FOOLS ON THE HILL
The first toss has gone the way of all pitching--right down the
Over the course of this baseball season I have attended roughly
80 games, seen roughly 80 first pitches and recognized three
first pitchers. One was Ted Williams at the All-Star Game. One
was Malik Rose, a backup forward for the San Antonio Spurs. The
third was a clown from Ringling Bros. I recognized him by his
Throwing out the first pitch used to be cool. It used to be an
honor. It happened on Opening Day and on special occasions, and
it meant something. Before tossing out the first ball at the
1986 World Series, Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill practiced
for two weeks in a Capitol hallway. He threw a perfect strike.
Harry Truman--who apparently believed that when it came to
ceremonial first pitches, the buck stopped with him--drew seven
Opening Day starts. FDR had eight. On Aug. 14 H.D. Lee, a
regional manager for Korean Air, did the honors at Dodger
Stadium. Lee was neither presidential nor accurate--his offering
missed the plate by three feet. Good thing no one was watching.
The first pitch is no longer a distinction but a pathetic
marketing tool, like Beanie Baby Day and Meet Keith Osik Night.
You take care of the home team, the home team takes care of you.
That's why Jeff Briggs, a relative of someone who won a contest
sponsored by grocery store chain Dominick's, skidded out the
first ball at a game at Wrigley Field in late July. Why Casi
Carter of First Union, the "exclusive financial services
provider of the Devil Rays," did so at Tropicana Field two weeks
The first pitch is so tarnished that it's not necessarily even
the first pitch anymore. On the same night that Briggs had his
pregame moment on the mound, so did Gary Palmer, a "guest of the
Cubs," and Doug Valassis, a "friend of the Cubs." Pity Ray King,
the Chicago reliever assigned backstop duties. Catching Valassis
Two hours before a June game at Dodger Stadium, I noticed a
statuesque, twentysomething redhead slinging heat in the
visitors' bullpen. There were 10 or so girls nearby, all wearing
pink hats, all holding dolls. Who, I asked one of them, is the
warmup pitcher? "Duh," she replied. "It's Barbie. She's throwing
out the first ball." --Jeff Pearlman
Draft Pick Stiffs Vancouver
Steve Francis may want to wear a goalie mask and pads when he
plays his first NBA game in Vancouver on Nov. 29. Grizzlies fans
are furious at their team's first-round draft pick, who pouted
his way out of town last week when Vancouver traded him to
Houston in an 11-player, three-way deal that included Orlando.
But before they start taking shots at Francis, the Grizzlies'
faithful might want to fire a question or two at the Vancouver
front office, beginning with this one: Why did you draft Francis
in the first place? It couldn't have been a surprise to general
manager Stu Jackson that when the Grizzlies took the 21-year-old
Francis with the second pick, he reacted as if he'd been
sentenced, not drafted. In the weeks leading up to the draft,
Francis, a second team All-America last season at Maryland, had
made no secret of the fact that he didn't want to play so far
from his family's home in Silver Spring, Md., and it's hard to
figure out why Vancouver called his bluff. Francis would not
have addressed the Grizzlies' biggest weaknesses. Vancouver,
already loaded with young players, desperately needs experience,
preferably a big guard to team with 6'1" playmaker Mike Bibby in
the backcourt or a tough power forward. The 6'3" Francis doesn't
fit into either of those categories.
The Grizzlies addressed some of their shortcomings in the trade,
acquiring two modest young performers, shooting guard Michael
Dickerson and forward Othella Harrington, plus veterans Brent
Price, a point guard, and Antoine Carr, a power forward. But
they set a dangerous precedent in the process. "We don't want
guys who don't want to be here," Jackson says, but by giving in
to Francis's wishes, he made it more likely that other players
will try the same strategy to get out of Vancouver in the future.
Francis isn't necessarily a big winner, however. In Charles
Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon and Scottie Pippen he has three new
teammates who have already had problems sharing the ball. The
rookie may find that they're not eager to cut the pie four ways.
