Friday, October 30, 2009

Discussing Andre Agassi

In the last couple of days I have been asked repeatedly about Andre Agassi’s revelation that he used crystal meth back in 1997 when his tennis career was spiraling downward. I’m not completely sure why this story doesn’t interest me more. It might be because the revelation is clearly an attempt to hype Agassi’s memoir (not that I would ever knock someone for trying to sell books) or it might be because I don’t find it that shocking.

I’m not downplaying the dangers of crystal meth. I know a little about methamphetamines because that’s the drug Paul Goydos’s wife Wendy got hooked on years ago that was almost undoubtedly responsible for her death earlier this year. From what I’ve heard and read there are few--if any--drugs more addictive. Agassi apparently got lucky because he never got hooked. He is part of a very small minority.

What DID jump out at me in reading Agassi’s version of all this, was his tale of testing positive for the crystal-meth during an ATP Tour drug test. He describes making up a lie—that he had accidentally gotten it into his system because his assistant frequently spiked his sodas with the stuff—and the tour buying the story.

This is the kind of story that ranks up there with the dog ate my homework or I was kidnapped by gypsies as an excuse. And yet, the tour apparently accepted it without any follow up questions and Agassi (and his image) skated.

To me this is far more an indictment of the people at The ATP Tour than it is of Agassi. When a drug-user gets caught, especially if he is a public figure, the first thing he does is think up a lie. If the people in charge are paying any attention at all they should know he’s going to lie. First question: Have you fired the assistant yet? Second question: Clearly you must have understood you had been drugged when this happened, did you see a doctor? Did you think to tell us about this before your drug test?

Oh well, that’s tennis. If Martina Hingis had still been a big star when she tested positive for cocaine at Wimbledon a couple years ago my guess is the powers-that-be would have found a way to accept her explanation too.

To be honest, I was never a big Agassi fan. Part of that, no doubt, is that I first encountered him early in his career when he was still a coddled, immature, jerk. I’ve told the story here about the incident in Vienna in 1990 when he first tried to embarrass Bud Collins by getting him to hit with him after a pre-Davis Cup practice session and then, when it became apparent that Bud, even giving away 40 years, could keep the ball in play quite comfortably, he tried to hit a ball right at Bud’s head.

There was also the spitting incident in New York during the 1990 U.S. Open, when Agassi spit at an umpire, then denied it to the supervisor and somehow avoided a default. When the supervisor, Ken Farrar, later saw the tape he was embarrassed that he had bought Agassi’s story.

And then there was the Wimbledon-ducking. For three straight years when he was a ranked, rising star, Agassi skipped Wimbledon so he could take a break before returning to Europe post-Wimbledon to play on clay for big appearance fees. His list of excuses—and that of the yes-men he was surrounded with—was comical. I remember him playing an exhibition here in Washington in 1990 with John McEnroe, one of those deals where they agreed to split sets and then Agassi won the third. After the match, Harold Solomon, who had organized the event, interviewed both players on court. At one point he said, “So Andre, when are we going to see you play Wimbledon again. (Agassi had played it once, losing in the first round).

 “Let me answer that this way,” Agassi said. “How many here think Wimbledon is the most important tournament?” Quite a few fans cheered. Then he added,  “okay now, FOR AMERICA, how many think the U.S. Open is the most important?” Some cheers, hardly overwhelming. “You see,” Agassi said, turning to Solomon. “I told you.”

I was standing at that moment with McEnroe, who shook his head and said, “that may be the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard. Does he really think anyone is buying that crap?”

No one was. Agassi took big guarantees overseas, then often tanked matches and flew home. He blatantly gave up in a Davis Cup match in 1989 against Carl Uwe-Steeb (yeah, THAT Carl Uwe-Steeb) and became kind of a joke in the locker room in spite of his remarkable talent. He did finally go and play Wimbledon and won it in 1992, creating the famous scene where Nick Bollitieri, his long-time coach could be seen signaling him from the friends box to “stay down,” on his knees to play to the crowd.

After the 1997 flameout when his marriage to Brooke Shields fell apart and he got completely out of shape and dropped to No. 141 in the world, Agassi made a remarkable comeback. He worked himself back into shape, became No. 1 in the world again, completed the career Grand Slam and became—remarkably—a beloved figure in tennis.

I wasn’t around the sport much during the last few years of his career but people I respect like Mary Carillo and Sally Jenkins said he did mature a good bit. Marrying Steffi Graf was clearly good for him, he got far more involved in his charity work and acted like an adult, especially (as often happens) when he became a father. That said, when he broke down after his final match at the U.S. Open in 2006, someone who knows him well said to me, “It’s written in the script—‘cry now.’” Okay, so the guy was always a showman, I’ll give him that one.

The crystal meth admission may seem strange to some because it could affect his new-found, ‘good guy,’ image. I don’t think it will. I think people will say, ‘that was a while ago, he made a mistake, he’s fessed up to it.’

And maybe that’s as it should be. He’s certainly not the first athlete to cover up drug-usage and if that was the only drug he used, as dangerous and dumb as it was, he wasn’t trying to cheat his sport like all the steroid users, many of whom are still lying about what they did.

So, I’m not going to buy Agassi’s book because I don’t have much interest in reading it. And I don’t expect my autographed copy to arrive in the mail anytime soon. That’s fine too.

I’ll end this on a story I told in, "Hard Courts,” the tennis book I wrote in 1991. In August of 1990 Agassi and his entourage—which in those days consisted of his agent, his agent’s assistant, his masseuse, his racquet stringer, his religious guru (who he once fired after losing a match) his workout guru, his equipment rep and his brother, who was apparently paid to be his brother—flew into the Cincinnati airport late one night for the tournament played there.

The airport, as anyone who has been there knows, is actually across the river in Covington, Kentucky. A woman from the tournament had been sent to greet Agassi and entourage and direct them to limos that would take them to their hotel. As soon as Agassi got off the plane, he found the woman and said, “Look, you better get security out here right away. If you don’t, I’m going to be MOBBED by all my fans trying to get through the airport.”

The woman, who told me the story later that week, looked at Agassi and said: “Andre, it’s 11:30 at night. We’re in Kentucky. Unless you’ve been on Hee Haw lately, no one here is going to mob you.”

There are some stories you just can’t make up.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Updated - This Weeks Radio Appearances (The Sports Reporters, Tony Kornheiser Show, The Gas Man Show)

I made my regular appearance on 'The Sports Reporters' with Steve Czaban and Andy Pollin in my regular spot (5:25 ET on Wednesday's) yesterday. Click the permalink, then the link below, to listen to the segment on a multiple topic day -- Navy and Duke football, Andre Agassi's book revelations and of course, brief Redskins talk.

Click here to listen to Wednesday afternoon's segment: The Sports Reporters

This morning I was back at the regular time with the newest The Tony Kornheiser Show (Thursday's, 11:05 ET) while at the Patriot League Media day for basketball.  It was a typical segment with Tony, and we discussed everything from dinner to a Sally Jenkins article, but spent most of the time on the Agassi talk (which led into a good discussion on tennis players vs. golfers).

Click here to listen to the radio segment: The Tony Kornheiser Show

I make regular appearances on Seattle's The Gas Man Show on Thursday evenings (5:35 PT), and this week we started off talking the Seattle Sounders (I covered the original team a couple times back in my earlier days) then led into Redskins talk - what is the endgame for Snyder and this team?

Click here to listen to the radio segment: The Gas Man Show

Virginia Tech Faculty Outrage Misplaced; New Lows for the Redskins

Although there probably won’t be all that many people watching with The World Series going on (today’s soap opera questions: how does Pedro Martinez pitch while facing the Yankees in postseason for the first time since 2004; does A.J. Burnett implode if Joe Girardi makes him pitch to Jorge Posada?) there’s a college football game on TV tonight: North Carolina at Virginia Tech.

I bring this up not because it is a big game for anyone other than, well, North Carolina and Virginia Tech, but because of a story in this morning’s Washington Post about the fact that some faculty at Virginia Tech are very upset about a few evening classes being cancelled because the campus is basically overrun by football traffic.

Look, I can’t stand these midweek football games. College football is supposed to be played on Saturdays, really in the afternoon most of the time, although it is understandable why some places in the south prefer night games, especially early in the season.

But in the continuing sell-out by the alleged college presidents of college athletics to corporate America and TV, we now have college football games almost every night of the week. The ACC almost always has a Thursday night game and some of the smaller D-1 conferences line their teams up on Tuesday and Wednesday all the time. Once, Friday night was untouchable because the colleges gave way to high school football one night a week. Not anymore.

