Monday, March 11, 2013

World Baseball Classic

Unlike my esteemed colleague at KCBS, Stan Bunger, I am a big fan of the World Baseball Classic.  Perhaps that's in part because I lived in Tokyo for three-and-a-half years, and became quite fond of Japanese baseball.  And over the years, since returning to the U.S., I've become a fan of international baseball in general.  In other words, baseball is the most popular spectator sport (and has the highest TV ratings of any sport) in Japan, as it is (I assume) in the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and perhaps even in Mexico, Puerto Rico, South Korea, Taiwan and the Dutch Antilles as well.

Television ratings for the WBC in all of those nations, unlike in the U.S., have been off the charts.  The Japan-Brazil game drew a 35 share in Japan.  A 35 share!  More than one-third of all TVs in Japan were tuned in to the Japan-Brazil game.  Not even Japan-Korea or Japan-Taiwan, but Japan-Brazil.  That fascinates me.  I also love watching baseball games that mean something in early-to-mid March, as opposed to a lazy Cactus or Grapefruit League game.  Don't misunderstand me--I love going to a Cactus League game, but can't even come close to watching an entire Cactus League game on television.  But I have watched entire WBC games this month.  More than a few.

Why do I find the WBC so compelling?  In part, it's because the games mean so much to all of the nations I listed in the above paragraph.  It may not mean a lot to the major leaguers in the U.S., but if you watch the Dominican Republic play Puerto Rico, or Mexico play Venezuela, or Japan play Taiwan, you can not help but find the intensity of the games very compelling, both from the players and the fans.  If you can't, then your mind is closed to the possibility even before tuning in.

I attended the semifinals and final of the WBC in San Diego in its first year, 2006.  Daisuke Matsuzaka was the MVP as Japan beat Cuba in the final.  The stands, as well as the Gaslamp District downtown, were full of Japanese, Cuban, Dominican and Korean baseball fans (the latter two teams lost in the semis).  The whole experience was captivating, the fan enthusiasm was infectious, the quality of baseball was excellent.

In the second WBC, in 2009, I became a huge fan of the team from The Kingdom of The Netherlands.  Actually, the team from The Netherlands is made up of a combination of players from the European nation, and players from Curacao and Aruba, in the Dutch Antilles.  Despite having just two major leaguers on their roster in '09, The Netherlands upset the Dominican Republic twice en route to the second round.  It was incredible.  The Dominicans had just four players who were not major leaguers.

This year, in the third WBC, The Netherlands is providing fabulous theater once again, having upset South Korea in the first round, and then stunning heavily-favored Cuba twice in the second, reaching next week's semifinals at A-T-and-T Park.  This time, The Netherlands once again has two current major leaguers on its roster, in backup outfielder Roger Bernadina of the Nationals, and shortstop Andrelton Simmons of the Braves.

But the more I watch this team play, the more fun it is, and the more intriguing it becomes.  The 22-year old Simmons took over the Braves' starting shortstop job last summer, and hit .289 in 166 at bats, after hitting .293 in AA.  Their third-baseman, 20-year old Xander Bogaerts, is the Boston Red Sox top minor league prospect (also a shortstop), and hit .301 with 20 homers and 81 runs-batted-in at A-and-AA ball last season.  Their second-baseman is the Baltimore Orioles top minor league prospect, 22-year old Jonathon Schoop.

Their closer is 7-foot-1 Ludovicus Jacobus Maria Van Mil, also known as Loek Van Mil.  He throws in the low-to-mid 90s, and had a 1.94 ERA in AA with Cleveland last season.  It may not be long before he becomes the tallest player in major league history, surpassing Randy Johnson by two inches, in  which case, he'll become the Really Big Unit.  They've also got five-time major league all-star Andruw Jones, who will play for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in Japan this year.  Oh, one more worth mentioning:  The Texas Rangers' top minor league prospect, 20-year old shortstop Jurickson Profar, hit .281 with 14 homers and 19 steals at AA last season--he decided to stay with the Rangers this month in an effort to win a big league job, but may be added to The Netherlands roster before next week.  I'm not sure where he'd play, but I'm certain that manager Hensley Meulens could find a spot.

