Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Surprises & Red Herrings

Every season at least one or two players come out of nowhere or the neighboring zip code called relative obscurity and put together a fine season. Chris Coste was last year’s poster boy followed closely by Shane Victorino. My nominee for this year’s Phillie who will surprise to the upside is Matt Smith.

While all of us wring our hands over who is going to be the set-up guy in the bullpen, Smith is there right under our collective noses. To be a candidate for Pleasant Surprise of The Year, a player must have little or no major league experience that would indicate good things are in the offing. Smith’s resume? Twenty-six games with 20.2 innings pitched. Check. To surpass all expectations a player must have shown flashes of brilliance or at a minimum coolness under fire. Matt Smith versus Houston, September 25. Squeezed by all accounts. Check.

This guy has the tools and the bet here is he is about to get the experience.

* * * * * * * *

A number of bloggers have pointed out the Phillies like Carlos Ruiz’ bat a lot, his glove and arm a little less so and his command of English nearly not at all. Well, I am going to assume he won’t need a consecutive translator to put down one or two fingers, wag them, point toward or away from his thigh or set a target. Exactly how much is Ruiz suppose to say to veterans like Jamie Moyer or Jon Lieber at this point in their careers? And precisely how much that he might say to Brett Myers if he could is going to get through that guy’s head anyway? Does Cole Hamels pause long enough between pitches to even have time to listen to a catcher? As for Adam Eaton, surely during his stints in Texas and San Diego he picked up some Spanish.

The language thing is a red herring. The Phillies don’t trust Ruiz despite evidence he can handle the job and bringing in Rod Barajas is hardly going to improve the Panamanian’s confidence.

* * * * * * * *

Wiser heads than I have cautioned against counting out the Atlanta Braves this coming season. Certainly any team with the Jones boys, Jeff Francoeur, and Brian McCann will score some runs if they all remain healthy, always a question with Chipper, but the rest of their lineup is hardly formidable especially since they inexplicably traded away Adam LaRoche. In the end, health is really the watch-word for this entire team. Tim Hudson, John Smotlz and Mike Hampton all have a lot of mileage on their arms and must remain in the lineup let alone healthy or it will be a long, hot season at Turner Field. I see them finishing fourth. Last place is already written in stone for the Nationals, who might be better off given all of their top minor league prospects a long look at the big league level.

Friday, January 26, 2007

What They Are Saying & Doing

Cole Hamels may be cocky but he’s shrewd beyond his 23 years. Rich Hoffmann of the Daily News confirmed as much when he wrote this:

Somebody asked Phillies lefthander Cole Hamels the other day what he thought about all the moves the team has made in recent months, building toward the postseason berth that has so often eluded this franchise, and Hamels said, "For me, being here for [only] the past year, I don't really think I deserve an opinion."

Yikes, Cole, don’t you know that youth, good looks and fame entitle you to an opinion?

* * * * * * * *

By now many of you have probably read about the 18-year old Mets fan who was banned for impersonating a sports writer. Well, The Inquirer’s Frank Fitzpatrick certainly did and he made the story the lead item in his Friday morning complaint, er, I mean column. After listing all the miseries and affronts that are the sportswriter’s cross to bear, Fitzpatrick left me wondering yet again why he does it, that is, write about sports.

* * * * * * * *

The Yankees are moving ahead with plans to establish working relationships with the Chinese Baseball Association according to a report on ESPN’s web site. If that strikes you as odd or premature, bear in mind what the Chinese sports machine has done in basketball, soccer and overall Olympic competition in the last few decades. The only question in my mind is why haven’t other teams rushed to establish ties with the most populous nation in the world?

* * * * * * * *

Our old friend, emphasis on the former, Arthur Rhodes has apparently signed a minor league deal with his old friends the Seattle Mariners. What next? Terry Adams makes a comeback?

* * * * * * * *

An even older “friend”, irony intended, J.D. Drew, has apparently finally concluded his contract negotiations with the Red Sox. The sticking point all along was not Drew’s wondering feet but rather his lousy health. According to reports, the Red Sox can opt out of the last two years of the five-year deal if Drew’s pre-existing injury recurs and, here’s the key, no one can object to the language in the contract, not the players’ association nor Mr. Drew himself. Nothing like signing a long-term deal in which the buyer announces up front, ‘We know what you’re all about and we don’t trust you!”

Thursday, January 25, 2007

A Now For A Message From The Younger Generation

If mid-Winter optimism could be bottled, vendors would already be lining up to sell the elixir on Broad Street for next October’s inevitable parade. The Phillies, at least the core of young studs, believe their time has arrived.

Jimmy Rollins, the veteran of the 20-something crowd, wants to avoid another April swoon this time around. To that end he plans to arrive at camp carrying less weight. Like a jockey looking for an edge, he literally wants to break from the gate faster and figures a few less pounds will help. Sounds like J-Roll has heard the footsteps of new coach Davey Lopes and plans on doing some more running this year...in and out of season. "I think we are the team to beat in the NL East. Finally,” Jimmy announced.