In fact, last Friday night ESPN had Rutgers-Army. There may be no place in the country where not playing on Saturday afternoon is a bigger crime than West Point. Anyone who has ever been to a game in Michie Stadium will know what I’m talking about. In 1999 in listing the 20 greatest sports venues of the 20th century, Sports Illustrated ranked Michie Stadium third—THIRD—behind only Yankee Stadium and Augusta National Golf Club.

Michie Stadium—and the entire military academy—are about as scenic as anyplace you can go on a fall afternoon. Even though Army’s been lousy the last 12 years (finally improving now with the right coach in place) there is nothing quite like a game at West Point. People arrive in the morning to tailgate, to go down to the plain to watch the cadet parade, then file into the pretty little stadium overlooking the reservoir, the mountains and the Hudson River.

On a Friday night though, it’s completely different. Traffic coming up from New York, where many fans come from, is an absolute nightmare. It is going to be cold for kickoff in late October and you can’t SEE any of the surrounding beauty. Playing on Friday always costs Army about 10,000 fans (at least) at the start of the game and, when the game’s not close and it’s raining, the stands are virtually empty during the second half.

The good news is that Army has signed a new TV contract with CBS College Sports that will mean all home games will kick off at noon on Saturday. The bad news is, Army is the exception—weeknight football across the country isn’t going away. Schools won’t turn down the money or the exposure they’re being offered in return for giving up Saturday football.

For most schools, a weeknight football game is a once a year on campus experience so there really is no reason not to try to enjoy it. Here though is a quote from today’s Post story from Jan Helge Bohn, a member of The Virginia Tech faculty: “I’m highly annoyed by the misplaced emphasis on athletics at the university. It infuriates me. The fact I have to move my car and go home and terminate work is outrageous in an academic community.”

If this was a once a week activity or even once a month the (self) esteemed professor might have a point. But we’re talking once a YEAR. Are athletics over-emphasized in many different ways at many, if not most, Division 1 schools? You bet. If this is so annoying and outrageous, get a job at a D-3 school. But please save the outrage for something important. Someone teaching at Virginia Tech should be especially conscious of the fact that being inconvenienced one day a year is hardly an issue of monumental importance. One wonders, when the entire school came together in the wake of the shootings to mourn and bond at the first football game that fall, if the professor was upset about THAT.

Speaking of annoying people, it has become pretty much impossible to not write or talk about the train wreck called The Washington Redskins. The club reached new lows on Monday night, not by dropping to 2-5 in a one-sided loss to the Philadelphia Eagles but with the neo-fascist tactics brought to bear (on Dan Snyder’s orders obviously) on fans who had the nerve to bring signs to the stadium.

Security people were ordered to not only confiscate all signs—clearly as an excuse to confiscate the negative ones—but also tossed people for wearing SHIRTS that said things like, “Sell the team,” or one that had a photo of Snyder and henchman Vinny Cerrato with a caption that said, “dumb and dumber.”

It got so bad that Dan Steinberg, who writes the very smart DC Sports Bog in The Post, was accosted by a security guard because he was looking through the garbage to see some of the signs that had been confiscated. The team put out a statement saying the new policy was put in because signs could block people's view (as opposed to those whose views are already blocked sitting in obstructed-view seats) and because those on sticks could be dangerous. Yeah, right, really dangerous. Oh one other thing: the TEAM handed out signs to people at several gates with the name of one of its corporate sponsors on it. Apparently THOSE did not block views and were not dangerous. Jeesh. Do these people EVER get caught in a truth?

Along with that came a radio appearance by the Redskins CFO—whose name I can’t remember and isn’t worth the time for me to look it up—in which he attacked The Post, accusing it of, “yellow journalism,” for the stories which revealed the team selling tickets to brokers last year (and bypassing those on the season ticket waiting list) and suing people who could no longer afford to pay for their incredibly over-priced club seats.

Yellow journalism? The stories were written by a Pulitzer Prize business reporter who did a LOT of digging to come up with facts. At one point CFO-guy said, “we don’t sue our fans.” Then later he said they had “only,” sued 125 fans in five years, which is considerably different than not suing your fans. He kept saying “125 fans out of 24,000 club seat and suite holders.” Let’s not even get into the question of whether 24,000 is a legitimate number given the waves of empty seats every week in the club section. That’s not the relevant number. The relevant number is how many people defaulted on their contracts among the 24,000. My guess is the number is about 125.

He also claimed the Redskins had dropped their lawsuit against, “Miss Hill or Miss Hall,” not even remembering her name. Miss Hill is the 72-year-old grandmother who became the centerpiece of The Post’s series. “Once we had the information we dropped the suit,” CFO guy said.

Where, exactly, did you get the information by the way? Oh wait, it was from that yellow journalism in The Post.

Honestly, I feel bad for these people who are forced—because they work for him—to defend Dan Snyder. It’s a little bit like it had to be working in The White House in 1974.

One last note: My Islanders beat the Rangers last night! Hallelujah. That’s two wins and the season isn’t yet a month old. Does anyone out there know where Bob Bourne is these days? Maybe the nicest athlete I’ve ever met in my life. I’d really like to do a hockey book someday, I already have a title: 'Season on the Rink.'

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The World Series – Stories of Covering the Royals ’85 Championship

The World Series begins tonight and I won’t be there because, to be honest, I just have too much work to get done to go. I might make it to Philadelphia this weekend if I can get a hall pass.

I’m like everyone else of my generation: I still remember running home from school as a kid to turn on the TV and watch The World Series when it was played in the afternoon. I didn’t do that in 1969 because the first two games in Baltimore were played over the weekend and then I WENT to the three games at Shea Stadium. Sat in the upper deck, which cost $2.50 for the Series—up from $1.30 during the regular season. Seriously.

It was baseball that made me a “celebrity,” for the first time in my life. I went to a tennis camp in that summer of ’69 and we would all sit around the TV in the commons room at night and watch The Mets. That’s where I watched Tom Seaver’s imperfect game on, I think it was July 8th. The sight of Jimmy Qualls hit landing between Tommie Agee and Cleon Jones with one out in the ninth is still burned in my brain.

While we’d watch, we would talk baseball. I was not one of the better tennis players in the camp by any means so not that many of the kids other than the ones on my hall or who I was playing against on the so-called, “ladder,” (I remember starting out 24th and working my way up to 6th) knew me. Then we started talking baseball. Without thinking I’d bring up things like Johnny Podres shutting out the Yankees in game seven in 1955 or Jackie Robinson first coming to the majors in 1947 or Babe Ruth pitching for the Red Sox in 1918. It was routine to me, stuff I’d read or heard. No big deal.

One morning at breakfast one of the counselors said, “Hey John who won the 1951 World Series?”

I shrugged. “The Yankees.”

“Who’d they beat?” Jeez, everyone knew that was the year Bobby Thompson hit the shot-heard-round-the world for the Giants to beat the Dodgers.

“Who’d he hit the home run off?”

“Ralph Branca, why?”

The counselor turned to the other counselor and said, “See I told you.”

Apparently, listening to me talk during the games we watched he had decided I was some kind of baseball savant. After that “stump John,” became a game. There was stuff I didn’t know, but I knew more than anyone else in the camp. I also knew the Mets roster by heart and could tell you that Ron Taylor was studying to be a doctor and that Jerry Koosman’s wife’s name was Lavonne. Didn’t everyone know that?

Ten years later I covered The World Series. That was the year that Jim Palmer screamed at me when he thought I’d asked him, “how do you feel?” after he lost game six when I was actually trying to softball him by asking “how DID you feel (on the mound) since he had pitched well in spite of losing.

I covered The World Series for The Post every year (except 1982 when I was covering politics and George Solomon was mad at me for turning down covering The Redskins to go do that) until I left the paper fulltime in 1988. And while my memories of 1986 are quite fond, the team I enjoyed the most during that run was the 1985 Kansas City Royals.

I was actually assigned to cover the Royals during the last week of the regular season when they were fighting the Angels for the American League West title. Right from the start, they had what we call a good clubhouse, a great one in fact. Dick Howser, the manager, was as nice a man as you’ll ever meet, full of good stories. George Brett was funny and always available and guys like Hal McRae and Frank White and a young Bret Saberhagen were also terrific. The best guy though was Dan Quisenberry, the superb closer. He was one of those guys who remembered your name the first time he met you and would walk across the clubhouse to say something like, “hey, I have a funny story for you if you’ve got a minute.”

The Royals won The West, then came from 3-1 down to beat The Toronto Blue Jays (managed by Bobby Cox) to win The American League pennant and THEN came from 3-1 down to beat the Cardinals (with an assist from Don Denkinger in game 6) to win The World Series.

