Monday, December 29, 2008

The Big Unit!

There's been an ongoing debate chez nous about the man they call The Big Unit. My college-aged son thinks the Giants are crazy to spend $8 million to acquire the services of Randy Johnson for one season. I say it's one of the smartest moves the team's made in a long time.

Since I'm the one with the blog and he's the one sleeping in during winter break, you'll have to accept my version.

Sure, Randy Johnson is 45 years old. He's the second-oldest active player in the majors (behind Jamie Moyer, who just signed a two-year deal with the Phillies!), and he's had back problems. Sure, he has weird hair and he can be a bit cranky with reporters.

But ask any big-league hitter (especially a left-hander) who they'd least like to face, and Randy Johnson is high on the list. I don't care how old he is. Nobody wants to dig in against this guy. He's 6' 10" tall, he still throws hard, and he can still tuck one up under your chin. Hey, he once killed a bird with a pitch!

The Big Unit isn't what he once was (who is?), but he still threw 184 innings last year and struck out 173. His WHIP number (walks plus hits per inning pitched) was better than anyone in the Giants rotation except Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum. In short, he's still a solid big-league starter.

There are also the intangibles. The Big Unit is a Bay Area native, and his presence is certain to put a few more butts in the seats at AT&T Park. He's Cooperstown-bound and will win his 300th game sometime this season. And while Johnson may not be the kind of guy to toss his arm over the shoulder of a young guy and give him pointers, you can bet the Giants kids will be watching carefully.

Now, my son's argument: Johnson's too old and the Giants should have spent the money on a bat. Perhaps they still will, but look what the Yankees paid for Mark Teixeira. The Giants had no hope of matching that kind of offer.

Bottom line: the Giants made an interesting pickup and didn't break the bank to do it. They could still use some offense, but they play in a park where pitching is pretty important.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Kiffin and Etiquette

It's not just Raiders owner Al Davis who now thinks Lane Kiffin has bad manners.

The former Raiders coach, now the head coach at the University of Tennessee, has just broken protocol by hiring an NFL coach away during the regular season. Sure, the Raiders are going nowhere, but it's still considered bad form for assistant offensive line coach James Cregg to leave early for the UT job.

Sure, Cregg is not the first NFL coach to bolt before the season ends (remember Bobby Petrino's bailout from the Atlanta Falcons last year?), but it's still considered a violation of an unwritten rule. And as if to drive that point home, Kiffin's own father, Monte, is finishing out the season as a Tampa Bay assistant coach before moving to Tennessee. It would have been easy for Lane Kiffin to tell Cregg to wrap it up with the Raiders before heading to Knoxville.

Of course, there's plenty of backstory here. Kiffin and Al Davis probably aren't sending Christmas cards to each other this year. Kiffin must be having a big jolly laugh, watching his Raiders successor Tom Cable vent about this. Cable: "You don't do that. You never quit. You never quit, I don't care what it is. You don't quit.''

And while some enjoy watching Kiffin poke Big Bad Al in the eye, I have to wonder how that bridge he's burning behind him will eventually turn out for him. That old karma train has a way of coming full circle.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

In Happier Times

Every now and again, you read a story about an old photograph of a public figure surfacing. The hapless person is smiling it up with someone who later becomes infamous. Here's a link to a rogue's gallery of such photos, courtesy of the Chicago Tribune.

And then, there's this photo.
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From left to right, KCBS reporter Doug Sovern, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, KCBS and CBS5 reporter Mike Sugerman, your humble reporter, and my esteemed colleague Steve Bitker.

All smiles, we were, because we'd just watched the Cubs clinch the National League Central Dvision title at Wrigley Field on a gorgeous September Saturday. The Governor had been sitting four seats away from me, rooting for the Cubbies and schmoozing an endless stream of well-wishers.

It occurs to me now that some of the well-wishers might have been offering inducements for a U.S. Senate appointment. It also occurs to me that some of the fans in the area might have been FBI agents.

Who'd have thought we would be the ones who would later be embarrassed about the photo?

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A Total Bozo

So the National Hockey League has decided to muzzle one of its biggest jerks. Apparently, it was a race between the league office and his employers to suspend Dallas Stars forward Sean Avery.

This came after Avery made crude comments about his former girlfriend, who's now dating Calgary's Dion Phaneuf (and naturally, the comments came just before Avery's Stars played Phaneuf's Flames). No sense repeating the comments here; they're the sort of sophomoric, misogynist garbage you'd expect from a lowlife like Avery.

While I certainly don't condone the comments, the fact that Avery has been suspended for them says more about the NHL's screwed-up culture than it does about Avery. The league has tolerated his bizarre on-ice behavior for years. At the time of his suspension, he led the NHL in penalty minutes, while ranking a stellar 210th in scoring.

Who can forget his performance in last year's playoffs, when he took his act to a new level by parking himself in front of New Jersey goaltender Martin Brodeur and then behaving like a man off his meds. Take a look:



The real question about Sean Avery is not, "what's wrong with this guy?". It's bigger: "What's wrong with the NHL?" Why would the Dallas Stars give this nutcase a multimillion dollar, 4-year contract?

If you're looking for some good news in all this, here it is: a year after posting one of the NHL's better records (without Avery), the Stars are now a league doormat, riven by dissension. I sure hope Dallas GM Brett Hull and owner Tom Hicks feel good about giving Avery that fat contract.

Monday, December 1, 2008

I Hate It When He's Right

I'll be frank. I'm not a big fan of the man you see here. Texas football coach Mack Brown slipped onto my Permanent Dislike List four years ago when his unseemly lobbying and whining got his Longhorns into the Rose Bowl. The berth came at the expense of a very good Cal team, which should have made its first Pasadena New Year's Day trip in 45 years.

But this time, Crybaby Mack has a good case. His 11-1 Longhorns somehow got jumped in the BCS rankings by Oklahoma, a team Texas beat 45-35 earlier this season. Oklahoma's #2 BCS slot means the Sooners will get to play Missouri for the Big 12 championship game and (probably) head for the BCS Championship game.

Could it be that the Karma Train finally caught up with Mighty Mack? Well, maybe, except we can't really tell how the heck Oklahoma leapfrogged Texas in the BCS rankings. The polls--the ones where human beings actually rank the teams--favor Texas (#1 in the Harris sportswriter poll, and virtually tied with Oklahoma in the coaches' poll). But the inscrutable computer rankings, which make up 1/3 of the BCS formula, give Oklahoma the clear edge.

Somebody has some 'splainin' to do. Just as they did back when Mack's Brown-out kept Cal out of the Rose Bowl.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Fair Catch Kick

Maybe you've guessed this about me by now: there's nothing I love more than an obscure rule, a strange twist, a bizarre outcome.

So I'm pretty jazzed about what Arizona Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt did this weekend. He sent placekicker Neil Rackers in to try a 68-yard field goal near the end of the first half.

"What!?", I hear you saying. "68 yards? Is he nuts?"

Well, maybe. But at least he knows the rules. See, Rackers' field goal attempt was actually a fair catch kick. It seems few people realize the NFL still allows a team making a fair catch two options: run a play from scrimmage, or kick the ball from that spot (either a placekick or a dropkick). In other words, without having to worry about a snap-and-hold, and without having to deal with a rushing defense, you get a chance to score 3 points.

"But still," you say. "68 yards!" Well, get to an NFL game early some day and watch the kickers. Most of these guys have the leg to hit from 60 and beyond. It wouldn't shock me if the Raiders' Sebastian Janikowski could nail one from 75 or 80 yards. Remember: in a fair catch kick, there's no snap, no hold, no rush. The holder puts the ball on the turf and the kicker just fires when ready.

Rackers totally muffed his kick, but that doesn't mean the decision was a bad one. The option was to go to the line of scrimmage and run the last-minute offense. Good luck with that.

What strikes me as strange is not the fact that the Cardinals would try a 68-yarder. I find it odd that no NFL team has made a free catch kick field goal in 40 years. The last successful free catch kick was a game-winner in 1968 by Chicago's Mac Percival. His 43-yarder beat the Packers with 20 seconds on the clock.

Send Rackers out there again!

Monday, November 17, 2008

11-10!

I didn't believe it when I first heard it. I'm still having a little trouble believing that the Pittsburgh Steelers' 11-10 win over the San Diego Chargers was the first 11-10 game in the history of the NFL.

In case you're scoring at home, that's 12,837 games. Not even in the days of the Columbus Panhandles and the Toledo Maroons did the NFL produce an 11-10 score.

The 10, of course, is easy: a touchdown, a conversion, and a field goal. 11 is a little trickier, but not that odd: three field goals and a safety, or a TD, a missed PAT, a field goal, and a safety.

Of course, the officials had to pull a little trickery to cement the 11-10 Steelers win. They admittedly blew a call on the game's final play, nullifying a Troy Polamalu fumble recovery that would have pushed the score to a more normal (and not-unprecedented) 17-10 (or even 18-10 with the extra point).

