Thursday, December 29, 2011

A Bleak Future

Let me say it right off the top: it's not Billy Beane's fault. It's not Lew Wolff's, either. But I don't blame Oakland A's fans for wanting to blame somebody for the latest dismantling of the ballclub.

And make no mistake about it, the A's are being broken up. It's not like they were a juggernaut; the A's finished 14 games under .500 in 2011 and have about as good a chance of catching up to the Angels and Rangers as I do of cracking a big-league roster myself. Now? Minus Gio Gonzales, Trevor Cahill, Andrew Bailey, Josh Willingham, Ryan Sweeney, David DeJesus, Coco Crisp et al? Fat chance.

Of course all this is being played out against the backdrop of the team's stalled efforts to move to San Jose. It's no longer just idle talk; Beane is out-and-out saying that the cheapening of the A's is a way of hunkering down until the team can move to a brighter financial future in a new stadium.

Some think Wolff and Beane are blowing up the ballclub in hopes that it'll pressure The Lords of Baseball into approving the San Jose plan. Maybe so, but that gambit has a low probability of success. Remember, the roadblock here wears orange-and-black. Until and unless the Giants are compensated to their satisfaction for an A's intrusion into Giants territory, this deal is dead. And do you think MLB would step in and anger one of its marquee franchises (the Giants) in favor of one of its weak sisters (the A's)? Not likely.

So back to my opening line. If not Beane and Wolff, who do A's fans blame? Well, actually, they should be angry at the entirety of Major League Baseball. The sport continues to operate under an absolutely unfair set of financial rules which allow the wealthiest clubs to run payrolls more than 5 times the size of the poorest clubs. The "luxury tax"? A complete joke. Only two teams are paying it in 2012--the Yankees and Red Sox--and the total of around $18 million doesn't even begin to address the disparity between baseball's haves and have-nots.

Look, money is no guarantee. The Tampa Bay Rays are proof that you can win with a low budget, and the Cubs (and others) have certainly managed to spend plenty with little to show for it. But wouldn't you rather see baseball teams compete on a level financial playing field? OK, Yankees and Red Sox fans, you're excused from the conversation.

While baseball's rich get richer, A's fans get screwed. What the A's really should do is express solidarity with the Occupy movement. In fact, maybe that's the answer. Re-name the team "Occupy Oakland". Refuse to leave the Coliseum until the 1 percenters share the wealth.

Oh, and don't forget to buy a program on Opening Day. It's the only way you'll be able to identify the guys wearing green and gold.




Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Baseball's New Dress Code

This is how bad things have gotten: Major League Baseball has just issued a dress code.

Not for players, or managers, or even front-office folks.

For reporters.

MLB thus becomes the first of the major North American sports leagues to tell the people who cover the games that they, in some cases, need to cover up. The policy forbids flip-flops, short-shorts, tank tops, and visible underwear.

San Francisco Chronicle writer Susan Slusser is a member of the Baseball Writers' Association of America committee that worked with MLB to develop the dress code. She is probably well-understating the issue when she says, "Personally, I believe the baseball media in general could dress slightly more professionally."

Slightly?

You know what they say about stone-throwers in glass houses, so I'll be careful here. But let's just say very few of the people who cover pro sports are going to show up on any Best-Dressed lists. For every on-camera sideline dandy (yes, Craig Sager, I'm talking about you), there's a horde of guys (and gals) in torn jeans, ratty shorts, and T-shirts.

Some of them might get a free pass because they're pulling cables and schlepping cameras. But most are hauling nothing any heavier than a notepad or MP3 recorder.

The "how to dress for the ballpark" story blew into the headlines a year or so ago when a reporter for a Mexican TV channel showed up in the New York Jets training camp dressed for...well, I'm not sure what. Maybe a dance club? There have also been numerous sightings of Miami TV reporters who looked like maybe they mistook Sun Life Stadium for a trendy South Beach nightspot.

Clearly, some of this has been "look at me"-driven. But it's also true that the art of personal presentation has been in decline for many a year. Have you looked around you at a nice restaurant lately?

Social norms have evaporated, but there's also something else at work here. MLB's Pat Courtney points out that many of the people who cover baseball no longer work for "a bigger organization that may have a dress code." In other words, they're freelancers, bloggers and the like. They're their own bosses and they don't have anyone telling them what's OK to wear to the office.

Now MLB is telling them. The rules may improve the look of the media corps, but it's doubtful the ballplayers will be any more impressed with the people with the notepads. After all, they know how to dress.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Two Little Words

Baseball's new collective bargaining agreement guarantees five more years of labor peace. There's been plenty of talk about the new wild-card playoff plan, the league re-alignment (moving Houston to the American League), and the new drug-testing policy which includes blood tests for human growth hormone (HGH).

But largely below the radar screen, two little words have been inserted that speak volumes about how far the world of sports has come on the issue of sexual orientation. Baseball's long protected the rights of players based on their "race, color, religion, or national origin." The new CBA adds "sexual orientation" to the list of protected categories.

Of course, merely saying the sport protects the rights of gay ballplayers (and don't kid yourself, there certainly are gay ballplayers) doesn't mean the anti-gay slurs will dry up and blow away. Just last season, Atlanta Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell dropped a crude anti-gay comment (amplified with a gesture involving a bat) on some fans at San Francisco's AT&T Park.

No, the homophobic sports culture won't change overnight. But the times, they are a-changin'. Most other pro sports leagues already have similar language in their basic agreements (notably, the NBA does not, though one hopes that will be addressed in current labor talks). Many baseball teams hold "LGBT Nights" in recognition of the fact that you don't have to be straight to be a fan. And a number of teams, including the Giants, have produced videos as part of the "It Gets Better" anti-homophobia program.

Eventually, the term "out" will have multiple meanings in big-league baseball. That might still take some time. But for now, it's a step forward to see the sport--owners and players--agree that gay ballplayers deserve full protection. I know plenty of gay and lesbian fans; they root just as hard and wear their teams' colors just as proudly as anyone else. Now they can feel that the sport speaks for them, too.

Nobody wins when somebody is left out or marginalized.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Lord Acton Is Right (Again)

In 1887, Britain's Lord Acton wrote a letter containing the following passage:

"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."

The first part of that passage has been used myriad times since it was written to caution against the excesses of power. The second half is seldom quoted, but I include it here to inform the discussion about Joe Paterno and the horrifying revelations at Penn State.

It's possible Lord Acton thought "greatness" guaranteed "badness". It's also possible he meant that unchecked power, unbridled ego, would inevitably lead to trouble.

And so we have Joe Paterno. For many a year, Paterno ran what he liked to call a "Grand Experiment", believing that it was possible to succeed in college athletics while also upholding academic integrity. And it seemed to be working. Penn State won often, and its football players achieved their degrees and avoided controversy.

But now we know what we know (and surely, there is much more that will be known before this is over). And we are left feeling angry, duped, outraged, saddened. How could Joe Paterno be both good and bad?

The answer, as Lord Acton wrote so long ago, may lie in the intoxicating and corrosive influence of power. Read this piece by Southern California psychologist Ronald Riggio. It was written two years ago but you can almost see the Penn State story in it if you look closely enough. One phrase stands out: "Leaders can delude themselves that they are working for the greater good (using socialized power), but engage in behavior that is morally wrong."

In other words, Paterno could well have believed he was preserving something "greater" (his "Grand Experiment") by ignoring the rape of children. Sounds strange, even horrifying, but human nature isn't always logical or even explainable.

So where does that leave us? How do we not go here again?

Perhaps Lord Acton had it right. If so, the answer would be to avoid granting absolute power anywhere, and college athletic departments might be a good place to start.


Monday, October 31, 2011

La Russa's Legacy

The whole notion of "going out on top" sounds good, but it doesn't happen often enough. Too many athletes, coaches, and managers stick around hoping for one more trip to the top of the hill--one that seldom comes.

That's why it's nice to see Tony La Russa say goodbye to the dugout, just days after claiming his third World Series title. La Russa has been there, done that. And could any season ever top the one La Russa and his Cardinals just finished? I doubt it.

Just about anyone who follows sports knows about the last three games of the World Series: the Game 5 "phone-gate" story, the epic Game 6, and the make-no-mistake-about-it Game 7 that gave La Russa his final ring. But there was a lot more to Tony La Russa's last lap.

Don't forget La Russa's struggle with a case of shingles so severe it kept him away from the ballpark for a few days and in pain for many weeks. Don't forget the key Cardinal injuries: starting pitcher Adam Wainwright missed the whole season, outfielder Matt Holliday missed a big chunk and The Great Pujols missed a couple of weeks. There was the whole "is this Albert's last year in St. Louis?" free-agency deathwatch. And then there was that month of September.

