Thursday, April 16, 2009

Madden cruises

No news is bigger around these parts today than the surprise announcement that John Madden — a national pop culture figure, but a Bay Area icon — is retiring after 30 years as America's most recognizable pro football broadcaster.

I was just scratching the crust out of my eyelids as the story broke on KCBS, San Francisco's all-news radio station, where Madden contributes a live interview segment every weekday morning. And, like many fans around the Bay Area and nationally, I found myself stunned by Madden's announcement, broadcast live.

Although my affection for the NFL product begins and pretty much ends with the 49ers — I don't often watch a regular-season game on TV unless the Niners (or, on occasion, the Raiders) are playing — I can't help but acknowledge the impact that Madden has had on the popularity of football. Or, for that matter, on the popularity of football in general — witness the continued success of Madden NFL, by all accounts the best-selling video game ever created. The former Oakland coach's bombastic personality and easy-to-imitate shtick has become ubiquitous in American culture. (Don't you just know that Frank Caliendo is weeping into his Miller Lite today?)

Mostly, though, I've come to know Madden through his long-running daily spot on local radio. For years, Madden joined legendary morning man Frank Dill's show on KNBR — well before that station transmogrified into "The Sports Leader" — for a spot of chat, usually about sports but often just about whatever Madden felt moved to yak about. During the season, Madden would check in from wherever he happened to be, often from the famed Maddencruiser, the tricked-out bus in which the airplane-averse commentator traveled from game to game.

When Dill retired, Madden couldn't stand Steve McPartlin, the former happy-talk TV host who replaced Frank on KNBR's morning drive. So, Big John took his act across the dial to KCBS, where he interfaced with venerable news anchor Al Hart. Even after Hart stepped down from the daily grind, he'd still pop up every Wednesday to bat things around with his old pal "Coach," whose morning foils now are anchors Stan Bunger and Susan Leigh Taylor and sports reporter Steve Bitker.

The hot rumor now is that Madden will go back to work for Al Davis's Raiders, possibly as general manager or director of football operations. I'd like to think that Madden has too much sense to subject himself to Al's senile shenanigans, but the two have remained close over the years. Anything's possible.

For public consumption, Madden is saying that he just wants to spend more time with his family. He and his wife are celebrating their 50th anniversary this year, and Madden's five grandchildren are at the ages where, as the Hall of Fame coach noted, they know when he's gone.

After 42 years in the NFL, and at 73 years of age (his birthday was last Friday), I think the big guy's earned the right to do whatever he pleases.

Happy trails, Coach.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009


Happy Jackie Robinson Day!

Every player, manager, and coach in Major League Baseball will wear a uniform number 42 during today's games, in commemoration of the Brooklyn Dodgers' Hall of Fame infielder's breaking of baseball's racial barrier 62 years ago.

Robinson's number was permanently retired from active use by all MLB teams during the inaugural Jackie Robinson Day festivities in 2004.

For whatever reason, Jackie Robinson Day always reminds me of that classic episode of Sanford and Son, in which the always-scheming Rollo gives Fred a special birthday present: a baseball autographed by Jackie Robinson.

Upon examining his gift, Fred asks his friend, "Rollo, how do you spell 'Jackie'?"

replies a confident Rollo.

"That's right," says Fred. "That's how you spell 'Jackie.' But that's not how Jackie Robinson spelled 'Jackie...' you dummy."

The moral of this story: If someone gives you an autographed baseball for Jackie Robinson Day — or tries to sell you one on eBay — be sure you authenticate the signature.

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Monday, April 13, 2009

This Bird has flown

Another chunk of my childhood passed away today.

Mark "The Bird" Fidrych has died this afternoon in an apparent accident, at the age of 54.

Fidrych was the wunderkind Detroit Tigers pitcher who took baseball by storm in the summer of 1976. Fidrych — nicknamed "The Bird" because of his striking resemblance to Big Bird, the towering Muppet from Sesame Street — became a household name as much for his antics on the mound as for his prodigious pitching prowess.

A frenetic bundle of nervous energy, Fidrych talked aloud to himself — and occasionally, to the baseball — while pitching. He would kneel on the mound between pitches and groom the dirt with his hands. He'd run over to his teammates and congratulate them with high-fives for making successful infield plays. His infectious enthusiasm made The Bird an overnight superstar.

After starting the year with a 7-1 record, the rookie phenom received the starting assignment for the American League in the 1976 All-Star Game. Fidrych finished the season with a 19-9 record and a 2.34 earned run average. Named the American League Rookie of the Year, he also came in second in the voting for the Cy Young Award.

He was never the same again.

Plagued by injuries beginning in his sophomore campaign, Fidrych would pitch sporadically with the Tigers over the next four seasons. He won only 10 more games after that legendary rookie year. He pitched his last game for the Tigers in 1980, and when Detroit released him at the end of the 1981 season, The Bird was out of the game.

He attempted an unsuccessful minor-league comeback in the Boston Red Sox organization in 1983, but he never got back to The Show.

I had the privilege of seeing The Bird best the Oakland Athletics in a game at the Coliseum during that shining Bicentennial summer. That memory remains one of my all-time favorite baseball moments.

Mark "The Bird" Fidrych was truly one of a kind.

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Thursday, April 09, 2009

Fallen Angel

It's a gray and gloomy day for baseball here in the Golden State.

Appropriate, given the tragic news about the death of Los Angeles Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart, killed last night in a hit-and-run accident caused by a suspected drunken driver.

Less than 24 hours ago, 22-year-old Adenhart had the world on a string. In his fourth major league start, he pitched six innings of shutout ball against the Oakland Athletics.

Today, he's gone.

I'll say here what I've said numerous times before: There is no punishment severe enough for drunk driving.

I believe that driving under the influence should receive mandatory prison time. No probation. No suspended license. No enforced rehab. No 36 hours in the county slammer. A minimum of one year hard time in the state penitentiary. No plea bargains, no questions asked.

Second-time offenders should be sentenced to a minimum of five years. Third-timers get twenty.

Drunk drivers who kill? Automatic life sentence.

And if someone wanted to argue for making the latter a capital crime, they'd get no protest from me.

Andrew Gallo, the knucklehead who snuffed out the lives of Nick Adenhart and his two friends, Henry Pearson and Courtney Stewart — and who was himself uninjured in the crash — was driving under a suspended license due to a prior drunk driving conviction. If Gallo had been in San Quentin where he belonged — in my opinion, if not the State of California's — three young people with bright futures would be alive today.

My sincere condolences, as well as my deepest empathy as a father, go out to the families of the deceased.

I bear-hugged my daughter when she came home from her college classes today. She thought I was crazy. Perhaps I am.

But life is fragile.

Even when you're 22 years old, and have a million-dollar arm.

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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 Sánchez.

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, March 23, 2009

You're 16, you're beautiful, and you're mine

For you Bracketology fanatics out there...

I accurately predicted 14 of the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16.

My two misses:

West Regional: #5 Purdue vs. #1 UConn. I had picked #4 Washington over Purdue to face the Huskies.

East Regional: #4 Xavier vs. #1 Pitt. My bracket had #12 Wisconsin getting by Xavier and meeting Pittsburgh.

I nailed all of the other match-ups. Go me!

I'm especially proud of choosing Arizona, the #12 seed in the Midwest Regional, when a lot of prognosticators wrote the Wildcats off in the first round. Yes, Arizona played miserably the last month of the regular season, but I knew they'd ratchet up their skills for the tourney. The 'Cats are hungry to prove themselves in the wake of their quick (and often bizarre) succession of head coaching turnovers, launched by longtime guru Lute Olson's health problems.

Hope your brackets are shaping up as well.

Be sure to check out the North Carolina-Gonzaga game on Friday night. That one has the potential to be the most exciting game of the entire tournament. You heard it first from your Uncle Swan.

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Monday, March 02, 2009

25 years with the Razor

Today on "The Sports Leader" — San Francisco's KNBR 680 AM — afternoon drive host Ralph "The Razor" Barbieri is celebrating his 25th anniversary with the radio station.

If you know anything about the radio business, you know that 25 years in one location is a remarkable achievement.

At the risk of seriously dating myself, I recall when Ralph first joined KNBR as a commentator and host of the evening talk show, Sportsphone 68. (KNBR didn't add the terminal zero until just a few years ago.) In the beginning, I thought Ralph was an obnoxious, self-important, hypocritical jerk. That assessment hasn't changed much in the past quarter-century, but at least I've grown accustomed to him.

The late, legendary San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen first hung the moniker "Razor Voice" on Barbieri shortly after Ralph came to KNBR. At that time, the station was still pursuing a general-interest format of which sports programming was but one component. Caen helped bring Barbieri to the attention of the masses by mocking the broadcaster's raspy, decidedly unappealing vocal quality.

Thus, a career was born.

Aside from Caen's column, the best thing that happened to Ralph occurred halfway through his KNBR tenure, when he was paired with former NBA journeyman Tom Tolbert to form "The Razor and Mr. T." At first, I couldn't imagine the partnership lasting more than a few months, given the cohosts' radically different styles (Ralph the raging pseudo-journalist; Tom the laid-back surfer dude) and perspectives (Ralph is a vegetarian with an MBA from the Wharton School; Tom is a retired pro athlete who loves McDonald's hamburgers). And yet, twelve and a half years later, their show remains KNBR's most popular talkfest. Go figure.

My chief frustration with Ralph has always been that he's a dreadful interviewer — although, to his credit, he's improved slightly over time. When Ralph conducts an interview, it's never about the interview subject — it's always about Ralph and his opinions. Ralph rarely asks a question. Instead, Ralph delivers speeches that may or may not end in questions. The interview subject frequently can't get a word in edgewise.

To test my anecdotal observation, I once took a stopwatch to an interview Ralph was conducting with a member of the Giants organization. Ralph posed one "question" that droned on for nearly three minutes, after which the interviewee got less than 30 seconds of response time before Ralph began interrupting. The rest of the interview proceeded in similar fashion.

Any regular KNBR listener knows that I'm not exaggerating.

Still, the guy has lasted this long for a reason. The banter between Ralph and his long-suffering foil Tolbert is entertaining and lively, and Ralph — despite his frustrating deficiencies as an interviewer — is exactly what sports-talk radio calls for: he's opinionated, he's polarizing, and he's never at a loss for words.

Congratulations to the Razor on his quarter-century celebration.

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Old dog, new trick

Congratulations to Champion Clussexx Three D Grinchy Glee — or, as he's known to his close personal friends, Stump — on his Best in Show victory at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show earlier this week.

Stump, a Sussex spaniel, made a particularly noteworthy champion due to his advanced age. Born December 1, 1998, Stump is ancient for a top-level show dog, especially at the "Super Bowl of dog shows."

When contacted for comment about his historic win, the 2009 Westminster champion reportedly flopped on his side and took a nap.

Several years ago, when my office assistant Abby was just a puppy, we took her to see some of her relations compete in a Pembroke Welsh Corgi breed show. One of the dogs in that show was still showing at the McCainesque age of 15. The wily veteran received a standing ovation from the Corgi crowd as he trotted around the ring.

Little-known fact: The Sussex spaniel was one of the original ten breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club when the AKC formed in 1884.

There is no validity to the rumor that Stump was already competing at that time.

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Monday, February 02, 2009

The Swan Tunes In: Super Bowl XLIII commercial post-mortem

It's been something of an SSTOL tradition to recap the best commercials from the Super Bowl.

But a weird thing happened this year...

The game was actually better than the ads.

That is in part to the credit of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals, who delivered a whale of a show (congrats to Coach Mike Tomlin and his crew for the last-minute, come-from-behind victory over a team no one — including your Uncle Swan — thought could even compete with them). It's also a sad commentary on this year's Super Bowl ad crop, which was, to put it politely, lacking.

In fact, before I sat down to review the spots online this morning, only one had insinuated itself into my memory — the truly bizarre ad featuring washed-up celebrities Ed McMahon and MC Hammer. That was memorable not for its persuasive power, but for its sheer breathless lunacy: Hammer and his "gold medallion showing me wearing a gold medallion!" and Big Ed with his gold-plated toilet.

Among the few other highlights:
  • I was entertained — and baffled — by Pepsi's testosterone-fueled spot showing manly men enduring all kinds of physical punishment with a casual "I'm good." (I confess that I don't understand the whole Pepsi Max concept: Diet cola for men? What, too much estrogen in Diet Pepsi?)

  • NBC gave us a clever house ad for its online video service, starring Alec Baldwin in a scenario inspired by Men in Black. (I always knew those Baldwin brothers were aliens.)

  • The most exciting ad of the bunch was Audi's slick, dialogue-free chase sequence with Jason Statham reprising his Transporter film role.

  • The "best storytelling" award goes to's documentary-style take on the life of a nerdy young man who succeeds at everything he attempts, but who can't buy a car without the aid of a certain Web site.

  • Doritos offered a couple of decent spots: the one involving the "magic" crystal ball was funny, and another in which the protagonist's fantasies become reality every time he crunches into a Dorito (a female pedestrian's clothes disappear; an ATM spews cash) was predictable, but well-orchestrated.

  • NBA star Carlos Boozer played Big Brother to a gaggle of cute kids for Not as splashy as most of the ad fodder, but warm, fuzzy, and authentically charming. Best of all, it made a solid selling point about the product — something too many of the high-ticket Super Bowl ads forget to accomplish.

  • And, though I'm not a Conan O'Brien fan, I did chuckle at the goofy Bud Light spot that featured Conan as the reluctant star of an absurd Swedish commercial.
As usual, the Budweiser Clydesdales wore out their welcome — one ad showcasing these handsome animals is fine, but four or five get old quickly. Also as usual, served up a pair of tasteless, sexist trifles designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator (arrested-adolescent males who've been swilling beer all afternoon) and rile up the feminist crusaders.

But enough about the commercials...

