Category: Dailies

Been there, seen that – Unit edition

Randy Johnson’s retirement again hits the reset button on my personal perspective machine. Iconic athletes retire, you feel older, your appreciation grows for the life you’ve led.
That’s one of the wonderful things about the privilege of being a chronicler of sports and its personalities. There is no shortage of milestones on this yellow brick road.
The Big Unit and I spun in parallel orbits for nearly a quarter century, crossing paths only occasionally. This held true down to the finish.
On Sept. 22, I got to witness the last time Johnson struck out the side. It came in a one-inning relief appearance against the Diamondbacks in Chase Field, three subsequent relief outings from the end of his line.
Pretty significant, considering how many times the fearsome lefty fanned the side in his 4,135 innings. But it falls way short of other occasions where history and I happened to intersect — Johnson’s retirement is just another excuse for reflecting on them.
For instance, I am positive to have been the only person to have been on site for — not to mention the only reporter to have covered — each of these:
  • Nolan Ryan’s last five strikeouts. 

Came in seven four-hit innings against the Angels on Sept. 17, 1993 — five days before he tore an elbow ligament and walked off the Kingdome mound without having retired any Mariners, never to return. This was four years after the end of my newspaper career and into my decade as a magazine freelancer, but I was covering the game for The Associated Press.

  • Hank Aaron’s last home run.

Came on July 20, 1976 in Milwaukee’s County Stadium, in the seventh inning off Dick Drago. I just happened to be there, making a trip in relief of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner’s Angels beat writer, Dick Miller. Then Aaron just happened to play his next, and last, 24 games without again going deep, leaving the new magic number at 755.

  • Aaron’s 715th home run.
The one that broke Babe Ruth’s record. April 8, 1974 … Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium … fourth inning, off Al Downing. In my first full year on the Herald staff, beloved sports editor Bud Furillo assigned me to accompany legendary baseball writer Bob Hunter on the Dodgers’ first roadtrip of the season, with the expectancy of history in the air.
  • Barry Bonds’ 756th homer.
 The one that broke the record I’d seen Aaron set 33 years earlier. August 7, 2007 … AT&T Park … fifth inning, off Mike Bacsik. I was assigned there by earlier in the week, with instructions to hang until BB slew the record. My vigil was a lot briefer than that of the other BB in this equation — Barry Bloom.
Not a bad confluence of a forgettable man and unforgettable moments. 

When being a fan was tough

I have become my father. No, not in terms of sprouting hair in the oddest places. And I don’t make a cacophony of weird bodily noises.
But I can drop some let-me-tell-you-how-tough-I-had-it admonitions. That’s life in the fast-forward lane: One minute you’re Generation X, the next it’s Generation Ex-Lax.
Kids, let me give you two examples of my childhood hardships, neither of which involved walking a mile through two feet of snow to school (anyone ever really do that? By six inches, wouldn’t school just get cancelled?) but did deal with my life’s wellspring.
That, of course, would be baseball. Tommy Lasorda used to say he bled Dodger Blue, but I got him trumped. Every time I have a blood test, it comes up Type BB.
Anyway … growing up in Pittsburgh, this used to be my most exciting time of the year. Filled with anticipation, fueled by imagination, warmed by daydreams.
And do you know why? Because, just like clockwork, the first baseball preview magazines would hit the newsstands the first Tuesday after New Year’s. I could see the green light at the end of the winter tunnel. After months without absolutely any baseball news, Street & Smith’s and Sports Illustrated would soon line the shelves of the Squirrel Hill Newsstand, with Mickey Mantle or Sandy Koufax on the cover.
Wire-wrapped CARE packages against the famine would be neatly stacked outside the closed store in the wee hours as I’d make my detoured way back to school. I’d just happen to have a wire cutter, and extract an issue from the stack. I’d have it devoured by the time I made my way home and stopped at the stand to pay for it.
Now, kids, you get baseball 24/7/365, with, the MBL Network and an Internet of blogs and boards which anoints anyone with an I.P. address a news source. There is no down cycle, no dearth, no withdrawal. Baseball warmth round-the-clock, no wire cutter required.
The Way We Were, No. 2: I changed coasts after graduation to attend college at UCLA, a stimulating environment in a great location. A few turns from the beach, across the street from Bel-Air, at the mind-expanding intersection of Timothy Leary and Bill Walton.
One problem: It was 2,200 miles from my beloved Pirates.
So I bought a mail subscription to the Pittsburgh Press. It would be in my mailbox three days later, which made it an old-news paper. But it had to do as my only connection to Clemente, Alley, Virdon and my crib, Forbes Field.
Now you got streams of your favorite team’s games, no matter where it is playing and where you are, not to mention bottomless sources of instant information. Team news are in your e-mailbox like now.
We’re living in amazing times. Don’t take it for granted.
But with six inches of snow on the ground, school still gets cancelled.

