Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Jed York's Real Problem

Speculation about the future of the San Francisco 49ers misses an important point. The team's hopes of hiring a new GM and head coach may well be hamstrung by an impending NFL lockout of players.

While no one can say definitely that the league will lock its players out when the current collective bargaining agreement expires in March, it's looking awfully likely. If the lockout happens, the league essentially goes dark. The NFL Draft would still happen, but teams would be unable to negotiate with their draft choices (or veteran free agents, for that matter). Off-season minicamps would vanish. Training camps would be empty.

In other words, the National Football League would be football-free. And no less a sage than Pro Football Hall of Famer John Madden doubts any top-notch coach would have any interest in taking a job under those circumstances. In Madden's thinking, the Grudens, Harbaughs, and Cowhers mentioned in so many speculative reports will wait things out.

That would leave York and the 49ers scrambling to hire a second-tier coach (something they've already done twice; nobody was trying to outbid them for Mike Nolan or Mike Singletary). And it gets worse: York doesn't have much football history, so he lacks the deep list of contacts you'd want in a situation like this.

York has revealed that he'll lean on his uncle, Eddie DeBartolo, for advice and suggestions. Good idea. Eddie D has been here before. He was 31 (to York's 29) when he took control of the 49ers in 1977. He hired Joe Thomas as GM. That didn't work out so well. Thomas fired popular coach Monte Clark and traded away the team's #1 draft choice for a worn-out O. J. Simpson as the team became a laughingstock. Out of the wreckage, DeBartolo and team president Carmen Policy made the big move that made history: they hired Bill Walsh.

So if I was Jed York, I'd do more than ask Uncle Eddie for advice. I'd bring him in every day, have him sit in on every phone call and interview, and listen to everything he says. One more screwup in the front office or on the sidelines is not an option for York.

Oh, and he might also want to see what he can do with his fellow owners about getting that labor situation straightened out, too.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Time Tunnel

In the midst of the debate over Fox Sports' pathetic addition of a musical score to a live NFL broadcast, we all got a chance to take a 50-year trip back up the TV sports time tunnel. And guess what? It was pretty cool.

I'm talking about the MLB Network broadcast of the 7th game of the 1960 World Series (if you missed it, you'll be able to buy a DVD). This was the game won by the Pirates on Bill Mazeroski's walk-off home run. Though it was broadcast (in living color!) on NBC, it was not recorded and thus existed only in the minds of those who saw it on October 12, 1960.

Until a few months ago, when films of the broadcast surfaced in a vault at the late entertainer Bing Crosby's Bay Area estate. The backstory of the "lost broadcast" is interesting enough, but the thing itself is an absolute treasure. It took considerable work to spiff up the film and its audio track, producing a piece of television that rivals the series "Mad Men" for its ability to take you to a different time.

You quickly notice the things that aren't there: instant replay, on-screen statistics, artificial strike zones, and even batting gloves (they weren't wearing those back in 1960). You're struck by the fact that you're watching some of baseball's all-time greats, not in a highlight clip, but in a full ballgame. There's Yogi Berra joking with Pirates catcher Smoky Burgess before digging in. Roger Maris, a year away from his epic 61-in-'61 season, turning a potential double into a single with a nice play in right field. Mickey Mantle, that mythical "7" on his broad back, delivering 3 hits.

You know, of course, how it'll end. Mazeroski's blast remains the most remarkable World Series finish ever. But you're in no hurry to get there. Hall of Fame announcer Bob Prince is perfect for this game: knowledgeable, succinct, and absolutely in sync with the medium. Unlike many of today's TV broadcasters, he's watching the monitor, so he's talking about what the viewer sees. Another Hall of Famer, Yankees voice Mel Allen, occasionally drops in to provide background on lesser-known New York players like pitcher Bill Stafford (who is identified on the broadcast as "wearing his age on his back"--number 22), but was actually only 21 at the time.

The broadcast is simple, but far from primitive. There are enough cameras to allow for a rapid series of shots showing each team's outfielders or infielders. The center-field camera shot that is a staple of every pitch in a telecast is there, with a good long lens that lets you make the ball-strike calls without the annoyance of a graphical overlay. Cutaway shots of the crowd and the dugouts provide ample evidence of the tension and drama. No need to tart this up--it's the seventh game of the World Series!

On the other hand, certain elements of the broadcast are straight from the time capsule. Graphics are primitive; the best the producers can go is slap a player's name on the screen when he steps to the plate (and the technology of the era limited the number of characters, so Roberto Clemente is seen as R. Clemente). The only way to show the score is to actually show the scoreboard, which the producers do at the end of each half-inning.

Today's broadcasters could learn plenty by watching this gem. I'm certainly not advocating a return to an era without instant replay or on-screen graphics. But sometimes, less is more. Sometimes, the game really is the thing--in fact, it always is. In particular, whoever's promoting the "music soundtrack" idea at Fox Sports should be forced to watch this game, over and over again, until he figures it out.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Nice Moves By Billy Beane

While the Oakland A's flounder around in their search for a new ballpark, the front office is putting together what might be a very interesting 2011 edition of the ballclub.

Of course, the signing of Japanese superstar Hideki Matsui tops the headlines. In exchanging erstwhile DH Jack Cust for Matsui, the A's have probably added some zip to their offense--but certainly added some leadership and excitement to their clubhouse. Plus, while a few folks in New Jersey cared about Cust's exploits, a whole nation follows Godzilla.

But there have been several other moves, many of them in the "low-risk/high potential reward" category. The pitching-rich A's picked up solid lefthanded-hitting outfielder David DeJesus by trading pitcher Vin Mazzaro. DeJesus is a career .289 hitter who batted .318 for KC last year.

They welcomed Rich Harden back. Harden started his career with the A's and when he's been healthy, he's been effective. At $1.5 million for the single year deal, Harden will be a screaming bargain if he's effective. If not, the contract won't break the bank. Beane and Company are hoping Harden's nightmarish 2010 numbers with Texas are behind him.

Another low-risk signing (also of a former Texas pitcher): Brandon McCarthy. He's a 6'7" righthander who was effective before running into shoulder problems that kept him either on the DL and in the minors for the 2010 season.

These deals represent the way the low-budget A's have to operate: short-term contracts, scurrying for other teams' castoffs, hoping to catch lightning in a bottle from time to time. But with a nucleus of good young pitchers, the 2011 A's might be able to scrap their way into contention. Remember: 92 wins is almost a guarantee of a postseason berth. The A's won 81 last year, so they're within shouting distance of that "magic number".

And as that other team across the Bay proved in 2010, a team with good pitching that can fight its way into the postseason can really do some damage.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

A Spectacularly Bad Idea

In case you were still wondering, dear sports fans: the people who run pro sports really don't give a damn about you. They say they do, and sometimes, they act like they do, but then the Lords of Sport do something like this: they fiddle with the 2011 baseball schedule so they can make TV happy.

The San Francisco Chronicle's fine baseball writer John Shea reports ESPN and its puppets at Major League Baseball want to change the Giants 2011 home opener from a 1:35 PM start on Friday, April 8th to a 5 PM start on Thursday, March 31st. To do this, they'd "borrow" a game from the Giants' first homestand of the season--and then send the Giants and Dodgers hustling to the airport after the game so they could play what was supposed to be both team's season-opener in LA the afternoon of Friday, April 1st (full Giants schedule here, so you can see how all this looks).

Net result: Giants fans are deprived of the long-standing San Francisco tradition of a midday home opener, Dodgers fans see their team shuffled off on a bizarre one-game roadtrip (and their own season-opener diluted by the one-night stand in San Francisco), and everyone is treated to a game played in the difficult 5 PM lighting conditions. There's also the not-so-trivial reality of how the thousands of people who share season-ticket plans deal with a home opener that's now just another game--and a Monday night ticket that's suddenly a ducat to the season-opener.

All of this so ESPN can stage-manage its season-opening coverage on March 31st and cap it with a championship-banner ceremony in San Francisco. In other words, Opening Day is just an editable piece of ESPN's storyline.

Of course, MLB should say "no", and of course, it won't. The fans' only hope is that the MLB Players Association will veto the move, as it wisely trashed another boneheaded concept: having the Giants open the 2011 season in Taiwan.

Next time you run into one of the World Series champs on the street, ask for your autograph--and then ask your favorite Giant to oppose this madness.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The NFL's Free Ride

The Keith Fitzhugh story got me thinking. In case you haven't heard, Fitzhugh is the 24-year-old who told the New York Jets "thanks, but no thanks" when they offered him a practice squad slot after two defensive backs were injured this week.

What kind of fool says "no" to the NFL? Well, Fitzhugh has a real job and real-life responsibilities. His father's disabled and the family needs a steady paycheck, which Fitzhugh is earning working on the Norfolk and Southern Railroad.

Still, couldn't he bank some big money just spending a few weeks in the NFL? After all, you read about those massive contracts in pro sports. The truth is this: the NFL pays its practice-squad players $5,200 a week. There are no fringe benefits and the work is week-to-week. Even if a player spends the whole season on the practice squad, he's made $88,400 and may well be back on the street when it's over.

