Helmut Kohl, soccer and the Berlin Wall

Helmut Kohl was at the game. March 26, 1990 in Dresden, East Germany. That was not quite five months since the fall of the Berlin Wall and six months prior to the official reunification of the two Germanys following 45 years of Cold War antagonism.

So the event, an old-timers’ soccer match featuring a Unified Germany team for the first time since the 1964 Olympics, was far more about symbolism than competition. And it was much more about Kohl, who was in the process of deftly engineering Germany’s new coexistence, than about the former international stars who were scurrying around on the field.

The Unified Germany side was stocked with retired fellows from East and West Germany’s separate 1974 World Cup teams, and pitted against a Rest Of The World outfit that featured such former international stars as England’s Bobby Charlton and Brazil’s Jairzinho. Yet the hardiest pre-game cheers from an overflow crowd of 38,000 were for Kohl, the West German chancellor.

Aside from his physical heft—he was 6-foot-4 and at least 300 pounds—Kohl brought a social and cultural weight to the process. He walked with spectators into the stadium. He performed the ceremonial pre-game kick-off. He mingled with players from both sides after the game. For purposes of sports? Or politics? “Probably both,” German soccer luminary Franz Beckenbauer said then.

News of Kohl’s death last week, at 87, brought all this to mind. A handful of us American sports journalists, who had been in East Berlin to cover a World Cup tune-up match that week between the United States and East Germany’s national team, commandeered rental cars and drove to Dresden to spend another day on the front porch of history.

We had been staying at a hotel on the East side of the Berlin Wall, short blocks from the Brandenburg Gate, cite of President Ronald Reagan’s 1987 “tear down this wall” speech. Steps away in the other direction was the Allied Checkpoint Charlie, where sidewalk vendors recently had set up a flea market peddling concrete chips of the wall and virtually entire military uniforms of Soviet and East German border guards, as well as various military pins that had been worn by those guards. It was like some gift shop on the way out of a museum dedicated to the Iron Curtain era.

We could walk through ragged new holes in the wall, no problem.

But for Germans, particularly in the East, there was a state of confusion with the sudden arrival of democratization and reunification. For one thing, East German money had become essentially worthless.

“Mr. Kohl told all the people, ‘Vote for my party and you will get [West German] deutschmarks,’” Sigfried Koenig, an East German sports official, told me. “Well, I voted for Mr. Kohl”—actually for Kohl’s sister party in the East. “I voted for deutschmarks. That was March 18. What is it now? March 28 already. Where are my deutschmarks?”

In fact, Kohl fulfilled his promise with remarkable speed. By that summer, he allowed the 17 million East German citizens to adopt the mighty West German mark at a rate of 1-to-1, an extraordinary economic stroke that further solidified his popularity and likely stanched a destabilizing flow of refugees from East to West.

Meanwhile, though, there was our Dresden adventure.

Forty-five years before, Dresden had been hit by the Allies’ worst firebombing of World War II. (Kurt Vonnegut’s brilliant 1969 novel, “Slaughterhouse Five,” was based on that horrific incident.) When we were there in March of 1990, the wartime ruins of the Frauenkirche church still were untouched. (Starting in 1994, the church was rebuilt as part of reunification.) The firebombing’s rubble from the city’s 16th Century castle, the Schloss, likewise was visible. (Some of the proceeds from that Unified Germany soccer exhibition were earmarked to restore the Schloss, finally completed in 2013).

(Frauenkirche ruins)

Tickets had gone on sale two months before and were snapped up—at prices equivalent to $1.20 to $2.40, U.S.—in a half-hour. On the night of the game, scalpers were getting up to $40, U.S. We U.S. reporters were able to convince officials we belonged in the stadium by using the only word we could conjure in our rudimentary German: Zeitung. (Newspaper.)

Of no significance whatsoever was the soccer result—Rest Of The World, 3; Unified Germany, 1. But even that had its echoes of the hostile past that Kohl was working to mend. Charlton, the great English player who was then 52 years old, was mostly kidding when he said, “I suppose it would have been diplomatic to let the Germans win. But we’ve never been very diplomatic that way.”

That was reminiscent of one British sportswriter’s snarky advance story of the 1966 World Cup final, when Charlton and his English mates were about to take on Germany: “Fret not, boys, if on the morrow, we should lose to the Germans at our national  game, for twice this century we have defeated them at theirs.”

The beauty to March 26, 1990 in Dresden was that it was about neither soccer nor war, and that sports sometimes can be more than just sports. Political? Yes. And having seen Helmut Kohl score was a memorable occasion.

