Monthly Archives: March 2010

Time for baseball to call an amnesty on Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe

This site has been in existence for a little under a year now, and my most popular post by far remains a list I published last May, The 10 best baseball players not in the Hall of Fame. It gets the most visitors, the most comments, and the one time so far that I’ve received any money from this site, it was because an online casino wanted to advertise on that page. The irony, I suppose, is that the ad was a text link to a betting site in the paragraph I wrote about Pete Rose, who’s No. 1 on my list.

The Hall of Fame, I’ve learned, gets people talking, and one of the things that’s stirred some controversy among my readers is that I included banned players Rose, Joe Jackson and Hal Chase unlike other people who’ve written on this topic, such as Tom Verducci. My take is: If we’re talking about making a list of all the best players not in the Hall of Fame, the list should be just that. Cooperstown’s rules for admission shouldn’t apply, at least in my view, if all we’re doing is debating the 10 best players not enshrined. It’s not like I’m offering a list of the 10 best people not in the Hall of Fame.

With that said, I think the standards for Cooperstown eligibility should change. I think it’s time baseball call an amnesty and elect Rose and Jackson and strongly consider the merits of Chase, a great defensive first baseman from the Deadball Era. Let bygones be bygones. On talent alone, Rose and Jackson are both immortals and earned their plaques long ago. Jackson has the third highest batting average all-time, .356, and Babe Ruth is said to have modeled his swing after him. Rose meanwhile has the all-time hits mark and probably also rates as one of the 10 most competitive players in baseball history. Without either player, the Hall of Fame doesn’t seem complete, at least to me.

Granted, what either man did to qualify for banishment is morally reprehensible, with Jackson helping gamblers fix the 1919 World Series and Rose betting on games his teams played in (though he has since said he played to win.) But baseball has long been a sport of questionable characters and unabashed degenerates. Cooperstown has honored cheats like Mike “King” Kelly who used to cut from first to third on the base paths when the umpire wasn’t looking and given plaques to Rogers Hornsby, Gabby Hartnett and Tris Speaker who were in the Ku Klux Klan. Regardless of if Jackson or Rose ever gets forgiven, baseball will still be the same sport that didn’t let black players in the majors until 1947, didn’t feature a black manager until 1975 and let the Dodgers leave Brooklyn in the interim.

I understand KKK membership was once considered socially acceptable and that gambling is a huge no-no, the ultimate sin in baseball. I think the game has long since made its point with the draconian bans meted out to Jackson and Rose. After the decades-long waking nightmare that both players received for betting on the game, I’d be astonished if any player wanted to risk a similar fate. It’s been like the baseball equivalent of Scared Straight!

Baseball could do well to forgive, but definitely not forget. Imagine what an occasion such an induction ceremony would be, what Rose’s speech might sound like. I think honoring Rose and Jackson would be amazing publicity for the game. I think baseball has suffered a lot in the last 20 years, between the Steroid Era and the still-lingering effects of the 1994 strike, and that’s just the obvious stuff. Baseball has gone a long way from being America’s Pastime to a sport of petty gripes and selfishness. Forgiving a couple of sick men who were also incredible players would be a show of the sort of altruism the game should welcome.

Jackson died in 1951, and Rose turns 69 in a couple of weeks. This opportunity isn’t going to exist forever.

Eddie Gaedel: One baseball record that might never be broken

I have been meaning to write something about those baseball records that I think might never be broken. It’s an always-interesting question because I think most records are ultimately breakable in baseball. There are perhaps a select few, like Cy Young’s 511 wins, Ty Cobb’s .367 career batting average and Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak in 1941 which are well beyond reach and should stand eternally. Other than that, from Babe Ruth’s home run records to Cobb’s career hits total, most every mark that seemed insurmountable in baseball has toppled. But if there’s one feat that could stand as long as any, it’s this one, set by a midget named Eddie Gaedel: Shortest man to ever come to bat in a big league game.

This story has been widely reprinted elsewhere, though I’ll briefly summarize it here for anyone who hasn’t heard it.  In 1951, Bill Veeck, owner of the last place St. Louis Browns, secretly signed the 3’7″ Gaedel and, as a publicity stunt, sent him to bat wearing the uniform number 1/8 in a doubleheader with the Detroit Tigers. With orders not to swing, due to his impossibly small strike zone, Gaedel walked on four straight pitches; in fact, Veeck told him there would be a man in the stands with a rifle, in case he got bold at the plate. The Browns went on to lose 102 games that year, and Gaedel never played again in the majors, of course, dying in 1961 at age 36 as the result of a bar fight.

So why do I think the mark Gaedel set with his appearance will stand as long as any other? First and foremost, there was only one Veeck, a one-of-a-kind showman who constantly came up with ways to promote his small market teams, from signing 42-year-old Satchel Paige in 1948 to introducing the exploding scoreboard in Chicago (he was also owner at the time of the ill-fated Disco Demolition Night in 1979, though his son Mike masterminded that promotion, which caused a riot.) Beyond the absence of a Veeck among today’s sedate breed of owners, I believe we also have a more vociferous sports media, who would not let the signing of a Gaedel go unnoticed. And I also think most current teams would worry about embarrassing themselves.

That’s all a shame, because I think a team like the Nationals could do worse than to have a pinch hitter like Gaedel, a sure bet to get on-base pretty much every time up. A Gaedel could also help any team in playoff contention some September, when rosters expand from 25 men to 40. Signing a midget would seem akin to hiring an Olympic sprinter as a designated runner (which Charlie Finley did with the A’s in the ’70s) but I’ll be surprised if either of those things happens again.

What ever happened to the two-sport athlete?

I miss the early Nineties.

I miss the Sundays and the breathless SportsCenter reports when Deion Sanders would play in an Atlanta Falcons game, get on a plane and make it to Pittsburgh in time for a Braves playoff game that evening. I still wonder how he did it. I miss Bo Jackson and the “Bo Knows” Nike commercials about how the Kansas City Royals and Los Angeles Raiders star could seemingly do everything. I even miss the images of Michael Jordan struggling at Double-A baseball, and with all this in mind, I have to ask:

Whatever happened to the two-sport athlete?

