Monday, December 17, 2012

Instant Classic

The 49ers were one win away from the Super Bowl last year, a highly-improbable outcome for a team that had gone 6-10 the year before, had a new head coach, and got a late start on everything due to the player lockout.

And this year, with hopes running high, the team switched quarterbacks in mid-season. That's not a typical move for an upward-trending team hoping to break through to elite status.

Well, we don't yet know how it will all turn out, but the win in Foxboro over the Patriots puts a huge stamp of approval on the 49ers' trendline. Colin Kaepernick wasn't flawless, but he was damned good. Playing on the same stage as one of the game's all-time greats, Kaepernick measured up favorably against Tom Brady.

John Madden likes to say that a team with a two-touchdown lead in the NFL is pretty safe--unless the other team has one of a very small handful of quarterbacks capable of putting up points in a hurry. Brady, Brees, Rodgers, Peyton's not a very long list.  And sure enough, even a four-touchdown lead wasn't safe in this one. Brady whipped the Patriots back from the dead, and the 49ers were on the spot.

This was your basic high-stakes test. If the 49ers had ended up losing this thing, the reasonable conclusion would have been: "Well, they're better, but they're not Patriots-level better." But the Niners didn't blink. LaMichael James' 62-yard kick return and Michael Crabtree's explosive move after a reception on the very next play put the 49ers back on top.

That still left plenty of time for Brady and Company to respond, but a fatigued 49ers defense managed to stiffen. Despite his 443 yards of passing, Tom Brady walked out of the cold, wet weather as a loser.

If the 49ers renaissance builds into a Super Bowl appearance, this game will be an important moment. It's one thing to beat the Dolphins at Candlestick. It's another to beat the limping Saints in New Orleans. But it's really something to beat Brady and the Patriots on their home turf.

Now that the deed is done, the 49ers have exactly zero time to savor the win. They need to win their final two games to guarantee the second seed in the NFC heading into the playoffs (meaning a first-round bye). But make no mistake: whether they're thinking about what they did in Foxboro or not, the Niners are a different team today. They went to the dragon's lair and came out alive. You don't forget things like that.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Future Is Now

As Bill Clinton might say, Jim Harbaugh has some brass.

It's now clear that Alex Smith's concussion was merely the trigger mechanism for something Harbaugh planned to do eventually anyway: install Colin Kaepernick as the 49ers' starting quarterback. Any debate over whether it's the right move is in the rear-view mirror, because it's a done deal and there's no turning back.

Harbaugh's switcheroo, to be charitable, is hardly the safe path. The 49ers, under Harbaugh and Smith, had become one of the NFL's elite teams. It's pointless to engage in a debate over yards-per-completion or completion percentage or anything else. This team, under this coach and quarterback, have been winners.

But they're not the team Harbaugh envisions. It takes some, well, brass to take something that doesn't appear broken and toss it out the door. Time will tell if the Kaeper-Niners are a marked improvement over the Smith-led version.

The early returns are mixed. Kaepernick has shown moments of brilliance in his three starts since the Smith injury. He's also made some mistakes. He is, in short, a young quarterback learning the ropes. But make no mistake: all indications are that this is now his job, and Smith will probably be taking his snaps somewhere else next season.

Hall of Famer Steve Young nailed it the other day when he described the NFL as a "big boy" league. The word "fair" really doesn't matter; Smith serves at management's pleasure and Harbaugh's job is to do what he thinks it takes to win.  If the team doesn't win, Harbaugh will pay the price.

But there is one slightly troubling aspect to the way this all went down. I argued in an earlier post that it's wrong to take a player's job away due to injury, but I find relatively little support for my position. That's not what troubles me. This is: stripped bare, what happened here was that an NFL starter was shoved aside because he suffered a head injury.

The NFL is slowly and painfully coming to grips with the reality of head injuries and brain damage. It finally has a protocol for dealing with concussed players, and that protocol becomes the mechanism by which Harbaugh and the 49ers make their big move. No matter what you think about the relative merits of Kaepernick and Smith, you should be at least a little concerned about the message this sends.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Getting Wally Pipped

As the Great 49ers Quarterback Controversy of 2012 continues to boil, allow me a few observations:

  • The new girl in school always looks hotter
  • We've seen this sort of thing around here before. More than once, as a matter of fact (Montana/Young, Brodie/Spurrier, etc.)
  • This is a good "problem" to have
For those who've been spending their sports-fan time awaiting an NHL settlement, welcome back. While you were away, 49ers quarterback Alex Smith was concussed. Backup Colin Kaepernick played well in consecutive wins over the Bears and the Saints, and now the debate threatens domestic tranquility.

Smith or Kaepernick? For the last two weeks, there was no debate: it had to be Kaepernick, because Smith was injured (he did suit up for the Saints game but hadn't had any meaningful practice time). But now, Smith is back at work and the question is: should he be back in the lineup?

For me, the decision is simple. A starter doesn't lose his job due to injury. This assumes, of course, that said starter is back to 100%. He gets his job back until he loses it, and that, of course, can happen at any time. But those of us who subscribe to this view are firm in the belief that if a guy was good enough to be your starter when he got hurt, he's earned the right to return when he's healthy.

Plenty would disagree, and of course, the only decision that matters here is Jim Harbaugh's. You won't see me trying to predict what he'll do; that's a fool's errand. 

The "bench Smith" crowd is justifiably wowed by Kaepernick's performance as a stand-in. He's an arresting presence; as Harbaugh says, he has a "special ability". But before you anoint Kaepernick as The Franchise, it's probably worth taking a deep breath. He has all of two NFL starts under his belt. The Saints win was a big one, for sure, but it was a huge day for the defense. Take nothing away from Kaepernick, but we're still dealing with a limited data set here.

Smith, on the other hand, is 20-6-1 as a Harbaugh-era starter. He leads the NFL in passing percentage, and his 104.1 passer rating (please don't ask me to explain the passer rating) is in the company of Rodgers (105.6), Brady (105.0), Peyton Manning (104.8), and RG3 (104.6). It's ahead of such luminaries as Brees, Ryan, Eli Manning and Romo. In short, maybe he isn't the flavor of the month, but Alex Smith is most assuredly not chopped liver.

Those who mock the "you can't lose your job through injury" point of view are always quick to invoke the name of Wally Pipp. He's the poster child for their perspective.

Pipp had been the Yankees first baseman for 10 seasons when he called in sick that fateful day in 1925. Young Lou Gehrig got the start and the rest is history.

Except it's not really that simple, and it doesn't really help the "bench Smith" argument. Pipp had been a decent player, but he was slumping badly in 1925 (hitting a good 50 points below his career average). He was on his way to falling out of the starting lineup anyway; his headache just hastened the inevitable, and gave the sports lexicon the phrase "getting Wally Pipped".

Even if the analogy isn't perfect, Alex Smith appears to be on the way to joining the Wally Pipp Society. Just reading the tea leaves, it sure looks like Kaepernick will be running the show next Sunday in St. Louis against the Rams. The week after that,  the Niners host Miami, and the Sunday after that is a Sunday night showdown against the Patriots. If Kaepernick runs that table, Smith is this year's Pipp Society Man of the Year. 

Look, the 49ers have a happy problem. No other NFL team can honestly say it feels confident in a big game with either of two QB's. Unfortunately for Smith, there's really only room for one quarterback to run the offense during practice and so, despite his success, he looks like the odd man out for now. Unfair? Probably, but it's a cruel business and Alex Smith has already seen more than his share of it.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Records Are Made To Be Broken

As soon as I heard about Jack Taylor's NCAA-record 138 point scoring performance for the Grinnell College basketball team, I thought about Bevo Francis.

Bevo Francis? Yep. He's probably the best sports story Hollywood never heard of. Francis came out of nowhere in the 1950's to put up some stunning numbers, including the 113-point game in 1954 that stood as the NCAA record until Jack Taylor came along.

And after Francis' two epic years at tiny Rio Grande College (now the University of Rio Grande), he pretty much went back to nowhere.  He spent a couple of years playing for a team that barnstormed with the Harlem Globetrotters, turned down a chance to play with the Warriors in the NBA, and wound up back home working in a steel mill.

