Sunday, May 31, 2009

Time for underachieving A's to fire Bob Geren?

Now that all the excitement and/or agony April generates with unexpected starts in Major League Baseball has passed, it’s time to pass judgment.

By tradition, that comes on the traditional observance of Memorial Day weekend, which ended Sunday. It is at this juncture that we can honestly and realistically offer praise and criticism for the season thus far. The teams and their players have completed almost a third of their schedule, about 50 games, so we should have a pretty good basis for our beliefs.

In other words, the Giants are no better or worse than we expected and the A’s have underachieved to the point that management ought to seriously consider firing manager Bob Geren.

The Giants are hovering around the .500 mark as usual because their starting pitching is above average and their offense is below average. So what’s new? It’s what we all envisioned isn’t it?  They are who we thought they were.

The Giants are the definition of mediocre, the second best team in baseball’s worst division and they’re going to be looking up at the Dodgers all year. This is what the Giants season is going to be: A little ho and a little hum and if you put it all together it’s ho hum, baby.

The A’s, meanwhile, are the last place team in the second worst division in baseball with the second worst record in the big leagues. They are 10 games out, 10 games under .500 and ten fold worse than we expected when this season started when we, or I, suspected they would be good enough to challenge the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, at least until the Angels’ starting pitching got healthier.

Instead, the A’s are last in the league in batting (by 12 points), hits, extra base hits, home runs, total bases, stolen bases and slugging percentage. Worse, they seemingly have been playing uninspired ball and that’s reflective of the manager.

We all know Geren is best buds with A’s general manager Billy Beane, so Geren we can assume has a long leash.  But it doesn’t help Beane’s case that Geren’s predecessor in Oakland, Ken Macha, has the Milwaukee Brewers in first place in the NL Central right now. Colorado Rockies manager Clint Hurdle was fired the other day when his team had the same record as the A’s.

The A’s young pitching has been inconsistent, yet better than expected (the team’s ERA tops the Angels, Rays and even the Yankees) so the veterans apparently need to step it up and I sense if may have a problem with Geren. Matt Holliday, the team’s big off-season acquisition, made a crack about Geren about three weeks ago in a post-game TV interview and I wonder if he speaks for other key players on the team.

The bottom line is the A’s are in the cellar in the AL West while the Texas Rangers – the biggest surprise team so far – have a history of fading in the second half of the season. Beane is probably not going to add to payroll so he must subtract. Maybe it’s time to minus the manager to make a difference.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

How do you spell ESPN? B-O-R-I-N-G

I woke up Saturday morning and turned on ESPN to watch SportsCenter and a spelling bee broke out.

Excuse me!? What is a replay of a spelling bee doing on the world wide leader in sports!? What athletic skill is required in a spelling bee? Standing up? Sitting down? Turning the page on a dictionary?

Give me the World Series of Poker or the Strongman Competition or Stephen A. Smith vs. Skip Bayless in a screamfest of egomaniacs but please don’t put shy kids trying to spell words I can’t even begin to pronounce on sports television.

I actually tried to watch it: The semifinals of the National Spelling Bee. ESPN had a color commentary assigned to cover it and even college football/basketball sideline reporter Erin Andrews was on “the spelling sidelines.”  The semifinals focused on a showdown between Kavya Shivashankar (try spelling her name, contestants) and Sid “The Kid” Chand who the color commentator introduced as “the boy with the mustache.” My first thought: Is Sid on steroids? He’s a 13-year-old eighth grader with a Adam Morrison ‘stache?!

Then again, the only performance-enhancing drug these kids might touch is caffeine to keep them awake all night and all summer to study.

As near as I can tell, spelling bees can last longer than Red Sox-Yankees games because the contestants are allowed to ask up to five questions (from definition to word origin to ‘could you please use that in a sentence?) before some of them invisibly scribble the word in the palm of his/her hand. This is spelling bee’s version of the four-corner offense. It appears they are stalling for time or making the mark of the Zodiac.

I don’t get it. What’s the connection? Why they show the spelling bee on the No. 1 sports network is beyond me. Why not bring in Dickie V. to exclaim “He’s awesome, baby! With a capital A!!!”

There’s very little action and animation in a spelling bee. It’s held in a hotel ballroom. It uses words that no sportswriter has ever used. And no one is asked to spell the name of Duke men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski. Or Brett Favre, since his name pops up on ESPN all the time.

It’s time for the spelling bee to move to another network. Try F-O-X.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Foppert's big-league comeback at crossroads

There was a giant inflatable 10-foot high L.L. Bean boot over his shoulder in right field and the 37-foot tall “Maine Monster” -- a replica of Fenway Park’s famed Green Monster wall -- lurking behind him in left field, but what really distracted Jesse Foppert from pitching last week at Hadlock Field in Portland, Maine was Slugger, the Sea Dogs furry mascot, chasing a young boy across home plate during an in-game promotion. Foppert had to stop his warm-up pitches and wait.

Such is life in the minor leagues. This is where small-time promotions get the most cheers and most big league dreams die.