It's Boss Time.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band cranked up the best Super Bowl halftime since Prince took the stage a few years back. The Boss and Company delivered a fun, upbeat, energetic set, weaving together a couple of classic favorites ("Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," "Born to Run") with the title track from his latest album. (Asked in a pregame interview why he had finally decided to accept the Super Bowl gig after more than a decade of refusing the NFL's invitation, Springsteen was characteristically forthright: "I've got a new record to promote.")

The production pulled out all the stops — fireworks, a five-piece horn section, and a gospel choir for the finale. All the fluff couldn't mask the raw power of Springsteen's music, nor the joy that he and his bandmates (including Clarence Clemons, who worked it out on saxophone and cowbell; guitarist Miami Steve Van Zandt, looking aged and road-worn; and Bruce's wife Patti Scialfa, who stepped forward for a backing vocal spotlight on the final number) still derive from their music after 35 years.

I'd have gladly ditched all of the fancy advertisements, and just let The Boss play during the commercial breaks.

That's why they don't let me run the show.

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Monday, January 12, 2009

One hot dog, with a side of Rice

As we predicted nearly a month and a half ago in this space, all-time steals leader Rickey Henderson was a first-ballot electee to the National Baseball Hall of Fame today.

Given Rickey's noted propensity for non sequitur interview commentary during his career, this should be an induction speech worth hearing.

Jim Rice finally made the Hall also, in his 15th and final year of ballot eligibility. I believe that's the correct call, and long overdue. Rice was the best all-around offensive player in the American League during his peak years. The fact that he was, in the estimation of some baseball writers who covered the Red Sox during Rice's tenure, an insufferable jerk, should not have kept Big Jim out of Cooperstown for as long as it did.

After all, the player who came the closest to being a unanimous selection for HOF glory, one Tyrus R. Cobb, was practically the definition of an insufferable jerk. If Cobb's well-documented jerkiness didn't disqualify him, Rice's shouldn't either.

I'm sorry that Andre Dawson — an even greater player than Rice, and possibly more likable — missed election again. Given his upward trend in the voting, however, I'm convinced that "The Hawk" will get in eventually. I say that even though this year, with only Henderson as a runaway first-ballot favorite, would have been an ideal time for the voters to show Dawson some love.

Every year, a handful of "what the heck?" votes turn up in the Hall of Fame tally. To the BBWAA's credit, there were remarkably few of these (even if I disagree, I understand the logic of the seven electors who cast a vote for Matt Williams, to cite one example) this year. Still, I'd like to know who were the two nutjobs who voted for Jay Bell.

Did Jay Bell's mom and dad get sent Hall of Fame ballots by mistake?

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

What's Up With That? #68: Unkempt afterwards

This struck me as a rather peculiar news item.

Sean Avery, a player with the National Hockey Association's Dallas Stars, made the following statement to a group of reporters covering the Stars' game earlier this week against the Calgary Flames:
I am really happy to be back in Calgary. I love Canada. I just want to comment on how it's become like a common thing in the NHL for guys to fall in love with my sloppy seconds. I don't know what that's about. Enjoy the game tonight.
As the sporting press dutifully acknowledged, Avery's ex-girlfriend, actress (and as an ardent fan of 24, I'm using that word with extreme accommodation) Elisha Cuthbert, is dating a Flames defenseman named Dion Phaneuf.

Apparently, Avery disapproves.

But perhaps not as much as NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman disapproves of Avery's choice of metaphor. Bettman suspended Avery indefinitely for "inappropriate public comments."

Now, this seems weird to me on several levels. Allow me to elucidate.

When I first heard about Avery's indiscretion, the news account simply stated the charge, without publishing Avery's exact words. I presumed that he had used one of the two four-letter Anglo-Saxonisms for the female reproductive anatomy (let's call them the "C" word and the "T" word) in reference to Ms. Cuthbert. I was taken aback somewhat when I learned what term he'd actually used.

Is "sloppy seconds" profane? Crude, yes. Uncomplimentary, without question — though I think I may have used stronger terminology to critique Ms. Cuthbert's acting talents (or utter lack of same) on at least one or two occasions. (All right, you've got me — every week for the first three seasons of 24.)

But a chargeable offense? Seems extreme to me.

Unlike the "C" and "T" words, however, I'm fairly certain that you could use the expression "sloppy seconds" on primetime network television. (Not that you should. I'm just saying.) It was the title of a Dr. Hook album way back in 1972, for crying out loud. If you could put it on the cover of a pop album (not to mention the cover of the Rolling Stone) 36 years ago, I'm sure you could probably get away with it on Two and a Half Men today. (If anyone would know about "sloppy seconds," it would have to be Charlie Sheen.)

I was also puzzled by the fact that Avery tossed this remark off (no pun intended) in an interview with journalists in a locker room. (Do they call it a locker room in hockey, or is it a clubhouse? Not sure. Not caring. Moving on...) Was this really the first thing Sean could think of to say when confronted with a battery of microphones? Whatever happened to, "We've gotta play 'em one game at a time... the guys are really pulling together... that's the way the puck slides sometimes... sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes the Zamboni breaks down"? Did this man never see Bull Durham? Crash Davis to the Stars' locker room, please.

For that matter, why are there reporters in a hockey locker room, interviewing players? Does anyone care what hockey players have to say? I mean, the Sharks might be the best team in the NHL right now, and you don't hear Joe Thornton or Jonathan Cheechoo babbling inanities about their ex-girlfriends — or anything else — on the local sports talk station. We know how to keep our Canadians under control here in the Bay Area.

And one other odd thing...

There's an ice hockey team in Dallas?

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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

The $9 million Danish

I wish I could steal the headline composed by Lance Bradley, writer for the poker magazine Bluff: "The Riches of Eastgate."

But I won't.

Congratulations to Peter Eastgate, who in the wee hours of this morning became the youngest-ever winner of the World Series of Poker's Main Event.

Eastgate dominated the so-called November Nine, routing the final table in convincing fashion. The 22-year-old from Odense, Denmark held off a worthy challenge from Russian pro Ivan Demidov to capture poker's highest prize, the gold World Champion bracelet and the $9 million cash that accompanies it.

You can catch the highlights of the final table, with scintillating commentary by Lon McEachern and Norman Chad, tonight on ESPN starting at 8 p.m. EST.

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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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Sunday, November 09, 2008

If it's November, these must be the Nine

After a four-month break, the Main Event of the 2008 World Series of Poker is once again under way, its nine-man final table having reconvened earlier today at the Rio in Las Vegas.

Personally, I think the new format for the Main Event — which played from 6,844 entrants down to nine back in July, before taking a planned hiatus — is ludicrous. With everything that's happened in the sports world (the Summer Olympics, the World Series) as well as the real world (the plummeting economy, the Presidential election) during the past four months, you'd have to be a hardcore poker fanatic to even remember that the tournament was resuming today, much less still be interested.

Which tells you something about me, I guess.

As I compose this post, the November Nine have already been whittled down to the Magnificent Seven: Craig Marquis, a 23-year-old from the Dallas area, busted out in ninth place (Craig was eighth as play resumed), and Kelly Kim, a poker pro from southern California, departed in eighth place (Kelly had been the final table's short stack).

The remaining players, as they rank at this moment, are:
  • Ivan Demidov, a 27-year-old poker pro from Moscow (Russia, not Idaho), who last month finished third in the WSOP Europe Main Event in London.

  • Ylon Schwartz, a 38-year-old former chess prodigy from New York City.

  • Peter Eastgate, a 22-year-old pro from Denmark.

  • Scott Montgomery, a 27-year-old pro from Ontario, Canada.

  • Dennis Phillips, a 53-year-old trucking company executive from St. Louis. Dennis was the chip leader at the start of today's play.

  • Darus Suharto, a 39-year-old Indonesian-born Canadian accountant.

  • David "Chino" Rheem, a 28-year-old pro from Los Angeles, and probably the best known of the November Nine prior to July.
Tournament officials expect to have a winner sometime tomorrow night, or early Tuesday morning at the latest. A two-hour condensation of the final table play will air Tuesday night (and endlessly thereafter, if tradition holds) on ESPN.

Let's shuffle up and deal!

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Friday, November 07, 2008


Back in the 1980s, when the San Francisco 49ers were the baddest football team on the planet, the team's offense was led by a former third-round draft pick from Notre Dame named Joe Montana.

Every team in the NFL passed on Montana at least once — some, two or three times — because he didn't look like much. He was short (the 49ers' roster always listed him as six feet even, but I can call dozens of eyewitnesses to the stand who've seen Montana up close and personal, and who would testify that he's a couple of inches shy of that mark), boyish-looking, scrawny as a meth addict (spare me the e-mails, people; that's a simile, not an accusation), and didn't possess the kind of catapult arm that football scouts salivate over.

In 1979 the 49ers, a team that had just finished a 2-14 season and was about to start another, selected Montana. The rest, if you know your football, is the stuff of legend.

What made the unlikely-appearing Montana so awesome?

The late Bill Walsh, who coached those Niners of the '80s to multiple Super Bowl victories, might use the word "intangibles."

Today's Comic Art Friday featured artwork, drawn by the talented Gene Gonzales, has absolutely nothing to do with football. It is, however, all about intangibles.

The smiling young superheroine at upper left bears the code name Shadowcat, though she is more familiarly known to comics aficionados by her given name, Katherine "Kitty" Pryde. Her ponytailed companion at bottom right is Tinya Wazzo, whose comrades in the Legion of Super-Heroes call her Phantom Girl. Given that this is another of my Common Elements commissions, I'll wager that you've already figured out the commonality between Kitty and Tinya — they share the power of intangibility.

If you've seen any of the X-Men movie trilogy, you know Kitty as "the girl who can walk through walls" who appears in each of the three films. She's played by a different actress each time — Sumela Kay in X-Men; Katie Stuart in X2; and 2008 Academy Award nominee Ellen Page (Juno) in X-Men: The Last Stand. Although she's a perpetual adolescent in both comics and films (she actually begins the movie franchise as a preteen), Kitty has been a key component of Marvel's X-Men books for nearly three decades, having debuted in Uncanny X-Men #129 in 1980.

Phantom Girl's history extends back even farther. Although she wasn't one of the three charter members of the Legion (for the record: Saturn Girl, Cosmic Boy, and Lightning Lad), Tinya joined the far-future super-teen supergroup early on. She made her premiere appearance in Action Comics #276 (May 1961), soon becoming the Legion's fifth inductee — Triplicate Girl managed to sneak in just ahead of her. Like most of her fellow Legionnaires, Phantom Girl changed her costume on several occasions during her long career. The one shown here — my favorite of Tinya's styles — originated during artist Dave Cockrum's sartorial makeover of the entire team in the early '70s.

At the end of a week when we all watched the intangible become concrete, this joyful match-up of two ephemeral yet genuine heroines seemed like the perfect coda.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Monday, October 20, 2008

Swapping out Mikes

The long-overdue shoe finally drops.

The San Francisco 49ers have fired head coach Mike Nolan, replacing him with legendary Chicago Bears linebacker Mike Singletary, who has been serving as the Niners' assistant head coach since 2004.

No sports fan in the Bay Area — indeed, in the nation — will be surprised by this. The hapless 49ers, off to a 2-5 start thus far (they've lost their last four games), nearly dumped Nolan at the end of last season before offering him a tepid "win or else" reprieve.

Nolan, who came to San Francisco three and a half seasons ago, has displayed little ability to resuscitate the floundering franchise that his late father, Dick Nolan, coached in the late 1960s and early '70s. A good-looking guy, a smooth talker, and a snappy dresser, Nolan the Sequel proved to be all hat and no cattle when it came to both drafting talent — he was responsible for saddling the team with clueless quarterback Alex Smith — and winning football games. The erstwhile Team of the Eighties limped to an 18-37 record under Nolan's leadership. And I'm using that word accommodatively.

Hall of Famer Singletary has no head coaching experience, but has been a perennial candidate for top jobs around the league since joining the Niners as Nolan's second banana and linebacking coach. Known for his intensity on defense during his playing days, "Samurai Mike" will have his hands full guiding a football squad with no direction and precious little talent beyond star linebacker Patrick Willis — a Singletary protégé, ironically enough.

If only Singletary had the authority to fire the 49ers' inept owner, Dr. John York, he might actually be able to take the team somewhere.

Other than the cellar of the NFC West, that is.

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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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Monday, September 08, 2008

Now that's a GRAND slam!

Congratulations to Gary Sheffield of the Detroit Tigers, who tonight hit the 250,000th home run in Major League Baseball history — a base-loaded shot off Gio Gonzalez of the Oakland Athletics.

How fitting, that the quarter-millionth homer should be a grand slam. And how equally fitting that it was struck by Sheffield, a player with more than a soupçon of flair for the dramatic. (Not always in a good way.)

Considering how long baseball has been the national pastime, it seems odd to me that it's taken until almost the end of the 2008 season to reach this milestone. Then again, baseball's current love affair with the long ball is still only a few decades old. When I was watching the game as a kid, a guy who hit 20 home runs a year was viewed as a power hitter. That same slugger would be a lightweight today, in an era when 40- and 50-homer seasons are not unusual.

Wonder whether the game will survive to reach the half-million mark.

I'm pretty sure that I won't.

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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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Monday, August 25, 2008

Olympic bling from Beijing

As the familiar five-ringed flag sinks slowly into the Beijing sunset, here are the sights, sounds, and random synapse-firings that I'll carry away from the Games of the XXIX Olympiad:
  • So, Michael Phelps... what are going to do for an encore? You could start by buying Jason Lezak a Porsche.

  • Baseball and softball are no longer worthy to be called Olympic sports, but synchronized swimming and rhythmic gymnastics — or, as KJ calls it, "that Cirque du Soleil thing" — stay? Well, plug my nose with a rubber clip and tie me up with a ribbon.

  • Nothing against beach volleyball — and certainly nothing against our two gold medal-winning teams, Misty May-Treanor / Kerri Walsh and Phil Dalhausser / Todd Rogers — but... NBC sure aired a surfeit of beach volleyball, didn't they?

