Friday, October 26, 2007

Yo, Meathead!

We have decided to pack up and leave the San Francisco Bay Area, so we bought a house across Puget Sound from Seattle, and our plan is to be moved up there by early next year. Fortunately, I still plan to keep blogging with my man, Ed, so you’ll all hear from me whether you want to or not!

The move has brought about some interesting debates in our household. My darling wife, Laurice, says that we should become Seattle Mariners fans. I, however, have been an Oakland A’s fan for the past eight years or so (and a season ticket holder the last three), and the idea of dropping everything to turn around and root for a division rival doesn’t sit well with me.

Of course, I recognize that a fan’s relationship with his or her team is a complex thing that doesn’t necessarily depend on logic to make it work. I grew up rooting for New York teams—the Mets, Giants, Knicks, and Rangers (and for some strange reason I don’t remember anymore, the Miami Dolphins)—and when I moved to California from the East Coast. I took my love for my teams with me. It was only after a couple of years attending A’s games (the Coliseum was easy to get to, games were very inexpensive back then, and the A’s, under GM Billy Beane, were on the upswing) that I decided that I could adopt the A’s as my American League team and still be loyal to the Mets in the National League. Whenever those rare interleague games between the two have occurred, I’ve always come down on the side of the Mets.

For reasons that I’m not quite sure I can articulate, I never really took to the baseball Giants, the 49ers, the Raiders, the Sharks, or the Warriors, though I attended games played by all these teams except the Niners. I watched the Mets on the Internet and the Giants and Dolphins on the local sports bar’s satellite system. The Knicks were only good for a couple of years before they became unwatchable anyway, and though I’d call myself a Rangers fan, I’m not really much of a hockey aficionado in the first place. (No loss to me, then, that we don’t have a hockey team to watch in the Seattle area.) I saw my favorite teams live when they came into the area, and except for the Athletics, I mostly became used to rooting for the visitors.

Well, it’s good to support the local team, Laurice says. I agree with her there, but I tell her it’s not that easy to just switch, especially to rooting for a division rival. And in football, even though the Seahawks are not a division rival of the Giants, I’m not sure I could see myself cheering for any other NFC team.

But Laurice doesn’t understand why I would have such a hard time changing allegiances. She thinks that sports fans are disloyal to their teams all the time. Why do some fans boo their teams when they do poorly? Why do fans stop watching games as frequently once their teams are out of the running for the playoffs in midseason? Why do fans curse at a bad swing for a strikeout, a dropped pass that would have been a sure touchdown, or a blocked shot that leads to a fast-break jam on the other end of the court? She says this behavior is hypocritical. You should always—ALWAYS—support your team and its players, no matter what.

I try to explain to her that most fans boo and curse because they feel strong competitive passion for their teams, and poor play is disappointing. It is rare, I say, for the classy sports fan to boo when his or her team is really trying. Likewise, a sophisticated fan will usually not boo a player unless the player has long failed to live up to an expensive contract or failed to play to his potential. As for not watching a poorly performing team, that’s the competitive spirit at work again. People are less likely to want to watch a team that has no chance to win a championship. After all, isn’t that why we watch in the first place? To see our teams win? But one can curse and boo and watch fewer games out of frustration with a team and still continue to love the team. At least, I think so.

So we’ll have to see what happens to my loyalties over the years I spend in Seattle. Will I end up leaving the A’s for the Mariners? Will the Seahawks replace the Dolphins as my second-favorite football team? Five years down the line, who knows?

Does anyone out there have an opinion on this? If so, I’d love to hear it! Do you think it should be simple to change allegiances from a team you have rooted for over a period of years to the team in your new hometown? Or would some of you stick with your old teams, no matter where you go? What’s your thinking behind your reasoning? Inquiring meatheads want to know!

SEASONINGS: So after all my notes this season about how Colorado was hanging tough in the NL West, who’d really have thought the God Squad would have made it to the World Series? Even though the Red Sox are up 2–0 heading into Game 3, I have to hand it to the Rockies for overcoming so much adversity to make it so far. But if God is really watching them, what purpose could he have in helping them get all the way to the World Series and then letting them lose? Seems pretty fishy to me! (Or is a comeback just around the corner…?)

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Bye Bye Bobblehead!

Barry Bonds is whining again. This time he’s complaining about the fact that the San Francisco Giants let him go. He said that the Giants would have already won a World Series championship if he was the team owner. He also said that San Francisco fans are his “family,” yet I have seen the man snub fans on several occasions with my own two eyes. If they’re his family, it’s a dysfunctional one.
The fact is that releasing Barry Bonds when they did was a very astute move by the Giants. With his bloated salary, huge head and enormous ego, Bonds had become a major liability in the City by the Bay.
Many of my friends who used to be big Barry supporters will now admit that it was time for him to hit the road. He will be more valuable to an American League team anyway – somewhere he can play Designated Hitter. Bonds needs a fresh start in a new city where the fans aren’t accustomed to his antics yet.
This appeared today on
The 43-year-old home run king heard a long list of his accomplishments read during a special speaking forum Wednesday night hosted by the Commonwealth Club, then was asked by KGO Radio host Ray Taliaferro if he had really reached all those feats.
Fourteen All-Star game selections. A record seven NL MVPs. Eight Gold Glove awards.
"I did, and then I got fired," Bonds told a group of about 450 people in the audience. "Shame on me, huh?"
Bonds, who broke Hank Aaron's home run record with No. 756 on Aug. 7, was told last month by Giants owner Peter Magowan he would not be brought back for a 16th season in San Francisco.
Bonds, dressed in a dark suit jacket and tie, entered to a roaring standing ovation and repeatedly drew loud applause from an adoring crowd through the nearly 90-minute forum. They chanted, "Barry! Barry!" One person hollered, "We love you." Others took pictures on cell phone cameras or sported shirts with Bonds' No. 25.
Yes, this was a glorified pep rally in a swanky downtown San Francisco hotel featuring five ovations and two of those standing -- for a star baseball player who didn't even stick around when his team paid tribute to him with a video presentation during the final home game of the season. Outside the ballroom where he spoke, Game 1 of the World Series between the Red Sox and Rockies at Fenway Park showed on a TV.
"I don't have fans in San Francisco -- this is my family," said Bonds, who used to bounce around the clubhouse at Candlestick Park as a boy while hanging out with his late father, Bobby, and Hall of Fame godfather Willie Mays.
When Taliaferro asked about Bonds' many splash-hit home runs, the slugger replied, "They call it McCovey Cove, but I've rewritten it a little bit."
That part of San Francisco Bay beyond the right field arcade of the Giants' waterfront ballpark is named for Hall of Famer Willie McCovey.
Bonds, who just completed his 22nd major league season, has 762 career home runs. Taliaferro read select questions from members of an audience that included actor Danny Glover, one asking Bonds whether he would play for $5 million and bat fifth for San Francisco if that were an option for 2008.
"I told Peter Magowan, 'If I'm a part-time player, I'm still better than your full-time player, and it's a wise idea to keep me,' " Bonds said.” We still have time. Things might change."
Bonds also said that if he were running the franchise, the Giants would have won a World Series by now. They fell five outs short in 2002, and one thing the slugger is still missing on his remarkable resume is a championship ring.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Yo, Meathead!

