Armando is gone — Free at Last

Giants fans, pop the champagne. In the immortal words of former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo, “He’s gone!” The Giants have ridded themselves of Armando Benitez, and not a moment too soon. He’s now the Florida Marlins problem, and considering he’ll be pitching in front of about 5,000 hearty souls each night, he should do fine. The Giants get reliever Randy Messenger, who from what I can tell by the stats, is nothing special. But then again, the Giants probably would’ve settled for a free night of mixed drinks at South Beach to get this deal done.


Good Barry, Bad Benitez

When the Giants signed Barry Zito to a seven-year, $126 million contract, this is what they had in mind. The Giants really needed a dominant effort on Wednesday in the wake of the Armando Benitez meltdown a night earlier, and Zito delivered it with seven shutout innings. Some games in the course of a season are more important than others, and this one qualifies, because of A) the trip the Giants are on and B) no loss is more difficult to get over than one in which you’re one out away from winning.

Don’t get carried away though and assume this will be the start of a dominating rest of the season for Zito. Remember, he’s had his moments in New York, going back to his Game 4 win over the Yankees for the A’s in the 2000 American League Division Series. And remember also that in 11 starts for the Giants, he’s been outstanding in four of them, absolutely awful in three and middle-of-the-road in four.

That’s about what you get with Zito. Save for his Cy Young campaign, that’s how it was in Oakland, and that’s how it will continue to be with the Giants. But credit him for his excellent work against the Mets.

Now on to Armando, who showed up to the park Wednesday reporting tenderness in his right knee. You hate to insinuate that any player is faking an injury, but don’t you just immediately go that place when you hear this news? Manager Bruce Bochy may have offered brave words regarding Benitez — “I don’t think you give up on a guy with two blown saves,” he said — but let’s face it, Benitez has lost this team. Too many times of saying, “I did my job,” in the face of failure, and too many failures, period.
Did anybody notice that in the wake of Carlos Delgado’s walk-off in the “Balk, Balk, Gone,” game that not a single teammate patted Benitez on the butt and told him to shake it off? Instead, they walked silently past him, not saying a word.

At this point, it makes absolutely no sense for the Giants not to lean a bit heavier on Brad Hennessey in the ninth. Maybe even give Russ Ortiz a shot. Of course, they could sure use Jeremy Accardo, but … well, never mind.

In the meantime, here’s one thought that might make you feel a teeny bit better about the whole topic of Benitez: His latest meltdown could’ve been worse. It could’ve been in Game 7 of a playoff series.


Giving the A’s some due

As you know, I was very critical of the A’s a couple of weeks back for their negligence to this point in retiring Rickey Henderson’s number. No need to rehash that entire issue, other than to say that one of my points was that the A’s have done a lousy job of honoring their past.

In the interest of fairness, however (gee, what a novel concept), they deserve credit for honoring Dave Stewart, Vida Blue and Mike Norris this morning. Those three played a huge part in the A’s history — Stewart by winning 20 games four straight years and being the horse of the rotation for three straight World Series teams; Blue with his 24-win, Cy Young-MVP season in 1971 (not to mention his stellar pitching through 1977), and Norris for helping revive ball in Oakland with a 22-win campaign in the inaugural Billy Ball year of 1980.

And yes, I’m aware that Jim “Mudcat” Grant is a part of this , but it’s mostly ceremonial because Grant’s book, “The Black Aces,” is the reason this event is taking place. Grant pitched 87 games, all in relief for the A’s in his career, and he won his 20 with the Twins in 1965. It did strike me as odd that the A’s didn’t invite Al Downing, who also was a 20-game winner and pitched briefly for the A’s, but I guess Downing has to write a book first.

Anyway, the A’s deserve a bit of credit, although not as much as I’m sure they think they deserve. Stewart’s name should be printed under that of Rollie Fingers on Mt. Davis, because he also wore Fingers’ No. 34. I know he’s not in the Hall of Fame, but I’d argue that Stewart is second only to Catfish Hunter in the team’s Oakland pantheon of starting pitchers. Blue’s should be retired, too, because he started more games and pitched more innings than anyone in Oakland history and is second on the Oakland list with 124 wins (a total that puts him eight in franchise history).

In the spirit of the occasion, however, here are some further quotes from Blue and Norris regarding the honor. Here’s a link to the column that was published Tuesday.

(On the stigma that black pitchers couldn’t succeed, because it was considered a position that required intelligence). “I don’t know that people thought that (black) pitchers could perform at a high level or if that intelligence wasn’t there. There was a stigma. … It’s sad to think that’s where we were one time at society. I look back and am sometimes embarrassed that my profession had such blinders on.”