  • There's a reason why the two Americans competing in the modern pentathlon finished 19th and 21st: They're the only two people in the United States who know what the modern pentathlon is.

  • Congratulations to my former schoolmate — we were students at Pepperdine at the same time — Terry Schroeder for coaching the U.S. men's water polo team to a silver medal. I still think the game would be more fun with horses.

  • Call me crazy, but I believe the members of the Chinese diving team possess the mutant power to separate water molecules telepathically. That's the only way I can figure that they can make so little splash.

  • Speaking of diving, Laura Wilkinson reminds me of my friend Phil's wife. I don't know whether Jane dives, though.

  • Most appropriately named athlete: Usain Bolt. It's absolutely usain how fast that guy is.

  • I don't know what happens to rifleman Matthew Emmons during the Olympic three-positions rifle event, but he's gotta be seeking therapy after blowing a gold medal on his final shot in two consecutive Games.

  • Probably no competitor in the Games overcame more painful and immediate personal tragedy than U.S. men's volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon, whose father-in-law was killed, and his mother-in-law seriously wounded, in a random act of violence while touring Beijing. I'm sure that a gold medal is small consolation, but I'm glad Hugh got one anyway.

  • Hey, Dara Torres: Way to represent for the over-40 crowd. Children of the '60s rule!

  • I hope that decathlon gold medalist and unofficial "World's Greatest Athlete" Bryan Clay doesn't go all crazy with the plastic surgery in later life, like a certain predecessor who shall go nameless here. (***cough***BruceJenner***cough***)

  • Needing a dose of graciousness: American speedster Jeremy Wariner. Who tinkled on your cornflakes, Jeremy?

  • Two words for the French 4x100 meter freestyle relay team: Crush this.

  • Happiest guy to win a bronze medal: David Neville, who dove across the finish line to place third in the men's 400 meters, and afterward beamed like a six-year-old at Christmas.

  • It's amazing — and more than a trifle tragic — to realize that, 20 years after she set them (and nearly a decade after her death), the late Florence Griffith-Joyner still holds the women's world records at both 100 and 200 meters.

  • Of course the Kenyans and Ethiopians dominate the distance races. Those guys run farther than that just to find breakfast.

  • I thought the American gymnasts, women and men, showed beaucoup class throughout the competition. Shawn, Nastia, Alicia and the rest are welcome to come hang out with my daughter anytime.

  • Way to go, Redeem Team, for living up to the hype.

  • Our local hero, cyclist Levi Leipheimer, bagged a bronze medal in the men's time trial. You go, Levi!

  • My daughter KM, ever the horsewoman, was thrilled when the U.S. equestrians (including KM's heroine, Beezie Madden) won the team-jumping gold. This bugs me, however: Why do the riders get the medals when the horses do all the work?

  • Dunderhead of the Games: Cuban taekwondo competitor (I'm No) Angel Matos, who kicked a referee in the face after getting disqualified for overextending an injury timeout. Enjoy the lifetime ban, loser.

  • And of course, the Chinese gymnasts are all 16. In dog years.

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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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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

See Wolves, be Wolves

Congratulations to our hometown scholar-athletes, the Sonoma State University Seawolves, whose baseball squad won the NCAA Division II West Regional this past weekend.

On Saturday, the Seawolves will make their first appearance in the NCAA Division II Baseball Championships, taking place this year at GCS Ballpark in Sauget, Illinois — home of the Gateway Grizzlies of the independent Frontier League.

That Sonoma State has become something of a small-school athletic powerhouse is no small source of amusement to me. I can recall when, in my long-ago high school days, the university barely dabbled a toe in the competitive waters, in keeping with its bohemian, "Berkeley North" atmosphere. Back then, SSU was derisively known throughout the California State University system as "Granola State," a refuge for aging hippies and their college-age progeny. The primary campus sports in that era were Frisbee and spliff-rolling, not necessarily in that order.

Over the years, as SSU gained more traditionally focused administrative leadership, its sports programs expanded and improved. Longtime NFL star lineman Larry Allen garnered national attention while playing at SSU (the school dropped football after Allen's departure, to focus on baseball, basketball, soccer, golf, and tennis), and the Sonoma State women's basketball team is a perennial contender in the NCAA Division II tournament.

The SSU team mascot also underwent a transformation. Originally, the university's athletic teams were nicknamed Cossacks — a nod to Sonoma County's Russian heritage, still in evidence today via such local landmarks as the Russian River and the town of Sebastopol.

Eight years ago, someone at long last picked up a history textbook, only to discover that the real-life Cossacks were bloodthirsty invaders who raped and murdered the female citizens of the communities they ransacked, and who collaborated with the Nazis in their anti-Semitic reign of terror during World War II.


After much public sturm und drang, the SSU administration changed the team nickname to Seawolves, in honor of Jack London's novel The Sea-Wolf, whose author lived out his final years in nearby Glen Ellen. Anyone who's ever read London's book knows that its title character is a vicious, brutal individual not unlike those Cossacks of old, but in this illiterate age, progress is progress.

Best of luck to our young Seawolves as they contend for collegiate baseball glory. Jack London would be proud.

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Friday, May 09, 2008

Grand salami time!

On this date in 1961 — a year with special significance for me, given that I spent the majority of it bouncing about in a pool of amniotic fluid — San Francisco native "Diamond Jim" Gentile of the Baltimore Orioles became the first player in major league baseball to hit grand slams in consecutive innings. Gentile smacked a total of five bases-loaded round-trippers in that storied season — during which Roger Maris also broke Babe Ruth's previously unassailable single-season home run mark — setting an American League record that held up for 26 years.

Speaking of grand slams, feast your baby [insert appropriate eye color here]s on this, the latest addition to my Common Elements comic art commission series.

Common Elements commissions are like Forrest Gump's mom's box of chocolates: You never know what you're gonna get. Often, the artist simply draws his or her best representation of the two characters I've assigned. That's an excellent outcome in itself. On other occasions, the artist will go beyond the characters themselves, and create a unique milieu in which to set the figures. That, of course, is even better.

Every now and then, an artist will push the concept's envelope and come up with a scenario that I never would have anticipated, much less thought of myself. Steve Carr (best known for his early '90s run on Marvel's Savage Sword of Conan) does that here.

In the immortal words of Dave Niehaus, the voice of the Seattle Mariners, "Get out the mustard and rye bread, Grandma... it's grand salami time!"

Steve's cleverly conceived, magnificently rendered tableux features sometime-Avenger, sometime-Defender Moondragon gazing into a reflecting pool that reveals J'onn J'onzz, the Martian Manhunter of Justice League fame. Or is it J'onn gazing, and Moondragon the reflection?

Every picture tells a story, but this one suggests an entire miniseries.

If you look closely, you'll see that Steve notated the black areas (with tiny x's) for the piece's eventual embellisher — legendary inker Joe Rubinstein, who generously made the connection between Mr. Carr and me. Joe is currently working on another of my Common Elements commissions — just wait until you see that beauty — and will (I hope) tackle Steve's astonishing creation sometime later this year.

About the two "smooth operators" in Steve's drawing...

Moondragon — in civilian life Heather Douglas, daughter of the man who was later transmogrified into Drax the Destroyer — first appeared in the Marvel Universe during my favorite period of superhero history, the so-called Bronze Age of Comics. (You know it better as the 1970s.) The Bronze Age was a freewheeling, "throw it against the wall and see whether it sticks" period, and Moondragon combined many of the motifs popular at the time: She had connections to alien civilizations, possessed powerful psionic powers, was a skilled martial artist, displayed an antiheroic moral ambiguity, and wore a scanty costume. (Steve Carr drew her here in an outfit from a later period in her career, when she covered up a little more.) Her bald pate helped her stand out among the other, usually abundantly tressed, superheroines of the day.

The Martian Manhunter's origins reach back much further, to the earliest days of DC Comics' superhero revival of the 1950s. (We call it the Silver Age, in comics history parlance.) J'onn J'onzz was basically a bald, green-skinned Superman, the last survivor of an alien race. He wielded most of the Man of Steel's superhuman powers, plus more besides — he was a shape-shifter and a telepath, too. Instead of kryptonite, J'onn's Achilles heel was fire. A founding member of the Justice League of America, the Manhunter from Mars has been closely connected with the JLA throughout its existence.

My thanks to Steve Carr for knocking this commission out of the park, with all the bags juiced.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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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.


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.


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.


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.


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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Thursday, February 28, 2008

Making waves in Malibu

The announcement apparently came a week ago, but somehow, I missed it:

Tom Asbury is returning to Pepperdine as head basketball coach next season, after a 14-year absence.

Asbury presided over one of Pep's best stretches during his previous tenure as head coach, from 1988 to 1994. During those six seasons, the Waves won three consecutive West Coast Conference championships, and made five postseason appearances — three in the NCAA tournament, and two in the National Invitational Tournament (NIT). Before that, Asbury spent nine years on the Pepperdine bench as an assistant under the volatile Jim Harrick.

Asbury left Malibu in 1994 to take over the reigns at Kansas State, where he spent six seasons — three good, three less so. He left coaching for a few years before taking an assistant's job at Alabama, where he worked until last season.

When I was at Pep ('79-'81), Asbury was widely known as the secret of Harrick's success — an excellent recruiter, and a stable personality to balance Harrick's mercurial, fly-off-the-handle approach. If Asbury's got anything left in the tank, he could do a great deal to resurrect a program that has fallen into disarray since he left it. (Case in point: Vance Walberg, the head coach who started this season with Pepperdine, was ousted midway through the year amid allegations of player abuse reminiscent of Bob Knight.)

The Waves are currently 10-14 overall and 4-8 in the WCC, with three games left to play.

I hope Asbury pulls this off. I'd love to see the Blue and Orange back in the Big Dance some year soon.

Roll, Waves!

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Monday, February 18, 2008

Pedals to the metal

Crank up the Queen: It's "Bicycle Race" time.

The Amgen Tour of California gets under way today. In fact, it's already under way, but I don't get up as early in the morning as professional cyclists do.

This event is of local interest for two reasons:

One, today's first stage of the race ends — and tomorrow's second stage begins — right here in my own backyard. Well, not literally in my backyard, but a mere stone's chuck to the north in Santa Rosa's Courthouse Square. The "no parking" signs were already out in full force throughout downtown when I was there yesterday morning.

Two, our hometown two-wheeling hero Levi Leipheimer is the Tour's defending champion. Levi, riding for Team Astana this year, is again favored to win the Tour. Levi — the current USA Cycling National Road Race Champion — will doubtless be hungry to repeat, especially since Astana has just been banned from competing in this year's Tour de France, due to doping allegations involving competitors who were members of the team before Levi signed on.

On the latter point, there's an online petition aimed at encouraging the Tour de France organizers to reconsider their decision and admit Levi and his Astana teammates to the Tour. I've already signed. I'm sure that Levi would appreciate your support as well, if you're so inclined.

We here at SSTOL wish Levi a swift, smooth ride in the Tour of California.

Sad to say, no fat-bottomed girls are competing.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

You go, Uno!

Congratulations to Champion K-Run's Park Me In First — known to his pals as Uno — who last night became the first beagle to win Best in Show at the canine version of the Super Bowl, the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

Somewhere in puppy dog heaven, Snoopy is smiling.

Happy though I am for Uno and his owner ("Uno, owner. Owner, Uno."), I feel compelled to point out an ongoing injustice: No Pembroke Welsh Corgi has ever won Best in Show in the 132-year history of Westminster.

As the great Tony Bruno would say, it's an outrage.

Somewhere beneath my office chair, my assistant Abby is definitely not smiling.

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Sunday, February 03, 2008

The Swan Tunes In: Super Bowl XLII commercials

At least the game was exciting.

Since the last vestiges of the 49ers dynasty are more than a decade in the rear-view mirror, in recent years I've mostly watched the Super Bowl to check out the commercials.

It's a good thing that Super Bowl Extra-Large Plus Two turned out to be a tightly contested, down-to-the-wire funfest, because this year's Super Bowl ads? Weaker than that Vitamin Water that Shaq the jockey was hawking.

These were the most memorable of a largely forgettable collection:
  • Bud Light: Man Breathes Fire. Any commercial that involves singeing a cat scores in my book. You know how I feel about cats.

  • Tide To Go: Job Interview. For my money, this one did everything an ad is supposed to do: it caught my attention; it stuck in my memory; and most important of all, it made me want to buy the product.

  • Budweiser: Rocky the Clydesdale. Yes, it was cute and hokey, but I loved the horse who finally made the Budweiser coach-pulling team after umpteen attempts, with a little help from his friend the Dalmatian.

  • Planters Nuts: A Dab of Cashew Will Do Ya. A homely woman rocks the pheromone boost she gets from rubbing cashews into her pulse points. This one was all kinds of creepy and weird, but it worked for me.

  • Coca-Cola: Macy's Parade. Three giant balloons get into a fight over a bottle of Coke. Charlie Brown wins. I'm not sure it made me want to slug down a Coke, but it was funny and unique. Plus, it's Charlie Brown, man. Charlie Brown rules.

  • SoBe Life Water: Thriller. Naomi Campbell zombie-dancing with animated lizards to the King of Pop's venerable classic. At least Michael didn't put in an appearance.

  • T-Mobile: Charles Barkley Out-Parties Dwyane Wade. The Round Mound of Rebound still has the magic. Comedy gold.
There were, of course, far more spots that I didn't find amusing or compelling:Wake me up in time for the next Super Bowl. Or better yet, for the Iron Man movie.

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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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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Bowman the Showman's last show

I was startled out of my rhinovirus-induced stupor just now by the news that former figure skating champion Christopher Bowman died today in Los Angeles of an apparent drug overdose.

Bowman — nicknamed "Bowman the Showman" for his aggressive, flashy skating style — won the U.S. men's title twice (1989 and 1992, with second-place finishes in '87 and '91). He represented the United States on two Olympic teams, albeit with disappointing results (a seventh-place finish in Calgary in 1988, and a fourth in Albertville, France, in 1992). He scored a silver medal at the World Figure Skating Championships in 1988, and a bronze the following year.