Those three are also past their prime, which means that in a
year or two Francis could find himself stuck in a town far from
home on a lottery team with lots of holes to fill. Isn't that
what he was trying to avoid in the first place? --Phil Taylor
New Boxing League
For all the ills that plague boxing, no one complains that it
isn't sufficiently team-oriented. Still, a group of promoters is
convinced that pro team boxing can give the sport the sponge
bath it so desperately needs. Scheduled to swing into action
next spring, the National Boxing League will consist of eight
franchises in cities including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago
and Miami. The fight plan calls for each franchise to field
pugilists in eight weight classes in both a "gold level" (for
established fighters) and a "silver division" (for less
experienced local palookas); teams will be assembled through an
annual draft, with each market having first dibs on local
boxers. "The worst part about boxing is that promoters protect
their fighters, so you always know who's going to win," says Art
Dore, a veteran promoter who will be the league's commissioner.
"With two skill levels, you're not going to have [so many]
NBL teams will compete once every three weeks, and fighters can
also box on the side. If that sounds like a recipe for
punishment, it is. But fighters will be tested before each NBL
bout in accordance with state boxing rules, and competitions
will feature only six fights, giving boxers time to rest.
Pay is expected to range from $1,500 to $4,000 a fight--winners
will receive twice as much as losers--so don't expect to see
Mike Tyson or Roy Jones coming to an NBL sweatbox near you.
Still, that far exceeds the standard $100 a round for undercard
fighters. What's more, the NBL will provide its employees with a
pension plan, a benefit no boxing organization currently
provides. "This league will show that there are a lot of good
boxers out there," says Dore, who also founded the notorious
Toughman competitions, in which barroom champs pay $50 to beat
the stuffing out of each other. "Because the way the fight game
is run, a lot of them don't have a place to show their skills."
Football Super Shoe
CIRCULAR LOGIC ON SQUARE TOES
The NFL hasn't had an old-fashioned straight-ahead placekicker
since Mark Moseley retired in 1986. After a league ruling this
spring, it may be a long time before the NFL sees another one.
Last year the Falcons looked into outfitting a backup to Morten
Andersen with a $250 shoe called the Super Impactor, created by
onetime NFL punter Ray Pelfrey and featuring a toe wider and
higher than anything the league has seen since Tom Dempsey's
day. The boot soon came to the attention of Jerry Seeman, the
NFL's senior director of officiating, who declared it illegal.
That set off a year of wrangling between Pelfrey and the NFL in
which the league couldn't tell Pelfrey exactly what constituted
a legal shoe. A letter from a league lawyer quoted the NFL's
rule on footwear, which refers to "shoes that are of standard
football design" and "a normal kicking shoe" without defining
either of those terms, and concluded with impressive circularity
that Pelfrey's shoe "is not acceptable under current NFL rules."
The league's competition committee upheld that decision in May,
which must come as a disappointment to the two dozen pro scouts
who had seen the Super Impactor making an impact at Pelfrey's
kicking camp in Sparks, Nev., last March. The shoe was on the
right foot of Matt Piotrowicz, 17, now a senior at Chicago's
Mount Carmel High, who boots the old-fashioned way. "This kid
was kicking as long as six or eight of the pro prospects we were
there to watch," says Mike Stock, special teams coach for the
Was it the shoe? Recruiters from Division I, in which Pelfrey's
shoe is legal, don't care. They've seen film of an
Impactor-powered Piotrowicz kickoff leaving the stadium in a
Catholic League game last year--a boot estimated to have
traveled 91 yards. After receiving some 20 offers from the likes
of Arizona, Ohio State and Penn State, Piotrowicz has orally
committed to Florida. If he's a hit there, the NFL may find this
issue circling back on it before too long. --Noah Liberman
One of the first things the new czar of the Continental
Basketball Association plans to do this season is institute a
dress code--sport coat and tie for all players, coaches and
other team personnel on road trips. Considering that the
53-year-old CBA teeters perpetually on the verge of bankruptcy
(more than 100 franchises have folded in the last two decades),
making a fashion statement might sound trivial. But not to Isiah
Thomas. "We're going to present ourselves as professionals on
and off the court," says Thomas, who recently paid a reported
$10 million to buy the nine CBA franchises. "That's the only way
to make this work."
Thomas is right to go after the CBA's image. No matter how many
John Starkses and Mario Elies it sends to the NBA, to most of
America's sports fans the A in CBA has long stood for
Amateurish. Moreover, despite the CBA's standing as the
"official developmental league of the NBA," neither the NBA
office nor the NBA players' association has ever paid more than
lip service to that designation, effectively leaving the CBA off
the nation's radar screen.
