Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Mitchell Report

Heroes and knaves. All-Stars and also-rans. The Mitchell report named names and pointed enough fingers at just about everyone in baseball when laying blame for the steroid cloud that has hung over the game for more than a decade now.

The list everyone was waiting for included guys who threw the ball and guys who sent it back the other way...a long way in some cases. It also included players who will be forgotten in future years if they haven't been already. And you can be sure there were many other players who somehow escaped the dragnet and were not named. Indeed, it was the report's dependence on too few informants that diminished its potency when it came to identifying the players who had used various substances to enhance their performance.

The report doesn't end with the guys on the field. The Commissioner's office and ownership come in for plenty of criticism, too, as do the retinues of clubhouse figures that are part of the game. The Lords of baseball simply wanted the problem to go away. The Players Union simply refused to accept testing. The only group spared that deserved to be mentioned were the press, who simply looked the other way when players departed in October looking like Olyve Oil and returned in March and April looking like Popeye. This latter group winked a lot, but said nothing until the cat was out of the bag years later. The press overwhelmingly went along for the ride, too afraid to speak up or too constrained by their legal departments, who asked for evidence beyond what the eye could see. The single most repeated excuse I've seen retrospectively invoked by the press is that the height of the Steroids Era came on the heals of baseball's dark period of strikes, suspension of the season and the World Series and the scribes and commentators were loathe to prolong the agony just when fans were beginning to return and embrace the game. A few honest reporters simply said they were reluctant to spoil the fun when Sosa and MacGwire were chasing the Babe and Barry was chasing them and Henry Aaron.

Will the game recover? Yes, indeed. Fans continue to flock to stadiums throughout the land in record numbers especially when the poster boy for all that is enhanced, Barry Bonds, chased and broke Henry Aaron's legitimate mark. Will the record books be amended, asterisks added? That is doubtful. At what point do we start discounting Bonds' tainted home runs, at number 428 or maybe 502? Will the owners and players agree to a drug policy that is both strict and enforceable? That will probably be the one sure outcome though here again much tweaking needs to be done.

It was a sordid period in baseball's history and we can be sure most people who play and manage the game want to put it behind them. Inevitably stories have already begun to appear reminding us of the cheaters of the past. Spitballs, greenies, even alcohol are cited as are shenanigans ranging from stealing signs to grounds' crews tampering with the dirt in front of the plate or along the foul lines. This "they-did-it" defense is as pathetic in baseball as it is in a courtroom. What "distinguishes"the Steroids Era from earlier periods was how widespread it was and how clear and dramatic its impact were on performance by legions of players, not merely the marquee names. Brady Anderson, take a bow!

The recent suspensions of players caught using banned substances suggests not everyone is ready to move on but a tough, uncompromising policy against performance-enhancement drugs is all anyone can ever expect. That and the willingness to apply it without compromise.

Comings And Goings

Let's not give the Phillies' alleged brain trust too much credit for letting Aaron Rowand depart...they were never really in the running for his services anyway. On the other hand, let's give them some credit for making it clear early on they weren't going to meet Rowand's demands for a long-term contract.

The case for keeping Rowand could be boiled down to three factors: he was a positive presence in the clubhouse and capably filled a right-handed spot in the lineup and in the field. The case for letting him walk was far more substantial: (1) he had a career year in 2007 in a hitters' park and was unlikely to repeat it; (2) he is a vastly overrated outfielder whose greatest attribute is his reckless abandon; (3) he has the type of body that will wear down rapidly at his age, especially given number 2.

A three year contract would have been a stretch. Five years would have been another stupid move by management. Somehow, they figured that out in this case before it was too late.

Good luck to Rowand, a genuine team player. By the way, it's worth noting that he didn't hold out for a contract from a contender. The Giants are going nowhere, on merit and especially in their division. Rowand is going to sacrifice that body of his for the good of his estate planning.

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The Orioles made out like bandits in trading Miguel Tejada to the Astros. Not only did they receive five players, three of whom might turn into very decent major leaguers, they also rid themselves of a discontented, aging veteran who is definitely in decline. How extraordinarily uncharacteristic of the O's Peter Angelos, who apparently in another uncharacteristic move (at least for now) is actually giving new GM Andy McPhail some real authority. Now, if he'd let McPhail listen to offers from every major league club for Erik Bedard including teams within his own AL Eastern division, we'd know for sure the Orioles have finally reckoned with the reality that they are a lousy team that must begin the long rebuilding process NOW! The Orioles should emulate some of the Marlins' characteristics, at least the ones in which they look around the majors, identify the players or prospects they want, then call the GM's for said players' teams and say, "Any interest in Brian Roberts? Bedard?"