One of my favorite moments of that Series came after game three. In those days, the morning shows tried to convince someone from one of the teams to come on each morning. They’d send a limo to get them to the studio and back. They would also send an attractive woman into the clubhouse to convince whatever player they wanted on the show that this was something he needed to do.

After game three one of these attractive women waited out the deadline guys around Brett and launched into her little speech. “I’ll meet you with the limo outside the hotel. We’ll have breakfast for you at the studio. Won’t you PLEASE do it?”

I was standing there and I can tell you for sure that I would have done it in a millisecond. I was not, however, George Brett.

Brett looked at her and smiled and said, “And what EXACTLY is in this for me?”

I thought the woman was going to faint for a moment. Apparently so did Brett. He laughed and said, “it’s fine. I’ll do it. I’m just teasing you.”

By the final weekend of that Series, I was a complete out-and-out Royals fan. The Cardinals clubhouse was as snarly as the Royals were friendly. I still remember Reggie Jackson, who was working The Series for ABC, trying to start a conversation with Vince Coleman--who had been injured by the men-eating tarp and wasn't playing. "Hey man, can't you see I'm too busy to talk to you?" Coleman said when Jackson tried to open a casual conversation. One thing about Coleman: he was consistent--ALWAYS a bad guy.

After Cesar Cedeno got a key hit to help win game one, he told the story about how he had been traded late in the season to the Cardinals. My memory is it involved the pitching coaches of the Reds and Cardinals (one of whom I think was Jim Kaat) having breakfast one morning after Jack Clark had gotten hurt and Kaat bringing up Cedeno’s name

“Whitey can tell you all the details,” Cedeno said, referring to manager Whitey Herzog.

I walked into Herzog’s office with Dave Anderson, the great Pulitzer Prize winning columnist from The New York Times to ask Herzog the story. When Dave asked Whitey to tell it, Herzog exploded, screaming profanities at Anderson because someone else had asked him to tell the story earlier. That’s the way it works at The Series, reporters come in waves and sometimes you are asked to repeat stories. Herzog, of all people knew that and he knew Anderson—one of the nicest men in journalism—from his days in New York. And his team had WON. Dave didn’t say a word; just turned around and walked out of the office.

Then there was John Tudor. He had been a revelation all year, winning 21 games and pitching superbly in postseason. After he pitched a four hit shutout in game four to put the Cardinals up 3-1 a lot of writers—surprise—wanted to write about him. Tudor walked to his locker, looked around and said, “what’s it take to get in here, a driver’s license? I already talked in the interview room.”

Yes he had, tersely describing what he’d thrown and when he’d thrown it. When a guy pitches a World Series shutout, columnists and sidebar writers are looking for more than that. Gordon Edes, one of the best baseball writers going, tried to explain that to Tudor.

“Great and now I have to talk to schmoes like this guy,” was Tudor’s response, turning his back on Edes.

When Tudor got bombed in game seven the no cheering in the press box rule was almost abandoned. Later, word came upstairs that he’d been so upset that he had possibly broken his hand, smashing it into a fan that was in the dugout ceiling. Which is when Barry Blume of The San Diego Tribune delivered one of the great press box lines ever. “Now, “he said, “the s--- really has hit the fan.”

Both Howser and Quisenberry died very young—cancer in both cases. They’re the first two people I think about when I think of those Royals. I also think about Quiz in the midst of the celebration, waving me over to his locker. “I got something for you,” he said. He reached into his locker and handed me a bottle of champagne. “We had fun having you cover us the last month,” he said as he handed it to me.

I know I should have handed it back but I didn’t. And I’m damn glad I resisted my ethical instincts at that moment. In those days, you could get a bottle of champagne on an airplane. I still have it and truly fond memories of Quiz, Howser and that whole team.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

One of Those Mornings -- ESPN, Redskins, and Book Reviews; Quick Note on the Mids

Maybe it’s the fact that it is raining (again) or that I know a week from now it will be getting dark by 5 o’clock. Or maybe it’s just the fact that getting my son out of bed and in the car to go to school on time is the parental equivalent of playing football without a helmet, but I’m in a lousy mood this morning.

Which may explain why two minor items in the paper set me off. The first was a short story in The Washington Post which was headlined, “Cerrato talks to ESPN.” I have to say that in some ways I agree with my colleague Mike Wise who wrote in today’s paper that it has become pointless to continue writing or talking about the sitcom that Dan Snyder and his henchmen Cerrato have turned the Redskins into.

That said, Cerrato simply should not be allowed to pick soft landing spots to spread the Snyder, “it’s not my fault,” propaganda. Since blackmailing Jim Zorn into giving up his play-calling duties to a bingo-caller nine days ago (on Snyder’s orders, Cerrato doesn’t comb his hair without Snyder’s permission) Cerrato has ducked the media. He went on his own Snyder-paid-for radio show on Friday to make the big announcement that Zorn wouldn’t be fired before season’s end (what’s the over-under on when that becomes a lie?) and tried to blame the team’s horrible start on—who else?—the media.

Then on Monday he did a softball interview with ESPN’s Sal Palantonio, claiming he and Snyder expected to be 3-3 at this point in the schedule without making it clear whether that expectation came in August or two weeks ago. He went on and on about the genius of Sherman Lewis as a play-caller and said calling plays was like riding a bike. Really? It’s that easy? No wonder the Redskins STILL haven’t scored more than 17 points in a game this year.

I’m certain—without actually checking with my colleagues yet—that real reporters were kept away from Cerrato by security after he was done with Palantonio. Here’s what I actually think reporters should do with Cerrato: Not speak to him. If Snyder wants to say something it should come from his mouth not from his mouthpiece.

The other item was actually more annoying because we’ve all come to expect nothing but claptrap from the Redskins. Apparently ESPN, as part of its never-ending efforts to self-promote itself puts on something called a “Monday Night Football chalk-talk,” when it comes to town. People get sucked into paying money to hear Mike Tirico, John Gruden and Ron Jaworski tell everyone how great the game will be and how thrilled they are to be in (fill in the name of the city).

Okay, fine, if people want to pay money for that, they’re entitled to do so. But last I looked Tirico, Gruden and Jaworski were member of the media—not journalists God forbid, but members of the media. Gruden is one of the many coaches rumored to perhaps be interested in taking a few million dollars from Snyder next year to coach the team. I think Vince Lombardi, George Allen and Paul Brown are also on the short list.

Naturally, since the Redskins are always the biggest story in D.C. a couple reporters showed up at the lunch to try to talk to Gruden. Except they weren’t allowed to. He was “not made available to the media,” according to The Post. Hmm. Does that mean that Tirico and Jaworski couldn’t talk to him either?

My guess is he’d be available if someone wanted to ask him how GREAT it is to work for ESPN. Maybe ESPN could have had Sal Palantonio interview him. “In an exclusive interview with ESPN, ESPN’s John Gruden tells ESPN that he has learned from Brett Favre’s agent that Favre may or may not play in 2010, ESPN has learned.”

I told you I was in a bad mood.

Completely different subject. My friend Mike Vaccaro, who writes an excellent column for The New York Post (yes The New York Post, there are some talented guys there) has just come out with a book on the 1912 World Series, which according to most baseball historians was the first one that was truly a national event.

Much to my surprise, The Washington Post reviewed the book on Sunday because The Post book section (what’s left of it since it was stuck in the back of the Outlook section a few months ago) usually reviews books on bridge or chess when it feels the urge to deal with anything related to sports.

But it is World Series week so, just to show that the section is actually aware of that, there were two reviews of baseball books. Mike’s book—“The First Fall Classic,”—was reviewed by Jonathan Yardley, who has been reviewing books for The Post since about 1898.

Let’s pause here for my disclaimer: I’m not a fan of book review sections like The Post or The New York Times. I think they’re run by pseudo-intellectual snobs and that most people who review books for a living do so because they can’t write books with any modicum of success. What’s the old saying: “Those who can’t do, teach?” I don’t believe that’s always the case but I do believe that, just as failed jocks like me find a way to stay in sports by writing, failed writers find jobs critiquing those who can write.

Yardley is the epitome of the self-centered, blowhard critic. He actually writes occasional reviews of classic old books as if anyone cares in 2009 what he thinks about “Catcher in The Rye.” In fact, he wrote a review a couple of years ago saying “Catcher in The Rye,” was not a good book. That must be why every teen-ager of the last 50 years has read it, why my son read it 35 years after I read it and why it is quoted from ALL the time.

Anyway, Yardley is one of those guys who thinks because he has a fantasy baseball team he’s an expert on baseball. So, he deigned to review Mike’s book. Amazingly, he actually liked it, saying up high that it was lively and entertaining. He then wrote most of the review about Ring Lardner—who he just happened to have written a biography of years ago that no doubt sold into the dozens—and why Lardner was such a great baseball writer. If the review was 1,000 words maybe 100 of them were about the book he was allegedly reviewing.