I'll be attending the WBC in San Francisco next week.  The Netherlands will be decided underdogs if they play Japan in the final, and certainly if they play the Dominican Republic or U.S. in the semis.  I'm looking forward to chatting with Meulens, the Curacao native and current Giants' hitting coach.  I remember talking with him at great length in the spring of 2010, about his experiences as The Netherlands hitting coach in the 2009 WBC.  He loved reminiscing about it.  The memories were still raw, and precious.  I don't know whether he envisioned where he'd be now--in 2013--but it was special for me to hear him say earlier today that his team's dramatic, come-from-behind 7-6 win over Cuba this morning, to clinch a spot in the semis, was the biggest win in the history of Dutch baseball.  It might not be for long, if his band of underdogs keeps winning.

Look, I totally understand why major league managers are paranoid about losing key players, not to mention critical investments, to injuries in games that have nothing to do with their own teams' use of spring training to get ready for the regular season.  I get that.  If there were a better time to stage the WBC, I'd be all in favor.  But as long as the WBC is being staged now, I'm watching.  And I'm enjoying.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Most Bizarre and Unlikely Super Bowl Finish

It turns out that the thrilling finish of Super Bowl 47 could have been much more thrilling than any of us could have ever imagined.  A finish that would have relegated the third quarter power outage to the back pages of the newspaper, if at all.

When the Ravens lined up to punt the ball from their own 20, with four seconds remaining, after taking an intentional safety, quarterback Joe Flacco told tight end Dennis Pitta and center Matt Birk that if the 49ers' Ted Ginn Junior appeared headed for the endzone, they should tackle him.  From the sideline.  Seriously.

Flacco's comments were revealed on the NFL Network's Sound FX program Wednesday night:

Flacco sounded serious.  You can hear him saying he wasn't certain what the rule was, but he was willing to risk tackling Ginn, rather than let him get to the endzone.  In fact, according to Rule 12, Section 3, Article 3--the NFL's Palpably Unfair Act--a player shall not interfere with play by any act which is palpably unfair.  The referee, after consulting his crew, enforces any such distance penalty considered equitable, and irrespective of any other specified code penalty.  The referee may award a touchdown.

Ginn caught the ball at his 20, and returned it to midfield before being tackled by linebacker Josh Bynes.  If he had somehow broken that tackle, he might have broken free along the left sideline.  And if he had, would Flacco have tried to stop him?  We'll never know.  But we do know that he considered the possibility, which is extraordinary.  Amazing.  And he had done it, the Niners likely would have won, in the most incredible finish even imagined, in Super Bowl history.

And as long as we're talking about bizarre finishes that never happened, how about this:  If Sam Cook had skied his punt just 30 yards, instead of booming it 60, Ginn could have called for a fair catch, in which case David Akers could have attempted a 60-yard field goal, without a pass rush, to tie the game, by taking advantage of the rarely used free catch, free kick rule.  It was last converted in the NFL by the Chargers' Ray Wersching, in 1976, from 45 yards out, before he became a 49er.  If you've never heard of this rule, a player can fair catch a punt, after which his team can attempt a field goal from the spot of the catch, with the defensive team having to line up at least 10 yards away.   Most NFL kickers can find the back of the endzone on kickoffs, which means they're going 75 yards.  But for a free kick field goal of 60 yards, the distance would not be the issue as much as the accuracy.

Also, a couple of thoughts after having watched the Super Bowl, in person, at the Superdome, and then having watched replays of the game from the original CBS telecast, and from NFL Films:  Michael Crabtree was bumped from behind before touching the ball, on the 49ers' second down pass from the Ravens five-yard line, on their final drive.  Should have been a pass interference call.  Crabtree was held on the fourth down pass.  Should have been a defensive holding call, although a holding call there might have been reversed by the officials if they determined the ball was not catchable.

The entire Niners defensive line was held--blatantly--on the Ravens' intentional safety, which allowed the punter to take additional seconds off the clock.  I'm not sure what a holding call would have meant at that point.  Would the clock have reverted to 11 seconds for the punt, instead of running down to four?  Or would the Ravens been forced to punt from their 10-yard line, instead of the 20?  Just asking.  Could have meant something.  Not sure.

The point is, rules are rules, and I disagree that "you have to let the players decide the game" in the closing minutes and seconds.  I say, rules are rules, and should be enforced equally, for the duration of the game.  That includes the NFC Championship game in Atlanta.  If Navarro Bowman was bumping Roddy White from behind on Atlanta's fourth down pass, at the Niners' five yard line, before the ball arrived, he should have been flagged as well.

