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.