Thursday, January 31, 2008

Damn It

Warning: this posting won't leave you smiling. It might make you sad, or maybe angry.

I'm a little of both right now. Here's why: three days ago, a dear friend called to tell me her 21-year-old son was dead. Drugs.

In my business, we tell stories like this all the time. In fact, a heroin overdose death is hardly even newsworthy anymore (not even in the Dallas area, where our friends live and where at least 25 young people have died in the last couple of years because of a cheap form of heroin called "cheese").

So why am I telling you? Why does this belong in a sports-related blog? Only as a reminder that the most dangerous drugs in America today are not steroids. Despite all the attention we pay to performance-enhancing drugs, we continue to lose our sons and daughters to the same damned poison that's been around for years.

If you want to know the brief details about Cory, here's his obituary. It fails, of course, to tell you everything. I have memories of a handsome boy sprinting into the surf at South Padre Island with his boogie-board. Of him bursting through the front door and dumping his load of soccer gear. Of him in the midst of a gang of neighborhood kids bouncing with delight on a backyard trampoline under the pecan trees.

Cory was not a world-class athlete, but he was athletic: soccer, football, even a year of college lacrosse before he began his descent into drug use. He was a sports fan (UT, the Cowboys, the Rangers).

Yet none of those connections to life was strong enough to pull him away from the tractor-beam of hard drugs. I remember reading Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch, about the hold that sports-fandom has over many men, and thinking maybe all of us who suffer for our teams are a little pathetic.

Now, I just wish Cory was around to suffer for his teams.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Bad Decision, Giants

This will probably not be a popular sentiment, but I think the Giants made a mistake in letting Pedro Feliz go. They'll tell you they made him an offer, but it was a lowball deal that showed they didn't really want him back.

Look, Feliz has always had his flaws at the plate (it's an even bet that in this photo, he ended up swinging through the ball). He seldom met a first pitch that didn't deserve a hack.

Yet in fastball situations, Feliz wasn't a guy you wanted to face. In his four seasons as an everyday player, Feliz averaged 21 homers, 32 doubles and 84 RBI's a season. Very decent numbers in a ballpark that's far from friendly to righthanded hitters.

Feliz' true strengths were his glove and his versatility. The man my buddy Bob insists on calling "Happy Pete" (use your Spanish-to-English dictionary) is a 3rd baseman by trade, but he's spent time at 1st base, in the outfield, and even at shortstop in a pinch. Despite an aberrant spell in 2006 (a season in which he made 21 errors), Feliz was always a superb 3rd baseman, blessed with a well-above-average arm.

Giants GM Brian Sabean just e-mailed season ticketholders to tell them the team plans to build its post-Bonds editions on pitching and defense. Does it make sense, then, to give up on a quality defensive player who's shown he can drive in runs?

Perhaps Kevin Frandsen will make me forget Feliz, since the Giants seem ready to let him share the 3rd base job with Rich Aurilia, who will turn 37 this season. I hope so. But for now, it feels like a misplaced bet.

Monday, January 28, 2008

C-Webb and Nellie, The Sequel

All signs indicate the Golden State Warriors are on the verge of bringing the prodigal son back for a second tour of duty. I'm talking about Chris Webber, the supremely talented big man whose departure from the Warriors after his rookie season is generally regarded as the beginning of the Warriors' descent into insignificance.

Depending on your point of view, Warriors coach Don Nelson was either a bully or a hard-nosed traditionalist and Webber was either a victim or a snot-nosed brat. Their clash led to Webber's decision to force a trade.

That was then (1994) and this is now. The Warriors, in Nelson's second go-round, are a fun team to watch and are respectable, if still short of formidable.

Can Webber make them a great team? Let me put it this way: if he was that valuable, he wouldn't be sitting in his restaurant near Sacramento halfway through the NBA season. He'd be playing somewhere.

Still, C-Webb's return to the Warriors would be a boon. He might help them on the court. After all, he was useful last year to a Pistons team that lost in the Eastern Conference finals. He's certainly not the force he was in '94, but that's not what he'd be asked to be.

Webber's real value would be intangible. It would be a return to better times, a closing of an ugly chapter in a once-proud franchise's history, and a chance for two proud men (Nellie and C-Webb) to show us they've both grown up.

That's a message pro sports seldom delivers.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Dinner Now, Sharks Later

Do you ever wish nighttime sports events would start a little earlier? As an early riser, I'm a firm believer that 7 PM is a more humane starting time than 7:30 PM (hey, when your alarm clock goes off at 4 AM, every half-hour counts).

