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.