Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Ichiro's 4,000 a Lot of Hits By Any Global Measure


                   By Ross Newhan

                   Ichiro Suzuki reported to work with the New York Yankees Wednesday needing one more hit for 4,000 in his professional career, and it doesn't matter that he won't be listed with Pete Rose and Ty Cobb as the only major league players to eclipse that total because 1,278 of those hits came with the Orix Blue Wave.

                  Nor does it matter if you remain skeptical about Japanese baseball despite the wave of quality imports.

                  Suzuki has been all that he was touted to be, a hit machine headed to the Hall of Fame--the one in Cooperstown, U.S.A.--and 4,000 represent an opportunity to recall a few accomplishments.

                  Like a .320 career average, two American League batting titles, 10 straight seasons of 200 or more hits, 10 straight All-Star appearances, a remarkable 262 hits with Seattle in 2004 to break George Sisler's 84 year old major league record (257) for the most in a single season and a U.S. total of 2,721 during 13 seasons with the Mariners and Yankees--a period in which he also displayed one of the strongest and most accurate throwing arms anywhere.

                   Suzuki is now a partime player at 39, but he still has rolled out 293 hits in the 280 games of the last two plus seasons, and he should reach 3,000, a Cooperstown milepost, if  he realizes a goal of playing two more years.

                  While posting fees for Asian players have skyrocketed, the Mariners paid a modest $13.12 million to Orix for the right to negotiate with Suzuki, who signed for three years at $14.088 million-- that, too, comparatively modest when weighed against the currently inflated market.

                 No one knew the Orix outfielder and knows Suzuki better than Jim Marshall, who played parts of seven seasons in the majors, managed the Oakland A's and Chicago Cubs, and now scouts for the Arizona Diamondbacks.

                Marshall also played for and managed the Blue Wave before serving as their international scout, a period in which he often dined twice a week with Suzuki.

               "At that time," Marshall said from his Arizona home, "I would say that the caliber of play in Japan was the equivalent of 4A--better than triple A here but lacking the depth of our big leagues.

              "However, I knew that when Ichiro finally got his opportunity to play here he would be a star. What I couldn't have predicted was that he would be a superstar. He hit every caliber of pitcher in Japan, and he has done the same in the big leagues."

              It is also worth noting when analyzing Suzuki's hit total that those 1,278 hits during seven full seasons with Orix came over schedules of 130, 135 games, compared to the 162 here. Clearly, he would be far beyond the 4,000 total had he played a career of 162 games per year.

             As it is, in addition to Rose, the alltime leader at 4,256, and Cobb, the only two other players credited with more than 4,000 hits as professionals are Stan Musial and Hank Aaron, whose totals were achieved at the major and minor league levels. If Japan was 4A and better than triple A during his career with the Blue Wave, Suzuki may ultimately fit somewhere on the hit ladder beneath Rose and Cobb and above Musial and Aaron.

           It is all speculation when factoring in those years in Japan, but Suzuki has definitely measured up as a Hall of Fame caliber player in the big leagues, and 4,000, by any measure, is certainly not bad for a guy who began his professional career as a pitcher.





Monday, August 19, 2013

A-Rod Situation: Zanier By The Day

      By Ross Newhan

      Neither Abner Doubleday nor Alexander Cartwright Jr., are believed to have invented baseball.

      I can't attest to the origin since I had other obligations in the mid-1800s.

      However, I have to believe that the constantly evolving Alex Rodriguez situation is one of the most bizarre (looniest?) in the history of the Grand Old Game.

      Not only is Rodriguez challenging his 211 game suspension through arbitration, but now we have the very flashy Joe Tacopina, the latest addition to A-Rod's regiment of lawyers and PR specialists, preparing a grievance against the New York Yankees for mishandling his medical treatment dating back to the 2012 post-season, withholding information, according to Tacopina, about a serious hip condition that forced Rodriguez to play hurt in the playoffs and ultimately required surgery, the new grievance also climaxing a series of accusations by Rodriguez about the way the Yankees have dealt with his physical situation.