Cole Hamels has less than a season under his belt but the confident lefty, some say even cocky, is already speaking like a veteran let alone throwing like one. He sees himself right behind number one starter Brett Myers in the rotation. Freddy who? Hamels also likes the Phillies’ chances.

The centerfielder, not yet considered a core component despite The Catch, is in mid-season form when it comes to defending his manager. None better, he opines at every opportunity. Best guy he’s ever played for when it comes to creating a positive atmosphere. People don’t know the real Cholly, he insists.

The big first baseman, Mr. Hardware, is smiling that 1000 megawatt smile and still taking all questions in stride…including ones about his salary. Thus far I’ve not heard of any office pools on when he will finally tire of all the attention. Apparently, among his many virtues is patience. If he can extend that virtue to his plate appearances and cut down on the K’s, he is going to be even more frightening to opposing pitchers.

The newest millionaire of the lot, second baseman Chase Utley, may be the wisest of all the young Turks. He took a look at the media and caravan itineraries in the Delaware Valley and scheduled his wedding at the opposite end of the country and honeymoon in another country altogether for the same exact time. Talented and smart.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

An Exchange Of Ideas

I wanted to share the following email exchange between two bloggers and a reader and frequent commenter without further introduction:

Beerleaguer: I should be more excited about this year's team than last year's (Better starting pitching, we've seen what Howard and Utley can do). I'm still learning, and if last season taught me anything as a baseball writer, it's to temper expectations of young, unproven talent.

Swing & A Miss: Agreed. I also have learned something over the last several months. Some non-professional observers can be quite insightful and intelligent about baseball and its practitioners, but if they (and I include myself here) aren't standing around the batters' cage or behind the mound, they really cannot know what is going on in depth. There are professionals and there are amateurs. Remember, the word "amateur" has two meanings: 1)The English meaning which is to love a thing, and, 2) The American meaning which is somewhat derogatory generally and means someone who operates at a lower, less sophisticated level. Historically, many of the great English authors and naturalists and scientists were amateurs as they understood the word.

Anyway, there are so many subtleties and nuances that are literally beyond us. I am forever being reminded of our limitations, especially in evaluating talent and in seeing things that need work to say nothing of knowing how to correct them. I am also forever being reminded of the Rocky Bridges quote I love that “Every man in America thinks he can do three things better than every other man, run a hotel [clearly, he was living in a different era], build a fire and manage a baseball team.”

I have read so many comments and posts throughout the blogosphere about so-and-so's backdoor curve (player in question did not have one; he had a sweeping curve) or some characteristic or tendency of another player that were just pure crap, that I have stopped reading all but a few people and virtually none of the comments. And when it comes to insight into personality, I find the noise out there even more deafening.

You know how much I respect and value what Beerleaguer brings. I almost had to post a comment last week kidding you for even putting a link to your Eagles summary on Beerleaguer. I was going to comment, "Uh oh, Jason. There goes your innocence!" Anyway, I am beginning to see why the guys who cover teams every day for a living and are professional find it hard to take a lot of blogosphere seriously. There are clearly some very smart people out there with things to say but there are a lot who should stay home.

I was also struck yesterday how many of us "reported" the Utley signing. I am not trying to defend myself, but I usually take the tack of looking at the meanings not the facts. Beerleaguer tries to balance both. But I realized that every blog in town weighed in right away, as if we were reporting the news when, in fact, that is already done and much better elsewhere. Not too many bloggers or commenters added anything to the new worth reading. We should be emphasizing other things.

Rambling...but this reflecting might show up at Swing in some form including a reduced number of posts until there are things to say.

Beerleaguer: You should post that as-is; it's a spectacular essay.

You don't need to apologize for what we do, or make it seem that it's beneath the professionals. They're better at breaking news, uncovering the real story, and are probably more knowledgeable about the nuances of the game. But who cares? They represent 0.00001 percent of the population, and I didn't start Beerleaguer to become part of that group.

If you want to get down to the nitty gritty, we're all in the same business. It's a fantasy. The difference is, blogs make the fantasy interactive, communal, instantaneous, uninhibited. It was never about the backdoor curveball. Red Smith would probably agree.

Here's what RSB said after the season, on what Beerleaguer is all about. I re-read this often. This is the kind of return I set out to receive when I made the initial investment.