(My little piece of the Berlin Wall)

Los Angeles as the Olympic savior (again?)

(Newsday, March 1, 1979)

What if we updated that headline by 40 years? Will the 2024 Olympics Be the Last?

Los Angeles wound up staging the 1984 Summer Games because no other city wanted them. Now, a decision by the International Olympic Committee executive board, proposing that both the 2024 and 2028 Games be awarded simultaneously later this year, essentially has acknowledged that L.A. likely is the only possible host for ’28.

The IOC should have seen around this corner a long time ago, as Olympic candidates are increasingly shying away from the financial demands and public doubts of staging an elaborate 17-day festival that leaves behind far more debt and white elephants than global goodwill. Only L.A. and Paris remain in the exhaustive, expensive campaign for ’24 after Boston, Hamburg, Rome and Budapest withdrew prematurely, just as Oslo and Stockholm changed their minds about trying for the 2022 Winter Games.

So, rather than be stuck without a 2028 suitor, the IOC proclaimed both L.A. and Paris will get the next two Summer Games after Tokyo hosts in 2020. The loser in ’24—widely assumed to be Los Angeles, because Paris is “due” after losing bids in 1992, 2008 and 2012 and would be celebrating the centennial of its last Olympics in 1924—will be left with the ’28 consolation prize.

If, in fact, it can be considered a prize to operate an event that fills the IOC coffers while having to assume all cost overruns, as per IOC custom. To accept the 2028 Games, instead of the preferred 2024 event, Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti suggested there should be a multi-million dollar IOC investment into his city’s youth sports programs. To which IOC president Thomas Bach haughtily replied, “You don’t need to reward somebody if you give them a present.”

Maybe that is what Los Angeles gets for having declared itself “an eternal Olympic city,” always ready with a solvent plan of existing venues and “unwavering public support.” But Bach has been around long enough—he was part of West Germany’s gold-medal Olympic fencing team in 1976—to know it was L.A. that gave the IOC the ultimate present in 1984. By keeping the Olympics alive.

It was on March 1, 1979 that the IOC formally signed the contract to put the ’84 Games in L.A., long after the only other bid city—Tehran, Iran—dropped out of the race. Days earlier, I had been in the office of 37-year-old Los Angeles lawyer John Argue, the man who had finally succeeded in pitching L.A.’s Olympic candidacy after years of trying. Though by default. The financial disaster of 1976, when Montreal left a $1.5 million debt that took 30 years to pay off, came “really close” to killing the Olympics, Argue said then.

“I honestly believe the Games are very much in jeopardy,” he said. “Three cities bid for the ’76 Games. Two bid for the ’80 Games. And only us for ’84. There truly were no other bid cities. We heard the Games were not welcome in Munich, Montreal, Mexico City”—the previous three summer hosts.

Attention had to be paid to the disasters in each of those cities—the Mexican government killing at least 250 unarmed demonstrators days before the ’68 Mexico City Games; Palestinian terrorists murdering 11 members of the Israeli Olympic delegation in Munich in ’72; the wasteful spending and corrupt leadership of Montreal organizers in ’76.

Still, the IOC stubbornly insisted that Los Angeles abide by its “Rule No. 4,” which required host cities to bear all financial responsibility for the operation of the Games. And the U.S. Olympic Committee originally dismissed Argue’s massive money-saving plan to use USC and UCLA dorms to house the world’s competitors, rather than spend more than $100 million on the traditional athletes village. “The first reaction of the USOC,” Argue said, “was, ‘impossible. The IOC will want a village.’

“We were eyeball-to-eyeball,” Argue said. “And [the IOC] blinked. In a way, they were playing brinksmanship with the Olympics—which they really didn’t have to do.”

Argue, after all, was about to save their bacon. He was a passionate Olympic patriot. He was born in 1932, the year L.A. staged its first Olympics, the son of a 1924 Olympic pentathlete, and followed his father as chairman of the Southern California Committee for the Olympic Games, which was formed in 1939 and had been agitating to return the Games to L.A. ever since.

Argue’s group hired as L.A.’s Olympic organizing chief an unknown travel executive named Peter Ueberroth, whose deft guidance of the Games got him named Time magazine’s Man of the Year and led to a turn as Major League Baseball commissioner. Under Ueberroth, Los Angeles established the gold standard for Olympic efficiency, marketing and fiscal sanity.

