Thursday, December 24, 2009

My New Year's Resolution

My first thought was to resolve not to further enrage my esteemed colleague Steve Bitker.

Nahhhh. First of all, it's a resolution doomed to failure, and second, I get way too much enjoyment out of being the fly in the ointment.

It probably won't surprise you to learn that many years ago, when I learned the ins and outs of casino gambling, I became a hardcore "don't" bettor at the craps table. For those unfamiliar with the game, the "don't pass" or "don't come" wager is essentially a bet against the shooter (and thus, it seems to win you few friends around the table).

My decision had nothing to do with being anti-social. It had everything to do with cold, hard logic: I learned that once you survive the "come-out" roll (where the shooter wins on a 7 or an 11 and the "don't" gambler loses on those numbers), the odds favor the "don't". You still need Lady Luck on your side, but she's a little less important.

Anyway, back to now, and my New Year's resolution. I'm going to try harder in 2010 to get away from the pack and find those nuggets of logic and truth that seem to get overlooked by the group-think. Bill Belichick's 4th-down decision against the Colts is a classic example: Bill was right; end of discussion.

It'll probably make me about as popular as I was around the craps table way back when.

And it'll probably tick Steve off, too.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Russell's Redemption?

One drive in a (reasonably) meaningless NFL game does not a career make.

But it may have halted the unraveling of one.

JaMarcus Russell's 4th-quarter efforts in Denver must have given Raiders brass (read: Al Davis) a vision of what they thought they were getting when they made the huge LSU quarterback the #1 pick in the 2007 NFL Draft and then lavished huge amounts of cash upon him.

Russell has, since then, been largely a bust. By the time of the Denver game, he'd essentially become the Raiders' 3rd-string QB (and might have been 4th-string had J.P. Losman been signed a little earlier so he could learn a few plays). But with Bruce Gradkowski unable to play and his replacement Charlie Frye knocked out with a concussion, the Raiders had what appeared to be two bad choices: Russell, or Losman, who'd had less than a week to learn the Raiders' offense.

The game was in the balance: 3:29 on the clock, trailing by 6. 62 yards from the end zone. Russell's only other action in the game had been a 3-and-out on Oakland's previous possession, and he started this drive by fumbling as he was sacked. The Raiders recovered for a 13-yard loss, and only the morbidly curious or truly rabid Raiders or Broncos fans were still watching.

Russell threw deep and the Raiders picked up 32 yards on a pass-interference call. Two more incompletions under heavy pressure, and Russell had to leave the game after taking a big hit. Losman threw an incompletion, and Russell came back on 3rd-and-10.

This is where it got amazing. He completed a pass for the first down and by the time we all realized what had happened, Russell had thrown a touchdown dart to Chaz Schillens. Improbably, Russell and the Raiders had a win.

What now? Published reports suggest Russell's heroics did little to convince head coach Tom Cable that he deserves another shot at starting. With only two games left in a lost season, the Raiders may have already seen enough of Russell.

But those few minutes in Denver might convince another team--and maybe even Russell himself--that he merits another shot, somewhere.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Gotta Be Toby

When it comes to the Great Rivalry, my DNA goes with Cal (Grandpa Bunger played football there WAY back when; had his knee destroyed on what he always said was a dirty hit by one of Slip Madigan's St. Mary's Gaels).

But I know good when I see it, and I am pulling hard for Stanford's Toby Gerhart to win the Heisman Trophy. Gerhart's performance down the stretch was the stuff of legend. He was the key player in wins over Oregon, USC and Notre Dame. And in that narrow Big Game loss to Cal, Gerhart nearly willed the Cardinal to victory (heck, if he'd had the ball on those final plays, maybe they would have won).

He's also a starting outfielder on the Stanford baseball team, good enough that he could seriously entertain thoughts of playing baseball for a living. He's a good student, has a sense of humor, and his teammates absolutely love him. In short: The All-American Boy.

As I write, I don't know how it'll turn out. I know there's a Heisman bias toward the football-factory programs, and it's even tougher if you're on the West Coast. In fact, the last non-USC player to win the Heisman also strolled the Stanford Quad: Jim Plunkett in 1970.

No slam on the other finalists, but from where I sit, it's easy. Touchdown Toby should cart home the Heisman.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Tiger's Tale

Tiger Woods isn't talking, and some say that's his right.

I disagree--to a point. Let me explain.

Whatever happened chez Tiger is between him and his wife. Period. The rest of us have no business poking our noses into Tiger's lair. The mere fact that he's a millionaire celebrity doesn't mean he--any more than you or I--owe the rest of the world any more detail about his private life than he cares to share.

But. The traffic accident didn't occur on private property. It happened on a public roadway, and it doesn't take Sherlock Holmes to conclude that when Woods got into that Cadillac, he was either already injured or, at the very least, in an unsafe emotional state. I don't know about you, but I want anybody piloting a deadly weapon to be possessed of all his faculties.

The moment Woods backed onto the street, the rules changed. His expectation of privacy went out the window. When you get behind the wheel in your own driveway, you're still in your castle. When you hit the street, you're on our road, and the people have a right to some answers. The fact that the only victims were a tree and a fire hydrant doesn't change this reality: Tiger Woods, based on the sparse facts we have available, was in no condition to operate a motor vehicle safely.

I don't take this position lightly. I think we, as a society, spend way too much time engaged in salacious voyeurism. I deplore the celebrity-fixated tabloid culture. But I also don't think anybody should get a pass because of who they are, and unsafe driving is unsafe driving, no matter who's doing it.

We don't need dishy details. All Woods has to do (assuming this is what happened) is tell the Florida Highway Patrol, "We had an argument, and I was upset." The troopers can then decide if that merits a charge of impaired driving.

End of discussion.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

La Main de Dieu

When Argentina's Diego Maradona used his hand to help score a key goal in the 1986 World Cup quarterfinals vs. England, he described it as "la mano de Dios", or "the hand of God". It's a big story in soccer lore.

And now, we have "la main de Dieu", for the double hand-ball committed by France's Thierry Henry (who was offside as well) before he assisted on the goal that allowed France to qualify for the 2010 World Cup field. The losing Irish are devastated, with government officials demanding the French replay the match to right an obvious wrong.

That's silly, of course; bad calls are as much a part of sport as the weather and injuries. Unless someone can prove the ref who says he never saw Henry touch the ball was working in cahoots with the French, this match is over.

But of course, with the outrage comes the usual demand for video replay. I'd suggest that soccer, a sport that persists in keeping the actual length of the game a fuzzy approximation by adding "stoppage time", is unlikely to suddenly jump into the replay business.

However, the sport could easily improve its officiating by putting more eyes on the field. The NFL regulates 22 players with 7 officials on the field. Soccer, on a larger field, uses only 3. That's the same number who monitor 10 players on an NBA court.

In particular, soccer should assign an assistant referee to each goal area, where fouls and hand-ball calls (or the lack thereof) are most likely to have a sudden impact on the game. It's an obvious improvement, and it could be done tomorrow.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Go For 2!

Just had an impassioned discussion with my esteemed colleague Steve Bitker about Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh's decision to go for a 2-point conversion with the Cardinal leading USC 48-21 midway through the 4th quarter.

Full disclosure of my loyalties: my family has always leaned toward Cal and away from Stanford, and most definitely away from USC. But I like 'SC coach Pete Carroll and respect his program. I'm also thrilled about Harbaugh's resurrection of the Stanford program, and I'm a big fan of tailback/outfielder Toby Gerhart. Freshman QB Andrew Luck is another Cardinal worth watching.

Anyway, I thought it was entirely appropriate that Harbaugh shoot for two with that 48-21 lead. After all, 50 looks so much nicer than 48 on the scoreboard. But seriously, Stanford entered that game as the underdog, and USC is the 700-pound gorilla of the Pac-10. It's not like Stanford was pulling this stunt on an overmatched opponent.

What Harbaugh did has obvious downside potential. You don't tug on Superman's cape, you don't spit into the wind. But what Harbaugh was doing, I believe, was telling his players (and potential recruits), "We fear no one. So what if USC doesn't like it? Let 'em come and get us."

Steve says it was a bush-league decision. He says it was an attempt to "run up the score". He might be right about the former, and for sure he's right about the latter. If successful, Stanford would have widened its lead by an entire point. Hoo-boy.

"Running up the score" is leaving your first-team defense in against the other guys when you have a big late lead. Oh, like USC did at Stanford last year, when Carroll sent the big dogs back in and called blitzes against a Stanford team trying to save some face in a 45-23 whipping.

Look, it's obvious there's no love lost between these two coaches or their programs. But it's pretty clear that Stanford is the little dog and 'SC's the big one. That extra point (which, by the way, Stanford didn't get--perhaps the only big stop USC's defense made all day) had no bearing on the final score. But the willingness to go for it in front of 90,000 fans at the Coliseum was a statement by Harbaugh. It was his own way of sticking the Stanford Axe in the turf, the way Tommy Trojan shoves that sword in the ground before every USC game.

And while they won't say it out loud, I'll bet several other Pac-10 coaches got a nice warm feeling when they heard about it.

Monday, November 9, 2009

A Horrifying Scene

If you saw Jahvid Best's aerobatic act in the Cal-Oregon State football game, you'll never forget it.

