12.15.2004

Pohlad Blues

While the Mets signed Pedro to a mind-numbingly enormous contract the Twins were outbid by the Toronto Blue Jays for Corey Koskie. This, if anything, is a clear sign of the state of major League Baseball. Indications are that the Twins were unwilling to give the oft injured Koskie a third year on his contract. Koskie is not one of the elite free agents of the offseason, but his contributions to the Twins will be sorely missed. Koskie was one of the last remaining 2001 Twins to leave, part of the team which brought the Twins back into contention after the dark years of 1993-2000. Koskie was the most patient hitter in a lineup of hackers. His plate discipline was straight out of Moneyball. With a career OBP of .373, 25 home runs in 2004, excellent defense and the respect and admiration of his teammates, Koskie has become (in the words of Sid Hartman) "The Twins biggest free agent loss since Jack Morris."


One could argue that the Twins lost Koskie because they were wary of his pattern of nagging injuries. This is partly right. However, if Carl Pohlad was willing to raise the payroll by even a few million, the risk would have been far smaller. Most teams sign players which never return the investment made on them due to injury or lack of ability. The Yankees are a prime example with four players signed to massive contracts who have vastly underachieved (Giambi, Brown, Vasquez and Williams) due to these same factors.

The difference between the Twins and the Yankees is this. The Yankees can afford million dollar blunder after million dollar bunder after million dollar blunder; the Twins can't. If Twins owenership spends anything beyond two or three million the bunder becomes crippling. Joe Mays was signed to a large contract after a stellar 2002 season and was injured almost immediately afterwards. The Twins lost seven million in Terry Ryan's seasonal quest to make Pohlad's self imposed salary cap of 54 million. With an extra seven million the Twins could have kept Koskie. Instead they paid for Mays' injury troubles in a way only a small market team can, leaving Twins fans everywhere signing the Pohlad Blues this winter.



12.13.2004

Come right out and meet the Mets



Nothing is official , but I suppose no trade is truly official until after Billy Beane is asked if he wants to be included. Nothing has been signed, although I have no doubt that the Mets sent a couple of six pack of Mont Blancs. Nothing at this point is definite, but there is a good chance that come April, Pedro will be throwing the opener at Shea with Sammy behind him in right.

Admittedly, the Mets were 26th in the league in runs scored and 28th in hits. However, over this same period, they were pathetic in several other statistical categories, including fifth in strikeouts (in their lineup), 19th in walks, and 28th in OBP. Truthfully, it's hard to know where to start if you're the Mets. They rank 28th in fielding percentage, but eighth in ERA. They were 26th in strikeouts (by their pitching staff), fifth in walks given up, and 27th in saves. Just to toss in one more stat, the Mets were 15th (dead middle of the league) in homeruns hit.

This is not a problem with an easy solution. The easiest part is identifying what does not need to be done. I see only one thing. The Mets need not take any drastic steps to reduce staff ERA. The ERA was spread evenly across the staff, so neither starters nor relievers carried or hindered the team. One very obvious problem is that of saves. Looper was fairly consistent (29 of 34) but blown saves are scattered through the bullpen, 6 from Mike Stanton and 4 from Ricky Bottalico with five others floating around. Those fifteen blown saves in the hands of a more capable, more durable closer could have been turned easily into ten more wins, enough to move the Mets to .500. While a dominant starter is certianly an ambitious move, it may not be the most oportune one, especially when Mets pitchers are hamstrung by a defense that rivals the current EPA in both agressiveness and effectiveness. If the Mets really wanted to improve their staff, they should have found some competent, tough relievers and, most importantly, they should have held onto Scott Kazmir. At a bare minimum, his trade potential would have skyrocketed given the current state of free agent pitchers on the market. With the exceptions of Johnson and Martinez, the pitching market is composed of possible or current number two and three starters. If Kazmir would have posted a few good starts with the Mets at the end of the year after they were out of the running, he could have brough considerable compensation to the Mets. I fault the Mets in no way for signing Pedro, though, as he is a quality pitcher who is definite to give a team five more wins a season over the average starter. However, I think there are other, larger holes to fill, especially on defense and offensive consistency.

