x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Three is the magic number

Three is a crowd, the saying goes, which normally is undesirable. But not here, not today, when thrice is nice.

Basketball, baseball, American football - the three sports seem to be intrinsically linked when it comes to big news. Eric Miller / Reuters
Basketball, baseball, American football - the three sports seem to be intrinsically linked when it comes to big news. Eric Miller / Reuters

Three is a crowd, the saying goes, which normally is undesirable. But not here, not today, when thrice is nice.

In sports, stuff is always coming at us in threes: three-point shots, three strikes, three outs, three-and-out, three putts, Triple Crowns and hat-tricks. And recently, the sports news is coming in threes, too.

Length of seasons

1. Baseball adds a wild-card round to the play-offs. The abandoned format - eight teams, three full rounds - was perfect. The playing field was level for all participants. Now, the opponent of the wild-card winner wields an unfair advantage: no travel, rested pitching staff with the ace available for Game One. Defenders of the absurdly long regular season say 162 games are necessary to determine the best teams. Yet one game is sufficient to establish the best wild cards? Verdict: three jeers.

2. NFL considers expanding season by two games. Expansion to 18 regular season games remains on the table, says Roger Goodell, the commissioner, which would compromise his laudable emphasis on player safety. Pretzel logic: the yard line for kick-offs is moved up to eliminate a few runbacks and reduce injuries, yet two entire games could be added? Of course, money is the motive, but the physical toll on players is not worth the price. Thankfully, Goodell says any changes are a few seasons away. Verdict: three jeers for considering a longer season, three cheers for not rushing it.

3. Shorter NBA season creates a buzz. The NBA's shrunken schedule - from 82 to 66 games, a fallout of the late start because of the labour dispute - has injected a sense of importance to each night. Television audiences are through the roof. Attendance has held steady, defying expectations of a decline related to fans' resentment from the lockout. If the league would cut its schedule to 66 games in a normal year, players would be less inclined to take some games easy and would enter the play-offs fresher. Change can be good. This one is unlikely, but we can dream. Verdict: three cheers, if it happens.

Baseball and drugs/alcohol

1. The Brewers' Ryan Braun wins his appeal. Braun snaked through a loophole when an arbitrator tossed his 50-game ban for a positive drug test. Braun insisted he ingested no banned substance, even though no evidence surfaced of tampering with his urine sample. Braun has every right to legally challenge the procedure, but then to declare his innocence is galling. MLB will not make the mistake again of not shipping the sample promptly. Verdict: three jeers.

2. Josh Hamilton stumbles again. Hamilton's one-on-one with substance abuse took a sad turn when he recently consumed alcohol in a restaurant. The tale of his recovery from severe addiction to become MVP is inspirational, and his latest setback reminds us that the battle is never won. In contrast to Braun's gall, the Texas Rangers star was humble and apologetic. Verdict: three cheers, along with best wishes.

3. The Boston Red Sox ban alcohol in the clubhouse. This move was bashed roundly as window dressing, a reaction to a few starting pitchers sipping beers during games last season. Yes, Boston's problems ran deeper than booze, but where were the critics when 19 other teams banned clubhouse drinking? The lesson of the St Louis Cardinals' pitcher Josh Hancock dying in a 2007 car accident after post-game drinking at the stadium should be heeded. As David Ortiz, the Boston clutch-hitter, properly put it, "This ain't no bar." Verdict: three cheers.

The Saints as sinners

1. Bounties paid for knocking opponents out of games. The NFL would not have dropped the hammer on them had their distasteful programme been less blatant: 22 to 27 involved players, overseen by the defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, with tacit approval from the head coach Sean Payton. Shameful, not only for violating the core of sportsmanship, but for downright stupidity. The safety Roman Harper gets fined $22,500 for flagrant hits, far more than he might have collected from the bounty pool. Verdict: three jeers.

2. General manager lies to his boss. If Harper is dumb, Mickey Loomis, the general manager, is dumber. Aware of the hit list? OK. Lying to the league and to the New Orleans owner Tom Benson, as the report alleged? Allowing the scheme to continue even after evidence of it had surfaced? Mind-boggling. Verdict: three jeers.

3. Drew Brees. If Loomis had not alienated all Saints fans with his culpability in a plan that likely will cost them draft picks as a penalty, he compounded it by not locking up the quarterback Drew Brees to a long-term contract. Loomis managed to offend any lingering loyalists in what surely was his final major decision with the team - other than submitting his resignation. Verdict: three jeers.