Saturday, June 27, 2009

Memories of the Original MJ

My Michael Jackson memories date me and my age. I first saw him and Jackson 5 on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1970. I listened to their first album on an 8-track cassette.

But the closest I came to Michael Jackson -- the original MJ -- was in 1993 when he appeared at halftime of Super Bowl XXVII at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena where everyone thought the San Francisco 49ers would be. The 49ers had the best record (14-2) in the NFL during the 1992 season and that earned them the right to host the upstart Dallas Cowboys in the NFL championship game at Candlestick Park on Jan. 17, 1993.

It was Steve Young’s first championship game as the 49ers quarterback, replacing Joe Montana. He drove the 49ers 93 yards to a touchdown with 4:33 left in the game, pulling the 49ers within 24-20. I had come down from the press box and was on the sideline to the left of the 49ers bench. The crowd was as loud as I can ever remember it being at Candlestick Park. The Cowboys had the ball and the 49ers’ defense needed a stop and everyone was on their feet. It was thunderous. The momentum had shifted.

Then,  on first down, Troy Aikman threw a 14-yard pass to Alvin Harper who turned it into 70-yard gain and Candlestick fell silent and the 49ers’ rally went dead. Three plays later, Dallas scored the clinching TD and Jimmy Johnson walked into the visiting locker room and uttered that infamous scream “How ‘bout them Cowboys!”

It wasn’t supposed to be the Cowboys’ year. It was supposed to be the 49ers’ year and I was supposed to go to the Super Bowl.

Instead, Michael Jackson told us to “Beat it.”

Friday, June 26, 2009

Are the Warriors shooting themselves in the foot again?

That wasn’t an NBA draft I watched on television on Thursday. That was a puzzle.

Puzzle? After the first six players were selected in the draft, each time ESPN listed a “need to improve” graphic and each time it popped up “mid-range jumper” or some variation that indicated that these instant millionaires ought to work on their outside shot.

What’s wrong with this picture? These are millions of dollars about to be paid to young men who can’t even shoot a basketball much beyond a dunk and a lay-up?

One of those players was Ricky Rubio, the 18-year-old kid from Italy. He plays like Pete Maravich but he looks like Tony DeFranco, the lead singer for the 70s pop family singing group whose big hit was “Heartbeat (It’s A Love Beat). Did I nail that or what?

Anyway, Rubio said he preferred California’s climate so the Minnesota Timberwolves went ahead and drafted him – and his 8.0 points a game scoring average – thinking Rubio and his family would welcome the frigid winters in Minneapolis. Yeah, right. And, apparently just in case Rubio didn’t, the T-Wolves took another point guard, Jonny Flynn of Syracuse, with their next pick.


Then, with the seventh pick overall, the Golden State Warriors finally took a player who can really, truly shoot and the rumor is they want to trade him to another team, the Phoenix Suns.

Now let me ask you this Warriors fans: Would you rather have Stephen Curry take a 3-point shot for your team or Stephen Jackson? I thought so.

Yet the Warriors are considering trading Curry, a dead-on, spot-up jump shooter who would compliment the slashing style of Monta Ellis, to the Suns for Amare Stoudemire, who doesn’t rebound well or defend well or block many shots and who could command a contract extension that could pay him $95 million for five years? And to get Stoudemire the Warriors would have to give up Curry and Andris Biedrins, their best rebounder and shot blocker? And this would make the Warriors a much better team for Don Nelson, who may coach only one more season?

I can understand if the Warriors want to blow up their roster as start over but I get the feeling they’re like Wile E. Coyote carrying the TNT to do it.

Very puzzling. More puzzling than funny.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

LeBron and Shaq are not Batman and Robin

Why can’t LeBron James suffer like Kobe Bryant?

Ever since Shaquille O’Neal was traded by the Los Angeles Lakers in 2004, it appeared Kobe was cursed never to win an NBA championship without Shaq.  It took a Kobe five years to do it alone, but he did it.

Can’t the King go the same route? Can’t he pay his dues, so to speak? LeBron is still only 24 years old. What’s the rush? He’s only been in the league for six seasons.

Jerry West had to play 12 years in the NBA before he finally won his first championship – at the age of 33 – but West needed 7-foot-1, 275-pound Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain to get him over the top.

But LeBron wants his NOW. Which is why the Cleveland Cavaliers traded for Shaq who will try to do for the King what Wilt did for West. Except the 7-1, 325-pound Shaq will turn 38 during the playoffs next season and that’s asking a lot for a guy of Shaq’s stature to defer to LeBron. Shaq was supposed to be the missing piece for the Phoenix Suns when they acquired him late in the 2008 season and stuck him in the middle of an All-Star lineup. Well, Shaq had as much impact in Arizona as Matt Leinart and the Suns’ franchise is fading like a cactus in the desert sun.

