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Howe do you do?

Great to see all the publicity Ron Washington is getting during his first go-around as a manager. He’s deserved this opportunity for a long time, and to see how the Rangers players are responding to him is no surprise to any of us lucky enough to know him.

What’s just as interesting, however, is that Art Howe’s return to baseball has gotten not even drawn a spec of notice. Howe, who guided the A’s to three playoff appearances and two division titles as their manager from 1996-2002, has been out of the game the past two seasons. He was canned by the New York Mets after 2004, and his career seem to have stalled.

But suddenly he’s Washington’s right-hand man, and the fact that he’s here gives some insight into Wash’s personality.

“He told me one time that he ever became a manager and I was available, he wanted me on his staff,” Howe said.

So it should come as no surprise that when Washington was hired by Texas in November, he called Howe immediately. And no, this isn’t an example of the old-crony network. It is, instead, one manager long ago recognizing an ally and keeping that information on tap in case he ever needed it.

“I like his style,” Washington said the other day. “I like his intelligence. I like his demeanor. I’m a fiery guy. He’s laid back. So we make a good partnership. When I got Art, I became more relaxed.”

Howe also seems extremely content with the situation. He’s Washington’s bench coach in Texas (as well as his infield coach), which a) puts him close to his home in Houston and b) allows him to experience the intrigue of managing without the headaches.

“I told him, ‘When you have to go talk to the press, I’ll be taking a nice, hot shower,” Howe joked, “And drinking a nice, cold beer.”

Philadelphia Phillies general manager Pat Gillick also deserves some praise, as well. Gillick had hired Howe to be the team’s third-base coach, yet granted him 24 hours to work out a deal with the Rangers when Washington called.

“I was at the airport, getting ready to go to the organizational meetings when my phone rang,” Howe said. “I guess it was meant to be. … I owe Gillick a big debt, because I don’t know if any other general manager would’ve done that for me.”

The net result being that a good man who wasn’t a bad manager is back where he belongs.

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Old rep a bad rap

I landed in Arizona on Sunday, and so the blogs soon will regard teams that train in the land of the cactus. But just wanted to relay a story that’s made the rounds in Florida, one that makes you wonder why Frank Thomas ever got such a bad reputation in Toronto.

Seems Thomas was hoping to procure his No. 35 from teammate Lyle Overbay, who wore it last season. Overbay, apparently, was all too willing to give up the number, but before the subject was even broached, Thomas called Overbay’s wife to see if Overbay would be interested in having a painting done of him.

Told that, yes, he would, Thomas then commissioned the painting from Vernon Wells Sr., the father of the Blue Jays center fielder and a highly respected portrait artist. The gift floored Overbay, who told the Toronto Globe and Mail “… it just tells you the kind of person he is.”

The A’s saw it last season. I saw it on Friday, when he sat down with me for 45 mins, and spent at least 20 of them discussing topics he knew would never see the light of day in a paper. Maybe he was at immature at times with the White Sox, but don’t we all regret things we did at a younger age? Seems to me he got a really bum steer.

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The Cactus League beckons

Heading out to Arizona on Sunday to check out some of the camps in the Cactus League, and have to admit I’ll be curious to check out the Giants. Specifically, I want to see Barry Bonds hit, because from what I’ve been reading and hearing, I have a hunch he’s getting ready for a huge year.

Reason I say this is the little give-and-take Bonds had with Matt Cain on the first day Bonds was in camp. Bonds talked trash to the young gun after Cain threw one pitch by Bonds. Two pitches later, Bonds smoked a Cain pitch over the wall. The fact that Bonds is chirping says to me that he’s feeling very good about things, and there’s no question that he’s physically sound, he can still be a force.

Also looking forward to seeing how Barry Zito is fitting in. Sounds like all is going well so far, and it seems that he and Bonds are getting along just fine. Perhaps the Giants clubhouse is even looser than it was last spring. Now, what that means once the regular-season starts you never can tell, but a pleasant environment in any endeavor is more condusive to a successful one.

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It was a pretty good year

Got a chance to sit down with St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa on Tuesday to discuss a variety of topics pertaining to his team’s defense of the title and his own motivations as he enters his 29th season as a manager.

As it turns out, a World Series crown wasn’t the only great thing to happen to him in 2006. His Animal Resue Foundation thrived, too.

“We had a hellacious year,” La Russa said.

Three years ago, La Russa caused some mild annoyance among some of his players because he allowed “Friday Night Lights,” author Buzz Bissinger unfettered access to the team during a late-season, three-game series with the Cubs, the result of which was Bissinger’s book, “Three Nights in August.” La Russa later revealed that his main motivation for doing the project was his desire to pay off the $17 million debt on the ARF headquarters, which are located just down the street from the Times.

Well, after the business ARF did in 2006, the debt is under $1 million, and La Russa said it’s expected to be paid off this year. What this means for the future of the foundation, he didn’t reveal, other than to say, “We’ll be able to do some big things.”

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A Giant favorite

Bill Mueller is one of the classiest individuals I’ve ever met in this game. And my friend, Buzz, who I’ve known for more than half my life and who is as knowledgable on the Giants as anyone in this business, often said Mueller is one of his all-time favorites. I used to think of him as a poor man’s Pete Rose, without the demons, because of how he got everything out of himself that he possibly could get.

