Borg vs. McEnroe
Borg vs. McEnroe
Superstars, Long-term Contracts, and the Uniqueness of Baseball
Modern sports are built on the foundation of superstars.
Even if you don’t watch the NBA, you know that Lebron James will play for the Lakers next year. And you can bank on the fact that Los Angeles will be in the Western Conference finals against Golden State.
Even if you don’t watch the NFL, you know that Tom Brady is going to dominate in 2018 unless a blitzing linebacker literally breaks him. If Robert Kraft woke up one morning with a brain ailment and traded Brady to the Buccaneers, you could bank on the fact that Tampa Bay would host at least one NFC playoff game.
Major League Baseball is nothing like this.
Alex Rodriguez was the biggest baseball celebrity superstar since Joe DiMaggio. In 2016, however, he was a terrible liability to the New York Yankees.
A-Rod signed a 10-year contract extension in 2007 and his horrible hitting and lack of athleticism had brought the entire franchise down to his mediocre level. On August 12, 2016, the Yankees forced A-Rod to leave the team, and agreed to pay him tens of millions of dollars to watch the games at home.
On August 13, 2016, a kid named Aaron Judge was brought up from the minors because the Yankees now had a free roster spot. He hit a HR in his first at-bat. With A-Rod gone, the team immediately became good again and they haven’t looked back.
At the heart of every disappointing team is a star with an insane long-term contract.
The Baltimore Orioles made the playoffs 3 out of 5 years, most recently in 2016. That’s the year they decided to torture their fans by signing first baseman Chris Davis to a seven-year contract extension. Mr. Davis has become the worst player in baseball. Literally the worst. He is batting less than .160 with minimal power.
So why doesn’t management just cut him? That’s the tragedy of long-term contracts. Mr. Davis is still due $110 million through 2022. Baltimore is stuck with him. And they are stuck in last place for years to come.
There is no star so great that he can’t sink a franchise with a foolish long-term contract. Miguel Cabrera was a magnificent hitter and he will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Right now, though, the Detroit Tigers wish that they weren’t stuck with him until 2023, at $30 million per year.
The Angels have the best player in the league: Mike Trout. So how come they are only .500? Because they made the hideous mistake of giving the former best player in the league – Albert Pujols – a 10-year contract.
Only now, Mr. Pujols can’t run, play competent defense, or hit for average. He seems to have just enough energy left to sign his $30 million paychecks until age 41 while he poisons the team with his torpor.
I would criticize the New York Mets front-office for signing flaky and oft-injured Yoenis Cespedes to a contract extension at $29 million per year. But – you know what? – I’m not going to. I think Mets fans secretly prefer their team to be a last-place embarrassment.
Big budget franchises like the Yankees and Red Sox still have an advantage over the rest of the league. Only the advantage is not that they can sign the best free agents. The advantage is that when they mess up and sign the best free agent players to foolish contracts, they can simply pay them to not play.
Boston is happily paying Pablo Sandoval $32 million to play for San Francisco for the next few years. And New York is currently shelling out $21 million per year to Jacoby Ellsbury even though his only job is to continue making up phantom injuries that keep him as far away from the active roster as possible.
For years, the 2018-19 offseason has been hyped as the most important free agent class in MLB history.
I agree. The hype is real. The question is which myopic owners will sabotage their franchise by signing Manny Machado and Bryce Harper to long-term contracts. And which teams will give themselves a chance to win by saying no and sticking to the cheap young homegrown players that they already have.
It is open season on rednecks in our culture. In polite society, one is allowed to make fun of them, diminish them, call them awful names, or simply ignore their perspective entirely.
“I, Tonya” is the first serious film I’ve ever seen about a great redneck. This is not an indictment of the American working class, it is a condemnation of the classist jerks in Hollywood who don’t understand or appreciate them. But, hey, if you have to wait a lifetime for a film about your people, at least it should be great. “I, Tonya” is the best picture of the year.