If anyone can sell the importance of the league to David Stern
and points beyond, it's Thomas. He's a future Hall of Famer with
two NBA championship rings, a past president of the players'
union and the former general manager of the Raptors. "Isiah has
leverage in all sorts of places we've never had leverage
before," says Jay Frye, former owner of the Fort Wayne Fury, one
of the league's more stable franchises. (What role Frye and his
colleagues will play in the new CBA has yet to be ironed out.)
Still, the journey to credibility is uphill. College basketball
has long served not only as the NBA's minor league but also as
its star-making machine. The CBA may never do much about the
latter, but Thomas believes it's time to do something about the
former. As popular as college basketball is, it has been failing
miserably as a vehicle for player development, largely because
so many players spend only a year or two on campus before
departing, relatively unprepared, for the NBA. "The CBA has
always been underutilized as a training ground," says Jerry
Colangelo of the Suns, one of the NBA's most influential owners.
"Isiah, because of his presence and his credibility, might turn
Thomas's goal is a minor league system a la baseball: 29 CBA
franchises, each affiliated with an NBA team. But he also has
more pressing concerns, foremost among them to attract big-time
sponsors and keep peace in the league, given its unconventional
ownership arrangement. As in the WNBA and Major League Soccer,
the league office--read Thomas--will have control over personnel
and can juggle players among teams as he sees fit. "Of course, I
was worried about giving up control and local autonomy," says
Frye. "I did it because of Isiah's clout and because I think he
can make this league better in the long run."
Kreskin Has No Juice
O.J. WON'T PLAY THE MIND GAME
The Amazing Kreskin, the self-described "world's foremost
mentalist," recently revealed that over the summer he wrote to
O.J. Simpson to offer his services. Kreskin told the disgraced,
golf-crazy football Hall of Famer that he might use his
thought-reading abilities to end the debate about Simpson's
culpability in the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron
Goldman five years ago. As of last week, Kreskin says, the
response has been "absolute silence." Shouldn't a mind reader
have known that going in?
--That all those umps who keep complaining about being fired
remember that they resigned.
--That someone would explain the joy of the U.S. women's 4X100
relay team after it failed to medal at the world championships.
--That Pete Sampras gets Slam title number 13 in front of the
Members of Parkettes Gymnastics of Allentown, Pa., who won
titles last week at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships, the most
ever from one gym.
Riders in last Saturday's Hotter 'N Hell Hundred, a 100-mile
bicycle ride through 104[degrees] heat in Wichita Falls, Texas.
Piercings and tattoos on the body of Cowboys defensive tackle
5 to 2
Odds given by the sports book intertops.com that the Bengals'
Bruce Coslet will be the first NFL coach to lose his job this
Plate appearances between home runs for the Brewers during their
recent 13-game power drought.
Peak decibel level during the Target Grand Prix, the first race
at Chicago Motor Speedway--35.5 decibels higher than the legal
noise limit in Cook County.
Amount that Progressive Auto Insurance president Peter Lewis
says his company paid to sponsor the halftime show at the most
recent Super Bowl, a decision he now attributes to his own
"hubris and egomania."