L.A. created the first “official sponsorships” of the Games, the first “unified look” of branding, and used 40 percent of its record $223 million surplus to fund the LA84Foundation, which doled out more than $185 million in donations to more than 1,000 southern California sports organizations over the next 25 years—including to a youth program that nurtured the likes of tennis superstars Serena and Venus Williams.

John Argue died in 2002, at 70. And what he prioritized in 1979 for the ’84 L.A. Games—that “we must demonstrate to the world that you don’t have to go broke staging the Olympics”—was so successful that it not only saved the Games but, through its ability to raise big money, also released the beasts of profligate spending at future Olympics. So that now we may be coming full cycle, back to the Montreal problem.

Neither the 2014 Sochi Winter Games nor last summer’s Rio Olympics did anything to restore economic sense. Television ratings, already slipping, won’t be helped by the next three Olympics being played out in Far East time zones—2018 Winter in Pyeongchang, South Korea; 2020 Summer in Tokyo, 2022 Winter in Beijing.

Just this week, the Olympics’ major sponsor, McDonald’s, ended its 41-year sponsorship of the Games—three years early—a high-profile departure that Toronto Globe and Mail columnist Cathal Kelly cited as “just the latest signal that the Olympic operation is in decline, along with the benefit of being linked to it.”

Another signal is the IOC’s 2024-2028 host-city packaging, clearly uneasy about future efforts to bring this bloated, unbalanced monster in for a landing. Really: Might the 2024 Olympics be the last?

R.I.P. Frank Deford

I crossed paths with Frank Deford only twice, and chatted briefly with him on just one occasion. So I certainly can’t add to the countless personal appreciations of that sportswriting giant, who died last week at 78. Besides, I am not equipped to sum up Deford as artfully as Deford could get to the essence of his subjects—sometimes in one brilliant sentence.

For a 1979 Sports Illustrated profile of Earl Weaver, for instance, Deford began several paragraphs about the feisty Hall of Fame manager, who was ejected by umpires more than 90 times in his career and was widely known for an almost casual profanity, this way:

“Earl says a dirty word.”

As part of his coverage of the 1988 Olympic equestrian event and its “patronizing upper-crust participants,” Deford made a passing reference to famously snippy British rider Mark Phillips, then married to Princess Anne, by slyly noting that “a number of the horses’ asses are not attached to the horses.”

Deford’s writing was conversational yet literate, a model for anyone who aspires to traffic in the English language. It was full of appreciation for its leading characters, while devoid of the gee-whiz gushing that is so common in sports coverage. And so vivid. He once described Olympic marathon champion Frank Shorter and Shorter’s fellow distance runners, at a time when running was just becoming fashionable, as “lean leggy people in a pudgy world of wheels.”

To read his stylish, perceptive prose was to wonder—just as so many sports fans puzzle over some jock’s spectacular play—“How does he do that?”

Don’t ask me. I have spent a half-century as a sportswriter and now teach a college sportswriting course, and the best I can do is cite what a comedian once told aspiring students about her profession: “I can’t teach you to be a good comic. All I can do is introduce you to good comedy.”

So I acquaint the class with really good sportswriting. John Updike’s 1960 New Yorker piece on Ted Williams’ final big-league game. Roy Blount Jr.’s 1984 Sports Illustrated consideration of whether Yankee catcher Yogi Berra could be considered a true yogi (“He loves to sit around reflecting in his undershorts”). Roger Angell’s New Yorker articles on baseball. Kenny Moore’s personal account of the 1972 Olympic marathon for Sports Illustrated.

Anything by Frank Deford.

And still there is the mystery of just how those eminent wordsmiths do that? My best student last semester, in his final class essay, raised the frustration that “we have read wonderful pieces but didn’t really explain how they did what they did. How do you tell a story with a lot of color and detail? How do you write casually? How do you develop your voice?”

Not surprisingly, plenty of admirers had asked Deford, “How do you write?” And his response, recalled in his 2012 memoir Over Time, was, “You mean like: In the morning after breakfast, in my office, on a computer? That’s how I write…” His take was that writing “is such a personal endeavor, people are curious as to exactly how you go about it,” yet guessed that captains of industry aren’t asked what they do in their offices, how they talk on the phone and so on.

Back to the comedian’s system, then: If you want to write sports (or anything, really), the first thing to do is read the best. Read Deford. His work embodied journalism’s ideals, that thorough reporting enhances the quality of writing (his magnificent storytelling always was deeply researched); and that interviewing skills are a key tool in gathering facts. He said he considered the interviewing process akin to flirting, since the purpose is to learn another’s interests, aspirations and grievances.