Finally, for the countless number of 49ers fans who wonder why there were no running plays for Frank Gore or Colin Kaepernick on their final set of downs, beginning at the Ravens' seven yard line, and ending at the five, if you watch replays of the second down play, you'll notice that Frank Gore moved ahead of Kaepernick, and to his left, after the snap from center.  It looks as though Kapernick had the option to run left on that play, and in fact, I recall Kaepernick saying after the game that he had the read-option on second down.  But that play was blown dead because Jim Harbaugh called time out with one second left on the play clock, not wanting to risk a five-yard penalty for delay of game.  The snap was, in fact, after the clock hit zero, and if Harbaugh hadn't called time out, the Niners would have been penalized.  If the ball had been snapped from center one second earlier, and if Harbaugh had not called time, what would the play have resulted in?  Ahhhh, we'll never know.

Just like we'll never know how the game would have ended if the Ravens had been called for defensive holding or pass interference.  The Niners would have had a first down at the one, and likely would have scored a go-ahead touchdown, but who's to say that Flacco wouldn't have led his team into field goal range for a game-winning kick in the final seconds?  Yeah, we'll never know.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Baseball Hall of Fame Vote

Some are calling this a dark day for the Baseball Hall of Fame, or moreso perhaps for the Baseball Writers Association of America.  Some are livid over the overwhelming rejection of Bonds&Clemens for induction this summer, in their first year of eligibility.  Others are upset over the rejection of Bigio, Bagwell, Piazza and Schilling, all of whom have HOF credentials, none of whom are linked to steroids, and none of whom got in.  

The HOF vote is hardly a perfect process, and never has been.  How else to explain the fact that Willie Mays and Hank Aaron were not unanimous picks in their first year of eligibility?

But I don't think today is a dark day in the process at all.  Am I pleased that for the first time since the 1960s, no living person will be inducted in Cooperstown this summer?  No, I think it's highly unfortunate.  Do I think Bigio, Bagwell, Piazza and Schilling should have been voted in?  Yes, and I'll go a step further.  I firmly believe that Fred McGriff should have been voted in.  

The baseball writers--more than 550 of them--cast their votes, and in the process, sparked a nationwide conversation about who should be in the HOF, who shouldn't be, why, and what can be done to improve the process in the future.  And I think that's a good thing.  Schilling himself, in fact, told ESPN shortly after the vote was announced that what the writers did was send a resounding message to all concerned that they were disgusted by the entire steroid era, so disgusted that they rejected everyone on the ballot.  As Schilling put it, they rejected those directly linked to steroid use, and they rejected all the players who were clean for not doing enough to clean up the game.  The writers made a statement, and at least one player heard it loudly and clearly.  Schilling took the high road, and I give him credit for it.  He could have easily bemoaned the fact that he got just 37.6 percent of the vote, nowhere near the minimum 75 percent necessary for induction.  Keep in mind, Schilling is one of three pitchers in baseball history with three 300-strikeout seasons; he's got the best strikeout-to-walk ratio among starting pitchers in baseball history; he went 11-2 in the post-season with a 2.2ERA, including 10-1 in the three years he led his teams to World Series championships.  And he, as much as any player over the last 20 years, did speak out often against the use of PEDs in baseball.  But he got the message from the baseball writers, and he's OK with it, because it's sparking a national debate.

I have little doubt that Biggio (68%), Bagwell (59.6%) and Piazza (57.8) will eventually get inducted.  I am guardedly optimistic that Schilling (38.8) will.  And I am pessimistic, but hopeful, that McGriff (20.7) will.  Fred McGriff.  Crime Dog.  His numbers would stand out more if they weren't inevitably compared with the ridiculous drug-laced numbers turned in by Bonds, Sosa and McGwire:  a five-time all-star, 493 homers, a .284 average, seven .300 seasons, ten 100 RBI seasons, .303 in the post-season with 10 HRs in 188 at-bats.  McGriff's numbers compare very favorably with those of McCovey, Stargell and Billy Williams, they're all in the Hall, and McGriff should be as well.  

I would not have voted for Bonds.  Sixty-four percent of the voters didn't either.  Yes, he was headed for the HOF 14 years into his 22-year major league career.  And then he became the biggest and most sophisticated steroid user the game has even seen over his final eight seasons.  His numbers went through the roof, from age 36 and up.  Four of his seven MVPs came while he was juiced.  He became a cartoon character, both in appearance, and in his production.  It was a farce, just as it was when McGwire and Sosa combined for 136 homers in the 1998 season.  Bonds disgraced the game, disgraced the Giants and disgraced himself.  I would never vote for him.  