Remember, the NFL is a $7 billion a year business. Unlike the other major North American sports leagues, it spends nothing on minor leagues to develop players. In fact, the NFL relies on the NCAA to provide its raw material, without compensation.

In fact, it's worse than that. Who pays for the scholarships which attract star athletes to college programs which groom them for the NFL? Why, it's (to a degree) you and me. Our tax dollars, the tuition checks we write for our kids, and our contributions to dear old Alma Mater end up supporting college athletics.

The wealthy-beyond-belief NFL should step up and fund a true developmental league so players like Keith Fitzhugh can make a living playing football.

Oddly, the NFL might wind up having to do this for a different reason: it's having a harder and harder time finding pro-ready quarterbacks. As the college game moves toward spread offenses and Cam Newton-style QB's, the NFL is finding fewer quarterbacks trained for the pro-style game. John Madden told me during our on-air segment the other day that he thinks the answer is a minor league.

If you do see an NFL D-league, you can bet it won't be so the Keith Fitzhughs of the world are treated more decently. But that might be the net effect, and it would be a good thing.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Beneath Their Dignity

Ottawa is Canada's capital city. It's a pretty place with an interesting history.

But the way the locals reacted to the arrival of the San Jose Sharks' Dany Heatley, you'd think Ottawa had changed its name to Podunkville.

Heatley was traded from Ottawa to San Jose before the 2009-10 NHL season. Far be it from me to explain the whole situation, but suffice it to say Heatley wanted out of Ottawa (and away from coach Cory Clouston). He managed to enrage not only the fans in Ottawa for demanding a trade, but also the folks in Edmonton for refusing to be traded to the Oilers.

Last night's game between the Sharks and Senators marked Heatley's first visit to Ottawa since the ugly breakup. It happened to be the same night that LeBron James came back to Cleveland for the first time since jilting the Cavaliers, and King James of the Miami Heat didn't take any more heat than the Heater took in Ottawa.

Heatley got not only the ritual booing whenever he touched the puck (a common NHL fan behavior), but an earful of chanting and an eyeful of angry posters. Among the clever chants: "Heatley Sucks!", "Trai--tor!", and "F-U Heatley!" The posters weren't any better, and one enterprising group of Ottawans disrupted the game by heaving a bunch of Senators jerseys bearing Heatley's name and number onto the ice.

I guess I expected this sort of thing from Cleveland, a city with an inferiority complex wider than the formerly-flaming Cuyahoga River. But Ottawa? I thought you were a little above that sort of thing.

Oh, by the way: Heatley had an assist, drew two penalties leading to Sharks power-play goals, and had the last laugh in a 4-0 Sharks win. By the end of the game, the booing was not for Heatley, but for the home team. A perusal of the fan comments on Internet bulletin boards suggests the real anger in Ottawa is with the Senators, who are limping along, closer to last place in the conference standings than first.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Juan Gone

OK, it hurts. Juan Uribe has left the building, and to jam the salt even deeper into the wound, he's signed with the Dodgers. Eew.

Of course, he'll be missed. Uribe's larger-than-life clubhouse presence is a very real thing, even though it can't be measured with the statistical precision baseball so dearly loves.

Uribe had a flair for the dramatic. The photo shows a typical Uribe pose--unloading the bat as if it's scalding his hands after torching another late-game home run. As long as Giants fans talk about the magical 2010 season, they'll tell the story of his game-ending sacrifice fly in Game 4 of the NLCS--maybe the most thrilling game ever played at AT&T Park.

But let's all take a deep breath here. The guy the Giants did re-sign, Aubrey Huff, is really the heart and soul of the Giants offense. He's a gritty, funny, hard-working SOB, and he's back for at least 2 years (with a team option for a third). The team remains deep in leaders: Huff, Buster Posey, Freddy Sanchez, Andres Torres...the list goes on.

"But," you say. "Uribe's numbers are going to be impossible to replace." True, he did hit 24 homers and drive in 85 runs last year (to say nothing of his postseason heroics). But dig a little deeper, and you find Juan Uribe to be a little less than spectacular.

Stat-heads toss around terms like WAR (Wins Above Replacement Player) and oWAR (Offensive Wins Above Replacement Player). These stats attempt to measure a player's worth versus a mythical average replacement (the WAR stat factors in defense; the oWAR looks only at offense).

When you look at Uribe through this lens, he becomes a little more, well, ordinary. In 2010, despite career highs in HR's and RBI's, Uribe's oWAR was 1.8 and his WAR 2.0. That makes him better than the average player, true. But not an awful lot better.

By comparison: Pat Burrell's 2010 season produced an oWAR of 1.9 and a WAR of 3.0, both better than Uribe's figures. Nobody's offering Burrell a $21 million 3-year deal. And comparing Uribe to Huff produces an even more glaring disparity: Huff's oWAR in 2010 was 4.4 and his WAR 5.9. That 5.9 is All-Star quality, according to Baseball-Reference.com.

The Giants will certainly miss Uribe. His infectious personality and late-inning heroics are true losses. But like many mythical figures, the perception may be greater than the reality. Did the Dodgers overpay? Who knows? We'll have to wait until April to start finding out.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Winning The Right Way

A wild weekend for college football: Auburn's crazy comeback, Nevada's bursting of Boise State's bubble, Stanford's continued march toward immortality.

So leave it to me to focus on a game that got almost zero nationwide attention. I'd like to salute Washington Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian for his all-in decision on the final play of U-W's 16-13 win at Cal.

The game matched a couple of disappointing Pac-10 teams simply hoping to salvage a mediocre season with a 6th win (and thus, a bowl game). Washington needed to beat Cal and also win next week's game against Washington State. Cal just needed to end its regular season by beating the Huskies in the final game before a massive renovation of Berkeley's crumbling Memorial Stadium.

Cal's anemic offense couldn't score a touchdown, yet the Bears clung to a 13-10 lead as Washington got the ball for the last time. Jake Locker's 46-yard completion to Jermaine Kearse put the ball deep in Cal territory and a game-tying field goal attempt seemed likely.

But the Huskies didn't settle for the crapshoot of overtime. Locker, playing with a broken rib, ran three times from inside the 10-yard line, and with 2 seconds left, the ball was still a foot away from the goal line. 4th and goal. Last play. Down 3 points.

And that's when Sarkisian called time, gathered the whole team in a giant huddle, and told the Huskies he was going for it. All or nothing. Win or lose, right here, right now.

Look: I'm a Cal fan. My grandfather played for the Bears back when they built Memorial Stadium, so I'd have been thrilled to see them win the last game in the old facility. But I absolutely love to see coaches let their players play.

Washington's Chris Polk barged into the end zone for the game-winning TD, and the Husky dogpile was an expression of pure joy. OK, maybe not the two best teams in America. Maybe not the best game of the weekend.

But for my money, as great an example of what college sports should be all about as you'll find anywhere. Bravo, Huskies. Bravo, Steve Sarkisian.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A Final Exorcism

Like most Giants fans, I continue to wander in the wilderness, unsure of how to handle the sudden reversal of a lifetime of misfortune. Part of our collective reality has always been this: we love a team that never wins it all. But now they have won it all, so how do we recalibrate?

My cousin Bob and I have concluded that the right answer is to sweep away the best in a tangible, real way. We will assemble a pile of baseball cards representing the players who helped build the Giants' 52 years of San Francisco failure, and perform a ritual burning.

So who makes the list. Stop it right there: Johnnie LeMaster is too easy. Besides, I was at Candlestick Park on the September day in 1975 when LeMaster joined an elite list, homering in his first major league at-bat. Sure, it was a blooper that kangaroo-hopped over the head of a hapless Dodger centerfielder named John Hale, but it was still exciting.

Anyway. Names have been flying back and forth. To make my list, a guy has to represent the sort of mediocrity that always seemed to drag the Giants down short of real success.

Guys like Rich Robertson. Pitched for the Giants between 1966 and 1971 and compiled a 13-14 record and a career 4.94 ERA. One year, they let him start a bunch of games and he responded by leading the league with 18 wild pitches. That's the kind of Giant I mean.

Don Mason. Frank Johnson. Steve Ontiveros. Jim Duffalo. David Green. Rennie Stennett. Sam McDowell. Ricky Ledee.

Some of these guys you've heard of. Others are obscure. Some represented wasted trades. Others were just guys who never quite made it.

Nothing personal here (in most cases). These are the ghosts of the Giants' past, and they must be exorcised so that we can complete our transformation.

Bob and I figure we'll stage our ceremony in the windy parking lot at Candlestick Park. True to the ancient tradition, the crowd should be small and well-protected against the weather.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Just Plain Obscene

I've always been ambivalent when the arguments start about the need for a college football national championship playoff. It never really mattered that much to me; I was OK with the traditional bowls/polls approach.

