Showing posts with label Baseball. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Baseball. Show all posts

Friday, November 05, 2010

True World Series MVP Dave Righetti

A couple of thoughts about winning & recognition, occasioned by some of my less literary passions. First, Gretchen Jones won Project Runway with a show of what could politely be called Sedona-Wear, highly commercial but yawningly predictable southwestern casual clothes. Mondo Guerra, the pint-sized Pinocchio of Denver, came in second with a show that demonstrated infinitely greater range, sophistication and creativity. Even third-place finisher Andy South’s collection, a little too safe to be as avant-garde as some of his warrior women costumes had been in the past, put on a better show than Jones, who might not have made in it to Fashion Week at all had the judges not applied an unwritten “one finalist must be a woman” rule, thereby dropping the effortless chic of Michael Costello. A poll in the LA Times showed viewers preferring Guerra’s collection with about 80% of the vote, Jones in second with just under 12% and South at 7%.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Edgar Renteria gets the pitch he wanted

In 1954, the last time the Giants won a World Series, I was eight years old. I remember the series as one of the first that I watched on TV with my grandfather, gradually becoming a baseball fan but not yet with an allegiance to any team. In ’54, the teams local to the Bay Area were the Oakland Oaks & San Francisco Seals, both minor league franchises in the Pacific Coast League. The Oaks folded after 1955, and I never saw a Seals game in person. But what I remember most about that 1954 series is that TV showed Willie Mays’ catch of a long drive off the bat of Vic Wertz over and over. I may not even have known what a replay was before that series. Although Cleveland had won 111 games that year and was seemingly invincible, the rather motley crew of the Giants, whose heroes included a pinch-hitter by the name of Dusty Rhodes, swept them in 4 games.

Four years later, when I was 12, the Giants moved to San Francisco, led that season by Mays & Johnny Antonelli, one of the pitching heroes of the ’54 series. That first west coast team had a number of young players, most notably rookie first baseman Orlando Cepeda, who would go on to the Hall of Fame, rookie third-baseman Jim Davenport & a slew of good young outfielders that included Willie Kirkland, Felipe Alou, Bill White, Leon Wagner and Jackie Brandt, and I was instantly a die-hard Giants fan. I can tell pretty much everything about the first game I ever attended at Seals Stadium on 16th Street. Ruben Gomez started for the Giants but walked the first four batters & was pulled instantly by manager Bill Rigney, who sent in Paul Giel (a one-time Jack Spicer student!) who shut down the Reds the rest of the way, allowing the home team to beat Bob Purkey. Before they moved to Candlestick Park in 1960, I saw Leon Wagner hit a ball that cleared the stadium walls & crossed 16th Street to land in a park – that is still the longest home run I’ve ever seen, even if it gets a little longer every year.

Once the Giants added Willie McCovey (another Hall of Famer) in 1959 & Juan Marichal (ditto) in ’60, the team became a regular contender in the pre-playoffs era of baseball. In 1962, the Giants came within a hit of besting the New York Yankees in a seven-game series. Game 4 of that series proved to be the only World Series game Juan Marichal would ever play in. Although the Giants won that particular contest, the victory in relief went to Don Larsen, whom everyone remembers for his perfect game with the Yankees in 1956.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Next to the Liberty Bell, the Phanatic is Philly’s most enduring visual icon

A couple of people have asked me if I was going to write my usual start-of-the-playoffs note on baseball this year. I’m almost disinclined to do so. For one thing, I really haven’t focused that much on American League teams this year and saying that I hope Minnesota will make it to the series just so the world can get to see Jim Thome on the big stage one more time isn’t enough of an analysis in my book.

