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.)