Archive for March, 2005

Yankees, MLB look to new season for redemption

For those of us living in New York and bleeding Yankee blue, the 2005 campaign, set to begin on Sunday, is all about redemption. It’s about redemption for embattled steroid-users. It’s about redemption for an All-Star third baseman famous for the Slap. And it’s about redemption after the hated rivals from Boston ran through us in our house to win their first World Series since the end of World War I.

Redemption for the Yankees starts at first base. Number 25, the man George Steinbrenner just had to have after the devastating and era-ending loss to the Diamondbacks in 2001, Jason Giambi, will be trying to redeem himself this year. He was one of the players implicated in the BALCO testimony leak this winter, and last year, it certainly seemed as though the end of his steroid use had caught up to him. This spring, he’s looked much better. He’s hitting the ball well to all fields, and he’s doing what Jason Giambi has always done well: He’s getting on base.

Giambi’s redemption this year would be a great step forward for the game. If he can turn out a decent season, Giambi will be the poster boy for the end of the Steroid Era. He can show the fans that a former steroid user can go off steroids and still be good. Right now, in Spring Training, Giambi is hitting .289 with a .578 slugging percentage. If he keeps that up, Yankee brass and the fans would be ecstatic. That would be redemption at its finest.

Then, there’s Alex Rodriguez, and oh, does he need redeeming. Right now, Rodriguez is best remembered for The Slap. It’s been burned into Yankee fans’ minds. Instead of coming up with a clutch hit in a key situation in Game 6 of the ALCS, A-Rod tried to cheat. Well, he too got caught, and it was not pretty. Now, Rodriguez has to think about redeeming himself. He says he’s more comfortable at third base and is ready to mash the ball. Yankee fans want to see him hit. They want to see him pepper the Green Monster with double after double when the Bronx Bombers take on those pesky Red Sox. They want to see him come up big in the clutch with booming shots to the wall and not weak grounders to the pitcher. For the Yankees to win big, A-Rod will have to play a large role, and to do so, he better find something other than The Slap to leave as his lasting legacy on New York.

Then, finally, there’s Mariano Rivera and the entire team. It’s tough to think of Rivera as human, but the ALCS certainly showed the world his human side. The Red Sox beat him twice in two days. It was inconceivable. But now Rivera has to put those ghosts behind him and shut down the Sox when the Yanks are up by one or two in the bottom of the ninth. No more home runs by Bill Mueller or singles up the middle by David Ortiz. If Rivera redeems those blown saves, the Yanks could be a team saved. When – not if – but when the Yankees beat the Red Sox this season, the fans will know redemption.

In a way, the situation in New York reflects the game itself. Baseball is facing a period of redemption. While many baseball commentators believe that we’re now in the Post-Steroid Era, public perception may say otherwise. For many, the Steroid Era ended after the 2003 All Star break. With the gripping 2003 Playoffs and the small-ball Marlins’ winning the World Series, the Steroid Era came to an official end. But as the scandals broke this off-season, it became apparent that 2005 would be the year for Major League Baseball to redeem itself.

The first step toward a Major League redemption was the new drug-testing policy. As with much progress however, baseball experienced its share of one step forward, two steps back. The Congressional hearings two weeks ago seem now as though they were an unmitigated PR disaster for the sport with Mark McGwire’s reputation-shattering performance as the lasting image. Now, Selig and Co. are faced with a falsified résumé by the one guy who seemed to save face at the hearings. Dr. Elliot J. Pellman, baseball’s medical adviser, is reported to have faked some of his credentials. This is just another setback for the sport.

Yet, baseball will persevere. The Expos have a new home and a new name. The sport has a new, more powerful drug-testing policy, and players seem willing to put the steroid use in the past. Major League Baseball will look to redeem itself by cultivating a clean image this year led by the self-proclaimed Idiots who won the World Series. The new policy. A new image. It’s all a good start, but the healing will begin in earnest on Sunday. When the players step onto the field, baseball will begin the process of the redeeming itself. As summer nights bring exciting games, fans, who weren’t all that disenchanted in the first place, will turn out in droves, and the steroids will fade into the past.

