Tuesday, December 18, 2007
What Now, Baseball?
It was in the early morning hours in Seoul, Korea, in 1988.
A young athlete opened his bedroom door and found a delegation of officials, media, friends.
They were there to inform him that he had failed the drug tests, and that he was being stripped of the gold medal that he had won earlier in the Olympic Games. They were there to tell him that he was a cheat, and that he had been caught.
They knew that in the hours to come, the rest of the world would find him shameful for his actions, as well as the country he represented-Canada.
His name? Ben Johnson.
We had watched the race, the most important sprinting event at the Olympic Games. We felt great pride as he had crossed the finish line first. His time was brilliant, eclipsing the existing world record. We had watched the race from many different angles. We had seen him fly from the blocks to get an almost perfect start. We had seen him cruise through the first fifty metres, then explode to the finish, alone, at the pinnacle of his chosen work.
Then the shame. Then the denials.
Almost twenty years ago, and yet the rest of the sporting world continues to follow that path to become the very best. All ignore the potential dangers of all of the drugs. All scurry around in dark corners knowing that they are doing something wrong, and may get caught with their hands in the cookie jar some day.
They are driven by fame and fortune. And the belief that they could not get there without performance enhancing substances.
In the almost twenty years since Seoul, there have been many studies, reports, and commissions regarding illegal drugs. Many athletes in many sports have admitted use of the drugs. Several others have been stripped of their glory. A few entire teams of athletes have admitted usage in aquatic events, gymnastics, weightlifting, and others.
Last week, Senator Mitchell brought down his damaging report on the use of steroids, human growth hormone, and other performance enhancing drugs. At the tip of the iceberg, almost one hundred Major League baseball players were named in the report, linking them with the drugs.
There are, of course, several hundred other players whose names were not listed. They fall into two categories: those who did not get caught, and those who have never used the drugs. For those who did not get caught, lucky break.
For those who have never dabbled in the substances, there must be a few puzzling questions on their minds.
Let us look at one hypothetical case. I use the term hypothetical because there is no way I can either prove, nor disprove his use of the drugs. But let us assume that Ken Griffey Junior has not now, nor ever taken the drugs. He is now entering his twentieth season of Major League Baseball. He ranks near the top of several categories for power hitters.
He has hit 593 home runs in his career, which began in Seattle when he was 19, the youngest player in the Big Leagues. When he began the season last year, he trailed a few Hall of Famers on the list: Aaron, Ruth, Mays, Frank Robinson, and Harmon Killebrew. The others he lagged behind were: Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, and Rafael Palmeiro. All four have been implicated in some way in the drug scandal.
One of the theories about steroids is that they will add just enough distance to your swing that the ball will carry over the fence. It sure beats warning track power.
With a little help from some Dr. Chemical, perhaps Griffey Jr. would be in the hunt for the home run crown along with Barry Bonds.
Griffey has also been on the disabled list thirteen times during his career, limiting his number of times at bat. Once a player returns from the disabled list, he is not always at the top of his game, with nagging aches and pains from muscle tears and the like.
Griffey Jr also had to face those amazing flame throwers who have sat him down more than 1500 times in his career. What justice is there when you consider more than a few of them were all juiced up in the process?
Once the report was filed last week, Griffey Jr took the “low road”, and spoke through his agent. He wrote that “we need to do everything possible to restore and maintain the fans’ confidence in the integrity of the game and its players.” Brian Goldberg is Griffey Jr’s agent, and at this point in time, he is grasping desperately at straws.
The ultimate decision in this process lies with the fans. They will decide how tolerant they will be toward the cheating. They buy the tickets. They purchase the goods touted by these athletes. Will they accept the hypocrisy and head back through the turnstiles in April?
There are conceivably hundreds of other stories like the Griffey Jr one. We will hear some; others will get lost in the shuffle. There will be plenty of “spinning” from many sides before even a partial truth surfaces.
“Take me out to the ball game?” Let me think about that.
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
The Canadian Football League 2007
The Grey Cup week did not begin well. The Commissioner, Mark Cohon, came out a week before the game with a state of the union address related to the promotion of NFL football in Canada. His timing was not exactly impeccable, considering the nature of his comments.
