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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."  


                                                                

Saturday, May 9, 2015

A Couple Thoughts on A-Rod: Yes, Him Again






                     By Ross Newhan

                     So, Alex Rodriguez hits his 661st home run to pass Willie Mays in fourth place on the all-time home run list and seldom has a very major milestone been accompanied by less fanfare and reaction.

                     Oh, a Thursday night crowd of 39,816 at Yankee Stadium summoned A-Rod for a sheepish curtain call and the Yankees made a modest note of the event on the scoreboard.

                      Less said the better, perhaps, and I get it.

                     Mays, after all, is a baseball icon,, perhaps the greatest all-around player ever, and Rodriguez is a convicted liar and serial user of PEDs.

                     McGwire eclipses Maris, Bonds passes Aaron, Clemens wins his seventh Cy Young, Palmeiro amasses more than 3,000 hits and 500 home runs.

                     The Steroid Era has left a bloody and ongoing stain, and historians of the future should have a field day providing perspective.

                     I am at the computer to make only a couple points about the events of Thursday night, and A-Rod's performance after a year in purgatory.

                     1--The Yankees, with all of their Monument Park history, with all of their public distaste about having Rodriguez wear the sainted uniform again, with all of their insistance that they will not pay Rodriguez the $6 million milestone bonus included in his contract, are emerging a bit small and hypocritical. Somewhere along the Yankee high road they need to find a compromise over a bonus that would need to be paid again in the unlikely event Rodriguez climbs another step and reaches Babe Ruth at 714.

                     The bonus, the Yankees claim, was designed to repay Rodriguez for the marketing riches they would enjoy on his climb up the home run ladder. Now, however, his marketing value has evaporated, they insist, because  of the suspension and PED hangover. That argument, with it's measure of truth, would carry more weight if the Yankees were also pulling A-Rod's jerseys and other paraphernalia from their gift shops, which they haven't. Marketing is marketing, unless you have to pay for it.

                     In addition, while the Yankees may not have wanted Rodriguez back, guess who is frequently batting third in their lineup and delivering clutch hits in a 19-11 opening that has helped lift his team to a three game lead in the American League East as of Saturday.

                   Rodriguez, amid all of this, has taken a humble posture, wrapped himself in the modest embrace of teammates mostly interested in a distraction free final score, and refused to indicate whether he will wage a union fight for the milestone bonus. He has a month to decide, under terms of his contract, and this is where it seems a compromise would be easy, a gift in the name of the Yankees and Rodriguez to charity, removing the possibility of another unsettling and open wound.

                    2--I first met Rodriguez, in the Kingdome clubhouse, in his first full year with Seattle. He was 20, and said, "can I get you a chair and soft drink." I never had a player make that offer before or after, but he had already been schooled by agent Scott Boras and PR specialist Andrea Kirby and it eventually became apparent, through all the deceptive summers, that he was never quite real, never quite what he seemed to be.
               
                   Yet, it remains mind boggling to think of the ego that influenced Rodriguez to use steroids in the first place, the apparent need to inflate a talent that had already met and conquered the great expectations with those series of sensational, steroid free (an assumption) years as a wunderkind in Seattle and has surfaced again, at 40, after a year on the sideline, in a steroid free (another assumption) return with the Yankees. Rodriguez isn't tearing it up, but he is delivering more than what might have been expected in an awkward environment, letting his bat do the talking. And in the wake of a milestone that isn't all it could have been, should have been, and would probably have been reached without chemical help, I think back to that first meeting and the career and person that got away.                           
         

Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Opening Day Answer Man


The Opening Day Answer Man





           By Ross Newhan

           The first question, please.

           Question: Which is the best team in baseball entering the new season?

            Answer: The Washington Nationals, largely on the basis of elimination and their ace-deep rotation. One thing is certain: The Nationals are the only functioning organization in the capital.

            Q: What is the best division in baseball and who will win it?