Yet Foppert, the one-time Giants phenom pitcher out of San Rafael High School, keeps plugging away.  At the age of 22, he was a starting pitcher for the Giants at AT&T Park in 2003. His rise to the big leagues was faster than Matt Cain’s. He won eight games, logged 111 innings but then he had Tommy John surgery. Foppert has pitched in only four games in the big leagues since, none since 2005.

This season, Foppert will turn 29, and he is still a long way from getting back to the Show. When I spoke with him in the empty visiting clubhouse in the Portland Exposition Building before a May 22 game on an uncommonly warm night in the Pine Tree State in the middle of the black fly season, Foppert wasn’t bothered. He was OK with his status. He was getting much-needed work. He was throwing in the low 90s. He was in the starting six-man rotation for the Connecticut Defenders, the Giants’ Double A team, pitching between future stars Tim Alderson,  20, and 19-year-old Madison Bumgarner. He was very impressed with them and their maturity and he was happy with himself for the first time in a long time. He had thrown five shutout innings in his previous start.

Foppert pitched well that night in Maine, striking out Lars Anderson, the No. 1 prospect in the Boston Red Sox minor league organization, and left the game in the fifth inning trailing 2-1. But then Foppert was apparently bumped from the starting rotation. He was scheduled to make his next start on Thursday and appeared in relief instead, allowing five hits and three earned runs in an inning against the Binghamton Mets.

He can’t be happy with that.

Foppert is a great guy with a burning desire to return to the big leagues. His quest is admirable, inspirational. He loves the game too much to quit it and everyone is rooting for him as they should.

And yet Foppert still struggles with his control and command. He has logged only 78 innings in the last four years. He is learning to throw a split-fingered fastball. He is 0-2 with a 4.56 ERA with Connecticut this season, striking out 20 batters in 25.2 innings, though walking 17. Younger pitchers with brighter futures in the Giants organization are catching up with him and exceeding him.

It’s do or die trying time for Foppert and his professional baseball career. 

Thursday, May 28, 2009

A road trip to remember

Sorry for the long gap between posts.

I just got back from visiting friends in Boston and family in Maine and, well, I simply forgot to take the lap top with me. Left it in the kitchen to charge it before I drove to the airport.

Then again, I wound up in the deep Maine woods where cell phone and wireless signals are as feeble as Jose Canseco inside a ring. The closest land line is a 20-minute drive to Monson along a moose-infested road. So, I wouldn’t have been able to send a file unless I literally climbed a mountain (Borestone) with dozens of cans of “OFF” to protect me from pestering swarms of black flies.

Frankly, I’m surprised the Red Sox Nation didn’t hold me captive. I was witness to the one home run David Ortiz has hit this season, a towering shot into the Triangle in centerfield at Fenway Park on May 20. The place erupted for Big Papi’s big fly, the only time he has done deep in 2009 and I was there, apparently as his good luck charm.

Highlights of the trip: Living vicariously through my buddy Lee Negip who told me he walked past Tom Brady walking with his son, Jack, and wife, supermodel Gisele Bundchen, and without paparazzi in Boston’s Back Bay. What TMZ wouldn’t have done for that shot, eh? Eating fresh, live Maine lobster for lunch at Shaw’s Wharf. Attending a Portland Sea Dogs game at Hadlock Field. Listening to Red Sox games on the radio. Listening to Red Sox fans fret about the Red Sox on WEEI. Getting a basketball-sized whoopie pie for desert on my birthday. Playing wiffle ball with my great nephew, Josh Huston, at camp. Spending quality time with my daughter, brother and sister Donna (who makes the best peanut butter fudge) on Greenwood Pond.  Shopping at L.L. Bean. Eating Boston crème doughnuts at Dunkin’ Donuts. Ordering the homemade grapenut and black raspberry ice cream at Butterfield’s in Dover-Foxcroft. Hearing everyone talk like me with a New England accent.

But the biggest surprise of the week was finally picking up a daily newspaper after a few days and seeing that the Padres had passed the Giants in the NL West standings. How did that happen? 

Monday, May 18, 2009

Gruden is an OK choice for MNF

Let’s see: Monday Night Football has tried a comedian and a sportswriter as part of its broadcast team and even auditioned a conservative talk show host.

Now they’re really getting wise. They’ve recruited an ex-coach and coaches generally know more about the Xs and O’s of football than anyone. Or at least more than Lisa Guerrero, an ex-Playboy cover girl.

Jon Gruden will become the 28th different announcer to serve in the booth or on the sideline in the 39 years of Monday Night Football. They have used seven ex-quarterbacks, yet only one ex-coach prior to Gruden. Big guy named Madden. He worked out well.

The fact is ever since the days of Howard Cosell and Dandy Don Meredith in the 70s, MNF has been unable to capture the magic of Monday. And that’s OK.  They have tried bells and whistles and Hank Williams Jr. to pull in audiences. They have tried pre-game concerts and halftime shows and doubleheaders to create more excitement. They’ve put pretty women on the sideline.

It’s the football, stupid. Good football sells MNF. That’s why fans tune in. So it’s refreshing that MNF has finally recruited a football coach to tell football fans what’s actually happening on the football field.