Too bad for Polamalu, who is one of my favorite NFL madmen. But I'm glad the refs missed the call.

11-10 is too beautiful to waste.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Change Has Come

No, I'm not writing about Barack Obama's landslide victory.

I'm talking about Tim Lincecum's landslide victory.

Good for the baseball writers who vote for the Cy Young Award. They managed to look past the Giants' 90-loss season and see the transcendent talent of 24-year-old Tim Lincecum.

I've seen a lot of good ones. Koufax. Marichal. Gibson. Valenzuela. Carlton. Ryan. Gooden. Clemens. I'm telling you, Tim is as electrifying as any of those guys were. You can't turn away when he's on the mound, because you might miss something. A sick changeup. Maybe one of those TNT-laden fastballs. A good hitter looking childish.

How much of Lincecum's charm is his oddball delivery, or his "card-that-guy" boyish appearance? Some, for sure.

But mostly, he's fun to watch because he's so gosh-darned good.

Good on you, sportswriters. Good on you, Tim Lincecum.

I can't wait for Opening Day.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Sick Locker Rooms

There's something nasty going on in the world of sports, and it has nothing to do with any of the usual suspects.

No, it's not greedy owners, obnoxious agents, or childish players that have me worried.

It's Staphylococcus aureus, and it's truly ugly. Don't believe me?

Ask any of a growing list of superstars who've been hit by staph infections: Peyton Manning, Barry Bonds, Tom Brady, Kellen Winslow. Even journeyman receiver Joe Jurevicius missed an entire season and needed numerous surgeries to tackle a persistent staph infection, and he's still not 100% right.

Most of these cases involved athletes who'd had knee surgery. That used to mean a few weeks or months of rehab. Now, it often means a scary detour into infection-world.

What's going on? Nobody really knows, and that's what's really frightening. It appears, though no one can say for sure, that these athletes either picked up the germs at their team's training facilities or at the hospital.

The NFL, after initially seeming rather blase' about all this, is now intensely interested in getting some answers. Commissioner Roger Goodell is calling in some high-powered medical experts to provide advice.

It's important to note that this isn't just a problem for bazillionaire pro jocks. There have been staph infections reported among college, high school, and health club athletes. I watched a friend struggle for well over a year with an infection in his foot. He was reduced to carving pieces out of his shoes just so he could get out for a bike ride. You don't want to go there.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Another Baseball Boner

You have to be pretty antiquated to remember "Merkle's Boner". After all, it was the talk of the baseball world 100 years ago. Fred Merkle was a young New York Giant whose failure to touch second base cost the Giants a game and helped the Cubs win the pennant.

That was then. This is now. Why, you ask, was Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins standing out there in the rain during Game 5 of the World Series? Good question.

Look, I have no quarrel with the fact that they started the game. The weather is a fickle thing, and everyone involved felt they could squeeze in Game 5.

But like the old Bob Dylan line says, you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. All you had to do was open your eyes and look at the scene in Citizen's Bank Park. What a mess. You play football or rugby in weather like this. Not baseball.

The Lords of Baseball must have been too busy wining and dining corporate clients to notice what was going on down in the muck. Sure, they wanted to get the game in so they could preserve the sanctity of Fox's programming schedule, but long before B.J. Upton became the best mudder since Empire Maker in the 2003 Belmont Stakes, this game should have been halted.

Would it be impertinent to suggest that maybe, just maybe, playing games in the Northeast in late October is asking for trouble? That maybe, just maybe, baseball should think about shortening the endless season?

Perhaps. But at the least, baseball needs to make sure its showcase doesn't turn into a bad joke. And that scene in Philly was no laughing matter.



Thursday, October 23, 2008

Bad Nike

Stop right here if you think this is one of those screeds about Nike's sweatshops, or its contributions to rampant consumerism. Plenty of other folks carry that torch, so I'll lay off.

No, I'm cranky about the lame way The Goliath Of Beaverton handled its women's marathon in San Francisco a few days ago. Perhaps you've heard by now: a schoolteacher from New York named Arien O'Connell flew out to SF and, running in the big mass of "non-elite" runners, ran the fastest time of the day.

"Fastest time of the day" means "winner", right? Not so fast.

By Nike's corporate logic, only a runner in the "elite" group (the ones who get a 20-minute head start so they won't have to weave through the 10-minute-milers) can "win" this race. About the only argument in favor of this position is that the elite runners might have adjusted their tactics or strategy if they knew that someone in the pack was gaining on them. Easily outweighing this argument is mine: someone running in the main pack lacks the built-in advantage of starting out front.

Nike finally buckled after a few days of criticism, and announced that it is now recognizing Arien O'Connell as "a winner" of the event. They'll send her a trophy, just like the winner got on race day.

Lame. Arien O'Connell is THE winner of the race. Period. If Nike has trouble grasping that, perhaps its executives could sit down and study a few of the company's ubiquitous ads.

Just do it, Nike. Just do it.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Irrelevance

I have an old friend who has held 49ers season tickets for many, many years.

He doesn't live in the Bay Area anymore. Hasn't for years. But he held onto those season tickets when he moved to Portland and still flies back once a year with his wife to catch a game, walk the streets of San Francisco, and get together with my wife and me for dinner.

When this tradition started, I'm pretty sure the main reason for the trip was to see the 49ers play.

Now, I'm pretty sure the San Francisco tourism thing (and maybe the dinner with old friends) is the big deal (if not the reason) behind the trip.

Look: new head coach or not, the 49ers have faded beyond relevance. Who really cares? Does anyone beyond a small tribe of hardcores really live or die with the team anymore?

Heck, weird as they are across the Bay in Oakland, at least those Black Holers are still fired up about their Raiders.

I may be out on a limb here, but it feels to me like the Raiders, with all their problems, are closer to relevance and success than the 49ers.

How did that happen?

I'll ask my Portland friend at dinner this Sunday night.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

All Hail The Rays

Look, my teams have been on vacation for a couple of weeks now. So I've had to adopt a postseason favorite. And it hasn't been hard to decide.

Phillies and Rays.

Philadelphia, because the alternative is the Dodgers. Please. Plus, Bay Area guys Jimmy Rollins and Pat Burrell are key cogs.

Tampa Bay, because the alternative is Boston. Ugh.

Look, I was as delirious as the rest of the non-Yankee nation four years ago when the Sox ended their long drought and won it all. But the whole lovable loser underdog thing is so untrue anymore. The Red Sox are among baseball's richest franchises, spending more than $133 million on this year's payroll. The Rays are among the poorest, spending only $43 million (hell, that's less than the cheapo A's).

Let's face it: unless you're living in the Northeast, this whole Yankees-Red Sox rivalry is a big joke. They're opposite sides of the same gold coin.

The Rays are unquestionably this year's feel-good story. The Little Ballclub That Could. Worst-to-first. Cool manager. Outfielder (Rocco Baldelli) with a bizarre strength-sapping illness who hits a playoff home run at Fenway Park.

Yes, their ballpark stinks, but even the dreary concrete Tropicana Field has a cool angle: how many other ballparks have a live stingray swimming around in a centerfield tank?

Hop on the Rays bandwagon now, while there's still room.

Monday, October 13, 2008

A High-Def Dilemma

I have finally made a bumpy landing in the 21st century. Over the weekend, at the prodding of my college-aged son, we chased away some gremlins and finally connected our shiny new 58" plasma panel to cable TV (I'll spare you a long story here about why the set hung on the wall for 5 weeks without being connected).

My reaction after watching a few hours of sports on this monster: OMG.

We've had a high-def TV for a while, but it was a little guy. Everything looked better in high-def, but it was a subtle thing. Now, with all the acreage of our mega-TV, I am asbolutely blown away when I tune in a ballgame. You can see the stitching on the bills of the ballplayers' caps. You can pick up the ice shavings on the hockey goalie's shoulders after a big save.

So what's not to like? This: once you've tasted a good Gruyere, you'll never eat Cheez-Whiz again. In other words, I'm spoiled by high-def. And some games are still not in high-def.

It is almost physically painful to watch a game in standard-def (I'm now calling it low-def). My ever-patient (and long-suffering) wife points out, quite logically, that the picture has to be better than what we watched for years on our 1980's-vintage 27" TV.

But with all due respect, she just doesn't get it. And I can only hope and pray that someday, every game, home and away, will arrive in my family room in glossy high-def goodness.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Zen of K

It all started with my esteemed colleague Steve Bitker's rants about Jack Cust. Cust is the A's outfielder/designated hitter who has put up some truly bizarre numbers the last two seasons. This year, he led the American League in both strikeouts and walks. He also hit 33 home runs and drove in 77 runs while batting .231. Read his complete line here.

Steve's complaint is that Cust is boring: more than 51% of his plate appearances end with Cust either trotting to first base or making a U-turn to the dugout, without putting the ball in play.

