Thursday, February 18, 2016

Ah, Spring Training and the Scrapbook

             By Ross Newhan

             Inject any baseball writer with truth serum and he/she will acknowledge that spring training represents the best time frame on the sport's calendar.

            Obviously, the tension of a pennant race and drama of October are the culmination, but spring training has a rainbow tinted niche of its own:

            --Six to eight weeks of generally outstanding weather.

            --More relaxed and easier access to players, coaches, managers and executives.

           --Snapper in Florida and steak in Arizona.

           Okay, before I am drummed out of the BBWAA (card No. 3), I am not suggesting that spring training is akin to spring break. In fact, with social media the assignment is now a non-stop tweet, and cell phones have turned every reporter into a Facebook photographer.

           In that forgotten time before twitter and all the rest I covered spring training for almost 50 years--first at the Long Beach Press-Telegram and then the L.A. Times; first in Palm Springs on the Angels beat, then Dodgertown (and, yes, I caught the last years of the Navy barracks), and then throughout Florida and Arizona as a national baseball columnist. My pulse always quickened as I packed, and it still does just thinking about it.

          So, I sat back the other day and jotted down the first few snapshots that filtered through a cluttered scrapbook of my mind. I present them here in no chronological order or ranking--strictly a sampling of the sometimes unexpected joys along the spring beat:

        --Dodgertown: March, 1970. Al Campanis invites my wife and I to dinner at the Ocean Grill. "I want to introduce you to some people," the general manager says. Those "people" turned out to be a very young Tom Paciorek, Bill Buckner, Steve Garvey, Ron Cey and Bill Russell. The latter had been selected in the June draft of 1966, but the other four (along with Bobby Valentine, Davey Lopes and Joe Ferguson) were all selected in the 1968 draft (one of history's greatest hauls). "My no names," Campanis says at dinner, clearly knowing (or at least hopeful) that they wouldn't be that for long.

      --Palm Springs: February, 1961. It is only two months after Gene Autry is awarded the franchise and is forced to make a hurried selection of a small ballpark called the Polo Grounds as the Angels' spring base in what is known as a hamlet to the stars. Bud Furillo, on the beat for the Herald-Express, and I approach the dugout prior to a morning workout. Bud is carrying a snow cone, his breakfast after one too many the night before. Bud sees who is sitting in the dugout and drops the snow cone at the feet of Dwight Eisenhower, who had handed the White House keys to John Kennedy only a month before, Eisenhower smiles at the melting liquid and sits patiently as Bud and I get an easy story even before the workout's first pitch. The Angels would spend part or all of 41 camps in Palm Springs, and you never knew who was going to drop by...from a former President to neighborhood residents such as Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra, a slow day's harvest.

      --Scottsdale: Pick a year and there has never been a spring hangout like the Pink Pony during it's first tenure, and the flashbacks keep coming: so many times at the bar with Billy Martin and Art Fowler; standing in the middle of the Pony and singing the alma mater with fellow Long Beach Wilson High graduates Bob Lemon and Mets scout Harry Minor; taking my son, David, in one of his early big league camps, to dinner with Bill Rigney, then working for the A's, because I knew Rig's passion and caring for the game would rub off, enhancing David's own approach. It is many years later, of course, and I sense that that night in the Pink Pony has stayed with the 17th round draft choice who would play parts of eight seasons in the majors and is now assistant hitting coach of the Detroit Tigers.

       --Dodgertown: March, 1971. Gordie Verrell of the Press Telegram and I are returning to the base at about 5 a.m.after a very long night of dining and pool playing (yes, we had a couple drinks) in downtown Ft. Pierce. The base is shrouded in fog and we figure there is no sense going to bed only to have to get up in a couple hours to go to work.  We make our way toward the clubhouse to get some coffee when we hear the rat-a-tat of what seems to be bat against ball coming from the batting cages about 400 yards distant. We walk through the fog, get closer, and are startled to find Richie Allen taking his cuts. "I need the work," says Allen, who only smiles when asked if he, too, is just getting in or getting up, and again a headline story before the first pitch.

