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The (Original) Empire Strikes Back

Remember a couple of winters ago? Recall how prices for free agents stopped going through the roof, and the spending insanity seemed to stop. Esbeban Loaiza signed a three-year, $21.5 million with the A’s, Matt Morris got a similar contract with the Giants, and it seemed as if they were way overpaid?

Remember how the term “market correction” was thrown around.

Well, perhaps that’s what we have going on with the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. Call it a “rivalry correction.”

In case you haven’t noticed, the Yankees have erased all but 1 1/2 games from a deficit that on May 29 was 14 1/2 games. It’s outrageous, and if I weren’t watching it myself, I wouldn’t believe it. After all, the Yankees were playing worse than the Giants when those two teams got together in June.

Anyway, the Red Sox have basically had the upper hand in this rivalry since they erased the Curse of the Bambino with their epic 2004 postseason run. That was the year the Red Sox, sparked by Dave Roberts’ stolen base (until O.J., was that the most famous swipe in history?) became the first team in baseball history to erase a 3-0 postseason deficit, victimizing the Yankees in the process. Boston eventually ended an 88-year World Series drought by sweeping St. Louis, and the whole culture around the rivalry changed.

You see, since that day, the Red Sox have become obnoxious. They don’t spend the same amount of money the Yanks do, but they certainly could. Fenway Park has been transformed into their own personal vault, the New England Sports Network is every bit the revenue-maker that the Yankees Entertainment&Sports Network has become, and their fan base has enjoyed its own sort of baby boom, and now matches their rivals.

In other words, both of these teams are Evil Empires now.

Has it been good for the game? That’s a question you could debate 24/7/365. But one thing that you can’t deny is that it’s certainly been different. The Red Sox, once upon a time, were lovable underdogs, a team worth sticking with through the torture, because once, just once, maybe they wouldn’t break your heart.

But since the World Series of 2004, that hasn’t been the case. The baseball universe, in a sense, has endured a force of nature that has thrown it off its orbit. True, the Yankees have continued to win AL East crowns, but New York’s World Series drought is now longer than Boston’s.

That said, perhaps the universe is starting to find its way again. The Yankees’ put the Bosox out of their misery a year ago with a five-game sweep at the Fens in August, and now this. Should the Yankees erase the final 1 1/2 games, it might well send the entire region of New England into crisis counseling, and bring back those old feelings of inferiority and paranoia.

As for the Yanks, they’d once again be one-up on their rivals. And mark my words, the day will come when they trail the Red Sox 3-0 in a postseason series and come back to win four straight. Then we’ll know the baseball universe, as we know it, is back in its correct order.

Anyway, that’s my theory, and I’m sticking to it.

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Offseason thinking

Let me throw my general manager’s cap on for just a second, and let’s debate.

If I’m Billy Beane, the first thing I do once the trading season gets rolling is call the following teams: 1) The Tampa Bay Devil Rays 2) The Kansas City Royals 3) The Pittsburgh Pirates 4) The Cincinnati Reds 5) The Houston Astros. All of those clubs have suffered through miserable seasons, and any club in their position is going to seek pitching.

Therefore, I call them up, in that order, and I ask what they’d be willing to give up for Joe Blanton, another position player and a minor-leaguer. Blanton would be my top trade chip, and I think he could net quite a bit, especially from the Rays, Pirates or Royals, because those teams could potentially make a sizable leap by adding one more solid starting pitcher to their rotation. Who’s to say the Rays and Royals wouldn’t leap out of their shoes to add Blanton to a rotation that includes James Shields, Scott Kazmir and Andy Sonnanstine (Tampa Bay’s) or one that already has Brian Bannister and Gil Meche (Kansas City’s)? Pittsburgh’s rotation of Ian Snell, Tom Gorzelanny and Matt Morris would be aided greatly with the additon of a guy like Blanton, especially when the goal is 82 wins and the end of 15 straight years of losing.

Here’s what I’m seeking: Somebody athletic, somebody who can bring a spark. I ask Tampa Bay for Carl Crawford, and when they’re done laughing, then I see if perhaps they’d part with B.J. Upton (and no, I wouldn’t take a flyer on the oft-injured Rocco Baldelli). I see if the Royals might part with David DeJesus.