While the baseball world focused (and maybe over-focused) on the Red Sox meltdown, the Cardinals faced an even bigger deficit, clawing past Atlanta the last night of the season to make the playoffs as a wild-card team.

And then the Cards knocked off the heavily-favored Phillies. And then the Cards knocked off the same Brewers team that had outpaced St. Louis in the NL Central during the regular season. And only then did La Russa get his final shot at the brass ring.

You can read all the stats about La Russa's career and still not fully appreciate this man. I'll cop to my own mistaken read on La Russa. Back in the 1980's, I'd occasionally be sent to cover an A's game and find myself having to do the postgame interview thing. Mind you, I wasn't a regular in the clubhouse, just one of those microphone-wielding itinerants who are eyed warily by athletes.

I often found La Russa, well...challenging. Especially, but not exclusively, after a loss, he could be a tough nut. Not just grouchy, because that I could understand. No, it seemed that La Russa felt that every question was a challenge to his intelligence or maybe even his manhood. It seemed to me then like insecurity, and I can remember thinking that this poor guy needed to learn to relax.

What I didn't know, because I never got close enough to La Russa to know, was that this man is a grinder, a guy who will outwork you or die trying. As his friend John Madden told us this morning, "'A' students don't make the best managers and coaches." The implication: La Russa was never a star on the field, so he set out to dominate the game as a manager.

I finally got a sense of the real Tony La Russa many years later in, of all places, a room beneath the stage at Oakland's Paramount Theater. I'd wormed my way into a role in the annual Nutcracker ballet performance in which La Russa recruited jocks and "celebrities" to perform in the beloved holiday classic. For Tony, the annual fundraiser was a matter of passion: his daughter, Devon, was a dancer. Tony and his wife Elaine were serious supporters.

La Russa's passion for ballet seemed to me an expression of love for his wife and daughters (his other girl, Bianca, would later become an Oakland Raiderette), his way of supporting them in the same way a baseball family supports the man of the house through those long seasons.

So I began to see La Russa in a new light. And the conversion was complete as we BS'd backstage during the break between rehearsal and performance. La Russa was relaxed, funny, and very excited about a project he was embarking upon with author Buzz Bissinger (Friday Night Lights): Bissinger would observe a 3-game Cardinals series and use it as a leaping-off point for an exploration of the inside world of the sport, with La Russa as the tour guide.

That's when I gained a full appreciation of Tony La Russa. He was, by then, a man in full. His career path was set, he was engaged in altruistic activities like the ballet and his Animal Rescue Foundation, and now, this book would help establish La Russa's legacy as a Baseball Mind. The book Three Nights in August ended up being a cut above the average ghost-written sports bio.

Madden says La Russa could have been successful coaching any sport because he cared about the arts of coaching and leadership. I think he's right. When you mixed La Russa's passion for baseball, his will to win, his willingness to buck the norm (who else was willing to bat his pitcher in the 8-hole?), and his relentless curiosity with what turns out to be a very wide stripe of good old humanity, you wind up with Tony La Russa.

I'm glad I was wrong about him all those years ago.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Coach Harbaugh, What's Your Deal?

It would be nice if Jim Harbaugh was getting nationwide attention this morning for turning the sad-sack 49ers into perhaps the NFL's most interesting comeback story of the season.

Instead, most of the talk is about Harbaugh's breach of postgame etiquette (relax, I'll address opposing coach Jim Schwartz in a moment) after the Niners' thrilling 25-19 win over the Lions in Detroit.

In case you haven't seen it, here's the video clip. Here's my take: only the grouchiest of grouches could begrudge Harbaugh his immediate joyous romp onto the field (and even his shirt-untucking chest bump with lineman Alex Boone, though the mind boggles trying to imagine Tom Landry or even Hank Stram doing that).

No, where Harbaugh crossed the line was his failure to rein things in as he approached Lions coach Jim Schwartz. It's a simple bit of civility to master: look the opposing coach in the eye, offer a firm handshake, say "Nice game, Coach," and move on. Like any other bit of good manners, you can question the sincerity of the act, but without good manners, where are we?

I've heard the argument that Harbaugh's behavior is important to the persona he's trying to build for his team (and we saw the same act at Stanford). Not good enough for me; there's no sin in treating your opponent with respect, even as you try to mop the field with him. We often ask our athletes to serve as role models for our youth; it's fair to ask coaches to do the same.

Now: Jim Schwartz. No halo for this guy, who should have just seized the high ground and ignored Harbaugh's faux pas. Chasing Harbaugh down the field and turning an act of rudeness into a near-brawl? Classless and inexcusable. Another fine lesson to young people, who we often advise to "just walk away" from trouble.

I am increasingly troubled by athletes (and coaches) who confuse joyful celebration with disrespect for an opponent (see Milwaukee Brewer Nyjer Morgan for a series of examples). Sometimes the line is hard to discern; baseball is full of countless disputes over just how slow a home run trot can be before it becomes disrespectful.

But knowing the right way to behave after a football game is no more difficult than knowing which fork to use at the banquet table. Watch the best-behaved person in the room and follow the lead.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Great Expectations

There's a big difference between hoping your team will win and expecting them to win.

I'm not plowing new ground when I point out a slight, shall we say, arrogance that comes with rooting for the New York Yankees. After all, the pinstripers have won 27 World Series and no other team has even played in more than 18. Plus, as we all know, New York is the center of the Western World (see familiar illustration).

Still, you couldn't help but notice the strange silence at Yankee Stadium as Game 5 of the American League Division Series went to the bottom of the 9th. The Tigers held a 3-2 lead, and the Yankees would be sending the heart of the order up against Tigers close Jose Valverde, who hasn't blown a save in 2011.

Time for the Stadium to turn into a howling cauldron of noise, right? Not so much. Despite TV's best efforts to find clapping, shouting fans in the stands, what we saw (and heard) was a pretty sedate scene. Compare that with what happened time and again at San Francisco's AT&T Park late this year--even when the Giants had been eliminated from playoff contention, even when the team was down by several runs. Noise, and lots of it.

The AT&T Park situation was so striking that broadcasters often commented on it and new Giants CEO Larry Baer made note of it in a postseason letter to season ticket holders. In San Francisco: hope. In New York: well, not hope. More like a sense of entitlement.

And once Valverde had 1-2-3'd the Yanks (frosting the cake by striking out Alex Rodriguez for the final out), did the assembled multitude stand and offer thanks for the Yankees' AL-leading 97-win regular season?

Fuhgeddaboutit. What have you done for me lately?

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Examining the Real Moneyball

Gratuitous use of a Brad Pitt image? Guilty as charged.

While the screen version of the "Moneyball" story is doing solid box office, the reality of how money affects Major League Baseball has become a rather complicated story.

As the dust settles on the improbable finish to the regular season, a look at this year's playoff teams makes it hard to argue that payroll perfectly correlates with success. Still, all things being equal, it's better to have than have not.

Of course, the poster children for free-spending success are back in the playoffs. Baseball's two biggest payrolls belong to the Yankees ($203 million) and the Phillies ($173 million), and the two fat cats posted the highest win totals in their respective leagues.

And but for its epic September meltdown, Boston (#3 in payroll at $161 million) would have joined the high-roller table. Instead, the unwashed Tampa Bay Rays have crashed the party. Their $41 million payroll ranks next-to-last in the Major Leagues (only Kansas City is lower). The Rays spend roughly a dollar for every 5 bucks spent by the Yankees.

Of course, technically, some of the money Tampa Bay spends actually comes from the Yankees, who annually pay into baseball's "luxury tax" fund designed to share the wealth. But it's a pittance, really; nowhere near enough to address the disparity between the top spenders and the poverty-stricken.

Still, this year's group of playoff teams puts the lie to the belief that payroll heft guarantees success in baseball. Here are the playoff teams and their payroll rankings:

American League
  • Yankees $203 million #1
  • Tigers $105 million #10
  • Rangers $92 million #13
  • Rays $41 million #29
National League
  • Phillies $173 million #2
  • Cardinals $105 million #11
  • Brewers $85 million #17
  • D'backs $54 million #25

Plenty of big spenders will be watching the playoffs rather than, you know, playing in them. The Red Sox (#3), Angels (#4), White Sox (#5), Cubs (#6), Mets (#7), Giants #8) , Twins (#9) and Dodgers (#12) are all $100 million teams whose money didn't buy them a playoff slot. In fact, four of those teams had sub-.500 records and the Twins managed to avoid a 100-loss season only by winning their final game.

The assumption around baseball is that the lessons of "Moneyball" have been learned and adopted by virtually every organization: seek undervalued assets and maximize the impact of whatever money you have. Yet if everyone is seeking undervalued assets, the guy with the biggest wallet will eventually prevail.