And I know many parents would love to take their kids to ballgames during the week, but the later the event runs, the less attractive a trip to the arena seems.

So I was interested to hear San Jose Sharks CEO Greg Jamison explain his rationale for those 7:30 starts at the Shark Tank. Jamison told the Comerica Bank Economic Forecast Conference (and elaborated with me in a chat later) that he'd personally rather go with the earlier starting time, but there's a reason they stick with 7:30.

That reason is the downtown San Jose restaurant scene. See, the Sharks have found that when they play earlier, fewer people go out for dinner before coming to the Tank. Jamison doesn't have exact numbers to prove it, but he says there's no doubt that the extra half-hour lets more fans stop off for a restaurant meal

It's an enlightened viewpoint. It would be easy for the Sharks to say "the hell with the restaurants" and proceed to sell more food at the HP Pavilion. But it speaks to an understanding that a rising tide floats all boats. If downtown San Jose is alive and vibrant, it's only good news for the Sharks and their ownership (which also operates the HP Pavilion and books all the other events there).

By the way, here's another data point from Jamison: the Sharks Ice facility in San Jose (one of 3 run by the team in the Bay Area) is directly responsible for 15,000 hotel room bookings this year. That's because of all the hockey tournaments and skating events staged at the facility, which is now the biggest ice facility west of the Mississippi and is open 20 hours a day.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Something Has To Give

So it's all set. The Team Of Destiny vs. The Team That Loves To Travel.

The Patriots haven't lost all year (18 wins and counting). The Giants have set their own NFL record with 10 straight road wins.

Super Bowl 42 (look, I'm OK with Roman numerals when we're talking V, X, or even XX, but when it gets up to XLII, let's stop the madness, OK?) sets up a collision between two teams riding hot streaks.

Conventional wisdom (read that: the Las Vegas bookies) says the Patriots will win. That's probably a safe bet. But don't be too shocked if the New Yorkers pull this thing off.

The Giants, like the Steelers two years ago, have taken the hard road. They've been forced to win three straight playoff games away from home. And they've done it the smart way: no offensive turnovers in those three games, including the frost-fest in Green Bay. That's the kind of team that can win a Super Bowl.

Some crabby types don't like the idea of a wild card team winning it all. Their tortured reasoning is that a team that can't even win its division shouldn't be in the playoffs. This, of course, is silly. With the NFL's unbalanced schedule, you're never measuring apples against apples when assessing win-loss records anyway, so the addition of two wild card teams is easily defensible. What's a little odd about this season is the fact that two divisions (NFC East and AFC South) sent 3 of their 4 teams to the playoffs.

It's all about peaking at the right time. The Giants started 0-2 this season, and have since won 13 of 17 games, including those 10 straight on the road. Don't forget: the Super Bowl is an away game.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Baseball and Rap

The week is wrapping up and surprisingly, we've heard not a peep out of Congress about the furor engulfing hip-hop music. Yes, just like baseball, rap has a steroids scandal.

Big names like Timbaland and 50 Cent have been mentioned in reports about illegal distribution of steroids and human growth hormone. It turns out some of those way-too-ripped physiques may have been artificially-enhanced.

So where's the call for Congressional hearings? If the logic behind Capitol Hill's abiding interest in baseball is that kids are using steroids because their ballplaying heroes do (a sentiment expressed more than once at this week's hearing), shouldn't the multi-billion dollar music industry also be under the microscope?

Look, if Congress is really worried about kids adopting the dangerous ways of their heroes, then why stop with baseball? Of course, it's entirely possible that Congress is engaging in a bit of grandstanding with its baseball hearings. You think?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Giants Dilemma

Much is being made today of the possibility that baseball Commissioner Bud Selig will punish the San Francisco Giants for failing to rein in Barry Bonds and his "trainer" Greg Anderson. This is because Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) leaned heavily on Selig at yesterday's House Oversight Committee hearing, essentially getting Selig to promise he'd do something about those bad boys by McCovey Cove.

Does this mean Giants G.M. Brian Sabean and/or owner Peter Magowan will soon be receiving suspension notices, or paying a big fine, or suffering some other draconian punishment? I wouldn't bet on it, and here's why: they weren't alone.

While George Mitchell may have gotten former Giants trainer Stan Conte to reveal his frustration about steroids seeping into the Giants clubhouse, what doesn't appear in Mitchell's report is any detail about what went on with other teams. You think nobody with the Oakland A's wondered about Canseco and McGwire? Is it plausible that all those Yankees players fingered by Mitchell did what they're alleged to have done without anyone in Steinbrenner-land knowing or suspecting?

