Rivalry Rarity: A Pennant Race

With the first series of the season between the Giants and Dodgers in the books, San Francisco is 5-2 and the Dodgers are 5-3. Could this finally be the year that the clubs engage in a head-to-head, down to the final week of the season pennant race? Such a down-to-the wire showdown has been a rarity in the rivalry. The Giants and Dodgers played their first regular season game in 1890, but it took until 1924 for the teams to really have one of those great one-on-one battles, the Giants clinching the pennant over the Dodgers on Sept. 27. The rivalry is in another of those competitive droughts, with the last late-season race having occurred 10 seasons ago in 2004. The Dodgers clinched the flag over the Giants that year in a season-closing series. The clubs appeared headed for a lively finish in 2012, especially after the new Dodgers owners went on a spending spree for new talent. However, money did not buy happiness for the Dodgers, and the Giants ran away from them on their way to a World Series title.

The just-concluded three-game series in Los Angeles is too small a sample size to do a credible analysis. The Giants, after all, won their first series against the Dodgers 2-1 in 2013, but Los Angeles went on to win the NL pennant while the Giants took a nosedive after flying so high the previous season.

Some thoughts on the opening series:

* The Giants’ 6-run first inning in the first game was the most runs in the initial frame in a rivalry opener between the teams since they moved West in 1958. Here are some other notable highlights from past opening games. April 16, 1962: The Giants scored early and often, building a 12-3 lead after six. They scored seven more in the seventh and took a 19-3 lead into the ninth. The Dodgers rallied for five, but fell 19-3. April 7, 1977: The game marked Tommy Lasorda’s first as a manager after the 23-year reign of Walter Alston. The Dodgers got the Lasorda era off to a good start with a 5-1 win. Lasorda showed he would bring entertainment to the rivalry, as he got Frank Sinatra to sing the national anthem for the Dodger Stadium crowd. Sinatra stayed partial, however, and showed up at San Francisco eight days later to toss out the ceremonial first pitch at the Giants home opener against the Dodgers. April 11, 1986: This was perhaps the wildest opener, as the Giants took an 8-1 lead after six innings, only to see the Dodgers come back to tie it in the ninth. The Giants scored the winning run in the 12th for a 9-8 victory. July 3, 1998: A terrible new scheduling format limited the Giants-Dodgers to only 12 meetings that year. After a hot pennant race in 1997, the clubs didn’t meet for the first time until July 3, just before the All-Star break. Orel Hershiser got his first win as a Giant, as he beat his former club 6-3. April 11, 2000: Bit player Kevin Elster ruined the party at the opening of the Giants new ball park, taking center stage with a three-homer performance that helped the Dodgers to a 6-5 win.

* The best moment of this past weekend’s series came before the games. Dodgers’ announcing legend Vin Scully made the ceremonial first pitch to the great No. 32, Dodgers’ pitching legend Sandy Koufax. Minutes later, Ryan Vogelsong, who also wears No. 32,  took the mound for the Giants. Vogelsong couldn’t make it through the fifth inning despite being given an 8-0 lead, and blamed lazy mechanics for his poor outing. But that wasn’t it. On this day, the Baseball Gods decided that this day could only be about one No. 32, so Vogelsong never really had a chance.

* I started wondering whether the new flamboyant Dodger star was dead, because every story referred to him as the “late Yasiel Puig.” Fortunately, that reference was about Puig being tardy for the opener, which led manager Don Mattingly to bench him. Puig explained  his lack of promptness to having the starting time wrong. As the great lawyer Alan Dershowitz says when evaluating someone’s questionable story, “That doesn’t pass the giggle test.” What really made Puig late? And for a guy who drives 110 in a 70 mph zone, and 97 in a 50 mph zone, how the heck could he late for anything? Footnote: Puig has taken the early league lead in public apologies, both for his mea culpa about the speeding and for being late.

* The Dodgers can survive for a time without injured ace Clayton Kershaw, but can they win big-time without him? It also remains unclear just how long he’ll be sidelined. He would have started the opener, and it’s unlikely the Giants would have jumped on him for the quick six they put up against Hyun-Jin Ryu. There are also questions about the back end of the rotation, although the Dodgers have the cash to find reinforcements if needed. The Dodgers bullpen, even with the loss for now of set-up man Brian Wilson, looks deep and solid. After the Giants KO’d Ryu, four Dodgers relievers no-hit the Giants for seven innings while striking out 10. In game three, the Dodgers bullpen blanked the Giants over the final three innings while striking out six. The return of Matt Kemp and his two homers in that game are a sign of the Dodgers firepower. If the Dodgers lineup stays healthy, and Puig can be settled down, Los Angeles still appears to be the team to beat.

* It’s hard to make an argument that the Giants lineup won’t keep the clubs in games this year. While staying healthy is always an issue with any team, keys for the Giants are keeping leadoff hitter Angel Pagan and new slugging leftfielder Michael Morse in the lineup as much as possible. This gives the Giants a nice one-through-seven lineup so they don’t have to totally rely on pitching. That might be a good thing because the jury is still out on the Giants rotation. The three Dodgers homers off Matt Cain seem eerily familiar to what Giants fans saw last year, and there already is a clock ticking about how long the Giants will stick with Vogelsong. The Giants are also as curious as the rest of the Giants fans about whether the “new” Tim Lincecum will be enough to solidify the No. 3 spot in the rotation. Madison Bumgarner had a less-than-stellar first game, and needed the bullpen to bail him out against the Dodgers despite a solid lead, though he’ll likely return to top form.