So as the Yankees go about working on their redemption in the Bronx starting with Opening Night this Sunday, a few miles further south in Manhattan, Bud Selig will do what he can to redeem the game. And in seven months, you can bet that baseball will be redeemed.

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Bonds’ injury, mood may derail the race to 756

Brian Sabean, Felipe Alou, and many fantasy owners won’t be sleeping too well tonight because today was the day that the beleaguered Barry Bonds – All Star and fantasy stud extraordinaire – shocked the baseball world. Facing a bum knee and intense media scrutiny, Bonds announced on Tuesday that he may not play this season.

As the Associated Press reported, Bonds described himself as physically and mentally “done.? Blaming his knee, his age, and the pressure put on him by the media, Bonds seemed dejected and dispirited leaving many to wonder if the one of the game’s biggest stars wants to leave the spotlight of the steroid scandal and the hunt for Hank Aaron’s home run record.

The timing of Bonds’ announcement came after a tumultuous week and tumultuous off-season for the slugger. Many in the media were disappointed that Bonds did not testify in front of the Congressional committee panel last week as part of the investigation into steroids. Then, on Sunday, the news broke that Bonds’ ex-girlfriend pointed the needle at him during her grand jury testimony. Kimberly Bell apparently told the federal grand jury that Bonds had begun to use steroids in 2000.

These were just the latest developments in the steroid scandal that has enveloped Bonds and Major League Baseball seemingly since the minute after the Keith Foulke and Jason Varitek were celebrating on the mound in St. Louis last October.

To make matters worse for Bonds, he has been under intense media scrutiny over the last few months as he has begun to zero in on one of baseball’s most vaunted records. Sitting at 703 home runs, Bonds is just 11 home runs away from the Babe and 53 away from becoming the all-time home run king. As his pursuit has continued, baseball fans and media members alike have wondered if the record would be legitimate. They have often wondered if steroids were fueling the march to 756. While Bud Selig announced a no-asterisk policy, the ever-important court of public opinion is often not on Bonds’ side.

But now, the point may be moot. Bonds, who turns 41 in July, would face a steep uphill battle to reach 756 if he misses part or all of this season. History is not on his side.

Not too many players reach Bonds’ age and remain active. Even fewer – in fact, none – have reached Bonds’ age and remained as productive as he’s been since 2001. Take Hammerin’ Hank. The sport’s greatest home run hitter only hit 42 home runs from age 40 and beyond. Twenty of those came the year he turned 40. Forty-two more home runs would leave Bonds at 745. No small beans, but still, no record.

Only three players in baseball history have hit more than 53 home runs after (and including) the age of 40. Carlton Fisk slammed 72, largely because he played until he was 45; Darrell Evans slugged 67; and Dave Winfield hit 59. The record, by the way, for home runs hit by a 40-year-old is 34, and that record belongs to Evans.

Of course, these players all have one thing in common: They aren’t Barry Bonds. None of them can boast anywhere near a career slugging mark of .611. Winfield comes closest with a .475 mark. Remember, Bonds slugged .812 last year. That’s off the charts. Ted Williams, with a .540 mark, holds the record for highest slugging percentage by someone 40 and over. If anyone could break the mark despite missing their 40-year-old season to a knee injury, it would be Barry Bonds.

Now, to mix sports metaphors, the ball is in Bonds’ court. The slugger lashed out at the media for the pressure. The media wants Bonds to retire because if he were to break Aaron’s record, the integrity of the record would be in doubt as long as Bonds’ name continues to be linked to steroid use. One of the game’s most honorable records would be tarnished, and those covering the game are well aware how this could affect public perception of baseball.

Would Bonds want to deal with that pressure? Could he mentally deal with that pressure? Only Barry Bonds can answer that. If he wants to face the pressure, he has a great shot at breaking the record even if he misses 80 or 90 games this year. But if he’s fed up, it’s certainly his right to throw in the towel. The adversity is overwhelming with the BALCO cloud hanging over his head.