I don’t know how we’re going to judge Gruden. He can be funny and he should be insightful but will he be controversial? He won’t be working an Oakland Raiders game this coming season so we can’t sit on the edge of our seats when he’s asked to comment about Al Davis. Or Jeff Garcia. And it’s doubtful Gruden will second-guess many, if any, coaches because he’s just warming the seat in the booth until he finds another job on the sideline so he doesn’t want to upset anyone.

So what we see is what we get: Gruden, without the Chucky face, analyzing the action on the field with some credibility to back it up until MNF finds another ex-something to take his place. And that’s OK.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Federer responds to Sports Illustrated article with win

As a writer, it’s only human nature that any time you pen a story or column about an individual athlete or team you hope that it is immediately validated.

In other words, if you write something positive or negative about a player or team and they go out and continue to do something positive or negative, it supports your opinion or contention.

Thus, I wonder how S.L Price feels today. The brilliant Sports Illustrated writer authored an in-depth six-page article—titled “The Takedown”-- in the magazine’s current issue about how Rafael Nadal has humbled and perhaps passed Roger Federer as the No. 1 tennis player in the world. Price sought the opinion of players past and present and theorized that Nadal has adjusted his game, works harder and is more driven to improve than Federer. It suggests Nadal is in Federer’s head and Federer’s heart isn’t in the game or the rivalry that he and Nadal have developed. Price made a big to-do about Federer crying after Nadal beat him 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 in the finals of the Australian Open.

Basically, it was not a flattering portrayal of Federer’s future in the game, as it pertains to Nadal, who had defeated Federer in five straight finals and 13 of their last 19 matches. All of this was teased on the cover of SI with this headline “How Nadal Broke Federer.”

Then, on Sunday in Madrid, Federer came out and beat Nadal in straight sets, 6-4, 6-4 in the finals of the Madrid Open. It was the first time in almost two years Federer topped Nadal and only the second time Federer has beaten Nadal on clay, his favorite and best surface.

In other words, Federer broke back. Good win for him. Bad timing for Price.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Life of Brian has a bad week

The life of Giants ace relief pitcher Brian Wilson has sucked this week. Reality TV bites.

Let me put it another way: He’s been better at playing “Guitar Hero” than playing baseball.

The week started with Wilson reacting to being called out by Dodgers third baseman Casey Blake for his celebratory save-recording crossed-arms sign in L.A.. Blake’s criticism – which came after a blown save by Wilson -- was taken by Wilson as if he had received a swift kick in the groin. Wilson suggested he had a good memory and hinted at revenge. I know this is a deeply personal thing for Wilson, but he needed to be more professional about it.

Next, on Thursday, Wilson came into a tie game against the New Yorks Mets at AT&T Park and left having giving up three earned runs, meaning his ERA on the night was nearly as high as his I.Q.  The Mets are not the Washington Nationals it seems.

Finally, on Friday night, Wilson’s throwing error to third base led to his second loss in as many games to the Mets. He couldn’t finish the inning, got yanked and boos from Giants fans were clearly audible when Wilson walked from the mound to the dugout. Thankfully, it didn’t respond to that with another form of salute.

At about the same time Wilson was heading to the showers, his new reality show – “The Life of Brian” -- was re-airing on Comcast SportsNet Bay Area. Bad timing. The last Giants player to have his own reality show became the home run king. Wilson’s recent woes showed he’s more adept at handling a camcorder than a batting order.

Personally, I love “Life Of Brian.” It’s funny and fresh and it brings out his quirky Boston Southie Irish personality. It offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse of his real life including his home, which is rumored to be in Mill Valley. Given the state of the game  and all the focus on its steroid users, it’s a welcome distraction to watch a player who is having fun.

But if you’re going to stick your neck out there and call attention to yourself with gestures and gibberish you had better do the job you’re paid to do better.  It’s better to look good as a closer on the mound than be a hoser on TV.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Apology needed for covering apologies

It is simply amazing – and sometimes so ridiculous – how sports news is covered today.

I can remember one of my first Monday press conferences following a 49ers game when Bill Walsh was the coach in 1986. The press room at the team’s Redwood City practice facility was in fact a trailer and Walsh would actually sit down and have lunch with about a half dozen or so reporters in there. Rarely did a TV cameraman or TV reporter ever show up and it was strictly a relaxed and informal affair and that’s when the 49ers were World Champions.

In those days, the games were covered but there was little focus on the practices and preparation unless it was a playoff game. Now practices are covered extensively. And mini-camps. And draft day has become akin to the presidential election day results.

But this is what it has come to: I turned on TV Friday morning and some reporter on the scene was theorizing where and when Manny Ramirez might meet with his Dodgers teammates. Why? The reporter was covering … an apology?! That’s right. Not a game. Not a practice. Not a press conference. A friggin’ apology!

Sports media these days are investing valuable time and resources, spanning the globe to bring us the constant variety of sports, the thrill of victory and the agony of … apologies. If any athlete or coach screws up these says, an apology is sure to follow and sports reporters will follow the apology story to the bitter end. So ESPN and other TV and newspaper outlets frantically rush and send a reporter just to record two words: I’m sorry.

Boo hoo? Tee hee. It’s laughable.