Then, armed with great detail, he could spin transfixing tales. A treatise on roller derby, an examination of what made cantankerous basketball coach Bobby Knight tick, a study of the Soap Box Derby. Whatever.

He once said that “when people hear you’re a sportswriter, they assume you’re more interested in the first half of that word than the second.” It was obvious that he involved himself in the intricate plumbing of that second half of the word. He often quoted his first Sports Illustrated editor, Andre Laguerre, advising him, “Frankie, it doesn’t matter what you write about. All that matters is how well you write.”

So, even though Deford spent an entire career nettling the American soccer community—he once insisted that the initials U.S.A. stood for “Uninterested in Soccer A-tall”—it didn’t stop him from assigning himself to travel to Cameroon to produce an empathetic account of that nation’s 1990 World Cup quarterfinal showdown with soccer’s Mother Country, England.

Deford found a local bar to witness the Cameroon citizens’ emotional investment in television coverage of the game that was being played in Naples, Italy. When Cameroon, an eventual 3-2 loser, scored the opening goal, “a short, fat lady next to me grabbed me and starting dancing with me,” he wrote in Over Time, “and if only you could’ve seen the unbounded joy on her face. The photographer who was with me took a picture of that moment, and it’s the only sports photograph I keep in my office. It tells you better than anything else about the joy of sports—and the power, too, I suppose.”

In fact, it felt as if Deford’s mastery of his craft best told the joy and power of sports. With the news of his death, I might have said a dirty word.

70 is not quite the new 50

(Here is an old-man adventure that was chronicled in Newsday….)

Just to be clear: I did not attempt running the May 7 Long Island Half-Marathon—13.1 miles—as some death-defying challenge at 70. Risk does not appeal to me, which explains why I never considered celebrating my septuagenarian situation by climbing Mount Everest (fear of heights) or swimming the English Channel (fear of pruney bathtub skin).

Furthermore, in the words of the late George Sheehan—a cardiologist who became a philosopher of the recreational running movement 40 years ago—I have the pain threshold of a firm handshake. I am opposed to torture in all its forms.

So let me report that I did not suffer. Unless one considers the uncomfortable realization that with age comes a significant fading of muscle memory. Leg oldsheimer’s. What took me an hour and 36 minutes when I was 39; what took me an hour and 48 minutes when I was 49 (the last time I attempted the distance); required, on this occasion, two hours, 35 minutes and 41 seconds.

But I will argue that it’s possible to have a good time without having a good time. And I will submit that it is crucial to have a patient wife. Though Donna freely volunteered to be my pre- and post-race valet and to observe my start and finish, I was fully aware that she was due at work a mere four hours after the starting gun. And the clock was ticking.

She had convinced me to buy a $20 pouch for my iPhone, strapped to my bicep, which gave us a lifeline in case of emergency. Turned out that I didn’t die, but her phone did.

And…where was I? Oh, yes. Why?

I’ve asked other runners, of all ages and stations in life, that question—not just about attempting the marathon or half-marathon, but also about putting in the daily mileage necessary to safely attempt them. It’s the challenge, they say. It’s the internal struggle, as opposed to trying to beat the other guy. It’s a great escape from more important things in life. It’s a way to get out of the house.

Also: Why not?

This was not a bucket-list thing. I was in my late 20s when I joined the running boom, a program already in progress, and set about proving (to myself) that I was a “legitimate” runner by twice finishing full 26.2-mile marathons. Then came eight half-marathons, my last one in 1996.

What ended the habit of entering such events was the rigmarole of paying entry fees, fighting crowds, traveling to races, fitting them into work and family schedules. And: Been there, done that. But I remained hooked on the addiction of a daily, leisurely run, and somehow got the notion in February that I should try the half-marathon again. Because it was there, I guess.

The new dare was accepting that I am an old retired guy. On Social Security and Medicare. With a pre-existing condition: moderately severe lead-footedness. I never have been especially fast, and I had to prepare myself psychologically for the fact that many people—not necessarily younger than I—would be passing me along the way.

Chugging along, I had an ideal view of the backs of many, many fellow participants. But, once past the first two miles, fighting to warm up in the chilly winds, things went as well as could be expected. Spectators scattered along the course were exceptionally kind, many offering the standard “looking good” evaluation even for those of us who, I strongly suspect, were not.

In taking constant readings throughout the 13.1 miles, I was encouraged by the lack of alarming signals like balking knees, sore shins or aching Achilles, and was maintaining roughly the same pace as my daily 5- and 6-mile ramblings. I quite enjoyed again being in such a pedestrian celebration, laying down all those non-carbon footprints.