             A: The American League Central, with Detroit, Kansas City, Chicago and Cleveland capable of winning and only Minnesota leaving Paul Molitor to wonder if he made the right decision, particularly now that Ervin Santana has set a record for stupidity by drawing an 80 game PED suspension after the Twins guaranteed him $55 million. As to the winner, I nervously tab the Tigers to make it five in a row, believing they can  pound out enough victories to overcome their suspect pitching. Then again, my son is the assistant hitting coach, so what answer did you expect?

            Q: Is is really true that Alex Rodriguez will be in the Yankees opening day lineup?

            A: Yes, at 40 and after missing a year and a half, A-Rod had a reassuing spring, hitting three home runs and batting .286 with a .400 OBP. And, look, the 2015 Yankees aren't loaded with a lot of Murderer's Row options.

            Q: Where do we look on opening day for some of those high dollar Cuban players?

            A: Check the minors, counting their money. That's where Boston's Yoan Moncada ($63M) and Rusney Castillo ($72.5M) will be. Arizona's Yasmany Tomas ($68.5M) was still on the big league roster as of Saturday morning but probably headed down since rookie Jake Lamb has won the third base job. The Dodgers' Hector Olivera ($62.5M) hasn't even left the Dominican Republic yet because of visa issues. Any one for a cigar.

            Q: Can Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson avoid the disabled list at the back end of the Dodger rotation?

           A: History suggests they can't, and that compounds the fact that Hyun-Jin Ryu is already opening the season on the DL and the L.A. bullpen is a mess with closer Kenley Jansen out until mid- or late May.

           Q: Are you saying the Dodgers won't win the NL West again?

           A: No, they are the team to beat, possibly even stronger than last year. Just saying there are reasons for supporters to hold their breath. Of course, 70% of supporters in the L.A. market won't be able to watch their favorite team again because of the greed involved in the ongoing TV issue, which is about as close to a resolution as a trade involving Andre Ethier, which isn't close at all.

           Q: Who are Johnny Giavotella and Tyler Featherstone?

           A: The former is the Angels replacement for Howie Kendrick at second base and the latter is his backup. The Big A now stands for Anonymity, which is not to say the team is close to a trade for Chase Utley, but, well, keep it in mind.

           Q: So, the Angels can't win 96 games again without a proven second baseman?

           A: No, they very well can, and I credit GM Jerry Dipoto for doing a good job picking up pieces to improve the overall depth, minimizing the uncertainty over Josh Hamilton and other potential roster issues-- and I know what the next question is: Do they hope Hamilton returns or would they prefer he retire? Well, management's over the top reaction to the absence of a suspension would make it seem they hope he stays home and cares for himself and his family, but what's the expression about making your bed and.....

           Q: Are the Mariners in the AL West, the Marlins in the NL East and the Indians in the AL Central as legitimate as many prognosticators are saying.

           A: Yes, each has a real chance in their respective divisions, but as the only prognosticator that counts I still lean toward the Angels in the West, the Nationals in the East and the Tigers in the Central. And, though you didn't ask, I tab the Orioles in the AL East, the Dodgers in the NL West, and the Cardinals again in the NL Central.

          Q: Aside from minor steps to improve the pace of games has the new commissioner done anything to ban shifts and improve the offenses?

           A: No, he is hoping the game begins a natural adjustment from pitching dominance. as it has done in both ways at times in the past. However, offensive statistics have seldom--if ever--been on a downward trend comparable to the last 15 years, and 2015 will be watch closely on Park Ave. with the possibility of  significant changes in 2016.

          Q: Pete Rose has applied for reinstatement. Will we see that happen in 2015?

          A: Rob Manfred seems more open to a fresh appraisal than his predecessor, and there has been speculation that Rose could be reinstated, becoming eligible for the Hall of Fame, while restricted to the type job he could accept in the game. However, I remain doubtful. I suspect the Hit Leader will remain banished with Shoeless Joe, and I regret that. I have long supported a permanent ban, long written that Rose had done  little to enhance his situation, but I have reached a point where I believe the point has been made and his contributions--if not the man himself--are worthy of reinstatement. It would be a powerful statement by the new commissioner and good for the game. It just makes sense.                                               

Friday, February 27, 2015

My Take on Josh Hamilton, and Myself




                       By Ross Newhan
                       
                        I have no first-hand or family connection to addiction, and for that I am grateful, although I am undoubtedly being cavalier about that "first-hand" bit.

