Sunday, August 1, 2021

Is Kris Bryant "The Wizard of Oracle"?

If the acquisition of Kris Bryant on Major League Baseball Trade Deadline Day were a movie for San Francisco Giants fans, it would sort of be like “The Wizard Of Oz.”

Stay with me on this. 

As a wild tornado of trade winds flattens the core of the Chicago Cubs 2016 World Series roster, scattering superstars in all directions, Kris Bryant and his trusty glove finally land on top on the Wicked Witch of the NL West – the Dodgers – momentarily pinning them in second place and immediately eliciting cheers from throngs of hopeful Giants fans who see Bryant’s arrival as the team’s ticket to the Yellow Brick Hall and Emerald City of baseball’s coveted championship prize. On the road to the playoffs, Bryant joins a team of lovable, albeit flawed, characters who are trying to stave off their rivals in the standings. Along the path they encounter obstacles -- including scary and annoying Flying Dodgers fans --  in their quest to deliver the big bat the Giants need to stay on top and bring it home. The story ends with Bryant, a free agent at the end of this season, tapping his spikes and repeating “There’s no place like San Francisco … There’s no place like San Francisco …”

Pure fantasy? Not necessarily. Kris Bryant could become the Wizard of Oracle Park and stick around for a long time.

“It’s definitely enticing,” Bryant said behind his hazel green eyes in a pre-game press conference in the Giants’ dugout on Sunday. “I was talking with my wife when the trade happened and we both thought I’d end up here somehow someway. So far. So good. Everything has been super professional in such a classy organization. Anybody who has reached out to me so far I’ve been absolutely blown away. I feel unbelievably wanted. It’s such an amazing feeling.”

Perhaps Bryant, per orders from his agent Scott Boras, is saying all the right things and leaving all his future options open, but Bryant’s words before his debut with the Giants on Sunday sounded convincing that he is more than a three-month rental for the team who acquired him three minutes before the trade deadline on Friday. Bryant grew up in Las Vegas where, in elementary school, he became a Barry Bonds fan. He said growing up he had a mesh Giants cap with the Giants’ `G’ and a Bonds replica jersey and wore Bonds’ No. 25 on his uniform to pay homage to his idol. In fact, while on a family vacation to San Diego, Bryant almost came face-to-face with Bonds and got his autograph at a Giants’ game against the Padres at Qualcomm Stadium and was so disappointed that he didn’t that his mother went to a mall and bought young Kris an autographed Barry Bonds baseball.

That story is so cute that it could persuade Giants fans to invest $150 to go out and buy a cream-colored Giants jersey with “Bryant” and “23” (taken from third base coach Ron Wotus) on the back when they become available at the Giants Dugout Store. Afterall, Bryant in the Giants’ lineup feels more tactical than temporarily. His lifetime statistics at Oracle Park are a career OPS of 1.004 in 17 games with a .324 batting average, three doubles, one triple, five home runs, and 15 RBIs.

“I feel like I fit right in,” he says.

With free agent-to-be first baseman Brandon Belt coming off the books this offseason, the Giants will have money to spend to keep Bryant who, at the age of 29, is a valuable commodity in today’s game who can hit for average and power and capably play multiple positions. He said he prefers to play centerfield, but can play both corner outfield positions plus first and third base.

Bryant batted second and started at third on Sunday as the Giants remain uncertain when the injured Evan Longoria, who hasn’t played since June 5 because of a shoulder sprain, will return. Longoria, who turns 36 in October, is signed by the Giants through the 2023 season.

So can the Giants sign Bryant as a free agent? Boras is always looking for the best contract for his clients. Bryant was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays and they have a young, upcoming team and money to spend. Bryant’s father played in the Boston Red Sox organization and they will have needs to fill at first base and a corner outfielder in the offseason. The New York Mets are another team with money and desire to sign Bryant and he has not ruled out a return to the Cubs, saying weeks ago that he could “absolutely” re-sign in Chicago.

The Giants at least have a three-month head start to make their case to Bryant and his wife, who also is from Las Vegas where they met as high school sweethearts. If it is their desire to stay in California close to home and their families, the Giants have as much to offer as the Oakland A’s, Los Angeles Angels and Dodgers and San Diego Padres whose third baseman, Manny Machado, signed a 10-year, $300 million free agent contract two years ago at the age of 26.

Giants certainly made Bryant feel welcomed on Sunday after he arrived at Oracle Park shortly before 9:30 a.m. with cameras ready to follow his every move. Fans gravitated toward the third base line when the ballpark opened and cheered Bryant when he came out to start warming up. They cheered when his introductory taped pre-game interview with Amy G was played on the giant video board before first pitch. And they gave Bryant a standing ovation when he came to bat for the first time and stayed on their feet in the third inning when, in his second at bat, he homered off a 94 mph fastball by Astros’ pitcher Luis Garcia to ignite a three-run rally.