So as the Giants turn to Pedro Felix to fill in their left-field hole, the media frenzy over the home run chase will be on hold as baseball awaits to hear the fate of Barry Bonds. The truth is that the steroid scandal may just answer the questions that Bonds has left hanging.

Congress’ motives behind baseball investigation remain murky

Something is rotten in the body of Congress.

When I first heard of the Congressional inquisition into baseball’s steroid scandal, my immediate reaction was one of skepticism. As Major League Baseball has spent months roasted alive in the media, Jose Canseco has spent weeks on the best sellers list, and fans have spent decades just wanting to watch the game, Representative Tom Davis’ decision to call baseball officials and players in front of the House Government Reform Committee reeked of…something.

I couldn’t quite put my finger on what that obnoxious odor was at first. Was it Congress’ impeccable timing? While the steroid scandal has raged on since November and rumors of steroid use in baseball have been prevalent since the mid-1990s and probably since the late 1980s, it took a book by Jose Canseco (!) – and a best-selling one at that – to finally draw the attention of the nation’s top lawmakers. To me, this seemed a little off-putting.

Where was Congress when baseball’s drug testing program paled in comparison to any other sports’ policies or the stringent international standards set by the IOC? Where was Congress when members of the media found Androstenedione in Mark McGwire’s locker? Where was Congress in 2002 when Major League Baseball implemented its joke of a policy?

Now that baseball has been in the glare of the public spotlight for a few months, the Congressional decision to put the spot on investigation seemed more like a public relations decision than anything else. I can just hear a Congressional aide whispering in the ear of some representative. “Maybe it’s time we call these guys forward. We could use the attention, and it’ll make us seem as though we’re taking the moral high road for once.?

For a while, I accepted my skepticism as an issue of timing. I was content with this reasoning. Maybe Congress was looking for some accountability and decided to investigate because of the increased national attention. While the fans offer widely divergent opinions on steroids, the media certainly thought it was a big deal. So Congress just responded to the best indicator they had of public opinion. Then, something else happened.

Congress released the names of the players to appear before the committee, and it was as if, as Jayson Stark pointed out last week on ESPN.com, innocent before guilty had just flown out the window. Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Jason Giambi and Jose Canseco had all been asked to come forward. With the Congress, there’s very little beating around the bush when it comes to high-profile investigations (unless it’s one of the Speaker of the House). But even this seemed a little excessive.

Under the watching eyes of Congress and the American public, players named in BALCO testimony and in Canseco’s book could be asked later today to put their career reputations on the line. And, as Stark noted, they can’t even get in trouble for it under baseball’s rules. If they deny steroid use, there’s no way to check. There were no tests, and Major League Baseball’s banned substance list was more concerned with narcotics use than growth hormone abuse. At least Congress won on that issue back in 1985 when baseball still had a real commissioner.

By asking people named in Canseco’s book to step forward, Congress seemingly validated the claims in Canseco’s tale. But I still wasn’t sure if that was what was holding me back from embracing these hearings. As my past columns have shown, I’ve been very outspoken against steroid use in baseball. I think it sets a bad example for the youth of the nation who admire and emulate their favorite ballplayers. So if Congress wants to ensure a clean game, so be it.

Then, I read today’s coverage of the steroid scandal, and I realized why I felt so put off by this whole saga. It seemed to be an issue of Congress asserting its power over a very strong sports entity. There’s no secret that baseball is run by two of the strongest groups in the nation. The united front of the Players Union and the powerful owners are a force with which no one wants to reckon. No one, except Congress. And they’re out to get revenge.