But for my money the real interest this year is in the National League playoffs, where the Phils will represent the National League East for fourth year in a row, while my childhood San Francisco Giants – who have lost the only three World Series they’ve played in since moving to San Francisco in 1958 – will represent the West. The Phils will start off playing the Cincinnati Reds, while the Giants play the wild card Atlanta Braves. Since the Giants and the Phils have the two best starting rotations in baseball, this strongly suggests that I am going to be looking at a Phillies-Giants championship series in about ten days. That might be glorious. But it also might be misery.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

In theory, the baseball playoffs is the time of season when the game narrows to just its very finest teams locked in epic combat. In practice, I can hardly remember ever seeing a post-season when all of the teams looked more like ruptured ducks than this one. There is something glaringly wrong with every single contender. With the Phillies, it is the complete chaos that is their relief pitching, the inconsistency of their starting pitchers, and the team’s almost mystically terrible hitting with men in scoring position. I have never seen a team more dedicated to the solo homerun than the 2009 Phils, nor more willing to leave the bases loaded while trying to hit bombs when a blooper to left would score two runs. Last year at this time, if you remember, I had doubts about the starting pitching. The Phils resolved those over the playoffs and it was a starting pitcher, Cole Hamels, who was the Most Valuable Player both of the National League Championships & the World Series. If Charlie Manuel can get this current batch of underachievers to snap to once again, he will easily qualify as one of the miracle workers of this sport.

On paper, the Phils are the best team in baseball since the days of the Bash Brothers in Oakland some 20 years ago. Ryan Howard is the best pure power hitter in post-steroid baseball. There is not one weak spot in the starting lineup & the usual number six hitter, right-fielder Jayson Werth, would be batting clean-up on most of the other teams. In practice, the Phils had to scramble to win the National League East for the third straight year, thanks in good part to the collapse of the bullpen. In 2008, Brad Lidge saved 48 games in 48 tries, which is about as good as it gets, even as he turned more than a few three-run leads into one-run victories. This year, given more one-run leads to save, he’s lead the major leagues in blown saves, to such a degree that the last month has been an open casting call for a closer. Ryan Madson, last year’s set-up specialist, the man who pitched the 8th inning, has done the best, which is not all that great. Last year’s seventh-inning specialist, J.C. Romero, missed the first 50 games as the latest casualty in baseball’s moral panic over chemically enhanced performance. When he came back, he got hurt and missed more time. And when he came back again, he had a season-ending injury. The Phils’ best version of a replacement for Romero, Chan Ho Park, has himself been hurt. The top two starters, Hamels and Cliff Lee (last year’s American League Cy Young winner) have been great one game, terrible the next, as has Pedro Martinez, rescued from retirement by a team that had seven legit major league starters on its roster, as if quantity could mysteriously turn into quality.

Fortunately, there is no other team that isn’t similarly hampered. So the only thing I can tell you about the playoffs this year is that the Yankees will lose. Having clinched first is invariably the kiss of death. Year after year the teams with the most wins disappear early in the playoffs precisely because they’ve been coasting to victory and can’t turn it back on all of a sudden when it counts. Actually, had this year’s Brad Lidge been last year’s version, the Phils would be facing the same problem, which may be the silver lining in all his struggles. But if the Phitins’ pitching doesn’t suddenly look as good on the mound as it should on paper, this will be short & painful to watch.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Jimmy Rollins is not just
the best shortstop in the NL,
he deserves to be the MVP

159 games into the major league baseball season – with just three days remaining – and the Philadelphia Phillies finally are tied for first place in the National League East. For the first time all year. Perhaps they will make it to this year’s play-offs, something they have not done once since I arrived here in 1995, or perhaps not. But regardless of the ultimate outcome, the 2007 Phillies represent one of the strangest & most fascinating experiments in the history of the game.

Baseball & poetry have a long, complementary history in the United States. Baseball is almost the official sport of poets, dating back at least to the writing of William Carlos Williams, if not to Whitman. Jack Spicer’s baseball poems are among his very best, and even Tom Clark has written eloquently of the late Roberto Clemente. Baseball’s sense of tradition for tradition’s sake even closely rhymes with the impulses of the School of Quietude, content forever to replicate this 19th century past-time. When change has come, it has largely been through expansion. Where I grew up with 16 major league teams, there are now over 30. 450+ creative writing programs have churned out thousands of MFAs. The lone publication in Ploughshares and a single small press volume is the poetry equivalent of the September call-up in baseball, when teams expand their rosters after the end of the minor league seasons around Labor Day. For more than a few ballplayers (and for more than a few poets), that’s a career.

