Posted on: March 1, 2013 12:25 am

Mr. Smith Goes to Palookaville

“Babe Ruth is the biggest runner-up in history.”

That’s what the man said, Babe Ruth, a runner-up.

Words from the mouth of sport opinionator Stephen A. Smith last Monday co-hosting with Skip Bayless on ESPN’s hip-hoppin’ morning show “First Take.”

I don’t take-in “First Take” but rarely these days, having been a regular until producers decided the popular show needed fixing and pulled in the welcome-mat for anyone over 35. Then there’s bombastic Stephen, your morning cup of arrogance whose shtick can only be taken in small doses, otherwise PVCs, BP spike and the migraine all set in.

Don’t know if it was chance, old habit or just gluttony for punishment, but I dropped in briefly on FT and Steve was on his soapbox about Hammerin’ Hank Aaron, a man many still consider the career home run champ, now with the dark cloud of PEDs hanging heavy over Bud Selig’s official title-holder, Barry Bonds.

But calling Ruth a “runner-up” to Hank Aaron is like calling Charles Lindbergh “runner-up” to Chuck Yeager or Vincent Van Gogh “runner-up“ to Pablo Picasso. Pure goofball histrionics, or at least, putting too fine a point on Hank‘s accomplishment.

Having fewer career home runs does not a “runner-up” make, any more than Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax are “runner-up” to Bert Blyleven and Gaylord Perry.

Dead for well over 60 years, Babe Ruth’s name recognition stays strong while other stars like Thorpe, Howe, Unitas and Wilt understandably fad a little more with each passing generation. And here’s why the Babe still resonates:

Babe Ruth is holder of the best non-PED enhanced season in MLB batting history (‘21);

The man who when asked why he believed he should make more money than the President (Hoover), answered back: “Because I had a better year than he did.” I wonder how the Bambino and Rosanne would’ve gotten along?

Is credited with saving baseball after the ‘19 Black Sox and A. Rothstein nearly killed it;

Once described as “a parade all by himself (J. Cannon),“ the multi-talented George H. was fast becoming a HOF caliber pitcher with Boston when Ed Barrow and Col. Ruppert put him in pinstripes (‘20) where he single-handedly ushered in the modern era of baseball with his persona, ravenous appetite for all things tasty and his Ruthian clouts;

Head-to-head with Hank in HR-related stats: career HRs (Aaron / 755 (2) - Ruth / 714 (3)); AB per HR (A / 16.38 (38) - R / 11.76 (2)); career AB (A / 12,363 - R / 8,399); SLG% (A / .554 (23) - R / .689 (1)); BA (A / .305 (T147) - R / .342 (T9)); OB% (A / .373 (T222) - R / .473 (2));

The player who, yes Bob Costas, called his home run shot in the ‘32 Series (Cubs);

And the man whose accomplishments on the field of play, and play on the field of pop culture, gave him a such an immense stature worldwide that it’s never been surpassed and debatably been equaled only twice in persons of The Beatles and boxer Muhammad Ali.

Henry Aaron was a tremendous ball-player, arguably top-ten all-time. But had Ruth had a figure at which he could’ve taken aim and hung-on as did Hank, the Babe just might’ve put the homer, RBI and run marks beyond the reach of everyone, Aaron and Bonds included. God knows he still had pop in his bat with the show he put on at Forbes field in farewell (3 HR / ‘35). He just lost the zeal, holding most marks and nothing left to prove.

Why me so sensitive to SAS remarks? Ruth and other old-timers get kicked around pretty good these days by people claiming to be baseball fans. The pre-WW2 era was a different time (segregation), but the challenges faced by way of equipment, medicine, travel, the reserve clause, were incomparable to Barry’s and to some degree, even Hank’s easier time, though he and others (J. Robinson) bore a burden unlike any other class in breaking the color barrier.

Greats like Ruth, Aaron, Josh Gibson, “Three FingerBrown, all transcend time and serve as “runner(s)-up” to nobody. Such talk fills time on First Take but also puts a “one-way ticket to Palookaville” in hand of the speaker. That’s a place for losers in case you missed On the Waterfront (‘54).

Stephen’s a fan of Henry Aaron and has reasonable basis in ranking him greatest home run man. I too am a fan of Hank's, cheering him on as a Brewer at wide-open County Stadium in the mid-70s and feel no less so because I recognize instead Babe Ruth to be the best slugger in MLB history.

