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.