Now, when I threw this out to a couple of folks I play softball with, they completely disagreed with me. Their concern is that the A’s are going to woefully short of starting pitching next season, and that could be an issue. I’m not ready to cast my lot behind Chad Gaudin and Lenny DiNardo in next year’s rotation, and if I’m the GM, I certainly am not counting on Rich Harden.

That said, you can’t add talent without giving it up, and who’s going to draw more interest, Blanton or Harden? I say Blanton, because there’s little doubt he’s going to pitch 200 innings. I suppose you could try to pawn off Harden as a closer, but my gut feeling is that the real Billy Beane isn’t ready to cast him off without receiving a boatload in return, and I’m just not convinced other GM’s are going to ante up that much for a guy who has barely seen the mound the past two seasons.

The point is, there is no quick fix for the A’s. It would not shock me to see them head into a couple of seriously down seasons. The rebuilding process needs to start sooner rather than later, and who knows, maybe it would be worth seeing what you could field for Dan Haren. But for know, I’d make Joe Blanton may major chip, and see what I could get. If he nets you a decent hitter or two, the A’s might be able to stay afloat for another season or two.

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Another Mark McGwire?

Before I start, does anybody do losing like the Raiders? The A’s had a terrific weekend against Texas (the Giants had a lousy one in San Diego), and I submit that the Raiders losing yet again the way they did was far more interesting than the A’s victories. I rooted for the Raiders as a kid, and still follow them, and I gotta tell you, I think the Curse of Gruden has the potential to be every bit as powerful as the Curse of the Bambino. Brutal rule, by the way.

And Sebastian Janikowski? The guy has one job in life. Kick it through the uprights!

Anyway, onto ball. And this question:

Is Jim Thome another Mark McGwire?

This is NOT a reference to steroids. But Thome inspired that question by hitting his 500th career home run Sunday, because he could be yet another example of how steroids have changed the game.

Until McGwire, every member of the 500-home run club had been inducted into the Hall of Fame. I look at the names on that list that preceded McGwire, and it’s ovbvious why they went. They were easily the greatest players of their generation, guys you never even had to debate.

The fact that Jim Thome doesn’t jump out at me tells me he is not one of the dominant players of his generation. You know what I see when I watch Jim Thome? I see a present-day Dale Murphy.

Thome’s homer totals easily were inflated by the harder balls-smaller parks-more teams-less pitching dynamics that didn’t exist when Murphy played (though I’ll give you this: Murphy did play in a launching pad). I will not cast any steroid aspersions at Thome, because it’s not fair. His name has never been linked. But there’s not a single player who, if someday revealed to have used, would shock me or even change my opinion any more.

And — steroids disclaimer here — the benchmark that is 500 home runs has been altered forever.

Anyway, I could be dead wrong on this issue, and am open to being convinced. But what I see when I see Jim Thome is a guy who swung from his rear end, hit the ball a mile and saw tons of fastballs because he always had a great hitter such as Manny Ramirez or Albert Belle around him. Don’t get me wrong, the guy is a stud. I just don’t know that he was the among his era’s best (plus he DH’d most of his career, and I’d take Edgar Martinez over Thome).

Longtime Bay Area columnist Bruce Jenkins is a man who I admire and respect, and he’s taught me a ton about baseball through his writing and a ton more about covering baseball through his words. He told me one time that if you have to think about it, then there’s your answer.

Hmmmmmm.

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Diamonds in the desert

Need a bandwagon to hop aboard with the A’s and Giants both steaming toward hibernation? You could do a lot worse than the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Arizona left town Wednesday night after collecting two of three from the Giants and did so with a 2 1/2 game lead in the National League West (though only two in the loss column). And what makes this group so impressive is that there is really nothing impressive about them.

Yeah, you could point to Brandon Webb and his amazing 42-inning scoreless streak last month. Or their dynamite bullpen, led by closer Jose Valverde. Or rookie Chris Young and his 30 home runs.

But overall, this is just a scrappy club, the perfect example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. They hustle. They’re aggressive. They play hard for nine innings. Small things, really, but you’d be surprised how many teams lack the same. They remind me a lot of the 2000 A’s, a team that was awfully dangerous then and had far better days ahead.

