Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Ever Hear of This Guy?

Talk about embarrassing!

I consider myself pretty well-read on sports and history. Yet I have to admit: until we got the pitch from the publisher a few weeks ago, I couldn't have told you who Benny Friedman was.

Well, we interviewed the author (the book is called "Passing Game: Benny Friedman and the Transformation of Football" ) and I read the book. And I was blown away.

Synopsis: Friedman was a Jewish kid from Cleveland who went to the University of Michigan in the 1920's and played for the legendary Fielding Yost. Despite rules that discouraged the forward pass (for example, you had to be at least 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage to throw a pass) and a ball that was shaped about like a rugby ball (see the photo), Friedman and the Wolverines opened up the passing game.

He then did the same thing in the fledgling NFL, where Friedman set all sorts of records (and to be honest, was a greater force than even the legendary Red Grange). Later, Friedman coached at CCNY and Brandeis but never got the bigtime coaching job he craved.

How a guy with a story like Friedman's got lost to history is a story in itself. Anti-Semitism? Maybe. His own cranky personality? Possibly. Friedman was finally elected posthumously to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2005 (went in with Steve Young).

And now you can read the whole story. It's worth your time.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Central Steroid Question

I've been engaged in a spirited debate this morning with my news co-anchor Susan Leigh Taylor about steroids in sports. She's like a lot of people: can't understand why an athlete would take something that might be harmful, and can't see how they justify breaking the rules.

This, of course, after listening to Alex Rodriguez (you can listen here) explain his use of steroids between 2001 and 2003. In particular, Susan mocks A-Rod for one answer, where he had no good explanation for why--if he thought what he was doing was benign--he was so secretive about it.

Here's what I argue, without attempting to justify the use of banned substances: an athlete will do whatever it takes to win. Whatever.

Seriously. Why is it that we honor a guy for playing with a broken bone (how good for you can that be?), while discounting the "will to win" as a motive in taking steroids?

Susan's comeback: "But it's against the rules!"

My retort: "Sure it is. And so are a zillion other things athletes do in the ordinary course of sports. In any refereed sport, we let the players push against the rules until they're caught. A basketball players knows the rules forbid shoving an opponent, but he'll do it until the ref blows the whistle."

I argue that using steroids is logical. If you're trying to be the best--and remember, there's only one "best"--of course you'd examine every avenue. And if you thought that many, if not most, of your competitors were also cheating, you'd sure be likely to ignore that moral high ground in favor of results.

We interviewed a fellow a while back who sought to understand the mindset of European cyclists who doped. What he found makes perfect sense: they were young people who'd had to singlemindedly pursue their sport for so long that they saw no other options. It was win or perish. Ergo, performance-enhancing drugs were a sort of lifeline. Replace "European cyclist" with "American baseball player" and maybe you'll see the why of doping.

Or maybe you won't. Then you'll be like my friend Susan, constantly dismayed at what she sees as the stupidity and weakness of these guys.

She might be right. But I've always thought you can't hope to change human behavior without understanding why people do what they do.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

An Amazing Tale

Something I need to know more about: a commercial Randy Johnson and Bengie Molina shot in Japan almost 10 years ago. As Molina tells it, the two were on an All-Star tour of Japan and were hired to hype a product Molina can no longer remember.

What he can remember is the setup: Molina sitting in a parked car and Johnson attempting to hum fastballs through an open window so Molina could catch them.

Not the first time a catcher has been enlisted in a stunt with dubious safety standards: Washington Senators catcher Gabby Street, whose day job involved handling Walter "Big Train" Johnson's heater, took 13 attempts before catching a ball dropped from atop the Washington Monument.

Street was quoted thusly at the time: "The ball I caught hit my mitt with terrific force, much greater than any pitched ball I have ever caught, and I have caught some pitchers who are given credit for having wonderful speed. Though my mitt is three or four inches thick, the force of the ball benumbed my hand."

In the case of Molina and the Big Unit, not surprisingly, control was the issue. As Molina recalls it, Johnson's first throw slammed into the car door. The second clipped the door frame and nearly beheaded Molina. The third pitch was on target, and Molina recalls shutting down the operation at that point before somebody got killed.

