Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Let's play!

As Thomas Boswell, the legendary sports columnist for the Washington Post, once wrote...

Time begins on Opening Day.

At the moment that my fingers hit the keyboard, the San Francisco Giants are about to begin their first game of the 2009 baseball season, on a gray and stormy Tuesday here in the Bay Area.

The Giants are coming off their fourth consecutive sub-.500 season. The franchise has never endured five straight losing campaigns. Giants fans hope that history holds up, and the Orange and Black can get off the schneid this year.

Whether that will happen is anyone's guess.

San Francisco's brightest ray of sunshine is its pitching staff. The Giants' starting rotation boasts three — count 'em, three — pitchers who have won the Cy Young Award, including the National League incumbent, Tim "The Freak" Lincecum. Following Lincecum is baseball's leading active Cy Young winner, 45-year-old Randy "The Big Unit" Johnson, who has five of the awards in his trophy case. Barry Zito hopes to regain a flash of his former glory after a couple of difficult years. The rotation rounds out with two young pitchers with future Cy Young potential, Matt Cain and Jonathan S├ínchez.

One of the game's premier closers, Brian Wilson, anchors the Giants' bullpen. The rest of the relief corps — an inconsistent mess in 2008 — should be bolstered by the additions of veterans Jeremy Affeldt and Bobby Howry.

The G-Men fell shortest last year on offense, fielding the most impotent lineup seen in these parts since the miserable 100-loss 1985 Giants. Key to improvement at the plate will be the development of third baseman (and backup catcher) Pablo "Kung Fu Panda" Sandoval, who dazzled fans with his aggressive hitting in the closing months of the '08 season, and rookie first baseman Travis Ishikawa, one of the stars of the just-concluded spring training exercise.

The Giants' offense will also hinge on another big year from catcher Bengie "Big Money" Molina, San Francisco's RBI leader (and the top RBI man among all major league catchers) last season, and sustained production from the outfielders, veterans Randy Winn (a .306 hitter last year, seventh in the National League) and Aaron Rowand (disappointing both at the plate and in the field in his first campaign as a Giant), and speedy youngster Fred Lewis.

If everything comes together for the Gyros, they could contend in the National League West, given baseball's weakest division and the fact that neither of the top teams, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Arizona Diamondbacks, look any stronger than they were last season.

If the Giants hit the way they did in 2008... well, it'll be a long summer in San Francisco.

Here's wishing good health and good luck to manager Bruce Bochy and his boys.

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Monday, December 01, 2008

The Man of Steal

The 2009 Baseball Hall of Fame ballots were mailed today to all members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America with ten or more consecutive years of service. It's the smallest HOF ballot since the current election system was instituted, with only 23 players listed as eligible.

The most notable newcomer to the list is Rickey Henderson, the longtime outfielder who owns baseball's career records for runs scored (2,295) and stolen bases, and is second all-time in walks with 2,190. Henderson played with nine teams during his 25 years in the major leagues, but is best remembered as a member of the Oakland Athletics, with whom he began his career and served four discrete tours of duty.

Rickey's a dead-solid lock for first-ballot election to the Hall, and deservedly so. He hung around far longer than he should have — he really wasn't much of a player his last four seasons, though he had as good a year as a 40-year-old guy could ask while playing for the New York Mets in 1999. But for the first dozen years of his career, Henderson was one of baseball's marquee superstars, and he was still a quality player for seven or eight years after that.

None of the rest of the incoming class of eligibles seems likely to make the cut. Power-hitting Mo Vaughn might have been a legitimate Hall of Fame candidate had his career not been shortened by injuries. Matt Williams, the Giants' best third baseman during their San Francisco tenure, had some fine years, but not enough of them to earn a ticket to Cooperstown. Mark Grace and Ron Gant were pretty good players, and 1994 American League Cy Young Award winner David Cone was a pretty good pitcher, but we aren't talking about the Hall of the Pretty Good. The remaining newbies — Jay Bell, Jesse Orosco, Dan Plesac, and Mo's cousin Greg Vaughn — net a collective "meh."

Of the holdovers from last year's ballot, Boston Red Sox outfielder Jim Rice should score a long-overdue Cooperstown call in his final year of eligibility. Rice, the American League's best offensive player in the late 1970s and early , just missed the Hall by 16 votes last time. He deserves those last few check marks that would push him over the hump. Were I a ten-year member of the BBWAA, I'd also throw votes to slugging outfielder Andre "The Hawk" Dawson, starting pitcher Jack Morris, and reliever Lee Smith — all of whom, like Rice, should have been inducted years ago.

So, anyway, here's my funny Rickey Henderson story.

I was sitting down the left field line at an Oakland A's home game in the early '80s, when Rickey was the lone megastar on an Athletics club that didn't have much else going for it. Then, as is too often the case now, the A's didn't draw many fans, so the few of us in attendance didn't have any difficulty making our individual voices heard to the players on the field.

One loudmouth in the left field bleachers, who sounded as though he might have been keeping the beer concession in business all by himself, kept shouting, "Rickey Henderson! Rickey Henderson!" over Rickey's shoulder, at a decibel level that ensured that everyone in the Oakland Coliseum — including, I think, the security guards in the parking lot — could hear him.

Rickey studiously ignored the guy's incessant chatter for about three innings. At long last, he made the fatal error of sneaking a peek back to check out this character who seemed so enamored with his name. The instant Henderson turned around, the guy yelled, "You sissy!" and cackled like a drunken hyena.

Rickey, who always had a lively sense of humor, broke up laughing.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Lincecum, by landslide

Four long decades of waiting have come to an end. A San Francisco Giant has won the Cy Young Award.

Tim Lincecum, whose 265 strikeouts led the National League this past season, becomes the first Giant tabbed as the league's best pitcher since Mike McCormick won the honor in 1967 — a time when many Americans were still watching television in black and white, and when only a handful of current major leaguers had been born.

Lincecum grabbed 23 first-place votes from the panel of 32 baseball writers. He placed second on seven ballots. Brandon Webb of the Arizona Diamondbacks, the 2006 winner, finished second behind Lincecum in the voting. Johan Santana of the New York Mets, who won the American League Cy Young in 2004 and 2006 while pitching for the Minnesota Twins, was third.

There was some question about whether Lincecum would garner the necessary votes to take down the Cy Young, given the fact that Webb won 22 games (Lincecum won 18) and Santana finished the year blazing hot, with a 9-0 streak. Luckily, the baseball writers saw what every hitter in the National League experienced this season — when Lincecum was on his game, as he was most of the time, he was nigh onto unhittable.

"Tiny Tim" may be the most unlikely pitcher ever to win the Cy Young. In an era when it's rare to see a major league pitcher under six feet tall, Lincecum stands somewhere in the neighborhood of 5'10" (the Giants officially — and generously — list him at 5'11"). If he weighs the 160 pounds noted on his baseball card, it's only in full uniform, and with a handful of lead sinkers in his pocket. With his boyish face, Tim could easily pass for a teenager (he's 24). He throws with a peculiar delivery that reminds me of a fake snake springing out of a can of peanuts. And yet, he consistently cranks out fastballs in the mid-90s, where his combination of speed and motion baffle hitters at an incredible rate.

And to think, 2008 was his first full season in the Show.

It seems odd that a team that has boasted some pretty fair pitchers over the course of its West Coast tenure — including Hall of Famers Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry — should only have had two Cy Young winners. Perry did, in fact, win two Cy Young Awards — one in each league — but both came after he left San Francisco at the end of the 1971 season.

The Giants' best starting pitcher of the pre-Lincecum period, Jason Schmidt, came close to a Cy Young twice — he finished second to the Dodgers' Eric Gagne in 2003 (a year in which Gagne posted 55 saves, becoming one of only a few relief pitchers to taste Cy Young glory), and was fourth the following season.

Two of the Giants' most promising chances to post a Cy Young season both came in 1993, when John Burkett and Bill Swift each won more than 20 games. Ironically, their simultaneous accomplishments came in a year when, as good as both Giants were, Greg Maddux was even better. Swift finished second in the Cy Young vote, and Burkett fourth.

Here's hoping that Lincecum can stay healthy — and stay in San Francisco — for many more stellar seasons to come.

Way to go, Timmy!

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Monday, September 29, 2008

Giants post-script, 2008

My brief summation of the San Francisco Giants' season that concluded yesterday:

It could have been worse.

Indeed, I predicted back in March that the G-Men would finish last in the National League West this year. Thanks to the total collapse of the San Diego Padres, San Francisco wound up fourth in its division, only two games behind the third-place (and defending pennant winner) Colorado Rockies. The Giants' 72-90 record is ten games better than the 62-100 I feared might be their reality.

Best of all, the team's influx of untested talent proved entertaining more often than not — especially the break-through season by sophomore starter Tim Lincecum, who struck out a major league-leading 265 batters on his way to serious Cy Young Award contention.

So yes... it could have been worse.

That's not to say that it was good. As the report card below will reflect.

Starting pitching: Lincecum's stellar season (18-5; 2.62 ERA; he could easily have won 25 games given adequate run support and relief help) was the one bright spot for an otherwise disappointing crew. Barry Zito, the $126 million man, redeemed himself after a horrific 0-8 start to to post a 9-6 record over the last four months. Matt Cain, expected to be the staff ace, regressed into inconsistency (8-14; 3.76 ERA), pitching brilliantly at times, dreadfully at others. Jonathan Sanchez blew similarly hot and cold. The less said about fifth starter Kevin Correia, the better. Grade: C.

Relief pitching:Second-year closer Brian "Beach Boy" Wilson vaulted to All-Star status in 2008, notching 41 saves in 47 opportunities. The Giants needed Wilson's superlative services, because the rest of the bullpen was mostly dreadful. The other bright spots were rookies Alex Hinshaw and hard-throwing Sergio Romo, both of whom will get long looks as Wilson's set-up men next year. As for everyone else in the Giants relief corps... egad. Grade: C-.

Catching: Bengie "Big Money" Molina racked up his second consecutive solid offensive season (.292 BA; 16 HR; 95 RBI), while providing dependable defense behind the dish. Molina's backup for most of the season was rookie Steve Holm, until the August arrival of do-everything man Pablo "Little Money" Sandoval. Grade: A-.

Infield: The sweet-swinging Sandoval — who, in addition to catching, saw playing time at both first and third bases — proved to be one of the Giants' two major infield surprises. The other was shortstop Emmanuel Burriss, who played the more highly touted Brian Bocock back to the minors with his sparkling glove play, consistent hitting (.283), and speed on the basepaths.(Bocock's .143 average helped, too.) Both will be penciled into the Giants' starting lineup next spring. Aging and oft-injured veterans Ray Durham (shipped at midseason to Milwaukee) and Omar Vizquel gave way to up-and-comers Ivan Ochoa and Eugenio Velez — the latter's hair-pulling defensive lapses being ameliorated somewhat by his timely bat. Converted outfielder John Bowker saw most of the playing time at first base before a late-summer demotion. Grizzled Rich Aurilia had a commendable year (.283 BA; 10 HR) handling the utility chores. Grade: B.

Outfield: Randy Winn did his best to take over the leadership of the Giants outfield in the first year of the post-Barry Bonds era, and once again was one of San Francisco's most consistent offensive weapons with a .306 batting average. New center fielder Aaron Rowand struggled to live up to his mammoth free agent contract, providing confident defense and a modicum of power (13 home runs, second on the club), but often seeming overmatched at the plate. Last September's star Fred "Don't Call Me Freddy" Lewis solidified his claim to the third outfield spot before being sidelined by a late injury. Nate Schierholtz returned from Beijing with an Olympic bronze medal and a determination to vie for a position in 2009 — he hit .320 in 19 garbage-time games. Grade: B-.

Dugout: It's hard to assess what manager Bruce Bochy and his staff could have done differently or better in this rebuilding season. Ultimately, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and the Giants ate their way into a fourth-place finish in baseball's weakest division. Grade: D.