Fifteen or twenty years ago, this kind of thing seemed fairly common, particularly in baseball, but somewhere in the interim, the idea of playing more than one sport at a time professionally has all but vanished. While we occasionally hear stories of star athletes excelling at different sports as amateurs, whether it’s LeBron James tearing it up in high school football or Kobe Bryant playing soccer in Italy as a boy or Donovan McNabb coming off the bench for Syracuse in the 1996 Final Four, multimillionaire dual threats like Deion and Bo seem to be a thing of the past. And that’s unfortunate.

I don’t know what happened. I don’t know if other athletes got scared watching Bo break his hip in a 1991 Raiders playoff game, which ended his football career and crippled his baseball abilities. Less than a year after Bo’s injury, Sanders’ backfield mate with the Falcons, Brian Jordan, walked away from football promise to focus on baseball. “I think about football,” Jordan told Ebony magazine in 1999, in the midst of what became a 15-year baseball career, “And then I think about the pain you feel on Mondays and thoughts about [playing] football quickly go away.”

I wonder if there was something written discretely into one of the recent Collective Bargaining Agreements that I missed, or some tacit understanding in the sports world that went unpublicized. Or maybe athletes started thinking differently after watching Michael Jordan leave basketball at the top of his game, hit .202 in place of a deserving prospect in Double-A baseball, and inspire a Sports Illustrated cover, “Bag it Michael.” Nobody wants to be that guy, even if Michael got the last laugh by returning to basketball, winning a few more championships and refusing to talk to SI for years thereafter

Whatever the case, there don’t seem to be many success stories about two-sport athletes anymore, just cautionary tales, such as Drew Henson: excellent as a quarterback at Michigan, not so good playing third base for the Yankees thereafter and then, surprisingly, no longer good at football either.

Didn’t anybody read Vindicated?

It’s all over the Internet that Jose Canseco got subpoenaed on Tuesday to testify before a grand jury on April 8 about Roger Clemens. Canseco played on three different teams with the embattled former pitcher, currently under federal investigation for lying to Congress in 2008 when he said he never used performance enhancing drugs. For all the news stories on what went down this week, there’s been scant mention of excerpts from Canseco’s book, Vindicated, that lend perspective.

I’ll backtrack for a moment.  Sometime in the last few months, I wanted some quick, easy reading, so I picked up what had heretofore been occasional bathroom fare. Surprisingly, Vindicated hasn’t been too bad. Just as Canseco’s previous book, Juiced might be this generation’s equivalent of Ball Four for revealing unflattering secrets about baseball and actually helping the game in the process, Vindicated reads a little like the follow-up to that bestseller, I’m Glad You Didn’t Take it Seriously: self-congratulatory and a little redundant, but also entertaining and occasionally thought-provoking.

Much of the early going in Vindicated centers around Clemens. Canseco writes that Clemens was “effectively excised from my book” but that when they played together, “Roger might say, ‘I think I need a B-twelve shot right about now,'” code for steroids.  Canseco adds that though he gave his opinions on Clemens to Pedro Gomez of ESPN and Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes, they weren’t aired, and he even speculates that George W. Bush or his father, both friends of Clemens, “made some calls and took care of things for good ole Roger.” That sounds a little ego-manic and hair-brained.

Later on, we get to something more sober and compelling that could be a preview of what’s to come on April 8.  I am bookmarked at page 108, but I scanned the remainder of the book this evening and came across a passage about Canseco’s trip to Houston in 2008 to sign an affidavit that stated he had “no reason to believe” Clemens ever used performance enhancing drugs. Canseco signed, but not before some diffidence, recounting on pages 154-155:

Technically, I didn’t have a single specific reason to believe that Roger had used steroids, but based on his behavior, and based especially on his performance, I had always felt he was using. But now, Jesus– I was very confused. I was sitting there with Roger and a bunch of lawyers, and I didn’t know what to think. I kept asking myself, Do I have one compelling reason to believe he used steroids? One single specific reason that convinces me, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that Roger was juicing? The answer was no. No, I did not.  And the more time I spent in that room, with the lawyers and with Roger, the more I came to believe that I’d been wrong about him.
So I signed the affidavit.
If it sounds confusing, that’s because it was confusing. I had an abrupt change of heart, yes, and I wish I could explain it better. I felt bad for Roger, sure, and I let myself get sucked into his drama. And maybe that’s exactly what Roger and his lawyers wanted. I honestly can’t say. All I can say is that suddenly Roger had me believing he had never juiced.
The sad part is that on February 13 (of 2008) I watched him go head to head with Brian McNamee, during the congressional hearings, and old Roger didn’t come off too good. Maybe I’d been right the first time. Maybe he had been juicing. And maybe I’d been wrong to change my mind. But in my heart, during my visit to Houston, I came to believe the guy. If I hadn’t believed him, I never would have signed that affidavit. And if I’m wrong about Roger, and he was juicing, I’m pretty sure we’ll know before this book even hits the stands.

I played around with Google, performing searches on some of the most sensational snippets of that excerpt.  Short of a book review on Vindicated from two years ago and some promotional material, nothing comes up. Amongst all the news stories I’ve read so far, only a couple outlets even reference Canseco’s conclusion in Vindicated about Clemens not using.

Thoughts on George Brett and the glove he inspired

I don’t know how old I was the first time I got a baseball mitt, though I suppose it would have been when I began playing Tee Ball in kindergarten. If my memory serves correct, I first used a light tan Ozzie Smith model glove, and if I wore it today, it would probably be scarcely bigger than the palm of my hand, like one of those old-time, miniature gloves seen in pictures of players from the 1920s. Even as a child, that glove felt small.

