The Old Perfessor

I'm a professor of journalism at Wingate University near Charlotte, N.C. I've also written about sports for newspapers and other publications for more than 30 years. This blog's about journalism, sports and whatever else I find interesting on any given Sunday or other day, for that matter.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

I've moved!

This post is for the benefit of people who watch this blog but aren't following me on Facebook. This will be the last post at this address, because I've moved the blog to Wordpress.

New address is Take a look at the new site and give me a "like" on Facebook -- you'll still need to search for me at "" on Facebook.

I look forward to seeing you on the new site.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

An old-school baseball man

I was talking on Facebook with a friend of mine the other day about -- among other things -- Casey Stengel, the legendary New York Yankees manager and the first skipper of the New York Mets. (And the man whose nickname is the title for this blog, by the way.)

I've always found him to be a fascinating character, a man who's unfortunately best known to the general public for his way of mangling the English language. "Most people my age are dead at the present time," he said after being hired at age 72 to manage the Mets on their entry into the National League in 1962.

And he was also a media favorite for having a playful personality which often hid a subtle and strategic mind. As a player with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1919, he quieted a hostile Brooklyn crowd when he tipped his cap as he came to the plate and a sparrow he had tucked beneath the headgear flew out.

But even even with the likes of Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford in the lineup, you don't manage a team to five straight World Series championships (1949-1953) on charm alone. He could also be sarcastic and distant, according to his players.

A lot has been written about him, but the best biography I've found is Stengel: His Life and Times (1984), by former Sports Illustrated staff writer and editor Robert Creamer. I'm glad to see it's recently been put back in print by the University of Nebraska Press, which has an intriguing line of books about sports.

But I'm digressing already. I'm not a New York Yankees fan by any means, but I couldn't help thinking that it's been a sad time recently for their supporters, with the passing of long-time public address announcer Bob Sheppard on July 11 and team owner George Steinbrenner two days later.

And on Wednesday it was announced that Ralph Houk, a man who was sort of a bridge from the Stengel to the Steinbrenner eras, had died at the age of 90.

Houk, a Silver Star medal winner as a World War II veteran, played for Stengel as a backup catcher to Berra in the late Forties and early Fifties. He succeeded Stengel as Yankees manager and led the pinstripers to three American League pennants before becoming the team's general manager after the 1963 season.

He later came back for a much less successful stint at Yankees manager, quitting --- not coincidentally -- at the end of the 1973 season after the first year of Steinbrenner's ownership. He was the first in a long line of managers to bristle under The Boss' interference in the on-field operation of the team.

As a manager, Houk was the Bobby Cox of his era, known for sticking up for his players and earning many colorful ejections from games. As a front-office executive he was one of the last of the old-school hardline baseball men, before free agency and the swing of the balance of power overwhelmingly to the players.

(A couple of other reading recommendations: Jim Bouton's tell-all book, Ball Four in which the former Yankee pitcher tells a hilarious tale of what it was like to negotiate with Houk for a raise, and David Halberstam's portrait of the man in October 1964, a really good book about baseball in an era of social change.)

Houk later became one of the few managers in major league baseball history to lead both the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox (1981-1984) -- which thanks to the excessive hype given that series by modern-day media would be a much bigger deal now than it was then.

He helped develop the players that won the 1986 American League championship for the BoSox and then had a hand in building the Minnesota Twins' 1987 championship team as a vice president for that team in his last major league assignment.

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Saturday, July 17, 2010

Notes from a "friendly"

It's always interesting to me when cultures meet.

Soccer has always seemed to me to be an especially good setting for that. So, having had the experience of living and working in England for 3-1/2 months a couple of years ago, I particularly enjoyed covering the "friendly" between the local minor league team, the Charlotte Eagles, and the Bolton Wanderers of the English Premier League this week.

It was actually the first time I'd ever seen a Premier League team in person. During our time in London, we lived an easy ride on the Underground from Arsenal's then-new Emirates Stadium, and it was no big deal to get to other teams' venues, either. But tickets were more expensive than to NFL games here, and my U.S. media connections didn't carry enough weight to get me a seat in a press box.