      So, as the suspended and accusatory Rodriguez bats in the middle of the Yankee lineup and joins with Alphonso Soriano in helping rejuvinate a struggling offense and keep the team's division and wild card hopes alive, we have Yankee General Manager Brian Cashman branding Rodriguez a "liar" in regards to the medical charges and club President Randy Levine saying it is time for Rodriguez to formally "put up or shut up."

      "If he is going to file a grievance, that's great," Levine was quoted in the New York Times before Rodriguez himself acknowledged that the grievance process has begun

      "That will finally put all the medical issues to rest," Levine said. "And if he is willing, we will be happy to release his medical records to the public."

       The Yankees and MLB privately believe, of course, that the medical issue is simply designed as  a distraction to the real issue, as contained in MLB's statement at the time of A-Rod's  suspension, that he used numerous banned substances over multiple years. Nevertheless, whether a distraction or not, the charges and counter charges serve to create a strange dynamic when Rodriguez has a bat in his hands and Yankee management finds itself hoping the "liar" delivers.

      "These are unique times," Cashman acknowledges.

      How unique was demonstrated in another zany way Monday morning when Matt Lauer, host of the Today show, seemed to become a middle man for major league baseball, presenting Tacopina, during an interview on the show, with a letter from MLB offering to waive the confidentiality clause in the Joint Drug Agreement that would allow MLB and Tacopina/Rodriguez to speak freely about their respective evidence as it related to the suspension and A-Rod's alleged use of PEDs. Tacopina later rejected the offer, calling it a trap and publicity stunt, and choosing to present their case to the arbitrator rather than in a public airing. That arbitration could begin, in the form of initial briefs, in early September, according to multiple sources.
     How unique was also demonstrated Sunday night at Fenway Park when Rodriguez stepped in against Red Sox pitcher Ryan Dempster, who immediately took dead aim, twisting A-Rod away from the plate with a series of inside pitches before nailing him in the ribs.

    Dempster may have believed he was delivering a blow for all of those players who consider Rodriguez the latest poster boy for the drug cheats, but other than delighting a capacity crowd he raised questions about his own intelligence.

   With the Red Sox fighting to maintain their AL East lead he 1) risked a second inning ejection that would have thrown the bullpen into unheaval, 2) created a scenario that may lead to his suspension, and 3) found a way to bring the Yankees--if there were any doubts about where A-Rod's teammates stood--racing from the dugout in A-Rod's defense, with Manager Joe Girardi so heated over umpire Brian O'Nora's failure to eject Dempster (O'Nora merely warned both benches) that he was ejected himself.

    Rodriguez would later respond to the Boston pitcher by drilling a home run to dead center, the highlight of a 9-6 Yankee victory and another chapter in this weird and wearying story that finds the Yankees not knowing whether to cheer or Bronx Cheer, and MLB employing any media avenue (i.e. 60 Minutes, the Today show) to undercut Rodriguez, underscore its suspension justification and respond to a media blitz by Tacopina, a known street fighter in legal circles.


Thursday, August 15, 2013

Replays? Yes! Challenge System? No!


           By Ross Newhan

           I believe in the increased use of replays, as likely to be implemented in baseball next season.

           Another year of too many blown calls demands it, and, if you are going to use any available means--such as evidence buying and flipping a potential felon by threatening him with legal suits--to eliminate drug cheats and level the playing field, then it is time to broaden the use of replays in an attempt to eliminate umpiring mistakes.

           Those mistakes, as often acknowledged by umpires in post-game comments after reviewing replays, can ultimately cost a team millions of dollars in playoff compensation

           And technological advancements certainly make broader use more feasible.

           However, under the system proposed by a committee of Atlanta president John Schuerholz and former managers Tony LaRussa and Joe Torre, a manager would be limited to one challenge of a reviewable play (it isn't clear which plays will be reviewable beyond the current border calls on home runs) through six innings and two more through the end of the game. If a manager wins his challenge, he would retain the challenge, but the six inning challenge would not carry over.