Overall: As stated earlier, this wasn't quite as awful a year for the Giants as it could have been, but this ballclub is years away from contending for a division title, much less a pennant. The Giants were one of the weakest offensive teams in baseball, with power stats that were almost nonexistent (the Giants' 94 home runs were the only sub-three digit team total in the majors). The emergence of All-Stars Lincecum and Wilson, plus budding stars Sandoval, Burriss, and Lewis in the field and at the plate, and Romo and Hinshaw on the mound, gives San Francisco fans hope for the future. Grade: C-.

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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Wailing at the Wall of Fame

Earlier this week, the San Francisco Giants unveiled their new Wall of Fame, with plaques celebrating 43 players who have made significant contributions to the team's on-field success during its 50 years by the Bay.

As inevitably occurs with sporting honors, the Giants Wall of Fame touched off a firestorm of controversy. The criteria established by Giants management for including players on the wall were in themselves a target for debate: Only retired players who spent nine or more seasons with the Giants, or who played a minimum of five seasons in San Francisco, with at least one All-Star Game selection during that period, can be enshrined.

The retirement requirement (hey, I'm a poet!) excluded the Giants' biggest star of the last two decades, Barry Bonds, who though not playing anywhere at present is not officially retired. The Giants did, however, announce that wall space has already been reserved for Bonds and four other noteworthy current (infielder Rich Aurilia) and former (second baseman Jeff Kent and pitchers Jason Schmidt and Shawn Estes) Giants, whose plaques will be installed once they hang up their spikes.

The nine-year/five-with-an-All-Star criterion left behind such popular ex-Giants as shortstop Jose Uribe, linchpin of the San Francisco infield in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and pitcher Dave Dravecky, whose return to the mound following a bout with cancer helped inspire the pennant-winning team of 1989. Uribe, never an All-Star, left the Giants after eight years; Dravecky's fondly remembered tenure in orange and black spanned only parts of three seasons.

Most of the controversy surrounding the wall, though, points to the players who made the cut, rather than to those who missed it. Howls of dismay arose from Giants fans everywhere when Johnnie LeMaster, a light-hitting, weak-fielding shortstop so despised by the Candlestick Park faithful that he once took the field wearing a jersey with "BOO" stitched on the back, received a plaque. The Wall's creator, the Giants' soon-to-retire managing general partner Peter Magowan, shrugged and said of LeMaster, "He was here ten years. He must have done something right." Umm... what?

Given that I've been following the Giants for nearly 35 years — 70 percent of the club's San Francisco era — I feel eminently qualified to offer my own assessment of the 43 Wall-of-Famers. (I'd offer it even if I weren't so eminently qualified, because that's how I roll.) I'll break the group down into four categories, as you'll see below.

First, the No-Brainers. Without any of these, the Wall of Fame would be a travesty. Start with the five San Francisco Giants players currently in the Baseball Hall of Fame:
  • Willie Mays.
  • Willie McCovey.
  • Juan Marichal.
  • Orlando Cepeda.
  • Gaylord Perry.
'Nuff said, right? To these mortal locks, I'll add:
  • Third baseman Matt Williams (National League Most Valuable Player runner-up in 1994; three Silver Slugger Awards as a Giant).
  • 1989 NL MVP Kevin Mitchell.
  • The two clutch-hitting Clarks, Jack and Will "the Thrill."
  • 1967 Cy Young winner Mike McCormick.
Next up, the Solid Selections. All of these are choices whose worthiness no knowledgeable Giants fan should contest.
  • Bobby Bonds. At his peak in a Giants uniform.
  • Fan-favorite pitcher Vida Blue.
  • Third baseman Darrell Evans. Hard to argue with all those (mostly meaningless) home runs.
  • Felipe Alou, not a great manager but a vastly undervalued player.
  • Star relievers Robb Nen, Rod "Shooter" Beck, and Greg "Moon Man" Minton.
  • Kirk Rueter, who won more games as a southpaw than any other San Francisco pitcher.
  • J.T. Snow, one of the best defensive first basemen ever.
  • Second baseman Robby Thompson, a stalwart for a decade.
  • Third baseman Jim Ray Hart, who posted five creditable seasons before beginning a long, slow slide into mediocrity.
Then come the Questionable Calls. None of these inclusions either excites or outrages me. If I were compiling a Giants Wall of Fame, I'd probably pass on most of these, with a couple of exceptions that I'll note.
  • Infielder Jim Davenport. As manager, Davvy presided over the Giants' worst season, in 1985.
  • Starting pitchers John Burkett and Mike Krukow. Now a beloved broadcaster, Krukow had one 20-win season in a mostly mediocre Giants career. Burkett was a little better pitcher than Krukow, and also one heck of a bowler.
  • Relief pitcher Gary Lavelle, for years the Giants' bullpen stopper.
  • Catchers Tom Haller and Kirt Manwaring. I could make a good argument for Manwaring. He couldn't hit a lick, but he was widely regarded as one of the best defensive backstops of his day, as well as an expert handler of pitchers. Haller later served as the Giants' general manager.
  • Outfielders Chili Davis and Jeffrey "Hac-Man" Leonard. Chili was a better player than most people realize — he finished his career with 350 home runs. But he enjoyed most of his best seasons after he left the Giants. Hac-Man was never as good as his demeanor and reputation.
And now, the final category: What Are We, Kidding? (I believe that speaks for itself.)
  • Pitchers Jim Barr, Bob Bolin, Jeff Brantley, Scott Garrelts, Atlee Hammaker, Stu Miller, Randy Moffitt, John Montefusco, and Rick Reuschel. Most of these guys were middling pitchers who had a fair year or two amid careers of steaming nothingness. Hammaker wasn't even that good — Herb Caen, the long-time San Francisco Chronicle columnist, once theorized that the only reason Hammaker stayed on the Giants' roster was that he was then-manager Roger Craig's illegitimate son. (Herb was joshing. I think.) Reuschel was a terrific pitcher for years with the Chicago Cubs, but he was playing out the string by the time he arrived in San Francisco. He put up a couple of okay years here, but his career seasons were long behind him.
  • Infielders Chris Speier, Tito Fuentes, and the aforementioned Johnnie LeMaster. Speier was a serviceable, if thoroughly unremarkable, shortstop. Fuentes and LeMaster may have been the two worst defensive infielders ever to play for the Giants, with the notable exception of the Bob Brenly third base experiment.
  • Speaking of Brenly, slot him and fellow catcher Dick Dietz here. Brenly was a terrific leader in the clubhouse, but he was an average catcher at best, both on offense and defense. Dietz had one — count it, one — remarkable campaign, in 1970 (.300 average, 107 RBI).

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Thursday, September 04, 2008

Hero of the Day: The real Crash Davis

If you've seen the movie Bull Durham, you'll remember Crash Davis, the character played by Kevin Costner. Crash is a grizzled veteran catcher who, during the course of the film, sets the career record for home runs in baseball's minor leagues... largely due to the fact that he's spent all but three weeks of his lengthy career in the minors.

Yesterday, after more than 7,300 professional at-bats, baseball's real-life Crash Davis hit his first major league home run for the San Francisco Giants.

And in the Church of Baseball, there was much rejoicing.

Unlike the cinemythical Crash, Scott McClain is not a catcher; he's a utility infielder who can play either third or first base. And, also unlike Crash, Scott doesn't hold the career minor league home run record. (According to San Jose Mercury News columnist Andrew Baggarly, that honor goes to the sadly unheralded Russell "Buzz" Arlett, who hit 432 home runs in the minors back in the 1920s and '30s.)

McClain does, however, rank first among active players with 291 minor-league taters, not including the 71 he smacked during a four-year stint in Japan.

Yesterday, after a roster-expansion call-up by San Francisco, the 36-year-old McClain crushed a 2-2 slider from Colorado Rockies pitcher Steven Register over the left-field wall at Denver's Coors Field for his first round-tripper in The Show.

McClain has had brief stints in the majors before. He played in nine games for the Tampa Bay Don't-Call-Them-Devil Rays back in 1998, and 13 more with the Chicago Cubs three seasons ago. Last year, during his previous cup-o'-coffee with the Giants, Scott got into eight games, in which he logged a grand total of two base hits, both singles.

So far this week, since returning to the G-Men from the Triple-A Fresno Grizzlies, McClain is three-for-five with three runs batted in and, of course, his first major league homer.

You've gotta love a guy who, at age 36 and with any realistic shot at a long-term major league career about a half-decade back in the rear-view mirror of life, just keeps plugging away out of sheer determination and passion for the game.

Atta boy, Crash!

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Saturday, July 12, 2008

Bobby Murcer (1946-2008)

I note in this evening's news that Bobby Murcer has passed away from a brain tumor.

To most baseball fans, Murcer was most closely associated with the New York Yankees, first as a player, then as a broadcaster for more than 20 years. For me, however, Murcer was part of my earliest experience as a San Francisco Giants fan.

Bobby Murcer played two years for the Giants -- the 1975 and 1976 seasons, which (purely coincidentally) happened to be the first two seasons that I followed the Giants on a regular basis.

Murcer, who came to the Giants after four All-Star seasons in New York, was still a pretty good player when he arrived at Candlestick Park. In fact, Murcer was the Giants' representative in the '75 All-Star game. He never really seemed to catch on, though, with Bay Area fans, who still thought of him mostly as a Yankee. (Murcer also had the misfortune to have been received in exchange for the popular Bobby Bonds.)

Despite two pretty good seasons wearing orange and black -- he was the Giants' MVP in 1976, when he hit 23 home runs -- not too many fans here mourned when Murcer took flight for the greener pastures of Wrigley Field, having been traded for second baseman Bill Madlock.

Ironically, the player whose career is most similar statistically to Bobby Murcer's is a guy who will long be thought of as a Giant -- Dusty Baker, who played a single season in the twilight of his career with San Francisco, and later returned to the club as a longtime coach and manager.

Murcer posted a lifetime batting average of .277, with 252 home runs and 1,043 RBI in 17 major league seasons. He led the American League in slugging percentage in 1971, and won a Gold Glove the following year.

So long, Bobby. Remember to hit 'em where they ain't.

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Roll, Waves!

Nice to see that my old school, Pepperdine University, is once again in the hunt for the College World Series, the national championship of NCAA Division I college baseball.



The Waves will begin regional competition on Friday at Stanford University's Sunken Diamond, in a regional that also includes Arkansas (Pep's first-round opponent) and first-time tournament qualifier UC Davis. You can check out the entire tournament bracket here. The University of Miami is seeded Numero Ono in the nationwide double-elimination playoff.

Pepperdine has a long and storied baseball tradition, having won the CWS title in 1992 under Andy Lopez, now the head coach at the University of Arizona. Roughly two dozen future major leaguers have come through the Pepperdine system, including current San Francisco Giants pitcher Noah Lowry, Arizona Diamondbacks starter Dan Haren, and 1986 National League Cy Young Award winner Mike Scott.

Yours truly played a microscopic role in Pep's proud baseball history, as a member of the Waves' radio broadcast team during the 1980 and 1981 seasons. I wouldn't be surprised if there's an ancient air check tape of one of my calls gathering mildew in a desk drawer somewhere — the highlight of my otherwise inconsequential stint as a play-by-play announcer was a no-hitter thrown by a Pepperdine hurler named Bob Iezza.

Pepperdine hadn't yet developed into a baseball powerhouse in those days. However, the '80-'81 squad's star catcher, Bill Bathe, did eventually make the major leagues, playing briefly for both Oakland and San Francisco. In fact, as a backup for the Giants, Bathe hit San Francisco's only home run during the ill-fated "Earthquake World Series" of 1989.