Some critics observe that “I, Tonya” is condescending to Tonya Harding. I suppose that’s because they’ve never seen a movie like this and don’t understand it. Director Craig Gillespie tries to tell the truth about Tonya Harding to the best of his ability. And the truth is that she is an amazing athlete, an amazing competitor, and an amazing fighter. She’s a redneck, an admirable hero, and a great American champion.
The story begins in the mid 70s, somewhere in Oregon. Tonya Harding was LaVona Golden’s sixth child from her fourth husband. What did that mean? It meant no one ever treated Tonya like she was wanted or special. But she was special.
Tonya began winning skating contests at age four. By the time she was a teenager, Tonya was a nationally recognized skating dynamo. In 1991, she became the first American woman to land the Triple Axel in a competition.
It was quietly agreed upon that Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) was the greatest figure skater in the hemisphere. But she wasn’t always getting top scores, and it infuriated her.
After bravely (and profanely) confronting dozens of judges, one sheepish judge finally tells her what’s happening: “It’s not your skating, Tonya. It’s you. You’re representing America, for Goodness sake. We need to see a wholesome American family.”
Tonya Harding was the Tom Brady of skating. But she was treated like Blake Bortles because she wasn’t dainty, demure, passive, or upper middle class.
She could have sold out and acted like a proper lady to coax better scores out of the judges. But she couldn’t pretend to have a wholesome American family. Tonya was from a broken home and her loveless mother beat her. Tonya didn’t know any better so she married a loser who beat her.
Instead of giving Tonya Harding extra acclaim for overcoming her challenging personal life, people tried to keep her down. And ultimately succeeded.
Margot Robbie is a revelation as Tonya. This is the best performance by anyone in 2017. If Meryl Streep wins Best Actress over Robbie, it will be because the Academy voters are as classist as they are wrong.
Director Craig Gillespie doesn’t make “I, Tonya” a melodramatic story of heroes and victims. He presents Tonya Harding’s life as a tragic black comedy.
If you’re expecting “I, Tonya” to be about that one time a guy Tonya Harding didn’t know whacked Nancy Kerrigan in the knee, you’ll be disappointed.
This film isn’t about the Kerrigan incident, it’s about how we all reacted to it.
The fact that Tonya Harding isn’t revered as a sports hero says more about us than it does about her. America isn’t built to appreciate and admire redneck women. It’s built to laugh at them. And, when necessary, to destroy them.
The Battered Bastards of Baseball
Tim Tebow is one of the most famous sports figures in America.
He is best known for being Christian, but he actually plays sports from time to time as well. Tebow was a star quarterback for the University of Florida. Then he was a lousy quarterback in the NFL.
This year, he made headlines with his unusual decision to become a professional baseball player. The media scoffed. I scoffed. But, strangely enough, Mr. Tebow is doing all right. He is a productive starting Outfielder for the St. Lucie Mets, a single-A affiliate of the New York Mets.
At work the other day, a guy who saw a Tebow story on ESPN stated that Tebow is living the good life, getting paid well, and is one step away from the Major Leagues. None of that is true.
And that’s when it hit me: most people – even most sports fans – don’t know anything about Minor League baseball.
The annual MLB Draft has 40 rounds. A kid who is drafted is, at best, a few years away from getting to the big leagues. More realistically, he will never come close. For every Major League team you have heard of, there are at least four minor league teams that you’ve never heard of (AAA is the highest level, single A is the lowest).
The reason why even baseball fans don’t care about Minor League baseball is that affiliated minor league teams are little more than soulless corporate factories that help a few gifted kids become Major Leaguers and weed out the Tim Tebow-esque 90%.
In 1972, every single minor league team in America was affiliated with a Major League ballclub. In 1973, every team was affiliated except one.
“The Battered Bastards of Baseball” is the joyous, upbeat story of the Portland Mavericks.
In the 1960s, Bing Russell (Kurt Russell’s dad) was best known as the Deputy Sheriff on Bonanza. But though he liked acting, he loved baseball.