So what we have is an NBA-title-or-bust scenario this coming season in Cleveland and they will have to go through a healthy Kevin Gannett and Boston and Dwight Howard and an inspired Orlando team. If the LeBron and Shaq don’t win it, it could be one-and-done for both players. LeBron will leave Cleveland and find another team that offers a Kobe-like supporting cast to lead him to an NBA championship and Shaq will look for the best deal that will portray him as the missing link.

Good luck, King. Good luck, Shaq, You’re going to need it. I hope you suffer together.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

U.S. soccer scores back-to-back `miracles'

I was in a restaurant having lunch with my family on Wednesday when cheers erupted from the bar. No, John Daly wasn’t buying a round for the house. Upon further review, there were people actually watching TV and cheering for a goal by the United States in the Confederation Cup.

Big deal? You bet. It was confirmation that someone cares about soccer in this country.

Two weeks ago, Sports Illustrated had a tiny article in its publication – on page 33, right after horse racing – that basically implied that Bob Bradley’s job as coach of the U.S. team was under fire. The Americans had been embarrassed in a 3-1 loss to Costa Rica – think New York Yankees being swept by the Washington Nationals – then needed to rally for a 2-1 over Honduras (think Baltimore Orioles) in North and Central American qualifying for the World Cup. Ask most Americans to name a player on the U.S. team and they might get Landon Donovan but no one else.

The Americans and Bradley appeared irrelevant until Wednesday. They essentially produced back-to-back miracles. First, they somehow managed to get to the semifinals of the Confederation Cup in South Africa only because they needed the improbable combination of Egypt losing to them by three goals (and they did) and Italy losing to Brazil by three goals (and they did). Then, in the semifinals, though being outshot 29-9, Team USA upset heavily-favored Spain, the world’s No. 1 ranked team, 2-0.

“This is an accident,” Spain’s coach, Vincente del Bosque, said.

Accident?  Do you believe in miracles? Twice? We’re talking “Miracle on Grass” stuff here.

The Americans will now play in the Confederation Cup championship on Sunday, the first time since 1916 the U.S. has played in a men’s FIFA finals. Think Boston Red Sox and Curse of the Bambino.

Maybe this was an “accident.” Or maybe this was just a shot-in-the-dark day for American soccer. Either way, it should bring some attention to soccer in the United States. That’s a miracle in itself.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The King and wine make great combination

I spent the whole weekend at the NASCAR race at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma and got my neck red.

I saw plenty of odd sights but the weirdest one of all was seeing Richard Petty drinking wine in the winner’s circle. What’s wrong with this picture … The King? Drinking red wine? In the winner’s circle?!

It’s about time. Richard Petty represents everything I like about NASCAR and since he retired as a driver in 1992 and became an owner his team had won only three times until Sunday. That’s three times in 17 times and none in almost 11 years.

And then Kasey Kahne, driver of the No. 9 Budweiser Dodge for Richard Petty Motorsports, came out of nowhere – a driver with no penchant for running on road courses winning a race for a 71-year-old owner who richly deserved it. It was a great moment, and then the King was ready for it. He was ready for the wine, too.

It seems Petty visited a winery over the weekend and was led into a wine cellar that the King called “a cave.” He said it was loaded with barrels of wine.

“I think we drunk something out of every barrel,” the King said. “(The cave) was straight and, when we got to the other end, and when I turned around, that dog gone was like that and like that (waving his hands). It changed after I went up through it. It was straight going in, it wasn’t too straight coming out.”

To quote rocker Peter Frampton: “What wine? Whose wine? Where the hell did I die?”

In a NASCAR world that has gone so high tech, it was so nice to see a good ole boy get a win for a change. The difficult economy has taken a big bite out of Richard Petty Motorsports, creating tension and causing cutbacks. Yet the King has handled all the losing and frustration over the years with class and dignity so it was such a treat to see him back up on the big stage and back in the spotlight again.

Petty could have whined about all his team’s misfortunes and bad luck. Instead, he wined and dined.

A toast. Long live the King!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Kyle Busch works hard for the money

Last year, Kyle Busch hardly thought about racing on the eve of the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Infineon Raceway. He and his girlfriend, Samantha Sarcinella, spent the weekend by going to Target to buy “Family Guy” DVDs then watched television in their hotel room when they weren’t hanging out by the pool.

Relaxed and refreshed, Busch led 78 of the 110 laps and won the race on Sunday.

This year, Busch won’t have much time to relax. After practicing at the Sonoma track on Saturday morning, he hopped on a helicopter to fly to Napa to get on a private plane to fly to Milwaukee to race in the Nationwide Series series there on Saturday night. After that, Busch planned to fly back and arrive in Napa around 4 a.m. on Sunday so he could defend his title in NASCAR race at Infineon Sunday afternoon.
If there was any benefit to it it’s that Busch got to leave the track in Milwaukee about an hour sooner than Carl Edwards, who outran him to win the race and had to stick around for media and sponsor obligations.