Remember, Selig works for the owners. If he offers Giants management up as a sacrificial lamb in this case, he's opening up a Pandora's box. He's punishing one of his employers for the exact same thing some, many, or all of the others are likely to have done as well.

It's been pointed out that past Commissioners have punished owners. Well, yes, but those cases involved activities that were highly-specific to the owners who were punished. Steinbrenner was convicted of a felony, and later, found to have spied on one of his players. Marge Schott was, well, an embarrassment to everyone. In both cases, other owners could enthusiastically endorse the punishment: their hands were clean.

This time, there would be an uneasy feeling all over baseball if the Giants were busted, for it's extremely doubtful they were alone.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Congress Raises the Stakes

Baseball pitchers are always talking about owning the inside part of the plate. If you bust one in on a hitter's fists once in a while, he's a lot less likely to lean out for a healthy swing at your best stuff.

Now it looks like Congress is adopting the same technique. I'm writing as I listen to the House Oversight Committee hearing on baseball's steroids mess. The high hard one came in the opening moments: the Committee is asking the Department of Justice to investigate Miguel Tejada.

Tejada was interviewed by House investigators after then-teammate Rafael Palmeiro told this same committee in 2005 that he had never, ever used steroids--and then failed a drug test. Palmeiro said he thought he was using vitamin B-12 supplied by Tejada. Tejada then told the investigators that he, too, was clean.

The Mitchell Report says otherwise, naming Tejada among the dozens of players who supposedly used performance-enhancers. And based on that, Congress is now calling in federal law enforcement, on the suspicion that Tejada lied.

Look, does anyone really think steroids weren't all over baseball? And does anyone doubt that the reason it's taken so long for all this to come out is the "code of silence" that's baseball's most important (unwritten) clubhouse rule?

That's what Congress is now trying to attack. Tejada may be the guy getting knocked down by the pitch, but it's aimed at every one of those players, owners, and major league baseball officials who knew the truth but didn't step up and tell it.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Let It Snow!

Show me a grown man who didn't once thrill to playing football in the mud, and I'll show you someone who missed a key part of childhood.

Maybe that's what it is about a game like this weekend's Green Bay-Seattle playoff game at Lambeau Field: it appeals to the kid in us.

Look at that picture. You can't see the yard line or the sidelines and you can barely see the wide receiver. Yet they played on, and I do mean played. The Packers' irrepressible Brett Favre capped a scoring drive by throwing a snowball in celebration. After all, isn't that what every kid from Mississippi dreams of doing someday?

It could happen again: the forecast for the NFC Championship game in Green Bay calls for a snowy 12 degrees. This could be a game to remember, on a par with the fabled "Ice Bowl" game at Lambeau in 1967. Of course, that day, it was below zero--so cold that the refs couldn't use their whistles and the marching band went silent because the brass players were losing lip-skin on their mouthpieces.

Bring it on!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Pete Carroll Is Nuts

Let me get this straight. The USC head coach is actually thinking of taking a job as head coach of the woeful Atlanta Falcons? Reports say Carroll, who is vacationing in Hawaii, talked on the phone with Falcons owner Arthur Blank.

I'm going to assume that maybe the tropical sunshine has altered Carroll's powers of logic. Otherwise, why would he walk away from what he has at 'SC for what will surely be a mess in Georgia?

Let's review. Carroll's gone 70-8 (bowl games included) in the last 6 years at USC. 44-6 in the Pac 10. Guided the Trojans to 6 consecutive top-4 finishes in the national rankings. Filled the LA Coliseum week after week. Been basically a force for good in the sometimes-sleazy world of college football.

How does it get better than that? Can there be enough money in Arthur Blank's pocket to make up for what Carroll would leave behind?

Time to get in out of the sun, Pete.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Hac's Back

You are looking at my all-time favorite badass.

HacMan. Penitentiary Face. One Flap Down.

Jeffrey (don't call him Jeff) Leonard has just been hired as the manager of the Reno Silver Sox, a member of the independent Golden Baseball League. It's a long way from "The Show" and I, for one, hope Hac makes it all the way back.

Leonard made my all-time Fan Hall of Fame with his swaggering years in the 1980's Giants outfield. That backwards cap on the baseball card, that surly scowl...he was our badass. For a guy with a .266 career average, ol' Hac cut a pretty wide swath.

Let's not forget how dismal things were for the Giants in the mid-80's. 96 losses in 1984, followed by 100 losses in 1985. Attendance dropped to barely 800,000 in '85. The turnaround began in 1986 when Will Clark and Robby Thompson arrived, Mike Krukow won 20 games and suddenly, the Giants were contenders (and attendance nearly doubled). At least two of those fans, my wife and her friend Amy, fondly remember the way Leonard filled out a uniform.