None of the offensive categories that the Mets are deficient in (R, H, K, BB, and AVG) are categories that Sosa will help substantially in. His defense is average, but does nothing to help an error prone, weak throwing outfield. He will add some spash to a team with the personality of cardboard, surly cardboard, but if he leaves Chicago with bad blood, I have the feeling that some of those feelings will carry over, and New York sports fans are the least forgiving people on the face of the Earth. It has been mentioned ad nauseam that Sosa's gentle, senstitve persona will be in conflict with the New York fans. I can see the same sort of issues with Pedro, who is extremely susceptible to his emotions. Sosa's and Redro's high maintenance personalities will be targets if the Mets underachieve, as they are alsmot certian to do.

Now, finishing this on the morning of the 14th, the Pedro trade is official and I expect Sosa's name to find its way back into the hot stove conversations by tomorrow. No matter if they win or lose, I can say something about the Mets' season this year that usually can't be said. It's going to be interesting.

12.11.2004

The Court of Public Opinion



While in the middle of my weekly baseball reading, I came across this article on ESPN.com. It deserves to be reprinted in full. For those you you who prefer the Page 2 site itself, here is the direct link.

HOW CAN YOU BE SURE?

by Skip Bayless

From the start, it was as clear as "the clear" that the feds were only after one man. It was obvious the Bush administration wanted to slap one big, bad face on its campaign to clean up steroid abuse in sports. After all, that dartboard face belongs to the easiest target this side of Osama.

Most fans already consider Barry Bonds an arrogant jerk. Most people outside the Bay Area view him as a muscled-up monster wielding a war club. THG, the name of a new, undetectable steroid, might as well have stood for That Hated Godzilla.


Barry Bonds has already been convicted -- without proof.
All along, federal agents and prosecutors whispered to reporters that they had enough evidence to take down the San Francisco Giant. Stand-up-in-court evidence. Go-to-jail-for-perjury evidence that Bonds routinely received anabolic steroids supplied by indicted BALCO founder Victor Conte to Bonds' indicted trainer and friend, Greg Anderson.

So for months, reporters anticipated a BALCO trial just before the presidential election. Sure, the Bush administration would turn it into one last political baseball with which to knock some Bonds-hating voters off the fence. But the election came and went without so much as a trial date being set.

However, that didn't plug the illegal leaks to the media. Last week, the biggest bombshell was dropped by the San Francisco Chronicle, right on Bonds' head. The newspaper printed what was supposed to be his sealed testimony to the BALCO grand jury.

That's when this became as clear as shattered glass: The feds have decided their evidence will get them no farther than the court of public opinion. And in that runaway jury of an arena, Bonds quickly was convicted and sentenced to life in baseball's Hall of Shame.

Surely the feds knew exactly what they were doing. They tossed a match in a bone-dry forest of squawk-show hosts and fans dying to bury Bonds. Within hours, most people had leaped, or been yanked, to this conclusion: Bonds finally admitted he uses steroids!

Talk about a crime.

The feds knew most people wouldn't let the facts get in their way. Most people want to believe Bonds' body is chiseled in steroids. But nobody seems to have any of that case-building fuel called proof.

Understand, you're talking to a columnist who has been as publicly suspicious of Bonds' pumped-up physique as any member of the media. Since Bonds hit his record 73 home runs in 2001, I've written that it's virtually impossible to pack on 30 or so pounds of lean muscle mass in your mid-30s -- when the body's muscle-building testosterone naturally wanes -- without some help from performance-enhancing drugs. But I've always concluded that I can't know for sure because, to this day, I have not witnessed Bonds ingesting or injecting steroids and I'm not aware of a single person beyond the shady Anderson (or Bonds himself) who can provide evidence that Bonds "juiced."

But let's be as clear as a magnifying glass about exactly what Bonds told the grand jury. He did not tell them what Jason Giambi told them, according to testimony leaked to the Chronicle the day before the Bonds bombshell. Giambi admitted he had been buying and using traditional black-market steroids and human growth hormone long before he approached Bonds' trainer for tips on how to maintain the physical edge Bonds has sustained through his late 30s.

That, Giambi testified, was when Anderson recommended he use the two forms of THG. "The clear" could be taken orally. "The cream" could be rubbed into the skin like ointment.

Remember, the athletes who testified before the grand jury were granted immunity -- as long as they told the truth. They do not have immunity from perjury.

Yet Bonds told the grand jury basically the same story that his former friend Gary Sheffield did. Sheffield said he trusted Anderson because Bonds had known him since high school, when Bonds and Anderson had been teammates. Sheffield said that, after training with Bonds one offseason, he briefly used some stuff Anderson had recommended. Only later, he said, did he find out it was THG.


Bonds shouldn't be guilty just because Giambi admitted using steroids.
True or not, that's a plausible story.