I talked to Eric Byrnes and Tony Clark for a column that probably will appear Friday on the site, and they both raved about how the D’backs have succeeded in putting team in front of individual, and how they won’t forget this experience no matter how it may turn out. My guess is that they’ll make the playoffs, though it might be as a wild-card. They’re probably not talented enough (yet) or deep enough to make waves in the playoffs, but if I’m the Mets, I sure would like to avoid them if at all possible.

Anyway, keep an eye on these guys. They’re a fun team to watch.

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Daric Barton’s debut

First day in the majors, and A’s prospect Daric Barton lived up to the hype. Two walks, two hits, a double and a run scored. He must not be big on the team thing, though, because he didn’t hit a grand slam.

Obviously, that last statement is tongue-in-cheek. It will be interesting, though, to see if Barton can add any power at all to his resume. A’s general manager Billy Beane preaches from the school that power is the last thing to arrive for a big-league hitter, and it’s a school of thought that’s not nearly radical enough to produce a book. That said, the question among scouts about Barton is whether he can ever be a 20-25 HR guy.

“A slightly better version of Dan Johnson,” is what one scout told me to expect, and that’s ironic, because Johnson is one of two A’s who slammed on Tuesday. Still, when you consider the hype that has surrounded this kid since the A’s acquired him with Dan Haren in the Mark Mulder deal two winters ago, the A’s will need him eventually to be a lot better than Dan Johnson. Anyway, Beane has said Barton will be a fixture in the lineup for the final three weeks.

Interesting timing in the decision to bring him up. Barton practically carried Triple-A Sacramento into the Pacific Coast League championship series, but he wont’ get to finish the deal. Combine that with the fact that three is not nearly enough of a sample size to gain an accurate gauge of a guy’s ability, and what you have is another decision that seems straight out of the school of Piazza.

What the three-week time frame does allow, however, is enough time for Barton to show off his strengths, before the league adjusts to him. So it could be, perhaps, that Beane envisions showing off Barton and then trading him. After all, he’s already got Jack Cust as his DH for 2008 (not a whole lot of demand for him, I would imagine), and Nick Swisher’s future likely rests at first base because the A’s have a glut of outfielders and it’s a little less demanding physically than the outfield.

Regardless, it would do the organization well if Barton performs up to expectations, because that would give them options. This is a team that is facing a major facelift, and nothing would help them more than to have young talent to offer other clubs.

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King Football and the sinking A’s

Before I start this morning, just wanted to mention that it took 13 minutes for ESPN’s SportsCenter to mention even a single word about baseball on Sunday. Such is the curse of football season, where all the athletes are as pure as freshly fallen snow. Just something to chew on.

As for the Giants and the A’s, well, the offseason can’t get here soon enough. I’ll blog about the A’s this morning, though, because there are a couple of issues facing them as they embark on the final three weeks.

1) What has happened to Dan Haren?:

Obviously, there’s rarely a black-and-white answer when a pitcher hits a slide the way Haren has recently. But from watching him both in person and on television in recent weeks, it appears a) his split-fingered pitch has lost its bite and too often hangs in the zone, and b) he and catcher Kurt Suzuki don’t appear to be as at ease with each other as Haren and Jason Kendall were, and to a degree that’s to be extended. Keep in mind, too, that Haren was bound to hit a relatively rough bump in the road after spending most of the first four months with an ERA under 2.00 and and opponents average under .200. He’s good, but he ain’t Bob Gibson good.

2) Should they shut down Chad Gaudin?:
It’s an issue the powers that be should be exploring. Gaudin has never ome close to pitchingd this many innings at the major-league level, and his total dwarfs last season’s. It’s been apparent to those who follow the team closely that he’s had very little for about the past month. With the team going nowhere, it might not be a bad idea to sit down Gaudin, or at least skip him for a start. You don’t want the physical toll of 2007 to carry over into 2008.

3) Will we see Daric Barton?:

Yes, it appears. Even though Sacramento’s season is not done, the A’s will bring him up. Barton, of course, has been their most high-profile prospect since coming over with Haren in the trade for Mark Mulder in December 2004. Still, such a short exposure will make it difficult to gauge just what Barton may be able to give the A’s next season, or just as important, what he might bring in a trade.