Still, there's hope for the underclass in all this. While it is true that 5 of this year's 8 playoff teams come from teams in the top 50% of payrolls, it's also true that two of the six lowest-spending teams (Tampa Bay and Arizona) are in. Smart? Lucky? Maybe some of both.

Bottom line: in baseball, as in life itself, it seems that money doesn't guarantee happiness. But it's nice to have.



Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Replay the Replay?

Advocates of video replay in sports consistently argue that the cumbersome, often-ponderous process is worth it because, above all, replays help officials "get things right".

Except when they don't.

Case in point: the Syracuse-Toledo college football game last weekend. Syracuse emerged with an overtime victory, but it turns out a missed call on an extra point late in the game probably gave The Orange a win it shouldn't have had.

Here's the replay the officials should have viewed. Apparently, the replay official focused on a sideline-camera view rather than the opposite-endzone camera view you'll see in the clip. Mid-American Conference officials are acknowledging the mistake and saying they share the frustration of Toledo's players, coaches and fans. You can imagine how good that feels in Toledo.

But what are the options here? Really, none. The PAT in question was kicked with 2:07 left in the 4th quarter. As you'll see in the clip, it was an unusual kick--the kicker pulled the pull hard to the left. Unlike a long field goal attempt, an extra point doesn't give the endzone officials time to track the flight of the ball and gauge its path. It's bam-bam.

Bad call on the field? Well, sure, but not an easy call--and both endzone officials called the kick "good". Blown call by the replay official? Certainly.

So what do you do about it? Nothing. You learn from it and move on. MAC referees will certainly be more careful from now on in asking for camera angles on replays. But the bottom line is this: stuff happens. There are bad bounces and bad calls in sports. Period.

I have trouble with fans who contend that a bad call "cost us the game". Every single call in a game makes a difference; we just tend to focus on the ones we think make a difference. Could the refs have called holding on that thrilling first-quarter TD pass? What about that defensive-holding call right after halftime? It goes on and on.

In the case of Syracuse-Toledo, the missed call gave Syracuse a 3-point lead with 2:07 to go. Toledo wound up tying the game on a field goal as regulation time ran out and then Syracuse prevailed in overtime. Plenty of other places the game might have swung toward Toledo after the call, not to mention what happened before the call.

I'm not a fan of replay in general because I believe it slows the game down and provides only an illusion of fairness, focusing on a few moments in a game and ignoring myriad other decisions. But even those who think video replay is a good thing will have to concede that at some point, even the replay can be "wrong". And then what?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Harbaugh's Big Decision

Fans don't make on-field decisions. Neither do pundits. And that's probably a good thing.

I say this because 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh is enduring a fair amount of second-guessing for his 4th quarter "keep the field goal" decision in the Niners loss to Dallas. It's coming from people who think Harbaugh erred by keeping David Akers' 55-yard field goal (and a 10-point lead) rather than accepting a penalty that would have given them a first down at the Dallas 22.

The criticism seems to be rooted in an assumption that the 49ers would have probably then scored a touchdown to go up by 14 or, worst case, kicked another field goal to wind up with the same 10-point lead.

Nice dream. The reality of "red zone" possessions is this: last year, the NFL's best "TD in the red zone" percentage was 25%. That's it. And that was the New England Patriots, who have not recently been confused with the San Francisco 49ers.

Some may have been confused by the often-cited "red zone scoring" stat, but that figure includes field goals and still isn't a lead-pipe cinch. Year after year, the best teams in the league post a red zone scoring percentage stat of around 66%. In other words, on average, a third of the red zone forays by the best teams in the NFL come up empty. And I haven't even started on the red zone turnovers.

I'm not arguing that coaches should only consider the percentages (although if they did, they'd go for it far more often on 4th down). There are always other considerations: personnel, weather, intuition.

But only fools ignore the statistics, and it doesn't look like Jim Harbaugh is anybody's fool.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Is Boring Better?

The Harbaugh Era is here, and the 49ers are undefeated in the regular season.

OK, they beat Seattle in their first game under Harbaugh and it's not clear if the Seahawks are any good but, still, it's a start.

Except: there remains a sort of unease about a team that wins with only 124 yards passing, and was nursing a less-than-a-field-goal lead before Ted Ginn's kick-return madness in the 4th quarter.

The Bay Area's favorite athletic whipping boy, QB Alex Smith, threw only 20 times. Frank Gore didn't even crack the 60-yard rushing mark. Time and again, the Niners chose to run (usually unsuccessfully) on 3rd down.

In short, except for Ginn, a game remarkably devoid of spine-tingling moments. This begs a question: were the 49ers playing it close to the vest because that's the hand they hold? Or maybe another question: did the labor strife-shortened NFL summer lead to this?

It's possible a new head coach, still establishing a relationship with his quarterback, is going to keep it simple. But it's also possible that these are the Harbaugh-era 49ers. Fans sometimes forget the goal of the game is to win. Coaches don't get bonus points for excitement and style; they get them for W's.

If Harbaugh calculates his best chance to win is not to lose, then a controlled passing game that averages 6.2 yards per attempt might be preferable to one that takes the bigger downfield risks. By the way, that "yards per attempt" stat is worth watching; the team with the higher "YPA" figure in a game will win more than 80% of the time. And if you need something to brag about, tell your skeptical fantasy-league buddies that Smith's YPA was higher than Michael Vick's in Week 1 (the Eagles averaged 5.2 yards per passing attempt in their win over St. Louis).

Bottom line for Niners fans: a win is a win, and one week does not a trend make. Give Harbaugh and Smith their due, for it's better to be 1-0 than 0-1. But if you like your offense wide-open, don't hold your breath.


Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Baseball Judaica

One of the things I love about sports is the historical record. Baseball, in particular, has been blessed with (or, depending on your point of view, cursed by) diligent record-keepers right from the start. John Thorn's book "Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game" makes it clear that people were keeping score and maintaining statistics long before the game went pro.

My latest trip into stats-land came courtesy of KCBS (and Eyewitness Blues Band) colleague Doug Sovern, an occasional contributor to our KCBS Sports Fans podcast. Doug wondered if Ryan Braun's hot streak (as of this writing, he's .001 behind Jose Reyes atop the NL batting stats) could make him the first Jewish batting champ. If not, who was the last one?

I did some quick research, and here's what I found:

I'll let the Tribe (not the baseball team based in Cleveland) decide the thorny issue of "Jewishness" on this one: Lou Boudreau was born to a Jewish mother but, according to my research, adopted and raised in a Christian family. He won the AL batting title in 1945 (and of course, those of us of French heritage claim him as one of ours, too) by hitting .327 as a member of the Tribe (the team in Cleveland).

Hank Greenberg hit .313 for his career, is a member of the Hall of Fame...and never won a batting title.

The other "close but no latke" story is Al Rosen, who had a monster 1953 season (also as a member of the Tribe--in fact BOTH Tribes). Rosen went .336/43/145 and missed the Triple Crown only because Mickey Vernon hit .337.

As Doug noted in his original query, 7-time batting champ Rod Carew is, in Doug's own word, "Jew-ish", having married a Jewish woman. Again, this is one for the Talmudic scholars and I will defer.

But the House of David does have one--and only one--clear-cut, no-room-for-debate batting champ. Buddy Myer, who was born in Ellisville, Mississippi and attended Mississippi State University, hit .349 in 1935 to win the AL batting title as a Washington Senator. Myer hit .303 over a 17-year major league career, and stole 157 bases. The Jewish Tribune lists him as the "all-time Jewish stolen base champion" but in fact, Myer's 157 is short of Shawn Green's 162. Neither figure inspires awe among fans of the stolen base.

So Ryan Braun would not be the first Jewish batting champ, but he could well become the first Jewish NL batting champ. And that's something.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

August Agony

Longtime San Francisco Giants fans may recall the phrase "June Swoon". Tradition had it that the Giants would get off to a decent start in April and May, and then cash it all in with a miserable month of June.

Like many legends, the June Swoon was embellished a bit, but there were enough awful Junes to give the theory some credence.

But the 2011 Giants are creating something new: August Agony. The team has gone 10-18 this month and finds itself 6 games behind the Arizona Diamondbacks. It's entirely possible, as I write, that the Giants could be 10 games out of first by Labor Day.

With one game left in August, the Giants are 10-18 for the month. They haven't won more than 2 games in a row in August (and they've only done that twice). They've managed to lose series to some of baseball's saddest sacks: the Cubs and Astros. It's been a horrible month by any measure.

Optimists are heartened by memories of 2010, when the team erased a similar deficit in September to clinch the pennant on the last day of the season. Hey, it could happen again; the one sure thing about dire predictions is that many of them are bound to be wrong.