So Joe Torre’s a goner in New York. The Yankees blew this one. How could they imagine that anyone else—Don Mattingly, Tony LaRussa, Joe Girardi, anyone—could have a better chance than Torre to take the Yankees back to the World Series? Although Yankee-hating is a passion of mine, I admire and respect Torre and can only hope that he goes to a team I like after this. And I have a feeling the Yankees may fall on their collective face a bit for the next year or two while they try to get over the loss of a surefire Hall of Fame manager who deserved a better shot to stay on.
I firmly believe, even though the Yankees organization denies it, that the team made Torre an offer they knew he was going to refuse. I saw an article by columnist John Harper in today’s New York Daily News that expressed my view perfectly. Whaddya think?

Yankees did not have the guts to fire Joe Torre
by John Harper

The Yankees probably think they played this just right, but they aren’t fooling anybody here. It’s obvious they didn’t want Joe Torre back, no matter what they’re saying. They just didn’t have the guts to fire him.

So now we know what the new Yankee hierarchy was doing for two days in Tampa: coming up with an exit strategy that Hank and Hal Steinbrenner apparently thought would leave no blood on their hands.

At least George Steinbrenner took the heat for his notorious firings over the years, no matter how illogical some of them might have been. The fact that he wasn’t heard from at all during this “process,” as GM Brian Cashman repeatedly called it, is surely the most telling sign of all that the old Boss is gone for good as Yankee fans knew him.

Instead, the Yankees came up with an offer they had to know that Torre would either find insulting or see as a set-up—or both. If they were going to offer him a salary that cuts his pay by one-third—players’ salaries can’t be cut more than 20%—then at the very least, they had to offer him a two-year deal.

It’s not that the $5 million Torre turned down isn’t plenty of money—that’s just not the point. A one-year deal, especially after Steinbrenner’s public threat to fire him, was, at best, the Yankees telling the world they didn’t have a better alternative.

You can’t do that to any manager, especially the highest-profile manager in baseball who is expected to lead a locker room full of superstar egos and huge salaries. Players surely would have seen it as a complete lack of confidence, and no matter how much they may respect Torre, such a perception could erode any manager’s ability to lead.

As for the contract incentives, based on winning in October, there’s a reason no team has ever done that before: it’s ridiculous. What, Torre is going to try harder to win playoff games with an extra million riding on each round?

How could the Yankees, of all organizations, make this about money, anyway? This is a franchise that overpays for or plain wastes money away every winter on players such as Kyle Farnsworth, Kei Igawa and Jaret Wright, to name a few of the most blatant examples of recent years.

Don’t mistake this as a Poor, Poor Joe slant. It’s about handling a difficult situation with the kind of class with which Torre managed the Yankees for 12 years.

On that count, the Yankees couldn’t have done worse. If they wanted him out, based on early playoff exits the last three years, that was their right, even if it’s ignoring the more difficult task of making the playoffs every year, especially this year.

Indeed, if the Rockies’ berth in the World Series isn’t proof enough that MLB is moving more and more toward NFL-style parity, consider that the Yankees are the only one of the eight playoff teams this season who made it to October last year, never mind the last 12 under Torre.

And for this, the brass offers him one year? How did this make sense? Emasculating Torre was somehow going to make him a better manager in October?

So it looks very calculated. And whatever role Hank and Hal Steinbrenner played in this, maybe they could justify it as somehow following the wishes of their father, but surely Cashman had to be embarrassed by the way this played out.

Unless he too wanted Torre out. There were indications this season that after all his years as a Torre supporter, Cashman wouldn’t have minded a change himself.

The Joba Chamberlain rules were one obvious example that he didn’t trust Torre with one of his prized young pitchers, and his public criticism of how openly Torre talked about those rules was a sign of friction.

It’s well-known around the Yankees that Cashman had become a devotee of statistics, to the sabermetrics philosophy of building a ballclub. Whether he wanted a manager in that mold, nobody knows for sure, but knowing Torre better than anyone else involved in this decision, he had to know the manager would walk away from this.

How could any of the Yankees bigwigs think that after everything Torre has endured in recent years, from last year’s near-firing, to Steinbrenner’s humiliating threat two weeks ago, to 10 days of indecision, he could accept such an offer?

And if they truly did want him back, thinking he was still the best man for the job, how were they not willing to even negotiate with him?

And how is it that, after two days of hiding from the media, they organized a conference call with New York reporters by about the time Torre was getting into a cab to go back to the airport?

No, the Yankees didn’t want Torre back, and he was smart enough to realize it. So he goes out with his dignity while the Yankees look small for letting it end this way. Better that they’d had the guts to fire him.