                        During all the years (decades), covering the Angels or Dodgers on the road, covering All-Star games and World Series, covering labor negotiations and owners meetings, the nightly habit was to have a drink or two when the writing was done.

                       And too often a drink or two led to three or four.

                       Even when covering a game at Dodger Stadium or in Anaheim, well, for many years there were post-game drinks served in the hospitality rooms behind the press box or there were stops on the way home.

                       I was lucky to have survived, lucky to have not produced an accident involving others.

                      My drink of choice at the time was VO and water. There was one night, covering the 1980 baseball winter meetings in San Diego, when I had no recollection the next morning of having driven from the Town and Country Hotel, where the meetings were held, to my hotel across the freeway.

                      I have not had a VO and water since, which is not to say I don't occasionally have a glass of wine or an occasional beer (with the driving left to my wife).

                     I am quite sure, during those many years of heavy drinking, I could have been, would have been, classified as alcoholic. An alcoholic functioning at high level (based on the reaction to and rewards for my writing), but alcoholic nevertheless.

                    Confession may be good for the soul but I am not looking for cleansing because there is an aspect of those years, an aspect of addiction, I do not understand and maybe can not.

                    Maybe? Probably? Undoubtedly I was (am) fooling myself, but I never felt that I HAD to have a drink. It was habit, social time with colleagues and competitors, unwinding after having produced 800 or so words in 20 or so minutes, another deadline down.

                   Even now, thinking about all that drinking, all those impaired miles behind the wheel, trying to grasp a truthful reason for it, it is impossible for me to understand the unrelenting addiction that has pulled at Josh Hamilton since his teenage years--the day by day, night by night, turmoil (terror?) behind locked doors and windows, accountability partner or not, loving family or not.

                   His story has been chronicled, and it is enough to repeat that he has been one of the great hitters of the last dozen years, an MVP winner and contender who has earned the admiration of teammates while handling high velocity fastballs amid a far more challenging obstacle of which he has talked openly. Now, he has clearly acknowledged a cocaine and alcohol relapse in meeting with MLB officials. He faces suspension as a repeat offender of the category called drugs of abuse, and I would not be so glib, as some have, to say it is time for Hamilton to walk away from the game and deal totally with an addiction that will always be there in some measure. Nor will I pile on the Angels--more than I already have--in regard to that five year, $125 million contract that has three years and $83 million left and carried a high risk from the time it was signed.               

                 Whether Hamilton will ever return the high reward that hopefully accompanied the risk remains uncertain and is probably not the current issue.

                  The issue is one of life, not livlihood, and while I have covered other players who had to cope with an addiction of one type or another, Hamilton has brought home new insight into the tenacious grasp of addiction at its fiercest.

                  I hope he can play again. I hope he can find a way to ease the stranglehold because there is more at stake than a uniform.

                  And, from a perspective I have not given comparable thought to before, it is probably best if I think in terms of "judge not...."                                  

                                                  

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Reflections on a Wild Off-Season




       By Ross Newhan

        Pitchers, catchers and thoughts on a frenetic, finance-busting, franchise empowering off-season (with more action still to come):

                                                       TODDLIN' TOWN
     
        Chicago should be just that--Northside, Southside, both. No general manager nailed his winter blueprint quicker than Rick Hahn of the White Sox, and no one acquisition did more to energize a long suffering fan base than the Cubs signing of one-of-a-kind Joe Maddon as manager. The White Sox look like contenders in the AL Central without another move and the Cubs should be competitive, if not contenders, in the NL Central, with the next seven weeks helping to sort out the MLB's deepest fleet of seemingly ready prospects.