In the end, the greatest danger might have been the bag of munchies handed out to all finishers. Along with a healthy banana, there was a processed bagel, donut, muffin and cookie with frightening levels of carbohydrates, sugar and calories. After being whisked home by Donna on her way to work, I settled for handfuls of almonds and a bag of M&Ms (peanut). Coffee and plenty of water.

I had finished 1,768th in a field of 2,073 and think I detected a chortle in Donna’s voice: “You only beat 305 people!?”

Except, in my age group (male, 70 to 74), I was 10th of 18. The senior discount.

Watergate echoes

(The Watergate complex)

Personal Watergate-related memories? Sure, I can provide a couple of those, now that the topic is back in fashion.

I can’t reveal my sources, of course, but in late July 1986, while covering the now-defunct U.S. Olympic Festival in Houston, I came across a 25-year-old competitor in the rarely contested Modern Pentathlon named James Gordon Liddy. Then an ensign in the Navy, Liddy was the son of Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy.

Jim Liddy told a story of being 11 years old at the time of the 1972 Watergate break-in. Shortly before his father was sent to prison for eight years—convicted of conspiracy, burglary and illegal wiretapping at the Democratic headquarters’ Watergate complex in D.C.—“there was a lawsuit against my father,” he said, “and they made a mistake and put J. Gordon Liddy on the papers, and they wanted to come and get me and bring me to court. But they couldn’t. I was in school.”

Given current happenings, it might add a little irony to know that there was a Russian connection to that competition (though thoroughly devoid of collusion). The U.S. Olympic Festival, which was a grass-roots multi-sport event held in the three years between Summer Olympics from 1978 through 1995, had been modeled directly on a Soviet Union athletic affair called Spartakiade.

Anyway, there was Jim Liddy, who had been an elite swimmer and all-American water polo player at Fordham University. Sports, he said, helped him through the years when his father was in prison “because sports was a release. Because, financially, if you can excel in sports, you knew you could get a college scholarship [which he had], and because I enjoyed it for the character traits.”

He recalled that his father had challenged the family’s three boys to do pushups each night before bed. “He used to do 80 a night,” Jim said, “and one morning I came down and said, ‘I did 110 last night.’ He was pretty disappointed by that.”

Like fellow Americans of a certain age, I watched the televised Watergate hearings through the summer of 1973 and followed the startling news which eventually established that Richard Nixon, contrary to his assertions, in fact was a crook.

Then I was in D.C. on Aug. 8, 1974, just blocks from the White House, when Nixon delivered his nationally televised resignation speech from the Oval Office. I was in the midst of covering negotiations in a National Football League players’ strike, then in its 40th day, holed up with representatives of the owners and players in the basement at the Department of Labor. Federal mediator W.J. Usery, Jr.—who just died this past December—mostly spent his time moving from the owners’ room to the players’ room, rarely able to get them to talk face-to-face. But both sides recessed briefly to watch Nixon’s momentous farewell address.

And the next day, passing through the lobby of the Mayflower Hotel, I watched televisions beam pictures of Nixon boarding his helicopter out of town. With arms thrust defiantly skyward, he flashed his incongruous “V” sign with both hands.

On to the summer of 2006. I was on a tennis assignment in D.C., staying at a hotel in the unincorporated suburb of Rosslyn, Va., just across the Potomac from Watergate, and with a terrific view of the Lincoln Memorial. On a late day walk through Rosslyn in search of a bite to eat, I passed a parking garage where one of those historic markers caught my eye.

WATERGATE INVESTIGATION, it announced, with this detail:

Mark Felt, second in command at the FBI, met Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward here in this parking garage to discuss the Watergate scandal. Felt provided Woodward information that exposed the Nixon Administration’s obstruction of the FBI’s Watergate investigation. He chose this garage as an anonymous secure location. They met at this garage six times between October 1972 and November 1973. The Watergate scandal resulted in Nixon’s resignation in 1974. Woodward’s managing editor, Howard Simons, gave Felt the code name “Deep Throat.” Woodward’s promise not to reveal his source was kept until Felt announced his role as Deep Throat in 2005.”

I have long assumed that Nixon retired the trophy for presidential prevarication and obstruction of justice. I have no conclusive evidence otherwise. But, a year ago, when my wife and I were visiting D.C. during Cherry Blossom time, we passed that garage.

And those Watergate echoes keep hanging around.