SEASONINGS: Well, so far in the NFL, I was wrong about one thing for sure. I guess it was wishful thinking on my part to think that the Giants would tank this year, leading to the unceremonious dumping of head coach Tom Coughlin. Not that I want the G-men to do poorly—far from it! But I’m no fan of Coughlin, and I just didn’t think the players were buying into his system. Turns out, they are! Steve Spagnuolo’s attacking defense has turned into a force to be feared. The pass rush is ferocious, and rookie corner Aaron Ross adds a dimension to the defensive backfield not seen in years around Big Blue—someone who actually can make an interception! If QB Eli Manning can just settle down behind his terrific offensive line, he has too many weapons for the Giants not to score points.

Which in a roundabout way brings me to my next point. (Wait for it, wait for it….) I said that the Cowboys were probably the best team in the NFC, but that the powers in the AFC would treat them like chaff to be blown away in the wind. Now, after New England’s 48–27 thumping of Dallas last week, does anyone believe me? So I was right about this—except…

The Giants are rounding into a solid team this year. Looking ahead to the Dallas–New York rematch on November 11, the Giants play the 49ers and Dolphins before that meeting, and the Cowboys play Minnesota and Philadelphia. There is every chance that this could be a meeting between a Cowboys team that is 7–1 or 6–2 against a surging Giants team that could be 6–2. I think that this game will determine who will win the NFC East, and the winner, along with the Packers, could be considered the best in the conference.

Of course, no matter who is the best in the NFC, I still think they would get thrashed by either the Patriots or Colts.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

My Interview with Ed Mayer, the Other "Mr. Cub"

Ed Mayer played for the Chicago Cubs for two years, in 1957 and 1958. A San Francisco native and a Lowell High School graduate, he won the MVP award in a high-school all-star game played at Seals Stadium and received the trophy from none other than Babe Ruth himself. Mayer made his pitching debut against the New York Giants and gave up two home runs – one to Willie Mays and the other to Hank Sauer. They were the only dingers he would ever surrender. After playing for the University of California, Mayer played in the minors with the Cardinals, Red Sox and Cubs, with stops in C, B, A, AA, AAA, Mexico and Cuba before making it to the major leagues. After his baseball career came to and end, Mayer worked for 25 years as a teacher. He currently lives in San Anselmo, California and enjoys playing the piano, traveling throughout the world and designing crossword puzzles.

A UFO sighting in the minor leagues: “This is a great incident, and don’t think I’m crazy, because I am not crazy, believe me, and it’s been verified by so many people. We were in Class B ball, or C ball, in Georgia in either ’54 or ’55, I forget which. And it’s a night game, and I’m in the third base dugout. And we’re just watching a guy on the other team warming up. And, all of a sudden, this round disc comes over the stadium – silent, about 200 feet up maybe, spinning slowly, red, white and blue lights. And I said to the guy next to me – do you see what I see? He said, “Yeah! Holy cow! What is it?” We were just enthralled looking at it, and it stayed there silently for about 10 or 15 seconds, looking down, obviously – because they were right above the pitcher’s mound. And then all of a sudden, it went out of sight in about 3 seconds. With no sound, just pfffft…just like that! And right now today, we don’t have the capability of doing what that thing did. That was a UFO. It was absolutely unbelievable. In fact, after it happened, I even went over to the left field corner and asked somebody, “Did you see that?” and they said “Yeah.” Then, I went over to the right field corner and asked somebody else, and they said, “Yeah.” It was for sure. So, I am a believer now. That made me a believer.”

A HR to Willie Mays: “I gave up just two home runs in my career – to Willie Mays and Hank Sauer, both in my very first game against the Giants. And when they hit them, I said to myself – that’s it; nobody else is going to hit a home run off me. And nobody did. I remember the Mays home run like it was yesterday. It was the first inning and I got the first two guys out and Mays stepped up to the plate. I said to myself, I know who Willie Mays is, I’ve heard of him, but so what? So, I threw the ball, and he hit a line drive which I thought would either be caught by the center fielder or hit the wall, but it went straight up into the stands – a rope. The guy’s a great hitter. The best hitter I ever played against, that’s for sure. Frank Robinson, Stan Musial – they were good. But, Mays is the best I ever saw.”

Racism in the minor leagues: “We were going through Georgia on a bus, and we pulled over to get some gas. I was in the low minors – “A” ball. So the whole team gets out of the bus, and we walk up to a Coke machine. We line up, and everyone was getting sodas, and Earl Wilson, one of our black players, was in line right in front of me, just waiting his turn. He went to put his nickel in – it was a nickel back then – and the gas station attendant came out and pointed a gun at Wilson, and said, “No n—r is going to buy a Coke out of my machine.” And Wilson wasn’t used to this kind of treatment, because he was from San Diego. And I sure wasn’t used to it being from San Francisco. I mean, we had black players in high school and we never thought about it. It was never a big deal. And so I grabbed Wilson by the shoulders, and I turned him around and pushed him back on that bus. I told him that I would buy him the Coke. And I bought two Cokes and gave him one. The sad thing is that that guy with the rifle probably could have gotten away with shooting him and then said that he had done something to him, because that’s what was going on down in the South back then. I saw racism a lot in baseball, even against me, because I’m Jewish. When I was at spring training with the Cubs, I was told that I couldn’t go into a place called the Olympic Club in Phoenix, because I was Jewish. They told me I couldn’t go in there. In AAA, when I was with Omaha in 1956, a fan yelled a bunch of racist stuff at me while I was pitching, calling me “Jew Boy” and things like that.”

When the game was pure: “I played in an era when nobody was taking anything. I never saw one pill or anything. Never saw anyone ever taking any pills. The players looked normal back then. You look at Ernie Banks. You look at Stan Musial – any of the old guys – they looked normal. Their arms and their bodies looked normal. Not all beefed up like they are today, like Sammy Sosa. There’s no doubt these guys are doing something. It’s bad for baseball, because it’s illegal, it’s no good, it’s not fair and I believe that when Bonds breaks the record it will be tainted. It’s a shame. No one was cheating when I played. I never looked at anyone back then and thought, ‘Wow, he looks different.’”