                                              LIGHTING UP THE GASLAMP

        Petco area businesses are salivating over the attendance impact expected for Padre home games because of the lineup overhaul by new general manager A.J. Preller, all via a series of adrenelin pumping trades except for the free agent signing of James Shields. This could be the best San Diego team since the 1998 World Series version, particularly if Will Myers can play center field and Will Middlebrooks is the everyday third baseman. With the Wills, there may be a way in the NL West. Otherwise, the Padres will have to do some unhappy juggling to shore up the defense behind that very good pitching and some of the new arrivals may be sitting--questions for spring.

                                                    SWOON OVER MIAMI?

        It is always difficult to know if the Jeffrey Loria of today will be the Jeffrey Loria of tomorrow, but this appears to go beyond the owners' whims and has all the look of a real, longterm deal for the Marlins given the foundation inspiring committment to Giancarlo Stanton, the additions of Dee Gordon, Michael Morse and Martin Prado, and the healthy mix of a productive farm system. If Jose Fernandez remains on track to return in mid-season from Tommy John surgery the Marlins should be wild card competitive in the NL East, where the rich get richer Nationals will be tough to unseat.

                                                     CUBA LIBRA, ANYONE?

        So, Yasiel Puig pumps the Dodgers with energy (and irritation) and Jose Abreau wins a Rooke of the Year award with the White Sox, and now the Cuban onslaught is in full swing. Rusney Castillo is expected to be an outfield starter with the Red Sox after costing $72.5 million and Yasmany Tomas is expected to start at third base for the Diamondbacks after costing $68.5 million, but, in all liklihood, you ain't seen nothing yet.   There are approximately 75 Cuban players pursuing contracts with major league clubs headed by infielders Yoan Moncada, Hector Olivera and Andy Ibanez and pitcher Yadier Alvarez. The international signing guidelines differ in each case, but the madcap, private workout pursuit of the 19 year old Moncada, in particular, is expected to culminate in the next 5 to 10 days with a (big market?) bonus signing that could top Castillo and Tomas, and include a 100% tax on the respective club's bonus pool overage. It's a complicated business, but the loosening of relations with Cuba could, in time, end MLB's dirty relationship with human traffickers and accelerate the push for a needed international draft.

                                                PANDA TRACKS (AND MORE)

         They are thinking first-to-worst-to-first in Red Sox nation, providing they can dig Fenway out of the snowback in time. Down in sunny Fort Myers, in the meantime, they will be putting Pablo Sandoval on the scales regularly and giving Hanley Ramirez regular lessons in left field, where the wall and diminsions are similar to those he will find in Boston. The early signings of arguably the two best hitters on the free agent market cost the Red Sox $183 million, and now they are considered the team that is in best position to make one of the splashiest late moves, dipping into a deep prospect system to trade for Cole Hamels, providing a missing ace for their pitching deck.

                                                  THE DH FACTOR?

          While Sandoval and Ramirez are moving to a league that in which the designated hitter provides them with an added lineup option, the three best and most expensive free agent pitchers on the market--Max Scherzer, Jon Lester and Shields--all fled the DH burden of the American League for the DH-less National. Each of the three is in his 30s, and while the opportunity to pitch to a pitcher rather than a bonafide hitter may not have been the primary motivation in their decisions, well, it's a nice thought in their senior baseball years. Besides, now they get a chance to hit themselves (LOL).

                                                     SICK BAY?

            A lot of what has happened to the Giants, since winning their every other year World Series, and to the A's, since at least reaching the wild card play-in game, hasn't been good. Or, looking at in another way, has been difficult to understand. Oakland GM Billy Beane renovated his roster, insisting he wasn't rebuilding because he is too old for a five year plan. Yet, as my former Times' colleague, Bill Shaikin, pointed out, Beane made nine trades involving 27 players, dismissing four of the five A's who hit 10 or more home runs and five of the seven who made the All-Star team. He is left with a still promising rotation, a moneyball mix and match lineup and the return of Barry Zito, 36, from retirement. The Giants had their parade, and then largely went quiet. Sandoval and Morse left, taking away 32 home runs, while their replacements, Casey McGehee and Nori Aoki, hit five. The rotation that Madison Bumgarner carried through the post-season is the same as it was, meaning the return of Matt Cain from elbow surgery seems critical.