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As long as Johann Santana does not sign with the Mets or Braves, I could care less which team he lands on. Don't get me wrong, I have written previously that the wealthy clubs in MLB are making a mockery of competitive balance, but that state of affairs is not going to change any time soon. If he were to sign with Boston, the AL East race would, barring injuries, be over before it begins. If he were to sign with the Yankees, the race would tighten dramatically. Despite making noises about deadlines, the Yankees are desperate to avoid having him land on the same pitching staff with Josh Beckett.

Meanwhile, Detroit's offense is frightening to behold. Speed, power, bat control. They have it all in their lineup. If they can get their bullpen healthy and get another decent year out of Kenny Rogers, they will run away from the AL Central.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Going Going.....Where?

You can't fire the players, or so the old saw goes. Consequently, the playing fields, corner offices and film rooms of professional sports franchises are littered with the remains of managers, coaches and general managers.

Philadelphia has seen more than its share of carcasses. One more was added to the rolls with the recent canning of Billy King, surely the most dapper but least competent GM's in our championship-starved city in many years. The future of Andy Reid, King's sartorial opposite, whose position heretofore seemed secure, has also been the subject of speculation as the Eagles appear destined to finish out of the playoffs. And the Phillies' Pat Gillick has indicated on more than a few occasions this coming season will be his last. Only the Flyers' Paul Holmgren seems certain to be around for the foreseeable future, his brief tenure thus far marked by a dramatic turnaround of his charges' fortunes.

These guys clearly make a difference...for better or worse. King turned out to be an extremely poor judge of talent and a lousy poker player at the trading table. When his dismissal was announced many people wondered about the timing, the consensus being it came too late. Andy Reid, stoic, stubborn and plodding, has always been fairly inscrutable to the local citizenry but when his teams were perennially winning and making the playoffs if not Super Bowl, those little foibles could be and were forgiven. But with his current team lurching from crisis to crisis each Sunday, the people grilling sausages in the parking lot want to see some passion to match their own. Forget it, fans. The man is not capable of such displays, which is one of the many reasons he can't manage a clock and make good decisions in the crucible of crunch time. You see, Andy still thinks there's plenty of time and nothing to worry about in those situations as well as his own circumstances.

Then there is Pat Gillick. Unlike his famous shortstop, who went out on a limb last Winter and declared his teammates the ones to beat in the NL East, Gillick, if anything, has been known to let it slip that he doesn't think his guys can win any titles. They always seem to be a year or two away according to him. Well, we are entering Gillick's third year at the helm, conceivably his last, and as things stand the Phillies are further from reaching the playoffs than they were last year when they slipped in thanks to their late charge and the Mets' colossal collapse.

Gillick's major failure has been his inability to see the big picture. Rather than put his club in a position to fill its needs with some sort of master plan, instead Gillick has made what for all appearances seem to be a series of disastrous decisions not only in terms of the value received but in terms of the money and prospects spent. His two worst decisions both involved the pitching staff and both came out of nowhere. The ill-advised acquisition of Freddy Garcia should replace Von Hayes in the annals of bad trades by this organization, and while Adam Eaton was perhaps worth some sort of risk, he wasn't worth the price Gillick agreed to. And while we are talking about pitching, the Abreu/Lidle trade netted the Phillies absolutely nothing as did the many trades with Texas. After more than two years the Phillies have absolutely nothing to show for all of those maneuvers.

Lest we forget, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Cole Hamels were all products of an earlier administration. So, too, was Pat Burrell, who remains a Phillie despite obvious attempts to move him. Meanwhile, the outfield has been potentially weakened with the trade of Michael Bourn and the departure of Aaron Rowand and third base remains the Black Hole first described by commenter extraordinaire George Southrey.

The Phillies under Gillick do not have a discernible plan. No one can point at them and say, for example, they are taking the approach of a Billy Beane and his Moneyball or Daniel Dowd in Colorado who has slowly built the organization from the ground up. We are forever hearing some variation on the same theme from Gillick, that there isn't anyone out there who can help or who is affordable. The only themes running throughout his administration are that he likes players from his former teams, either ones he drafted or acquired, and he likes to rummage through the rubbish piles in hope of uncovering a hidden gem. It's a wish-and-a-prayer sort of administration and the results speak for themselves. Were it not for the great offensive core at the heart of this team, all players from the largely discredited Ed Wade period, the Phillies under Pat Gillick would resemble the Sixers more than the Flyers.

Monday, December 03, 2007

The Company You Keep & The Company You Don't

The happiest fellows on the 2008 Hall of Fame ballot must surely be Goose Gossage, Jack Morris, Don Mattingly, Jim Rice and Bert Blyleven. What do all of these returning candidates have in common? The likelihood that no newcomers on the ballot will draw votes from them.