Johnson. Vazquez. Really?

The Yankees’ last two moves elicited the same reaction from the chorus. “Really?”
Not so much because they brought back two alums, although the Yankees have never been known for recycling players. But let’s look at the fine print.
The interesting thing about choosing (in a sense) the left-handed bat of Nick Johnson over that of Johnny Damon is that the Yanks replaced one of the most durable players of all time with one of his generation’s most fragile.
In fact, should Johnson produce enough Reggie-like heroics to get a candy bar named after him, I’m pretty sure it will have the word “brittle” in it, like “peanut brittle.”
Damon has played 140-plus games for 14 straight seasons — and the only others in baseball history to have done that are Pete Rose, Brooks Robinson, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron.
Frail Nick has never had a 140-game season. To paraphrase him, “Ouch!”
As for the return of Javier Vazquez … well, guess that points to Joe Torre as the one who had issues with him the first time around.
The Yankees picked up Vazquez in a December 2003 deal with Montreal, thought enough of him to give him the ball on Opening Day in Yankee Stadium — and matters quickly soured after that.
The prevailing perception became that Vazquez lacked the guts to pitch in the Bronx and that the Yankees couldn’t wait to shed him — which they did in January 2005 — one year after having signed him to a four-year deal for $45 million.
Vazquez now comes back to the same ownership, the same GM, some of the same teammates — but a different manager.
By the way, the player dealt to the Expos for Vazquez six years ago? Nick Johnson.

Talking turkey – but not with the Indians!

Just to be on the safe side, if I were a GM, I wouldn’t swing any deals today with any team named “Indians” or “Braves.” …
If you’re a pitching-shopping Theo Epstein weighing trade vs. free agent options, you have to give a lot of consideration to this:
  • Roy Halladay versus the Yankees: 18-6 with a 2.84 ERA.
  • John Lackey versus the Yankees: 3-7 with a 5.25 ERA.
Free-agent Alex Gonzalez signing with the Blue Jays — could be the first step in them “swapping” shortstops with the Red Sox, who are keen on Marco Scutaro. …
Of course Boston is changing shortstops. The next mystery guest — Scutaro or whoever — will be the Red Sox’s seventh different Opening Day shortstop in eight years. Didn’t Simon & Garfunkel sing, “Where have you gone, Nomar, a lonely Red Sox Nation turns its eyes to you … “
Got a chuckle out of Wally Beckman’s declaration upon being named the Brooklyn Cyclones’ manager that, “No bones about it, my ultimate goal is to manage in the Major Leagues someday again.” Again, as in beyond the four days in November 2004 that he had the job, before the Arizona Diamondbacks changed their mind? …

Matsui to Fenway: No Way

Riffing on some free agents …

Hideki Matsui: The report, out of Japan, that the Red Sox are considering tendering him a multiyear offer is the craziest yet of this offseason. Maybe the seed of it is the idea that in Fenway Park’s left field he’d have less ground to cover, so his damaged knees would be up for it. But Matsui is the antithesis of the Theo Epstein’s type of player — average on-base percentage, non-versatile. Maybe if David Ortiz gets moved … until then, get real.

Billy Wagner: Agent Brian Stringfellow now says he just might accept an arbitration offer from the Red Sox. Sounds like a warning from this fellow for the Red Sox to not make the arbitration offer. Wagner still wants to close, and Boston still has Jonathan Papelbon. An arbitration offer would be the only way the club could receive compensation if someone signs away Wagner, a Type A free agent — but that price tag would shrink his market.

Bengie Molina: His stock might be higher if there weren’t so many ex-catchers managing around the Majors. His prowess behind the plate doesn’t rate very highly with them. Bruce Bochy, one of those ex-catchers, didn’t think much of his synergy with pitchers.

John Lackey: The Mets are gun-shy about a guy who began the last two seasons on the DL; given their recent hospital tab, understandable. But they shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the Texan as damaged goods. Only one of their own (Mike Pelfrey, 184) worked more innings than John’s 176.

