Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Ken Venturi, R.I.P.

I first heard of Ken Venturi when I was ten or so. It was in Phil Pepe’s book Winners Never Quit, one of those books that I’d buy at the scholastic book sales they had when we were kids. Pepe’s book told the stories of athletes who’d come back from extraordinary adversity of one kind or another to become champions, and one of those chapters was on Ken Venturi.

Venturi had been a hotshot golfer with an ego to match. He’d finished second in the Masters as an amateur, had won early and often on the tour as a pro, and lived the life of the celebrity. Then, almost overnight, his game went south, that sweet swing turned into a mess, his mechanics crumbled. Soon he was reduced to begging for spots in tournaments. Even the Masters forgot about him. But because Venturi had ruffled so many feathers along the way with his cockiness, few people felt sorry for him, and even fewer believed he’d ever make it back. But he did, and the story of how the new, humbler Venturi overcame exhaustion and heat stroke to win the 1964 U.S. Open at Congressional is one of the great chapters in golf’s long history.

His rebirth was short-lived; carpel tunnel syndrome in both wrists devastated him, making it almost impossible for him to even feel the club in his hands. Without that touch, his game again faltered. Surgeries and endless practice brought him back, to the point that Pepe’s chapter ends with Venturi winning the 1966 Lucky Invitational in San Francisco, his final tournament victory.

Venturi retired from the tour the next year, and then began the remarkable next stage of his life, one that would surely have qualified for an entirely new chapter in Pepe’s book. As a child he had stuttered so severely that doctors told his mother he’d never be able to pronounce his own name; he’d overcome that, just as he would overcome the challenges that threatened his golfing career, and now Venturi would turn to broadcasting, where the next 35 years he would be the lead golf analyst for CBS.

I loved listening to Venturi cover golf, and over the years he became one of my favorite broadcasters. He might not have been as smooth as some, might not have had the way others had with words, but – like so many other broadcasters I’ve eulogized over the years, including his good friend and colleague Pat Summerall – Venturi was a big-match announcer. When you heard his hushed voice as Nicklaus stood over a put, you knew this was a big moment.

And like them, Venturi didn’t make the broadcast about himself. He told it like it was, but without the smarmy snark of a Johnny Miller or the harshness of a Curtis Strange. He wasn’t interested in showing the viewers that he was smarter and cleverer than the golfers on the course. And, perhaps most important, he was always on the golfer’s side. He didn’t want to see them fail out there, and took no delight when misfortune befell them. I remember during Jean van de Velde’s meltdown at the 1999 British Open that ABC’s team of Mike Tirico and Strange almost seemed to relish what was happening. Venturi wasn’t like that – he knew the pain of losing, and though he’d tell you what went wrong out there, he never suggested that he would have been above making that same mistake.

Venturi’s work with Vin Scully, Summerall, and Jim Nantz made CBS’s golf coverage the best on TV. When he retired a few years ago, to be replaced first by Lanny Wadkins and then by Nick Faldo, it just wasn’t the same. Don’t misunderstand me – I think Faldo can be very good, but he’s not Venturi.

When I’d heard a couple of weeks ago that Venturi was too ill to attend his (richly deserved) induction into the golf Hall of Fame, I worried that this might be the challenge he wouldn’t be able to overcome. His death on Friday, at age 82, leaves a void in both the sporting and broadcasting worlds. Ken Venturi was a class act, on the course and behind the microphone. He was a winner.

Originally posted at It's About TV!

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Classic Sports Thursday

There was actually a time in the 1950's when the “have car will race” adage came to ragtops. A Midwestern organisation, the Society of Auto Sports, Fellowship, and Education (SAFE), started its Circuit of Champions for convertibles. These cars were a mix of the wild and not fairly well organised touring car divisions at the time (NASCAR was only developing after the Barkheimer Associates deal in 1954 into the national organisation), and SAFE's Circuit of Champions was gaining popularity in the regions they raced with the odd convertibles.

However, the stunning changes in motorsport in the United States after the 24 Heures du Mans disaster led to the end of motorsport's governing body, the AAA Contest Board, and led to major changes that still affect motor racing today. In the Midwest, SAFE was purchased by Big Bill France (NASCAR), leading to the development of the NASCAR Convertible Division, a division that raced until 1959 officially, racing mostly on short tracks, where drivers could be seen sawing their hands on the wheels of these cars. Some circuits included quarter-mile tracks inside football stadiums such as Winston-Salem's legendary Bowman Gray Stadium (still in operation today and was the real-life site of the short-lived documentary Madhouse) and the home of what is now the Arizona Cardinals (that played in Chicago at the time), Soldier Field (the Granitelli family organised the races; the track was removed following complaints by hippies, and stadium renovation when the Bears were forced to leave Wrigley Field because of a requirement imposed by the NFL after the merger stadia had to seat a minimum of 50,000 spectators).