Anyway, the match itself on Wednesday at UNC-Charlotte's TransAmerica Field, was fun. The Wanderers took a deceptively easy-looking 3-0 victory over their American hosts in the first of three matches they'll play in North America before they go home next week. Actually, the score was 1-0 most of the way.

The Eagles, showing some early match jitters, gave up a goal in the eighth minute. But then they settled down and gave the visitors as good a match as they'll get on some days in their EPL schedule, which starts on Aug. 14 against Fulham.

Here's a photo of the match action, taken by my friend Gerry Nelson Wall. The Eagles player is midfielder Darren Toby, not sure who the Bolton player is.

But the most educational part of that experience came the day before, when I spent a couple of hours at TransAmerica Field watching the Wanderers' training session (that's soccer talk for "practice.") I had an opportunity to talk with some of Bolton's staff members and get a feel for what it's like to field a team in the best pro soccer league in the world.

Bottom line -- for teams like Bolton, located in the Manchester area, it's not easy.

I must digress here for a couple of paragraphs about a soccer-related topic that's been bothering me. I wrote just a couple of weeks ago about American antipathy toward soccer and since then I've noticed another sort of right-leaning critique of the sport. (As I've noted before, I try to be non-partisan and apolitical in this blog, but I couldn't let this pass without comment.)

Apparently, soccer is socialistic -- I suppose the argument runs that good Americans shouldn't like it, so it must be Marxist or socialist. Click here and here for a couple of examples of this. I think it's nonsense, but make up your own mind.

Some of these arguments are ridiculous on any level, as doesn't any team sport sometimes ask players to make boosting their own statistics secondary to the greater good of a group? I think it's called "teamwork". (Is LeBron James a socialist because he's probably going to score fewer points with his new team in exchange for what he sees as a better chance to win an NBA championship? )

And doesn't every sport have rules to create a "level playing field"? -- both ice hockey and American football, like soccer, are "onsides" games, but I doubt anyone would call them socialist.

And certainly any realistic look at the economics of "football," especially the Premier League brand, exposes this narrative as, like my English friends would say, rubbish.

The Premier League, like most European leagues, is capitalistic in a way that would make even Major League Baseball owners blush with embarrassment. No salary cap, no revenue sharing, exorbitant "transfer fees" to move players around. You have to go back 15 years to find an EPL champion which was not Chelsea, Arsenal or Manchester United -- by no coincidence the three most wealthy teams in the league.

All of which leaves the Boltons of the league with their own set of problems. The Wanderers finished 14th in the 20-team league last year and avoided relegation, the fate of the EPL's bottom three teams each year.

(I suppose if there's a truly "un-American" aspect to soccer it's this one -- the bottom teams in many European leagues are demoted to a lower classification for the next season of play, to be replaced by the top teams from the lower classification. It wouldn't work for fans here -- the Pittsburgh Pirates and Kansas City Royals might become permanent residents of Triple A.)

And relegation apparently results in financial disaster, making it that much tougher to bounce back up. Again, using the baseball analogy, instead of selling tickets to games against the Atlanta Braves or New York Yankees, you have Gwinnett and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre coming to town. Big difference.

It's tough enough at the highest level for Bolton, trying to fill 29,000-seat Reebok Stadium in an area with about half a dozen EPL teams in a 50-mile radius.

I had heard from several knowledgeable people before going to London that media coverage of football in England was so intense that the team PR person's role was more that of a protector than as a facilitator. I got a little taste of that during my interviews with Wanderers manager Owen Coyle and player Ricardo Gardner. While Bolton's media relations guys were as nice as they could be, it was clear that they didn't want the questioning to drag on any longer than necessary, so you had to get what you needed quickly.

Now I've been in PR before, so I've had the experience of being interviewed as well as my more accustomed role of being the interviewer. But I was surprised to end up as an "expert source" for the Bolton media, including a newspaper reporter traveling with the team.