"If we're evaluating Beerleaguer in this thread as well, I have an altogether different assessment where that is concerned. Beerleaguer is easily the best thing that's happened to this out-of-area Phils fan since mlb.tv. There are a number of others who host very worthy blog sites, but Beerleaguer stands alone for up-to-the-minute gratification, often with new subject posts and updates multiple times a day. You stay on top of this extremely well, JW, and I think you're really onto something here. I think the word is out that Beerleaguer is *the* place to come online during a game, much less before or after. It's like a virtual sports bar, where Phillies fans from around the globe can hang out and argue and high-five; in some ways it even makes me feel like I'm part of the crowd at the game. It's been a blast spending this 2006 season with everyone here - the quality and the intelligence of the people who post are a good part of the reason I was drawn to use this site in the first place - and there is more consolation in being a Phillies fan than ever, now that we can live it live with other diehards. Beerleaguer has become part of Philies baseball for me, and that is the ultimate tribute I am able to extend."

Nice words, but the real reason I keep a mental note of this is to remind myself to stay on the cutting edge, about blogging, not baseball.

RichSchuBlues responds: I think you and Jason are excellent commentators, and there can't really be a saturation of disparate and thoughtful opinionation where any public matter is concerned. There are some decent columnists in the 'official' media, yes, but why should the public stop there? What if all we had, for instance, to rely on was the irresponsibly self-infatuated dribblings of Bill Conlin for commentary? The more voices, the better.

True, the 'blogosphere' does open up a forum for lamebrains and know-it-alls, but it's not so difficult to seek out and identify the real quality from the truly 'amateur'. Bloggers aren't beat writers with access to the clubhouses and batting cages, but so what? What happens on the field is out there for anyone to observe, and the quotes are there afterwards for anyone to dissect. I disagree that so many subtleties and nuances are lost on us. Like what kind of beer Charle Manuel chugs? How Brett Myers wasn't invited to Rich Dubee's birthday party? I think it can be said that sportswriters may have additional insight as to why a GM is more or less willing to part with a certain player for reasons such as these that go below the surface, but if you mean nuances *on the field* I don't feel fans like you or I are a single bit less informed than any television, radio, or print media figure. In nearly all case, we have access to the same information which managers and coaches use to dictate their strategies, their defensive positionings, their personnel selections. I check your site and Jason's daily, along with philly.com. I honestly feel I get at least as much information and insight from the blogs as I do from the 'professionals', especially during the season when I find the game recaps so lacking and incomplete. Journalists have time and space crunches, editors to appease, players and management to co-exist with. They might have the most complete access, but they're also more restrained in what they can write. The spirit of the internet is to give voice to those who have just as clear and legitimate a perspective, who may see things a different way. It's the difference between fixed statements and dialectics: reacting, clarifying, considering, weighing, comprehending are aspects of blogs which newspapers can't provide. And it's a far better medium for insight than talk radio, where people have roughly thirty seconds to posit a question and get hung up on. That's not really a dialogue. Blogs allow a participant to amend, debate, and clarify without constraint. The 'professionals' might resent the bloggers because they feel a sense of encroachment on their turf from upstarts who didn't work their way up to where they are in their professions; they're the ones who do the grunt work of having to extract quotes from often indifferent or uncooperative athletes, and so they feel entitled to a hard-won badge of authenticity.

But the observations of those who have closely watched and followed a sport for a long period of time *ought* to be taken seriously. In my eyes, is Tom Goodman any less of a qualified commentator (or writer) than Bob Ford or Rich Hofmann because he doesn't have an official press pass? *Absolutely* not. And if wasn't such a threat or perceived affront to their paid staff, these papers would do well to take the best bloggers seriously and commission them to be part of their business. I don't see why 'Swing and a Miss' or 'Beerleaguer' (although I believe this is affiliated with the Reading Eagle) should have to be considered, or have to be in the first place, separate entities. The papers have a few people doing these blogs on general subjects on philly.com, but not when it comes to sports. That's a mistake, and at a time when newspapers should be doing all they can to keep up and strive to maintain their relevance to an increasingly electronic readership, it's a rather unfortunate one. What is the difference between the horrifically bad 'forums' which are linked on that website, and the better blogs? A quality moderator; a starting point which presents a perspective in a clear, insightful, and rational fashion. There are a lot of idiot sports fans out there. Most of them will be content to insult each other like scarcely literate children. But those seeking out a higher standard have places to come where higher standards exist - places where you're going to get mocked if you can't bother to use reason or decent grammar in your posts. In this sense, enlightened bloggers are providing for an enlightened community of fans in a way newspapers have not even attempted, and as such serve a highly useful and appreciated function.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Chase Is On

You can remove the qualifier "nominal" from his title; Chase Utley is the Phillies' leader now. After signing a seven year, $85 million extension to his contract, it would be difficult to determine who has shown more confidence here, the Phillies in their All-Star second baseman or he in them.

On cannot overstate the significance of their mutual commitment, but the feeling here is the agreement establishes a new milestone for the Phillies. Utley, a native Californian, has signalled to his adoptive home on the other coast that he is here to stay for the foreseeable future and believes in the direction the club is taking. At such a moment, it is hard not to look back on a previous rising star infielder who thought otherwise of the team's prospects and demanded a trade.