As a writer, nothing drives me crazy more than a non-review. You’re assigned to review a book you review the book, not one of your own books or go on and on about yourself—another Yardley habit. I have never, ever talked to Yardley about his work because it’s a waste of time. This time I couldn’t resist. I wrote him a note saying I was glad he liked Mike’s book but that I wished he had written more about Mike than about Lardner, noting that he had mentioned not ONE word about the book after the third paragraph except to scold Mike for not quoting Lardner’s story on the final game of that World Series—and then quoting it at length himself.

Here’s the response I got: “I think that review fully conveyed my admiration for Vaccaro’s excellent book and the pleasure it gave me.”

My response was just about as direct: “Typical book reviewer. Not only are you never wrong, you can’t even consider the possibility that someone might make a legitimate point. I’m still searching for the word, ‘excellent,’ in the review.’”

Like I said, trying to tell Yardley he might be anything less than perfect was a complete waste of time. What an absolute blowhard he is. Still, I felt better getting it off my chest.

One last thing on a happier note: Someone wrote a post yesterday wondering why I didn’t write about Navy’s win over Wake Forest Saturday. To be honest, I don’t want to make every Monday, ‘Navy post,’ day just because I do the games on radio. But he’s right, to beat Wake Forest in one of the worst rainstorms I’ve ever seen at a football game without starting quarterback Ricky Dobbs and without leading rusher and receiver Marcus Curry, was about one step short of miraculous.

The Mids are now 6-2, one win from clinching a seventh straight bowl bid. They are a remarkable bunch led by a wonderful coach, Ken Niamatalolo. Dobbs won’t play again this week against Temple, which is coming to town on a five game win streak (with the Philly papers predicting the Owls will win out and go 10-2) and badly wanting to get even after blowing a 27-7 fourth quarter lead in Annapolis last year. That will be a tough out. But being associated with Navy and this team (like every year) even in the smallest possible way is something I greatly enjoy. I’m proud to have had the chance to do it for the past 13 years.

Okay, writing about Navy put me in a better mood. But it’s still raining.

Monday, October 26, 2009

John's Monday Washington Post column:

Here is this weeks column for The Washington Post -----

During perhaps the busiest time in the sports calendar, two mostly overshadowed baseball hires in the past week are worthy of attention.

The first is Manny Acta being named manager of the Cleveland Indians. If Acta succeeds in Cleveland, plenty of people no doubt will say the Washington Nationals made a mistake when they fired him in July. They'll be wrong. Acta is a bright young manager who almost certainly has a serious future, but the Nationals had no choice. They were in a position no team wants to be in: having to make a change for the sake of change.

The Nationals' mediocre starting pitching and their awful bullpen weren't Acta's fault. Their horrific defense was, at least to some degree: Basics and hustle can be taught; range and a good arm can't be. The Nationals failed mentally in the field as often as they failed physically, and Acta's calm demeanor probably wasn't right for a team that continued to make fundamental mistakes.

Plenty of managers have failed in their first job before finding success. When Casey Stengel was managing the Boston Braves, he was hit by a taxi during the 1943 season. A local columnist suggested naming the cab driver as the team's MVP. Everyone knows what happened to Stengel when he got to New York in 1949.

Click here for the rest of the column: Acta, McGwire get shots at redemption

A Lot to Talk About After This Weekend, Including a Book Dedication

I'm honestly not exactly sure where to begin this morning.

I could begin with The World Series, which should be a great matchup if everyone involved doesn't freeze to death thanks to Major League Baseball's brilliant decision to push the climax of its season into November. I could also talk about how fortunate Yankees manager Joe Girardi is that Andy Pettitte got him close enough to Mariana Rivera that his middle relief pitchers (in this case Joba Chamberlain) only had to get him two outs in game six. If the Yankees lose that game--and for a while there it looked as if they might leave 100 men on base before the night was over--even with CC Sabathia pitching game seven the spectra of another ALCS collapse would have had people in New York in panic mode. An Angels victory might have caused the stock market to go down 400 points.

I'm honestly not sure if Girardi is that good a manager. He's so by-the-book (witness the pitching change with two outs and no one on in game 3 that led to the Angels win not to mention leaving A.J. Burnett out there WAY too long in game 5) and when he talks I swear to God I feel like I'm listening to Jim Zorn. The difference, of course, is that Girardi has so much talent that he could be the best or worst manager in history and it might not matter. What's more, if he wins, it DOESN'T matter. So we'll see what happens in The World Series. I'll also be fascinated to see how Alex Rodriguez does now that he's finally on the game's biggest stage. His numbers in postseason are great but how tight did he look to you with the bases loaded in the fourth inning. He fouled off a batting practice fastball on 2-0 and looked absolutely relieved when Dale Scott gave him ball four on a borderline pitch a moment later. Maybe I'm imagining things. We'll see. I'll say this, Sabathia vs. Cliff Lee is about as good a game 1 matchup as we've seen in a World Series in a long time. The key though may be how the guys pitching behind the studs pitch. The x-factors could end up being Pettitte and, believe it or not, Pedro Martinez.

In the meantime, I've tried to swear off writing anything about The Washington Redskins because it's become a little bit like battering a piƱata that's already burst open and fallen to the ground. Still, after Vinny Cerrato's performance on Friday, I have to say something. Let's start with this: Who does this guy think he's kidding. His boss/lord and master, Dan Snyder, simply refused to speak to the media during the season. Cerrato spends the whole week ducking the media then goes on his own radio show (how did he get a radio show? Snyder owns the station) and "makes news," by saying Zorn won't be fired during the season. Whether that's true or not remains to be seen but then the guy has the NERVE to criticize the media. I'm sorry did the media lose to the Detroit Lions, the Carolina Panthers and the Kansas City Chiefs? Did the media completely fail to understand the importance of an offensive line? Did the media put itself in a position where it had to hire Zorn as head coach because no one with experience wanted the job? Has the media been so arrogant, so obnoxious and so money-gouging in almost 11 years of ownership that it has turned one of the great NFL towns against its NFL team?

I have suggested to some of my Washington Post colleagues that someone from the paper should be assigned after every game--win or lose--to walk up to Snyder and say, "what's your comment on today's game?" Snyder can refuse comment, can sick his bodyguards on the guy, can scream profanities (something he's famous for--ask Norv Turner among others) or he can discuss the game like an adult. His call. But MAKE him do it. Don't just accept the, "I don't speak to the media in-season," copout. He OWNS the team. He put together this team. Poor Zorn tried to claim a couple weeks ago that "most," NFL coaches meet with their owner during the week. NO THEY DON'T. Not the good coaches with good owners that's for sure. Do you think Bill Belichick spends a lot of time game-planning with Robert Kraft? If Snyder wants to run the team--which he clearly does--then he needs to respond to the public when the team goes bad.

Who knows, maybe the Redskins will win tonight with the bingo-caller running the offense. Then Snyder and Cerrato will spend all week sneering at people even more than normal. The Eagles are banged up and coming off an awful loss at Oakland so who knows if they're any good. Regardless, it won't fix a broken organization and that's what the Redskins are right now. And Vinny Cerrato--smarmy little mouthpiece that he is for Snyder--should shut up. If Snyder wants to speak to the media, legitimate media not people who work for him, fine. But that's it.

Onto more pleasant topics. No wait, I have to say something about officiating first. I was watching a college football game this weekend and a kid made a spectacular catch in the end zone. He stood up, put the ball between his legs twice and then dropped it on the ground. He was whistled for excessive celebration. Hello? What are these guys thinking. Is there NO common sense out there anymore. My God. There are only two reasons to flag someone for excessive celebration: If a group of players get together for something that's stage or if there's taunting--I mean in-your-face taunting. That's it. Or if someone pulls out a cell phone. One other thing: there needs to be a rule that if a replay official can't make a decision within two minutes, the call on the field stands. The delays have become ridiculous.

Okay, NOW a more pleasant topic. It's a long way from bad owners and bad officials to this but I want to thank everyone who wrote in either through a post or an e-mail to comment on the blog I wrote last week on my friend Patty Conway. It was especially nice to hear from friends from Shelter Island I hadn't talked to in a long time and to know that so many people shared the feelings that my kids and I had for Patty. Bob DeStefano, Patty's teacher and long-time boss at Gardiner's Bay Country Club reminded me that Patty was presented this summer with a junior, "Lifetime Achievement," Award during the annual junior awards banquet. Too often in life we honor people after they're gone. I'm glad Bob and his daughter Nancy thought to honor Patty in August--even before she was diagnosed with lung cancer.