I grew out of my first glove pretty fast, probably no later than the third grade, and when the time came to purchase a new mitt, my parents and I set out to find the biggest thing possible, something that would never need to be replaced. We found just the glove. The George Brett Signature Model by Wilson that I got looked like the head of a snow shovel on my nine-year-old hand and quickly earned the nickname, “The Black Hole.”  Balls could disappear into that laundry trap of a glove, which made it ideal for outfield duty, even if it was sometimes as unwieldy as a Buick.  I remember catching five or six flies to right field one time in a game when I was maybe ten and feeling like former San Francisco Giants center fielder Darren Lewis.

I always liked playing with a glove named for George Brett.  I think at the time, I felt this way largely because Brett was one of my dad’s favorite players.  In retrospect, though, I think it maybe goes deeper than this.  Brett offered All Star caliber play without seeming top-conditioned, something that would be unheard of in baseball today.  At least to me, there was always something fairly human in Brett’s appearance, an everyman, underdog quality that made him look slightly out of place in uniform.  My dad played high school baseball and never went beyond it, though I’d like to think that if he’d ever made it to the majors, he’d have looked something like Brett.  To this day, it puts a smile on my face to use a glove named for Brett.

I last played Little League when I was eleven, but I still have the glove, which feels normal-sized now and remains in great shape.  I use it occasionally, and it struck me yesterday, after taking the glove to softball practice that all things considered, it’s probably among my oldest possessions.  Maybe I’ll give it to my son someday.

Thoughts from another lifetime

I read on the Sacramento Bee Web site that their former Kings beat writer, Sam Amick, recently left the paper to take a job with AOL Fanhouse and that another Bee reporter assumed his duties. In what seems like a different lifetime, I clerked for the Bee sports section and occasionally talked to Amick, who never had a mean thing to say to me. If things had played out differently in my tenure, which was brief and ended poorly, I wonder if I would be the new Kings writer.

I grew up in Sacramento and started reading the Bee sports section when I was seven or eight. Around sixth grade, I started phoning in responses to reader polls and getting my name in the paper, which would typically be printed beside the name of my elementary school. I have a clipping with a 19-year-old Tiger Woods answering a question I phoned in for a Q&A for kids. At the time, Tiger had just played in his first Masters, and I asked how he felt being the only amateur to finish. He responded he had the time of his life but didn’t accomplish one of his goals, to win the tournament (he’s since won it four times.) Reading his response reminds me how different we are. When I was 19, one of my goals was to get off academic probation.

I began writing term papers on baseball in eighth grade, served as sports editor of my high school newspaper, and studied journalism at Cal Poly, where I wrote prolifically for the campus newspaper. After graduating in June 2005, I worked part-time at an elementary school in Sacramento and freelanced for the sports section of the Davis Enterprise. I backpacked through Europe with my two best friends at the end of summer, and a month after I returned home, I landed the gig at The Bee. One of our family friends is an editor there, and I left her a message one day to check in. She called back to tell me of the open position, which wasn’t being advertised. I submitted a resume and clips, interviewed and was hired.

Problems started soon after. I was hired as a part-time administrative assistant, to answer phones and take down statistics from local games. I wanted to write, though, and while I received a few assignments initially to cover prep sports, this was halted after I stumbled in my admin duties. Looking back on it, the mature thing to do at the first sign of trouble would have been to knuckle down and do the job I was hired for 100 percent. Instead, I think I blamed other staff for my struggles, didn’t apply myself, and was generally defiant. I could say part of the problem was that I was also still working at the elementary school and spreading myself thin, but really, I think I was just immature.

All this being said, I remained blissfully unaware there were dire problems until our family friend called one afternoon near the end of December in 2005 to say the editors were not happy and were preparing to let me go. The family friend and I met for coffee shortly after she called, and I hastily drafted an apology letter before my shift that evening. My printer was running low on toner and it was pouring rain that day, so I showed up wet, with a faintly legible letter and had a terse meeting with my editors. A week later, I was let go.

In the four years since, my life has undergone a series of transformations, and I now live in the Bay Area and work as a copy writer for an Internet marketing company. I actually have a great life today, one I didn’t envision when I left The Bee. I’m in a more secure profession than newspaper reporting, and I get more opportunities to write sports with this site than I ever did at The Bee. More important, I’m in a better place personally now. I’ve had to grow up a lot, and while these past few years haven’t always been easy, the ride has absolutely been worth it. My life is better now than what it was four years ago.

I wonder sometimes what might have been. Long before he covered the Kings, Amick had the same job I failed at, and from reading his stories, I believe I write comparably well. I emailed my old editor last month, before I got my new job, to see if he’d be interested in using me as a baseball writer. I haven’t heard back. I know better than to regret the past or let my ego get the best of me. Every experience I’ve had, good or bad, has helped me reach the point I’m at now, and it’s a good point. Still, sometimes I can’t help but wonder.

Ron Washington rode the white horse. So what?

Most people will probably screw up in one way or another at some point in their lives. It’s only human to wreck a car or a marriage, to fail a class, to get fired from a job, maybe even to have problems with drugs, alcohol or the law.  When most folks fall short, they do so quietly, hopefully learning from their mistakes and moving on.  If they suffer setbacks, it isn’t plastered across the news, unless it’s something particularly egregious or bizarre.  This is all to their benefit, as anonymity is generally thought to be indispensable to recovery.

Celebrities rarely get this consideration. For all the privileges famous people receive, they don’t enjoy the essential right most people might take for granted of getting to deal privately with personal issues. Every day, there’s some unfortunate (and yes, entertaining) gossip in the news about an entertainer or athlete.  The more lurid the tale, the farther it spreads.  I admit I read every last story sometimes, but when I stop and think about it, I must say it’s a little amazing the standards celebrities and other well-known figures are often held to.