What makes Manny’s kiss-and-makeup apology to his teammates so utterly preposterous is it was supposed to come in private. No reporters allowed. No cameras. No audio or video. Yet BIG NEWS! Manny apologizes! What does A-Rod think? The ESPN Nation? A poll: Do you think Manny’s apology was sincere or not? Top 10 Apologies of All-Time!

In the end on Friday, Associated Press and others needed confirmation that there had been an actually apology issued and Manny’s teammate Casey Blake was the “inside source.” Silly.

There’s got to be a better way. And there is. Twitter. Let Manny tweet his own apology and we can all move on with our lives to find out what’s the latest news on Brett Favre. No harm. No foul. No BFD.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

NHL's Final Four offers more action and suspense

Who will have the most fantastic, amazing, stupendous Final Four?

The NBA or the NHL? Hockey is ahead so far. Three of its four conference semi-finals series went to a Game 7 and the road team won two of them. In fact, all four teams – the Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks, Pittsburgh Penguins and Carolina Hurricanes – trailed by at least one game in those best-of-seven series to rally to stay alive and advance in Lord Stanley’s tournament. The Blackhawks, who haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1961 and didn’t even make the playoffs in nine of the previous 10 seasons, would appear to be the sentimental favorites.

The basketball playoffs, meanwhile, haven’t produced as much suspense other than wondering what L.A. Lakers team is going to show up from game to game, quarter to quarter. Fortunately for David Stern’s Circus, the Boston Celtics-Chicago Bulls opening-round series created enough drama to last for awhile.

Kenyon Martin’s mom, a.k.a. Mrs. Thug, would have provided a better challenge than the Cleveland Cavaliers encountered in the first two series. LeBron James’ Cavs, who have never won an NBA title in their 38-year history, are the overwhelming favorites now because they will face either a weary Celtics team or an overachieving, one-trick pony Magic team in the conference finals before meeting the Lakers in the finals, assuming the Lakers eventually snap out of their trance brought on by watching Ron Artest’s  mesmerizing head.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

My kid's perspective of steroids

I did not fully realize what impact all this steroid use among some of the top athletes would have on children until the other day when my youngest son had to go to a hospital emergency room because of a respiratory ailment.

The shock of the day was not that we suddenly learned that our health insurance had been terminated without warning or our knowledge but that my 11-year-old son is really scared of steroids. An ER doctor prescribed Prednisone for my son and explained that the drug is technically a “steroid.”

My son freaked out. For the longest time he was a Manny Ramirez fan. He wore a Red Sox T-shirt with Manny’s name and No. 24 on the back. He owned a Manny Ramirez dreadlock wig. He once dressed up as Manny for Halloween.

But with Manny in the news of late, along with Alex Rodriguez and Roger Clemens, all linked to steroid use, my son’s initial reaction to a doctor’s Prednisone prescription for him was, well, quite frightening.

“I thought I was going to die,” my son said.

Of course, the doctor explained the purpose of the medication and the benefits that it would bring and that death was not a side effect but my son’s first response was telling. It appears that my children – all children – may be getting the message that steroids are bad for you and could have serious consequences beyond being suspended or having unflattering books written about you.

That’s comforting to know. It has long been believed that steroid use among professional athletes has trickled down to our kids, who idolize these athletes and see it as a way to go to get bigger, faster, better. My son – and I’m sure many other sons and daughters at a young age – are absorbing information they see and read and hear and arriving at the conclusion that steroids are paramount to running into a busy street after a bouncing ball. It could kill you.

They know better.   

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Roger Clemens has rotten timing

The Space Shuttle Atlantis lifted off on Monday.

On Tuesday, the Rocket – Roger Clemens – blasted off, too. He went off on the new book “American Icon: The Fall of Roger Clemens and the Rise of Steroids in America” written by four New York Daily News reporters. It doesn’t take the Hubble Telescope to see what Clemens did by speaking on ESPN Radio’s “Mike & Mike In The Morning” show. He helped promote and sell a book ripping him. He’s gone from dumb to dumber.

“It’s a game of piling on,” said Clemens, who felt the urge to defend himself again.

Poor timing. Horrible timing. The past month or so, Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez have offered explanations for their links to performance-enhancing drugs and the baseball world isn’t buying their stories. Now, in this sad and unsympathetic climate, Clemens decides to launch his name and reputation into the public’s ears and eyes. Why now? He already has denied he did nothing wrong. What he told Mike and Mike is more or less the same thing he’s been telling everyone – including members of Congress – all along. He’s innocent.

Well, rather than remain silent, as he has for about a year, Clemens has thrust himself back into the spotlight. He’s not comfortably out of sight and out of mind anymore. He’s calling attention to himself again and that’s not good. Not only is Clemens bringing awareness to a new book and thus putting more money in the authors’ pockets, he’s raising a red flag at Congress, like a matador challenging a bull to attack.

It’s too bad. I almost was at the point that I misremembered him.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The mother of all Mother's Day sports telecasts in Boston

I don’t know if this has ever happened before and I don’t have any easy way to research it but it may be the very reason God invented TiVo. For Boston fans anyway.

The Boston Red Sox, the Boston Bruins and the Boston Celtics are all playing tonight and all are on national television and all are starting at approximately the same time. If you’re Boston sports fan, you’re playing “Spin The Bottle” with the remote control. How can you split a TV screen three ways? This is the mother of all Mother’s Day sports telecasts in Beantown.

