Monday, July 30, 2007
Gambling and Sport-Basketball
“Five will get you ten, old Mackey’s back in town!” A line from Bobby Darin’s Mack the Knife.
And so it goes with sports today. There are very few sporting activities that are not covered by the gambling phenomenon.
Gamblers stake their odds on all continents, since time immemorial.
No matter what the game, there will be odds, there will be takers. There will be winners and losers. Some of it will be legal.
Most countries have tried to take gambling out of illegal hands, and have legitimized the activity. Lotteries, pools, selection of winners: all for the benefit of society. All perfectly legal.
In the United States, the state of Nevada has led the way in the gambling world. Las Vegas, its gambling capital, was carved out of the desert almost a hundred years ago to become the gambling Mecca for North Americans.
But it is illegal gambling that gets athletes into trouble, one way or another.
Many spectators do not enjoy their sporting events unless there is a “little on the line”- a side bet, here or there. It may be with a bookie, it may be between friends. But in order for some to watch the games, there has to be money involved.
One of the problems related to this need is the fact that most illegal bookmaking activities are conducted by gangsters, thugs, and convicted felons. They may wear the nice suits, they may have the pretty ladies on their arms. But they are mean, and they do not tolerate losing. And if you owe them money, because you lose at gambling, you had better pay up. Quickly.
It appears that a relatively young National Basketball Association referee, Tim Donaghy, bet on NBA games, and “disclosed confidential information to others with respect to NBA games that would enable them to place wagers with an advantage.” According to Commissioner David Stern, “Mr. Donaghy is the only referee who is alleged to have bet on NBA games.”
Stern is an articulate, very careful lawyer, and he chooses his words carefully. His words are selected from a 14 page transcript provided by the NBA from an interview with ESPN. In order to emphasize the severity of the situation, he had this to say: “I can tell you this is the most serious situation and the worst situation that I have ever experienced either as a fan of the NBA, a lawyer for the NBA or a commissioner of the NBA.”
The integrity of the game is at stake. It has been jeopardized, because of gambling.
In 1951, another NBA referee was charged for taking bribes to fix scores by his calling of fouls. Sol Levy was convicted on six of seven counts; however, he won an appeal the following year, on a technicality.
Michael Jordan, along with many other NBA players and officials, likes to “put a little on the line” when it comes to a friendly game of golf. Charles Barclay has gone to some length to let the public know that it is his money, and he can gamble if he wants.
Jordan’s gambling habits are a little extraordinary. In 1991, he admitted betting more than $50 000 on golf games played with James “Slim” Bouler, who has since been convicted of selling cocaine.
During the 1993 finals, a San Diego businessman, Richard Esquinas, alleged in a self-published book that Jordan owed him $1.25 million, in the wake of a ten day golf gambling binge. Jordan claimed he never bet anything near a million dollars on a golf game, and that he merely gambles as recreation.
On both occasions, the NBA supported Jordan, but some critics claim that the investigations were “soft” because Jordan was such a powerful box office draw in the league.
Jordan “retired” in 1993 to play baseball for the Chicago White Sox organization. Fortunately for him, Chicago Bulls’ owner Jerry Reinsdorf also owned the Birmingham Barons in the White Sox chain, and he continued to pay Jordan at his NBA salary.
Also in October of 1993, Jordan’s father was murdered by a pair of young thugs. There is an element of mystery surrounding his death, perhaps because of Michael’s activities at that time.
Following his year of baseball, Jordan decided that he would return to basketball. But he needed Stern’s permission. No reason has been given why Jordan would need Stern’s permission. You decide.
There was a Boston College betting scandal in the 1980s, and there was recently a point-shaving scandal at Arizona State.
Handicappper Brandon Lang recently related his opinion to ESPN.com: “The mob has had its hand in fixing and shaving games going back to the late ‘40s. They’ve always been under question for getting teams to shave points. The fact that they finally got an official, Donaghy, isn’t surprising. Listen, this is just the first guy to get caught.”
Basketball is not alone as a professional sport with gambling problems. Players have been expelled from every other major sport for similar discretions. Rarely an official. And this may just be the tip of the iceberg.
July 30, 2007
Monday, July 23, 2007
Barry's day in the Sun
Some time this week, Barry Bonds will hit a home run that will break the all time record of career home runs, currently held by Hank Aaron. His name will then be listed at the top of a very select list of famous baseball players. They are all in the Hall of Fame.
Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Mel Ott, and Lou Gehrig are stars from the past whose names are on the list of Home Run Legends. More recently, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, Harmon Killebrew, Mickey Mantle, Reggie Jackson, Mike Schmidt and Ken Griffey Jr. have hit “dingers” more than 500 times to earn recognition. Alex Rodriguez of the Yankees will hit his 500th next week.
Aaron ended his career with 755 home runs. Ruth had 714, and that record stood for many years until “Hammerin’ Hank of the Braves” knocked his 715th into the bullpen on the 8th of April, 1974, to take over bragging rights.
Throughout his illustrious career, Aaron was a model baseball player. No doubt he endured some of the harassment that blacks faced when the colour barrier was broken by Jackie Robinson fifty years ago. Ruth’s record had stood for ages, and many baseball fans were somehow threatened by the fact that a black man was about to wear the crown as the home run leader.
In an ESPN interview earlier this season, Aaron talked of his battles to break Ruth’s record. “I received a lot of hate mail. There was a lot of resentment across the country; however, some wonderful things have happened to me since that time.”
After Aaron rounded the bases, the baseball world remained the same. There were other records to be broken, other milestones to set. Roger Maris went through extreme discomfort in 1961 as he challenged Ruth’s record of 60 homers in a season. He suffered hair loss, anxiety, loss of confidence. But he did hit that sixty-first home run to get his name on the top of the list.
George Sisler had 257 base hits in 1920, a record that stood until recently when Ichiro Suzuki passed him on the hit list. Sisler’s daughter attended the game, and was overwhelmed when Ichiro approached her and graciously apologized for breaking her father’s record.
But the records will continue to be broken. Some may last forever. Ted Williams is the last Major League Baseball player to hit better than .400. His batting average in 1941 was .406. A little research indicates that he stands 17th on the list, as 16 others had higher averages than he. Names like Sisler, Cobb, Hornsby, Keeler, and Shoeless Joe Jackson appear on that list.
There has been more dialogue about Bonds’ assault on Aaron’s record than any other individual event in baseball. Most of that chatter stems from the usage of materials to enhance performance, and from Bonds’ surly attitude for the past several years. He has been antagonistic toward many baseball fans, and especially toward the media.
In a general discussion of steroids, human growth hormones and the like, baseball experts recently placed the number of players who have “experimented” at 70%. That list includes pitchers and hitters. In some observers’ minds, the playing field was relatively level because the strikers and the throwers were playing with the same chemical advantage.
Most Canadians remember with some shame the day when Ben Johnson handed his gold medal back to the Olympic Organizing Committee. He had tested positive for an anabolic steroid, and had lost his medal and his world record. His first response to the decision was a similar one that we hear today: Deny, Deny, Deny. Subsequent testing and conversation finally sealed his fate. There was no doubt that he had been using the material. His fate was sealed.
The situation is slightly different with the Major League baseball players. At the time when many of them gained significant weight, especially muscle fibre, there were no testing procedures used by the league. Only recently has baseball implemented programs to test for the drugs.
In this game of “Catch me if you can”, players are enticed by drugs that are not yet detectible. There are others who are caught using prohibited substances. They are now receiving stiff penalties, potentially career-threatening.
Hank Aaron has left the door open for Bonds this year: “I said that until it is proven that he took steroids, he shouldn’t be condemned.”
Aaron left with game with impressive statistics. He still leads the Majors in Runs Batted In, and only Pete Rose and Ty Cobb had more hits than he did.
The genial Peter Gammons, a well-respected baseball writer, had this to say recently about the controversy. “Before 1920, we had the ‘dead ball era’. From 1920 to 1950, Ruth was the dominant player. From 1950 to 1970, Aaron was the best player in baseball. For the past 20 years, the steroid era, Barry Bonds has been the greatest player.”
The balls used against Bonds will be specially marked as commemorative, likely with identifying computer chips to verify the authenticity. The ball that breaks the record will be worth at least a million dollars.
Bonds will face the best pitching the Atlanta Braves have to offer: John Smoltz and Tim Hudson. He will try to yank a couple of dingers into McCovey Cove, in his home San Francisco park.
Barry has always tried to “hit ‘em where they ain’t”. In this case, in the seats or in the drink. He will then be regarded as number one, but, for some, always with an asterisk.
Enjoy the game.
July 23, 2007
Friday, July 13, 2007
A Painful Victory for the Argos
Last Thursday night, the Toronto Argonauts had little trouble disposing of the Calgary Stampeders. The Stamps were playing their second road game of the week, having visited Regina the previous Sunday. They flew east Monday, got settled, had one decent contact practice at McMaster in Hamilton, and were at the Rogers Centre on Thursday. Easy pickings for the Argos.