But something was starting to smell bad in recent years as the BCS system oozed under the door and solidified. The big boys were getting bigger and the little guys were scrambling to get a spot at the table.

And then I read the eye-opening story in the latest Sports Illustrated. Go out and grab a copy and get ready to get outraged. SI's Austin Murphy and Yahoo's Dan Wetzel lay bare the filthy truth about the college bowl games: they exist to make a bunch of fats cat even fatter.

What stunned me was the revelation that colleges often lose money by accepting a bowl invitation. How? Because the bowls pull stunts like this: they require participating schools to buy large blocks of tickets at face value (and those tickets often go unsold). Because they require State U's marching band to pay its own way to the game and provide free entertainment--and then pay for game tickets to boot! And on and on...

Meanwhile, the "non-profits" that run the bowls pay their honchos handsomely. Gary Cavalli, the former Stanford sports information director, pulls down $377,000 a year running the second-tier (and awkwardly-named) "Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl" at San Francisco's AT&T Park. Before you start tasting bile, understand that plenty of other bowl bosses do better at the pay window than Cavalli.

Look, I don't begrudge anyone making a fat paycheck. If Cavalli and company can get a sponsorship deal and a TV contract and stage a football game for which people will buy tickets and there's enough left over to pay a nice salary, swell. But it needs to be an honest profit--not the result of a shakedown.

When colleges are sucked into the bowl vortex and actually lose money on the deal, something is very rotten in Denmark. The SI article quotes the former Michigan athletic director as saying the Wolverines' failure to get a bowl bid for two consecutive years was a good thing financially--it meant they made money those years! Trust me on this: when it's better for a storied program with a huge alumni base like the U of M to stay home than go to a bowl, the system is broken.

Is a national championship playoff the fix? I don't know. But I do know the current system has to be dismantled. There's a chance the U. S. Department of Justice will start that process; meetings have already been held about an antitrust investigation. Another possibility is to strip the bowls of their non-profit status, revealing them for what they really are..

But at the end of the day, I must conclude that the only real answer is to toss the whole stinking mess out and draw up a college football playoff plan. It would have to be run by the NCAA--itself not my favorite organization--but better the NCAA than the pirates who now plunder college football.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

An Argument I Never Thought I'd Make

A special veterans committee is considering a dozen names from baseball's Expansion Era for Hall of Fame consideration. After some research, I've concluded that most don't belong in the Hall, but a few do. And at the top of the list is a guy I never figured I'd champion: Steve Garvey.

The longtime Dodger and Padre first baseman was certainly never a Bay Area fan favorite. Choose your reason: 1) He was a Dodger 2) He looked too smug and clean cut 3) He was a Dodger 4) He wore the Giants out.

Garvey was a .294 career hitter who won an MVP award (1974), 4 Gold Gloves, and put up some stunning postseason numbers (a .338 average, 31 RBI, and 22 extra-base hits in 55 games). And if you look at the 7-year core of Garvey's career, 1974-1980, you'll see why I now think he belongs in the Hall. Over those years, Garvey hit .311 and averaged 104 RBI a year. He was the best first baseman in the NL in that era, and I think his body of work stacks up very favorably against that of Eddie Murray, who's already in the Hall.

Why is Garvey's fate being decided by a special veterans committee and not by the Baseball Writers Association of America, whose members handle the bulk of Hall of Fame choices? Good question. Garvey never got more than 42.6% of the BBWAA vote (75% required), and some think it's because the writers found fault with Garvey's personal life (his ex-wife Cyndi alleged numerous infidelities).

Sorry, but that doesn't work for me. From Ty Cobb on down, the Hall of Fame has accepted all sorts of less-than-perfect humans who played the game well. Put Garvey in.

As for the others being considered, let's take a look:

  • Vida Blue Sorry, no. If there was a "most amazing year" wing in Cooperstown, Vida would be in for that 1971 season (24-8, 301 K's, Cy Young, MVP). But it doesn't work that way and despite 3 20-win seasons, I just don't see it for Vida (though I love the guy).
  • Ron Guidry No again. And again, that year. In his case, 1978: 25-3, 1.74 ERA, 16 complete games, Cy Young. But Guidry had a number of middling years, too, and never got more than 8.8% of the BBWAA vote.
  • Tommy John A prime example of baseball's fascination with pretty good players who hang around forever. Yes, he won 288 games, but there were only a few really strong years in there. Heck, John once gave up 287 hits in a season. It's enough that the surgery named after him has saved so many careers; leave him out of the Hall.
  • Dave Concepcion Great team (Big Red Machine), solid player. HoF? Nope. He's been on the BBWAA ballot for 15 years and maxed out at 16.2%.
  • Al Oliver At first glance, you say, "Wow!" 18 seasons and a career .303 batting average. And then you realize that "Scoop" never finished higher than 3rd in MVP voting, and only showed up once in the BBWAA voting (and with just 4.3%, at that). No.
  • Ted Simmons Sorry, but I can't see "Simba" in Cooperstown, either. Another guy with a long career (21 years) and decent numbers (.285 career BA). Simmons spent many years catching. Extra points for that, but he wasn't even the best catcher of his generation (see Bench, Johnny) and thus we have another near-miss.
  • Rusty Staub Ah, how I'd love to be able to recommend Le Grand Orange. But it's just not there. Staub did have some terrific years, but he had the misfortune of playing in an era with stars like Aaron, Clemente, McCovey, Rose, Bench and Santo (the last of whom probably should be in the Hall). Je suis desolee, mon ami, mais non.
  • Billy Martin Oh, boy. 16 years as a manager (5 teams, some more than once). 1 World Series title, another AL pennant, and three other division titles. Aggressive, hard-nosed baseball. But can you really say he's Hall of Fame-worthy? I could be convinced, but I'm leaning "no".
  • Pat Gillick They're trying to throw a bone to Canada here. No.
  • George Steinbrenner Absolutely. You may not like The Boss, but the man changed baseball (for better or worse, depending on your perspective).
  • Marvin Miller Same answer as above, only more so. Can you imagine someone touring the Hall in a hundred years and not learning about the free-agency era and the man behind it?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The 2010 Giants, A to Z

It really happened. A bunch of guys virtually nobody outside the Bay Area thought could win it did win it.

In tribute, an alphabetical salute to the 2010 World Series champs. Sure, it's a bit slapdash. But let's not forget--this is a team of "castoffs and misfits", so perhaps my list is fitting.

Andres Torres (leading off, of course)

Bruce Bochy

Cody Ross

Darren Ford (remember his mad dash to score the winning run on September 1st?)

Edgar Renteria

The Freak (and his favorite phrase "F--- yeah!")

Guillermo Mota

Aubrey Huff

Travis Ishikawa

Jeremy Affeldt

K's. Lots of them: the Giants led all of baseball with 1331 regular-season strikeouts. Oh, and Kruk and Kuip, too!

Javier Lopez

Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain. Tough young dudes.

Nate Schierholtz

Sergio RomO (and his 0.00 NLCS and World Series ERA)

Buster Posey

Quick: when do pitchers and catchers report?

Aaron Rowand

Sanchezes, Freddy and Jonathan

Todd Wellemeyer (don't laugh: he won 3 games and the Giants needed every one to make the playoffs)

Juan Uribe

Eugenio Velez (did you ever see a more animated non-roster player in a postseason dugout?)

Brian Wilson

X for Wilson's post-save gesture

Yes, they really did end 53 years of San Francisco Giants futility

Barry Zito and Zoolander (the inspiration for Huff's incredible Rally Thong move at the victory parade)

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Orange and Black Glue

I don't know these people. Oh, I spent 4 hours with them last night at AT&T Park and we really hit it off, in the way that thousands upon thousands of people are hitting it off in the Bay Area right now.

Tell me you don't feel it. Even if you're one of those cranky "I hate the bandwagon-jumper" types, you have to admit there's something going on.

I have to admit: it's caught me a bit by surprise. I imagine it's caught everyone a bit by surprise, which is both the cause and effect of all this giddiness. The Giants aren't supposed to be here, yet they're three wins away from a World Series championship.

Sure, it's San Francisco. Any excuse for a party or a little self-conscious madness. I was blown away by the sheer number of people who jammed the area around AT&T Park hours before Game 1 started. They mobbed the Giants Dugout stores to grab any merchandise (at the usual obscene prices) bearing evidence of the Giants' World Series status.

And while they waited in crazy-long lines to buy the souvenirs, they chatted. Old folks, youngsters, well-off, not-so-well-off. Men, women, kids. The whole darned United Nations of us, united in baseball. My foray into merchandise-land revealed that few of these people actually had tickets to the games; they just wanted to be part of the whole happy mess.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom talked about this the other day. Sure, you can discount anything Newsom says these days because he's in the middle of a statewide campaign, but he's a native San Franciscan, a former college baseball player, a serious fan, and a guy with
a pretty good ear on the street. Essentially, Newsom says a winning team can make a whole
community feel better about itself. Even if you can't tell Javier Lopez from Santiago Casilla or don't know that Nate Schierholtz went to San Ramon Valley High, the Giants story is putting a spring in your step. Heck, you're even saying "hello" to strangers on the street.

