Thursday, October 18, 2012

Time to Even it Up?

What I kind of remember about 1968:

The USS Pueblo.
The Chicago Democratic Convention.

What I remember about 1968:

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination.

What happened in 1968 that is still so clear it's like it happened yesterday:

Bobby Kennedy's assassination.
The World Series.

It's hard to convey to anyone born decades later than me how crazy it was to be a 10-year-old in 1968. Everything seemed relatively safe in my sleepy little Michigan town. Until "everything" started to explode.  Dr. King, the Olympics, the riots, the election, the Chicago cops. Who could you trust? Where was it safe? 

I watched most of the 1968 World Series at school. Not on my tablet. Not on my i-phone. On a grainy black and white t.v. in my school cafeteria. I hung with every pitch and at-bat, as did my classmates, Detroit, and most of the Mitten State.

The Tigers helped everyone forget, for a while anyway, the turmoil that was 1968. It brought together a  city and a state torn apart by race, by inequality, by war. And it allowed all of us, for at least seven magical games, to think about something simple - competition. And to collectively succeed at something when success at anything seemed impossible.

Baseball was my sport as a kid. It was the only sport I played as an organized competition and the one I followed more than any other as a fan. I still have my baseball card collection. I can still name the starting nine of the Tigers that year (from memory, without cheating: c Bill Freehan; 1b Norm Cash; 2b Dick McAuliffe; 3b Don Wert; ss Ray Oyler; lf Willie Horton; cf Mickey Stanley; rf Al Kaline/Jim Northrup; pinch-hitter extraordinaire Gates Brown). I remember Denny McLain's 31 wins, and the pitching of Mickey Lolich, and Earl Wilson, and Joe Sparma, and John Hiller.

One of my boyhood heroes.

The Tigers romped through the American League that season, winning the pennant by 12 games. But ahead lay the St. Louis Cardinals and their pitching monster, Bob Gibson. The Tigers went down in the Series 3-1 at a time when only two teams had ever come back from such a deficit to win a seven game series. Gibson was unhittable in Games One and Four, and yet, somehow, a self-described pot bellied, big eared unheralded guy named Mickey stopped him and the Cards in Game Seven to win the Series.

All of this seemed relevant this evening, as I watched the Tigers clinch their 11th American League crown and await their National League opponent, which appears likely, for the fourth time, to be the St. Louis Cardinals. The "Gashouse Gang" Cardinals beat the Bengals in 1934, the Tigers won in '68, and the Cardinals were best again in 2006. It seems time to me to even that scoreline.

The ultimate twist of fate? While this ten year-old was watching the series in his little town in Michigan, rooting for the Tigers, there was a nine year-old girl watching in a small town outside of St. Louis, rooting just as hard for the Cardinals. We have been married now for 30 years. A lesson, perhaps, that sports can divide as well as unite. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

Life, Death, and Litigation

The murmuring has become a cacophony. The trickle a tidal wave. The silent suffering a public crisis.

What was once a hidden secret, shrouded by machismo and shame, is now public. Former NFL players are dying, or sickened, because they played the game they loved.

Most weren't injured all at once. Not in a Darryl Stingley-Jack Tatum moment. But a little at a time. Tackle-by-tackle. Collision-by-collision.

The NFL is trying to address the problem. Banning hits on defenseless players. Prohibiting helmet-to-helmet contact. Commissioner Roger Goodell's recent public relations nightmare, the Saints' "bountygate" fiasco, did not occur because the NFL is somehow suddenly opposed to the violent collisions that were its hallmark. The NFL is worried about its players. And worried about getting sued.

Alex Karras, a Lion of my youth, a Lion of life, died last week. He suffered from kidney failure. But more tragically, he suffered from dementia caused, he contended, by repeated concussions incurred during the Golden Age of football in the 1950's and 1960's.

"The Mad Duck" was not the archetypal dumb jock. Far from it. He clashed with coaches he thought tyrannical, acted, was a sportscaster, and a businessman. He was also one of the greatest defensive linemen in the history of the NFL.

Alex Karras, near the end of his playing days.