                                                     HOMEFRONT

         The new management of the Dodgers turned over the lineup in a 48 hour span of the winter meetings, emerging with a new shortstop (Jimmy Rollins) and second baseman (Howie Kendrick) and handing center field to Joc Pederson as Puig left for right field and Matt Kemp for San Diego. The defense should be better,    the bullpen (given veteran additions) deeper and much depends (big time) on the readiness of Pederson and the health of the new fourth (Brandon McCarthy) and fifth (Brett Anderson) starters. The Angels, looking to go farther than 94 wins took them (a division series wipeout to Kansas City), made smaller but possibly significant moves in the offseason, deepening their pitching and farm system. Do they have a replacement for Kendrick? Will Garret Richard be ready early in the season? Can CJ Wilson bounce back? Some of the big questions. The biggest? Josh Hamilton. Now you see him, now you don't.

                                                                                 

                                                               

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Scherzer: A Lot to Like (With One Hesitation at $210M)







                    By ROSS NEWHAN

                    Well, okay, I get it.

                    I get why Ted Lerner, at 89, would give the go-ahead on a seven-year, $210 million contract for the 30 year old Max Scherzer.

                    There are only so many opportunities, after all, to see your Washington Nationals go the distance (which they probably should have done last year), and now, with Scherzer, your already formidable rotation is the best in baseball (although a trade could still be forthcoming) and your lineup is one of the best.

                    I also get (to an extent) how the contract isn't entirely what it seems and works for both the team and Scherzer (simplified: it's $15 million a year spread over 14 years, working in the deferments).

                   Where I stop getting it, and I acknowledge that my little yardstick won't matter to anyone concerned only with the State of the Nationals, is how the $210 is only $5 million less than Clayton Kershaw's seven year contract with the Dodgers considering they are not in the same category. Kershaw, at 26, is fashioning a career of historic measure. Scherzer is not, which is not to demean his accomplishments.

                   He was the best pitcher still on the market, and the market, in a $9 billion industry, is a market of which I became numb to long ago.

                   And while I just don't see Scherzer within $5 million of Kershaw, I get what he brings to the Nationals, which includes a long list of analytic positives, a 70-24 record over the last four years, 492 strike outs in his last 434 2/3 innings, and 18 wins and 220 innings a year after winning the 2013 Cy Young Award.

                Will he be the same pitcher at 37 he is at 30? The Nationals, viewing a pitcher seemingly getting stronger, have little reason to look beyond the next three or four years.

                 With Scherzer added to a fearsome fivesome of Jordan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg, Doug Fister, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark, they now have several options.

                   They can recoup some of the $210 by trading a starter, possibly Zimmerman, who is eligible for free agency at the end of the year and has said he will not give the Nationals a home discount, or Strasburg, who would probably net a bigger return. Strasburg is represented by the noted Scott Boras, who also represents Scherzer and is unlikely to have placed the latter in a situation that would result in another client being uprooted except that Strasburg, who lives in San Diego and attends many athletic events at San Diego State, where he became a first round draft choice, would probably love to leave for the Padres, hungry for a starter with relievers and prospects to offer.

                   If there is no trade, the impressive young Roark, now the sixth man out, could move to a setup role, replacing the recently traded and expensive Tyler Clippard, and if there is no trade and Zimmerman and Fister, who will also be eligible for free agency, leave next fall, Scherzer, Strasburg, Gonzalez, Roark and a host of young pitchers on the farm provide a solid foundation for the future.

                  I get it: Lerner and the Nats built on a strength, and while I don't see Scherzer in Kershaw's neighborhood, no one understands the price of the game better than Boras, and in this case he found a team willing to pay it to the Max.
                       

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Tuesday, January 13, 2015


Selig Tenure: Not Perfect But Darn ($$$) Good






                       By Ross Newhan

                       Bud Selig will preside over his final owners meeting Wednesday and Thursday in Phoenix, with the owners and a few guests feting the commissioner at the end of the business sessions--as well they should. Industry revenue has soared from $1.2 billion to $9 billion during Selig's 22 years at the helm, and the average franchise is now valued at more than $1 billion, with the Dodgers having sold for $2.1 billion 14 years after Peter O'Malley sold for $311 million.