I can almost hear Patty's voice right now talking about Rickie Fowler, the 20-year-old phenom who almost won on The PGA Tour yesterday. "Hey, he's kind of cute isn't he?" Then a pause. "Of course I like his golf swing too."

As luck would have it, I finished a golf book I've been working on for a good long while this weekend. It'll be out in the spring. It's called, "Moment of Glory," and it chronicles the 2003 majors when four first-time winners won the four majors: Mike Weir, Jim Furyk, Ben Curtis and Shaun Micheel. Furyk was well known when he won the U.S. Open; Weir was known when he won The Masters but Curtis and Micheel were complete unknowns when they won The British Open and The PGA having never won before on tour. The book's about how life changes when you are suddenly thrust into the public eye in ways you couldn't possibly have imagined.

The dedication for the book reads as follows: "This book is dedicated to the memory of Patty Conway who was loved by so many but none more than Brigid, who will always think of her when she hits it past the big kids."

Friday, October 23, 2009

Can’t Stay Away from the Hot Topic ---- Umpiring and Reffing

For most of the last two weeks I have tried to stay away from writing about the lousy umpiring during this baseball postseason. For one thing, how many times can you say, 'the umpires missed a call last night.' For another, I really DON'T like to pick on officials because, as I've said before, the ones I've known have been almost universally good guys who I think work very hard to get their calls right. I still remember Joe Forte, once a top college referee who went on to work in the NBA telling me, "To me, reffing is the way I still play the game (he had been a D-2 college player). My calls are my shots and I hate it when I miss one."

Having said that, in the wake of Major League Baseball's apparent decision to abandon tradition and use only umpires with past World Series experience, there are a number of things that more or less scream for comment. First the good news: Let's give MLB credit for admitting it has a problem right now and making this move. That's not to say that going with the more experienced guys guarantees there won't be problems: the two umps who have struggled in the Yankees-Angels series, Tim McClelland and Dale Scott are both experienced guys with good reputations. Still, this is a step in the right direction.

The story, which was broken by the Associated Press (unlike ESPN the AP breaks actual stories rather than CLAIMING to have broken stories) has some interesting numbers in it: In 24 of the last 25 World Series, there has been at least one ump--more often two--who has never worked The Series before. Now, obviously everyone who is qualified has to work their first Series at some point, but MLB has clearly been over-doing it. What's more, even though MLB claims that umpires are selected for postseason on merit, that's clearly not the case.

If so, how could umpires like C.B. Bucknor and Phil Cuzzi--bad umps with bad reps and bad tempers--be working postseason? Bucknor clearly blew two calls in the Red Sox-Angels series and, in a postseason filled with bad calls, Cuzzi had the poster child miss: calling Joe Mauer's clearly fair ball foul in the 11th inning of Yankees-Twins, game 2. Apparently Bucknor--according to the AP--was still in line to work The Series in spite of those missed calls and in spite of the fact that I have NEVER talked to a player or manager who thought he could ump a lick. I'm not trying to pick on the guy, I've never met him and he may be a wonderful person, but I can't find anyone who thinks he can umpire. The same is pretty much true of Cuzzi.

All of this brings up a larger issue: officiating in general. Just this week SEC Commissioner Mike Slive felt obligated to suspend an officiating crew after it clearly blew a critical call (at least one) for the second time in three weeks. Good for Slive, although his line about having the best officials in college football rings kind of hollow at the moment.

I have a couple of thoughts on this: first, I think instant replay has hurt officiating in general. It may be sub-conscious but I think officials now think they don't have to work as hard to get calls right because replay is there as a backup--although replay doesn't always get it right either. Maybe it would help--seriously--if when a call is overturned the referee announced, "the ruling on the field made by the line judge has been overturned." When a player commits a penalty or a foul, everyone in the stadium knows he did it. When an official blows a call and it is officially overturned, people should know who it is AND mistakes like that should be tracked. I've always believed nothing motivates people like being embarrassed. If USA Today ran a weekly list on overturned calls--as in 1. Joe Smith--7 overturns this season--I think that would motivate officials to hustle a little bit more.

I've already said before I think officials should be accountable after games for their calls. They should also be subject to fines if they say something stupid the way coaches and players (at the pro level) are. Any criticism of officials is subject to fine. Okay then, if an umpire like Randy Marsh says he never saw the ball hit Brandon Inge's shirt (Detroit-Minnesota) then Mike Port, the MLB umpiring supervisor should be able to say, "The video is clear cut, he missed the call and since he isn't willing to admit it, he's going to be fined $5,000." Do that and you can bet you won't hear Tim McLelland saying, "I don't believe the video," after he called Nick Swisher out for leaving third base too soon the other night and the video showed he not only got the call wrong but wasn't LOOKING at Swisher when he left the bag.

I know this sounds harsh but I'll say it one more time: officials should be subjected to the same scrutiny as players. I think this is even more true at the college level where the officials get paid and the players (ostensibly) don't. The Arkansas kids who were the victims of the phantom personal foul call in the Florida game will NOT get another chance to beat the No. 1 team in the country on the road this season or perhaps in their lives. The officials simply move on to their next game. Slive should not only suspend them he should dock them their paychecks for the two games they screwed up.

Of course to me the poster child on all this is an ACC line judge named Perry Hudspeth. He's the guy who blew the mark on a fourth down Notre Dame pass 10 years ago, giving Notre Dame a first down (by an inch) with a minute to go and the Irish out of time outs. Eight years later, when Navy finally won at Notre Dame someone called Hudspeth to ask him if he was glad, in light of what had happened in 1999, to see Navy finally end its 43 year losing streak (which would have ended at 35 if not for Hudspeth) against Notre Dame. Instead of just saying, "you know, I've looked at the replay and I made a mistake. I certainly regret it, I've worked hard since then to not let something like that happen again," Hudspeth said something about his supervisor backing him up on the call. Sure he did, just like Mike Port said Randy Marsh must be right because he's umped 4,000 games. THAT kind of answer really makes me angry.

Which brings me full circle to yesterday's blog on the BCS--the people who have re-invented the term, "never wrong no matter how wrong." (Maybe that should be their slogan, huh?). My friend and one-time student Seth Davis twittered that I had gone, "Joe Wilson," on the BCS since I called the presidents liars. (which they are). I appreciate the fact that Seth is reading but Joe Wilson? Me? I'd prefer Ma Bailey, who tells her non-existent son George (Jimmy Stewart) "IT'S A LIE!" when he tries to convince her he's her son in "It's A Wonderful Life." I'm more a Ma Bailey type than Joe Wilson.

One other note on yesterday: the posts about the BCS were terrific. One person brought up the notion that if you offered the Presidents more money they'd go the playoff route right away. That's not quite true. While they'd love the extra cash, what they don't want to give up is CONTROL. Right now, it's their ball and they can do whatever they want with it. A playoff would have to put on by the NCAA--like the tournaments in every other sport--and they don't want to give up their absolute power.

Have I mentioned how much I can't stand them?


Thursday, October 22, 2009

The BCS – There is No Defending the Indefensible

So now the geniuses who run the BCS have decided that the answer to their problems is better spinning.

A story in yesterday's Sports Business Journal reports that the BCS is considering hiring someone whose job would be to defend the BCS against people like me--and many, many others--who think it is a complete and utter sham. In fact, John Marinatto, the new commissioner of The Big East, who as of now would be in charge of the BCS next year--the ACC's John Swofford is doing it right now--is quoted as saying that the BCS commissioners believe they have not done a good enough job of "defending the BCS."

Oh please.

This is like saying that Ron Ziegler didn't do a good enough job of defending Richard Nixon during Watergate or that Dan Snyder's problems in Washington right now are the result of lousy PR. You can't defend the indefensible.

It's worth noting that the man who actually runs the BCS day-to-day and tries as best he can to explain it to the rest of the world in terms that will make it sound as if has some semblance of fairness is Bill Hancock. You can't possibly hire anyone better than Bill Hancock to be your out-front guy on something. There isn't anyone who knows Hancock or has worked with him who doesn't respect and like him. He's smart, he's committed and he's always prepared. He worked for the NCAA for years and was one of those people who, rather than citing some arcane reason why the answer to any and all questions was no, always tried to find a way to say yes.

So, if the BCS boys think they're going to find someone who is going to "defend," them better than Hancock, they have completely lost touch with reality.

What is most galling about the BCS other than the fact that it is a completely unfair system that does not NEED to exist other than to feed the pocketbooks of the 66 schools and the egos of their presidents, is that there isn't anyone involved who will even CONSIDER the notion that a playoff is the fairest and best thing--not to mention the most lucrative--that can happen to Division 1-A college football. (You can tell the NCAA what it can do with its fancy new names for Division 1-A and 1-AA by the way).