Click here for my turn at English media stardom, as I gave the folks back home some background on the Eagles. Cheers!

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Friday, July 09, 2010

The LBJ Show

(NOTE: A random thought before my take on the biggest story in American sports this week. The fact that "LBJ" now is regularly used as shorthand for NBA star LeBron James has given me a little pause in recent months, as I grew up thinking those were the initials of the 36th President of the United States. I had the same frame of reference problem a few years back when I found out that most youngsters these days know "Fergie" as a Black-Eyed Pea rather than the former Duchess of York of the British royal family.)

As I've noted in this blog before, I'm not much of a follower of professional basketball, so I haven't been waiting anxiously for weeks to find out which team was going to get the services of free agent forward LeBron James, late of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

But I have to admit it will be interesting even to the casual fan to see if his acquisition makes the Miami Heat the 2010s equivalent of the Los Angeles Lakers of the late Sixties and early Seventies. They created a similar high-powered "Dream Team" lineup when Wilt Chamberlain joined fellow future Hall of Famers Jerry West and Elgin Baylor via trade from Philadelphia in 1968.

James and guard Dwyane Wade seem ticketed for the Hall of Fame already and the Heat's other high-profile free-agent acquisition, center Chris Bosh, could have that potential. And the pundits are already speculating on the number of championships that Miami will win in the next five years.

But I've been much more interested in the event that the James signing became. Would he stay in Cleveland? Would it be New York? Chicago? It pretty much became a TV series, culminating in ESPN's unprecedented one-hour special built around James' announcement of his decision on Thursday. It all seemed so excessive, for something that could have been handled with a news conference or even a tweet. Even serious NBA fans I know were getting an overdose of this hype.

The show was a ratings draw, viewed by 7.3% of American homes, a very robust number for the current TV universe. But it got bad reviews, mostly for letting the telecast go on for nearly 30 munutes before James actually announced his decision. He did so in an interview with Jim Gray, a respected journalist perhaps best known for his on-air grilling of baseball star Pete Rose about gambling.

And journalism ethicists had a field day. The show was actually the brainchild of Gray, who pitched it to ESPN and James' management team, which was consulted about possible questions that would be asked. ESPN turned ad sales for the show over to James' team, which said they would donate revenue to the Boys' and Girls' Clubs of America, a favorite charity of James.

It's not the first time the World Wide Leader has entered into a questionable business relationship with someone it covered on the news side. In 2006, ESPN aired several episodes of "Bonds on Bonds," a reality show that followed Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants. It was highly criticized as being a PR vehicle for the embattled slugger, who was facing legal problems related to allegations of steroid use as he closed in on the all-time home run record. The show was cancelled before the end of its scheduled 10-episode run due to creative control issues with its temperamental star -- who saw that coming?

Finally, I've been fascinated by the reaction to LeBron's leaving his home state of Ohio, where he took the Cavaliers to one NBA final and brought the franchise back to respectability -- but not to a championship. The Cleveland Plain Dealer's front page today summarizes the local mood pretty well. But I think it's an overreaction to brand him a traitor in the fashion of Art Modell, the owner of the original Cleveland Browns who spirited the team away to Baltimore in 1996.

It's as if people are shocked -- shocked! -- to find out suddenly that professional basketball is a business. Just like television.

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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Americans vs. soccer

It happens every four years.

No, not the World Cup. I’m talking about all those snarky columns that inevitably follow the U.S. team’s exit from the World Cup. You know, the ones that gleefully celebrate the proposition that soccer will never catch on in the United States and we can now just go back to ignoring this strange game.

Click here and here for some examples.

I’m a soccer fan, but I’m beginning to think that I should just concede that point and move on. It just bothers me that “the beautiful game, ” a sport celebrated by millions around the world is not just greeted with apathy by most Americans, but with downright hostility in some quarters. We’re probably the only nation of the 32 who started the World Cup whose team didn’t have the support of the great majority of its sports fans.