Among the newcomers, only Tim Raines seems certain to receive serious consideration from the voters. Among the returning candidates, Mark MacGwire is unlikely to receive much support. This paucity of sure-fire winners will likely mean that Gossage at the very least will finally get the support he deserves. Jim Rice will appear on the ballot for the fourteenth time. He remains a long shot to get the necessary votes, having slipped a little last year.

Will the voters fail to elect anyone? Not likely.

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With the news that former Commissioner Bowie Kuhn was one of five people elected to the Hall by the Veterans Committee it is worth remembering the time he voided the deals made by long-time nemesis and adversary Charlie Finley. Finley, always crying poor, had begun the wholesale dismantling of his highly successful Oakland teams by working out deals to sell Vida Blue to the Yankees for $1.5 million and Joe Rudi and Rollie Fingers to the Boston Red Sox for $2 million. Kuhn vetoed the sales. (Remember, we are talking 1976 dollars here.)

At the time Kuhn said ''Public confidence in the integrity of club operations and in baseball would be greatly undermined should such assignments not be restrained." Years late he added, ''If we let Finley's deals go through, how were we going to stop the weaker clubs from selling off players to the stronger ones, and what would become of competitive balance?''

The Florida Marlins have been dismantling their team piece by piece for years, selling or trading veterans who were about to command serious money just before the players were going to collect, but yesterday's blockbuster trade of Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis to Detroit puts an end to their wheeling and dealing. The Marlins literally have no veterans left to trade. With the exception of Hanley Ramirez, they have no bonafide stars remaining on their roster and Ramirez is years away from a big payday. There are a lot of middling veterans in baseball making more money per annum than the entire Marlins' roster. Bug Selig and his brethren could care less. Perhaps their silence is a conspiracy to allow the Marlins to hit rock bottom before moving the franchise, probably to Las Vegas.

The Marlins are the strangest franchise in baseball. They've won two World Series in their brief history yet no one goes to see them. They had the worst attendance in MLB last year and are always at or near the bottom. If ever a locale cried out for a domed stadium it is hot, humid and rainy Miami, but the Marlins continue to play in an outdoor football stadium and cannot convince the 18 voters in greater Miami who do come see them in person to persuade several hundred thousand others to fund a new pleasure palace.

Pity the poor Marlin players who perform in front of tens of thousands of empty seats every night. Their best hope is that the Marlins' ownership will either sell the franchise or move it.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

How To Proceed?

Apart from the usual pig-in-a-poke signings of fringe players, the Phillies haven't done much since the Brad Lidge deal. If rumors are to be believed they have a few irons in the fire, but no names loom on the horizon that seem likely to make a big impact. Randy Wolf has apparently signed with San Diego, underscoring his preference for the West Coast and a pitcher-friendly ballpark, and Kyle Lohse, a career win-a-start/lose-a-start hurler, won't appreciably change the Phillies' fortunes. Neither will the planned platoons in right field and third base.

For numerous reasons, marquee free agents rarely appear on local radar. Pitchers shudder in horror at the prospect of toiling in Citizens Bank Park. Position players seem more interested in playing for perennial contenders than perennial wannabes. Despite their first albeit brief appearance in the post-season in fourteen years, the Phils are still viewed by some as long-shots to make it to the post-season owing to a lack of quality pitching. Lest we forget, only a collapse of legendary proportions got them to the first round of the playoffs this past October.

Management here is also something of an obstacle to filling the team's most pressing needs. Many commentators are quick to point out, with some justification, that the cumbersome number of partners who own the Phillies make for messy decision-making. Despite appearances that Dave Montgomery is the man with day-to-day authority, it cannot help that the purse strings run through several pockets. Even recent revelations that some of those pockets are truly deep does not change the picture. For whatever reasons, the Phillies' current ownership group is not willing to break the bank to bring home a winner. Perhaps the shrewd businessmen among them still believe in making a profit, but the reality is that the greatest profit today comes when a franchise is sold rather than from year-to-year revenues from television deals, licensing agreements and gate receipts. How better to increase the profit than to put a winning team on the field!

Still, the Phillies don't seem likely to reach that goal by acquisitions. A quick look at their roster and the stars within suggests the best route to the Promised Land for this franchise remains through the draft and scouting. Rollins, Hamels, Utley, Howard and Ruiz are all products of the Phillies farm system, much-maligned as it is. Maybe the best route to success is to save those tens of millions of dollars required to sign an Aaron Rowand and spend them on scouts and player development. Beating the bushes internationally is becoming increasingly important and by all appearances the Phillies have, in anything, cut back in their efforts abroad if not home. If they ever hope to get to the next level, they'd better start now by finding the future stars of the club in the high schools and colleges throughout the land and on the playing fields of Taiwan, Caracas, and everywhere in between.