Hockey playoffs: Hairy

Among playoff hockey’s manly charms is its barbarism. And, more than that, barber-ism. Herewith, a consideration of the traditional “playoff beard.”

It long ago became ritual that, as the Stanley Cup tournament stretched into May, the rugged souls still playing look increasingly like a bunch of lumberjacks in the wild. That’s competitive success displayed on the players’ faces.

Beard scholars—there is such a thing; they are called pogonologists—theorize several roots for the playoff beard, which has spread (though patchily) to other sports: The solidarity component of teammates—one for all and all for one—going into battle together with a unified look. The notion that players’ full attention is on games and practices, with no time for such trivialities as grooming. The Samson thing, that being hirsute equals supernatural strength. The idea that, as employees doing the indispensable work for their companies, players have the unique privilege of disregarding dress codes.

Also, there is the sports version of an old wives’ tale. New York Islanders Hall of Famer Clark Gillies, sometimes credited with being the Father of the Playoff Beard, figured there is nothing more mysterious about it than being “like every other superstition. You win, you don’t change anything.”

Just as a bonus, he noted, the playoff beard means that “a lot less cuts and bruises show.”

The anecdotal evidence is that Gillies and his Islanders mates of the late 1970s—on the verge of winning four consecutive Stanley Cup titles—initiated the custom of not shaving until either being eliminated from post-season action or hoisting the Cup in triumph.

At the time, a scruffy five- or six-day razor avoidance was not yet in fashion. Men were either clean-shaven or, less often, committed to a Grizzly Adams look. So, while there is a danger in beard overanalysis—revolutionaries and iconoclasts like Trotsky and Che Guevara had beards, but so did Freud, Abe Lincoln and Hemingway—hockey players subscribe to the exhibition of facial hair as a pride in competitive prosperity.

That explains such lampoons as the “Maple Leafs Playoff Beard” meme, a depiction of a player without a hint of whiskers, just to make it clear that the Toronto Maple Leafs were absent from 10 of the past 12 playoff seasons and were dispatched in the first round this year.

Not to split hairs, but there are cases of wildly accomplished hockey stars who have succeeded in winning championships without a corresponding abundance in the beard department.

For reasons of youth or, with such fellows as Pittsburgh’s two-time Cup champion Sidney Crosby, there are examples of what 12-year NHL veteran Brad Boyes once described this way:

“A couple of guys, for whatever reason—well, you know when your uncle says, ‘You eat this and it’ll put hair on your chest.’ I guess they didn’t eat those things.” Boyes, by the way, acknowledged that his playoff beards were “just OK,” and barely cultivated in three brief trips to the post season.

Anyway, a personal P.S.: When I had a beard, which was entirely unrelated to the hockey playoffs, I nevertheless razored it away minutes after the Islanders won the 1980 Stanley Cup. Because, while watching the Cup’s final game on television, I was feeding my infant daughter her bottle of milk, and she somehow developed a reflex of reaching up and grasping my whiskers. And pulling. When her meal was finished, so was my beard.

Rhyme time?

Poetry Month is circling the drain, almost gone, so I figured I ought to get busy. My stock in trade is sportswriting—pretty low-brow stuff compared to most composition, especially poetry—but who doesn’t aspire to something loftier, to be more than just one of those who only knows prose?

A motivation was the recent essay by Garrison Keillor, the grand humorist who created radio’s delightful Prairie Home Companion. Though “we all suffered under English teachers who forced us to pretend to be sensitive and sigh with appreciation” over poetic metaphors and similes, Keillor wrote, and though “many police departments now use Walt Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’ instead of pepper spray,” he offered encouragement.

“You can do it,” he coaxed. Write poetry.

So I Googled “how to write a poem” and came across some tips (have a goal, avoid sentimentality, use images, rhyme with extreme caution) and stumbled onto some examples from the only poet I recall ever really understanding, sly Ogden Nash, whose piece entitled “Fleas” goes:

    Adam

    Had’m.

I can’t do that. But I was heartened by the knowledge that Nash was a baseball fan. In 1949, he published a poem in Sport Magazine that paid tribute to the sport’s great players in alphabetical order, from A to Z, including these nifty lines:

    C is for Cobb, Who grew spikes and not corn. And made all the basemen Wish they weren’t born.

    D is for Dean, The grammatical Diz. When they asked, Who’s the tops? Said correctly, I is.

    E is for Evers, His jaw in advance; Never afraid To Tinker with Chance.

    F is for Fordham. And Frankie and Frisch; I wish he were back With the Giants, I wish.