Baseball was the only thing my grandfather and I could discuss without devolving into a baleful clash of generations. He worked most of his adult life at a paper recycling plant in Emeryville (there is a condo highrise there now), and for a time Chick Gandil, first baseman of the infamous 1919 Chicago Black Sox, was a plumber there. One local Berkeley kid, Billy Martin, grew up in the immediate vicinity of SPD Books (which didn’t yet exist) and went on to become a solid major league player, then manager. My grandfather taught me to play the game in Bushrod Park in North Oakland, the same field on which he had learned – another kid who did so, far better than I, was Rickey Henderson, the finest leadoff hitter in baseball history. One guy from my high school, Ron Hansen, was the major league rookie of the year in 1960 and had a fifteen year career in the bigs. He’s still working in the game as the Phillies major league advance scout. When the Giants moved to San Francisco in 1958, I was just 11 years old, the perfect age to fixate on the local team. Between Willie Mays & Orlando Cepeda that first year, Willie McCovey the next, Juan Marichal soon thereafter, the Giants of that era were one of the great franchises of the last half century. The longest homerun I ever saw in person was hit by Giants outfielder Leon “Daddy Wags” Wagner – it cleared the rightfield wall in old Seals Stadium, the minor-league ballpark at 16th and South Van Ness, ending well into the park across 16th street. The Giants of that era did everything but win a World Series & had McCovey’s ninth-inning line drive in game seven of the 1961 series gone a foot or so higher, just beyond the reach of Yankees second baseman Bobbie Richardson, the J’ints would have accomplished that as well. The team’s only problem in those years was that, beyond Marichal (and Gaylord Perry for awhile, Sad Sam Jones for a year, Jack Sanford & Mike McCormick for brief periods), they lacked pitching.

According to baseball lore, and baseball lore is powerful juju, pitching is 90 percent of the game. There are dozens of clich├ęs that all say pretty much the same thing: good pitching always beats good hitting.

But this year the Phils, the team with the longest history in the same city and with the same name & only one World Series Championship to show for it, have put together one of the most productive lineups in the history of the game. But they also have perhaps the worst pitching in the majors. It’s almost a schizophrenic dissociation of the two parts of the game, so dramatically different that it looks like a middle school science experiment. With the exception of third base, where the team has had a not entirely successful three-way platoon going all year, the lineup from catcher all the way around the infield and across the outfield all the way to right is perhaps as strong – if not stronger – than any single team I’ve seen in my lifetime. They remind me more than anything of the mid-1950s New York Yankees or perhaps the Big Red Machine of a couple decades later. Five players have more than 20 home runs each. They have last year’s Most Valuable Player at first base in Ryan Howard & Jimmy Rollins – J-Rol in local parlance – at shortstop figures to be a top vote-getter this year. He deserves to win that award. They have the best second baseman in baseball, the best really since Joe Morgan was still a Red. Their center fielder made the All-Star team, their left fielder has 30 home runs, and right field has seen two regulars, in serial fashion, Shane Victorino (“The Flyin’ Hawai’ian”) & Jayson Werth work so well that the aforementioned center fielder is almost certainly going to be gone after this season, freeing up big dollars so that the Phils can afford to sign Howard to a long term deal and begin to address the problem of pitching.

