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.