The typical American attitude about soccer seems to be, “I don’t know anything about soccer, but I don’t like it and you can’t make me.”

I’ve seen some of the arguments for years:

– it’s played by all those foreigners, and even the Americans who play it have names like Carlos Bocanegra and Oguchi Onyewu (who by the way is as much a Clemson Tiger as any former student from Summerville, York or Orangeburg).

--Every soccer score seems to be 1-0. Well, part of the beauty of soccer is watching how hard teams have to work to get a chance to score. It wasn’t meant to be easy. If you really want to criticize a sport for scoring futility, look at the NBA teams who can’t break 80 points in 48 minutes of basketball with a 24-second clock – see the Boston Celtics in the last two games of the championship series.

But I’ve become convinced now that most of Americans’ reluctance to embrace soccer has nothing to do with how boring the game seems. It’s cultural.

Our team’s losing to a small African nation in the round of 16 last weekend didn’t help. “We’re the richest, most powerful nation in the world and we lost to – Ghana? Where’s that?” Americans shouldn’t lose to countries people have never heard of.

And in Internet discussions of this topic, I’ve even seen the doctrine of American exceptionalism invoked against our full participation in the world’s soccer community.

There are too many people out there that want to make America more like Europe, goes that argument – which we also heard in the health care debate, as I recall. And that goes for sports, too. It’s actually a good thing that we’re one of the few major nations where soccer isn’t followed by nearly all of its sports fans. Who needs the rest of the world?

But mostly I think it’s because soccer has never become part of the fabric of sports culture in this country. For years, soccer boosters said that when all these kids who play soccer on the weekends grow up, it was going to make soccer a huge spectator sport in the U.S. Then, the 1994 World Cup which we hosted, followed by the launch of Major League Soccer, was going to be the breakthrough.

But something else has always been lacking and I think that a high school soccer coach whose team I covered as a sports writer in Pensacola, Fla., in the early Nineties put his foot squarely on it. His contention was that soccer was missing what’s been called the water cooler effect.

In other words, people talk about the key plays in yesterday’s big NFL or college football game on the morning after -- and now even before. Same with college or even NBA basketball. Even baseball has generated that kind of post-game buzz this season with the Stephen Strasburg debut, the two perfect games and Armando Gallaraga’s near miss that should have been.

“Those kinds of conversations don’t take place about soccer. Like did you see that great goal, or what about that controversial call,” he said. “In this country there’s not much attention paid to soccer unless there’s a riot at a match in Belgium or something. And it’s not going to be big unless it does start generating the conversations about what happened.”

Twenty years later, soccer is still struggling to have Americans talk about it for the right reasons. Unfortunately, what’s gotten a lot of attention in this World Cup are things like the egregiously bad officiating in some of the matches and the spectacle of players who fall as if they’ve been pole-axed if an opponent gives them a slight nudge.

Too bad, because many Americans look for the slightest excuse not to care about the game. And this sport. which can be very engaging in its complexity if you know what to look for, doesn’t need to go out of its way to help that along.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Farewell to two legends

When former UCLA men's basketball coach John Wooden died last week I read a tribute which contrasted him to some of today's coaching icons.

The writer contrasted Wooden's integrity and dedication to the teaching aspect of coaching to the type of headlines that are made these days by the likes of John Calipari (academic and recruiting scandals), Rick Pitino (allegations of an extramarital affair) and Lane Kiffin (self-aggrandizing statements unsupported by any record of accomplishment).

I couldn't help but think about this as, along with hundreds of others, I paid my respects to two Wingate University coaching legends who -- despite living long, full lives -- still left us way too soon.

Ron Christopher
, 74, and Johnny Jacumin, 71, died within five days of each other last week, and I think the two men would have been pleased that their funerals and surrounding events gave members of the Wingate community -- both town and university -- and alumni of the school an opportunity to get together and share happy memories.

Both were remembered as men who practiced the coaching art the right way and for whom the term "student-athlete" wasn't just something the NCAA makes you say.