K.C. at the Bat
With next week's release of For Love of the Game, Kevin Costner
(right), a former Cal State-Fullerton shortstop, now has five
starring roles in sports movies on his some-hits, some-flops
resume. None of the other four films can match the brilliant
Bull Durham, but certain trends are detectable when
jack-of-all-jocks Costner picks up a bike, a ball, a bat or a
American Flyers (1985)
Dr. Marcus Sommers, struggling-to-hold-on bicyclist
Sarah, ex-wife of Sommers's nemesis, Barry (the Cannibal) Muzzin
OLD SCHOOL WAYS
Trains by teasing a vicious dog into chasing him
ADVICE FROM KEVIN
"You gotta take care of your equipment, Davey"
Despite brain aneurysm, wins first stage of big race
Bull Durham (1988)
Crash Davis, struggling-to-hold-on catcher
Annie Savoy, who's sleeping with Davis's nemesis, Nuke Laloosh
[OLD SCHOOL WAYS]
Wants constitutional amendment outlawing AstroTurf and DH
[ADVICE FROM KEVIN]
"A player on a streak has to respect the streak"
Sets minor league home run record in final at bat
Field of Dreams (1989)
Ray Kinsella, struggling-to-hold-on farmer
Annie Kinsella, sister of Ray's nemesis, Mark
[OLD SCHOOL WAYS]
Keeps score while watching game at Fenway Park
[ADVICE FROM KEVIN]
"If you build it, he will come"
Organizes greatest Old-Timers' Game in baseball history
Tin Cup (1996)
Roy McAvoy, struggling-to-hold-on golfer
Dr. Molly Griswold, girlfriend of McAvoy's nemesis, David Simms
[OLD SCHOOL WAYS]
Calls training aids "paraphernalia for lost and desperate souls"
[ADVICE FROM KEVIN]
"At the top of the swing...a little nod to the gods"
Drains three-wood for immortal 12 on 72nd hole of U.S. Open
For Love of the Game (1999)
Billy Chapel, struggling-to-hold-on pitcher
Jane Aubrey, who blessedly has no link to any Chapel nemesis
[OLD SCHOOL WAYS]
Considers Layla greatest driving song in history
[ADVICE FROM KEVIN]
"When your fastball's gone...you gotta do it on guts"
We won't spoil the ending, but, boy, is it improbable!
do it yourself
Be the Ball
Bored with bungee jumping? Find parasailing passe? No worries.
Somewhere in the world someone with vision is inventing a new
oddball pastime. Take Andrew Akers and Dwane van der Sluis, two
New Zealand entrepreneurs who wondered what it would be like to
roll down a hill inside a giant inflatable beach ball. Not
content simply to ponder the possibility, they went out and
built a contraption that let them do it.
Their baby, the Zorb, is a transparent, inflatable plastic ball
within a ball. The interior ball, about six feet in diameter,
and the exterior ball, about 10 feet across, are connected by
nearly 1,000 nylon ties. The Zorbonaut crawls through a
passageway to the inner ball, where he is protected by a cushion
of air as he rolls downhill, tumbling head over heels while
strapped in a harness. (Passengers can also try hydro-Zorbing,
sloshing around freely with a few gallons of water.) The Zorb
can reach upwards of 30 mph and, according to Akers, can safely
descend slopes of as much as 20 degrees. "Any steeper," he says,
"and it starts bouncing...and bouncing...and bouncing." The ball
stops fairly quickly on flat ground--within 45 to 60 feet.
Since Akers and Van der Sluis set up the first Zorb venue in
Rotorua, New Zealand, in 1996, the Kiwi craze has spread, with
eight Zorb franchises in Europe and one in South Africa. North
America is Zorb-free for the moment, although a segment on MTV's
Road Rules prompted a flood of E-mail to the Zorb Web site
(www.zorb.com) from Yanks eager to bound downhill. In the
meantime, says Akers, "it's only about 12 hours of flying to
your nearest Zorb site."
This Week's Sign That the Apocalypse Is Upon Us
A South African man who planned a 2,000-mile walk from Cape Town
to Johannesburg and back to draw attention to violent crime in
his country was mugged at gunpoint by three men and relieved of
his wallet and watch 12 miles into the journey.
Football fanatics were back in heaven last weekend when, for the
first time in seven months, the pigskin flew in a game that
counted. Here are some sites to satisfy the ravenous fan who
might want the skinny on teams like the Cowboys--of either
Dallas or Wyoming.
Monday-morning quarterbacks, rejoice. This site offers animated
diagrams (above) of the Falcons' play action, the Packers' trap,
Florida State's zone blitz and many more. Audio reports provide
daily injury updates and point spreads. While waiting for next
weekend's game, check out the similarly deep analysis of a host
of other sports.
You'll feel as if you're sitting in the student section at
Michigan Stadium when you listen to The Victors, one of 119
college fight songs on this site. Sing along to Tennessee's
Rocky Top or, better yet, Saint Olaf's Um Ya Ya. (You know the
The Huddle will give the fantasy football player the sleeper
pick at tight end, or if he wants a second opinion, he can seek
the advice of other fantasizers in the site's Sports Lounge.
sites we'd like to see
Tiger Woods explains how you, too, can land a $90 million
endorsement deal with Nike even after your clothing line has
Track elusive first-round draft pick Dimitrius Underwood as he
wends his way through NFL camps and flirts with a career as a
highlights at 11. Please watch anyway."