Baseball’s latest controversy surrounding performance enhancing drugs and most notably Alex Rodriguez has been discussed and debated beyond exhaustion, so here’s my two cents’ worth. I have touched on this topic before – on how steroids are just another example of the way the game of baseball has changed and it’s a way players are keeping up with the competition and outrageous contracts. Today, as I listen to the discussions and after my own discussion with my dad (a former professional baseball player for the Orioles), I realized that this steroid drama is something baseball has brought on itself.
Turn on a baseball game and you’re not just getting two teams battling for nine innings; you’re getting entertainment as well. Nine actors stand on the field, their stage, and they put on a show that not one audience member can predict the ending. And now this steroid saga presents another storyline that no one knows how it will end. The ending may not matter as much as understanding how it all began. Today, seven or eight-figure contracts are not rare to come by. Each day players get out on the field they an enhance those dollars or potentially jeopardize their salary depending on how they perform or if they’re injured. Contracts, entertainment factors, notoriety, the spotlight, endorsements have all upped the ante of baseball. Players aren’t just playing ball – they are their own brand and they represent another brand, their team. And once a player, like A-Rod gets a taste of greatness and achieves his potential, the thought of that going away is unfathomable. Even fading away into the Hall of Fame isn’t enough. Enter steroids. Steroids are a reaction, a solution to a beast baseball created. If the stakes weren’t so high, I’d have to think that steroids would never have become part of the script. But now PED’s are one of the leading characters and it is up to baseball to kill-off its antagonists.
Cubs Convention 2013, James Russell:
SoxFest 2013, Matt Thorton:
I’ve decided to hop on the LeBron James express,
Your dunks, layups, passes, never cease to impress.
For you it’s been a bumpy ride,
Teams, players, coaches, media didn’t always abide.
Three years ago, you made up your mind,
On the hour of your decision, everything seemed to align.
From Cleveland to Miami you had your hopes set high,
Not one, not two, not three… kiss those championship-less days goodbye.
That show you put on rubbed some people the wrong way,
Cavalier fans setting fire to your jersey like a burned steak filet.
The first year in Miami was a little rough,
It was hard to ignore the hype and the media fluff.
One year went by and still no ring on your finger,
You wouldn’t give up, your fans holding on to hope like a stage-five clinger.
One year later and everything turned out fine,
A championship in Miami, “It was about damn time.”
On top of the ring you were crowned MVP,
But it doesn’t stop there, you’re on a mission, clearly.
And now here you stand, averaging a record thirty points in your sixth straight game,
King James sounding like a very appropriate nickname.
No drugs, no steroids, no deer antler spray,
Just straight up talent and hard work on display.
It’s one way the king sets himself apart from the rest,
He’s willing to look within and do whatever it takes to be the best.
James has records, a ring, and he’s a scoring machine,
And he does it all clean, no Oprah two-episode apology special can be forseen.
We see you trying to knock on the door of NBA legends.
But one basketball great still makes you a close second.
We can’t forget about this guy named Michael Jordan; he really knew how to play,
The nation celebrates his legacy since he’s celebrating his birthday.
Fans oohed and aahed, every game he made it rain,
I’ll never forget the movie Space Jam and all those Nike campaigns.
King James as you know you still have some work to do,
Eyes on the prize, one step at a time, it’s time to capture ring number two.
Your time may come when you have the ultimate reign,
But for right now I’m riding first class on the MJ, not LJ, train.
Baseball Hall of Fame Results are to be released today and of course, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are hotly contested: two of the greatest players of all time, two names that have been tainted because of alleged steroid use. Integrity is often a word tossed around when deciding if a player should be voted into the Hall of Fame. Perhaps it’s that toxic aura that now follows these former greats that current and future Hall of Famers don’t want to be infected with. But in today’s baseball era should names be tarnished as players try to keep up with a game that has changed and continues to evolve?
The bar has been raised. Baseball greats like Babe Ruth and Nolan Ryan had to get jobs in the off-season to support themselves. In today’s game, a high five or an ol’ smack on the behind doesn’t cut it. There’s an economic incentive to be great. In 1973, the Major League minimum salary was $15,000. Today: $480,000. Monstrous paychecks dictate how hard a player should work, how big they should be and how fast they should run. Can’t keep up and there’s another arm, set of legs, heck, maybe even the Hulk, waiting to play. Players have always looked for an edge in any sport. Whether it was amphetamines or steroids. Steroid use certainly adds to the unfairness of the game, but to keep up with the competition some players feel they may have to resort to using it so they don’t lose their spot on the roster. It takes away from the pureness of America’s past time, but performance-enhancing drugs are changing the game, analogous to the way the Internet and social media have changed the way we report news. I’m certainly not condoning steroid use (if you’re dirty, you’re dirty) but in the future we may be witness to pharmaceutical engineers that produce new drugs and figure out ways to outsmart the game. The drugs won’t just disappear. So will we ever really know the whole truth of what’s going on? Probably not. And how long can the unknown possibly sway Hall of Fame results?