Still, Busch suspects he won’t catch a break.

“I’ll probably get ridiculed if I lose the (Sonoma) race this year or struggle in it because I went to Milwaukee. I don’t feel that way,” Busch said earlier this week. “Last year I set the tone that I do know how to road race and if my car is good enough I can make it happen and if we’ve got the right pit strategy we can make it happen. This year it will just be about making sure I get enough sleep.”

Busch planned for shut-eye. He said he had a comfortable spot on the private plane picked up.

“In the bathroom,” he quipped.

Well, don’t be surprised that even with forces against him – jet lag, sleep deprivation, Busch-bashing fans – that the Bad Boy of NASCAR makes good on Sunday. Then he can relax.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

NFL players are most underpaid athletes in the world

Forbes Magazine has announced its list of the world’s highest-paid athletes and, of course, Tiger Woods tops it.

No surprise there.

Woods is one of three professional golfers on the Top 20 list. There are also five NBA players, three Formula One race car drivers, two NASCAR drivers, two New York Yankees, two professional boxers, two professional soccer players and one tennis player.

However, there is not one NFL player on the list.

What’s up with that? The NFL is probably the richest sport there is. Stadiums are usually filled to capacity. There are games on television sometimes five days out of the week. There is analysis of the games on TV 24/7/365. These NFL players get more worldwide exposure than any athletes on the planet from merchandize sales to fantasy football and yet not a one of them is among the world’s highest paid in their profession. And the closest to make the list isn’t even a quarterback. It’s the former client of Mill Valley sports agent Steve Baker: Oakland Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, who signed a $45 million contract in February.

So, though NFL owners are making money hand over clenched fist, the league’s salary cap prevents its employees from making more money than they should.

If you were to ask me, NFL players are the most underpaid athletes in the world. If you could stand on an NFL sideline like me and hear the violent sound of players getting tackled, you might agree. These players don’t get paid enough to subject their bodies to those type of brutal collisions. I mean, Manny Pacquiao, who is the best boxer in the world pound for pound, couldn’t take the pounding that most NFL players do yet he’s tied with LeBron James and Phil Mickelson at No. 6 on the latest rich list.

In fact, King James and maybe Shaquille O’Neal might be the only two on the current Forbes’ Top 20 best-paid list who would be able to play in the NFL. But they play in a league that guarantees you’ll earn every single penny for every year in which you sign a contract to play. The NFL guarantees a big signing bonus and not much else beyond an annual salary.

So as much you may know and adore Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Brett Favre and all the other star-studded QBs in the NFL, they are rich men, poor men compared to Kimi Raikkonen.

Kimi Raikkonen!? Never heard of him? He’s a Finnish F1 driver who is tied with Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan for No. 2 on the list behind Tiger. Kimi’s probably never even picked up a football in his life.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

If it's Tiger vs. Phil, who would you root for?

Imagine this fantasy finish to the U.S. Open this weekend.

Tiger Woods vs. Phil Mickelson in the final group, topping the leaderboard and comfortably leading the rest of the field by several strokes.

Who do you root for to win?

Everybody loves Tiger because Tiger’s a winner. He’s fit and he’s fun to be around. He’s in all the TV commercials and video games. His demeanor breads confidence and his smile could light Nike headquarters for a week. He’s won more major tournaments on this planet other than Jack Nicklaus and he wins from ahead and from behind with an unmistakable animated fist-pumping style that appeals to the galleries who adore him and the fans watching at home who admire him. He is on the Mt. Rushmore of modern day sports.

Then there’s Phil.  He’s lumpy and lefty. He’s like a doughnut: There are a variety of reasons you shouldn’t like him (namely he doesn’t win nearly as much as Tiger) and he’s usually not good for you in the end but you have a fond weakness for him. You have a soft spot because, all things considered, he’s an underdog. A cuddly puppy, though hardened golf fans don’t warm to him because he fails in the clutch more than his succeeds and the perception is no such thing ever happens to Tiger.

Tiger wins when you suspect he can win. Phil wins when you least expect it.

So what happens if, on Sunday, they’re playing for our national championship, head to head, hole by hole? Who do you want to see win?

As much as I like Tiger as the next guy, I’m pulling for Phil. His wife, Amy, has breast cancer – my older sister is a breast cancer survivor – and she wants him to come home with the U.S. Open trophy. It’s like Adrian awakening from a coma and telling Rocky Balboa to go fight and win. This would be perfect theater, Phil coming down the 18th fairway at Bethpage Black with a chance to win the U.S. Open but needing to beat Tiger to do it.

In the end, it’s pure Hollywood. Phil, with Tiger looking over his shoulder, sinks a tournament-winning birdie putt then breaks down and cries. And we’d cry with him.