     --Holtville: February, 1972. The Angels, deciding that they need to find a place where their players have nothing to think about but baseball for a couple weeks before heading to the fairways and fun spots of Palm Springs, pick the Carrot Capital of the World in the agricultural rich Imperial Valley, a hard five to six hour drive to the Spa. They make their early home there from 1966 to 1979 with the only distraction being the Imperial County Fair, and on a warm, post workout afternoon in '72 I sit on a bench by one of the diamonds, surrounded by the carrots, and talk for 90 minutes with a new Angel named Nolan Ryan, acquired for Jim Fregosi during the off season. Ryan is open, honest, saying he is happy to have left the Mets and his now-you-see-him, now-you-don't role in their star studded rotation, believing they had lost patience with his control battle, and that he sensed his situation would be more stable with the Angels, particularly under pitching coach Tom Morgan. That Morgan-Ryan relationship would grow immeasurably, as would Ryan's handle on his control, and the rest, of course, is Hall of Fame history.

     --Palm Springs: March, 1983. Rod and Marilynn Carew invite Connie and I to Passover dinner at their rented condo. All the kids are there: the Carew's three daughters, Stephanie, Charryse and Michelle, and our Sara and David. Rod is reading from the Haggadah and comes to a passage pertaining to "thy rod and staff." and suddenly all the kids erupt in laughter. "Thy rod? Thy rod?" The Carew girls ask, "are they talking about you, daddy, OUR Rod?" Now the grownups join in and the kids can't stop. The laughter is continuous, contagious, and there are many times we can still hear it, most poignantly when Michelle passed away at 17 in 1996 after a long, spirited battle with leukemia, her unbridled joy on that Passover evening still vivid, as it is again now as Carew battles back from a massive heart attack, sustained artificially while waiting for a transplant and sustained by so much more.

      --Palm Springs: March, 1985. We are at an Angel team barbecue on the grounds of the Gene Autry Hotel when the Cowboy and his wife, Jackie, arrive and the chatter turns his biggest hit, "Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer," and the pleas come up for Autry to sing it. He is 77 and reluctant, then relents. He lacks a guitar and is far from pitch perfect, but it is a memorable performance on a lovely spring night and it is the last time he sings it---and, wow, as that and other snapshots fade, don't we wish we'd had a cellphone then. 

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Hit King--Forever (and Justifiably) Tarnished

       By Ross Newhan

       So, Rob Manfred, the baseball commissioner, has rejected Pete Rose's application for reinstatement, and it is safe to say that, at 74, Rose has run out of commissioners and run out of time. Rose may still see his bust in the Hall of Fame--Manfred left that door open by saying it was up to the folks in Cooperstown--but ineligible on Park Ave., under current rules, means ineligible anywhere else in New York.

        Basically, Manfred wrote in a judgement heavy on legalese that he didn't believe Rose, didn't trust Rose, didn't see any evidence that Rose has reconfigured his life since a bulging briefcase of bookie sheets and other evidence resulted in suspension and ineligibility for breaking baseball's Golden Rule on gambling 30 years ago. In other words, a Rose by any other name remains...a sham, a charlatan...and selling memorabilia in the shadows of a Vegas casino or from card tables on Main Street in the shadows of the Hall doesn't spell reconfigured.

        Sad? A shame?

       Of course.

       How many times have I written that there is no other way to describe it?

       He is baseball's all-time hits leader. He was Charlie Hustle come to hair flying life.

       Yet, he hasn't been eligible for a job in the sport he loves or a bronze bust that would be the ultimate acknowledgement of his relentless accomplishments as the ultimate hit machine--and the shame is his.

       Accountability and responsibility have escaped Mr Hustle.

       And if Bart Giamatti and Fay Vincent hoped he would find it, Bud Selig and successor Manfred have seen no evidence he had.

       "Mr. Rose's public and private comments, including his initial admission in 2004, provide me with little confidence that he has a mature understanding of his wrongful conduct, that he has accepted full responsibility for it, or that he understands the damage he has caused," Manfred wrote.                                    
       And while among the submissions Rose presented to the commissioner was a report from the co-director of the UCLA Gambling Studies Program and director of the school's Addiction Psychiatry Fellowship (a rationale for his behavior?), Manfred wrote that "the factual background recited in it is inconsistent with what Mr. Rose told me during our meeting."

        Thus, over three decades, the search for truth and trust has probably reached a conclusion.

       An unrepentant gambler on baseball as manager of the Cincinnati Reds (and still, according to evidence, a gambler on baseball), the Hit King's crown is likely to remain forever tarnished, banned from the sport that was his life, with only one man responsible for those layers of rust.       

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Greinke and A Complex Dodger Decision

                      By Ross Newhan

                      The Dodgers' stated priority of retaining Zach Greinke ultimately yielded to a financial decision that undoubtedly makes sense in the long-term but may prove difficult to justify in the shorter-term of the next few seasons, particularly the immediacy of  2016 considering the current rotation consists of Clayton Kershaw, Alex Wood, Brett Anderson and the ghost of Greinke, who stunned the Dodgers and their friends up North by agreeing to a six year, $206.5 million contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks, a West Division outlier presided over by former L,A. executive Derrick Hall.