The debate then becomes should the whole era that used amphetamines be taken out of the hall? Some believe all or nothing, if one person gets in, then everyone with similar circumstances should be let in. The game is evolving, but people want to preserve the pastime that was thought to be unchangeable. The numbers in baseball are the most coveted in any sport. The history of baseball is something people don’t want to touch and can’t touch. It is up to the writers to determine who will get a place in the hall.
Once every four years, athletic competitors capture the world’s attention during the Olympics. Millions of viewers watch as fans become worshippers and teens become overnight sensations. The event is easily considered the pinnacle of an athletic career. In this year’s London Olympics, more than 10,000 athletes from 204 countries competed. But of those thousands of athletes, fewer than 10 percent went home with hardware. Years of sacrifice and endless hours of training created priceless memories but at a cost.
The trials and tribulations of training aren’t the only struggles that accompany an athlete’s journey to the top. Each step of the way carries a price tag, and some are more capable to afford the journey than the rest. Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian with 19 medals, is one of the few Olympians who reaped financial benefits just from participating in the games. As stated in Forbes, his agent, Peter Carlisle, projected in 2008 that the swimmer could earn up to $100 million in sponsors in his lifetime.
“I guess it pays off for some of them like [Michael] Phelps and [Ryan] Lochte and gymnastic girls,” said Jake Herbert who wrestled in the 2012 London Olympics. “If you’re a wrestler or a speed-walker or a water polo player and you don’t get a medal, it’s kind of like, ‘Oh’… If I got a medal maybe it would have been a different story.”
Herbert’s story started when he was a child. The Pittsburgh native began wrestling at an early age because his dad taught him, as he was a high school champion wrestler himself. And for 27 years, wrestling is all Herbert’s known. He graduated from North Allegheny High School as state champ and went on to wrestle at Northwestern University.
It wasn’t until the middle of his collegiate career around 2006 that making the Olympics became his dream. He had his first shot in 2008. He red-shirted for a year and participated in the Olympic Trials but did not make the U.S. team. Since he was still part of the NCAA, Herbert could not take money from any sponsor or organization. He funded his training by teaching private lessons and got support from his parents.
“We figured he didn’t cost us anything for college, so what the heck,” said Kelly Herbert, Jake’s mother. Jake, one of three children, got a full scholarship to the Big Ten school.
Three years after graduating from Northwestern, Herbert qualified for the Olympics. While training, he had money coming in from USA Wrestling. He got an annual stipend of $1,000 a month for being the number one wrestler in the country in 2009, 2011 and 2012. When he dropped to second in the nation in 2010, he received $500 a month.
“It was basically USA Wrestling saying congrats, you’re the number one wrestler in the nation for us; that’s what you have to train and live off of,” the 6-foot-1 inch wrestler said.
The base pay Herbert received was more than his coach and roommate Andy Hrovat got when he competed in the 2008 Olympics. And today for Olympians in training?
“They get more sponsorships,” said Hrovat, 32, who currently makes about $20,000 a year. “Guys are able to train full-time and don’t have to be college coaches.”
While training, Hrovat had money coming in from sponsorships and earned prize money from placing in various tournaments and working wrestling camps. Similarly, Herbert gets $2,000 a year from one of his sponsors, ASICS, an athletic apparel and footwear company, and has a deal with Cliff Keen Athletic, a wrestling wear company. Herbert also looked to other families in his hometown for a commitment of about $2,000 a year to help fund his way to the Olympics.
“It’s hard,” Herbert said. “You have to do fundraising and get sponsorships. If it wasn’t for five or six families back in Pittsburgh who I know very well, I wouldn’t be able to do it… I’m very fortunate to have that.”
When the training stopped and the Olympics came, Herbert received additional perks. His trip to London was completely paid for. He got loads of free gear, so much that he’ll “never be able to wear it all.” His mother said she got a $1,000 credit card from Proctor and Gamble to help pay for the trip to London. However, Herbert did have to fundraise in order to have his own personal coach and training partner travel overseas.
