Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Pujols: An Untarnished Milestone


             By ROSS NEWHAN

             The introduction of the designated hitter, extending many careers, and the widespread abuse of performance enhancing drugs, tainting many, has bit into the impact of the long coveted 3,000 hit and 500 home run plateaus.

             However, in the case of Albert Pujols, still primarily a first baseman at 34 and exempt from PED implication except for Jack Clark's legally challenged hearsay accusation (costing Clark his radio job), 500 homers are 500 homers, an honorable accomplishment that alone should secure first ballot election to the Hall of Fame except for the fact there is no longer any certainty to a process that needs restructuring.

            Pujols, of course, has an array of other Hall worthy statistics going for him, and if the first month of his third season with the Angels is an indication, rebounding from the heel injury of last year and with seven more seasons remaining on his $240 million contract, he is likely to scale other heights.

           For one, that other magic number of 3,000 hits is easily within contract reach, and he is going to continue up the home run ladder, possibly even passing Barry Bonds and Hank Aaron at the top if remaining reasonably healthy.
           At 26th, he is the third youngest to reach 500 behind the tarnished Alex Rodriguez and the very honorable Jimmie Foxx.

          With a major league leading eight homers in 20 games (plus 19 RBI) he is on an improbable pace for 64 and 152.  If he goes on to hit a more reasonable 40 this year he will rank 16th on the all-time list. If he averages 30 over the ensuing season seasons he will be at 750 and trailing only the injected Bonds at 762 and Aaron at 755. If he averages 32 for the seven seasons he will pass both.

           As it is, he should join Babe Ruth, Foxx and the PED scarred Manny Ramirez this year as the only players with 12 seasons of 30 homers and 100 RBI, with only A-Rod having more at 14.

           I have made the point previously that with better decisions and investments over the last six or seven years--retaining Mike Napoli, signing Adrian Beltre, rejecting Gary Mitchell Jr. and Vernon Wells, going the distance to keep Zack Greinke after giving up top prospect Jean Segura to get him-- the Angels could have avoided the potentially wallet strapping commitment to Pujols at 31 and the ensuing, $125 million deal with Josh Hamilton at 31.

           The Pujols and Hamilton expenditures certainly played a role in the off-season decision by Arte Moreno to draw a payroll line at the luxury tax threshold of $179 and not spend big on much needed pitching.

           That withdrawl could prove costly. Three-fifths of the rotation is unproven, and the Angel staff is dangerously thin with little in minor league reserve.

          Can Pujols maintain his April shower of hits and homers? Can Hamilton regain his pre-injury stroke? Both questions would seem to require a positive response if the Angels are going to end their four year playoff drought in a strengthened West Division.

          Tomorrow is tomorrow, however, and the moment belongs to Pujols and his milestone accomplishment in a milestone career.                   


         A Happy 100th Birthday today to Wrigley Field. Always a happy stop for a former beat guy.                                       

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Puig Story and Damning Thoughts

         By Ross Newhan

         The story of Yasiel Puig's harrowing defection from Cuba, as reported comprehensively by Jesse Katz in Los Angeles Magazine, and in an upcoming version by ESPN The Magazine, leaves me to wonder how this incredible narrative escaped the hometown Los Angeles Times.

          Since Puig burst onto the L.A. and major league scene last year there hasn't been a more compelling figure. The Times? There were stories dealing with the desperate, deadline impacted drive by Dodger scouting director Logan White to get Puig signed as a free agent in Mexico, but the reporting otherwise was consistently vague---Puig "not wanting to talk about his defection" and "not much being known about it."

           I do not indict national baseball writer Bill Shaikin or beat writers Dylan Hernandez and Mike DiGiovanna. They had other obligations. It was up to the editors, to the publisher, to recognize the possibilities--Puig's overnight magnitude and the mysteries surrounding his arrival--and provide a team of reporters the time and resources to get the story, as so often happened in an era of deeper finances and staffing, and which now seems to surface only infrequently.

           Sadly, a compelling story was there for the taking, but The Times could only react on a second day basis--and then somewhat hyperbolically.

           Aside from my provincially based response as a former Times baseball writer of more than 40 years, I acknowledge there is a more damning and important element to the Puig story.

           In providing a financial beacon at the end of a very dark tunnel for Cuban players, and creating rules/regulations that at conspicuous times seem to disappear, MLB--and the U.S. government--play a direct role in the very dangerous and widespread business of human trafficking.

           As Katz wrote:

           ..."Under Major League Baseball's byzantine rules and the U.S. Treasury Department's outdated restrictions, the only way for a Cuban ballplayer to become a free agent--and score a fat contract--is to first establish residency in a third country. That detour is a fiction, winked at from all sides, and one that gives traffickers command over the middle crossing. The five men piloting Puig's vessel, mostly Cuban Americans, belonged to a smuggling ring whose interests ranged from human cargo to bootleg yachts to bricks of cocaine. At least two were fugitives--one, on the run from a federal indictment in Miami, was alleged to have extorted Cubans traveling this very route. They were all in the pocket of Los Zetas, the murderous Mexican drug cartel, which charged the smugglers a "right of passage" to use Isla Mujeres as a base."

          The Puig journey, as reported by Katz, was "underwritten by a small-time crook in Miami named Raul Pacheco, an air-conditioning repairman and recycler who was on probation for attempted burglary and possession of a fake ID."

          There were 24 Cuban players on the 40 man rosters of major league teams at the start of the current season. Not all traveled a route as dangerous as Puig--or continue to face the financial and, possibly physical, threats that he reportedly does--but the majority were exposed to middle men of a suspect nature and had to establish that "third country residency" while voracious U.S. player agents waited to get a piece of them.

         MLB knows what is going on. The Treasury Dept. knows what is going on. Puig's desperation drove him toward Eden.

        They are all partners in a trafficking business that, for the Dodger outfielder and, perhaps, other former countrymen, may continue to exact a toll.