So, the question is, do you root for Tiger and smile or root for Phil and cry? Either way, I’m loving it.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Sosa newest victim of "Fairnaru-Wada Era"

You know it’s not a good day in sports when Mark Fainaru-Wada shows up on television.

I kid Mark, who I consider a good friend, but his job now as an investigative reporter for ESPN means he usually turns up or reports something negative regarding athletes and performance-enhancing drugs. So, when the New York Times reported today that former Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa tested positive in 2003 for using an unnamed PED, Fainaru-Wada got some face time to explain the latest catch in the steroid era net.

He is the Bob Woodward of the PED generation, who was at the forefront of steroid investigation.

It was just another gotcha. In 2003, Sosa was caught redheaded with a performance-enhancer – cork spilled out of one of his bats. Sosa’a alibi for that was it was one of his batting practice bats and he mistakenly used it in a game. Sosa also denied using PEDs in front of a Congressional committee in 2005 and said earlier this month, upon announcing his retirement through ESPN Deportes, that he was “calmly waiting” for his induction into baseball’s Hall of Fame.

Well, tick, tock, tap your shoes and grab a Snickers bar. Sosa will have to wait five years before his name even appears on the Hall of Fame ballot and, by then, we should have a clearer picture of the so-called steroid era. By then, we should know the names of all 104 anonymous players on the list who tested positive in a secretive 2003 survey and right now we know only two – Sosa and Alex Rodriguez.

Until then, Fainaru-Wada has a job to do.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Giants' wildcard playoff hopes premature

If the 2009 season was to end right now, the San Francisco Giants would be in the playoffs.

OK, have you rolled that around in your mind and relished that thought? It would be like Susan Boyle being named Miss California then being backed by Donald Trump.

We’re talking pure fantasy here, people.

The good news is the Giants have won 13 of their last 18 games to move a season-high six games over .500. They’ve got a better record than the New York Mets.

The Mets are probably a better team but they’re in a tougher division. The Giants, who currently have a better record than four of last year’s division winners, are a good team in a bad division.

Now brace yourself for the bad news. Four of the last five teams the Giants faced had losing records. Four of the next five teams the Giants face have winning records.

So, before we get too excited about the Giants, let’s get to July then turn the page and the calendar. Then we will see how committed the Giants are to winning right now. We will see if general manager Brian Sabean can make a deal to bolster the offense before the trade deadline. We will see if the Giants are willing to part with pitching prospects of the future for a big bat of the present to make a playoff run. We will have to wait and see.

Until then, you can fantasize all you want.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Penguins' Cup win supersedes Detroit's woes

I woke up this morning expecting to see video of people dancing in the streets celebrating the Pittsburgh Penguins winning the Stanley Cup on Friday night.

Instead I logged onto my computer and the first thing I was led to was an ABC video entitled “No Joy In Motown,” focusing on the Red Wings losing the Cup in Detroit, a city that leads the nation in unemployment (14 percent) and where the housing market and automobile industry have collapsed.

Now I feel for Detroit. Everybody does. But what about Pittsburgh and its hockey franchise!? The Penguins became the first road team in 30 years to win a Game 7 of a finals championship series but their fans and their city have suffered through tough times, too.

Mario Lemieux will forever be the face of hockey in Pittsburgh and its savior. In 1993, a year after he led the Penguins to their last Stanley Cup, he was diagnosed with Hodgkins disease at the height of his playing career. He beat cancer and eventually became the team’s owner. In 1998, the team filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and was on the verge of folding or moving. Lemieux stepped in and agreed to defer players’ salaries, thus saving the team. Few if any owners would ever do that.

The Penguins continued to lose money. In 2004, their attendance (11,877 per game) was the worst in the NHL. The next season started and Lemieux had no choice but to go along with an NHL owners lockout, preventing players from playing and fans from watching. Five years ago, the Penguins and the league had hit rock bottom.

Then, on Friday night with Super Mario in attendance, the Penguins climbed back to the top, ending an incredible comeback by hoisting the Cup over their heads in Detroit. There may have been no joy in Motown, but there was tons of pride in Pittsburgh, the Steel City. It’s a feel-good story that even Detroit can appreciate.

Friday, June 12, 2009

"Superman" needs nickname change

Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird!! It’s a plane!!! It’s someone who can’t make a free throw if his team’s playoff life depended on it!!!!

It’s Dwight Howard of the Orlando Magic who calls himself Superman. Well, he must be because with 11.1 seconds left in Game 4 of the NBA Finals on Thursday night he had the ball and the game firmly in his hands on the foul line 15 feet from the basket unguarded when he suddenly treated the net as if it had been dipped in Kryptonite. He did his best to avoid it. The man who is supposed to smash through bricks launched a pair of them at the rim. He missed both of two foul shots that would have given the Magic a likely insurmountable 4- or-5-point lead to even their series with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Instead, Howard fired Shaq-like blanks and the Magic missed a golden opportunity to abracadabra some excitement and suspense into these Finals. The Lakers managed to tie the game with just one shot then won it in overtime and, for all intent and purposes, won the series.