The Celtics are playing out of town, in Orlando, in Game 4 of the NBA Eastern Conference semifinals on TNT. Meanwhile, in Boston, the Bruins are hosting Carolina in Game 5 of the NHL Eastern Conference semifinals on the Versus Network and, a half hour later, the Red Sox are at Fenway Park playing Tampa Bay in ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball. And what are the odds that all three televised games would be in commercial at the same time, as was the case at the end of the first inning of the Red Sox game when the Bosox trailed the Rays 1-0, the Celtics were tied with the Magic 23-23 and the Bruins were ahead of the Hurricanes 2-0.

Imagine how the gang down at “Cheers” would handle this dilemma with only one TV set?

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Bobby Orr: Greatest Hockey Player Ever

The other night, when I appeared again as a guest on Comcast SportsNet Bay Area’s “Chronicle Live,” we, the panel of so-called experts, were asked to name the greatest living players in each of the big four team sports.

In baseball, I picked Willie Mays, though I joked that the cryogenically suspended Ted Williams is still alive … sort of.

In basketball, Michael Jordan was my slam-dunk choice.

In football, I picked former Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown, who retired at the age of 29 having broke 20 NFL records.

And, in hockey, I didn’t choose Wayne Gretzky. Huh?

I took former Boston Bruins defenseman Number Four Bobby Orr over the Great One, Gretzky, who is the game’s all-time leading goal scorer and owned 40 league records when he retired at the age of 38 after 20 seasons and 1,487 games in the NHL.

Why Orr over Gretzky? Good question. Simple answer: Did you ever see Orr play?

Orr not only revolutionized his position but did things that the game has never seen. Like skate off an entire penalty kill by carrying the puck all by himself. During a game in Oakland against the California Golden Seals in 1975, Orr lost a glove while trying to kill a penalty. He proceeded to skate with the puck, circle the rink, pick up his lost glove then fire a shot on goal. Goalie Gary Smith made the initial save, but the puck bounced into the air where Orr swung at it with his stick and knocked it past Smith into the net. It has to be an ESPN Top Play of all-time. Unfortunately, Orr starred in the un-ESPN Era. Check out the Bobby Orr Highlight Video on YouTube.

The sad thing about Orr is he had 12 knee surgeries in his lifetime and was forced to retire from the game at the age of 30, having played in only 657 games. The next year, at 31, he was the youngest player ever to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. In 1969-70, Orr became the only defenseman to lead the league in scoring and, the next season, he had 102 assists and 139 points (still a league record for a defenseman) and set the NHL record for plus-minus with a plus 124, meaning Orr was on the ice for 124 more goals than his opponents.

By comparison, Gretzky’s best plus-minus in a single season was 98. The year (1982) that Gretzky scored an NHL record 92 goals, his plus-minus was plus 81. When Gretzky tallied an NHL record 215 points in the 1986-86 season, his plus-minus was plus 71.

Orr could score goals, assist on them and prevent them. He is the greatest two-way player the sport has ever witnessed.

Any questions?

Friday, May 8, 2009

Sharks shouldn't be so ashamed now

Do you think the San Jose Sharks and their fans feel a little better now?

They should.

The Sharks, winners of the President’s Trophy as the team with the NHL’s best regular season record, were roundly criticized after being upset by the eighth-seeded Anaheim Ducks in six games in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. It turns out that the Ducks’ luck wasn’t dumb luck and the Sharks weren’t that bad after all.

The Ducks are back in Detroit to play the defending Stanley Cup champion Red Wings in the Western Conference semifinals, having split the first four games against second-seeded Detroit. In other words, Anaheim is pushing the Red Wings in a series that will go at least six games. Detroit is having a tough time with the Ducks, too.

Meanwhile, the Boston Bruins, the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, is on the brink of being eliminated in the second round by the Carolina Hurricanes, a No. 6 seed, who have won three consecutive games. The Bruins finished runner-up to the Sharks in the President’s Trophy race and now they’re about to be swept away.

What people forget – especially people who don’t have a clue how wildly unpredictable the Stanley Cup Playoffs can be – is that the post-season in hockey is an entirely different beast. It was disappointing that the Sharks lost in the first round. It was not totally unexpected.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Manny being Manny means making excuses

Steroids supposedly make you bigger, faster, stronger but now I’m beginning to wonder if they make you lie through your teeth.

Manny Ramirez, the best player on the best team in baseball right now, has been busted for violating Major League Baseball's joint drug prevention and treatment program and thus has been suspended 50 games. Manny being Manny being like so many other players who have been accused of taking steroids had an excuse. He said it was a honest mistake and issued an apology.

Wah. Wah. Wah.

When the news broke, Manny – or Manny’s legal defense team playing damage control – issued a statement. Manny admitted guilt, took responsibility for it but said it was not a steroid. Nice spin. If it wasn’t a steroid, then what the hell was it? What was the banned substance that came out of the medication that an unnamed doctor not affiliated with the team gave Manny for his “personal health issue”? Viagra?

I can handle the truth.

