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.