Prior to his athletic fame, Bowman was a child actor, familiar to TV viewers from dozens of commercials, plus a recurring role in the series Little House on the Prairie. But like many child stars, he encountered problems with drugs — he later acknowledged having a serious cocaine habit during his competitive years — and the law. Bowman was arrested in 2004 on charges of carrying a gun while intoxicated.

He was poised to make a return to acting this year, costarring in the new sports film Down and Distance alongside Gary Busey, Lil' Romeo, and Master P.

Bowman the Showman was 40 years old.

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Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The Goose gets loose

Congratulations to Rich "Goose" Gossage on becoming only the fifth relief pitcher to gain election to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

As I wrote in this space when the Hall of Fame ballots were distributed last November, Gossage certainly deserved to be voted in before this, his ninth year of eligibility. As I also noted, this year offered Gossage his best opportunity, as none of the 11 new names on the ballot would garner much attention. Of the fresh faces, only Tim Raines — a very good, but not great, player — logged enough votes to remain on the ballot next go-around.

I'm disappointed that Jim Rice, the American League's best all-around player for more than a decade, was denied election for the 14th time. On the positive side, Rice received considerably more votes this time than he ever has before, so there's a chance that he'll make it over the hump next year — his final shot at the ballot box.

With all of the anti-steroid furor of recent months, it should surprise no one that Mark McGwire fell far short of election for the second straight year. In fact, McGwire notched exactly the same number of votes he got last year: 128 (a total of 407 was needed in this year's balloting). I maintain that, steroids or no steroids, McGwire is not a Hall of Fame player in my estimation. An decent-fielding first baseman with a mediocre career batting average (.263), Big Mac wouldn't even be considered in the Hall of Fame conversation were it not for his now-suspect home run numbers.

The biggest addition to next year's eligibility list: Record-setting base stealer and 1990 American League Most Valuable Player Rickey Henderson. (Remind me in November to tell you my funny Rickey Henderson story.)

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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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Saturday, December 01, 2007

Not good, not bad... just Evel

Another chapter of my increasingly long-ago youth has departed the premises:

Evel Knievel died yesterday.

It's a fitting testament to the unparalleled weirdness that characterized America in the 1960s and '70s that one of our most recognizable entertainment icons from that period was a guy who jumped over large objects — and, on frequent occasion, failed spectacularly in the attempt — while riding on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

To young people who've grown up in the era of ubiquitous stunt reality television from Survivor to Jackass to The X Games, it probably seems bizarre that a professional daredevil was once such a novelty that his performances would sell out football stadiums, and make front page headlines in newspapers and lead stories on network news programs. But back in the day, Robert Craig Knievel Jr. — known to the world by his nickname, Evel — was that mammoth a star.

And believe me, we ate it up.

When Evel made one of his famous jumps on ABC's Wide World of Sports — the biggest thing going in televised sports in those pre-ESPN days — ratings skyrocketed. The clip of his spectacular crash at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas is one of the most repeated snippets of film in the history of broadcasting. When Evel made his ill-fated attempt to vault Idaho's Snake River Canyon in a rocket car designed by former NASA engineer Robert Truax, the world held its collective breath.

Elvis may have been the King, but Evel was the Emperor.

The youthful Uncle Swan was a major Evel Knievel fan. I owned his Ideal Toys action figure. I played dozens, maybe hundreds, of games on his Bally pinball machine. I devoured his cover story in Rolling Stone, and Shelly Saltman's unauthorized biography — the one that so incensed Evel that he assaulted Saltman with a baseball bat and spent six months in jail. I eagerly tuned in Evel's every TV appearance, even when he popped up as himself on dreadful programs I'd never have watched otherwise. A poster of Evel in his trademark white star-spangled jumpsuit adorned my bedroom wall. I paid actual money to see his self-starring 1977 biopic, Viva Knievel, and hardly cared that the man couldn't act. (The earlier Evel Knievel, starring the perpetually tan George Hamilton in the title role, was only marginally better.)

For a kid who loved comic book superheroes, Evel Knievel was as close to the real thing as one could get.

After his daredevil career ended in the early '80s, Evel Knievel's life meandered down a dark and painful road. He went bankrupt, ran repeatedly afoul of law enforcement and the Internal Revenue Service, and struggled with numerous health problems — some stemming from the world record number of broken bones Evel suffered in his infamous crashes; others, such as the hepatitis-C that necessitated a liver transplant in 1999, resulting from the numerous blood transfusions his injuries required. A lengthy history of diabetes and pulmonary fibrosis finally claimed the life of the self-proclaimed "last gladiator" at age 69.

Still, even in his final days, Evel was never far from the spotlight. Earlier this year, he found religion and was baptized on Robert Schuller's Hour of Power program in front of a nationwide TV audience. A couple of months ago, Evel Knievel: The Rock Opera premiered in Los Angeles to mostly positive reviews. Only a few days before his death, Evel settled a lawsuit against rapper Kanye West over Kanye's unauthorized use of Evel's trademarked image in one of his videos.

Despite the proliferation of self-destructive insanity in modern popular culture — and the ongoing career of Evel's son Robbie, who followed his father into the daredevil trade — we will never see the like of Evel Knievel again. He was truly an original, and unquestionably unique.

Thanks for all the thrills, Evel.

Happy landings.

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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

See you later, Dr. Gator

Let's all raise our glasses in memory of James Robert Cade, MD, who died today of kidney failure at age 80.

Who's James Robert Cade? you ask. To which Uncle Swan replies: Only one of the most important figures in the history of modern athletics.

Dr. Cade, you see, was the man who invented Gatorade.

In 1965, Dr. Cade, a member of the medical school faculty at the University of Florida, was asked a seemingly imponderable question by one of the university's assistant football coaches, Dwayne Douglas: "Doctor, why don't football players wee-wee after a game?" (We used euphemisms like "wee-wee" in 1965, children.)

Cade researched the matter, and discovered that football players sweated off as much as 18 pounds of water weight during the average three-hour contest. The good doctor reasoned that it might be possible to develop a supplement that would replenish the fluids and salt the players perspired away, thus improving their stamina and overall health.

Cade and his staff went to work brewing up their magical potion. After several less-than-successful attempts, they hit upon the formula we now know as Gatorade — named, of course, after the Florida football team, not in honor of any reptilian ingredient in the concoction itself. (Or so Cade said.)

And thus, an industry was born.

The University of Florida, incidentally, collects a royalty on the name Gatorade from the manufacturer, PepsiCo — an arrangement that has netted the school more than $150 million over the decades. Righteous bucks, as Jeff Spicoli would say.

Personally, I find the flavor and mouthfeel of Gatorade and similar "sports drinks" repellent. But you can't argue with $7.5 billion per year in gross revenue.

Dr. Cade, I'm sure, would drink to that.

One final note: The people at Pepsi would like to assure you that Dr. Cade's death from kidney failure is not directly attributable to 40-plus years of drinking Gatorade. At least, that's the company line.

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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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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

C.C. Sabathia, see what you have done

Congratulations to North Bay native C.C. Sabathia, who today was awarded this year's American League Cy Young Award.

The Cleveland Indians' ace posted a 19-7 record in the baseball season just concluded, with a 3.21 ERA and 209 strikeouts in 241 innings pitched, the most in the majors this year.

Sabathia becomes the first African American pitcher to win the Cy Young in 22 years, since the Mets' Dwight Gooden in 1985, and the first in the American League since Vida Blue won with Oakland in 1971.

With his 19 victories, Sabathia fell one win short of becoming the 14th member of the Black Aces, the elite group of African American pitchers who have won 20 games in a major league season.

Not too shabby for a kid from Vallejo.

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Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Devil made them do it

You remember the Tampa Bay Devil Rays? First in your hearts, last in the American League East?

Well, there ain't no Devil in Tampa Bay any more.

In a dramatic triumph of superficiality over substance, the owners of the northern Florida baseball franchise have changed the team's name from Devil Rays to simply Rays.

Apparently, someone in the Tampa Bay front office determined that pesky "Devil" was the reason for the club's perpetual lack of success. (The Rays have never lost fewer than 90 games in a 162-game season, have never reached the playoffs, and have finished out of last place in their division only once — in 2004, when they came in fourth instead of their usual fifth.)

Leaving the stench of Satanic sulfur in their wake, the team, which plays its home games in St. Peterburg's Tropicana Field (known affectionately to Rays fans as "the Trop," and less affectionately to the design-conscious as "the Juice Box"), will debut in 2008 with a truncated title intended to reflect the golden beams that daily bathe the Sunshine State, plus a new color scheme (navy blue and light blue), logo, and uniforms.

Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg must have forgotten that the team already went through one previous "let's change our fortunes by changing our costumes" makeover in its brief decade-long existence. Back in 2001, Tampa Bay ditched its rainbow-hued uniform logo in favor of a more sedate green, and swapped the "Devil Rays" brand for "Rays," albeit with the namesake manta ray (aka "devilfish") still incorporated into the design. That 2001 club lost 100 games for the first time in franchise history.

Maybe it wasn't the unis, after all.

It's high time that the decision-makers at the Juice Box figured out that the key to winning ballgames isn't fabric swatches and focus groups — it's signing some players who can actually, you know, play. Dressing the same tired roster of minor league rejects in fancy new clothes makes as much sense as painting lipstick on a pig.

Or, for that matter, on a Devil Ray.

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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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Monday, October 29, 2007

What's Up With That? #55: Moon over my county

As if things weren't weird enough around these parts, a local youth league soccer coach mooned his team's opponents over the weekend.

Perhaps the man's a plumber in everyday life.

Two teams of 14- and 15-year-old girls — one from Petaluma, to the south of us, and one from Windsor, the town to our north, where KJ works — played a rather acrimonious game in Saturday's Windsor Cup soccer tourney. After the game concluded, the adult male coach of the Petaluma team... how about if I let Sgt. Steve Brown of the Windsor P.D. tell the tale?
After the game [the coach] goes to the center of the field and drops his pants and hangs a B.A. to the Windsor team and crowd.
Nothing like showing the young ladies an example of class, character, and sportsmanship, coach. That, and your pair of pasty glutes.

(I'm struggling to recall the last time I saw the phrase "hangs a B.A." in the local newspaper. Or anywhere else, for that matter. So far, I'm coming up empty.)

Mooning (or "hanging a B.A.," if you prefer) is a time-honored method of expressing contempt for one's enemies. Way back in 1346, during the Battle of Crécy in northern France, a battalion of soldiers from Normandy bared their buttocks to the onrushing English forces. Unfortunately for the Normans, the English archers found those rosy French rumps prime targets for their arrows.

Meanwhile back in the 21st century, the Petaluma soccer coach (whose name is not being reported, since he hasn't yet been arrested or charged with a crime) may take comfort in the knowledge that a circuit court judge in Montgomery County, Maryland recently determined that mooning is a Constitutionally protected form of free expression, even in the presence of minors. In his decision, Judge John W. Debelius III wrote: "If exposure of half of the buttock constituted indecent exposure, any woman wearing a thong at the beach at Ocean City would be guilty."

So, let the moon shine, America. Just watch out for those English longbows.

In related news, a representative from our city's Pee-Wee Baseball league called this morning to see whether I might be interested in sponsoring a team.

I didn't say this to the woman on the phone, but I'm not sure that anything involving children should be using the name "Pee-Wee." You might see coaches dropping trou every game in that league.

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

Cream-colored ponies and crisp apple strudels

The raindrops should be hitting the roses at any moment now here in lovely Sonoma County (what the heck ever happened to our customary Native American summer?), so here are a few of my favorite things, at least for today:
  • Dead animal flesh cooked over charcoal. I grilled a tri-tip on the old Char-Broil tonight that was sublime — perfectly marinated and done to a turn. Too bad you weren't here to eat some. Then again, there wasn't enough for you anyway. And you weren't getting mine. Take that, PETA.

  • Former Yankees manager Joe Torre, for having the gumption to tell George Steinbrenner to stick his 33 percent pay cut and one-year lame-duckitude where the Times Square neon doesn't shine.

  • My new Dr. Scholl's everyday walking-around shoes. They're comfy.

  • The Highwaymen, the rollicking Wildstorm Comics miniseries cleverly written by Marc Bernardin and Adam Freeman and drawn with razor-edged gusto by Lee Garbett. Of course, because I love it, it didn't sell worth a tinker's dam, and the fifth issue of the cycle marks the last time we'll see engaging mercenaries Monroe and McQueen ("One drives; one shoots"). If Wildstorm publishes a trade collection (which I doubt they will, given the lackluster sales of the monthly), buy it.

  • Rubio's Fresh Mexican Grill. The langostino "lobster" that earned the chain all that untoward publicity a while back is on the menu again for a limited time. Get 'em while they've got 'em.

  • My daughter KM, who's enjoying her first semester of college. She's also taking her driver's license test on Monday — wish her luck!

  • Christopher Walken, who demanded — and supervised the auditions for — a bare-butt double for his latest film, Five Dollars a Day. I have no idea who thought anyone wanted to see Walken's pasty, 64-year-old glutes writ large on the silver screen, but good on Crazy Chris for refusing to drop trou.

  • The matching "Phoenix" and "Arizona" pictorial mugs I brought back from my recent trip to the Valley of the Sun.

  • Costco. It's the only place in town at the moment where regular gasoline is still less than three bucks per gallon.

  • Guy Fieri, our culinary local boy made good. KM and I spotted him and his family walking north of his downtown Santa Rosa restaurant, Tex Wasabi's, one day last week. Nice to see that with all his Food Network fame, Guy still hasn't lost that hometown touch. (Or the board shorts and flip-flops.)