I can't find this commercial anywhere. I can find video of Johnson abusing onetime Giant Tsuyoshi Shinjo in a Tokyo Dome at-bat (see it here).

Anyone know where that Johnson-to-Molina through-the-window video might be found?

Monday, February 9, 2009

The End Of the Innocence

The calls are multiplying for Alex Rodriguez to come clean, to 'fess up to steroid use.

This, after someone leaked a supposedly positive test result from a sample taken in 2003, before Major League Baseball imposed a mandatory testing regimen. Those 2003 samples were to be used to determine if MLB had a drug problem: if more than 5% of the samples came back positive, the sport would begin stricter testing with penalties the following year.

In the last few days, we've seen reports alleging both A-Rod and Barry Bonds tested positive in that 2003 survey. Cue the wailing, gnashing of teeth, and wringing of hands.

But hold on a moment. Can I ask a simple question? Leave aside the fairness of leaking supposedly-secret test results. Why were these samples even linked to a player's name in the first place?

If the goal of the 2003 program was to establish whether MLB had a problem, it served absolutely no purpose to flag the samples with players' names. All the 2003 program needed to know was this: was the sample from a major leaguer?

If it seems like I'm splitting hairs, maybe I am. But I happen to believe very strongly in the rule of law. If the process isn't fair, how much faith can we have in the results?

Go ahead and wring your hands and call for A-Rod to do whatever it is you think he ought to do. But give some thought to a process that appears to be badly flawed, and ask yourself for a moment why the only leaked positives from the 2003 tests point to two of the sport's biggest stars, and not to any of the 70-odd others who also tested positive that year.

Friday, February 6, 2009

At The Summitt

Yes, I know how to spell "summit", as in "the top". My title refers to Pat Summitt, the University of Tennessee women's basketball coach, who has just become the first person ever to win 1,000 games coaching college hoops.

She doesn't need any more honors. Pat Summitt is already acknowledged to be the greatest coach women's basketball has ever seen. Yet she plows ahead, layering success upon success.

Think about what it takes to pile up a thousand wins. You'd need to win 30 games in a season 33 times to get there. In fact, Summitt's Lady Vols have notched 18 of those 30-win seasons (plus 3 more 29-win campaigns). Tennessee's women have never had a losing season with Pat Summitt on the sidelines, and she's been there since the 1974-75 season.

But it's more than the win totals. It's the absolute demand for perfection that has always marked Summitt's teams. Do me a favor: even if you think women's basketball is less exciting than the men's game (not as fast, nobody dunks, etc.--I've heard all the arguments), check out a Tennessee game sometime. You'll see superior athletes executing a well-coached system.

Summitt insists that her teams still be called the "Lady Vols", in an era when the feminized moniker is disappearing. Yet, she'll ream a player on the sidelines or the practice court just like the guys do.

Pat Summitt is not even 57 years old yet. Who knows how many more years she plans to coach, how many more wins she'll pile up? But even if she were to walk away tomorrow, she's set the standard for everyone else trying to reach the summit.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

On Broadway

OK, I know, Madison Square Garden isn't physically on Broadway. But you know what I mean.

The lights are just a little brighter, the crowd just a little louder, the buzz a little sharper, when you're in New York.

And give Kobe Bryant credit. He knows his 61 point performance at Madison Square Garden is a bigger deal than, say, a 61 point night in Oklahoma City.

It's the greatest scoring night in the history of the Garden. Heck, as far as I can tell, it's the best game a pro has ever had in any of the 4 buildings known as Madison Square Garden.

Kobe made all 20 of his free throws, and went 19-for-31 from the floor. He knew he was chasing history and he knew he was doing it on the biggest stage in his business. He even knew his performance would silence resident loudmouth Spike Lee, with whom Bryant had a postgame meeting about a documentary project.

After the game, Kobe made reference to the long legacy of basketball in New York, and stowed his showboating, trash-talking side to say, "It's a blessing to do what you love and to have moments like this."

Even the notoriously tough New York fans seemed to know that this was a singular performance. They went from their routine booing of Kobe to chanting "MVP" by game's end.