Bryant thus matched the feats of his former Cubs teammates, Anthony Rizzo, now of the New York Yankees and Javier Baez, now of the New York Mets, who both homered in their first game with their new teams after being traded by the Cubs.

“I’m just hoping to be that consistent bat, that consistent player that shows up ready to play every day and play anywhere every day,” Bryant said before Sunday’s game. “It’s been cool to see what they have done in their debuts. Maybe there’s some magic here.”

Saturday, July 3, 2021

Losing A's Would Add To Oakland's"Homeless" Problem

 The A’s green-and-gold slogan painted in big, bold letters on the outside of the Oakland Coliseum proudly states “Rooted In Oakland Since ’68.”

Inside the ballpark, however, the body language suggests an uproot is in the works. If you read between the lines outside the lines of the ballfield the message is obvious: The optics are awful.

Though the Oakland Coliseum was opened to full capacity this past week for the first time since the pandemic, the second-place A’s drew crowds of about 5,000 for all three of their home games with the Texas Rangers. Those were the smallest crowds to see any full capacity A’s game in Oakland in 24 years since September 15, 1997 when Brian Lesher was the team’s clean-up hitter.

The A’s had more than 32,000 fans on Friday night yet postgame fireworks was the main draw and 16,297 fans turned out on Saturday though, by the sound of it, most of them were Red Sox fans. Only the Toronto Blue Jays have attracted fewer fans at home this season, yet they have a good excuse. They are not playing at home. The Blue Jays have been playing their home games in Florida and Buffalo and not in Canada.

On the field, the A’s rallied for three runs in the bottom of the 12th inning for a much-needed win that snapped an eight-game winning streak by the first-place Red Sox on Saturday.

Unfortunately, the best hardball in Oakland these days is being played between team ownership and Oakland City and Alameda County politicians in a shell game of posturing over the desire to build a new ballpark, a new ballpark they have been talking about trying to build for 15 years!

Team president and the mouthpiece for ownership David Kavel, whose background is in PR, has been wooing Las Vegas with the A’s the way Al Davis wooed Los Angeles with the Raiders. Kavel’s directive is clear: If Oakland and the County of Alameda don’t give me what I/we need/want, I’m taking me/we and my/our team and going someplace that will. And they now have Major League Baseball’s blessing to do just that.

City and county officials, meanwhile, who have been dragging their feet for years are now digging in their heels, proclaiming to protect their coffers and taxpayers by not entering into any agreement – or $12 billion Howard Terminal at Jack London Square development project – centered around a new downtown/waterfront ballpark that will strap them. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, who has seen Oakland lose the NBA Warriors and the NFL Raiders in the past two years, has vowed to keep the A’s and is hopeful a new 45-year non-relocation deal with on- and off-site affordable housing plan plus single infrastructure financial district ballpark proposal will be in the place by July 20 when the Oakland City Council votes on the matter.

The opposing parties in this pissing contest basically have the same strategy: Make the other side look evil while making it appear they are doing everything humanly – or PR – possible to make them look good. Or seem like they care.

Poor, loyal A’s fans are stuck in the middle, between a rock and Mount Davis. They are victims of circumstance. Since the A’s opened the Coliseum in 1968, the Atlanta Braves and Texas Rangers have both built THREE ballparks, yet Oakland can’t build a new one. A’s fans have faithfully followed a low-budget franchise through thick and thin in a shit stadium that at least twice has literally reeked of sewage leakage breaks in the dugout. The A’s best chance to build a new ballpark is right next door in the parking lot where they have played for more than 50 years. They have the land. They have the infrastructure in place. They have a great need. 

A’s fans deserve better, but they are being treated rotten. It’s hard to be motivated to come to the games when the fan experience features team ownership that wants to ditch you, politicians who don’t listen to you and now customer service that don’t wait on you properly as they are understaffed and being trimmed to the barebones as if the team is about to pack up and move.

The A’s and their fans have been treated like second-class citizens ever since they built “Mount Davis” in 1996 as part of an Oakland Coliseum renovation project that catered to the Raiders in their second go-round with Oakland. The massive triple-deck symbol of that renovation – Mount Davis – robbed A’s fans of its single-deck bleacher section and magnificent open-air view of the East Bay hills and made the A’s the secondary tenant in the building. 