“Superman” Howard had been faster than a speeding bullet to score 16 points and was more powerful than a locomotive to block nine shots and was able to leap tall buildings with a single bound to grab 21 rebounds. Yet he will be forever remember in the Magic Kingdom as the stiff at the line who clanked a couple of free throws that would have made him the star of the game.

Now the burden is off Kobe Bryant and the Lakers smell the championship and Howard – who missed eight free throws all told in the eventual eight-point loss -- is prepared to take on the persona of another super hero – The Invisible Man. Maybe Howard ought to take his cape and slam dunk it in the trash and show a little humility. He’s suddenly become the Clark Kent of this series.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Turning an old Leaf

I have been yelled at by Will Clark, Barry Bonds and -- famously, thanks to NFL Films -- Jerry Rice, though he was not responding angrily or accurately to the question I actually asked. But I never was screamed at like Ryan Leaf lit into another sportswriter one time in San Diego.

That is a sportswriter’s nightmare – other than getting the final score incorrect in the paper. No one likes to be yelled at in front of others but it happens because athletes’ can sometimes be sensitive and reporters can sometimes be insensitive.

Unfortunately, for Leaf, that is his legacy. His locker room meltdown as quarterback for the San Diego Chargers was the beginning of the end of his career. People might remember that he was neck-and-neck with Peyton Manning to be the first player selected in the 1998 NFL draft. The Indianapolis Colts finally decided to take Manning and he became an MVP who led them to the Super Bowl. Leaf was taken second by the Chargers and he became perhaps the biggest bust in NFL draft history. And the biggest pain in the butt. People, especially children of the YouTube generation, will remember Leaf screaming at the top of his lungs at some poor, unfortunate soul.

In four NFL seasons with the Chargers, Bucs and Dallas Cowboys, Leaf threw only 14 TD passes and 36 interceptions. His quarterback rating was 50.0. Leaf wound up coaching at West Texas A&M. He was the QB coach and the school’s golf coach. But, last November, he resigned a day after he was accused of asking a player for a pain pill.

Leaf, who one day was good enough to play for the Rams, is now believed to be on the lam, though his attorney has said he is not. On May 21, Leaf was indicted in Texas on drug and burglary charges. Today, he is a wanted man for failing to turn himself in. He already may have fled to Canada because that’s where he was last seen – at drug rehab center in British Columbia.

You hate to see someone struggle with their personal demons and wish them the best in recovery. But -- and I think I speak for most if not all sportswriters -- it appears he got what he deserved. That is if ever shows up again.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Headliners and one liners

Headline: Vikings suspend pursuit of Brett Favre.

One line: If only ESPN would suspend its coverage of it.

Headline: Mike Tyson married two weeks after daughter’s death.

One line: How many sane people can go from a family funeral to a honeymoon so quick?

Headline: Joe Montana’s son decides on school.

One line: Nick has had plenty experience seeing he tried three high schools first.

Headline: Yankees try to end skid versus Red Sox

One line: Money is no object.

Headline: Emotional Mickelson says he win.

One line: So long as Tiger’s not around.

Headline: Jets reach five-year deal with Sanchez

One line: Tim Floyd asks for loan.

Headline: Boras: Strasburg deal should be special

One line: For whom?

Headline: Exposure charge dropped against Bills’ McIntyre

One line: I thought Terrell Owens was the most exposed player on the Bills?

Headline: Phillies Ibanez slams blogger for PED theory.

One line: It comes with the territory so get used to it.

Headline: Kareem: Howard’s Magic play ‘predictable.’

One line: As predicable as a sky hook?

Headline: MLB to Dodgers: Careful on Manny visits

One line: Is he in prison?

Headline: Mora: Vick deserves to be reinstated.

One line: So Mora can sign him.

Headline: Enormous Super Bowl rings

One line: It’s a bling thing.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Giants, A's draft picks have drawbacks

As great theater goes, the Major League Baseball draft from Studio 42 on the MLB Network on Tuesday lacked all the bells, whistles and Kipers we’ve come to expect from, say, the NFL and NBA.

There was only four minutes between rounds. No teams trading up or down. No Giants or Jets fans cheering or complaining or both.

But it was as simple as pitch, hit and catch and I was just fine with that. Other than having to hear Bud Selig talk out of both sides of his mouth, it was good TV.

The Giants, with their first-round pick, the sixth overall, took 19-year-old Georgia high school right-handed pitcher Zack Wheeler.  He is listed as 6-foot-4, 175-pounds everywhere except his My Space website, where is 6-5, 190 and his mood on Tuesday was “crunk,” not to be confused with Kruk, I suppose.