Bing Russell used his own money to fund astoundingly serious and nerdy baseball coaching videos meant to teach fundamentals to little leaguers. Multiple Major League managers showed Bing’s tapes to their own players.
When Russell founded an unaffiliated club in Portland, Oregon, the baseball world assumed that it would fail. Every other minor league team in America consisted of players drafted and paid by Major League clubs. How would The Mavericks find players? And compete?
Bing Russell put an advertisement in The Sporting News announcing open tryouts. Five hundred men showed up. Russell himself selected the twenty-five best. Not the youngest. Not the strongest. Not the most physically gifted. The best.
They competed pretty darn well. In their very first game, the Mavericks pitcher threw a no-hitter. And that set the stage for years of consistent dominance by the upstart Portland team.
Their philosophy was to run the bases hard, take chances, be ridiculous, and have fun. While every other club in their league lost their best players to AA, the Mavericks became a tight family – all working hard to impress their baseball-savant boss.
Minor League baseball is so uninspiring that the only minor leaguer that you have even heard of is a washed-up Quarterback.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Following a baseball team is one of the most wonderful things about being an American. You get to share a magical summer with guys that you care about, watching them play a sport that you love.
“The Battered Bastards of Baseball” is the feel-good baseball movie of the year. Watch it on Netflix tonight. (you know, after the game).
It’s Almost Judge-ment Day
Last year at this time, The New York Yankees were not a good team. It looked like the Evil Empire had finally been conquered by Father Time and bad long-term contracts.
They were below .500. Even worse: they were boring, unlikable, and sad.
The gloom that had enveloped Yankee Universe was palpable. If the other team loaded the bases in the first inning, Yankees radio voice John Sterling would say: “We had better hope that Pineda doesn’t let two of those runs score. If he does, the Yankees will never be able to come back.”
And he was right. Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez were washed up. Chase Headley and Aaron Hicks looked lost. And the whole team was lethargic and slow.
The Organization needed a change, there was no denying that. So what did the front office do? They signed some big money free agents….NO!!! Not this time. This time, the New York Yankees did the right thing. They got younger.
A-Rod was forced into retirement. Teixeira retired on his own. Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann got traded. It’s a whole new team. Fewer big names, fewer bloated contracts, and a lot more fun.
The Evil Empire has fallen. The Baby Bombers Era has begun.
The Yankees front office took its first step on the road to franchise sanity back in 2013. That year, the Red Sox unwisely signed Dustin Pedroia to an eight year contract extension. That contract looks okay now, but it won’t when the Sox have a broken down 37 year old infielder in 2021.
New York did not make the same mistake; they said good-bye to their aging franchise 2nd baseman – Robinson Cano.
To be fair, Cano is playing well for Seattle. But the Yankees’ 2nd baseman – Starlin Castro – is playing just as well. And Castro is 7 years younger and is playing for a fraction of the money on a shorter contract.
Starlin Castro is actually the high-paid elder statesmen on the team’s core of young stars. Power-hitting catcher Gary Sanchez is making the league minimum at age 24. The face of the franchise – Aaron Judge – just turned 25.
In contemporary MLB, scoring a big free agent signing is a sure way to make headlines. But drafting and trading for young talent is the way to win a championship.
During that same fateful winter of 2013, the Yankees took a chance on Aaron Judge.
Judge was chosen late in the first round. More than 20 other teams passed him over, and it’s easy to see why. Judge is 6’7’’ 280 pounds, and position players aren’t supposed to be that large. Athletes that size become tight ends, not outfielders.
As all baseball fans know by now, the Yankees made the right decision. Barring injury, Aaron Judge is going to be Rookie of the Year. And he’s on his way to becoming the league’s premier power hitter.
His size gives him a unique skill set. Pitchers are used to being able to fire high fastballs at hitters, creating a swing and miss, a foul back, or a pop up. Aaron Judge hits high fastballs out of the park.