But we mustn't spoil the moment or wallow in what might have been. Utley plays the game all-out and in a city legendary for its blue collar allegiances, his approach not only plays well, it sits well.

Friday, January 19, 2007

On The Margins

Pat Gillick is a creature of habit. In that respect he differs little from most of us. When he was GM in Toronto, he hit the jackpot with George Bell, originally signed by the Phillies, but later a Rule 5 draft pick. Bell had a very respectable career with the Blue Jays. That pickup may have ruined Gillick forever. Ever since then he has deemed it a worthwhile gamble to take a flyer on Rule 5 and other marginal players, always looking for the exception to the rule. His two years in Philadelphia underscore that approach. Anyone who can give Randle Simon two chances to make his club is a risk-taker if nothing else. Throw in the odd position player or three who have spent more time on the injury list than in the dugout over the last few years and hurlers who have struggled mightily at their last known addresses and you have a motley assortment of human lottery tickets at best.

I don't disagree with the strategy provided the costs in time and salary commitments are within reason, but I wonder how much the resources expended to find these diamonds in the rough could be better expended elsewhere in player development. Of course, if Shane Victorino has another fine season, that will clinch it. Gillick can be expected to spend even more time on the margins.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Still Only January

Parochial vision is rarely 20-20, so it isn’t surprising Phillies fans are fretting about the holes and weaknesses, perceived and real, on the current roster without regard to the other guys’ problems. The reality is every team, especially in their division, has problems, too. The Mets’ starting pitching is questionable; the Marlins’ bullpen is suspect and much of their roster will be entering its sophomore year together; the Braves are a shadow of their former selves though they will score some runs; and the Nationals are, charitably, a huge mess.

Relativism being what it is, however, there is little consolation in considering the other guys’ plight. There is even less to be had trusting to luck, especially late in a game, where the Phillies bullpen is thin and one right shoulder from being much thinner. The Phils may yet make a move before April, with Jon Lieber or another starter rumored to be the bait, but the 40-man roster appears to be set with the 25-man squad still to be sorted out.

Offensively, the Phils will score runs even if the core of their lineup cannot match last year’s numbers. Chase Utley is now a proven hitter. So is Jimmy Rollins. It’s hard to believe, but Ryan Howard is still learning and, more important, adjusting. No matter how many home runs he hits this season, the youngster’s ability to hit for power and average is his most astonishing asset. If he cuts down even 10-15% on his strikeouts, he will raise his batting average. People tend to forget he led the Phillies in average last season.

If anything, George S.’s infamous “black hole” should see more light this coming season provided the Phils get some offense out of the catching position, which means Carlos Ruiz must see considerable playing time. Management acknowledges he is a better hitter than Rod Barajas; it’s his defense they worry about, specifically his throwing. Right now it looks like Wes Helms, Aaron Rowand and the catcher will man the 6, 7, and 8 spots. If Ruiz is in the lineup, Rowand’s bat remains the most suspect of the trio, his in-and-out looping swing guaranteed to hit the ball softly to the right side more often than not.

Defensively, the Phils are as good if not better than last season even with Wes Helms at third. Rowand is a good, not great centerfielder, and Victorino will be stellar in right, an improvement over Bobby Abreu in every respect. With Pat Burrell is left, the Phils’ corner outfielders have two of the best arms in the league. Erik Grissom, author of the estimable Philliesflow, believes Ryan Howard’s defense is something of a liability, but both he and Howard will come around this season. Chase Utley gets to everything, has a fair arm, still struggles a bit with the pivot, but overall is a solid second baseman. J-Roll is one of the best.

The starting rotation has a decidedly new look with Freddy Garcia and Adam Eaton joining the staff and Jamie Moyer beginning his first full season as elder statesman. The other day I noticed Peter Gammons wrote a piece regarding predicting the future in which he cautioned against the pitfalls of such prognostications, especially during the Hot Stove League, observing that, “Any of us can sit here with the winds howling off Buzzards Bay during the 12 days of Christmas and predict that, say, the Phillies will play the Indians in the World Series with an opening matchup of Cole Hamels and Jeremy Sowers.”

Notice he said Hamels, not Myers or Garcia. Ah, yes, but let us also note it is still only January and right on cue, the winds are indeed howling in Philadelphia and the temperatures have dropped into the '20's and ‘30’s.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Management Styles

All joking aside, someone needs to delete the Texas Rangers’ phone number(s) from Pat Gillick’s speed dial without further delay. With this latest signing of an ex-Ranger, Antonio Alfonseca, the Phillies GM has proved beyond a reasonable doubt he has some sort of fixation with that franchise. It would be one thing if we were talking about a one-way street that approached that between the Yankees and Kansas City Athletics in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, but we most decidedly are not. Instead, we are witnessing yet another deal between the Phils and a franchise whose record of futility is less grim only because its entire history is so much shorter.