                    Amid an industry awash in revenue (probably eclipsing $10 billion when the 2015 accounting is finished) and clearly demanding to be the top-ranked pitcher in terms of his contract's average annual value, Greinke took the AAV Crown away from David Price, who held it for about a week after signing a seven year, $217 million contract with the Red Sox.

                    The Diamondbacks, who have not had a payroll of more than $100 million since 2002 but will be starting a billion dollar television deal in 2016, were willing to give Greinke a sixth year that neither the Dodgers (who were offering about $160 million for five) nor his other hottest courtier, the Giants, were. This enabled Greinke to emerge with an AAV of $34.3 million or about $3 million more than Price, and while it is easy to label these rankings as Greed Personified, is it really greed when the clubs (or at least some) can't wait to participate?

                   Greinke had signed a six year, $147 million free agent contract with the Dodgers three years ago, setting a record for a right handed pitcher. He exercised an opt out clause to become a free agent again, knowing in the aftermath of an incomparable season that he would easily compensate for the $71 million he was yielding over the final three years of that contract. He got the $71 million, and $135.5 million more, plus lower taxes in Arizona, where the D-Backs are clearly going for it, hoping to take advantage of young players of the stature of Paul Goldschmidt and A.J. Pollock, an offense that ranked second in the National League in runs last year and that TV deal, which is expected to let them go back into the market to sign or trade for one more starting pitcher.

                  How Greinke, at 32, will respond to being the No. 1, the ace, of his staff while pitching home games in a shooting gallery compared to Dodger Stadium remains to be seen. His new employers, certain they have a budding contender, are only hoping to take advantage of his addition over the next three or four years and not that concerned about his performance at 37 and 38 in the final years of the deal.

                 The Dodgers know what they are losing. Greinke pitched six innings or more in all 32 of his starts last season, was 19-3 overall, had the major leagues' lowest earned-run average in the last 20 years and was 51-15 in his three years with the team.

                 Indeed, a front office featuring executives schooled in the low payroll environment of Tampa and Oakland may have a difficult time explaining the decision to end negotiations at that sixth year considering Greinke's performance, the rotation's obvious depth issues without him, the ownership riches seemingly available to them (in addition to the $8.35 billion TV contract and their major league leading attendance) and the World Series or bust (which it has been for 28 years) environment of big market L.A.  Fans, and others, could argue that a sixth year wouldn't have broken the bank.

               However, the Dodgers oft-stated goal has been a sustainable product, the $300 million payroll only a short-term by-product of the situation that the current ownership inherited.

               In committing $200 million or so to Greinke the Dodgers would have been tying up $60 million a year in two pitchers over an extended period, limiting how they addressed other roster decisions.

              A difficult but seemingly justifiable call complicated by a shredded rotation at a time when the market has narrowed and the Dodgers are not the only team in it.

              Three of the top four free agent pitchers are gone--Greinke, Price and Jordan Zimmerman, who agreed to a five year, $110 million deal with Detroit. Johnny Cueto, the fourth, remains, but he, too, is seeking five or six years while saddled with physical questions. There is still a secondary array of free agents--Jeff Samardzija, Mike Leake, Hisashi Iwakuma and Scott Kazmir, among them--and possible trade targets such as Shelby Miller and Carlos Carrasco, but the Giants, spurned by Greinke, are equally hungry, and the suddenly attractive D-Backs remain in pitching pursuit, among others.

              Can the Dodgers count on Hyun-Jim Ryu returning as good as new from shoulder surgery or Brandon McCarthy coming back from elbow surgery in mid-season or the touted and trade protected Julio Urias or Jose deLeon coming up at some point?

               One thing is certain: Money is cheap throughout baseball, and Greinke's record probably won't stand long.

               In fact, on a distant horizon, lurks a former teammate named Kershaw, who can opt out after 2018. Anyone for an AAV of $40 million?        




Monday, November 23, 2015

Satisfying Dodger Metrics--and More

         By Ross Newhan

          There was a time in Dave Roberts development as a player and person that Maury Wills, his base stealing guru with the Dodgers, gently lamented his pupil's friendly disposition.

         Wills goal for Roberts, as I wrote in a 2004 column in The Times: less affability and more aggressiveness; there was no time for shaking hands on the bases, and didn't even Roberts wife, Tricia, call him the Governor, Wills said, for all the greetings he exchanges?