Pitchers are used to being able to jam hitters with inside fastballs. Generally, the best a batter can do with an inside fastball is pull his hands in and shoot the ball to the opposite field – Jeter style. Aaron Judge is able to shoot the same inside fastballs to the opposite field – and over the fence in right-center.
It’s not that Judge has discovered a new style of hitting; it’s that Judge is a giant playing in ballparks that were built for mortal men. That’s why he leads in the league in home runs.
Don’t worry, Red Sox fans: Judge will probably slow down. History dictates that he can’t continue hitting at this torrid pace.
You had better hope he slows down. And that Sanchez, Castro, Hicks, and Didi Gregorius aren’t as great as they appear to be. If they are, The Yankees are a dynasty in the making.
It’s almost Judge-ment Day for the AL East.
No No: A Dockumentary
Drugs destroyed baseball.
Cheaters like Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds transformed dirty needles into home runs at the expense of fairness and decency. To this day, A-Rod continues to sully the record books with his drug-tainted milestones.
I don’t believe any of that.
When people denigrate modern baseball, their implication seems to be that MLB before steroids was a time when clean, wholesome players competed like respectable gentleman.
The outrageously entertaining, family-unfriendly documentary “No No” shines some light on the drug-fueled truth about Major League Baseball in the 1970s.
The title refers to the both the subject – All-star pitcher Dock Ellis. And his most famous achievement – throwing a notorious no-hitter.
How the heck do you throw a notorious no-no? This is how. Picture it: June 12, 1970, San Diego, California. Dock is awakened by a girl he has been partying with. She informs him that he has to rush to the ballpark to get ready for his start against the Padres. “But I’m pitching tomorrow,” he says. “No. Look at the paper. You’re pitching tonight.” Dock is befuddled. “What happened to yesterday?”
Dock Ellis was on a multi-day LSD bender. But he pulled himself together and pitched a complete game no hitter while tripping on acid.
How did he do it? Same way he did it on any number of occasions he pitched drunk, high, and hung over; he did it with greenies.
Greenies (dexamyl) were amphetamine pills that ballplayers use to pop to stay sharp and focused during games. They were as much a part of major league baseball as home runs and spitting until MLB banned them in 2006.
Think about how hard it must be to stay alert during a slow-moving 3 1/2 hour game after taking a cross country red-eye flight the night before. Having some serious uppers in your system surely made the long, grueling season easier to manage.
It infuriates me when high and mighty sports fans disparage amazing hitters and dismiss them as cheaters because they juiced. If getting a little chemical advantage is cheating, then most people who played during the 20th Century – the Greenie Era – were cheaters. And the players today are heroes for getting through 162 games without amphetamines.
Dock Ellis’s story shows a clear distinction between the life of pro athletes in the 1970s versus today. Back then, ballplayers earned a lot less money. But they had a lot more freedom to be themselves off the field without the prying eyes of ESPN scandal mongers and the prying needles of MLB drug testers.
The Steroid Era gets a bad rap. But “No No” is a reminder that drugs were a part of pro baseball long before Jose Canseco put the first syringe in his butt.
And, in the end, it’s clear that chemicals don’t truly make a player great. The 2015 season is proof of that. 39 year old Alex Rodriguez had a splendid first half the year – without steroids, without HGH, and without any upper stronger than Red Bull.
A-Rod clearly never needed drugs. And drugs did not destroy baseball.
The Fight of the Century
It must be hard for young people to believe that boxing used to be one of the most popular sports in the United States during the 20th Century.
These days, nobody cares about boxing. It is a tiny fringe sport that is about as popular as roller derby and curling.
The Junior Welterweight title bout between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao wasn’t just The Fight of the Century; for many American guys – like me – it was the first fight we watched this century.
My best friend and I split the $99.95 cost to watch the event on Pay Per View. I got duped but I don’t hold a grudge. I sincerely tip my cap to the promoters for successfully hyping the fight and turning it into a must-see cultural event.