So, until Gillick can demonstrate some self-control, others must act. Alfonseca’s last good season was the same year when everyone was atwitter over Y2K. Most recently he had an awful stint with the Rangers before they released him due to injury and ineffectiveness. According to reports, Alfonseca chose the Phillies over the Marlins, the only two clubs apparently in the running. Imagine, he chose to sign with the team that offered him nearly three times as much money. Aren’t we the lucky ones?! The signing is one more in a series of gambles by Gillick on aging relievers with shaky immediate pasts. If the move hardly inspires confidence in us, imagine what it will be like to play behind Alfonseca.

* * * * * *

By any reasonable standards the just-concluded season for the Eagles was a remarkable one. A fast start out of the gate was suddenly and dramatically halted by stinging losses to Tennessee and Indianapolis and, of course, the season-ending injury to Donovan McNabb. Just as remarkable was the resurrection of Jeff Garcia when nearly everyone else had given him up for dead and the emergence of Brian Westbrook as one of the truly great backs in the league. In the midst of all this turmoil, stolid Andy Reid turned over the offensive play-calling to his offensive coordinator (how’s that for a novelty?!) and, more significantly, coaxed a remarkable string of performances from his battered and bruised charges just when everyone in town, yours truly included, had given up the season.

Reid’s greatest asset is his steady hand on the tiller and his obviously methodical, even-tempered approach to his players and coaches no matter how daunting the circumstances. These attributes serve him and the team well, particularly in the locker room and on the practice field, where doubts first arise and can get quickly out of control. Regrettably, the debit side of his ledger is brought into dramatic relief in the crucible of game-day crises, particularly as time is running out. The decision to punt on fourth and fifteen with less than two minutes remaining in the game represented Andy Reid at his crunch-time worst. If ever there were a time to gamble, that was it. Of course, that would have been going against character and if we have learned anything about Reid during his long and successful tenure in Philadelphia, he does not change who he is no matter what the circumstances. On balance, his steadfast determination serves him well; when it fails him, the results are dramatic.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Comings And Goings

Under whelmed. That’s the only way to put it regarding the recent signings by the Phils. Has-beens . Never-weres. Guys who skipped town, even country, to rediscover whatever it was they lost if, indeed, they ever had it. Guys whose stat sheets pale when compared to their medical records. And all the while the Phils have failed to address their most critical need: the bullpen. We can argue into the wee hours whether they have enough starting pitching (talk about a few wings and a prayer) and offense, but if the Phils go into the later innings and can’t hold leads, a distinct possibility, they are in big trouble.

* * * * * * *

With Shane Victorino, Aaron Rowand and Pat Burrell in the outfield the Phillies have a decent chance to see all three starters go down to injuries, the first two because they play all out all the time and the third because his wrist and foot could betray him at any moment.

With “The Catch” burned indelibly into their psyches, fans tend to forget how many times Victorino also threw himself into walls and turf only to get up slowly. He plays every bit as hard as Rowand with more luck on his side thus far, but his style doesn’t lend itself to longevity or an injury-free campaign.

One thing I don’t look forward to seeing in 2007 is Rowand, Victorino and Utley converging on a shallow pop fly.

* * * * * * *

As a follow up to my lack of enthusiasm for the fellows filling out roster spots on the 2007 Phillies, has anyone ever considered how much of a drop-off there is between the starting nine of most clubs and their benches? Does this same disparity occur in the other major sports? There sure seem to be a lot more flotsam and jetsam in major league baseball than ever before. Jeez, even Randall Simon is being given another shot at making the roster.

* * * * * * *

The next time I complain about salaries in baseball (and those of you who follow this space closely know that will be any moment), remind me that things could be worse: the Phillies can consider themselves fortunate they were never stuck with Chris Webber or, for that matter, Billy King. The Sixers have finally admitted what everyone else knew two years ago when King acquired the decrepit veteran forward in the first place: he's done. They have bought out his contract and will place Webber on waivers this AM. I love the quotes attributed to King that Webber no longer fits in the Sixers' plans. One week into 2007 and the overmatched GM has already uttered the understatement of the year.

The whole deal is beyond my expertise or interest other than to note as Phil Jasner wrote in today's Daily News, [Webber's salary is] currently listed on the salary cap at $20,718,750 this season and $22,312,500 next season, [but]those figures will be amended to reflect any reduction, with the total reduction spread over the two seasons.

Twenty-plus million per season for a guy who was shot. That's worth bitching about.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Cal Ripken

For this lifetime baseball fan, before there were the Phillies there were the Orioles.

Growing up in Baltimore, rooting for Brooks Robinson, still the only player in a baseball uniform I idolized, living and dying with every win and loss, I remained faithful to the home team despite my peregrinations around the country. Eventually, I was driven into the arms of the Phillies by proximity and disdain for the O's current owner and his ruinous handling of a once-admired franchise.

