Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Right-Handed Phoenix

Phoenix is not just a city in Arizona. It's also the mythological bird that arises from its own ashes. There's a phoenix on San Francisco's city flag (to pay homage to the city's rebirth after the 1906 disaster), and there could be one in the Giants bullpen this year.

That's him on the right. His name is Marc Kroon, and even if you're a pretty serious baseball fan, you've probably never heard of him.

That's because the 37-year-old pitcher has been toiling in Japan the last several years. Sure, it says "Giants" on his jersey--but those are the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants.

Kroon wound up in Japan after a half-dozen Major League teams gave up on him. Oh, he has an arm--but it was a wild one. He figured it out in Japan, averaging nearly 30 saves a year by relying on a serious sokkyu (Japanese for "fastball"). He hit 101 MPH on the radar gun a few years back, leading to the URL on his website: www.kroon161.com (101 MPH translates to 161 KPH, which sounds even faster).

Kroon's 4.26 ERA last year in Tokyo was the highest of his Japanese career, but he still struck out almost one-and-a-half batters per inning.

The Giants (the ones in San Francisco) have signed Kroon to a minor league contract. His invitation to spring training could open the door to the Major Leagues and a deal that could pay Kroon more than $2 million this year. The World Series champs are already pretty well set in the bullpen, but you never know.

Kroon's agent calls him "The Phoenix" because he arose from the ashes to succeed in Japan. How fitting would it be if he could write the next chapter in a ballpark where a flag bearing the phoenix flies above the outfield wall? The folks who made the movie "The Rookie" about the came-from-nowhere Texan pitcher Jim Morris should start taking notes.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Weirdness of the Raiders

I can only imagine how it felt to be Hue Jackson. The onetime University of the Pacific quarterback has toiled his way up the coaching ladder and finally landed a coveted spot as an NFL head coach. That's a big day for anyone in the high-stakes, high-pressure business of pro football.

But the feel-good atmosphere of the news conference at which Jackson was introduced as the Raiders' new head coach rapidly evaporated as Raiders boss Al Davis veered into Weird-land.

It's not unfamiliar territory for Davis. And it's not even clear that his performance at the Jackson news conference was his all-time weirdest (connoisseurs of these things tend to point to the 2008 gathering where Davis used an overhead projector to display a letter he'd sent to fired coach Lane Kiffin). But still--does this stuff happen anywhere else?

Sure, pro sports is a world full of big egos and high stakes. No doubt, there's intrigue everywhere. But for all the vaunted secrecy of the Raiders organization, nobody hangs the dirty laundry out in public like the Silver and Black. While he was busy slagging his most recently-dismissed head coach, Tom Cable, Davis did the following:
  • Mocked Cable's claim that an 8-8 season meant the Raiders weren't losers anymore
  • Revealed the Raiders had been named co-defendants in a lawsuit accusing Cable of physically abusing a woman
  • Accused Cable of breaking team rules by bringing the woman in question on road trips (and also accused Cable of hiding this from Davis)
As usual with the Raiders, there are at least as many questions as answers. Foremost, why would Davis keep Cable around for the entire 2010 season after learning of what Davis clearly believed to be unacceptable behavior? The Raider boss answered that by saying he didn't want to switch coaches and create what he called "an uproar" while the Raiders had a shot at the playoffs and before he knew Jackson well enough. In other words, he'd already decided to fire Cable but let another whole season slip by before pulling the lever.

And people wonder why the Coliseum doesn't sell out anymore and how a team can go 6-0 in its division and still miss the playoffs. Only in Oakland.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Stanford's Big Win

It should have been a dark time at Stanford University. Football coach Jim Harbaugh had just fled campus for the NFL. Everyone's darling, Chris Petersen from Boise State, had said "thanks, but no thanks" to the Stanford folks.

But Stanford AD Bob Bowlsby has made a terrific choice, hiring offensive coordinator David Shaw to replace Harbaugh. In one fell swoop, Stanford gets:

  • Continuity Shaw is already familiar with the Stanford offense (and star quarterback Andrew Luck) that ran roughshod over opponents this past season.
  • Passion Shaw played at Stanford, a school he set his sights on as a young teenager. He believes deeply in the place.
  • Confidence This is a coach who believes Stanford can compete against the nation's best programs.
At his introductory news conference, Shaw invoked the names of two legendary Stanford coaches he hopes to emulate in the longevity department: Dick Gould and Tara VanDerveer. Gould ran the Stanford tennis program for nearly 40 years, winning 17 NCAA championships along the way. VanDerveer, of course, is one of college basketball's most successful coaches with 2 NCAA titles of her own.

Shaw has done the usual football coach "love every couple of years" routine, and he's ready for it to end. He joked that he wants this week's job interview st Stanford to be his last.

His challenge now will be a two-part problem: he'll have to manage expectations (Stanford is unlikely to be a #4-ranked team year after year) while at the same time refusing to buy into the traditional argument that Stanford can't win because of its stringent admission requirements.