It started when I read Sen. John McCain’s comments that he had been “duped? by baseball’s new steroid policy. As baseball sent Congress a bunch of papers tonight, included among them was a copy of the new steroid agreement. It featured one section that granted Commissioner Bud Selig the right to fine a player instead of suspending him. McCain felt betrayed. Oh, the outrage! Instead of asking for clarification, McCain issued a blistering attack, calling on baseball to ensure a ten-day suspension for first-time steroid users instead of a discretionary fine. Baseball shot back a response saying that the fine would only occur in very extraordinary cases, and the player would be named no matter what. Baseball 1, Congress 0.

Then, I read Tom Davis’ comments about the upcoming inquest scheduled to start at 10 a.m. To say that I was a bit put off by Davis’ comments would be an understatement. First, came this quote in today’s New York Times: “Mafia figures didn’t want to show up, the quiz show people didn’t want to show up, Clinton’s people didn’t want to show up when we subpoenaed them over Whitewater, but you obey Congressional subpoenas. That’s the way the law works. If they don’t, they know where the chips fall.?

So baseball players are as guilty, it seems, as mafia men and fall under the same category a Republican Congressman would use to classify the Clintons. Certainly, it seems that Mr. Davis is concerned with something other than an impartial investigation into baseball.

Davis followed this up with another scorcher. “This is not a witch hunt. We’re not trying to search down every baseball player that ever had steroids. I mean, you’d destroy the game. What we’re concerned about is that Major League Baseball doesn’t seem to think there was a huge problem. Balls are flying out of the park, people are shooting up in the locker rooms, and they’re saying they didn’t know. Our investigation is showing otherwise. I think if baseball executives would come forward and say, you know, we had a problem that was far greater than we thought, we’re going to try to get to the bottom of this, but in the meantime here’s what we’re doing – it’d be fine.?

So fine, apparently, that the exact reply that Davis wanted has resulted in a Congressional inquest.

It seems to me that baseball has already done everything Rep. Davis wanted it to do. By formulating a new drug policy, baseball admitted that they had a huge problem, possibly worse than anyone realized. Comments by more than a few general mangers indicated that they did indeed know of the hormone use, but it wasn’t illegal under baseball rules. And baseball officials have set a new standard, a strict one at that.

When I read this New York Times article, I finally realized why I had been so disturbed by this steroid investigation. This isn’t Congress trying to right a wrong. This is Congress trying t

Spring Training 05: Tales from the Grapefruit League Game 2

Game 2
Tuesday, March 8, 2005
Florida Marlins vs. Los Angeles Dodgers
Dodgertown, Vero Beach, Florida

It’s nearly impossible to find two stadiums that are more opposite each other than Disney’s complex in Kissimmee and Holman Stadium in Vero Beach.

After Sunday’s game in a very corporate environment, our trip to Dodgertown showed us Spring Training in its purest form. As the Marlins and the Dodgers squared off in the quaint stadium, we could see the Dodgers’ young players practicing at the nearby fields. The tiny stadium — with a paid admission of just over 2000 — is one of the oldest in the Grapefruit League. It was built to house the Spring Training trips of the Brooklyn Dodgers and has seemingly escaped any attempts of modernization from the public address system to the very simple food stands to the barebones souvenir shops.

But it was great. The weather was perfect; it was 80 degrees and sunny. The matchup was pretty good too. Last year’s World Series and ALCS hero Derek Lowe faced Brian Moehler. One man is pitching to justify a four-year, $36 million contract, and the other is trying to win a spot in the Marlins starting rotation.

Both pitchers looked sharp. Lowe threw four scoreless innings, giving up three hits and one walk while striking out three. Generally, he kept the ball down, and he has to do that to be successful. Moehler looked good against a lineup with only two Dodger starters — J.D. Drew and Hee Seop Choi. In three innings, he gave up just four hits but didn’t record a strike out.

After Lowe came out, Kaz Ishii came in. Fighting for a spot in the Dodgers rotation, Ishii was less than impressive. He didn’t allow a hit, but he walked two and couldn’t find the strike zone. Sloppy fielding led to three unearned runs. The Marlins’ runs would be all they would need as the game ended 3-0.