Before that final conversion, Cal Ripken was the transitional player for me, marking the end of the franchise as I had known it -- competitive, admirable - and the one that would eventually replace it -- woeful and dysfunctional. Ripken, literally a member of the Orioles' family with a pedigree, began what turned out to be his Iron Man streak a year before Robinson would be elected to the Hall of Fame. Now, a quarter of a century later, he joins his legendary teammate as the third great infielder to wear an Orioles cap upon his induction, Eddie Murray being the other one.

Ripken will always be remembered for The Streak and for his dedication to the game, its history as well as its craft. But if a single image of him endures, it will be the "celebration" lap he took around the perimeter of Camden Yards that night in 1995 when he broke Lou Gehrig's record. With baseball still reeling from the strike that disrupted the game the year before, driving many long-time fans from the stands and the game, it was Ripken's slow jog around the stadium that night, literally reaching out and up to the fans who had applauded his work ethic, that is generally credited with beginning the healing process.

For all I know Ripken may have planned the lap in advance, but to the blue collar fans in my blue collar home town, it was a genuine and spontaneous gesture of affection. And to the millions of viewers who tuned in to watch that night, it was a welcome salve that smoothed over the gulf that had grown between the wealthy young men who play the game and the ordinary fans who cheered them on.

Baseball has never looked back since that day, except in gratitude. Today, they made their gratitude and appreciation official.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Old-Timers Play On

There may be a chronic shortage of quality starting pitching in this era, but there is no shortage of old-timers from earlier times who still feel the itch, headlined by Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux and that perennial will-he-or-won’t-he legend, Roger Clemens.

Johnson was just traded back to the Arizona Diamondbacks last week after a less-than-happy two year tenure in the Bronx. Twenty wins shy of the 300 total that guarantees enshrinement at Cooperstown (as if Johnson really needs to worry about that ultimate destination), Johnson agreed to return to Phoenix only after being offered a two-year, $26 million extension of his contract so that he can reach the hallowed mark. The 43-year old Johnson went 17-11 with the Yankees last season, but his ERA ballooned to 5.00, 1.78 points higher than his career mark, and he struggled with injuries throughout the campaign. If we are to believe all parties involved, his biggest problem during his time as a Yankee was playing in the world’s alleged biggest media circus, not diminishing health or skills. There must be some truth to that notion since Johnson literally got into a tiff with reporters the day he landed in NY two years ago while on his way to the press conference announcing his arrival.

Maddux, meanwhile, remains an effective pitcher at age 40, but in signing with San Diego during this off-season, is joining his fourth club since 2003. The accelerating rate at which he is filing change-of-address cards with the Post Office has not reached hanging-on proportions, yet, but the direction is a little suggestive of those greats who refused to acknowledge father time is ultimately the great arbiter behind the plate. See Steve Carlton for details. Maddux won fifteen games for the Dodgers in 2006 while losing 14. He still fields his position with the best of them, and it should be noted that those skills, too, are in short supply on today’s pitching mounds. See the Detroit Tigers staff for details.

Clemens is en route to becoming the most famous part-time player, let alone starter, of his or any other generation. Who else can announce to the baseball world for the third year running that he will begin play in earnest sometime around the All-Star break and still be the object of so many general managers’ affections? Speculation regarding his latest “comeback” from “retirement” has him signing with the Yankees, who are alleged to be the team whose cap Roger wants to wear when he enters the Hall of Fame in 2050, or whenever his five-year waiting period following official and final retirement elapses. To those of you who don’t know, the folks in Cooperstown get the final say regarding whose cap an entrant can wear, but as far as I can determine they have never been challenged or whether or not a member of the Hall can un-retire and play again.

Friday, January 05, 2007

A Better Way

Chalk up yet another instance in which the NFL has its act together much more than MLB when it comes to...well...just about everything regarding public relations, organization and procedure.

Yesterday, LaDainian Tomlinson was named the NFL's MVP by the Associated Press (which confers the defacto official MVP award) for 2006 in a landslide vote that was never in doubt. The key point here is that he was named the winner prior to the start of the post-season. Indeed, the voters found enough time to cast and tabulate their ballots between the final week of the regular season and the start of the playoffs.

MLB, on the other hand, has never figured out how to name it's league MVP's prior to the playoffs and World Series. Instead, the announcement comes more than a month after the last out has been recorded, and, thus, the entire process is inevitably embroiled in controversy as voters, pundits, players and fans alike point out that post-season play should have no bearing on the award and then, more often than not, conveniently fail to heed their own warnings.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

All Over The Lot

Hang on just a minute. If anyone thinks baseball has cornered the market when it comes to handing out ridiculous contracts, look no further than the deal Alabama just awarded Nick Saban, $32 million for eight years. Guaranteed. This is a college football coach we're talking here, one who incidentally hasn't hung around very long at any of his previous posts, college or professional, and who has no history at this particular university. Eight year guaranteed contracts would be a stretch even for coaches with a long tenure at an institution, and Alabama has been burning through enough of them in the recent past that one would think they'd learned a lesson. Apparently not. Eight year guaranteed contracts might as well carry the subtitle "Coach for Life", something that puts Saban on the same level as Bear Bryant...at least until they blow the whistle and kick off.