Oh, I've heard all the sycophantic arguments for putting Bonds into the HOF:

1.  He was a HOFer before he began using steroids.
2.  Everyone was on steroids.
3.  Steroids were legal.
4.  He was never convicted of using steroids.
5.  What about the thousands of players who were on amphetamines?
6.  The Hall is full of other cheaters, like Gaylord Perry.

My comeback:

1.  Character, integrity and sportsmanship are part of what all HOF voters are asked to consider before casting their ballots.  He failed miserably on all three counts.  He cheated, plain and simple.  And he cheated willfully, flagrantly and defiantly for many, many years.  He would have been a first-ballot Hall of Famer today if he hadn't decided to become a drug-infested cheat.  He deserves the widespread scorn he is now experiencing, both as a cheat, and as a convicted felon.  
2.  Pleeeeeeez stop.  There is no way of knowing how many players tried steroids, but to suggest that everyone was doing it is tantamount to saying everyone cheats on their taxes, and therefore it's OK.  It's not OK.  Furthermore, I think the overwhelming majority of players who dabbled in steroids did just that--they dabbled, some very briefly, like Gary Sheffield (read Game of Shadows).  Bonds could write a book on PEDs.  But he doesn't need to, since Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams already did.  
3.  Anabolic steroids were never legal.  Even baseball banned them in 1991.  
4.  This isn't a court of law.  He IS a convicted felon.  And the same jury that convicted him of obstruction of justice voted 11-1 to convict him of perjury, i.e., lying about the use of steroids.  
5.  Get serious.  Amphetamines allowed players to stay more alert.  
6.  Get serious (again).  On the one hand, we're talking about a player who took a wide myriad of illegal drugs to artificially build his body, so he could hit balls further and harder, after having seen the pitches better.  And on the other hand, we're talking about greasing up the baseball.  

One question that comes up often from those who support Bonds&Clemens is this:  What happens if a player already inducted into the HOF is later found to have been a steroid user?Good question.  In other happens, once you let the cat out of the bag, how can you put him back in?  It could happen.  One thought would be to add an asterisk, with a brief explanation, on or beside his plaque.  Another would be to create a separate wing of plaques for such cases.  

For those who ask how we can have a Hall of Fame without Bonds and Clemens inside, I point out that both are inside.  Go to Cooperstown, and see for yourself.  Both have their uniforms on display, balls, gloves, bats, etc., for their achievements.  The HOF is much more than simply induction plaques.  

I know that writers such as Susan Slusser, John Shea, Mark Purdy, Jon Heyman, Tom Verducci and Ken Rosenthal all take their HOF voting responsibilities very, very seriously.  They all voted against Bonds and Clemens.  I also know that other writers such as Bruce Jenkins, Monte Poole, Carl Steward, Peter Gammons, Tim Kurkjian and Jayson Stark all take the same responsibilities just as seriously.  They voted for Bonds and Clemens.  Intelligent people can agree to disagree on this, and engage in a civilized debate, which is always a healthy thing.  

One final point:  Greg Papa expressed outrage this week (on 95.7FM) the fact that Bonds was unlikely to get enough votes for the HOF, and one of his points was that the living members of the HOF want him inducted.  Greg might want to check again on that.  In fact, countless current HOFers (last year's inductee Barry Larkin is the latest) have said they do not believe Bonds (or other steroid users) deserve to be enshrined in Cooperstown, and some have gone so far as to say they would boycott the induction ceremony were Bonds to get elected.  

Monday, January 7, 2013

RGIII's Knee

First, I subscribe to the John Madden policy on Monday Morning Quarterbacking:  If you didn't question the strategy at the time, then don't bring it up after the fact.  With that said, it's interesting to note that the exact moment when John and I both felt that Redskins coach Mike Shanahan should have removed Robert Griffin III from yesterday's playoff loss to the Seahawks happened with just under 14 minutes remaining, with Washington ahead 14-13.  I know this because John and I discussed it this morning on KCBS (740AM/106.9FM).  