He was appointed the commissioner on March 28th, 2007. He has worked for Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, and as CEO for an American Software Corporation. He graduated from Northwestern University in Chicago in Communications.
Cohon has a difficult job, to say the least. There a large numbers of NFL fans in Canada. There is a great deal of television access to NFL football in Canada. Talk show hosts and news reporters cover the NFL extensively. NFL football sucks up a lot of Canadian gambling money, legal and otherwise. Betting pools are popular in Canadian bars. There are so many fine American football players without work in the States that the Canadian league has a quota on the number of imports each team can dress for any game.
Alternative leagues for American players have been shut down, over the years. The European league was large for a while, and several fine players shuttled back and forth across the Atlantic to play on both sides of the border. The World Wrestling Federation’s guru, Vince McMahon, thought the idea of incorporating football, wrestling and kung fu fighting would be successful on the gridiron. He was wrong. The Extreme Football League, the XFL, folded shortly after its inception.
Arena Football has been successful in several American cities. It is an interesting game, and the adjustments to the smaller surface and the boards have been successful. It is entertaining to watch on television, for a half hour or so.
And then there were the days when the Canadian Football League thought that it would raid the American market to become very wealthy. The one concession the league had to make to the American teams was that they do not have to follow the Canadian import rules. In 1993, the Sacramento Gold Miners entered the CFL. In 1994, Baltimore, Maryland and Shreveport, Louisiana were in the East. Sacramento, California and Las Vegas, Nevada played in the West.
In 1995, the CFL created a Southern Division, with all American teams: Baltimore, San Antonio, Birmingham, Memphis, and Shreveport. Baltimore beat Calgary in the Grey Cup final in Regina, the last time American teams played in the CFL.
Commissioner Cohon has suggested that the arrival of NFL football into Canada is starting to look inevitable. He suggests that the league needs to “work with the NFL to grow our business.” He acknowledged to Sun Media that the “NFL spending more time north of the border is on our doorstep.” He lists a series of very powerful Canadians interested in moving the Buffalo franchise to Toronto. Players like Godfrey, Tannenbaum, Lind, and Rogers would love to jump in when Ralph Wilson’s estate is settled. Ralph is still with us, but the vultures swoop a little lower every day.
Prior to the actual Grey Cup game, I took the opportunity to speak to a few knowledgeable former players and writers still involved in the game today.
Duane Forde, former Calgary Stampeder, currently reports on the game for The Score. He began: “I’m not too excited about it. I do hope they have respect for the institution called the CFL. Naturally, there is a lot of money involved. As long as there are American cities looking for franchises, the Buffalo Bills will likely go there. It’s not as inevitable as one might think. Jim Balsillie tried to pry away the Nashville NHL franchise to Hamilton. Despite his best efforts, he failed to get the team. The league itself didn’t want it to happen, and it didn’t.”
There are no guarantees that the NFL would want to put a team in Toronto. The Rogers Centre is undersized for the NFL. And God forbid! There is little room for tailgating! Ever been to a game in Buffalo? Can’t imagine any franchise move.
Chris Schultz, currently with TSN, has been an observer of both leagues, both as a player and as an announcer. He noticed a sense of “negativity during the first three days of Grey Cup Week about the future of the league.” The feeling stemmed from Cohon’s comments. However, Schultz noted in the three days up to the game itself, “there has been a real resurgence of spirit in the CFL.”
He scanned the stands in the sold-out Rogers Centre before the game. “This is Canadian football. The stands are packed. There were huge crowds at all the pre-game parties.”
Just for fun, I asked about the import quotas for Americans. “I wouldn’t have a problem with it if they reduced it.” Such a change would naturally result in more spots for Canadian youngsters.
Steve Milton has written about football extensively in Hamilton for the Spectator for several trying years. His comments on the NFL rumblings: “I am not so certain that it will not happen. It is a corporate thing with enormous tax implications.” It would obviously have serious consequences for the Tiger Cats as well.
Alas, may the contributions of Jackie Parker and Bernie Faloney remain with us always. To the NFL: Thanks, but no thanks.