During our Pepperdine days, Bill Bathe's car once served as my personal ambulance. My girlfriend at the time prevailed upon a mutual pal — the Waves' center fielder, and Bathe's roommate — to borrow Bill's ride and rush me to the hospital during a severe bout of food poisoning. The last I heard, Bathe was a fire department captain and paramedic in Tucson, Arizona. Perhaps his tangential connection to saving my life helped frame Bill's future career path. If so, my existence is justified.

Here's hoping that the 2008 Waves enjoy abundant success in the upcoming tournament.

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Monday, April 28, 2008

Barry Zito: The new Steve Blass

The Giants have a fever...

...and the only prescription is less Barry Zito.



If I were Giants upper management — and I'm not — here's what I would do with my $126 million pitcher who has become incapable of getting batters out.

Zito would suddenly develop a "mysterious injury" — let's call it hypertrophic frakulation of the distal metatarsus — that would earn him a slot on the 15-day disabled list and a two-week vacation.

As Zito's hypertrophic frakulation began to resolve in mid-May, I'd send him to the Giants' Class A minor league club in San Jose, where he could work himself back into self-confidence by throwing his legendary curveball past 20-year-old kids fresh out of junior college.

At the same time, I'd bring in a couple of experienced pitching gurus from outside the Giants organization — at least one of whom could teach the knuckleball — to help Zito find a more effective way to set up his eminently hittable 84 m.p.h. "fast" ball.

Once Zito had developed some semblance of competence and a fresh optimism about major league life, I'd return him to the Giants starting rotation — not as the Number One starter, where he routinely faces the opposing team's best pitcher, but as the Number Five starter, where he would routinely face the weakest link in the opponent's rotation.

Then, I'd pray for a miracle.

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Monday, March 31, 2008

Another year, another 162 games

In the immortal words of baseball scribe Thomas Boswell, time begins on Opening Day.

For the 50th Anniversary edition of the San Francisco Giants, it might not be long before fans begin wishing that time had stopped.



More than any team in recent memory, the 2008 Giants resemble the 1985 "Real Grass, Real Sunshine, Real Baseball" squad — an assortment of has-beens (aging hurlers Vida Blue and Mike Krukow, second baseman Manny Trillo), never-weres (St. Louis-import first baseman David Green, starting pitcher Atlee Hammaker), and untested rookies (oft-injured third baseman Chris "The Tin Man" Brown) that posted the first (and to date, only) 100-loss season in San Francisco history. (In 2007, the Giants went 71-91.)

With the departure-slash-forced retirement of 43-year-old home run king, perennial All-Star, and federal indictee Barry Bonds during the offseason, the Giants lost their one legitimate superstar. In the Bondsman's absence, the focus will be directed to the Giants' starting rotation — with the $127 Million Man, former Cy Young Award winner Barry Zito, leading a gang of young guns — and the Giants' new center fielder, Aaron Rowand, a free agent addition from Philadelphia.

Beyond that? Well, there's not much "there" there at AT&T Park.

Let's review the 25-man roster with which the Giants begin the 2008 campaign today.

Starting pitching

Without question, the strength of the team, at least three-fifths of the time. The Giants' winningest pitcher from last year, Pepperdine alumnus Noah Lowry (14-8, 3.92 ERA), will miss at least the first two weeks as he recovers from surgery. That still leaves the G-Men with three solid starters: Matt Cain, who's ready to explode into All-Star status any second now; Tim Lincecum, the surprise find of 2007; and the aforementioned Zito, who weathered a rocky first year in the National League, but was impressive during the last month of the season and seems primed to return to form this year.

After the Big Three, the rotation will round out with Kevin Correia, who has seen major league time with the Giants in each of the last five seasons but has yet to establish himself, and Jonathan Sanchez, a hard-throwing kid (62 strikeouts in only 52 innings) with serious potential. (Potential = "He hasn't done anything yet.") Correia and Sanchez will duke it out in the early season to see who'll remain in the starting five once Lowry returns.

Relief pitching

In a word: Egad.

The Giants practiced bullpen-by-committee in 2007, and this season promises more of the same. The team is high on Brian "Beach Boy" Wilson, who beat out Brad Hennessey for the closer role late last season. Beyond Wilson, though, the San Francisco relief corps is a motley crew: holdovers Hennessey, Jack Taschner, and Tyler Walker — mediocre journeymen all — and a slew of newcomers ranging from one-time minor league phenom Merkin "Don't Call It a Pubic Wig" Valdez to 39-year-old Japan League import Keiichi Yabu, whose only major league experience came with the Oakland A's four years ago, and who pitched in the Mexican League last season.

Put it this way: Anything after the fifth inning could be a real adventure.

Catching

Bengie Molina — possibly the slowest runner in baseball — was the Giants' unlikely offensive hero in 2007, driving home a team-high 81 RBI. Molina will be called upon to replace Bonds as the Giants' cleanup hitter this year. Behind the plate, Bengie's a defensive liability, but an exceptional signal-caller who works effectively with the pitching staff.

Backing up Molina is career minor leaguer Steve Holm, who outplayed the incumbent second-stringer, Eliezer Alfonzo, in the Cactus League.

Infield

This will be interesting.

The Giants have no experienced first baseman (Dan Ortmeier will get a shot at winning the full-time job), an over-the-hill second baseman (Ray Durham, who hit a pathetic .218 last year, but has been on fire this spring), a shortstop who has never played at a level above Single-A (Brian Bocock, filling in for the disabled veteran Omar Vizquel), and who knows what at third base (incumbent Pedro "Pete Happy" Feliz was shown the door in the offseason, leaving the Giants with aging journeyman Rich Aurilia and switch-hitting prospect Eugenio Velez as the available options).

Whoever ends up playing around the horn, I'm not seeing much — if any — offensive muscle here. And defense at the corners, especially if converted outfielders Ortmeier and Velez get most of the starts, could be horrific.

Outfield

If the Giants are going to score runs, they'll have to get most of them from this group.

Newcomer Aaron Rowand comes to the Giants off a Gold Glove-winning, career-best season, and will be counted on to provide a spark both at the plate (.309, 27 HR, 89 RBI, .515 slugging percentage) and in center field, where he'll be the best defensive player the Giants have boasted at that position since the days of Brett Butler.

Flanking Rowand are right fielder Randy Winn, probably the Giants' best all-around hitter, and the dilapidated Dave Roberts in left. Manager Bruce Bochy will want to spread the playing time around to youngsters Fred Lewis (.287 in 58 games) and Rajai Davis (.282 in 51 games), both of whom showed intriguing potential (see definition above) in limited 2007 action.

Prediction

First in your hearts, last in the National League West.

Let's just hope they avoid passing the century mark in the loss column.

Last word

The Giants' marketing department continues its history of embarrassingly dreadful advertising taglines (i.e., "Hang In There!") with this season's laugher, "All Out, All Season."

Considering the anemic offense with which Bochy will be completing his lineup card, those words could prove frighteningly prophetic by the campaign's end.

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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Don't worry. Pete Happy.

Pedro Feliz, the San Francisco Giants' starting third baseman for the past four seasons, has signed a two-year free agent contract with the Philadelphia Phillies.

Oh, well.



Reportedly, Pedro — nicknamed "Pete Happy" by Spanish-literate Giants fans — leaves the Bay Area a mite miffed that the G-Men didn't pursue his re-signing with greater alacrity.

Here's the deal, Pedro: Take a pitch once in a while.

Although Feliz matured into a nifty fielder at third base, and displayed not-infrequent flashes of power at the plate — he hit 20 or more home runs in each of the past four seasons — he never developed a shred of discipline as a hitter.

In the last four campaigns, Pedro posted batting averages of .276, .250, .244, and .253 — mediocre numbers at best. Even more telling, his on-base percentages over that period were .305, .295, .281, and .290, which tells you Feliz rarely gets on base without getting a hit. The word "walk" simply isn't in the guy's vocabulary. Last season, Pedro walked just 29 times in 557 official at-bats. You could walk 29 times a season just standing in the batter's box with your stick on your shoulder.

The Giants — and Giants fans — will miss Pedro's defense at the hot corner and his 80 or so RBI per year. They won't miss watching him ground out on bad pitches at which he never should have swung in the first place, thereby costing the team innumerable scoring opportunities.

Vaya con Dios, Pete Happy.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Say Hey, Aaron!

In their first big move of the baseball off-season, the San Francisco Giants today signed Gold Glove-winning center fielder Aaron Rowand to a five-year pact.



Rowand's one heck of a player. A product of the stellar baseball program at California State University at Fullerton (or, as it's often nicknamed, Cal State Disneyland), Rowand is one of the best defensive outfielders in the game today. Fans may recall that oft-aired footage of him from the 2006 season, crashing face-first into the center field wall in Chicago, shattering his nose but holding onto the ball.

Last season, as a member of the Philadelphia Phillies, Rowand notched career highs in home runs (27) and RBI (89), all while picking up his first Gold Glove and an All-Star team selection. He probably won't post numbers like that in less hitter-friendly AT&T Park, but he'll cover that huge outfield ground like a human vacuum, and get on base a lot.

Rowand's arrival means that the Giants can move ancient Dave Roberts to left field, replacing the departed and indicted Barry Bonds. It's a far better move for the team than the hotly rumored trade for Toronto's Alex Rios, a comparable player to Rowand (albeit four years younger), but also one who would have cost the Giants one of their youthful starting pitchers — probably Tim Lincecum or Matt Cain. By scoring Rowand off the free agent market, San Francisco keeps its rapidly rising hurling staff intact.

Nice going, Brian Sabean. Keep up the momentum, and you'll have earned that two-year contract extension.

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Monday, November 26, 2007

Hall of Fame hot stove

It's an excellent year to be listed on the ballot for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, especially for those nominees who've been waiting patiently for election.

One of the challenges for Hall of Fame eligibles is that the newest names on the ballot seem to garner the most attention every year, leaving a handful of worthy former players struggling to accumulate the 75 percent of the available votes needed for induction. Last year, for example, superstars Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken Jr. were newly eligible, and the hubbub surrounding their arrival on the ballot pushed such holdovers as Jim Rice, Rich "Goose" Gossage, and Andre "The Hawk" Dawson further down the priority list.

Fortunately for the aforementioned gentlemen, none of the 11 first-time candidates on this year's Hall of Fame ballot warrant election. That could mean that deserving stars such as Rice, who's in his 14th year of eligibility, and Gossage, who's on the list for the ninth time, might have a better shot at swaying voters.

That's not to say that this year's ballot rookies are total scrubs. Outfielder Tim "Rock" Raines will probably get quite a few votes. A solid player with a long (parts of 23 seasons) and distinguished (a seven-time All-Star, with one batting title to his credit) career, Raines was a very good — though not quite Hall of Fame caliber — major leaguer.

David Justice was a pretty fair ballplayer in his best years, too, though Justice will probably be remembered most as "that lucky stiff who was married to Halle Berry for three years."

Three former Giants appear on the ballot for the first time: versatile Shawon Dunston, and relief aces Robb Nen and the late Rod "Shooter" Beck. As it has in the past for other prominent players who died either during or shortly after their active years, the Hall of Fame has waived the customary five-years-retired requirement to add Beck (who passed away unexpectedly in June) to this year's ballot. It won't help — Shooter was a terrific pitcher for several seasons, but not a legitimate Hall of Fame candidate. Nen and Dunston weren't even that close.

Of the holdovers, I'd vote for Rice, Gossage, and Dawson without batting an eyelash. Rice was the American League's best power-hitting position player in the late 1970s and early '80s. Gossage was as dominant a closer as baseball had seen up until that point. Eight-time All-Star Dawson suffered the indignity of being the best player on an interminable skein of crappy Montreal Expos and Chicago Cubs teams during his 21 years in the bigs. All three, in my never-humble opinion, should have been elected to the Hall long before now.

