SUNDAY, APRIL 19, 1998, SPORTS
Copyright 1998/THE TIMES MIRROR COMPANY
Gen-Xers Need Not Apply
PHOENIX — Whither sports in the 21st century?
That was the subject of an informal seminar of some of the ablest historians of our day when we met at the Wigwam resort in old Arizona over the weekend.
The purpose of the convocation, in addition to trying to make par-fives in eight or less, was to consider what lay ahead for the games people play or pay to see played in the new century.
Will baseball survive? Should it? What about boxing? Can it shake off the devastating image of what may be its greatest practitioner, its most famous personality, stumbling around with slurred speech and trembling hands?
What about football? Is it a sport or a concussion? Can tennis survive the Rube Goldberg scoring system it’s barnacled with? How many spoiled brats can we put up with?
To consider these cosmic issues we brought together a panel consisting of Blackie Sherrod of the Dallas Morning News, Edwin Pope of the Miami Herald, Furman Bisher of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, Dan Foster of the Greenville (S.C.) News, Dan Cook of the San Antonio Express-News and Bill Millsaps of the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch. About a century of sporting experience.
You have to remember that, as the 20th century dawned, there was no World Series, no Super Bowl, no Masters, no NFL, no Final Four. There was, in fact, only one tentative Olympics.
The 20th century will be defined by its craze for sports. More people can tell you the year the Mets won the pennant than can tell you the year the first atomic bomb was dropped. People who don’t know who the secretary of state is can tell you who plays center field for the Yankees. People who couldn’t find Kansas on a map can tell you where the high post is on a basketball court.
Will the new millennium be more of the same? Our panel of experts who answer to the inelegant club name of “Geezers IV” are divided on their answers.
Baseball is in a suicide pact with itself, Pope believes. “It’s taken leave of its senses. Someone should put a net over them when they pay $60 million to a Gary Sheffield. There is no way they can recoup that kind of outlay.”
Sports needs saviors, larger-than-life performers, glamour figures, the panel feels. Babe Ruth took baseball out of the low-rent district when he began to hit almost one-quarter of all the home runs hit in the league.
Will Mark McGwire bring the game back to that level? Well, it was pointed out, Roger Maris couldn’t. Neither could Henry Aaron. They both broke Ruth’s records. But they never could fill seats the way the Babe could. Or sell products.
Basketball is the new darling of the sports firmament, the panelists agreed. Michael Jordan is the most identifiable sports figure on the scene. He’s not only good, he’s loved.
And the game itself is the only one that has been speeded up. In baseball, players almost become cobwebbed between at-bats. Football has elements of a Geneva Convention when the striped officials get together after every play to try to sort out what happened.
But basketball used to have a center-jump after every basket. Now they don’t have one even to start the second half. You have a jump ball only when an aggravated assault has taken place.
Golf found its messiah (at least that’s what Tiger Woods’ father called him) wrapped in swaddling clothes and lain on its doorstep. A game that had been lost in the galling anonymity of a different winner a week suddenly had a star.
But the panel thinks the game itself has to be rescued from its technology. What happens when a Tiger Woods is handed a bag full of instruments that turn a 600-yard hole into a three-wood and a wedge? Two- and three-irons are already obsolete. Will they be followed by four-, five-, six- and seven-irons? Thirty-five years ago only half a dozen golfers could hit tee shots 250 yards. Today, the tour average is over 280. There are more than a dozen golfers who regularly hit it out there 315 yards or more.
Where will they find the real estate to host the game when technology mandates 450-yard drives, balls that seek the hole and compensate for breaks in the green on their own?
Horse racing is folding in the stretch. Nobody bets on the bay any more now that they can get a bet on the red in the Native American casino or play the state lottery in the liquor store and blackjack on a riverboat.
Millsaps says he has “fallen out of love with basketball.” He notes, “It used to be such a lovely finesse sport, now it’s a dock fight. It’s just football without the helmets and shoulder pads. They score baskets the way the Chicago Bears used to score touchdowns.”
Baseball is too slow to last, Pope thinks. “It’s even slower on television. They had 47½ minutes of commercials in World Series broadcasts.”
“Nobody will be able to afford baseball players,” predicts Cook, “not even Disney and Rupert Murdoch. The players will kill the golden goose.”
Sports franchises offer confused allegiances, double-parked franchises, free-agent players who have to call the front desk to see what town they’re playing for.
Is the situation really that bleak?
Well, come to think of it, the panel agreed, how can it be? We’ve still got Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan and Mark McGwire. Maybe the Golden Age of Sport is right now. Maybe these are “the good old days.” Maybe the public likes cheering for the filthy rich.
Reprinted with the permission of the Los Angeles Times
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A dozen years ago, Linda McCoy-Murray compiled a book of Jim Murray’s columns on female athletes (1961-1998). While the book is idle waiting for an interested publisher, the JMMF thinks this is an appropriate year to get the book on the shelves, i.e., Jim Murray’s 100th birthday, 1919-2019.
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