Rafael Betancourt: Could be the best of the setup relievers flooding the market. The union’s official list of free agents lists more relievers (42) than any other position. Setup guys are the sport’s foot soldiers, the infantry. As a group, they’re the lowest-paid players and seem expendable by comparison. But when your starter is gassed and your closer is several outs away, you’d swap your soul for a reliable seventh- or eighth-inning arm.

A case of insider trading?

I keep hearing more and more about an Adrian Gonzalez move. Momentum — and the East Coast drumbeat — keeps building for a trade. The feeling around Boston is that the Red Sox absolutely have to bag him, as a year-after counterpunch to losing out to the Yankees on Mark Teixeira.

If the Sox do land Gonzalez, it of course will have been an inside job. The mole being Jed Hoyer, the former Theo Epstein aide who recently took over as the Padres general manager.

In all seriousness: Hoyer’s involvement will actually make a San Diego-Boston swap harder to pull off.

Why? Because the specifics would have to be cynics-proof. Weighted even more in the Padres’ favor than under normal circumstances. Anything less, and suspicious Friars fans will raise a stink specifically about the Hoyer-Red Sox connection. …

My feeling is the Red Sox need to be more concerned with keeping up with the Yankees rotation. Roy Halladay should be atop Epstein’s list, even if Doc didn’t have a personal 18-6 record against the Bombers. …

If Hideki Matsui is the loser in his private game of musical chairs with Johnny Damon — the Yankees will bring back only one of them — the popular expectation is that the Mariners would emerge as his logical landing place. It makes sense — the M’s history with Japanese players, Japanese majority ownership — but ignores one factor: Ichiro and Matsui aren’t extremely fond of each other, and may not co-exist. …

This was a headline part of preseason outlooks, but hasn’t been revisited after-the-fact: No team with a starting shortstop 35-or-older had ever won the World Series — until Derek Jeter’s Yankees pushed that envelope. …

Feliz’ corner REALLY getting hot

How do you think Pedro Feliz’ weekend is going?
The Phillies have until Monday to decide whether to pick up the third baseman’s 2010 option for $5 million — or waive it for $500,000. Now, there’s a lot of such hand-wringing going on these days, when those D-Dates buried in contracts come calling. And, sure, whatever side Feliz’ coin lands on, he won’t be holding out his hat on a downtown corner.
Still … the stark way in which Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. discussed his options had to make you think.
Amaro: “He had a solid year for us. I like the man personally. He’s a great person and a great teammate, but I also believe in trying to improve, and sometimes change can be for the better. It doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to, but it’s just something that we’re thinking about.” 
Tough game, tougher business. Being placed on public trial like that.
What do I mean? Well, just imagine yourself as the “He” in the above quote, from your boss, telling the world he will replace you if he can find someone to do the job better.
How does that feel? … 
Filing for free agency will be a mere formality for several players who have either already announced plans to retire, or are strongly leaning in that direction: Aaron Boone, Paul Byrd, Randy Johnson, Jarrod Washburn, Jason Schmidt, Troy Percival and Eddie Guardado. … 
In case you were wondering, Cliff Lee’s postseason batting average (.273) was nearly double his postseason ERA (1.56). … 
Admit it, all you worrywarts — the weather for the extended postseason was overall way better than you expected it to be. Not tropical by any means, but right through World Series Game 6 on Nov. 4, quite decent. Jack Frost essentially was a no-show at The Show. … 
Yes, going by Amaro’s quote above — the offseason is already off to a colder start than the postseason. … 

