Friday, September 24, 2010

Ichiro and Bautista--History in Different Forms?

     By Ross Newhan

     Two impressive offensive accomplishments have been somewhat glazed over amid the last shadows of the pennant races.

     In the case of the one accomplishment--Ichiro Suzuki's 10th straight season (in his first 10 major league seasons) of 200 or more hits--the word impressive doesn't do it justice. It is a remarkable stretch of hitting that stands alone in all of baseball history and will put Ichiro in the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, although he is certain to keep playing given his durability and success.

    In the case of the second accomplishment--Toronto third baseman Jose Bautista becoming only the 26th player to hit 50 home runs in a season--he and all of us are still caught in the cynical tentacles of the steroid era, meaning that, unfortunate as it may be, he is having to cope with the question of how did a player who hit 13 home runs last year and never more than 16 in six previous seasons suddenly hit 52 through Friday.

    Bautista is a solid and respected baseball citizen of whom his manager, Cito Gaston, has characterized as one of the hardest workers and most coachable players on his team and "when you have those traits going for you, well, you have the chance to get better, and that's what has happened in Jose's case."

   Unfortunately, however, he finds himself painted into the same corner as Brady Anderson and Luis  Gonzalez. Anderson hit 50 home runs for Baltimore in 1996, although he never hit more than 24 in any of his other 14 seasons, and Gonzalez hit 57 for Arizona in 2001, although he never hit more than 31 in any of his other 18 seasons.

    Bautista has said he understands the questions being raised "because of what has happened in the past," but he adds that baseball now has the "strictest testing program" in sports and he has never tested positive for a performance enhancing substance. However, baseball still does not test for human growth hormone at the major league level, so the questions and cynicisms linger.

    In the context of analysis and historical knowledge there is no one I respect more than Tim Kurkjian, a former newspaper colleague and now an analyst for ESPN.

   "As you know," Kurkjian said by phone, "in baseball guys can get really good or really bad almost overnight for no apparent reason. All indications are that Bautista has had a career year cleanly and in the right way.

  "Unfortunately, we are still so close to the steroid era that he gets lumped in with all those other guys. I mean, we are still so close to that era and there are still so many gaps in the testing program, that 20 years from now there may be new designer drugs that will be forcing us to ask the same questions Bautista is facing."

   For Ichiro, amid a disasterous Seattle season (with apologies to King Felix Hernandez), it has been business as usual, the 200 hits rolling or lining off his bat as he swings it on his way to first base, almost a step out of the batter's box and seemingly not having lost any of his quickness since his U.S. arrival in 2001, when he led the American League with 242 hits and a .350 batting average, a prelude to 2004, when he again led the league with 262 hits and a .372 average.

   "What Ichiro has done in the context of 200 hit seasons is unbelievable," Kurkjian said. "Consider this: During his streak of 10 straight years, nine teams have failed to have even one player get 200 hits."

   The only other player in major league history to get 200 hits in 10 seasons was Pete Rose, and he did it over a stretch of 15 seasons during his 24 year career. The only American League player to get 200 hits in as many as nine seasons was Ty Cobb, and he needed a stretch of 18 seasons during a 24 year career.

    "We think of guys like Tony Gwynn and Wade Boggs as being pretty phenomenal," Kurkjian said, "but they never did what Ichiro has done."

    Soon to be 37, it is not a stretch to believe that Ichiro would be on his way toward Rose's all-time hits record if he had duplicated his scorching seasons in Japan between the ages of 20 to 26: .385, .342, .356, .345, .358, .343 and ..387. As it is, he already has over 2,200 hits in the major leagues, and if he matches the 1,290 hits Rose had after 36, he would eclipse the 3,500 that has been achieved only by Tris Speaker, Stan Musial, Hank Aaron, Cobb and Rose.

   Almost always batting leadoff for the Mariners, it is mystifying why Ichiro has sometimes drawn criticism for being a selfish player who thinks only of getting his hits and not driving in runs, as if more than 200 hits a season, every season, is not contribution enough for a leadoff hitter who is also expected to win his 10th straight Gold Glove for fielding excellence this year. Among major league outfielders, Ichiro still has one of baseball's strongest throwing arms, if not the strongest.