The Stamps were inept in all areas. The offence sputtered, with both Burris and Akili Smith at the helm. They coughed up the ball so many times that the Argos were able to score thirty-eight points off turnovers. After leading 48-1, the Argos allowed their Western rivals to cash in for two touchdowns, resulting in a final of 48-15.
In mid April, the Argos traded Calgary a couple of high draft picks for a seasoned offensive guard named Taylor Robertson. Robertson was born in Brantford, went to college on a scholarship at the University of Central Florida, but played his high school ball in Kingston at LaSalle Secondary School.
I spoke with Robertson after the game. He found the win most satisfying. After all, he explained, Calgary had “kicked me out the front door” in a rather abrupt manner. He had been drafted by the Stamps in 2003 in the second round, but had opted to attend the Philadelphia Eagles camp. He was released as a final cut by the Eagles, and was activated for the second last game of the year by Calgary.
Since that time, he started forty straight games as a Stampeder on the offensive line. He not only started those games, but “played every offensive down” in those games. “It felt good to win this one”, he told me. “It’s great to be here in Toronto”, he added. “There is a great atmosphere in this dressing room.”
In one of the Toronto newspapers that day, it was noted that Taylor had played his high school ball in Belleville. “That is not the case”, he told me. “I began playing football in Grade Nine at LaSalle.”
During his high school career, there was a work-to-rule at Ontario Secondary Schools. All football programs were on hold. Robertson latched onto a program run by Centennial coach Barry Pyear for Quinte area students, and played several games as a tight end. “That was a great program. I really appreciate all of the work that Coach Pyear did for us.” (The team played St. Michael’s from Toronto at Centennial. I worked as an umpire in that game.)
I spoke with Coach Pyear about Robertson’s game with the team. “Taylor averaged a couple of catches a game for us. He helped with our run game as well; however, I saw that he’d make a better offensive lineman. He was a big guy at that time, and he was still growing.”
Jamie Barresi had coached with the Tiger Cats, but was the offensive co-ordinator with Wake Forest at that time. He then moved on to Central Florida. (Dante Culpepper, who has had an outstanding, yet interesting career in the NFL, had just left Central Florida.) Barresi was instrumental in getting Robertson to look at the Florida program.
There were four local players at the CFL combine that year-all trying to get an inside track into the CFL: Kyle Pyear, Justin Shakell, Mike Botterill, and Robertson. Unfortunately, Robertson pulled his hamstring in the 40 yard dash. Because of that, he was selected late in the first round. Pyear always thought that Robertson coulkd have made the grade in the NFL. He was ranked at that time, but was not chosen for the draft. He was a final cut from the Philadelphia Eagles the following spring.
At six feet, six inches, and tipping the scales in the 335 pound range, Robertson has become comfortable as an offensive guard. “I do miss getting my hands on the ball as a tight end,” he added with a chuckle.
Coach Clemons was disturbed following the game. He knew that his quarterback was in difficulty. Bishop had landed hard on his throwing arm near the Stamps end zone. He got up gingerly, held his helmet in his left hand, and sprinted to the locker room with the training staff. He subsequently went to the hospital.
Clemons did not have the diagnosis, nor had he seen the X Rays. He is neither a surgeon nor a radiologist. But he was badgered about Bishop’s condition by reporters for the first ten minutes of his post game interview. He seemed relieved when I asked him about the highlights of the game.
“I wasn’t happy to see Bishop’s first pass intercepted. But he makes things happen, and that’s why he started the game. He is in a transformation mode at this time---mentally, and skill-wise. He is now 80% to 90% right in his judgement, and that’s pretty darn good. I am dejected about his injury, however.” (Rightfully so, as Bishop did fracture his distal radius, and will be out for 6 to 8 weeks).
Clemons went on to summarize the game. “Both teams were tired from the start. Teams need a week to recuperate from a game, and neither of us had that time. They were worse off in the injury department. Our objective from the start was to increase the pace of the game to take advantage of their fatigue.”
And so they did, capitalizing on the Stamps’ ineptitude, and their weariness.
A decent crowd of almost thirty thousand was on hand to cheer on the Boatmen. The Argos now have a bit of a respite before heading to Calgary to face the Stamps on Saturday, July 21st. Considering the number of altercations following the whistles on Thursday, the Argos know it will be a tough game in the West. Mike McMahon finished the game at the helm for the Argos.
McMahon signed with the Argos in February this year, following stints in Detroit and Philly in the NFL. He idolized former Eagle quarterbacks Randall Cunningham and Jim McMahon. They both played when Belleville native and Queen’s grad Mike Schad was on the Philly line.