But brace yourself San Francisco Giants fans. Wheeler is a Raiders fan … his high school team is nicknamed the Raiders.

According to the Baseball America 2009 Draft Preview issue, Wheeler is listed in the top three in “best arm,” “best fastball” and “best command” in player tools categories among high schoolers. He can throw in the mid 90s and has a power breaking ball – or “slurve.” He’ll need a change-up and he didn’t sound terribly bright in his MLB Network interview but he should have a bright future. He needs to decide whether he wants to go to college at Kennesaw State or go to work in the Golden State. Duh?

The A’s, with so much young pitching in their organization, took a position player with their first-round selection, 13th overall. They took 6-foot-3, 180-pound USC Trojans shortstop Grant Green, who is coached by former Redwood High star Chad Kreuter. The 21-year-old Green, in Baseball America, is rated third as college “best athlete” available in this year’s draft. He was originally drafted by the San Diego Padres in the 14th round coming out of high school in Anaheim Hills, but they evidently didn’t meet his demands so he didn’t sign with them. He went to USC instead and last summer was named the top prospect in the Cape Cod League. Green struggled early this season at USC, but he has skills comparable to Evan Longoria and Troy Tulowitzki. He is advertised as a potential major league middle infielder who could hit 15-20 home runs a year.

Now comes the bad news: Green is represented by super agent Scott Boras. Better start saving up, A’s.

Monday, June 8, 2009

June is the month of marriages -- and the A's

I was inside the Oakland A’s clubhouse on Sunday and I sensed a calmness. Some guys were playing cribbage. Others were watching TV or listening to country music. And I swear I actually saw Matt Holliday smiling.

It seems the A’s mood always changes in June.

The A’s on Monday owned the longest current winning streak in Major League Baseball. They finally had a winning record at home and, after spending most of May with the worse record in the American League and second worst in baseball (behind the Washington Nationals), the A’s had climbed to the fourth worst record in the AL and the eighth worst overall.

OK, they are still in last place in the AL West but at least they’re closer to first place than the other last-place teams in the other divisions.

Hey, it’s progress and we should know the A’s always seem to hit their stride in June. Since 2002, they have the best record (126-69) in the major leagues in June – 12 games better than the New York Yankee$ over the same period. What’s more, the A’s are doing this year with young pitching. Baby steps. They are the midst of starting four rookie pitchers in succession for the second time this season, the first time they’ve done that since September of 1983.

Defensively, they’re getting better so long as they can hide Bobby Crosby. Jack Hannahan, replacing injured Gold Glover Eric Chavez, has set an A’s record for third basemen by playing errorless ball for 68 games.

If the offense comes around as expected, the A’s could play their way back into the AL West – and keep Holliday smiling.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

49ers stadium proposal tests North Bay fans' loyalty

You’re a loyal 49ers fan from Marin or Sonoma County who has faithfully attended 49ers home games at Candlestick Park for years and now 49ers ownership wants to build you a long-overdue new stadium. But there’s a catch.

If the Yorks get their way, you would now have to drive about 80 more miles round-trip and spend maybe 90 more minutes hours on the road in traffic to get there, worse if the team improved to the point that it would get home games on Monday nights.

What would you do? Dance like that old, balding, bi-speckled guy in the Six Flags/Great America commercials?

The Yorks and the city of Santa Clara have taken steps to build a $937 million stadium on the grounds of a Santa Clara theme park, meaning the 49ers are getting closer to being dubbed “Great America’s Team.” Eat that, Dallas Cowboys. The notion of a brand-spanking new stadium for 49ers fans is appealing but for 49ers fans from Marin is an expensive proposition in terms of time and money.

It already costs the Marin/North Bay 49ers fan a $6 bridge toll just to get started and that will undoubtedly increase significantly by the time a stadium is built and opened in Santa Clara in 2014. In addition, the price of gas, parking, tickets and concessions surely will rise by that time to the point that it might cost a family of four in Marin twice as much to attend a 49ers home game in Santa Clara as it does now at Candlestick.

What would you do?

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Pietrus exposes Warriors discontent

It’s become fashionable of late to bash the Warriors who in the past calendar year have let Baron Davis escape, dismissed  Chris Mullins and lost the loyal season-ticket holding fan who created the “We Believe” craze during the team’s amazing playoff run in 2007. Oh, and they banned mopeds.

Now comes this, adding insult to Monta Ellis’ injury, indecision and overall indigestion. Mickael Pietrus, who has become a star with the Orlando Magic in its incredible ride into the NBA Finals to play the Los Angeles Lakers, ripped his former team and coach, Don Nelson, in a story in the current issue of Sports Illustrated. It turns out Pietrus didn’t have a great timeout in Oakland.