But the facts are hard to ignore. The 2011 Giants are epically inept with the bat. They are last in the National League in runs scored, batting average, and on-base percentage (that .300 OBP is almost comical). Conversely, the pitching is still among the best in baseball: a 3.14 team ERA that trails only the Phillies among MLB staffs, and Giants pitchers have held opposing hitters to a .230 batting average, the best in the sport (although not a whole lot better than the Giants' own .237 BA).

Who to blame? It's easy to point fingers but harder to understand what the heck could have turned a career .280 hitter like Aubrey Huff into the 2011 version, hitting a soft .243. Theories abound, but injuries surely are a big part of all this. There's not enough space here to list them all, but consider this fact: of the team's 4 highest-ranking players in the "Runs Above Replacement" stat, which assesses a player's offensive value relative to others at his position, three are currently on the DL (Schierholtz, Posey, and Freddy Sanchez), and the one standout (Sandoval at +37) is playing hurt.

August began with hope that newly-acquired veteran star Carlos Beltran would buoy the Giants' offense. Instead, Beltran has been hurt and/or ineffective. With the Mets, he was among the league leaders in doubles, hitting a two-bagger every 14 plate appearances. As a Giant, he's doubled once every 36 plate appearances. Homers? Beltran's ratio was 1 per 28 PA in New York; it's 1 per 72 PA in San Francisco. His arrival heralded hope; by the end of August, he's hearing boos at AT&T Park.

Who knows what September will bring? For the Giants and their fans, it would be hard for the season's final month to be worse than the agony of August.



Tuesday, August 23, 2011

End The Madness

The mayhem at Candlestick Park before, during and after the annual 49ers/Raiders exhibition game may finally force The Powers That Be to confront some uncomfortable truths. Kudos to 49ers boss Jed York for taking a few first steps (at least verbally). But there's more to be done.

Let's look at a few issues:

The parking lot If there's a real-world equivalent to the dystopian world depicted in the movie Blade Runner, it has to be the Candlestick Park lot. What a hellhole. It's been that way for years, during both 49ers and Giants games. It's an invitation to lawless, thuggish behavior.

The stadium Candlestick Park itself is a dump. No amount of lipstick is going to make this pig look good. The "broken window" theory says crummy surroundings breed bad behavior, and this place is perfect proof.

The exhibition game ripoff It ought to be illegal, but the NFL (and the other big pro sports) force season-ticket holders to buy tickets to meaningless exhibition games--at full price! Think of that as a 25% surcharge on your season-ticket plan (8 regular-season home games plus 2 exhibition games). These tickets often wind up unused or dumped at bargain prices. The result: the usual crowd stays away, and the replacements? Well, you saw what happens.

The socioeconomic gap I'm trying to be delicate here. But suffice it to say that many of the customers at Saturday's nightmare are not exactly the same folks Jed York hangs with in his spare time. Don't just blame the 49ers (or the Raiders): when the cheap seats are $74 and the parking is $30, the NFL is on an ice floe, floating away from the mainland of its fan base.

Stadium culture in general The Bay Area needs to own up to an ugly fact: crude fan behavior is not new here (let's not forget the flying bottles at Kezar Stadium), and it's not getting a lot better. A willingness to let the lowest common denominator rule can't be a good thing. Look, I'm no prude, but even I am put off by T-shirts and bumper stickers that casually invoke the F-word.

Too much booze It starts with the "pre-heat" in the parking lot (or even before) and continues right on into the stadium. NFL games have become, for many, more than just a buzz. And it's not just at the stadium: bars and restaurants pack 'em in on NFL Sundays. It's a tricky issue, because limiting alcohol sales inside the stadium simply convinces many to pound 'em back faster before they enter.

The 49ers, Raiders, police and NFL are saying all the right things. In particular, the promises to run DUI checkpoints near Candlestick Park and ban "tailgating" after the kickoff should help. Maybe Jed York is right to call for an end to the faux "rivalry" of the 49ers/Raiders exhibition game.

But everyone in this picture needs to think bigger. The NFL and its wealthy players (and the broadcasters who make bank on pro football) could spend a few of their spare millions funding a serious, no-B.S. campaign that could reset expectations of fan behavior. Think back to the powerful message sent by Giant Jeremy Affeldt and Dodger Jamey Carroll after the Dodger Stadium attack on a Giants fan. NFL players need to be doing the same.

Beyond that, it's time for the billionaires who run pro football to take a look across the parking lots and realize the people out there are, in many cases, from a very different part of society. The kind of anger and nihilism that leads to what we saw Saturday night is scary when you see it up close, but it should be a call to action when it's seen in a broader sense.




Monday, August 8, 2011

Will Anyone Learn From This?

Radio talk host Tony Bruno has managed to do what so many people in his occupation love to do: put themselves in the middle of the conversation. One would hope that this time, Bruno wishes it were not so.

Bruno's disturbingly insensitive Tweet following the Friday night Giants/Phillies brawl is what started this. Bruno may have thought he could make it all go away by deleting the Tweet, or by apologizing, but the problem is bigger than 140 poorly-thought-out characters on Twitter.

Leave aside the obvious idiocy of Bruno's Tweet (Giants pitcher Ramon Ramirez could hardly be an "illegal alien"; every Major League player without U.S. citizenship works under what's known as a "P-1" visa). Forget the fact that Bruno would have to have been living under a very large rock to not recognize the freight those two words carry in today's America. Even discount Bruno's heart-on-his sleeve support for his hometown Phillies.

Focus instead on the big picture here. A guy with a radio show suddenly has a worldwide platform to say something dumb (although, at last check, Bruno had only about 13,000 Twitter followers). Twitter breeds the need to say something quick and brief and clever, and Bruno stepped in it big-time.

I will not apologize for Bruno (though I generally like his work), but I will say that he's hardly alone in facing blowback after Tweeting something dumb (just Google the phrase "Twitter apology" for plenty of examples, many far more egregious than Bruno's). I've seen some of Bruno's defenders suggest that many of us have said similarly inane things in the heat of a ballgame or postgame debate. They miss the point.

The point is this: the bigger the megaphone, the bigger the responsibility. It's not just being old-fashioned to state the obvious: when you're given the privilege of addressing a worldwide audience, it would behoove you to do so with respect.

Twitter, Facebook and other social media favor the quick quip. They don't have an "are you sure?" button. Bruno's case would only be the latest to remind all of us that we don't operate in a vacuum.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Home Sweet Home

When I snapped this picture of Ryan Vogelsong during spring training, who could have guessed how his 2011 season would play out?

In fact, I cropped the photo to remove the other guy with whom Vogelsong was competing for a chance to go to Fresno and hope for something to go wrong with one of the Giants' starting pitchers. That would have been Jeff Suppan, and Vogelsong outpitched Suppan in the spring, got the Fresno slot, and grabbed a spot in the big club's rotation when Barry Zito got hurt. The All Star Game slot, the 9-1 record, the league-leading ERA...all gravy.

It's the feel-good story of the season, a true riches-to-rags-to-riches story of a guy who was a Giants 1st-round draft choice, ended up in Japan, and gave the big leagues one last shot.

San Francisco fans have responded with full-throated love, cheering Vogelsong with a little extra energy at every opportunity. Vogelsong has responded in kind, tipping his cap to those thunderous ovations and telling interviewers how touched he is by the fans' support.

Which begs the question: is Vogelsong pitching so much better in San Francisco than on the road because of all that support, or is he getting it because he's been so spectacular at home?

The numbers are stark: At home, Vogelsong has a 1.33 ERA. On the road, it's 3.55. The road number isn't shabby, but the AT&T Park stats are crazy-good. The disparity between the two is eye-popping.

By comparison, Tim Lincecum's road numbers are better than his home numbers--but by a narrower margin. Lincecum at home: 3.36 ERA. Away: 2.26.

And Mr. Stoic, Matt Cain? Does it surprise you to learn that Cain's home/away numbers are virtually identical? This year, Cain's ERA at home is 3.11; on the road, 3.09.

Friday, July 29, 2011

This Could Be Good For Football

My radio chat-partner John Madden has often decried the fact that the NFL lacks the sort of year-round buzz that attends to baseball. He's pointed to baseball's post-season awards, followed by off-season free agent signings and trades, followed by spring training as a process that ensures baseball stays in the sports headlines year-round.

He's right, but the NFL may have stumbled into a solution.

What makes baseball spring training compelling is the uncertainty: every year, a phenom emerges somewhere. Every spring, the fans back home thrill to the exploits of some guy they've never heard of. Once in a while, the phenom is the real deal; often, he's just a spring flash in the pan.

And for the next few days, NFL training camps could have that same "anything might happen" feel. Because the lockout scrambled the whole free-agent signing process and for arcane legal reasons I don't pretend to understand, NFL camps have opened without a full complement of veteran players.