I grew up fascinated by the notion of a guy scoring that many points in a basketball game--more than Frank Selvy's 100 for Furman (adjudged the NCAA Division 1 record); more than Wilt Chamberlain's 100 for the Warriors (the NBA mark). I loved the guy's nickname: "Bevo", the name of a "near-beer" sold during Prohibition (and apparently, a favorite beverage of Clarence Francis' father). And I thought I had some special inside knowledge because I knew how to pronounce the name of his alma mater: "RYE-oh Grand".

What I didn't really grasp as a kid was that Bevo Francis was more than just an oddity. He burst upon the scene as college basketball was stumbling out of the terrible point-shaving scandal of the early 50's. Rio Grande College had fewer than 100 students when Francis arrived in 1952. He actually had a 116-point game in the '52-'53 season but it came against a junior college. His 50.1 points per game average that season was ignored by the NCAA because Rio Grande played so many two-year schools.

So the next year, Rio Grande upped the ante, and America paid attention. The Redmen played all of their games on the road--places like Madison Square Garden (they drew almost 14,000) and the Boston Garden, opponents like Wake Forest, Villanova, Providence, and North Carolina State. They won their share; Francis averaged 46.5 a game, and capped it with the 113-point night against Michigan's Hillsdale College.

That night, Francis was 38-of-70 (54.3%) from the floor and 37-of-45 (82.2%) from the line, stats that compare favorably with the 52-of-108 (48.1%) floor and 7-of-10 (70%) line numbers put up by Taylor. It's worth noting that Francis didn't have the 3-point shot at his disposal while Taylor hit 27 treys on the way to his 138 points.

Jack Taylor, of course, set his record in the instant-communication era. Tweets were flying even as he was jacking up jumpers en route to the record; Facebook lit up with posts as soon as the game ended. Francis, playing in the pre-Telstar world of 58 years ago, was always a sort of gauzy figure, almost more myth than reality.

No offense to Jack Taylor or to Grinnell College, which plays an exciting brand of press-and-fire basketball that has turned the Pioneers into a reliable 100-plus-per-game scoring machine. But I still like the Legend of Bevo Francis, and that will always be the scoring record I treasure.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Don't Bother Me With the Facts

We're into baseball's post-postseason silliness now. It's Awards Week (presented by somebody-or-other, no doubt).

Look, I know the whole debate about who should win the Cy Young or the MVP or the Fireman of the Year (do they still have that one?) is mostly meaningless--unless you're the ballplayer with the fat postseason award bonus in your contract.

But baseball fans love nothing more than a good loud debate, and nothing says "sports bar argument" like the battle over something like an MVP award.

All cards on the table: I still think one of the all-time great ripoffs was in 1972, when Phillies pitcher Steve Carlton was denied the NL MVP award. Oh sure, they gave Lefty a Cy Young after he won 27 games and posted a 1.97 ERA. But I've always argued: who could have been more valuable to his team than a guy who won 46% of his team's games? That's right, the Phillies were awful in '72. They won only 59 games, and Carlton won 27 of them! Apparently, the voters were swayed by Johnny Bench's league-leading HR and RBI numbers, and the fact that his Reds won the pennant.

So yes, I may march to a different beat on this issue, and it's probably a good thing I don't have a vote.  Still, the notion that a Most Valuable Player should come from a winning team is deeply-embedded in the mythos of the sport. I don't get it.

Take this year's AL MVP award. It's basically a two-man conversation: Detroit's Miguel Cabrera and Anaheim's Mike Trout. Yes, I know: Cabrera won the Triple Crown and the Tigers went to the World Series while the Angels didn't even make the playoffs.

But you don't have to dig very deeply to at least challenge the notion that Cabrera was the more-valuable player in 2012. For starters, Cabrera beat Trout in the batting average race by .004, which means that a swing of 3 hits between the two players would have given Trout the batting title and denied Cabrera that gaudy crown.

Take away that magical phrase, and what does that leave us? A slow third baseman with maybe-average defensive skills vs. a game-changing baserunner who's already among the best centerfielders in the game.Trout stole 49 bases in 54 attempts, led the major leagues in runs scored (129 in just 139 games), and established himself as the scariest leadoff hitter in the business--at age 21. Cabrera? Well, he did lead the majors by grounding into 28 double plays.

In short, a big, plodding masher against a five-tool guy. You can go a lot deeper on this with the advanced baserunning and fielding stats now available (in fact, Nate Silver does so here), but you're just adding frosting to the cake. If you think Cabrera should win the MVP, you're buying (on some level) into the old "his team was a winner" idea and maybe (on some level) into the mythological thrill of a Triple Crown.

Two final thoughts (and yes, I am aware that Cabrera will undoubtedly win this thing): the Angels did win more games than the Tigers (89 to 88).  And really, who would you choose if you could only have one of them on your roster? That's my MVP.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Romo Nails It

It's the calm after the storm, the morning after the crazy party you never really wanted to see end.

The confetti's been swept up, the barricades have been taken down, the circus has left town.

Yet as I drove into San Francisco before dawn this morning, the orange lights still bathed numerous buildings and the neon  sign blazed away on the brick building down by McCovey Cove: "AT&T Park, Home of the San Francisco Giants."

Look, pro sports franchises are big enterprises which employ a few millionaires so the rest of us can enjoy ourselves. It's often dangerous to go any deeper than that.  But the Giants--from their 32 largely-local owners to their remarkably diverse roster--do seem to have an uncommon connection to their community.

Leave it to resident imp/provocateur/pitcher Sergio Romo to nail it.

The hyperkinetic Romo couldn't be confined to an automobile during the World Series parade. He hopped, skipped, and jogged his way down Market Street, providing as much joy as he seemed to be experiencing himself.

And when he got to the stage in front of City Hall, Romo followed the theme expressed by numerous teammates: "You fans helped us win this." But he went farther. This Mexican-American guy from the border town of Brawley stood there, sporting his "I Just Look Illegal" T-shirt.

It was a nakedly political moment in a town where left-of-center politics is as common as expensive coffee or high-priced parking tickets. When Romo talked about Giants fans, he didn't just say, "You're loud! You're the best!" No, he said, with apparent emotion, "Look at the diversity--the different faces from different places, the different strokes for different folks."

Romo's observation was a fastball down the middle, just like that final pitch of the World Series to Miguel Cabrera. He gets the essence of The City (and much of the Bay Area): a place where a whole bunch of people with a whole bunch of different stories generally manage to get along and sometimes thrive.

The Giants themselves are quite a patchwork quilt, from the stolid Buster Posey to the camo-capped Madison Bumgarner to the yoga-hip Barry Zito to those energetic Latinos Romo and Pablo Sandoval to....well, Brian Wilson.  A face and a story for everyone.

It's one thing to root for the home team because they're from your town.  It's bigger and better to feel some kind of cultural connection. And to know that the objects of your affection understand that? Priceless.

Monday, October 29, 2012

A New Reality

Full disclosure: I am a Giants fan. It's a lifetime deal; I have as much Johnnie LeMaster and Frank Linzy in my DNA as I do Pablo Sandoval and Sergio Romo. I have the ticket stubs, season-ticket invoices, blankets and Croix de Candlestick to prove my oft-misplaced loyalty.

There were some lean years. Very lean years. And then there was the epic release of 2010, the first-ever San Francisco Giants title.

And now, this. The beyond-improbable comebacks in the National League Division Series and National League Championship Series. The uproarious Game 1 spanking of Tigers ace Justin Verlander along with the utter, complete, and permanent redemption of Barry Zito. The sacking of the Motor City en route to the sweep none of the "experts" saw coming.

I certainly don't pretend to speak for every Giants fan, but I know this: many of us are on strange ground now. The reality we've known for all those years has shifted. No longer are the Giants a bunch of near-missers or lovable losers. When you win it all twice in a three-year span, you're doing something deeply and fundamentally right.

Of course, the Baseball Gods are fickle. So many things large and small can dictate the outcome of a game, a series, a season. There are no guarantees of future performance. Yet there it is: two titles in three years.

So the question is: how do we adjust to this new reality? Do we end up like Yankees fans, who simply expect a championship each year as a sort of birthright? How about those Red Sox fans, who wore the team's historic futility like a hair shirt for years, then seemed to reverse it so the scratchy side was out once the team had some success?

Or do we stay the course and maintain a healthy sense of amazement at whatever good fortune falls our way? I think you can see my mindset.  I hope I can maintain it.

Now, another championship next year might change things...