Said Pietrus, who was a part of that “We Believe” playoff upset of the Dallas Mavericks two years ago, “With the Warriors that was the first time in my life that I really didn’t enjoy basketball.”

Granted, Pietrus was in and out of Nelson’s dog house which was reflective of the Frenchman’s inconsistent shooting and sometimes maddening shot selection, but you would have thought that being on a team that ended a 13-year playoff drought then netted the biggest first-round upset in NBA playoff history would have been fun. Pietrus’ comments in SI speak to a culture of confusion and frustration in the Warriors organization that apparently won’t change until ownership, management and/or the coaching staff is turned over.

If Pietrus is to be believed, the Warriors’ woes go much deeper and are much more complex than we have been led to believe.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Johnson's quest for 300th win lacks sentimental value

I can’t say I’m a Giants fan but I can say it would be hard for me to get excited about Randy Johnson’s quest for his 300th career win if I were.

I mean, Johnson has pitched more games against the Giants (24) than for them (11) and only five of his 300 wins have come in a Giants uniform so there’s naturally not as much of an emotional attachment. The Big Unit’s history with the Giants goes months and not years. It would be like Barry Bonds hitting his 500th home run as a member of the Kansas City Royals.

When Johnson reached the milestone on Thursday, it seemed there was only one fan for every win he's had watching in the ballpark in Washington, D.C. Johnson's career started in Montreal, which lost its baseball team to Washington D.C. because Expos fans wouldn't support the game.  I know it was raining in our nation's capitol on Thursday but there is no excuse for so few fans coming out to see a historic moment in our national pastime. The crowd was said to be about 6,000 but D.C. resident and Giants fans Rocky Fox, son of 49ers team photographer Bill Fox, was there and he emailed me to tell me it was closer to 2,000.

It sounded as if there were more Giants fans there as it was, even though the Big Unit doesn't have a big love affair with Giants fans. It’s understandable if they  aren’t exactly captivated by a pitcher who has never been perceived as being warm and fuzzy.

However, if Johnson’s 300th win lacked sentimental value for Giants fans, it’s significant for all baseball fans in general.  Unlike 354-game and seven-time Cy Young award winner Roger Clemens, the Big Unit has never been directly suspected of taking or needing performance-enhancing drugs (though he has admitted to taking over-the-counter supplements) and the bulk of his 300 wins have been compiled in the so-called steroid era. That enhances Johnson’s achievement. In a four-year span from 1999-2002 – when steroid use allegedly accelerated – Johnson averaged more than 20 wins and had an ERA under 2.50.

So when Johnson won his 300th game, I saluted him. I did not however jump up and down.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A wild idea: Shake up tennis' Grand Slam

Isn’t it about time to change the Grand Slam of tennis?

I mean, a Frenchman hardly ever wins the French Open anymore and an Aussie doesn’t win the Australian Open very often either and an Englishman hasn’t won Wimbledon since the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge was first opened.

And, realistically, when might we expect an American to win the U.S. Open men’s single title again? Andy Roddick was the last one but that was in 2003, which is when the Red Sox hadn’t won a World Series in 85 years.

It seems the balance of power in the world of tennis has shifted to Sweden, Spain and Russia and away from its roots of success. If we can talk about bucking tradition and moving the Super Bowl out of this country, we should at least think about moving Grand Slam events to different countries where fans there would greater appreciate a homegrown champion.

At one point, a Frenchman won 35 consecutive singles titles at the French Open. However, since 1972, there have been only two men from France to even reach the French Open finals and only one of them, Yannick Noah in 1983, actually won. And there has been only one woman of French descent to play in the French Open women’s final since 1968 and she was named Mary Pierce and she is about as French as Patrick Ewing is Jamaican.

Thus, what rooting interest do we have about the French Open this weekend if there is no Frenchman or American in the finals? We haven’t had a single American player in the finals of the French Open since 2002 when Serena Williams beat sister Venus. And the last American man to win the French Open was Andre Agassi in 1999.

But, imagine what great theater there might be if say if the French Open were played in Sweden, Roger Federer’s home country? He has never won the French Open and has lost in the finals to Spain’s Rafael Nadal the past three years. They must have some clay in Stockholm, right?

If the French Open could surrender its Grand Slam event, so could Australia and England. The last Australian to win the Australian Open was Mark Edmondson in 1976  and the last Englishman to win Wimbledon was Fred Perry in 1936. Virginia Wade was the last English woman to win at Wimbledon,  in 1977.

I understand that it’s the captivating venues and long tradition that keep Grand Slam events where they are, but it just seems to me that other countries that right now are producing more skilled and determined athletes should be rewarded with a Grand Slam of their own.