I won't quibble with Steve's conclusions; they do represent a value judgment (is a fly out more interesting than a strikeout?). But in digging into Cust's stats, I came to realize this: he is not alone.

Cust's 197 strikeouts this year represented a personal high (and got him oh-so-close to becoming the first 30/100/200 man in baseball history), but he didn't lead the majors in strikeouts. Arizona third baseman Mark Reynolds managed to whiff 204 times (while batting .239), and Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard is considered an MVP frontrunner after striking out 199 times and hitting .251.

And then there's Arizona's Adam Dunn, who outwalked even the oh-so-patient Cust (122) and managed to strike out 164 times, while also pounding 40 homers and driving in 100 runs.

In all, 8 fulltime big-leaguers averaged more than one strikeout per game this season (and a couple of others, Matt Kemp and Jim Thome, came very close). Cust had 16 games where he struck out 3 or more times. That's a lot of Silver Sombreros.

It's pretty clear that the phrase "contact hitter" is becoming an anachronism in baseball. "Grip it and rip it" is the new mantra. Even when you miss.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Jeff Kent Club

So it turns out the Warriors' Monta Ellis really wasn't "working out in the offseason" when he badly injured his ankle, unless you count moped-riding as exercise.

Of course, the Warriors don't count it as exercise, because they specifically forbid it in Ellis' contract. It remains to be seen how they'll handle this, although the best guess seems to be a fine and a stern scolding. Plus I bet they take away his keys.

Ellis now joins a long list of pro athletes whose offseason antics rendered them unable to perform. Many of them first told whoppers to cover up the true cause of their injuries. Remember Jeff Kent and the carwash? Sure you do. Here's the original report about Kent's 2002 broken wrist, which was later revealed to have occurred while Kent was popping wheelies on a motorcycle in Scottsdale.

Just last year, the Lakers' Vladmir Radmanovic had to 'fess up about his shoulder injury, which he said happened when he slipped on a patch of ice. Sort of true, except that the patch of ice was under the snowboard he wasn't supposed to be riding.

There are plenty of weird offseason injury stories. The NBA's Minnesota Timberwolves will start the season without center Jason Collins, who needed surgery after he suffered an elbow tendon injury in...wait for it...a golf cart accident. At least he told the truth about it.

And then there's Tigers reliever Joel Zumaya, who has suffered not one but two bizarre off-field injuries. He once missed several playoff games when he hurt himself playing Guitar Hero, and this past off-season, he damaged his shoulder moving boxes in the garage.

Some of this stuff you just can't make up.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

We Smell Victory

Just back from The Second Quadrennial Cheesehead Experience, in which KCBS colleagues Doug Sovern, Mike Sugerman, Steve Bitker and I first cadge Green Bay Packers tickets out of John Madden, then try to cram as much fun as we can into a weekend.

This time, we:
  • Ate the most expensive steak any of us had ever eaten (a $55 bone-in filet mignon) in Chicago
  • Saw the Cubs clinch the NL Central pennant at Wrigley Field and actually smelled the champagne they were spraying
  • Sang "Go Cubs Go" with the locals
  • Caught a legendary bluesman none of us had ever heard of at Chicago's Kingston Mines blues club
  • Got stuck on the El for 30 minutes at 2 in the morning, then missed our stop because we were on an express train
  • Grilled 500 bratwursts in the Lambeau Field loading dock to serve to NBC Sports people, cops, US Marines, and others
  • Sat 10 rows up from the field for the Sunday night Packers/Cowboys game
  • Got stuck in postgame traffic trying to drive the 30 miles to the nearest hotel we could book while Doug swore that the map on his iPhone offered a better route
  • Stopped at Mars' Cheese Castle to acquire a hunk of Cheddar shaped like the state of Wisconsin and a sausage shaped like a bottle of Miller Lite

Does it get any better than that?

Friday, September 19, 2008

Our Tim

Lots of talk this week about how two Giants/Diamondbacks games would have a lot to say about who wins the National League Cy Young Award.

On consecutive nights, the D-Backs' Brandon Webb and the Giants' Tim Lincecum started. As it turns out, Webb won and Lincecum lost. But if anyone thinks that proves Webb's the better 2008 pitcher, he's not looking at the stats (or the video).

Webb may have 21 wins to Lincecum's 17, but he's pitching for a team with a better record (and if I wanted to get snarky, I'd point out that Webb's lost 7 games to Lincecum's 4). In virtually every other category that matters, Lincecum has the edge over Webb:

  • ERA 2.46 to 3.26
  • Strikeouts 243 to 170
  • Innings pitched 215 to 212
  • Fewest HR allowed 10 to 13
  • Hits allowed 172 to 192

Plus, Lincecum leads in an intangible category, one I'll call GILLTF (baseball has enough weird stats; why not another one?): Guys I'd Least Like To Face. Ask around baseball, and there's near-unanimous praise and respect for what this kid's done in his 56 major league starts. As they say, he has filthy stuff, and the cojones to go with it.

End the debate. It's Cy Tim in '08.

Monday, September 8, 2008

The New Dumbest Rule

Quick: how high is high?

Apparently, the correct answer spells the difference between winning and losing in college football.

The referees at Saturday's Washington-BYU game flagged UW quarterback Jake Locker for an "excessive celebration" penalty when he scored a last-minute touchdown to pull the Huskies to within a point of the nationally-ranked Cougars, and then celebrated by tossing the ball in the air.

The refs invoked NCAA Rule 9.2(c) and penalized Washington 15 yards on the extra-point attempt, which was then blocked to seal a BYU win.

This moronic rule prohibits a player from scoring and then--and I quote here from the rulebook--"throwing the ball high into the air".

Give me a break. How high is high? A foot? Two feet? 35 feet?

The ref whose crew flagged Locker said, "It was not a judgment call." Excuse me? Of course it was a judgment call. Somebody had to decide that Locker's toss was "high".

It's easy to blast the refs for throwing the flag. Probably they shouldn't have. But what about the brain-dead NCAA suits who wrote the rule in the first place? Can anyone explain why there's a need to legislate against exuberance in college sports?

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Real Crash Davis

Quick: how many minor league home runs did the fictional Crash Davis hit in "Bull Durham"?

Answer: 247 (and as Kevin Costner's Crash told Susan Sarandon's Annie Savoy, "247 homers in the minors would be a dubious honor, if you think about it.")

Well, screenwriter Ron Shelton undershot reality with that number. The guy you see on your screen hit 362 dingers in the minors (including time in Japan). But with that swing, Scott McClain put himself on the all-time major league home run list. Career total: 1 (tied with Duane Kuiper).

When McClain left high school in Atascadero back in 1990, he undoubtedly didn't expect to spend all those years playing for all those minor league teams (10, including the Durham Bulls, plus 4 seasons in Japan). But he kept plugging away (and swinging away, because his home run totals have been offset by some stunning strikeout totals).

Another guy with McClainish numbers at least has an Olympic medal to show for his efforts. Mike Hessman, with 286 minor league HR's spread over 13 seasons, played in Beijing and got a bronze medal.

But for McClain, it was year after year of rounding the bases in the minors. He even switched from 3rd base to 1st base along the way. He went 28/107 for the A's top farm club two years ago and followed that with 31/100 and 22/83 seasons for the Giants' Fresno team before the September callup that gave him that memorable moment in Denver.

Give McClain credit for hanging in there. And while you're at it, give the Giants credit for giving him the chance to hit that first big-league bomb. The organization has plenty of younger players who actually might have a future, yet the brass recognized and rewarded McClain's commitment to the game.

Remember: for every home run king, there are hundreds and hundreds of Scott McClains.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Replay, Go Away

I am troubled by Major League Baseball's soon-to-launch foray into instant replay.

Commissioner Bud Selig says replay will be used on a very limited basis, and MLB says reversing an on-field call will require "clear and convincing evidence".

And how will baseball achieve this? By having the umpire crew chief disappear from the field and watch video clips being fed back from New York. Who knows how long that'll take, and who knows if those clips will really help the umps get it right.

Remember, the only reviewable plays will be home runs: fair or foul, in the stands or not, touched by a fan or not. Think back. No doubt, you've seen a few of these plays that remained puzzling even after repeated replays. And don't forget: a human is still making the call.

The bottom line on replay is this: it's not 100% perfect. And since it isn't, why bother? Why delay games on the pretense of perfection?

My personal bias is to just let the umps make the call and live with it. Yet many people are uncomfortable with that. They're not comfortable with letting humans decide things.

Fine. Then turn it over to machines, the way tennis has done with the Hawk-Eye system that allows players to challenge line calls and get instant, automated results.

Hawk-Eye technology is already being used in tennis and being tested in cricket and soccer. In theory, it could also be used in hockey to speed up the often-lengthy reviews of disputed goals.