Friday, October 26, 2012

A Miracle Every Night

As I write, it's been less than a week since the Giants were washed up and left for dead on the banks of the Mississippi River. If you bleed orange and black, you're free to admit that last Friday morning, you were ready to let go of baseball. The Giants trailed the Cardinals 3 games to 1 and the oft-maligned Barry Zito had the ball for a game the Giants needed to win to stay alive.

No need to review the details of what's happened since then. The Giants have won five straight pressure-packed postseason games--three of them "do or die" matches in which a loss would have ended their season.

5 wins in 7 days; a gloriously crazy week that surely must rank among the most remarkable sports weeks anywhere, any time.

But it's not just the wins that make all this so stupendous. It's the way the Giants have been winning. In every one of these games, there's been a moment when you just knew the fates were on their side. You can call it luck or call it a balancing of the scales (does anyone really think the 2010 Word Series win completely makes up for all those years in the desert?), but it's proof that baseball is about more than just honest effort.

The Week That Was has delivered the glorious insanity of that NLCS Game 7 with its rain-soaked finish. It included the "where-did-THAT-come-from" undressing of Tigers ace Justin Verlander (and another Zito gem) in World Series Game 1.

And then there was the nail-biting tension of Game 2, a taut pitching battle that went to the bottom of the 7th in a scoreless tie. You could say the Baseball Gods had already interceded when Tigers first baseman Prince Fielder was thrown out at the plate in the second inning, but that was just an example of human frailty (what could Tigers third-base coach Gene Lamont have been thinking?).

No, the moment when everyone looked to the sky and laughed was in that bottom of the 7th, when the bunt everyone knew Gregor Blanco had to get down eased its way to a stop inches inside the third-base line. Hume plate umpire Dan Iassogna looked like a cat crouching over a mouse hole while he waited for the ball to stop, and his emphatic "fair" call blew the lid off the place. The play loaded the bases and set up the only run the Giants would need.

As Giants third-base coach and resident mystic Tim Flannery would later say, "You just go home and thank the higher power of whoever's in charge." Exactly. But what Flannery added may be equally important: "Try not to piss the other ones off."

No one's ever seen the Gods of Baseball. But few who follow the game doubt their existence. For now, they seem to be favoring the Boys of McCovey Cove.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Three Paths To Redemption

There's no point trying to explain the Giants' Game 1 win over the Tigers. It's just more of the same crazy juju that's carried the team and its fans for a fortnight. Plus, as I messaged a friend during the game, it's unbelievable how many times I've used the word "unbelievable" in the last few days.

So let's spend some time reflecting on the remarkable paths taken by the Giants' three Game 1 heroes: Sandoval, Zito and Lincecum.

There are moments in your life you never forget, and for me, one of them came on the morning of August 14, 2008. My carpool-mate and colleague Steve Bitker called me over to the sports desk in the KCBS newsroom, where his TV was showing the Giants play a day game in Houston. Over the course of the morning, a few others gathered whenever a rotund young Giants catcher came to the plate.

History records Pablo Sandoval went 0-for-3 in that game and drove in a run with a sacrifice fly. What I'll never forget was how it looked: a chubby guy with that approachable round face, just slashing at the ball. In those pre-Panda days, Sandoval was a curiosity, but anyone who saw him squaring up pitches in and out of the strike zone could see this guy could hit. A raw, native talent; a diamond in the rough.

Four days later, the Giants closed out that road trip in Atlanta. Sandoval again started at catcher and went 2-for-4 with an RBI, leaving him with a .417 Major League batting average before he ever played a game in San Francisco. But that Sunday game in Atlanta carries extra weight in our little narrative, for the starting pitcher that day was...Barry Zito.

Zito was in the second year of the mega-contract that has, for so many, defined him. He was 6-15 with an ERA well above 5.00 when he took the mound in Atlanta that day. And he went 7 shutout innings, the sort of brilliant performance he produced from time to time--but never often enough to offset all the bad days. Zito was on his way to leading the Major Leagues in losses that year.

2008 was not much of a year for the Giants. The team finished 18 games under .500 and 12 games out of first. But fans were thrilling to the exploits of a singular talent, a kid they called The Freak. Tim Lincecum won the Cy Young Award in his first full big-league season.

Two years later, the Giants won the World Series for the first time in the lifetime of anyone on the roster. Lincecum was a star, winning 4 games including 2 in the World Series. Sandoval was mostly a spectator, getting only 19 plate appearances and batting .176 as Giants management questioned his obesity. Zito? Not even on the postseason roster.

And now here we are, two years later. Sandoval is still heavy, and he's gone through two straight seasons where he missed time with wrist surgery, but he's locked-in at the plate like he was on that 2008 road trip and his Game 1 three-homer performance puts him in the company of The Babe, Reggie, and Pujols (try saying it out loud without giggling: "Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson, Albert Pujols...Pablo Sandoval!").

Lincecum has gone from the most dominant pitcher in the game to a guy who led the league in losses this year and posted an ERA above 5.00, eerily similar to Zito's 2008 stats. Unlike Zito in '10, he's on the roster, but in a new role: super-reliever. He appears to be having fun again, and with an ERA under 3.00 and 17 strikeouts in 15 innings, he's dealing. Twice, he's answered the call in a Zito start: once to pick up a win in an NLCS comeback and then to get a "hold" in Zito's World Series win.

That brings us to Zito. Anyone who still wants to talk about "the contract" at this point is either stupid or petty or both. In two of the most pressure-packed moments in recent Giants history, Zito has come up big.  Very big. His Game 5 NLCS start in St. Louis saved the Giants' season. And to outduel Justin Verlander in a World Series game? Please. Zito sports a 1.69 postseason ERA this year, and let's not forget his two hits and two RBI's at the plate.

Three unique men. Three twisting paths, each traversing hill and dale, often in unexpected directions. Challenges thrown down--physically and mentally--and met. Their journeys have come together now, in the World Series.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

And Your New Villain Is...

Now that Matt Holliday has left town, the leather-lunged portion of the crowd at AT&T Park will need a new target.

They won't have to look far, and he's a hard guy to miss.

Tigers first baseman Prince Fielder is the one guy the Giants' Pablo Sandoval can stand next to and not be the "big guy" in the photo.  Fielder is listed at 275 pounds, and he's a big target in more ways than one.

Let's just say that Fielder's persona can be as outsized as his physique, and it doesn't always rub other baseball people the right way. Case in point: the infamous "bowling ball" stunt in a September, 2009 game in Milwaukee. Fielder hit a walk-off homer to beat the Giants, and when he arrived at home plate, he played the role of the bowling ball while his Brewers teammates played the pins. The choreographed stunt didn't please the Giants.

And they weren't alone. Angels outfielder Torii Hunter was quoted as saying, "If I was a pitcher, I'd be ticked off. You can't do that." It was, pure and simple, a violation of one of baseball's many unwritten rules: you can celebrate, but you can't show up your opponents. And if you need to ask whether you've crossed the line, you probably already have.

The Giants seethed, but not for long. While Fielder's stunt ended the last Giants-Brewers game of 2009, it was on a March 2010 afternoon in Arizona that the baseball gods got their offering. Fielder was plunked in the back by a pitch thrown in a Cactus League game. His reaction? "Let them hit me once, and if that makes them feel better, that's awesome."

And because storylines always work out this way, the guy who threw the pitch will watch Fielder dig in against him during Game 1 of the World Series. That's right, it was Barry Zito, who issued the typical "we were just trying to work inside" non-denial denial.

Case closed, as far as that goes. But it's worth noting that nine current Giants players (if you count disabled-but-very-present Freddy Sanchez and Brian Wilson) were at Miller Park for the Fielder stunt. Zito, of course, was one of them.

And so was a young phenom named Buster Posey, sitting in the Giants dugout during his first week in the big leagues. He saw it all, and catchers have long memories.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Bathing In Victory

Mesmerizing, isn't it? If there's any way to sum up the Giants' incredible, improbable, emotional, can't-really-believe-it's-true Game 7 NLCS win over the Cardinals, it's that broken-bat hit by Hunter Pence that turned a 2-0 Giants lead into a 5-0 rout.

I love to bash Fox and its intrusive, braying coverage of baseball. But credit where it's due: the remarkable replay you're seeing on this page is a window into the magic that seems to be crouched on the shoulders of the Giants.