The Argos have little over a week to re-establish their offence under McMahon. There will be some growing pains. But Coach Clemons appears committed to a new regime at quarterback, with McMahon, and Eric Crouch, and Mike Bishop---when he has healed.
Just another opportunity to re-invent the wheel for the Argos.
July 14, 2007
Monday, July 09, 2007
Canadian Football League Action in Toronto
On Thursday night, the Calgary Stampeders will take the field in Toronto against the Argos.
Following a loss to the B C Lions, and a shellacking of the Hamilton Tiger Cats, the Argos are ready for the Stampeders. The Westerners are smarting from a thumping this past weekend at the hands of the Sakatchewan Roughriders, 49-8. Ouch!
The loss to the Roughies was not pretty. Lapses in defence, an ejection, a sputtering offence---it all added up to an embarrassing loss. These things do not sit lightly upon the shoulders of CFL players. They will not be in a good mood Thursday night in Toronto.
The Argos had little trouble with the Tiger Cats. The Tabbies are in transition. In fact they have been in transition for several years. They have been through a host of coaches, they have experimented with many quarterbacks, they have kept the revolving door busy at Ivor Wynne Stadium as players come and go. They are still quite inept.
But these are not your Argos of old. The most important player on the team, the captain at the helm of the ship for many years now stands quietly on the sidelines. Damon Allen, for the moment, has been replaced. Inevitably. He broke several passing records last year, and returned to lead the team again this year.
With little fanfare, Coach Mike Clemons has replaced Allen with Mike Bishop. Bishop has been riding the pine on the Argo bench for several seasons, and even had stints in the Arena Football League.
Bishop earned his stripes in the Argo victory over the Ticats. Not overly spectacular, but effective. His receiving corps snagged touchdowns passes on three occasions---Tony Miles, Arland Bruce III, and Andre Talbot all pulled down six point receptions. Bishop also kept the Steeltown defence on its toes with 27 yards rushing on five carries.
Henry Burris leads the Stamps from the QB spot. He has an impressive array of receivers; he just had difficulty finding them in the loss to the Roughriders. But the likes of Jeremaine Copeland, Ryan Thelwell, Brett Ralph, Marc Boerigter, and Ken-Yon Rambo will make life interesting for the Argo defence. And if Burris fails to find the mark, rest assured that Coach Higgins will call on Akili Smith to take some snaps.
Smith is certainly an enigma. He was drafted third overall into the NFL, following Tim Couch and Donovan McNabb. He signed a contract that gave him a bonus of more than $ 10 million. Obviously, he likes to play the game. With a pocket full of Toonies, why would anyone want to get sacked by 300 pound linemen? For the love of the game, no doubt.
As is often the case, football is a game of momentum. The Stamps had none Sunday night. They would like to get a jump on the Argos Thursday night. It is a very short week for them, not much time to heal.
The Argos would like to continue their winning ways, and host the Grey Cup in November. This is early July, however, and there is a lot of turf to cover before that time.
A victory in July is worth exactly the same number of points as a win in September. There is no time like the present for the Double Blue to put points on the board.
Argo legend Derrell “Mookie” Mitchell has been called up by Mike Clemons to replace starter Patrick Johnson. Mitchell needs 91 receiving yards to surpass Paul Masotti as the franchise leader. That should not be the focus for the Argos.
There are bigger fish to fry. On Thursday night, at the Rogers Centre.
There will be about 25 000 fans in the seats. There will be 25 000 seats that are empty. Even the cheap seats offer a great view of the game. See you there.
July 9, 2007
Monday, July 02, 2007
Chris Benoit-Another Tragic Figure
In the 1950s and early 1960s, the city of Belleville came alive on Friday nights for a select group of citizens---professional wrestling fans.
They flocked to the Belleville Memorial Arena in droves, some arriving in the early afternoon for the evening tilts.
They were seldom disappointed. All of their favourites would arrive, prepare themselves for battle, emerging from the dressing rooms to wale away on each other for ten or fifteen minutes in the ring.
A side note about their dressing rooms: these were the same rooms that had housed thousands of hockey players---tiny tots to professionals. The same rooms that the Belleville McFarlands dressed in to prepare for their sojourn to Prague to win the World Championship.
The favourite wrestlers were cheered as they approached the ring. Whipper Billy Watson led the parade. He was Canadian, and he fought fairly. The good guy. He subdued his opponents with his “Canadian Commando” sleeper hold to gain victory. He was accommodating to his fans, he signed autographs for everyone, he was always pictured with a young crippled child on the “March of Dimes” posters.