Tell me who's the greatest, okay.  Tell me who ain't and we've got a problem, Mr. Senator. 

Steven Keys
Can o’ Corn
Posted on: September 28, 2012 1:55 pm

NFL Barometer Wk-4

Not So Fast, football America. The regular referees are back in business but there are grades to be handed out in wake of ‘Replacement-Ref Whine-fest 2012.’

Roger & The Regulars: B

Denying anyone who’s not employed in public safety the right to use all leverage in negotiating a contract (strike) would be un-American. Unfortunately, the regulars have now been vested with special status of indispensability by the same cry-babies who ragged on ‘em before their strike, bitched about the replacements during, and will piss & moan again in Wk-4.

When the firestorm over Monday night’s controversial “simultaneous catch” call flared-up this week, both the Commissioner and strikers contained the blaze by acting with due speed. And if you think the new referee deal was a result of poor job performance by the replacement referees, you need to pull your head out of…the sand. Most likely it was serious concern over the safety of the replacements that proved primary motivation for compelling both parties back to the bargaining table to hammer-out an agreement.

Fresh in their minds may’ve been recent tragic events in Libya and the Middle East, triggered by parties using YouTube to fuel the fires of ignorance & violence. With anger over the disputed Hail Mary call that ended the Packers v. Seahawks MNF contest rising rapidly during the week and becoming a national embarrassment, coupled with knowledge that more touchy-calls would result in Wk-4 games, those professionals in security who monitor such situations must’ve been speculating about dangerous acts that nut-jobs might undertake.

Replacement Referees: B+

These guys head home wondering why they ever took such a thankless job. It couldn‘t be the pay. Roger Goodell’s apology-in-appeasement notwithstanding, the replacements, as imperfect as they were, deserve commendations just for taking the field.

Golden Tate of the Seattle Seahawks: “The Man with the Golden Arm.” The left one, to be exact. It’s pretty well hidden from view in the film-replay of the infamous Hail Mary, but either his left arm and / or hand are initially on that football, simultaneously with Mr. Jennings (Packers), or it disappeared into the 4th dimension like “Tina” did in that classic Twilight Zone (“Little Girl Lost” / 1962). It’s one, or the other. Take your pick.

As for Mr. Tate shoving a Packers’ defender just before the ball arrived, don’t forget the first rule of end-game drama: never let a referee’s call decide the outcome. Before Thursday night’s Browns / Ravens contest, where the just-back regulars were extra cautious and playing-it-safe with Cleveland’s game-ending Hail Mary (flag), the regulars would’ve followed precedent on MNF, just like the replacements: no-call on the shove.

The precedent here is on point: Dallas Cowboys v. Minnesota Vikings, Metropolitan Stadium, 1975 NFC playoffs. This is the original game-winning Hail Mary. It came from Cowboys’ QB Roger Staubach and involved another decisive push-down by receiver Drew Pearson of a Vikings’ defender. Difference is, this one sent the winner to the Super Bowl and one of the referees to the hospital after getting hit in the head with a whiskey bottle thrown by an idiot in the stands. Roger & the regulars may remember.

NFL Players & Coaches: D+

The jocks and gurus must share blame for the hostility heaped upon the replacements. A few choice words, spoken at the right time could’ve quelled much of the outrage. Instead, the behavior of men like Bill Belichick (ref-grabber) and Aaron Rodgers’ (whine-pro) was typical. But in the Age of Enablement there are no grievances so small, so selfish, as to go unheard & un-redressed. I guess 'suck-it-up’ and ‘take the pain’ are old school.

The Ravens’ Anquan Boldin stated the prevailing view in post-game interview when pressed on the referee issue after Thursday night‘s Browns v. Ravens game: “I think the guys respect the regular referees.” And that was the crux of it, these past four weeks. Most of the players & coaches, it seemed, had no respect for the replacements.  A prejudice, you could say. When prejudice is the mind-set, rational thought cannot happen.

Politics makes strange bedfellows. Had the players wanted to show solidarity with the regulars, the same guys they regularly berated on & off the field before their departure, they could’ve gone on strike with the zebras. But then nobody, not the owners, not the fans, not the players nor the media wanted the games cancelled, right? Right.