It's a very strong kind of social glue. Part of what makes it so intoxicating is that we all know, deep down inside, that it can't last. For now, we're on a collective high, pinching ourselves to see if we're dreaming, laughing giddily when the Giants improbably score 7 runs off big bad Cliff Lee.

We know this will all end at some point and we'll go back to worrying about the kids or the mortgage or the car repairs or the job or the job search or...well, you know. That's the real world. For now, we're all bound together in this unreal place by orange and black glue.

Monday, October 25, 2010

What a Long Strange Trip It's Been

The sheer giddiness surrounding the Giants these days has so much to do with the absolute craziness of the whole thing. The World Series? Are you kidding?

Let's review. Just for fun, please have a look at the Opening Day lineup:
  • Aaron Rowand, CF
  • Edgar Renteria, SS
  • Pablo Sandoval, 3B
  • Aubrey Huff, 1B
  • Mark DeRosa, LF
  • Bengie Molina, C
  • John Bowker, RF
  • Juan Uribe, 2B
  • Tim Lincecum, P
The lineup that closed out the Phillies in Game 6 of the NL Championship Series included only 3 of the same 8 position players--and not one of them in the same slot in the batting order! The road from that Opening Day win (over Roy Oswalt, just to add to the strangeness of this fable) to the World Series is almost too twisted to believe.

Let's recall, briefly, the conversations of April: Could newcomer Aubrey Huff play defense? When would wunderkind Buster Posey be called up (and was he really ready to replace veteran Bengie Molina)? Could NorCal homeboy John Bowker keep hitting like he did in Arizona? Did Pablo Sandoval really lose any weight? Would Tim Lincecum win a 3rd straight Cy Young award?

Remember: Todd Wellemeyer was the fifth starter. Pat Burrell was Tampa Bay's DH. Cody Ross went 0-for-4 as Florida's Opening Day rightfielder. Mike Fontenot took an 0-for-3 as the Cubs' Opening Day second baseman. Relief pitchers Javier Lopez and Ramon Ramirez were sitting in the bullpens of Pittsburgh and Boston, respectively. And a guy named Jeremy Affeldt, who would put out a raging inferno in Game 6 of the NLCS, was getting rave reviews for his Comcast SportsNet spring training segment.

As it turns out, perhaps the only April "fact" about the 2010 Giants that proved to be true was this: they had some damned good pitching. Despite the horrific August roadbump, the staff ended up leading the major leagues in ERA (3.36) and strikeouts (1331, or 8.2 per 9 innings).

Huff turned out to be more than just an adequate first baseman. He also played 63 games in the outfield and acquitted himself ably. The Burrell, Ross, Fontenot, Lopez and Ramirez acquisitions so discouraged the Giants' opposition that frustrated San Diego pitcher Mat Latos took to calling them "mercenaries". Timmy didn't win his 3rd Cy but his awful August may have helped him become an even better pitcher than ever.

DeRosa went down with a season-ending injury. Freddy Sanchez returned from health limbo. Edgar Renteria came and went from the DL. Sandoval vanished for long stretches but had an at-bat for the ages in Game 4 of the NLCS. Andres Torres went from interesting spare part to key cog. And it turned out Bowker couldn't keep it up, leading to his trade to the Pirates.

And two babies arrived in time to let everyone light their victory cigars. Buster Posey is the National League Rookie of the Year, even if the prize ends up going to Atlanta's Jason Heyward. Madison Bumgarner, who turned 21 during the summer, was a stone-cold assassin on the mound.

Then there was Juan Uribe. Perhaps the least-likely shortstop physique you've ever seen. Dyed his beard a very weird orange for a while. And invokes the ghost of his late uncle, Giants shortstop Jose Uribe, whenever the fans chant "OO-reebay". Genuinely funny, a better player than most casual fans realize, and the man who broke the back of the favored Phillies with that Game 6 homer. Remember: Uribe was only back with the Giants this year on a one-year contract because he couldn't find any other offers.

It's been a tense, magical, maddening, exhilarating October. But the road from April to October shouldn't be forgotten. It's what makes this story so spectacular.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Triumph Of Joy

If you look carefully, you'll see a rainbow in that spray of water from San Francisco's fireboat outside AT&T Park. The pot of gold is inside the park.

There is a creeping sense of inevitability about the way the NLCS between the Giants and Phillies will end. You won't catch me making any bold predictions here, but is there anyone who's been watching this series who doesn't know the ending already? I didn't think so.

What makes this all so remarkable is the unlikeliness of it all. Sure, everyone knew the Giants had some good young pitchers, led by the wunderkind Tim Lincecum. Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez: lots of talent and promise. The poetically-named Madison Bumgarner: hey, he's young and maybe he'll amount to something someday. That was in April. Now, these guys are the most feared rotation in the game.

It's a collection of characters. Juan Uribe, the nephew of a beloved Giant, wore a bad orange dye job on his beard at midseason--and he's not even close to the zaniest guy in this bunch. Aubrey Huff shows up off baseball's scrapheap and makes the Rally Thong his talisman. Cody Ross arrives wearing eyeblack like something out of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" and becomes a storyline for the playoffs. There's Buster Posey--is this guy real? Add in Brian Wilson, Andres "Appendectomy" Torres, and of course, The Panda.

These guys play baseball--that is, their joy is evident. The team is a mix of young guys who might not know enough failure to realize how good they have it, and veterans who've seen more than enough hard times to know exactly how good they have it. Pablo Sandoval's unbridled reaction after his Game 4 double put the team ahead said everything about the peaks and valleys of his young career.

The Giants last reached the World Series in 2002. That was during the Barry Bonds years. Sure, it was exciting then, but it didn't have the off-the-chart sense of joy that prevails this year. There are plenty of good baseball teams on the planet. But I'll take the joyous one every time.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The NFL's Head Game

That is not a pretty picture. But it's prettier than what happened moments earlier, when Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson was knocked unconscious by Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson.

Jackson won't be playing anytime soon. Neither will several other players who suffered concussions in recent NFL games. Now, the league has announced a new approach that could suspend players who "lead with their heads" when tackling.

It's about time.

People who've been around the game for years, like Hall of Fame coach John Madden, realize what's happened to the game. The helmet and facemask, introduced as safety devices, have become weapons. Tackling techniques once taught to young players have been abandoned by defensive players searching for the knockout blow.

The most dangerous plays are passing plays. Receivers (and quarterbacks) are vulnerable as they attempt to throw or catch. And defenders no longer seek to tackle the other player or simply knock the pass away. Instead, they try to "blow up" the other guy.

Football already has rules against headhunting. The problem is, they don't work because the practice has become so embedded in the game. Quick: how many times a game do you see a cornerback cover his receiver by trying to slap the pass away? More likely, his defensive move will be to "separate" the man from the ball (a euphemism for drilling the guy so hard he coughs up the ball).

Football is a violent, physical game. But somewhere along the way, it changed from a game of running, passing, catching, blocking, and tackling into a game of hitting. Think about it: that's a significant change. If the NFL now means to penalize players for their intent to lead with their helmeted heads, I believe it'll merely open a new Pandora's box of problems.

What pro football needs to do instead is at once simple and complex: it needs to return the game to a game of tackling. It might be a less-violent game (and it might harm the NFL's soaring TV ratings). Rules promoting tackling (as opposed to hitting) need to be written and enforced. Hard questions need to be asked about whether helmets and facemasks have become more of a problem than a solution. And the culture that celebrates a violent, potentially life-changing collision needs to be changed.

Good luck with all that.

Monday, October 18, 2010

More Blather From Fox

My dad called the other night. He's 82 and a former high school baseball coach. He and my mom are pretty serious Giants fans. And he's ticked off.

He had just endured another painful Fox Sports production--Game 1 of the NLCS between the Giant and the Phillies. He wanted to know how he could delay the Giants' hometown radio broadcast so it would "sync" up with the Fox TV broadcast, which is delayed by several seconds.

And Dad hadn't even seen Fox's Game 2 effort yet.

Just a few of the moments that made me want to scream and throw something at my plasma panel during Game 2:
  • The length of time it took Fox to notice that Placido Polanco was struck by a thrown ball while running inside the first-base line in the 1st inning. Despite multiple replays, Fox's longtime team of Joe Buck and Tim McCarver never spotted the obvious: Polanco could have been called out for violating Rule 6.05 (k).
  • The clumsy decision to play a taped dugout interview with Phils' hitting coach Greg Gross just as Giants outfielder Cody Ross was stepping in to hit. Ross, of course, homered while the audience heard Gross talk about something else.
  • Buck's inexcusable rant at Giants' third baseman Mike Fontenot after an infield popup dropped between four Giants. "It's five feet in front of you. Just catch it!," said Buck. If he'd bothered to watch his own broadcast, he'd have seen Fontenot repeatedly calling for the ball before backing away--begging the (unasked by Fox) question--who called him off and why?
  • McCarver's analysis of the 7th inning play in which Roy Oswalt overran a stop sign at third base to score when Giants first baseman Aubrey Huff cut off the throw. McCarver told us that Huff made the right play because the throw was going to hit the mound and be deflected. Huh? This is a former major league catcher speaking, folks. The rest of us saw a throw that would have beaten Oswalt to the plate by 15 feet.