Best's 7-yard touchdown run ended with a vault toward the end zone. For a moment, it looked like one of the most remarkable plays ever. Best was so high in the air, it seemed he might just take flight and stay aloft.

But then he crashed. Hard. And for a brief moment, the TV cameras captured the blank stare on his face and it was obvious that something was very wrong.

Here's a simple rule: when the guys wearing fire department turnout coats are running toward you, that's not a good thing. Best was quickly surrounded by Berkeley Fire Department crews, Cal athletic trainers, and his family. The crowd in the stadium and the TV audience couldn't see enough to know his condition, but it didn't look good.

Eventually, Best was wheeled off on a stretcher, his head immobilized, his body draped in a white blanket; his face obscured by an oxygen mask.

Frightening, and sobering.

For Best's young teammates and opponents, a vivid reminder of what can happen when you play the violent game of football. But also, for those young men and all of us, a reminder that everything can change in an instant. Literally: one moment you're flying, and the next, your future is uncertain.

It turns out Best did not suffer the spinal damage we all feared. He did sustain the mother of all concussions, but was released from the hospital after an overnight stay. We can all hope the best medical minds are watching him carefully and will make darned sure his brain is healthy before he ever steps on a football field again.

And perhaps we can reflect on that stunning moment when we rose to cheer his feat of daring and athleticism--just before fear punched us all in the gut.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Hubris Of The Yankees

The New York Yankees and their fans are a little like that old phrase: "He was born standing on third base and thought he hit a triple."

The Bronx Spenders just wrapped up their 27th World Series title (in their 40th Series appearance), and all you hear is people talking about "how long they've waited".

For the record, the last Yankees title was way back in...2000. Nine long years ago. But to hear the response from fans, broadcasters, and players, you'd think they'd been waiting as long as, say, Giants fans. Also for the record, I have lived my entire life without seeing the Giants win it all, and I'm not that young. And I'm not even a Cubs fan.

It's part of New York's arrogant charm that enduring a nine-year World Championship drought can be viewed as a Herculean labor. It's also very Gotham-like to pretend that it's even a fair competition.

Year in and year out, the Yankees rake in more revenue and spend more on players than any other team. Way more than most teams; obscenely more than others. Look: money doesn't necessarily buy love, happiness, or World Series titles. But it doesn't hurt.

I'm perfectly fine with the Yankees winning it all. I'm a big fan of players like Jeter, Rivera, Posada, and Matsui. I don't even really mind the financial unfairness that gives them an advantage each and every year; dynasties give everyone else something to shoot at.

But please, Pinstripe Nation. Learn a little humility. That thing rattling around in your mouth today is your silver spoon.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


OK, it's not quite like the fabled 1982 game in which Chaminade shocked then-#1 Virginia (led by Ralph Sampson).

But for now, it'll have to do: Division II LeMoyne going into the Carrier Dome for one of those NCAA "exhibition" games (really, a way for the big schools to sneak in an early game that doesn't count against their season game limit), and upsetting the #25 Orange, 82-79.

What makes the story line juicier here is that the upset happened on Syracuse's home floor, with the 'Cuse's legendary Jim Boeheim prowling the sidelines. And, to make it even more delicious, LeMoyne is from Syracuse. One can only imagine how puffed-up they are on campus today. They certainly didn't waste any time updating the athletic department website.

LeMoyne's Dolphins are no slouches at the D-II level; last year's team went 20-11 (including an 85-51 hammering by Syracuse). But let's be honest: there's a huge gap between gearing up for Merrimack, Bentley, and St. Anselm--and wandering into the Carrier Dome.

You probably know by now: I'm all for the underdog. It's important for the little guy to win once in a while, if only to keep the big guys a little less cocky. Let's all savor LeMoyne's win for a while.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Night of the Jasons

One of the beauties of today's information culture is this: you can double-check your memory.

Sometimes, you find out the old memory is a little lacking. Other times, you're thrilled to find you had it exactly right.

I was watching Jayson Werth of the Phillies lay waste to his old Dodger teammates in the NLCS when I flashed back to a night at Coors Field 4 years ago. A big bunch of my extended family had gone to see the Dodgers and Rockies play (a distant cousin is a Rockies employee and we'd all been together for a family reunion in Estes Park).

I don't know if Dodgers manager Jim Tracy was aware of the history he made that night, but I feel fairly certain that never before in the history of baseball had a team started a game with four Jasons (well, technically, three Jasons and a Jayson) in the lineup. To make it more epic, when the Dodgers trotted to the field in the bottom of the 1st, the outfield was pure Ja(y)son: Werth, Repko, and Grabowski. The fourth Jason had a great view of all this: Phillips was behind the plate.

My then-16-year-old son and I commented on the Jason-ness of all this at the time. In fact, we were amused even further that three of these name-mates were in consecutive slots in the batting order.

At least that's the way I remembered things. And lo and behold, it really did happen that way. Here's the boxscore to prove it.

It's just a shame that only 21,000 people were there to see history unfold.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Super Socks

You either loved them or you hated them.

But you couldn't ignore them.

I'm talking about those yellow-and-brown vertically-striped "throwback" socks (some would call them "throw-up" socks) the Broncos wore in their game against the Patriots.

Yes, youngsters, those really were historically-accurate uniforms. The Broncos wore that look in 1960 and 1961, and famously, retired the socks in a public bonfire after the '61 season.

This season's celebration of the AFL's 50th anniversary has produced some cool looks (how about those original Chargers' uniforms?) and some not-so-swell ones (there's probably a reason
the New York franchise retired the uniforms along with the "Titans" nickname).

But until the Broncs brought out the verticals, nobody had managed to put a personal stamp on the archive-wear. Give Denver wide receiver Jabar Gaffney credit for that. Look closely at the photo and you'll see how Gaffney has put a little twist into his socks, creating the never-before-seen barber-pole look.

Check it out. You might be looking at a streetwear trend in the making. Where can a guy buy a pair of mustard-and-brown socks anyway?

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Enough's Enough

I'm sure it will be little noted nor long remembered, but I'm hereby drawing my line in the sand.

We will no longer book interview guests who have something to sell (with one important exception, which I'll address in a moment).

My new policy starts immediately; we'll take a pass on an offer to bring golf guru Hank Haney on with John Madden. I'm sure Haney would be a great interview, what with the President's Cup getting underway. And I'm sure we'd have some fun letting John ask Haney for swing advice (after all, this is the swing doctor who tried to fix Charles Barkley's hack).

So where's the downside? Here it is: the pitch from the marketing people says the following: "Hank is appearing on behalf of Charles Schwab, and would also like to talk about a few quick money saving tips for retirement".

With all due respect, if we wanted to talk to a retirement expert, we wouldn't call Hank Haney.

This pitch is part of a burgeoning trend. If you don't believe me, just listen to sports-talk radio or watch the sports TV shows around Super Bowl or World Series time. You'll see and hear a parade of big names chatting about sports, but also slipping in a pitch for whoever's paying them. Car companies, insurance companies, financial planners, you name it.

We've played this game here at KCBS. And we've always felt a little uncomfortable about it. It probably reached its low point one morning when former Raider great Kenny Stabler joined us on the Madden segment, and then proceeded to deliver some of the clumsiest pitches for whatever it was he was selling (I honestly can't remember). It got so bad that John Madden began poking fun at Stabler's shilling.

We may reach the point where we can't book a sports celebrity interview, because everybody's selling something. So be it.

Now, I mentioned earlier that I'm willing to consider an exception to my new rule. Here it is: if the guest is selling himself, I'm OK with that. In other words: if you're talking about your new book or TV show or charity event, you're welcome here. In that case, we're talking about you and your work, as opposed to letting you deliver a commercial message for somebody else.

Bottom line: if you want to sell something, talk to our sales department. They're fine people, and they'll happily take your money in exchange for access to our fine listeners (that's how our business works).

Monday, September 28, 2009

Go Figure

Cal takes its #6 ranking into Eugene, and gets destroyed by an Oregon team that seemed to be sputtering in its first three games.

Washington comes off a stirring victory over USC and loses to Stanford.

Arizona State goes into a tough road game at Georgia and sees its backup placekicker miss a late field goal before the Bulldogs hit their own FG to eke out a 3-point win.

Who knows if the Pac-10 is any good? But you can't argue it isn't exciting.

A couple of games into its conference schedule, Stanford is leading the Pac-10. Supposedly superior Cal has to get its act back on track by beating USC, or it'll find itself fading in the conference race.

Or will it? UCLA is still out there and apparently a force, though the Bruins haven't played a conference game yet. Heck, even Washington State, the most outmanned team in the conference last year, looks like it's a team that could pull off an upset somewhere along the way.

Don't make any Rose Bowl plans just yet.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

We sports fans are besieged with statistics. They can illuminate, but they can often obfuscate.

Case in point: the Raiders' 13-10 win over Kansas City in NFL Week 2.

Don't ask me why, but I watched the whole game. My esteemed colleague Steve Bitker did not, and was incredulous that the Raiders could have won a game in which the Chiefs outgained them 409-166 yards. He was even more incredulous that I could maintain the Raiders actually controlled the game.

