Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A Question of Motive: Why Reinstate Pete Rose Now?

Hank Aaron may have opened a can of worms with his comments about the potential reinstatement of Pete Rose over Hall of Fame weekend. In doing so, he may have given his friend Bud Selig something a bit more positive on which to pin his legacy as Commissioner of baseball.

The current speculation has Selig considering Rose's reinstatement to the game's good graces, allowing him to finally stand for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Several important baseball figures, from Aaron to Rose's former manager Sparky Anderson, seem to be ready to forgive Pete for his past gambling activities and move on after twenty years.

What does this possibility accomplish? If Rose is forced to stand in front of the Veterans' Committee, he's quite likely to get shot down. Many of the Hall of Famers on said committee still cannot abide players or managers betting on games, and perhaps justly so.

If Rose is allowed a few years to be voted on by the Baseball Writers' Association, he may stand a better chance of induction. However, Selig runs the risk of alienating several VC members who may no longer wish to participate in Cooperstown functions.

What would be a powerful enough motive for Selig to even consider a move like this, one which could fray the relationship between the game and some of its greatest living ambassadors? Is Bud trying to subtly undercut a few of the clauses on the Hall's ballot?

"Voting shall be based upon the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contribution to the team(s) on which the player played."

Examine those bolded clauses for a moment. Then, let's try to think of any recent players who may have run afoul of those bolded clauses, even if just in the court of public opinion. Can you think of any?

I can.

If the Hall gets to let in a gambler, someone who may have unnaturally altered games for his own benefit, then what's next? Eventually, the PED posse, a group of people who may have also unnaturally altered games for their own benefit, may get their day.

Relaxing the standards of the Hall of Fame ballot may eventually help minimize the impact of the Steroid Era, turning it into just another statistical anomaly. Dead balls, lower mounds, shots in the ass, they'll all just be blips on the historical radar.

That will help Bud feel much better about his time in the big chair, and potentially minimize the hammering that Selig takes in the history books several decades from now.

But, broaching the subject himself may seem too transparent, like a president launching bomb strikes to distract from an ethical scandal. So who would be a good spokesman for the "Free Pete" movement? How about a man who is quite likely the game's most revered living figure (and just happens to be one of Bud's best friends)? Why, he'll do quite nicely.

First, Bud denies any possibility. Then he admits that discussions are ongoing. Then rumors of a "big announcement" begin to swirl. Finally, Selig becomes the magnanimous voice of forgiveness, welcoming a banished baseball icon back from the hinterlands.

In the short term, Pete will once again be facing intense scrutiny, as the debate will heat up over his chances of getting into Cooperstown once he's eligible.

In the long term, though, reinstating Pete serves to remind us all that there are apparently no capital offenses in baseball. No lifetime bans or anything of that sort. An attitude like that can only do positive things for the images of men like Mark McGwire.

And if the all-time hit king gets to stand on the podium on some future Sunday in July, the biggest smile of all will probably adorn the face of the all-time home run king. Because Barry Bonds and the rest of the PED posse know that, if the game's longest-suffering martyr can one day be forgiven, their days of absolution can't be too far away.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Teach Your Children: The Lesson of Steve McNair

It's been almost a week since the murder of former Titans QB Steve McNair, and the outpouring of grief seems to be slowly subsiding in the Nashville area, where I write this.

Words of praise for McNair's toughness as an athlete and his civic-minded devotion to his community pour over the TV and radio airwaves day and night, as well they should. So, too, do the recriminations from people who stop just short of claiming that McNair deserved what he got for his adulterous affair with Sahel Kazemi. They may quote Scripture, they may cry for his children, or they may simply condemn the rest of the populace for giving a famous athlete a pass.

Either way, anyone who would come anywhere close to inferring that something like this qualifies as "just desserts" is quite far from pious. Public disgrace, loss of his family, a financial hit from a hefty divorce settlement, maybe those things would have been somewhat deserved had his relationship been unearthed some other way.

But death?


No matter what your faith, it's quite hard to justify a belief that any other human being deserves to die.

There are those trying to use Steve McNair as a bully pulpit to pound a fundamentalist view down the throats of their fellow man. It's sad that there are people who can use a public figure's murder to further their own agenda, but such is life these days, where any publicity is good publicity.

Rather than use this to try and bludgeon strangers with Judeo-Christian propaganda, what we should be focusing on is using Steve McNair as a teaching tool for our children, especially those children old enough to recognize and appreciate what the man did on the field.

