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.