2

Got change for a $50?

OK, time for a rant. Went out to the Big Coke Bottle this morning to do some reporting for stories I’m working on, and you know what jumped out at me most as I made the familiar turn onto 3rd St.?

Not Willie Mays’ statue. Not the glorious sight of a clear day on the bay. Not the same ol’ autograph seekers who loiter near the entrance.

No, what jumped out at me is that, in some lots, it’s now $30 to park . Are you kidding me? Thirty bucks? Baseball may still be the most affordable of the major sports, but it really wasn’t that long ago that you could spend an entire day taking in a game and not even spend that much ($10 for a ticket, $5 to park, $8 for a couple of hot dogs, $2 for a malt). And please don’t use the argument that I’m just a fogey misting about the good ol’ days. I haven’t even turned 40 yet.

Anyway, I understand the concept that teams have to generate revenues so they can pay the Barry Zito’s of the world $126 million. And I get that the Giants have limited parking and that there are many avenues of public transportation available. But c’mon, $30 to park? I know teams have always been content to fleece their fans, but has it gotten to the point where it has to be so obvious?

A few years back, I was covering the Sharks in the NHL playoffs, and I was having dinner with a writer from another paper. And he said his expectation was that in 50 years, baseball would resemble the opera. Only the very rich would be able to take it in, and the rest of the world would move onto something else.

Baseball better be careful, because if some teams can charge $30 for parking, we’re a lot closer to that day than any of us would like to believe.

1

Who’s on First?

Interesting news emerging from Sacramento tonight, where the A’s made a pit stop before returning to the Bay Area this weekend for the conclusion of their exhibition season: Manager Bob Geren told reporters that projected starting first baseman Dan Johnson will start the season on the disabled list.

And that was not the only unnerving news relayed to me by Jonathan Okanes, our reporter on site at Raley Field. Starter Esteban Loaiza was scratched from his scheduled start because of continued tightness in his right trapezius, and outfielder Milton Bradley was scratched with tightness in his side muscle.

Sure it’s not still 2006?

Anyway, start with Johnson. He apparently suffered a torn labrum in his hip in a collision with Colorado’s Yorvit Torrealba earlier this week. Now, one of the problems with baseball’s new policy on revealing injuries (trainers cannot speak about them), is that there is no timetable for his return. Spent a half-hour on Google earlier this evening in search of what this might mean, and the answer is there is no definitive answer. The Associated Press report indicated Johnson might be out three months.

The immediate reaction is that it’s sad news for Johnson. His season never got off the ground a year ago — he was hitless in his first 27 at-bats, tying Joe Wallis’ Oakland record set in 1979 — and the A’s seemed encouraged that he was regaining his stroke after a slow start to the spring. Now he essentially gets to start over. He’ll be 28 years old in August, and the time he has to establish himself in the majors won’t be endless.

As for the ramifications, the A’s next move largely will depend on where they want to see Nick Swisher. Erubiel Durazo was having a good spring entering Thursday — he hit .283 with 14 RBI in Arizona — and this developoment may ensure that he makes the club after being a minor-league invite. Of course, that would require a corresponding move to remove somebody from the 40-man roster (one of which could be to move Johnson to the 60-day disabled list), and that prospect may lead the A’s to do something else. Keeping Durazo would mean Swisher remains in right field, which until Johnson got hurt, had been the plan all along.

Another possibility involves moving Swisher back to first base, where in a perfect world, the A’s would like to see him. Such a move likely would involve keeping young phenom Travis Buck, one of baseball’s best prospects and a .370 hitter with nine RBI in the Cactus League. That said, it’s hard to imagine Buck being fully ready just yet, and keeping him as an extra outfielder would go against the team’s usual grain of letting prospects get their at-bats in the minors.

From an A’s standpoint, it’s a shame this news didn’t come down 24 hours earlier, because it would’ve opened a spot for Rule 5 pick Ryan Goleski. The A’s were forced to return Goleski to Cleveland on Wednesday.