It's okay to praise McNair for his on-field skill and his community involvement. It really is. At the same time, we can use McNair's murder to explain the emotional impact of interpersonal relationships. Weaving a web as tangled as the one McNair seemed to be building can have dire consequences in the wrong circumstances.

Athletes are frequently held up as role models for their work ethic and toughness, and Steve McNair fits right near the top of those lists. Parents, however, need to also observe an athlete's personal misdeeds and treat them as ways to explain what not to do. It all falls under the category of "teaching right from wrong," doesn't it?

No matter what Charles Barkley might have said back in the day, all professional athletes are role models, both for the good and the bad. It's unfortunate, though, that Steve McNair's truest value as a role model may lie in the cautionary tale that will be told of his death.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Artest's Big Move: Was It the Best Move?

It's a long way from being the NBA's face of evil incarnate.

After a few quiet, though unsuccessful, seasons in Sacramento, Ron Artest's image as a citizen was mostly rehabilitated.

After a shockingly successful playoff run in Houston, the last several games of which featured him as the Rockets' primary (some would say only) offensive option, Artest's career was positively rejuvenated.

Coming into the offseason, Artest was being named as one of the most important free agents in this year's class, and all the championship contenders and potential-laden pretenders saw him as an essential piece to their puzzle.

It was reported that Artest had had dinner with LeBron James just a few days before agreeing contract terms with the Los Angeles Lakers. Rather than try to assist LeBron (and that new large dancing fella the Cavs picked up on draft day...not the one from the Congo, either) in setting up that Nike's-wet-dream of a Finals matchup against Kobe Bryant's Lakers, Ron decided he'd rather be somewhere where they'd been to the mountaintop before.

LeBron's own wishy-washy treatment of his future may be the biggest deterrent to the big-name free agents that Cleveland's trying to court. No one wants to be stuck in Cleveland with next to no help should LeBron decide that he wants to see how bright the lights really are on Broadway.

If he goes, Shaq is sure to follow, and then what?

Artest has served his time in a hollowed-out wreck of a team who used to be relevant. It's highly unlikely that he'd be interested in doing it again based on someone else's whim.

But, what if the King had been able to make a convincing pitch? What would the Cavs look like with Artest in the lineup?

The same way the Orlando Magic were able to stretch the Cavs around the perimeter and pick apart their previously formidable defense, that's exactly the way that the Cavs would have been able to pull their opponents all over the court.

A backcourt of Mo Williams and Delonte West. Artest at small forward. LeBron being guarded (and I use that term loosely) by power forwards. Shaq in the middle with Zydrunas Ilgauskas coming in to spell him.

A lineup like that could have been the unit that the Magic's '08-'09 lineup wanted to be when it grew up. Opposing defenses would have been getting carpet-bombed into submission.

Unfortunately, without Sideshow Bob Varejao, interior depth would have been a rumor, with the likes of Darnell Jackson and J.J. Hickson having to grow up quickly.

In the suddenly-resurgent Eastern Conference, however, what team could really take that much advantage?

The Magic have taken away the height mismatches that helped propel them past Cleveland by letting Hedo Turkoglu walk and replacing him with the less-vertically-imposing Vince Carter, the kind of scorer that Artest relishes the chance to shut down. Additionally, their depth took a hammering in that deal, with Rafer Alston and Courtney Lee both being large parts of their playoff run.

Boston appears to be trying a page from Orlando's playbook in adding Rasheed Wallace, who has the height and range to make a conventional power forward move around much more than he'd like. However, having him guarded by (and more importantly, forcing him to guard) the freakishly athletic LeBron while Artest dueled with Paul Pierce would be a recipe for either a very compelling series or a Cavalier blowout.

Chicago? Detroit? Miami? Atlanta? Not the way any of them stand right now, thanks.

The Lakers' acquisition of Artest has been compared to the Bulls picking up Dennis Rodman, and the comparison is actually pretty apt. Kobe gets to play Michael Jordan, the hyper-competitive superstar who won't let any foolishness get in the way of him getting another title. Pau Gasol gets to play Scottie Pippen, the rhythm guitarist who can play some mean solos himself. Artest's longtime friend Lamar Odom gets to play Toni Kukoc, albeit a Kukoc with a serious tan and an even more serious substance abuse problem. And Phil Jackson gets to play...well, himself. That's how you know you've really made it.