They won't consider listening to President Obama or perhaps more importantly the players and coaches who compete in the actual games. They keep talking about making improvement and tweaking the system. When your car has four flat tires, changing one of them doesn't do much good.

Last spring the BCS held meetings to allegedly study the system. The guy in charge at the time, Oregon President David Frohnmayer came out of the meetings to tell us that everything was fine that it was those criticizing the BCS who had the problem, not the BCS.

The BCS defense is built, to be honest, on a bunch of lies. Once more time, let's go through them:
              --A playoff system would hurt the 'student-athletes,' academically. Lie. Football players taking part in a three round playoff that would begin on January 1 would miss almost no class and would miss far LESS class than the basketball players who take part in the NCAA Tournament smack in the middle of a semester or a trimester, often just prior to exams.

              --A playoff system would hurt the tradition of the bowls. LIE. Again, if you had an eight team playoff, you rotate the seven games among seven of the bowls. For argument's sake let's say they are The Rose, Fiesta, Orange, Sugar, Cotton, Gator and Citrus. Four host quarterfinals on January 1; two host semi-finals a week later--whatever is the closest Saturday on the calendar and the championship game is held the week in-between the NFL's conference finals and The Super Bowl. There would be NO CHANGE in the role of the second-tier bowls. All those six loss teams could still trumpet being "bowl eligible." What makes this argument even more hypocritical is that the NCAA is currently handing out bowl sanctions like a politician hands out lawn signs. New Year's Day has lost almost all of its meaning as a day when major bowls are played. Can't wait for the new "Dallas Bowl," to kickoff in a year with Illinois (6-6) taking on SMU (7-5). Must See TV right there.

             --Three games would be too much of a financial burden for traveling fans. Lie. Do those fans with the bucks to travel three straight weeks culminating at The Final Four seem to have a problem? Do you think there would be ANY trouble selling out any of the playoff games (Most of the bowls these days play to lots of empty seats? Anyone get a good look at the stands during the Virginia Tech-Cincinnati Orange Bowl last year?). You start a playoff and someone's team is in it, they'll find a way to be there--especially the championship game which would involve only two sets of fans traveling as opposed to the Final Four which (surprise) involves four sets of fans.

             --The BCS makes the regular season more meaningful than a playoff would. LIE. The last three weeks of the regular season in college basketball are filled with speculation about who is in, who is out, who is on the bubble, who is going to get the No. 1 seeds--it is endless. Every game is a big game for different reasons. Right now, two undefeated teams--Boise State and TCU--KNOW they will not be allowed to compete for the national championship. One of them, in all likelihood, won't even get to go to a BCS bowl if both win out. How will the Cincinnati players feel if they go undefeated and don't get to play for the title. How did the Utah kids feel last year. It is NOT a real competition if you can go undefeated and not be allowed to play for the championship. The apologists of course point out "strength of schedule." To start with this is a joke because the power schools won't play the non-power schools. You think Notre Dame, which basically has to be a little better than mediocre (as it is this year) to get a BCS bid while playing eight home games is going to play Boise State or TCU home-and-home anytime soon? Same goes for schools like Florida or Penn State who would rather schedule Coastal Carolina and Akron and laugh all the way to the bank. Beyond that, what was George Mason's "strength of schedule," like three years ago? How about Gonzaga when it became Cinderella and made its run to the final eight in 1999? If someone goes undefeated you let them tee it up in postseason and see how they do. Maybe they turn out to be Hawaii. Maybe they turn out to be Utah. You can't find out unless you let them compete.

I got in trouble a few years ago because I made the comment on NPR that the BCS Presidents were the most corrupt group of people to come along since the mafia. I want to apologize for that comment--to the mafia. You see, from what I know, the mafia never made any pretense about who they were. They didn't go around and pay people to "defend," what they were doing. I doubt anyone ever said in a meeting, "You know, if we hired the right PR firm to defend killing our enemies, it would make us look a lot better."

The BCS guys, on the other hand, strut around talking about doing what is best for the "student-athletes," and acting so self-important you literally cringe. Almost all of them insist on being called, "doctor," because they have PhD’s. My mother got her PhD from Columbia in music history and used to tell people who tried to call her Dr. Feinstein, "doctors help people who are sick. I'm an expert on Brahms--stop it."

Then again, my mother wasn't a preening LIAR like these guys are.

I know there are far more important things for The President and Congress to be dealing with right now. But it is worth a little bit of their time to make the BCS go away. It is a pox and there's no reason--not one--for Division 1-A football players to have the same opportunity every other 'student-athlete,' in America has: to compete fairly on the playing field--not inside a computer or based on a bunch of biased people's ballots--for the championship of their sport.

I realize I've said all this before. But as long as these "doctors," and their commissioner flunkies keep trying to spread these lies, I'm going to keep shooting them down.

"We need to do a better job defending the BCS." Please, please just shut up.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Updated - John's Radio Segments for This Week: (includes The Kornheiser Show, The Sports Reporters, The Gas Man Show)

Yesterday (Tuesday) I made an early week appearance on the newest Tony Kornheiser Show, as my schedule precludes me from doing the regular Thursday segment. Click the permalink, then the link below, to listen to the segment on a variety of topics, including Navy football and GT's Paul Johnson.

Click here to listen to the radio segment (my segment starts around the 16:00 mark): The Tony Kornheiser Show

Today, I made an afternoon appearance on 'The Sports Reporters' with Steve Czaban and Andy Pollin in my regular spot (5:25 ET on Wednesday's). As expected, much of the talk centered on the Redskins situation.

Click here to listen to Wednesday afternoon's podcast: The Sports Reporters

I make regular appearances on Seattle's The Gas Man Show on Thursday evenings (5:35 PT), and this evening we spent a lot of time on the situation with referrees and umpires.

Click here to listen to the radio segment: The Gas Man Show

Payne Stewart -- My View of His Evolution

Having written yesterday about the death of a friend, I hesitate (and no I'm not apologizing for today's blog-subject I just like readers to understand my thinking) to write today about Payne Stewart. But with the 10th anniversary of his death coming on Sunday and the airwaves filling up with tributes to him, I'd like to share some thoughts on him. Especially since I just can't bring myself to write AGAIN about how bad the umpiring has been in baseball this postseason.

As often happens when someone dies prematurely and tragically the way Payne did there is a tendency to remember him only in the best light. I get all that. In truth, Payne was a far more interesting person than the saint he has been portrayed as by many since his death. He struggled with his temperament, sought help when his wife, Tracy, all but demanded it and probably changed and evolved more than any athlete I've ever known.

When I first began covering golf in 1993, Payne was far from being a favorite with the media. He was one of those guys who could be charming when things went well, snappish when they didn't go well. I was first introduced to him by Paul Azinger, walking down a fairway at The Belfry during a practice round prior to the '93 Ryder Cup. Azinger explained I was writing a book about life on the PGA Tour and Payne looked at me and said, "Are you APing it?" Baffled I said, "APing it?" He said, "you know, filing it through the AP."

Okay, so he didn't exactly understand how books worked. That didn't make him a bad guy. To be honest, I never had any problems with Payne. Mike Hicks, his caddy, was a friend of mine largely because Mike is a fanatic college basketball fan. When I would stop on the range to talk hoops with Mike, Payne would inevitably walk over and want to talk about the Orlando Magic. We had a friendly, but hardly close relationship.

In 1998, I was working on my second golf book, "The Majors." That was the year Payne blew a four shot lead at The Olympic Club and lost by one shot to Lee Janzen. I was very impressed with the way he handled himself in defeat that day: no snapping at anyone, no excuses, no cutting short questioners. Still, I dreaded asking him to talk about it in even more detail. I had never once asked him for a long sitdown interview and now I had to ask him to sit and talk about what had to be his most painful loss. Still, there was no choice. I had to ask. Payne and Mike were on the putting green at Royal Birkdale on the Tuesday before The British Open when I decided to make the request. I explained to Payne what I was doing and said, "I know this isn't going to be your favorite subject but..."

He was waving me off before I finished the sentence. "It sounds like you're going to need some serious time to do this," he said. "Why don't we just have dinner one night and get it done that way."

Wow, I thought, he certainly understands books a lot more now than in 1993. We agreed to get together the week of The PGA Championship, played that year outside Seattle, at Sahalee Country Club. As it turned out, Payne was staying in a house near the golf course. I went over there on Tuesday night and he cooked steaks for several people. When dinner was over he and I sat on the back deck and I turned on the tape recorder.