ESPN and other outlets trumpeted news Wednesday that the manager of the Texas Rangers, Ron Washington, tested positive for cocaine last year, and after some reflection, I have to say: So what?  Granted, I don’t condone the use of cocaine or other illegal drugs, but assuming Washington truthfully claimed he used only once, it seems he could have committed far worse transgressions.  His use didn’t keep him from fulfilling the duties of his job, as the Rangers finished 87-75.  Far as I know, Washington didn’t become addicted or get behind the wheel of a car or commit any crimes when he used cocaine, short of breaking some drug laws.

I admit I have fairly radical views regarding America’s policies on drugs.  Basically, I’m against drug use for me and anyone I care about.  I think if somebody has a problem with drugs or alcohol, they should stop.  That being said, I think we as a country waste tremendous amounts of time, money and resources that could be better put to use elsewhere when we condemn and prosecute recreational drug use.  I don’t really buy into the idea that purchasing drugs supports things like terrorism, but I do believe that criminalizing use drives up prices exponentially, thus increasing drug-related thefts and violence.  Were it up to me, all drugs would be legal, and we’d quit pointing fingers about who was using and who wasn’t, unless the use started affecting other lives.

By all accounts it sounds like Washington will emerge relatively unscathed from all this. He entered a drug program, kept his job and received support Wednesday from his players. Now, he can hopefully put this weird, little story behind him and focus on what looks to be a competitive race in the American League West.  This of course doesn’t resolve questions of how a 57-year-old man even gets offered cocaine, and I imagine this will probably be the wildest story we hear about a manager for some time.  All the same, Washington faces an easier road ahead than any player who really has a problem with drugs or alcohol.  How any of them has a chance of staying sober in this current media environment, I don’t know.

John Smoltz signs with… TBS? Very funny.

I remember when the Fab Four pitching staff of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Steve Avery and John Smoltz ruled baseball in 1993.  Spearheaded by a Cy Young season from Maddux, the four went a combined 75-33, making the Atlanta Braves the first team in the 20th Century with four 15-game winners and wrecking an otherwise stellar season for my Giants.  San Francisco couldn’t have picked a worse year to go 103-59, which put them one game behind the first-place Braves in the NL West and thus kept them out of the postseason under the old format.  In a sense, the Fab Four was partially responsible for the subsequent advent of the divisional playoffs.

Avery came down injured that year at 23, a victim perhaps of overuse his first few seasons, and he was never the same thereafter.  However, Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz forged careers that will likely lead them all to the Hall of Fame, and for a time it seemed they might stay in the majors forever.  The three continued to thrive into their forties, Maddux and Glavine reaching 300 wins and Smoltz possibly only being kept from that plateau by a career-threatening injury some years before that relegated him to the bullpen for a few seasons and cost him at least 60 wins.  Age eventually caught up with each man, of course, and Maddux retired at the end of the 2008 season, while Glavine also last pitched that year before finally making his retirement official a month ago.  Now, it looks like Smoltz, the final link to a bygone era in Atlanta could be calling it quits, too.

ESPN is reporting that while the 42-year-old Smoltz has yet to file retirement papers, he is joining TBS as an announcer for the upcoming baseball season.  He sounded diffident about whether he wants to play again, telling the Associated Press today, “I know the question comes up: Does that mean you retired? Officially no. But in my life when I make a decision about something and I say something, my whole character is to live by it. At this point I’m not officially prepared to say I’m done. But that may not mean anything to the degree that makes me play either.”

That sounds like: I wanted a job, but no one would give it to me, and I don’t know if I really care all that much, all things considered.

Judging by Smoltz’s numbers with the St. Louis Cardinals the second half of last season, including 40 strikeouts in 38 innings, I think he could probably still come out of the bullpen for a contender, reprising that brief interlude in his career when he was a lights-out closer for the Braves.  He wasn’t happy in the role and eventually returned to being a starter, before flaming out with the Boston Red Sox at the beginning of last season.  I don’t know if he was insisting on another starting role for 2010 and this made teams skittish, but whatever the case may be, I’m interested to see if Smoltz is for sure done.

This hardly seems like a Fab end for him.

Five baseball people I wish had Twitter

I recently signed up for Twitter (@grahamdude) to promote this site. Anyone who reads regularly knows I follow Jose Canseco, and sometimes, he apparently reads what I write, too.  Canseco is actually fairly entertaining and unhinged on Twitter as is Ozzie Guillen.  The famously flippant White Sox manager had several Tweets last Friday slamming actor Sean Penn for supporting Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, including a post in Spanish that translated roughly to, “That clown the gringuito that lives chevre in the United States well.”  Whatever that means.

Yes, baseball was a simpler game before online media and Guillen’s native country both went socialized.

All things considered, I find Twitter pretty vapid, one of those things that wouldn’t be missed were it to disappear tomorrow from the cultural landscape, like US Magazine or Ke$ha.  That being said, Twitter continues to overtake more and more of my time, and I’ve found myself wondering of late who else in baseball history would have made good use of the site. Here are five past baseball figures I would have clicked “Follow” on for sure:

(1) Casey Stengel: The longtime manager was also probably the all-time most quotable baseball personality, known for giving nonsensical interviews to sportswriters — who dubbed his language Stengelese — and Congress alike.  In 1958, as noted in Ken Burns’ Baseball, a 67-year-old Stengel testified before a Senate subcommittee hearing and helped kill a bill to formalize baseball’s exemption from anti-trust laws by rambling incoherently for 45 minutes.  I have to think Stengelese leads to Twitter at its absolute best.  Or worst.

(2) Satchel Paige: Another eminently quotable personality, whose many aphorisms, such as his list on “How to Stay Young,” would make excellent, concise Tweets.

(3) Lou Gehrig: Imagine the heartfelt remarks the fallen Yankee star would have for Lou Gehrig Day on Twitter.

Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break I got.  Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the

And that’s 140 characters, exactly, which is all Twitter allows for each posting.  If that’s not irony, I don’t know what is, perhaps besides saying you’re the luckiest man on the face of the earth when in reality, as Norm MacDonald once said during a parody sketch of Gehrig’s speech on “Saturday Night Live,” you have a disease so rare they named it after you.