1987 was the year that put Jeffrey Leonard on the national map. He hit those 4 homers in the playoff series loss to St. Louis, punctuating them with his oh-so-slow "one flap down" home run trot. You can still get an angry reaction by mentioning his name in Redbird Land. Hac's MVP award in that NL Championship Series remains the last one ever won by a guy on a losing team.

Jeffrey Leonard's mean mug appeared to have been come by honestly--he was from the tough streets of West Philadelphia. He never talked much about what he'd left behind, but you got the impression it was more than you could handle. He was also caught up in baseball's last big drug scandal: the cocaine mess of the mid-80's. He had to pay a fine and do community service to avoid a suspension.

I hope he gets a real shot at someday managing in the big leagues. Hac managed the Sonoma County Crushers (ask my colleague Steve Bitker for some stories, as Steve was the team's play-by-play voice at the time) as well as a couple of A's minor league teams. Hac understands (unlike some of today's players) the difference between style and substance. He played the game hard and true and never left any doubt whose side he was on.

It would be great to see that mug back in a big-league dugout.

Monday, January 7, 2008

High Heat

Give Roger Clemens this much: he's consistent. The same guy who approached every game of his long baseball career as if the other team (and sometimes the umpire) was trying to steal his wife and kids is still a surly customer.

His news conference this afternoon was a raw look at an angry man. He can no longer blaze one at the head of an opposing hitter, or bull-rush an umpire who squeezed him on the strike zone. Instead, the rest of us got the sneering, vulgar treatment.

The Clemens case is so convoluted it's hard to know where to start. The audio tape of his phone conversation with accuser Brian McNamee was remarkable theater, but what exactly did it prove? Clemens is obviously very ticked off at a lot of folks, yet why won't he give a straight answer when he's asked if people who use steroids are cheaters?

Clemens readily acknowledges he was repeatedly injected by Brian McNamee, yet he continues to maintain all he got was Vitamin B12 and lidocaine. Maybe that's true. Maybe McNamee's version is true. Presumably both McNamee and Clemens know the real story.

The intriguing unexplained element of the story is the role played by federal agents. Did McNamee volunteer Clemens' name to them, or did it go the other way? Clemens' lawyer suggested the latter today, saying that when federal investigators come to you and say, " 'The truth is what is the truth?', it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure it out."

Yet practically in the next breath, attorney Rusty Hardin made sure we all knew he and the Rocket weren't making any allegations of misconduct on the part of the government. So why bring this all up? Are they trying to protect McNamee even as they sue him for defamation?

I'd like to think this will all be cleared up when Clemens testifies before Congress next week. But I wasn't born yesterday.

The Rocket's New Suit

One of the things you've been hearing often since the Mitchell Report came out is this: "If what they said about Roger Clemens isn't true, why isn't he suing somebody?"

Well, now he is. His 14-page lawsuit was filed, rather unusually, on a Sunday night. Does the fact that he's suing someone for defamation prove Clemens is clean? Of course not. As the old saying goes, all you need is the filing fee (in the case of Harris County, Texas, it's $197) to sue someone. You don't necessarily need the truth.

And yet, think what you will about Clemens, but this is indisputable: he's in the position of having to prove he didn't do something. That's not the way it's supposed to work in America. Our system says they have to prove you did it.

And in this case, the they is a rather shadowy thing. While George Mitchell may be the guy who rolled Clemens' name out for public approbation, there's an interesting paragraph in the lawsuit about how Clemens wound up in the crosshairs.

The paragraph describes how Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Parrella and IRS Special Agent Jeff Novitzky (key figures on the BALCO case) leaned on Clemens trainer Brian McNamee to name Clemens as a steroid user, despite his earlier denial that Clemens was juicing. McNamee's account of his own federal interrogation, included in the Clemens lawsuit, suggests that the Feds were the ones who brought up Clemens' name and insisted McNamee finger the Rocket.

Remember, McNamee was staring down the barrel of federal prosecution. Is it any surprise that he would have told the interrogators what they wanted to hear?

In short, while Clemens is suing McNamee, this paragraph suggests his real gripe may be with federal law enforcers. The question lingers: if the Justice Department thought Roger Clemens was using illegal drugs, why isn't he being charged with a crime? Is it possible that they couldn't build a criminal case, so they used George Mitchell to do their dirty work?

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Another One Gone

Darn it. Another Oakland A's star shuffled off, sacrificed to the great economic mismatch that is Major League Baseball.