Beyond all the analysis, the three games between the rivals felt good. In fact, the games were only marred by the appearance of beach balls and the wave in the Dodger Stadium stands. The clubs play three more in a week in San Francisco, where the sellout crowds are expected to give the Dodgers much verbal grief. The six early matchups still won’t be enough of a sample size to determine how this race will turn out, but they could further the fun of speculating whether the six games the clubs will play against each other in September will lead to one of those rare all-out fights to the finish.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2104 World Series: Reds vs. Rays

It’s tough to go against the consensus that the Dodgers are the pick as the 2014 world champion. In fact, they are so good that they already have a one-game lead and not one pitch has even been thrown yet here in the good old USA. And they can even stretch that lead to 1-1/2 games if they win the Sunday night opener. Is it too early to start running their magic number to clinch in the newspapers? Well, the Dodgers are good, and my choice to win the NL West. But I really like the vibe in Cincinnati created by the hiring of former pitching coach Bryan Price as manager, and he has a lot to work with. My upset special in the National League is that the Cardinal Way won’t be good enough to reach the post season.

I’m going the same direction in the American League, leaving the World Series champion Red Sox out of the post-season picture. Just as I believe that Price is just right for the Reds, I see veteran manager Joe Maddon using his experience to guide the pitching-rich Rays past a tough AL East and into the World Series. My most risky picks in the AL are having the Angels top the A’s for the AL West crown, and then seeing the Yankees and Tigers edge out Oakland for the wild card.

To summarize, in the American League I’ve got the Angels (West), Royals (Central) and Rays (East) winning their divisions. The wild-card teams will be the Tigers and Yankees. In the National League I’ve got the Dodgers (West), Reds (Central) and Nationals winning their divisions. The wild-card teams will be the Giants and Pirates.

Bonus predictions: Of the two new significant rule changes this  season, replay reviews will be a big hit, and the home-plate collision provision will be confusing and dangerous.

The best part of the replay rule is that the fans at the parks will be able to see the various camera angles of the disputed play as the call is being reviewed. And because the camera work is so sharp these days, it makes no sense to not overturn a call that everyone agrees is wrong. Of course, there are still limited challenges in the first six innings, so there will still be those moments when a wrong will not be made right.

I’m not sure if the players are even clear on the collision rule. Catchers can still block the plate if they have the ball, but players are being given the sense that they can’t run into the catcher. This seems to put catchers in control, because they don’t have to worry as much about getting  clobbered. Yet, indecision by base runners speeding into home about where their lane is supposed to be could cause some last-second awkward slides and possible injuries.

So, off we go on the 162-game grind (160-game grind for the Dodgers-D-Backs). Here is a division by division look.

NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST

1. Dodgers: The Australian Cup winners are more of a group of independent contractors than a team, with no real leaders. But so much talent, and they won 42 of 50 in that second-half streak last year. The long-delayed re-signing of manager Don Mattingly at least avoided us having to refer to the Dodgers as the Lame Duck Dynasty. Dodger baseball should be exciting, but will it be overshadowed by Mattingly’s daily father-to-son talks with his “un-puig-dictable” right fielder? 2. Giants: Tim Lincecum is the key. No. 1-2 starters Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain will be fine. If Lincecum can avoid high pitch counts forcing early exits, he can conserve the bullpen so it is rested for Tim Hudson and Ryan Vogelsong, who might not be innings-eaters About three hours after I wrote this, Lincecum took one off the knee in an exhibition game. He apparently is OK,  but it shows how quick fortunes can change and why picking winners and losers now is a bit risky. 3. Rockies: They have four legitimate big league starters in their rotation. If they and offensive stars Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki stay healthy, Colorado could be a wild-card contender. 4. Padres: Similar strategy as Giants, in that they play in an expansive park which can frustrate opposing batters. Strong rotation, but bullpen needs help. 5. Diamondbacks: They’re already a game out of first, having flown for 28 hours to lose two games in Sydney. Bad omen. Lost No. 1 starter Patrick Corbin for the season.

NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL

1. Reds: Exciting leadoff hitter Billy Hamilton and Brandon Phillips set the table for the sluggers. Injured key starter Mat Latos is probably out for first month. Closer Aroldis Chapman out for at least a month after taking a line drive off his forehead. So as long as Reds stay in hunt without them, both should return for the long haul. Love Dusty Baker, but Price will make team jell better and get the most out of the good talent. 2. Pirates: They did nearly knock off Cardinals in post season last year. Andrew McCutcheon is a star. Nice rotation and bullpen, and a belief, under manager Clint Hurdle, that the years of losing are over. 3. Cardinals: About the only argument against them is a hangover from that hard-fought post-season, and maybe just the odds that they can’t be in running for a World Series shot every season. Ask the Giants. 4. Brewers: Slugger Ryan Braun thinks the Brewers could be very competitive, but then, how do we know he’s telling the truth? Braun, trying to put the PED scandal behind him, is the key to an already strong offense. Questions about the rotation will likely prevent the Brewers from rising into contention. 5. Cubs: Holy Cow! They’re becoming unlovable. Even attendance is down at the Wrigley Field shrine. It’s a team rebuilding without a blueprint. Weak bullpen won’t be carried by rotation, and offense can’t manufacture runs.

NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST

1. Nationals: Last year’s dropoff seems to be a fluke. Dynamite rotation, strong bullpen. Young Bryce Harper could really jettison into star status this season. World Series contender has been handed to Matt Williams. Will the rookie manager be able to guide it through the ups and downs of a baseball season? 2. Phillies: It’s only a rumor that the dugout bench was replaced with rocking chairs. Phils have some aging players, but they can still play, and the incentive is that this season might represent last chance for one big run. 3. Braves. Lost two starters for season to surgery. Lost standout catcher/hitter Brian McCann and reliable starter Tim Hudson to free agency. They have a great closer, but will they have leads to save? Braves had their big shot at post-season success last year, and let it get away. 4. Marlins: Lost 100 games last year, so only way is up. Rookie of the year pitcher Jose Fernandez helps outlook, and lineup is somewhat improved. 5. Mets: Marginal lineup could negate some promising pitching. With All-Star game starter Matt Harvey lost to injury, young Zack Wheeler might be key to boosting the rotation.

AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST

1. Angels: There is general agreement that Mike Trout is the best player in the league if not the game. At some point, that has to translate into wins. If his slugging comrades Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton revive themselves and their bats, the 1-2-3 punch will be the most feared in baseball, with ex-Cardinals hero David Freese contributing to a solid lineup. Starters C.J. Wilson and Jered Weaver are a nice 1-2 combo, though the rest of the rotation needs to step up. The bullpen should be improved. 2. A’s: It is hard to pick against the A’s, whose management is so clever that the low-budget club is no longer a surprise if they make a post-season run. In fact, it is now expected that they will compete with all the big money clubs. But it’s difficult not to think that season-ending to surgery to their ace Jarrod Parker and ailments suffered by two other starters might be an early sign of the challenges ahead in 2014. 3. Rangers: Did the club have a bobble head voodoo doll giveaway this spring? Injuries have hit a number of players, including no. 1 starter Yu Darvish. Lots of questions about rest of rotation. 4. Mariners: Club, following 71-91 season, made statement that they are looking for instant turnaround with $240 million signing of the Yankees’ Robinson Cano. Question: More than Cano is needed to move up a couple notches, but is there any money left? 5. Astros: Bottom line is they don’t match up with rest of AL West, their main foes this season. Their no. 1 goal to turning things around: cut down on the strikeout total and increase the walks total.

AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL

1. Royals: James Shields leads the rotation and Greg Holland leads the bullpen, and their supporting cast could be very strong. The 1-2 leadoff tandem of Norichika Aoki and Omar Infante is one of the best in baseball, and the players who performed well in 2013 are expected to improve in 2014. Royals management has shown a willingness to bring on new talent to fill holes. 2. Tigers: Miguel Cabrera’s zillion-dollar contract won’t matter, since he can’t do much more than he already has delivered. Club still has plenty of talent, The team, however, is likely to miss the steady hand of veteran manager Jim Leyland, and rookie skipper Brad Ausmus might have more of challenge fitting in. 3. White Sox: It looks like a two-team race in the AL Central, with the White Sox, Indians and Twins as also-rans. Cuban star Jose Abreu should give White Sox offense a lift, and the pitching has promise led by starter Chris Sale. Still many question marks about no. 3,4,5 in the rotation as well as the bullpen. 4. Indians: They made the wild-card last year with a 21-6 September. Can’t bank on that again. Lineup has potential, but team won’t get close to post season without more pitching help. 5. Twins: Lost 96 in 2013, and things aren’t looking any better. Bullpen might be improved, but it won’t matter if the relief corps is overworked because of inadequate starting pitching.

AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST

1. Rays: Similar to the recent A’s teams in that the small-market club doesn’t look formidable until the game is over and it somehow beat you. Consistent, reliable pitching although Heath Bell as closer raises red flag. Time to fix that if he doesn’t click early. Strong rotation led by David Price. Offense will depend largely on 1-2 bats of Evan Longoria and rookie of the year Will Myers. The steady hand of manager Joe Maddon to guide the Rays through the treacherous AL West is a big plus. 2. Yankees: Can’t tell the players without a scorecard. C Brian McCann, OF-DH Carlos Beltran, OF Jacoby Ellsbury from the hated Red Sox, and Japanese pitching sensation Masahiro Tanaka are new acquisitions, and each could have a major impact. Rotation could be steady, especially if Tanaka lives up to billing. All eyes are on David Robertson, who takes over for closer legend Mariano Rivera. Fantasy finish would have Derek Jeter’s last game be in the World Series. 3. Red Sox: The Brotherhood of Beards. The bombing aftermath. So much emotion went into 2013 for the Red Sox, culminating in a tense, draining World Series championship. It might be asking too much to rev it all up again this year. Everything went right last year, such as reliever Koji Uehara’s ridiculous 1.09 ERA and 101 Ks in 74 innings. And they will miss Ellsbury. 4. Orioles: If chicks dig the long, ball, they will be wild about the O’s. Chris Davis hit 53 homers, an out-of-this world number in the supposed post-PED era. On defense, the Orioles gave up a major league high of 212. Club lost its closer, and rotation has some holes. But the shortcomings can be improved upon, and Orioles should be OK scoring runs. So there is still a path for the Orioles to maneuver their way toward contention in this tough division. 5. Blue Jays: Injuries hurt in 2013, and a healthier team could certainly make the outlook more positive. Rotation caused bullpen to get overworked, and defense didn’t help.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Barry Bonds: Safe at Home

“I’m shocked. That would be the last place I’d think he’d go.”