Monday, October 15, 2007

Colorado Rocks Baseball World

The Colorado Rockies are the big story of baseball’s postseason. If you would have told me a month ago that this team would win 20 of 21 games and be one win away from playing in the World Series at this point, I would have checked to see what you were smoking.
I cannot remember the last time a team has done what the Rockies have accomplished. They’re a shoo-in for the World Series at this point. I just cannot see them losing four straight to an embattled and obviously very tired Arizona Diamondback’s team.
Colorado has a perfect mix of seasoned vets and young, hungry players. They’re not hitting the cover off the baseball, but they are doing just enough to win ballgames. They are not great, but they’re good enough – and that’s all that matters.
One thing they do have is team chemistry – something the Yankees, Mets and Cubs lacked. The Rockies enjoy just being around each other and play like a team. You won’t find any selfish, self-centered, big-headed guys on this team.
And now that it appears as though the American League Championship Series could go 6 or 7 games, the Rockies look even stronger. If they can sweep the D-Backs or win it in 5 games, they’ll be able to rest all their starting pitchers and won’t have to change their rotation one iota.
It will be tough to beat either Boston or Cleveland – but, if any team can do it, my money is on the red-hot Colorado Rockies.
(This appeared on last night:)
DENVER -- The Colorado Rockies were one strike away from not even making the playoffs. Now, they're one win away from their first World Series. With a cold rain falling, Josh Fogg shut down Arizona's bats in his first postseason start and Yorvit Torrealba hit a tiebreaking three-run homer to fuel the Rockies' 4-1 victory Sunday night in Game 3 of the NL Championship Series.
MVP hopeful Matt Holliday also homered as the wild-card Rockies took a 3-0 lead with their 20th win in 21 games, a streak that has taken Colorado from afterthoughts to the buzz of baseball.
"Tomorrow we're going to come here just like we have been doing," Torrealba said. "We're going to relax, watch TV, and when it's time to play, we're going to try to get one more win."
And not think about their first World Series until then. "No, no, no, no, I'm not thinking about that," insisted the face of the franchise, Todd Helton, whose decade of disappointment has disappeared in one of the most incredible winning streaks in baseball history.
"We're still focused on the task at hand." About two weeks ago, the Rockies had no control over whether they'd even make the playoffs.
The San Diego Padres could've eliminated Colorado on the final Saturday of the regular season. But Milwaukee's Tony Gwynn Jr. hit a tying, two-out, two-strike triple off San Diego's Trevor Hoffman that gave the Rockies a chance.
The next day, Colorado caught the Padres. The night after that, the Rockies beat San Diego in a 13-inning, NL wild-card tiebreaker.
Since then, the Rockies have been unbeatable.
Arizona, which has scored just four runs in the series so far, must win four consecutive times against a Rockies team that is the first since the 1935 Chicago Cubs to win at least 20 of 21 games after Sept. 1, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
They haven't looked back, sweeping past Philadelphia and taking the first three against Arizona.
They will try to sweep the Diamondbacks on Monday night when Franklin Morales faces Arizona's Micah Owings in a matchup of rookies who have never faced each other's teams.
The Rockies, who this season set a major league record for fielding percentage, turned three double plays in the first three innings.
"When you can take the sting out of them early ... I think it helped our confidence," Rockies manager Clint Hurdle said.
The 2004 Boston Red Sox are the only team to overcome a 3-0 hole to win a best-of-7 postseason series. Boston did it in the ALCS against the Yankees.
"Until they win four and we can't win four at once. We've just got to get one on the board first," Arizona manager Bob Melvin said. "That's what we've been trying to do all year."
Torrealba connected in the sixth inning, three pitches after watching one of Livan Hernandez's trademark "eephus" offerings poke across the plate for a strike -- so slow it didn't register on the stadium scoreboard radar.
Hernandez said he knew better than to throw an inside fastball to his buddy that he played with in San Francisco, but he had used all the pitches in his bag of tricks.
"It's the last pitch I want to throw," Hernandez said. "Yorvit is one of my best friends in baseball and I know he can handle the fastball inside very good. It's just the situation. I'd thrown everything: foul, foul. I know he can hit the fastball inside. Trust me, and he hit it out."
After a 60 mph bender that he fought off for a foul, Torrealba hit a fastball 402 feet into the left-field seats, then raced around the bases pumping his fists and hooting and hollering.
"He worked me really well all season long. He tried to throw me a fastball inside, and it stayed over the plate and I hit it really good," Torrealba said.
Torrealba, who is 8-for-21 in the playoffs with seven RBI, nearly had a home run in the third when he doubled off the center-field wall. The stadium's pyrotechnics operator thought it was gone and set off some fireworks as Torrealba pulled into second base.
The real fireworks came three innings later from Torrealba, who had just eight home runs in the regular season.
"One pitch, one bad pitch all night," lamented D-Backs catcher Miguel Montero.
"That's kind of been the theme of this series so far. They've gotten that one big hit where we haven't," Melvin said.
Holliday's homer in the first inning was the first by either team in this series. Hernandez fell to 7-3 lifetime in the playoffs, allowing four earned runs on eight hits in 5 2/3 innings.
Fogg, who won Game 2 of the division series over Philadelphia in relief of Morales, scattered seven hits, including rookie Mark Reynolds' solo home run in the fourth, in six stellar innings. He didn't walk a batter and struck out three.
With the game time temperature hovering at 43 degrees -- and quickly dipping into the 30s -- and a light drizzle falling, the crowd showed up wearing fleece jackets, gloves, wool caps and scarves, looking like they were headed for the ski slopes west of Denver, where it was indeed snowing.
Even Montero wore a ski cap beneath his catcher's helmet. It was only fitting that the Rockies sent a pitcher named Fogg to the mound to deal with the elements in the first NLCS game in Denver in franchise history. The Rockies have not lost since Sept. 16, and this win at Coors Field was their ninth consecutive victory overall.
A cool drizzle fell all day and continued into the evening. The grounds crew didn't even remove the tarp until an hour before the game. In between innings, they brought out bags of dry dirt to keep the infield from getting too slick. In the fifth, the crews poured a wheelbarrow full of "diamond dust" around home plate.
The TV broadcast mentioned how the grounds crew ran out of the quick-dry dirt and started calling around. They said they found some in a warehouse and showed a truck rolling up to the stadium with extra bags.
Holliday, with only two other hits in this series, neither of which left the infield, put Colorado ahead 1-0 in the first inning with a high drive. Left fielder Eric Byrnes crashed into the wall chasing the ball, much to the delight of the crowd that razzed him every chance they got.
Forty-eight hours earlier, Byrnes suggested the Rockies were a lucky bunch who had actually been outplayed by the Diamondbacks in this series.
Although that drew the ire of the fans, Rockies rookie shortstop Troy Tulowitzki said there was some truth to Byrnes' comments "and they can outplay us all four games.
If we end up winning the series, I'll be fine with that." Reynolds hit a 422-foot solo shot in the fourth to tie it at 1-all, sending a first-pitch breaking ball from Fogg halfway up into the left-field seats to quiet the sellout crowd of 50,137.
Jeremy Affeldt threw the seventh, Brian Fuentes the eighth and Manny Corpas the ninth for his fourth save of the playoffs. In Game 2 at Arizona, Corpas blew a save chance in the ninth inning.
The Rockies are trying for their first NL pennant in the franchise's 15-year history, and history appears solidly on their side.
"Nothing has gone our way so far," Byrnes said. "For whatever reason, that's the way it's been."