Ah, but their pitching. While most teams carry 12 pitchers these days, the Phils have had only three all year who have been consistently reliable – starters Cole Hamels & Kyle Kendrick & closer Brett Myers. They've used maybe 30 different players as pitchers all season, once using 13 in one game (albeit some a pinch runners & even pinch hitters - it's what happens when you have to carry that many arms). Hamels & Myers have both been on the disabled list (DL) for part of the year, and Kendrick started the season in the minors where he wasn’t even rated among the Phils’ top ten prospects. Myers was the opening day starting pitcher, but then last year’s closer, Tom “Flash” Gordon, started the season hurt. So Myers got pulled into the pen and Jon Lieber, the team’s “ace” just two years ago, was brought back out of the bullpen to start. Lieber was soon injured himself and was out almost all year. The two big money pitchers the Phils acquired last winter – Freddy Garcia & Adam Eaton – have been similar busts. Garcia’s been on the DL most of the season – you can see this is a theme – while Eaton has the worst Earned Run Average in the league. During the first part of the season, he would have one decent start followed by a dreadful one. As it wore on, however, the ratio has gone to one good start followed by two bad ones. The one other starter remaining from the opening day rotation, Jamie Moyer, is ancient by baseball standards, 44. He is the only major leaguer left from the same rookie crop that included Barry Bonds. Moyer’s a smart junkballer & obviously a good influence on the younger players, but he no longer has great stamina. Although he grew up nearby in Bucks County, Moyer basically wilted from the Philadelphia heat around the beginning of August and has been pitching on fumes since then. The other starter in the current rotation is Kyle Lohse, whom the Phils picked up from Cincinnati, a bad team that concluded that Lohse couldn’t pitch for them. Tho Lohse has only gotten only two wins in his last nine starts, seven were what baseball insiders like to call quality starts, games in which the starting pitcher gets through six innings giving up no more than three runs. The Phils also acquired J.C. Romero, another player being dumped by his original team, as a relief pitcher who has settled comfortably into the seventh-inning relief pitcher the team has needed all season. Two of the team’s other relievers, Jose Mesa & Alphonse Alfonseco, are one-time major league closers (Mesa once with the Phillies) who bounce around from team to team these days, bolstering the bullpen, then getting released when they hit a bad patch.

This, as you can see, is the sort of pitching staff you might expect from an expansion team, one newly added to the league. Somehow, this patchwork staff has managed to enable the team to finally gain a share of first place, with just three games remaining in the season. It’s quite amazing really.

This has been a year in which no team has dominated the National League – at this late date, no single team has clinched a playoff berth in any of the league’s three divisions. When you realize that the Phils have blown perhaps 20 games this year in late innings that they should have won because their relievers couldn’t hold a lead or because manager Charlie Manuel left the starter in longer than he should have out of lack of confidence in whatever would come next, you begin to understand that this team – which also has won some four dozen games in come-from-behind fashion – is the one that should have finished 15 games ahead of the rest of the league. Instead, they’ve struggled all season long. It was really just three weeks ago, when they swept a series from the Mets, then did it again just a week later, that the Phils have begun to look like they could do this.

Supposedly, the wild card team is the one that “shouldn’t have made it” to the playoffs, because it was not strong enough to finish first in its own division. Yet in recent years, wild card teams have had a better than average chance of taking the whole enchilada. That’s usually because they’re performing at playoff intensity for two, maybe three weeks before the playoffs even begin, while the teams that coasted to a division championship find they have a hard time ramping up to the level needed for baseball’s so-called second season. The Phils, who have a shot at the wild card as well as the National League championship, have been at that white-hot intensity level now for the better part of a month. The obvious smart money would say that if they make it to the playoffs, they should be roadkill against a better pitching staff in the first round, and ditto for each succeeding one. If the Phils should go beyond the first round, it will upset a whole lot of long-term baseball junkies, stats geeks and more than a few bookies. If they win the whole thing, it's the end of the world as we know it. It’s sort of like asking, can Frankenstein’s monster not just stumble around in the graveyard, but hop into this jet plane, glance at the instrument panel & fly? It’s going to be fun finding out.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Yes, that was the most poorly played World Series I’ve ever seen also. And my memories thereof go back all the way to 1954, which was when the underdog New York Giants swept the highly favored Cleveland Indians, thanks to the hitting of Dusty Rhodes & one great catch in centerfield by Willie Mays. I didn’t really begin rooting for the Giants until they moved to San Francisco, four years later, but they’ve never won the whole shebang in the intervening 52 years.