Oh, and by the way, the contract calls for up to $4 million in bonuses should a Saban-coached Tide roll into a bowl game.

No word at this point on how the deal is being viewed in the Chemistry Department, but we can guess.

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Ruben Amaro has never struck me as a particular astute baseball man, but then, I've always given him the benefit of the doubt because he is the Phillies' assistant GM and thus not really calling the shots. Moreover, whenever GM positions open up in other cities, Amaro's name is frequently mentioned, so somebody out there must be impressed. After yesterday's comment about Ryan Howard's contract status with the team, you can put me down as definitely not undecided. Amaro gets no more benefits from this quarter; he isn't smart or diplomatic enough. Asked what the organization planned to do about Howard's contract given his monster year and his bargain-basement salary, Amaro bluntly stated "We're not doing something on Ryan Howard. He's not our priority."

Let's review Howard's role on this team apart from leading them in most offensive categories and Awards won since his arrival.

He is undoubtedly the face of the organization, literally, his image plastered everywhere. Did anyone in, say, Denver, give a damn what the Phillies did day-in and day-out in 2006? Next question. Did those same fans wonder whether or not Howard homered the night before? Did teams pitch around Bobby Abreu, Pat Burrell or Chase Utley?

Let's take another approach. Can anyone recall broadcasters, reporters and commentators speaking so fondly of a local athlete, not just for his production on the field but for the way he carried himself, especially when everyone with a microphone or notepad wanted a piece of him? Even in Japan the fans and media could not get enough of this guy. Neither could his teammates in Philadelphia and among the touring MLB stars.

Let's get mercenary here, which is presumably what Amaro had in his narrow mind. When the Phillies push ticket sales this off-season and beyond, who are they going to dangle in front of prospective fans as the biggest enticement to come out to the ballpark? At at time when local sports heroes are dropping like flies or departing altogether, Howard stands out for his performance and personality.

"Not our priority"?

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It looks like Carlos Ruiz is the backup. None other than the Phillies web site has anointed Rod Barajas the starter and tutor to the younger Ruiz. It's hard to figure out what it is the alleged brain trust of the Phillies does not like about Ruiz, but clearly something is sticking in their collective craw. Hopefully, what we have here is merely another situation that resembles the slow integration of a rookie into the starting lineup, something the Phillies excel at. Ruiz showed he can hit at the major league level when given steady at-bats. Whether or not the pitchers like the way he handles them is something harder to determine, but based on his late season appearances in 2006, Ruiz earned the nod. Nevertheless, Charlie Manuel prefers veterans and may not want the inexperienced Ruiz handling a pitching staff with two newcomers and a few temperamental holdovers.

The Hall Beckons...For Some

A friend of mine once remarked, speaking of an industry other than baseball, that there were so many awards given out these days there must be one for everyone. He was exaggerating slightly, but his point was well taken: there are a lot of awards bestowed by a lot of organizations and institutions, especially, it seems, in baseball. MVP; Cy Young; Comeback Player of the Year; Player of the Year; Manager of the Year; Rolaids Reliever of the Year; Silver Sluggers; Rookie of the Year; Sporting News Player of the Year; etc..

At a minimum, these awards carry with them a guaranteed listing in perpetuity of the recipients in the annals of baseball and, for some, a nice financial bonus depending on their contracts. The granddaddy of them all, of course, is election to the Hall of Fame, which confers immortality. Is it any wonder, therefore, that election to the Hall inevitably engenders the greatest debate regarding the candidates’ worthiness?

Less than a week remains before we learn the names of this year’s Hall of Fame inductees. In the time leading up to the announcement, we have once again witnessed the annual rites associated with baseball’s greatest honor, namely what are the criteria for entry and who among the candidates is worthy.

The question of criteria was never firmly established beyond the following eligibility rules:

Eligible Candidates — Candidates to be eligible must meet the following requirements:

  1. A baseball player must have been active as a player in the Major Leagues at some time during a period beginning twenty (20) years before and ending five (5) years prior to election.
  2. Player must have played in each of ten (10) Major League championship seasons, some part of which must have been within the period described in 3 (A).
  3. Player shall have ceased to be an active player in the Major Leagues at least five (5) calendar years preceding the election but may be otherwise connected with baseball.
  4. In case of the death of an active player or a player who has been retired for less than five (5) full years, a candidate who is otherwise eligible shall be eligible in the next regular election held at least six (6) months after the date of death or after the end of the five (5) year period, whichever occurs first.
  5. Any player on Baseball's ineligible list shall not be an eligible candidate.