Christopher, who passed away on June 13, was the baseball coach at Wingate for 22 seasons (1963-1972 and 1980-1993). The coach held a doctorate and his two coaching tenures were separated by a "retirement" in which he focused on his classroom work teaching history. His career spanned Wingate's transition from a junior college to a four-year school.

As Dr. Derrill Smith, pastor of Wingate Baptist Church, noted in his remarks at Ron's service, the coach was a winner with an enviable record (543-343-3). "He won more baseball games than most people see in a lifetime," Smith said.

Under the Lincolnton native's direction, the Bulldogs played in the national junior college tournament three times, spending much of the 1965 season as the nation's No. 1 ranked team. His teams in the four-year college years won four conference championships.

Twenty-five of his players signed professional contracts and one, pitcher Alvin Morman, reached the major leagues for a few seasons in the Nineties. Another of his former players, Mike Martin, has become well-known in college baseball as the long-time coach at Florida State. He called both before and after his team's NCAA super-regional game on the Sunday that Ron died.

And for those of you who aren't familiar with Wingate. the baseball stadium is named for Ron, which should give you some idea of his stature in Bulldog athletic history.

But his former players -- and there were many, some with gray hair and a few with none -- at the funeral last Wednesday remembered him more for being a man who treated them well, helped them survive college and showed them how to live.

One recounted a conversation in which Ron told him that his priorities needed to be "God, family and Wingate baseball in that order" -- with the player quickly adding that academics were grouped in there with baseball, no doubt. Others talked of the coach's open door policy at his home, where you could often find players just hanging out and watching TV -- and eating the spaghetti that his wife Beverly, an English professor at Wingate, was famous for.

Following the service I enjoyed looking through some albums of photos and news clippings in the church fellowship hall -- a cool-looking guy in a snazzy Fifties-vintage sports car, two beaming newlyweds, other pictures of a growing family and a coaching career. A life well-lived.

And just a few days later, many of the same people were at another area funeral home, remembering Coach Jacumin, whose teams won almost 600 games in his 27 seasons leading the Wingate women's basketball program. He passed away on Thursday, a few days after suffering a stroke.

Like Christopher, he was pretty much synonymous with his sport at Wingate, winning more games and coaching more seasons than any other women's basketball coach in South Atlantic Conference history. His teams advanced to the NAIA Final Four in 1988 and made back-to-back trips to the NCAA Division II Elite Eight in 1995 and 1996.

But as in Ron's case, it was the man that people remembered last Sunday night at the funeral home. I met a couple of my former students, who knew Johnny from his other role in public life -- as a member of the Wingate Town Commissioners for 12 years.

They both covered the commissioners meetings as student journalists and stringers for the Union bureau of The Charlotte Observer. I also had limited interaction with him as a reporter and I agreed with their assessment -- he never ducked a question and always had something quotable to say, although he might take you to task later for actually putting it in the paper.

A slide show playing in the funeral home's chapel during the visitation showed a colorful life in pictures. A crew-cut young schoolboy -- the hair didn't show up much in pictures taken after he reached young adulthood, a husband and father, and lots of basketball shots. Most Bulldog fans will remember him in his trademark blue sweater vest, sometimes holding a rolled-up stat sheet or program. And another familiar pose that struck fear into the hearts of referees, players or whoever the target was -- leaning back in his chair and looking stern, arms folded.

For anyone who knew Johnny in any of those roles, it brought back memories.

He retired at the end of the 2006-07 season, but it was a retirement in name only. At the beginning of the next basketball season he was coaching again -- back in high school at nearby Marshville Forest Hills, filling in for a season after the school had an unexpected opening for girls' basketball coach. And he continued his public service as a sometimes irascible voice of reason and fiscal responsiblilty on the Wingate Town Commissioners.

And he remained interested in Wingate athletics, attending many Bulldog athletic events along with his wife, Cookie.