The Garrison Keillor piece suggested attempting a poem “for someone you dearly love,” but that seems risky for an amateur. I wouldn’t want to scare her off after all these years. Better, too, I decided, to avoid puppies, grandparents, young lovers and other clichés. Rather, just start by attempting verse mixed with familiar sport. Maybe with a nod to Joe Hardy on an old theme:

    There once was a team from the Bronx

    Known for its homers, big bonks.

    Its demise a temptation

    That was shared ‘round the nation,

    But a Faustian bargain? No thonx.

Or perhaps something fit for playoff time in winter sports leagues:

    A little haiku

    To describe hockey action.

    Skate, shove, punch, punch, punch.

Or an observation about an old basketball star’s new job:

    Patrick Ewing

    For years was stewing

    Yearning to be a coach.

    His old school has hired him

    (Eventually to fire him)

    That’s generally the sports approach.

Call this one “ESPN:”

    Turned on the TV,

    Sat in the lounger,

    Heard all the quacking, pre-game.

    What about real insight?

    Beyond the sound bites,

    Why’s commentary sound so lame?

     —

    The heads are talking,

    Loud’n caffeinated.

    Time to grab the ol’ remote.

    Only a din glutton

    Eschews the mute button.

    It’s for the players to showboat.

Well, I tried. Good enough for pepper spray, at least?

    I’ve showed so little poetic muscle

    The highest compliment I could get

    Would be backhanded.

    “Way to hustle.”

Next April, maybe.

 

NHL’s Olympic disappearing act

By banning their players from next year’s Winter Olympics in South Korea, NHL owners basically are going to spite their noses right off of their faces. They will not participate on international sport’s biggest stage, bypassing the added bonus of furthering the league’s desire to spread the NHL gospel to Asia, because—commissioner Gary Bettman somehow reasoned—the Olympics will cause the NHL to “disappear” for more than two weeks.

In fact, the Olympics has been a boon to NHL visibility since the league first signed onto the Winter Games 19 years ago, even in the face of shameful conduct by U.S. players at the 1998 Nagano Olympics. (More on that in a minute.)

The 2010 Olympic gold-medal final was the most-watched hockey game in North American television history—the NHL’s primary turf—seen by 27.6 million Americans and 22 million Canadians. Compare that to the measly 7.9 million who tuned in for Game Seven of the previous season’s Stanley Cup final on U.S. TV, or even the all-time largest Stanley Cup single-game TV audience of 13-plus million in 1972.

Prior to the 2010 Games, the highest rated hockey game featuring NHL players also was at the Olympics, in the 2002 gold-medal final. Donnie Kwak, writing for The Ringer web site, sensibly argued last week that “even the worst Olympic hockey game is more compelling than a regular-season NHL matchup in February.”

Especially, I contend, because the skating and puck-handling skills of he NHL’s best are magnified by Olympic rules that do not tolerate the NHL’s counterproductive acceptance of fighting. No other major professional sport puts up with—in fact, markets—such side-shows.

Yet Bettman brings an odd logic to that as well, accepting fighting as a pre-existing condition in his league. “It’s been there from the start,” he has said, “and what is done at other levels isn’t necessarily what’s appropriate at the professional level.”

Bettman has concluded that fighting “is part of the game” because NHL hockey is “intense and emotional.” A similarly timid reluctance to enforce good behavior is what gave the NHL a figurative black eye in its 1998 Olympic debut, when some (still unidentified) members of the U.S. team destroyed $3,000 worth of property in their rooms at the Nagano Games athletes’ village, then made matters worse by dismissing the incident as “blown out of proportion.”

Supposedly there were only three troublemakers who caused that damage, spitting in the face of overwhelming Japanese courtesy to the world’s visiting athletes, yet all 23 members of the team banded together to steadfastly refuse cooperation in the U.S. Olympic Committee’s subsequent investigation. The excuse was “team solidarity”—not ratting on the perpetrators of embarrassment to them and the entire U.S. Olympic delegation.

Not until a month later, under pressure from the U.S. Hockey Federation and the NHL Players Association, did the 1988 U.S. team captain, Chris Chelios, at last write a letter of apology to the Japanese people and the Olympic organizers, with a check of $3,000 included.

Somehow, Chelios and 13 of the disgraced Nagano veterans were allowed to represent the United States again at the 2002 Winter Games, possibly because a repeat of the Yanks’ roguish actions wouldn’t cause a similar international incident for Salt Lake City’s hosts. “We kept [the 1998 culprits] to ourselves for a reason,” Chelios claimed, without giving a reason. “People who needed to know what happened, they knew what happened.” He included Bettman among those people.