Sport Media & Entertainment: F

Lucky for these guys the NFL / referee contract was resolved when it was, otherwise all hell may’ve broken loose. I cringe to think.

ESPN, self-anointed “leader” in sport coverage, set a match to a highly-flammable situation. Normally neutral anchors freely weighed-in on the MNF controversy, making it clear to viewers that the field call (“simultaneous catch / Seattle TD) was pure buffoonery, while ex-jock analysts did their part to fan the flames of discontent. Post-game comments by Steve Young (“It’s an emergent situation and I pray that an emergent doesn‘t result”) and Trent Dilfer (“You get so frustrated with incompetence that it turns to anger“) are noteworthy in their poor judgment and apparent invite to fan-rage.

Because it’s unlikely ESPN acts in such manner solely on behalf of regulars refs, the best explanation might be the favored status of the Green Bay Packers’ organization. The same inexplicable hostility emerged shortly after Brett Favre’s jet hit the Twin Cities tarmac in 2009. The message here: When Packers’ fans get angry, ESPN listens.

And if ESPN’s bigwigs think “Sport Science” guy John Brenkus is a persuasive voice in photo-finish analysis, they’ll never graduate to the next grade. John’s head-spinning, sales-pitch is like that fast talking carnival barker. Before you can spot the con-job, he’s got you by the arm and going for your wallet. You could lose the smirk, too, JB.

But the regulars are back. And with the glowing comments I’ve read from players, coaches, fans and media, football America is pleased as punch. Maybe this signals a new beginning, a greater respect between players, coaches and the officials. Less on-field rage and fewer post-game crying-jags? Stranger things have happened. If this is a by-product, it’s another reason to thank the subs.

Steven Keys
Posted on: July 18, 2012 4:20 pm

The Best of ESPN

With new technologies in telecommunications, computer and social networks exploding onto the consumer scene, you’d think television would be on the ropes, fighting to survive. But you’d think wrong.

The fierce competition for consumer coin, coupled with horrifically bad TV potpourri that revolves around corpsel-ooze and faux reality-snooze, may have the Nielsens ebbing low but ‘the telly’ still has plenty of power left in that championship punch.

The tube is here to stay.

Texting may be all the rage and the worldwide-web a wonder but neither will ever be, to borrow the words of Sam Spade (Bogart), “the stuff that dreams are made of (Maltese Falcon),” i.e., talking-pictures.

I do the internet daily for my fix of sportology but sometimes you’ve just gotta’ have that injection of audio / visual. And who’s my supplier? ESPN, of course.

Though all the majors now have their own network, all remind me of a Dangerfield-ism from Caddyshack (‘80): “snobitorium.” I don’t know if it’s the superior syntax of jock-laden line-ups or the laid-back, laugh-it-up style, but I’m often left feeling like an intruder, an uninvited guest. Best of the lot: Speed Channel and NFL Network.

Born in Bristol, CT in 1979, then acquired by ABC / Capital Cities (‘84) and today owned by Disney (’96), the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network has lived up to its billing as the “Worldwide Leader in Sport.”

No stranger to criticism in its 30-something lifespan, ESPN has, in large part, met its leadership responsibility by keeping its product uncomplicated, inviting and faithful to the belief that a thread of humor should run through its SportsCenter scripts.

Think of ESPN as the McDonalds of sport media. Often maligned by culinary snobs for their uninspired menus and flavor-challenged fare, the fast-food king is loved worldwide for its reliability and those delectable French fries. Wherever you may be, when you see those golden arches you know what to expect. Same holds true for ESPN, sans the fries. 

Continuity counts plenty in a time when mores are changing with the wind. Tradition may be toxicity to the agents-of-change who strategize in steel towers on Michigan & Park Avenues, but to Main Street America, yearning for something familiar, the expectancy maintained by McDonalds and ESPN is a welcome friend.

Anything as big & diverse as media giant ESPN is gonna’ have a few clunkers mixed-in with the showpieces. As much as I’d like to vent about the Broadcast College coach who trained Tony Kornheiser, Michael Wilbon, Tedy Bruschi, Marcellus Wiley, Mark May & Mark Schlereth to first, love themselves, this write is not about the misfires.

This piece is about those people & programs that hit-the-mark, the glittering gems that comprise the best of ESPN.