          Tricia would suggest that Wills was stretching it with the Governor bit, but as I wrote of Roberts in that column: "There is no one more personable, conversational, outgoing--and the way Roberts is in the clubhouse and at the batting cage, with teammates and opponents he played with on the way up, is the way he is said to be in the mall and at the market."

         Now, of course, we know that Roberts' disposition, his drive, charisma, baseball acumen and (apparent) willingness to collaborate have satisfied all the metrics of the Dodgers' analytically-minded management.

         His hiring as the first minority manager of the organization that welcomed Jackie Robinson is exciting, adventurous and risky.

         Of the 18 managers hired since the winter of 2013-14, Roberts is the 12th first timer. There have been more failures than successes, but out with the old and in with the new, in my view.

        The Dodgers won three straight division titles under Don Mattingly, but the Roberts I know provides a different kind of presence, spirit, overdrive. The affability is there for sure--he has a "genuine concern" for people, said Andrew Friedman, who hired him--but so is the aggressiveness that Wills sought to upgrade more than a decade ago.

         In 10 plus major league seasons Roberts ultimately stole 243 bases, which does not include probably the most dramatic steal in post-season history, turning around the 2004 American League's Championship Series for the Boston Red Sox in a lights out situation. He has beaten cancer, honed his dugout knowledge by coaching in San Diego for five years, been runner-up for the recent Seattle managerial opening that went to General Manager Jerry Dipoto's close friend Scott Servais, and now, testimony to the communicative skills he brought to the interviewing process as a seeming longshot, outlasted eight other candidates for the Dodger job, including the in-house favorite, Gabe Kapler, on the final weekend.

         A gregarious, innovative thinker who Friedman brought from Tampa Bay to be the Dodgers farm director, Kapler, too, would have been an outside the box choice as manager, but it is believed that owner Mark Walter, who met with Roberts Friday, instructed Friedman to step outside the office, removing any perception in the clubhouse that the farm director/manager would merely be a direct arm of the executive wing.

         As it is, it can be assumed that Roberts has agreed to the analytical precepts, that lineups will be discussed, shifts agreed to, pitching formats understood, all while attempting to remain his own man.

         He becomes the eighth fulltime manager since the Dodgers last won a World Series under Tom Lasorda in 1988, and his task will not be easy. There is no guarantee that Zach Grienke and/or Howie Kendrick will be back among other issues of both clubhouse and personnel nature.

        Still, there is now a new, immediate, almost vibrant perception to Dodger Stadium blue, and, perhaps, the hope for all those letter writing, second guessing Mattingly hating fans is that Roberts will be as successful as another first year managerial hire by Friedman.

         Joe Maddon?

        A lofty goal, indeed.                 

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Don Mattingly? He Just Keeps Winning

     By Ross Newhan

      It's September and Quiz Time, and let me see if I have this right:

      The Los Angeles Dodgers and their No Good Manager are in the process of routing the National League West despite the continuing absence of 1) a regular outfield, 2) a dependable bullpen (aside from the closer), 3) a mid-to-back-end rotation certainty and 4) a set infield considering one shortstop is on the way out, another is on the way up (and possibly headed to third base), and who can say for sure when the regular second baseman will be back or who will be starting tonight on the left side of that infield?

       If I am right with the above, and I am, either the West is a federation of dunces (I know, I should have come up with something original) or the No Good Manager is Plenty Good, and while the West hasn't produced the anticipated increase in competitive depth, the No Good Manager has continued to enhance his credentials amid the usual firestorm from media cynics (a narrowing array?) and the True Blue doubters in the stands and on their couches.

       The point here, my point: let it be already, let it be.

       I mean, any correlation between the Dodgers'  World Record Payroll and the roster that Don Mattingly has had to juggle on a daily basis, well, re-read Paragraph 2 because it just hasn't been there, and yet the Dodgers are headed to another season of 90 plus wins and a third straight (it would have been four except for a next to last day elimination in 2012) playoff appearance under Mattingly, a record period of club success and one achieved amid ownership transition, front office upheaval, contract uncertainty and, most recently, a second major coaching change (initiated from upstairs) in the last two years to just make sure all of the shadows regarding the manager's future in L.A. don't entirely evaporate (and, oh yes, maybe the club's base running will also improve with this change).

