson's new syndicated
talk show, which debuted on June 8, isn't just bad; it's
historically bad. In the annals of late-night television, only
Chevy Chase's 1993 five-week train wreck comes close to matching
Magic's reach-for-the-channel-changer horribleness. Johnson's
Lakers coaching career lasted 16 games before he quit. It will
be a minor miracle if his show airs that many times.
The Magic Hour's format is similar to the Carson-Conan model
(schmoozing sidekick, studio audience, applause signs) with one
big difference--Johnson isn't funny. As relaxed as he was
handling the ball, he's that uncomfortable in the role of
late-show ringleader. He asks questions that aren't really
questions, along the lines of, "You've done a lot for charity,
and I admire that." He shakes each guest's hand six or seven
times. He talks endlessly about basketball and says the same
things over and over. Magic, we know you'd like a sixth ring.
Now give us a break.
Johnson's ratings dwindled as the first week went on (he opened
with a 3.0 but wound up averaging 2.2), as did the celebrity
wattage of his guests. They included both the has-been
(erstwhile talk-show host and Magic good-buddy Arsenio Hall, and
Thighmistress Suzanne Somers) and the predictable (Pat Riley and
Kobe Bryant). Even when Magic got off to an A-list start on his
inaugural show, with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Whitney Houston,
we should have known all was not right. His third guest was a
man who set himself on fire while running around the stage,
yelling, "Arrrrgggh!" Magic and Whitney stood to the side in
expressionless, embarrassed shock. Magic's eyes were wide. His
famed smile was gone.
Perhaps, as a result, he can appreciate what his audience is
This Week's Sign That the Apocalypse Is Upon Us
A 10-year-old boy, his mother and the Union City Little League
in Naugatuck, Conn., have been sued by another 10-year-old over
a 1996 incident in which the plaintiff was struck in the
head--but not seriously injured--when the other youngster took a
practice swing in the dugout.
They Said It
Yankees shortstop, after seeing formerly mirthless pitcher
Hideki Irabu break into laughter when a teammate's joke was
translated for him: "That's the difference between this year and
last year. This year, he has a funny interpreter."