The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
Until earlier this week, I had never heard of Sy Berger, who died Sunday at age 91, but I knew him well. You see, Sy Berger was an executive with Topps in the early 1950s, and it was he who transformed the relatively homely and simple cards of baseball players into informative and collectible keepsakes. Baseball cards have been around since the nineteenth century, but not until Sy Berger did they include statistics, color photos, better design and even a facsimile of each player’s autograph.
And like most American boys growing up in the Fifties, I collected Sy Berger’s creations like a madman. I bought them at the grocery store that my grandfather owned before he retired and sold out to a man named Earl Holloway. Today, the store would have been a target for Mike and Frank of the American Pickers TV show, but when my grandfather, C.C. Miller, owned it, the store carried items of function for a rural community.
I remember the glass candy case and kegs of nails standing side-by-side with bins of beans, corn and seeds for planting. A boxy soft-drink machine held rows of Coke, Pepsi and my favorite, Grapette, sitting in water kept ice-cold by blocks of ice at the bottom. A wooden bench was usually occupied by area farmers who would come in for a chat or to play pinochle or hearts on a large circular playing board they balanced on their knees. Of course, when the men returned to the fields, I would grab a handful of nails from a keg and drive them one-by-one into the wooden bench until it looked like a belly-up porcupine.
When Mr. Holloway bought the store in about 1958, he began to add new items of interest, including the small flat packs of bubble gum that contained baseball cards. It wasn’t long after that before every stray nickel I had became an investment into my heroes. Baseball card collecting wasn't all for trading or decorating your bicycle spokes. It was serious business for a young man in the Fifties. With every purchase, I ripped open the pack, stuffed the 2-inch square of gum into my mouth and chewed away, hoping to find a treasure pack of Red Sox players. Ted Williams would have been the ultimate catch, but I also would have welcomed a Frank Malzone or a Jackie Jensen.
Instead, more often than not I received a roster of unknowns. Danny Kravitz, an outfielder with the Pirates, was a frequent visitor, as were Bob Schmidt, a catcher with the Giants, and George Anderson, a second-baseman with the Phillies. It did not matter at the time that Anderson would grow up to become Sparky Anderson, one of baseball’s greatest managers. To me, he was a nobody in a pack of nobodies. But I kept him and all the others and over the next two or three years I collected such luminaries as Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Ernie Banks. My greatest collecting coup was a complete set of the 1960 All-Star Game starters, which included Stan Musial, Joe Adcock, Al Kaline, Yogi Berra and Bill Mazeroski.
I neatly arranged my cards in a shoebox, each player carefully filed by team. Some teams, like the local favorite Cincinnati Reds, were nearly complete, while other teams like the Washington Senators could have been playing with a roster of only five or six for all I knew. Over the years I upgraded their display, to a large three-ring binder with plastic slots for each card. My professional life took me to different places, and that binder went with me from Kentucky to Baltimore to New York to New Orleans to Buffalo to Chicago and then back to New Orleans, where its journey ended in tragedy.
We evacuated our house on August 27, 2005, and when we returned nearly a month later, Hurricane Katrina had devastated my collection. Although it sat on a high shelf in my closet, it was lapped by the rising waters and was soaked. I probably should have taken every card out of its plastic slot and dried them individually, but we had other things to worry about in those days. I left them in the binder, and when it dried most of the cards stuck to the plastic that enclosed them. Removing them would have destroyed them.
My cards are still in the binder, which I pulled out of a box when Sy Berger died. They would not be much good to a collector in their condition, but the memories they provoked will forever remain priceless.
In a desperate attempt to figure out this whacky NFL season from the local perspective, I went right to America’s most popular source for answers to puzzling questions. I went to Google and punched in “teaser.” In only .35 seconds, I received 23,400,000 possible answers, and I began sorting through them to find the right one. My discerning eye immediately was drawn to website addresses for several Teasers Men’s Clubs, with locations in Twin Forks, Montana; Flint, Michigan; Key West, Durham, North Carolina, and elsewhere. The Teasers of Phoenix even awards its customers a pint of draft beer for $3 to go along with, well, you know, its other treats.