I could go on, but what's the point? Fox has never shown much regard for the details of the game. In fact, it was bizarrely refreshing to hear Buck admit during Game 1 that he "wasn't watching" a play, asking McCarver (and I guess the rest of us, too), "What happened?".

I wish I had an answer for my dad. If I did, I'd set up the same thing at my house and listen to broadcasters who know what they're doing.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

So Long, Bobby Cox

In a world of free agency and ever-changing rosters, there aren't a lot of guys who become career employees of a pro sports organization.

That's why so much is being made of Bobby Cox' retirement. The Giants send him off as a loser, beating the Braves in Atlanta to close out their National League Division Series in a fourth consecutive one-run game.

Cox played the series a few cards short of a full deck. The injury-decimated Braves were their own worst enemies, playing shoddy defense and failing repeatedly at key moments. A youthful bullpen that entered the postseason with sterling numbers became pretty ordinary when push came to shove.

The Braves were overmatched and still forced the Giants into a nail-biter of a series. But it must be pointed out that Cox essentially deserted his team in Game 2, getting ejected early in the game, and then let fiery pitcher Derek Lowe talk him into staying in Game 4 one batter too long: Lowe walked Pat Burrell to load the bases during the Giants' game-winning rally.

Cox leaves with the 4th-highest managerial win total in history (he'll probably drop to 5th if Joe Torre sticks around for two or three more years). But he also leaves with a dubious record: nobody's ever been tossed out of more games.

I've never really understood the yin-yang aspect of Cox. Players love him. Journalists have always found him accessible and accommodating. His sportsmanlike gesture after the last out of his career was touching: he stepped out of the Braves dugout and made a point of saluting the celebrating Giants, who returned the favor.

Yet this is a guy who managed to get tossed from 158 games during his career and who often started dropping F-bombs on umpires after ball/strike calls in meaningless game situations. My son and I used to marvel at how heated Cox would get so early in a game, and I sometimes think the boy picked up a bit of a potty-mouth just by watching Cox curse.

The Braves produced some great teams and players under Cox' watch. Let's hope his legacy of longevity (nearly 30 years as manager or GM of the Braves) and success outlasts the memory of all those heave-hos from the umps.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Magic Number: 92

Want to know how to make sure your team makes the baseball playoffs? Don't get too caught up in how many runs they score or how strong the bullpen is or how many double plays they turn.

Just make sure they win 92 games. Especially in the National League.

Over the last 10 years, just about every team that's won 92 games has made the playoffs. We're talking about a total of 80 playoff teams over that span (4 in each league each year). Only 5 teams have won 92 games and failed to make the playoffs, and only one of those was a National League team (the 2002 Dodgers).

2002 was a bad year for the "Rule of 92". Not only did the Dodgers get left out, but in the American League, both the Yankees and Mariners sat out the playoffs despite 93-win regular seasons. By the way--Seattle is the only team over the last 10 years to be denied twice with 92 or more wins--they also missed the playoffs in 2003 with 93 wins. The other exception to the rule is the 93-win 2005 Cleveland Indians.

Getting to 92 requires winning about 57% of your games. You don't even need to win every series. Split the 4-gamers, win most of the 3-gamers and you're in.

Just like the 2010 Giants, who made it into the playoffs on the season's final day with their...wait for it...92nd win.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Staying Away In Droves

The eminent philosopher Yogi Berra once said, "If the fans don't come out to the ball park, you can't stop them."

Indeed. And it appears nobody's stopping them in places like Cincinnati and San Diego, where teams in the playoff hunt are playing to a lot of empty seats--or, in the case of the Padres, a lot of seats filled by fans of the opposing team.

The last couple of nights have seen an awful lot of Cubs fans at Petco Park as Chicago has badly damaged San Diego's playoff hopes. When the Giants played a key series in San Diego earlier this month, it sometimes sounded like a Bay Area crowd had taken over the place.

The Padres, who've led the division for most of the season, will end up drawing a bit over 2 million fans (up by 200,000 from last year). By contrast, the Giants will top 3,000,000 in a ballpark of roughly the same size.

What's going on here? Padres brass admit they're still trying to win over a fan base that may still be skeptical after years of cheapskate decision-making. But it might go deeper than that. San Diego Union-Tribune columnist Nick Canepa quotes Padres CEO Jeff Moorad as saying the fans are migrating toward less-expensive tickets.

In other words, even with a better product on the field, even with the prospects of a better team in the future, and even in the heat of a pennant race, Padres fans are watching their wallets. And they're apparently not alone. The New York Times reports overall MLB attendance will drop again this year, making it three straight down seasons at the turnstiles.

Sure, a few teams are up. But the fact that pennant-chasing franchises like San Diego, Cincinnati (which drew 12,000 fans for a recent game), Tampa Bay and even Atlanta are playing to less-than-full houses certainly ought to get the attention of the sport's moguls.

San Diego's Moorad is a smart guy. He's a former player's agent who knows the game from many angles. He's onto something. Baseball (and other pro sports) need to wake up to a new reality: the gravy train has ended. The Golden Goose isn't laying eggs any more. Fans are facing the reality of a re-calibrated economy and pennant race or not, they are watching their dollars very carefully.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Pass the Maalox, Please

My wife stood in the entrance to the family room for a while before asking, "What are you watching?"

"The Braves and the Marlins," I replied, realizing as I said it how desperately stupid it sounded. Yes, I was hanging on every pitch, listening to the painfully-biased Braves TV announcers as though they held the keys to some inner truth.

I admit it. I've been sucked into the vortex of a pennant race. And I don't want out.

Hell, as soon as Omar Infante's base hit gave the Braves a walk-off win in the 11th, I was off to watch the Cubs-Padres game. I settled in with Len Kasper and Bob Brenly on WGN (a way better combo than the Atlanta bunch) as the Cubs nursed a one-run lead into the bottom of the 9th.

Kasper and Brenly told me Cubs closer Carlos Marmol was on the verge of setting a new single-season record for strikeouts per 9 innings (incredible: he's averaging more than 16 K's per 9 innings). Marmol's slider was electric and he quickly punched out the first two San Diego hitters.

And then the torture began. Yorvit Torrealba reached on an infield hit as the Cubs middle infielders botched the play. Pinch-runner Everth Cabrera, inevitably, stole second. A bounced slider to Chase Headley might have grazed the fabric of his baggy pants and he was sent to first as a hit batsman. Tony Gwynn Jr. coaxed a walk to load the bases.

And then Nick Hundley put a pretty good swing on a Marmol pitch that caught a lot of the plate. For a moment, I had visions of a walk-off grand slam that would have tied the Padres with the Giants for first place in the NL West.

That must have been when I shouted, "No!" That must have been when my wife walked back into the room and said, "I think you're taking this way too seriously."

She might be right. But when Hundley's fly ball landed safely in Sam Fuld's glove, I relaxed. Within minutes, I was sleeping like a baby.

See, pennant races are fun--at least when things are going your way.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Enough is Enough

Hey, Major League Baseball. What are you waiting for? Does someone have to die before you ban those infernal maple bats? The Cub's Tyler Colvin came pretty damned close:
Colvin was immediately hospitalized with a hole in his chest and a potential collapsed lung. He's going to be OK, but if that bat shard had caught him in the carotid artery...well, you do the math.

Enough's enough. Maple bats like the one Wellington Castillo swung have already been banned in the minor leagues because it's obvious to anyone who watches baseball that they're dangerous. They shatter in ways that the more-common ash bats don't, usually producing a heavy broken end, often with a sharp spearpoint.

And they shatter on "good" swings. Don't forget, Castillo doubled into the corner on the swing that impaled Colvin. A few days ago, Colorado's Carlos Gonzalez beat the Giants with a scorching triple into the gap--off a shattered maple bat.

Almost two years ago, Major League Baseball and the players' union agreed on some stopgap "safety" measures regarding maple bats. Guess what? They don't work. The bats are still breaking. Watch a few games and you're likely to see a scary near-miss, to say nothing of what really did happen in Miami.

It's time for the ballplayers (who've dragged their heels on this because so many hitters think the maple bats give them an edge) to step up and demand that MLB ban the bats. Perhaps players like the Cubs' Jeff Baker will take the lead. “It’s just not worth it to me to use that kind of bat,” Baker told reporters after watching Colvin become a human dartboard. “I don’t want that on my conscience.”

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Explain This

Barry Zito.

Go figure. The guy throws 1-hit ball for 5.2 innings against the Dodgers, gives up zero earned runs, and gets tagged with the loss. If you're keeping track, it's his 9th consecutive loss. He last won on July 16th. Since then, he's 0-9. There have been some very bad outings, but overall, Zito's ERA during that streak is 4.48--not great, but not 0-9 bad.

