Sunday, October 25, 2015

Old-School Wrestling: Nothing “Kayfabe” About the Feel

A steel cage and the word fez made me a bona-fide razzlin’ fan at the age of 12.

The “cage” was actually eight large sections of fencing, rectangular (both the sections and the fencing itself) strapped together around the squared circle. The promoter had been advertising the main event to be conducted therein on the Boston Garden’s upcoming card of matches as unprecedented in the city’s history.

I’d been regularly partaking of a couple of weekend offerings in this vein for some months prior – a studio show (Championship Wrestling) out of Pittsburgh and one (All-Star Wrestling) from the D.C. area with more of an arena feel. The promos/interviews were all pre-recorded and pumped up the feuds and match-ups featured on the next local extravaganza. The bouts on these programs tended all to be “squash” matches to put over the stars and their capacity for devastation.

But it was he larger-than-life personas of the performers that was the real hook. The Italian Strongman Bruno Sammartino was already an iconic champion; popular Puerto Rican Victor Rivera had yet to taste defeat in his young career. Though he hailed from Morgan’s Corner, Arkansas, the over 600-pound Haystack Calhoun was everyone’s “Neighbor.”

The bad guys were just as imposing and intimidating as the heroes were awe-inspiring – the wily Prof. Toru Tanaka, the vicious Killer Kowalski who’d once knocked the ear of Yukon Eric clean off, George “The Animal” Steele. There were goose-stepping Nazis like Waldo von Erich and Hans “The Great” Mortier, royalty such as King Curtis Iaukea and Baron Mikel Scicluna, and just plain old nutcases like Bulldog Brower and “Crazy Luke” Graham.

Long-time WWF broadcaster and executive Gorilla Monsoon was still an in-ring performer, billed as The Manchurian Giant, listed at 401 pounds and managed by a dapper and loquacious little fellow named Wild Red Berry. Ironic that Monsoon, who would long play straight-man for the likes of Jesse Ventura and Bobby Heenan at the announce table, would utilize a spokesman, huh?

Curiously, it is through the avenue of Management that Steely Dan … er, I mean the fez finds its way into the story.

One of the combatants in the up-coming cage clash was the nefarious Sheik (in real life, a dude from Detroit named Ed). This Sheik – not to be confused with the Iron Sheik who long challenged Hulkamania in the ‘80’s – was represented by a smug and slimy motormouth who called himself Abdullah Farouk. The get-up of the venom-spitting (and I do mean “spitting”; ol’ boy was rather juicy-mouthed) Farouk always included dark shades and an odd-looking conical cap, with a tassel attached to its flat top.

Though I didn’t know it at the time – and despite being hep to the existence of the word (Mom had already spurred an interest in crossword puzzles) – that was a fez. This exotic piece of headwear kinda resembles a party hat and is often used in sit-coms and such to symbolize membership in fraternal-type organizations (The Loyal Order of Water Buffalo).

Oddly, “Abdullah Farouk” (in actuality, the late great Ernie Roth) would soon turn in that fez for a turban. He was re-dubbed The Grand Wizard, spinning his syrupy soliloquies for grapplers as diverse as a cheap Gorgeous George rip-off named Beautiful Bobby and a tough Texas hombre like Black Jack Mulligan or Ernie Ladd. Some of the Wiz’s best performances may have occurred during his occasional guest appearances on an irreverent Sunday evening Boston radio program called the Sports Huddle.

But on that final Saturday in March of my 12th year, Abdullah Farouk was still a one-trick pony, shilling for the Sheik who would be challenging Sammartino, in a re-match of their inconclusive donnybrook (Good Ol’ J.R. had yet to invent the slobber-knocker) of the previous month.

“Pro Wrestling” in those times was still firmly cloaked in the nudge-nudge, wink-wink garb of “kayfabe.” (Trust there was nudgin’ and winkin’ aplenty when the Wizard hooked up with Eddie Andelman and his radio cronies.) While indeed a mere choreography of combat, the bouts were promoted and presented as real. Entrance themes, Piper’s Pits and similar “entertainment” had not shouldered into the “sport.” Aerial moves were limited to flying drop kicks and the occasional leap from a turnbuckle – that’s how Walter Kowalski attained his alliterative moniker.

An expectant hush would come over the dim arena prior to each match. You’d notice the police escort moving in the aisle first and just try to figure out who that was in the midst of them. “Which match is next?” It was as basic as it was big time.

Of course there was no pre-match mystery leading up to the cage match – rather an intermission.

Since both Bruno and the Sheik were old-school ground-bound grapplers, the “structure” itself would serve primarily as a battering ram. (The more acrobatic Pedro Morales would soon come to utilize the gimmick more creatively during a run as WWWF champion.) The match that night was decided when a back-jumping Farouk, having out-maneuvered the outside ref and entered the cage, was thrown into his man by the opportunistic champion. The Sheik’s frantic scramble to prevent Bruno’s calm exit through the cage door was futile.

Those Garden events were very popular and quite well-attended. Indeed, the program for the next card – I’d immediately gotten myself onto Promoter Abe Ford’s mailing list – boasted a crowd in excess of 15,000 for the steel cage show.

That summer Ford would present an extravaganza so tantalizing that the “Gahden” wasn’t big enough – it was staged at Fenway Park. Amidst the smorgasbord of matches – cage, stretcher, ladies, midgets – was a 10-man over-the-top-rope Battle Royal in which (get this!) each participant was required to ante up a $50 entry fee, the winner receiving a whopping two grand for his night’s work.