Allow me to explain. Let's start with those 409 Chiefs yards. 205 of them were amassed on 4 drives that netted KC exactly zero points (one drive ended in a field goal, one in an interception that led to a Raiders field goal, and two in punts).

So really, I can argue that Kansas City wasted over 200 yards of offense. Shiny numbers, but meaningless.

Oakland's offense was feeble overall, but when it mattered, the Raiders delivered. A 58-yard 2nd-quarter drive led to a long Sebastian Janikowksi field goal (by the way: will this guy make a 70-yarder someday?), and then JaMarcus Russell salvaged his horrible afternoon with the 69-yard 4th-quarter drive that led to their only touchdown.

Total offense? Not so important. Turnovers? Important (KC had two; the Raiders, none). Field position? Yes. KC's average drive started on their own 24, and 7 of their 11 possessions started inside their 21-yard line.

Bottom line: the game stats failed to tell the story of this game. While Steve argues there's wisdom hidden in the stats, I argue the stats can lead you astray. What would a stat-head make of the Miami-Indianapolis game, also in NFL Week 2? That's the one where the Dolphins won the time-of-possession battle by a more than 3-to-1 margin (the Dolphins had the ball for less than 15 minutes), outgained the Colts, and still lost the game.

Statistics are interesting, but it's the game that matters.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Rooting For Laundry

I don't know who first said it, but I've always loved the phrase. "You don't root for teams anymore. You just root for laundry."

The implication is that in the era of big-money player transactions, teams don't stay together for long. So if you are, say, a Warriors fan, you're cheering for the team colors, because the guy you loved last year could very well be gone this year.

Our latest Bay Area example is the San Jose Sharks, who just traded Jonathan Cheechoo and Milan Michalek for high-scoring winger Danny Heatley.

Cheechoo led the league in goals scored a couple of years ago and has always been a fan favorite for his gritty play, exuberant goal celebrations, and remarkable backstory (he's the first and only NHL player from Moose Factory, Ontario).

My wife is shattered; she loved Cheechoo's style of play and sweet smile. My son, the biggest Sharks fan in the family, is worried.

You see, this is the third Sharks star to be dealt after my son bought that player's replica jersey. Owen Nolan and Steve Bernier preceded Cheech (Bernier even signed my son's jersey before he was shuffled off to Buffalo).

My advice to anyone who wants to stay in San Jose? Find out whose shirt Geoff has in his closet.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Too Much Emotion?

Musings after a few days in which athletes and their emotions were front and center, to wit:
  • Oregon running back LeGarrette Blount cold-cocks a Boise State player after a game (and winds up suspended for the season)
  • Milwaukee Brewers slugger Prince Fielder orchestrates a choreographed home plate celebration after a walk-off homer (and ticks off everyone in a Giants uniform)
  • Giants pitcher Brad Penny barks at Padres slugger Adrian Gonzalez for supposedly taking too long to admire a home run (and later admits he uses emotion to stoke his performance)

What's it all about? Emotion.

Playing sports is not like working a spreadsheet or building a cabinet. You have to play like you care. Paradoxically, you can't let your emotions get the best of you, but without emotion, you're pretty useless.

Most agree that Blount crossed the line with his punch (even if they think his punishment was too harsh). Many feel that Fielder was a bit clownish in turning a thrilling moment into a bit of goofy street theater. And Penny? Well, if he's on the other team, you can't stand him.

Penny freely acknowledges his outburst at Gonzalez and his shouts and gestures at the Padres dugout when the inning ended are part of what fuels him. For Brad Penny, it's adrenaline or nothing. By contrast, we've seen pitchers like Greg Maddux, whose demeanor never varied, no matter what.

Bottom line: you go with what works for you. But that emotion stuff can be dangerous; a little goes a long way. Too much, and you're in trouble.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Too Late For Sanity?

The ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals is pretty clear: federal prosecutors had no business grabbing the results of Major League Baseball's 2003 drug tests. What's less clear is how to unring the bell that overzealous G-men have been ringing since, oh, about the time President George W. Bush made a point of mentioning steroids in his 2004 State of the Union address.

Let's recall how we got here. In 2003, MLB and the players' union embarked on a testing program that was not designed to catch cheaters. It was designed to see if there was a problem: the deal was that if more than 5% of the tests were positive, a real anti-drug program would kick in the following year.

To the surprise of few, those tests did reveal enough positives to trigger the current testing-and-penalties policy. But they also triggered the curiosity of federal agents desperate to bring down big names like Barry Bonds and Gary Sheffield, who'd been called to testify before the federal grand jury investigating the BALCO steroid lab.

So the feds got a subpoena to look through the records of the Long Beach lab where the tests were done. While the feds were supposedly looking for the records of 10 players who'd failed the test, the subpoena called for all the test results.

And this is where things got out of control. While lawyers were trying to work out a way of giving up only the test results the government said it really wanted, federal lawyers went and got a search warrant. That warrant was limited to the "dirty 10" players' records. But when agents swept down on the testing lab, they grabbed all the test results (including a bunch that belonged to plain old folks who never played baseball).

So now prosecutors had what they needed to charge Barry Bonds with perjury. But they also had a great big list of names. And then the leaks began. Names like Alex Rodriguez, David Otiz, Roger Clemens, and Andy Pettite. Does anyone wonder about the source of those leaks?

Remember, the government was never supposed to have these test results. Three separate federal judges have ruled the taking of the test records was improper, and they did so emphatically. There have even been suggestions from the bench that the feds were guilty of miserepresentation and manipulation.

The waters have been so muddied that we have some players asking that all the 2003 data be released, just to get it all out in the open. Clearly, some players didn't test positive and now they want their names cleared.

I can understand that. But let's remember what happened here: this was a private arrangement between labor and management. It would be just the same as if your workplace had a drug-testing program (maybe it does), and when one of your co-workers was being investigated by the cops, they barged in and took all the test results. How would you feel then?

Look, I'll be honest. I'd be happy to see performance-enhancing drugs eradicated from pro sports. But it's not worth violating the rule of law to get it done. If we're going to clean up the National Pastime, let's not trample on the flag in the process.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Why Duane Kuiper Is The Best

I am still not sure I really saw what I saw in the Giants' epic, gut-wrenching 14-inning loss in Denver.

I watched the Giants hang on by their fingernails until the top of the 14th, then score 3 runs to take a 4-1 lead. I saw smiles and high-fives in the visitors dugout. And then I stuck around to watch the bottom of the 14th.

Rockies fans are still pinching themselves, because their team scored 5 runs, winning the game on a grand-slam homer by Ryan Spilborghs. Nearly 5 hours of baseball, all ending in the time it took that ball to reach the rightfield fence.

A stunning gut-punch, and a two-game swing in the standings.

But in the midst of all the drama and despair, there was Duane Kuiper. The Giants' TV announcer said it all in 6 words.

As Spilborghs' blast headed into the Colorado night, Kuiper intoned, "This is not good, folks."

As Spilborghs sprinted toward a happy dogpile at the plate, he added the only thought that made any sense: "Unbelievable". And that was it.

Genius. Hemingway couldn't have written it any tighter.

TV is full of people who talk too much and say too little. It's also full of former jocks who add nothing but their names to the broadcast.

Duane Kuiper is a gem: a Midwestern kid who made the big leagues as a player, and is now, for my money, among the best in the business of describing the game he once played.

Even in a game like this one--maybe especially in a game like this one--Kuiper's understated style and appreciation for the vast open spaces (physically and metaphysically) of baseball make him a Bay Area treasure.

Thanks for making it hurt a little less, Kuip.

Monday, August 24, 2009

World-Class (And I Bet You Don't Know Her)

Shannon Rowbury just did something no other American woman has ever done.

She medaled in the 1500 meters at the World Championships. It's the highest finish ever for a female American in the 1500 at the Worlds (and Rowbury's 7th-place finish in Beijing was the high-water mark for an American woman in the Olympic 1500).

That's Rowbury in 4th place in the photo. She crossed the line 4th in Berlin but wound up with the bronze because winner Natalia Rodriguez was DQ'd.

What I find most remarkable about Shannon Rowbury is that she's become a world-class athlete in San Francisco. Our fair city has been famous for many things, but creating international track stars hasn't been one of them.

Rowbury grew up in the Sunset District, played a little youth soccer, did some Irish dancing, and then started winning 800 and 1500 meter races in high school. After Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep, she headed off to Duke, where she won numerous NCAA titles.

And then--here's the shocking part--she returned to that hotbed of track and field, San Francisco. Rowbury's a Sunset District girl all the way; her blog lists a jeweler on West Portal Avenue and a bakery at 9th and Irving as favorite haunts.

World-class athletes, of course, spend a lot of time on the road. Rowbury's summer schedule has her in and out of European airports (track is still alive and well in Europe and it's where the big stars earn their keep).

She's becoming a bigger blip on the radar screen; with the London Olympics two years away, Rowbury will be considered a possible medalist. She'll no doubt spend more and more time training in exotic locations.

But it's heartening to know that the young woman with the nice smile next to you in line at Blue Bottle Coffee might be a homegrown athletic superstar.

Monday, August 17, 2009

World's Fastest Human (Still)

Tyson Gay set an American record in the 100 meters, and practically didn't appear in the finish-line photo.