Of course, the 43,000 of us who saw the game in person were unaware of Pence's magic act. We saw Cards shortstop Pete Kozma break the wrong way on Pence's bases-loaded grounder. We saw Cards center fielder Jon Jay botch the pickup, allowing Buster Posey to wheel all the way around from first to score. And we saw the game go from a nail-biting tension-fest to a backslapping, high-fiving party.

In all my years as a Giants fan, I don't think I've ever seen anything like it. More than just the roar of a crowd happy with a home-team win, it was the giddy outpouring of amazement from folks who could scarcely believe their good fortune. Let's not forget: a fortnight ago, the Giants slunk off to Cincinnati, a loss away from ending their season.

And then there was the Great American Comeback, punctuated by Buster Posey's epic grand slam off a cartoon villain named Mat Latos. Somehow, some way, the Giants came off the mat to win that series against the Reds and set up a showdown between the last two World Series champs for the right to go to this year's Series.

And then the script repeated itself. Down 3-to-1 in a best-of-seven series and facing elimination on the road, the Giants sent Barry Zito to the mound. And he pitched a game that will be spoken of in reverential tones as long as people gather to talk Giants baseball. 

In the last three games of this NLCS, the Giants outscored the Cards 20-1. The indelible moments included Zito's RBI bunt single, Pence's trick-show double, an endless barrage of hits by Marco Scutaro, Brandon Crawford's leaping catch of Kyle Lohse's scary line drive, a screeching homer and equally-loud triple off the bat of Brandon Belt, and a series of defensive boners by the Cards.

Oh, and the relentless grinding of Zito, Vogelsong, Cain and a host of bullpen heroes. When the indefatigable Sergio Romo got the call in Game 7, he bounded through the downpour, buoyed by a frenzied crowd. Romo's path is so improbable it would never pass muster in Hollywood, yet there he was, the man of the moment that seemed like it could never happen.

And of course, it had to end with newly-minted villain Matt Holliday popping up to Scutaro, the man he tried to shatter with his Game 2 "slide" at second base. Just before that play, Scutaro, a 36-year-old professional who has never been to the World Series, looked up into the rain and smiled broadly. Pure, unbridled, silly, giggly joy.

Meteorologists say it rained nearly a half-inch during the 8th and 9th innings of Game 7. During the regular season, the game would surely have been halted and then called, but Major League Baseball requires postseason games to go the full nine innings, no matter what it takes.

Few in the crowd cared. Few left, and few sought shelter. It was like a party no one wanted to see end, a party that was a party precisely because it was so unexpected. The best gifts are always like that.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

It's On

Matt Holliday's chop-block on Marco Scutaro may have done more than a Hunter Pence dugout sermon to build a fire under the San Francisco Giants and their fans. Here in the Bay Area, it was a dirty play. In the alternate universe beside the Mississippi River, it was good old country hardball.

Former Giants pitcher Mike Krukow called it "a bush play", which in baseball-talk, is about as vile an epithet as one can deliver. You can dismiss Krukow as a "homer", but it's way deeper than that. Krukow played on the Giants teams of the 80's, a time when a raging rivalry marked the relationship between the Giants and Cards.

Roger Craig managed the Giants; Whitey Herzog ran the Cardinals.  Neither had much use for the other. Actually, I'm pretty sure it was more like an intense mutual dislike. Their teams reflected it. Giants-Cardianls games were grinding affairs, punctuated on occasion by brawls.  And these weren't usually your basic baseball push-and-shove affairs. One memorable bout saw Giants catcher Bob Brenly and Cards icon Ozzie Smith brawling on the infield dirt after a takeout slide. Brenly punched Smith in the face, and if  memory serves, The Wizard of Oz later dismissively asked, "Who the f*** is Bob Brenly?"

The high (or low) point of all this was the memorable 1987 NL Championship Series between the two teams. 7 games, all played before crowds of 55,000 or more. Giants left fielder Jeffrey Leonard homered in each of the first four games and enraged St. Louisans with his "one flap down" home run trot (and I do mean trot, the Hac-Man took his sweet time). The good people of Missouri showered Leonard with invective and even some garbage, and rattled cowbells in his direction (though it was teammate Chili Davis who had slurred St. Louis as "a cow town").

Krukow had a complete-game win in Game 4 of that NLCS and after a Game 5 win at Candlestick Park, the Giants needed a split in St. Louis to achieve their first World Series berth in 25 years.  No go. The Cards won Games 6 and 7 before losing an epic 7-game World Series to the Twins.

So here we are, a quarter-century later. The NLCS moves to St. Louis all knotted at a game apiece and with Scutaro's status uncertain. Holliday's defense of his dastardly deed was far from full-throated: "I wish I had slid one step earlier," he said.  Well, yes.  Or maybe two steps earlier.

Meanwhile, Giants reliever Sergio Romo goofs off in the background during dugout live shots, and injured icon Brian Wilson sports a black-and-orange manicure while tapping out a rhythm on teammate Clay Hensley's head.  Giants fans are loving that stuff; no doubt, the Busch Stadium crowd was not amused.

Game on.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Tale Of Two Cities

Better read this posting in a hurry; the who-can-believe-they're-both-still-in-it Game 5 Division Series contests for the Giants and A's are just a few hours away as I write.

But last night's maelstrom at the Oakland Coliseum (I flat-out refuse to call it the "O.Co Coliseum") demands comment, especially when you compare it with the scene across the bay at AT&T Park.

The A's finished 27th of the 30 Major League teams in attendance this year; the Giants 4th. The Giants played to 99.5% of capacity for the season; the A's to 60.6% of capacity in their tarp-strangled home yard.

Advantage, San Francisco  right?  I don't think so.

I started ruminating on this during the regular season. As a longtime Giants season-ticket holder, I've watched the change in fan demeanor over the years. Yes, I know the Giants say they've sold out 10,000 consecutive games (or something like that), but I can tell you: in the section where I sit, plenty of those tickets go unused.  I can also tell you that I seldom see the same people twice in my section. That suggests a less-rabid fan base than the Giants once enjoyed.

This all came home last weekend, when the Giants lost twice to the Reds at the start of the NLDS. As I settled in for Game 1, I saw a fellow wearing a Reds cap heading for the seats next door. Not unusual: I often have out-of-town guests in my section (can you say, "Stubhub"?).

He and his wife were nice folks; Southern California residents who were thrilled to be able to see his boyhood home team in a postseason game.  They were sitting in $60 face value seats; they'd paid more than that on the secondary market.

And they were amazed by two things: the beauty of AT&T Park, and the general lack of energy in the stands.  "Is it always this quiet here?," he asked.  Before I answered, I looked around. There were two young women working their smartphones. Another couple busy snapping photos of each other. 4 or 5 empty seats. "Not always," I replied.  But the truth is, the San Francisco crowd that night was not an energetic one.

Contrast that with the start-to-finish madness at the Coliseum. It's a smaller crowd, in a ballpark that nobody is going to call "beautiful". But there's a kind of frantic energy that you can just feel. It's brash and gutsy and raw.

Maybe I'm straining here, and I hate to play into any longstanding stereotypes ("Oh, those white-wine sippers" vs. "Eew, motorcycle gang members"), but here's how it feels to me: going to a Giants game these days is like making a reservation at a nice restaurant. You'll be surrounded by the kind of people who do that sort of thing. The place will be nice, the ambiance enjoyable, and the potential for disruption low. When it's over, you'll head home, amiably dissecting the high points of the evening before checking your e-mail again.

By contrast, an A's game is like a visit to a dive bar.  The place looks sort of grimy, there's a kind of noisy bonhomie, and the evening will probably end with you making a new BFF (that tattooed guy wearing the Tony Armas jersey).

Two teams, two ballparks, two vibes.  No value judgments here.

Let's just hope there's another week or two of fun at both joints.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

K's for the A's

The Oakland A's are just plain weird. Weird in a cool, not-like-everybody else way.

The team of no-names is on the verge of making the playoffs, probably as a wild card team but possibly as AL West champs. The A's are succeeding despite injuries, suspensions, offensive ineptitude, name it.

I wrote hopefully earlier in the season about their pursuit of the all-time lowest team batting average. Since then, the A's have cranked up their offense and will not become the worst-hitting team in baseball history. However, their .237 team batting average is almost 20 points below the AL average, and leads only woeful Seattle in the league standings.