UCLA Bruins second (base) to none

Us Bruins (UCLA Class of ’71 here) know how to produce second basemen. Jackie Robinson … Chase Utley. …
Something for Yankees fans to not mull over during a break in the World Series: 100-win teams are 0-for-11 in World Series since the 1998 Bombers’ sweep over the Padres. … 
The Phillies’ stolen-base percentage has been pretty good the last few seasons. But what has been their stolen-sign percentage? … 
Seriously, some are reading way too much into Yankees catchers’ frequent mound visits to chat strategy and change signs. The only camera that has been a part of this World Series is the one Alex Rodriguez’s Game 3 home run clunked. Since 2007, the Phillies’ hitting at home has been only marginally better than on the road, nothing to support suspicions of sign thievery in Citizens Bank Park. …  
Cole Hamels and Brad Lidge: Further proofs that the playoffs aren’t always a Second Season. Sometimes, they’re just extensions of the First Season. … 
Here’s my take on the imperfect umpiring we’ve seen this postseason: I didn’t hear Tim McClelland and his colleagues rip into Nick Punto, Bobby Abreu, Scott Kazmir and others for their bonehead mistakes, so let’s cut the arbiters some slack. … 
Wait, I do have another take: How would you like to have your job performance evaluated with a battalion of high-tech devices picked up at James Bond’s garage sale? … 
I get the feeling that the more interviews he undergoes for managerial openings, the less Bobby Valentine is interested in resuming his Major League managerial career. He seems disenchanted about the game’s evolution to increased dependency on statistical analysis. He has fielded questions in those interviews that frankly have floored him. … 
How do the Pittsburgh Pirates get into any World Series conversation? Easy. Of all the teams with at least three historical appearances in the Fall Classic, those lovable recent losers have been the best at closing the deal, winning five of their seven Series. … 

For them, it’s a Fall Crisis

Multiple-choice quiz time:
Who is most tortured by a Phillies-Yankees World Series?
(a) Mets fans, who have their crosstown rivals on one side and their braggadocio NL East rivals on the other.
(b) The Cleveland Indians, who must watch Cliff Lee and CC Sabathia light it up, no Chief Wahoo in sight.
(c)  The Pittsburgh Pirates, who are watching their cross-state rivals in their third World Series since they last had a winning season.
(d) Bobby Abreu, whose Angels lost to the Yankees and who now must watch his two former teams play on.
Tough choice. Don’t think any of the above will be the life of any World Series-viewing party. … 
So we’ve had a couple of 583-homer men making news lately. Alex Rodriguez, getting into his first World Series. And Mark McGwire, getting back into the game as the Cardinals’ new hitting coach. … 
This postseason has been anything but a yawner — unless we go by some of its principals. The cameras repeatedly caught Sabathia yawning on the Yankees’ bench and Mariano Rivera doing the same in New York’s bullpen. And then Ryan Howard admitted not having seen all of the riveting Game 5 of the ALCS — won by the Angels 7-6 — because  “I fell asleep at the end.” … 
In case you were wondering, the World Series will end during Week 11 of the college football season. … 

Mo (is still) money

Mariano Rivera’s postseason legacy is safe. But his continued excellence in the context of this October just adds another layer of marvel to his resume.
Other closers had a wretched time of it. Huston Street, Joe Nathan, Jonathan Braxton, Jonathan Papelbon, Brian Fuentes — they all had major meltdowns.
And in the midst of it all, it was still Mo Money. … 
Speaking of meltdowns … what is it with Angels left-handed relievers in the postseason?
Twenty-three years ago, Gary Lucas “blanks out” and hits Boston’s Rich Gedman with his only pitch of Game 5 of the ALCS. In the 2004 ALCS, Jarrod Washburn serves up a series-losing 10th-inning homer to David Ortiz. A week ago,  Fuentes feeds three identical fastballs to Alex Rodriguez, the third being swatted for a game-tying homer. And tonight, Scott Kazmir plays Frisbee with a bunted ball. … 
Do you realize there were no home runs hit in two of the three ALCS games in Yankee Stadium, after only one such game during the entire regular season? …
The World Series opponents are even in at least one regard: The Phillies’ starting infield jacked 109 home runs, the Yankees’ 112. …
Curt Schilling definitely is one guy who didn’t see Alex Rodriguez’s October revival coming. The former pitcher had dismissed A-Rod’s prospects a week before the start of the postseason, saying, “For a guy that’s as good as he is, he still strikes out a lot. Guys who strike out a lot tend to have a tough time in October.”
You mean, Curt, guys like Reggie Jackson? … 
Congrats to Tony La Russa for his new deal with the Cardinals? Nay – congrats to fans who will have the pleasure of the brilliant strategist’s and motivator’s continued presence in dugouts a little longer.
Following the bitterly disappointing NLDS, La Russa had briefly considered making his getaway from the Gateway. What changed his mind? Certainly not the lure of becoming MLB’s all-time winningest manager. Though La Russa is No. 3 on the list, he is 1,179 wins behind Connie Mack (although he now has a good shot at the 212 he needs to pass runner-up John McGraw’s 2,763). …