     His has been another season of historic proportion.

     For Bautista, history comes with a question mark, the way it is now and will continue to be for any player soaring over 50 homers who has never been in that neighborhood before.      



Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Would a BatGlove Prevent the Bad Breaks?

      By Ross Newhan

      Separated by 34.years, Steve Yeager, the Dodger catcher then, and Terry Colvin, now the Chicago Cubs rookie outfielder, were struck by broken bats and suffered pointed injuries that were almost tragedies.

      It's possible that a new product called a BatGlove would have prevented both incidents.

     So far, however, a bat manufacturer is arguing against its employment and Major League Baseball is pursuing a broader study than the positive results produced by the BatGlove on the 10 bats tested at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell laboratory.

     Meanwhile, Yeager often has flashbacks and is fearful of what may transpire at some point.
    "It's going to happen," he said by phone. "A fan, player or coach is going to be killed the way bats are breaking. I still get frightened when I see it happen.

     "In my era it seemed like the wood was heavier and bats simply broke in two. Now it's as if someone is cutting them down the middle with an electric saw the way they shatter.

     "Maybe pitchers are throwing with more movement and the bat handles are thinner."

     Yeager used an ash bat as most players did until the last two decades. Now players are using predominantly maple bats, a trend that started in the 90s when some players thought of maple as the steroid of woods. That trend has become virtually universal because there is a shortage of ash.

     Rob Manfred, baseball's executive vice president of labor, never thought he would have to become an expert in forestry.

     "To start with," he said, "the use of maple bats was player driven. Now, we might have to shut down if we banned maple."

     A bore beetle has impacted large areas of the nation's forests, Manfred said, affecting the ability of bat manufacturers to get high quality ash over an extended period.

     In the meantime, he said, the joint MLB-Players Union committee on health and safety has initiated "significant" quality control issues dealing with the quality of grain being used in bats, minimum handle size and maximum barrel size. In 2009, he said, the incidents of multi piece breakage was reduced by 35%, and this year it is down 15%, "I would say that 50% over two years is significant, and I'm sure we will work on it jointly again during the coming off season," Manfred said.

    Still, bats are flying.

    Colvin was leading off third base in last Sunday's game in Miami when teammate Welington Castillo, using a maple bat, hit a drive down the left field line for a ground rule double. Colvin initially watched the flight of the ball, and when he turned to trot home, he was stuck on the left side of his chest with the top half of the bat. He was able to score the run, but he was quickly hospitalized with a puncture wound that has ended his season and forced use of a chest tube to prevent his lung from collapsing. He is expected to be healthy for next season.

    Yeager was in the on deck circle in a 1976 game at San Diego Stadium that I covered for the Los Angeles Times. I can still see the harrowing flight of Bill Russell's broken bat twirling ominously in Yeager's direction. Like Colvin, Yeager saw the ball leave Russell's bat, bent over to knock the iron doughnut from the end of his bat, took a step towards the plate and was hit in the throat by the jagged top half of the broken bat. He was knocked to the ground and immediately taken to a hospital, where nine splinters were removed from his esophagus and a doctor told him he was lucky. Splinters were millimeters from puncturing his jugular vein. Yeager missed about two weeks before returning to action.

   Meanwhile, Steve Rauso, who designed the BatGlove along with is brother, Phil, said the tests have proven the effectiveness of the clear plastic wrap that can be applied to a bat for only $5.

   "Maybe it's not the end all product," Steve Rauso said from his Arizona home, "but in the meantime it could save a kid's life, a player's life. What's the price on that?" 

    Tests showed that the wrap, stretching from just above the handle to the lower end of the label, prevented any bat broken in that area from flying apart. The wrap also does not impact the performance of the ball on the bat, Rauso said. However, a major league official said the testing continues and that there is concern, among bat manufacturers and MLB about a process called "hitching" in which the broken top half of the bat, contained by the plastic wrap, would snap back and injure the catcher, umpire or batter.