If Gehrig had a Twitter account, it probably would have malfunctioned on him.

(4) Dummy Taylor: A deaf pitcher for the New York Giants in the early part of the 20th Century, Taylor would get a new voice through social media, much like @ebertchicago.  The film critic lost his ability to speak following cancer surgery a few years ago but Tweets and blogs regularly now.

(5) Babe Ruth: Knowing the Babe, this would probably have no less than three ghostwriters.  Still, I have to think it would be pretty entertaining.  And I imagine Ruth, the first heavily-marketed athlete would allow the level of scrutiny needed for a Twitter account to take off, seeing as he had a syndicated newspaper box during his career entitled, WHAT BABE RUTH DID TODAY.

Albert Pujols for Ryan Howard: Seriously?

Currently on “This Week in Stupid Trade Rumors,” I saw a story this evening on ESPN that the Phillies discussed offering the Cardinals their slugger Ryan Howard for three-time National League Most Valuable Player (and St. Louis institution) Albert Pujols.  Not sure if the story is legit, since it quoted unnamed sources and featured a flat denial from Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro.  Either way, the proposed trade is, for lack of a better word, retarded.  If it did get discussed by Phillies’ brass, I’m going to assume it happened during some kind of drinking game or “Truth or Dare” contest.

The only thing more ridiculous than the Phillies soliciting the Cardinals for this sort of deal would be if St. Louis actually went for it.  If I’m St. Louis and I get this call, I assume it’s some kids pulling a prank.  You do not trade Albert Pujols, not under any circumstances.  Not for Joe Mauer, not for Tim Lincecum (if the Giants could do that deal, I’d tell them to sign off on it tonight, maybe throw in Pablo Sandoval if that’s what it took) and certainly not for Ryan Howard.

I could probably list ten players I’d want on my team before Howard, a rather ordinary, one-dimensional player who just happens to hit the ball a mile.  That’s really all he does, kind of like a left-handed version of Frank Thomas without the good batting average or career longevity. Howard didn’t get going until he was 25, is now 30 and with his large frame, I’d be surprised if he’s still going strong in five years.  And players like him are fairly replaceable, even if he does have the same name as one of the characters on The Office, which seems like it should be good for some kind of promotional tie-in.

The ESPN story discussed proposed trades of players at the top of their games, like a Ted Williams-for-Joe DiMaggio swap that was once actually discussed between New York and Boston.  Howard and Pujols are far less even, though.

I doubt Howard makes the Hall of Fame.  On the other hand, Pujols is almost certainly a first ballot selection.  He rates superior to Howard in pretty much every offensive category, notably career batting average (.334 to .279), on-base percentage (.427 to .360) and slugging percentage (.628 to .586, not that Howard suffers in this category, Pujols just happens to have the best slugging percentage of any active player, fourth best all-time, in fact.)  In addition, Pujols is two months younger than Howard and essentially a once-in-a-generation talent.  Unless a positive steroid test surfaces, count on Pujols eventually being classed with Hank Aaron, Ted Williams and Willie Mays.

Notes on if Nomar Garciaparra did steroids and the questions we’re allowed to ask

Nomar Garciaparra retired yesterday, which prompted the following Google search for me: Was Nomar on steroids? It’s a question debated in the baseball world many times in recent years, something I continue to wonder about, even as the former Boston Red Sox shortstop has never failed a drug test or admitted use or been under federal investigation or had his name included in a book or told Congress that his wife did HGH, like so many fallen ballplayers before him.  My search returned an interesting NBC Sports article posted earlier today.

The piece, written by Craig Calcaterra, decries the fresh round of speculation brought on by the retirement.  Calcaterra writes:

For the second time today I have to say that I don’t know if a player ever took PEDs, but I know the writer making the accusation doesn’t know either, yet does it anyway. And though I’m certain the answer will be “never,” I ask again: when will anyone in the mainstream media call out guys like Steve Henson (or Rick Telander or Jon Heyman) for hurling such accusations the way they called out blogger Jerrod Morris for doing something far, far less irresponsible?

And no, “because we think Nomar did it and [Raul] Ibanez didn’t” is not an acceptable answer. At least not for people who like to lecture others about “journalistic integrity” all the time.

All the same, there are many red flags regarding Garciaparra.  The obvious ones include:

  • A ripped physique, famously captured on this Sports Illustrated cover
  • Gaudy numbers in the early part of his career followed by significant injuries
  • Being a teammate of Jose Canseco
  • And perhaps most importantly, being a Major League Baseball player of any renown in the last twenty years

Sadly, few ballplayers have much credibility these days regarding steroids.  I suspect most recent players of juicing just as I assume lots of people in the late 1970s and early 1980s tried cocaine and even more folks a decade before that smoked pot.  All those things simply went with their respective times.  Steroid use in baseball has been well-documented.  Thus, I think it’s fair to speculate, within reason, if a player has used.  The journalist in me took umbrage when Morris got attacked on ESPN last summer by a couple of sportswriters after his infamous blog post.

That being said, I don’t know if Garciaparra did or did not use steroids.  I also don’t know if I care all that much, because end of day, Garciaparra isn’t bound for the Hall of Fame.  But in Garciaparra’s defense, an ESPN article by Peter Gammons suggests various reasons he was clean, including bodybuilders saying Nomar had love handles in his SI cover photo (but didn’t Bob have bitch tits in Fight Club?)  Also on the Nomar Was Clean front, it can be argued that Garciaparra was a prominent enough ex-teammate that Canseco would have named him in either of his books if he had dirt.

Again though, I’m uncertain.  I wouldn’t be comfortable betting one way or the other on this, and I feel similarly right now as I do before Maury Povich announces paternity test results on his show.  Is Nomar the father, so to speak?  Is he not?  My guess is as good as the next guy’s.

Million-dollar legs and 10-cent heads

I just read a Fox Sports article that said former three-time Gold Glove winner and two-time All Star outfielder Willie Davis died Tuesday at 69.