Gay's 9.71 eclipses his own US record by .06, which is a pretty big slice of time in track and field's quickest event. He thus leaves Carl Lewis, Jimmy Hines, Bob Hayes and the rest even farther in the rearview mirror.

But no matter what Tyson Gay does, he has the bad luck to be running in the shadow of Usain Bolt. The big, brash Jamaican blew up his own world record, running a 9.58 and then saying he thinks he can get into the 9.4 range.

Sprinters are notoriously cocky, but Bolt's in a league of his own. Don't forget: the world record he just broke was his own, set at the Beijing Olympics when Bolt mugged for the cameras over the last 10 meters.

A 9.4 100 meters? Preposterous. But so is Usain Bolt. Don't bet against him.

Friday, August 7, 2009

A Taste Of Reality

So the Los Angeles Times reports the budget crunch is forcing some serious belt-tightening in the world of college athletics. Schools are re-examining everything in hopes of dealing with leaner times.

For example, San Jose State's football team is trading 2010 games against Stanford and Arizona State for roadtrips to Wisconsin and Alabama. The Patsies, er, Spartans will reportedly net about $1.9 million in added revenue for allowing themselves to be kicked around by the Southeastern Conference and Big Ten schools.

Can't blame an athletic director for doing what it takes to keep the lights on. Doesn't make it any more fun to be an SJSU football player, though.

And speaking of football players suffering, the same story bears word that Cal will cancel its air-travel plans for its October game against UCLA at the Rose Bowl. Instead, they'll load up the buses and travel down scenic I-5.

I'm sure there will be some grumbling as those pampered Division 1 athletes suffer through the long ride (and imagine the debates over which fast-food place to hit in Buttonwillow!). But before they do too much complaining, I'd ask them to chat with people like my wife and my daughter about college sports travel.

My wife would be happy to spin tales about traveling by bus to Chico State when she played basketball at San Francisco State. Not one of those comfy buses with the reclining seats and the reading lights. No, the Gators rode "the cheese": a yellow, hard-seat beauty with no heater.

My daughter could describe crazy trips around the New York metro area with the Caldwell College soccer team, including the time the coach hit the speed bump so hard that the star midfielder in the back seat of the van smacked her head on the roof and saw stars.

Those small-college programs have been living on a budget for years.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Is Anyone Really Surprised?

So the latest leak of results from the supposedly-confidential 2003 Major League Baseball drug tests names some big names: Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz, who would play significant roles a year later in the Red Sox miracle of 2004.

Pardon me for not getting all bent out of shape about this. And no, I'm not a member of Red Sox Nation, blinded to the misdeeds of my heroes.

I came to the conclusion long ago that steroid use was the norm during the late 90's and early 00's. I mean, did we really think all those cartoonish physiques were solely the result of healthy diets and hard work in the weight room?

So why do we keep gasping when yet another figure from the 'Roid Years is outed? Shouldn't we just accept the obvious: lots of players on lots of teams were juicing. We may never know exactly who, but why does that matter so much? We can't possibly know precisely how steroid use affected the game--did sluggers hit the ball farther? Outfielders gain a half-step? Pitchers pick up a half-foot on the fastball or 10 extra pitches of durability?

Let's just accept the obvious and move on. If you think the sport can be cleaned up, speak out in support of stronger testing and penalty programs for the future. But let's quit trying to relive the past.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Jekyll and Hyde

It's an old movie, but the same story is playing out every 5 days for the San Francisco Giants.

His name is Barry Zito, and there seems to be no middle ground. He's either really, really good or really, really bad.

I went through Zito's stats for the 2009 season, and frankly, I was amazed.

As of this writing, he's started 20 times this year. Using the "quality start" yardstick (3 or fewer earned runs in 6 innings), I've categorized 11 of the starts as "good" and 9 as "bad". In fact, one of the "good" starts wasn't technically a "quality start" because Zito only went 5 innings, but he did get a win and gave up only 1 earned run.

Anyway, here's the poop: In his good starts (covering 74.2 innings), Zito has a 1.81 ERA! In his bad starts (covering 44.2 innings), it's 9.47!

That "good game" ERA would be the best in the major leagues (Kansas City's Zach Greinke is the current leader at 2.08). The "bad game" 9.47...well, it stinks.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Maybe the Best Sport on TV

I know. We cycling fans can be insufferable, going on and on about the seemingly meaningless details of a sport dominated by one guy from Texas and a bunch of Europeans.

But do me a favor. Just watch one stage of the Tour de France on Versus, and make sure you watch it in high-def.

It may not convert you into a hardcore cycling nut, but you might get gently hooked. With the changeover this year to high-def, the Versus tour coverage might be the best sports TV you can find.

The scenery, of course, is tremendous. You'll get all sorts of aerial shots of chateaux, fields, villages, and peaks. You'll get remarkable closeups of the riders (some supplied by cameramen like Marin County's Greg Peterson, who ride as passengers on motorcycles). You'll get first-class graphics, including interesting data like the current heart rate of a few riders.

And you'll get tremendous commentary from Phil Liggett (my esteemed colleague Steve Bitker pays him the ultimate compliment, calling him "cycling's Vin Scully") and former Tour competitor Paul Sherwen. They're informed, witty, erudite, and offer as complete a picture of the event as anyone could while sitting at the finish line while the event stretches out over more than 100 miles of road.

Liggett and Sherwen strike the fine balance between keeping the hardcores happy and welcoming the newbies. They are major celebrities in a minor (to Americans) sport.

I do have quibbles with the Versus coverage. There's an unfortunate blurring of the line when they insert "demo" segments with cycling equipment makers like Specialized and Cannondale. These thinly-veiled commercials should be identified as such.

Interviewers like former pro Robbie Ventura can seem amateurish at times. Questions can veer from the inane ("How did you feel?") to the "inside baseball"-type queries than can cause eyeglaze for many viewers. In fairness, cycling probably doesn't have a deep pool of English-speaking former riders with great screen presence.

And Versus sometimes misses things. When American Levi Leipheimer fell near the end of Stage 12 (breaking his wrist, as it turned out, and forcing his withdrawal from the Tour), it went unreported on Versus. It's a reminder that an event that takes place on the largest playing field in sports can be hard to follow.

But Versus has gotten better each year, and this year's Tour de France coverage is worth a look. We've come a long way from the days of sappy John Tesh music (come to think of it, sappy John Tesh commentary) on Tour TV coverage as our penance for being bike nuts.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Make Sure You're With Fans

My "Where were you?" story:

My wife and I were driving back from Lake Tahoe Friday evening, listening to the early innings as Jonathan Sanchez began what would turn into a masterpiece against the Padres. As a side note, my seats at AT&T Park were empty, since nobody saw fit to buy them, even at my reduced price on StubHub.

By the 5th inning, we were looking for a place to park near our favorite Mexican joint, La Pinata #3 in Alameda. By the 6th, we were sitting with a nice view of a TV showing the game. By the 7th, we'd been joined by our neighbors Ron and Linda (and Linda grabbed the chair next to me, facing the TV). I'd alerted my kids in Phoenix via text message and they'd tuned in via Slingbox.

The 8th was tough for me: a bite of mole enchilada, a sip of margarita, another text message from the kids, try to stay with the conversation at the table. And then the Juan Uribe error ended Sanchez' perfect game. I groaned loudly...and realized nobody else in the place was paying attention to the game!

By the 9th, I had made sure everyone at my table was aware that Sanchez was flirting with history. My wife was a bit blase', having seen Ed Halicki's 1975 no-no in person at Candlestick Park.

After Aaron Rowand's terrific catch for the second out of the 9th (more text messages to/from the kids), I stood up. It's what you do when a guy's about to pitch a no-hitter, right? Neighbor Linda stood up, too.

We shouted and pumped our fists as Sanchez got the final out on a called third strike.

And then we looked around the room at a bunch of people eating, drinking, and chatting, blissfully unaware that a man had just thrown a no-hitter. As I continued to exult, a fellow at the next table finally showed a sign of interest. With a big smile, he said, "Hey! A shutout!"

Uh, yeah.

Lesson to me: there aren't as many sports fans around as you think. When a magic moment happens, make sure you've found a few to share it with.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

In My Defense

OK, this picture is already causing me problems.

Careful readers of Alameda Magazine have noted the fact that yours truly appears to be operating a motor vehicle in a less-than-safe manner.

I'm going to fall back on the "red light defense". I swear there's a stoplight just out of view. While I forget what I was saying to KCBS colleague (and fellow Sports Fan) Steve Bitker when the photo was snapped (probably correcting his erroneous view on some sports-related matter), I would never drive with no hands.

The photo accompanies an article in the summer edition of Alameda Magazine (read the whole piece by clicking here and scrolling down to find the article) about our carpool habit. I know what you're thinking: "Are you two guys really worth a magazine story?"

I don't have a good answer for you on that one. It was nice of the magazine folks to write about us. And it was nice of Al the Photographer to catch our good side (from behind). But they're making me do a lot of explaining.

Stoplight. Just out of view. Really.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Purpose Pitch?

One of the things I love about baseball is the little games within the game.