Why am I telling you this? Well, Mueller is working for the Los Angeles Dodgers now, and hopefully Giants fans can see past that little fact and keep their fond memories (and if you don’t have fond memories of this guy, you don’t know baseball). Mueller has that nebulous tag, “special assistant to the general manager,” which essentially means he’s getting on-the-job, front-office training. Not sure where it will lead for him, and Mueller himself told me he’s not sure if he wants to be a GM (or even a coach), but no doubt whatever he does he’ll succeed. Some guys have a quiet intensity that is belied by their humility, and I’ve always felt Mueller was one of them.

Example: I sat down with Mueller to discuss the defection of so many former Giants to the Dodgers and what it means to the rivalry. In the course of our conversation, I asked him about Jeff Kent and whether he (Mueller) thinks he’ll be judged harshly by Giants fans.

“First of all, a player like Jeff, that’s a good player …” Mueller answered. And I gotta be honest, I was so stunned I never heard another word of that answer. Mueller, for the record, was a darn good player. Witness the batting title he won for the Boston Red Sox team of 2004 (the one that exorcised The Ghost) and the contributions he made to the 1997 Giants division winner that started one of the most successful eras in team history
manager.

On a personal note, that 1997 team was the first club I got to cover on a semi-routine basis. I was generally third in line behind our beat writer Joe Roderick and a back-up. But as the season progressed, I got more and more assignments, and Mueller was one of the first guys I struck up a rapport with. He and Estes made it just a bit easier for a guy who was just getting over the wide-eyed portion of his career. If all athletes were like those two, the media’s job would be a breeze.

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Dodgertown

Started my week-long tour of Grapefruit League camps by hitting Dodgertown in Vero Beach this morning. Plenty of former Giants on-hand, and you can read about that in Wednesday morning’s Times. But my focus for much of the morning was soaking everything in, because there are few places in baseball that have the lore that Dodgertown does. It’s a quaint, tucked-away town, kind of the way you might’ve pictured Walnut Creek before the days of shopping centers and restaurants. Most of the players stay in a fraternity right near the team’s complex, and the fans and players can co-mingle in a way that you don’t see anywhere else in the majors.

Sad thing is — and the more I think about it, the more I think it’s not so much sad as it is just marking the passage of time _ this is the penultimate spring for Dodgertown. The Dodgers are expected in 2009 to move into a state-of-the-art facility that they’ll share with the Chicago White Sox in Glendale, Ariz. The move makes perfect sense, because the site will be closer to the Dodgers fan-base. But you can’t help but feel a bit nostalgic toward a place that features Sandy Koufax Drive, and Jackie Robinson Ave. (every Dodger Hall of Famer has a street named after them).

Anyway, I’ve been to Dodgertown twice now, and that’s all it took to make it into my Top 10. You spring training veterans out there, let me know your favorite spots, and why. Should make for some interesting discussion.

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Barry controversial

Well, that didn’t take real long did it? One bullpen session into his career as a Giant and Barry Zito has created a tsunami of controversy. Not even the other Barry was that efficient.

In case you haven’t heard, Zito struck fear into the Giants on Thursday, when he unveiled a new, overhauled delivery while working off the mound at Scottsdale Stadium. Apparently, he stands less upright, rocks far back on his back leg when the delivery starts and is measuring his stride. The Giants are understandably concerned considering they gave Zito the richest contract ever for a pitcher (7 years, $126 million), something they would not have done had they deemed his pitching mechanics in major need of fixing.

Thing is, this is what the Giants signed up for, when they brought Zito aboard. The general knock on Zito when scouts and executives whisper behind the scenes is that he’s often his own worst enemy, which loosely translated, means he’s inside his head too much. Baseball players, current and former, will tell you that success in this failure-ridden game has as much to do with eliminating any and all negative or distracting thoughts, a skill with which that other Barry has mastered as much as anyone.

Zito, however, is a studious, thoughtful individual, who cares so passionately about his craft that he spends considerable time analyzing what he does and how he can do it better. Those around the A’s were used to this part of him, so no doubt this would be causing a much smaller stir were he still working out in Phoenix rather than Scottsdale. Surround Zito with guys who aren’t familiar with him, however, and it’s easy to understand why this is causing alarm. That said, the Giants should chill for the time being. Spring training is a time to work and experiment, and Zito has not been nearly as devastating in the four years since he won the Cy Young Award as he was in the three seasons that preceded it. If this works for him, great. If it doesn’t, well, he wasn’t too shabby with his old motion in Oakland, and as he said, that’s ingrained in him and he can always return to it.

One other observation. Heard Zito interviewed on KNBR this morning, and tell me he doesn’t sound irritated that this has become such a big story (he sounded particularly annoyed with the comments made by Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti). Wonder if he’s thought at all about how this story would be going over in New York had he decided to go that route.

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Questions for the AL West

Pitchers and catchers report to spring training this week, and soon, the answers to all those key questions you have about your favorite team will start to take shape. Outgoing A’s beat writer Josh Suchon broke down five key questions for the A’s on Sunday. In that spirit, the next three days
here are three key questions for each of the A’s AL West division foes. I’ll do the same for the NL West on Wednesday.

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This Bud’s not for you

I’ve received some e-mail over the past couple of days regarding my column on Bud Selig and his refusal to commit one way or another regarding his plans to commemorate Barry Bonds’ elevation to the top of the home-run throne. What’s been interesting about these e-mails is that they really haven’t addressed the theme of the column (namely, that Selig doesn’t get a lot of credit for the good he’s done in the game, because he never shows a willingness to reveal his spine), but rather that they can’t understand how anyone can possibly think baseball has become a better sport with Selig in office.

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