Yet we can still celebrate a record for the 2012 A's. When Chris Carter struck out against the Rangers last night, the A's broke the all-time American League record for strikeouts in a season, and kept on fanning. As of this writing, they've made the U-turn to the dugout 1333 times this year (although someone might have taken a called third while I was writing that last sentence).

It's probably too much to ask for the A's to break the all-time MLB record for strikeouts in a season. The 2010 Arizona Diamondbacks fanned 1529 times, a remarkable 9.43 whiffs per game. Of course, the D-backs employed the King of K, Mark Reynolds, who struck out 211 times that year. He was aided and abetted by Adam LaRoche (172) and Justin Upton (152).

The A's, in keeping with their "little engine that could" approach, don't have a true strikeout standout. Josh Reddick (137) and Yoenis Cespedes (100) are the team leaders, but in true A's fashion, everyone has chipped in here and there.

In order to catch the D-Backs, the A's would have to rack up 28 strikeouts a game over the final week of the season. Sure, it seems impossible, but everything about the 2012 A's seems a little impossible.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The NFL's Waterloo

Bert Bell was the NFL commissioner who uttered the immortal line about pro football parity: "On any given Sunday, any team in the NFL can beat any other team."

Roger Goodell is the NFL commissioner who has seen this come home to roost, and it's not a good thing. The episode some are calling "Clueless in Seattle" makes it clear that the NFL's lost its battle with its referees. The lockout has to end, and it has to end soon.

You can go elsewhere for micro-dissection of the last-second end zone call that gave Seattle a 14-12 win over Green Bay in front of a home crowd and the big "Monday Night Football" TV audience. I'll leave the call to speak for itself (although, as the last dyed-in-the-wool opponent of instant replay, I can't help but note the irony here--the God-awful call wasn't reviewable under NFL rules).  

What I want to talk about is how this incident affects the NFL's very essence. The multi-billion dollar industry that is pro football (and the massive TV audience that's a part of that) relies on one underlying belief: the game itself is a fair competition.

Now, the belief is shattered. Who can say what'll happen next? We're seeing players and coaches griping about the good calls, because they've lost faith. It's like when the wimpy substitute teacher walks into the unruly classroom. Once you've lost the room, you're screwed.

The NFL takes its image seriously. Very seriously. The "No Fun League" worries about what kind of baseball cap Alex Smith wears and once told 49er coach Mike Nolan he couldn't wear a coat and tie on the sideline. Yet the lords of the sport have been willing to gamble with the very foundation of their game.

Speaking of gambling, it's often been said that the reason pro sports organizations put so much emphasis on enforcing rules against gambling by players and coaches is that wagering raises questions about the integrity of the game. Back in the 1960's, the NFL even suspended one of its biggest stars, Packers running back Paul Hornung, for an entire season for gambling on NFL games, though there was no evidence that Hornung tried to throw any games.  With all due respect, chronically-inept officiating is no better for the integrity of the sport.

I'm not alone in this line of thinking. No less a fan of the NFL than Pro Football Hall of Famer John Madden said today, "The way it's going now--that's not NFL football." And a far more damning comment from Madden: "You have no confidence in the outcome of the game."

Enough. If the NFL gives a damn about itself as a sport and not just a spectacle, it has to fix this. John Madden is calling on the owners themselves to step in, and as stewards of a tradition, they need to do exactly that. Soon.

Monday, September 10, 2012

One Down, Fifteen To Go

What can you say about a game where your star tight end gets rejected by the crossbar while attempting a post-TD celebratory dunk...and your placekicker's end-of-the-half 63-yarder hits the same crossbar...and goes over?

You can say the odds are in your favor. And if you're the San Francisco 49ers, you're feeling pretty good about things after going into Lambeau Field and beating the Packers 30-22.  The 49ers were simply the better team and Alex Smith continued to prove that he has arrived as a first-tier NFL quarterback. Is he Aaron Rodgers' equal? Let's not go there; it's a pointless debate. Can the 49ers win behind Alex Smith? Well, they've won 15 of their last 19 games with Smith at the helm. Case closed.

The 49ers won with execution and with creativity. Fullback Bruce Miller was deployed as a wide receiver on one play. A first-quarter blitz brought both cornerbacks and gave Carlos Rogers the first sack of his career. Second-half defensive packages often took star linebacker Patrick Willis off the field. Colin Kaepernick's one play produced a 17-yard sprint for a first down.

Questions were answered. Newly-acquired wide receivers Randy Moss and Mario Manningham combined for 8 catches, 76 yards, and a TD (Moss), proving that the 49ers now have a fleet of wideouts to go with Vernon Davis. Playoff goat Kyle Williams was flawless on punt duty; he caught everything and picked up 20 yards the only time he eschewed the fair catch. Frank Gore hasn't lost a step entering his 8th pro season; he ripped Green Bay for 112 yards, including a dagger-to-the-heart 23-yard TD blast in the 4th quarter.

It would be safe to bet that these two teams will see each other again during playoff season. If--and it's always a big "if" in the NFL--everyone stays healthy, you have to think the 49ers would have the edge. And that sure beats the alternative.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Who ARE Those Guys?

Paul Newman said it in the classic movie "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid": "I couldn't do that. Could you do that? Why can they do it? Who are those guys?".

Butch was talking about the trackers he and the Sundance Kid couldn't shake. Most of the American League may well be saying the same thing about the Oakland A's.

The A's are the hottest team in baseball since the All-Star break and are currently holding an AL wild card slot. And yes, this is the same team I wrote about three months ago when they were threatening an all-time record for offensive futility. At the time, the A's team batting average was .210. Yes, you read that correctly.

Things are still pretty offensive with the A's offense. The team's batting average is up to .232, but that's still last in the AL, even worse than the dreadful Seattle Mariners. Cliff Pennintgon's sub-.200 batting average at shortstop was a glaring hole, so the A's went out and got another guy (Stephen Drew) who's hitting below the Mendoza Line.

There are offensive bright spots: Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes are having solid seasons, and the two-headed first base combo of Chris Carter and Brandon Moss has combined for 26 homers since their May call-ups.

But the real answer to the Butch Cassidy question is the pitching.  Even after losing Gio Gonzalez (who may win 20 for the Nationals), Trevor Cahill (9 wins and a 3.99 ERA in Arizona) and closer Andrew Bailey (just coming off a season-long injury in Boston), the 2012 A's staff trails only Tampa's in AL ERA and only the Angels in staff shutouts (the A's have 13 whitewashes this year).

Even their pitching dominance is sort of, well, A's-like, which is to say: not eye-popping. Tommy Milone's win in Cleveland last night moved him into the team lead--with 11 (he'd been tied with Bartolo Colon, who will not win any more games this year as he serves a doping suspension). The only other guy with more than 20 starts is Jarrod Parker, who has all of 8 wins.

Yet, just like those trackers in "Butch Cassidy", the A's are not just staying with their prey--they're gaining on them. Just as Colon was banned, lefty Brett Anderson returned after Tommy John surgery--and promptly dominated in his first two starts.

How they're doing it might be a bit of a mystery, but the A's--puny payroll, dumpy ballpark and all--are chasing the big boys, and you know how the movie ended.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Live Strong

My carpool buddy, colleague, and regular verbal sparring partner Steve Bitker asked me on the way to work this morning what I thought about the Lance Armstrong matter. And the best I could do by way of answer was to say, "it's complicated".

It's complicated for a lot of reasons. Armstrong himself is complicated: a prickly, combative bundle of Texas bravado who survived cancer and then brought the Euro-centric sport of cycling to heel. Armstrong won those 7 Tour de France titles as the undisputed boss of the peloton. Whether he was doping or not, nobody could dispute the sheer force of will and power of personality that Armstrong brought to his sport.

But (and with full knowledge that I'm cribbing the title of his autobiography), it's not just about the bike with Lance Armstrong. He sees himself as something more than a rider. A crusader, a conscience, a mentor, a s***-disturber--pick one or more.  The Lance Armstrong Foundation is a major player on the cancer front. While other world-class athletes retire to celebrityhood, Armstrong has created something meaningful that I suspect will barely feel a blip from this development.

It's complicated because the whole anti-doping campaign is a bit murky.  Most people agree that sports should be a place for fairness, but beyond that, things get a little tricky.  Is it fair that some athletes are allowed to use medications that clearly improve their own ability to perform (asthma drugs, painkillers, ADHD medications, etc.)? What about things like hyperbaric chambers? And on and on we go, splitting hairs finer and finer. 