(On today’s starting pitchers)
It bothers me that I don’t see pitchers, period. I know clubs have a big-time investment in starting pitchers, and they’re protective of their investments. But I came up in a day in which there wasn’t specialized pitching, and that’s what I know. … But did we really have it any better back then. Maybe we didn’t.”

(On the honor): “It’s a privilege and an honor to be one of the honorees. For this to be acknowledged is a privilege. … As pitchers, we were all different animals and from different decades, and the way starting pitching is now, this probably won’t happen again. So this is history.”

(On the impact he had on the A’s franchise): Rickey Henderson and myself probably had a lot to do with putting people back in the seats in Oakland. I think people knew when I was on the mound, we were going to win most of the time. And you put a guy like Rickey Henderson in the mix, and you added that excitement.”

(On his involvement with baseball’s RBI program, whch is trying to spur African-American participation in baseball in the inner cities): “There are two major things I’m going to achieve. One is to get black kids playing baseball again, and we’re going to provide that. Two is to educate these kids, because most of them are not going to be major-league baseball players. But there’s no reason they can’t be well-educated.”


The “Black Aces”

Dave Stewart was one of my idols growing up. I was in my late teen’s, early 20s when he was in his heyday for an A’s team that eventually won three straight AL championships and a World Series. And the way he conducted himself on the mound and off it left an impression that still remains with me to this day. He was everything an athlete should be, even more a stud off the field than he was on it.

That’s why I’ve savored the opportunities I’ve had to talk to him through the years. I think he’s extrememly thoughtful, incredibly intelligent and doesn’t care one bit about offending anybody or being politically correct with anything he says (which is probably one of the reasons he is no longer working in a baseball front office). “If it’s the truth as I see it,” he told me one time, “then I’ve got nothing to apologize for.” To me, that’s one quality of leadership, and he had many. And if you don’t think Stewart had an impact on most people with whom he came into contact, you haven’t heard stories of his retirement press conference, where even the crustiest souls in the Bay Area were reduced to tears.

That’s why I listened with particular interest to Stewart’s thoughts regarding tomorrow’s pregame ceremony at the Coliseum, in which the A’s will honor Stewart, Vida Blue, Mike Norris and Jim “Mudcat” Grant, four of baseball’s “Black Aces.” I knew he’d be honest about it, and while he said he was extremely honored, he also mentioned that there was a touch of sadness to the fact that what he did with the A’s — four straight 20-win seasons, 275.2 innings pitched in 1988, 49 complete games — likely won’t be matched again.

Here are some additional quotes from Stewart regarding the subject of the Black Aces. I’ll blog tomorrow with additional quotes from Blue and Norris.

“I would hope that especially in Bay Area, where there is strong population of black people, I would hope the younger kids in the Bay Area would look at ceremony and see that there should be more involvement among blacks in game of baseball, but also at the position of pitcher. … We have to try to populate game more with black athletes and black players.”

“I followed a lot of guys. Bob Gibson was one. I knew about career of Don Newcombe. I came along at period of time when Mudcat Grant was still pitching. Al Downing was a teammate of mine with Dodgers. Vida Blue obviously was a Bay Area hero. I watched Juan Marichal. I watched a lot of prominent pitchers in game of baseball. … Mike Norris was a guy who helped me with mechanics of game.

“I started out catching. I changed from catching to pitching. I came up with the Dodgers (after being drafted by them in 1975), and of course, they were pioneers when it came to the black player. It was very difficult for me. First, you’ve got to like the position. Second, you’ve got to go from playing every day to every fifth day. … I think that’s the biggest leap for most black athletes. When you’re a starting pitcher, you’re not an everyday player but a once-every-five-days player. That’s tough.”

“You see some great guys in recent years that have won 20 three years in row. … But none of them did it four years in row, even when it was possible. It was a difficult, difficult thing to do. I look back on one year I had 275 innings. Don’t think anybody did it since, There were the complete games, a lot of stuff. I may be a last to do a lot of those things. It makes me prideful, but it also makes me said, because pitchers are getting paid a lot more to do a lot less.”


Barry — No. 746

Nice to see Barry Bonds get his chase for Henry Aaron’s home-run record jump-started Sunday. Let’s face it, most of us want this thing to get over with sooner rather than later, so that a tawdry chapter in baseball history can end.

I mean, baseball players may use performance-enhancing drugs from now until the end of time, but the Bonds home-run chase is nothing if not a constant reminder of that era. Only the blindest of the blind think Bonds has reached this point naturally, and they probably exchange Christmas cards with the folks in Cincinnati who still insist Pete Rose didn’t bet on baseball. But whatever view you take, you also can’t deny that Bonds is the best hitter (and player) of his generation, and he probably didn’t gain too great an advantage, because most of his peers were likely doing the same thing.