Take the 9th inning of the series finale between the Giants and the Brewers. The Giants had lost the first two games of the series but were shutting the Brewers out 7-0 as Milwaukee came up for its last at-bats.

And there was a fascinating scenario to start the inning: Giants lefthander Jonathan Sanchez, who'd been yanked from the rotation after several poor starts, was summoned from the bullpen. At the plate: Prince Fielder, the Brewers slugger who'd hit a huge home run the night before and then smoked a walkoff double to complete a Brewers comeback.

Oh, and by the way, had followed that hit with a preening moment, standing between the mound and second base with arms upraised, awaiting his onrushing teammates.

Anyway, Fielder digs in. Sanchez peers in for a sign and delivers. And it's a fastball right at Fielder's ribcage. He takes the pitch off the back of his right arm and two things are clear: he's in some pain, and he's really ticked off.

Fielder glares at Sanchez for a good long time. Sanchez goes back to work, showing pinpoint control while striking out the next three Milwaukee hitters to end the game. Despite a reported stroll down the runway toward the Giants clubhouse by Fielder after the game, there's no further retaliation. Case closed. Or is it?

The Giants deny Sanchez threw at Fielder on purpose. But is it possible that they thought he crossed the line with his postgame display on Saturday night?

Or could the roots of this be even deeper: the game in May 2006 when Fielder, then a rookie, crashed into Giants catcher Todd Greene on a play at the plate? At the time, some questioned Fielder's tactics, suggesting he went out of his way to nail a defenseless Greene. In fact, Giants broadcaster Mike Krukow invoked the Greene incident immediately after Sanchez hit Fielder.

Now, you should know that Johnathan Sanchez wasn't even in the ballpark the day Fielder blasted Todd Greene. He wasn't called up from the minors until three weeks later.

But baseball scores can take a long time to settle. Todd Greene's been out of baseball for years, and even avid Giants fans may have trouble remembering him. It's entirely possible that a few people kept him in mind.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A Few Things I Don't Understand

The universe is full of unanswerable questions. Here are a few of mine:

  • If Manny Ramirez is suspended, how come he's playing? Isn't a minor-league game still a game?

  • Why in the world does the NHL hand out its postseason awards in Las Vegas, a city which has never, ever hosted an NHL franchise?

  • What's with the people who actively root against Phil Mickelson? I get that some people pull for Tiger Woods, but does that make Phil a bad guy?

  • What the heck happened to Dontrelle Willis?

  • If the Giants are as offensively-challenged as everyone seems to think, why are they (as I write) holding the wild-card playoff lead?

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Boy, We Stunk

Just God-awful.


The KCBS/Adams Pool Solutions team showed up at the Madden/Mariucci bocce tournament and was thoroughly thrashed.

While it may be true that the Ponderosa Homes team that drilled us 10-1 ended up playing in the championship game, it is also true that we lost another game by a healthy margin and needed a fluke roll-off to beat an Oakland Raiders team that featured two Raiderettes playing in their go-go boots, hardly considered optimal footwear for bocce.

And now, let the finger-pointing begin.

I spent part of the day chatting with San Jose Sharks defenseman Brad Lukowich about the soul-searching now underway in Shark-land after the team's first-round playoff defeat. The team has committed itself to a top-to-bottom review. Supposedly, everyone and everything is in play. No stones unturned, no egos unchallenged.

Well, I wish the Sharks well. When I suggested a similar no-holds-barred review of our dismal failure, I ran into a chorus of "well, we played just fine; I don't know about the rest of you."

It may be a long offseason.

Photo courtesy Ed Jay Photography

Monday, June 1, 2009


Some guys, you just root for.

Look, I can read the numbers. I know Rich Aurilia has been struggling at the plate this year. I know he's not getting any younger. But I just like the guy.

Only the other day, I got into a mild disagreement with someone who said he thought Aurilia was done, a guy who needed to be released. In fact, as the Giants faced a series of roster moves a few days ago, it seemed plausible that Aurilia would become the odd man out.

But the old guy (OK, he's only 37) proved his worth just yesterday, coming off the bench to start a game-tying rally and then smoking a long home run to put the Giants ahead in a 5-3 victory over St. Louis.

I'm sure the 2-for-2 day took a weight off Aurilia's shoulders (and maybe Giants GM Brian Sabean's, too), but the fact is, Aurilia is still a valuable major-leaguer.

He can play any infield position and while his range isn't what it once was, he's still surehanded and throws well.

He's a smart veteran who won't hurt you with a mental mistake.

And despite that batting average (the 2 hits yesterday brought him up to .200 for the season), I still think Rich Aurilia is a dangerous hitter. He hit .283 last year, the bat speed is still there, and I've always felt Aurilia was a very tough out in a clutch situation.

Let's hope we keep hearing "No Sleep Till Brooklyn" (the Beastie Boys tune that serves as Aurilia's walk-up music) a while longer.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Truly Remarkable Feat

300 wins. Nice round number, but not a huge number.

Unless you consider what it takes.

You'd have to win 20 games a year, for FIFTEEN YEARS. Most pitchers don't last that long in the big leagues, let alone enjoy that kind of success.

Randy Johnson of the Giants is about to join the 300-win club, and what a long, strange trip it's been. I saw Johnson pitch for the Montreal Expos 20 years ago (he outlasted them, didn't he?). Tall, gangly, and wild as a March hare: in 29 innings that year, he walked 26 batters. But he also struck out 26, and that sizzling fastball that seemed to come from behind him couldn't be ignored.

It took The Big Unit a few years to figure it all out, and when he did, well, look out. Feast your eyes on his career stats, and pay particular attention to those 4 years in Arizona, 1999-2002. 4 straight Cy Young awards and some crazy strikeout totals.

Johnson no longer has the smoking fastball. Some nights, he has trouble harnessing the crackling slider. But when he's right, as he was in win #299 over Atlanta, he's still pretty impressive. Just ask Chipper Jones, the future Hall of Famer whom Johnson abused in three at-bats.

A stat popped up during the game that made me blink. In fact, I hit "rewind" on the TiVo to make sure I read it right. In the 22nd year of his career, Johnson can point to a .198 batting average by lefthanders hitting against him. It's a stunning number, and of course, it doesn't reflect the big-named lefthanded hitters who took the day off when Johnson was the opposing pitcher.

Soon, The Big Unit will win his 300th. He's on the downhill side of his career. He knows it, but he's fiercely proud of what it took to reach these heights. He should be.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A Bonehead Move

When I heard that Pittsburgh Steeler linebacker James Harrison was taking a pass on the team's scheduled trip to the White House this week, I figured there was a good reason. A wedding, maybe. Perhaps somebody's graduation. Or even a really good excuse, like he was washing his hair.

But the truth is, Harrison's absence from the visit is, well, a little hard to explain. Let me let him do so, in his own muddled way of thinking:

"If you want to see the Pittsburgh Steelers, invite us when we don't win the Super Bowl," he told Pittsburgh's WTAE-TV. "So as far as I'm concerned he would have invited Arizona if they had won."

No fooling, Sherlock. That's how it works.

At least Harrison is consistent. He also blew off the victory lap in 2006, when the Steelers last won the Super Bowl (and a different President was living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue).

Look, an argument can be made that these White House celebrations of sports victories are silly. They're a pretty obvious excuse for the President to wrap himself in the glow of success. And they're not equal-opportunity: when was the last time the NCAA Division II softball champs got the treatment?

But as someone who got to make this trip once (in 1993, while covering the Dallas Cowboys), I have to tell you: only a complete idiot would pass up the chance without a compelling reason. You get a behind-the-scenes look at the center of power in our nation. And you get some unscripted time with The Leader Of The Free World (in '93, that was Bill Clinton, who played havoc with that day's White House schedule by schmoozing the team in the East Room for about 2 hours).

Obviously, James Harrison's world view isn't broad enough to get all that. Fine. His loss.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

If Baseball REALLY Cared...

...players and management would get together and adopt the same drug-testing rules as the international sporting community.

If baseball REALLY cared, players might get a knock on their hotel room door at any time and be told to pee in the cup (with an official watching), just like cyclists, runners, swimmers and others.

If baseball REALLY cared, a transgression like Manny Ramirez' would earn a 2-year ban, not 8 weeks off without pay.

In the first hour after the Ramirez news broke today, I fielded a newsroom call from a woman I first met 25 years ago. She was a recreational runner who rose from obscurity to become one of America's top marathoners and a 1988 Olympian.

Nancy Ditz happened to be in her car, listening to KCBS coverage of the Ramirez case, and she called to express her outrage. She was mostly angry that Ramirez, by saying he'd gotten whatever he got from his doctor, appeared to be trying to pass the buck. In her world, international athletics, there are still cheaters. But everyone knows the penalties are severe.

In her world, when an athlete gets caught, it can mean a shattered career, not just a few weeks off. In her world, the $7.7 million Manny Ramirez will forfeit is unfathomable wealth, not just a rounding error on a mega-contract.

Whatever you think of our obsession with drugs in sports, does it seem right that some athletes are treated one way and others another way? Remember: baseball was an Olympic sport as recently as last year and could be again in 2016. Should its players be treated differently than other Olympians?

