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.

Friday, June 11, 2010

What A Start

I helped make history a few minutes ago.

The first World Cup goal ever scored on the African continent came as we were doing our daily segment with John Madden. The man who is American football helped us call the historic goal in the game the world calls football.

Now, we didn't push our luck and ask Big John to actually say the name of the guy who scored the marker. Siphiwe Tshabalala is not as well-known as Peyton Manning or Brett Favre here in the States, but what a poetic name!

But just seconds before the goal, Madden had pointed out the failure of either team to connect on long passes. And then, as Madden would say, Boom!. The Bafana Bafana had scored on a stirring strike by Tshabalala off a long feed.

Johannesburg is now celebrating the final result of the match-- a 1-1 draw with El Tri.

And I'm pretty thrilled that we got to play our little part.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Now It's 11

Breaking news: Colorado just said "yes" to the Pac-10. But don't get any Pac-11 stationery printed yet.

There's an epic game of musical chairs underway in college sports right now. Hell, by the time you read this, the Pac-10 might be as big as 16 teams. The common thinking had been that Colorado, Texas, Texas Tech, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State would split from a crumbling Big 12 and join the Pac-10.

But some think the SEC might get involved and perhaps pluck Texas A&M. That would leave the Pac-10 with 15, so then maybe Baylor gets an invitation. And so on and so on.

More tomorrow. Until then, consider the possibility of a Pac-10 with USC on probation and bazillionaire boosters Phil Knight (Oregon) and T. Boone Pickens (Oklahoma State) squaring off.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Pac-16? Let's Hope Not

Change is afoot in college sports. It probably won't surprise you to know that it's all about the big getting bigger and the rich getting richer.

There's plenty of chatter up and down the West Coast about the decision by the Pac-1o to explore expansion possibilities. Theories abound, ranging from the addition of a couple of schools to a mega-conference with 16 schools. In the latter scenario, the Pac-10 could invite Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State.

We've had a great little thing going here in the Far West. 5 pairs of natural rivals (the Arizonas, the SoCals, the Bay Areas, the Oregons, and the Washingtons). Reasonable travel costs. A perfect size, allowing for every school to face every other once a year in football and twice in basketball. Too good to last.

Much of what happens next will be driven by a nationwide game of musical chairs. The Big Ten is eager to grow its footprint. If it turns its expansion plans toward the Big 12 and that conference begins to fracture, some experts think a few Big 12 schools could be in play (thus, the 6 "refugees" in the "Pac-16" scenario above).

Make no mistake: this is all about money. The Pac-10 covets the kind of TV exposure and revenue already enjoyed by the Big Ten and the SEC. Reports indicate those conferences hand out 2 or 3 times as much to their members each year as Pac-10 schools receive.

But the Pac-10 already holds some pretty high media ground. Its current membership includes schools representing 4 of the top 15 TV markets (and 5 of the top 20 if you count Sacramento, which has historic interest in the four California Pac-10 schools). Adding new schools has to pencil out: you need enough potential media revenue to offset the added travel costs. Of those Big 12 "refugees", only Texas or maybe Texas A&M bring much to the party: both the Dallas and Houston TV markets are in the top 10. Colorado? The Oklahoma schools? Not so much.

In a perfect world, I'd be happy to see the Pac-10 stay the Pac-10. I like the conference just the way it is. But if growth is inevitable, let's hope the conference resists the urge to go long. 16 teams means two divisions, with the Arizona schools undoubtedly moving to join the new entries. That scrambles the schedule, ending the tidy annual rotation (and depriving Cal and Stanford fans of an excuse for autumn trips to Tempe and Tucson).

A Pac-12 (adding Texas and Texas A&M) is a manageable alternative with attractive media possibilities. If expansion has to happen, let's hope the conference sees the merits of taking a small bite rather than a big gulp.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Replay: Still A Bad Idea

Three words for the Lords of Baseball: don't do it.