I took a shower and returned to sort through other forms of “teaser,” including hair salons and chocolate factories until I found what I was looking for. A website boldly advertised “brain teasers and mind games.” And that is what the local football team is doing to its fans this season. We are all the victims of a giant hoax, thanks to the local NFL affiliate. Teaser is not to be confused with Taser, but either could be used to describe what the local football team has done to its fan base this year. The Saints go on the road and win a game. They come home to the formerly friendly Superdome and they can't beat Tulane’s band.
Supporting this hypothesis was the Saints’ effortless 31-15 win at Chicago Monday night, a game that was not as close as the score indicated. The secondary intercepted three Jay Cutler passes, while the pass rushers sacked the NFL’s most well-paid hapless quarterback seven times. Drew Brees' offense was efficient and productive. The Bears aren’t very good, but the win reflects a season that has never been experienced in these parts before. The Saints have been good, and the Saints have been bad, but this season, the Saints team has teased its loyal fans with an equal dose of each.
After limping to a 2-4 record, the Saints convincingly took care of Green Bay at home and Carolina on the road. Who Dat Nation knew the ship had been righted, the NFC South title was assured and they might even run the table. But then, the team failed to rush San Francisco QB Colin Kaepernick on 4th and forever in the final seconds, which gift-wrapped an unlikely 49er victory. The next two games also were at home, but the Bengals and Ravens enjoyed the Saints’ hospitality to dole out two more losses.
The fans were prepared the next week, knowing disaster loomed at Pittsburgh, one of the more inhospitable places in the NFL. Of course, the Saints winked into the camera and beat the Steelers like a borrowed mule. Whipsawed all season, the innocent Who Dats welcomed to town the limping division rival Carolina only to be teased again. The Panthers avenged their earlier loss by not only beating the Saints but embarrassing them in the worst loss of the Payton-Brees dynasty. But by now, the more wizened fans had started to figure it out. The Saints would go to Chicago, otherwise known as the Who Dat Memorial Gardens, and look like the ’85 Bears in Black and Gold. Sure enough, that is exactly what they did.
Their 6-8 record is tops in the division, and holding on would assure a home playoff game. This week’s obstacle to such bliss is their long-time nemesis, the Atlanta Falcons, who come to town Sunday. Will the Saints continue to play the role of teaser, losing again in the once-friendly confines, or will they sprinkle their teasing with holiday cheer? We won’t know until dusk on Sunday, but I would suggest Saints fans turn the tables on this long slog of playful torment. Come to the game dressed from top to bottom in red, Santa Clause beard is optional, and cheer loud for the Falcons. Only that way will the Saints think they are on the road where it’s okay to win the game.
Stop me if I’ve told you this one, but after I accepted Jim Finks’ offer to join him in New Orleans in the summer of 1986, my old boss at the NFL Management Council, Jack Donlan, told me to find my replacement before I left New York. I thought it would be an easy matter finding an enthusiastic young up-and-comer to join Donlan in the NFL’s labor relations department. The Collective Bargaining Agreement, which came as the result of a 57-day players’ strike in 1982, would expire in another year, and Donlan needed a spokesman to represent the position of NFL owners. Surely, the first person I asked would jump at the opportunity.
I soon discovered it wasn’t so easy. My first choice was a young sportswriter from Cincinnati who had just joined Newsday, the daily paper based on Long Island. But Peter King preferred writing about the NFL than helping to make the news, so he declined. Today, King is at Sports Illustrated and is considered the premier NFL writer in America. I talked to a couple other writers, none of whom wanted to make a move, so my thinking moved in-house.
I knew a bright, young guy in the NFL’s public relations department who had impressed me with his smarts and his willingness to take on any task assigned by the League’s longtime PR guy, Joe Browne. I talked to the young man and told him that a move to the Management Council was a step forward for him and would get him noticed, not only as the spokesman for NFL owners but by the owners themselves. If he wanted to go out to a club to make his bones, the Management Council was the place to do it.
We talked a couple more times, and he sounded interested, but he said he wanted to get the opinion of then-Commissioner Pete Rozelle. We spoke again the next day, and he politely declined. “Pete says he’s got other things in mind for me,” he told me. Looking back, I often wonder how that worked out for Roger Goodell.
