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.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Notes On A Hearing

Is Roger Clemens telling the truth?

How about Brian McNamee?

I've been watching and listening as they face a Congressional committee today, and I can easily find "evidence" to support either man.

Yet, in the words of Congressman Henry Waxman, "it's impossible to believe this is a simple misunderstanding...someone isn't telling the truth".

Aside from the posturing of some committee members (how about Missouri's William Lacy Clay asking Clemens what uniform he'll wear to the Hall of Fame?), there are genuine holes in both versions of the story. Neither, in my opinion, offers an open-and-shut case.

So where does this leave us? Exactly where we've been for years when it comes to baseball's Bulk-Up Era: pretty sure a lot of guys were juicing. Not 100% sure, but pretty sure.

I'm not sure it really matters any more that we get to the 100% certainty mark. We've all made our own decisions at a much more important level: in our guts.

And that's where we'll all judge today's testimony.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Wake Up, Hockey

The good news is, you can't see much. The bad news is, that blood on the ice is coming from Richard Zednik's carotid artery.

The Florida Panthers forward needed 5 units of blood and an hour of surgery to undo the damage done by a teammate's skate in a freak accident.

Despite the damage, doctors are saying Zednik got off lucky. Considering the size of the slice and the general location, it would have been worse. Much worse.

It's time for hockey to wake up and mandate throat protection at all levels of the sport. Canadian youth hockey already requires it. Oddly enough, here in the litigious U.S.A., thousands of youth hockey players take the ice every day without any protection across the neck and throat.

The NHL could take the lead. Throat protection comes in a couple of forms (hard and soft), and all of those players who came through Canada's vast junior hockey system are already accustomed to wearing it. It's weird to read instructions for referees in games between U.S. and Canadian teams: make sure the Canadian kids are wearing throat guards (and by implication, don't worry about the U.S. skaters; it's not in the rules).

Here's what a soft neck guard looks like. A lot prettier than watching Richard Zednik's life ebb onto the ice.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Bloody Gauze Pads

OK, I have officially had enough of the Roger Clemens story.

The carefully-timed "revelation" that trainer Brian McNamee stored used syringes and blood-stained gauze pads after injecting Clemens is the last straw. How much lower can we get? Makes me want to go see the Paris Hilton movie to brighten my outlook on life.

It isn't just the scrapbooking of medical waste that's disturbing. It's all the time and money being spent to prove or disprove what was or wasn't shot into Clemens' butt. It's the obvious scheming going on, on all sides of this mess. It's the sanctimonious posturing by government officials.


Understand, I am not one of those people with a short attention span, the kind who needs a new hit of news adrenaline every other day. I am fascinated by stories of real import, stories that matter. But can someone please tell me why we care about this any more? Clemens' career is finished. What he did or didn't do is years in the past. If baseball cares so much about the sanctity of his statistics, let the Lords of Baseball handle (and fund) the investigation.

I've asked it before, and I'll ask it again: don't Congress and the Department of Justice have better things to worry about?

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Good Riddance

902 wins, and still a loser in my book.

Bob Knight chose the middle of a college basketball season to quit. That's typical for a guy who's never shown any sign of understanding that he is not the center of the universe.

Give him his due: he knows basketball. I'll repeat that: Bob Knight knows basketball. Even the saintly John Wooden admires Knight's X's and O's.

But how you can ignore Knight's lifetime of execrable behavior? If the measure of a man is how he treats his fellow man, Bob Knight has a long way to go. He's behaved like a bully so many times that the incidents fade into each other.

And his final contribution to that legacy is to walk away from a basketball team in the middle of a season. Sure, he's 67 years old and college basketball's a tough life. But what about all that discipline and commitment he's demanded from his players over the years? Doesn't he owe them the same?

No, you can rack up the most wins in the history of the sport, but the game of life keeps score under a different set of rules. Bob Knight fouled out of that game long ago.