This year both the Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals were routinely the underdogs in each of their playoff series – the Tigers making it the playoffs after a record number of losing seasons, the Cardinals squandering a huge lead in the National League central division, going 12-17 the last month of the season, and becoming the team with the fewest wins ever to play in the World Series, let alone win it – until they finally met one another, when Detroit became the favorites simply on the theory that the American League is by far the better half of baseball these days. So St. Louis winning meant that the underdog won every single round of the playoffs.

I personally expected Detroit to win, using my highly scientific “former Phillies” analysis. Each team had one ex-Phil in a key position, Detroit with second baseman Placido Polanco, whom the Phils dealt once Chase Utley emerged as the best player at that position in all of baseball, the Cardinals with Scott Rolen (who used to live out in our neighborhood when he was a Phillie), the multi-gold glove, multi-time all-star third baseman. Polanco had been the MVP of the American League Championships & is somebody who always gives 110 percent effort on everything, while the much more talented Rolen seems to drift along at around 85 percent much of the time. So I was thinking Polanco gave Detroit an edge. I always thought the Phils should have put Polanco at third & dealt David Bell instead. If the Phils – the team with the best record in baseball after the trading deadline – had gotten to the playoffs, they would have eaten both the Cardinals & Tigers for breakfast. And with Polanco, they wouldn’t have sucked as badly as they did the first half of this season & would have made it. As it was, the Phils simply dumped Bell at this year’s trading deadline. Which, no coincidence, is when they suddenly got good.

Unfortunately, once the Series started, Polanco was trying to give 150 percent effort & trying way too hard, ending up the show without a single hit. Rolen, true to form, finished the Series with a ten-game hitting streak in which only one of his hits really made a difference. Detroit also suffered from having dispatched the Oakland A’s so quickly. The Tigers looked really rusty in the first game in Detroit, which St. Louis won & even tho they tied the series briefly behind the pitching of Ken “Muddy” Rogers the next night, they never found their equilibrium. That momentum thing is not to be underestimated – it’s why so many wild card teams have gone on to win the Series. They’re still struggling and playing hard right up to the last day of the regular season, where the “better” division champions have often been coasting for weeks, only to get eliminated before anyone can find the ignition button once the playoffs arrive.

But the largest single reason St. Louis is celebrating this weekend is Dave Duncan, the one-time major league catcher who has been the team’s pitching coach for the past 11 seasons, after a nine-year stint in the same role for the Oakland A’s, all two decades working alongside manager Tony La Russa. Duncan, who is also the father of Cardinal rightfielder (and defensive butcher) Chris Duncan, is very possibly the best pitching coach in all of baseball and is somebody I would happily recommend to Cooperstown if it ever got smart enough to put coaches into the Baseball Hall of Fame¹.

Detroit clearly had the much better pitching staff this year and, in short series like each round of the playoffs, that usually is what makes the difference. But St. Louis consistently got great starts from journeymen hurlers, including a brilliant game from one-time Tiger Jeff Weaver on Friday. It reminded me of how, in his Oakland days, Duncan took two has-been starters, Bob Welch & Dennis Eckersley, and made the former into a Cy Young award winner & the latter into the best relief pitcher of the era, winning both the Cy Young & MVP awards in 1992 & going on to the Hall of Fame. Duncan also took a young pitcher who had never panned out with any of the teams he had played with previously, Dave Stewart, and helped him to win 20 games four seasons in a row, becoming the MVP of the 1989 World Series & the American League Championship Series MVP in both 1990 and 1993. Stewart ended up going head to head against Roger Clemens eight times in his career and won seven of those outings. That’s the Dave Duncan effect.



¹ Also deserving are Lee Mazzone, the longtime pitching coach of the Atlanta Braves, and the man they call Popeye (and the Gerbil), Don Zimmer, a coach with many teams, and, as a senior advisor to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, the last Brooklyn Dodger still active in professional baseball.