And Now, Manny

I write as news is swirling about Manny Ramirez. The larger-than-life Dodgers outfielder has been suspended by Major League Baseball for 50 games.

I know none of the particulars. What's been reported is that Ramirez will argue that he was not using anabolic steroids or any other performance-enhancer, but was using medication prescribed by a doctor for a medical condition.

My guess, as I gaze into my crystal ball, is that Ramirez' defense will be met by snorts of skepticism from many. For them, this whole "drugs in sports" thing remains a binary morality play: good guy or bad guy, did it or didn't do it, druggie or hero.

That's way too simplistic. Drug testing is far from perfect in its design or its execution. There are a zillion ways an athlete can run afoul of a rigid approach that leaves no room for negotiation. You can insert your own beliefs here as to whether that's the best way to approach a problem that may or may not be that big a deal.

This much I do know: Dodgers games will be a whole lot less compelling without Manny Ramirez in the lineup.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Enough, Already

I've just finished mocking the NFL Draft (which is very different from conducting a mock draft, something you'll never catch me doing), when I learn that the NFL may have even bigger plans.

The Dallas Morning News reports NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is considering making next year's draft a three-day event. Under the Goodell proposal, round one of the draft would be held Thursday night (Live! Primetime! Watch young millionaires put on jerseys and caps!), with rounds two and three on Friday night (More Primetime Draft!) and the final four rounds on Saturday.

Two thoughts:
  1. Count me out. I can't imagine anything more boring than a draft, for crying out loud. Tell me when it's over.
  2. I'm sure sports bars will pack 'em in. Nothing goes better with the NFL Draft (don't forget to capitalize Draft) than Buffalo wings and beer.

How did we get here? A place where people will spend parts of three days watching a clerical process?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Riddle of Z

Not sure what was more memorable about my trip to AT&T Park yesterday: being part of the smallest paid crowd in the ballpark's history (26,593), enjoying my first Cha-Cha Bowl of the young season, or watching Barry Zito deal like we haven't seen him deal in a Giants uniform.

Zito went 7 shutout innings, throwing 92 pitches (66 for strikes), walked no one, and simply had the Padres off-balance all the way. His breaking ball had bite and he had command of it. His fastball was in the upper-80's range and he kept it away from the center of the plate.

So the Zito-Meter jumped sharply upward. My esteemed colleague Steve Bitker is baffled by how quickly everyone seems to want to proclaim a Zito turnaround at the first sign of success. A scoreless first? "Zito's back!"

I think it's because people genuinely want to like this guy. He's not like most ballplayers; his heart always appears to be right out there where you can see it. This year, his Twitter posts are garnering attention (and furthering the perception that he's, well, wired a bit differently).


(after that Padres outing): "F__k yeah baby! Let's take this show on the road."
(after a rocky performance in LA): "Not happy about Dodger game. take a day, reset and kill em Wed..."
(from somewhere on the road): "Happiness is a worthiness issue, sometimes we'll ask ourselves whether it's okay to be "this happy", then comes the sabotage.."

What? A jock talking like that?

I'll argue it's part of the Zito charm. He's a little like the Grateful Dead: talented and maybe a bit flawed. Not unlike a Dead show, a Zito start is a bit of an unknown quantity: you never know exactly what you're going to see. Sometimes it's magical; sometimes it's a bit of a disaster.

And it's all there on Twitter to see.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Painfully Slow

The baseball season is only a couple of weeks old, and one of the Giants' weaknesses is being exposed painfully often.

Bengie Molina can't run.

I know, this is not new information. Bengie is a fine catcher, a tough hitter, and one of those heart-and-soul guys you want in your clubhouse.

But on a team that's struggling to score runs, the last thing you need is a guy who has trouble scoring from second on a double. Just in the weekend series against Arizona, which saw the Giants score 4 runs in 3 games (and win 2 of 3 thanks to lights-out starting pitching by Sanchez, Lincecum, and Johnson), it seemed every time I looked up, poor Bengie was blocking the basepaths like Southern cooking clogs your arteries.

The problem is magnified because the Giants only have one catcher on the roster (everyday 3rd baseman Pablo Sandoval is the backup catcher). What this means is that manager Bruce Bochy is loath to pinch-run for Molina late in games.

What's the answer? Beats me. On a team with a ton of firepower (and more home run threats than the Giants), you might be able to ignore the Molina Roadblock. But on this team, this season, he's hard to hide.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Panic Early

One of my favorite people in the broadcast business, longtime KTVU-TV producer Bill Weeks, likes to say it: "panic early". It's his way of dealing with the relentless pressure of the news desk.

And it might be time for Major League Baseball to think about a little panic. It's not like the ballparks have been empty in the first week of the regular season, but the early returns are less than overwhelming.

19,000 in San Diego (many of them Marines in the upper deck) on a sunny Sunday, with Tim Lincecum pitching for the Giants. 12,000 in Oakland. 18,000 to see the loaded Mets in Miami. 14,000 in Cleveland. 25,000 in Phoenix to see Manny Ramirez and the Dodgers. And so on.

OK, those are Easter Sunday figures, and some parts of the country are still emerging from winter. But I pulled some numbers, and many teams that have just wrapped up their season-opening series are averaging about what they did for the full season last year. That's not a good sign, because typically, the first series includes an Opening Day sellout, skewing the average gate high.

Overall attendance numbers will be padded by the openings this week of the two new ballparks in New York. The Dodgers will fill their yard. But the reality of a down economy is like an annoying noise in the next room. MLB has to be hearing it.

Monday, March 30, 2009

A Brief Moment Of Glory

Immediate disclaimer: I don't do "Fantasy Sports". I stepped out of this particular form of madness in prehistoric times, after a rigid league commissioner refused to let me replace Thurman Munson in my lineup the day he was killed in a plane crash. I got zero points out of the catcher position that week, and I think John Genzale still knows it was an unfair decision.

But I digress. I know many otherwise-intelligent people still allow themselves to be swept up in this craziness. Some even convince themselves they will win in these massive online competitions.

The odds, of course, are ridiculously long. Take an NCAA Tournament pool, for example. It's one thing to outsmart the 20 boneheads at the office, but what are your chances when you enter a contest as big as the one CBS Sports runs?

Well, my colleague Doug Sovern has gone from the penthouse to the outhouse in a few short days. He got 15 of the 16 games right on the first day of March Madness (would have been 16 for 16 if that kid from VCU had made the shot against UCLA, but...), and then went 13-3 the next day, and by the time he nailed 15 of the Sweet 16, Doug was all alone in first place.

That's right. Of the tens of thousands of computer-jockeys who'd wasted the boss's time to sign up for this, Our Doug was El Numero Uno. Ahead, even, of one Jason Weintraub, who'd picked all of the Sweet 16 teams but had more first-round misses than Doug.

And then came reality. Doug only got 7 of the Elite 8 right, dropping him to a tie for 6th (with 200-plus people ahead of him). And it will only get worse, because he'd picked Memphis to win the whole thing, and that can't happen.

Doug says it was fun while it lasted. And I can claim I know a guy who, for one shining moment, was King of Bracket Mountain.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

A Whole New Category

Hey, I grew up with one great wish. I always wanted to dunk. But, cursed with a serious case of White Man's Disease, I never got there. Well, there were those pathetic trips over to the playground with the 8-foot rims where we'd slam for the camera, and then show the results later to unsuspecting dupes. But I digress.

The mythology of the slam-dunk is as basic to basketball as the high hard one is to baseball. It's a serious exclamation point. It has its own language, and can even become poetic (who can forget the great Darryl Dawkins and his "Chocolate-Thunder-Flying, Robinzine-Crying, Teeth-Shaking, Glass-Breaking, Rump Roasting, Bun-Toasting, Wham-Bam-I-Am Jam"?) .

But dig this one.

The University of Wyoming's Adam Waddell is a little embarrassed about all this just now; he admits he just lost control and his pratfall is all over the sports blooper reels.

But I say he's on to something. Somewhere, there's a playground hotshot who understands the significance of what Waddell attempted. Soon, someone will slam, pull off the backflip, and stick the landing.

Look, the first few people who tried triple axels in figure skating didn't nail them. Genius takes a while to evolve.

Adam Waddell, you've opened the door. Let's see what rushes in.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Great 128

The howling is underway all across America. This team or that team left out of the NCAA Tournament (locally, it's St. Mary's College that got hosed, despite a 25-win season). I say it's time to shush some of this up by expanding the field to 128 teams.

When the tournament field was expanded from 32 teams to 64 a few years back (and then to 65, sort of, with the inclusion of a "play-in" game between two "minor conference" teams for the 64th slot), the experts said it was fair.

But it's not. Somebody is judging the value of each win. Are Arizona's 19 wins really better than St, Mary's' 25? Do we know that a 19-win Wisconsin team would beat a 23-win San Diego State team? No, we don't. Not really.

Look. I don't know if the Big East deserves to have 7 teams in the field, or whether 6 Pac-10 teams belong. But I do know that with all of those teams in, a 22-win Auburn squad is out.

I also know that doubling the field won't end the squabbling (some year, it would be a 12-18 IUPUFW Mastodon backer whining about being left out). But a 128-team NCAA field would ensure that all the "smaller" conferences get their shot (come on in, St. Mary's!), while making room for strong also-rans from the big leagues.