I'd vote for superstar reliever Lee Smith (a then-record 478 career saves) and longtime Detroit Tigers ace Jack Morris (the best starting pitcher in the American League throughout the 1980s), too.

But then, they don't give me a ballot.

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Thursday, November 01, 2007

What channel is the ball game on?

Astounding news: The San Francisco Giants have changed flagship television stations.

The Giants' games have been broadcast locally on KTVU Channel 2 (which, ironically, is located in Oakland, a mere frog's leap from McAfee Coliseum, where the Athletics play) since the team arrived in the Bay Area in 1958. For the next three years, at least, the Giants will be seen on KNTV Channel 11 (or Channel 3, for those of us with Comcast cable), the San Jose-based NBC affiliate.

This move is especially puzzling to me, in that KTVU is one of the Giants' minority ownership partners. Apparently, though, the FOX affiliate grew weary of trying to shoehorn 20 or 30 baseball games around its heavyweight primetime programming, including such hits as American Idol, House, and 24.

Most of the Giants' televised games run on FOX Sports Bay Area anyway, but still, it's a shock.

Lucky for us fans, the Giants' crackerjack broadcasting unit, led by Jon "The Big Kahuna" Miller and the ever-popular duo of Duane Kuiper and Mike Krukow remains intact. (The announcers work for the team, not the TV or radio stations which broadcast the games.)

Speaking of Jon, Kuip, and Kruk, all three are among the eligible nominees for the Ford C. Frick Award, the honor bestowed upon one broadcaster each year by the Baseball Hall of Fame. Longtime Giants radio voice Hank Greenwald is also on the list. Fan voting begins today, and you're allowed to vote for three nominees each day. (I already threw Jon, Hank, and Kuip a vote each.)

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Eternal nausea of the spoiled mind

It's Wednesday already, and I haven't touched SSTOL since the work week began. High time, don't you think?

Let's take a tour of the past few days' pop culture madness. You know the drill: Uncle Swan rips, you read. Onward:
  • Pretty, maybe; sexy... meh: Esquire Magazine has pronounced Charlize Theron the Sexiest Woman Alive. She doesn't do much for me (skinny and blonde is a fatal combination in my aesthetic), but I'll agree with the divine Ms. T on one thing: Reindeer Games, in which Charlize costarred with Ben Affleck, is a bad, bad, bad movie. Just knowing that the great John Frankenheimer — whose preceding film, Ronin, is one of my all-time favorites — directed this low-rent piece of trash makes Uncle Swan cry.

  • As if Oprah didn't have enough money: Oxygen, the women's cable channel cofounded by the ubiquitous Ms. Winfrey (you know, the one not called Lifetime), is being purchased by NBC Universal for $925 million. Stedman, as usual, was unavailable for comment.

  • Hey there, people, I'm Bobby Brown: Whitney Houston's ex is recovering from what's being called a "minor heart attack." That, apparently, is the new medical term for "crack overdose."

  • From the Unclear on the Concept Department: 20th Century Fox has fired director Xavier Gens for making his upcoming film Hitman — based on the gruesome video game of the same name — too violent for the studio's taste. Umm... what did they think a video game flick called Hitman was going to be like? The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh?

  • Stop me if you've heard this one before: Tom Sizemore says he's giving up drugs for good this time. "I'm not trading my whole life for some powder," says the actor, who's inhaled more dust than an army of coalminers. Yeah, I'll believe that right up until Sizemore's next arrest. Any minute now.

  • America's Got Liquor: David Hasselhoff fell off the wagon yet again. Everyone guard your cheeseburgers.

  • 48 is 24 times two: Kiefer Sutherland accepted a sentence of 48 days in the slammer following his recent DUI arrest. The deal brokered by the 24 star's legal team allows him to serve the first 18 days of the sentence during the show's holiday break in December, then the remaining 30 after the end of the season's shooting schedule. Could be worse, I guess: Kiefer's character Jack Bauer was a heroin addict a couple of seasons ago. Or was that Tom Sizemore?

  • Like a Band-Aid on the hull of the Titanic: The San Francisco Giants, still reeling after a 90-loss campaign that ended with the team mired so deep in last place they couldn't see the rest of the National League West with the Hubble Telescope, have dismissed hitting coach Joe Lefebvre and first-base coach Willie Upshaw. Given the Giants' anemic offensive production this season, I can understand firing the hitting coach. But the first-base coach? His entire job consists of swatting players on the butt when they reach base. Darn it, Willie: I warned you not to squeeze.

  • This just in: Marion Jones is marrying O.J. Simpson. She might as well — she's been doing The Juice for years. Thank you! I'm here all week!

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

And like that... he's gone

Tonight, Barry Bonds played his final home game — and, in all probability, his final game, period — as a San Francisco Giant.

After 15 seasons, I will miss the big lug.

As a Giant, Bonds won five Most Valuable Player awards (he brought two with him when he came over from Pittsburgh), and one could effectively — and, in my never-humble opinion, accurately — argue that he should have won at least two more. For most of his tenure in San Francisco, Bonds was the most dominant, most imposing, most statistically singular baseball player of his generation — perhaps of any generation. This season, he chased down and captured the most legendary record in professional sports, in that handful of games when he wasn't looking like a 43-year-old bodybuilder with gimpy knees.

I've been watching baseball with avid fascination for nearly 40 years. I never saw another player like Bonds.

Did he inflate his statistics — and his uniform — with anabolic steroids and human growth hormone? I don't know. Maybe. Probably. There's no concrete evidence that he ever failed a drug test, but yeah, if I had to guess, I'd vote for the juice. (But not The Juice. That's a whole other story.) How much did it help, if he did? Hard to say. The Bonds who joined the Giants in 1993 was already the best ballplayer I'd ever seen, and even his harshest critics grudgingly acknowledge that he was probably pharmaceutical-free then, and for at least another five or six season thereafter. How much better could he have become, really?

I guess you'd have to ask Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, Sammy Sosa, and Ken Caminiti for starters. Except Caminiti's dead. I suspect you should ask Roger Clemens, Pudge Rodriguez, Vladimir Guerrero, and Albert Pujols, too. Not that there's any conclusive evidence there, either. We're just shooting the hypothetical breeze here, right?

You see, that's the reason why an inveterate baseball purist such as myself just sighs and shrugs when the discussion of Bonds, performance-enhancing drugs, and the non-existent asterisk arises. There's as much documented empirical evidence against several dozen other stars, near-stars, and wannabe-stars as there is against Bonds, and no one breathes a word about striking any of their accomplishments from the Baseball Abstract.

We all know why that is. Barry Bonds has all the personal charm of a Gila monster, at least when dealing with members of the fourth estate. Nice guys may finish last, but at least they get the benefit of the doubt. Everyone wants to take down the dude who acts like the wrong end of a horse.

I'm not Barry's apologist. He doesn't appear to want or need one — unless it's his old pal Greg Anderson — and I wouldn't accept the job if offered. But the bottom line is that if (and I believe we still have to say if, Game of Shadows notwithstanding) he used the juice, he wasn't alone. That doesn't excuse it if he did, but it means that in order to serve justice, we'd have to hunt down every Tom, Dick, and Jose who likewise did the stuff, and erase every accomplishment that every one of them ever did. That's assuming that we could prove anything against anyone at this late juncture. And that we could catch everyone who ought to get caught.

Yeah. Good luck with that.

While you're busy with the snipe hunt, I'll be over here remembering 762.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Hero of the Day: The Big Kahuna

In the midst of a dismal season for the Giants, a moment of class and brilliance shone like a beacon in last night's game at The House That Barry Built.

During a break in the action, a camera operator for Fox Sports Bay Area trained his lens on a young man in the stands, who was busy with a laptop, scorebook, and headset microphone. It was obvious to any observer the kid was calling his own play-by-play and recording it into his computer.

In the next half-inning, the camera's eye found the young man again. This time, Jon Miller — the Giants' lead announcer — was seated next to him. When the duo appeared again a short time afterward, Miller and the boy were ensconced in the press box, with the kid nestled between Miller and his broadcast teammate Dave Flemming as they called the game.

This incident resonated with me, recalling my long-ago days as an aspiring sportscaster, sitting in the upper deck at Candlestick Park and pretending I was Hank Greenwald. At the time, I would have traded my most prized possession for a chance to have one of my announcing heroes take notice of me and invite me up to the booth.

I'm sure Jon Miller remembered times when his present dream job had seemed like a distant, nearly impossible fantasy, as it perhaps does to this young fellow. He certainly gave that kid a memory he'll never forget as long as he lives. It cost Jon nothing but a few minutes of his time.

In a sports world fraught with scandal and scuttlebutt, it's a joy to see a sports professional taking time just to do something nice for a fan. I know these moments happen much more often than we ever hear reported, but it affirms one's humanity when we catch a glimpse of such a case as it happens.

Good on ya, Big Kahuna.

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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

756!

The name is Bonds.

Barry Bonds.

And he now owns the most storied record in professional sports.

I'll have more to say soon, but for this electric moment, that one number says it all:

Seven.

Hundred.

Fifty.

Six.

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Sunday, August 05, 2007

Truth and beauty, horsehide edition

Bonds: 755 career home runs.

A-Rod: 500 career home runs, and 11 years younger.

This is all ye know in baseball...

...and all ye need to know.

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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Giants yank the welcome Matt

The Giants, going nowhere for the last two months of the 2007 major league season except to the Barry Bonds home run record party, threw starting pitcher Matt Morris and his $9 million-per-year contract under the team bus at the trading deadline today.

Morris, who has one more year left on his contract, was shipped East to a ballclub even worse than the Giants — the perennially hapless Pittsburgh Pirates — for a scrub outfielder and the proverbial "player to be named later."

A steady if unspectacular pitcher, Morris was tied for second on the Giants roster in victories this season (7), and possessed the fourth-worst earned run average among the San Francisco starting five (4.35). By all accounts, he's a good teammate and a mature, veteran influence in a rotation dominated by talented but inexperienced hurlers (Noah Lowry, Tim Lincecum, and Matt Cain) and the overpaid and unreliable Barry Zito. But Morris's $9 million next year can be better spent on younger players, especially on a roster aching for monumental retooling this coming offseason.

So long, Matt. I hope you look good in yellow.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Send in the pinch-hitters

Sometimes, nice guys finish first. Or at least tie for second.

Congratulations to Drew Carey, who beat out a raft of likely (and, in the case of Rosie O'Donnell, unlikely) suspects to land the coveted hosting duties on The Price is Right.

Departing TPIR host Bob Barker commented on the Carey signing, "I'm cool with it." (Although you know that with the substantial nest egg Bob's carrying into his cozy retirement, he'd be cool with whomever CBS hired to replace him: Mr. T; Elvira, Mistress of the Dark; Wendy the Snapple Lady; or Wilbur, Zuckerman's famous pig.)

Congratulations also to the Giants' Mark Sweeney, whose first-pitch double in the seventh inning of last night's loss to the Atlanta Braves was the 150th pinch hit of his journeyman major league career. The achievement ties Sweeney with the legendary Manny Mota for second place on baseball's all-time pinch hits list. (Lenny Harris holds the record, with 212.)

Speaking of Manny Mota, here's a story I heard back in my college days, from a friend who played center field for the Pepperdine University Waves.

During his years with the Dodgers, Mota had a favorite bat that traveled with him everywhere. One season, Mota departed his native Dominican Republic for spring training having neglected to pack this particular bat. Mota had a horrendous spring that year — as Crash Davis might say, Manny couldn't hit water if he fell out of a [expletive deleted] boat. Near the end of spring training, Mota's wife, at home in the Dominican, received a terse telegram from her husband. The message contained but three words: "Send the bat."

Perhaps if Drew Carey struggles to sink his putts in TPIR's golf game, he can summon Bob Barker's putter to the rescue.

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Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Giant awakens!

After enduring an embarrassing 0-for-21 drought, The Bondsman went off today.