It was one of the more remarkable evenings I've had as a reporter. He talked in detail about the loss at The Open. But he also talked about his dad, who had died of cancer very young and how the last thing he had ever told him was that Tracy was pregnant with his first grandchild. He then told me about an incident at Augusta in 1996 when he had missed the cut and was walking to his car with Tracy when a man approached him and asked for an autograph for his young son, who was standing next to him.

"I went off on the guy," Payne said. "I screamed at him that he didn't know the rules, that you weren't allowed to ask for autographs on the parking lot side of the clubhouse. I just went off on him with his son standing there.”

“When we got in the car, Tracy went off on ME. She reminded me first of all that you WERE allowed to ask for autographs on the parking lot side of the clubhouse and, regardless, how could I possibly behave that way in front of the little boy. She said to me, 'Payne, you need help. This has to stop. You embarrassed me back there, worse than that you really embarrassed yourself.'"

To make a long story short, Payne listened to his wife. He got counseling and learned to understand that with the perks of celebrity come responsibilities. The media had a job to do even when you played poorly. Treating fans well was vitally important, not just because it might make you money, but because it was the RIGHT thing to do. Payne came through the counseling a different man, far more appreciative of how lucky he was to be able to swing a golf club the way he did.

Everyone noticed: other players, the media certainly and his family. On that August evening in 1998 we talked long into the night and long after I'd turned my tape recorder off. We talked about having children who had never met one of their grandparents (in my case my mother) and how it made you cry sometimes.

When 'The Majors,' came out one player who played an important role in the book wrote to me to tell me how much he enjoyed it: Payne Stewart. That's not a knock on the other guys, you don't expect thank-you notes doing what I do. In fact, more often, it is appropriate to write them when people give you time. Still, it was nice to receive.

The second to last time I saw Payne alive was at the '99 Ryder Cup. He played singles against Colin Montgomerie and I walked with the match because it was the last one out and I thought it was possible it would decide the Cup. (I was wrong of course). The behavior of the American crowd was awful. At one point as I followed the two players from the ninth green to the tenth tee, some drunk jumped out at Montgomerie and began screaming the worst possible profanities at him. Montgomerie kept going. Payne didn't. He went back and told the guy he was an embarrassment and to shut up.

After Justin Leonard clinched the Cup for the U.S. Payne and Montgomerie came to the 18th hole even, the match meaning nothing at that point except to their Ryder Cup records and egos. Montgomerie hit the green in two and had a 25-foot birdie putt. Payne missed the green and had about an eight-footer for par. Payne walked over to Montgomerie and said, "pick it up, it's good," thus giving him the match.

The last time I saw Payne alive was a few weeks later at the Disney Tournament. I asked him why he'd given the putt to Montgomerie. "It didn't matter to the team," he said. "After what the guy had been through all day I had no problem giving him the win as long as it didn't affect the team outcome."

Pretty damn classy. The last thing he said to me that day was, "Next year bring your family down here for the week. Your kids can do the (Disney) parks and you can all come to the house one night for dinner. We'll even invite (Jon) Brendle, (Jon Brendle is a rules official who is a good friend of mine who lived right next to Payne). I'll cook you another steak."

Three days later he was dead.

I still talk to Mike Hicks about Payne (he's working for Jonathan Byrd these days) whenever I see him. We laugh about him getting on referees at Magic games and sitting as far away as possible when watching his kids because he didn't want to embarrass them with his yelling. Mike loved Payne, always loved him long before his 1996 self makeover.

One day Mike asked me, "how would you describe him in one sentence?"

I thought for a moment and then came up with the answer: "MIP," I said--"Most Improved Person."

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Personal Privilege Day – Patty Conway, a Friend to Me and Teacher, Mentor and Role Model to Many

There were two spectacular baseball playoff games both ending in walk-off hits. Spectacular stuff even if the pace of the games is enough to make you crazy as you watch. Those games will not be the subject of the blog this morning. There's an old political term called, "personal privilege." It is used by legislators when they rise to speak on a subject that really isn't germane to the business of the day but is something on their mind.

Today, I am requesting personal privilege to write about Pat Conway.

Ninety-nine percent of you have, I understand, never heard the name. But you should--at least this once--because there are people in the world who touch lives without ever becoming rich or famous and Patty was one of them. We all had a teacher, a coach, a mentor somewhere along the way--or just a good friend--who touched us in a way we never forget. Patty was a lifelong friend of mine. She was a teacher, a mentor and a role model for my daughter Brigid. She died yesterday of lung cancer--one of those non-smokers who still somehow gets the disease--at the age of 56.

Patty and I both grew up in Bob DeStefano's junior golf program at Gardiner's Bay Country Club on Shelter Island. Talk about touching lives--Bob started his junior program when he first got to Gardiner's Bay in 1962 and he's still running it--open to any kid on Shelter Island not just club members--today. Patty was in Bob's first class and was one of his best pupils. Even though she was about 5-foot-1 and might have weighed 110 pounds at most, she became an excellent player, good enough to take a shot at playing as a pro, before she came back to Shelter Island 25 years ago to be Bob's assistant pro.

I came to the program several years after Patty, a late starter in golf and never a very good player. By then, Patty was one of the 'big kids,' helping Bob with the younger kids. We were friends as teen-agers even though she was a little older than me and good friends when she came back to Shelter Island. I loved playing golf with Patty because it was almost like taking a playing lesson while laughing your way through 18 holes. She was just fun.

The number of second generation (and even a few third generation) kids that Bob has now taught is remarkable. My two kids were second generation junior golfers (as are my brother's) and, right from the start, Patty took Brigid under her wing. In Brigid she clearly saw herself reborn. Brigid's small for her age, but extremely determined. Patty's biggest challenge with Brigid was convincing her that it is very difficult (though not impossible for Brigid) to talk while swinging the club. Her patience in taking her from a tiny eight-year-old who made contact about 25 percent of the time to an 11-year-old who, though still tiny, could actually play the game and--more important--love the game, was amazing.

The two of them bonded. Patty often told Brigid that their goal was to show people that you didn't have to be big and strong to be a good player. "Hit it past the big kids Brigid," she would often say. Brigid has won the long drive competition in her age group at the end of the summer four years out of four. I swear to God I don't know how she's done it or how Patty did it. The third year I was off-island on the day of the various junior contests and called Brigid to see how things had gone. How'd long drive go Brigid?" I asked.

"Still undefeated," she answered.

Patty was one of those people we all meet who never seemed to have a bad day. At a golf club that has been divided in recent years over every issue you can possibly imagine, where some people walk by one another in the clubhouse without so much as a nod of the head, everyone loved Patty Conway. She was one of those rare people who never had an enemy and I can't imagine anyone ever said a bad word about her. If they did, something was truly wrong with them. Even in her 50s, she could still hit the golf ball long and straight and when she had time to play she could still score. And she always laughed.

When I had my heart surgery this summer Patty was distraught. "I just saw you," she said the week after the surgery. (I had been on the Island during the U.S. Open) You looked great. How could I have missed that something was wrong?"

"I don't know," I said. "Maybe if you'd had an angiogram to work with you'd have noticed."

She laughed but still acted as if she'd done something wrong not diagnosing me on the spot.

She and Brigid had another great summer, playing nine holes on the last day of the summer. When we got back to Washington for the start of school I asked Brigid if she wanted to take some lessons in the fall to keep her swing at the level she had reached during the summer. She shook her head vehemently. "No dad, I don't want someone else talking to me about my swing. Patty's my teacher."

Apparently, even though she never showed it at all, Patty wasn't feeling so hot this summer. She finally went to a doctor and that's when the tests came back showing lung cancer--that had spread. Whether anything would have been different if she had gone to the doctor sooner we'll never know. They tried chemo but it was too late.

Two summers ago Brigid won the Most Improved Award in her age group. This is a big deal if you are in Bob's program. I still have the trophy from the year I won it when I was 15. When Bob announced Brigid's name as the winner and she went up to get her trophy, he stuck the microphone in his hand knowing that some of Brigid's spontaneous comments are priceless.

“Do you want to say a few words Brigid?" he asked.

Brigid never hesitated. "I owe it all to Patty," she said.

Which she did.

Now I have a little girl who says she doesn't want to play golf anymore because it won't be the same without Patty as her teacher. She's right, of course, it won't be the same. Walking into the pro shop or onto the range or into the clubhouse at Gardiner's Bay won't be the same without Patty there with that light-up-the-room smile of hers always ready to attack the day with zeal and joy regardless of whatever else might be going on.

I know Brigid will play golf next summer. More than anything, Bob DeStefano passed on to Patty the ability to teach kids to love the game, regardless of their skill level. There's no better example than me. Patty passed that on to Brigid who loves to go in the basement on cold winter nights and practice her putting. Brigid will play next summer and in the future because she will know that Patty would want her to keep playing and keep hitting it past the big kids.