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Yo, Meathead!

Those of you who read my column regularly must notice that I rarely devote any ink to the NBA. I mean, I will write some things about basketball, but compared to baseball and football, hoops just doesn’t take up much of my time.

But believe it or not, I used to be a big basketball fan. Ten to fifteen years ago, when I was still living on the East Coast, I would tune in to the New York Knicks every chance I got. In the 1990s, the Knicks were a pretty darned good team. True, they never won a championship, but with a changing core of role players around Patrick Ewing in the middle (Derek Harper, Anthony Mason, John Starks, Charlie Ward, Allan Houston, Latrell Sprewell, Larry Johnson, and above all, Charles Oakley), the Knicks were sure to compete hard with the best teams in the league, and they made the playoffs every year. Sure, some of these guys were Bible thumpers (Houston, Ward), while others were as unsavory as you could get (Mason, Sprewell), but the point is that these disparate personalities could come together and still play hard as a team each night. Coaches Pat Riley and Jeff Van Gundy preached defense, defense, defense, and if this was a fairly ugly way to win basketball games, the New York fans didn’t seem to mind. After all, defense has been preached in New York sports as long as I can remember. The Knicks’ rivalries with teams like Miami and Indiana only made the games into better theater than they already were on the New York stage.

Unfortunately for Knicks fans, ever since 2001, when owner James Dolan took over the basketball operations of his club, the Knicks have become the laughingstock of the NBA, and indeed, of all professional sports. Although I actually detest devoting my column to berating the Knicks as much as I hate covering Barry Bonds, there is so much evidence of corruption and looking the other way while crimes are being committed in both these cases that I feel like I have to say something.

Dolan has ruined the Knicks—possibly forever. His complete loyalty to coach/VP of Basketball Operations Isiah Thomas is astonishing, especially after Thomas was found guilty last week of sexually harassing fellow Madison Square Garden employee Anucha Brown Sanders. Dolan’s belief in Isiah’s innocence can mean one of two things: 1) that Dolan is a complete idiot who has his head buried up his own behind, or 2) that Dolan promotes this sort of behavior at the Garden himself and therefore sees nothing wrong with it. Of course, I choose 3) which is both.

So far, Thomas, with Dolan’s approval, has displayed no talent whatsoever in putting together a Knicks team worthy of saying it is part of the NBA. All he has done is put the team further and further over the salary cap by taking on long-term expensive contracts for players who are not worth it, keeping the team from having any flexibility to sign players who might actually help. Big busts of the Zeke era include Howard Eisley, Shandon Anderson, Luc Longley, Travis Knight, Jalen Rose, Steve Francis, and everyone’s favorite, Jerome James. Even though he was never a potential superstar, James is a bust of Ryan Leaf–like proportions—he received $30 million for five years but has essentially played for just half the season the past two years. His conditioning is always an issue—his nickname is “Big Snacks.” This is a 7-footer who has career averages of 4.3 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 1.0 blocks a game. I bet there are guards a foot shorter who have better statistics in all three of these categories.

Who on this Knicks team can play? Stephon Marbury? Yikes! The only thing Marbury has done for anyone is create his inexpensive line of sneakers for kids. Don’t get me wrong, that was a noble project. But after hearing how crass and unfeeling Marbury was during his testimony for the sexual harassment lawsuit—and after Marbury admitted in court that he had sex with an MSG intern outside a strip club (he’s married)—it’s hard to believe Marbury participated in the sneaker company for any other reason than to try to improve and promote his own image. Marbury is a poor leader on and off the court, self-serving and self-centered—a point guard who never met a shot he didn’t like (or take)! Eddy Curry? There is no question that Curry has improved under Isiah’s tutelage, but he is still perceived as soft and doesn’t get the calls in the post that a premier big man should get. Jamal Crawford? Crawford has some talent, but he still takes too many unadvisable shots, and he will never be able to lead as long as Marbury is scowling at him across the court or the locker room. Zach Randolph is an unknown quantity for New York at this point, but he has the potential to be as big a bust as any.

So now, between Thomas and Dolan, they have not only trashed the product, since the Knicks haven’t won a meaningful (read “playoff”) basketball game in six years, they have destroyed the public perception of the team as a classy franchise and turned off millions of fans, particularly those who think sexual harassment is unacceptable. Why anyone would go to MSG this season to take in a basketball game is beyond me. (The same thing goes for hockey, as far as I’m concerned—especially in light of the approaching court date for the sexual harassment suit against MSG brought by Courtney Prince, who used to be part of the Rangers’ dance team.)

The Knickerbockers are supposed to be one of the NBA’s flagship franchises! The NBA could be making a lot more money if the Knicks were a good team—or at least perceived as respectable. No offense meant, but I’d guess a Knicks–Lakers finals would bring in a lot more dough than Spurs–Cavaliers, even with Tim Duncan and LeBron James playing in the latter. (Lucky for the league, but bad for the Knicks, Danny Ainge has gone and made another flagship franchise, the Celtics, a true contender for the first time in ages, adding Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett alongside Paul Pierce.)