Anyway, if Sunday were any indication, the interim between career homers 746 and 747 won’t be nearly the gap it was between 745 and 746. I’m no expert on the intricacies of a guy’s swing, especially with one so fine-tuned as Bonds’, but to me, he looked balanced at the plate, and he seemed to be seeing the ball real well. He had a couple of very good takes on Sunday, and that’s always an indication a guy is finding his groove.

Now, whether that means will keep his appointed “pace” and hit No. 755 in St. Louis in early July and No. 756 a week later at home against the Dodgers is another discussion altogether. But look for him to add at least two to his total during the Giants’ 10-game trip to New York, Philadelphia and Arizona.

Of course, none of the home runs Bonds has hit this season has helped the Giants be more than about a .500 team. One-third of the way through the year, they are pretty much the same as their rivals across the bay. They have dominant starting pitching, a mostly stagnant offense and a bullpen that lacks reliability. That’ll get you anywhere from 75-85 wins, and in a strong NL West, that won’t get it done.


No TV??

Maybe this makes me old-fashioned, but I don’t subscribe to the theory that more is better. Therefore, I’ve never been big the whole notion of getting baseball’s Extra Innings package or having access to just about every game that’s broadcast per night. Life’s too short, and there are far too many other things than to have life determined by what game is on the tube that night.

That said, I find it just a bit ludicrous that in this day and age, you can wake up on a Sunday morning, flip the channels looking for a game on regular cable, and can’t find one. The A’s and the Orioles wrapped up a three-game series in Baltimore, but neither Fox Sports Net nor KICU deemed it worthy to broadcast. Not exactly sure the dynamics of this whole thing, nor am I interested. The bottom line is that a Sunday morning game featuring a local team on the road ought to be available for viewing somewhere without having to pay an arm and leg for some sort of “package.”

The good thing is that I was able to turn it on the radio. DOH! Check that. The A’s new FM station (106.9) seems to peter out right around the Pleasant Hill/Martinez border, which leaves me out of luck. So the choice I was left with watching or listening to the game on the Internet (that’ll be how my kid watches a game, but sorry, not me). You can always click on those “play-by-play” links on any number of Internet sights, but that ain’t exactly the same as having a clicker in your hand.

Anybody else find something wrong this picture, and have I simply become too old-fashioned?

(By the way, the Giants are on the tele today, but I’ve seen enough Giants-Rockies face-off’s — hockey term — to last me all season).


The B&B Boys

Nice rebound by Barry Zito on Wednesday night. This was the guy the Giants envisioned when they gave him that huge contract — anybody out there not know its $126 million over seven years? — and my guess is they’ll see it 10-12 times in his 30-plus starts. He’ll also be the awful Barry (see his start vs. the A’s) about a half-dozen times, too. The majority of the time, he’ll be in between, and he’ll finish with 13-15 wins. I’ve been predicting that since the signing, and I’m not about to stop now.

But let me ask you this: How ’bout the catcher to whom Zito was throwing? Bengie Molina may well be the team’s MVP at this point. He had a couple of huge hits again, and he’s hitting over .500 with runners in scoring position and two outs. He also has proven to be superb behind the plate, and a conversation he had with Zito on Sunday obviously had an impact.

Having covered the A’s for three seasons, I remember how members of that team used to rave about Molina when Molina was a member of the Angels. One pitcher told me privately once that Molina was the guy he least wanted to see at the plate in a big moment. He’s showing why on a regular basis with the Giants.

It was great to see him (or in my case, hear him; my 5-year-old son has the run of the TV these days) go home-to-third last night, too. Lets every slow, broken-down, beer-league softballer fantasize about hitting a triple in the bigs.


The $126 million man

Another superb outing by a Giants starter last night. Tim Lincecum outdueled Houston’s Roy Oswalt, giving the Giants a third straight win. That’s four excellent outings in a row since Barry Zito was lit up by the A’s on Friday.

Which, of course, brings us back to Zito, who gets a chance to rectify that outing tonight against the Astros. It would behoove him to do so, too, because right now, the most expensive pitcher in the history of major-league baseball is the worst starting pitcher on the Giants’ staff. Lincecum and Matt Cain have been riding their outstanding stuff to success, Noah Lowry has been sharp not only with his pitches but with his pitch-sequence, and Matt Morris is learning to dazzle despite lacking the mid-90’s gas he used to take with him in St. Louis.