I’d assume that Loaiza’s injury puts Brad Halsey on high alert. Halsey, of course, entered the spring competing with Joe Kennedy for the fifth starters’ spot, so you’d assume he’d be the first guy on call should someone go on the shelf. Halsey was going to Triple-A Sacramento to have his innings further stretched out anyway.

Loaiza struggled with the same issue last April, albeit in his left arm, and he went 0-3 with an 8.35 ERA in four April starts before finally going on the disabled list. Since Loaiza was much more himself after healing, the guess here is that the A’s will opt for that road if there’s any question whatsoever about this injury lingering. Even before Thursday’s developments, Loaiza had skipped one Cactus League start and his velocity was very low in another.

As for Bradley, just hold your breath. Sounds like one of those nagging pains that can crop up during the course of a season, the kind you play through in August, September and October, but choose to rest in March. If that’s the case, this is a smart move. The A’s can ill afford to be without Bradley for any significant stretch, and he comes in with an injury-filled history. It won’t make one bit of difference to miss a meaningless game in March if it means he’ll be on the field for nearly every game once the A’s get into April.

0

Boo-nitez?

“Questions, questions.” This was the main headline in the sports section of the Times today, and in the stories below it, Joe Stiglich and Andrew Baggarly answer the five key questions that awaited the A’s and Giants, respectively, heading into spring training.

One of them is of particular interest to me. “Will Armando Benitez face a friendly face?”

So fans, will he? Now, that Benitez has ensured he’ll open the season as the Giants’ closer, does he get cheered by the AT&T Park faithful when he’s introduced on Opening Day, or will he be besiged by a chorus of “Go crawl under that rock with Johnnie LeMaster.”

Gotta admit, I’ve never really understood the dynamic of booing a player for the home team. I know it’s accepted practice in the East — I’ll never get over the sound of a full house at Yankees Stadium booing Derek Jeter of all people, because he was hitting below .200 early in May — but out here, we’ve tended to be more patient with the players who represent our teams.
As an A’s fan growing up, the one exception to that rule that stands out was the treatment closer Jay Howell received at the 1987 All-Star Game at the Coliseum. Howell was booed in introductions, then wound up the losing pitcher. Of course, less than a month later, Howell was on the disabled list and Dennis Eckersley was closing, so maybe A’s fans knew something I didn’t.

As a fan, I always used the guidelines that a home player deserved to be booed ony if 1) he blatantly didn’t hustle, 2) he didn’t listen to his manager 3) he disrespected the fans or 4) he sent a rat to a female sportswriter. Generally, though, I didn’t like the practice, because I found it incredibly hyprocritical to boo a guy in the third inning, then cheer him come the ninth. Ron Hassey, a reserve catcher who backed up Terry Steinbach for the A’s in the late 1980′s, taught be that lesson in a game early in 1988, hitting a three-run homer to tie a game in the 9th that the A’s later won. That victory, got the A’s rolling en route to a 14-game winning streak.

Anyway, the question now applies to Benitez, and given some of his antics in front of the fans last season, the answer is probably obvious. If Benitez is smart (jury’s out on that one), he’ll wear ear plugs.

5

My picks

Our annual baseball preview section is out today, and already my in-box is filled with angry e-mails regarding some of my picks. Always cracks me up when folks read alterior motives into predictions, because as a practical matter, predictions are, on the whole, as useless as buying a lottery ticket. I mean, you might luck out now and then — see my pick of the Cardinals to win the World Series last season — but mostly it’s an exercise in, as another Bay Area columnist Bruce Jenkins puts it, being “dead wrong in public.”

Anyway, let’s start with my AL pick, because it should come with an asterisk. My deadline for choosing these teams came last Monday, and as a result I picked the Yankees to win the AL East and the AL pennant. This came with the assumption Chien-Ming Wang and Andy Pettitte would be healthy for the majority of the season, and the two pitchers atop their rotation may still be. It also came with the information, at the time, that Jonathan Papelbon would be starting for the Red Sox. Take those two factors, and I figured the Yanks would build enough of a cushion early against the bullpen-challenged BoSox that Boston would be bound for second place in the AL East. And because I feel the best division in baseball is the AL Central, I chose my wild-card from that division.