That was the reaction of Dodger icon Tommy Lasorda in 1993 when the Giants signed Barry Bonds for $43.75 million. But looking back today, was there really anywhere else that was a better fit? Bonds as a Yankee would have meant daily bitter showdowns with the New York media. Bonds as a Dodger would have meant that Bobby Bonds’ son and Willie Mays’ godson would be trying to bring down the Giants. Bonds as a Cub, Cardinal or Tiger might have worn thin, as their front offices and fans might not have tolerated the ego and the entourage. Bonds did seven years in Pittsburgh, but that was a younger version. It’s hard to believe that the later version of Bonds would not have eventually worn out its welcome there. San Francisco, whose tolerance is viewed as a vice or a virtue, depending on one’s point of view, was all in with Bonds from his first game in 1993 to his final at bat in 2007.

Bonds has mostly been in exile from the Giants and the game since then, much of his attention focused on legal battles. The Giants have never fully embraced Bonds since his departure, although that may have been a two-way street. Still, I’m surprised how the Giants seemed to have gone out of their way not to celebrate the man who helped make AT&T Park possible. The mezzanine area on the second level of AT&T is a Giants museum. Giants old and current, and historic artifacts, are displayed throughout. I’ve always found it interesting that the section devoted to Bonds is down a somewhat darkened corridor, not front and center in the main viewing area. The good news is that this icy co-existence between Bonds and Giants might be thawing.

On Monday, Bonds is being welcomed by the Giants as a visiting spring training coach in Scottsdale, Ariz. Bonds’ assignment during his weeklong stay is to work with the hitters. Before he gets to that, however, one can imagine that the Bonds’ circus will have one last performance  as the press arrives to mark the moment. Baseball analysts have speculated on what Bonds will actually tell the hitters. I doubt he will be changing grips or altering swings. He would be most effective talking to them about the philosophy of hitting. One of the best Bonds’ interviews I ever heard came before a Sunday Night TV game in 2004 when he talked ball while sitting in the dugout with ESPN analyst/baseball legend Joe Morgan.

Morgan asked him to talk about the key to consistent hitting and here is what Bonds said: “There can be a situation where a guy hits two home runs in a game, and the next two at bats he looks worse … Well, he’s satisfied with his day, and basically, I’ve never been satisfied with an at bat. You can learn that from great hitters … So I go in there to focus that I’m not going to give up any at bats no matter what.”

Bingo! If Bonds can communicate that type of approach on every at bat to the hitters, his short stay at camp could have lasting results.

It will be interesting to see how this new relationship between Bonds and the Giants works out. Will it be a one-camp stand, or will the love last? Bonds in some ways is the odd-man out among the Giants legends. The fans went wild for Bonds the offensive force. The early years of 2000 were the some of the most magical I’ve ever seen. Yet, the fans’ feeling for fellow superstars Willie Mays and Willie McCovey, for example, goes much deeper than balls that went far off into the night at AT&T. It is unlikely that Bonds will ever have that level of personal warmth and respect that fans have for Mays and McCovey, but he will always draw huge ovations from those who witnessed his extraordinary feats.

Trying to figure out where I stand on Bonds is complex. I think he was one of the purest, most-gifted hitters in the game, and I’m talking on the level of Ted Williams. Like everyone else, I wish the PED era never happened. I loved reading about baseball at a very early age, and especially liked going through all the stats. The PED generation made a mockery of those numbers, and I’ll never forgive them for messing with my game. But then you look at what Bonds was facing by the end of 1999. Bonds was the only player in history at the end of 1998 with 400 homers and 400 stolen bases. But nobody cared. In 1998, Mark McGwire hit 70 homers and Sammy Sosa had 66, and they were saluted as the men who saved baseball after the bad feelings from the 1994 strike that canceled the season. Popeye won Olive Oil’s hand and was the hero by beating Bluto because he ate the spinach. So I can understand why Bonds was tempted to try the spinach himself.

The Bonds return has rekindled the debate about a statue at AT&T. I’m not really struggling with that one. He is one of the all-time S.F. Giants, and he owned that ballpark. I wouldn’t put the statue outside the park, since it would invite vandals. Instead, there might be a nice spot within the park in deep right center up in the arcade area.

Hall of Fame? I don’t think he’ll ever make it. His relationship outside of Northern California is sour, and the scribes will never forgive him for not being nice to them. There is a legitimate case against Bonds gaining entrance, but it wouldn’t be enough to keep me from voting for him if I had a ballot. Bonds was one of the best ballplayers ever, with numbers that were among the best even without chemical assistance.