Three hits — two of which were booming home runs in the classic Bonds style — and six runs batted in. That's 753 round trippers: just two shy of Henry Aaron's storied mark.



Of course, San Francisco still lost the game to the Cubs, 9-8.

Were it not for Bonds and the run for the record, not even Kruk and Kuip would care about the G-Men this season. (Okay, Kruk still would.)

Anyway... you go, Barry.

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Sunday, July 01, 2007

We don't need no stinking steroids

Congratulations to future home run king Barry "the Asterisk" Bonds for being elected to his thirteenth National League All-Star team... and congratulations to National League fans for having the courage to vote for him in the face of relentless media opposition.

Bonds, who at this writing is hitting .304 with 16 homers and 40 RBI (plus a season slugging percentage only a couple of points shy of his overall career aggregate), came in third in the fan balloting, with 2,325,391 votes.

Go ahead — name the last 42-year-old major leaguer (Bonds will turn 43 later this month) to put up batting numbers like that. I'll be waiting a while for your answer, because there isn't one. It's never happened before.

We can all speculate on whether Bonds was anabolically juiced when he smashed the single-season home run record in 2001. I don't know for sure (though I'd put my money on the affirmative), and you don't either. But we have to concur on this: He's unquestionably squeaky clean today (because you know that with Henry Aaron's record only five swats away, The Baseball Powers That Be are testing Barry's tinkle at every opportunity), he's almost four years deep into his 40s, and he's still recording stats that guys half his age would sacrifice their firstborn to achieve.

Good, bad, indifferent — you've got to acknowledge that there's never been a player like Bonds. I might not want to invite him over for dinner, but I'll stop what I'm doing to watch him swing the bat any day of the week, and twice on Sunday.

You go, Barry.

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Sunday, June 24, 2007

So long, Shooter

"Shocked" is perhaps one of the most overused words in the English language. It is, however, the word that most accurately describes my emotional reaction to hearing the news that Rod Beck, the Giants' star relief pitcher throughout most of the 1990s, died yesterday at the age of 38.



The cause of Beck's death is unknown at this writing. Although it's too early to speculate, it's been widely reported that the former relief ace has battled drug addiction in recent years.

Beck was one of my favorite Giants in my 30-plus years as a San Francisco partisan. "Shooter," as Beck was known to his teammates, was one of the great characters of the game. He was as unlikely a professional athlete as I've ever seen — a mullet-wearing, heavyset fellow sporting a shaggy Fu Manchu 'stache, he smoked like the proverbial chimney and looked as though he consumed Quarter Pounders and Heineken for breakfast. Still, he electrified Candlestick Park whenever he took the mound in the late innings. Beck didn't throw the hardest fastball in the majors, but he combined a deceptively wild delivery motion with an intimidating on-field demeanor to become one of the game's most feared closers.

Although he's most frequently remembered as a Giant due to his seven-year tenure in San Francisco, Beck actually notched his highest save total (51) in 1998 as a Chicago Cub. With the Giants, Beck made three National League All-Star teams and finished eighth in the voting for the 1994 Cy Young Award. He posted six consecutive seasons (1992-98) in which he recorded 28 or more saves. His career total of 286 saves ranks 22nd all-time.

Beck garnered some news coverage a couple of years ago when he attempted to make a comeback with the Cubs' Triple-A affiliate in Iowa. During that season, he lived in an RV in the parking lot of the stadium, and made his movable domicile a hangout for fellow players.

During his years in San Francisco, Beck and his wife were active in the community, lending their time and celebrity to a host of charitable events, especially in the area of pediatric AIDS. He always seemed as affable off the field as he was awe-inspiring on it.

Thirty-eight is far, far too young.

My sincere condolences go out to Beck's family, friends, and former teammates.

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Monday, June 11, 2007

Uncle Swan rips and regurgitates

It's Monday, boys and girls. Let's crack open the pop culture news reader and see what belches out, shall we?
  • All it takes is a little girl power: Kudos to Rags to Riches for becoming the first filly in 103 years to win the Belmont Stakes. My daughter the horsewoman was overjoyed. Now if we could just get a Triple Crown winner...

  • Paris Hilton — AKA Miss L.A. County Jail 2007 — offered this revelation to Barbara Walters in a weekend interview:
    I used to act dumb. It was an act. I am 26 years old, and that act is no longer cute.
    If that's an act, the girl ought to receive an Oscar, an Emmy, a Tony, and a lifetime achievement award from the Screen Actors Guild.

  • Speaking of SAG, what were the people who founded the women's clothing brand Sag Harbor thinking when they chose that name? Women generally avoid anything to do with the word "sag." (Might be a good handle for a brassiere manufacturer, though. Hmm...)

  • And speaking of Barbara Walters, it appears that Babwa Wawa and her View-mates will soon be joined by Whoopi Goldberg, replacing the recently departed Rosie O'Donnell. The Whoopster's a good choice for this gig, I think. She'll bring some of the same edge that Rosie lent to the program (with less of Miz Ro's propensity for controversial ballistics), while adding a little flavor to the otherwise vanilla proceedings. You go, Whoop.

  • Former CBS News anchor Dan Rather claims that his successor Katie Couric's approach to journalism amounts to "dumbing it down and tarting it up." Go back to sleep, Dan. By the way, what's the frequency, Kenneth?

  • Apparently, President Bush is extremely popular in Albania. Can they keep him?

  • Ryan Seacrest blames overexposure of Simon Cowell for American Idol's dip in the ratings this season. I take it that Ryan wasn't referring to Simon's chest hair. Or perhaps he was.

  • Speaking of Idol, Katharine McPhee is dating a 42-year-old guy? Maybe Kitty McPheever needs to delete some of those downloads of George Michael's "Father Figure" from her iPod.

  • My take on the Sopranos finale furor: I must be the only HBO subscriber in the Western world who's never watched an entire episode of The Sopranos. Give me Big Love any day.

  • Always bet on black: Action star Wesley Snipes says the feds are busting his chops over unpaid income taxes because he's African American. Hey, Wes: Maybe they just saw you stealing a paycheck in your last several movies.

  • The Giants suck. That's all I have to say about that.

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Thursday, May 31, 2007

Thirteen Black Aces

Yesterday at McAfee Coliseum, baseball's Oakland Athletics honored the four members of the Black Aces with historical connections to the A's: Dave Stewart, Jim "Mudcat" Grant, Vida Blue, and Mike Norris.

Who are the Black Aces? I'm delighted that you asked.

The Black Aces are the (to date) 13 pitchers of African American heritage (including one African Canadian, Ferguson Jenkins) who have won 20 or more games in a single major league season. The name "Black Aces" comes from a book written by Grant (with assistance by journalists Tom Sabellico and Pat O'Brien), examining the careers of these noteworthy athletes. Grant also immortalizes the accomplishments of several Negro League pitchers whom he believes would have been 20-game winners in the majors, had they not been barred by segregation.

I highly recommend Grant's book; it's one of the most heartfelt and eye-opening sports reads of the past decade. In hope that the more baseball-minded among you might be encouraged to check it out, allow me to provide this brief introduction to the 13 Black Aces, presented in order of the date upon which each entered this exclusive club.
  • Don Newcombe — Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers (1949-51, 1954-58), Cincinnati Reds (1958-60), Cleveland Indians (1960); three Black Ace seasons (1951, 20-9; 1955, 20-5; 1956, 27-7; all with the Dodgers). The major leagues' first great black pitcher, Newcombe remains the only player in baseball history to win the Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player, and Cy Young Awards. (He was, in fact, the first recipient of the National League Cy Young, in 1956.) In addition to being a dominating pitcher, Newcombe was also accomplished at the plate — a fearsome slugger, he was probably the best-hitting pitcher since Babe Ruth.

  • Sam Jones — Cleveland Indians (1951-52), Chicago Cubs (1955-56); St. Louis Cardinals (1957-58, 1963), San Francisco Giants (1959-61), Detroit Tigers (1962), Baltimore Orioles (1964); one Black Ace season (1959, 21-15 with the Giants). The much-traveled Jones, nicknamed "Sad Sam" or "Toothpick Sam," led the National League in strikeouts three times. In his Black Ace season, he led the senior circuit in earned run average and was named National League Pitcher of the Year by The Sporting News. Jones died in 1971 at the age of 45.

  • Bob Gibson — St. Louis Cardinals (1959-75); five Black Ace seasons (1965, 20-12; 1966, 21-12; 1968, 22-9; 1969, 20-13; 1970, 23-7; all with the Cardinals). Gibson was the most terrifying hurler ever to step onto a major league pitcher's mound. Famed as much for his intimidating demeanor as for his awe-inspiring fastball, Gibson made even great hitters' blood run cold. A talented all-around athlete — he won nine Gold Gloves as the National League's best fielding pitcher — Gibson played pro basketball with the Harlem Globetrotters for a year before focusing on baseball. He was the National League Cy Young winner in 1968 and 1970, the league's Most Valuable Player in '68, and the MVP of the 1964 and 1967 World Series.

  • Jim "Mudcat" Grant — Cleveland Indians (1958-64), Minnesota Twins (1964-67), Los Angeles Dodgers (1968), Montreal Expos (1969), St. Louis Cardinals (1969), Oakland Athletics (1970, 1971), Pittsburgh Pirates (1970, 1971); one Black Ace season (1965, 21-7 with the Twins). The man who gave the Black Aces their name is probably better known today as a baseball broadcaster (for the Indians and the A's) and historian than he was as a journeyman pitcher. He enjoyed his best seasons in Minnesota during the mid-1960s.

  • Ferguson Jenkins — Philadelphia Phillies (1965-66), Chicago Cubs (1966-73, 1982-83), Texas Rangers (1974-75, 1978-81), Boston Red Sox (1976-77); seven Black Ace seasons (six with the Cubs: 1967, 20-13; 1968, 20-15; 1969, 21-15; 1970, 22-16; 1971, 24-13; 1972, 20-12; one with the Rangers: 1974, 25-12). Canada's best-known non-hockey sports export, Jenkins was the first player from the Great White North to gain election to the Baseball Hall of Fame. He's arguably the most successful "finesse" pitcher in modern baseball history, along with another Cubs legend, Greg Maddux. Like fellow Black Ace Bob Gibson, Jenkins spent a season playing basketball with the Globetrotters. Fergie's entry into the Hall of Fame took a year or two longer than it should have, as several writers initially refused to vote for him due to a drug-related arrest in 1980 that resulted in his temporary suspension from the game.

  • Earl Wilson — Boston Red Sox (1959-66), Detroit Tigers (1966-70), San Diego Padres (1970); one Black Ace season (1967, 22-11 with the Tigers). Earl Wilson holds a special place in my baseball memories, as he was a star for Detroit in the years when I first became a Tigers fan. (I switched loyalties to the Giants in the mid-1970s when my family moved permanently to the Bay Area.) Wilson is probably best remembered by historians for two unique accomplishments: he was the first African American pitcher employed by the notoriously desegregation-resistant Red Sox (Boston was the last team in the majors to integrate, in 1959 — a dozen years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier); and he's one of only two pitchers (Rick Wise was the other) to hit a home run in a game in which he pitched a no-hitter (against the Los Angeles Angels, in 1962). A former catcher, Wilson maintained his power stroke throughout his career, hitting 33 home runs as a pitcher — only four other major league pitchers hit more.

  • Vida Blue — Oakland Athletics (1969-77), San Francisco Giants (1978-81, 1985-86), Kansas City Royals (1982-83); three Black Ace seasons (1971, 24-8; 1973, 20-9; 1975, 22-11; all with the A's). Vida is my all-time favorite pitcher, and ranks alongside Barry Bonds and Willie McCovey as one of my all-time favorite baseball players, period. It's sad to imagine the statistics he might have compiled, were it not for the drug habit that plagued him during the prime of his career. The American League MVP and Cy Young winner in his breakout 1971, Vida became the first pitcher to start All-Star Games for both leagues (1971, for the AL as an Athletic; 1978, for the NL as a Giant). It never ceases to strike me as bizarre that three of the pitchers most statistically similar to Vida — Catfish Hunter, Hal Newhouser, and Don Drysdale — are in the Hall of Fame, while Vida is not. (My argument would not be that Vida belongs in the Hall, but rather that Hunter, Newhouser, and especially Drysdale don't belong there.)