  • The daunting new charts my chorus is learning. Just today, I downloaded an eight-page holiday arrangement that I have to familiarize myself with between now and Tuesday, on top of two others we've received in the last couple of weeks. Fun, complex, challenging music to sing, but the memory stick in the musical corner of my brain is filling up fast. (Yes, I'll get over it.)

  • Good coffee. You can never get enough good coffee.

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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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Monday, August 27, 2007

Beating a dead horse

The story didn't garner the attention of the Michael Vick debacle, but...

Russell Baze, the winningest jockey in the history of thoroughbred racing, has been suspended for 15 days and fined $2,500 for using his whip inappropriately during a race.

In the first race on last Thursday's card at Bay Meadows, Baze was cruising to a commanding victory aboard heavily favored Imperial Eyes when the horse misstepped and, obviously injured, faltered on the home stretch. Baze tapped his mount with his crop once. When the horse continued to slow its pace, Baze switched hands and applied the whip again. Imperial Eyes, moving at barely a trot by this point, limped to a second-place finish.

Although Imperial Eyes was able to walk into the equine ambulance under his own power, track veterinarians determined that the horse had broken the cannon bone in its left foreleg. The four-year-old gelding was subsequently euthanized as a result of the injury.

Following an inquiry, the Bay Meadows stewards cleared Baze of a potential animal cruelty charge, but sat him down for a whip violation. Baze will begin serving his suspension the Sunday before Labor Day.

In a press statement, Baze seemed sincerely remorseful:
I'm not going to try to make any excuse for what I did, because there is no excuse for it. In the heat of the moment, right at the finish line, I made a bad decision. I felt he (Imperial Eyes) was off, but I never felt in great danger of going down or that he could be a hurt horse. I made a bad decision, it's my responsibility and I'll take the punishment for it.
KM, my resident horsewoman, and I watched the replay of the race on Thursday and again yesterday, and it was clear to us what happened. Baze, well into the lead and mere yards from the finish line, felt his mount fail. With so short a distance, however, the veteran jockey believed he could keep Imperial Eyes moving forward just long enough to finish first. Russell wasn't being intentionally mean to the animal — he just wanted to win, no matter what. Baze's competitive instincts — the instincts that propelled him to a record-shattering 9,826 trips to the winner's circle — overcame his better judgment. In the heat of the fight, he made a stupid mistake.

I doubt he'll make the same error again.

By all accounts, Baze would be one of the last people to mistreat the creatures upon which his livelihood depends. I've seen enough of Russell's behavior around horses at the Sonoma County track to believe that's true. This incident, however, goes to show what can happen to any competitive individual in a weak moment when the desire to win at all costs trumps sound judgment, even in the best-intentioned of us.

I'm thinking that more than a few other professional athletes — baseball players and football players, boxers and bicyclists, track stars and weightlifters — could learn a valuable lesson from this.

I'll refrain from mentioning any names.

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Tuesday, August 07, 2007


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:





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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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Thursday, August 02, 2007

Everything I really need to know, I learned at the racetrack

KM and I enjoyed our annual father-daughter outing to the races at the Sonoma County fairgrounds today. Now that she's 18, I take it as an honor that KM still consents to go anywhere in public with me. But, given her singular obsession with all things equine, she'd never miss an opportunity to spend an afternoon admiring an endless parade of well-kept horses, even if it means hanging out for several hours with the old man.

Going to the track is always an educational experience. Permit me to share with you some of the life lessons I gleaned from today's excursion.
  • In between races, the track should perform a valuable public service by airing episodes of What Not to Wear.

  • A fish taco is a welcome taste treat in any surroundings.

  • Russell Baze is one of the greatest athletes of our time. He seems like a nice fellow, too.

  • Everyone is an expert at the racetrack. Often, the greater one's handicapping expertise, the fewer one's teeth.

  • The produce man from our supermarket is stalking me. I see him everywhere.

  • Operating a parimutuel betting window must be one of the suckiest jobs on the planet.

  • I could never be a track announcer, because (a) I'd get the names of the horses confused, and (b) I can't talk anywhere near that fast.

  • There really ought to be a law against micro-miniskirts on women within shouting distance of menopause. Or maybe just on women, period.

  • Describing gelded horses as "chopped off" is probably not the most effective means of communicating certain facts of animal husbandry to one's children.

  • Every time I see a jockey, I want to buy him a sandwich.

  • People who wouldn't dream on shoving their hands into a recently used toilet have little compunction about reaching out to capture droplets of the waste water being used to dampen the racing surface, even though it's pretty much the same thing.

  • The gray horse never wins. Except in the sixth race at Santa Rosa.

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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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Monday, July 30, 2007

The Sage of Santa Clara (1931-2007)

It's a sad, sad day here in the Bay Area...

The Genius has died.

Bill Walsh, who guided the San Francisco 49ers to four Super Bowl championships (all right, you nitpickers, three — but the team that won Super Bowl XXIV the year after Walsh's retirement was essentially the same team that had won with Walsh coaching the year previously) and six division titles, died this morning after a tough battle with leukemia. The architect of the fabled West Coast Offense was 75.

One could argue, with little fear of refutation, that Walsh was the most influential and innovative head coach in NFL history. Influential, as reflected in the legions of Walsh protégés (and second- and third-generation protégés) who followed the white-haired strategist to coaching prosperity. Innovative, in that the style of offensive football Walsh introduced completely changed the way the game is played, not just in the NFL, but also at the college and even the high school levels. Every significant coach who has drawn up a playbook in the past 25 years has borrowed something from Bill Walsh.

It's a cliché, especially in sports, to say of the recently deceased, "I never heard anyone say a bad word about the man." In Walsh, the cliché found its reality. His former players — including current and future Hall of Famers Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Steve Young, and Ronnie Lott — revered him. His former assistants credited him with their accomplishments. The media loved him, knowing that the Sage of Santa Clara could always be counted upon for a meaty soundbite.

In a lot of ways, Walsh was the antithesis of the stereotypical Knute Rockne/Vince Lombardi image of the head football coach. He was erudite, intellectual, and soft-spoken é at least, outside the locker room. He struck more the impression of a university philosophy professor than of a man who made his living drawing X's and O's on a whiteboard. Walsh also possessed a mischievous sense of humor: When the 49ers arrived in Detroit in January 1982 for their first-ever Super Bowl appearance, the hotel employee on hand to assist with their luggage seemed oddly familiar. It was the team's head coach, outfitted in a bellman's cap and uniform.

Because Walsh became so thoroughly identified with the offensive system he pioneered, many fans forgot — or perhaps never knew — that he began his career as a defensive coach at Cal-Berkeley and Stanford in the early 1960s. He changed his focus to offense when he was hired by Al Davis as an Oakland Raiders assistant coach in 1966.

It's also easy to forget, given Walsh's tremendous triumphs with the Niners, that he came to NFL head coaching relatively late — he was 47 or 48 when San Francisco lured him away from Stanford — and that his first two 49er teams finished with 2-14 and 6-10 records. Then, with a short, scrawny kid from Notre Dame leading the charge at quarterback, and a quartet of unproven defensive backs (third-year safety Dwight Hicks and his three rookie "Hot Licks" — Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright, and Carlton Williamson) snatching interceptions from the air like they were cookies in a jar, Walsh's Niners went 13-3 in 1981, and never looked back.

Walsh was a progressive thinker, off the gridiron as well as on. He created the Minority Coaching Fellowship, a program that invited African American coaches to the 49ers' camp to gain NFL insight and experience. Current University of Washington head coach Tyrone Willingham was among the many who benefited from Walsh's desire to reach out. Today, the NFL's ongoing initiative on minority hiring stems from Walsh's leadership.

Thanks for all the marvelous memories, Coach. We'll miss you.

Our condolences to Coach Walsh's family, and the countless friends, colleagues, and fans who will continue to honor his legacy.

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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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Monday, July 23, 2007

Musical Monday

It's a toasty July Monday here in Wine Country, and for whatever reason, everything in the news today reminds me of the lyrics of an old pop song. I'll show you what I mean...
  • Would Jesus wear a Rolex on His television show? For the second time in two weeks, someone who figured prominently in a research paper I wrote in college has shuffled off this mortal coil: first porn magnate Jim Mitchell; now Tammy Faye Messner, once better known as Tammy Faye Bakker, co-ringleader of the disgraced (no pun intended) TV ministry The PTL Club. And no, it wasn't the same paper — I wrote my senior thesis on televangelism.

  • You probably think this song is about you — don't you? Lindsay Lohan is bragging to friends about how she "teased those boys" in rehab by walking around the facility stark naked. At the same time, she's seeking legal assistance to ensure that nude photos taken by a former flame never see the light of day, fearing the pics might "ruin her career." Hey, Linds: Get over yourself. Soon. It's your asinine behavior — on and off set — that's going to slam-dunk your career, not a few salty Polaroids. Oh, and before you imagine that the entire world is eager to behold your bony frame in the altogether, I have a word for you: Cheeseburger.

  • I just had to look, having read the book. Were you among the legions hanging out on your local bookseller's doorstep at midnight Saturday, eager to snatch up your copy of the final installment in the Harry Potter saga? If so, then you, friend reader, need a life. Or a significant other. Or both. Rumor has it that J.K. Rowling is scouring the list of potential Potter titles I posted in this space a couple of years ago, just in case she gets a future urge to score another several million pounds.

  • Oh, Mandy — you came and you gave without taking. No one should be surprised that Criminal Minds star Mandy Patinkin abruptly quit the hit crime series just as filming was about to begin for the show's third season. Teleholics will recall that Patinkin pulled a similar stunt a decade ago, when he walked off the set of the medical drama Chicago Hope. Thomas Gibson, who costarred with Patinkin on both Minds and Hope, has got to be wondering what he did to deserve this. (Two words, Thomas: Jenna Elfman.)

  • Hello, Daddy, hello, Mom; I'm your ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-cherry bomb! Tony Award-winning stage actress Cherry Jones, probably most familiar to audiences as Matt Damon's mother in Ocean's Twelve, has signed to portray newly elected President Allison Taylor on the seventh season of 24. Let's hope she fares better as POTUS than Geena Davis did on the short-lived Commander in Chief. (Davis, incidentally, is rumored to be CBS's top choice to replace the aforementioned Mr. Patinkin.)

  • When you get that notion, put your backfield in motion. Speaking of POTUS, there was good news and bad news from the White House this past weekend. The good news: Doctors pronounced the polyps removed from President Bush's colon 100% cancer-free. The bad news: George W. will continue to be a cancer in everyone else's butt for another year and a half.

  • Well, I spent some time in the Mudville Nine, watchin' it from the bench. A truly sad story from minor league baseball: Mike Coolbaugh, first base coach for the Tulsa Drillers — the Colorado Rockies' AA affiliate — was struck in the head and killed yesterday by a line drive off the bat of teammate Tino Garcia. Coolbaugh played briefly in the majors earlier in this decade, with both the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals. He had taken the coaching position with the Drillers only three weeks ago. He leaves behind a wife and two children, with another baby due in October. Tragic.

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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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Friday, June 29, 2007

We Kara lot for Supergirl

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to future Baseball Hall of Fame inductees Frank "The Big Hurt" Thomas and Craig "The Big Gio" Biggio, each of whom reached a significant career milestone yesterday. Thomas smacked his 500th home run, becoming the 21st major leaguer to achieve that feat, while Biggio notched his 3000th base hit, one of only 27 players to do so.

We at "The Big Swan" salute both of these fine athletes and gentlemen.

Speaking of big, over at DC Comics, Supergirl has arisen from the relative obscurity in which she foundered in recent decades to become one of the company's biggest headliners, with two monthly books (Supergirl and Supergirl and the Legion of Super-Heroes) bearing her name in the title. I'm not always enamored with the approach the creators of these two series — the Supergirl solo title in particular — impose upon our Kryptonian heroine, but I'm pleased to see Kara Zor-El at least holding her own in print again after so many years.

Those of you who aren't comics aficionados may not realize that DC killed off Supergirl (along with Barry Allen, aka The Flash) way back in 1985, during a major year-long event entitled Crisis on Infinite Earths. (Ironically, Supergirl's death in the comics occurred only a year after her less-than-successful cinematic debut. Coincidence? I think not.) For nearly 20 years, fans of the Maid of Steel were deprived of her sunny presence, and worse, subjected to a host of pretenders to her storied code name. Since 2004, however, the original Supergirl (more or less) is back, and DC's got her.

So let's go see what's new and awesome in my Kara gallery.

No one in the business today draws lovelier female characters than Al Rio. When I saw this unfinished Supergirl sketch posted on Al's Web site, I was charmed instantly.

Al's gorgeous sketch is currently in the capable hands of veteran inker Joe Rubinstein, who will complete the background while he's embellishing the figure. As soon as Joe has finished working his magic on it, you'll see the final results here.

Another depiction of Kara that captured my eye at first glance was this subtle yet fetching ink drawing by Hannibal King. With a deft economy of line, Hannibal lends lightness and motion to this classically styled pinup.

I was unfamiliar with Oliver Nome's work before I stumbled upon this wonderful drawing. I've since learned that Oliver is a protégé of comics superstar Jim Lee, having won a seat at Lee's WildStorm Studios through a Wizard Magazine contest. I'm no prophet, but I'd say the kid has a future in this business.

What I like most about this piece is the fact that Oliver's Supergirl, though certainly stylized, actually looks like a teenage girl, rather than a centerfold from Juggs. The artist also added a wealth of fine detail to the finished art that, unfortunately, doesn't show in this scan. I'd show it to you in person... but my office is a mess just now.

Back to Al Rio for a Comic Art Friday flashback. This piece began life as a preliminary sketch for a drawing Al and his representative Terry Maltos auctioned off for charity following the southeast Asian tsunami three years ago. (Al's completed drawing is markedly different from this one, and features Batman instead of Superman and Supergirl.) My good friend Bob Almond — currently hard at work on an upcoming Annihilation: Quasar miniseries for Marvel Comics — transformed Al's rough pencil layout into a work of emotional power and haunting beauty.