At the end of the day, I think it really does come down to two schools of thought. One camp thinks we need to right every wrong, reverse every blown call. The other camp (mine) is OK with the fallibility of human beings, and is willing to accept a bad call as fundamentally no different from a bad hop: a break of the game.

I used to think I was alone, but I keep hearing from athletes who agree with me. Here's what Angels center fielder Torii Hunter told the Los Angeles Times: "I like the human decision of the umpires, whether it's right or wrong. That's what makes baseball. Guy might be safe and called out, all the fans get upset and scream, everyone jumping up and down. That's kind of cool."

Right on.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Are You Kidding Me?

So I open my morning Chronicle today to read that somehow, we're the bad guys for doing our jobs.

Not a new complaint about the news media, of course, but this time, the gripe is that we aired Olympics results before NBC got around to showing them. The Chronicle's Peter Hartlaub suggests we were out to ruin everyone's fun.

Uh, Peter, seems to me it was NBC that did the Grinching. When Usain Bolt ran his stunning 200 meters the other day, The Peacock Network sat on the video for something like 15 hours. In Internet time, that's roughly 37 years. Anyone with an Internet connection could see the video long before Bob Costas & Co. got around to sandwiching it in among all the diving events.

If anybody needs chiding for how it handled Olympics news, it's not KCBS. Consider that NBC had not one, or two, or three, but five networks at its disposal (NBC, CNBC, MSNBC, Oxygen, and Telemundo). NBC could have shown everything right down to the always-gripping small-bore rifle competition live, and still packaged the highlights for prime time.

Hey, I'd hate to be in NBC's position, too. You pay an insane sum of money to broadcast the Olympics, and you want to have full control. But here's a memo to the Peacock: times have changed. I can get results on my cell phone.

Or on KCBS.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Bolt, Definitely

I'm interrupting a heated debate with a co-worker to write this: Usain Bolt's triple gold medal, triple world record performance is a bigger deal than Michael Phelps' 8 golds.

She hoots at the notion, but I am arguing that what Bolt just did, and the way he did it, trumps Phelps' epic effort.

Understand: I do not dismiss the magnitude of Phelps' accomplishment. But those who say it was bigger than Bolt's feat because he won 8 medals instead of 3 miss the point. Track athletes have fewer events in which to win medals than do swimmers (or gymnasts).

Phelps was good--but Bolt owned his competition. His win in the 200 was one for the ages. The Jamaican 4 x 100 relay broke the world record by 3 tenths of a second, which boggles the mind. If only he hadn't gone into early-celebration mode in the 100 meters...who knows? And he still set a world record!

Phelps was terrific in Beijing. I'm not sure we have the word yet for what Bolt did.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

No, It's Bolt

19.30

Read that again. A man just ran 200 metters in 19.30 seconds.

Even the guy whose record was broken, Michael Johnson, laughed at the craziness of it.

Look, I know Michael Phelps is a hell of a story. But be honest: has there been anything more thrilling at the Beijing Olympics than watching Usain Bolt run? I'm with Scott Ostler of the San Francisco Chronicle, who argues that Bolt is really the bigger story than Phelps.

And here's the kicker: the guy just turned 22. In a few days, he's set world records in both the 100 and 200 meters--and he could end up running the 400 some day.

Crazy.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Better Than Phelps

Nothing at all against Michael Phelps. His is a remarkable story, and he seems like a grounded young man who's keenly aware of the bubble in which he's lived in order to reach his Olympian heights.

But you keep Phelps. I'm going with Stephanie Brown Trafton as my Beijing Olympic hero.

If there are people left who embody the Olympic ideal, Stephanie is one of them. She's a Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo grad who jokes that her Olympic ambitions began when she watched Mary Lou Retton win gold at the Los Angeles Olympics--but because Stephanie grew to be 6'4" and 225 poiunds, gymnastics didn't really work out for her.

Trafton can't make a living throwing her disc. She has a job with an environmental consulting firm in Sacramento, where they let her work flexible hours so she can train and compete.

She made the 2004 Olympic team but came home from Athens without making the finals. This year, she grabbed the final spot on the U.S. team, then barely escaped the qualifying round to make the finals. While she waited in the pressure-packed Bird's Nest, she sang favorite gospel songs to herself to calm her nerves.

It may have been a tense scene, but it was not an unfamiliar one. Trafton had spent months working out in her garage at home, looking at a huge photo of the Olympic stadium taken from the perspective of the discus ring. She even hauled that poster to Beijing and tacked it up in her Olympic Village apartment.

Look, I know the pixie gymnasts and sleek swimmers (to say nothing of the barely-clad beach volleyballers) get all the TV attention. But Stephanie Brown Trafton is a big girl who came up big. Hats off to her.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Be Careful What You Wish For

Brett Favre apparently had a burning desire to play football again.

Let's see how that feels in, oh, September, when he fully realizes that he's now playing for the New York Jets. Not the defending Supre Bowl champ Giants, but the Jets, coming off a 4-12 season and with little hope of ascending into the AFC aristocracy.

Favre, of course, will get a big fat media wet kiss in the Big Apple. Newspapers like the New York Post are already fawning over Favre. The talk show lines are buzzing.

But let's say Favre fails to actually walk on water and the Jets get off to a slow start (a likelihood, given that two of their first three opponents are the Patriots and the Chargers). Then what?

Then, I'm guessing, that warm cozy feeling Favre felt for so many years in insular Green Bay will seem far, far away.

Monday, August 4, 2008

It Gets Weirder

As I write, we are about 24 hours from what will surely be one of the strangest spectacles in NFL history: the arrival of recently-unretired Brett Favre on the Green Bay Packers' practice field.

By all indications, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell went to extreme lengths to work something out between Favre and his once-and-current employers. Ordinarily, when a player decide to come out of retirement, a little paperwork gets shuffled and that's it. But this isn't ordinary.

Favre is a legend. Part of his enduring aura has to do with the fact that he always wore his heart on his sleeve, seemingly never more so than when he tearfully announced his retirement back in March. He's a competitor and a warrior, and we probably shouldn't be surprised that he gave in to that little voice telling him to return to the battlefield.

I have no problem with that. My issue is with the way he did it.

If Favre just wants to play football, that's cool. Plenty of teams would love to have him, but he's specifically shot down attempts by two NFL teams to acquire him (the Jets and the Bucs). Of course, neither of those teams is very good, and in playing for them, Favre would probably wind up taking a battering with little chance of success.

What Favre really wants, apparently, is to reset the clock. He wants the equivalent of a do-over with the Packers, an organization he has served admirably but one he has also tortured a bit with his vacillations.

Call me old-school, but decisions come with consequences. Favre retired. The Packers moved on. The fact that he'll be on the practice field should not necessarily be seen as a sign that he's really welcome.

Time waits for no one.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Book Him!

I got into a seriously heated discussion the other night about the case of Julio Castillo. He's the minor-league pitcher facing felony assault charges after an on-field brawl in Dayton, Ohio last week.

If you haven't seen the video clip, take a look (and watch for #32 to flash across your screen, throwing a baseball at the opposing dugout from point-blank range):

Unfortunately for Castillo, his velocity was good but his location stunk. His throw drilled a fan in the head, sending the man to the hospital. Of course, you can count on a civil lawsuit, but the question I debated the other night was this: is it appropriate for Castillo to face criminal charges?

I take this position: absolutely. His behavior was at the very least criminally reckless. The fact that he was wearing a uniform and on a baseball field doesn't excuse it.

But several people with whom I discussed the matter argued otherwise. Their position: he was involved in a baseball game. Let baseball handle it.

Sorry, but I can't go there. For one thing, if we take the position that anything an athlete does on the playing field is off-limits to the law, we open a Pandora's box. What if a javelin-thrower decides to heave one into the crowd?

Look, I don't want to see the sheriff wade into every hockey fight or baseball scuffle. Even if a pitcher purposely hits a batter or a linebacker clotheslines a wide receiver, the rules of the game suffice.

But there is a line. It may be hard to define precisely, but just like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said of hard-core porn, we know it when we see it. And I don't see how anyone can think Julio Castillo was on the right side of that line.

Monday, July 21, 2008

So Long, Ray-Ray

Some people--in any business--are what you call "professionals". You're looking at one of them.

Ray Durham has plied his trade for the last 6 years here in the Bay Area--briefly for the A's and recently for the Giants. He's not a Hall of Fame candidate, but he's the kind of guy you want on your side.

Durham is now a former Giant. He'll get a chance to compete for a playoff spot with the Brewers while the Giants accelerate their rebuilding plans.

I'll always remember Durham for one meaningless at-bat. It happened earlier this month in New York. The Giants were trailing the Mets in the top of the 5th. Rain was falling heavily at Shea Stadium as Durham came to bat with 2 out.

It would have been easy for Durham to take three quick swings and bail out. But the pro in him wouldn't quit. He ground and battled and hung in long enough to work a walk. If the umpires had been doing their job, they'd have halted the game even before Durham stepped in.