So welcome back, Barry. I hope Brandon Belt, Pablo Sandoval and Brandon Crawford listen closely when you impart your hitting wisdom on them. And I hope you listen closely when you are around Mays and McCovey for advice on how to really earn the love. You’ll probably never win over the fans elsewhere, but at AT&T, my guess is that however your relationship with the  Giants goes from here, you’ll always be safe at home.

Baseball, Radio, and a final sign-off

The Giants first spring game of 2014 was carried live today on KNBR, the Giants radio flagship station. There was no TV, which was appropriate. Spring training baseball is made for the radio. It’s too early to visually dissect every nuance of a game. All that is needed at this time is hearing the sounds of baseball again — the crack of the bat, the vocal beer guy pitching his goods, the announcers trying to learn the name of late-inning substitute No. 88, who doesn’t appear on the pre-game roster list.

I fell in love with baseball because of the radio back in the early 1960s. I like to say that I learned my baseball from three men — Russ Hodges, Lon Simmons and my Dad. Russ and Lon were the Giants radio broadcasters, and with limited TV games at that time, they were my eyes. Their descriptions and ability to describe the drama were so good that I didn’t need a TV to follow the game. Russ, forever known as the announcer who described the “Shot Heard Round the World” in 1951, and whose home run call of “Bye-Bye Baby” was beloved by Giants fans, retired in 1970, and I really missed his broadcast. On April 19, 1971, Russ was felled by a heart attack at his Mill Valley home. He was rushed to Marin General Hospital in Greenbrae where he was pronounced dead.

I woke up to that very sad news. I joined my Mom and Dad in the kitchen for a somber breakfast as we all mourned the passing of the “Voice of the Giants.” Our radio was tuned in as usual to KSFO to the morning Jim Lange radio show. Lange had been an on-air personality with KSFO since 1960, and understood the significance of the loss. His usually fun, nicely paced show was derailed for this day. He signed off with a tribute to Hodges that I’ll never forget. Russ, a booming baritone, loved to sing “Oh Danny Boy,” according to Lange. It’s also important to note that Russ had some girth, and that it was a term of endearment to mention it. So after playing a  record of someone beautifully singing the powerful song, Lange signed off by saying, “Bye-Bye Baby you beautiful fat man.”

Just a few hours ago, I heard the news that Jim Lange had died at his Mill Valley home of a heart attack. The initial 9-inch Associated Press story focused almost entirely on his time as host of the popular “Dating Game,” but not a word was written about his tenure at KSFO.

From 1956 to 1983, when the station was owned by the singing cowboy Gene Autry, KSFO was the golden era of radio in Northern California. KSFO billed itself as the “World’s Greatest Radio Station,” and it might have been true. The talent was deeper than any Major League All-Star team. Radio broadcast legend Don Sherwood and a list of radio superstars were part of the team over the years — they included Jeff Skov, Aaron Edwards, Dan Sorkin, Buddy Hatton, Carter B. Smith, Del Courtney, Al “Jazzbeaux” Collins and Jim Lange. It pains me today to see my KSFO taken over by the far right, and I would be just as chagrined if it were taken over by the extreme left.

KSFO was part of the fabric of our lives in those memorable years. No other station was needed. The DJs entertained us with their wit and banter, until it was time for Giants baseball when Russ and Lon would step in. And the best 15 minutes of sports radio came at 5:45 nightly, when Simmons would recap the day’s results.

On Saturday and Sunday, KSFO would sign off on local programming for the evening at 6 p.m., when it would run old radio broadcasts and the like. But the sign-off would be very special, as they would play the station’s love song to San Francisco, titled “Sounds of the City.” Written by Johnny Mann and performed by a men’s chorus, the lyrics are:

The sounds of the City/The sounds that are heard/in San Francisco/Are mixed with daylights glimmer rays/And moonbeam’s shimmering glow

When darkness settles over the city/Homeward people on their way/Chimes ringing softly in the stillness/Fog creeping over the bay

Hear the sound of the city/the sounds that are heard/In San Francisco/on K-S-F-O,                 K-S-F-O San Francisco.

Bye-Bye Baby, Jim, and may you rest in peace.

Dodgers-Giants: Contender vs. Pretender?

Giants manager Bruce Bochy began 2013 by almost killing a photographer with his opening drive at the AT&T Golf Tournament at Pebble Beach when his errant shot narrowly whizzed by her head. It was that kind of season for Bochy, who never could straighten out the Giants on their way to a disappointing 76-86 record. Bochy, the master game manager in 2012, was as lost as his team in 2013 as he even got caught with his club batting out of order. Dodgers manager Don Mattingly didn’t fare much better in early 2013, as he was unable to cash in on the millions being spent by ownership to make the team a winner. Those Dodgers’ owners are a tough crowd: Even after winning an amazing 42 of 50 games in the second half to reach the post season, Mattingly still had to go through an embarrassing period of uncertainty before the Dodgers finally signed him up for three years.

As the teams begin to gather for the start of spring training, the pressure is clearly on Mattingly to win it all. The baseball buzz has the Dodgers as a favorite to win the West. In an MLB.com article listing the top 10 teams in the game for 2014, the Dodgers were ranked fourth. The Giants didn’t make the list, but the A’s were eighth. Ouch! The Giants can flash some well-earned fancy jewelry, but the baseball world has never viewed the team as the gold standard for success. Perhaps motivational guru Hunter Pence can use that underdog role to again put a charge into his frat brothers, but the key to another ring ceremony is how well Bochy can keep the starting rotation on course.