As I've mentioned in this space previously, "Supergirl" is one of my pet nicknames for my teenage daughter KM, who often wears a hoodie with the familiar "S" shield emblazoned on the chest. My ever-growing collection of Supergirl art honors KM's spunky spirit as much as it reflects my affection for the character herself.

And that's your Comic Art Friday. Don't take any wooden Kryptonite.

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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, June 07, 2007

What's Up With That? #49: Welcome to whine country

I don't know whether they've ever met, but here are two people who deserve each other: Paris Hilton and Billy Donovan.

Both of them have whining their way out of their mistakes down to a science.

As you've doubtless heard by now, Paris squeaked out of her 23-day jail sentence 20 days early by lapsing into crying fits at every opportunity. The Los Angeles County authorities released her to 40 days of house arrest, supposedly because they "feared for her health."

I'll give you the prescription Paris needs: Repeated swift kicks to her bony little butt.

Meanwhile, University of Florida basketball coach Donovan weaseled out of a freshly signed contract to helm the NBA's Orlando Magic before the ink even had time to dry. Quoth Billy Two-Face:
I realized in less than 24 hours after signing a contract with the Magic that I had made a mistake that had nothing to do with the Magic. Instead, I realized that, in my heart, I belonged in college basketball.
Translated: "I finally figured out how to leverage a whopping pay raise and cushy perks out of the university administration."

Donovan can get in line for the gauntlet, right behind Paris.

Let the butt-kicking commence.

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Monday, June 04, 2007

Shuffle up and deal!

The 2007 World Series of Poker kicked off this past weekend, and already history has been made.

A mere 10 days beyond his 21st birthday, baby-faced Steve Billirakis became the youngest player ever to win a WSOP bracelet when he outlasted 450 other card sharps in the megatournament's first event, the World Championship Mixed Hold 'Em. (In a mixed hold 'em tournament, the first several rounds are played with preset betting limits, the last several rounds are no-limit.)

Billirakis, whose online poker ID is "MrSmoky1," pocketed $536,287 for his winning efforts. Not a bad couple of days' work for a college kid.

The real suspense in this year's WSOP, however, will come from seeing whether any of the three legendary players tied for the record in career bracelets — Doyle "Texas Dolly" Brunson, Johnny "the Orient Express" Chan, and Phil "Poker Brat" Hellmuth — will score a victory in one of the Series' 55 discrete events to take the all-time lead.

That, and the thrill of seeing who will emerge out of what's certain to be the largest-ever field in the WSOP Main Event to claim the title of World Champion.

For that revelation, we'll have to wait until mid-July.

As for my debut appearance in the WSOP Main Event? Maybe next year. Sigh.

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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


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, March 13, 2007

Adonal Foyle: American

Everyone here at SSTOL congratulates longtime Golden State Warriors center Adonal Foyle, who today became a naturalized citizen of these United States.

Unlike many pro athletes these days, Foyle is a genuine role model — an all-around good guy who's active in charitable causes and enjoys a spotless reputation both as a player and as a human being. He's a magna cum laude graduate of Colgate University, and is pursuing a master's degree in sports psychology at John F. Kennedy University.

Six years ago, Foyle founded Democracy Matters, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that "gives college students a voice in the pro-democracy movement, and an active role in the national dialogue on money in politics." He has twice won the NBA's Community Assist Award for his efforts to serve and enlighten young people.

I'm delighted to call Adonal my countryman. We could use a few thousand more just like him.

This, alongside Golden State's snapping of the Dallas Mavericks' 17-game winning streak last night, makes me proud once again to be a Warrior Worrier.

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Monday, February 26, 2007

All he wants to do is bicycle, bicycle

Congratulations to local hero Levi Leipheimer, who pedaled his way to victory in the Tour of California cycle race that ended yesterday.

Levi, who never trailed at the end of any stage of the race, completed the 539-mile, eight-day Tour in a total time of 24 hours, 57 minutes, and 24 seconds. That works out to an average of 25.6 miles per hour. Levi finished 21 seconds ahead of his nearest competitor, a cyclist from Germany.

His legs, I'm told, look fantastic.

There is, apparently, no truth to the rumored connection between Levi and the mysterious John Jacob Leipheimer Schmidt.

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Thursday, February 22, 2007

Lights out, DJ

I was both surprised and saddened to learn this afternoon about the sudden death earlier today of former NBA star Dennis Johnson, at the age of 52.

Apparently, DJ had just concluded a practice with the Austin Toros, the team he coached in the NBA's D-League, when he collapsed. Paramedics worked for 23 minutes to revive him, but were unsuccessful.

I never met Dennis Johnson, but we attended the same university three years apart. I certainly heard a great deal about DJ during my years at Pepperdine. When I arrived in Malibu in the fall of 1979, Johnson had already been a star with the Seattle SuperSonics for three seasons, having just led the Sonics to the NBA Championship against the Washington Bullets in the spring of that year. But at Pepperdine, he was still "our guy."

As the biggest major-sports athlete Pep had produced to that point, DJ's name was still whispered in reverent tones around campus whenever Pepperdine basketball came up for discussion. After only one season at the 'Bu, he'd left an impression as one heck of a hoopster, taking Pep two rounds deep into March Madness in '76. When the Pepperdine Athletics Hall of Fame was unveiled at Firestone Fieldhouse in the early '80s, DJ was in its sophomore group of inductees. Not a bad feat for a guy who opted for the pro draft after only one year.

When I think about DJ as a player, I think of him primarily for his tenacious defense. Many were the guards who credited Dennis as the toughest guy they had to face off against. But he could also put the ball up when he needed to, and he dished the rock with the best of them. He was only the 11th player in NBA history to score 15,000 points and tally 5,000 assists in a career. Larry Bird considered DJ the best guard he ever played with, which is saying something.

My condolences to DJ's family and numerous friends.

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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, February 15, 2007

What's Up With That? #44: Tim Hate-Away

When he was a backcourt star for my beloved, perpetually frustrating Golden State Warriors, Tim Hardaway's signature move was the "killer crossover," a rapid-fire maneuver in which Tim dribbled the basketball between his legs from one hand to the other.

Now, Hardaway's going to be even more famous for his killer voiceover.

The Timinator, who now works in the NBA's front office, was being interviewed on Dan Le Batard's sports radio show in Miami when he offered his opinion about former NBA center John Amaechi's recent acknowledgment that he is gay. Quoth Hardaway:
You know, I hate gay people, so I let it be known. I don't like gay people and I don't like to be around gay people. I'm homophobic. I don't like it. It shouldn't be in the world or in the United States.
So tell us how you really feel, Tim.

Today, Hardaway issued a public apology, which didn't prevent the NBA from banning him from this weekend's All-Star festivities:"
As an African-American, I know all too well the negative thoughts and feelings hatred and bigotry cause. I regret and apologize for the statements that I made that have certainly caused the same kinds of feelings and reactions. I especially apologize to my fans, friends and family in Miami and Chicago. I am committed to examining my feelings and will recognize, appreciate and respect the differences among people in our society.
Hardaway's comments started me thinking about something that has always puzzled me. Why is it necessary for people to hate others who do things of which they themselves disapprove? Let's say homosexuality is contrary to your belief system. I can relate to that. But do you have to hate gay people, because you believe homosexuality is wrong? Does your disapproval of what gay people do — or what you might imagine they do — require that you hate them?

I can name many things people do that I think they should not. For example, I can't abide cigarette smoking. I can't comprehend why someone would want to roll dead leaves in paper, set the product on fire, and suck on it. I detest the smell of tobacco, I despise seeing cigarette butts scattered about the landscape, and I certainly don't want to share the carcinogenic air of those who smoke. But I don't hate smokers. I don't even dislike smokers — at least, not just because they're smokers. My antipathy for smoking doesn't cause me any animus toward the people who do it, as long as they aren't befouling my personal atmosphere. I certainly don't hate them.

Why does Tim Hardaway hate gay people? Again, my question is not why he believes what he believes about the rightness or wrongness of homosexuality. Let's grant him his views so far as that goes. But even allowing for the fact that Tim may hate homosexuality, does that necessitate his hating gay people? What does other people's gayness (gayitude? gayosity?) have to do with him?

So Hardaway's afraid a gay teammate might scope out his twig and berries in the locker room. There are practical ways of dealing with that issue. I'm guessing that millions of females are ogled daily by males (and perhaps even by some females, 'cause that's how they roll) by whom they would prefer not to be ogled. As long as no one is harassed or harmed, it's a fact of life. If harassment or harm occurs, that's entirely another matter. But I don't think the overwhelming majority of those women getting ogled hate all men in general, just because some ogle.

Again, the question: Do you have to hate an entire group of people, just because you don't like something they (or even just some of them) do?

This carries over into numerous areas of conversation — religion, to choose one. If you disagree with the practices of someone's faith, should you have to hate them personally? If you're a Protestant, should you hate Catholic people because you dislike Catholicism? If you're a Christian, should you hate Jews because they don't embrace Christ? If you're a Muslim, should you hate Christians because they don't pray to Allah?

Take it another step. If someone engages in illegal or immoral activity that doesn't directly impact you, should you hate them? Even if a person is committing the most heinous, unspeakable act imaginable — pick one that offends you — but they're not hurting you or yours in any way, should you hate them? Does condemning the person's actions mean you have to hate the person?

I'm not saying my answer would be right. But I think the question's worth asking.

Just don't hate me if we disagree.

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Wednesday, February 07, 2007

One's gay, the other not so much

It's like a page from my "Common Elements" comic art gallery: Two otherwise unrelated stories, united by a common theme...

First, former pro basketball player John Amaechi (no relation to the late Don Ameche, a fine comedic actor who couldn't bury a jumper from outside the paint to save his life) — who played center for the Orlando Magic and three other teams during a five-year journeyman NBA career — would like you all to know that he is a gay man.

Second, former Colorado megachurch pastor Ted Haggard — who resigned as president of the National Association of Evangelicals (no relation to the National Basketball Association) following revelations (no relation to the Biblical book of Revelation) that, when he wasn't thumping the Good Book, Pastor Ted was thumping rent boys and crystal meth — would like you all to know that he is once again a straight man.

Just so everyone's clear before we go on:

Gay man...

...straight man.

Pay attention — there's likely to be a quiz later.

Previously best known for being the first British player in NBA history — although born in Boston, Amaechi grew up near Manchester, England — Amaechi becomes the first NBA player, active or retired, to come out publicly.

Which is interesting, because you've gotta figure Amaechi's not the only gay dude who ever laced up a pair of Chuck Taylors. (So far as I know, Chuck Taylor was not one of them. Not that that would make his sneakers any less cool.)

But the fact is, only six male athletes in American professional team sports have ever come out as gay — NFL players Dave Kopay, Esera Tuaolo, and Roy Simmons; Major League Baseball's Glenn Burke (who died from HIV-related disease in 1995) and Billy Bean (no relation to Billy Beane, the former player and current general manager of the Oakland Athletics, who would like you all to know that he is a straight man — not that there's anything wrong with that); and now Amaechi. Not one of the six came out while still active in his chosen field.

Six gay men in the history of American pro sports? Yeah, right. Given the number of out (or nearly so) lesbians in women's athletics, the law of averages alone says there have to be at least a few gay men in those clubhouses and locker rooms. No one, however, wants to be the first to raise his hand and admit it.

But I guess that's why they call it "the love that dares not speak its name."

And then, there's Pastor Ted, who apparently has decided that if he can't speak it, he won't do it. According to Tim Ralph, one of the current pastors at Haggard's former church in Colorado Springs:
"He is completely heterosexual. That is something he discovered. It was the acting-out situations where things took place. It wasn't a constant thing."
Let's break that quote down, shall we?
  • "He is completely heterosexual." Completely, except for the whole gay male prostitute thing.

  • "That is something he discovered." How does one "discover" that he's "completely heterosexual"? "Yeah, I dabbled in a few sessions of hot, sweaty man-on-man action, but I discovered in the process that I am completely heterosexual." To borrow a line from the immortal Flip Wilson, "You better discover yourself away from here."

  • "It was the acting-out situations where things took place." To be more specific, it was a motel in Colorado Springs "where things took place." Or perhaps it was in the conservatory, with Colonel Mustard and some rope.

  • "It wasn't a constant thing." How exactly does that work? "I'm gay, but it's not a constant thing. I'm only gay on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and alternating weekends." You know, I've only been heterosexual myself, but it's been pretty darned constant since at least 1969. (No innuendo intended.)
I'm just puzzled as to how Haggard could be gay — or at the very least, bisexual — three months ago, yet "completely heterosexual" now. I couldn't change favorite Chinese restaurants in three months, much less my entire sexual identity.

I'm going to send my checkbook to that counseling center Haggard attended. Maybe they can work a miracle on that in 90 days or less.

At least John Amaechi has a book to sell.

All right, ready for the pop quiz? Here we go:

Which is the gay man...

...and which is the straight man?

You thought this would be easier, didn't you?

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Monday, February 05, 2007

The Swan Tunes In: Super Bowl ads

For those of us mortals who look forward to the Super Bowl more eagerly for the commercials than for the game, Super Bowl Extra-Large-Plus-One came something of a cropper. This wasn't exactly a stellar year for the ad agencies, who annually bring out the big guns for the Big Game. I'd forgotten most of the spots already by the time I sat down to compose this post. Lucky for you, I took notes.

As an advertising copywriter, I tend to view the splashier commercials with a gimlet eye. A commercial should have as its primary aim two goals: (1) imbedding the sponsor's brand inescapably in the mind of the viewer, and (2) fostering an intense desire to purchase the sponsor's product or service. An ad that accomplishes either goal has earned its money. One that does both is golden.

Sad to say, most of the Super Bowl spots focus on a third objective: entertainment. The problem is that entertainment is the job of programming -- in this case, the football game. If all an ad does is entertain the audience, without selling either the brand or the product or both, it might as well be a show, and not an ad. Few things are a more pointless waste of money and creativity than a clever commercial that everyone in America talks about, but no one can recall who the advertiser was or what product they were selling. You might as well set three million dollars (production cost plus airtime) on fire.

