Monday, February 28, 2011

The Boys of Winter

They call it "spring training", but it starts in the dead of winter. Heck, spring doesn't technically arrive until a few days before Major League teams break camp and "head north" (an evocative phrase from the past) to start the regular season.

For the last two weeks, ballplayers have been working out. For the last few days, they've been playing a few innings at a time, easing their way back into the grind of another long season.

I was lucky enough to stumble into Scottsdale Stadium the other day while the Giants were working out. Within a few minutes, I could see a trimmer Pablo Sandoval was absolutely locked-in with his lefthanded swing, but struggling from the right side. I could see that Mark DeRosa had bulked up a bit. I could see the intensity guys like Andres Torres and Buster Posey bring to their craft. And I could see the boost of energy Miguel Tejada is already providing.

The quiet days in the desert are when you can tell who's ready and who has a ways to go. It's when you can see if a team is a team or a bunch of disparate individuals. You can't tell how things will end up in October--there are way too many variables for that--but you can get a sense of whether a team has a chance or will be left in the dust.

After watching that workout, it was no surprise to me that Sandoval, DeRosa and Posey all came out of the box hitting line drives in their first exhibition games. These guys obviously approached winter with a sense of purpose. Sandoval has lost a ton of weight (my son, watching the Dodgers a few days later in Glendale AZ, jokes that the Panda must have given the pounds to Jonathan Broxton) with a workout regimen that undoubtedly involved a few lost lunches while running the notorious "A" Mountain in Tempe.

It would, of course, be easy for the Giants to ease into 2011 on the cushion of their 2010 championship. But from what I saw in Scottsdale, they seem to be taking a different approach. The last thing we saw as we left the stadium was Sandoval, alone, on the back diamond taking ground balls. Call it winter overtime.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Cal: Really?

To be honest, I thought it was somebody's idea of a joke when I heard that Cal would be playing Presbyterian College in football this coming September. But sadly, it's true.

Perhaps the Golden Bears are a little embarrassed about this: as I write, the Cal athletic department has not officially announced this matchup. But the good folks at Presbyterian have no such reservations; they've already posted their 2011 schedule and the date with Cal (at AT&T Park) is right there between the home games against Wofford and North Greenville and the away games at Furman and Stony Brook.

It's been a rough week around the Cal sports program. First, the fumbled process surrounding the resurrection of three sports and the death sentence for two (including baseball). And now this.

You have to be a seriously blinded-by-blue Bear backer to think it's a good thing for Cal to schedule an FCS (the old Division 1-AA) school with 1200 students from the other side of the continent. Writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, John Crumpacker calls it "one of the most puzzling football scheduling decisions in school history." Crumpacker is pulling his punches here. It's more than puzzling. It's pathetic.

Of course Cal will win this game. But how good will that feel? Go back and read the previous paragraph. Presbyterian College has 1200 students. Heck, aren't there Chem 1-A classes at Cal with that many students?

I'm not naive. I understand the whole business of scheduling "cupcakes" so your big-time program can rack up some wins before facing tougher conference foes. Schools like Nebraska and Alabama have been doing it for years. But at least they have the decency to pick sacrificial lambs with a bit of a fighting pedigree. Nebraska's playing Tennessee-Chattanooga this fall, but UT-C is eight times the size of Presbyterian and has a decent athletic history. Alabama will mop up Kent State, North Texas, and Georgia Southern. The Crimson Tide ought to be ashamed of that, but still, there's not a Presbyterian College on that list.

No doubt the Blue Hose (yes, that's the college nickname) will be reasonably well-compensated for this act of sacrifice (a dirty secret of college sports: big schools pay the little guys to come in and take their lumps; the money keeps many a marginal athletic program afloat).

If you're into the David vs. Goliath thing, you can hope Presbyterian shocks the world on September 17th. Some will point to Appalachian State's 2007 upset of Michigan at Ann Arbor as proof that the little guys can sometimes win these games. But Appalachian State was the two-time defending national FCS champion--a middleweight powerhouse. Presbyterian College is a bantamweight tomato can.