         For baseball to recognize the need, reliability and improved speed in delivering replays at full speed, slow motion and stop action is a huge step, but I don't agree with the challenge system and I don't agree with a limit on challenges.

        Yes, the pace of games is important, and ultimately the time of games is as well, but getting it right should be the bottom line, and the time of games, when replays were introduced in the current and limited form, did not change appreciably.

        The proposed system would have a former umpire or a team of umpires reviewing plays and making the call on a secure line from New York.

        On reviewable plays--and, again, we don't know what those will be--a manager should have the right to seek a review without limit on those requests, and the official or officials in New York should have the right to overrule a decision on a reviewable play even if a manager does not seek a review.

       The challenge limit leaves in place the possibility that an umpiring mistake can still decide the outcome in those cases where a manager has already employed his three challenges.

       Of course, without knowing the full range of reviewable plays or the full authority of the review official or officials in New York, it is difficult to adequately address the concept.

      The issue of reviewable plays must be negotiated with the players union, and the overall concept will require approval of the umpires union, which is believed willing to accept an increase in the use of replay, most arbiters recognizing that if it helps them get it right, that if it helps reduce the number of prolonged, emotional arguments that often carry over, and that if it helps them avoid the possibility of  widespread firings stemming from the critical mistakes that too often have dotted the major league landscape in recent years, then, indeed, why wait until 11 before going to the film?    




Monday, August 5, 2013

A-Rod's Appeal: Certain to Be Ugly

               By Ross Newhan

               Yes, there is due process, a hallmark of the American judicial system.

               Yes, there is the grievance forum in which Alex Rodriguez will have the opportunity to overturn or, at least, have his 211 game suspension shortened, preserving millions of dollars.

               Make no mistake, however.

               This arbitration hearing will be unlike any in baseball history--perhaps unlike any in any court of appel ever, and this is why:

               For Rodriguez to win on any level he has to 1) tear down the administrators of the game he continues to insist he loves, 2) discredit Tony Bosch, the former director of the now closed Biogenesis clinic (and a man MLB flipped in its determined investigation), and 3) go after his employer, the New York Yankees, whose uniform he put on again on Monday, batting clean up on the very day that the Commissioner handed down the longest, non-gambling related suspension in baseball history.

             In other words, it's going to be a dirty, nasty business in which Rodriguez will have to prove his recent claim that there was a multi-faceted conspiracy against him, proving in the process that Bud Selig, devoid of a positive drug test, did not have authority under MLB's Collective Bargaining suspend.him.

            There would seem to be no other avenue if Rodriguez is going to overcome the basic evidence, which includes, as Selig cited in a pointed statement and which multiple sources have confirmed to me on multiple occasions, that he tampered with that evidence, obstructed the investigations and used numerous forms of performance enhancing substances, including steroids, human growth hormone and testosterone, over a period of years.

            Rodriguez was given a chance to address the process and deny he used PEDs, beyond a short period with the Texas Rangers that he previously admitted to, during a news conference before the Yankees' game with the Chicago White Sox Monday night, but he refused that opportunity, giving a measure of credence to the belief that he will have to center his appeal on a conspiratorial concept, since the evidence is the evidence.

          It would have been so easy to simply deny that extended use of PEDs, to emphatically make that point whether true or not, but he skirted it, saying only that the last seven months, coming back from a second hip surgery at 38 and coping with the circumstances that finally manifested in the suspension, have been a nightmare and that, in returning to the field with the Yankees, he is looking forward to the opportunity to take a time out, a deep breath.

        Fat chance.

        Perhaps, at no time during the history of  a storied franchise will the Yankees have played a span of 52 regular season games that will be more scrutinized, their third baseman under a microscope that leaves no time for a deep breath.

        In all liklihood, in fact, the Rodriguez arbitration hearing won't begin until November, so we have a first: A player facing a 211 game suspension will have a chance to impact the pennant race.