I've written before about the good Barry/bad Barry syndrome. You may have heard that his career record when the team scores 4 or more runs is 109-6. But when the team doesn't score--and the Giants have only scored 11 runs while Zito was in the game over his last 12 starts--you get the bad Barry.

I'm no psychologist, and maybe Zito would disagree, but here's a guess: when the team is rolling, Zito relaxes and lets it flow, and he's darned good. When the team isn't scoring, he tries to get too fine, and trouble ensues.

And then, there's the potential that this is all just a bizarre confluence of unexplainable forces, and Zito is the butt of some cosmic joke.

I'm going with the last one.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Fearless Prediction

Wiping off the crystal ball, with a major caveat: there are no guarantees. Heck, in the middle of a pennant race, your leadoff hitter and star centerfielder can wake up with appendicitis.

But after carefully watching the National League for the last couple of weeks, I'm going to go out on a limb here: Giants fans, start making your postseason plans.

The Giants' just-completed 10-game road trip (they went 7-3) was the sort of test a team has to pass to prove itself playoff-worthy. Taking 3 of 4 in San Diego was, of course, huge. But the real smackdown was the Sunday win, in which the Giants dismantled major league ERA leader Mat Latos while Tim Lincecum had the Padres bitching about ball/strike calls. And don't forget: the Giants won this game just hours after learning that sparkplug Andres Torres may be done for the regular season after an appendectomy. That's character, people. You can have your Yorvit Torrealba chest-bumps.

The Padres' long run atop the West now looks like a mirage. This is simply not that good a team; both the Giants and the Rockies will pass San Diego before it's over. Among other things, it's clear that there really is very little gas left in Miguel Tejada's tank, and the Padres outfield is, well, average at best.

So if San Diego's out, who's in? The Giants play 12 of their last 18 at home. They'll either win the West or finish so close behind Colorado that they'll be the wild card team. "But wait," you're saying. "The Giants are a game behind the wild card standings right now, so if they don't win the West, they're screwed."

Yes, but. They trail Atlanta by a game for the wild card slot (and Atlanta trails the Phillies by a game in the NL East). So it's really a 5-team race for 3 slots: Padres, Giants, Rockies, Phillies, Braves. And since I've already dismissed San Diego (and anointed Colorado), let me deal with the Atlanta/Philly situation.

Each team has 18 games left; 9 home and 9 away. They play exactly the same teams: 6 games against Washington, 3 against the Mets, 3 against Florida...and 6 against each other. Much is being made of the fact that the Phils' last 6 are on the road and the Braves last 6 at home (including the potentially-epic season-ending series against the Phils). But right now, I think the schedule favors the Phils, who have a 9-game homestand coming up while the Braves face a 9-game roadtrip.

Plus, Atlanta's rotation has been struggling lately (Tim Hudson has lost his last 3 starts and Tommy Hanson has one win since the All-Star break), while the Phils have the Roys (Halladay and Oswalt).

I say the Phils win the East by 3 games, and the Braves send Bobby Cox into retirement without a playoff spot.

What I'm not ready to predict is whether the Giants or the Rockies will win the West. My crystal ball isn't that good.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Blue Carpet Conundrum

For years, the most-talked-about aspect of Boise State's football program was the blue artificial turf at Bronco Stadium (as Boise State proudly noted on its athletics website, "Bronco Stadium is the only football field in the world with a blue field." Gee, wonder why?).

But in recent seasons, the Broncos have been edging ever-closer to forcing their way into the BCS Championship game. Their 2010 season-opening win over Virginia Tech means this could be the year. Boise State was #5 in the USA Today coaches' poll going in; Va. Tech was #6.

It's not hard to see Boise running the table and winding up undefeated. They've dominated their mid-major Western Athletic Conference for quite some time. There's still a potential roadblock on September 25th (Oregon State, which might be a Pac-10 force this year). But you don't have to stretch too far to see an undefeated Boise State at season's end.

And then the fun begins. If Boise's the only undefeated team, its inconceivable that they'd be denied a slot in the BCS Championship game. But if one or more other big-time schools end up with no losses, look out, because the Lords of Football (in association with their pals, the Lords of TV) will start the machinations to keep Boise out of the Big Bowl.

The Big Boys love hanging out with the other Big Boys. The Oklahomas and Texases and Alabamas and Floridas hate it when the unwashed like Boise State crash their lucrative party. TV hates it, too, because despite the obvious David vs. Goliath storyline of a Boise appearance in a BCS bowl game, these "small" schools don't deliver the TV ratings.

For Boise State, the season now stretches out like a high wire with no net. Any stumble--even a close win against a San Jose State or a Fresno State--ends the dream. If you like seeing the rich get richer and the fat get fatter, root against Boise State. As the major conferences re-align, there will be fewer and fewer Cinderella stories (read this piece by fellow Alamedan Ray Ratto for a dystopian view of the college football future).

But it you're a real sports fan--if you like a world where the outcome isn't linked to pedigree--you need to hope for a perfect Boise State season ending in a slot in the BCS Championship game.

Just try not to watch too many of their home games. That blue turf is hard on the eyes.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

This Game Can Eat You Up

Pennant races in baseball bring a delicious level of tension. Every pitch has meaning, and the true fan juggles the home team's action with what's going in on in several other cities.

That's what made last night's 2-1 Colorado win over the Giants so painful to San Francisco fans. The Giants eked out a run off Colorado's funky left-hander Jorge De La Rosa in the 4th inning, and Giants starter Jonathan Sanchez pitched his best game of the season, holding the Rockies scoreless through 8.

Meanwhile, the three teams that matter to the Giants in the race for the playoffs--San Diego, St. Louis and Philadelphia--were losing. A perfectly taut and thrilling evening in the heat of the pennant race.

And then they played the 9th inning.

Sanchez got two quick strikes on Colorado's Dexter Fowler and then lost it. Four straights balls. Fowler at first, Sanchez headed for the dugout, Brian Wilson headed to the mound, and a sense of foreboding settling over AT&T Park.

Nobody could have guessed what would happen next. Colorado's Carlos Gonzalez, the league's leading hitter, shatters his bat on a ball hit into right-center. Giants rightfielder Cody Ross does what instinct tells him to do on a broken-bat play: he breaks in. But the ball is actually crushed and gets past him. A triple. Tie ballgame.

But wait. Ross hustles the ball down and gets it to second baseman Freddy Sanchez, who thinks he has a shot at nailing Gonzalez at third. His throw (he would later admit he never got a good grip on the ball) hits Gonzalez, eludes everyone, and ends up in the third-base camera well. Out of play. Gonzalez, on his belly, pounds his fist in joy as the umpires direct him to trot home with the go-ahead run.

The Giants hit three balls hard in the bottom of the 9th--but all are right at Rockies fielders. It's over. A ghastly, painful one-run loss in the heat of a pennant race.

God, I love baseball.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Lefty Is Right

We've all had a pretty good laugh at Jim Furyk's expense. He's the pro golfer who missed his tee time at the Barclays pro-am after the battery on his cell phone died (he'd used the phone as an alarm clock).

But the episode exposes a serious flaw in the way the PGA Tour does business. When Furyk failed to show for the 7:30AM shotgun start, he was DQ'd from the Barclays tournament itself. That's a serious matter, because the Barclays is part of a big season-ending series of tournaments that lead to the FedEx Cup and its $10 million bonus. Furyk was in 3rd place before his goof; now, he could fall as low as 19th.

Suddenly at issue is a PGA Tour rule aimed at preventing the pros from blowing off the Wednesday pro-am events. These hit-and-giggle "tournaments" are a big part of the Tour's marketing-and-money machine. Amateurs pay as much as $5000 to join a four or fivesome: one pro and three or four "ams", playing a best-ball round (with full use of the amateurs' score handicaps).

You can imagine how much a guy like Tiger Woods looks forward to staggering around the course with a crew of hackers. There are many stories of churlish behavior on the part of the pros: barking at amateurs to hurry up or play better. Worse, some pros have been known to give the eager amateurs the silent treatment--18 holes' worth.

A few years ago, the Tour imposed a rule requiring that pros who skip a pro-am be disqualified from the weekend tournament. The idea was to keep the PGA's money-and-marketing machine rolling: a fully-subscribed pro-am can generate well over $1 million in proceeds for charity, helping burnish pro golf's image.

Furyk's disqualification may be a punchline for comedians, but his fellow pros aren't laughing. Phil Mickelson, for one, is outraged. Lefty thinks the rule is, well, stupid: "I cannot disagree with it more. I have no idea how the commissioner let this rule go through. It's ridiculous."

Part of Mickelson's dismay is the inherent unfairness of a rule that only applies to the pros who have slots in the pro-am. In the case of the Barclays, that was 72 pros out of a tournament field of 125. It's refreshing to see a star like Mickelson stand up and speak out; he could easily have laughed Furyk's mistake off since it didn't impact him.