ESPN is reporting that a recent drug test on Ramirez detected unusually high levels of testosterone. That is believed to have been caused by human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG), a women's fertility drug (Manny being Mandy?) that is typically used by steroid users to restart their bodies natural testosterone production as they come off a steroid cycle.

In this day and age of specialization where teams have team doctors, team trainers, team strength and conditioning coaches, team nutritionists and team massage therapists on the team payroll, how could this happen? The Dodgers have three trainers and two team physicians listed on their team website and Ramirez couldn’t seek out just one of them and ask them for help or ask them if the medication he was prescribed was OK to take? Shouldn’t his agent, Scott Boras, be responsible for making sure his high-priced, high-profile client makes all the right decisions?

Apparently Manny made as much of an effort to seek their advice as he sometimes runs out ground ball outs. Apparently the performance-enhancing substance didn’t improve his defense. Apparently baseball still has a drug problem.

Once again, baseball takes another swift kick in the groin and I’m sick and tired of it. Its most colorful player is suspended and suspicion about all its other players using performance-enhancers continues to linger. It raises even more questions.

Is this a reason that the Giants – or any team -- didn’t pursue Ramirez in free agency? Does this taint the Boston Red Sox winning their first World Series in 86 years in 2004 when Manny was the World Series MVP? How will this news impact Manny’s career and the future of the game?

No one knows because, when  it comes to baseball these days, who can you trust anymore?

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Developing story: I'm fed up with Favre

Brett Favre. What now?

Ω A TV camera-toting helicopter circling some secret, undisclosed location in Mississippi where Favre will meet Minnesota Vikings coach Brad Childress to see if the quarterback wants to un-retire? Again.

Ω The 39-year-old Favre doing sit-ups in his driveway to his farm in Hattiesburg?

Ω Serena Roberts rushing to do on a book on Favre?

Oh, boy. Here we go again. The fact that Favre is taking a meeting with Childress is fueling the flames that Favre will return to the NFL, if only to play for the rival Vikings to stick it to Green Bay Packers management, which discouraged him from coming out of retirement about this time last year.  Cheese-us Christ!

It’s big enough news in Wisconsin to knock the swine flu off the cover of the Green Bay Press-Gazette. Number 4 is bigger story than H1N1.

Favre wanted to play for the Vikings last year but he was still under contract with the Packers. They eventually traded his rights to the New York Jets, who released him last week. Favre has said since the end of last season with the Jets that he planned to retire for good and had absolutely no interest in playing for another NFL team. No way, he said. Well, this man apparently changes his story quicker than Alex Rodriguez. Should we start calling him Brett Fraud?

Frankly, I have no problem with Favre playing for the Vikings. They apparently think they have a need for a quarterback (although Tarvaris Jackson’s QB rating last season was much better than Favre’s, 95.4 to 81) so Favre has to figure out if he wants to play for the Vikes. We all know how much he loves to play the game and we love to watch that passion and it would be great theater on Monday night, Oct. 5, when the Packers play the Vikings in Minneapolis and even greater theater on Nov. 1 when the Vikings play in Lambeau Field. That will get the weight of the world --  or Kirstie Alley -- off Favre’s shoulders.

I have only one request. Make up your mind now. Today. Don’t drag this one into a “will he or won’t he” daily developing story soap opera update on ESPN 24/7 and E:60.

If you’re going to do it, just do it now.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A's are most disappointing team in baseball so far

I honestly thought the Oakland A’s would be relevant this year.

They made a great trade in the offseason to acquire Matt Holliday and then signed free agents Jason Giambi, Orlando Cabrera and Nomar Garciaparra, veterans who brought the kind of personality and presence the A’s have lacked in recent years. With a young pitching staff, the A’s seemed more interesting to me than the Giants.

But here we are in May and the A’s are last in the American League in batting average (by 30 points!), last in runs scored, home runs, slugging percentage and even on-base percentage, which is the staple of Billy Beane’s “Moneyball” philosophy. Yes, the A’s have been extremely hard hit by injuries but, at last look, Holliday was hitting .223, Giambi was hitting .218 and Jack Cust had almost three times as many strikeouts as RBIs. The only A’s everyday player playing up to par or exceeding expectations so far is catcher Kurt Suzuki.

Yet, no one seems to be complaining. C’mon. This is America! We complain about everything.

Maybe there are more A’s fans griping about the Sharks nowadays than the A’s. Or maybe A’s fans just don’t care enough, resigned to the fact that their team will be moving to a new home anyway. Or maybe we have to wait until Memorial Day to be reminded about the A’s.

What gives? I mean the Giants knew coming into this season that they would have a tough time scoring runs and they have and they have still been roundly criticized by fans and media. There was talk that manager Bruce Bochy could be fired.

The A’s, meanwhile, were supposed to have an easier time scoring runs and they haven’t yet I don’t sense the same kind of anger and frustration being heaped on the A’s as the Giants. Not even close. Bob Geren’s job appears safe.

Based on expectations coming into this season, the A’s probably have been the most disappointing team in the major leagues thus far. They’re in last place in their division, only the Washington Nationals have won fewer games than Oakland and the AL West leaders are the Seattle Mariners, managed by former A’s bench coach Don Wakamatsu.