Eight days later? Well, Wang has a hamstring pull (and those things have a way of hampering guys), and Pettitte is battling a tender back. And the Red Sox have put Papelbon back in the closer’s role. That changes things a lot. Ideally, I would’ve liked to have changed my pick to the Red Sox over the Yankees in the AL East, but given the deadline constraints, and the difficulties of rearranging the design on a page (my picks also are the order in which are capsules are presented), that was a no-go. So Red Sox fans, e-mail me your anger to your heart’s content. But understand, that these picks are never personal.

As for my other picks:

AL West: A colleage joked that I’ve got a man-crush on Rangers manager Ron Washington, and I suppose it’s hard to argue in light of this pick. I chose with my heart in this division, more than with my brain. But I will say this. Texas has the potential to have three very good starting pitchers (Vicente Padilla, Kevin Millwood and Brandon McCarthy), and that’s all a team needs. I think their bullpen will be OK, and their lineup should rake. The Rangers are going to better than people think.

AL Central: I went with the Indians, because a year ago at this time, they were poised for great things. Their bullpen wound up being a fatal flaw, but Cleveland fixed that over the winter, so there’s no reason the Indians can’t resemble the team that finished 2005 with such a flourish. I think the Tigers will get to the playoffs, but don’t be shocked if they struggle out of the gate. It’s rare that everything goes right two years in a row. The Twins and White Sox will be very good, too. This is the best division in baseball.

NL East: Sorry Jimmy Rollins, until your Phils fix the bullpen, they’re not even close to the best team in this division. The Mets’ lineup and bullpen will make up for a thin rotation, and GM Omar Minaya will make a move at the deadline to help if needed. A darkhorse, especially if Tim Hudson returns to form: the Braves.

NL Central: Milwaukee is a sexy pick by a lot of people this spring, and count me among those mesmerized. Ben Sheets is healthy (for now), and Chris Capuano and Jeff Suppan bring rotation depth. The bullpen could be nasty, especially if Derrick Turnbow (in a set-up role to Francisco Cordero) has rediscovered his control. The lineup is talented, the core group is young, and essentially, this team reminds me a lot of the 2000 A’s. The Astros and Cardinals, in my opinion, have fallen off just enough. Should be a great race.

NL West: No longer baseball’s worst division. The Dodgers have separated themselves, because their speed atop the order (assuming Rafael Furcal can fully recover from his ankle injury) will creat havoc, and their pitching staff won’t need many runs. The D’backs will be right with them if Randy Johnson can stay healthy once he returns to the rotation. I love the Rockies’ lineup and youthful talent, but their pitching is always a question. The Giants could finish last, or they could be in the race — Barry Bonds, as always, will be a huge factor, as will the ability of the Giants’ trainers to keep this old team on the field. As for the Padres, I picked them last because I don’t know how they’ll score runs. Overall, though, I can see only 10 games separating first from last in this division.

I like the Mets to get over the NLCS hurdle, and then win the World Series, beating either the Yankees or Red Sox along the way.

Now keep in mind, this is a guy who successfully picked only one (Florida) or four teams in his NCAA bracket. So check back in July for the mea culpa.

0

The Final Four

What a tremendous weekend of games, capped, of course, by Georgetown’s stunning turnaround against North Carolina. Can’t say I was shocked. I’ve seen Roy Williams outcoached numerous times over the years, and being a Syracuse fan, I can only say that when coach Jim Boeheim beats you in a big game (see the 2003 NCAA title game), it’s pretty telling, and not in a good way. As for my bracket, it was in shambles a week ago. So with that background, I’m picking Florida to repeat. They just appear to be heads and shoulders above everybody else when they appear interested, and a second straight trip to the Final Four will have their attention.

Our A’s-Giants bracket has moved onto the Final Four as well. Here were the weekend results.