Take the 49ers, for example. They only have one veteran quarterback on the roster--the oft-maligned Alex Smith--and he can't legally practice until sometime next week. In the meantime, the quarterbacks are Colin Kaepernick, the exciting University of Nevada product, and a guy named McLeod Bethel-Thompson, who has been a backup quarterback for the Arena League San Jose SaberCats.

Neither has ever thrown a pass in an NFL game (regular or exhibition). Bethel-Thompson started his collegiate career at UCLA but wound up at Sacramento State, which to my knowledge has never produced a starting NFL quarterback. Heck, I'm not sure it's ever produced a backup NFL quarterback.

But for the next few days, these guys will be taking snaps, throwing passes, and getting the undivided attention of the coaching staff. Sure, the 49ers front office could well be working on a deal with a more experienced quarterback, and yes, Alex Smith will be at work soon, but for now, these are the boys of summer.

Somewhere around the NFL, maybe one of these longshots will sneak through the door that's been left slightly ajar by the lockout and settlement. Something tells me that would be good for the NFL.

Monday, July 25, 2011

NFL Deal's Unintended Consequences

As I write, the i's are being dotted and the t's crossed on the new NFL labor deal. Much is being made of how the players managed to stave off a management demand for a longer season while also getting limits slapped on the number of practices a team can hold.

All in all, these are reasonable steps toward a safer future in a violent business. Less wear and tear on the players' bodies has to be a good thing. Each story we read about an NFL retiree fading away in dementia reminds us that the sport needs to work much harder on this issue.

But it may well turn out that the limiting of practices becomes an impediment to younger players. Believe it or not, many (some would argue most) players arrive on the NFL's doorstep with serious fundamental flaws in their game. There's also the steep learning curve faced by players switching from the college game to the pro game. In either case, fewer practices will mean less learning for younger players.

A cynic would say that the players who negotiated this deal took care of themselves (after all, how many 10-year veterans want or need all that extra practice?) at the expense of future generations of players. A cynic might be right.

Yet it's in the NFL's interest to keep its pipeline supplied with capable young talent. My KCBS colleague John Madden thinks it's inevitable that the league will launch (and fund) a sort of "NFL Academy"--a league-wide effort to bring younger players up to speed. The defunct NFL Europe once provided this function, but it shut down 4 years ago.

The other three big North American sports benefit from minor-league or developmental-league operations where players can be groomed. The NFL has no such learning league. A couple of years of watching the impact of limited practices on younger players might force the league to do something about that.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Sports Builds Character

The beauty of sports is sometimes a little hard to see when your team comes up short.

But Sunday brought two "oh-so-close" moments that serve as a reminder of how fine the line is between victory and defeat.

First, the U.S. women's soccer team learned exactly how it felt to lose one after its stirring quarterfinal win over Brazil. The World Cup final saw Japan beat the U.S. for the first time ever. Japan had been 0--22-3 against the American women, and its World Cup win was remarkably similar to the U.S.-Brazil victory. Late goals in regulation and overtime followed by a shootout win--the kind of win that is inevitably described as proof that the winning team is plucky, mentally tough, and wouldn't say die.

But does that mean the losing side was wimpy, weak, and full of quitters?

Of course not. But it does hurt to lose. Just ask Tyler Farrar, the American cyclist who won a stage of the Tour de France earlier this month and had a shot at another win on Sunday. But Farrar's last-second burst just failed to catch the sport's most dominating sprinter, Mark Cavendish. Afterward, Farrar was disconsolate, seeming near tears as he discussed the win that got away.

For both Farrar and the U.S. women, there will always be personal questions about whether they did enough, whether they "gave the game away", whether it would turn out the same way if they got a second chance.

But the beauty of sport is that it doesn't matter. We can talk or write about it ad nauseum but nothing changes the reality of the final score.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Shut Up. Please, Shut Up

I'm not sure I can put it any better than Twitter user @dean13 who, back in June, managed to squeeze this thought into 140 characters:

Shut up, Bobby Valentine. Shut up, Bobby Valentine. Shut up, Bobby Valentine. Shut up, Bobby Valentine. Shut up, Bobby Valentine. Shut up.

Exactly.

The downside to the Giants winning the World Series is the fact that they've become hot stuff for the network folks, guaranteeing more appearances on the Saturday Fox broadcasts and the Sunday night ESPN games.

I say "downside" because this means Bay Area viewers lose the capable and comfortable Kruk & Kuip, and get stuck instead with motormouths like Valentine. "Insufferable" is a good place to start when describing this guy. "Ceaseless" is a good place to start when describing his chatter.

The wizards at ESPN decided to empty their broadcast booth of two Hall of Famers (Jon Miller and Joe Morgan) so they could stuff in Dan Shulman, Valentine, and Orel Hershiser. As far as I can tell, Shulman calls a very good game. But it's hard to hear him because Valentine doesn't leave much room (fill-in play-by-play guy Dave O'Brien got the same treatment in last night's Giants-Mets game).

The first couple times I caught this act, I figured somebody upstairs would hear it too and rein Valentine in. No such luck. And it's not just how much Valentine talks; it's often what he says. For example, last night, he took pains to criticize the Giants outfielders for the way they were aligned in a late-inning situation. As a former major league manager, Valentine ought to know that the outfielders don't position themselves; there's a bench coach worrying about those details. For a guy who seems to want to show everyone how much he knows, he misses the mark pretty often.

I have friends who used to cringe when Morgan would mangle the language or launch into another self-serving story. But at least he occasionally shut up.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Another Idea For Timmy

Florida Marlins manager Jack McKeon is griping about Tim Lincecum's All Star status. It's silly, of course; McKeon's in his 80's and has been around the game long enough to know better.

Lincecum's stats are not great this year, but they're not awful, either. After his mediocre July 4th start against the Padres, Timmy is 6-7 with a 3.14 ERA. On a team that scores more runs, he could easily have 10 or 11 wins. His WHIP is at 1.19, which is about in line with his career average (and better than what he posted last year).

Giants and NL All-Star manager Bruce Bochy need not defend his choice of Lincecum to join a pitching staff that also includes San Francisco teammates Matt Cain, Brian Wilson, and Ryan Vogelsong. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Gwen Knapp does an able job of explaining why in today's piece. In short, Gwen points out an obvious fact: Lincecum is one of those transcendent athletes who the fans deserve to see. Some guys are automatic All-Stars in my book: Jeter, Pujols, Mariano Rivera. Unless they're injured or truly awful, they have to be there.

But my esteemed colleague Steve Bitker tosses out another point of view. Maybe, Steve suggests, Lincecum should be left off the All-Star roster this year for his own good. Part of Lincecum's charm is the fact that he wears his emotions on his sleeve. We thrill to his highs, but right now, he seems a bit worn out. Steve argues that Lincecum might benefit from an All-Star break--time away from baseball, time to recharge his mental battery.

I'd sure miss seeing him on the All-Star mound, but a refreshed Timmy would be a fine sight for the rest of the Giants season.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Something You've Never Seen Before

There's an old line about baseball: "You go out to the ballpark every day and you'll see something you've never seen before."

It's probably a wee bit of an overstatement, but last night's game at AT&T Park was truly historic. Before some fans had even found their seats, the Minnesota Twins had scored 8 first-inning runs against the Giants. The 8 straight hits to start the game marked a first in Giants history--New York or San Francisco. And Giants starter Madison Bumgarner became the first pitcher in over a century to give up 9 hits without recording two outs.

If you bleed orange and black, this was not a pretty thing to watch. But if you take the long view as a baseball fan, you should hold onto your ticket stub. Of the tens of thousands of ballgames played since 1900, this one was unique.

For Bumgarner, a young guy with tremendous promise, this game may turn into the kind of scar that serves a purpose. As soon as the last out had been recorded, Bumgarner was telling reporters that he'd absorbed a lesson: when you leave pitches over the plate, big league hitters will hit them.

To be sure, Bumgarner could have been out of the inning with less bloodshed. There was an infield single in there, a couple of ground balls with eyes, and a ball that dropped fair by inches down the left-field line. But there are no mulligans in baseball.

The Giants are struggling right now; the loss knocked them out of first place in the NL West. With their anemic offense, this game was truly over before they even came to bat. Yet the beauty of baseball is this: today or tomorrow, it could just as easily be their turn to make history.

You never know what you'll see at the ballpark.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

A Bold Stroke

There are those rolling their eyes in the perennial "There go the Warriors again" reaction.

But I think the decision to hire unproven Mark Jackson to coach the Golden State Warriors is exactly the sort of bold stroke the franchise needs to become relevant again.

Jackson's resume includes exactly zero coaching experience and to some, that makes him unfit for the job. Of course, the usual pro sports practice of retreading coaches who've been less-than-successful elsewhere doesn't seem like that hot an idea either.