A Few Spring Things:

* Both teams have new slogans for 2014. The Dodgers: “Live, Breathe, Blue.” The Giants: “All Together — Stronger Together.” Did I get you all revved up Dodgers and Giants fans? I didn’t think so. I wonder if the Dodgers really thought their slogan out. Here’s how I read it: “Live, breathe the Southern California air, turn blue.” The Giants didn’t get too original with their slogan. It’s been used in similar forms for promotions by Hyundai Motors, nationwide food co-ops and Greece (“All together, building a stronger future for Greece.”)

* A more practical slogan for the wealthy Dodgers is “there’s an app for that,” because the club has the money to order up whatever is needed to upgrade as the season goes on. Facing holes in the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation because of uncertainty over injury comebacks by Chad Billingsley and Josh Beckett, and the departure of Ricky Nolasco, the team added veteran starters Dan Haren and Paul Maholm. The Dodgers needed a regular, reliable second baseman so they gave promising but untested Cuban defector Alexander Guerrero $28 million over four years. Guerrero’s impact is up in the air because of a hamstring problem and inexperience, but the signing is proof the Dodgers will dial up whatever is required.

* Speaking of Cuban defectors, rookie sensation Yasiel Puig had an exciting off season. When we last saw him, he was speeding wildly around the bases for a triple after initially jogging to first when he thought his deep blast was out of the park. Speed is the operable word here. The suddenly rich Puig apparently has one of those vehicles that can go from zero to traffic school in five seconds. He was nailed for driving 110 mph in a 70 mph zone in Florida. He previously was caught going 97 mph in a 50 mph zone in Tennessee. In both cases he was cleared of reckless driving. Hmm. This spring training, I’m sure the Dodgers will try to find the maturity app for Puig. But what father-figure Mattingly should do is tell Puig the story of Roy Campanella. The great Dodgers catcher of the 1950s was paralyzed in a crash when he lost control of his car on an icy road in 1958, and spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair. Puig seems to have a shot at being at the top of the baseball world with fame and money. But reckless or not, his irresponsible driving actions threaten to end it all for him in a moment.

* Among the questions facing the Giants this season will be if the signing of free agent starting pitcher Bronson Arroyo by Arizona might possibly keep San Francisco out of the post season. Assuming every game counts in a tight fight for either a wild card or even division title, Arroyo could be a difference-maker. Arroyo is a Giant-killer, as well as a respectable pitcher and innings eater overall, going 14-12 with a 3.79 ERA for Cincinnati in 2013. Arroyo would have been a great fit as a fifth starter for the Giants, even if that meant the popular Ryan Vogelsong was left off the roster or given a lesser role. Arroyo, with his off-speed mastery, is a perfect match for hitter-unfriendly AT&T Park. And now that he is pitching within the division, the Giants will have to face him three or four times. In his last four starts against the Giants, he has allowed three runs in 27 innings. In the NLDS in 2012, he had a perfect game for 5-2/3 innings on the way to a 9-0 Reds win. The Giants could come to regret not pursuing Arroyo.

* The letdown by the Giants starting rotation last year, with the exception of Madison Bumgarner, gives Giants fans a reason to take the exhibition games more seriously this spring. Normally, if a starter gets lit up in a spring training outing or two, the team writes it off that the pitcher was just getting loose and will be ready for the bell when the season starts. I doubt fans will buy that this year. They are going to want to see Matt Cain demonstrate his top pitching form, Tim Lincecum show that he is relearning the art of pitching to offset the decline of his heat, and Vogelsong and newly signed Tim Hudson give signs that their injuries of 2013 are behind them.

* Beyond the pitching, the Giants’ MIP (most important player) for 2014 might be first baseman Brandon Belt. We were led to believe that a simple change in the way he gripped the bat led to his offensive surge in the second half of 2013. Whatever the reason, Belt has the look of a hitter who could become a constant power-RBI man in the third spot of the order. A true breakout season by Belt could be the offensive game-changer for the Giants. His spring training performance will be worth following to see if he is making strong, consistent contact.

* Unlike the Giants, the Dodgers don’t have key players who need to show they can play during the spring games. Their biggest goal is break camp for the regular season with good health. Slugger Matt Kemp is unlikely to be ready following ankle surgery, but the Dodgers are counting on outfielder Carl Crawford and shortstop Hanley Ramirez, who both missed significant time in 2013, to play a good share of games this season. In fact, the Dodgers’ roster is sound enough that their MIP might be new bench coach Tim Wallach. The Dodgers got a bit out of hand last season, with Puig’s unpredictability, the normally restrained Adrian Gonzalez making goofy Mickey Mouse ears at the Cardinals in the NLCS, and the bizarre jump into the pool after clinching at the Diamondbacks’ ballpark. Mattingly could use the veteran presence of Wallach to help him keep the Dodgers steady and focused

* The Giants blamed some of their 2013 troubles on the shorter off season because of post season play and longer training camps necessitated by the World Baseball Classic, so it will be  interesting to see if a similar scenario bothers their rivals. The Dodgers, who played in October, had their off season cut even shorter because they had to report to camp a week earlier to get ready to open the regular season March 22-23 against the D-Backs in Australia. This means the Dodgers need to have Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, their likely pitchers for those games, ready for serious work earlier than usual. If nothing else, the flight and time change, and then coming back to camp before heading to Los Angeles seems like a rough way to prepare for April. If the Giants lead the Dodgers — and the D-Backs — after the first month of the season, they might want to send a thank-you text to Bud Selig for fouling up their competition’s schedules.