Yet Durham knew if he made that third out, the game would become official and could become a Mets win if the rain kept falling. In the grand scheme of things, another Giants loss in this dismal season would have barely been noticed. But that's not how a pro approaches things.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Kill Le Tour?

Go ahead and roll your eyes: I still believe most of the riders in the Tour de France are clean. For the record, I no longer think a fat man comes down the chimney on December 24th, and I think pro wrestling is totally bogus.

So is it painful to watch another batch of suspected drug cheaters get hauled out of the Tour? Another team drop out in shame, just a year after the same thing happened (and everyone swore that this year, it would be different)?

Sure. Will it kill the sport? You've got to be kidding me.

One keen observer of the scene, Bob Cullinan at CycleTo.com, is even calling for a shutdown of the Tour. He argues it's the only way to really drag the doping out into the open, reasoning that a shutdown of the big money machine will force the clean riders to rise up against the dirty ones.

Of course, it won't happen, simply because the big money machine is so big. Despite all the scandals that have clouded cycling in the past, crowds still turn out, and bike geeks like me still hanker for gear just like the big boys ride.

Look: it's just like major league baseball. We can wring our hands all we want about the steroid users, but exactly how many people boycotted the ballparks when they had a pretty good idea the many of the game's biggest stars were doping?

Monday, July 14, 2008

L'Affaire Favre

OK, let me get this straight. Brett Favre has the whole tearful retirement thing, and now he wants to play again?

Millions of us sat transfixed several months ago as this icon of the NFL told us he just couldn't answer the bell again. Sure, we all want to last forever, but we all eventually learn we can't.

Except now, it seems, Favre has unlearned that lesson.

I tip my cap to him for wanting to soldier on. He a quarterback and a warrior and we all love him for that.

But part of me wants him to open his eyes a bit and see the bigger picture. He's put the Packers (and their fans) in a very difficult position. They all respected his decision to retire, and now the team looks like a bunch of bad guys if they don't rush to welcome him back. On the eve of training camp, they've moved on.

It's time for Favre to do the same. Bow out gracefully. Let everyone cherish the memories. Don't let the last chapter be a sour one.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Who's In First?

As I write, the Giants, despite being 11 games below the .500 mark, are within 5 games of first place in the NL West. This means they, at the moment, are closer to a division title than the A's, the Yankees, the Braves, or the Tigers.

My only regret is that my esteemed colleague Steve Bitker is on vacation this week, so we can't have our regular argument about "bad" teams making the playoffs. Steve's position is a little hard for me to understand. It seems to be this: "good" teams have great win-loss records, while teams with poor win-loss records are "bad" teams.

Uh, well, maybe. Let's imagine a baseball race in which four or five teams are beating each other's brains out for weeks, leaving each with a .500 record. Are they all "bad" teams? No, they might all be really good teams at parity with each other.

This notion of determining the quality of a team without checking the standings is a fool's game. All that really matters is this: where are you in the standings?

Look, the Giants are flawed, with some glaring weaknesses (and some obvious strengths). But the Diamondbacks and Dodgers have holes, too (has anyone watched Kent and Garciaparra's vanishing range?). At the end of the day, one of these teams will win the NL West, perhaps with a .500 record, and since each has decent starting pitching, might well win a playoff series.

Would that team then be a "bad" team?

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Book Report

Just finished a fascinating book: Rome 1960 by Pulitzer Prize-winner David Maraniss.

It's about the Rome Olympics (Rafer Johnson, Cassius Clay, Wilma Rudolph, etc.), and if you (like me) remain fascinated by the Olympics, it's a terrific read. I'm looking forward to our scheduled interview with Maraniss in a couple of weeks.

Maraniss argues that the Rome Games were significant because they presaged several future trends:
  • Doping (a cyclist's death during the Games was traced to a performance-enhancing drug)
  • The "shoe wars" (German gold-medal sprinter Armin Hary was apparently taking cash from adidas and/or Puma)
  • The collapse of "amateurism" (old coot Avery Brundage's crowd was losing its steely grip on sports)
  • The rise of the female superstar (Wilma Rudolph leading the way)
  • TV's grip on the Games (Jim McKay anchored CBS coverage out of New York)
  • The Cold War (battles over Taiwan and Germany, as well as an attempt to get a Soviet star to defect)

Along the way, there's some tasty detail about Rafer, Cassius, Wilma, and some other athletes whose stories may have faded away but still make fascinating reading: Dave Sime, Abebe Bikila, Ray Norton, Lee Calhoun.

Terrific book, and it will make a nice antidote to what you already know will be over-the-top TV coverage of this summer's Beijing Olympics.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Misery Loves Company

Sure, Barry Zito is having a lousy season. As I write, he's 2-10 with a 5.88 ERA.

But get this: there are several other major-league starters whose numbers are just about as bad. Of course, few of them are being pilloried in the way Zito is because their contracts aren't quite as eye-popping. Still, here's a multi-million dollar Hall of Shame among starting pitchers, complete with links to their full stats:

I could go on. And I didn't even mention poor Dontrelle Willis, who signed a fat deal with the Tigers, got hurt, pitched badly, and was shipped off to Class A ball to see if he could do something about his 10.32 ERA.

Barry, you're not great this year, but you're not alone.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Rock Star Tim



He looks like a pleasant enough fellow. By all accounts, he is a nice guy. But make no mistake. That fresh-faced kid is dangerous.

Tim Lincecum turns 24 years old in a couple of days and he's rapidly becoming a nightmare for big-league hitters. He arrived in the majors last year with a stupid-fast fastball, a slightly-askew delivery, and that Opie Taylor look.

People wondered, at first, if the Giants were rushing their prized first-round draft choice. Nobody's wondering any more.

Lincecum still has the blazing fastball, but he's added a nasty little curve and his changeup is now on a par with the best (think Trevor Hoffman in his prime). What's a hitter to do? Often, in Mike Krukow's words, "Grab some pine, Meat!"

But the best thing about watching Lincecum pitch is his attitude. There's that little sneer on his face when he throws. And there's a growing sense of a guy who is lord of all he surveys. In last night's game against the Rockies, he appeared to have retired the side on a swinging strikeout. Lincecum was almost across the foul line on his way to the dugout when he realized the third-base umpire had ruled a foul tip, a call you almost never see.

No worries for Rock Star Tim. He went back to the mound, struck the guy out again, and then fixed a nice steely glare on the ump as he left the field. He may look like a scrawny kid, but he's large and in charge.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Bad Bats

Baseball needs to do something about those maple bats.

If you've been watching any ballgames the last year or two, you've undoubtedly noticed an increasing number of shattered bats. "So what?" you say. Broken bats have always been part of baseball.

Not like this. In the past, the broken bat was a hallmark of a good pitch--in on the hands. Now, you're seeing bats explode even when hitters get good wood on the ball.

The question is: what kind of wood? For many years, the predominant material for bats was ash. But once Barry Bonds started swatting homers in record numbers using a maple bat, lots of other players switched to maple, too. It's harder than ash, but harder can also mean more brittle. For the record: there's no proof that a harder maple bat adds anything to how far a guy can hit a ball. But try telling that to ballplayers, who will buy or do anything if they think it'll help.

The problem with the maple bats is not that they change the game itself. The problem is that they are dangerous as hell. At least one fan and one coach have been badly injured by bat shrapnel. Several pitchers have been hit (though so far, none have been seriously hurt). But it will certainly happen eventually.

Look, if baseball can make a big deal out of making on-field coaches wear batting helmets and stay within the lines of their coaching boxes because one guy was killed by a line drive (an incident regarded by almost everyone in the sport as freak occurrence), then it can damn well ban the maple bats to protect everyone at the ballpark.

Let's not wait for someone to be killed.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Fans Are Idiots

Here we go again.

The first returns are in for baseball's All-Star Game (oops, sorry, that would be the Monster All-Star Game), and they prove once again why the fans should not be the ones choosing the All-Star starting lineups.

Sure, it's a seductive argument: "it's the fans' game, and they ought to choose". Except it really doesn't work out that way. What happens is that rabid fans in a couple of cities (can you say Boston and New York, kids?) dominate the process.

Right now, the American League results have 7 of the 9 slots in the batting order filled by Red Sox or Yankees. Somehow, Vladimir Guerrero and Ichiro Suzuki managed to sneak in (though neither is really having a great year), but keep an eye out for Yankees Bobby Abreu and Melky Cabrera, who lurk within striking distance.

It's another example of how baseball says it cares about the fans, but really only cares if you live in a big market. I can just hear the conversations at baseball's Park Avenue offices: "What? There's still a team in Kansas City?"