Ah … that old black magic called Razzlin’.

Here’s how one writer “sold” that precursor to Wrestlemania – not to mention its requisite boost in ticket prices: “I have inquired around as to the cost of putting the show together … even with customers arriving in large numbers, it’s hard to see how Ford can make any kind of a profit. He’ll have a huge struggle just to break even.”

A fledgling reporter for the Boston Globe saw it like this.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

MLB Starting Pitching 2015: Prime Performers, Significant Digits, Trending Topics

Quick question to get class started:

Over or Under 300 – the number of pitchers who started at least one game in 2015?

You have five seconds … tick, tick, tick!

The “Overs” win with a lucky 13 to spare – which just happens to be how many guys started games for two different teams this season. That baker’s dozen of nomads includes bonafide stoppers (David Price, Cole Hamels, Johnny Cueto), over-the-hill dudes (Mat Latos, Dan Haren), a couple of still decent prospects (Daniel Norris, Felix Doubront) as well as some “who-dats” (Mike Fiers, Matt Boyd).

Forty percent of those pitchers (124, to be exact) started a minimum of 20 games; slightly over half of them (65, to be exact) took the bump 30 or more times, topped by the Rays’ Chris Archer with 34 starting assignments.

Among this fraternity of 124 regular workers are 23 what I like to call “10-and-10” guys. These are the starters whose team had exactly 10 wins and exactly 10 losses in their first 20 outings. Joe Maddon’s NLCS-bound Cubbies had three – Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, nomad Haren – in their rotation at season’s end. (The same is true of the vacationing Twins.)

The 2015 season also produced four “15-and-15” pitchers … even one, the Dodgers’ Brett Anderson, who maintained this perfectly balanced mediocrity through both 20 and 30 starts. In all, there were 94 pitchers – out of 124, mind you, basically 75 percent of the players who qualify – to start at least 10 games ultimately won AND at least 10 games ultimately lost. Twenty-one of that number, including names like Max Scherzer, James Shields, John Lackey, Lester and Cueto, tallied a minimum of 15 games in both the “team win” and “team loss” ledgers.

A total of 13 pitchers accumulated 20 or more team wins on the season, led unsurprisingly by the Cubs’ Jake Arrieta with 25. The list includes two of the traded nomads (Price, Hamels), shockingly two Houston Astros (Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh) and last year’s NL Cy Young recipient. Curiously, the AL winner was one of only two pitchers with sufficient bad luck and persistence to hit the 20-plateau for team losses.

There were 17 starters who rang up a dozen or more “Notorious No Decisions,” the leader of this pack also a Cub, Hendricks this time, who left accountability to Maddon’s bullpen on 17 separate occasions in his 32 efforts. Before being too critical, let’s credit the second-year-man for his durability. You might say he had perfect attendance for the season – only twice did as many as six games elapse between his starts. Quite acceptable work from a guy who was the team’s No. 5 starter when the season opened.

On the other end of the spectrum, there were several starters who took full ownership of their work – most notably the Yankees’ Ivan Nova. A victim of 2014’s contagion of Tommy John injuries, Nova did not begin his season until late June and worked 17 starts in his team’s final 91 games, earning the decision in every last one of them. The closest anyone else comes in such perfection is Detroit fill-in man Kyle Lobstein with 11, and a quintet (including journeyman and current Royal Joe Blanton) who went four-for-four [RIP Moses Malone]. Alas, the only one of these dudes with a winning record is Toronto’s Marcus Stroman, who earned the winning decision in four of the division champs’ last 21 contests, three times working through the seventh inning.

A tip of the cap and an extra serving of post-game ice need to go to the 22 pitchers who recorded 21 or more outs in at least half of their starting assignments [minimum 10]. The seven-inning “long start” (LS), in and of itself, has become a more recognized accomplishment nowadays in MLB, especially as the Complete Game (CG) creeps closer and closer to extinction. The Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw topped the Bigs (and enhanced his chances for a third consecutive Cy Young) by going long in two-thirds of his 33 starts, one of just seven pitchers to deliver 20 or more such efforts for the season.

In 2015, MLB fans were treated to a near-record seven no-hit games. Two near perfectos were woven by Scherzer, highlights in an otherwise disappointing debut campaign in the Capital. The DH-less National League produced five of these gems.

Well we started off this class with a quickie-quiz, so let’s end with some vocabulary study.

Here’s an oxymoron for ya.

AL hurlers threw nearly twice as many CG’s as did their NL counterparts (66 – 38) and over 40 percent more shutouts (30 – 21).


NL guys enjoy the advantage of the occasional “freebie” out afforded by the pitcher’s spot in the batting order … hence, an easier route to something like a no-hitter.

Somewhere along the way, though, there appears to arrive a “tipping point” in this simple logic.

The advantage an AL pitcher enjoys when it comes to working deep into a game is that the odds of his removal from the game for offensive purposes are “slim” and “none,” with “slim” running a very weak second.

At just what point that juxtaposition sets in remains, if not a mystery, a bit nebulous. Wherever that point may lie, herein lies the Legacy of Longevity wrought by MLB’s Pitching Class of 2015.

Despite the gleam of all those no-no’s, its 104 Complete Game performances – the handiwork of 64 different arms – represent the lowest total in the history of the sport … ya know, like since ever.

For a discussion of alternative approaches to the use of a pitching staff from the perspectives of the 2015 World Series participants take a look at this.