Then, there’s Zito, whose statistics today are wholly unimpressive. Don’t know if he’s trying too hard, nibbling too much or simply has reached the point in his career where most hitters know how to attack him. But I can guarantee you this: When the Giants gave him all that money, they didn’t do so with the expectation that Zito would be their fifth-best starter through the first quarter of the season.

Zito will be playing his guitar at a charity event in downtown San Francisco on Thursday. But sweet music better emerge from the pitcher’s mound tonight. Fans’ patience, not to mention the Giants’, could soon start to wear thin.


Timmy vs. Roy

I know that a lot of comparisons have been made between the Giants’ Tim Lincecum and Houston’s Roy Oswalt, but after watching the two starters face off on television (last week in Houston), and now for five innings in person (here at the Big Phone), I don’t really see it. I mean, sure, they’re both little guys who throw ungodly stuff, and in that sense they’re the same. But to watch them pitch is like apples and oranges.

For one, Oswalt is not nearly as exaggerated in his over-the-top delivery. For two, he’s not nearly as reliant on his fastball. For three, Oswalt seems to have a purpose behind each pitch. The last two items, of course, would go to experience, and obviously, Oswalt trumps LIncecum in that area, and there’s nothing Lincecum can do except gain some.

As for The Franchise, does anybody else feel like they’re witnessing another Burt Hooton when they watch Lincecum pitch. Don’t get me wrong, Lincecum’s stuff blows Hooten’s away (though Hooton had that nasty knuckle-curve) but to watch the way Lincecum delievers the ball with his body contorted and his arm coming from way down low to way over the top reminds me of how Hooton delivered the ball. Can’t seem to recall if Hooten had arm troubles, but he made at least 30 starts in seven of nine seasons after establishing himself in the majors, so maybe that’ll bode well for Linceum.

Meantime, Lincecum still is relying heavily on his gas, though not nearly as heavily as in his debut two weeks ago. This is natural and there’s no need for him to change dramatically yet, because Lincecum is still mostly crusing. But to watch him contrasted against Oswalt is to understand that Lincecum is still feeling his way. Imagine how silly he’ll be when he gets a better idea of what he’s doing out there.


Monday Rundown

If the MLB draft were treated like the NFL’s _ and thank goodness it isn’t _ we’d know all about every team’s intentions for June 7, not to mention the strengths, weaknesses, character flaws, shoe size, 90-foot dash times, etc. of every player available. As it is, the draft carries considerably more mystery, which is as it should be since we’re dealing with kids who have yet to prove they deserve the ink of a major-leaguer.

Thus, we don’t have a real good idea of what the A’s or the Giants will do, but it was encouraging to see Giants general manager Brian Sabean emphasize that his team won’t be cheap when it comes to their first-round picks. The Giants are having their own Moneyball-like draft this summer, with six picks among the first 51 selections, and it presents the organization a great chance to infuse itself with some youth. Ignore the minors long enough, and eventually, you turn into the Yankees, and the Giants have walked that slippery ledge for a while. So, they need to treat this draft as delicately as they have any in the past decade.

The A’s “Moneyball Draft,” showed just how important the draft has become in bridging together consistently good seasons. Nick Swisher has emerging as a possible future start, and Joe Blanton is one of the nails in the rotation, and without them, the A’s likely would not have found themselves in the playoffs a year ago. And without picking Mark Teahan, whom the A’s used in a trade to acquire Octavio Dotel in 2004, the A’s likely wouldn’t have been in the race until the final weekend that season.

The rest of the Moneyball Seven (John McCurdy, Ben Fritz, Jeremy Brown and Steve Obenchain) have faded into obscurity, with Brown the only one who has tasted the majors. But the point is made. The Giants better hit the mother lode with at least one or two of their picks; otherwise their road to success becomes even more difficult.

Other Monday thoughts:

The Angels look as if they’re about to take off in the AL West. They’ve won five straight and 10 of 12 and rolled through the Dodgers like a buzzsaw during a weekend sweep. Could be a critical time for the A’s, as they try to hang close.

— Blogged a couple of weeks ago after the Giants’ eight-game winning streak ended that they had probably experienced their best and worst spells of the season (the worst being their 2-7 start) and that they likley would settle in is a win-a-couple, lose-a-couple team. Since the end of their eight-game winning streak, they’re 9-14, have won two in a row only once and have lost no more than three in a row.

We shouldn’t be all that surprised Barry Bonds has slowed down. This is generally the time of year when the physical grind of a season starts becoming a factor. Besides, he was on pace to hit 50 homers before his current slump, and no 42-year-old should be expected to do that, not even Bonds.

— If I’m Joe Torre, I’d be ready to quit as the Yankees manager. Who needs the aggravation? Take the four World Series titles, the respect from Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada — the remaining members of the old guard — and ride off into the sunset.