  • Al Downing — New York Yankees (1961-69), Oakland Athletics (1970), Milwaukee Brewers (1970), Los Angeles Dodgers (1971-77); one Black Ace season (1971, 20-9 with the Dodgers). Whatever else Al Downing might have done during his lengthy major league career will always be overshadowed by the fact that he was the pitcher who served up the ball that Henry Aaron belted to break Babe Ruth's career home run record. Downing was a solid journeyman whose best years, aside from his 1971 20-win campaign, came in the mid-'60s when he was a starter for the Yankees.

  • J. R. Richard — Houston Astros (1971-80); one Black Ace season (1976, 20-15 with the Astros). His career cut tragically short by a near-fatal stroke in 1980, Richard was on a path toward a Hall of Fame career. Standing six-foot-eight, he was one of the most physically impressive athletes I ever saw. Sadly, Richard fell on hard financial times after his baseball skills evaporated, and wound up homeless on the streets of Houston. I understand that he has recovered his life in recent years, as a minister and social advocate.

  • Mike Norris — Oakland Athletics (1975-83, 1990); one Black Ace season (1980, 22-9 with the A's). Of all of the Black Aces, Norris is the only one who can accurately be described as a flash in the pan. His stellar 1980 campaign established the high point of a brief and otherwise unremarkable major league career, marked mostly by arm injuries and off-field struggles related to drug abuse. He's had some health challenges in recent years, resulting in physical impairment — he was walking with a cane at yesterday's ceremony.

  • Dwight "Doc" Gooden — New York Mets (1984-94), New York Yankees (1996-97, 2000), Cleveland Indians (1998-99), Houston Astros (2000), Tampa Bay Devil Rays (2000). The poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote, "Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: 'It might have been.'" I don't know whether Whittier was either a prophet or a baseball fan, but were he either, he might have been writing about Dwight Gooden. His career derailed prematurely by injuries — a derailment exacerbated by chronic problems of a pharmacological nature — "Dr. K." fell from future Hall of Famer to has-been (or, in the words of a memorable Sports Illustrated headline, "From Phenom to Phantom") throughout the 1990s. His drug and legal problems continue to this day — he spent several months in prison last year on a probation violation. At his mid-'80s peak, however, Gooden was as terrific a pitcher as I've ever seen. "It might have been."

  • Dave Stewart — Los Angeles Dodgers (1978, 1981-83), Texas Rangers (1983-85), Philadelphia Phillies (1985-86), Oakland Athletics (1986-92, 1995), Toronto Blue Jays (1993-94); four Black Ace seasons (1987, 20-13; 1988, 21-12; 1989, 21-9; 1990, 22-11; all with the A's). Of all the players I've seen in my 40 years of baseball fandom, Dave "Smoke" Stewart underwent perhaps the most dramatic and impressive career renaissance I've ever witnessed. A mediocre — at best — pitcher in his early years with the Dodgers (we San Francisco fans used to joke that his nickname came from the way Giants hitters smoked the ball around Candlestick Park whenever Stewart came into a game against us), Rangers, and Phillies, Stewart suddenly blossomed when he arrived in Oakland in 1986. Seemingly overnight, he transformed from a lackluster hurler to the best pitcher in baseball over a four-year stretch from 1987 through 1990. During those four years, Stewart dominated his league like no pitcher since the heyday of Sandy Koufax. He pitched well, if less overpoweringly, for another three seasons afterward. These days, the 1989 World Series MVP (against my Giants, no less) writes a superb baseball blog called Throwin' Heat. Fans of the nation's pastime will enjoy Dave's insights.

  • Dontrelle Willis — Florida Marlins (2003-present); one Black Ace season to date (2005, 22-10 with the Marlins). The only Black Ace currently active, Oakland-born "D-Train" reminds me somewhat of the young Doc Gooden. He's not quite as dominant, but he hopefully lacks some of Doc's unfortunate baggage. At this writing, Willis is putting together a solid 2007 season — he's 7-3 with a 3.96 ERA after two months. If that pattern holds, he could easily repeat his Black Ace record of two years ago. I wish him all the best... except when pitching against the Giants.
And now the sixty-four-thousand dollar question: Why have we seen only 13 African American 20-game winners in the 60 years since Jackie Robinson? That's a discussion for another time.

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Sunday, May 13, 2007

Hero of the Day: Ready Freddy

Congratulations to San Francisco rookie outfielder Fred Lewis, who hit for the cycle in Sunday's romp over the Colorado Rockies.



For the baseball-illiterate in the crowd, hitting for the cycle involves getting a single, a double, a triple, and a home run all in the same game. Only 24 players in the Giants' storied history have accomplished the rare feat, most recently Randy Winn two seasons ago. (Barry Bonds, the king of all things Giant for the past 15 years, has never hit for the cycle while wearing the Orange and Black.) Lewis became only the fourth major leaguer ever to hit his first career home run as part of a cycle.

Lewis was called up from the Giants' minor league affiliate in Fresno just four days ago. His previous experience in The Show was 13 garbage-minutes games for the G-Men late last season.

Let's hope the kid keeps the hits coming.

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Thursday, May 03, 2007

What's Up With That? #48: What's this green stuff in my Cha-Cha Bowl?

Thirty years after serving 10 months in federal prison for smuggling marijuana, former Giants star Orlando "The Baby Bull" Cepeda has been caught once again with the evil weed.

The CHP busted Cepeda the other afternoon, blazing down I-80 at 83 miles per hour. When the Hall of Famer rolled down the driver's window, a certain unmistakable whiff alerted the arresting officer to the fact that Orlando had been doing another kind of blazing as well. A search of Cepeda's Lexus by a drug-sniffing police dog turned up both ganja and a bindle containing a suspect white powder, believed to be either cocaine or methamphetamine.

Giants cognoscenti will recollect that Cepeda's much-deserved enshrinement in the Baseball Hall of Fame was delayed by more than three decades, as the former slugging first baseman's drug conviction prevented him from garnering the votes necessary for election. Cepeda was at long last inducted by the Hall of Fame's Veterans Committee in 1999, after an intensive PR campaign mounted by the Giants.

In recent years, Cepeda has been visible as a member of the Giants' public relations staff, and as the namesake of Orlando's Caribbean BBQ, a food concession at AT&T Park. This popular snack stand is the home of the world-famous Cha-Cha Bowl, a faux-Latin riff on the basic rice bowl. Being a dedicated hot links and nachos kind of ballpark diner, I've not had a Cha-Cha Bowl myself, but I'm told that they're mighty tasty.

Just don't try to smoke one.

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Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Mayday!

To paraphrase the late Lewis Grizzard: Elvis is dead, and I'm feeling a bit scattered myself.

With everything that's going on around here — both the stuff you know about and the stuff you don't, for which you ought to be eternally grateful — my perpetually diffuse focus is even more fuzzy than usual. So let's go the quick-hit route.

Now watch the colortinis as they fly through the air:
  • Brickbats and boo-hisses to the moron who ruined my Tuesday evening commute to chorus rehearsal for the foreseeable future, by dumping 250 yards of molten steel, concrete, and asphalt on my section of the McArthur Maze. Nice going, ace.

  • Did I mention that he's a convicted criminal with a history of heroin abuse? Why am I not surprised?

  • Freeway disasters aside, it's a fine time for sports fans here by the Bay:

    • The Warriors, who haven't seen the NBA playoffs without satellite TV since the early days of the Clinton Administration, are poised to dump the Dallas Mavericks and advance to Round Two.

    • The offensively anemic Giants have turned their once-flagging fortunes around, behind the smoking bat of Barry "U.S." Bonds (742 career home runs, and counting) and the hottest starting rotation in the major leagues — the other Barry (Zito), the two Matts (Cain and Morris), my homie from Pepperdine (Noah Lowry), and the resurrected Russ "Lazarus" Ortiz.

    • The Sharks are threatening to make a run at the Stanley Cup. (Say it with me: It's soccer on ice, with sticks.)

    • The A's are... well, nobody cares.

  • While the universe spirals into entropy (why is it so hot? and why are we in this handbasket?), high school students in Charleston, West Virginia, are ticked off because their educational administrators won't allow them to simulate sexual intercourse on the dance floor. Says senior Crystal Lucas of the school board's ban on booty popping, grinding, bumping, humping, hunching, goosing, freaking, and dirty dancing: "It makes me not look forward to my senior prom." Oh, to be young and feckless. (Look it up in your Funk and Wagnalls.)

  • A sad note: Sax player and bandleader Tommy Newsom, for years the butt of Johnny Carson's ridicule on The Tonight Show, has passed away from liver cancer at the age of 78. After all those years of merely looking dead, Tommy now really is.

  • Britney Spears has canceled tonight's comeback performance, scheduled for L.A.'s Forty Deuce nightclub. According to reports, the concert's promoters determined that after several rehearsals, the Queen of Trailer Trash Pop "wasn't quite ready." (Translated: Not sober enough to remember lyrics, or to avoid an embarrassing tumble off the edge of the stage.)

  • Four years ago today, President Bush stood on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln and declared the war in Iraq over. "Mission accomplished," remember? "The United States and our allies have prevailed." Funny how many brave men and women we keep losing, in a war that ended four years ago. Then again, it's really not funny at all.

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Good news, for a change

Our long national nightmare is over:

Sanjaya Malakar has been eliminated on American Idol.

Our long basketball nightmare is over:

The Golden State Warriors have landed in the NBA playoffs for the first time since 1994. That's 13 seasons, people. Thirteen endless, agonizing seasons.

That rumble you feel in the earth beneath your feet is not seismic activity. It's me doing my "Goodbye Sanjaya; hello playoffs" happy dance.

And oh, yes...

Barry Bonds
: 738 career home runs, and climbing. Just 17 behind Henry Aaron.

Your T-shirt is correct, Sanjaya: Life is beautiful.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

It's Fat Tuesday, and I'm a bit fluffy myself

As I sit here sipping my Starbucks Kenya from my Mickey Mouse coffee mug ("It's really swell!"), I'm thinking.

You know what happens when I do that.

Get on your bikes and ride: The Tour of California bicycle race kicked off here yesterday. The first stage concluded with a 90-bike pileup in downtown Santa Rosa. At our house, we're rooting for local hero Levi Leipheimer, who's currently wearing the yellow jersey — which means that he's either leading the race, or knows where the urinals are located.



We figure Levi deserves a little applause, mostly to make up for what his parents did to his psyche by naming him Levi Leipheimer.

You really can find IT on eBay: For years, I've been hunting for a CD by an obscure '90s a cappella cover band from Washington, DC called Brock and the Rockets. The Rockets — four men, four women — performed at the very first Harmony Sweepstakes finals KJ and I attended, in 1993. In the years since, I've worn out my cassette tape of their sole album, entitled Out to Launch.



A couple of weeks ago, by sheer serendipity, I discovered a copy of the CD on eBay for just $3.99. I'm one happy Solid Rocket Booster. You haven't lived until you've heard Catherine Boland Hackett's hilarious rendition of Julie Brown's "I Like 'Em Big and Stupid."

Life begins on Opening Day: The Giants undergo their first full-squad workouts of spring training today. The wonderful thing about the first day of spring training is that every team is undefeated, every pitching staff looks like the second coming of Cy Young, every batting lineup looks like Murderers' Row, and every infield looks like Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance. Hope springs eternal in the spring.