It would be like moving the World Series to Japan or the Dominican Republic.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

No need to shake, rattle, roll and pile on LeBron James

There were some extraordinary things that happened over the weekend – Texas won a college playoff game in 25 innings, Florida State scored 37 runs in one of its playoff games and the gazillionaire New York Yankees finally took over first place – yet we’re still talking about LeBron James’ failure to extend his hand after the Cleveland Cavaliers were eliminated by the Orlando Magic in the NBA playoffs.

Are you kidding me? To use an Allen Iversonesque response: Handshake?! We’re talking about a handshake?!

Now if LeBron had flipped the bird at Dwight Howard and the Magic as he left the court on Saturday, then we’d really have something to talk about it. But LeBron was understandably disgusted so he ignored the traditional post-game handshake ritual with the opposing team and steamed off into the locker room. No harm. No foul.

But suddenly comes cries of POOR SPORT! SORE LOSER! CLASSLESS KING!
Just for walking off the court and not extending his handshake as a gentlemanly gesture? Frankly, I’m glad LeBron showed he was upset about losing because I see way too much hugging amongst opposing players after every NBA game. That’s a sickening sight. The Celtics and Lakers never did such thing back in the 60s, 70s and 80s. They respected the enemy but they were never, ever seen cuddling, conversing and smiling with them after the game.

If LeBron wanted to win so much that it hurt to lose, I’m OK with that. But critics are jumping on him as if he was trying to avoid a DUI checkpoint or a drug test.

Why? Let me see if I’ve got this straight: LeBron did everything humanly possible to help the Cavs beat the Magic and yet he’s being criticized for exhibiting normal humanly emotions after a game in which his MVP season ended? He was damn mad. Wouldn’t you be in his sneakers? It’s a damn shame there is more focus and attention and analysis given to LeBron’s refusal to extend his right hand an arm’s length than to his team’s failure and disinterest in extending a series that they had every right to expect to win.

I wonder who the sore losers really are.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Albee's All-May All-Star teams

Another month. Another Albee All-Star team. This one is for the All-May team and Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer tops it.

Mauer batted .414 with 11 home runs and 32 RBIs in 27 games in the month of May. His slugging percentage was .838 and his on base percentage was .500. Any questions?

Joining Mauer on Albee’s All-May All-Star team are Yankees first baseman Mark Teixiera (May-high 13 HRs and 34 RBIs plus a .775 slugging percentage), A’s newly-acquired second baseman Adam Kennedy (.390 BA, .622 slugging) and a pair of Tampa Bay Rays; third baseman Evan Longoria and shortstop Jason Bartlett, who was hitting .397 in the month of May with 23 RBIs, nine stolen bases and .705 slugging percentage before landing on the 15-day disabled list.

The Albee AL All-May All-Star outfield consists of  Boston’s Jason Bay (10 HRs, 29 RBIs in 27 games), Seattle’s Ichiro Suzuki (.384) and  Tampa Bay’s Carl Crawford, who stole 20 bases, scored 27 runs and hit .356 to edge out Michael Cuddyer of the Twins on the team.

Though Cleveland’s Carl Pavano somehow managed to win five games and Toronto’s Roy Halladay was 4-0 with a 1.76 ERA in May, Kansas City’s Zack Greinke’s ERA was lower (1.57) and he had three complete games and struck out 44 batters while walking only four in the month.

In the National League, a couple of former Oakland A’s are on the Albee All-May All-Star team: Astros shortstop Miguel Tejada (month-high .380 BA, 70 total bases and only six strikeouts in 108 at bats) and Reds catcher Ramon Hernandez, who had 16 RBIs to beat out Dodgers catcher Russell Martin, who had seven stolen bases -- or as many as all the other NL catchers combined in the month of May.

The Albee All-May All-Star first baseman was St. Louis’ Albert Pujols, who was on the All-April team. He batted .341 with a .682 slugging percentage and .477 on base percentage. The All-May second baseman is Brandon Phillips of Cincinnati, who hit .352 with 60 total bases in 22 games and had the same slugging percentage as Pujols. David Wright of the Mets, with a May-best .474 on base percentage, .378 batting average, 22 RBIs and nine stolen bases, is the NL’s All-May third baseman.

In the NL outfield, Raul Ibanez made it 2-for-2 (All April and All May) with a .661 slugging percentage plus 10 HRs and 29 RBIs. Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder Justin Upton flanks him after hitting .373 in the month with a May-high .707 slugging percentage and .444 on base percentage and Manny Ramirez’s replacement, Juan Pierre, earned a spot on the Albee All-May All-Star team with a .435 on base percentage, a .369 batting average, nine stolen bases and zero suspensions.

Johan Santana of the Mets was the NL’s All-May pitcher with a 4-1 record a 2.43 ERA. He had 42 Ks and only 11 BBs in 33.1 innings to beat out the Giants’ Matt Cain, who was 4-1 with a 2.45 ERA in May.