Yet Commissioner David Stern is doing nothing to the men responsible for bringing such unwanted attention on the Knicks and the rest of the league. Stern was the commissioner who ushered in the eras of Magic, Bird, and Jordan, creating unprecedented interest in and success for the NBA. Now, in the era of me-first hoops and players who are thuggish gangbangers, Stern is essentially saying that it’s okay for one of the NBA’s most prominent figures to sexually harass someone while working for one of its teams. Repulsive! If the NBA didn’t have an image problem already, this would cement it!

The Knicks’ downfall has coincided with some of the changes in the NBA that have hurt its image. The game has turned into slam dunks and three-pointers on offense, with little ball movement or employment of the “hit-the-open-man” strategy promoted by such great coaches as Red Holzman back in the day. It is all too common these days see players hoisting up bricks or jamming it off the back of the rim without even taking the opportunity to run a play. In addition to a stagnant, uninteresting style of offense, many players no longer know how to defend or rebound—when they are trying to guard their own basket, a lot of guys just stand around and watch the other team’s star player go one-on-one with whoever is guarding him. Has anyone even heard of help defense? The players are completely out of touch with their fan base and care only about their money and their egos. And I can’t forget that the officiating of NBA games is now under a cloud after the huge scandal recently where referee Tim Donaghy was accused of fixing games and passing along inside information for gambling purposes.

So—that’s why I rarely write about basketball these days, unless it’s to scoff at something. Isiah Thomas is a good coach, but not so great that he should get a free pass to move forward after all the negativity he has brought upon the Knicks. He deserves to be punished by Stern and fired by Dolan. While Zeke is with the team, even if the Knicks start winning, I’m not sure I could support them wholeheartedly anymore. Additionally, Dolan himself needs to go—the Knicks need an owner who either truly knows the game or will hire someone who does and keep hands off. And until the NBA takes steps to improve its product and its chemistry with its fans, why should I watch anyway? I realize that baseball and football are far from perfect themselves, but at least my favorite teams in these sports haven’t gone down the drain the way the New York Knicks have in the last half-decade.

Is it End-of-Story for Joe Torre?

Will George Steinbrenner fire Joe Torre after losing in the AL Division Series to the Cleveland Indians? Georgie Porgie said that Torre was gone if the Yankees didn’t come back and win the series, which they lost in four games, but was it an idle threat or just a lame attempt to rally the troops?

George and Joe are very different people, in my opinion. The fact that they’ve been working together for so long is amazing, I believe.

The two men possess very disparate qualities -- Torre is a class act and a wonderful human being. Steinbrenner is a slime ball.

Torre has established throughout the years that he is a compassionate, respectful and thoughtful human being. Steinbrenner has a reputation for being a conniving, loudmouthed bully who uses his money and power to get whatever he wants.

Joe should just walk away from the Yankees. He’s won world championships and will probably end up in the Hall of Fame for what he’s achieved as a manager. What more does he have to prove?

This appeared in the New York Times earlier this week:

In his news conference late Monday night, Joe Torre tried to dissect another Yankees playoff loss and explain what it meant for his future. Watching on a television in the manager’s office as Torre choked up, the coaches struggled with what they were seeing.
“Joe treats everybody with respect, whether you’re a batboy, a coach or a trainer,” said Larry Bowa, the third-base coach. “He does everything the right way. What he has to go through, after all that he’s done, it doesn’t seem right. But we’ve all been in baseball for a long time. That’s the process.”
The painful process of parting with a manager was enough to make Bowa and the others teary on Monday. A day later, as the coaches and some players packed up their lockers at Yankee Stadium, Torre was a no-show and George Steinbrenner, the principal owner, was silent.
His only statement came through his publicist, Howard Rubenstein, who said Steinbrenner was flying home to Tampa, Fla., and had nothing to say for now. Steinbrenner will seek opinions on whether to offer Torre a new contract, but his public decree before Game 3 of the division series — that Torre would lose his job if the Yankees lost the series to Cleveland — resonates.
If Steinbrenner lets Torre go, as expected, most people around the team believe the front-runner to succeed him is the bench coach, Don Mattingly. Others believe Joe Girardi has a chance, and Tony La Russa — like Lou Piniella last year — is the biggest name on the managerial free-agent market.
Mattingly yesterday would not directly address whether he would want Torre’s job, but he said he had always made it clear that he would like a chance to manage. Yet he knows that replacing Torre, his close friend who won four World Series, would be an extraordinary challenge.
“I would think it’s like following John Wooden or somebody,” Mattingly said yesterday. “The guy’s won championship after championship, and he’s in the playoffs every year. It’s pretty much a no-win situation for someone to come in here and be able to experience what he’s done. It’s not going to happen. So as far as coming in here and taking on that job, it’s not necessarily a great situation.”
Girardi was Torre’s bench coach in 2005 before taking over the Florida Marlins and winning the National League Manager of the Year award. He clashed with management and was fired, but he is still widely respected, especially by General Manager Brian Cashman.
When Steinbrenner wanted to fire Torre last fall, Cashman interceded and saved Torre’s job. Torre had a year remaining on his contract then, but the deal is up now, and Cashman would not say if he would still recommend Torre.
“I’m not going to comment, in fairness to the process, until I have a chance to sit down with ownership,” Cashman said yesterday, adding later of Steinbrenner: “He’s always picked the manager here. Obviously, I had a great deal of input in last year’s process, so we’ll see. You can’t get ahead of the process.”
The Yankees are planning their annual organizational meetings, and before he left for Tampa, Steinbrenner’s son Hank, a senior vice president, told The Associated Press that no decisions had been made.
“I really do like Joe a lot,” he said. “I have a lot of admiration for him.”
Torre stayed at his home in Westchester County yesterday, speaking by phone with Cashman, Mattingly and others. Torre contacted the Yankees’ media relations director, Jason Zillo, because photographers were camped on his lawn, even though he had pleaded for privacy in his news conference.
The idea of La Russa replacing Torre would seem to appeal more to the vintage Steinbrenner, who craved the biggest name, than the Steinbrenner of today. La Russa’s contract with the St. Louis Cardinals is also expiring, and the Cardinals are without a general manager.
“You know how rumors are; anyone can start one,” said outfielder Shelley Duncan, whose father, Dave, is La Russa’s pitching coach. “Even my dad would tell you there is nothing substantial until action starts to take place. None of that has happened. Joe is our manager.”
Steinbrenner, 77, has a warm spot for ex-Yankees and has always held Mattingly, a former Yankees captain, in high regard. Four years ago, he called Mattingly at his farm in Evansville, Ind., making a personal appeal for him to coach the Yankees’ hitters after eight years of retirement.
When Mattingly was given the bench coach job last October, after Lee Mazzilli was dismissed, he was seen as the clear heir to Torre. Players believe Mattingly would have a similar style.
“He’s got a great baseball mind,” first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz said. “He and Joe were both great players. Sometimes you lose how hard this game really is, but Joe and Donnie didn’t lose that. Usually, the longer it is since you played, the better player you were and the easier the game was to you. But with those guys, they never make you feel like they’re talking down to you.”
Mientkiewicz and the other players who showed up yesterday expressed support for Torre, praising him for steering the Yankees to the postseason after a 21-29 start. Mientkiewicz revealed that Torre “let us have it” during a team meeting in Toronto in May, just before the turnaround began, and another first baseman, Andy Phillips, said he could not contemplate the Yankees without Torre.
“I refuse to think that way right now,” Phillips said. “I won’t let that thought enter into my mind.”
Most important, of course, is how seriously that thought is bouncing around the brain of Steinbrenner, who must decide — officially — whether to part with the most popular and successful manager he has had.
“His reign so far here has been terrific,” Cashman said of Torre. “You’d sign up for it right now, if you could find that. It’s been magical and it’s been incredible through ’07. What goes on going forward, in ’08 and beyond, is the discussion topic on the tabl

