Damon Runyon once wrote, "One of these days in your travels, a guy is going to come to you and show you a nice brand-new deck of cards on which the seal is not yet broken, and this guy is going to offer to bet you that he can make the jack of spades jump out of the deck and squirt cider in your ear. But, son, do not bet this man, for as sure as you stand there, you are going to wind up with an earful of cider."
Which brings us to George Allen.
Poor George. Just when he seemed to have ascended into heaven, or at least north of the border and in a football team's office, here came word from Nelson Skalbania that he couldn't really sell the Montreal Alouettes to George because he didn't really own them.
One need not want to shine George's shoes hourly to feel sympathy for the fellow, who, after all, made no tapes for history. The way some of us like to breathe, George likes to coach. But four years gone from the Redskins now, Allen hasn't coached another real NFL game. Admirers of Allen's machinations foresaw George transforming the woeful Alouettes, the next step being annexation/redemption by the NFL. Napoleon back from Elba.
But not only did George hook up in a deal with a guy who left town, the guy left the country, the continent and the hemisphere. Skalbania took the keys to the executive washroom and went to Hong Kong, where for all we know he is teaching the jack of spades to drink cider.
Anyway, George comes to mind today not only because we wish he could work out the Montreal deal someway. He comes to mind also because of the Redskins' recent chit-chats with the famous sprinter, Renaldo Nehemiah, who wants to be a famous wide receiver and has the necessary tools of speed, strength, lateral movement and good hands.
The question is: would the Redskins of George Allen/Edward Bennett Williams/Jack Kent Cooke have signed Skeets Nehemiah? Or would they have watched, as today's Redskins did, while the Super Bowl champion 49ers stole him for a paltry extra $125,000?
The Redskins of Joe Gibbs/Bobby Beathard/Jack Kent Cooke wanted Nehemiah because he demonstrated limitless potential. They offered about a $100,000 bonus and a three-year contract at maybe $100,000 a year, none of it guaranteed. The maximum payout: $400,000.
These figures are nice, but barely more money than Nehemiah made at track, and far less than the 49ers' offer of a $100,000 bonus with a first-year guarantee of $125,000 and three more years escalating near $200,000--along with incentives worth $500,000. The maximum payout: $1.25 million.
As far apart as those numbers are, there isn't much difference in the hard cash. If the Redskins offered $100,000 in a bonus and the 49ers came with a bonus and a one-year guarantee worth $225,000, the difference is a piddling $125,000.
After that, in both offers, Nehemiah had to make the roster every year or he got nothing. As for incentives, any money paid Nehemiah for games started or passes caught, or whatever, would be money well spent.
In effect, then, the Redskins lost Nehemiah because they were outbid by 1.8 percent of the extra $7 million they'll get from next year's new TV contract.
For the average Abscam participant, $125,000 is a bunch of money, but it's small potatoes when you remember that the Redskins' owner, Cooke, went public last winter with an offer of $1 million to buy a first-round spot in this week's draft.
Yet the Redskins wouldn't gamble a silly old $125,000 for a great athlete who may be the wide receiver of Joe Gibbs' dreams. Whether Nehemiah, who surely gets deep quickly, can catch the ball in traffic, who knows? If he can't, you drop him next year and all it has cost is $225,000 for a gamble worth taking.
Q: Would George Allen have convinced Ed Williams, his old president, to talk Cooke, the absentee owner, into approval of such a gamble?
A: It was Williams who said of George, "We gave him an unlimited expense account and he exceeded it."
To be fair, we can't say the Redskins refused to gamble on Nehemiah, because they made a substantial offer for an unproven commodity. The history of track sprinters in football is not reassuring. Past Bob Hayes, you can't name one worth $100,000 a year.
So the Redskins showed boldness in offering Nehemiah a contract that would make him the money equal of Art Monk. What happened was that the Redskins were turned off by Nehemiah's lawyer, Ron Stanko.
When Stanko did not make a promised telephone contact, after saying the night before that he was satisfied with the proposed terms, the Redskins believed Stanko had left town with what he wanted from them: an offer he could shop around.
So Cooke decided that all deals were off. He didn't like being misled. Stanko later called back, after stopping at San Francisco on his tryout tour of the NFL, telling Beathard he could sign Nehemiah for a package worth $1.5 million. Beathard said no. He didn't bother to ask Cooke.
So a point of businessman's honor, along with the NFL's abhorrence of bidding on players (which is what the current labor-management impasse is all about), is what made Nehemiah a 49er and not a Redskin.
Curiously, then, an owner who offered $1 million for a first-round draft spot wouldn't even make a second bid for Nehemiah when, for maybe $225,000, he could have signed the sprinter/receiver these Redskins so desperately need.
Thing is, as poor George could tell his old boss, if you want to win you sometimes have to risk an earful of cider.