Will this be the year Bonds breaks Aaron's record, if he's ever going to? Will Zito flourish in the National League? Will Durham prove he deserved the new contract? Anything seems possible. I loves me some Giants.

Our long national Monday nightmare is over: NBC has finally pulled the plug on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Starting next week, the oddly titled drama The Black Donnellys (odd because, from what I can tell from the previews, none of the characters are black; but then, if they were, the show would probably be called The African American Donnellys) slips into Studio 60's timeslot, by all accounts permanently.



As one of the few hardy souls who stuck it out with Aaron Sorkin and company until the end, allow me to offer three quick insights about what went wrong here:
  1. Studio 60 was a show about comedy writers and comedians, but almost no one in the cast was a comedy writer or comedian. The scripts never gave the one real-life comic in the crew (D.L. Hughley) anything funny to say or do. The actor playing the show's comedy star (Sarah Paulson) was the least funny person in the cast. Why didn't Sorkin stock the crew with genuinely funny people?

  2. The show wasted tons of airtime on relationship stories that lacked chemistry. The romance between the characters played by Paulson and Matthew Perry was doomed from the start — you never believed those two people felt anything for each other that was hotter than day-old oatmeal. The late-blooming love story between Bradley Whitford's producer and Amanda Peet's network executive seemed sillier and creepier every week. The one truly intriguing combination — Nathan Corddry's geeky comic and Lucy Davis's shy English writer — never got off the ground.

  3. The writing, to put it politely, sucked. I can't remember a show that loved to pontificate as much as Studio 60 — unless it was Sorkin's previous effort, The West Wing. There, at least, the White House setting gave the pontificating some gravitas. TV writers and comedians pontificating just came off as gratuitous and self-important.
Mrs. Butterworth, I think I love you: Today is National Pancake Day, which means that you can stop in at your friendly neighborhood International House of Pancakes before 10 p.m. today, and scarf down a free stack of three buttermilk pancakes. In exchange, the IHOP folks ask that you consider making a donation to the Children's Miracle Network, or another charity of your choice. So eat up, flapjack lovers.



(Not that I'm quibbling or anything, but I hardly believe that serving French toast, English muffins, and Belgian waffles qualifies a restaurant as "International." But maybe that's just me. I definitely would not bring up this point with your waitress, should you decide to go for the free stack.)

Happy Mardi Gras! Remember: For some of us, every Tuesday is Fat Tuesday.

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Thursday, December 28, 2006

Baseball been Barry, Barry good to him

Smacking a nail into the coffin of their reputation as one of the more penurious clubs in baseball — except when it comes to a certain slugging left fielder — the Giants today reached an agreement with former Oakland Athletics star Barry Zito on a seven-year, $126 million free agent contract.

It's the largest contract ever signed by a major league pitcher, eclipsing the pact Mike Hampton snagged from the Colorado Rockies in 2001. (Everyone in Denver remembers how well that turned out. [Snicker.]) It's also the biggest money the Giants have ever shelled out, surpassing the $90 million deal Barry Bonds completed last season.



Is Zito worth the money? Hard to predict, but my guess is that he will be. Factors in favor of the deal's success:
  • The Giants just lost their staff ace, Jason Schmidt, to free agency, and desperately needed a Number One starter. Zito was by far the best pitcher available.
  • Zito is a proven innings-eater with a history of sound health (knock wood). He hasn't missed a start in seven years.
  • Unlike the flamethrowing Schmidt, Zito is a breaking ball specialist in the mode of Greg Maddux, who's still throwing well at 40. Zito's only 28, and with his pitching style, he should still be effective seven years from now.
  • Zito's already won a Cy Young Award (American League, 2002), and coming to a league more accustomed to power pitchers than finesse artists, might have a couple more in his future.
  • Zito won't have to be The Man all by himself. The Giants already have three solid starting pitchers — Matt Morris, Matt Cain, and Noah Lowry — to surround him in the rotation.
  • Zito's a popular local guy who's already a star here in the Bay Area. He won't even have to move.
  • He's left-handed. The baseball gods love a southpaw.
Too bad Barry Larkin is retired. The way the Giants throw money at guys named Barry, he'd clean up.

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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Oz never did give nothing to the Tin Man

This has been a rotten December for ex-San Francisco Giant infielders.

First, we received the news three weeks ago that Jose Uribe, shortstop for the Giants in those heady late-'80s days of "You Gotta Like These Kids," had been killed an an automobile accident in his native Dominican Republic.

Now, the sad news arrives that Chris Brown, who as the Giants' third baseman shared the left side of the San Francisco infield with Uribe during the 1985 and '86 seasons, died yesterday from injuries sustained in a November 30 fire at his Houston-area home.

Brown was 45 years old, a mere four months my senior.



I recall Chris Brown as a decent hitter (he racked up a .317 batting average in 1986, and made the National League All-Star team) with surprisingly little power for a corner player (his highest seasonal home run total was 16, as a rookie in 1985). Sadly, he was also a stone-gloved fielder — perhaps the worst defensive third baseman I ever saw on a regular basis, if you don't count either the Cincinnati Reds' embarrassing experiment with Johnny Bench late in the Hall of Famer's career, or Pedro Guerrero's 1983 debacle with the Los Angeles Dodgers. (At the nadir of that '83 season, in which Guerrero's defensive miscues provided nightly fodder for sports commentators nationwide, Dodgers skipper Tommy Lasorda asked Guerrero in a team meeting what he was thinking about while standing at third base. Pedro's refreshingly candid reply: "I'm hoping they don't hit it to me.")

During his playing days — which spanned parts of six major league seasons, including post-S.F. stops in San Diego and Detroit — Brown's teammates nicknamed him "the Tin Man," after the Wizard of Oz character. The tag was a not-so-subtle insinuation that Brown's penchant for sitting out games with apparently minor injuries was indicative of his lack of heart.

Ironically, Brown spent much of the past few years dodging bullets and roadside bombs in Iraq, as a fuel truck driver for Halliburton. Perhaps that was his way of laying all of those questions about his courage and mental toughness to rest.

Now, it's Chris Brown himself being laid to rest.

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Friday, December 08, 2006

No way, Jose

I was shocked and saddened to learn today of the passing of former San Francisco Giants shortstop Jose Uribe, a mainstay of the team for nearly a decade. Uribe died early this morning in a motor vehicle accident in his native Dominican Republic. He was only 47.



Anyone who attended a Giants home game in the late '80s and early '90s vividly remembers the chant that would erupt from the Candlestick Park stands every time Uribe made a great play in the infield. One side of the stadium would shout, "OOOOOOOO!" Then the other side would respond, "REEE-BAYYY!" Back and forth the chant would resound, until people got bored again.

When the Giants acquired Jose Altagracia Gonzalez Uribe from St. Louis as part of the Jack Clark trade in 1985, sportwriters referred to the diminutive shortstop as "the player to be named later." The joke alluded to the fact that as a Cardinal in his rookie year, he was known as "Jose Gonzalez." When traded to San Francisco, he decided that "Jose Gonzalez" was too nondescript an identity for a ballplayer of his caliber, and announced that he wanted to be called "Uribe Gonzalez." That lasted a few days, at which point he determined that he liked being called "Jose Uribe" better. And so Jose Uribe he remained.

Never much of a batsman, but a pretty solid defensive shortstop, by the time Uribe reached his final Giants season he had put on weight to the degree that even his fielding was compromised. He played out the string in Houston with a lackluster campaign in 1993.

My condolences to Jose's family — the guy had 14 children, so baseball definitely wasn't his only sport — and his many fans.

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Monday, October 30, 2006

Monday evening quarterback

A busy start to the week for me — in good ways — but for whatever reason, sports have been on my mind all day today as I've plowed through the business of doing business.

To wit:
  • I don't have a strong feeling yet about the Giants' not-altogether-unanticipated hiring of Bruce Bochy as their new shipper. Cynic that I am, I'm more than a little curious as to why San Diego was so eager to let him go to another National League West team while he was still under contract.

  • I go back and forth on whether Barry Bonds will return to the Giants next season, now that he has filed for free agency. Two months ago, I thought Barry and the G-Men were finished. Now, I rather think the Giants will re-sign him. To use a poker term, the Giants are pot-committed — they've invested far too much of their marketing capital and credibility in Barry's quest for the career home run record to risk his breaking Aaron's mark in another uniform.

  • Besides which, I doubt that many teams — if any — are going to queue up to sign Bonds as a free agent. The last time Barry was eligible to write his own ticket, no team in baseball offered him a deal except the Giants. And at that time, he was far and away the best player in the game, not a 42-year-old whose knees and elbows are held together with duct tape and baling wire.

  • Man, those 49ers suck, don't they?

  • The only reason the 1-7 Arizona Cardinals haven't fired head coach Dennis Green is that no one else in football wants to work for the Bidwills. That, and if they cut Green loose, the Bidwills would owe him nearly $4 million to buy out his contract.

  • Congrats to Jim Thorpe, who won our local senior pro golf tournament, the Charles Schwab Cup Championship, for the second time in four years. (Thorpe was also the 2003 Schwab Cup winner.) Thorpe was an underrated pro during his PGA years who's found some welcome success on the Champions Tour. And don't you just love the fact that they call the old guys tour the Champions Tour, instead of, say, the Old Guys Tour?

  • On the eve of the start of the NBA season, I still can't believe Don Nelson is back coaching the Golden State Warriors. Next thing you know, bell-bottoms will come back into style.

  • Speaking of the Warriors, nice to hear that former Warriors star Lorenzo Romar picked up a hefty contract extension that will see him continue as head basketball coach for the University of Washington beyond the 2012-13 season. Romar landed his first head coaching job at my old school Pepperdine in the late '90s, and by all accounts, is not only a whale of a coach but a fine gentleman to boot.

  • Alas, my former baseball team tanked in the World Series. I was a rabid Detroit Tigers fan from 1968 — when the Tigers also faced off against St. Louis in the Series, only with happier results for Motown partisans — until 1976, when my family settled in the Bay Area and I adopted the Giants as my "home team." The first major league ballgame I ever saw was a 6-3 victory by the Tigers over the Athletics at the Oakland Coliseum.

  • Hey, Tony LaRussa: ARF!

  • Did I already mention that the 49ers suck?

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Tuesday, October 03, 2006

AT&T Park, your dump truck is waiting

Call Stacy London and Clinton Kelly: The San Francisco Giants' offseason makeover has begun.



No one should be surprised that the first rat flung off the G-Men's sinking raft was manager Felipe Alou, a nice enough fellow and a good baseball man, but at age 71 and after two consecutive lackluster seasons, not the guy who was going to lead the Orange and Black back to the greatness the team enjoyed when Barry Bonds was in his glory.

Bonds may, in fact, be the next tie to the olds that gets severed. One of eleven — count 'em, eleven — San Francisco free agents, the 42-year-old superstar is likely headed into his last campaign. He may very well spent it elsewhere, assuming another club (in all likelihood, an American League squad for which Bonds can be the designated hitter) wants to take on Barry, his salary demands, and all that goes with him.

Deep down, I believe Giants owner Peter Magowan desperately wants Bonds to return, in the hope that Barry will eclipse Hank Aaron's home run record wearing the San Francisco colors to which he has become accustomed. But that would necessitate Bonds forgoing both a huge paycheck next year and his oft-stated goal of playing on a championship team before he retires. Whether Barry will do that is anyone's guess.