The story talked about how Davis never realized his potential, despite finishing with 2,561 hits, 82nd all-time and 398 stolen bases, 68th all-time.  He also scored 1217 runs, more than Cooperstown honorees Lloyd Waner, Joe Medwick and Willie Stargell.  None of this warrants a Hall of Fame plaque, of course, but it’s not too far removed, either.  Frankly, I’m surprised Davis never got any Hall of Fame votes, according to his Baseball Reference page.  The story I read included a quote from a late, former Dodger general manager, Buzzie Bavasi, who said of Davis, “He could have been a Hall of Famer, but he had million-dollar legs and a 10-cent head.”

This got me thinking.  Surely Davis is not the only player, before or since, worthy of that observation.  Here are a few players who could join Davis on some kind of Pinhead Dream Team:

  • Mickey Mantle: The epitome of a legendary player who squandered his greatness.  With his hard drinking, carousing and generally poor self-care reined in, Mantle could have set the home run record or kept the Yankees great through the Sixties, perhaps both.  Instead, he was washed up by his early 30s, while New York went into decline.
  • Kevin Mitchell: Mitchell set a standard for hair-brained antics that may never be matched.  First, he got traded off the most boozing, cocaine-addled team ever, the 1986-era New York Mets, because management feared his influence on other young players.  He missed games during his career because of injuring himself while eating a cupcake (happens to the best of us) and straining a muscle vomiting.  Mitchell once ran through a locker room wearing night-vision goggles and shouting, “Desert storm!  Desert storm!”  After leaving the major leagues, he was kicked off an independent league squad for brawling with his owner.  Snopes even investigated if Dwight Gooden correctly reported in his autobiography, Heat, that Mitchell decapitated his girlfriend’s cat.  The Web site couldn’t reach a conclusion.
  • Elijah Dukes: Like Mitchell in terms of talent, but with a lengthy criminal record in place of funny stories.  Dukes came up with Tampa Bay, a highly-regarded outfield prospect with arrests dating back to his teenage years.  The Rays cut Dukes in June 2007, amidst reports a 17-year-old girl told police Dukes impregnated her.  Earlier that year, he was arrested with 2 grams of marijuana in his car and his ex-girlfriend got a one-year protective order, saying Dukes threatened to kill her and their children.  She also once told a radio station he was bipolar.  He’s with the Nationals now and has an ex-cop around to protect him.  Supposedly, he’s doing better, though one has to wonder.
  • Bugs Raymond: A problem case before the days of counseling, Raymond had one fine season, 1909 when he went 18-12 with a 2.47 ERA. Raymond then drank himself off the New York Giants, when John McGraw’s attempts at reform didn’t take, and he was later killed in a bar fight in 1912 at age 30.  Raymond is certainly not the only ballplayer to die in a drunken mishap, though it’s sad to think what might have been.
  • John Rocker: On the other hand, I offer no sympathy for Rocker, who essentially imploded his career a decade ago with dumb remarks to Sports Illustrated about gays, minorities and New York.  Rocker also should have inspired a generation of players never to wear camouflage or sit in a deer stand for their photo shoot with the magazine; Rocker looked more fit for a militia than the Atlanta Braves.

The shittiest job in baseball

Brian Cashman can breathe a sigh of relief.  Working for George Steinbrenner is no longer the shittiest job in baseball.

I just read a story on ESPN where Bobby Valentine denied being offered a job as manager of the Florida Marlins this past fall.  The story said Marlins president David Samson refused to endorse manager Fredi Gonzalez after he guided the Marlins to 87 wins, third-best in club history, but missed the playoffs.  This got me thinking that as bad as my own employment situation was these past few months, I’m glad I didn’t have Gonzalez’s job.  It seems like the worst one in baseball at the moment.

Essentially, anyone who goes to manage in Florida is expected to produce with a skeleton payroll, Triple-A level talent at some positions and little fan support, while working for a nightmare owner in Jeffrey Loria.  Modest results aren’t tolerated like they are in other small market outposts like Kansas City or San Diego.  Joe Girardi was run out of town a few years ago after winning Manager of the Year; he subsequently won a World Series in New York.  On the chance Florida teams do succeed, they are promptly stripped down in fire sales.  I might go insane working for them.

This is to take nothing away from Valentine, of course.  He’s one of the best managers of this past generation and seems like one of the few managers who could thrive with any type of team, be it an established veteran club or a young team like the Marlins.  It’s regrettable Valentine’s name has been dragged into all this, because what’s happened to Gonzalez in recent months would have stained the names of anyone attached to it.  And it makes me think of some of the other shit jobs in baseball history.

Certainly, this isn’t the worst baseball job ever.  Not sure what takes the cake.  I wouldn’t have wanted to work for late Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott who, as Sports Illustrated once reported, didn’t pay her front office much, liked to turn off her employees’ computers when they weren’t looking in hopes of saving money, and made them walk her dogs and report back if they pissed or shit.  I also read that Ty Cobb used to force the mascot for his Detroit Tigers to sleep under his bed because he was black.  And I wouldn’t have wanted to be the guy whose job depended on ensuring Mickey Mantle made bed check.

All the same, Gonzalez isn’t in a much better boat.

Any of the positions described above belong in some kind of Hall of Fame for worst baseball jobs.  Creating that Hall of Fame may be a project for another time.  If anyone wants to have at it in the meanwhile, feel free.

(Editor’s note: I originally published this post on March 6, but it got automatically deleted due to technical difficulties.  Thus, I am re-posting.)

One more reason I prefer baseball over football or basketball: Fewer stupid trades

I just saw news that Anquan Boldin got traded by the Arizona Cardinals to the Baltimore Ravens, and — as I guessed before clicking the storylink — he went for a few mid-round draft picks.