Mount Davis, now adorned by green tarps to cover unused empty nose-bleed seats, is a monument to mismanagement and the gigantic eye sore of Oakland sports. The only thing that could change that image is to build a new downtown/waterfront ballpark, but Donald Trump had a better chance of getting Mexico to pay for the wall and Kaval has had of convincing Oakland to give him what he wants. His plan calls for a $123 million transportation project to erect a gondola to cart A’s fans from the Oakland Convention Center BART stop over Interstate 880 to Water Street in Jack London Square.

As one A’s employee said, “This isn’t fuckin’ Disneyland.”

No, this is Oakland. The city that lost the Raiders twice and the Warriors forever. The A’s are their last chance, their last stand … their last major league team if someone doesn’t come to their senses.

Saturday, June 26, 2021

The New Normal Of Bay Area Baseball

 

So this is what the so-called new normal looks like in Bay Area baseball?

The San Francisco Giants are suddenly relevant again though they seem irreverent everywhere else despite being the first team in Major League Baseball this year halfway to 100 wins. They are somehow putting a safe social distance in the NL West standings between themselves and their filthy rich rivals, the Lo$ Angele$ Dodger$ and the $an Diego Padre$.

 The Oakland A’s are once again in playoff contention for the playoffs, yet the closest they come to getting their own waterfront ballpark is visiting the Giants’. As a baseball entity, the A’s continue to get about as much respect as Hudson, Mulder and Zito in “Moneyball.”

 Nevertheless, by the sound and feel of things, they are beloved in the Bay Area by their baseball-starved fans.

 After a nearly two-year pandemic-related sabbatical from the ballpark, I decided to take the temperature of these Giants and A’s fanatics on Saturday night and I didn’t need to use a digital forehead thermometer. They were gathered in bunches outside Oracle Park three hours before first pitch, a long line of which we have not seen since the toilet paper troll outside Costco in the spring of 2019. Oracle is now open to full capacity and as near as I can tell the only people required to wear a mask anymore are the two guys who crouch behind home plate because the pitcher throwing in their direction evidently may still be carrying a virus because he is checked every inning as if he is passing through TSA at the airport.

 Emptiness, eeriness, and bland cutouts at the ballpark are a thing of the past. When the gates opened here on Saturday, the buzz of real fans rushing to their seats sounded like kids getting off the bus for a field trip to Disneyland with a case of Red Bull. There was happiness and healing all at once and it’s not too surprising.

 There is a lot for these fans to like about their teams. In fact, if Dusty Baker didn’t have the Houston Astros playing out of this world right now this Bay Bridge Series would be the Mid-Season World Series.

 Not that anyone east of Stockton would care. Nightly discussion about Bay Area baseball nationally stops in the Central Time Zone and fades into Quick Pitch. Maybe ESPN, MLB Network and the Joe Buck Network ought to wake up and start paying attention to what’s going on out here instead of focusing on pitchers using spider tack. The last time there was this much controversy about sticky fingers it was 1971 and a Rolling Stones album cover.

For starters, Giants President of Baseball Operations Farhan Zaidi is a baseball baby yoda right now yet he’s getting about as much credit as a street sweeper in a circus parade. Zaidi took over the Giants for the 2019 season and cleaned up this mess and started turning over the roster. Of the 32 pitchers on the Giants at the end of the 2019 season, only one – Johnny Cueto – is currently on the team’s active roster and yet Giants pitchers lead the major leagues with 11 shutouts. The only Giants player in the starting lineup on Saturday who was in the Giants’ starting lineup exactly one year ago on the same day was Brandon Crawford.

The Giants are winning because of free agents like Kevin “Under The Radar” Gausman who would be the National League’s starting pitcher in the All-Star Game if not for the Mets’ Jacob deGrom who gets more coverage than the British Royals. Their offensive hero Saturday night was back-up catcher Curt Casali who for the second night in a row subbing for the injured Buster Posey, drove home the winning-run with a walk-off RBI double capping a two-run rally in the bottom of the 10th inning for another come-from-behind victory.

 Meanwhile, as the team’s president looks at more than a dozen potential places to build a new desert-front ballpark in Las Vegas, the A’s routinely trot out contending teams on a Dollar Tree budget with a manager, Bob Melvin, who might be the most underrated skipper in baseball history. Melvin was ejected from the game in the eighth inning for arguing balls and strikes, which only added to the delightful drama of the game which was indisputable.