You wouldn't think anyone would really complain. After all, one more game isn't a big thing in college hoops. It would generate more revenue and buzz.

But here's why it will never happen: the big dogs hate the idea of being Chaminaded. That's a reference to the epic 1982 upset of titan University of Virginia by tiny Chaminade. Admittedly, not an NCAA tournament game. But the NCAA's are a one-loss-and-out deal, and each extra round exposes a would-be champion to another opportunity for an upset.

The current 65-team setup already allows "undeserving" teams to get in. Every year, a mid-major (or lower) team wins its conference tournament to gain an NCAA bid. Why not extend the upset-potential fun to the Big Dance by making it even bigger?

Monday, March 9, 2009

Best of the Worst

I doubt this is what Santa Clara University basketball coach Kerry Keating has in mind, but I'm here to help.

I'd like to propose yet another college basketball tournament. This is for teams that don't make the NCAA's, or even the postseason NIT. To make this field, you'd need to have a losing record, but at least one really interesting player.

That's where Keating and his Broncos come in. They ended the season 16-17 and have no chance of a postseason bid. But they do have John Bryant. The 6' 10", 300-pound-plus post man leads Division 1 in rebounds per game, and his 27 boards against San Diego the other night was the single-game best in D-1 this season.

After Santa Clara lost in the conference tournament to Gonzaga, Keating suggested there ought to be a way for the have-nots to keep playing so they can showcase players like Bryant.

I'm all for it. College basketball doesn't have any of those postseason all-star games college football offers. So let's launch a new 8-team tournament. Bring in the losers with fascinating players and let them fill a three-day stretch before March Madness begins.

Oh sure, there'll be catcalls. Late-night comedians and wise-ass columnists will make hay. But if there's room for 65 (counting the play-in loser) in the NCAA field and 32 more in the NIT, what's another 8? And "loser" is such a demeaning term.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Soccer Stupidity

Look, I didn't see the NCS 3A high school girls' soccer championship game between San Ramon Valley and Foothill the other night.

Don't even have a dog in that particular fight.

You can read about the controversial finish here if you like (favored Foothill lost 4-3). But all you really need to know for purposes of this discussion is one fact: nobody knew when the game would end.

Well, more precisely, none of the players, coaches, or spectators knew. That's because of the ridiculous soccer custom of keeping the official game clock in the referee's pocket.

It's not just at the high school level, either. That great big electronic clock on the scoreboard really means nothing, even at the World Cup or the Olympics. The officials are empowered to add "stoppage time" at the end of the game to make up for time considered to have been wasted during substitutions, injuries, etc., and only the referee knows when the match will end.

Note that "stoppage time" is only added at the end of the game, but not at the end of the first half--even though there are certainly "stoppage" incidents in both halves.

Many soccer "purists" will lift their heads out of the sand just long enough to argue that the system works just fine. They're mistaken. It's in everyone's interest to know exactly when the game's going to end. The current system not only leaves too much to guesswork, it also opens the possibility of a referee shading the game toward one team or the other.

Join the 21st century, soccer. "Transparency" is a big word these days in government and financial circles. Apply it to your sport.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Ever Hear of This Guy?

Talk about embarrassing!

I consider myself pretty well-read on sports and history. Yet I have to admit: until we got the pitch from the publisher a few weeks ago, I couldn't have told you who Benny Friedman was.

Well, we interviewed the author (the book is called "Passing Game: Benny Friedman and the Transformation of Football" ) and I read the book. And I was blown away.

Synopsis: Friedman was a Jewish kid from Cleveland who went to the University of Michigan in the 1920's and played for the legendary Fielding Yost. Despite rules that discouraged the forward pass (for example, you had to be at least 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage to throw a pass) and a ball that was shaped about like a rugby ball (see the photo), Friedman and the Wolverines opened up the passing game.

He then did the same thing in the fledgling NFL, where Friedman set all sorts of records (and to be honest, was a greater force than even the legendary Red Grange). Later, Friedman coached at CCNY and Brandeis but never got the bigtime coaching job he craved.

How a guy with a story like Friedman's got lost to history is a story in itself. Anti-Semitism? Maybe. His own cranky personality? Possibly. Friedman was finally elected posthumously to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2005 (went in with Steve Young).

And now you can read the whole story. It's worth your time.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Central Steroid Question

I've been engaged in a spirited debate this morning with my news co-anchor Susan Leigh Taylor about steroids in sports. She's like a lot of people: can't understand why an athlete would take something that might be harmful, and can't see how they justify breaking the rules.

This, of course, after listening to Alex Rodriguez (you can listen here) explain his use of steroids between 2001 and 2003. In particular, Susan mocks A-Rod for one answer, where he had no good explanation for why--if he thought what he was doing was benign--he was so secretive about it.

Here's what I argue, without attempting to justify the use of banned substances: an athlete will do whatever it takes to win. Whatever.

Seriously. Why is it that we honor a guy for playing with a broken bone (how good for you can that be?), while discounting the "will to win" as a motive in taking steroids?

Susan's comeback: "But it's against the rules!"

My retort: "Sure it is. And so are a zillion other things athletes do in the ordinary course of sports. In any refereed sport, we let the players push against the rules until they're caught. A basketball players knows the rules forbid shoving an opponent, but he'll do it until the ref blows the whistle."

I argue that using steroids is logical. If you're trying to be the best--and remember, there's only one "best"--of course you'd examine every avenue. And if you thought that many, if not most, of your competitors were also cheating, you'd sure be likely to ignore that moral high ground in favor of results.

We interviewed a fellow a while back who sought to understand the mindset of European cyclists who doped. What he found makes perfect sense: they were young people who'd had to singlemindedly pursue their sport for so long that they saw no other options. It was win or perish. Ergo, performance-enhancing drugs were a sort of lifeline. Replace "European cyclist" with "American baseball player" and maybe you'll see the why of doping.

Or maybe you won't. Then you'll be like my friend Susan, constantly dismayed at what she sees as the stupidity and weakness of these guys.

She might be right. But I've always thought you can't hope to change human behavior without understanding why people do what they do.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

An Amazing Tale

Something I need to know more about: a commercial Randy Johnson and Bengie Molina shot in Japan almost 10 years ago. As Molina tells it, the two were on an All-Star tour of Japan and were hired to hype a product Molina can no longer remember.

What he can remember is the setup: Molina sitting in a parked car and Johnson attempting to hum fastballs through an open window so Molina could catch them.

Not the first time a catcher has been enlisted in a stunt with dubious safety standards: Washington Senators catcher Gabby Street, whose day job involved handling Walter "Big Train" Johnson's heater, took 13 attempts before catching a ball dropped from atop the Washington Monument.

Street was quoted thusly at the time: "The ball I caught hit my mitt with terrific force, much greater than any pitched ball I have ever caught, and I have caught some pitchers who are given credit for having wonderful speed. Though my mitt is three or four inches thick, the force of the ball benumbed my hand."

In the case of Molina and the Big Unit, not surprisingly, control was the issue. As Molina recalls it, Johnson's first throw slammed into the car door. The second clipped the door frame and nearly beheaded Molina. The third pitch was on target, and Molina recalls shutting down the operation at that point before somebody got killed.

I can't find this commercial anywhere. I can find video of Johnson abusing onetime Giant Tsuyoshi Shinjo in a Tokyo Dome at-bat (see it here).

Anyone know where that Johnson-to-Molina through-the-window video might be found?

Monday, February 9, 2009

The End Of the Innocence

The calls are multiplying for Alex Rodriguez to come clean, to 'fess up to steroid use.

This, after someone leaked a supposedly positive test result from a sample taken in 2003, before Major League Baseball imposed a mandatory testing regimen. Those 2003 samples were to be used to determine if MLB had a drug problem: if more than 5% of the samples came back positive, the sport would begin stricter testing with penalties the following year.

In the last few days, we've seen reports alleging both A-Rod and Barry Bonds tested positive in that 2003 survey. Cue the wailing, gnashing of teeth, and wringing of hands.

But hold on a moment. Can I ask a simple question? Leave aside the fairness of leaking supposedly-secret test results. Why were these samples even linked to a player's name in the first place?

If the goal of the 2003 program was to establish whether MLB had a problem, it served absolutely no purpose to flag the samples with players' names. All the 2003 program needed to know was this: was the sample from a major leaguer?

If it seems like I'm splitting hairs, maybe I am. But I happen to believe very strongly in the rule of law. If the process isn't fair, how much faith can we have in the results?

Go ahead and wring your hands and call for A-Rod to do whatever it is you think he ought to do. But give some thought to a process that appears to be badly flawed, and ask yourself for a moment why the only leaked positives from the 2003 tests point to two of the sport's biggest stars, and not to any of the 70-odd others who also tested positive that year.

Friday, February 6, 2009

At The Summitt

Yes, I know how to spell "summit", as in "the top". My title refers to Pat Summitt, the University of Tennessee women's basketball coach, who has just become the first person ever to win 1,000 games coaching college hoops.

She doesn't need any more honors. Pat Summitt is already acknowledged to be the greatest coach women's basketball has ever seen. Yet she plows ahead, layering success upon success.