While the game featured mainly youngsters from two deep organizations, the Marlins had a few stand-out performances. Non-roster invitee Lew Walrond looked good. He struck out five while surrendering just one hit in three innings. Guillermo Mota closed out the game. On the Dodgers’ side, Yhency Brazoban pitched the 9th, striking out two while giving up just one hit. It was, in all regards, a game about pitching.

As for the environment, the stadium seemed like it had been plucked from 1953. The announcer plays bingo for every Dodger at-bat. Whenever someone on LA did anything at the plate, the announcer would call out a corresponding bingo number. It certainly kept the fans in the game. The stadium featured just one tier and no luxury boxes. The newest addition was an office complex built behind the right field fence, but it was hardly intrusive.

Game Two was another great day. While the Dodgers’ fielding had its rough points and the offense was nearly nonexistent, it didn’t matter. We had seats right behind third base and even spotted Tommy Lasorda during the game. Dodgertown is Spring Training as its meant to be. No obnoxious between-inning gimmicks. No corporate Disney-fied atmosphere. It was just baseball players gearing up for a great season.

Spring Training 05: Tales from the Grapefruit League

Game 1
Sunday, March 6, 2005
New York Mets (ss) vs. Atlanta Braves
Disney’s Wide World of Sports, Kissimmee, Florida

This country is filled with Waffle Houses. If your waffle is looking for a home, there are just so many places for it to rest on the interstates south of Washington, D.C. As we drove from southwestern Pennsylvania to Atlanta, Georgia, to Boynton Beach, Florida, we certainly saw our fair share of Waffle Houses.

The best one, though, was in Central Florida. This Waffle House had sustained some hurricane damage last year, and a few of it’s letters were missing. Instead of a WAFFLE HOUSE, this restaurant promised an ALE HOUSE. Those two establishments – a roadside diner and a pub – just couldn’t be any more dissimilar. I was amused. But anyway, on to the Spring Training 2005 road trip.

The premise is simple. For spring break, three of my friends and I are traveling around Florida. We started out on Friday afternoon at 2 p.m. in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. After driving until 4 a.m., we reached our first stop: Atlanta. We spent Saturday in Atlanta, left the fine city at 7 p.m., and arrived at the Best Value Inn on the outskirts of Orlando at around 2:45 a.m.

On Sunday, the baseball began. We drove down to Walt Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex in Kissimmee, Florida, to witness the Atlanta Braves play host to half — and not really the good half – of the division-rival New York Mets.

We couldn’t really ask for better weather; it was 75 out with hardly a cloud in the sky. We sat on the lawn berm along with hundreds of other fans. We were surrounded by Mets fans although there were plenty of Braves fans on hand and quite a lot of people sporting Red Sox gear. (Cough, cough, fair-weather, cough, cough.) We also ran into the Swarthmore College women’s lacrosse team. What are the odds? We go to a school with 1500 other people, and many teams, both college and high school, train at Disney’s complex. We managed to find the one with our friends on it. It’s a small world.

While we were hanging out with our friends and just soaking up the sun after driving away from the cold northeast winter, John Smoltz’s first start since June of 2001 unfolded in front of us. Smoltz look pretty good. He threw two scoreless innings while surrounding just two hits. While he faced arguably the Mets C team with a batting order of Chris Woodward, Miguel Cairo, Cliff Floyd, Andres Galarraga, Victor Diaz, Jason Phillips, and Aaron Baldiris, Smoltz had good command and was able to keep the hitters off balance. Yet he only threw 28 pitches so it’s hardly any more than if he had been closing. It will be interesting to see how his arm strength and stamina hold up over six or seven innings.

In the end, the Braves won 8-7, but it didn’t really matter. By the time the 8th inning rolled around and Kelly Johnson drove home Brayan Peña, the winning run, off of Bobby Keppel, we weren’t seeing anyone you’ll see at the Major League level this year. But that’s not what Spring Training is about.