The gritty A’s are like the Little Engine That Could 2.0.  They have four viable candidates for the All-Star Game this month – first baseman Matt Olson, catcher Sean Murphy, pitcher Chris Bassitt, and outfielder Mark Canha, now on the 10-day IR.  And, best of all, struggling third baseman Matt Chapman had his biggest hit of the season – a tie-breaking opposite-field two-run home run in the seventh inning that raised his fist in celebration – and his biggest RBI of the season with a go-ahead sacrifice fly in the 10th. Both lifted the spirits of A’s fans who desperately need some good news out of Oakland and Alameda County where they can’t agree to build their team a new home.

 What was amazing at Oracle Park on Saturday night is that so many A’s fans crossed the Bay Bridge from the East Bay to attend the game in San Francisco. Afternoon traffic was jammed to the point they could have called this the Bay Bridge Metering Lights Are On Series. The combination of A’s fans gravitating toward the home park of Giants fans created an incredible atmosphere and dynamic in the stands around two excellent baseball teams on the field. During the game the rival fans became engaged in a Chant-Off – “Let’s Go Giants!” versus “Let’s Go Oakland” – as if it was a high school cheering exercise. You know “We Got Spirit, Ye We Do. We Got Spirit ‘How Bout You?” This went back-and-forth like the score of the game.

Simply put there was a feel-good vibe in the ballpark where the end result was totally cool and fun evening of extra-inning entertainment. The fans were into the game and the moment, intoxicated by the opportunity to come together in the great outdoors and cheer and jeer and clap and whistle and sing and dance at anything other than Netflix and HBO Max. Together they belted out “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” and “Livin’ On A Prayer” louder than ever.

Whoa-oh this new normal.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Mad Bum: To Trade Or Not To Trade?


If Thursday night was a final audition for Madison Bumgarner then rejuvenated We Believe Giants fans now really have to wonder if Farhan Zaidi actually has the audacity to trade him. Mad Bum had his first nine-inning outing since July 10, 2016 and left the field to a standing ovation.

It marked the beginning of a seven-game post All-Star Break homestand and perhaps a signal to the end of the Bumgarner Era as we know it. Mad Bum Dodgers Baiter, the pick-up truck-driving, let-the-kids-play hero of the last of three-in-five-years World Series championships in San Francisco, pitched in a Giants uniform in front of Giants fans in PacBell/AT&T/Oracle/WhateverTheyNameItNext Park with MLB trading deadline less than two weeks away.

Before the game flags were at half mast in the ballpark. There were sirens in the outfield. And then, as if on cue, the fog started to roll in, further casting a pall over the yard and clouding the future of Zaidi, the Giants President of Baseball Operations and Potential Party Pooper whose job it is to decide the fate of Bumgarner.

Does he stay or does he go?

Well, it’s complicated now because for the first time all season – the last two years, in fact – the Giants have momentum. On the morning of June 30 – the last day Bumgarner pitched in Oracle Park – the Giants were 12 games under .500 (35-47) and 8 ½ games behind both the Milwaukee Brewers and Colorado Rockies for the two wild card spots in the National League playoff race.

According to Baseball Reference the Giants’ odds of making the playoffs were less than 0.1 percent. Worse than Jim Carrey dating Lauren Holly in Dumb and Dumber.

Then, for unexplained reasons, the calendar turned and so did the Giants and their much-maligned offense.  After a magical two-run rally in the 16th inning Thursday night  the team has won  12 of its first 14  games in July, the best winning percentage in MLB. They won three out of four games in Milwaukee then swept a four-game series in Colorado before coming home with happiness and hope. They are now one game under .500 and only 2 ½ games behind the Brew Crew.

The Giants’ odds of making the playoffs have grown to 6.3 percent. Better than Jim Carrey ever holding hands with Lauren Holly.

In a 14-game span the Giants offense, which had been as anemic as an ant without a picnic, scored 115 runs. That’s the best offensive output by a S.F. Giants team in a two-week span since they were the New York Giants in 1930. In other words Willie Mays and Willie McCovey are no match for Alex Dickerson and Donovan Solano.

If the Born Again Bruce Bochy Giants continue to hit like this then why on Earth would you trade your best starting pitcher? After surrendering a lead-off double and single in the first inning Thursday night, Bumgarner retired the next 13 batters and pitched shutout baseball against the Once Upon A Time Miracle Mets, the New York team that doesn’t want to trade for him. The Yankees, now with an eight-game lead in the AL East, have been rumored to be eyeing Bumgarner and Blue Jays pitcher Marcus Stroman, who has the second best groundball rate in MLB which is a perfect fit for fly ball home run happy Yankee Stadium.

However, Bumgarner has World Series pedigree and a Thurman Munson disposition and that’s more meaningful to Yankees fans. Seeing that Bumgarner has a 0.83 ERA with 34 strikeouts in his last 29 innings and five starts the Yankees are suddenly more intrigued.