But, seriously, Goodell has had a tough couple of years as the current NFL boss, and things just got tougher. Goodell told the Wall Street Journal this week “I blew it” after the outcry over his handling of a domestic-violence case involving former Baltimore Ravens star Ray Rice. The case has focused the commissioner’s attention on the off-field conduct of his players, who often faced graver consequences for using steroids than for punching a spouse or girlfriend.
Goodell told the Journal he regrets doing too little on past cases, particularly when measures could have prevented future abuse. “Our penalties didn’t fit the crimes,” he said. That is why Goodell unveiled a tougher personal-conduct policy Wednesday at a meeting with NFL team owners. An accused player, for example, will immediately go on paid leave following formal charges or an independent investigation under the proposal that would also apply to all NFL personnel, including owners. The new rules mark a shift for the NFL, which has been criticized for failing to properly address instances of domestic violence by players.
Since 2000, 135 domestic-violence allegations have been made against NFL players. Adjudication of the cases have varied from no-contest pleas to charges being dropped after wives or girlfriends withdrew their accusations. League punishments typically were, at most, one-game suspensions. Changes are also evident in the league’s New York City headquarters on Park Avenue, where female executives and consultants, some newly hired, sit in Goodell’s corner office around a conference table covered with victim photos and anti-violence educational materials. The topic of discussion is domestic abuse.
Goodell probably never has regretted taking my old job with the Management Council, although the microscope under which club executives are watched by the likes of Who Dat Nation pales to the far larger one he is under as Commissioner. And, in times like these, that microscope has been replaced by a magnifying glass that focuses the searing rays of criticism squarely on Goodell's backside.
Thank goodness there’s something more interesting to write about today than the Saints, who continued their Jekyll and Hyde season Sunday with an embarrassing 41-10 loss to a mediocre Carolina team. So, while Sean Payton is preparing his Crescent City Conundrums to go north and undoubtedly pummel the Chicago Bears, let’s turn our attention to the big news of the weekend, the College Football Playoff selections.
The Sugar Bowl people have to be overjoyed at the marquee matchup between Alabama and Ohio State, the winner of which should be favored to beat Oregon or Florida State in the championship game. Bama deserves to be the No. 1 selection, and Ohio State arguably is the hottest team in America, winning eleven in a row after an inexplicable early 35-21 home loss to Virginia Tech. In its first season, CFP selection day has become one of the biggest non-game events in American sports. I happened to be following it on Sirius radio while driving home from a visit to Kentucky, flipping back and forth between the College network, ESPN radio and the NFL Network. Even the latter gave proper attention to the selections between their customary Sunday morning NFL chat.
I have to admit I was disappointed that TCU was dissed so badly after earning the No. 3 slot last week. How in tunket, only four days later and after a 55-3 win over Iowa State, could they drop TCU all the way to No. 6? If the selection panel felt so strongly about Ohio State, why weren’t they included in the top four last week? Sure, they decimated No. 13 Wisconsin with a third-string quarterback, but I’m not convinced that one game should make that much of a difference at that point in the process.
Furthermore, I did not understand dropping TCU behind Baylor in the final selections, even though Baylor beat ranked Kansas State in their final game. I repeat the previous argument: If the panel felt that strongly about Baylor, which gave TCU its only loss, then why wasn’t Baylor ranked in the top four last week? I think the impact of those late performances is going to influence conferences to schedule more carefully in the future and try to arrange top-tier matchups at the end of the season. Beating a ranked team obviously has more impact than hosing a team like two-win Iowa State.
The CFP panel did say they would be tweaking their formula for years to come, and I have a suggestion. Expand the format to eight teams. The NCAA should welcome the opportunity for more revenue, and the networks would pay richly for the programming. That also would have shifted the controversy from the critical 4, 5 and 6 teams to the less-defensible No. 8, 9 and 10 teams. Placing an eight-team format over this year’s rankings, Baylor, TCU, Mississippi State and Michigan State would be included with the only possible controversy coming from fans of No. 9 Ole Miss. Sure, you beat Alabama, but you lost three games which is an easier argument that anything Baylor or TCU fans are hearing today.