The list of potential managers the Giants are reportedly considering as Alou's replacement doesn't excite me.
  • Lou Piniella? He's the latter-day Billy Martin, a guy who'll generate a lot of excitement in his first season, then quickly implode.
  • Bob Brenly? A fine Giant in his day, but I didn't think he was that impressive a manager during his stint with Arizona.
  • Bud Black, the pitching coach of the Angels? An interesting possibility — and another with ties to Giants history — but unproven as a field general.
  • Dusty Baker, just cut loose by the Cubs? Been there, done that.
  • The Giants' longtime bench coach Ron Wotus? Wake me when his interview's over.
As for the Giants' free agents not wearing Number 25, I'd wager that most of them won't be invited back:
  • Moises Alou had a decent year at the plate — when he could play — but he, like Bonds, is old and injury-prone.
  • Ray Durham: See Moises Alou.
  • Steve Finley: Ditto.
  • Jason Schmidt, once San Francisco's dominating ace starter, looked awfully human in most of his appearances this season.
  • Pedro Feliz is the kind of player who can easily be replaced with any of several someones as good or better.
  • Newcomer Shea Hillenbrand, who joined the club late in the season, will likely attract better offers elsewhere.
In short, Giants fans, it's going to be a long, harsh winter.

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Monday, September 04, 2006

When Barry Bonds leaves town, it's Bye-Bye, Baby

As Barry Bonds sent his 730th career home run (his 22nd this season) over the right-center field wall at Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park this evening, I was reminded that even in as mediocre a campaign as this one has been, being a Giants fan is still pretty sweet as long as Bonds is around. And lately, he's been around quite a bit: six round-trippers in his last 12 games, during which time he's hitting .472 (17 hits in 36 at-bats), pumping his batting average from an anemic .235 to a no-longer-embarrassing .263.



Of course, we probably won't have Barry here next year. He'll either retire — now that he's only 25 home runs behind Henry Aaron's record-setting 755, that's looking increasingly improbable — or he'll move over to the American League (probably the Nowhere-Near-Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim), where he can focus on chasing Hammerin' Hank without further demolishing his decrepit knees by playing left field five days a week.

Bonds' likely departure means that in 2007, the Giants' marketing department will actually have to sell the team for a change, something they haven't needed to do very much since Barry moved his Hall of Fame parade from the arctic confines of Candlestick Park to the spectacularly picturesque, constantly renamed ballpark at McCovey Cove. For those of us whose Giants obsession predates the arrival of Number 25, the prospect of a serious marketing push by the G-Men is fraught with terror, as we recall some of the lame slogans the team trotted onto the airwaves in years past.
  • "Giants Hang in There!" I believe this campaign from the early '80s was supposed to remind one of those infernal posters so popular once upon a time, which depicted a kitten dangling by its forepaws from some precarious perch. Why the Giants brain trust wanted the team to be viewed as kittenish, or why they didn't tumble to the defeatism inherent in this slogan ("We can't win, but we'll hang in there!" Yeah, I want to spend my hard-earned cash to see that), always escaped me. Nevertheless, this tepid tagline hung in there for a couple of seasons of mediocrity.

  • "Real Grass. Real Sunshine. Real Baseball." This was the Giants' tagline in that fateful 1985 season, when the Men in Orange lost 100 games and a significant portion of their fan base. Recalling that '85 season, I remember that the grass was indeed real. The sunshine was too, as the Giants scheduled a preponderance of day games in an effort to attract folks resistant to the notion of freezing their hindquarters off in the icy night winds of Candlestick. The baseball? Not so real. Not so real good, either, if you'll pardon the grammar.

  • "You Gotta Like These Kids." The 1986 Giants featured a major youth movement, led by rookie first baseman Will "The Thrill" Clark, second baseman Robby Thompson, shortstop Jose Uribe (often referred to as The Player to Be Named Later, because he changed his playing identity from Jose Gonzalez to Uribe Gonzalez to Jose Uribe, all within his first few days with the Giants), and third baseman Chris "The Tin Man" Brown. "You Gotta Like These Kids" didn't promise much on-field success, just a bunch of likeable kids. Sort of like Peanuts.

  • "Humm-Baby!" Then-manager Roger Craig's rallying cry carried the marketing flag for a couple of years. Trust me, as a Giants fan, I got sick of "Humm-Baby!" awfully darned quick. After a while, one just wanted to say, "Humm THIS, baby."

  • "I've Got a Giant Attitude." Cranky-pants baseball, accompanied by the glowering, lampblacked eyes of Will Clark, who did, in fact, have a giant attitude. And not always a good one.

  • "All of Us Are Created Equal. Some of Us Become Giants." Paraphrasing landmark historical documents is never a good marketing plan. This arrogant-sounding tagline from the '90s demonstrates the reason why. Great for political speechmaking, as Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King proved. For selling tickets to sporting events, not so much.
In anticipation of the Giants possibly needing a dynamite slogan for a Bonds-less 2007 campaign, I've jotted down a few ideas:
  • "Now 99 and 44/100 Percent Steroid-Free!"

  • "If You Close Your Eyes, It's Like Barry Never Left!"

  • "You Gotta Like These Castoffs From Other Teams!"

  • "Enough of Those Pesky Splash Hits, Already!"

  • "Our Mascot Can Beat Up Their Mascot."

  • "We Got Your Clear and Cream Right Here."

  • "Hey, How About That Ballpark?"
Feel free to help yourselves, Magowan and Company. And if you need more ideas, drop me an e-mail. We'll do lunch.

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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Take me out to the Corporate Sponsorship Naming Rights ballpark

Being that yesterday was my half-birthday (43 and a half, Nosey Parker), KJ took me to AT&T (until recently SBC, née Pacific Bell) Park last evening to see my beloved San Francisco Giants take on the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (easily the most ludicrous locational moniker since the local NBA franchise moved from San Francisco to Oakland and became the Golden State Warriors).



Thanks to Giants starting pitcher Matt Cain, it was a whale of a game. Cain held Los Angeles-slash-Anaheim hitless until two outs deep into the eighth inning, at which point the Angels' Chone Figgins (who inexplicably pronounces his given name "Shawn") smacked a single to left-center field to break up the no-hitter. Fortunately, the G-Men scored two runs in the first inning — thanks to an RBI double by Barry Bonds and a run-scoring groundout by Steve Finley — that held up for the victory.

Random goodness occasioned by our evening at the old ballyard...
  • Good to be here: For those of you living in parts of the world where you can't easily drive to take in a game at the Giants' gorgeous home field, now dubbed AT&T Park, I pity you. Don't move here, mind you — Lord knows the Bay Area is crowded enough. I'm just telling you what you're missing.

  • Good eats, San Francisco style: Gordon Biersch garlic fries are the eighth wonder of the culinary world, and moving up fast.

  • Good help is hard to find: On my journey to the concession stand to purchase my Louisiana hot links and Diet Coke, I waited several minutes for the counterpeople to finish yakking before a supervisor prodded them to take my order. That's not characteristic of AT&T Park, where the guest services are usually excellent. Both the links and I got a little steamed.

  • Good fun: The guy who plays the Giants' mascot, Lou Seal, deserves a pat on the flipper. I'm not a big costumed-mascot fan, but Lou (who goes by the name Joel Zimei when not dressed like an upright pinniped) gives the fans a great show without getting in the way of the main attraction.

  • Good grief, that's expensive: Paying $25 to park your car at the ballpark sucks. I'm just saying.

  • Good to know he's still alive: On our way to our seats, we saw veteran Giants broadcaster Lon Simmons heading for the press box. I think Lon called the first baseball game Abner Doubleday ever staged.

  • Good job on the mike: Renel Brooks-Moon, the Giants' public address announcer (one of the few women in the country so employed), always lends an air of freshness and class to the ballpark experience. You go, Renel.

  • Good hands: When Jose Vizcaino (second base), Omar Vizquel (shortstop), and Pedro Feliz (third base) are playing together, the Giants may have the most quietly brilliant defensive infield in baseball.

  • Good newz: When rookie catcher Eliezer Alfonzo joins three aforementioned gentlemen in the lineup, the Giants also field the highest quotient of "Guys Whose Names Include a Z" in baseball history.

  • Good advice: Alfonzo needs to stop trying to throw runners out at second base. His scattergun arm, which accounted for the Angels' only run of the game, sucks worse than $25 parking.

  • Good idea, well executed: The Giants' new online system that allows season ticketholders to sell their unused ducats on the team's Web site earns a gold star. KJ and I picked up spectacular seats for a reasonable cost just the day before the game. We were also able to avoid the lines at the Will Call window simply by downloading and printing our tickets at home. Sweet.

  • Good for the neighborhood: There's now a wonderfully appointed, clean and well-lighted Borders bookstore right across the street from AT&T Park, just in case you ever arrive at the yard early and have some time to occupy.

  • Good memories: The new statue of Hall of Fame pitcher Juan Marichal outside the ballpark's south gate looks spectacular. And what a thrill it is to look out over the right field arcade and see the sweet swing of Willie "Big Stretch" McCovey across McCovey Cove.

  • Good that she has something to fall back on: The young Latina woman hawking Ben & Jerry's ice cream bars in our section had the least lucrative vendor assignment in the park. Selling frozen anything in the upper deck on a San Francisco evening is a lost cause. Not for nothing did Mark Twain once opine, "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco." At least this particular vendor was kind of cute. Not that I noticed. Or bought any ice cream as a result.

  • Good time: Was had by all. Including yours truly.

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Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Finley makes his mark

Congratulations to Giants center fielder Steve Finley, who joined baseball's elite 300-300 club (home runs and stolen bases) tonight, taking Arizona's Claudio Vargas deep to right for his 300th career round-tripper.



In his rarified new statistical neighborhood, Finley joins his teammate Barry Bonds (who smacked career homer #717 in the ninth inning), Barry's dad Bobby, Barry's godfather Willie Mays, Andre "the Hawk" Dawson (no relation to Barry, so far as I know) and Reggie "Don't Call Me Colonel" Sanders, who hit his 300th homer just this past weekend.

Interestingly, of the six 300-300 players, five — Finley, Mays, Sanders, and the Bondsmen — played at least one season for the Giants.

Finley's arrival in San Francisco in the twilight of his career — he's 41, joining Bonds (who turns 42 next month) and Moises Alou (40 in July) in what may well be the oldest starting outfield in major league history — makes for a fitting coda. Giants GM Brian Sabean has been trying to acquire Finley's services for at least five years, either by trade or via free agency. When Sabean finally lands his quarry, the guy's practically qualified for AARP membership.

Of Finley's accomplishment, the usually taciturn Bonds said for the record, "It couldn't have happened to a nicer guy. Awesome."

We concur.

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Sunday, May 28, 2006

715!

It was a long time in coming, but whoomp, there it is.



And I don't care what anyone says. I'm happy for the guy.
  1. Henry "Hammerin' Hank" Aaron, 755.
  2. Barry "U.S." Bonds, 715.
  3. George Herman "Babe" Ruth, 714.
Way to go, Barry.

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Monday, April 03, 2006

It's Bye-Bye Baby, 2006 Edition

Best wishes to my San Francisco Giants, who begin the 2006 baseball season today in San Diego versus the Padres. After the horrors of last season, almost anything would be an improvement.

Much of the Giants' fortune — or lack thereof — will depend upon the health of relief stopper Armando Benitez, who was placed on the disabled list this past weekend with bursitis in his left knee, and 41-year-old left fielder Barry Bonds, who will attempt to squeeze another season out of his rapidly aging joints on his way to the Hall of Fame.

The bright spots for the G-Men include the starting rotation, which looks as good as any fivesome the Giants have fielded in years. If ace Jason Schmidt pitches like he has in previous seasons (as opposed to last year when he was stinking up the joint more often than not), and if my fellow former Pepperdine Wave Noah Lowry earns the fat four-year deal he just inked, prospects are good. If these guys tank, it'll be a long summer.

On the field, a full year of last year's late-season hero Randy Winn should help. With guys like Steve Finley, Jose Vizcaino (in his second tour of duty in San Francisco), and Mark Sweeney on the bench, the Giants are loaded and deep.

But ultimately, as it always is with the Giants, it's Barry. If he's back to any semblance of his customary form, excellent. If he's hurt most of this season as he was last year... as I said, it'll be a long summer.

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