Anyway, not much else going on with regard to the local baseball teams. It was a little bit sweet, personally, to see the Rangers cap off that sweep on Sunday. Ron Washington is starting to make a difference with that team, and he was always great to me during his time with the A’s. So I’ve “adopted” the Rangers as a team I’d like to see do well.

By the way, did want to mention that I saw a little more than a half of the Raiders-Lions game, and my wholly amateuristic analysis: They still stink. Josh McCown looks promising, and the offense may be able to dink and dunk and score some points. So they might not be 2-14 bad anymore, but then again, what does that say? Their supposedly strong defense didn’t impress me, and somebody should let Al Davis know that it’s criminal to force his customers to stomach anymore of Sebastian Janikowski.

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The Rick Ankiel mess

So, now that it appears one of the best stories of the summer was fueled by performance-enhancing drugs, the natural reaction is supposed to be what? Sadness? Anger? Indignation?

Please!

Sorry, but the news that Rick Ankiel’s wonderful comeback with the St. Louis Cardinals is now linked with human growth hormone, inspired not one bit of emotion in me this morning. The report might as well have been, “RIck Ankiel’s comeback has been fueled by coffee.”

No, I don’t condone the stuff. In fact, if my sons were ever faced with the prospect of using performance-enhancers to play professional sports, I’d advise them to go into a more honorable line of work.

It’s just that I’ve become numb to its usage. If you’ve read this blog or my columns consistently, you know that I adopted the stance, long ago, that every single player should be treated with suspicion. I presume much of what is happening on a major-league baseball field is not happening 100-percent naturally. Sure, it’s a cynical way to go through life, but it does allow me to appreciate baseball for what it is — namely, a slice of entertainment.

Look, baseball should not be a moral compass for the rest of society. It’s been a shady profession since its inception, but here, in the 21st century, it’s no more dirty than any other sport. If the use of HGH and other perfomance-enhancers really were “tragic,” as St. Louis Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty suggested, then there’d be a public outcry to shut down all sports until full-proof testing methods were developed. That’ll happen about the same time we start believing everything our government officials tell us.

Anyway, the Ankiel news should not come as a bombshell to anyone. The era of performance-enhancing drugs is here to stay. Any notion that the game would be “moving on” in the wake of Barry Bonds’ home run record was silly. But what Bonds’ record did was wrap a bow on the transition of one baseball era into another.

Now, there are those who would like to think performance-enhancers can be eradicated — there’s been an outcry for blood-testing to stem the tide against HGH — and that’s a nice thought. Unfortunately, it’s probably naive, too. The chemists are always a mile ahead of the testers, and until further notice, they always will be.

Now, should this diminish one’s love of the game? Absolutely not. Look Ankiel’s transition from pitcher to outfielder to star has been one of the most uplifting stories the game has seen, and the emotions it has touched along the way need not be stifled because of what he may have ingested. Remember, for every player who gets busted, there are dozens of others who are, undetected, doing the exact same thing. So if you marvel at what Ankiel is doing, continue to marvel. Just do it with a cynical eye. After all, that’s what you should’ve been doing all along.

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Twenty Consecutive Wins

Who remembers where they were 20 years ago tonight?

I’m guessing Scott Hatteberg probably does. The first baseman, who these days languishes for a lousy outfit in Cincinnati, was chilling on the A’s dugout during the evening of Sept. 4, 2002, an easy night apparently ahead of him after the A’s surged to an 11-run lead against the Kansas City Royals.

Then, 11 Royals runs later, he was tapped on the shoulder by the A’s then-manager Art Howe and told to go hit in the 10th inning. One historic swing later, Hatteberg was floating around the bases, the A’s had a 12-11 win, and the only 20-game winning streak in the 107-year history of the American League was in the book.

Do yourself a favor and listen to Robert Buan’s “Extra Innings” program tonight. Buan has been reliving the A’s historic streak by using the radio play-by-play calls. If the late Bill King’s call of Hatteberg’s dinger doesn’t give you chills, you’re simply not human.

Anyway, on the anniversary of Hatteberg’s defining A’s moment, I thought it might be fun to list the top 10 home runs in Oakland A’s history.