* Mattingly referred to the Dodgers as “America’s Team” last year, and that overstatement does have some credence early. The Dodgers will not only draw national focus for the Australian Games, but also open the season on ESPN’s Sunday night game March 30. If the Dodgers are perfect, the Giants, who don’t play until March 31,  will start the season 1-1/2 games behind the Dodgers. And if the Giants lose the opener, the Dodgers magic number to beat out the Giants will be 159, which ironically was about what Bochy might have shot that day in his round at Pebble Beach.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Aaron

I was raised a Giants fan. The first game I can remember going to was in the inaugural West Coast season of 1958 at Seals Stadium against the Milwaukee Braves. I proudly wore the Giants hat and Giants jersey my Dad bought for me to that game, and at seven years old, I thought I looked pretty cool. But then I saw those Braves uniforms. The red striping and the tomahawk across the front quickly redefined cool for me. I asked my Dad if I could have a Braves jersey, which required him to do his best Ward Cleaver impression when father had to straighten out the Beaver. So though I knew I wouldn’t be wearing Braves’ colors, I still couldn’t keep my eyes off the right fielder, who was right in front of us as we sat down the right field line.

As I watched that player wearing No. 44, I started to admire more than his outfit. I loved his batting stance, how he cocked those wrists and the fluid, graceful swing. So cool. A few weeks later, I purchased a pack of baseball cards, and hit the jackpot. Inside was the baseball card of Hank Aaron. When I heard that today was Aaron’s 80th birthday, I went to the closet and pulled out that same 1958 Hank Aaron card that I’ve never let go. On the back it read: “Hank was voted the N.L. Most Valuable Player last year. And no wonder — he led the loop in Homers, Runs batted in, and Runs scored. Hank’s performance was a big factor in the Braves’ Championship drive.”

When I turned 10, and was about to join my first little league baseball team, my Dad took me to the sporting good store to buy a bat. He showed me the bats with signatures of Willie Mays and Willie McCovey, but I couldn’t keep my eyes off the bat with Hank Aaron’s name on it. My Dad knew it probably wasn’t the best bat for me with its skinny handle and big barrel, but he saw my face and did what Mr. Cleaver likely would have done for the Beaver — he bought me my Hank Aaron bat.

Well, I didn’t quite have Hank’s mighty wrists or fluid stroke, but every once in a while pure luck would allow the ball to come in contact with the barrel and that ball would fly. The results weren’t that important. The main thing is that I felt as if I was just like Hank, and it made me think how great it would be to be Hank Aaron.

I guess I was pretty much shielded from the reality of the world at that early, innocent, naïve age, or I never would have said such a thing. As I started getting a little older, I learned about the word prejudice. And I learned about racism, and how my baseball heroes were being degraded and discriminated against because of their skin color. How could anyone hate my Hammerin’ Hank who played this game so beautifully?

On April 8, 1974, I was at a large party at an apartment in Washington, D.C. where a bunch of college seniors who were there on congressional internships had gathered to watch some baseball history. I think the first baseball stat I ever heard was “714,” the number of home runs hit by Babe Ruth. It was a sacred number, and one many said would never be broken. But on this night, Aaron was going for No. 715. Again, the bigots had returned, as Aaron received hate mail and death threats because he was zeroing in on the record of the white baseball icon. The party was loud and exuberant, but all I could do was watch silently and intently as Aaron came to the plate. He walked in his first at bat and was now up in the fourth against the Dodgers’ Al Downing with Darrell Evans on first after reaching base on an error. With 53,775 looking on at Atlanta Stadium and I assume millions watching around the nation on TV, those powerful wrists were unleashed once more, and the ball soared deep over the left field fence. Everybody around me jumped and hollered, but I stepped back quietly, not wanting to explain why my eyes were tearing up.

Hank finished his career with 755, and though Barry Bonds surpassed it, no one ever has topped Aaron in the incredible class and dignity that he has shown during and after his baseball career.

There are many baseball heroes, so named for getting the big hit or making the big pitch. But there are far fewer heroes who happen to play baseball. Hank Aaron will always be a hero to me, on and off the field.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Aaron.

.  .

The Shout Heard Round the World

I am frequently asked if I’m going to write another book, having recently published the story of the Giants-Dodgers rivalry. The short answer is that I’m still busy promoting that one. Now, as a result of recent developments on the gridiron, I’m getting asked if I’m going to write a book about the biggest, nastiest rivalry in the history of mankind: the 49ers vs. the Seahawks. I laughed it off until I watched Sunday’s heavyweight classic NFC championship game. It was amazing to hear the deafening, ear-piercing, 6.5 earthquake-jarring sound in that stadium, and that was just in Richard Sherman’s post-game interview with a frightened Erin Andrews. Sherman is my new favorite football player. He’s really good and all that, but in this era of watering down the game by eliminating good old clean football hits, the crackdown on bullying 300-pound men, and the taunting rules, it’s heartwarming to see a gridiron great go gonzo crazy while the NFL PR Machine could only watch in horror.