It never ceases to amaze me, this phenomenon in football of trading Pro Bowl-caliber players for squat.  I don’t know what gets me more, how little the Cardinals received for Boldin, a perennial 80-reception, 1000-yard receiver or the fact that a team like my 49ers probably could have gotten involved but didn’t.  Boldin would have been worth a first or second-round pick, or both from San Francisco, a team that needs a star receiver until Michael Crabtree fully matures.  It would have been like getting a Lexus at a police auction had the Niners scored Boldin.  At the very least, it would have compensated somewhat for their own past ill-fated trades of Charles Haley and Terrell Owens.

The NFL Draft has become this annual monster where seven rounds of picks are given far greater importance than they should command.  I would venture half the players never make a dent in the league, minimum, and a sixth round pick has just as much chance of succeeding as a top choice.  For every Tom Brady, there is a Ryan Leaf.  Or an Akili Smith.  Or a Tim Couch.  Or a JaMarcus Russell.  And determining who will make it and who won’t is a crapshoot.  So again, I don’t get the idea of surrendering an established player for a few lottery tickets, even if it’s true Boldin wanted out of Arizona.

Basketball has its own over-hyped draft and while I certainly admit that I love each sport’s annual selection event, look forward to it and study the mock drafts ahead of time, the big day in hoops occasionally inspires its own share of dumb trades.  I am reminded of when the Bulls jettisoned Elton Brand for a not-yet-ready-for-the-pros Tyson Chandler.  Chandler eventually developed, but it took something like six years, and by that time, he’d been sent to New Orleans in another ill-conceived move by the Bulls’ brass.

I am thankful that no one ever gets traded for draft picks in baseball, because I don’t think anyone really cares about the baseball draft; I think most people recognize that the primary function of the MLB Draft is to stock the minor leagues.  Think about it, when’s the last time anything along the following lines was uttered: The Brewers traded Prince Fielder to the Yankees today for 1st and 3rd round picks in the 2011 MLB Draft, though Milwaukee reserved the right to swap picks with the Yankees pending the outcome of their regular season. Such sentences seemingly do not exist in the baseball lexicon, common as they are in football and basketball.

About the only way draft-related trades occur in baseball is that teams are recompensed with picks after they lose players to free agency.  I like that, it seems equitable and helps small-market teams.  And I prefer baseball’s trade system to basketball, where because of convoluted salary cap rules, teams rejoice anytime they manage to shed unwanted contracts.  In baseball, those players just go to the Giants or Orioles.

Got $1,000? Jose Canseco will spend a day with you

I logged into Twitter today after writing my last post and saw the latest Tweets from my friend Jose Canseco.  Apparently, he is renting himself out again.

In 2003 while on house arrest, Canseco offered to spend an afternoon at his South Florida mansion with anyone for $2,500.  He offered a poolside barbecue and power hitting lesson among a list of possible activities.  It seemed intriguing at the time, but I didn’t have the money, of course.  The price just got 60% cheaper, though.

Canseco Tweeted this afternoon:

Who is interested in spending the day with me and seeing what my life is about

He added shortly thereafter that it would be $1,000 a day, with all the money going to charity, and he provided his email address, which I will kindly not repeat here.  Granted, for anyone who cares, I’m sure this address has probably been widely distributed around the Internet by now and that as we speak, Canseco is being contacted for exciting work-from-home and Multi-Level Marketing opportunities.  Those people always hit me up 12 minutes after I post a resume on Craigslist.

I am still broke and due to start my new job on Monday, eating crock pot soup and waiting to get a haircut in the meantime– seriously, this job can’t start soon enough, I am shaggy.  Still, if I had my debts from the past few months repaid and a thousand extra dollars, I might be interested.  Here are some things I might like to do with Canseco:

  1. Bring him to my softball practice.  I recently joined a team here in the Bay Area that practices by an expressway.  Besides seeing the looks on my teammates’ faces were I to show up with Canseco, I would be curious to see if he could hit that highway.  And maybe a little nervous.
  2. Take him up on the hitting lesson.  My batting stance looks a bit like I’m blindfolded and attempting to fend off raccoons.  Perhaps the former All Star slugger could help with this.
  3. Talk to women.  Imagine having the ultimate lead-in, “Hey, have you met my friend Jose Canseco?”  Since I was paying $1,000, we would have some nice things about me scripted out ahead of time.
  4. Discuss my idea for the fight I think Canseco should focus on.  For all this talk of him wanting to fight Herschel Walker, I think a more even foe would be Mike Tyson.  Give me an afternoon and I think I could talk Canseco into this.
  5. Record a rap single with him.  For the rest of my life whenever I was at a social function and there was a lull in the conversation, I could say, “Hey, would you like to hear the rap song I recorded with Jose Canseco?”  Everyone would be talking!  Since Canseco is socially conscious now, perhaps this could be a rap about the dangers of steroid abuse.

I wonder what Barry Bonds would charge.  Perhaps for $40, he comes to your house, punches you in the face and then angrily shouts he never did steroids.  It would still be more than that time Pete Rose sold kisses for a dollar or in 1924 when Ty Cobb offered to beat up any man in the state of Alabama for $12 plus expenses.  Okay, those last two things never happened, but you get the idea.

Postscript: Canseco has some ideas for the day, too. He Tweeted on March 8 that options include bowling, working out, MMA-style sparring or playing any other sport.  He added,

Well also maybe bredak the law and get arrested

You cannot make this up.

Nothing minor

I generally have three favorite times of the year in baseball:

1) The non-waiver trading deadline on July 31

It happens to be my birthday and a lot of years, something big goes down on it– Randy Johnson to the Astros in 1998, Manny Ramirez to the Dodgers in 2008.  I like to think of the blockbuster deals as presents to me from Major League Baseball.

2) The winter meetings, followed by free agency

It’s less exciting than the trade deadline, as deals get leaked and then take weeks to finalize.  Still, there’s usually one or two big signings or trades per off-season.  My Giants even occasionally make a splash if there’s a player named Barry on the market or some geezer who needs a three year, $18 million contract.

