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)