    "There's simply a need for more testing," the official said.
    Yeager's injury led to the creation of an important safety product for catchers. Bill Buhler, the late Dodger trainer. created a leather piece to hang from the mask, preventing Yeager from getting hit by foul tips on his stitched throat and is now universally used by catchers.

    About 20 years later, driving home from his job as a coach with the Dodgers' San Bernardino farm team,  Yeager's car was totalled in an accident that was not his fault and he required 300 stitches from shoulder to wrist.

    "I just hope that the saying about a cat having nine lives is right," he said. "I've already used two of mine."   



Friday, September 17, 2010

Torre's Resignation--or is Anybody Really Surprised?

     By Ross Newhan

     First of all, how could anybody be surprised by Joe Torre's decision to step down as Dodger manager?

     Why would Torre, at 70, financially secure, with a daughter still in high school, want to spend five more minutes managing the Dodgers amid the ownership turmoil and the resulting financial restraint it has put on the roster?

     Why would he even contemplate spending another year or possibly several, pending appeals in Frank and Jamie McCourt's divorce trial?

     Even the always reticent and circumspect Peter O'Malley spoke out in the Los Angeles Times on Friday, saying the McCourts have lost all credibility in Los Angeles and need to sell.

     Secondly, for Don Mattingly, eager to get his first managerial opportunity and angered when he wasn't selected as Torre''s successor with the New York Yankees, it's worth the risk of managing amid the ownership uncertainty and it's worth ownership's risk of giving the unproven hitting coach known as Donnie Baseball a chance rather than go through a prolonged search.

     Mattingly has a three year contract and that internal and contractural grooming by Torre and the Dodgers allowed the club to avoid a long search generally required by MLB, which approved of the Dodgers handling.

     Still, it's not going to be easy for him assuming the McCourts remain as owners while their divorce trial lingers. He watched Torre, the strain deeping in his eyes and on his face, attempt to keep the Dodgers in the division race with gaps in the lineup and pitching staff and getting viturally no front office help from his handcuffed general manager.

   It's not going to be easy for Mattingly to reinvigorate his key young players like Matt Kemp, Andre Eithier and James Loney, all of whom in certain ways went backwards this year as Manny Ramirez disappeared on them and they knew ownership wasn't going to spend big on a key addition or two, and may not again in 2011.

    Nor will it be easy on Mattingly simply to prove he can step into a big city job and win the same respect as a manager that he always carried as a player. Perhaps Torre will stay around as a managerial advisor and perhaps Mattingly has learned enough during his several seasons next to Torre on the Yankee and Dodger bench that it won't be an issue.

   Yes, Mattingly made a key mistake while replacing Torre in a mid summer game, turning one trip to the mound into two when he momentarily stepped off the mound headed back to the dugout and then back on it to answer a question, automatically forcing the need for a pitching change. Call it a learning experience, but a mistake like that as the manager and he will be dogged by whispers of uncertainly in the clubhouse and press box.

   For now, the Dodgers have kept to the plan they put in place when Torre was hired:

  Mattignly will succeed him and Tim Wallach will have to wait his chance at triple A unless he takes this as a slap in the face of the kind Mike Scioscia once received from the Dodgers and, like Scioscia, leaves on his own or is hired for another big league opening, of which there are expected to be several.

  Might Torre fill one?

  The New York Mets, if Jerry Manuel is fired as expected? The St. Louis Cardinals, if Tony LaRussa retires? The Chicago Cubs as Lou Piniella's successor or the Atlanta Braves as successor to Bobby Cox?

   Thank about it. Would any of those clubs really hire a 70 year old manager who would have to receive a multi year contract and be paid $5 million or more a year?

    Does Torre really want to take on another challenge at 70?

    He is already headed to the Hall of Fame.

    He is a former winner of the Most Valuable Player Award and he has already managed successfully for the bombastic George Steinbrenner and the dysfunctional McCourts, making the post-season playoffs for 14 straight seasons prior to this one.

   Who needs more? He has fulfilled his three year contract with the Dodgers and said it was time for the players to hear a new voice. Any slim possibility of an extension or talks regarding a new role stopped when the McCourts went to court.