It's not unreasonable to compare these Lakers to those Bulls teams in terms of the rest of the cast, either. The Bulls never had a big-time point guard, and neither do these Lakers. The Bulls had yeoman work from big stiffs like Luc Longley, Bill Wennington, and a bunch of other uncoordinated white boys. The Lakers have a highly talented big man with youth and potential on his side...along with lots of bedsores from his frequent injuries on his backside. Andrew Bynum's flashes and fragility sort of cancel out the steady mediocrity of the Bulls' interchangeable crew.

Ron Artest traded in a highly uncertain future in a potentially Yao-less Houston for a chance to join a star-studded ensemble in Los Angeles, and in the process, may have made the Lakers the prohibitive favorite to get back to the Finals.

But in Cleveland?

The trio of LeBron, LeRon and LeShaq could have gone all fo' fo' fo' on the East and stood snarling in the way of Kobe's repeat.

And David Stern and Phil Knight would have absolutely melted with orgasmic glee.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Wimbledon's Centre Court Hotties: Ruining Tennis or Helping It?

Sex sells.

It's become one of the truest statements in marketing.

As a sport that occasionally seems to have trouble marketing itself, tennis could be warming to the idea.

Last week's admission that the All England Club takes female players' physical attributes into consideration for coveted Centre Court match slots has been derided as one more example of the objectification of women athletes.

What it really could be is shrewd marketing.

Women's sports, both amateur and professional, have struggled for mainstream acceptance ever since sisters Maud and Lilian Watson took the court to decide the first Wimbledon ladies' champion, predating Venus and Serena by a good 120 years.

Tennis gains pride of place ahead of sports such as swimming and gymnastics, which take prominence only during Olympic competition, because it's one of the few where the athleticism of its best competitors does not seem markedly different (that's different, not inferior, before anyone asks) than that of its male athletes.

Women's basketball, for the most part, lacks the above-the-rim flash of the men's game, although the women's superior grasp of the fundamentals can help make up for this. Softball sports a smaller field than baseball, with a mound closer to the plate that can make a great pitcher completely unhittable.

Thanks primarily to the Williams sisters, however, we see that female tennis players can crank 120-mph serves just as well as the men can.

The second-round match between Maria Sharapova and Gisela Dulko has been singled out as one of the most egregious examples of this new hormone-driven scheduling. Never mind the fact that Sharapova carries a little bit of name appeal as a three-time Grand Slam champion.

The fact that Maria is a beautiful woman who has actually achieved some on-court success has lent her a credibility that Anna Kournikova could never dream of on her best day. It's not like the 51st-ranked Dulko was being tossed out there against a qualifier from the satellite tournaments.

Maria's championship resume has made acceptance of her endorsement and modeling deals slightly less grudging. She's more of a "tennis player who models" as opposed to Kournikova, who became more of a "model who plays tennis."

Sharapova's been the kind of marketable face that women's tennis has lacked since Chris Evert retired. It's unlikely that today's other glamour girls, like Sorana Cirstea, Victoria Azarenka, Maria Kirilenko, Daniela Hantuchova, and Tatiana Golovin, will have similar success in American commercials, since many of them speak heavily accented English, while Maria is almost completely Americanized.

Still, the game can't help but be better for more faces being seen on the show courts, and thereby on TV, than just the Williams sisters.

The cries have gone up that players like Svetlana Kuznetsova, world #1 Dinara Safina, and the Williams sisters have been getting shunted down to outer courts in favor of matches like the 28th-seeded Cirstea v. the 8th-seeded Azarenka.

Before we cry too much for Venus, Serena, and Dinara, let's consider that the three of them are still active and set to play in Friday's semifinals...both of which are being contested on, you guessed it, Centre Court.

Personally, I'm happy that players like Azarenka, Cirstea, and Dulko are getting Centre Court opportunities that they may normally never have gotten.

It's become almost a foregone conclusion heading into every year's fortnight that of the last two or four women to play on Centre Court, one or two of them will carry the surname Williams. Venus, Serena, and Dinara are now getting their chance, while other players who weren't quite as certain to be there on the final weekend get to tell their children and grandchildren that they got to hit a few in tennis's pre-eminent cathedral.

Every sport needs to make new stars. In tennis, there's no better place than Wimbledon, and at Wimbledon, there's no better place than Centre Court. It worked for Maria when she came out of nowhere to win the tournament at 17.

Players like Kuznetsova and Safina can get the chance to win over new fans with their play, but it just might take players like Azarenka, Kirilenko, and Hantuchova to draw those fans in. And it's a lot easier to be able to respect a player who just stepped off the pages of Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue if the fans get to see her play where the stars play.