50 years ago, the Lords of Baseball faced an All-Star scandal: the good people of Cincinnati voted their Reds into every slot in the starting lineup except first base (apparently, they mistook Stan Musial's Cardinal red for their own guy). Commissioner Ford Frick stepped in and pulled two of the Fraud-legs from the lineup, subbing in Willie Mays and Hank Aaron.

And then, baseball took the vote away from the fans for the next dozen years. But then, in 1970, they gave it back. For a while, the sport tried to avoid another 1957 Reds mess by limiting the number of printed ballots distributed to each big-league city.

But then the Internet came along, rife with opportunities for ballot-stuffing. And here we are.

What can fans do? You can do what I do: claim the moral high ground by refusing to vote. Or you can go a step beyond that and join the millions who don't watch the All-Star Game on TV anymore.

Maybe then, the Lords of Baseball will get it right and let the players and managers (who know the game best) choose the All-Star lineups. But based on baseball's track record, I wouldn't bet on it.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Daniele Bennati and Me


Haven't heard of Daniele Bennati?

Don't worry. You're in concert with approximately 99.8% of the world's population.

I, on the other hand, am a big fan of Daniele Bennati. And why is that, you ask? Because we ride the same bike.

Well, OK, not exactly the same bike, but I have a damned fine replica of the Cannondale that Bennati and his Team Liquigas buddies ride on the pro cycling tour. And Bennati is having a fine Giro d'Italia, winning his 3rd stage today (more about the Giro on the KCBS/CycleTo.com La Dolce Giro podcast).

So while my shiny new carbon-fiber bike is, well, maybe just a bit over the top visually, right now it looks like a winner's bike. Just like all those baseball caps and basketball jerseys and college-logo T-shirts sports fans love to sport. Just look around. Lots of Kobe jerseys and Red Sox caps and USC T-shirts. Not so many people wearing the Zito jersey these days.

"Showing your colors" is part of being a fan. You either back the home team, or you pick another player or team to adopt. In the case of Daniele Bennati and me, it was sort of an arranged marriage (the bike shop just happened to have only one Cannondale Synapse in my size, and it was the Liquigas livery version).

But by golly, now I'm 100% behind those Liquigas boys. Forza Bennati!

Friday, May 16, 2008

Thanks, Peter

I just got the e-mail from Peter Magowan. No, we're not on each other's buddy list; I'm a Giants season-ticket holder and everyone got the same message.

Instead of hitting the "reply" button, I'm using this forum to say, "thanks".

It's been fashionable in some quarters to bash Magowan and Giants management for a) signing Barry Bonds, b) letting the team descend into mediocrity the last few years, or c) whatever else bugs you about the franchise.

But though the Giants never won it all under Magowan's stewardship, he (and the rest of the long list of minority partners) not only kept the team in San Francisco, they pretty much guaranteed its future in the Bay Area. Let's not forget: in 1993, there was a very good chance that this team was bound for Tampa Bay. Every attempt to get a new stadium to replace the clearly inadequate Candlestick Park had been rebuffed. Magowan and Company not only kept the team in SF, but they also penciled out a way to build that terrific ballpark.

And as part of the whole package, we got Barry Bonds. I am not here to defend Bonds' churlishness or to protest his innocence, but when the Giants acquired him, everything changed. The team became instantly respectable, and it's not too great a stretch to argue that Bonds' presence helped the organization work the numbers for the new ballpark.

Has Magowan made some mistakes? Sure. Most notably, he overpaid Bonds, costing the team the ability to hire a few other key pieces. He helped create the toxic atmosphere in which Bonds operated.

But Peter Magowan also saw the game from the fan's point of view. Sure, a way-richer, way-more-connected fan, but still, a fan. For that, Giants fans owe him their deepest thanks.

After all, we could have been commuting to Tampa.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Sharks: Will This Help?

So the Sharks have followed their latest second-round playoff exit by showing coach Ron Wilson the door.

The move obviously doesn't do anything for fans who thought this would be the year for the Sharks. We'll have to wait 12 months to see if it makes any difference in the only thing that really matters to an NHL team: its performance in the playoffs.

Wilson was reportedly startled by the decision (to say the least). He's a veteran coach who knows what it takes to win a Stanley Cup and has hinted broadly that the Sharks remain short of what's required. His boss, G.M. Doug Wilson, obviously thinks otherwise.

There's a tendency, I think, for people to generate unreasonable expectations for a team's playoff prospects based on its regular season numbers. But there's a reason NHL oldtimers call the playoffs "the second season". Everything changes (including, it often seems, the rules).

The question is whether the Sharks are really built for the second season. To be sure, it's a team full of exciting players, but the nagging question of whether all the pieces are there to dominate in the rarefied air of the playoffs lingers. That's on the G.M., not the coach.

One thing's for sure: if the Sharks don't go deeper into the playoffs next year, it won't be Ron Wilson's fault. It might be Doug Wilson's.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Chicanery

I'll confess: I am a bit of a know-it-all. But I'm generally not big on showing off with 4-bit words when I can sling the 2-bit variety.

That's why I was shocked when I tossed off the word "chicane" this morning and my KCBS colleagues didn't know it. I used the word to describe a mess on the Bay Bridge, where a traffic accident had blocked a couple of lanes and forced drivers to do a little right-left-right evasive maneuver. (If you, like my colleagues, are baffled by the word, here's a full write-up.)


To me, "chicane" is just part of the sporting landscape. As a kid, I was always captivated by the exotic drama of Formula One racing, where chicanes are commonplace. It's not just F1, though--you'll find chicanes on all sorts of racetracks as a way to keep speed under control.

Check out the photo I borrowed from a sports-car racing club--the Corvette is leading the Audi through the chicane.

To those who say being a sports fan is a waste of time, I say, "never!" Imagine what it can do for your vocabulary.


Monday, May 5, 2008

Savor It

If you stayed all the way until the end--through all the intermissions, all the shots on goal, all the icing calls--congratulations.

If you didn't--well, you missed something special.

Sure, the Sharks lost, ending their season in disappointment. But it was a hell of a loss, truly a game for the ages.

I've grown weary of the people (some Bay Area columnists come to mind) who want to beat the Sharks up because they haven't won the Stanley Cup. I don't buy the whole debate about their "heart" (or lack thereof). Let's leave it at this: this is a good hockey team, and there are other good hockey teams, and sometimes you win. Sometimes you don't.

Ask anyone on the Dallas Stars if the Sharks are underachievers. They'll tell you the truth.

It's a shame the Sharks flew into the Bay Area in the wee hours of the morning after this epic 4-overtime loss. Someone should have been there to strike up the band, for even in defeat, they did themselves proud.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A Suggestion For Zito

Let's be honest about the whole Barry Zito situation: it is about the money.

It is, of course, shocking and puzzling to watch a healthy young athlete struggle so mightily. But what dominates this story is that number. You know the one. 126,000,000.

Don't believe me? I just Googled the phrase "$126 million" and 352 news items popped up.

Few doubt that at least some of Zito's problems can be traced to The Contract. How can he not think about it when it's all anyone else can see?

The Giants think the answer is to send Zito to the bullpen, hoping he'll regain his magic. Here's my suggestion: Barry, offer to give the money back.

Not all of it. Let's say half. That'll make you the $63 Million Man, and half of the juicy storyline will evaporate. You'll just be another struggling pitcher. The fans will find something else to boo. The writers will move on. And you'll still be wealthy beyond belief.

There's historical precedent. Angels outfielder Lyman Bostock, in an April slump just after signing a then-startling free agent deal, went to owner Gene Autry and offered to forfeit his entire month's paycheck. Autry declined the offer, and Bostock wound up donating the money to charity.

Let me be clear: I'm not saying Barry Zito doesn't deserve the money. He deserves every penny of it. The Giants agreed to pay him and he agreed to show up every day and give his best effort. That's the deal, and Barry Zito has kept his end of it. Has his pitching been awful? Sure, but the deal didn't say "we'll pay you $126 million if you go 23-5 each year".

No, I'm making this suggestion on Zito's behalf. Take away the storyline, and the pressure drops. Not only that, Zito would look like a hero. Right now, that would be nice.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

I Eat Crow

Last summer, when the Sharks signed veteran Jeremy Roenick, I went on our KCBS Sports Fans podcast and criticized the move. I said it was sad that a young team like the Sharks would spend any money on a washed-up player, and strongly suggested (hell, I think I came right out and said it) that the only reason Roenick was playing one more year was to reach the 500-goal career milestone.

Now, with Roenick practically single-handedly having won Game 7 of the Sharks' first-round Stanley Cup series against Calgary (his 4 points in the game tied the franchise playoff record), I am ready to go the chalkboard and write 500 times: I was wrong.

Roenick is a future Hall of Famer, and his play this season has been inspirational and sometimes spectacular. In Game 7, he was everywhere. His second goal was pure Roenick: fire the puck on net, then chase down the rebound and snipe it in from a tough angle.