So the NHL establishment simply moved on with a boys-will-be-boys shrug, just as Bettman and league owners justify occasional, though persistent, goonery on the ice. But if a tradition of fisticuffs is OK in NHL games, what’s the common-sense argument by Bettman and the league owners that player injury is a major reason for skipping the 2018 Olympics?

With NHL rosters becoming more and more geographically diversified—more than one quarter of active NHL players come from outside North America—there is overwhelming sentiment among players to participate in the South Korea Games. Russians, Finns, Swedes, Czechs not only like the idea of wearing their national colors but also understand that their past presence in the Olympics has cultivated new fans for the NHL.

Even the American players, unlike those few ingrates in Nagano, have come to appreciate that the global exposure and competitive buzz of the Olympics far outpace the mucking in the corners of NHL rinks in mid-February. Without them in South Korea, the TV-ratings winners will be figure skating and snowboarding. And the NHL indeed will disappear for a couple of weeks.

 

Another Raiders’ road trip

Time to trot out the old Gertrude Stein quote that in Oakland, “there’s no there there.” With news that the NFL Raiders will be running off to Las Vegas comes the sense of a lost place. And, just to further disorient football fans and civic leaders, the team crassly intends to squat at the Oakland Coliseum for at least two more seasons while its palatial new playground is being built in Sin City.

“Home” games are looking like there might be no “here” there. Plenty of Raiders’ fans, often described as among the league’s most passionate and loyal, essentially are reacting to the Raiders’ good-bye by offering to make them sandwiches. You know: Here’s your hat; what’s your hurry?

That includes Scott McKibben, the man who heads the authority that controls the Oakland Coliseum. McKibben told USA Today that it is “actually financially to our benefit” if the Raiders don’t exercise their option to honor their lease through 2018—a clear suggestion that the Raiders pack up and leave immediately. The Coliseum generates $7 million a year from the team but spends $8 million.

There doesn’t appear to be a real danger that the Raiders will wind up like the imaginary Port Ruppert Mundys in Philip Roth’s “Great American Novel”—a baseball team in the World War II era forced to play its entire schedule on the road because its stadium was used as a soldier’s embarkation point.

But this promises to be a mighty awkward divorce. And not so different from the last time the Raiders said “See you, suckers” to Oakland citizens. That was in 1982, when the Raiders’ founder and original owner, Al Davis—father to current majority owner Mark, who inherited Al’s tendency toward itchy feet—went looking for greener grass in Los Angeles.

The weird logistics that year included having the Raiders continue to live and train in Oakland—practicing all week within view of the Oakland Coliseum—then flying the 365 miles to L.A. for Sunday “home” games. It was a bit like having the New York Jets play home games in Pittsburgh, or the New England Patriots play home games in Buffalo.

Players reported sometimes crossing paths with Oakland residents who marveled, “I didn’t know y’all were still around here.” The local newspaper, which had recorded the Raiders’ every move for the previous 22 seasons, quit covering the team. The Raiders’ fan club disbanded, though some members went on insisting, according to that season’s Raiders’ running back Kenny King, “You’re not the L.A. Raiders. You’re the Oakland Raiders.”

King’s response: “If they want to call us that, fine. I’m a Raider. A Whatever Raider.”

So, here we are again. The Whatever Raiders, expecting to play at least one more season 500 miles from their future digs, are somehow expecting Oakland folks to go on supporting them. Mark Davis, having lived up to his father’s allegiance to the team’s pirate logo by attempting to plunder taxpayers for a better stadium deal, nevertheless went on local radio and claimed, “I still have a feeling for the fans in the Bay Area. And I’ve met with a number of them. And anything I say to them isn’t going to soothe them, and it makes this whole thing bittersweet.”

Not that such emotions stopped him from merrily abandoning those fans, the same way the original Raiders left Oakland for Los Angeles in 1982, then walked out 13 years later on the spectator following they had built in L.A. to return to Oakland.

And now Davis has insisted that the Raiders will carry the “Oakland” name until settling in Vegas in 2019 or 2020.

But why should Bay Area citizens still contribute to Davis’ bank account with the Oakland Coliseum again becoming the Park of the Lost Raiders? With speculation that the team might seek a temporary home at the San Francisco 49ers’ stadium in Santa Clara—or even in San Antonio, Tex.—before its Vegas stadium is available, why should any fans buy into a one-way, short-term relationship?

Davis insisted that he really wanted to stay in Oakland, but had no choice.

Whatever, Raiders.