                        Selig, who will be in Los Angeles Saturday night to present an award at Dennis Gilbert's 12th annual Scouts Foundation dinner, officially retires Jan. 24. Commissioner-elect Rob Manfred has already made several changes in baseball's administrative staff, but Selig's legacy is embedded even if the patient, ear to the phone, consensus building leadership style undergoes some high tech alterations while operating fully from 245 Park Ave. in New York City rather than 777 East Ave. in Milwaukee.

                        Never has a tradition bound sport experienced the dramatic changes--on and off the field--than it did under the ninth and second longest tenured commissioner.

                        His grade, if one has to be given, would be somewhere in the area of an 'A-' or 'B+'.

                        The cold reality is that no one should be allowed to emerge from the Steroid Era's embrace with a perfect grade and no commissioner can escape the asterik that accompanies cancellation of a World Series--despite the complexities involved at the time.

                        Nevertheless, it is simply impossible to say the game isn't better off--economically, competitively and relationship-wise (among owners and between management and the players union) than when Selig led the ouster of Fay Vincent and became acting commissioner in September 1992.

                       While there could be changes in those relationships and threats to what will be 22 years of labor peace when the current bargaining agreement expires after the 2016 season, anyone who had spent his career following and/or writing about the industry would have been hard pressed in 1992--or '94 when the  Series was cancelled because of a work stoppage rooted in the owners then perpetual desire for a salary cap--to predict the peace, prosperity and parity that has followed.

                     Interleague play, realignment, expanded playoffs and revenue sharing have been significant steps under Selig, who took over at a time when the owners were still using revenue sharing formulas from the 1940s and 50s, and the big market clubs treated their smaller brethren with disdain. Selig, in time, convinced his constituents that they were all operating under the same tent, and now approximately $400 million in revenue sharing money changes hands annually, contributing to the fact that 29 of the 30 teams have reached the post-season since 2001 and 12 wild card teams have played in a World Series.

                   In addition, for a man who doesn't use a computer, Selig has seen his Advanced Media internet operation experience unparalleled success compared to other sports, generating almost $700 million in annual revenue, with part of that stemming from the globalization efforts, which have spawned three World Baseball Classics, five opening days in Japan and Australia and yearly overseas clinics.

                While MLB and the NFL can debate which is now the National Pastime, Selig has also seen  attendance increase from 1992, when 12 of the 26 teams drew less than two million, to a 2014 average of 2.5 million for the 30 teams, five drawing more than three million and 22 of the 30 opening new ballparks during his tenure (and yes, taxpayers, thanks for your contributions).

                At the same time, the Oakland and Tampa Bay stadium situations remain unresolved, the minority hiring program has lapsed badly, dare I even mention that foolish exercise know as contraction, and there is some sentiment--in virtually every corner of the baseball community--that over-reaction to the 2002 All-Star game tie, resulting in an exhibition game now deciding which league gets home field advantage in the World Series, should be corrected.

                Then, of course, there is the steroid residue---a polluted era, a devalued record book and a commissioner who will have to carry some of the responsibility into retirement, though the union and media shared in the era's sounds of silence.

                The fact that baseball has emerged with the toughest testing and drug program in pro sports and a take no prisoner investigative approach as exemplified in the Biogenesis and A-Rod episodes provides a measure of solace for Selig, but the impact of the era will linger in differing forms for years, if not forever.

                 And now Manfred, among other issues, will first deal with possible changes to the pace of games in an effort to reinvest a younger demographic and revitalize TV ratings. Manfred has been Selig's chief labor lieutenant, significantly responsible for maintaining a record stretch of harmony with the union. The 20 owners who opposed his election, led by Jerry Reinsdorf and Arte Moreno, did so, in fact, on the very belief he has been TOO easy on the union. If that bloc remains in tact in 2016, when both sides are believed ready to pursue a variety of issues more vigorously than in the most recent negotiations, labor peace could be at stake.