I've always argued that those who thought Stanford was handicapped by its admissions requirements were looking at the problem the wrong way. Is it true that the vast majority of high school football players would be unable to gain admission to Stanford? Sure.

But it's also true that there are lots of kids who are "all-arounders". You know the kind: star athlete, great grades, dates the head cheerleader, helps old ladies across the street. Maybe even an Eagle Scout. They're few in number, but they are out there.

Those are the recruits Stanford needs to go after, and there's no reason to think it can't win its share of them. After all, the pool of top-notch academic schools that also compete at the highest level of athletics is pretty small: Stanford, Duke, Vanderbilt, Notre Dame, and a few others.

Again, Stanford may never win a national title. It may never run off a string of BCS bowl appearances. But it should be able to consistently post winning records and compete in the newly-aligned Pac-12, year after year.

If that happens, Shaw will be able to realize his dream and become a Stanford lifer.

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Jim and Pete Show

"What's your deal?" Thus did Pete Carroll greet Jim Harbaugh after Stanford's 2009 butt-whipping of USC. In case Harbaugh's hearing was faulty, Carroll repeated his question.

And in case Carroll didn't get the point, Harbaugh responded, "What's your deal?"

Carroll was ticked because Harbaugh ordered Stanford to go for a two-point conversion after its 7th touchdown of the day. The USC coach apparently felt Stanford might be pouring it on a bit.

Um, yes. They were pouring it on that November day. It's the way Harbaugh runs things: in your face, right at you. His Cardinal had a chance to make a statement against Big Bad USC, and he wasn't going to miss that chance.

We didn't get the chance to see how a Carroll-coached USC team would respond when next it met Stanford, because by the time Stanford nipped USC on a game-ending field goal in the tightest game of Stanford's magical 2010 season, Carroll was coaching the Seattle Seahawks of the NFL.

Don't bet that Carroll has forgotten. And now that Harbaugh has ended the Great Wooing of 2011 by hiring on with the 49ers, get ready for an even more delicious rivalry. As divisional foes, the 49ers and Seahawks will face each other twice each year.

We may never know what Harbaugh's "deal" was (or Carroll's either, for that matter), but this rivalry is a great deal for football fans. Love or despise Carroll or Harbaugh, nobody can accuse either of being colorless or boring. They're both good for football, a game that thrives on passion and energy.

Bring it on!

Monday, January 3, 2011

Bigger Than You Think

The vast majority of Bay Area residents greeted the news that the next America's Cup yacht races will be held on San Francisco Bay with a variation on the theme of, "Oh, that's nice." That's if they bothered to react at all.

Well, I'm here to tell you: this is a big damned deal.

A standard knock on yacht racing is that it's a sport for rich men--as if our beloved American pro sports are played by paupers employed by the middle class. It's a specious argument. I will admit that in the past, America's Cup races have been hard to follow--the race courses were usually well offshore and technology didn't support decent coverage.

But by the time the racing begins on the Bay in the summer of 2013 (actually, lead-up races are likely in the summer of 2012), you'll see yacht racing in a whole new light. For one thing, these are remarkable machines. The image (above right) of the new AC 72 boats (yet to be built) doesn't convey the sheer spectacle they'll present. These boats have masts 130 feet tall and will tear across the water at speeds approaching 35 MPH. And they'll be very visible, sailing right off the San Francisco waterfront.

But the biggest change will be how technology puts the racing right in your hands. Imagine turning on your iPad and watching a live video feed from one of these boats ripping across the Bay. I can tell you, as someone who's had the opportunity to drive older-generation (and smaller) America's Cup boats, it's breathtaking. The strain on the sails and lines and spars can be heard as well as felt, and current video and Internet technology will bring this to the masses. Mock me now, but you'll download the app by 2013.

The people running the massive America's Cup operation will soon be setting up offices in San Francisco. They'll be hiring local people to work on the environmental impact report, build the spectator and racing facilities, set up the broadcast center and so on. Local marine businesses will get busier. Restaurants, hotels, and caterers will see more bookings.

By late March, we'll know exactly how many teams will challenge for the Cup in the summer of 2013. It looks like it could be a dozen or more from places as far-flung as Australia, France, China, and Sweden. Each of those teams will eventually set up camp in San Francisco.

This is where the economic impact of an America's Cup really happens. Yacht racers need to work out at health clubs, buy groceries, rent apartments, pick up hardware items, and much more. Money simply flows out of each of those team compounds into the local economy. I watched it happen in Auckland, New Zealand in 1999 and 2000, where the America's Cup transformed a previously-shabby waterfront area known as the Viaduct Basin.

Personalities will emerge. The thousands of Bay Area residents who already sail will start talking the America's Cup up to their friends and neighbors. The visuals will be spectacular.

By the summer of 2013, you'll be arguing with coworkers about the best starting line tactics and wondering why Artemis Racing didn't cover Desafio Espanol's tack on that crucial leg the day before.

I told you this would be big.