And then there's the actual process. The US Anti-Doping Agency has the curious power to end someone's career (the "lifetime ban" being levied on Armstrong means he can't compete, coach, or play any official role in any sport that follows the World Anti-Doping Code).  Yet USADA can't bring criminal charges (recall that a Justice Department investigation of Armstrong was dropped) and doesn't operate under the same rules we use in our criminal courts.

Armstrong attacks the process as "unconstitutional" (here's his statement); others have complained that our anti-doping rules require the accused to prove his innocence (as opposed to forcing the accuser to prove guilt).  Most of us would assume that before someone is banned from his sport for life, there'd at least be a positive test result entered as evidence.  But it turns out that's not necessary under USADA's rules. And make no mistake: the rules are not exactly simple. Olympic gold medal-winner Hope Solo was slapped on the wrist this year after she took something a doctor prescribed for menstrual problems.

At the end of the day, nobody proved anything here. USADA can't say it nailed Armstrong. Armstrong can't say he cleared his name. Essentially, he's telling the world, "I'm bigger than this. Do whatever you like."  It does seem at odds with his image for the pugnacious Armstrong to walk away from a fight. Some will see that as evidence of his guilt; others buy his claim that the process is flawed and he had no hope of a fair hearing.

So back to Steve's question: what do I think?  I think Armstrong remains a mythic figure. I know he dominated a sport riddled with drug use. I can't say for sure, but it wouldn't surprise me if he doped too. I am certain that his persona is way bigger than cycling; folks who couldn't find the Alpe d'Huez if you spotted them the proper French d├ępartement are wearing Livestrong bracelets today. And this part is tricky, because forecasting history is very dangerous business, but I think that many years from now, Armstrong will be known more for his exploits on the roads of France and his tireless work on the cancer battle lines than for whatever USADA writes in its press release announcing its decision. That's what I think about Lance Armstrong.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Scratching the Surface on Steroids

Plenty of people are asking one question in the wake of the Melky Cabrera steroid suspension: "How could he?"

The answer's pretty simple: because he comes from a culture where this sort of thing happens all the time.

A better question: "How do the people who want to get the drugs out of sports deal with the fact that so many of their players come from a place where they'll do anything to get ahead?"

Melky Cabrera may someday be seen as a cautionary tale. Or, and I fear more likely, he'll just be a more-visible-than-most example of a dirty system that most American baseball fans have no idea even exists.

Cabrera was born in the Dominican Republic, an impoverished nation that provided 11% of the players on Major League Baseball's Opening Day rosters this year, making it the biggest foreign supplier of MLB labor. He signed his first pro contract with the Yankees at age 17. His $175,000 signing bonus was 36 times the average Dominican annual income (for comparison's sake, an American player would need a $1.5 million bonus to get the same income multiple).

Cabrera's first appearance as a professional ballplayer came the following summer in the Dominican Summer League, a place where performance-enhancing drugs are either exceedingly common or the players are exceedingly clumsy in their doping efforts--or both. I counted at least 14 DSL players who were hit with 50-game suspensions for using steroids in 2011, and the beat goes on: when I clicked on the 2012 DSL website, the only items showing in the "League News" section were more drug suspensions.

The news that a man named Juan Nunez, working on Cabrera's behalf, tried to flim-flam MLB officials with a fake website touting a supplement that supposedly caused the positive drug test is very revealing. Cabrera's agents, Sam and Seth Levinson, apparently used Nunez as a go-between for their Dominican clients. The Levinsons are emphatic in painting Nunez as a lone wolf, saying that he was not a salaried employee and doesn't even have a company phone. In other words: plausible deniability.

The Levinsons' agency ACES represents a number of MLB players, including New York Mets star David Wright. They stood to reap a healthy payday if Cabrera's drug use had gone undetected and he signed the expected fat free agent deal after this season. Who knows? Maybe they still will.

Even if they don't, the Levinsons remain a part of a system that is all too happy to scoop up the poor, young and desperate of the Dominican Republic, offer them a lottery-ticket way out, and watch as a disproportionate number of these players end up trying to secure their future with performance-enhancing drugs. As the fine documentary film "Ballplayer: Pelotero" showed, this business of scouting and signing poor, uneducated teenagers is not a pretty thing.

Melky Cabrera entered this system 11 years ago. It's since paid him more than $6 million (or, in Dominican terms, 123 times the average annual income for that timeframe). This is a man who, though he first played ball in the US 9 years ago, still speaks almost no English. This is a man who has fathered three children by three different women, who left home to play baseball at an age where American kids are sweating out their driver's license exam.

Please don't read this as an excuse for cheating. Please do read this as a request that all of us who love baseball spend a little time thinking about the broader issues here. Melky Cabrera's name was already widely known when he got caught. Bet you'd never heard of Amalio Reyes, or Marcos Coca, or Eliseo Batista, or any of the numerous other Dominican players who tested positive. But they all saw baseball as a way out and, sadly, it appears they were all willing to do anything to succeed.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Bye Bye Birdie

It's ready-made material for comedy writers: an Olympic badminton scandal! 8 players have been DQ'd in London after tanking their matches, and around the world, you can hear the clucks of disapproval.

The legendary British sportsman Lord Sebastian Coe called it "depressive" and "unacceptable". Fans in the arena booed as doubles squads from China, South Korea, and Indonesia played a brand of badminton that would have gotten you booed out of last weekend's family reunion tournament. There was nothing subtle about the way each side tried to out-tank the other, patty-caking serves into the net, allowing the shuttlecock to drop unmolested, standing stock-still instead of darting about the court.

I've watched this farce several times, and I gained a weird kind of respect for the players involved. The crowd was booing, tournament officials were growing increasingly frantic (at one point issuing a disqualifying "black card", but then rescinding it), and yet the stoic players continued their non-efforts.

Naturally, the vast majority of people who hear about this are branding the Shuttlecock Eight as losers, poor sports, and worse. But when you dig a bit deeper into this story, you might come to a different conclusion. I did.

Here's the thing: If I asked you to define the goal of an Olympic athlete, you'd answer without hesitation: "Win a gold medal." Easy, right?

Maybe not. What happened on that badminton court in London was, perversely, because the players wanted to win gold. And it wasn't totally unexpected.

Badminton's governing body sowed the seeds of this weedpatch by changing the Olympic badminton tournament from a "knockout" event (lose once and you go home) to a pool-play format, where teams play several preliminary-round matches and then the top teams from each group advance to the knockout rounds.  It wasn't a popular decision; many in the sport sensed that it could lead to teams throwing matches to arrange a more favorable slot in the round of 16. In fact, on the very day of The Great London Tanking, the Australian coach implored officials to at least schedule all the pool-round matches simultaneously so no team would be able to game the system.

Naturally, the Lords of Shuttlecock ignored the pleas and the rest is history. 8 athletes are being sent home in shame for, essentially, trying to give themselves a better shot at a gold medal. I'm fascinated by the negative reaction; are people similarly outraged when a runner eases her way to the finish line in a heat, knowing she's secured a slot in the next round?

Much of the opprobrium centers on the notion of sportsmanship. But let's circle back: if the goal of the endeavor is to win a medal, is it "unsportsmanlike" to try to put yourself in a position to win it? Each match in the tournament is merely a step toward the goal, not an end in and of itself.

If anyone should be sent packing, it's the badminton poobahs. They set the trap into which 8 women stepped in pursuit of Olympic glory. Talk about disrespecting the sport--a bunch of guys in blazers and ties are the ones who should be called out.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Epic Futility

The 2012 Oakland A's are chasing history.

In an homage to the past, let's call them the "Swingin' (and Missin') A's".  As I write this, the A's are sitting on a team batting average of .210. If they can keep (not) pounding out the hits at this rate, they'll break one of baseball's oldest records: the lowest team batting average for a season. The reigning "champs" of the Modern Era (since 1900) are the 1910 Chicago White Sox.

The "No-Go Sox" of 1910 are often portrayed as having posted a .212 team batting average. Not so. The entry for the '10 Sox proves the team hit only .211 (and even that required some "rounding up", because those Sox hit only .210859 as a team).