Aces of the Airwaves

Doris Burke: NBA sideline reporter

In a time when reporter questions (‘You played great tonight, how does that make you feel?’) are as uninspired as dialogue on The Office, Doris breaks the mold. No pedestrian queries from Ms. Burke. She knows the game & business of basketball, knows the players, asks the questions fans want answered and then the stars seem relieved to hear. No “clown” queries when DB is courtside. A breath of fresh air.

John Clayton: NFL Insider

At first glance you’d think John was a late fill-in from accounts. Though not your typical wide-neck, square-jawed, ex-player analyst, John knows more about the goings-on in the NFL than most GMs. That’s not surprising, given that he’s been covering the game since working the Steelers’ beat back in the mid-70s. Others at ESPN like Chris Mortensen, Ed Werder, Sal Paolantonio, Adam Schefter and charming Rachel Nichols are top-notch, but John is that rare TV hire most fans will look at and say, ‘He’s a civilian, he’s one of us.”

Tim Kurkjian: MLB reporter, story-teller

Whether recalling a by-gone ball-player like Stan Williams (heaven help the hitter who liked to hog home-plate when 6’4” Stan took the mound) or weighing-in on an umpire issue, Tim reminds me why I love the game. Maybe because he loves the game so. It was a grand day when Kurkjian moved into ESPN‘s top spot a few years back. Sensible enough to not step on toes but brave enough to fulfill his social-contract with fans by giving honest opinion, TK appreciates the balance most others dismiss as trite.

Hint: Solid state. That describes ESPN’s baseball telecasts whose production & play-by-play is second to none. But like all the national broadcasts, their endless analysis of balls, strikes & strategy is enough to bore the bejeebers out of you. It’s a sin when a venture as vibrant and rich in history as baseball will demand so little color from its commentators.

Best in Show

1st and 10 (First Take, Presented by Bass Pro Shops)

If it works, don’t fix it. That expression used to carry weight. Not anymore, not with today’s fidgety TV producers. Such is the case with ESPN’s foray into the morning-show genre as somebody just can’t stop tinkering with this popular segment.

Veteran writer Skip Bayless is the star of 1st and 10 and not averse to hitching his wagon to other stars on the rise (Tebow / Lin). As elder statesman, Skip is resident doormat on the set but takes it like a pro because the slot and pay are sweet. Cocksure Stephen A. Smith was recently seated opposite Skip to give the segment an edgy feel. If mollified, Steve can be an insightful, congenial foe, but his loud, bombastic, often mocking style is best suited to AM radio. Tube watchers want smart, light-hearted debate and that means the pairing of Skip and Rob (“I’m not buying it”) Parker. Like Skip & Steve, Rob can homer on occasion (favorites) but keeps it real in reminding the big-suits that one need not be an ex-player to have a valid view.

Host Jay Crawford can break neutrality but keeps the peace, while Cindy Brunson makes a terrific back-up. Show’s appeal likens to Howard Cosell’s MNF re-cap of NFL’s Sunday slate in the 70s. Monday Night Football was always a bit of a snoozer (even with Dandy Don), but America stayed tuned long enough to hear the best 3-minute sport-wrap ever.

Hint: One of ESPN’s defining traits has been its inclusiveness, putting out the welcome-mat for everyone. Fixing on one music motif, whether it be jazz, pop, country-sex or in this case, hip-hop rap, goes against that proven policy. Target one audience and you’re bound to lose another. Besides, it’s not the right thing to do.

Outside the Lines

We fanatics aren’t the dullards many would have us be. Like the cultured set, we can appreciate a clever quip, have been known to say ‘good morning’ and will even put out recyclables. And some of us watch OTL, ESPN’s tribute to 60 Minutes (CBS). Hosted by charter member Bob Ley (’79) with talented back-ups Steve Bunin, Jeremy Schaap and T.J. Quinn, this show takes head-on those topics deemed too weighty for the “be-boppin’ & scottin’” guys (Cowherd / Rome) or the witty banter of Sportscenter.


The show that changed it all. It too has changed over the years. Those standard-issue blazers in the 80s were special. But there’s been one constant that’s made it all gel: the anchors. Though a few got too big for their britches (Eisen / Olbermann / Patrick), on the whole, the hosts stick to the clever-copy, ad-lib when apropos and stay outta’ the way. The toppers: Linda Cohn, Chris McKendry, John Anderson and Stuart Scott.