I didn't get to attend his funeral service due to a conflict with my summer school class. But I joined a former student of mine who was also a former player of his, and some of her teammates for lunch afterwards. I probably seemed like an odd addition to that bunch, but it was fun listening to these young women -- mostly in their late 20s -- swap stories, many of which included their former coach,

And as I looked around that table I saw an assistant women's basketball coach at a Division I school (my former student), two high school girls' head coaches, and -- in support of that NCAA commercial that insists that "most of us will go pro in something other than sports" -- a mining technician for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The words "living legacy" just seemed to fit.

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Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Strasburg effect

If only he hadn’t been quite so good, I might be watching Stephen Strasburg pitch in person tomorrow.

Strasburg, of course, is the hard-throwing rookie pitcher for the Washington Nationals, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 Major League Baseball amateur draft. I’ve been tracking his progress through Washington’s minor league system this season, in the hope that he would still be on the roster of the Nationals’ Triple A affiliate in Syracuse, N.Y., when they came to play the Charlotte Knights.

The Chiefs start a four-game series at Knights Stadium tonight, and if he were still with the team, Strasburg would have been scheduled to start Sunday afternoon, according to the Knights PR staff’s monitoring of the Syracuse rotation. (And it would have guaranteed the Knights their largest non-July 4 Sunday crowd in history, unless I miss my guess.)

Instead, the 21-year-old right-hander out of San Diego State will be making his second major-league start for the Nationals against the Cleveland Indians. His first, on Tuesday against the Pittsburgh Pirates, was called the most hyped pitching debut in the history of the game – you know it’s big when ESPN has a countdown clock to the first pitch.

And the kid lived up to the buildup.

Strasburg struck out 14 batters – one short of the major league record for a pitcher in his major league debut -- and gave up only two runs in seven innings as the Nationals beat Pittsburgh, 4-3. He didn’t walk anybody and at one point, news reports said, his fastball was clocked at 100 mph. But in addition to the “heat,” he also threw deceptively effective off-speed pitches.

In short – the whole package, as they say. (It’s also worth noting that the rookie strikeout record of 15 took nine innings for each of the two pitchers that hold it – Karl Spooner in 1954 and J.R. Richard in 1971 -- to accomplish. If he had pitched a complete game , Strasburg would almost certainly have broken that record.)

So is he the real deal and can he keep pitching at that level in the big leagues? After all, skeptics say, his debut was against the hapless -- and, oh, how it pains me to say that! -- Pirates and fueled by the adrenaline of the big event. Strasburg is easing into his big league career – his first four scheduled turns are all against teams that have sub-.500 records right now.

But the career of young pitchers can be fragile. As proof, I couldn’t help notice the names of the two pitchers whose first-game strikeout record Strasburg threatened.

Spooner, who was 23 when he made his debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers against the eventual World Series champion New York Giants on Sept. 22, 1954, followed that with a shutout of the Pirates. He struck out 12 in that one. “Spooner should have come up sooner,” was a popular saying of the time among Brooklyn fans.

He came back from knee surgery that fall to have a pretty decent 1955 season (8-6, 3.65 ERA) as a starter and a reliever for the National League champion Dodgers. But he developed a sore arm and never pitched again in the major leagues after losing his only start against the New York Yankees in the World Series.

Richard is an even sadder story, even though he had a 10-year major league career and won more than 100 games with the Houston Astros. He was having his best big league season in 1980 – he was the starting pitcher for the National League in the 1980 All-Star Game and had a 10-4 record – when he started to complain of numbness in his arm in July.

Medical tests revealed some arterial blockage in his right shoulder but doctors decided it wasn’t serious enough to warrant treatment. But on July 30, 1980, he suffered a stroke during a pre-game throwing drill and had surgery to remove a blood clot. It was effectively the end of his baseball career. Minor league comeback attempts with the Astros in 1982 and 1983 were unsuccessful and the team released him.

Strasburg, by all accounts, is a level-headed sort, the anti-Ben Roethlisberger. (He married his college sweetheart back in January.) He seems to be poised to have a long and successful career and I hope his story has a happier ending.

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