The Warriors' new owners, Silicon Valley venture capitalist Joe Lacob and Hollywood mogul Peter Guber, understand how to calculate a risk/reward ratio. The Jackson hiring carries little downside (let's say he fails miserably and the Warriors miss the playoffs...whoops...miss the playoffs again) while the upside is pretty well unlimited.

Jackson's lack of sideline experience may or may not be a real issue. This is a guy who was an acknowledged leader and student of the game throughout a long NBA career, and who has spent the last several years watching NBA games and picking coaches' minds as a TV analyst. Do Bay Area fans need to be reminded of the Bob Brenly story? The former Giants catcher had never managed at any level when he swapped a TV job for the Diamondbacks managing gig and led them to a World Series championship in his first season.

Plus, the Warriors pulled off a coup by nabbing Mike Malone as an assistant coach. Malone is a highly-regarded defensive mind and reports indicated he was on the Lakers' short list before they hired their own new head coach.

Albert Einstein once said, "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." Einstein never coached in the NBA, either, but Jerry West did. The NBA legend is acting as an adviser to the Warriors ownership and he gets it. West tells San Jose Mercury-News writer Tim Kawakami why he likes the Jackson-Malone hirings, and it pretty much comes down to this: winners take risks. Losers stand pat.

You look at it that way, and this Warriors move is a no-brainer.




Thursday, May 26, 2011

Enough's Enough

Nobody can really enjoy watching Giants catcher Buster Posey have his season ended in a horrible home plate collision. It's ugly, and the sight of Posey writhing in pain afterward is even uglier.

Yet plenty of baseball fans seem willing to say, "Well, too bad. That's baseball." For a hundred years, collisions at the plate have been part of the game, they say. That's true, but I'm here to argue that it's time for this to stop.

I hold no malice toward Scott Cousins of the Florida Marlins for barreling into Posey. He did what Major League ballplayers do on that sort of play: he tried to run the catcher over. In his own words, "I decided to try and knock the ball loose." In other words, his goal on the play was to separate Posey from the ball he was trying to catch. If you watch the video, you'll see that Cousins' path isn't really to the plate--it's toward Posey's head.

In the big leagues, that's a heads-up play and it makes you a hero in the clubhouse. In high school and college baseball, it makes you "out at the plate". The NCAA realized that bigger, faster, more aggressive players were creating greater havoc in home plate collisions and that player safety was at risk on each of these plays.

The NCAA's "Collision Rule" (Rule 8.7 in the college baseball rulebook) was amended before the 2011 season, and it makes one thing clear: runners trying to score have to try to score, not try to dislodge the ball from the catcher. The rule reads, in part, "Contact above the waist that was initiated by the base runner shall not be judged as an attempt to reach the base or plate."

A runner who violates Rule 8.7 is out, and if the umpire finds the contact flagrant or malicious, is also out of the game--ejected.

Posey's agent, Jeff Berry, has already served notice that he'll ask Major League Baseball to do something about home plate collisions. As he points out, it's ironic that the NFL has just toughened its rules to punish players who take headshots at defenseless receivers, yet MLB persists in applauding players who mow down catchers.

Again, I don't fault Scott Cousins (and I'll bet Buster Posey doesn't, either). He was playing within the rules. But it's way past time for those rules to change.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A Crazy Game

For San Jose Sharks fans, it's a familiar feeling. A very good team that didn't quite measure up when it counted.

For the second straight year, the Sharks saw their season end in the conference finals. The team that beat them last year went on to win the Stanley Cup. I'd say there's a pretty good chance the team that beat them this year will do so too.

When you lose a series 4-1, as the Sharks did to the Vancouver Canucks, it's tempting to say that anyone who says it could have gone the other way is a whiny loser. But this series was a lot closer than 4-1. The series-ending game was largely dominated by the Sharks, who just didn't get the bounces and breaks--and no bounce was any weirder than the one that led to the winning goal.

People who've watched more hockey than I have say they can't recall a crazier series-ending goal: a puck that it seems was only seen by one player, Vancouver's Kevin Bieksa, after a zany bounce off a stanchion in the rinkside glass. Bieksa's shot was one of the ugliest you'll ever see, but a thing of pure beauty to the roaring crowd in Vancouver.

Now begins the annual flogging of the Sharks, a team upon which high expectations are heaped year after year. There will be those who blame Patrick Marleau or Dany Heatley. Both are high-paid forwards who are expected to score. Marleau suffered the pathetic rantings of former teammate Jeremy Roenick earlier in the playoffs, and answered by scoring 7 points in the Vancouver series. Heatley's effort in Game 5 can't be questioned, even if he never broke through on the scoresheet.

Sports can be cruel in its finality. The fact that the Sharks didn't win doesn't make them losers, and a calm assessment of the team's strengths should reveal that the best thing to do is probably to stand pat. The core of the team is set. Young forward Jamie McGinn, notably, becomes a restricted free agent and I can't imagine the team failing to re-sign him after the postseason energy he displayed.

Dump on the Sharks for failing to win it all, if you must, but do remember that this team has taken the Bay Area deep into spring hockey pretty regularly. If Vancouver ends up winning the Cup, it'll be a bittersweet balm, but at least the Sharks will know that they were right there with the eventual champions.

Monday, May 23, 2011

And You Were Surprised?

It's somehow weirdly fitting that members of the U.S. Postal Service cycling team used to refer to the banned blood-enhancing drug EPO as "Edgar Allan Poe". The words "mystery" and "macabre" come to mind when discussing Poe's body of literary work, and cycling's inner workings are nothing if not mysterious and macabre.

Tyler Hamilton's lengthy interview with "60 Minutes" may have blown all of this onto the front page--and irrevocably dented Lance Armstrong's continued protestations of innocence--but nobody who knows anything about the sport can possibly be surprised.

In the same way that baseball's steroid years should have been obvious to anyone following the sport, revelations about the inner workings of cycling's drug-soaked culture are not exactly shocking. The details are juicy, of course--"clean" cell phones to use when discussing doping, code names (like Edgar Allan Poe), clandestine flights--but "cycling" and "doping" have practically been synonymous for years.

A few key thoughts:
  • Can human beings be expected to do what pro cyclists do without doping? The sport's marquee event, the Tour de France, lasts for three weeks, covering well over 2,000 miles. The winner's average speed, after all those miles and all that grueling climbing, routinely exceeds 25 MPH. Do me a favor: hop on your bike, see if you can get it up to 25 MPH, and then hold it there for 5 minutes. Didn't think so.
  • The tendency to blame riders for being "cheaters" is misguided. Put yourself in their place: you're in your 20's, have been doing nothing but race a bike for years, and the "boss" tells you to "get with the program". Your choices? Do it, or say "no" and start figuring how you're going to get a real job with no education.
  • As usual, it's about the money. Race organizers want the most demanding courses so they can maximize their profit. TV wants day after day of grueling competition. Team owners want maximum exposure for their brands. Managers want to win so they can keep their paychecks. Figure that problem out and you'll be on the way to figuring out how to end the doping. Hamilton's told "60 Minutes" and federal prosecutors that the U.S. Postal doping program was run by the team management itself and this is certainly the case with other teams, too.
  • If you think testing programs will eliminate drugs from sports, you might also believe in Santa Claus. Armstrong's oft-repeated claim that he never failed a drug test (see also: Bonds, Barry) doesn't prove he was clean--it merely proves he didn't get caught. I was fascinated by Hamilton's explanation of how the U.S. Postal doping program relied on taking just enough EPO to get a boost--but not enough to exceed the doping-control thresholds. These people know what they're doing.
  • Lance Armstrong is at a crossroads. His impact on cancer fundraising and consciousness-raising has been massive (his foundation has now sold more than 70 million of those yellow wristbands), but what happens to his credibility as the evidence against him mounts? For now, the Armstrong response is right out of his combative playbook: accuse everyone else. Tyler Hamilton is just saying all this because he wrote a book. CBS "has demonstrated an unpardonable zeal to smear Lance Armstrong." And so on. We'll see if this still plays if Armstrong ends up under indictment.
  • Sure, it's self-serving, but the Armstrong camp's question about whether a massive federal investigation in the best use of the taxpayers' money is at least worthy of discussion. Look, I enjoy bike racing, but I'm wondering if it's really my government's job to clean up the sport (especially when most of the nefarious behavior took place overseas).
Tyler Hamilton didn't look like a guy who was much enjoying his turn in the "60 Minutes" spotlight. True, he might sell a few books, but to get there, he had to choose between telling the truth to federal prosecutors and clamming up to protect a sport that used him up the way it has so many others. Cycling, unlike major American pro sports, has no collective bargaining for its athletes. Some get rich, but most just get ground up and spit out.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Arms Race

It's only mid-May, but this Bay Area baseball season is shaping up to be something special for folks who enjoy good pitching.