1) Scott Hatteberg, vs. Royals (9/4/2002): You couldn’t have scripted a more dramatic way for the A’s to finish off their winning streak. And considering the streak could last another 100 years, it’ll be awfully tough for the A’s ever to produce a more memorable dinger.

2) Reggie Jackson, vs. NL All-Stars (7/13/1971): The All-Star Game may be just an exhibition (thought it was highly competitive in those days), but Reggie’s blast into the light tower off Pittsburgh’s Doc Ellis at Tiger Stadium was as authentic as they come.

3) Jose Canseco vs. Toronto Blue Jays (10/7/1989): Sure, Canseco may have been juiced when he took Mike Flanagan into the fifth deck at Toronto’s Skydome during Game 4 of the 1989 American League Championship Series. But that still doesn’t make the ball’s final destination any less awe-inspiring.

4) Mark McGwire, vs. Los Angeles Dodgers (10/18/1988): Back when being a Bash Brother was cool, McGwire smoked a line drive pff Dodgers reliever (and former A’s whipping boy) Jay Howell into the left-center field seats at the Oakland Coliseum to provide Oakland its only win in the 1988 World Series.

5) Miguel Tejada vs. Minnesota Twins (9/1/2002): Without Tejada’s ninth-inning blast off the Twins’ Eddie Guardado, there are no Hatteberg dramatics. Tejada’s home run erased a 5-4 lead Minnesota had gained by hitting three solo homers in the top of the ninth, pushed The Streak to 18, and provided one of the most dizzying moments in Coliseum history.

6) Reggie Jackson, vs. New York Mets (10/21/1973): Mr. October first starts to earn his nickname with a two-run homer off Jon Matlack, the key blow in a 5-2, Game 7 win that produces a second straight World Series title.

7) Joe Rudi vs. Los Angeles Dodgers (10/17/1974): After a brief delay caused by delirious fans throwing debris on the Coliseum field, Rudi smoked the first pitch from tireless Dodgers reliever Mike Marshall for a home run that put a bow on the A’s third straight World Series crown.

8) Jason Giambi vs. New York Yankees (8/12/2001): A three-run blast to rescue a win in the bottom of the ninth is always big. When it comes against the New York Yankees and caps an 11-game winning streak, it goes into the category of “unforgettable.”

9) Mark McGwire, at Seattle Mariners (6/24/1997): What happens when baseball’s most imposing power hitter (McGwire) connects against baseball’s hardest thrower (Randy Johnson) at the old eyesore called the Kingdome? A home run that could’ve buzzed the Space Needle.

10) Mark Kotsay, at Minnesota Twins (10/5/2006): In his first postseason series after nine fruitless seasons, Kotsay’s inside-the-park home run in Game 2 helped the A’s to a second straight win at the Metrodome, and, eventually, their first postseason series win in 16 years.

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Mighty Appalachian

Great comeback by the A’s on Sunday, one that shows they’re still playing hard for Bob Geren. Another excellent outing by Barry Zito for the Giants, one that shows what he’s capable of doing (thought he’s being paid to do it for six months, not one).

But let’s not talk baseball this morning. Let’s talk the aftermath of Appalachian State’s stunning win over Michigan on Saturday, perhaps the biggest upset in college football history and one of the Top Five Upsets of all time, period. I mean, it’s far more interesting than anything that’s going on with either of the local nine at the moment.

I caught ESPN’s day-after coverage of the upset last night, and was taken by how it devoted a long segment to all the negativity and anger going on in the aftermath of MIchigan’s loss, and a considerably lesser segment devoted to the aftermath in Boone, N.C. To me, that speaks a lot about how society has become. Rather than focus on the thrill and excitement of a once-in-a-lifetime moment, the choice was to focus more on the anger and shock of the Michigan loss. It’s a small, subtle thing, perhaps, but it speaks volumes about how the media covers sports in the 21st century, and perhaps even about what their audience finds desirable viewing.

Anyway, I hear athletes complain all the time about how the media and fans these days get more of a perverse pleasure in the failures of teams than they do a genuine pleasure from the success of others. It’s the culture of sports in a sports-talk era. Better to discuss what a pitcher did to lose a game than what a hitter did to win one.

After watching how ESPN gave considerably less enthusiastic play to Appalachian State’s stunner than they did to Michigan’s clunker, it’s hard to dispute that.