Sports

THE OWNERS GET IT TOGETHER

Smell that? It's the first whiff of baseball wafting through the air as pitchers and catchers head to spring training. Yet after a winter of free-agent discontent, the Players Association smells something rather less pleasant: a rat. Last week, suspecting management of colluding to depress salaries, the union requested to see documents pertaining to this off-season's negotiations with players. "I don't really know what this is all about," the owners' labor executive, Rob Manfred, protested disingenuously. "[The players] seemed to be OK two years ago when we were spending like drunken sailors." Teams insist that their belt-tightening is a natural response to the poor economy and the new collective-bargaining agreement, which taxes payrolls over $117 million. At issue, however, isn't MLB's sudden market correction—it's the "joint activity that causes a market correction," explains union lawyer Gene Orza. Agents point to the striking similarity of offers from different clubs for their clients, not to mention many general managers' reluctance to deal until after the December 20 contract-tendering deadline (as if they knew their fellow execs would release certain players).

Unless a smoking gun turns up ("Memo: From the Desk of Bud Selig"), the players will find it awfully hard to prove their case. Back in 1987, the owners were found guilty of three years' worth of collusion based on meeting notes kept by the Phillies (D'oh!), among other evidence, and wound up forking over $280 million in a settlement. Their furtive sharing of information had produced fishily similar offers to free agents the previous winter. (Hmmm, sounds familiar.) Today, though, teams don't need to conspire to fix salaries. All it takes is a media report that the Mets, for example, have $1.5 million to spend on a third baseman, preferably Jose Hernandez or Bill Mueller. Says Manfred, "The idea gets around" that there's a "going price" for some players. Did such ideas conveniently "get around" via the collusion express? Given the owners' cost-cutting mania and Enron-like arrogance, we wouldn't put it past them. —J.Y. Yeh


A MO YOU CAN LAUGH AT

You could have knocked us over with a Stu Miller fastball when we got to the Imperial Ballroom of the Sheraton Hotel on February 2 for the 80th annual New York Chapter Baseball Writers Association of America awards dinner and saw who was on the dais—and we don't mean Barry Bonds, Randy Johnson, Joe Torre, Art Howe, Mike Scioscia, Tony LaRussa, Barry Zito, Billy Koch, John Smoltz, Robin Roberts, or Sandy Koufax, either. Rather, our pleasant surprise came when we saw comic Mo Rocca, a familiar face on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show on Comedy Central (and also the brother of Newark Star-Ledger baseball scribe Larry Rocca). Rocca turned in one of the better routines we've heard at these affairs, making Fred Wilpon and Steve Phillips squirm in their tuxedos when he noted, "You'll notice there are almost no Mets here tonight. This is, after all, a no-smoking event." Rocca admitted that "if Bobby Valentine was still the Mets manager, I wouldn't have accepted this gig," and he also pointed out that, even with the signings of free agent stars Tom Glavine, Cliff Floyd, and Mike Stanton, the Mets still have no third baseman. "Apparently," added Rocca, "your first baseman swallowed him."

Rocca confessed that he wasn't the writers' first choice for the dinner, either: "They wanted Jerry Seinfeld, but he couldn't make it. Then Ray Romano turned them down, and so did Drew Carey, Bernie Mac, Cedric the Entertainer, Kevin James, Kevin Nealon, and Kevin MeaneyArt Howe, I know how you feel." Not that the Yankees went unscathed. "I'm sorry if I don't have my funniest material tonight," said Rocca. "Ruben Rivera stole my best jokes." —Billy Altman


RECALLING HEBREW HOOPSTERS

David Vyorst was surprised to learn a few years ago that a Jewish guy, Knick Ossie Schectman, scored the first basket in the BAA, the precursor to the NBA. Now he's using that first hoop in 1946 as the opening to his documentary film about Jews and basketball.

Even though there have been exactly zero Jewish players in the NBA since Danny Schayes retired a few years ago, there's a rich tradition for Vyorst to examine for his film, The First Basket, which is nearing completion.

Several of Schectman's teammates were Jewish, as were many other players during the era of semi-professional basketball and the early years of the pro game. For Vyorst, a native of Long Island, basketball is more than just a game: "It's part of the way the Jewish community became Americans."

After 1950—when the basketball color line was broken and Jews moved out to the suburbs in droves—the number of Jewish pro players declined. But in the pre-NBA days, one of the most successful teams was the SPHAs of the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association, which won several championships in the old American Basketball League of the '30s and '40s. It was a rough-and-tumble time. Players competed on two or three teams for $8 to $10 a game. Many Jewish players anglicized their names to avoid anti-Semitism. But the players Vyorst interviewed for the film, which he hopes to release next year, remember the era fondly. "Basketball was our religion," says Hank Rosenstein, one of Schectman's teammates. Jews also filled the lanes on "club squads"—the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and Macy's both sponsored teams, Vyorst says. "If you live in a tenement on the Lower East Side," he explains, "you're not going to play polo." —Peter Ephross

 
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