Living the Dream Medal Fund is a non-profit program that offers financial incentives to the nation’s top wrestlers. It awarded stipends to those who medaled in this year’s World Championships and summer games. For the Olympics, this wrestling program offered $250,000 for a gold medal, $50,000 for a silver, and $25,000 for a bronze, but Herbert would see no such reward. At the 2012 games, he placed seventh. At 185 pounds, he defeated Cuba’s Humberto Arencibia in a tight match that came down to the final seconds and then lost to Sharif Sharifov of Azerbaijan after a controversial call. And just like that, it was over.
“It’s totally worth it,” he said. “But now you have to start over again. I don’t know; it’s weird… I hope the Olympics aren’t the pinnacle of my life. I’d like to do a lot better things than just wrestle, like I hope I make a better husband and I make a better father. Those are the things that are going to keep you happy in life.”
Herbert has time to decide what he wants to do before the 2016 Olympics. In the meantime, he is relying on stints like wrestling camps for income. He said he makes between $25,000 and $30,000 a year. Recently he returned from a camp in Alaska where he earned between $1,000 and $2,000.
“Right now it’s hitting me pretty hard,” said Herbert who has shoulder surgery coming up in January. “This is the first time I’m ever not wanting to do it… I know I’m one of the best wrestlers in the world. I’ve proven it. It’s a matter if I still have the drive and desire to do it.”
Ed Hula, 61, never competed in the Olympics but he’s been covering the games for two decades as the Editor and Founder of Around the Rings, a website delivering Olympics news since 1992. Hula started planning for the London Olympics ever since they were announced seven years ago. He said the preparation he faces might mirror what the athletes themselves go through.
“It’s a big whirlwind and it’s a spotlight for 17 days – three weeks and then one day, the day after, it’s over,” he said. “It’s as if someone flips a switch and it’s over, the lights are out the excitement, the energy just sort of evaporates.”
U.S. Olympians who medaled in this year’s games received a bonus of $25,000 for gold, $15,000 for silver and $10,000 for bronze. While this sum covers some of the expenses spent while training, it still not enough. Putting it into perspective Hula said jokingly, “How long would that last at Northwestern?”
On a more serious note, Hula said “new” and “different” discussions concern “whether athletes at the Olympic games should receive some sort of prize money, some sort of payment, some sort of share of the several billion dollars that are raised during the Olympic games.” And that’s not all. “There’s also athletes raising questions about why they can’t wear their sponsor’s gear, their sponsors logo at the games. If they were able to do that, they’d make more money from their sponsorships” because sometimes the money coming in just isn’t sufficient.
“You have to get to the elite level to have any chance of getting any type of support whether it’s sponsorships support or a training grant from the U.S. Olympic Committee,” he said. “For someone who’s just aspiring to do that, you have to pretty much do it on your own.”
And yet even some gold medalists are on their own. Rebecca Johnston played forward for the Canadian women’s Olympic hockey team. She won the gold medal at the 2010 Winter Olympics. She received a bonus of $20,000 from the Canadian Olympic Committee for placing first, but for Johnston it’s about the memories, not the money.
“It gives me the shivers every time I think about it,” the 23 year old said. “It took me a long time after the Olympics to process it. It seems surreal to me and to be able to have that gold medal and to be able to show it to people, to have that memory, is so, so special.”
Today Johnston continues to train as she prepares for the 2014 Winter Olympics taking place in Sochi, Russia. She lives with her boyfriend and his family in London, Ontario Canada. Three to four times a week she drives nearly two hours just to get to practice in Toronto, travel expenses that come out of her own pocket. She works part-time at a health and science foundation that pays $12 an hour. Besides the extra income, she said the job is a way for her to gain experience in the working world.
“I’m experimenting with jobs and what I like and hopefully I’ll figure out what I want to do in the next couple of years,” the Cornell University graduate said. “You can’t play and have a full-time job. It doesn’t work, you miss too much.”
Hula mentioned that post-Olympic life has gained increasing attention from the International Olympic Committee and the United States Olympic Committee as they are looking into providing some sort of helpful transition between the athlete’s career and the working world.
For right now, though, Johnston’s main focus is on life as an athlete. Starting next year she begins formal Olympic training. During the last Olympic year, Johnston got around $2,600 a month from AthletesCAN, an organization supporting Canadian national team athletes. In Johnston’s case, it covered expenses like housing and travel to tournaments. She could also make at least a couple thousand dollars a year making appearances at events for team Canada. Most recently she played in the Four Nations Cup in Finland, an all-expense paid trip.