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Marion Jones Stops Running From the Truth

Marion Jones has finally come clean, but it’s too little too late, in my opinion. After years of angry denials, Marion Jones is ready to admit she doped.
The three-time Olympic gold medalist is scheduled to appear in U.S. District Court in White Plains, N.Y., on Friday to plead guilty to charges in connection with steroid use, a federal law enforcement source told The Associated Press.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing, and would not provide specific details about the plea.
Jones also sent family and close friends a letter in which she said she used steroids before the Sydney Games, The Washington Post reported Thursday. The Post was the first to report that Jones would come clean on doping.
Jones has at long last admitted steroid use, because she knew she was caught. If the evidence wasn’t there, she would have never made the admission, I believe. Jones would still be denying, denying, and denying some more, each denial more vehement that the last one, if she wasn’t about to be nailed.
The fact that Jones confessed at this late date is weak, as far as I’m concerned. She’s not being honest because she feels guilty. She’s doing it because the truth would eventually have come out in court. Her lawyers told her that the only way to save face now is to act contrite and step up.
But, after lying for so long, it just makes her look even worse. It’s like when Pete Rose FINALLY admitted betting on baseball after years and years of swearing he didn’t. It’s pathetic and contrived – and I don’t believe the public will buy into it for a minute. Jones would have been better off if she had just stuck to her original story. Now there’s no doubt that she’s not just a liar, but a cheater as well.
"I want to apologize for all of this," the Post reported Jones saying in her letter, quoting a person who received a copy and read it to the paper. "I am sorry for disappointing you all in so many ways."
Jones said in her letter that she faced up to six months in jail and would be sentenced in three months, according to the newspaper.
The admission also could cost Jones the five medals she won in Sydney, where she was the most celebrated female athlete of the games. She didn't win the five golds she wanted, but she came away with three and two bronzes, and her bright smile and charming personality made her a star.
In December 2004, the International Olympic Committee opened an investigation into doping allegations against Jones.
"Progress to date has been slow due the difficulty of gathering findings," IOC spokeswoman Emmanuelle Moreau said. "The information that Marion Jones might provide later on today may prove to be key in moving this case forward."
Under statute of limitations rules, the IOC and other sports bodies can go back eight years to strip medals and nullify results. In Jones' case, that would include the 2000 Olympics, where she won gold in the 100 meters, 200 meters and 1,600-meter relay and bronze in the long jump and 400-meter relay.
In addition to any jail term, Jones could face a long competition ban from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.
The International Association of Athletics Federations said it was waiting for official notification from USADA setting out the details of Jones' reported admission.
If she admits to having been on drugs during a specific period, the IAAF could strip Jones of all her medals and results from the world championships and other events from that time. She won three gold medals, a silver and a bronze at the 1999 and 2001 worlds.
"Our rules are clear if she confesses," IAAF spokesman Nick Davies said.
No one answered the door at Jones' home in Austin, Texas, Thursday evening, and a message left by the AP for a phone number registered to her husband, Obadele Thompson, was not immediately returned.
The triple gold medalist in Sydney said she took "the clear" for two years, beginning in 1999, and that she got it from former coach Trevor Graham, who told her it was flaxseed oil, the newspaper reported.
"The clear" is a performance-enhancing drug linked to BALCO, the lab at the center of the steroids scandal in professional sports. Home run king Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants, New York Yankees slugger Jason Giambi and Detroit Tigers outfielder Gary Sheffield all have been linked to the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative and were among more than two dozen athletes who testified before a federal grand jury in 2003.
Bonds denied ever knowingly taking performance-enhancing drugs, saying he believed a clear substance and a cream, given to him by his trainer, were flaxseed oil and an arthritis balm.
Until now, Jones had denied doping, even suing BALCO founder Victor Conte in 2004 for $25 million. Conte repeatedly accused Jones of using performance-enhancing drugs and said he watched her inject herself.
"It cost me a lot of money to defend myself," Conte said Thursday. "But I told the truth then, and I'm telling it now."
In her letter, Jones said she didn't realize she'd used performance-enhancing drugs until she stopped training with Graham at the end of 2002. She said she lied when federal agents questioned her in 2003, panicking when they presented her with a sample of "the clear," which she recognized as the substance Graham had given her.
"It's funky, because you wanted to believe she was clean," said Jon Drummond, a gold medalist in the 400 relay in Sydney. "It's like that old saying, 'Cheaters never win.' So no matter how glorious or glamorous things look, you'll get caught and pay a price for it.
"It caught me by total surprise," he added. "It's a shock. I thought it was a closed case. It doesn't help track and field at all, except maybe by letting the world know, people always get to the bottom of things. We shouldn't be afraid of the truth, but it's sad it came to this."
Jones' career has been tarnished the last several years by doping allegations against her. In August 2006, a urine sample tested positive for EPO, but Jones was cleared when a backup sample tested negative.
She also was among the athletes who testified before a BALCO grand jury in 2003. Her former boyfriend, Tim Montgomery, also testified, and was given a two-year ban for doping in late 2005. Michelle Collins and Justin Gatlin, who also trained with Graham, were banned for doping violations, too.
Graham has a Nov. 26 trial date after being indicted in the BALCO case last November on three counts of lying to federal agents. Graham, who has pleaded not guilty, helped launch the government's steroid probe in 2003 when he mailed a vial of "the clear" — previously undetectable — to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.
A woman who answered the phone at Graham's home in Raleigh, N.C., declined to identify herself, but said Graham was not home before refusing to answer any other questions. There was no answer at the door of Graham's north Raleigh home.
USA Track & Field was not aware of Jones' letter nor any pending legal action, CEO Craig Masback said.
"Anything that exposes the truth about drug use in sport is good for ensuring the integrity of sport," Masback said. "Any use of performance-enhancing substances is a tragedy for the athlete, their teammates, friends, family and the sport."
Darryl Seibel, spokesman for the U.S. Olympic Committee, declined comment on whether Jones would lose her medals until legal proceedings are completed.
"If these reports are true," Seibel said, "it is an admission of responsibility from an athlete who owed her sport and the Olympic movement much better."
Seibel added that "our position on doping is unequivocal. Doping is cheating, and under no circumstance will it be tolerated. If an athlete cheats, they deserve to pay the price for their action."
The Washington Post also reported that, in her letter, Jones said she lied about a $25,000 check given to her by Montgomery, who pleaded guilty in New York in April as part of a criminal scheme to cash millions of dollars worth of stolen or forged checks. He has yet to be sentenced.
Wells, Jones' longtime agent, and Olympian Steve Riddick, another of Jones' former coaches, also were convicted in the scam.
Bank records indicated Jones had received a $25,000 check from one of the alleged conspirators — Nathaniel Alexander who shared office space with Riddick and also was convicted. The check never cleared, according to records, and Jones was never charged.
"Once again, I panicked," the Post reported, quoting Jones' letter. "I did not want my name associated with this mess. I wanted to stay as far away as possible."