I know the drumbeat is building for an expanded use of replay to review umpires' decisions. The emotional response to the bad call that cost Armando Galarraga a perfect game in Detroit is to demand redress. Even the umpire, Jim Joyce, admitted it was a bad call and apologized to Galarraga.

To which I say, "so what?" Bad calls are as much a part of baseball as bad bounces and fly balls that vanish in the sun. We can all agree that Joyce got it wrong. But then what? I understand some truly misguided souls are calling for Commissioner Bud Selig to step in and overrule Joyce, handing Galarraga the mother of all asterisks. Their logic: it was the last out of the game, so an ex post facto ruling wouldn't alter the flow of the game.

Let's hope Selig isn't dumb enough to buy into that line of thinking. But let's also hope he doesn't bend on replay, either. It's bad enough that baseball already allows games to come to a standstill while umpires disappear from the field to gaze at replays of home run calls (the majority of which, it turns out, they got right in the first place). What next? Every play at first base? Every stolen base attempt? Every ball-strike call?

Here's the point: each and every call in a game matters. For starters, the average game features close to 300 pitches. Each ball-strike call could alter the remainder of the game (the difference between a 3-0 count and a 2-1 count changes many things). Do replay advocates really want every one of those calls subject to review?

Over the long haul, there will be a few bad calls and a lot of good calls. Over the long haul, things do balance out. Baseball is a game of repetition: pitch after pitch, inning after inning, game after game. What it doesn't need is to have that rhythm interrupted for huddles around the TV monitor.

Do I feel bad for Armando Galarraga? Of course, who wouldn't? But is it worth sacrificing the beauty and pace of the game so we can put another guy's name in a record book somewhere? I say no.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Cream Cheese vs. Butter

In the midst of the Giants' stirring comeback win over Arizona on Sunday (the game won on Andres Torres' extra-inning single), I found myself in a heated debate with another fan.

It all started when I jeered the Diamondbacks' Mark Reynolds after his third strikeout of the afternoon. Reynolds, AKA "The Big Fan", is on a pace to break his major league single-season strikeout record. He's already fanned 72 times, which pencils out to 224 for a full season (he whiffed 223 times last year and 204 the year before). But Reynolds also hits a lot of homers and drives in runs.

My debate partner immediately challenged me, saying, "I guess you don't like Adam Dunn either." Now, Dunn and Reynolds are not the same player: Dunn's a big, slow first baseman with below-average defensive skills who strikes out a fair amount (not as much as Reynolds), but also draws a lot of walks...and hits a lot of homers and drives in runs. Reynolds is a better-than-average third baseman (a more difficult position than first base) who's not terribly selective at the plate.

In our give-and-take, it became clear that my new friend thought the Giants had blown it when they didn't sign Dunn as a free agent (he's making $12 million this year playing for the Nationals). I pointed out the Giants are paying half that much to second baseman Freddy Sanchez, whose defensive and offensive skills have sparked the team since his extended stay on the disabled list.

I'll leave out all the back-and-forth, but fundamentally, the discussion distills to this: do you spend your money on big bashers, or on practitioners of small-ball? It's an endless debate that may come down to personal taste: I like butter on my bagel, you prefer cream cheese. Who's right?

I will say this in defense of the Giants' strategy: AT&T Park is not the place for a team of sluggers. Only once in the last 8 seasons (and this goes back to the Barry Bonds years) has the place ranked in the top half of big league ballparks in home runs per game. New Giant Aubrey Huff has seen first-hand how the vast expanse of right-center field is where big flies go to die.

There are a zillion ways to build a winning ballclub. At its root, it's simple: score more runs than the other team. You can do that by hitting homers, by turning double plays, by keeping opposing hitters off base, by executing perfect hit-and-run plays, and on and on.

But you'd be wise to pay attention to the place where you play half your games, and build a team that can leverage that ballpark's characteristics. For the Giants, that means a premium on pitching and defense. I'll take butter on my bagel.