       Asked if he thinks the Yankees really wanted him back and are happy he is back.

       "If I'm productive," he said, undoubtedly aware that his 647 homers and three MVP Awards will always be looked on skeptically, as will any productivity that ensues.

       For Rodriguez, it is a test in more ways than one, and for the commissioner, too. Selig, expected to retire at the end of next season, is determined to leave the legacy of a compatively clean sport after a fitful start in that direction.

       Toward that end, as well, the commissioner would have preferred to suspend Rodriguez for life.

       Selig clearly knew, however, that 211 had a better chance to survive a challenge, particularly once A-Rod and his battery of lawyers refused to accept a plea deal, as 12 other players linked to Biogenesis did on Monday, agreeing to 50 game suspensions in the wake of Ryan Braun having previously agreed to 65.

       Faced with evidence yet undisclosed, Braun and Monday's 12 chose not to fight.

       For A-Rod, amid the deceptions of a disintegrating career and reputation, an ugly fight has just begun.   


Thursday, August 1, 2013

A-Rod: Where Did He Go?

                  By Ross Newhan

                  Who is Alex Rodriguez, and When Did He Disappear?

                  Those questions have resonated with me since I first met him in 1996.

                  He was 21 and in his first full season with the Seattle Mariners, who had made him the first player to be selected in the June draft of 1993, much to the consternation of the Dodgers, who had the second choice and selected Darren Dreifort.

                  Arguably the most touted, talented and baseball wise player ever to come out of high school (Miami's Westminster Christian), Rodriguez was all of that in '96, on his way to leading the American League in batting and doubles while hitting 36 home runs, driving in 123 and ultimately
finishing second in voting for the league's Most Valuable Player Award.

                  Thus, it was no surprise that the Los Angeles Times, my longtime employer, agreed with my recommendation that I fly to Seattle and prepare an in-depth story on the young shortstop.

                  It was early in that dazzling summer of his, and I made arrangements with his agent, Scott Boras, to let Rodriguez know I was coming and to set up a time to meet him in the clubhouse.

                  I have made similar arrangements dozens (hundreds?) of times while covering baseball for more than 50 years, but the player was not always at the time and place that had been established, and often, in fact, would plead ignorance of the appointment.

                  Rodriguez, however, was at his locker at the designated hour, and, after introducing myself, he asked, "can I get you a chair and a soft drink?"

                  I'm sure I had a stunned look on my face since no player had ever greeted me so solicitously, or would ever greet me so solicitously.

                  At the same time, I knew that Boras had arranged with the public relations specialist, Andrea Kirby, to work with Rodriguez from the time he first signed, and the lessons had obviously taken.

                 I would remember that greeting every time I chatted with or interviewed Rodriguez in subsequent years, every time I talked to a teammate about him, because I was never sure--and many of those teammates didn't seem to be either--whether I was talking to or about the real A-Rod or a PR creation.
               Those personal feelings were endorsed by former Yankee manager Joe Torre in his recent book, "The Yankee Years."

              Torre wrote that teammates and clubhouse attendants often referred to A-Rod as "A-Fraud," and that Rodriguez was too often unable to "concern himself with getting the job done" because he was distracted with "how it looks."               
             Now, of course, with the Yankees silent endorsement, the commissioner seems determined to make Rodriguez, whoever he is, disappear literally.

            He is expected to be suspended for life or, at least, multiple years that would likely terminate his career since he is 38 and coming off two hip operations.

            And I am left with a strange mix of emotions.

            Based on his admitted and alleged use of performance enhancing substances and all of the involved deceptions (and recent acts of desperation), the overriding reaction is to say good riddance.

            Yet, in trying to decipher what was real and what was not about the person, the player and his career of 647 home runs, 2,091 hits and three MVP Awards, there is a feeling of sadness related to the issue of what might have been.

             Instead of a living testimonial to all of the scouting reports, as he was in so many of those early years, instead of Cooperstown, he is about to join Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe in baseball confinement.