With the hardtops already having established the Labor Day race that became known as one of saloon racing's four majors (the Southern 500) and the grandest in stature (first paved NASCAR circuit, Daytona was still running on the beach and road circuit until the end of 1958), Bob Colvin of Darlington International Raceway decided he was going to have a big race for the ragtops also. That ragtop race was declared to be a Confederate Memorial Day race that would be their grandest in stature on the (then) 1 3/8 mile egg (there were a few slight rebuilds, one in 1953 and a few in the 1960's – the current track measurement of 1.366 miles was not established until 1971; based on running 10 feet from the wall, now seven feet from the wall after the SAFER barriers were installed for the 2004 races).

Mr. Colvin's Rebel 300, a “Grand National Convertible Championship” race, would be established for May 11, 1957, the Saturday before Mother's Day, and the day after the Confederate Memorial Day (May 10; the state did not officially observe it until the 21st century, but in South Carolina it is a reference to the capture of Robert E. Lee and also Thomas Jackson's death). But an interesting dilemma took place after rain interrupted the event plans. South Carolina law prohibited racing on Sunday (the law was modified to carry a 250-mile / 402 km exemption or if it started after 1:30 PM in the 1980's), and even though the rain date was not mentioned, “next clear day” was attempted, which was Sunday, in violation of the law. Darlington County authorities arrested Mr. Colvin after pulling the safety car to pit lane to start the Rebel 300 that Sunday, which the promoter posted bond.

Curtis Turner looked on his way to winning when a “Big One,” as called today, took place within the first 30 laps, but crashed in that incident (future Grand Slam race winner Jim Paschal and future official Dick Beaty were also involved), leading to an easy lead change by Lap 33 for Glenn (Fireball) Roberts, who led all but one lap afterwards to win the inaugural Rebel 300 in the Ford super team organised by Peter DePaolo, who just 32 years earlier was the first man to win the Indianapolis 500 in less than five hours. The other members of the podium were distinguished racers themselves, with Tim Flock (no Jocko to mess around this time) and Bobby Myers filling out the podium. Roberts and Flock are Motorsports Hall of Fame in America members, and Myers, known for his exploits at Bowman Gray, would sadly be killed that September at the Southern 500. (Myers' brother Billy also raced, winning two premiership races but died of a heart attack the next year; both brothers are memorialised by the National Motorsports Press Association Myers Brothers Award for lifetime achievement; Bobby Myers' son Danny became a well-known mechanic at Richard Childress Racing and in 1998 fueled both a Cup car and an IRL car at the Indy 500. It was the crying image of “Chocolate” best remembered from Kevin Harvick's tear-jerking 2001 Atlanta win three weeks after being hired by Childress to replace a legend, and Danny retired in 2002, becoming the Childress museum's curator. The Childress organisation also has a winery in the area also.) Roberts died in the 1964 Charlotte crash of burns, and Flock died in 1998 of cancer.

Other top five drivers were Bob Welborn, a legend in the division, with Buck Baker (2013 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee) as co-driver, with Lee Petty (patriarch of the family) in fifth.

The 1957 Convertible race at Darlington was the first of six, with the first three being full Convertible Division races, and the last three being Grand National races that required convertibles. When the Rebel 300 became a Grand National hardtop race in 1963, they actually tried it was two 150-mile races. That didn't work and the race since 1964 has been a full hardtop race for 300, 400, or 500 miles, depending on the year of the race, and since 2005 returned to Confederate Memorial Day as a 500-mile race, televised on Fox.

Whatever people call it, Saturday's Bojangles' 500 is the 57th edition of the Rebel 500, and has an interesting take as the only NASCAR Convertible Divison race still run as a full championship race in what is now the Sprint Cup Series. The “convertible race” of the 100-mile qualifying races for the Daytona 500 (now Budweiser Duel) was a championship race for convertibles in that year, but even after the division was discontinued, the two qualifying races format continued though it lost championship status in 1972.

An interesting thought as convertible racing was popular in the 1950's as the Rebel 500 takes the green Saturday night. 

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Drawing the line

I read the news today (oh, boy)* that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie underwent gastric bypass surgery back in February.  Christie apparently underwent the weight-reducing surgery at the behest of his family, and told the New York Post that "he wasn’t motivated by thoughts of running for president." Now, I find that a little hard to believe in a man who's ego is at least as big as his waistline, especially considering how he bridled at former White House physician Connie Mariano when the later said she worried about him dying in office.

*If you don't get it, look it up.

Let's give Christie's motives a pass for now and assume he's telling the truth.  He wants to be healthier, he wants to be around for his family.  That' s a noble sentiment.   However, it does raise the question, which is this: should the health of a candidate for public office be a campaign issue?

Having said that, let's take it a step further: assuming that the health concern in question does not prevent the candidate from actually discharging the duties of said office, do we have the right - or the obligation - to consider whether or not that issue might limit the candidate's ability to complete the full term in office?

At first glance, I'll admit, this seems to be a very intrusive question.  Yet, should Christie make the run for president, at the weight he currently carries, it's going to be asked.  And the further one probes in considering it, the less clear-cut the answer becomes.