The $100 that we spent pales in comparison to the $10,000s that celebrities paid to watch it in person at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Perhaps the most interesting part of the show was the hour where they showed the dozens of sports figures and movie stars in attendance. The crowd included Denzel Washington, Mike Tyson, Mark Wahlberg, Michael Jordan, Clint Eastwood, and Tom Brady with a visibly drunk Rob Gronkowski.
The broadcast was all hype and zero substance. We learned a lot about the background of the two fighters but no details about why they are considered great boxers.
The three knuckleheads who were paid to give pre-fight analysis sounded like they know nothing about the sport. “What’s Floyd Mayweather doing to prepare for the fight right now?” “He’s ready. He’s strong.” Seriously, dude, that’s all you’ve got? You know I paid $50 for this, right?
The only people who sounded knowledgeable about boxing were NBA legends Reggie Miller and Charles Barkley, who were interviewed as they were taking their ringside seats. Miller calmly observed that 36 year old Pacquiao doesn’t have juice to beat Mayweather’s masterful defense.
Miller was right on. Mayweather dominated.
In the fourth round, Pacquiao stunned the champ with a counter punch to the face and then followed it up with furious combination. The pro-Pacquiao crowd went wild and so did I.
Apart from those hope-inspiring thirty seconds, Mayweather was in complete control. He has the brilliant ability to slowly back up against the ropes and then slither his way to safety just as his opponent starts to attack.
Mayweather is a bad, boring fighter. And he’s a truly great boxer.
And that’s why nobody likes boxing anymore. And why this was the first – and probably the last – boxing match I will watch this century.
Schooled: The Price of College Sports
There was a dark time in our history when a certain group of people were terribly oppressed. In exchange for years of sweat, they were given only food and a tiny room to call their own. They did backbreaking work for no pay while the old white guys who ordered them around got rich off their labor.
The time is now. I am talking about college athletes.
College basketball and football generate $billions for universities. And yet, somehow, colleges get away with paying the players nothing. It’s a system of exploitation that is unique in the United States, and the terrific documentary “Schooled: The Price of College Sports” exposes it.
But wait, can’t players make money from advertising and licensing?
No, they’re not allowed to do that, either.
A basketball player can play EA Sports’s NCAA14 March Madness video game that features his name and his likeness. But he’ll have to play it on his roommate’s PS4 because the player himself can’t afford to buy the game. He didn’t get paid a dime.
If a Boston University English student writes a best-selling novel in her spare time and makes $100,000, she is the toast of the school. If the Inside Linebacker for BU gets paid $300 to film a commercial for Worcester Subaru, he has broken NCAA rules and will be suspended.
For some reason, there is systematic effort to ensure that college ballplayers remain dead broke.
But, wait, aren’t the players getting an education for free?
No, they aren’t.
Most kids who enroll in college don’t leave with a solid education. And the odds are even slimmer for those with athletic scholarships.
Athletes have hours of practice each day and hours in the gym when practice is over. They spend several weeks traveling for away games and can’t attend class.
If the school cared whether the athletes were getting an education, they’d hire professors to tutor the students on road trips.
When college athletes do have time to study, they’d be wise to study play books, not academics. If a player doesn’t perform on the field, the school has the right take back the scholarship – even if he is getting straight As in the classroom.
Meanwhile, a great athlete need not worry about losing his scholarship due to bad academic performance. The school simply will not let that happen.
I learned that first hand when I was a history Teacher’s Assistant at the University of Delaware. A young man – who never went to class – earned an F on a test. When the professor saw the “F,” he calmly informed me that the guy is on the football team and must never get a D or below. Period.
“Schooled” is a convincing documentary. It convinced me that the NCAA and every major university in the United States have banded together to form a cartel; a cartel that exists to make boat loads of money while ensuring that their employees are broke, ignorant and powerless.
For the record, I’m not pointing the figure at anyone. I am just as much to blame for this system of exploitation as anyone else. I happily watched March Madness last weekend. And I gave that football player a C-.