The Southeastern Conference should push hard for an eight-team format, because it would mitigate the late-season cannibalism that dropped Mississippi State and Ole Miss in the rankings. If the SEC does produce the best college football in America, as every football fan in the Old Confederacy claims, having two or three teams in an eight-team playoff would provide a better opportunity to prove it!
In our eight-team format, the first round of four games could be played two weeks after the selection show on the home fields of the top four ranked teams. The games would provide great on-campus excitement and four more billboards for the college game. This year, that would have sent No. 8 Michigan State to Tuscaloosa, No. 7 Mississippi State to Oregon, No. 6 TCU to Florida State and No. 5 Baylor to Ohio State. Winners of those games would be sent to the top bowls, as they are now, this year the Sugar Bowl and Rose Bowl. Each losing team could be sent to the other four bowls in the playoff rotation, which includes the Orange, Cotton, Fiesta and Peach bowls.
However the process is tweaked in the future, the fact remains that a playoff is long overdue. College football fans already are already marking their calendars for January 12, which is when the final two teams will meet in Dallas to decide it once and for all. Who Dat Nation might consider doing the same. By that time, their local heroes will at home lounging while the organization will be well into its post-season evaluations and scouting meetings. Trying to determine what went wrong in 2014 and how they can fix it by 2015.
It is amazing how athletes who are considered personable, logical, experienced and respected go totally haywire when somebody takes a shot at them. Case in point was a report Sunday from the normally solid Ian Rapoport of NFL.com that said the Saints plan to select a quarterback with an early pick in the 2015 NFL Draft after QB Drew Brees displayed "some arm strength issues … throwing crucial interceptions."
It’s not earthshaking news that NFL clubs think about eventually replacing a 35-year-old quarterback, and that Brees is guilty of some bone-headed plays that cost the Saints some wins this season. But instead of taking the high road of understanding how this business works, Brees took great offense. In a guest appearance on the Jay Mohr Show on Fox Radio Monday, Brees totally disavowed the report and the reporter. "Something like that, I know it has absolutely no validity to it," Brees said. "A lot of time you can look at who's writing that stuff and you can say this guy is trying to make a splash or trying to make a name for himself, whatever it might be … I'm not sure where they get their information, if they just completely make it up or if there are sources that are their cousins."
That response isn’t wave-your-arms, tear-out-your hair reactionary, but for Brees, it is notable. Maybe the story did imply an urgent desire to replace Brees sooner than later, but Brees has been around long enough to know that NFL teams start thinking about replacing their quarterback at around his age. The Green Bay Packers have been in great shape since taking Aaron Rodgers in the first round of the 2005 NFL Draft and sat him on the bench for three years while he prepared to take over for Brett Favre. Remember when the 49ers traded for Steve Young only to hand him a clipboard and baseball cap for four years behind Joe Montana before launching his own Hall of Fame career? The Denver Broncos and New England Patriots made similar moves recently, drafting Brock Osweiler and Jimmy Garoppolo, respectively, to potentially replace Hall of Fame passers Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.
It likely will be this year or the next when the Saints make a similar move (although I can think of other positions of more immediate need). The 2015 class is not especially deep in quarterbacks with Oregon's Marcus Mariota perhaps the most notable first-round option. UCLA's Brett Hundley, Mississippi State's Dak Prescott and Baylor's Bryce Petty could be available in the second round or later. I don’t believe Florida State's Jameis Winston is the type of guy the Saints organization would want to deal with. But we are way ahead of ourselves.
Brees’ response to the story implies a certain arrogance that screams: “Hey, all those other guys got old, but I won’t!” His mega-conditioning program made the cover of Sports Illustrated just before training camp, but he soon suffered an injury to an oblique muscle that kept him out of the first preseason games. Maybe the SI jinx is exacerbated with age? Listen up, Drew: The Saints don’t want to shove you out the door. But they have a business to run, and they are a prudent organization that prepares for every eventuality. They will draft a quarterback in the next year or two in the hopes that you can bring him along like Favre and Montana did before you.
And one more thing. You aren’t invincible. Age is a bitch, but it happens to all of us. Shut your mouth, and worry about winning three of the next four games!