1) Retire ESPY name. Is there a worse award-tag in the business than this gobbler?

2) Bring back Classic ESPN. Sport & history go hand-in-hand. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been drawn-in by its usurper, ESPNU. Take a poll, y’all.

3) Ditch AXIS (camera) title. If I’m the WWII generation I’m a bit miffed. Heck, all of America should be insulted. The fact the colors (red & black) match the Nazi flag, maybe by accident, is nonetheless doubly-offensive. Destroy the AXIS-moniker and require the persons responsible for its existence to watch the entire British TV documentary, The World at War (1973 / 24 episodes).

Note: These are the observations of one person. No doubt there are other individuals in front of and behind the cameras that I have yet to discover or chosen to omit in the interest of style (length) that help to make ESPN worth watching.

Steven Keys
Posted on: June 25, 2012 12:35 pm

Danica Hitting Her Marks

Having roots in America’s Dairyland, a top five finish in last Saturday’s Nationwide stop at Road America would’ve been the ideal confidence-builder for an anxious Danica Patrick and race team, JR Motorsports.

Fellow driver Jacques Villeneuve put the brakes on that storyline when he chose not to use his own pads on the fabled Wisconsin raceway.

In the final lap of the Sargento 200 in Elkhart Lake, Villeneuve inexplicably gave Ms. Honey Badger, who was holding down the five spot, a solid hit square on the back-end, causing her Chevrolet to spin off track and off path towards her second top-ten finish (Texas) as NASCAR approaches its half-way point of the 2012 season.

This was no harmless trading of paint. In his brief post-race interview on ESPN, a smirking Villeneuve was dismissive of the mishap with Patrick, giving a strange “brake” explanation as cause for the short, sharp shock.

Only fitting that the man who took the cheddar…checkered flag, German-born Brazilian Nelson Piquet, Jr., was as much in need of the ego-boost as Patrick. The son of the legendary Formula One champion, it was Junior’s first victory in Nationwide (3) and his first on the NASCAR driving circuit where he’s competed mostly in the Camping World Truck Series (37), hitting that track the same year as Danica (2010).

Race officials and NASCAR will assess the matter further, but I found it ironic that just prior to Jacque’s contact with the # 7 GoDaddy.com car, ESPN announcers speculated that NASCAR drivers are willing to “push” Patrick as “they know she won’t push back.”

Was this track take-out confirmation of such a prevailing attitude in the pits or merely an unfortunate accident and coincidence? I‘ll leave that judgment call to NASCAR, but as Elaine Benes of Seinfeld fame would say, “That’s a BIG coincidence.”

Though she was in no position to push-back once taken out, just the fact that DP was in the leadership pack before the bump means she was giving-back as well as others gave.

While Jacques was flippant, in her own post-race interview, Danica showed strength of character by ‘taking the high road’ in choosing to avoid the blame-game and deciding instead to focus on the positives of her bittersweet Road America experience.

“I was running ahead, didn’t finish the deal (ESPN / 6-24).”

The ESPN race-announcer’s observation was news to me, but not a shock, if true.

NASCAR drivers may not be the good ol’ boy bunch of stock-car’s earlier days, but it’s still a man’s sport where women on the track are usually wives or trackside reporters.

Patrick’s position is not entirely unlike Jackie Robinson’s in 1947. The bar will always be set higher for those who try to break barriers. Their resolve must be twice as strong.

But Patrick is starting to hit her marks on the raceway with more consistency now and it showed at RA. Hard part is finding that delicate balance, knowing when to push back and when to suck it up, or in the spirit of the Badger State, when to move “forward.”

Playing the smart-card in her post-race interview was a good play. In any job, you’ve gotta’ earn your stripes and make your own reputation. No one’s gonna’ hand it to you. But most drivers, not all, will respect the new employee who can take his / her lumps, put it behind ’em and stay focused on the next job that‘s just around the corner.

Branch Rickey and Robinson knew all too well, that, if you give the troublemakers & knuckleheads an opening, they’ll slither right in.

Finding that balance, along with a little luck that every driver needs on occasion, Ms. Patrick should get a few more Nationwide top-10s and maybe even a nice Sprint Cup finish this season.

I just hope she can find her own Duke Snider and Pee Wee Reese to help hobble the chuckleheads along the way.

Any volunteers, NASCAR?

Steven Keys
The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com