Given the A’s have pitched much better than anticipated (third in the AL in earned run average) one might have thought they’d be in first place by now. Instead they are, well, irrelevant.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Don't ever knock a Red Sox-Yankees game

There is yet another Red Sox-Yankees game on national TV tonight and yet someone somewhere will gripe about it because, well, it’s the Red Sox and Yankees again and the perception is they are on TV more than the Geico cavemen.

The fact is that the Red Sox and Yankees no matter how many times they appear on TV always seem to produce great theater. What exactly is there to complain about? The games are most always tight and, if they’re not, than fans and players wind up uptight and you never know what can happen.

Now I may be biased (I’m a lifelong Red Sox fan and I own a `Yankees Suck’ T-shirt) but I can’t remember too many Red Sox-Yankees game that bored me into thinking I’d rather watch the Cubs play the Cardinals. When Boston and the interlocking NYY play, it is always contested in a historic ballpark rich in tradition and quirky with its dimensions, the fans always pack the ballpark and are intensely into the game, both teams always have star players and big personalities and there is usually something special at stake whenever they play.

What’s not to like about that? Red Sox-Yankees games are good for four plus hours of suspense and drama.

Here’s an idea: If you don’t like Red Sox-Yankees games then change the channel. You can always watch guys playing poker.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Zito finally feeling at home with Giants at AT&T Park

Barry Zito is pitching well again but there is no need to pull up a couch and psychoanalyze him.

It’s real simple to figure out: Location, location, location.

Zito, tired of being a single guy living alone in his secluded four-bedroom, 6,000-square foot, $8 million house in Kent Woodlands in Marin County, is living in the City again and feeling its vibe, just as he did in his hey days with the Oakland A’s.

In addition to relocating his private life, Zito is doing a much better job of locating his pitches, too. They’re not as easy to hit when they wind up low in the strike zone and off the heart of the plate. Duh. It’s not like his fastball is suddenly any faster or his curve ball any curvier. His focus and his pitches are just sharper.

“I’ve always been a fastball in and soft stuff away pitcher,” Zito said Sunday from his locker after pitching seven shutout innings against the Colorado Rockies at AT&T Park. “I got hit around in this park when I got away from that.”

Remember when Zito used to pitch at AT&T Park and each of his starts would inevitably end with him being booed off the field? It became as trendy to scorn Zito at a Giants game as Tommy Lasorda, Johnny LeMaster and the Crazy Crab.

Now Giants fans are suddenly standing and cheering for Zito and with good reason. They applauded him as he returned from the mound to the dugout in the fifth, sixth and seventh innings.

Why? Why not? The $126 million man gave up only two hits on Sunday and, for the first time since the first month in his three-year career with the Giants, he has allowed only three runs in three consecutive starts. Zito hasn’t done that at home that since May 17-June 16, 2006 when he gave up only three runs in as many consecutive starts for the A’s in the Oakland Coliseum.

It is too early to proclaim that Zito is back – he needs more qualify starts against quality teams -- but this signals significant progress.

In his first two seasons at AT&T Park, Zito’s earned run average was 5.01 in home games. However, dating back to last year,  his last six starts at AT&T Park Zito’s ERA is 2.13. He has logged 42.1 innings, giving up only 25 hits and 10 earned runs with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of better than 2-to-1 (31-14).

OK, so Zito hasn’t recorded a victory this season. The Giants have scored only six runs in five starting assignments this season and he’s had three straight no-decisions.

So what’s up with Zito and his new zenith?  It’s not the catcher. Much was made of the fact that Pablo Sandoval had become Zito’s “personal” catcher his two previous starts. But, with Sandoval nursing a slight groin injury and Bengie Molina given a day off, Steve Holm was Zito’s catcher on Sunday and Zito responded with seven shutout innings, lowering his ERA this season (which at one point was 10) to 3.99, the first time Zito’s ERA has been under 4.00 since June 4, 2007.

Zito said there’s no magic formula for this transformation. It’s all in his head. He’s just being “more relentless” in  concentrating better and focusing pitch to pitch. Basically, he’s blocking out all the bullshit that’s been swirling around for his first two years with the Giants. He said, as a veteran pitcher, one can “rediscover yourself.”

“We never like to tie our value as a person and as a human being to our performance on the field, but it’s kind of hard not to,” Zito said. “The media has flurries and things are written and fans are saying (uncomplimentary) things so it’s hard to stay strong. But I think, in the end, adversity always makes you stronger. That’s something I’ve put behind me.”

Now all Zito needs to do is keep it there.

“I feel better at the beginning of this season than I ever have,” he said.

Location, location, location.

Giants lower their (music) standards

I’m at AT&T Park today and, before the game in the Giants clubhouse, I heard something I never thought I’d ever, ever hear blaring out of the team’s music speakers.

A Miley Cyrus song.

That’s right. The 49ers had Joe Montana in their locker room and the Giants have Hannah Montana in theirs.

By tradition, the starting pitcher usually picks or decides what pre-game music is played to get him in the right mood. Well, Barry Zito apparently can’t be blamed for the Cyrus selection because he wasn’t hanging out by his locker room before the game. The culprit appeared to be Giants ace reliever Brian Wilson, who was the last person seen near the team’s CD player. His finger prints are all over it.