“It’s nice to be able to see different places and to not have to pay for anything,” she said.
While perks like these may never add up to Phelp’s financial status and his ability to rake in millions of dollars, there is one thing Herbert and Johnston have in common with the swimming sensation: the right to call themselves Olympians.
Not one, not two, not three… No, I’m not referring to LeBron James’ speech on the Miami Heat’s future championships. I’m talking about concussions. It’s inevitable that during football season, players go down with injuries. Most recently, Jay Cutler. Out with another concussion. Michael Vick. Out. Alex Smith’s quarterback position now in question after he sat out a week due to a concussion and his back up, Colin Kaepernick, put on quite the show. Head injuries have received extra attention in recent years in professional sports. The NFL has created new rules to try and limit blows to the head, prohibiting helmet-to-helmet contact against defenseless players.
Even in college, action is being taken. Take Virginia Tech. According to ESPN, since 2003, its football program had used sensors in players’ helmets to track the severity and number of hits. The technology can measure the force of the hit and is analyzed by a doctor or trainer. University of North Carolina uses the same technology.
Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund Inc. provides financial aid to former players who have medical needs they can’t afford and raises awareness about the players’ health and employment struggles in life-after-football. Over time it has helped former players like Chicago Bears defensive lineman William “Fridge” Perry. He has received medical and financial assistance as he battles Guillain-Barr Syndrome, a condition where the body attacks the nervous system. Another beneficiary of the program, Dwight Harrison, played 11 seasons for the NFL. The former player suffers from post-concussion syndrome and lives in a FEMA trailer with no running water. Gridiron Greats has provided Harrison with funds for food and utilities.
And football players aren’t the only ones suffering. Last season, Blackhawks right winger Marian Hossa left the ice on a stretcher after Pheonix Coyotes’ Raffi Torres left his feet and checked Hossa, nailing him in the head. Torres missed the rest of the playoffs. So did Hossa — from the injury. In the NHL, checks to the head result in a five-minute major penalty “and automatic game misconduct, as well as possible supplemental discipline if deemed appropriate by the League,” according to NHL.com.
But if leagues were really serious about preventing head injuries, shouldn’t the penalties be harsher or technology implemented at all levels to actually try and stop the behavior? For instance, in the NFL, if there’s a helmet-to-helmet collision, what about giving the other team an extra point? For better or worse the severity of the consequence might actually place necessary emphasis on the action. Or in the NHL, if there’s a check to the head, how about throwing him out for the season instead of just five minutes or a select number of games? I respect the rules being changed and technology being looked into by various institutions, but if we take it one step further and slightly change the game, is that more along the lines of what we need? The answer may be obvious, as I already hear boos and hisses to my suggestion, but only time will tell how much longer players can handle the hits. Let’s hope action doesn’t come too late.
Friday Cincinnati Reds pitcher Homer Bailey tossed the seventh no hitter of the season, tying the 1990 and 1991 seasons which also saw seven no-no’s. Even with all the no-hitters and with but 23 perfect games in more than 100 years of baseball history, accomplishing like these tasks is an extremely rare feat, but why are they happening more often? Are pitchers getting better? Hitters getting worse? In an article for the Associated Press, 26-year-old Bailey said, “‘I don’t think there is any reason why there have been so many. There is a real fine line there in throwing a no-hitter. A bloop can fall in the outfield or an infielder can be in the wrong position and there goes your hit. You have to be extremely fortunate to throw a no-hitter and we had luck on our side tonight.’” Sure, a little luck never hurt anyone, but if you ask me, the pitching game has changed. Pitchers have gotten better, but they’re also being used differently. In the “old days,” pitchers were expected to start and finish games. It wasn’t uncommon to go 300 to 350 innings with 20 complete games. My dad recalls as a pitcher for the Orioles in Single A ball that you had to have two to three really good pitches that you could throw for strikes. A reliever needed more pitches that you had to throw for strikes. These days a pitcher completing a game is uncommon and there’s more specialty pitchers like R.A. Dickey and his nasty knuckleball. Pitchers throw gas, a lot of them hurling 95-plus fastballs. They don’t throw curve balls or any other pitches because they don’t have to. They just rear back and fire with more precision placement. Therein lies the change in the pitching game. So buckle up and stay tuned for perhaps yet another perfect ride.