Spring Training is about proving your worth, and we saw plenty of that. Andres Galarraga, a venerable veteran trying to win a spot on the Mets’ roster, went 2-for-3 with a towering home run off of a very unimpressive Zach Minor. We saw excitement. Brian Jordan fell just a double – and another plate appearance – short of the cycle. And we saw prospects. Andy Marte doubled in his first at-bat of the game.

Overall, it was just a great day. We sat outside and watched live baseball for the first time since October. We got some sun and just hung out while a bunch of kids our age tried to show what they could do – hit and field – and could not do – throw many strikes. It was a true Spring Training game.

After the game, we drove down I-95 to Boynton Beach, Florida. We’ll be here until Friday. Our next game is Tuesday. We’ll be traveling north to Vero Beach to see the Los Angeles Dodgers host the Florida Marlins.

Spring Training: The Promise of a Brand New Season

Baseball on TV is a glorious thing. Even if it’s a Spring Training game between the Nationals and the Mets or the Yankees and the Pirates, you can’t go wrong on a cold afternoon in the northeast watching baseball.

Every year, it’s been like that for me. When the first week in March rolls around and snow still covers the ground here, somewhere down south — in Florida, in Arizona — baseball teams are taking the field for the start of another season. And it’s great.

It’s great because no one knows what happens next. In any baseball season, anything can happen. If you told a Red Sox fan 12 months ago that Boston would be the reigning World Champions come March of 2005, this fan would probably have just signed and said, “In my dreams.? But here we are, and the Red Sox, on the way down to Florida, were treated as World Champs at the White House.

So what surprises does the 2005 season hold? I don’t know, and that’s what makes baseball great. Can the Red Sox win again after going 86 years without a World Championship? (I hope not!) Can Ichiro reach that nearly unattainable .400 plateau? How many games does it take before Barry Bonds becomes the number two home run hitter of all time? What about number one? Bonds has hit more than 53 home runs in a season before.

Who’s going to be that surprise team this year? Can the Twins finally get past the Divisional Series? Can the Cubs shake off nine decades of ghosts, miffed groundballs, fan interference, and a goat? Can the upstart Marlins led by a feared lefty slugger unseat the Braves from atop the NL East? And how about those Tigers? Or Dodgers? Or Mariners? Or Diamondbacks? The Tigers are eyeing .500 and beyond this year after nearly setting a new record for futility in 2003. The Dodgers made it to the playoffs for the first team in 10 years and have completely retooled this year. The Mariners and the D-backs are just looking to make up for subpar seasons.

And then there are the stories of personal triumph. Can Javier Vazquez shake the demons of a few rough starts in New York? Can Rich Ankiel finally come back from wildness and arm injury to fulfill his promise? Will Jason Giambi show the world that he’s better than steroids? How will David Wells fare pitching for his (former?) favorite team’s bitter rivals? And how does Pedro Martinez respond to the home town of the “Who’s your daddy?? chant.

Who will be that great fantasy pick? How about the surprise choice for rookie of the year? Will Tim Hudson win a Cy Young under Leo Mazzone and the Braves? Will Randy and Curt, two weathered veterans at the twilight of their careers, battle it out for supremacy in the AL or will age, ever just around the corner, finally catch up? And what about The Rocket?

And then there are the off-field dramas. Will Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, and many other players testify in Senate? In court? Who will get caught using steroids under the new policy? Will this be the issue that drives a deep wedge between the Players Union and the owners or will both groups address the issue in a way that puts it out the minds of the fans, the media, the players?

This is what makes baseball great. Every season, every game, offers something new. New dramas, new first-time all stars, new veterans to be that clutch player, new counts, new standings. And it all begins in Spring Training. So while I sat watching some guys with high numbers and no recognizable names battle on a rainy day in Tampa, I knew that baseball had returned, and all was once again good.

For spring break this week, I am driving down to Florida with three of my friends. We’re a Yankee fan, a Red Sox fan, a Phillies fan, and a Braves fan, and we’re seeing four games this week. I’ll be writing a little something about each game. So check back regularly next week.


RSS River Ave. Blues

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