Actually, the NFL PR Machine, on further review, is gonzo giddy itself over Sir Richard’s antics. Sherman’s rants are ratings gold. The Super Bowl pits Peyton Manning, America’s Quarterback, against Richard Sherman, representing what America truly is today with everybody screaming at each other whether they’re politicians in Washington trying to make laws or road-raging motorists trying to get home on crowded highways. OK, I’ve heard the Sherman defenders. The first thing they can’t wait to tell the world, or at least ESPN, is that Sherman is a Stanford man, an eloquent speaker, a philanthropist, a 3.9 student. Yeh, but what sophisticated Stanford man would scream rudely at Erin Andrews? In fact, why would any guy scream rudely to Erin Andrews? Doesn’t Stanford teach manners? My research discovered that Sherman’s degree was in Communications, which I believe would be a good joke if it wasn’t true. I could not verify this, but I believe he graduated Magna Cum Loud.

I have already professed my man-crush for Richard for shaking up the NFL, but I must warn him not to take things too far. First, it’s interesting, I was thinking, that you don’t see this kind of behavior in baseball. In baseball, a much more humbling game, it’s hard to brag or get in the face of your opponent when even the great ones fail seven times in every 10 at bats. If Sherman gave up seven completions for every 10 passes thrown his way, he’d quickly be an unemployed communications major. But about that warning. Fred Williamson was a DB for the Kansas City Chiefs in the 1967 Super Bowl against the Green Bay Packers. He was nicknamed “The Hammer,” because he would combine his karate skills with a powerful forearm to knock out receivers. He is remembered as one of pro football’s original self-promoters, or as I would put it, one of the first look-at-me athletes. Williamson predicted he would KO two Packers receivers. In the fourth quarter, with all Packers receivers still present and accounted for, and the Chiefs going down to a 35-10 whipping, Williamson tried to tackle tough-running halfback Donnie Anderson. Anderson’s knee drove into Williamson’s helmet, knocking him out cold. NFL Films captured the moment, as the Packer sideline lit up with the news that “The Hammer got it.”  So Richard, you might think twice before calling out Manning’s receivers during media day.

Quick thoughts about the NFC championship game:

Media analysts who are criticizing Colin Kaepernick for trying to hit Crabtree must have been tweeting or blogging at the time, because they certainly didn’t see the play unfold.This was one of the boldest, heroic, ice-in-the-veins tries I’ve ever seen in a lot of football watching. This was the big stage. Kaepernick is following the likes of team legends Montana, Young, Brodie, Tittle and Albert. All 49ers past and present should be in awe that young Colin was willing to go mano vs. mano with his best (Crabtree) against their best (Sherman) with the Super Bowl berth on the line. Maybe his only mistake was not asking Coach Harbaugh to send in R.C. Owens for the Alley-Oop. Some observers said he should have called a time out, which would have been terrible time management, since they might need it to stop the clock if they had to complete passes in bounds. Also, no one was open downfield on this play. Look at the replay everyone. And here’s the capper: Crabtree beat Sherman, but Kaepernick either waited a split second too long to throw it or simply didn’t put enough on it. Sherman’s incredible athletic ability saved him, as seen in the photos of his desperation leap. The real hero of the play was linebacker Malcolm Smith, who hustled some 20 yards after the throw was in flight to be in position to catch the tipped ball. This is the unfortunate part about Sherman’s rant. Instead of singling out Crabtree,  who had somehow offended this sensitive Stanford man many months ago, he should have put the spotlight on teammate Smith, who in the end, was the Seahawk who truly made the play of the game.

But now it’s on to New York. Start spreading the news. Richard Sherman and his supporting cast are on their way. Sherman tried a lame apology: regrets he had a few, but too few to mention. I’m sure Sherman has gained some fans around the country who say “blessed are the noisemakers.” But be comforted to know that there is at least one place in the nation’s heartland that falls solidly for Manning, and his class and dignity whether in victory or in defeat. That place, of course, is Omaha.

Now brace yourself for two weeks of hype and hollering, but be calmed by the fact that pitchers and catchers will report in a few weeks in peaceful environments where folks such as Erin Andrews can interview athletes without a bodyguard.

About the book

book jacket

From New York to California

A celebration

Author Joe Konte celebrates the historic, 100-plus years of the Giants-Dodgers rivalry with a new book, “THE RIVALRY HEARD ’ROUND THE WORLD: The Giants-Dodgers Feud from Coast to Coast.” The book, which is scheduled for release Sept. 3, 2013, focuses heavily on the West Coast rivalry, starting with the arrival of the clubs in San Francisco and Los Angeles in 1958, and ending with an expanded look at the pivotal 2012 season. The book also reports on the East Coast rivalry, starting with the first official game played between the teams in 1889. The book will be available at Amazon.com and at Barnes Noble stores and online sites.

Post Archives

Recent Comments

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.