My colleague John Madden has no sympathy for Furyk; his view is that a pro who makes a commitment to play in the pro-am should be held to it. I agree with John--but only to a point. Punishments are only valid when they're proportionate and relevant. It's hard to see how depriving Furyk of the chance to play in the Barclays (and also deprive paying customers and TV viewers of the chance to watch him play) serves anyone well.

The PGA Tour needs to re-think its pro-am rules. Find a way to incentivize the pros to show without creating the sort of nightmare scenario Jim Furyk is enduring because he overslept.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Hope Springs Eternal

So after two weeks of the NFL's exhibition (sorry, preseason) schedule, the Bay Area teams are a combined 4-0. The 49ers have beaten the Colts and the Vikings; the Raiders have dispatched Dallas and Chicago. So what?

It's hard to know. These games don't count, and it's dangerous to draw any conclusions from what you see. But: it's better to be undefeated than the other way around.

The 49ers' opening-series drive against Minnesota was impressive and clearly gave quarterback Alex Smith a shot of confidence. The Raiders defense went all sack-happy on Bears' QB Jay Cutler, led by Tommy Kelly and Kamerion Wimbley.

I happened to be in a favorite watering hole during that Raiders game and watched as Raider Nation watched. Remember, these are fans who haven't had much to cheer about in recent years. It started with Kelly's sack of Cutler on Chicago's second snap of the game, and as the Silver and Black built a lead, I kept hearing variations on the Butch Cassidy theme: "who are those guys?"

The Raiders seem to find ways to beat themselves in recent years, and huge questions remain about the offense. But it's not too big a stretch to see this as a team that can win a few 13-10 games and surprise a few people.

The blitz by the Niners' Patrick Willis that knocked Brett Favre out of the game is another of those meaningful moments in a meaningless game. The fact that San Francisco was blitzing Favre says coach Mike Singletary means it when he talks about toughness. The 49ers were an 8-8 team last year and it's not too far-fetched to see them as a playoff team this year.

Again, it's early. These games don't count. But there's a spring in the step of Bay Area football fans this week, and that beats the alternative.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Pat the Bat Is Back

If the Giants reach the promised land known as the playoffs this year, some of the credit will go to a big guy with a nickname that sounds like it might have come from a children's book: Pat the Bat.

That would be outfielder Pat Burrell, who's been reborn in his native Bay Area after his career cratered in the dismal confines of Tampa's Tropicana Field. Burrell signed with the Rays after spending 9 years in Phillies pinstripes. He was a steady source of Philadelphia power: over 9 seasons in Philly, Burrell averaged 28 homers and 87 RBI a year.

After the Phillies' World Series title in '08, Burrell was cast adrift. He headed south to Tampa Bay, and his career went south, too. His 14 home runs last year marked the lowest total of his career. And when he started this year with more wimpy numbers, he was gone. The Rays cut him in late May and the Giants grabbed him.

Since then, Burrell has been huge for the Giants. He's hitting right around .300, has homered once every 15 at bats, and has a whole slew of big RBI's. He's a capable outfielder and by all accounts, a good clubhouse guy. His old college buddy Aubrey Huff nearly decapitated Burrell with a smack to the helmet after Burrell's grand slam against the Cubs. That's how ballplayers show their love.

Who knows what went wrong in Tampa? It might have been the designated-hitter role. Burrell practically never played defense during his Tampa Bay stay. Sure, his nickname is Pat the Bat, but maybe Pat likes to use his glove, too.

At any rate, Burrell's emerged as an enormous piece of the puzzle as the Giants face a fascinating
final seven weeks of the season. To paraphrase Dr. Seuss, Pat the Bat is back.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Study In Confusion

Tim Lincecum is in trouble.

Sure, most big-league pitchers would be thrilled to be 11-6 with a 3.41 ERA and 163 strikeouts in 155 innings pitched. But none of them are The Freak, the frighteningly-gifted two-time Cy Young Award winner.

When I say Lincecum is in trouble, I don't mean to say he's finished. He may well be able to figure this out. But for now, his aura of invincibility has gone "poof" and vanished, and he knows it.

His most recent start (6 earned runs, 4 innings pitched in an AT&T Park loss to the Cubs) marked the third time in his last ten starts that Lincecum has failed to even pitch 5 innings. He's been fiddling with his delivery, even going to a windup he hadn't used since college. You can see the frustration etched on his face and hear it in his voice.

I've written this before and anyone familiar with baseball knows it: baseball is a game of adjustments. But usually, players have to adjust to external factors. A hitter learns to lay off inside fastballs. A pitcher learns to avoid a power-hitter's happy zone. A base-stealer studies that left-hander's tricky pickoff move.

In Lincecum's case, the required adjustments are internal. He's like a golfer trying to get his swing back. He's lost his groove, and as golfers know, it can be hell trying to find it again. Ask Tiger Woods, another guy who isn't having much fun right now (of course, he has other things on his mind, too).

What Giants fans can hope is that Lincecum is able to scuffle through this and find that groove again. At his best, he's dominant. Right now, he is well short of that. His epic success early in his career will mean nothing if he can't make the adjustments.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Upon Further Review

Florida Marlins manager Edwin Rodriguez called it "the worst call I've ever seen in my 30 years of professional baseball." If that's true, Rodriguez may have led a pretty sheltered existence.

I'm talking about the call third-base umpire Bob Davidson made in the 9th inning of a Phillies-Marlins game. The ground ball off Gaby Sanchez's bat appeared to be fair, and the base hit would have given the Marlins a 5-4 win.

But Davidson called the ball "foul" and stood his ground against a furious argument.

Before you jump on the bandwagon calling for video replay, take a look at the play. And remember the rule: on a ground ball, the ball must cross the bag in fair territory to be considered fair. Watch this play a few times, and note where the ball hits just before crossing third base. It looks like it's in foul territory. The fact that the ball hits in fair territory behind the bag is irrelevant (though it's clearly what enraged the Marlins).

Davidson is a veteran umpire who was in perfect position to make the call. It's possible he got it wrong. It's also possible that the view we get from the television cameras is misleading (or inconclusive) and that Davidson got it right. Anyone who's watched the replays and is sure it was a blown call may be guilty of a little extrapolation.

Until baseball adopts something like the Hawk-Eye system used to arbitrate line calls in tennis (and cricket), these calls will be tricky. Video replay won't always settle the arguments; it's a comforting thought to those on the wrong end of a close call but it's no panacea.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Dodgers Is Dead

It's one of baseball's most memorable lines, uttered in 1951 by Dodgers manager Charlie Dressen: "The Giants is dead." Dressen's ungrammatical epitaph was delivered in early August, after his Brooklyn Dodgers had swept the New York Giants to widen their National League lead to 12 1/2 games.

Of course, by October, it was Dressen and the Dodgers who were dying a thousand deaths, as Bobby Thomson's "shot heard 'round the world" ended a playoff series. Back then, there were no divisions and no wild card slot.

Fast forward to now. The shoe is on the other foot (and the teams are on the other coast). The Giants have just swept the Dodgers and though you won't hear anyone in orange and black say it, let me write it: The Dodgers is dead.

I'm not alone in seeing a lifeless bunch of underachievers wearing Dodger blue. Read T. J. Simers in the Los Angeles Times. Or check out the hilarious (and often vulgar) rants of a hardcore and long-suffering Dodgers fan at DodgerBlues.com.

The just-concluded sweep of L.A. left the Giants 6 1/2 games ahead of the Dodgers, who wallow in 4th place in the NL West. It's not just that they're losing. The Dodgers look lost. Outfielder Matt Kemp getting picked off right after plate umpire Joe West used Casey Blake's bat to remind Blake of the dimensions of the batter's box was a perfect capsule of the series. Kemp is a magnificently-talented specimen who seems to find a way to lose.

The Giants may or may not win the division or make the playoffs (I still think they're a better-than-even shot to do it). But put a fork in the Dodgers. They're done.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Good Luck, Joe

Joe Lacob understands how to succeed against long odds. That's what venture capitalists do: they put money on the table (and sometimes double down), hoping for a big payoff. They're also known to fold 'em when they have a weak hand.

But the gambling analogy isn't perfect, because VC's don't just sit back and let their wagers ride. They get very involved in the companies they fund (Lacob sits on a number of corporate boards), actively working to arrange mergers or recruit executives.

Studying the VC way of doing business may help understand what kind of an owner Joe Lacob will be, now that he's pulled off a bit of coup by purchasing the Golden State Warriors for $450 million (it's not all Lacob's money; Hollywood mogul Peter Guber is in on the deal). Everyone was reporting that Oracle CEO Larry Ellison was going to win the Warriors (and by his own admission, Ellison outbid Lacob), but a Sand Hill Road moneyman is now in charge.

One thing sacred to a venture capitalist is a business plan. Lacob has already said he has plans for the Warriors, and you can bet there's some PowerPoint in there somewhere. But let's hope he's ready for some surprises. Businesspeople (and those who invest in businesses) may think they know how to react and adapt, but what do you do when a significant asset like your first-round draft choice ruins his wrist and will miss most of his first season?