Interestingly, the founders also felt it necessary to keep out one-time wonders such as a Don Larsen with this rule:

Automatic Elections — No automatic elections based on performances such as a batting average of .400 or more for one (1) year, pitching a perfect game or similar outstanding achievement shall be permitted.

Thus we, the non-voting public, are left with the endless debates regarding who was dominant and for how long; which player(s) “defined” a position in terms of defense while hitting more than respectably; whose numbers matched or exceeded current members of the Hall; who was a “feared” opponent and why; etc..

This year’s list of eligible candidates include two certain entrants – Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn – one certifiably controversial candidate – Mark McGwire – and a host of players who have been on the ballot for many years without gaining entry, most notably Jim Rice, Bert Blyleven, Goose Gossage, Andre Dawson, Lee Smith, Tommy John, Dave Parker, Steve Garvey, Jack Morris, Dave Concepcion and Don Mattingly. The list is completed by a group of lesser players including names like Bobby Witt, who is eligible for the first time and has absolutely no shot at entry and others, such as Harold Baines and Alan Trammell, who had estimable careers but are unlikely to get sufficient support. Finally, there are names such as Albert Belle, whose demeanor especially toward the voting writers, was nothing short of openly hostile, and who will be elected only when the distance between bases is reduced to 80 feet.

For what it is worth, my ballot would include the following:

1. Gwynn
2. Ripken
3. Gossage
4. Blyleven

McGwire should not make the Hall on merit, or more precisely a lack thereof. His overall totals do not measure up to the general standards set by current members apart from his 583 home runs and his slugging percentage. Even though at least some of his power figures are suspect, I agree with that camp arguing it is impossible to determine without concrete evidence who was definitely using steroids and what portion of their career totals were thus affected. Where I differ from their point of view is in concluding that some of their numbers were “falsely” achieved even though the likely substances had not been deemed “illegal” at the time by MLB. We are talking about the spirit if not the letter of the law and one look at the younger McGwire and a comparison with the later image raises all sorts of red flags about his use of supplements.

Gwynn and Ripken meet all of the Hall’s criteria though, remarkably, a few voices have argued Ripken’s Iron Man streak should not be a factor in the voters’ minds as if that were his only achievement. There will always be dissenters in any vote. Remember, even Willie Mays did not receive unanimous support when he became eligible. Gossage deserves election in this, his eighth year on the ballot. He was a dominating indeed fearsome presence for many years in a pressure-packed position for teams frequently in contention. The Hall of Fame site offers these biographical details:

RICH GOSSAGE: 8th year on the ballot… Pitched 22 seasons… Led the AL in saves three times (1975, ’78, ’80)… Two seasons with 30-plus saves… Named The Sporting News AL Fireman of the Year in 1975 and ’78… Named to nine All-Star teams (1975-’78, ‘80-’82, ’84-‘85)… Finished in top 10 in AL MVP voting twice in 1980 (3rd) and ’81 (9th)… Received Cy Young Award votes in 1975 (T6th), ’78 (5th), ’80 (3rd), ’81 (6th) and ’84 (5th)…Ranks 17th all-time in saves and 10th in games pitched…One AL Division Series (1981); three saves and no earned runs in 6 2/3 ALDS innings… Four League Championship Series (1978, ’80, ’81, ’84); owns 4.91 ERA and three saves in 11 LCS innings… Three World Series (1978, ’81, ’84); owns 2.63 ERA and two saves in 13 2/3 WS innings… Member of 1978 WS championship team.

Blyleven is a “victim” of having pitched during an era when there were certainly other dominating eventual Hall of Fame pitchers around. He also had the misfortune to play for a lot of mediocre teams yet he put together impressive totals by any standard. Here is the HOF site’s bio on him:

BERT BLYLEVEN: 10th year on the ballot… Pitched 22 seasons…Ranks 5th all-time in strikeouts, 9th in starts, 9th in shutouts, 25th in wins, and 7th in innings pitched… Led AL in shutouts three times (1973, ’85, ’89), innings twice (1985, ’86), complete games once (1985), and strikeouts once (1985)… Tabbed by The Sporting News as AL Rookie Pitcher of the Year (1970) and Comeback Player of the Year (1989)… One 20-win season (1973) and eight 200-plus strikeout seasons… Received AL Cy Young votes in 1973 (T-7th), ’84 (3rd), ’85 (T-3rd), and ’89 (4th)… Two All-Star teams (1973, ’85)… Pitched a 6-0 no-hitter against the California Angels on Sept. 22, 1977 … Shares AL single-game record for longest one-hit complete game – 10 innings ( June 21, 1976 )… Three League Championship Series (1970, ’79, ’87); owns a 3-0 record with a 2.59 ERA and 20 strikeouts in 24 1/3 LCS innings… Two World Series (1979, ’87); owns a 2-1 record with a 2.35 ERA and 16 strikeouts in 23 WS innings… Member of two WS championship teams in 1979 and ’87.