Think about what it takes to pile up a thousand wins. You'd need to win 30 games in a season 33 times to get there. In fact, Summitt's Lady Vols have notched 18 of those 30-win seasons (plus 3 more 29-win campaigns). Tennessee's women have never had a losing season with Pat Summitt on the sidelines, and she's been there since the 1974-75 season.

But it's more than the win totals. It's the absolute demand for perfection that has always marked Summitt's teams. Do me a favor: even if you think women's basketball is less exciting than the men's game (not as fast, nobody dunks, etc.--I've heard all the arguments), check out a Tennessee game sometime. You'll see superior athletes executing a well-coached system.

Summitt insists that her teams still be called the "Lady Vols", in an era when the feminized moniker is disappearing. Yet, she'll ream a player on the sidelines or the practice court just like the guys do.

Pat Summitt is not even 57 years old yet. Who knows how many more years she plans to coach, how many more wins she'll pile up? But even if she were to walk away tomorrow, she's set the standard for everyone else trying to reach the summit.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

On Broadway

OK, I know, Madison Square Garden isn't physically on Broadway. But you know what I mean.

The lights are just a little brighter, the crowd just a little louder, the buzz a little sharper, when you're in New York.

And give Kobe Bryant credit. He knows his 61 point performance at Madison Square Garden is a bigger deal than, say, a 61 point night in Oklahoma City.

It's the greatest scoring night in the history of the Garden. Heck, as far as I can tell, it's the best game a pro has ever had in any of the 4 buildings known as Madison Square Garden.

Kobe made all 20 of his free throws, and went 19-for-31 from the floor. He knew he was chasing history and he knew he was doing it on the biggest stage in his business. He even knew his performance would silence resident loudmouth Spike Lee, with whom Bryant had a postgame meeting about a documentary project.

After the game, Kobe made reference to the long legacy of basketball in New York, and stowed his showboating, trash-talking side to say, "It's a blessing to do what you love and to have moments like this."

Even the notoriously tough New York fans seemed to know that this was a singular performance. They went from their routine booing of Kobe to chanting "MVP" by game's end.


Monday, January 26, 2009

The Biggest Joke in Sports

My ears are still ringing from the incessant blaring of the airhorn at Montreal's Bell Centre. That's because I watched the NHL All-Star Game, which produced a laughable 22 goals in regulation time.

The goal orgy is merely an extension of the trend: in the 1970's, the All-Star Game produced about 7 goals on average (combined total); by the 80's, 11 goals per game; and since 1990, the total has jumped to 16 goals per game.

Just for comparison's sake, the average NHL regular season game produces about 6 goals. In other words, the All-Star Game produced roughly 3.7 times more goals than a typical NHL game.

If this happened in baseball, we'd see All-Star Games with scores like 19-17. An NFL Pro Bowl, using the same factor (3.7 x regular season scoring average) would wind up looking like this: 85-80.

And some people would probably love it. But I'll submit that the real problem with the NHL All-Star Game is that the way the game is played is so radically different from the regular season.

Consider: the 2009 All-Star Game included exactly one hit (St. Louis forward Keith Tkachuk must have forgotten where he was). And the hooking penalty taken by Montreal's Mike Komisarek in overtime was the first All-Star Game penalty called in 9 years!

Look. I'm not claiming that NFL players display the same ferocity at the Pro Bowl that they employ on any given Sunday. Nobody plays much defense in the NBA anyway, and they sure don't ratchet it up for the All-Star Game.

But the NHL's "midseason classic" is way out of whack. Every time I looked up, another forward had parked himself in the crease, ready to slide in another goal. During the regular season, that sort of campout is an invitation for a mugging.

I love a gorgeous pass as much as the next hockey fan. I marvel at the offensive skills of the game's greats. But hockey is much more than a pass-and-shoot exhibition. It's a bit of a fraud to call that event in Montreal a "hockey game".

Monday, January 19, 2009

Can't the NFL Get It Right?

Before I get into my gripe, let me say this first: against all odds, I'm really looking forward to the Super Bowl. The relentless Steelers and the remarkable Cardinals make for a very compelling matchup.

But please, people: why can't the NFL get this replay business straight? Either ditch the whole system, or figure a way to actually make it work.

Latest case in point: 3:06 left in the first half of the Cardinals-Eagles NFC Championship game. Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald has just scored (his 3rd TD catch of the half) to put AZ up 21-6, and ballsy Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt orders up a pop-up kickoff.

The ball might have touched the Eagles' Victor Abiamiri before digging in like a sand wedge shot, just barely inbounds, then squirting back toward the field of play. Arizona recovers the ball on the 30-yard line. It looks like a play that will break the Eagles' back--you can just see another Fitzgerald TD before halftime and maybe a 28-6 Cardinals lead.

But wait. The refs on the field ruled the ball out of bounds. It was pretty obvious from the live TV signal that the ball never went out (but unclear as to whether Abiamiri might have touched the ball while touching the sideline, which would have ended the play). No problem. Whisenhunt calls for a replay review.

But wait again. Under the NFL's Byzantine replay rules, this one can't be reviewed. Don't ask me to explain why. I can't.

I know this gets tiresome, but one more time: if the goal is to get the call right and this is necessary because everyone can see the wrong calls on TV, then why do we have some calls that are reviewable and others that aren't?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


Look, I don't think Rickey Henderson is the greatest baseball player of all time. He's not even the best I ever saw (Willie Mays still holds that title).

But how can you explain leaving Rickey off your Hall of Fame ballot? I know one guy in Arizona says he goofed--just forgot to check Henderson's name before he sent in his ballot. OK, I'll take his word for that; mistakes happen.

But what about the other 27 voters who didn't put Henderson on their ballots? An oft-heard (and very lame) excuse is that they don't want to vote for someone in his first year of eligibility.

Excuse me? Either the guy belongs in the Hall, or he doesn't. How would one of these fools feel if some deserving Hall of Famer was hit by a bus and didn't live the extra year or two so they could get around to voting for him?

Look, Rickey Henderson had his faults. I always thought he should have been a better defensive player (he did win one Gold Glove, but that was at age 22), given his speed and instincts. And certainly, there are those who thought of Rickey as a selfish guy who worried more about Rickey than anything else.

But please. Rickey Henderson was, for most of his 25-year career, a major destabilizing force. He changed every game in which he played.

Best ever? Maybe not.

Automatic Hall of Famer? Absolutely.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

So Long, Al

How do you say goodbye to someone who's been a part of your life for so long you can't remember?

After 43 years on KCBS, Al Hart is putting a wrap on his long radio career. He's been a sort of "anchor emeritus" for the last 8 1/2 years, showing up only on Wednesday mornings to join us for our John Madden segment.

In a way, Al's been a little like one of those veteran ballplayers who, in the twilight of their careers, move from the starting lineup to the bench. Though they get fewer at-bats, they still contribute, often in ways that don't show up in the boxscore.

So how did Al contribute? He showed us all what it means to be a professional. Look, I'm not going to claim that Al hit every pitch out of the park or got to every fly ball, to keep up the analogy. Nobody does. But he did everything the right way. Wore the uniform right, got to batting practice on time, respected the rules. A pro.

Al would never throw his arm over your shoulder and tell you how to do your job. Not his style. But he was still a remarkable teacher and leader, just by force of example. This will sound funny now, but when I started at KCBS in 1982, I wore a coat and tie to work for years. Why would a radio guy feel the need to wear a coat and tie into the studio? Because that's how Al did it.

Like all of us, Al may have lost a step or two. It's the way things work.

But the example he set is as bright as it ever was. We'll miss the snickerdoodle cookies Al brought in every week, of course. But what we'll really miss is Al himself.

So long, Al. And thanks.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Uh-oh, It's Overtime

I'm a bit cranky today. My esteemed colleague Steve Bitker, who acknowledges his 2008 blog output was a mere shadow of mine, beat me to the punch with the first post of 2009. So I see how it's going to be in 2009. I'm going to have to dig deep, find out what I'm made of, etc.

Here goes: when will the NFL admit that its overtime rules are unfair? We're arguing about this again because the Chargers won the toss, then rode Darren Sproles' short legs on a touchdown drive to win the game. Peyton Manning never even got to fasten his chinstrap in reply.

You know I respect John Madden's opinion. He's forgotten more about the NFL than I'll ever know. But he, like many in the NFL community, continues to defend an obvious imbalance: More than a third of the time, teams that win the overtime coin flip score on their first possession.

John and others will argue that you don't deserve to win if your defense can't stop the other team. I happen to agree. So why is the NFL willing to let games end without requiring one team's defense to take the field?

I think I know why many are willing to live with the unfairness. The see the college/high school overtime scheme as the only option (alternate possessions, starting on the opponents' 25 yard line). I've always felt that system is imbalanced in favor of the offense and especially the kicker. Special teams are removed from the picture: there are no kickoffs and no punts.

But the NFL doesn't have to use the college rule. It could simply do this: change the rule so that each team gets at least one offensive possession in overtime. Imagine the scenario in San Diego: Chargers score, then have to decide whether to kick the PAT or go for two. They then kick to Indianapolis, and the Colts have to match the Chargers. If they can't, they lose.


And fair.