There are no givens in the Stanley Cup playoffs. This first-round win may well spring the Sharks on a run to the Cup itself. Or Dallas could derail the whole thing by picking the Sharks off in the second round.

But whatever happens, the Sharks will be getting a ton of help from a guy who seemed ready to leave hockey last summer a few goals short of the 500 plateau. Now, as he told interviewer John Shrader at HP Pavilion in the din after Game 7, he feels like he's playing on 18-year-old legs.

JR, my apologies. I was so wrong.

Monday, April 21, 2008

You Go, Girl!

Check it out: that's not a "podium girl" posing with the trophy. That's Danica Patrick, who made history over the weekend by winning the IndyCar race at Motegi, Japan.

It's the first time a woman has ever won an IndyCar race. To put it in perspective, the first time a woman raced at the Indianapolis 500 was 31 years ago. Only a handful of other women have ever driven those high-speed open-wheel cars, considered by many to be the pinnacle of American motorsports.

I was a big fan of Danica Patrick before this breakthrough win. She's smart, cheeky, sassy, tough as nails. She's made a ton of money off the track because sponsors love the way she connects with consumers.

But without a win, Danica Patrick was--let's face it--a novelty act. She was Ana Kournikova in a Nomex driving suit (when she wasn't posing in a swimsuit).

Patrick's win at Motegi is no fluke. They don't stand back and let you win just because you have a winning smile. She beat the boys at what has always been their own game, and then reveled in the groundbreaking nature of the win as only she could. Her notable quote: "Crap, that's history, dude!"

It sure is. It'll take time for everyone to digest this, but I'm going to argue that Danica Patrick's victory is the single biggest gender-equalizing moment for women in sports history. Many would point to Billie Jean King's "Battle of the Sexes" win over Bobby Riggs in 1973. I mean no disrespect to Billie Jean, who I rank as one of the greatest Americans ever--not just American athlete, but American--but that was a made-for-TV farce. Patrick's win was in a real competition.

Danica Patrick will arrive in Indianapolis in a few weeks for the Indy 500. She was always an attention-getter. Now, she's a history-maker.

Friday, April 18, 2008

21st Inning Stretch

25, 984 people were actually at Petco Park in San Diego for last night's game between the Padres and Rockies.

A few years from now, approximately 3 million people will claim they were there.

It was one of those games for the ages: 22 innings in 6:16. Not the longest game ever, but plenty long. A tough night for the hitters: final score 2-1, Rockies. Some pretty good hitters saw serious damage done to their batting averages. Colorado's Todd Helton and San Diego's Brian Giles each went 1-for-9. Feast your eyes on the boxscore for more numbers.

Tough enough for the players, many of whom went the distance (both catchers, Colorado's Yorvit Torrealba and San Diego's Josh Bard, put in the full 22 and will undoubtedly get the night off tonight).

But how about the fans? That's a long time in a hard plastic seat with your knees shoved into the back of the seat in front of you. That's a lot of bad ballpark music. That's 15 dry innings after they cut off the beer sales.

On the plus side, the Padres organization got into the absurd fun of it all, and staged a 7th inning stretch, a 14th inning stretch, and a 21st inning stretch. So at least the fans got a little exercise.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Dirtbags, Rejoice!

There's one place where the term "dirtbag" is not a pejorative: around the baseball facilities at Long Beach State. They're officially the 49ers, but the Long Beach team proudly wears the sub-nickname "Dirtbags".

And today, Dirtbag Nation is thrilled by the accomplishments of John Bowker. The Sacramento-area product has just become the first San Francisco Giant ever to homer in his first two big-league games.

Bowker was drafted by the Giants out of "The Beach" four years ago and came to the Giants' spring-traing camp this year wearing number 70. That's generally a pretty good sign that when the "big club" heads north, you'll be shuffling off to the minor leagues. And indeed, Bowker did start the season in Fresno.

But a couple of injuries and a slow start left the Giants desperate for someone, anyone, who could show a little power from the left side. Enter Bowker.

Before Giants fans get too thrilled, please remember that among the handful of Giants to homer in their first big-league game was Johnnie LeMaster. But it's a hell of a start. And for a Giants organization that has shown little ability to draft and groom position players in recent years, Bowker could be a Dirtbag from heaven.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Panic Early

One of my best friends in the broadcasting business is a TV news producer who deals with the relentless pressure of his job by adopting this mantra: "Panic early".

It might be time for Giants fans to line up with him.

Trust me here: I am not one of those people who see a 1-5 start to the season and conclude the team will end up losing 140 games. Over a long season, many things tend to even out.

But this year's edition of the San Francisco Giants, to put it gently, has some issues. Poor Barry Zito can't seem to keep the ball in the park. Clutch hits have been hard to find. Twice already, the Giants have watched another team's runner score from second base on an infield out (and twice already, rookie shortstop Brian Bocock has gotten picked off).

Bulldog starting pitcher Noah Lowry is on the DL. Key outfield acquisition Aaron Rowand is missing games with sore ribs. The man who may be the best shortstop ever to play the game, Omar Vizquel, is still not ready to play after knee surgery (although, to be fair, Bocock has been terrific in his place).

There's some cause for hope: young guys like Eugenio Velez and Bocock and Fred Lewis show flashes of brilliance. But more often than not, young players have to learn the hard way what it takes to be a consistent major-league player the hard way: by making mistakes.

The Giants and their fans are coming to grips with a post-Bonds world. The circus has left town, and now, in the dust left behind, the team needs to find a new path. When I say "panic early", I'm suggesting the right decision is to go with the kids. Let 'em screw up. See if they learn.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Bandwagon Time

I know hockey is the 4th of the "Big 4" pro sports. But listen to me: if you're a Bay Area sports fan, you need to get on the Sharks bandwagon right now.

This team has now scored points in 19 consecutive games. In fact, defenseman Brian Campbell has never played a game with the Sharks in which they didn't score at least one point (either by winning outright or losing in overtime). Coincidence? I think not.

Campbell, acquired at the trade deadline, is the final piece of the puzzle for a team that already has arguably the league's best player (Joe Thornton) and its best goalie (Evgeni Nabokov), as well as a remarkable supporting cast. Guys like Jeremy Roenick, who I mocked months ago as a player I thought merely wanted to hang around long enough to score his 500th career goal, have contributed in key ways.

It may seem trivial to you, but the Sharks' 3-1 win over Phoenix in their first game after locking up the Pacific Division title says volumes about this team. They could have just gone through the motions, but they came out and played hard. They scored 14 seconds into the match, aided by an assist from Ryane Clowe, who'd missed more than 50 games following major knee surgery. Who scored that first goal? Thornton, of course.

"Jumbo Joe" should be named the NHL's Most Valuable Player. He's not the league's leading scorer, and he doesn't make many highlight reels. But night in and night out, this man plays the game at both ends of the ice at a higher level than anyone else in the sport. Want ESPN thrills? Watch Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals (whose team will miss the playoffs). Want to watch the best player in hockey? Number 19 of the Sharks.

The Stanley Cup playoffs are not for the meek. The Sharks will probably have to beat teams like Calgary, Anaheim, and Detroit to reach the finals. Nothing is guaranteed.

But this is a damned good team, and it's on a roll. Hop on the bandwagon now.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

God-Awful Look

Greetings from Scottsdale. I'm in Spring Training bliss.

But I saw something the other day I'd rather not see again.

Eric Gagne. In maybe the worst-fitting uniform ever. I mean, pants so baggy, we worried a strong wind could catch him and send him airborne. But probably not, because it looks like he's hiding two or three other people in there with him.

Gagne, once the scourge of the National League West as the Dodgers' record-setting closer, is now trying to recapture that old magic with the Milwaukee Brewers. When he jogged in to face the Giants, he was also wearing a jersey that, at first, I thought was untucked. But my sharp-eyed son pointed out it was merely a couple of sizes too large, making for massive saggage around the waistband.

Gagne was booed, of course, by Giants fans who remember his Dodger days. But for me, the booing was about his fashion statement.

Bring back Garry Maddox, Willie Davis, Willie Mays. Guys who knew how to wear a baseball uniform. Praise the Giants pitchers, who are actually wearing old-school stirrup socks with sanitary hose beneath.

And pray that Gagne's fashion mistake is punished with the one thing that relief pitchers notice: lots of baserunners.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Enough, Already

Is the NHL waiting for an actual fatality?

It's beyond my understanding how the league continues to employ the "touch" icing rule, which requires a defensive player to race toward the end boards to touch the puck before an offensive player gets to it first. This guarantees high-speed action, and it also guarantees horrible scenes like the one in San Jose, where Minnesota Wild defenseman Kurtis Foster shattered his femur in a wreck with the Sharks' Torrey Mitchell (photo from Associated Press).

Don't blame Mitchell, who is a hustling young player and was obviously concerned about Foster as soon as the play ended. Blame the idiots who run the NHL.

