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'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.