HITTING LEGENDS
(1) Willie Mays d. (2) Rickey Henderson:
A tremendous contest. Decided at the wire. Mays, of course, brought his speed, his swing, his arm, his fielding ability and his smarts. Henderson the same things, and an equal amount of swagger. Henderson led baseball’s all-time charts in runs, walks and steals. Mays didn’t lead the all-time charts in any major category, but all observers insist that if he hadn’t play most of his career in Candlestick Park, he’d have hit more than 800 home runs. Lon Simmons, the great announcer, broadcast both Mays and Henderson in their primes, and once said he never saw somebody affect a game the way Mays did. So in a one-point win (think Lorenzo Charles of NC State), Mays advances.

PITCHING LEGENDS
(5) Dennis Eckersley d. (7) Dave Stewart
Very tough to choose between the two anchors of the pitching staff during the A’s dynasty in the late 1980′s. Stewart pitched only every fifth day, but he won 20 games four straight seasons, and very rarely stunk in a big game. Eckersley, though, was the man who was nailing down games in the 9th, often making one-run leads look like 10. Both guys also came back from considerable personal embarrasment to turn into stars. Without either one, that A’s dynasty is considerably weaker. But Eckersley gets the nod, because he has an MVP, Cy Young Award and Hall of Fame plaque on his resume.

LEADERSHIP LEGENDS
(3) Billy Beane d. (1) Connie Mack
Hard to argue that anybody has created a new way to evaluate baseball business more than Beane has done in the past decade. Beane essentially has taken a team with a revenue that places it near the bottom of the league and, in the era of free agency, made it a winner for a decade. Compare that with Mack, who said the most ideal scenario when he owned/managed the Philadelphia A’s was for the team to finish fourth. That way he wouldn’t have to give out large raises. Never mind that his was the era of the reserve clause. This one isn’t close.

MISCELLANEOUS
(2) 4 World Series titles d. (1) AT&T Park

Make no mistake, the home of the Giants might be the most beautiful in all of baseball (Pittsburgh’s PNC Park gives it a run). There’s nothing like seeing the bay in all it’s glory on a sunny afternoon. The outfield, with it’s non-symetrical dimensions and big wall in right field, give the playing grounds a unique feel. And the neighborhood surrounding it offer great restaurants and bars. All of that said, you can’t view a World Series trophy from anywhere near the premises, and considering the Giants have had more than a half-century to acquire one, that’s a fact you just can’t ignore. The A’s might not be able to offer much from their outdated yard, but they can offer four such trophies. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but substance triumphs looks any day of the week.

0

Onto the Elite Eight

OK, the Sweet Sixteen is complete. Four bids up for the taking at the Final Four in our mock A’s/Giants March Madness competition. Here are the results of the Sweet 16:

HITTING LEGENDS BRACKET
(1) Willie Mays d. (13) Will Clark
(2) Rickey Henderson d. (3) Barry Bonds

As you might expect in a match-up of such disparate seeds, the “Say Hey Kid” just had too much firepower. But “The Thrill” hung in for a while. Mays, after all, never single-handedly led the Giants to a postseason victory the way Clark did against the Cubs in 1989 (grand slam in Game 1, the pennant-winning single against MItch Williams in Game 5, and 11 other hits. But eventually, Mays had just too many weapons. The homers, the steals, The Catch. A handy win for Willie.
As far as I’m concerned, you can have Bonds and his 700-plus homers and his multiple 40-40′s. I’ll take Henderson and his runs, steals and walks (the best ever in all those categories), not to mention his ability to dominate a playoff series on multiple occasions. Last thing: Henderson, from what we know, didn’t cheat. Bye, Bye Barry.

PITCHING LEGENDS BRACKET
(5) Dennis Eckersley d. (1) Catfish Hunter
(7) Dave Stewart d. (3) Lefty Grove

Yeah, I know, Catfish Hunter was as big a “big-game” pitcher as they come. And Dennis Eckersley had his periodic big-game meltdowns. But give me a one-run lead in the ninth inning, and I’d still take Eckersley in a heart beat. Admit this one could’ve gone either way, but let’s face it, a No. 1 seed always falls somewhere along the way.