                Selig, meanwhile, will be writing his biography with the help of the renowned Doris Kearns Goodwin while also, at 80 and with an unquestioned love of the game he is leaving, teaching history, possibly at the University of Wisconsin. Will he be a tough grader? Who knows? His own history as commissioner is deserving of a high mark, just not quite straight 'A'.  

                         

                   

                               

                                             

                     


Sunday, January 11, 2015

Pedro And A Haunting Mound of Dodger Decisions




                  By Ross Newhan

                  The election of Pedro Martinez to the Hall of Fame has spurred unpleasant memories for the Dodgers.

                  Martinez, at 22, was traded by the Dodgers in November 1993, a move prompted by the need for a second baseman and anatomical concerns about the slightly built pitcher that has been well chronicled by this writer and others. With time the judge, all clubs make trades they can savor and others they would prefer to forget, but if pitching is the backbone of the game and young pitching a prized commodity, the trading of Martinez capped a comparatively narrow timeframe the Dodgers would definitely like to forget.

                 Starting in December 1981 with the trading of Rick Sutcliffe, who had won the National League's   Rookie of the Year Award two years before, and ending with Martinez just over a decade later, the Dodgers traded five pitchers--25 and younger--who would go on to establish headline careers that included recognition for each in the voting for both the Cy Young and Most Valuable Player Awards.

                  The late Al Campanis traded Sutcliffe, 25, Dave Stewart, 25, and John Franco, 21, in a period of less than three years, and then Fred Claire traded John Wetteland, 25, after the 1991 season and Martinez two years later. I discussed the loss of the five young pitchers with Claire a couple years ago and he said, "with any trade, whether it was made by Al or me or anybody else, the goal is to improve the team. But you look back, and it's pretty easy to judge. Would you classify these trades, whether it was Pedro or Franco or Stewart or Sutcliffe or Wetteland as good trades? No, I don't know how you could."

                 It should be noted that the Dodgers, during the period involved, won the World Series in '81, reached the National League's Championship Series in '83 and '85 and won the World Series in 1988. They were often looking to pick up a piece here and there to assist in sustaining that otherwise successful period,  and the one management constant during it was Tom Lasorda, who was never shy about offering an opinion and who often said that the Dodgers could not afford to operate a developmental camp in the major market that is Los Angeles.

               Those pieces included Jorge Orta, Rick Honeycutt, Rafael Landestoy and Eric Davis. Each made a contribution during relatively short tenures in L.A., but those contributions would have to be classified as modest when measured against the success of the five young pitchers after leaving, and, of course, Delino DeShields was a three year bust in exchange for Martinez in the trade that retrospectively hurt most given Martinez healthy longevity over his Hall of Fame career.

              "All those people who put all those labels on me must be out there (in L.A.) now banging their heads against the wall," Martinez told me before starting the 1999 All-Star game for the American League. "You're talking about some of the biggest people in baseball, but they obviously didn't know anything about the game. I made 65 appearances in '93 and they were still saying I was too small, too weak, certain to break down. I think about it all the time. It's still my motivation. Durability is my whole game. I've proven them wrong. God willing I'll continue to prove them wrong."

             Martinez pitched 18 years in the big leagues, but his tone has changed since receiving the HOF notification, which sends a message of its own. He has thanked the Dodgers for giving him the opportunity to reach the big leagues and trading him to Montreal, where he had the opportunity to become a fulltime starter.

            The ensuing success of those other four young pitchers also speaks for itself.

            Two years after winning the Rookie of the Year award, Sutcliffe was left off the Dodgers' 1981 post-season roster because of a late season injury and reacted by rearranging Lasorda's office during a loud argument and was traded two months later. Over the ensuing six years he finished in the top five of the Cy Young voting three times and won the award in 1984 when he was a combined 20-6 with Cleveland and the Chicago Cubs, including 16-1 with the Cubs.