     Sure, the Dodgers under Mattingly haven't won the World Series or reached the World Series, but have they been good enough in this era of parity or are they strong enough now given, particularly, the bullpen issue and the rotation question beyond Greinke/Kershaw, but, here it is, they will again have the chance to find out, and by the time the Division Series starts 11 National League teams will be sitting home--some, perhaps, with even fewer roster questions than Mattingly has had to cope with this year.
     The No Good Manager now has the Dodgers rampaging through late August and early September, and based on current standings they would play the New York Mets in the Division Series, with Donnie Baseball making a fall return to the Big Apple against a team whose manager, Terry Collins, carries the weight of his own baggage--September failures in other places, New York heat in regard to his leadership and strategical skills.

     How ironic. Now Collins and Mattingly are candidates for manager of the year in the National League (Mike Matheny? Ho-hum, don't the Cardinals always win?) , but it is doubtful an award, any award, would convince critics of the No Good Manager or insure his longterm residency in L.A. May be Miami, if reports of the Marlins interest are accurate, would be less stressful, but as Mattingly juggles his daily lineups and worries about those calls to the bullpen, as he leads the Dodgers toward another division title and another playoff appearance, he has proven he can cope with the stress and largely ignore the critics. To me, he is Plenty Good, indeed. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Calling the Umpires Out...Of the Replay Facility?


       By Ross Newhan

                There is growing and widespread opinion among major league managers, general managers and players that a replay system designed to produce the correct call on close plays is being undermined by hesitancy among umpires manning the New York review facility to overrule their colleagues on the field.

                 Over a three week period I talked with four general managers, three managers and several players, and while all were reluctant to speak for attribution on a subject that could be interpreted to impugn the integrity of umpires, they all suggested the process could be improved with fundamental changes that removed any hint of a "buddy system" among the umpires rotating through New York and those on the field.

                 "I want to be clear," said a National League general manager. "The umpires do a great job generally, and the replay system for the most part has been beneficial. However, the system is still relatively new and it's natural to consider it a work in progress with a definite need for some fixes. We have simply reviewed too many of our own challenges (to calls on the field) that were not overturned despite clear (video) evidence the call was wrong."

                 Among the executives, managers and players with whom I talked there was general unanimity that the umpiring staff should be removed from the review process, alleviating any perception of overriding allegiance between those doing the reviewing and the umpire who made the call.

                 They generally suggested three major changes

                 --The  hiring of independent personnel to man the replay facility.

                 --No longer informing the replay personnel of what the call on the field was and, when possible, reviewing only close ups of the play in question rather then wider shots showing the umpire making the call.

                 --A time limit of possibly two minutes on all reviews that would do away with the three minute-plus delays that have become prevalent in a series of recent games and which have impeded the pace of game initiative. If the replay evidence is simply not clear in that time the call on the field would stand.

              "I am reluctant to get into this even on an off the record basis," said a second NL general manager. "because I don't want it looked as if I am criticizing the umpires. They do a terrific job and they have embraced the replay system. If a bond exists between (those on the field and those off the field) that's only natural. I also tend to think they would embrace being removed from any process in which they may have to overrule one of their own."

              The current system allows umpires on the field to initiate their own challenges, and they have. However, one American League manager said "there is a lot of dismay over the number of calls not being overturned" in the face of clear video evidence "they should have been." Mike Scioscia, the Angel manager, spoke publicly about his head-shaking dismay after a game with Oakland this week in which two calls were not overturned despite his contrary view of the video.

              "We clearly need to sit down and discuss changes," he said.

              Any changes in the current format and the umpires role in it would have to be collectively bargained with their union. They accepted the expanded system when convinced the NY facility didn't expand their work load but merely represented another stop on their rotation through the big league cities and that the umpiring staff would be increased to help handle the assignment.

             An MLB executive said he was unaware of any discussions to put the umpires strictly on the field and not in the review facility.

            "I don't care what the sport is," he said. "You are always going to have two views of  just about every decision. We are in year two of this system, and before last season, we described the roll-out as a three year process. We made some modifications before this season based on our experiences of last year. We also have been pretty candid about the fact that while the system will not be perfect, it will ultimately correct hundreds of calls throughout the season."

            The percentages from this year's reviews are similar to last year's

            As of Monday, there had been 480 reviews this year. Of those, 113 of the calls on the field had been confirmed by replay, 225 had been overturned, 138 had been "let stand" because the replay was inconclusive in the view of the umpires monitoring the replay facility, and there had been four rules checks. The average interruption was one minute and forty eight seconds compared to 1:46 last year when there were 1,275 reviews of which 310 were confirmed, 603 were overturned and 352 were "let stand".
            It is unclear as to how loud the current grumbling will become, but it seems to be loud enough and coming from enough factions that it won't be allowed to simply "let stand."