So what’s Farhan Zaidi to do? Unless he can get a can’t-miss prospect – like the Yankees’ Clint Frazier – in return why unload Bumgarner while he and the Giants are rolling? What kind of a message does that send to Giants’ fans who are suddenly reinvested in this season? What message does that send to the team, which has battled itself back into playoff contention and saved the embarrassment of a lost season that started with Larry Baer and TMZ? And what message does this send to the manager, who will someday be in the Hall of Fame and has faithfully guided this team through a difficult transition and his own health problems? You reward him by trading his ace?!

What’s the rush? By July 31, Zaidi will have a better picture of the trade landscape and maybe more potential trading partners will join in the frenzy, though Bumgarner has a limited trade clause in the final year of his contract before becoming a free agent. Bumgarner could blow a snot rocket and block a trade. Or he could relent to one in the 11th hour like Justin Verlander did three years ago when he agreed to let the Tigers trade him to Houston.

It comes down to a head vs. heart decision.  Zaidi’s head keeps telling him trading Bumgarner is the best thing for the future of the Giants which, if the Giants keep winning in July, will break the hearts of Giants fans.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

NASCAR race and Sears Point now a lovefest


When NASCAR stock car drivers came to Sears Point for the first time 30 years ago this past week, I don’t remember Ricky Rudd for being the winner, but recall pretty much everyone around him being whiners in the Wine Country.

These Bud-loving, red meat-eating, no right-turning Oval Track Wonders were asked to make a severe pit stop and haul their trailors and asses 2,500 miles across the country to compete on a road course most had never driven before on a track that had an antiquated eye-sore double deck wooden press box stuffed to the rafters. They encountered an elevated 12-turn track featuring something called the Carousal, which was far from a merry-go-round given drivers in practice were slipping and sliding and going off course like ping pong balls in a hurricane.

Most of the drivers were cursing and complaining. There would have been plenty of mean tweets had there been Twitter in that age. Sears Point was hell on wheels.

“For some guys it was just a pain in the ass,” Rusty Wallace said.

I know for a fact that the legendary Dale Earnhardt wasn’t enamored with having to come to the San Francisco Bay Area to race. It was NASCAR’s first time racing here and they held a big press junket to promote it, meaning Dale was required to attend a press conference at PIER 39. It was held in a private room in the Nepture's Restaurant (now the Chart House) and Dale was sitting at a table leaning against a floor to ceiling plate window that overlooked the iconic PIER 39 sea lions docked below.

A bunch of reporters sat at Dale’s table. Mind you, Dale enjoyed talking to the media about as much as anyone in the Trump cabinet. Well, Dale answered questions at that inaugural press conference, but I don’t remember him having eye contact with any reporters. He eyes were fixated on the sea lions below the whole time. My guess is he was counting sea lions like we count sheep trying to go to sleep. Dale was ready to move on and the sea lions were merely a tourist distraction for him.

In fact, Dale was always in a hurry to leave Sears Point. I recall being in the garage area as soon as the race finished and I swear no sooner than Dale parked his race car that he stripped out of his race uniform and jumped into a waiting car to beat post-race traffic. It was his fastest pit stop of the day. On more than one occasion I spotted him passing me in the garage area as a passenger in the front seat before the race winner had even made it into Victory Lane.

I chuckled in 1995 when Dale actually won the NASCAR race at Sears Point and had to stick around.  He was in a great mood with media, having finally won the road course version of the Daytona 500.

“Well I won a road course. Maybe I’ll break the ice and win Daytona next year,” said Earnhardt, who had to wait three years to win his first Daytona 500 in 1998.

Sears Point has changed dramatically in 30 years. NASCAR then raced for the Winston Cup and handed out free cigarettes. In 1989 Rudd won in a Buick and there were 10 Pontiacs yet not a single Toyota in the race field.

On Sunday, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch finished 1-2 in Toyotas, the NASCAR race was once again co-sponsored by Toyota and the race’s Grand Marshall was David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development.

The double-deck wooden press box was destroyed and replaced by an air-conditioned Media Center. Where the wooden press box once stood now stands a humongous 47,000-seat metal grandstand with individual seats and suites, built in 2001 as part of a $50 million modernization plan.

Once a dread, the NASCAR race at Sears Point has become almost like a vacation destination. The sponsors love it and the drivers tolerate it.

“Through the years you’ve seen guys figure things out,” Truex said after winning at Sears Point for the third time in a race that didn’t have a single on track caution.

Sounds like when it comes to NASCAR and Sears Point, no one’s whining now.