How many professional teams can say they have a standing cheering section for 90 plus minutes? The Chicago Fire can. I went to my first game earlier this week and it was a lot of fun. My sister and I headed to Toyota Park, home of the Chicago Fire, after a Cubs game. It was a sports-packed day and going from one game to the next pointed out an interesting comparison: the fans. The atmosphere at both parks is captivating but both in their own way. Some fans at Wrigley Field probably don’t even know who’s on the field or what the score is at any given time. Fire fans are the complete opposite. They’re into the game following every corner kick, every penalty, every play. Each fan is there because they love the sport and because they love the team. They know the rules, which may seem like a small feat, but not sure I can say the same for every fan at Cubs’ games. But the most fun and interesting part of the entire game was the cheering section at the north end of the Fire stadium. Fans are on their feet the entire game, two men leading the way, acting as the conductors of the cheering choir. Groups of fans start the wave multiple times throughout the match. But perhaps one of the more pleasant things about the crowd is that everyone’s not in a drunken stupor. While alcohol is a natural part of any sporting event, Fire games appear to be more of a family outing — small children wearing their favorite player’s jersey while diving into a cup of Dippin’ Dots.
It was a nice change from the atmosphere at a Cubs game. I say the only downside to Fire games is the stadium’s location. Toyota Park is a beautiful stadium and clean at that. It’s a simple drive from the city, but yes, it involves a little bit of a drive. Unlike Wrigleyville, where the el drops fans off right on top of the field, Toyota Park requires a car. It’s too far for some fans to make the trek and nothing surrounds the stadiums that could bring additional fun, pre or post game. Despite offering buses from Chicago, it is not convenient. Still, if you ask me, it’s worth it.
What does Alton Brown, the Iron Chef on Food Network, and Scott Hanson of NFL Red Zone have in common? Brown has always impressed me with his expertise and knowledge of food; Hanson with his focus and enthusiasm. While Brown is known for keeping Iron Chef viewers informed throughout the show with cooking techniques and identifying food combinations to create a five-course meal, Hanson, too, keeps viewers up-to-date on what’s going on during an afternoon of NFL games –from injuries to amazing plays as your screen switches from one game to the next, making sure you see “every touchdown from every game,” explaining how each impact the league. Both keep track of a million things at once, multi-tasking on their expertise. Both tend to notice the fine points that viewers otherwise wouldn’t pick up. Their passion for their “sport” is apparent on each show. And both are witty and unphased when put on the spot with a smooth and timely delivery. The hectic kitchen environment on Iron Chef can be compared to the activity on a football field. Each participant must play his part and fulfill his role, otherwise one mistake can mean a flop. While football players get breaks and time outs, the chefs must work diligently for an hour straight to show how the final product can be pulled off by the viewer… but true, 300 pound men aren’t tackling the chefs. And as Americans we all understand those moments when we get equally excited about our sports as we do our food. One difference? Given their taping schedules, maybe the size of the bladders.
Love the Olympics. So exciting to bring together some of the world’s toughest competitors on one stage. But as I sit and watch archery (congrats to the US silver medal), I can’t help but think, “That makes no sense why softball’s not in the Olympics.” I’m not bashing archery. In fact, according to The Hunger Games, it’s the cool things to do, but to this day, I have yet to hear a valid reason why softball and baseball were voted out of the Olympics. The decision was made in 2005. At the time, I remember hearing that softball was voted out because the USA was too dominant, having won the gold in three straight Olympics. But in the 2008 Beijing games, softball’s last appearance in the Olympics, its streak was snapped. USA lost to Japan in the finals 3-1. Most recently, baseball and softball agreed to merge into the International Baseball and Softball Federation in order to increase their chances of getting voted back into the games.
One of my friends from the Cornell softball team said she wanted to consider taking up boxing (Boston appears to be rubbing off on her). Sure, it sounds random and perhaps extreme but it makes sense. For her, right now, without softball, it’d be her only shot at going to the Olympics. My initial response: you’d win. My next response: you absolutely should. Why not? I’d be there to support you. We both agreed it was her only chance to take her athletic talents to the highest accolade. But why should a softball player have to consider something like that? The opportunity should already be present. As a participant in the 2010 European Cup, I valued the experience more than anything because I knew that was it. That was my shot. The European Cup was my Olympics. But in reality, the Olympics should be my Olympics. And for my Cornell teammate, the Olympics should be her Olympics in the sport in which she excelled and loved her whole life.