But as Karras' health failed, he became part of a group of former NFL players who sued the league early this year, claiming a variety of health problems as a result of head injuries caused by the NFL's alleged failure to provide safe playing conditions.

I don't know enough about the medicine to know if Karras and his fellow plaintiffs have a legitimate case. I tend to think that the science and medicine regarding concussions and their long-term effect is recent and still evolving. And as a result, it may be difficult for the former players to prove that the NFL intentionally submitted them to unsafe conditions and repeated injury.

One thing I'm relatively certain of, however, is that the NFL's recent emphasis on avoiding injury, sitting players with concussions until medical clearance, and the suspension and fining of players who engage in what used to be acceptable conduct on the field (leading with the helmet, spearing, dumping quarterbacks and running backs on their heads after forward progress is stopped) is the result of concerns for player safety, and also for potential liability.

Roger Goodell is the CEO of a multi-billion dollar industry and understands that his job is to maximize and protect the owners' product and their wealth. While Karras and his co-plaintiffs may or may not pose a threat to that wealth, the current generation of players, 20 or 30 years down the road, almost certainly does given what we now know about concussions and their long term effect on the brain.

Every time some announcer or pundit or former player or even current player decries the "softening" of the game, they are longing for a day when life was simpler, when we knew not what we asked of the players. And they ignore both the science and the economic might of what professional football is today.

All of this is, of course, too late for The Mad Duck and his generation. But if the changes, however motivated, allow us to bask a little longer in the reflected light of today's stars in the future, or to delight in the multi-facetedness of a player who we just saw as a brute, then that makes us all a little richer. And a little less guilty for watching on Sunday afternoons.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

What if We Decided Not to Blame Anyone?


1. (in the Bible) A goat sent into the wilderness after the Jewish chief priest had symbolically laid the sins of the people upon it (Lev. 16). 2. One that is made to bear the blame of others.
Make a scapegoat of.
whipping boy - fall guy - goat"

After attending all three days of competitive play at the Ryder Cup, I too got caught up in the discussions in the aftermath of the Meltdown at Medinah. 

"Who should we blame?" all the commentators asked. Various candidates were offered (Jim Furyk, Steve Stricker, Tiger Woods, and Captain Davis Love chief among them). "Did we lose it or they win it?" was a conversation I engaged in as well. After discussing some of the above candidates, we decided it was a little of both -- some of our guys lost matches they could or should have won, some of their guys (chief among them Justin Rose) won matches they had every reason to believe they had already lost.

Jim Furyk reacts to a missed putt on the final day.

As the sting has faded though, I've been thinking more about our need (and by "our" I mean Mankind, Humankind, all us people, etc., not just Americans and not just the Ryder Cup) to attach blame and find a scapegoat. Particularly interesting, or troubling, is the definition above: "one that is made to bear the blame of others."

I understand that with multiple 24-hour sports, news, and golf television and radio it is inevitable that in the endless effort to fill air time every result and action will be overanalyzed. But I can't help but think that at least part of why we do so, or even listen while others do, is to find someone to "bear our blame." Not the blame of losing an exhibition golf match (anymore than our average counterpart in Europe can take credit for the victory), but for our collective discontent and feeling that we're no longer the masters of our domain.

So at least as far as this Ryder Cup goes, I'm not looking for a scapegoat, not placing blame. The Euros won, and did so with passion and flair. Let's just leave it at that.

Random observations from three days at Medinah:

"USA! USA! USA!" is insipid. C'mon people we can do better. I suggest that for the next Ryder Cup on U.S. soil (or even Gleneagles in 2014 for that matter) we enlist Sam's Army or the American Outlaws (which are U.S. Soccer supporter groups, not biker gangs) to instruct all American fans in some proper songs.

One of the five coolest moments in my sports spectating life was watching and listening as Ian Poulter and Bubba Watson got the fans amped up on the first tee on Saturday afternoon, then hit while they were still in a frenzy. If you didn't see it, you have to watch.

Not sure why, but golfers on the whole strike me as the most universally likable athletes.

Except for Sergio Garcia, who I've never really liked.