So let's examine a random sampling of Super Bowl commercials using the SwanShadow Scale of Advertising Effectiveness (a maximum of ten tailfeathers possible):

Pizza Hut: Jessica Simpson bolts the red carpet for some Cheesy Bites.
I have no love for Jessica Simpson — an unattractive, talent-free bimbo, in my not-so-humble estimation — nor for Pizza Hut, which serves the nastiest pizza of any of the major chains. This ad, however, does a good job of reinforcing the brand, and making the product seem appealing. Seven tailfeathers.

Blockbuster: The Blockbuster bunny and gerbil attempt to order videos using a mouse. The furry kind.
One of the more memorable and effective spots of the day. The mouse gag makes a strong mental connection with the online service. More importantly, the spot breaks away from the humor to solidify the sales pitch, rather than trying to make the gimmick do all the heavy lifting. Nine tailfeathers.

Doritos: A guy and girl meet disastrously cute.
Clever idea — this was an amateur submission generated by a "make your own Doritos ad" contest. For me, though, as clever as the piece is, its value is ruined by all of the violent misfortune. Unless I'm selling insurance or auto body repairs, I don't want people associating my product with car crashes. Six tailfeathers.

Sierra Mist: When you can seize the soft drink from my hand, Grasshopper, you will be ready to leave. Most of the blogosphere is raving about the other Sierra Mist spot starring comedians Michael Ian Black and Jim Gaffigan, in which Black's middle manager fires Gaffigan's bizarrely coiffured employee. For me, that spot was more about the sight gags than the soda. This one, with Black playing a martial arts teacher and Gaffigan his hyperaggressive student, works better at selling the product, while still bringing the funny. Eight tailfeathers. (The "hair" ad only gets six.)

Snickers: Two macho men share an inadvertent kiss over a Snickers bar. This was probably the funniest ad of the day. It did not, however, make me want to eat a Snickers bar. Instead, it made me want to hurl. Not because of the implicit homoeroticism (borrowing heavily from a famous bit in the John Hughes film Planes, Trains and Automobiles), but because the idea of having food in my mouth that has been in someone else's (I don't care whose) turns my stomach. I can't imagine anyone viewing this ad and thinking, "I sure would like a Snickers right about now." Three tailfeathers.

Bud Light: Carlos Mencia turns an ESL class into a beer commercial.
Alcohol ads are always a valuable test for me, since I don't drink. This spot makes effective use of humor — and ethnic humor at that; tricky in any venue — in reinforcing the Bud Light brand. There's a reason why Anheuser-Busch, which I'm told by my beer-drinking associates makes a mediocre product at best, sells so much beer: Their ads consistently underscore their brand identity, to the degree that even a teetotaler such as myself knows who they are. (I always wonder: If Budweiser is the King of Beers, is Bud Light the Queen of Beers?) Eight feathers. (Another Bud Light spot starring Mencia lost the branding message in the punch line. Only four tailfeathers for that one.) Jungle lemmings.
Who thought this would be a good idea? A noisy, chaotic commercial featuring office workers in a jungle environment being attacked by unseen marauders, ending with the entire cast (or CGI versions of same) running off a gigantic cliff. I'm not sure from watching this ad what the product is, or what I'm supposed to think about it — other than that it has something to do with blowdarts and mass suicide. Yuck. One tailfeather... but just barely.

Emerald Nuts: Robert Goulet messes with your stuff.
Easily the most peculiar ad of Super Bowl Sunday — although less inflammatory than the Snickers spot — this one is just plain freaky. It didn't make me want to buy nuts, only to think that the creatives at Emerald's agency of record are nuts. Two tailfeathers, for sheer audacity.

Nationwide Insurance: "Federline! Fries!"
We rip on K-Fed quite frequently here at SSTOL, but this commercial is actually well done. I would have made the connection between the humorous body of the ad and the sales pitch more cohesive, but all in all, this was worth the money Nationwide spent on it, for the pop culture buzz alone. Seven tailfeathers — would have been eight, but KJ used to work for Nationwide, and she's still a mite peeved.

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

Thinking Thursday

It's a nippy January Thursday, and as is often the case, I stand appalled by the activities of my fellow humans...
  • The Ford Motor Company reported today that they lost $12.7 billion — that's billion with a "b" — last year. How does that happen? How do you lose $12.7 billion? There are entire countries that don't have access to that level of cash flow.

    Ford says that about $9.9 billion of the loss can be attributed to its newly established company-wide cost-cutting program. Guys, I'm no Milton Friedman here, but I don't think that program is working.

  • Responding to questions about the White House's insistence on pursuing its intended troop increase in Iraq in the face of a Senate resolution against the idea, Vice President Dick Cheney said:
    The fact is, we can complete the task in Iraq. We're going to do it.
    What's the weather like on your planet, Dick?

  • Scandal is brewing Down Under, where the city council of Melbourne hired private investigators to gather evidence against illegal brothels by having sexual relations with the masseuses at government expense. Said one detective:
    The girl is naked. The investigator is naked. You receive an oil massage and, at the end of it, you receive hand relief and that's it.
    Sounds like they take the term "private investigator" literally down in Kangaroo Country.

  • Caucasian students at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas displayed the redness of their collective necks by throwing an MLK Day party featuring fried chicken and malt liquor, Afro wigs, and costumes imitating black rappers and Aunt Jemima. (You can check out the photo array over at The Smoking Gun.)

    Perhaps someone thought MLK meant Mindless Losers for the Klan instead of Martin Luther King.

  • At the Oakland Raiders' press conference introducing new head coach Lane Kiffin, owner Al Davis took offense when a reporter from the San Jose Mercury News referred to the Raiders as "a black hole for coaches." Darth Davis raged:
    This isn't a black hole for coaches. It's a great opportunity for coaches. We know how to win here.
    Hey, Al: Your team was 2-14 in the NFL season just concluded. If the Raiders know how to win, you're keeping that knowledge more secret than the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden.

  • Ellen DeGeneres's ex-squeeze Anne Heche is dumping her husband of five years in favor of her Men in Trees costar, James Tupper. I guess Anne's decided to give the old hetero thing one more whirl.

    In apparently unrelated developments, Heather Graham and Bridget Moynihan will play lesbian lovers in the upcoming film Gray Matters, while former Friends costars Courteney Cox and Jennifer Aniston get in a little girl-on-girl action in the March 27 episode of Cox's new series, Dirt. So maybe the old hetero thing just isn't for everyone.

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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Dunleavy dunleft, and duntaken Murphy with him

White men can't play.

Not all white men, mind you — just Mike Dunleavy and Troy Murphy.

It simply cost Golden State Warriors vice president Chris Mullin — a white man who, in his day, could play with the best of them, as a member of the original Dream Team USA — a couple of ginormous contracts totaling $80 million before he figured this out.

Now, at long last, Mullin has sent Dunleavy and Murphy packing for Indiana, along with Ike Diogu and Keith McLeod. In exchange, the Warriors get one legitimate player, Al Harrington; one legitimate pain in the gluteus maximii, Stephen Jackson; one Lithuanian with potential, Sarunas Jasikevicius (because you can never have too many guys with names like Sarunas Jasikevicius on your team); and a roster-phantom named Josh Powell.

The Warriors have been after Harrington for a while, and should prove lucky to get him. He can fill it up, yank down boards, and even play defense — a concept completely alien to Mike Dunleavy. In fact, had the Warriors been able to unload Murphy and Dunleavy for Harrington straight up, it still would have been a good deal. Add Jackson, who'll contribute if he can stay out of courtrooms and strip clubs, and Jasikevicius — Warriors coach Don Nelson has had success grooming Lithuanian players before, going all the way back to the original Sarunas, former Warrior Marchiulionis.

Incidentally, Al Harrington, the basketball player, is no relation to Al Harrington, the Samoan American actor and one-time high school football star who played detective Ben Kokua, one of Steve "Book 'em, Danno" McGarrett's henchmen, on the long-running police drama Hawaii Five-O.

Just in case anyone was confused.

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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The Tiger and the Iron Man

Congratulations to a pair of worthy superstars — San Diego Padres batting champion Tony Gwynn and Baltimore Orioles iron man Cal Ripken Jr. — upon their election today to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Given that both men garnered support from more than 97% of the eligible electors, I trust that no one has a legitimate argument in either instance. If any players of the modern generation merit Hall inclusion, Ripken and Gwynn stand right at the top of the list. Gwynn's record-tying eight National League batting titles, 3,141 hits, and .338 career batting average (not to mention five Gold Gloves) speak for themselves. If anything, Ripken's a slightly less dominating case — like many baseball aficionados, I think he extended his record-busting streak of 2,632 consecutive games played at the cost of his team's success, especially defensively — but you can't dispute two MVP awards or Ripken's stellar offensive totals as a shortstop (431 home runs, 3,184 total hits).

I'm again disappointed that relief ace Rich "Goose" Gossage and Boston Red Sox slugger Jim Rice, both of whom are eminently credible as potential Hall of Famers in my estimation, missed the cut. I hope both men ultimately gain election. I'm less hopeful about Andre Dawson, Lee Smith, and Jack Morris, though I'd have voted for all three of them as well.

Sadly, the great news about Ripken and Gwynn is overshadowed by the nonelection of Mark McGwire, who polled only 23.5% — largely because of the groundswell of sentiment against his alleged steroid use. I wouldn't vote to put Big Mac in the Hall of Fame either, but not because of his pharmaceutical habits or lack thereof. To my mind, McGwire was little more than a marginally more successful Dave "Kong" Kingman — a guy with a massive power stroke who, aside from home runs, often couldn't hit water if he fell out of a boat. A player who, at the peak of his career (1988-91, when McGwire was in his mid-20s), had four consecutive seasons in which he hit .260, .231, .235, and .201 should not be in the Hall of Fame — juice or no juice.

It's regrettable that the suspicions or allegations about steroids — regardless of their foundation — will tarnish the history of an entire generation of baseball players. I heard one sportswriter (Paul Ladewski, of suburban Chicago's Daily Southtown) affirm today that he won't vote for a single player for the Hall of Fame who played during the "Steroid Era." That's unfair. If a guy's a proven user — even though steroids weren't specifically forbidden by baseball rules until just the past couple of seasons, their use was against the law — fine. Deny him the Hall. But don't penalize others against whom there's not a shred of proof that they did anything but play clean.

As always, I'm baffled and incensed by some of the players who landed votes at the bottom of the ballot. Who were the four clowns who voted for Tony Fernandez? Or the three who penciled in Dante Bichette? Did Jay Buhner's mom somehow get hold of a ballot? Otherwise, I can't fathom how that guy picked up his single vote. Nobody voted for Devon White (and rightly so), and he wasn't that much worse a player than Jay "The Bone" Buhner.

Kudos again to Messrs. Gwynn and Ripken. I'm only sorry I had to mention either of their legendary names in the same post with Jay Buhner or Dante Bichette. Never mind Mark McGwire.


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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Thursday, November 30, 2006

Baze blazes to racing record

Congratulations to jockey Russell Baze, who today tied Laffit Pincay Jr.'s record for career wins by notching victory number 9,530 aboard Christie's Fame at Bay Meadows race track.

In all likelihood, Baze will eclipse Pincay sometime tomorrow, as he's scheduled with seven rides on Friday's Bay Meadows program.

A veritable legend in thoroughbred circles around these parts, Baze has, despite rarely appearing in the celebrated Triple Crown and Breeders Cup races, amassed a résumé unparalleled in the history of his sport. He has won at least 400 races in a single year eleven times, a accomplishment no other jockey has attained more than three times. For ten consecutive years (1995-2004), Baze won the award given to the U.S. jockey with the highest winning percentage. Last year, he became only the second jockey in history to tally 9,000 career wins. He has been a member of the National Racing Hall of Fame since 1999.

Baze is an unusual jockey, for several reasons beyond his stunning statistics. He has toiled for most of his career here in northern California, riding at both local tracks — Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields — and on our summer county fair circuit, instead of chasing the greater prestige and purses of the major tracks in southern California. By all accounts, he's a decent, unpretentious family man in an industry filled with sharks and poseurs. And, unlike most jockeys at his level of achievement, he still rises early every morning to work out horses, just because he enjoys being with the animals.

I've had the privilege of watching "Russell the Muscle" bolt to the winner's circle on numerous occasions over the years, during the Sonoma County Fair's annual meet. I just happened to be present on the day eleven years ago when he won his 5,000th career race here. I've never seen him dog a race, give up on a struggling horse down the stretch, or be anything but cheerful and engaging with his many fans. He's a genuine gentleman of the sport of kings.

Baze's current goal, now that he's caught Pincay, is to rack up 10,000 wins before he retires. He's 48 now, but when I saw him at the track this past summer, he certainly looked as though he had another 500 blue ribbons in him, easy. I hope he gets his 10 grand, and more.

Way to go, Russell. Long may you ride.


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 24, 2006

Yo quiero home run to left-center

Taco Bell — America's favorite purveyor of faux Mexican cuisine — has announced that if a player from either the Detroit Tigers or the St. Louis Cardinals hits a home run to left or center field during tonight's Game Three of the World Series, everyone in the U.S. and Canada gets a free beef taco.

There's a catch, of course. The free tacos, if the aforementioned ballpark blast occurs, will only be available on Wednesday, November 1, between the hours of 2 p.m. and 5 p.m.

Taco Bell officials appear to be taking the Fifth on the reasons why only a left or center field homer qualifies to ignite the promotion. I'm certain that conservative pundits will have a (right) field day with that little tidbit.

Assuming some slugger for either the Tigers or the Cards comes through tonight, please feel welcome to hook me up if you don't want your free taco.

Vegetarians, I'm your huckleberry.

[We interrupt this blog post to bring you this SSTOL special bulletin...]

No player on either team hit a home run in tonight's World Series game. Cardiologists across North America breathed a collective sigh of relief.