More than a quarter of the way through the season, the A's pattern seems set: these guys would have trouble hitting water if they fell out of a boat. Only one regular has credible numbers: outfielder Josh Reddick is hitting .275. His 11 home runs and 24 RBI's top the team and project to full season of .275/39/86. Imagine this bunch without him.

Several regulars are below the Mendoza Line. Second baseman Jemile Weeks is parked at .199, which is embarrassing--but at least he's not the worst hitter in his family. Big brother Ricky, the Brewers' All-Star second baseman, is hitting .155 and leads the free world in strikeouts. Note to Jemile: don't call him for help.

You could argue--heck, I am arguing--that the A's are even more pathetic than those long-ago White Sox. Let's not forget: 1910 was in baseball's "dead-ball era". Reddick's 11 home runs are 4 more than the whole 1910 Sox team hit for the season.  And: 1910 was a long, long time before the designated-hitter rule. That's right, the A's are building their paltry numbers without having to send their pitchers up to hit.

The 1910 White Sox pitching staff hit .196. Factor them out, and the team's batting average rises to .212. Sure, A's pitchers will get a few at-bats in interleague games. Not many so far: the pitchers went 0-5 at AT&T Park, the only series in which the A's have played without a DH this year.

Who knows how this happened? You have to feel for A's "hitting" coach Chili Davis, whose 19-year major league career stats (2380 hits, 350 home runs) must seem to this bunch as if they were written in an ancient, dead language.

The crazy thing is that, for all their offensive anemia, the A's are within 2 games of a wild card playoff spot at the moment. But that crummy batting average is actually a good thing: even if they fall out of the playoff chase, their pursuit of history will keep us watching them, right down to the final out of the season.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Does It Pencil Out?

When you hear Golden State Warriors co-owner Joe Lacob confidently declare that a half-billion dollar arena will be built on the San Francisco waterfront, you may be forgiven if you respond with a bit of an eye-roll.  We've heard all this before, right?

The obstacles seem pretty obvious. Let's begin with the whole idea of building a gleaming sports palace atop a crumbling bunch of pier pilings (we're talking about Piers 30/32 south of the Bay Bridge, a site now used to park cars for Giants game--and only on the parts that haven't started falling into the Bay). The estimates say it might cost $100 million just to stabilize everything so they can start building on top of it.

Then you have the whole murky morass that is San Francisco politics. Sure, Mayor Ed Lee says he wants this to be his "legacy project" and the whole Board of Supervisors signed a letter inviting the Warriors to make the move. But nothing ever proceeds in a straight line in San Francisco and I'd be shocked if somebody didn't try to block this deal. It's just the way things work in The City.

But the thing that really grabs your attention is the price tag. $500 million, all from the private sector. It's not that the deep-pocketed owners don't have that kind of coin. You just wonder if a half-billion dollar basketball barn represents a good use of their capital.

And then you enter the parallel universe of sports economics. It's the universe in which some experts think the buyers of the Los Angeles Dodgers got a bargain at $2 billion.

Here's the deal on an arena: it's not just for basketball games. In fact, Warriors games would make up only a fraction of the revenue for this waterfront complex.  You're talking rock concerts, circus dates, ice skating spectaculars, conventions and so on and so on, more than 200 dates a year. Add in the cash from the possible restaurant/retail component. And don't forget one of the basic truths of any stadium or arena: even with the escalating prices of the "cheap" seats, the real cash comes from the luxury suites.

In fact, sports management expert Robert Boland of New York University says luxury suite revenue equals that from all the other seats in the building. Boland calls a project like the Warriors arena basically a massive "catering operation" in which the cash flow from concessions, restaurants, retail and the like builds into a big river of money that makes the whole thing profitable and maybe very profitable.

Some people wondered if Lacob and Warriors co-owner Peter Guber were a little crazy when they bought the team and started talking about building the underperforming team into an international brand. The jury's still out on that, but if you're going to go long, you need to take some risks. While $500 million seems like a big roll of the dice, the potential payback makes it the obvious play--and the odds aren't as long as they might seem.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

I Never Thought I'd Say This...

...but I was thrilled to see the fans at Dodger Stadium doing The Wave and giddy when one of their beach balls landed on the warning track and delayed the game.

"What?", you're saying. "I thought you were the crusty traditionalist who abhorred that kind of junk."

Well, I'd rather not be called "crusty", but generally, yeah. I've always taken a rather dim view of the show-up-late, leave-early, la-de-da LA fans.

But this is different.  This was a celebration. The Wicked Witch is dead.

Last night's Dodger Stadium crowd, more than 44,000 strong, came partly to see the renewal of the Giants-Dodgers rivalry. But the real reason they were there was to celebrate the renaissance of one of the proudest franchises in American sports after the dark years of Frank McCourt's ownership.

Before the Dodgers took the field, the joy was in the air. Dodger Hall of Famer Don Newcombe, Rachel Robinson (widow of the legendary Dodger Jackie Robinson), and new Dodgers part-owner Magic Johnson handled the ceremonial first pitch. Magic later bellowed, "It's time for Dodger baseball!", and with that, the process of erasing the bad memory of the McCourt era revved into high gear.

Frank McCourt and his wife Jamie managed to drag the once-proud Dodgers franchise into their world of obscene spending and personal bickering. They used the Dodgers as the ATM for their own profligate lifestyle, eventually running the team into bankruptcy and forcing Major League Baseball to take over.

Let's not forget: when the Giants paid their first visit to Dodger Stadium last year, the once-proud stadium sported filthy restrooms dotted with graffiti and Giants fan Bryan Stow was beaten into a coma in the lawless parking lot.

It couldn't be more different now. It's a new beginning in LA. Even if you bleed orange-and-black, you had to be happy to see that beach ball on the warning track.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Really, NHL?

The video clip you'll see below is disgusting. You'll see one hockey player try to behead another one.

What's even more disgusting is that the perpetrator, Raffi Torres, is such a known quantity, such a repeat offender, that his very presence on the ice is an indictment of a sport that says it's trying to clean up its act, but does nothing about it. In fact, Torres was not even penalized for the hit on Chicago's Marian Hossa.

He will, of course, be suspended. But Torres has been suspended and fined many times in the past for exactly this same sort of play. And yet he's continually allowed back on the ice. The NHL, the Phoenix Coyotes (his current employers/co-conspirators) and all who profit from hockey mayhem (yes, hockey broadcast and cable networks, I mean you) share in the blame here.

Torres is not the only thug in hockey. He's incredibly lucky to have made millions playing a sport that allows his sorry act to continue. But he's hardly alone. The NHL has taken baby steps toward addressing violence, brain damage, and dirty play--yet every time it allows a Raffi Torres to assault a Marian Hossa, the sport falls deeper into the slime.

Torres' despicable act occurred during live action. Much of the NHL's brutality happens after the whistle, when the ritualized Kabuki of the hockey fight occurs. Lame apologists will tell you that fighting is part of the sport but of course, it's not. College and Olympic matches don't tolerate it. The NHL doesn't need to, either.

But the same losers who let Torres keep going to work are making it clear: they're fine with all this. I ask you, hockey fans: are you?

Monday, April 9, 2012

Small Sample Size

Random thoughts after the first weekend of the baseball season (OK, I know the A's and Mariners played in Japan a while back, but still...) :

  • The Giants probably won't go 0-162. But watching their Big Three starters get hammered in Phoenix can't be good for the confidence. Barry Zito as stopper? You may now exhale.
  • Thanks, MLB, for giving the A's a Sunday off day. That'll help build fan interest.
  • Yoenis Cespedes is the real deal. The A's Cuban import homered in his first two Oakland starts. The Friday night blast is still rattling around out there somewhere. The Saturday shot came after he'd been drilled by Seattle ace Felix Hernandez earlier in the game. Cespedes made a point after the game of saying he though King Felix hit him on purpose. This guy is a big-leaguer.
  • Am I making too much of Buster Posey's shaky defense in the first series of the season? A bobbled chopper, a throwing error on a stolen-base attempt and a mental mistake (failed to touch the plate on a force-out play). Not the Buster we know and love.
  • I may be forced to eat these words later, but I think Brandon Crawford is going to be fine. The Giants' young shortstop made a key error against the Diamondbacks but also made several impressive defensive plays--and delivered a nice opposite-field RBI double.
  • Brandon Belt needs something. He earned the Giants first base job with a solid spring, but had a rough weekend against Arizona.
  • I like the A's outfield of Coco Crisp, Cespedes, and Josh Reddick (left to right). The A's have a near-zero chance of slipping past Texas or the Angels, but their offense ought to be a little more interesting this year.
  • Bobby Valentine and the Red Sox are 0-3. Again: Bobby Valentine and the Red Sox are 0-3.

