A few days ago, I happened to be talking to a guy named Fred Biletnikoff. Fred used to be very good at catching footballs for the Oakland Raiders in the Sixties and Seventies. Then, he had a little help at it. Fred always had this stuff called Stick ’Um on his hands. It was orange, and gooey — and very, very sticky. Before games Fred used to smear big globs of it onto his jersey and his socks, and he’d keep rubbing it on his hands during the game. “It was mostly psychological,” Fred told me. “Although sometimes the stick um would help. Sometimes it would help a great deal.”
There were some disadvantages to Fred’s potion, though. Sometimes his hands would get covered in dirt and grass, and in the huddle, his teammates would have to pluck his fingers clean. Sometimes, they even had to pry his fingers apart. And needless to say, his teammates didn’t like to shake Fred’s hand or hug him after a victory. You needed paint remover to get the stuff off.
Fred wasn’t fast, and he wasn’t big, but he caught enough footballs to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But Fred wasn’t the only Hall-of-Fame Oakland Raider looking for a competitive edge wherever he could find it back then. Gene Upshaw, an offensive lineman, used to wrap each of his arms with three rolls of tape, over pads and pieces of cardboard, then run hot water over his arms so the tape would harden like a cast. When Gene was blocking, he was basically blocking with two clubs.
No one wondered whether Fred or Gene should be kept out of the Hall of Fame because of their extracurricular tactics. It wasn’t like they were hiding what they were doing, and what they were doing was legal. The only cheating the old Raiders did was during their annual air-hockey tournament at the end of training camp in an inland California country town called Santa Rosa. At the air-hockey tournament, cheating was encouraged, as was the copious consumption of alcoholic beverages. The entire team played in the tournament. The winner was honored in a parade, along with the parade queen, who was usually selected from the ranks of the cocktail waitresses who’d made the Raiders’ long training-camp summers bearable.
Writing a book about the old Oakland Raiders has made me more than a little nostalgic these days, because lately things have gotten a little stickier when it comes to athletes trying to find the extra competitive edge. In the last few months, both Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez, arguably the two best hitters in baseball, have admitted using steroids, joining the growing list of superheroes with asterisks next to their names. And somewhere down the road, their names are going to be on that hall of fame ballot.
Should they be inducted? No way. They were cheating.
So how did we get from Stick Um to steroids? Or, to put it another way, how did we get to such widespread cheating, wherein a superstar like Ramirez willingly and selfishly risks a 50-game suspension, which hurts his team a whole lot more than it hurts him? I think it has something to do with the loss of the notion of the team. Of being accountable to others. To something bigger than you. This book about the old Oakland Raiders is the third book I’ve written about championship teams from the past. And the more old athletes I talk with, the more I’m convinced that modern cheating has something to do with how teams aren’t really teams any more. How the loss of the concept of team breeds selfish players, and that selfish players are likelier to cheat.
Four or five decades ago, your teammates were your family, and the locker room was your home. The old Baltimore Orioles, the old New York Giants, the old Raiders, they all loved to hang around the locker room, for hours after a game, and when they finally left, they often left together. In the Raiders’ case, there was the mandatory weekly Camaraderie Night at Big Al’s Cactus Room in downtown Oakland.
These days, athletes can’t get out of the locker room quickly enough. The other night, I heard a Met announcer say he’d run into a player riding the elevator up from the locker room – fifteen minutes after the end of the game. It was the pitcher who’d just closed out a game. Picked up a save. And was out of there. Had better things to do than hang in a locker room.
On the Red Sox, Manny was never much of a team guy. And according to Selena Roberts’ book about A-Rod, in Texas Rodriguez was so consumed with individual achievement that he used to tip off opposing players about what pitches were coming, in meaningless games, so as to get the same treatment from the opposing player, so as to pad his own stats. If it’s true, it’s hard to imagine someone having less disregard for his own team.
Of course, the pursuit of the insane money doesn’t help, either. Back in the day, there wasn’t any. Money. The championship New York football Giants of the late ’50s made less money than the men who drove the subways that the players rode downtown to the taverns on East 52d Street where they knew they could get free drinks. The championship Yankees of the early Sixties earned about as much as the fans who watched them in Yankee Stadium. Rookies on the 1972 Oakland Raiders made about $20,000. Most of the Raiders held offseason jobs. One was a cropduster. He used to buzz training camp in a biplane.
Then, for reasons that still elude me, the stakes changed. Greed got good, the middle class began to disappear and the “Me” decade cycled in. When television went cable and ESPN acquired the power to anoint individual athletes as superheroes, we bought into it, and began to pay them the salaries of gods. The NBA marketed Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, not the Bulls and the Lakers. Baseball marketed the bloated home run hitters, not the teams. It was Joe Montana who was the driving force of the 49er dynasty, not the 49ers themselves.
And when individual superstars became more important than teams, individual stats became more important than winning. Players went from putting sticky stuff on their hands to poisoning their livers for an extra ten home runs. Maybe, in a way, the steroid guys were just first cousins to the bankers who packaged and traded those derivatives – all of them citizens in a short-cut culture that had lost its moral bearings in pursuit of the quick buck, big fame and individual stardom.
It’s the grand old game that takes the real hit here, of course – just when it can least afford it, what with overpriced new stadiums and overpriced empty seats that smack of greed and disregard for the average fan. A sport that has always marketed itself as a pastime desperately needs its past to be clean. It has to find a way for us to believe in the numbers again.
I’m not optimistic. It’s still acting as if none of the cheating ever happened. One night a few weeks ago, the Mets’ Gary Sheffield hit his 500th career home run, and the announcers gushed unapologetically about the milestone. They gave no hint of how hollow a celebration they were having, at how meaningless that number really is, in Sheffield’s case.
Fred Biletnikoff’s four catches in Super Bowl XI in 1976, the ones that earned him the title of the game’s most valuable player? Those numbers had some meaning. But for me, Fred’s actions after that game carried more weight for me than the numbers. He was so overwhelmed with emotion, he broke out crying in the locker room. Because his Raiders had finally won a title they’d come so close to for years. And because he’d been the one who’d been privileged to get them there.
Of course, he didn’t get too many hugs. And he was also smoking his postgame cigarette. It was probably stuck to his fingers.