By all accounts, Lacob is a serious sports nut and a guy with deep Bay Area roots. He may not have Ellison's star power (though I believe those who thought Ellison would have been a Mark Cuban-like figure would have been sorely disappointed), but I'd be shocked if he treated his ownership role the way Chris Cohan did. Expect Lacob to be firmly in charge. Venture capitalists don't do hands-off very well.

Whether that will be enough to clear the bizarre curse that seems to have settled over the Warriors franchise is something we'll learn as time passes.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Blown Call at the All-Star Game

Tim Lincecum goes to the All-Star Game and doesn't play.

Are you kidding me?

There's no good explanation for Charlie Manuel's decision not to use Lincecum in the Midsummer Classic. The Freak is the two-time defending NL Cy Young Award winner and the kind of player fans love to watch. Younger fans, in particular, gravitate toward the guy with the flowing locks and the skate-punk mystique. Plus, the dude can pitch a little.

Yet somehow, nine pitchers not named Tim Lincecum managed to get in some work. What was Manuel thinking?

Many people fault baseball commissioner Bud Selig for the "this time it counts" baloney, making the All-Star Game into a contest to decide home field advantage for the World Series. That's still a dumb idea, but the truly damaging aspect of it may now be coming to the surface. If baseball people like NL manager Manuel perceive the game as anything more than an exhibition game to showcase the sport's most popular stars, the fans lose.

Unfortunately, Giants fans will have to wait until next year to boo Charlie Manuel (the Phillies played their lone series in San Francisco two months ago). It's OK. I can wait, just like Lincecum did last night.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Rooting For Laundry

Once upon a time in a land far, far away, your sports heroes stayed put. Kids could roam the neighborhood wearing the hometown star's jersey for years with no fear of obsolescence.

Poof! Your dream is over. That little slice of Never-Never Land is long gone.

We sports fans invest our emotions (and money) in multimillion dollar franchises, which in turn hire multimillionaire athletes. The athletes are interchangeable. With rare exceptions (mostly New York Yankees like Jeter, Rivera and Posada), these people move on every few years in search of greener pastures.

We fans want our teams to win so we can whoop and holler and go to the victory parade. We like to think the players share our desire for success. And they do--to a point. What they're really in it for is the money. Sometimes one leads to the other, but there is no absolute correlation. At the end of the day, the athlete is, understandably, motivated by economics.

The LeBron James spectacle forces us all to confront this dichotomy. Did he spend the last two years hyping his impending free agency so he could increase the odds of winning an NBA Championship? Or did he do it to increase the value of Team LeBron?

You make the call. And you decide whether to keep wearing that Cavaliers jersey with his name on the back.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The New New Kid

Madison Bumgarner got a beer shower in the Giants clubhouse last night, and if he licked his lips to taste the suds, he broke the law.

Bumgarner can't legally order a brew for a few more weeks, but his teammates doused him in celebration of his first major-league win. He threw 8 shutout innings in Milwaukee to precipitate the locker-room precipitation.

Three years ago, Bumgarner was mowing 'em down for South Caldwell High School in Madison, NC. Last September, the Giants gave him a taste of big-league life. Last month, they called him up and tossed him into a nationally-televised start against the big, bad Boston Red Sox.

After 5 starts in the majors, Bumgarner is sporting a 2.53 ERA, that one win, and a very bright future. He doesn't throw wicked-hard, but he's a big, sturdy kid with a ton of stuff and a commanding presence. If you close your eyes when he talks, you hear a little bit of Roger Craig, the former Giants manager. The Humm Baby was also from the Tarheel State and also a pretty fair pitcher.

Bumgarner's arsenal includes a nice little bit of below-the-radar reality. While he was a first-round draft choice (#10, in 2007), he wasn't Number One (see Strasburg, Stephen under the heading of "Pitchers Under a Microscope"). Heck, he's not even the most-scrutinized starter on a staff that includes Tim "The Freak" Lincecum and Barry "Big-Contract" Zito. Staying out of the headlines can be a nice way to build a big-league resume'.

Bumgarner's way-beyond-his-years presence on the mound gives the Giants a very solid starting rotation, three of whom are lefthanders and four of whom are 27 or under. Given the economics of baseball, a young starting pitcher is truly money in the bank (money that can be spent on offensive players). Even if he doesn't spark the Giants into a playoff run this year, he gives their fans hope for next year and beyond.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

An Unforgiving Game

Baseball is a harsh teacher. The game has a way of picking at a player's flaws and weaknesses until they're rubbed raw. Those who can adjust prosper. Those who can't often end up talking about the career that never quite took off.

Those who never played the game probably don't know how difficult this process really is. They see a guy like Pablo Sandoval or Tim Lincecum achieve early success and assume it'll always look easy.

But both of the young Giants stars are struggling right now. Lincecum is throwing too many pitches and while he's still good, he's not the kind of crazy-good that won him two straight Cy Young awards.

Sandoval is in the deepest down-phase of his young career. His batting average is down more than 50 points from last year. And he's hitting into double-plays at an alarming rate: in the first 787 plate appearances of his career, he grounded into 16 DP's. This year, in 314 plate appearances, he's hit into 17 (leading the free world in that category).

And then there are those two horrible base running gaffes in consecutive games against the Dodgers, the last of which had some fans booing The Panda as he left the field.

It's clear that Sandoval, still just 23 years old, is pressing. Hard. It's tempting to let him keep playing. But it's clearly time for the Giants to give him a break. It's not punishment; it would be an act of mercy to pull him out of the fray for a couple of days.

Let's hope Sandoval and Lincecum will adjust and bounce back. Both are serious about their craft, but baseball is a hard taskmaster and offers no place to hide.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Greatest Match Ever

Nicolas Mahut was the loser, but no one who has a casual interest in sports will ever forget him.

The unseeded Frenchman said it in the aftermath of the longest tennis match in history: "We played the greatest match ever."

More than 11 hours, stretched over 3 days, before John Isner finally hit the winner that broke Mahut's serve and gave Isner a 70-68 win in the 5th set of their match at Wimbledon.

Isner couldn't have been more gracious in victory. But it's Mahut who gives us all something to cheer. Why? Because he had to hold serve 65 times as the epic dragged on. His back was against the wall for hours on end, and yet he dug down to a place most of us can't even imagine and found will, resolve, and calm.

You had to feel for Mahut as the Wimbledon people and the media made an event of the match. He was forced to pose for photos and accept gifts in honor of the match, all while he was surely replaying those unforced errors that kept him from playing on.

Yet the same well of strength that got him through all those hours on Court 18 provided him with the grace to get through the aftermath. As he French often say in honor of a valiant effort, "chapeau, monsieur."

Monday, June 14, 2010

Horn Fight

Everybody's in a lather about those vuvuzelas. Maybe you'd never heard the word before, but if you've watched any World Cup soccer the last few days, you've certainly heard that darned things.

A vuvuzela is a plastic horn. You can buy one for less than 8 bucks. By itself, it makes a sort of sad, bleating sound. But put a whole stadium full of vuvuzelas together and you have quite the cacophony. Some World Cup TV viewers are muting the broadcast. My esteemed colleague Steve Bitker is in high dudgeon, demanding that FIFA ban the noisemakers.

Full disclosure: I once blew into a vuvuzela. Only back in the 60's when we would get these things at Kezar Stadium or Berkeley's Memorial Stadium, we just called them "horns". And though time has dimmed the memory somewhat, I'll bet we blew those horns just as indiscriminately as the South African soccer fans.

I'll admit, the sound is weird. I was watching US-England when my wife poked her head in, saying "What are you watching? I was afraid you'd found some endless documentary about life inside a beehive."

Self-appointed purists don't like the vuvuzelas because (pick your gripe) they overwhelm all other sound in the stadium, make it hard to think, drown out the often-profane chants and songs from the fans, and seem to have no relationship to the action on the field.

To which I say: so what? This is how African fans enjoy their soccer. Who are the rest of us to tell them how to have fun? Plus, soccer fans being soccer fans, there's probably some social value in having people busy blowing horns instead of beating each other up.

Steve and others compare the vuvuzelas with the notorious ThunderStix that were inflicted on the 2002 World Series by Major League Baseball. They miss the point on two counts: first, MLB handed out ThunderStix to fans at Anaheim Stadium and AT&T Park. The vuvuzelas are the fans' own noisemaker of choice. Plus, there really is a musical quality to the vuvuzelas. If you let yourself drift, you'll start to hear an ebb and flow to the drone. It's actually sort of relaxing.

Having said that, I wonder if ESPN ought to think about doing a little audio-sweetening of its telecasts. Surely a way could be found to tweak the crowd microphones so that the frequency range of the vuvuzelas could be pulled down in the mix.
Short of that, my advice is this: get used to it. What may sound like noise to you is music to the fans in South Africa, and it's their World Cup.