           Franco and Wetteland went on to become two of baseball's all-time best closers. Franco saved 424 games over 21 years to rank fourth all-time while Wetteland saved 330 over 12 seasons to rank13th. Stewart struggled for a time after leaving before ultimately emerging as one of MLB's most dominant and driven starters during one of Oakland's championship runs, Stewart, now the Arizona Diamondbacks general manager, won 84 games in four years, a minimum of 20 each year, and should have won the Cy Young Award at least once except for slanted voting that favored Roger Clemens.

           The past is past, but Pedro has brought it vividly to mind again, painfully for the Dodgers.                                                        

                                   

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Hall Vote: A Good Day All Around





                        By Ross Newhan

                         The election of Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz and Craig Biggio to the Hall of Fame represents a quality result for baseball, Cooperstown and the BBWAA electorate.

                         Putting aside the steroid issue and inevitable quibbles over this candidate and that candidate,  there is this: Two years after the BBWAA failed to elect anyone, the Hall doors seem to have become more easily breached.

                        Seven deserving players have been elected since the voting whitewash--Biggio was the only one not in his first year on the ballot--and the election of four marks the largest class in 60 years (the three pitchers in the same year--Johnson, Martinez and Smoltz--being a first). Next December's ballot will include only one sure-fire first timer, Ken Griffey Jr., which should bode well for Mike Piazza and, possibly, one or two others who failed to garner the necessary 75% in this years election.

                        My take aways:

                        --Piazza, baseball's all-time home run leader among catchers while also weighted some by steroid suspicions, needed to be named on 28 more of the 549 total ballots but climbed from 62.2% to 69.9% and should make it next time, his fourth year of eligibility.

                        --Jeff Bagwell, who finished behind Piazza at 55.7%, should also continue to climb, although a 20% jump is probably unlikely. Why there has been such a voting disparity between Bagwell and Biggio, his Killer B teammate in Houston, is difficult to decipher. Biggio had his 3,000 plus hits while playing catcher, center field and second base, but Bagwell's assorted power numbers at first base are some of the best all-time while achieved in the shadow of the steroid era--an unfortunate handicap.

                     --Tim Raines and Curt Schilling made the biggest jumps behind Piazza and Bagwell: Raines, with a ground-swell of metric support, gained nine points to 55% but has only two more years on the ballot. Schilling gained 10 points to 39.2%, and with Johnson, Martinez and Smoltz, along with fellow pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, having now been cleared from his path in the last two years, could continue to gain rapidly. He has seven years left.

                     --Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, the Steroid Era poster boys, made incremental progress, but the safest speculation would be that their HOF futures will fall to a veterans committee--and maybe that's the way it should be, taking their candidacy out of the split hands of the BBWAA to a committee of players, owners and media members who by then will have had more time to weigh the era, the history and their accomplishments.

                   --While Johnson, arguably the best left handed pitcher ever, gained 97.3% of the vote, the eighth highest plurality ever, it is hard to understand how 9% of the electorate failed to vote for Martinez (91.1), who pitched a large portion of his honored career amid the claustrophobic dimensions of Fenway Park in a DH league during the PED era. Safe to say that the steroid candidates, along with a large cast of quality first year candidates on the last two ballots, have forced a higher degree of strategizing by voters, and some undoubetedly withheld votes for Martinez and others they viewed as certain to be elected in order to support other candidates of their choice.

                 --The cramped ballot and the 10 vote max has unquestionably impacted many candidates. Two among the many: Mike Mussina and Jeff Kent far back at 24.6 and 14.0 respectively. Mussina won 270 games with the Orioles and Yankees during some of the best years of the AL East and the height of the Steroid Era while Kent's stats rank at the top or near the top of virtually every second base category. Then again, you have to also look look deep to find Lee Smith, Edgar Martinez, Alan Trammell, Fred McGriff, Larry Walker and Gary Sheffield.

                 --Don Mattingly received 50 votes (9.1%) in his last year of eligibility and will be turned over to the Expansion Era committee in two years. Of course, the Dodger manager has plenty else on his mind what with being always under the microscope at the helm of his high priced, high expectation team that now has a new front office handling the microscope.

                 My ballot (as posted previously): Bagwell, Biggio, Johnson, Kent, Martinez, Mussina, Piazza, Raines, Schilling, Smoltz.