Grove, meantime, deserves mention with any of the great left-handers of all-time. Which means he was just the type of pitcher who would’ve brought the best out in Stewart. I’m envisioning a game here in which Groves gives up one run, and Stewart gives up none.

LEADERSHIP LEGENDS
(1) Connie Mack d. (13) Dick Williams
(3) Billy Beane d. (2) John McGraw

Mack was the architect of two dynasties, and yes, he did have the advantage of owning his own team. Williams coaxed two World Series titles in a row out of a team that was united for its hate of owner Charles O. Finley. That was probably more difficult, but the entirety of what Mack did during his career can’t be ignored.

Beane moves on against a legend, because he has changed how the game is viewed and how team-building is approached. McGraw was so stubborn, he held onto his little-ball views even when it was clear the game had changed. At this level, it’s all about making adjustments.

MISCELLANEOUS BRACKET
(1) AT&T Park d. (13) Kruk and Kuip
(2) 4 World Series Trophies d. (3) Willie Mays’ Catch

Another strong bid by a Cinderella. But let’s face it. Take away AT&T Park and the viewing experience is just not the same. Take away Kruk and Kuip, and well, you’d get used to somebody new.

Let’s remember that winning, ultimately, is what this sport is about. Mays’ catch goes into the archives forever, and you’ll always be able to see it on that graining black-and-white film. But a World Series trophy — much less four of them — shines colorfully forever.

So here’s your Elite Eight.

HITTING LEGENDS
(1) Willie Mays vs. (2) Rickey Henderson
PITCHING LEGENDS
(5) Dennis Eckersley vs. (7) Dave Stewart
LEADERSHIP LEGENDS
(1) Connie Mack vs. (3) Billy Beane
MISCELLANEOUS
(1) AT&T Park vs. (2) 4 World Series Trophies

The results come in Monday morning.

0

More La Russa

Some very good articles in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Friday regarding Tony La Russa’s arrest on drunken driving charges on Thursday morning. Of particular interest is what was written by Bryan Burwell. I’d advise La Russa to read it if he hasn’t already. Says everything that needs to be said.

Interesting perspective by our own Gary Peterson, too. Not sure I agree with his premise entirely. I think La Russa has stood up and taken responsibility. Agree with La Russa that there really isn’t anything else he can say.

Back early Saturday morning with the Sweet 16 results of our A’s-Giants bracket.

0

La Russa’s DUI (Update)

Much of the discussion at my office, not surprisingly, has had to do with Tony La Russa’s arrest on drunken driving charges early this morning (see below) in Florida. I blogged about it earlier today, and the basic premise remains the same. He should’ve called a cab, he won’t be the last athlete/coach not to do so, he’s lucky he didn’t kill himself and he’s even luckier he didn’t kill somebody else.

The reason I’m adding an additional blog, however, is to give La Russa credit for one thing. He’s not hiding behind his mistake, or offering us lawyer-speak (which, as a lawyer, I suppose he could do). That’s a refreshing change from what we usually hear, and others in the spotlight could learn from it. Took courage, too, because the easy thing would’ve been to offer a blanket no-comment.

One final thing. The fact that La Russa was arrested should not obscure the fact that he has done many more positive things outside of baseball than he has negative ones. He’s a regular participant in the Oakland ballet, his Animal Rescue Foundation is a successful charity, and he has always represented himself and the game well. This is an unfortunate mistake, but let’s remember that folks in the public eye are humans, not robots.

3

La Russa’s DUI

You’ve probably heard the news by now, but if not, here it is: Tony La Russa, the manager of the defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals, was arrested in Florida this morning on charges of driving under the influence.

I wish I had something profound to say about this whole thing, but to be honest, what is there to say? La Russa, who gained fame around here for managing the A’s to a World Series crown in 1989 (and two other American League titles sandwiched around it) and for his establishment of the Animal Rescue Foundation, is just the latest in a long line of athletes and coaches who wasn’t smart enough to call a cab or limo.

Does this make him a criminal? Well, if it’s proven he did so, yes. The laws regulating drunk-driving have been on the books for decades, and the awareness of the problem has been in our face via public service announcements and tragic news stories for just as long. But no matter how much this problem is discussed, there will always be people who get behind the wheel when they shouldn’t.