    Torre will remain in baseball, but the bet here is that he is through with managing and headed to a front office role somewhere or back to the announcer's booth on a parttime basis, keeping an eye in the meantime on Mattingly should he ask for advice.

    Of course, it is a risky business making predictions.

    As anyone who has followed the Dodgers knows, there has been one tumultuous event after another since O'Malley sold the team in 1998.

    In the context of all that, Friday was fairly ho-hum.



Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Living on Borrowed Money, or Where Was MLB?


     By Ross Newhan

     The divorce trial known as McCourt vs. McCourt resumes Monday with it's fascinating cast of lawyers and embarrassing catalogue of details--or how many houses do two people need (nine in this case) and how much money can you spend in one year on haircuts ($150,000 in the case of Frank and Jamie, which noting the above caricature is clearly $150,000 more than I need).

     It would be arrogant of me to insist that much of the daily reports coming out of  this entertaining insight into excess you have read before. However,  if you followed my reporting as the national baseball columnist at the Los Angeles Times during the period when the McCourts were negotiating to buy the Dodgers from Rupert Murdoch's Fox Entertainment Group, ultimately gaining approval from Major League Baseball in 2004, that would be the truth.

    I did not predict that Frank and Jamie would ultimately divorce or that they would single handidly keep the Southern California real estate market afloat or that Michael Kors would happily send a limo any time Jamie needed a new outfit, even if she was calling from one of her two Malibu homes at the time.

     What I did repeatedly report, often in collaboration with Jason Reid, who was brilliantly covering the Dodgers at the time and now works for the Washington Post, is that the McCourts comparatively had little money of their own at stake and would be buying the Dodgers largely on credit, the $430 million primarily underwritten by the Murdoch company, so determined to sell the club after a tumultuous six year ownership period during which Fox achieved its primary objective, spreading regional networks across the country like a spider's web.

     What Reid and I also repeatedly reported is that the McCourts would be filing a business plan with MLB that called for a yearly reduction in player payroll accompanied, as it played out, by a yearly increase in ticket and parking prices.

    All of this has been documented by court filings and testimony in the divorce case. However, I do not bring it up to pat Reid and myself on the back but to ponder again how MLB allowed the McCourts to make a shoestring purchase of a flagship franchise and file a business plan that seemed certain to undercut the club's ability to provide three million-plus fans a year with the best players money can buy.

    Some way, some how, the Dodgers reached the National League's Championship Series in each of the last two years, but 2010 has largely been a misery for General Manager Ned Colletti, overshadowed by the divorce and the disappearance of Manny Ramirez. The Dodger payroll of $95 million ranks 11th among the 30 teams, and Frank McCourt is $433 million in debt, according to a story in The Times, written in concert with an accounting firm. He has been turned down three times in the last year for additional funding to run the team, according to the story, and multiple sources have told this writer that he has been attempting to borrow money from whoever and wherever he can--relatives and non-relatives alike.. "Every dollar is going to pay off the debt," a source closely tied to the divorce proceedings said.

    MLB has refused to comment on the case, or why McCourt received 2004 approval after his finances were thoroughly checked by the industry. According to sources, Commissioner Bud Selig is now said to be extremely concerned about the prospects of this trial and possible appeals playing out over several years and it's impact on the Dodgers, but it's questionable what he can do.

    Under Selig, baseball revenue has soared to over $7 billion a year, but the Dodgers have become a financial mess--or at least the McCourts have--despite the club's court documented revenue of $286 million last year.

   As noted, there was a long line of potential buyers before the McCourt were approved: David Checketts, former CEO of Madison Square Garden and the New York Knicks; Malcolm Glazer and sons, L.A. residents and owners of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers; L.A. real estate magnate Alan Casden; a group headed by former Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, and, at the 11th hour in what might have been strictly a grandstand maneuver, renowned L.A. philanthropist Eli Broad, who would have reinstated Peter O'Malley as club prsident.