Patty did that all her life--on and off the golf course. She would expect no less of Brigid.

Monday, October 19, 2009

John's Monday Washington Post column:

Here is my column this week for The Washington Post -----

There are certain defining moments for sports franchises: John Riggins's fourth-down touchdown run in Super Bowl XVII for Joe Gibbs's first tenure with the Redskins, Joe Montana's touchdown pass to Dwight Clark in the 1981 NFC championship game for the San Francisco 49ers' Super Bowl era. There are moments like that for individuals too: Tiger Woods's 12-shot victory at the 1997 Masters; John McEnroe's first victory over Bjorn Borg at Wimbledon in 1981; Bob Beamon's long jump in Mexico City in 1968.

Then there are those moments that define futility: Bill Buckner's error in the 1986 World Series symbolizing the Boston Red Sox' World Series drought that didn't end until 2004; Scott Hoch and Doug Sanders missing three-foot putts that would have given them major championships they never won; the Portland Trail Blazers choosing Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan in the 1984 NBA draft.

For the Washington Redskins under owner Dan Snyder, that defining moment came late Sunday afternoon before no more than 10,000 fans left from an announced crowd of 79,572.

Click here for the rest of the article: For once-proud franchise, the saddest of sacks

Charlie Weis and Dan Snyder – Cut from the Same Mold

I gave up the pretense of so-called unbiased reporting years ago. For one thing, when you write a column you are allowed to be biased--as long as you're fair. For another, I reached the conclusion that none of us is unbiased--we're all affected by where we grew up, who we know, who we don't know and by the way the people we cover behave. The key, I've always believed, is to be aware of your biases and say what you have to say within the boundaries of what's fair and, one can only hope, accurate.

I also know that no matter how hard you try to adhere to those guidelines there are going to be people who disagree with you who are going to see you as unfair regardless of what you write or say. One poster wrote in last week and said I didn't like The President's Cup because I couldn't get the access I wanted to do a book. Are you kidding me? If I wanted access to write a Presidents Cup book, Tim Finchem would send his private plane for me and personally escort me into each team room. Hell, he might make me an assistant captain for the U.S. team so I could learn about golf from Michel Jordan. There would only be one problem: outside of friends, family and the folks at Ponte Vedra no one could care less about the Presidents Cup.

I bring that up only to make the point that you can't please everyone. I get that. In fact, I've been very pleasantly surprised by how upbeat the tone of almost all the posts and e-mails to the blog have been since it started. Outside of Mr. Presidents Cup and a few folks ranting about me being a liberal--guilty and I don't consider it a four letter word--most people have been positive, really smart, funny and, in some cases, have told me things I didn't know.

All of which leads me to today's subjects: Charlie Weis and Dan Snyder.

Unlike Snyder, who I doubt has anyone left on his side other than his family (maybe) and people on his payroll (but not all of them) Weis still has those singing his tune. If you had listened to Tom Hammond and Pat Haden (both of whom I like) on NBC at the end of USC's 34-27 victory over the Irish, you might have concluded that Notre Dame had won the game. "Notre Dame certainly proved today that it can compete with the nation's elite again," Hammond said.

Really? Weis's team was 20 points down at home to a USC team that has a freshman starting at quarterback and appears to be Pete Carroll's most vulnerable team in at least the last eight years. Yes, the Trojans are still very good and they might--might--run the rest of the table in the Pac-10 but something tells me they won't. If they do, it's a reflection of the Pac-10 being overrated (Cal has already proven to be a bust that's for sure) or of the fact that Pete Carroll and his staff can really coach-up talented players between September and January.

Certainly Notre Dame deserves credit for rallying to the point where it had three cracks at a tie from the four-yard line in the final seconds. But for Weis to go on about there being no quit in his team is ridiculous. Why would any team quit with 80,000 people screaming for them to rally? Why would any group of competitive athletes throw in the towel when history shows in college football that rallies from 20 points down are always possible? Notre Dame certainly has talent, at least on offense, so why would it not keep grinding until the end, especially when USC went to sleep at the wheel on defense once it established the big lead?

Maybe I'd be more sympathetic if Weis wasn't such an arrogant, self-inflating preener. He arrived at Notre Dame acting as if he was the head coach who won three Super Bowls, not a coordinator. He won 10 games--and lost bowl games--his first two years, mostly with players recruited by Tyrone Willingham. He is now 4-2 in his fifth season against a remarkably weak schedule. His four wins are over teams with a combined record of 11-15. One--Michigan State at 4-3--has a winning record. (Yes, Washington did beat Southern Cal--at home--but that was the Trojans' annual letdown game so let's not get carried away. Upsets happen in college football as we all know. What's more it took a questionable call to get Notre Dame its win--in South Bend--over Washington). The losses are to a rebuilding Michigan team playing a freshman at quarterback and a good USC team, also playing a freshman quarterback. Of course Lou Holtz probably STILL thinks Notre Dame will be in the national championship game.

Weis isn't a terrible coach, he's just not nearly as good as he thinks he is. And his penchant for throwing his players under the bus really gets old. After Jimmy Clausen's last play fell incomplete, NBC's Alex Flanagan asked him what happened on the last play. After explaining that USC had done, "what we expected," defensively he said the route was open but the receiver slipped. In other words, "I coached good, they played bad." I don't CARE if the receiver slipped, you take it on yourself or your credit the other team. A really classy coach--like say Pete Carroll--would have said something like, "We had to look off our primary receiver because they were smart enough to double him (that would be Golden Tate in this case) and their defenders closed well on the other side and forced Jimmy to throw the ball to a spot where no one was open. Give them credit for great defense."

That's not Weis. He's always got the right play called and he's coached his kids to really, "fight." You or I could coach Notre Dame kids to fight. Most of them are class kids, good students and good people--no matter who is coaching them. That's what Notre Dame is about and that's never going to change. But when you are Notre Dame you are supposed to WIN--not come close. The school has just about every possible advantage one could want--it's own TV network; pots of money; the incredible tradition; the fabulous fight song and all those ghosts that float around Notre Dame stadium. Let's not use the academic standards excuse either. There are plenty of very good football players out there who have the grades and SATs needed to get into Notre Dame. Or let's put it this way: is there any reason in the world for TCU and Boise State to be better than Notre Dame? (schools Notre Dame would NEVER play home-and-home by the way).

Bob Davie, a good man, got fired for being mediocre at Notre Dame. Tyrone Willingham, a good man, got fired for being mediocre at Notre Dame. Weis is now 14-17 the last three seasons playing almost exclusively with players he recruited and he's still throwing players under the bus and declaring moral victories for staying close at home. Why in the world any Notre Dame fan would want Weis as the school's coach for five more minutes is beyond me.

Jim Zorn, who is going to be fired at any minute, is another story. Every week Zorn stands up and says, "this is my fault," after the Redskins lose to another awful team. The combined record of the teams Washington has played in the last five weeks in games not played against the Redskins is now 1-25. Seriously. And the one win was Sunday when the Carolina Panthers beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a game between two of those god-awful opponents.

The complete debacle taking place in Washington isn't any more Zorn's fault than it is the fault of Norv Turner, Terry Robiskie, Marty Schottenheimer, Steve Spurrier or Joe Gibbs--the other coaches Dan Snyder has run through in his 10 years as the worst owner in sports history. Sure, Zorn's overmatched but it was Snyder and his snarky little henchman Vinny Cerrato who brought him in as offensive coordinator and then made him the coach when no one else wanted the job.

Now, Danny and Vinny are trying to make Zorn another fall guy. Two weeks ago they cut his legs out from under him by bringing in Sherman Lewis, who was spending time in retirement working as a bingo caller, to "consult," on the offense. Now, they're making him the signal-caller as if calling, "I-12, that's I-12," is going to magically produce an offensive line that can block for any quarterback.

It really is a shame for this town, because it is a town that LOVES the Redskins, that Snyder can't be forced to sell the team because what he's done to it is disgusting. Snyder doesn't speak to the media during the season--why the hell not you might wonder--but if he did, I guarantee you none of this would be his fault. So here's an idea: Snyder should hire Charlie Weis to coach. Then the two of them could take turns blaming everyone but themselves for their team's failures. No two men I can think of deserve one another more.

The two of them remind me of an old 'Peanuts,' strip when Peppermint Patty is asked why she hasn't done her homework. Well, she says, there was a TV show she needed to watch, a new album to listen to and her favorite radio show. Finally, she stands up, puts her hand in the air and says, "I blame it on the media!"

Sure, why not. If it works for Peppermint Patty is should work for Danny and Charlie.