That said, let’s emphasize that La Russa shouldn’t be treated any worse (or better) than any ordinary citizen. And as we all know, it’s not just athletes or coaches who do this thing. Obviously, we hear more about them, but I’ve known a few people in my day who got their names in the paper as a result of driving while intoxicated.

Unfortunately, this is a problem that will exist as long as drinking is legal. By definition, alcohol impairs the part of the brain that deals with judgement. My guess is that Tony would admit he was lacking his good stuff in that department on Wednesday night.

He should just feel fortunate he wasn’t killed, and even more fortunate that he didn’t kill somebody.

1

Dusty and Macha

The first spring training I ever attended was in 1999. Our Giants beat writer at the time, Joe Roderick, had some personal issues to take care of, and a couple of weeks before camp started, I was tapped on the shoulder and told I was the guy for the first 3 weeks. I had a little experience as a back-up reporter, but as an everyday guy, I was still awash in “What do I do?,” and I was more than a little wide-eyed.

Second day there, I was watching one of the early workouts at Indian School Park, a primitive workout facility that really was no different than the diamonds you see at your local park. Dusy was sitting on a folding chair on a type of elevated platform behind the home-plate fence at one of the fields. He saw me standing there, and I’m sure sensing my trepidation in asking him for a one-on-one interview earlier that day, invited me up. For the next hour, he explained to me what he was trying to see in the workouts, broke down each player with a brief scouting report (strengths and weaknesses), asked about my family, my baseball background, my interests, etc. It remains to this day one of the highlights of my career.

It also explains why I sometimes seem so blindly loyal to his managing ability, and the truth is, he’s not perfect. He could probably handle pitchers better, his in-game strategy sometimes leaves something to be desired, and it was a mistake to hand Russ Ortiz the ball when he took his starter out in Game 6 of the 2002 World Series. But the brief glimpse into his personality that you’re getting here explains why players would go to the end of a cliff for him, and if I’m running a team, that’s what I want more than anything.

My experience with Ken Macha is different. He was a bench coach during my first year on the A’s beat, and I was a bit more seasoned and not quite as wide-eyed. Still, Macha took every opportunity to answer any baseball-related questions I might have and was always bluntly honest about what he was observing. His people skills might not be on par with somebody such as Dusty, but he, too, would make plenty of bosses happy with his ability in the dugout. Personally, I look forward to the day when they both get a chance to manage again.

For now, both will be analysts, Baker for ESPN and Macha (as soon as his studio deal is official) for New England Sports Network. Baker got his feet wet during the playoffs last season, and he should only improve. He gave honest, forthright opinions on a variety of topics during a conference call the other day. Here are a few of them.

(On Barry Bonds’ pursuit of Hank Aaron): “I see him handling it with class and dignity. I’m looking forward to it even though we’re not at that point yet. The closer it gets, more notoriety it will get. Unless people talk about potential problems that are out there for Barry, it should be great.”

(On whether commissioner Bud Selig should attend): “I hope so. Bud will do the right thing. I hope he’s there.

(On whether Bowie Kuhn should’ve attended the night Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run and surpassed Babe Ruth, a moment Baker witnessed from the on-deck circle): “Now, that I look back. Probably so. Don’t know what happened with the fact that he wasn’t there. That was one of major events of all-time. Might be even bigger than Barry breaking Hank’s record … So yeah, looking back, think he should’ve been there.”

(On Sammy Sosa’s big spring. Baker managed Sosa during his stint with the Cubs): “I’m not surprised. Quite frankly, I talked with Ron Washington and told him that I anticipated and expected Sammy to come back strong. He’s had a whole year to get body back together. Whatever was injured, he had time to strengthen that part of his body. I’m sure he been hitting the whole time. Sammy’s a hard worker. So I’m not surprised. In the old days, guy might not have been given chance to comeback, but in modern baseball, with the modern facilities … I’m not surprised. Being out a while, gave him a chance to get that hunger again. I anticipate he’ll have very good year.”