   O'Malley worked out of a Dodger Stadium office virtually every day of the year prior to selling the club in 1998 for two principal reasons:

   --He wanted to build an NFL stadium on Dodger Stadium property but refused to battle the city, which wanted him to support the Coliseum as a potential NFL site;

   --He felt it was time to get estate taxes in order for his sister and family, and soaring baseball salaries left him convinced that the sport had become too difficult for family ownership unless they also had revenue from  NFL ownership.

   Now the McCourts operate out of separate offices in Beverly Hills, there is no assurance that Manager Joe Torre will  return for another season of financially limited roster additions like the current one, and there is no telling how Judge Scott Gordon will rule in regards to a series of conflicting postnuptual agreements which will determine whether Frank or Jamie owns the Dodgers separately or jointly--and whether he, she or they together will have to sell the team, which, of course, is the rooting interest among Dodger fans given the financial soap opera that has emerged from the trial.

   Financial details that were reported in large measure by Jason Reid and me more than six years ago, and apparently no concern at the time to Selig and the approving owners.      

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Managerial Carousel


        By Ross Newhan

        So Joe Torre, his Dodgers swept by the San Diego Padres to bury the last of their post-season visions, says he wishes there was more he could have done to help his team do better.

        A preamble to his retirement?

       We can't be sure yet.

       It's pretty safe to say that Torre does not want to go through another season like this one---the owners' divorce undercutting the team's financial ability to strengthen the roster and the disappearance of Manny Ramirez undercutting the team's offense, contributing to major second half slumps by Andre Eithier and Matt Kemp, although it is time both of these players stand on their own two feet.

      One thing is for certain: Whether Torre returns or not, there will be a major turnover in managers, adding to the turnover that has transpired during the season.

      Florida, Arizona, Seattle and Baltimore all fired their managers, and the Chicago Cubs were left with a vacancy when Lou Piniella retired.

      What we know is that one managerial giant, Piniella, has left for good, two more, Bobby Cox and Cito Gaston, will soon join him, and both Torre and Tony LaRussa may decide to join the parade.

      Fourteen managers are in the last year of their contracts or have club options that have yet to be exercised. Jerry Manuel of the New York Mets, Ken Macha of the Milwaukee Brewers and John Russell of the Pittsburgh Pirates are in jeopardy, as are the interim managers in Florida, Seattle and Chicago, where the Cubs face something of a public relations backlash if they don't elevate Ryne Sandberg, who didn't let his Hall of Fame stature get in the way of accepting a minor league managing position in preparation for managing in the majors.

     In Los Angeles, should Torre step down, the failure of Don Mattingly to have managed in the minors, could come back to haunt the hitting coach who has always been considered Torre's successor. There is suddenly a groundswell of support for Tim Wallach, who has been managing the club's triple A team in Albuquerque.

    Meanwhile, Kirk Gibson, who succeeded the fired A.J. Hinch in Arizona, is expected get a full season at the helm, Buck Showalter has already received a multi-year opportunity in Baltimore, and Fredi Gonzalez, who was fired in Florida, is the leading candidate to succeed Cox in Atlanta. It's the usual game of musical chairs, but this year some of baseball's most celebrated conductors have already or could decide they have played long enough.

    * * *
    The final three weeks of the season will determine the respective managers of the year.

    Bud Black of the Padres had a lock on it in the National League, but Bruce Bochy of San Francisco and
Charlie Manuel of Philadelphia have moved into contention.

    In the American League, Ron Gardenhire of Minnesota and Ron Washington of Texas would seem to be the leading candidates.

   At least, all of those contenders are among the few managers whose jobs are safe.


Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Prayers Answered

By David Newhan

It was confirmed Monday night, God does answer prayers. In the midst of a lively Sunday sermon by our pastor Roger Friend, a request for a reprieve in the Padres 10 game losing streak was made. Although certain members of the congregation were rebuking his appeal for a Pad Squad victory, it appears as though his prayers were indeed answered. I suppose Tommy Lasorda is in dismay. He always talks about the great Dodger in the sky donning Dodger Blue! Perhaps, that great Dodger in the sky was detained in a courtroom. Maybe He had too much on the docket to actually be concerned with the playing of a game as the Dodger owners battle in a high priced divorce. Anyhow, the Fighting Friars, Pastor Friend's favorite team and the surprise team of the year, went back to work on Labor Day after what was tantamount to a week and a half off, unable to shake their longest losing streak of the season. Their league best record is now third best and they now find themselves in a dogfight to fend off those nasty Giants and ever-surging Rockies. Oh, the drama of the playoff push. A season's worth of great play by the Padres was almost thrown away by a humbling two week stretch! Now, every game matters, and for the fan, this just adds to the excitement as September baseball unfolds. It is likely to come down to the end of the Padres with several key series remaining to be played with both Colorado and San Francisco and a season finale by the bay.. By the way, how can you not love a pastor with the last name of Friend!

More Padres

Obviously, Adrian Gonzalez is the cog that gives the Padres credibility and a middle of the lineup power threat. His .303 average and 27 home runs in spacious Petco Park are impressive and deserving of notice. Also, on the offensive side, I love the two additions that general manager Jed Hoyer and his staff made in acquiring Miguel Tejada and Ryan Ludwick. Both are gamers and professionals who will help down the playoff stretch. The young Mat Latos has been infallible. He has shrugged off any pennant race pressure while giving his team a string of quality starts and leading the league in earned-run average while throwing more innings than at any time in his career. Latos has the look of someone who will vie for the Cy Young award annually. Surely, Heath Bell would be welcomed to close for just about any team and proved his worth again in the ninth inning of Monday's streak breaking victory over the Dodgers.. Bell, 5-0 with 37 saves and a 1.78 e.r.a., should get some Cy Young consideration himself. All that being said, the unsung hero of this team has been the play of versatile Jerry Hairston Jr.. It was not totally a surprise that the 10 game slide coincided with his stint on the disabled list. Although his average is modest, he has provided consistent, professional at bats and is always a tough out. Hairston Jr., will play "team ball" and do the little things throughout the game that result in wins. Also, he does it every day. Whereas some guys show up to play three or four times a week, Jerry is there with the same drive and fire every night. He might not jump off the page at you but when you see him day in and day out you understand his worth to a team. By the way, isn’t baseball played just about every day for six long months? Hairston has delivered double-digit home runs, stolen some bases, and been able to play all over the field. He has filled in for extended time at shortstop and been totally serviceable. He can score from first on a double and score from second on most singles. He provides life and energy as well as experience. Jerry has probably played twice as much as the Padres originally intended, but that is because he is this teams unsung hero and behind the scenes MVP. I am certain, Padre fans and management will be happy to see him return as quickly as possible from this DL stint!

More Padres…….OOPS, Errr,…….I mean Brewers

Trevor Hoffman has endured a season like no other in his storied career. Unquestionably, this has been his toughest from a numbers standpoint: A 2-7 won lost record, 6.23 ERA and 8 saves. He was ultimately forced to relinquish closer role. It has been a battle and grind for him to say the least. They always say you learn the most about a person on how they react during their toughest times. If that is true, then Trevor has shined! There has been no bickering or complaining. He has not quit on his team. He has not punched out or retired and taken it to the house early as he easily could have. In the face of adversity, Trevor has shined and shown the world the person and consummate professional he is. Trevor has led bullpen conditioning boot camps. He has mentored the young John Axford in what it takes to be a closer in the big leagues. Moreover, I am certain his San Diego successor Heath Bell is quick to tell everyone that Trevor’s influence when Trevor was still with the Padres has helped him to be the dominant closer he is today. Trevor could have easily walked away early when demoted from his closer position in Milwaukee. Instead, he has shown the baseball world his dedication and innate qualities that made him the all-time saves leader, a clubhouse leader and a shoe in for Cooperstown. Hopefully, he can get the opportunity to reach that 600 save milestone during this last month of the season. It would be a nice capstone on a Hall of Fame career for a Hall of Fame person. Hopefully, I will be able to attend the induction. I'd love to hear ACDC's Hells Bells blaring over the loudspeakers when Trevor Time comes to Cooperstown. .