Let's take an example and work from there.  There are no right or wrong answers, per se, but you might feel that some are more easily answered than others.  So ask yourself if these are issues:

A cancer survivor, one whose cancer has been eradicated - an issue, or not?  You'd probably say not, and I'd probably agree with you.  But let's change it slightly - what about someone whose cancer was merely in remission?  Paul Tsongas, for example, famously retired from the U.S. Senate in 1984 due to non-Hodgkin lymphoma.  When he returned to politics, in his run for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination, he made his survival of cancer an issue.  But as Tsongas later admitted, he'd been treated for a recurrence of the cancer in 1987.  It came back again after the campaign, and claimed his life on January 18, 1997.  That would have been two days before his (first) term as president would have expired.  An issue, or not?

What about a candidate, like the current president, who smokes (or has smoked)?  It can shorten a lifespan, after all, as those government warning labels keep reminding us.  An issue, or not?

How about someone with a history of Alzheimer's in the family tree?  An issue, or not?  Or does it depend on that person's age?  An issue only if they're older?  And how about age in the first place?

What about someone who's blind?  And does it matter if they were born blind, became blind recently, or is blinded while in office?  Does it affect that person's ability to exercise the duties of the office?  Does it make them easier to deceive?  An issue, or not?

What about someone with a condition that may well be terminal, but may not be?  HIV?  President Kennedy's Addison's disease?   What about other conditions, such as diabetes, which might leave someone more susceptible to a coma if the blood sugar plunges?  What about high blood pressure, which increases the risk of stroke?   What about stress-related illnesses?  MS?  An issue, or not?

Obviously some of these may be more credible than others, but the question remains - are any of these issues that should be raised in a campaign?

As medical science continues to progress, we are able to discover predilections for some diseases long before their effects can be seen - sometimes, even in the womb.  In some cases, a person could be disqualified for public office before they're even born.

We see Nanny Bloomberg's quest to rid New York City of anything that might possibly decrease the lifespan (i.e., things that aren't good for you) - so if these standards are being applied to the average consumer, do they exist for the candidate as well?

I don't pretend to have the answers, but that isn't going to stop me from asking the questions.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

"My college actually took me away from logical thinking"

So says Forbes magazine publisher Rich Karlgaard in this article (H/T NRO).  His experience pretty much jibes not only with my own, but with many of my friends who sit in "careers" for which they're vastly overeducated.

A friend of mine, like Karlgaard a PoliSci major, has never had a job for which his degree meant anything other than that he had a college degree in the first place.  "Unless I was actually going into teaching, that degree was pretty much useless from a job standpoint," he told me.  "I didn't take it because I thought it would improve my chances to get a job or to make more money.  I took it because I liked and was interested in politics, and I wanted exposure to the kinds of thought I would be encountering."  Meaning?  "Look, I didn't have any illusions that I'd be getting a good education.  After all, this was a school where the students cheered when they heard Reagan'd been shot.  They had bumper stickers that said 'Reagan in '80, Bush in '81.'  If they were any more left, they would have fallen off the table completely.  But I figure if you want to be involved in 'competitive' politics (as I did at the time), it's good to know what the enemy's saying about you."

But the point he went on to make is this: "Ultimately, it didn't matter what I studied.  I figured a successful school year was one in which I still knew as much at the end of the term as I did at the beginning.  As long as they didn't make me stupid, it was a good year.  But at the end I had that degree.  How many decent jobs can you get now where they don't ask for - demand - a college degree?  Even when it has nothing to do with the job itself?  It's lazy - they just use it as a gatekeeper to keep out the riffraff.  Most of the jobs out there can probably be handled just fine by someone with a degree from a vo-tech school."

I digress with that little anecdote, but only slightly.  Karlgaard's point in this article is similar to my friends - that college has become an enormous (and ridiculous) drain on family and individual finances, oftentimes for nothing more than a piece of paper that does little to prepare the student for life after college - and introduce him or her to a lifetime of debt. Karlgaard posits that the average student would "learn more and spend much less at a community college," and it's hard to disagree with that.  The money quote:

The U.S., I would argue, is driving itself crazy over early achievement. Expensive four-year colleges are a symptom. They’ve become a costly dream trap for too many kids and families. High school grades are overemphasized, SATs must be prepared for years in advance, youthful intellectual experiments (or pranks of the kind Steve Jobs famously engaged in) are discouraged–and for what? Most kids won’t get into the topflight college of their dreams. Worse, some who actually clear that bar will nearly bankrupt their parents in the process. Or they’ll find life so competitive at Elite U. that they drop down into the Mickey Mouse courses–which exist everywhere, even at Harvard–and end up with a worthless degree.

In fact, it's been my observation that education is really one of the last things the modern college is concerned with.  First and foremost is indoctrination, but after that there's the endless quest for prestige, to be able to say "we're the best business school in the world," or law school, or engineering school, or what have you, in the ratings that come out from publications such as US News  There's the desire for research dollars from governments and foundations.  There's the scam being leveraged on alums to provide financial support for the school.  There's a continuing, and growing, alliance with big government and big business to control access to the power in this country.

But don't just take my rantings - be sure to read all of what Karlgaard says, and discuss.  
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