[We now return you to our regularly scheduled foofaraw.]


Thursday, October 19, 2006

For the sports fan who has... I mean... had everything

I've heard of fans bleeding Dodger blue...

...but this may be a little extreme.

A company called Eternal Image has signed a contract with Major League Baseball to license caskets and cremation urns bearing the regalia of any of six MLB clubs: the New York Yankees, the Boston Red Sox, the Detroit Tigers, the Philadelphia Phillies, the Chicago Cubs, and yes, the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Each urn or casket comes emblazoned with the selected team's logo and colors, along with the inscription: "Major League Baseball officially recognizes [YOUR NAME HERE] as a lifelong fan of [FAVORITE TEAM]."

Eternal Image plans to expand its offerings to all 30 MLB teams in the near future. The company also hopes to land similar deals with the NFL, NBA, NHL, and NASCAR.

It seems especially fitting that the Cubs would be one of the first teams selected for this venture. Now, the Bleacher Bums can eagerly anticipate one day being as dead as the Cubbies' World Series dreams.

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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Cory Lidle (1972-2006)

I was sorry to hear just now about the death of New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle. From the early reports, Lidle was apparently the owner and pilot of a private airplane that crashed into an apartment building in New York City today.

Lidle had the best season of his major league career here in the Bay Area in 2001, when he went 13-6 with a 3.59 ERA as a starter for the Oakland Athletics. This year, he was traded to the Yankees by the Philadelphia Phillies late in the campaign, and posted an overall record of 12-10 with a 4.85 ERA. Ironically, Lidle spent a few days on bereavement leave in August, following the death of his grandmother.

By all accounts, Lidle was a popular teammate and well-liked in the clubhouse. This despite the fact that he was refused membership in the Major League Baseball Players Association because he crossed the picket line as a replacement player during the 1994-95 baseball strike. A few of the hardline unionists continued to regard Lidle as a "scab" and strikebreaker more than a decade later.

My condolences to Lidle's family and teammates.

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Dimbulb of the Week, Golf Edition

So Greg "The Great White Shark" Norman, the one-time Australian golf superstar now best known for having a daughter who once dated Sergio Garcia, thinks Tiger Woods is bad for the sport.

According to Norman, Woods's dominance is taking the excitement out of golf, and is a factor in why fewer people are tuning in to televised tournaments. Quoth the Shark:
You never hear anyone coming out and saying, 'I want to beat Tiger Woods' — I haven't heard that.
Yeah, Tiger's ruining the game, Greg. Just like that Jordan guy nearly ruined the NBA — and with it, the athletic footwear industry — a few years back. Or like Gretzky ruined hockey.

If we want to talk about a guy making golf look bad, perhaps we should discuss, say, the 1996 Masters.

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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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Wednesday, September 27, 2006

"The finest human being ever to play the game"

They called him Lord Byron, author of the most poetic swing in golf.

Golf legend Byron Nelson has died, at the age of 94.

Because we shared a common religious heritage, I heard a lot about Byron Nelson when I was growing up, and encountered many people through church who knew (or at least had met) him. He was universally spoken of as a kind, gentle man, and one heck of a golfer.

One of the most remarkable aspects of Nelson's success was the fact that he suffered from a weak blood clotting factor — a condition similar to, but less life-threatening than, hemophilia. This genetic anomaly kept him out of military service during World War II, but clearly didn't affect his ability to swing a golf club.

His skein of 11 consecutive PGA tournament wins in 1945 (a year in which Nelson won a phenomenal 18 tournaments overall) stands alongside Cy Young's 511 pitching victories and Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak as record unlikely to ever be contested, much less broken.

But for those who knew Nelson, it was his personal grace and modesty that marked him as truly great. He never boasted of his accomplishments, as stellar as they were. He lent his name to a tournament that generated millions of dollars for charity. (The Byron Nelson Classic is the only pro tournament formally named after a golfer, which, when you consider the number of legendary names in the sport's history, speaks volumes.) He was, by all accounts, unfailingly polite and generous with fans and fellow players alike.

I suspect we'll not see his like in professional sports in our generation.

My condolences to Nelson's family, and the members of his home church.

In other golf-slash-death news, Vijay Singh has died.

But not that Vijay Singh.

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Monday, September 25, 2006

Tales of Hoffman

Trevor Hoffman, the relief ace for the San Diego Padres, is now baseball's all-time leader in saves.

Yeah, it struck me as odd, too.

I suppose that's a tribute to Hoffman's gritty, workmanlike, just-doing-my-job-ma'am pitching style. You can also consider the fact that Hoffman isn't a dominating power pitcher (and hasn't been since the late 1990s) or a terribly imposing presence on the mound (the Padres list his height as six feet even, but I've seen Hoffman up close and in person, and I believe they're fading him an inch or two).

Whatever the reasons, I've been an avid follower of National League baseball, and the National League West in particular, since Hoffman was in knee pants, and I had no idea he was that close to setting the all-time record. He just never seems that good.

The evidence, however, is irrefutable. Every season since 1995 — with the exception of the 2003 campaign, when he underwent shoulder surgery and only pitched a total of nine innings — Hoffman has logged a minimum of 31 saves per year. He's had eight seasons in which he's saved 40 or more games, topped by his career-high 53 saves in 1998. That's including the 43 saves Hoffman has racked up thus far this year, to lead the National League.

And I never realized he was doing it.

Contrast that with the ever-spectacular Barry Bonds, who this past weekend notched a new career record for home runs by a National League batter. The only thing that surprised anyone about that was the fact that the career record for home runs by a National League batter wasn't 755.

(People forget that record-setter Hank Aaron played out the string his last two seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers, who were in the American League at the time. As a result, he has 22 homers on his career tally that don't count toward his National League total. Thus, Bonds — who has played his entire career to date in the National League — only needed 734 to break Aaron's N.L. record.)

One thing Bonds and Hoffman now share in common: They've both got reservations at Cooperstown.


Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Today's Visual You Didn't Need

Am I ever feeling old and out of touch today.

But then, perhaps it's not entirely my fault. You be the judge.

When I read this headline on the San Francisco Chronicle Web site: "Madden Dating Monk?"

...can I really blamed if, instead of thinking of these people...

...I immediately thought of these people?

Excuse me while I go rinse my eyes with sulfuric acid.

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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, August 29, 2006

What's Up With That? #36: Deja voodoo

It's been a weird 24 hours for East Bay sports franchises.

Yesterday, the Oakland Raiders signed quarterback Jeff George, who last threw a pass in anger during an NFL game five years ago. George, now age 39, was the Raiders' starting QB for two tumultous seasons in 1997 and 1998, following which he was pretty much ridden out of town on the proverbial rail.

This is the same Jeff George of whom, during his previous tenure in Oakland, hostile Raiders fans often spoke with the same vitriol as Mel Gibson addressing an arresting officer. That's no exaggeration. Search though you may, you will not find more aggressively passionate sports fans anywhere than among the Raider Nation.

Then today, the Golden State Warriors — whose home court shares the same property as McAfee Coliseum, where the Raiders play — fired head coach Mike Montgomery and signed as his replacement 66-year-old Don Nelson, who previously helmed the Warriors during the glory days of Run-TMC (the storied backcourt triumvirate of Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond, and current Warriors VP of basketball operations Chris Mullin).

This is the same Don Nelson who left Golden State halfway through the 1994-95 season, after a series of conflicts with prima donna big man Chris Webber. Most recently, Nellie enjoyed a highly successful six-year run as the head coach and general manager of Mark Cuban's Dallas Mavericks.

So, what — it's Old Home Week in Oaktown? Next thing you know, Reggie Jackson will be playing right field for the Athletics, and The Arena in Oakland will play headquarters to a hockey team called the California Golden Seals.

Both of these reunions — George and the Raiders, Nelson and the Warriors — possess all the potential for joyous harmony as the reunions of Kim Mathers and Eminem, and Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee.

We all recall how well those turned out.

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Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Exit the underhander

Rick Barry, the former Golden State Warriors basketball superstar and NBA Hall of Famer, has parted company with KNBR, the San Francisco sports-talk radio station where he hosted an afternoon chatfest for the past five years.

Since Barry started at KNBR almost exactly five years ago, my guess is that his contract expired, and he and station management couldn't agree on a price that would keep him in the fold. Since KNBR's parent company, Susquehanna Radio, was sold to Cumulus Media a few months back, the station has taken several opportunities to shed payroll. Because of his name recognition and idol status here in the Bay Area, he probably commanded a heftier paycheck than the suits at Cumulus thought he was worth.

I have to give Rick Barry credit. When he first took to the KNBR air, I found him grating and insufferably arrogant. He also spent far too much time using his radio microphone as a bully pulpit from which to lobby for the Warriors' head coaching job, a position he's coveted for the past 30 years. Over time, Rick mellowed, at least a little -- not to the point that I loved his show, but sufficiently that I didn't switch stations when he came on. The best favor KNBR ever did Rick was pair him with cohost Rod Brooks, whose affable personality made a nice contrast with the prickly Barry.

No word as yet what will happen to Barry's show, though I presume for the time being that Brooks will simply carry on solo.

Hasta la vista, Rick.


Monday, July 24, 2006

Tour de America

Isn't it about time we changed the name of this bicycle race?

Americans own this bad boy: First, Greg LeMond (victories in 1986, '89 and '90); then Lance "Stretch" Armstrong, the monorchid wonder (seven consecutive wins, from 1999 through 2005); now Floyd Landis, who finally found a way to silence all of the teasing he tolerated growing up with a name like "Floyd."

Seriously, when was the last time a Frenchman won the Tour de France? 1985, that's when. Lindsay Lohan wasn't even born yet.

And if Tiger Woods keeps this up, we'll rename the British Open too.

We could call it... I don't know... the Colonies Classic or something.

Earl Woods would have liked that.


Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Buck stops at first base

Proving that 90 is the new 70 — or something to that effect — baseball's elder statesman Buck O'Neil set a record last evening by being the oldest man ever to take an official at-bat in a sanctioned professional baseball contest.

In the first inning of the Northern League All-Star Game in Kansas City, Kansas, O'Neil took an intentional walk to lead off the lineup for the West All-Stars. A mid-inning trade to the East All-Stars enabled O'Neil to lead off again in the bottom of the frame, when he again was walked intentionally.

Buck O'Neil is 94.

On general principle, I'm usually not favorably disposed to sideshow gimmicks like this, for the exclusive purpose of setting an otherwise unattainable record. For instance, it rubbed my purist sensibilities the wrong way when the Chicago White Sox trotted out an ancient (in baseball terms, anyway) Minnie Minoso for a handful of games in 1976 and again in 1980, when Minoso was 53 and 57 years old, respectively, just so that Minnie could boast about being a five-decade major leaguer. (Minoso broke in with the Cleveland Indians in 1949 and retired from the White Sox in 1964. He therefore played in the majors in the '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s, and '80s.) Minoso was a pretty fair ballplayer in his day, but not so great a figure that he deserved that kind of special consideration.

Buck O'Neil, on the other hand, has been one of baseball's grand sages for decades now. A two-time batting champion in the Negro Leagues during baseball's segregated past, O'Neil has led the charge to ensure that his former Negro League colleagues receive the recognition that history unjustly denied them. As a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame's Veterans Committee, Buck helped select numerous Negro League greats for enshrinement, despite the fact that he himself came up short for Hall election as recently as this year.

If you've ever seen Baseball, the seminal 1994 PBS documentary series by filmmaker Ken Burns, you'll remember Buck O'Neil as the wise, witty star of the show. If you haven't seen Baseball, and you care anything at all for either the sport itself or American cultural history or both, you owe it to yourself to get hold of the DVD set and be enlightened.

And if Commissioner Bud Selig and the Hall of Fame trustees wanted to break with tradition and install Buck O'Neil in the Hall just because they thought it was a good idea — or even because he took two free passes in a minor league all-star game at the age of 94 — that would be all right by me.


Tuesday, July 11, 2006

I got your World Cup right here

Italian soccer star Marco Materazzi today admitted that he did, indeed, insult French captain Zinedine Zidane during Sunday's World Cup final, prior to Zidane's head-butting Materazzi in the chest.

Materazzi, however, denies Zidane's allegation that Materazzi called him a terrorist.

"I did insult him, it's true," Materazzi said in the Italian journal Gazzetta dello Sport. "But I categorically did not call him a terrorist."

Materazzi also denied that he had profaned Zidane's mother, saying, "For me, the mother is sacred, you know that."

Unreported was the follow-up Materazzi muttered sotto voce:

"At least she was last night!"

Thank you. I'll be here all week.


Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Gammons hospitalized

Sad news — sportswriter and commentator Peter Gammons is in intensive care after being stricken with a brain aneurysm this morning.

Gammons is one of the finest baseball writers ever to finger a keyboard and a member of the writers' wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Here's hoping for a complete recovery.


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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Wednesday, June 07, 2006

My World Cup runneth over

FIFA World Cup 2006 begins play this weekend.

Please attempt to restrain your excitement.

For the benefit of our foreign-born readers (and we have a few) who can't understand why soccer isn't as big a draw in the United States as it is in most other parts of the globe, we present herewith...

SwanShadow's Top Ten Reasons Why Americans Don't Care About Soccer (and Never Will):
  1. It's hockey on grass, only without the sticks.

  2. It's mostly played by guys whose names we can't pronounce.

  3. We have a sport called "football," and soccer ain't it.

  4. Too much running around without anything happening. If we want to see guys running, we'll wait for the Olympics and watch track and field.

  5. The teams don't have cool nicknames.

  6. In America, soccer is a kids' game. By the time we're out of junior high, we've outgrown it.

  7. Short pants. Yes, they wear shorts in basketball, too, but at least that's played indoors.

  8. Not enough violence. At least, not on the field.

  9. If we needed an activity for brain-dead, drunken hooligans to slaver over, we already have NASCAR.

  10. Two words: Soccer moms.

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