Monday, March 12, 2012

A Star In The Making

The records will show 6,644 paying customers saw it in person at Phoenix Municipal Stadium, and a few thousand more tuned in to watch on Bay Area TV.

What they saw on Saturday may someday be remembered fondly as the coming-out party for a guy who could easily become a Very Big Deal.

Yoenis Cespedes is a 26-year-old legend in Cuban baseball but a virtual unknown here in the States. My guess is that, despite playing in the relative anonymity of Oakland, Cespedes will soon be a household name in baseball circles.

Until Saturday, he was little more than a myth to most fans. An imposing physical specimen, Cespedes looks like he could easily be an NFL running back. His defection from Cuba last summer opened the door to a Major League Baseball career, and the A's surprised a lot of people when they nailed down a 4-year-deal with him just before Spring Training opened.

Until Saturday, Cespedes was doing all his damage in batting practice and "simulated games", which are a slightly-more-realistic form of BP. Reporters and the small handful of fans who hung around the A's Papago Park complex were impressed, but batting practice is batting practice.

And then Cespedes dug in for his first real at-bat in a Major League uniform (which, by the way, he wears like a superstar). On the mound: Johnny Cueto, the Reds righthander whose 2.31 ERA last year ranked as one of the best in baseball.

Anyone would have forgiven Cespedes for trying to do something heroic in a hurry. Instead, he displayed the patience and pitch recognition of a veteran hitter and drew a walk off Cueto. In his second at-bat, he lined a single up the middle. He punctuated his coming-out party in his final at-bat, fouling off several pitches before ripping a loud, no-doubt-about it home run.

A's fans who've been griping about what they see as management futility may still not be satisfied; the team is in a tough division and may remain far short of competitive. But they should take heart in the knowledge that in Yoenis Cespedes, the A's have a player you have to watch.

It's a long way from starring for Granma Alazanes in the Cuban National Series to starring in the Major Leagues. But anyone who saw Yoenis Cespedes' debut has to believe it's more than possible--it appears probable.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Jeremy Lin: Not An Overnight Sensation

With the warp-speed reality of life in the Media Age, it's a bit unsettling to realize that the Jeremy Lin Phenomenon is barely a week old. But in the space of five games over eight days, Lin blew up.

At the beginning, a nice little story. "Hey, isn't that cool? A guy from Harvard in the NBA!" "Yeah, and he's Asian-American, too! Wow!"

Lin warmed the bench for the Warriors last year and the whole Harvard/Asian-American thing made for some nice feature stories, but little more.

And then he ended up playing for the Knicks, in the Center of the Media Universe. And then, against all odds, he got a chance to play. And then...well, you know the story. A 26.8 point scoring average as the Knicks won 5 straight. A 38-point outburst against the Lakers. A game-sealing free throw by an obviously-fatigued Lin to ice win over the T-Wolves. And a memorable quote by Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni, who said he was riding Lin "like friggin' Secretariat" as long as his young guard kept producing.

We've all been fascinated by Lin's remarkable week. We all know it won't last forever. Many of us hope Lin will become a solid NBA player for a long time.

But here's the part of the story I hope takes root: Jeremy Lin has been a success at every level of basketball, while the so-called "experts" managed to be wrong every time. After leading an undermanned Palo Alto High team to a state championship win over powerhouse Mater Dei, not one Division 1 program offered him a scholarship.

After helping turn Harvard basketball into something other than a punchline, Lin went undrafted by NBA teams, several of which had invited him to work out for them. But it turns out that an NBA "workout" isn't actually "basketball". It might be a two-on-two or three-on-three drill, but not a full game--which is where Lin's subtle game begins to shine.

He managed to wangle an invitation to play on the Dallas Mavericks' summer-league team in Las Vegas, where they play actual games--and where he began to get noticed. Still, after signing him, the woeful Warriors plopped him on the bench. He managed to get up all of 72 shots all year, or 6 fewer than he's taken in his 4 games as a Knicks starter. Again: the Warriors saw but short bursts of a guy whose game is only evident over the long haul.

Jeremy Lin may seem like the new new thing, but in fact, his story is one of the oldest ever told: that of the tortoise versus the hare. Sure, Lin is rabbit-quick on the court. But his career arc is more tortoise-like; a guy who just keeps showing up and performing and when you get to the finish line, there he is waiting for you. An overnight sensation? Not really. It only looks that way to the experts who missed the story over and over again.

Monday, January 30, 2012

End The All-Star Games

Brandon Marshall set a Pro Bowl record with four touchdown catches in Honolulu. It's not something about which he should be proud.

The latest Pro Bowl, a 59-41 win by one side over the other (don't ask me which conference won, I'm still numb) should once and for all prove the need to kill off the Pro Bowl. And while you're at it, put a fork in the NHL All-Star Game too (the 12-9 final score in Sunday's game doesn't even begin to tell you how silly the whole thing was).

The problem with these games is that they don't fairly represent their exciting sports. Pro football and NHL hockey feature hard hitting and, yes, defense. You won't see any of that in the Pro Bowl or NHL All-Star Game. I do note that this year's NHL folly produced exactly one recorded hit. I'm guessing it was a mistake on someone's part.

If you love football or hockey, you'll have to agree. "But," some will argue, "it's fun to watch those great quarterbacks and receivers throw for all those yards!" Well, yeah, but when the defense isn't really playing defense, does it matter?

Once upon a time, these games looked like real football and hockey games. Players didn't earn so much money, and the bonus they got for playing made them willing to play hard. Now, no sane player wants to risk injury in a meaningless exhibition.

The baseball All-Star Game is the granddaddy of these contests and, despite the tendency in recent years of some players to skip the event, still the only one that really works. It's easy to see why: baseball players seldom get hurt in this game (I know, Ray Fosse and Dizzy Dean prove otherwise; both suffered career-altering injuries in All-Star games). The baseball All-Star Game provides a full display of the sport's magic: pitching, hitting, defense, baserunning.

The NBA puts on a scorefest every year that falls somewhere between the fairly-pure baseball event and the putrid NFL and NHL embarrassments. There's not much defense at your typical NBA All-Star Game either, but then many would argue there's not that much at a typical NBA regular-season game.

My guess is that the Pro Bowl will be gone sooner rather than later. NFL conscience John Madden tells KCBS he'll soon be making exactly that pitch to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. There's really no constituency to stick up for the Pro Bowl; even the TV networks accept it as a sort of mandatory throw-in, something they have to swallow so they can get the rest of the broadcast rights package.

The NHL situation is different. A league that remains incapable of getting rid of ritualized fighting has already shown itself to be well short of clueless. Of course, maybe there's some weird logic here: the stat sheet for the NHL All-Star Game showed zero penalty minutes...and zero fights.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Phenomenon

He's more than a quarterback, although some argue he's not really a quarterback.

Tim Tebow is actually a living, breathing, funky-throwing Rorschach test. What you see in him probably tells us more about you than it does about him.

The latest improbability, Denver's overtime defeat of the Steelers, doesn't merely add a layer to the Tebow legend. It means at least another week of national attention. It lets all those who revel in Tebow's exploits exult, and lets the bile rise further in those who just can't stand Tebow and/or all the attention he's gotten.

Let's not kid ourselves for a single moment: if it wasn't for the Christianity he wears on his sleeve, Tim Tebow would garner far less attention. He'd still be an interesting thing to watch: an exuberant kid with an unusual skill set whose play is alternately frustrating and exhilarating.

But you can't escape the religion thing. For some, it makes Tebow their guy, even if they never knew Denver had a football team. For others, there's a profound discomfort in listening to Tebow praise his Lord and talk about how lucky he is to play with so many great guys.

This "Tebow's great!" vs. "I can't stand that guy!" debate is not very much about football, but very much about our conflicted feelings regarding faith and the public display of it. What you see in Tim Tebow reflects your own beliefs.

I've had people tell me that the media created the Tebow phenomenon. Baloney. Tim Tebow is a spectacle you can't ignore (and we would have ignored it if the Broncos had gone 5-11), but what makes the thing so big is the debate.

Look at that photo again. What do you see?