In international hockey and most European pro leagues, icing is called the moment the puck crosses the goal line. No drag race to the puck. No broken legs.

Any of the morons in the NHL hierarchy who resist changing the icing rule should be forced to watch video of Foster on the ice after that collision. The man was in terrible pain. It'll turn your stomach.

For Sharks fans, the Foster injury was disturbingly familiar. Back in 2004, San Jose's own Marco Sturm broke his leg when Colorado's Adam Foote grabbed him from behind during an icing race. It wasn't pretty then, it isn't pretty now, and it needs to stop.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Call In Sick

Look. Be honest to yourself (and your boss). You're not going to get any real work done once the NCAA Tournament starts.

So do the right thing. Call in sick.

This time, CBS plans to offer every single game of the tournament live via streaming video. This means even the key first-rounder between Drake and Western Kentucky will show up on your screen. Now, given the choice between that game and the sales forecast for Q3 (the one that was due two weeks ago), what will you do?

I think we both know the answer.

Sales forecasts can wait. March Madness waits for no one.

By the way, I think UCLA wins this thing. How 'bout you?

Monday, March 10, 2008

Parents: Get Real

I once watched a man sit in the stands at a high school softball game and receive a steady stream of congratulations from other adults. The man's "accomplishment" was the fact that his daughter had been granted a college athletic scholarship.

It seemed a bit odd to me at the time; after all, he hadn't won the scholarship, his daughter had. I didn't know the family (they were not from my town) and don't know where the young woman furthered her athletic career. It's a safe bet, however, that the scholarship wasn't as glossy as all those well-wishers thought.

There's a piece in the New York Times that ought to be required reading for any parent who thinks all those hours and dollars committed to a kid's youth sports career will pay off in a free ride to college. Sure, we all know families who won this weird form of lottery. But not unlike the folks you see on TV winning the Lotto, the full story is often missed.

The Times uses NCAA numbers to show that not only are the odds against getting any sort of scholarship (only 1 in 50 high school athletes will get any college athletic aid), but those who do get scholarships often get way less than the proverbial "full ride".

In fact, the average NCAA scholarship--including football and basketball--adds up to only about $10, 400 a year. Take the two big-money sports out and the figure drops to under $9,000. Sure, that's real money. But start doing the math on all the travel team fees, equipment, specialized coaching, injury rehab and the like, and you begin to wonder if it's worth it. And what's the value of a childhood sacrificed to this chase for cash?

The Times story ends with this quote from a young man who failed to make his college soccer team, after a childhood spent doing little but run after a soccer ball: "If if I had it to do over, I would have skipped a practice every now and then to go to a concert or a movie with my friends. I missed out on a lot of things for soccer. I wish I could have some of that time back.”

One wonders how things would have turned out if he and his family had focused on something other than the scholarship chase. Perhaps he'd have ended up like a young man I know, who attended a pricey Division III school (no scholarships) where he played 4 years of baseball and ended up with both a college degree and a pure love of his sport.

For those who insist on fixating on the money, consider this. A family that spends $7500 a year on Junior's youth sports career (on the low side, according to many) could instead invest that cash. If they started at age 8, Junior would have over $100,000 in college money at graduation time. In other words, more than twice the average NCAA scholarship.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Stupid Schedule

Take a good look at that guy with the puck. If you're a Sharks fan, this is as close as you'll get this year.

The NHL's absurd unbalanced schedule continues to insult fans by depriving them of even a single chance to see all of the league's stars each year. By the way, the fellow in the photo is Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, who leads the league in goals, points, and highlight-film plays. He won't play in San Jose this year. In fact, the Sharks won't even play his team on the road.

I'm hot on this topic right now because the Sharks and Montreal just played a terrific game in San Jose (the Sharks won 6-4, proving they can play fast-paced, high-skill hockey with any team in the league). It was a true treat for the home fans.

But reality bites. It'll be a long time before the Canadiens play in San Jose again. And of the Sharks' remaining 16 games this season, a wearying 9 will be against the other 4 teams in the Sharks' Pacific Dvision (in fact, those 9 games will occur in the last 10 games of the season).

I understand the logic of loading the schedule so that teams play more games against those they're battling for a playoff slot. I understand the realities of travel expenses. But will someone please explain to me how the NHL benefits from keeping Ovechkin out of San Jose (or, for that matter, Joe Thornton out of Washington)? Even the NHL's plan to revise the schedule for next year will not ensure visits by all of the opposite-conference teams.

Stupid. Just plain stupid.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Revised Batting Order

Wish you could have been here while my esteemed colleague Steve Bitker and I battled over this one: Tony LaRussa plans to have his pitchers bat 8th this year.

LaRussa actually tried this for about a month last year, and the numbers showed a slight improvement in the Cardinals' run production with the pitcher batting 8th and somebody else hitting 9th (4.6 runs per game vs. 4.4).

Steve, ever the traditionalist, dismisses the idea out of hand. His logic: the pitcher is almost always the worst hitter in the lineup and the number 9 slot, over the course of a season will get the fewest at-bats, ergo the 9-hole is the only logical place for the pitcher to bat.

I, ever the curious rabble-rouser, gently demurred. Actually, it might not have been so gentle; you can hear it all on our podcast. My position: while it is true that the pitcher is the worst hitter, and it is true that the 9-spot gets the least at-bats over a season (actually, only about 17 fewer than the number 8 position), so what?

You'd need to know many more things before you could say for sure that the LaRussa plan is a bad idea. You'd need to know, for example, how often the number 9 hitter bats in a position to do some offensive damage (for example, I'd want to know how many 2-out, runner in scoring position at-bats occur with the #9 batter at the plate). You'd need to know how many times the number 9 hitter leads off an inning. And on and on.

Naturally, the world of baseball fans is full of propeller-heads who eat this stuff up like raw meat. One paper by a guy named Tom Ruane suggests that not only should the pitcher bat 8th, but the number 2 and 3 hitters should swap places, and so should the 4 and 5 hitters. He uses some math that makes my head hurt, and I don't think he proves anything, but Ruane raises some interesting questions.

Bottom line: doing things the traditional way often works. But sometimes, the willingness to change can produce dramatic results. LaRussa is far from a nut (Cards pitcher Adam Wainwright, referring to his boss, said, "Tony's not going to make a decision that's not proven to work"). Let's see how this plays out before we brand it a bad idea.

Monday, February 25, 2008

One Screwed-Up Sport

Allow me to translate the photo. A lot of cycling fans are ticked-off at the Tour de France.

Here's why: the imperious folks who run Le Tour have decided--against the wishes of cycling's worldwide governing body--to ban the Astana Cycling Team from this summer's Tour.

Let me put this in perspective. This would be a little like the organizers of a PGA Tour event telling Tiger Woods to stay home. Or a rogue sheriff telling the Yankees they couldn't play a World Series game in St. Louis.

Astana is in hot water with the company that runs the Tour de France because last year's version of the team pulled out of the race following a doping scandal. Never mind that there's been a significant overhaul of the Astana team since then: Johan Bruyneel, who helped turn Lance Armstrong and the Discovery Channel team into a juggernaut, is now running Astana. The team has signed some of the sport's biggest names: 2007 Tour de France champ Alberto Contador and Californian Levi Leipheimer join holdover Andreas Kloden. Any of those men could win the Tour--if they got the chance to ride in it.

It gets complicated fast, but this appears to be part of a power struggle between UCI (the cycling governing body) and ASO (the French company that owns Le Tour), with the Italian company RCS (it runs the Giro d'Italia and has also banned Astana for this year) chiming in.

UCI points out, correctly, that Astana was certainly not the only team with doping riders last year. This shapes up as a battle between dopers and just plain dopes, and the Tour de France organizers are obviously the fools. Let Astana ride. Let UCI handle the drug testing.

And, for a change, think of the fans.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

We're Not Buying It

If Roger Clemens and his team of advisers thought they'd win in the Court of Public Opinion, they appear to be sadly mistaken.

While Clemens certainly didn't pull a McGwire in his much-ballyhooed Capitol Hill appearance last week, survey after survey shows the average guy or gal just doesn't believe him. Our own admittedly-unscientific KCBS poll showed only 9% believe Clemens is telling the truth. Interestingly, 29% believe neither Clemens nor accuser Brian McNamee.

Meanwhile, Clemens' "misremembering" buddy Andy Pettite is buying himself a huge bucket of good will by "manning up". His Tampa news conference, in which he apologized to his fans and employers for using human growth hormone, stands in stark contrast to Clemens' scorched-earth battle to buff a tarnished image.

Pettite quoted the Bible, specifically John 8:32: "the truth will set you free". Pettite is a devout Christian, and it's easy for the cynical to roll their eyes when yet another athlete starts wearing his faith on his sleeve.

But Pettite's faith, in this case, led him to do the right thing. In his words, "you have to tell the truth". Few doubt that he's doing exactly that. Few believe that his pal Clemens is.