As I write, the A's staff ERA is 2.75, best in the American League. 23-year-old righthander Trevor Cahill is already 6-0 with a gaudy 1.72 ERA. Somebody with a lot of time on his hands at the Elias Sports Bureau figured Cahill's start is the best by an A's pitcher since 1925 (only he and Sam Gray of the '25 A's can claim to have started a year 6-0 with an ERA under 2.00).

Across the Bay, Tim Lincecum may be pitching better than he ever has. Although his record is just 3-3, The Freak has posted a 2.11 ERA (his career best for a season is 2.48), he's striking out 10.7 batters per 9 innings (his career best for a season is 10.5), and his WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) is the lowest of his career at 1.03. He's on pace to strike out more than 270 hitters after leading the league in that category the last 3 years.

But Cahill and Lincecum are merely the anchors of two very good pitching staffs. The A's starters have been very good. The Giants' starters have been pretty good, but the bullpen has been ridiculously good. Each team has lost a starter to injury (Dallas Braden in Oakland, Barry Zito in San Francisco) but has gotten more-than-capable help from the fill-in starter (Tyson Ross for the A's and Ryan Vogelsong for the Giants).

Each team has fielded some terrific pitchers in the 44 years they've shared the Bay Area baseball market. The A's might have the single-season edge with their staffs in 1971 and 1974. In '71, Vida Blue put up ridiculous numbers in winning the Cy Young Award (24-8, 1.82, 301 K's, 8 shutouts) but teammate Catfish Hunter also threw 4 shutouts and went 21-11 with a 2.96 ERA.

Three years later, Hunter was The Man on an A's staff that led the league with a 2.95 team ERA. Catfish won the Cy Young with 6 shutouts, a 25-12 record, and a 2.49 ERA. Blue and Ken Holtzman (19-17) were strong backup acts.

The Giants have had their share of great pitching seasons, too, although you have to hand it to the A's for the real headline-grabbing years. One Giants staff that flies below the radar was the 1987 edition. The Giants led the league in ERA that year, despite the fact that their top winner was 13-10 Mike LaCoss.

The '89 Giants featured very effective starters Rick Reuschel and Scott Garrelts and a righty-lefty closer combo of Steve Bedrosian and Craig Lefferts--while across the Bay, the world champion A's led the league in ERA and had 4 starters with 17 or more wins (Dave Stewart, Mike Moore, Storm Davis and Bob Welch). That '89 season, of course, saw the A's and Giants in the World Series.

Last year, each team led its league in ERA and each saw the emergence of young stars like Dallas Braden, Madison Bumgarner, Gio Gonzalez, Cahill and Brett Anderson. The Giants' starters get the headlines, but you could argue that it was their bullpen that made the difference in a World Series-winning season.

It's too much to hope, of course, that we'll replay 1989 and see a Bay Bridge World Series. But we might just be watching the best collective pitching staff the Bay Area has ever seen. Chicks may dig the long ball (as the advertisement went), but real fans find the beauty in a 1-2-3 inning.


Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Why Clouds Are Cool

Old Sol wouldn't be smiling if he was a major-league hitter.

New research indicates that when the sun comes out, batting averages go down.

The study also found that day games played in bright sunshine produce more strikeouts, lower ERA's, and an increased win percentage for the home team.

Researchers from Kent State University combed through stats for more than 10,750 Major League day games stretching back to the late 80's. What they found provides indisputable evidence that a ballgame under bright sunshine will be different from one under cloudy skies, although the why of this is open to discussion.

The researchers theorize that glare and eyestrain on a sunny day make it harder on hitters. Mets third baseman David Wright is among those who buy that theory, saying "I always prefer a little cloud cover." The study did not tease out the effect on hitters of those dreadful late-afternoon games, where the mound is often in shadow but the outfield in bright sunshine. I'm guessing the hitters suffer even more in those conditions.

The study reveals another anomaly: while both teams see batting averages drop and pitching stats improve when it's sunny, the home team sees the most pronounced impact. Take a look:
  • Batting average: On cloudy days, home teams outhit visitors .266 to .259. When the sun's out, the home advantage narrows (.256 to .251).
  • Earned runs allowed: Cloudy-day ERA's favor the home team (3.93 to 4.50), but again, the gap narrows when the sun's shining (4.26 to 4.68).
  • Strikeouts: Home-team pitchers beat the visitors in strikeouts on sunny days (6.65/game to 6.14) as well as cloudy days (6.22/game to 5.67). It's close, but the home team still sees a slightly better bump from the weather.
Here's something to ponder: the home team wins 56% of the time when it's sunny--but only 52% of the time when it's cloudy. That's a staggering number--a difference of 7 wins over a 162-game season! Of course, a team doesn't play all its games at home and it doesn't play them all in the daytime--but still, it's enough to make you want the sun shining when your team is playing at home.

Oh, by the way: the study looked at night games and games played indoors and found that while hitters fared better in those conditions than in the sunshine, they still did better under cloudy skies.

Bottom line: if you like offense, pray for a little cloud cover. But if you want the home team to win, hope for sunshine.

You can see a quick summary of the study here.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Speed Kills

There's fast, and then there's fast.

Plenty of big-league baseball players can run, but only a few possess the sort of speed that can change a ballgame.

Put Darren Ford in that category. The young Giants outfielder became part of the team's 2010 "Torture" lore last September when he scored a game-winning run on a daring dash after a pitch hit the dirt.

And he's done it again, using his legs to swipe an extra-inning win in Pittsburgh. Ford was sent up to lay down a sacrifice bunt in the 10th inning. A terrific defensive play by Pirates first baseman Lyle Overbay nailed Nate Schierholtz at third, leaving Ford at first.

The Pirates must have known about Ford's blazing speed. Or maybe it was the enormous "I'm going to run and just try to stop me" lead he took off first. At any rate, Pirates pitcher Joel Hanrahan tried to pick him off a couple of times before throwing wildly.

And that's when the fun began. Ford, sprawled on his belly after a dive back to the bag, popped up and shifted into sprinter gear, racing to third base. If the Pirates didn't already know about his wheels, they had to have noticed on that play.

Giants batter Freddy Sanchez then hit a routine grounder to second. Standard operating procedure for a second baseman in that situation is to "look" the runner back to third, then throw to first. Pirates rookie Neil Walker glanced at Ford, then lobbed a toss to Overbay at first.

And that's when the fun really began. Ford blasted off for the plate, running on his own, startling Overbay (a very good first baseman) into a wild throw, and scoring the run that would win the game for the Giants. Giants broadcaster Mike Krukow could only gasp, "Oh, my word!"

Speed is valuable in baseball, but only insofar as it's used wisely. A's owner Charles O. Finley recognized the disruptive value of speed when he employed "designated runners" like Herb Washington and Allan Lewis ("The Panamanian Express"). Neither of those two was a real game-changer. But add smarts to speed and you get a lethal combination. Rickey Henderson. Willie Mays. Vince Coleman. Maury Wills. Davey Lopes. Guys who changed the game just because they might do something.

It's too soon to know if Darren Ford is one of those weapons. His seven minor league seasons show a mixed record: he has almost as many strikeouts as hits--but he's stolen 295 bases in 659 games, which works out to 72 steals per 162 games. He obviously possesses a sprinter's speed, but he also appears to have the cojones of a burglar.

That's a powerful combination.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Internal Debate Rages

There's been a heated debate raging here at KCBS Sports Fans World Headquarters about Giants rookie Brandon Belt. Of course, the point may be moot by the time you read this, but the underlying issue is worth examining.

Simply put, my esteemed colleague Steve Bitker and I disagree about whether the Giants should send the young first baseman back to the minor leagues.

Steve has been banging the drum for a Belt demotion for several days now, citing the big kid's sub-.200 batting average (as I write, he's at .192). I've argued that it's too early to pull that lever, citing Belt's superlative defensive work and the patience he's shown at the plate.

With Cody Ross apparently ready to come off the disabled list, the Giants will need to make a roster move, and thus Belt's immediate future is up for discussion.

The temptation is to remind Steve and others who want Belt Fresno-bound that Willie Mays started his career 0-for-12. As legend has it, manager Leo Durocher stuck with the frustrated young centerfielder and the rest is history. Of course, it is wildly unfair to compare Brandon Belt--or anyone--to Willie Mays.

But. My argument--and that of San Francisco Chronicle columnist Bruce Jenkins--is that the conventional wisdom is wrong in this case. The standard thinking, to which my esteemed colleague subscribes, is that a player like Belt is better off playing every day in the minor leagues than either struggling or riding the pine in the majors.