The Redskins had jumped to a 14-0 lead twelve-and-a-half minutes into the first quarter, outgaining the Seahawks in total yards 135 to minus-2.  RGIII was 6-for-9 for 68 yards and two touchdowns.  But in the remaining 47 1/2 minutes, Seattle outgained Washington in total yards, 382-68.  And RGIII went 4-for-10 for 16 yards, an interception and a lost fumble.  

RGIII had been hit hard and often, and sometimes he had fallen on his own, including twice when his right knee had simply given out.  In the Skins' first play from scrimmage early in the fourth quarter, he had limped around left end for nine yards on first-and-10 from his own 22.  He couldn't run.  He had become a shell of his former self.  He had repeatedly reaggravated the sprain of the lateral collateral ligament  (LCL) in his right knee.  He could no longer sprint, he could no longer scramble, he had become a drop-back pocket passer, but because he couldn't plant his right foot properly he couldn't throw deep, and even his short and medium-range passes were inconsistent at best.  On the bench was fellow rookie Kirk Cousins, who was most impressive in his one NFL start, December 16th in Cleveland, the week after RGIII originally injured his knee.  Cousins went 26-of-37 for 329 yards and two touchdowns in a 38-21 win.  

For John and me, the realization became clear, that the Redskins had a much better chance of maintaining the lead and winning the game, with Cousins on the field, and RGIII on the sideline, avoiding any further damage to his knee.  Unfortunately, as we all know by now, RGIII remained in the game for the remaining five plays of that drive, and the first two of their next drive, getting sacked on the sixth play, and then fumbling a bad snap on the seventh, during which his knee buckled and twisted grotesquely.  It was very hard to watch.  He was flat on his back, with one of his lineman screaming for medical assistance, done for the game.  In his post-game press conference, Shanahan acknowledged that while he coached from his gut, it was possible he made mistakes, and likely that he'd regret not having taken RGIII out sooner.  

Two more things that he said, though, were particularly illuminating.  He said he checked with RGIII repeatedly throughout the game, to see if he was OK, and that RGIII said he was hurt but not injured, and wanted to stay in the game.  And that was enough for Shanahan.  The coach also insisted that he did not want to do anything that could have meant further damage to RGIII's right LCL

Two quick points:  Is asking an elite athlete whether he's OK sufficient for determining whether he should stay in the game?  Put another way, what elite athlete is going to ask to come out of a game, unless he can't (in this case) even walk?  There is something terribly wrong when a coach thinks that the only necessary precaution is asking the player if he's OK to continue playing.  And where was the team doctor, and why wasn't he consulted?  

One more primary point to keep in mind, from someone who has had three ACL tears in the last 12 years: All the other knee ligaments are chump change compared with the ACL. An MCL can heal on its own. A partial LCL tear can heal on its own. A partial PCL tear can heal on its own. An ACL tear NEVER heals on its own. If the Redskins try to sell that idea, disregard it immediately. In essence, there is no such thing as a partial ACL tear. In other words, an ACL tear is an ACL tear, and requires reconstructive surgery, for any elite (and even recreational) athlete.  For Shanahan to say after the game that he would not have done anything to risk RGIII's LCL shows a naivete bordering on ignorance. The ACL should have been his primary concern, all along, once he knew RGIII had an injured LCL. I tweeted that Sunday night, in fact, before RGIII went in for his MRI.

On Monday afternoon, Shanahan said the MRI revealed that RGIII suffered a partial tear of his ACL, and a partial tear of his LCL.  And he said that RGIII would see team physician and renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews on Tuesday for clarification and guidance on how to proceed from here.

Dr. Andrews will need no more than a few seconds to manually examine RGIII's knee and determine whether the right ACL is torn.  And if, indeed, it is torn, Andrews will not call it a partial tear.  He will call it a tear and recommend surgery.  He'll reconstruct the ACL, and repair the LCL as well.  If the swelling isn't too bad, the surgery could take place within a week, and RGIII could be back on the field in six-to-nine months.  But there's no guarantee.  

The Redskins, and RGIII fans all around the country, are hoping the ACL is not torn, and that surgery is not necessary.  But if it is, chances are that Shanahan and the Redskins will be as vague as they can possibly be about the extent of the damage done.  The press will have to dig.  And the face of the franchise will have to go through the surgery and the grueling rehab that he is all-too-familiar with, having suffered a similar season-ending injury during the third game of his sophomore year at Baylor, in 2009.  

This all seems so unnecessary.