The Doctor Is . . . Out
It’s tempting to look at Dwight Gooden‘s career as a morality play—a fable of talent undermined by temptation, then redeemed—if only partially. It makes great copy, but it doesn’t really fly. Sure, he might have won a few more games if he’d been able to stay away from the cocaine and handguns, but Gooden’s real downfall was simpler: a sore arm.
Gooden’s career—a 132-53 start over his first eight seasons and a 62-59 finish over his last eight—is a baseball parable of another sort: why young pitchers will break your heart. With the backhanded curse of being too young and too good, Gooden threw 744 Major League innings before his 22nd birthday, a sure recipe for disaster. It’s the same story from Fernando Valenzuela to Ramon Martinez to Kerry Wood. Compare Gooden’s fate to that of his contemporary, Roger Clemens. Clemens was a husky 24 before he took on a 200-inning workload, his pitch counts closely monitored because of a shoulder injury. And he’s still throwing in the upper 90s at age 38.
But for all the might-have-beens that haunt Gooden’s career, that phenomenal start—his 1985 season (24-4, 1.53 ERA) ranks with best campaigns posted by Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax, or Lefty Grove—left him with career numbers that compare favorably to a number of solid Hall of Famers and several contemporaries thought to be on the Cooperstown track.
But will Gooden go to the Hall of Fame? Not unless he buys a ticket. Unfortunately, his numbers won’t dispel the memories of weapons arrests and drug suspensions from the minds of the Baseball Writers and the old timers’ committee. But those numbers prove beyond reasonable doubt that, while he was healthy, the kid could throw a baseball.
Jockbeat was unmoved by the Vancouver Grizzlies’ announcement last week that they plan to move to Memphis, but the unprecedented corporate sponsorship deal that will eventually pay their way to the Tennessee burg has us completely flabbergasted. The parent company of Federal Express, which has its headquarters in the Music City, has reportedly offered $100 million over 20 years for the naming rights to an as-yet-unbuilt arena, plus the right to change the name of the team to the Memphis Express—and then dress them in FedEx-themed orange-and-blue unis.
While most fans may associate corporate-monikered teams with Japanese baseball and European soccer, there’s actually a precedent for the practice over here. In the ’70s, the ABA featured both the Denver Rockets, named for owner Bill Ringsby‘s trucking company, and the Kentucky Colonels, owned by Kentucky Fried Chicken magnate John Y. Brown. (Had the Grizzlies chosen Louisville over Memphis, they could have availed themselves of a similar naming-rights offer from KFC, to become the reborn Colonels and play in a venue called—we swear to God we’re not making this up—the KFC Bucket.) Traveling even further back in time, one comes across the Brooklyn Tip-Tops, of baseball’s short-lived Federal League, who upheld the honor of owner Robert Ward‘s Tip-Top bakeries for two years before the whole operation crashed and burned.
The FedEx deal is still on hold for now—pending an NBA stamp of approval. But if it goes through, the deal could be the tip of the iceberg, says sports marketing expert David Carter: “Owners are always looking for new revenue streams, especially ones that don’t have to be shared.” But naming your team after a modern corporation poses problems you don’t get with the local bakery—what happens, questions Carter, if your namesake company leaves town or goes bankrupt? Do the Express suddenly become the Lay-UPS?
But it’s the risk of blowback to the sponsoring company (i.e., what happens if the team plays like, oh, we dunno, the Vancouver Grizzlies) that might ultimately help stem the tide of corporate naming deals. As Carter wonders, “Are people going to say, ‘They can’t even get the ball down the court; how are they going to ship a package a thousand miles?’ ”
During his Opening Day visit to the Yankees radio booth, Mayor Giuliani tossed a beanball at an unexpected target: Voice 1998 Sports Journalist of the Year Andrew Zimbalist. Asked by Michael Kay why economists say new stadiums don’t help local economies, Giuliani snapped, “an economist,” then launched into a diatribe against the noted author: “He’s an academic economist, which means he’s never run a business, never run anything. I don’t know any major American business that would employ him as an economist.” Zimbalist, reached at his Smith College office where he was listening to the broadcast (“I’m a Yankee fan”), noted he’s actually served as a paid consultant to dozens of sports businesses, and Giuliani “needs to do his homework—but since he hasn’t done any of his homework on anything so far, I’m not surprised.” Zimbalist added that he was “disappointed that Kay and [John] Sterling would lay down and echo his nonsense,” which makes us wonder about the depth of the economist’s Yankee fandom if he’s unfamiliar with the Shill Twins. . . . * ESPN’s extremely overrated Joe Morgan appears to be in midseason form already. Morgan, working ESPN’s telecast of the season-opening game between the Blue Jays and Rangers, noted that the Jays finished only 4.5 games behind the Yankees last year and that “the major difference between them was that the Yankees really turned it on down the stretch, while the Blue Jays struggled.” All of which came as news to anyone who watched the Yanks lose 15 of their final 18 regular-season games last year, including their last seven.
Contributors: Allen St. John, Neil deMause, Paul Lukas
Sports Editor: Miles D. Seligman