Monday, October 1, 2007

Yo, Meathead!

Well, well, well…

I guess I might as well wipe the egg from my face as I settle in to eat my next meal—a serving of crow and humble pie. Who was the one ridiculing the Phillies all season after they said they were the team to beat in the National League East in the preseason? Um, that was me. Who was the one who said the Mets would cruise into the playoffs this year? Uh—that definitely wasn’t me. I wouldn’t be a true Mets fan if I ever thought anything was going to be easy.

But still—the Mets’ historic collapse at the end of this season was downright embarrassing. Humiliating. Don’t-show-your-face-for-fear-it-will-get-laughed-in kind of bad. It was almost as bad a collapse as when the Yankees lost the ALCS to the Red Sox after being up in the series 3–0.

Who gets the blame in the Mets’ stunning collapse? How could the team blow a 7-game lead with 17 left to play? It’s a tough one. Here’s how I see it.

I like Manager Willie Randolph and General Manager Omar Minaya. Randolph is a winner, through and through, and he is used to being around winners and winning. Is it a big deal that Randolph didn’t lose his cool over the last two weeks, while his team was imploding left and right? Nah. Willie treats his players like men. He expects them to come out and play hard every day—no excuses. He figures that if the players need him to light a fire under them, especially when they are slipping and sliding their way right out of the playoffs like clowns on ice, then they shouldn’t be playing the game, and they damn well better not be playing for him. These guys get paid big bucks to play hard. If they are so weak-minded as to self-destruct under the pressure of a pennant race, they need to go somewhere else besides New York. Willie should stay.

Minaya is not perfect, and he did make some mistakes this year—his starting rotation was aging, his bullpen was leaky, and some of his offensive acquisitions are way overrated. That being said, Omar is a great manager of personnel, and I am sure he is already thinking of ways to make certain this sort of thing doesn’t happen to his beloved Mets ever again.

Rick Peterson, the pitching coach? Please. I’ve watched Peterson with the A’s and the Mets. He is as bright as they come and has ways of getting his guys to play over their heads. The fact that the Mets’ pitching failed so miserably at the end of the season was more of a personnel thing than a coaching thing, I think.

The Wilpons? Nope. The Mets’ owners promised Minaya that they would be pretty hands-off when they hired him, and they are trying to live up to their word.

As always, the lion’s share of the blame goes to the players—the guys who make all the money. Who came up small for the Mets when they needed pitching? Just about everyone, except maybe John Maine on Saturday. Whose batting averages declined rapidly over the last two weeks, when all those humongous salaries couldn’t buy the Mets a big hit? Just about everyone, once again. No pitching and no hitting. Hmmm. That must be why they lost all those games at the end.

Of course, credit needs to go to the team in Philadelphia, who played lights-out ball for the month of September. Maybe Jimmy Rollins was on to something, after all.

So here come the playoffs. Go, Cubs! C’mon, Indians! Although I usually root for the underdog, I just can’t bring myself to pull for Philly this time. If I sound bitter, it’s because I am. Another year of watching the Yankees and Angels in the playoffs while the Mets and A’s sit home.

Well, there’s always football. The Giants’ 12 sacks last night in their win against the Eagles helped me feel like a small measure of revenge was taken on Philadelphia. So good-bye for another year to regular-season baseball. Only the teams that deserve it remain.