He fought the meanies. There were plenty of them, and they were not nice. They cheated, they hid lethal objects in their shorts, they tried to hurt the good guys. When they approached the ring, they were booed, and often whacked with a stray purse.
Fritz von Erich was a bad guy. He epitomized all that was evil about the Third Reich. After all, we were less than a decade removed from the Second World War, and an imposing German figure was not going to win the hearts of many of the rabble at ringside. Hans Schmidt, the “Munich Menace”, was also one of the most-hated performers in the ring. He specialized in a back-breaker manoeuvre, and also resorted to eye gouging, hair pulling, choking and stomping to win his bouts.
Some wore hoods to disguise their identities. Most of the time, these hooded figures were well known to the fans, but came concealed to fill in for an injured or unavailable opponent.
They came from everywhere: Argentina Rocca from the Pampas, Bo Bo Brazil from Rio, Duncan McTavish from Glasgow, Gorgeous George, Lord Athol Layton, Yukon Eric, Georges Carpentier from Paris, Killer Kowalski. Supposedly from all over the world. In fact, most were from Cleveland, or Brooklyn, or somewhere in Quebec east of Montreal. McTavish lived on the Cold Creek Road in Hillier Township, Prince Edward County.
Wresting cards were issued by the Parkhurst Company in 1954, and contained a wealth of knowledge about the game. One of the cards features Roy McLarity, the Winnipeg Whirlwind. The back of the card tells us that he wrestled TV Champion Vern Gagne to a one hour draw! That must have been an entertaining event.
When they disagreed with the verdict, the fans would litter the ring. It would take the Gullivers, or Doug Murray, or one of the other rink attendants several minutes to clear the ring for the next bout.
Now and again, celebrities would join the throng of wrestlers for the trip. Angelo Mosca, the perennial All Star from the Hamilton Tiger Cats was on the circuit for a few years. “Bronco” Nagurski, the only Canadian in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton Ohio, also wrestled in Belleville.
One night, George Carver, the long-time sports editor of the Intelligencer, escorted his son Peter and me to the dressing room area. “I want you to meet someone,” he told us. We then stuck out our hands to meet Jack Dempsey. The legendary former Heavyweight boxing Champion of the World. He was a bit down on his luck, and needed to pick up some easy coin as a referee at these bouts.
It was a travelling circus. They would wrestle in Peterborough, in Kinston, in Cornwall. Their major sources of income came in Montreal at The Forum, and in Toronto at Maple Leaf Gardens. Frank Tunney, the well known Boxing promoter, also orchestrated the wrestling fare.
After their bouts at the Memorial, these combatants, these hated foes, would shower, climb in their Cadillacs, and move on down Highway # 2 to their next venue.
Nowadays, the wresting game has changed significantly. It has become an empire, on the North American side, for Vince McMahon. He learned from his father, and from the Tunneys, to put on a show. He capitalised on the television market. He promoted in every way possible, he built an empire.
But that is an empire based on fantasy, on deceit, on hatred, and on drug abuse.
With the death of Chris Benoit, there are signs of deterioration in the wrestling world. There have been many horror stories related to professional wrestling. Stories of drug abuse, rage, many forms of nonsense. Benoit’s situation is even more tragic. He murdered his wife and child before taking his own life.
The down side of professional wrestling was well documented in “Beyond the Mat”, a 1999 study of the world of wrestling. Jake “The Snake” Roberts, who wrestled at the Quinte Sports Centre, and charmed the ladies, was shown to be a lonely cocaine addict estranged from his family.
Eddie Guerrero, another fan favourite was found dead in a Minneapolis hotel room, another victim to the anabolic steroids he had abused. In 2003, Curt “Mr. Perfect” Henning died of a cocaine overdose.
In 1999, Owen Hart, from the famous Hart family, fell to his death in the ring performing a stunt. The show continued on because wresting is always full of theatrics and gimmicks, and the audience had no idea they had witnessed his death. It was a Pay-per-view event.
Tom Billington, one of the British Bulldogs in modern wrestling, has chronicled his post wrestling woes in his biography Pure Dynamite. “He is now confined to a wheelchair as a result of damage to his back and legs. Years of steroid abuse have also done serious damage to his heart.” Quotes from the author, Dave Meltzer, who writes the Wrestling Observer.
It is not a pleasant time for the WWE. Somehow, it will survive, only because there is a segment of society that still believes that it is real, it reflects life, and it is entertaining.
Take me out to the ball game, if you don’t mind. Ten rows behind first base. Thanks.