It breaks my achy, breaky heart.

Zito wasn’t the only Giants player who made himself scarce before the game. Randy Johnson, in a veteran move, ducked out a side door to avoid reporters who were waiting to ask him about his sore back. Giants manager Bruce Bochy revealed before the game in his office that Johnson hurt his back reaching for a ball on Saturday but it’s no big deal. Johnson is listed as day to day and his back was strong enough to allow him to long toss in the outfield prior to the team’s game against the Rockies.

The biggest news of the day was Bochy’s wallet is a little lighter. He bet that Ricky Hatton would defeat Manny Pacquiao in their 140-pound boxing title fight on Saturday night. Pacquiao won with a second-round knockout. Bochy joked that he would not fine his players to recoup his betting losses.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

"State of Play" hits a home run for me

Just went and saw the movie “State of Play.” It has Russell Crowe and only one mention of sports, but it really hit home with me.

It’s a must-see murder/mystery/thriller with a backdrop of a fictional modern-day newspaper. It reveals the real-life financial problems and priorities of ownership and the frustrations editors and reporters face in this day and age of investigative media journalism where flash supercedes the facts. It used to be that newspapers brought you hard news, depth and insight from the locker room and the meeting rooms but now good journalism is too often seen through speculative, opinion-driven bloggers who don’t have or need access or named sources and people who have cell phone cameras and happen to be the right place at the right time.

And here I am now, blogging my own website and feeling a little hypocritical. But this forum, I’m told, is the way to go these days. I look at it as an outlet to express my passion and educated opinion of sports without, hopefully, demeaning or totally humiliating anyone.

As “State of Play” exposes, newspapers now put a premium on how the news is packaged, presented and pushed onto a website as soon as humanly possible and not enough on the care and commitment that goes into content, which seems to be sacrificed because of downsizing and dwindling space.

I’m OK with that. These are tough times that requires necessary changes and tough decisions. But I’m reminded in “State of Play” that there is value in print journalism and there are some people who still care to feel, smell, read and see it that way. So, if you need a break from watching the Giants and A’s lose more games than they win, make a play for “State of Play.” It hits a home run.  

Friday, May 1, 2009

Albee's All-April All-Star teams

Though Tim Lincecum may be having a “Fidrych Effect” on attendance at AT&T Park this season whenever he pitches, if the All-Star Game were today the San Francisco Giants would have only one player worthy of being a starter and it wouldn’t be the Freak, the Franchise, Turnstile Tim or whatever they call Lincecum these days.

It would be the guy who calls Lincecum’s pitches.

Introducing Bengie Molina, who is the starting catcher for the National League on Albee’s All-April All-Star team following the A-Rod free first month of the 2009 season. Molina leads all NL catchers in home runs (4), RBIs (18) and batting average (.329) so he was a slam-dunk choice to be the starting catcher.

Joining Molina on the NL’s AAAAS team are Philadelphia second baseman Chase Utley and Florida shortstop Hanley Ramirez. Washington third baseman Ryan Zimmerman made the AAAAS team, but honorable mention is St. Louis rookie third baseman Brian Barden, who was claimed off waivers two years ago and is hitting .385 with a .641 slugging percentage.

The AAAAS starting outfield consists of Raul Ibanez of the Phillies (56 totals bases in April), the NL’s leading hitter Carlos Beltran of the New York Mets and Manny Ramirez of the Dodgers, who is followed closely by “Manny Behind Manny” teammate Andre Ethier.

Though the Dodgers’ Chad Billingsley is 4-0 with a 2.15 ERA, my choice after April’s play as the NL starting pitcher is the Mets’ Johan Santana who is 3-1 and is second in the major leagues in ERA (1.10) and tied for strikeouts (44).

First base was easily the dominant position in the NL in April. Albert Pujols was the best of the bunch, but special kudos go to Joey Votto of Cincinnati, Adrian Gonzalez of San Diego and the Marlins’ Jorge Cantu who had a .778 slugging percentage last month.

In the American League, the most difficult choices for starters for the AAAAS team came at first base and second base. Kevin Youkilis of Boston leads the AL in hitting and gets the nod to start but Carlos Pena of Tampa Bay (9 HRs, 24 RBIs) had a terrific April even if his team didn’t. At second base, the Yankees’ Robinson Cano is off to a fast start but Aaron Hill of Toronto has better numbers and gets the start on my All-April team. Rounding out the starting AL lineup are catcher Victor Martinez of Cleveland, third baseman Evan Longoria of Tampa Bay and former Oakland A’s backup shortstop Marco Scutaro of the Blue Jays, whose stats outshined Derek Jeter. The AL’s starting outfield is Nick Markakis of Baltimore, Torii Hunter of the Angels and Jason Bay of the Red Sox, who batted .324 with five home runs and 19 RBIs and, in drawing 23 walks in his first 22 games, had an on-base percentage of .490.

The AL starting pitcher is a no-brainer who used to be a no name. Kansas City’s Zack Greinke is 5-0 and leads MLB with a 0.50 ERA and 44 strikeouts.