This time it's Nick Swisher, a popular outfielder with some pop. Don't fool yourself into thinking the A's traded Swish because they thought the deal would build a better team. They did it because Swisher will someday be too expensive for the A's to keep. He's signed through 2011--but whoever employs him inherits a contract worth more than $25 million over that period.

Add him to the list: Haren, Mulder, Hudson, Zito, Tejada, etc., young Oakland talent gone for greener pastures, either as free agents or in trades before they could escape via free agency.

Swish was a perfect fit for the Oakland ballclub, both in terms of his approach to the game (patient hitter with power--he's the team's all-time home run leader among switch-hitters) and his image among the fans (hairy dude with a big smile and a big heart).

I know the A's got some fine prospects from the White Sox. But I also know that if those guys turn out to be any good, they'll be gone soon enough, too. See, the problem is baseball's economic structure. They can lie to you all they want about a "luxury tax" and a "salary cap", but the stark reality is that about a half-dozen big league teams can afford to set the market for everyone else.

The A's aren't one of the "haves", and they won't ever be unless baseball cares enough to undertake true economic restructuring. And trust me on this one: that won't happen before Nick Swisher's wearing a crewcut.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

On Sportsmanship

So what's with all the taunting and woofing that has infested college football?

I watched a few bowl games and came away with a bad taste that I'm pretty sure has nothing to do with New Year's Eve revelry.

Before we go any farther, I want to make it clear I'm not against youthful exuberance. I even enjoyed USC speedster Desmond Reed's forward flip into the Rose Bowl end zone, although the refs nailed him with a 15-yarder, coach Pete Carroll gave him an earful, and purists will note he failed to stick the landing.

I'm OK with what Reed did because it wasn't designed to mock or taunt the opposition. A guy who jumps up with an interception and explodes with joy is fine. A guy who makes a point of seeking out the opponent he just beat for a touchdown so he can mock him is not fine.

I was mightily put off by the Georgia Bulldogs' comportment in their Sugar Bowl shellacking of Hawaii. It might have started with coach Mark Richt's arm-waving in the first minute of the game, trying to "get the crowd involved". Uh, Coach, don't you have better things to worry about? Tailback Thomas Brown picked up a first down on the Dawgs' first possession, then jumped up and made like a referee signaling "first down". Uh,'ve gained over 2500 yards rushing at UGa. This is new to you? And the sorry spectacle included a few Georgia players mocking the Hawaii sideline with the traditional "hang loose, bruddah" Hawaii hand signal.

Completely unnecessary. Football's a fast-paced game, best played with a high level of emotion. There's nothing wrong with celebrating a big play. There's plenty wrong with a "celebration" that's really a taunt.

Georgia's behavior is particularly galling because the Bulldogs were so obviously the better team. They should have won this game, so why were they so busy mocking the team they were beating?

There's way too much of this going on in college sports. I'd like to see the refs nail it early and hard. And I'd like to see more coaches step up and do their jobs. It's pretty easy: if a player disrespects an opponent, he disrespects the game and loses his right to play it.

A player is not diminished when he respects his opponent. Ask Cal safety Thomas DeCoud, who plays the game as hard as anyone. Yet DeCoud made a point of patting the back of tireless Air Force receiver Chad Hall after yet another Hall foray into the Cal defense during the Armed Forces Bowl. The game was still in the balance at the time. DeCoud's gesture showed he understood something important about competition: without an opponent, you don't have a game.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

The NHL Gets It Right

73,000 fans, standing for much of the game.
A good old-fashioned lake-effects snowstorm in sub-freezing temperatures.
And a game-winning shootout goal by the sport's best player.

A perfect day for the National Hockey League, in its first-ever outdoor game played on U.S. soil.

Never mind the incessant interruptions for ice repair and goal re-mounting (who can expect the Ralph Wilson Stadium crew to know how to handle a hockey game, for crying out loud?). This match between the Buffalo Sabres and the Pittsburgh Penguins was the best thing to happen to the NHL in a long, long time.

The league often seems unable to decide which foot it ought to shoot itself in. It makes a mess of discipline, adopts strange rules, and uses a scheduling strategy that deprives many fans of the chance to see its greatest stars in person.

But the outdoor match was a big winner. The fact that Sidney Crosby ended it with a sweet shootout move was just an extra cherry on the sundae. The size of the crowd, the novelty of the event, and the quality of the play had already ensured this would be one to remember.

Hey NHL, how about making this happen more often? Why couldn't it happen in warm-weather cities, too? The Sharks at Spartan Stadium, anyone?