You'd like to hope the folks in Berkeley would be above this sort of thing. Apparently not. Sad.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A Mystery Solved

What it says about me, I'm not sure: I've always loved finding sports references and cues in movies.

For years, I've treasured the bit of business in "Rain Man" where Raymond is listening to a ballgame. It's a Giants game, and we hear the announcer mention Bob Brenly and Candy Maldonado. A real broadcast? If so, what game? I've never really taken the time to check.

So I tip my cap to Milwaukee-based blogger Larry Granillo, who has nailed down the details of a beloved baseball scene. It's the one where Ferris Bueller and his buddy Cameron take in a Cubs game during "Ferris Bueller's Day Off".

You can read Granillo's detective work here and a followup report here. Short version of the story: Granillo is able to establish not only which Cubs game Ferris and Cameron attended in 1985, but who hit the foul ball Ferris caught! That would be longtime big-leaguer Claudell Washington, the Berkeley High grad who came up with the A's as a 19-year-old phenom but, by '85, was playing for the Braves.

"Ferris Bueller's Day Off" includes TV footage of a Cubs-Braves game (you may recall that Principal Rooney looks away from a TV in a pizza joint just as Ferris is seen catching the foul ball). OK, I know this is Hollywood; actor Matthew Broderick didn't really catch a live foul ball at an actual ballgame. But it sure looks like it, and the cutaway shot shows the Cubs on the field along with a team in blue road uniforms that sure look like the Braves' 1985 roadies.

This is where Granillo's detective work kicks in, and where we learn just how careful the late filmmaker John Hughes was. The cutaway shots were picked up at a different game in 1985, with the Cubs playing a different opponent: the Montreal Expos. But in '85, both the Braves and Expos wore the same all-blue uniforms on the road, so the shot works.

As a baseball fan and a movie fan, I'm thrilled to see how much effort went into both the movie and the followup investigation. The only thing missing in this story is the Cubs' failure to hold a "Ferris Bueller 25th Anniversary Day" last summer. It would have been cool to have Claudell Washington see if he could hit a few balls to Matthew Broderick in the left-field stands.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Soccer's Great Leap Forward

Anyone who's nodded off while waiting for the results of a video review in American football, basketball, hockey, or baseball (each of which now uses replay in some circumstances) should be thrilled by what's happening in the world of soccer.

FIFA, the sport's international governing body, has announced it will test 10 goal-line technology systems that could instantly determine whether a ball crossed the goal line. FIFA's president Sep Blatter has long resisted this, arguing that human error is part of the game.

But Blatter's position took a major hit at last summer's World Cup when a shot by England's Frank Lampard crossed the goal line in a knockout match against Germany. Billions of TV viewers saw it with their own eyes, but the referees on the field didn't and there was no recourse.

The FIFA test will include a couple of candidates that soccer's poobahs have rejected in the past: the Hawk-Eye camera-based technology that has already ended line-call debates in tennis and the Cairos system that embeds a microchip in the ball. The ground rules of the study say any goal-line system must produce a goal/no goal decision within one second (and don't look for a hockey-style "red light"; the plan would be for the information to be delivered only to the officials).

It's about time. All of the so-called "boundary decisions" (fair or foul? in-bounds or not? hockey goal or no goal? behind the 3-point line or not?) that lead to time wasted in video review might easily be handled by adaptations of existing technology.

But before we go too far, let me also argue that Sep Blatter is right. There is and should be a human element to sports officiating. Show me the technology that can determine--in real time--whether a cornerback interfered with a receiver, or a power forward's contact with his opponent was more than incidental. They don't exist, because these are judgment calls. Do you really want a bundle of hardware and software to make those decisions?

I know I don't. Let's let the cameras and computers help with the things that can be empirically determined, and let the humans focus on the things that require judgment and expertise. Soccer can lead the way.