3) Right now

Right now, many veterans are quietly signing minor league contracts, reporting to spring training and attempting to hook on with new teams.  The Dodgers just inked Garrett Anderson to a minor league deal and the Brewers did likewise not too long ago with another ex-All Star outfielder, Jim Edmonds.  Meanwhile, the A’s gave minor league contracts last week to two formerly decent pitchers, Brett Tomko and Jason Jennings. The odds of these players having good seasons aren’t great, though it’s a win-win for them and their teams on the chance they do succeed since there’s minimal risk.  The long odds also help make the efforts compelling.  In terms of human interest stories, little else in baseball beats this time of year, at least for me.

I love when ballplayers can’t walk away for love of the game.  I loved when Rickey Henderson went on ESPN some years ago to make a public service announcement that he was available to any team, and the Dodgers subsequently signed him.  I love when players like Henderson, Edgardo Alfonzo and Jose Offerman wind up in the independent leagues, hoping to return to the majors.  I interviewed Jose Canseco in April 2008 and asked him if he missed the game.  Canseco, 43 at the time, replied without hesitating, “Oh, absolutely. Yeah, I miss the game, love the game, wish I were still playing. Probably physically enough, to play the game, in shape. But things didn’t turn out that way.”

Baseball presents a brief, glorious time for those who get to the play, and if there’s generally a common theme among ex-players I’ve talked to over the years, it’s something near wistfulness for bygone days.  So it doesn’t surprise me that many active players do what it takes to keep the dream alive, like accepting non-guaranteed deals with humbling, low figures.

This isn’t a new concept, of course.  A New York Times article from 1992 discusses future Hall of Fame members Goose Gossage, Gary Carter and Bert Blyleven (he’ll be in Cooperstown next year) agreeing to Triple-A contracts late in their careers.  Carter was effectively done by then, though Gossage stayed with his parent team, the A’s and finished with a 2.84 ERA in 1992, while Blyleven made 24 starts that year for the Angels. More recently, Sammy Sosa rode a minor league deal with Texas into a half-decent season a few years ago.  John Jaha fared better in 1999, turning a minor league deal into a 35-home run, All Star season, as well as a $6 million contract extension.

Seasons like Jaha’s aren’t the norm, but either way, players in his situation keep me intrigued. Low-end as their deals may be, there’s nothing minor about what they’re attempting.

Going for the easy story

I saw an interesting story in Sports Illustrated this past week, teased on the cover as “The Unlikely Genius Behind the New Moneyball.” Intrigued, I opened to the article, about how the Seattle Mariners and their general manager Jack Zduriencik mastered something I had never heard of called Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR for short, which sounds like an abbreviated name for a breakaway Russian republic.)  Essentially, the Mariners won 85 games in 2009 while scoring the fewest runs in the American League because they also prevented the most.  Their defense saved 110 runs, nearly twice as many as anyone else.  I had no idea this could even be tracked reliably.  These kinds of stories must get missed all the time.

Two camps of writers exist in the sports arena: 1) Number-crunchers who produce stories of this sort; 2) The vast majority of us who rely on gut feeling.  All through last season, I figured the Mariners improved because they added Ken Griffey Jr. and lightened the clubhouse.  Barring that, I figured they had a good pitching rotation, which made me happy since a guy I covered in college, Garrett Olson, is sometimes apart of it.  I was unfamiliar with center fielder Franklin Gutierrez, who the story compared, in terms of defensive prowess, to Willie Mays.  In fact, I derided a $20.3 million contract extension Gutierrez received in January.  After all, Gutierrez hit .283 with 18 home runs last year.

The research-driven writing style seems difficult and time consuming.  Quantitative analysis generally isn’t simple, and a lot of us got into sports writing precisely to avoid math.  We also enjoy interviewing celebrities and eating free food at the ballpark.  I know I did when I covered the Oakland Athletics’ Triple-A team, the Sacramento River Cats in 2004 and 2005.  That being said, I also remember being impressed talking to Michael Lewis.  I saw Lewis in the press box a couple of times in 2004 when he was doing research for a follow-up to Moneyball, his bestseller on how the A’s survived as a small-market club.  Lewis came from a background in financial reporting, covering Wall Street, and he told me he never wrote about sports prior to Moneyball.  To call him a sportswriter would almost seem derogatory.

Day to day, sports writing can be lowbrow, filler for the masses.  With so much content needed, there’s often little time to produce stories, one possible reason for the gut opinion style of writing.  It doesn’t take much to cobble together some nice sound bites and observations on which way the wind is blowing, but that also makes traditional sports writing easy to mock sometimes.  Shortly before the sports journalism critique site Fire Joe Morgan went dormant in 2008, one of its posts ripped apart a point-counterpoint on ESPN.com about who would win the World Series.  ESPN.com writer Jayson Stark opined about the Phillies:

They’re here because they’re the toughest team in the National League.

FJM writer “Ken Tremendous” responded:

Fuck all that statistical noise. It’s about toughness. The Phillies are tough. The Phillies are like a hockey team. The Phillies work in an Alaskan cannery 19 hours a day. The Phillies could knock out Kimbo Slice in thirteen seconds.

The Phillies won the World Series that year, but not for toughness.  The Phillies won because, as Mr. Tremendous noted, they had the most home runs and scored the second-most runs in baseball that year, among other things.  They also had Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Cole Hamels on the same roster, a Yankee-caliber lineup in terms of star power without the offensively high payroll.

All this being said, I didn’t agree when the recent Sports Illustrated story noted, “The Mariners are baseball’s preseason darlings, favored by many to end the reign of the Angels atop the American League West.”  It doesn’t take a degree in statistics to know Sports Illustrated jinxes things, and the Angels still look pretty good, even if they lost some players this winter.  Still, I am intrigued at the possibilities of having Cliff Lee and Felix Hernandez anchoring a Mariner rotation and I should probably pay more attention to Gutierrez, ridiculous as his contract extension seems.

(Postscript: After reading this entry, my good friend Chris sent me a link to this Popular Science article.  It looks like there are new high-tech methods for tracking defensive ability.)