Baseball is a game of subtleties, and its truths are not always revealed by statistics. I've seen every one of Belt's 2011 at-bats, and I saw plenty of him in the Cactus League, too. He has the sort of swing that makes veteran baseball people stop and watch, and defensively--same story. This guy will win a Gold Glove some day; bet on that.

Is Belt struggling at the plate? Absolutely. Is he overmatched? I'm not really seeing it. His patience and pitch selection are truly remarkable for a guy who was playing in college two years ago. His meteoric rise--Opening Day starter after one year in the minors--fuels Steve's argument that he could stand more minor-league seasoning. That's the conventional response when a young player struggles.

But ask yourself this: are the Giants a better team with Belt in Fresno and Darren Ford on the bench? Or are they better with Belt on the bench, Ford in Fresno, and Aubrey Huff at first base?

In the latter scenario, Belt's an occasional starter, a left-handed pinch-hitter and late-inning defensive replacement. Think of him as 2011's Travis Ishikawa (who is in Fresno precisely because Belt is in San Francisco).

And ask yourself whether you really believe Belt will become a better big-league hitter playing every day in Fresno, or watching the game from a major league dugout, surrounded by the wisdom of people like Shawon Dunston and Hensley Meulens and Bruce Bochy and Ron Wotus.

I don't think there's an easy answer when a young player stumbles. But I do think it's worth questioning the conventional wisdom sometimes, and this is one of them.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

So Now What?

The jury has spoken, sort of.

Barry Bonds is guilty of delivering evasive answers to a federal grand jury. The jury deadlocked on the more substantive charges that he actually lied to the grand jury about whether he ever knowingly took performance-enhancing drugs.

For Bonds, despite his smile-and-wave on the courthouse steps, this is serious stuff. "Convicted felon" is a pretty heavy phrase to hang on your resume (although, frankly, it never held George Steinbrenner back all that much). But does anyone really think the verdict changed the big picture?

The big picture is this: Baseball was rife with steroids and other performance-enhancers for years. The lords of the sport either knew this, or maintained the sort of ignorance that strains credibility. Bonds, Clemens, McGwire, Sosa, Palmeiro, A-Rod, Manny...the list goes on. We're talking about some of the game's biggest stars, the men who made the turnstiles spin and the television cash pile up.

I've written and said enough over the years about whether it was appropriate for the feds to pursue this case against Bonds. That bell has rung. But let me pose this question: how do you think it would go if baseball owners, executives, and managers were hauled before the grand jury and asked what they knew about steroid use in their sport? How many more evasive answers and/or lies might the prosecutors hear?

Far be it from me to try to sell Barry Bonds as a sympathetic figure--a fall guy for baseball's sins. He's a hard guy to feel sorry for and few doubt that he did what prosecutors could never charge him with: bulk himself up with magic potions.

But the key thing to remember is that Bonds was not alone. In fact, plenty of people who followed his case believe he turned to chemistry after watching McGwire, Sosa and others turn baseball into a brand of pinball.

It's now called "The Steroid Era". Some of its leading practitioners are known. Many more are suspected. And sadly, there are undoubtedly players who never juiced but will forever be tarred with the brush of suspicion, for they have no way of proving they didn't. Baseball has strengthened its drug-testing policies; Manny Ramirez' sudden retirement the other day after another positive test is proof that at least some of the cheaters get caught.

How history will view all this is unknowable. Much attention is paid to the Hall of Fame vote as a sort of litmus test; Bonds and Clemens are a year away from being eligible. Both are statistical shoo-ins yet neither is a sure thing. But the Hall is only a single lens on the sport and the society that surrounds it. Whether Bonds has a plaque in Cooperstown or not, his story will be told for generations--if only as a cautionary tale. The verdict changes nothing; Bonds' die was cast long ago.

Baseball is alive and well. On the day the Bonds jury returned its verdict, more than 320,000 people voted with their wallets and went to a Major League game. Barry Bonds wasn't in the lineup anywhere.




Monday, April 11, 2011

Awesome, With An Asterisk

The Giants' "Opening Weekend" festivities are now a memory. Oh sure, it would have been nice to finish the three days of festivities with a sweep of the Cardinals, but two out of three ain't bad--and the vibe was pretty darned close to perfect all the way.

The Friday pennant ceremony (in photo), the Saturday ring-bestowing, the Sunday awarding of Buster Posey's Rookie of the Year honors, the "Torture, Part 2" wins on Friday and Saturday--all good.

But was I the only one troubled by the full-throated "Beat LA" chant that broke out just after a moment of silence for grievously-injured Giants fan Bryan Stow, who was savagely beaten in the Dodger Stadium parking lot? The Giants have handled this matter with great sensitivity from the start, but do fans who revel in the tribal rivalry with the Dodgers get that it's time to chill things down, not heat them up?

I've never met Bryan Stow, but everything you hear about the guy says he wouldn't want his senseless mauling by thugs to become the rallying point for any more violence. And let's not kid ourselves: this stuff starts with chants and name-calling before it spins out of control.

It's entirely possible that the criminals who tried to kill Bryan Stow were street-gang members who have adopted "Dodger blue" as their gang colors. Trust me: the kind of person who would wear a Dodgers hat as a gang uniform doesn't know Sandy Koufax from Shinola. This kind of guy isn't a baseball fan; he's a criminal opportunist. Chanting "Beat LA" to a guy like this is like tossing lit matches in a dry forest.

On the other hand, it's possible that Bryan Stow was victimized by the sort of over-the-top fan behavior that longtime Giants ballpark operations executive Jorge Costa says is getting worse. Costa told USA Today, "People are taking ownership of events in a different way...it's not the team won or lost, it's he won or lost." It's a sickness, really. Author Nick Hornby wrote about it in Fever Pitch (not the artificially-sweetened movie--read the book): people who get that deeply into a sports team need help.

San Francisco fans, historically, have little moral high ground to claim. In the Candlestick years, the leftfield seats were a war zone, especially when the Dodgers were in town. Violence was never far away. Things have improved since the team moved to a better home address, but that "Beat LA" chant on Opening Day told me that for many, the message still hasn't sunk in.

It's only a game, people. Try to enjoy it. It sure as hell shouldn't be a life-or-death matter.

Think about Bryan Stow, and smile at a Dodgers fan.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Latest Can't-Miss Kid

The San Francisco Giants have done it again. Another year, another baby-faced phenom.

This time, it's 22-year-old first baseman Brandon Belt. Giants management waited until after the final exhibition game to make the announcement: Belt is the team's starting first baseman, shoving incumbent Aubrey Huff to right field.

It's a bittersweet moment: the annointing of Belt ends the Giants career of Travis Ishikawa, a Giants draftee whose defensive skills and pinch-hitting prowess made him a valuable piece of the World Championship team. But the truth is harsh: Belt appears to be Ishikawa's defensive equal, and the offensive upside is obvious. Ishikawa is a class act, and I hope the closing of this door opens another one for him.

In the glow of the World Series win and a spring that saw the Giants post the best exhibition record in baseball, it's easy to forget the harsh reality of the sport: moves don't always work out. Belt has exactly one year of professional baseball under his, uh, belt. His meteoric climb through three minor-league levels means exactly nothing to Ubaldo Jimenez, Clayton Kershaw, Mat Latos, and the other big-leaguers who'll be staring at him from 60 feet away.

The Giants have made the easy decision in giving Belt the first-base job. The harder decisions could come in a few weeks. What do they do if he struggles at the plate? How about when Cody Ross comes off the DL and is ready to return to the right-field job now slotted for Huff? Do the Giants bench Belt or ship him back to Triple-A Fresno?

For now, those are just nagging little thoughts. The thrill of a new season drowns them out. Belt becomes the latest "Kid" to join a Giants team already full of 20-something stars: Posey, Lincecum, Cain, J. Sanchez, Sandoval, Wilson. Remember: each and every one of these players was drafted and groomed by the Giants organization. Belt is in damned good company.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Way It Ought To Be

Now THIS is March Madness.

All of the number 1 seeds sent packing. A championship game that will include either longshot Butler or longer-longshot VCU. A bracket contest that produced only two correct "Final Four" selections out of 5.9 million entries.

Oh sure, if you're a Kansas or Duke or Ohio State fan, you're having a hard time seeing the beauty.

But this is what college sports should be all about. Passion, exuberance, unpredictability.

In the past, I've advocated a truly radical plan for the NCAA tournament: put every team in the nation in the field and make it random. No seeds. Just shake up the barrel and pair the teams up and let them play. My argument has always been that it would make for a less-predictable and more exciting tournament than the annual coronation of one of the sport's traditional heavyweights.

Of course, my idea will never come to fruition. Most people say they want excitement, but what they really want is a semblance of order. They don't want the interlopers to shake things up too much.

Well, guess what? The party's been crashed this year. I'll never get my wide-open winner-take-all tournament, so I'm enjoying this March while I can.