Bonds said he was so run-down following the death of his father during the 2003 season that Anderson recommended a "rubbing balm." Bonds said Anderson compared it to "flaxseed oil." Bonds said it did nothing for him and that he soon stopped using it.

Again, a plausible story.

Yes, reportedly, Anderson kept records of Bond's THG use dating back to 2001. And yes, the feds leaked a phone call they taped of Anderson boasting to an unidentified acquaintance about the steroid program he had designed for Bonds. Yet an ESPN "Outside the Lines" report portrayed Anderson as little more than a small-time pusher who sold and used steroids.

It's certainly possible that Bonds is guilty only of trusting the wrong "friend." It's possible Anderson, in the taped call, was merely trying to impress a buddy with exaggerated claims that he created Barry Bonds, robo-slugger. I must admit: It is still possible that Bonds, with the all-time great genetics passed down from his father Bobby, a five-tool star, was able to turn himself into a late-30s record-breaker by taking nothing more than legal supplements and eating and training with severe discipline.

This, remember, isn't track and field. That sport long ago ruled out the "I didn't know" defense from athletes who tested positive. In international track and field, competitors are held solely responsible for what they put into their bodies. The dog cannot eat their homework.

But baseball remains in its steroid-abusing infancy. This is the first time star players have claimed they were duped into using performance-enhancers. This was a "designer" steroid that didn't require a needle and syringe. Hypothetically, if Anderson had said, "Hey, just try shooting this stuff in your butt," Bonds surely would have been more suspicious.

Bonds and Sheffield could become baseball's first cautionary tales -- and the last players given a reprieve for not finding out exactly what they were putting into their bodies.

Either way, I need proof.

I've spent enough time around Bonds to tell you he's a maddeningly elusive blend of naive and sly. There's the Bonds who was born with a Silver Slugger in his mouth, the privileged son of a star and the godson of a superstar, Willie Mays. Barry Lamar Bonds was spoiled rotten and often shielded from an outside world he was taught not to trust. He can be blindly, childishly loyal to the few in his inner circle he thinks are his friends.

But Barry Bonds, baseball player, is as wise as a serpent. He's the first hitter who has ever had the advantage over most pitchers because he knows them better than they know themselves. Because of a long-ago injury, he's still allowed to wear a hard-plastic protector on the arm exposed to the pitcher. But would he resort to, say, using a corked bat? No way. Too proud. Too good.

To using steroids? I can't be sure.

Bonds was taught by his father to despise the media. He has admitted to reporters that "you guys shouldn't believe half the stuff I tell you." But does that prove he lied when he told HBO's Bob Costas in 2002 that he "has never used" steroids?


Bonds' numbers are incredible -- but it remains to be seen whether he cheated.
Sorry, no.

Giambi didn't incriminate Bonds. No other player did, that we know. In interviews with ESPN The Magazine and ABC's "20/20," Conte ratted out sprinters Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery -- and in turn incriminated himself, much to his lawyers' shock. But Conte admitted only to supplying Anderson with THG. Conte said he had no idea if Anderson was giving it to "Barry or Gary."

Several Bay Area media members I respect -- guys who knew Bobby Bonds -- believe Barry was taught far too much respect for the game to stoop to steroids. For sure, he's the most gifted player I've seen. No hitter has ever been more disciplined or made consistently better contact while swinging with such perfect balance and mechanics at so few pitches. For me, Bonds is in a league with Michael Jordan for performing on cue. The more Bonds has been criticized, the mentally tougher he has become under pressure.

You can argue that steroids might have boosted Bonds' confidence and made his trigger a little quicker, allowing him a split-second longer to recognize a pitch. But he would have had my Hall of Fame vote before he got big.

And while it might not be probable, it's still possible Bonds jumped from 49 homers in 2000 to 73 the next season simply because he discovered the late-career wonders of nutrition, supplements and weight-training. It's also possible he has perjured himself and will go to jail.

But spring training draws nearer without anything but leaks.

Bonds will still pack The House that Barry Built -- SBC Park. A Bonds at-bat will remain the most riveting moment in sports. People who wouldn't have watched before will want to see how far those "mutant muscles" can send a ball into the bay.

And for the rest of my days, I might wonder if, just maybe, Barry Bonds was wrongly convicted in the court of public opinion.

12.08.2004

Dear John to Bonds, McGwire, Sosa, Canseco, Sheffield, Caminiti ...



I can't bring myself to read the full reports. I knew all along that there was circumstantial evidence. I knew for years that there were accusations and allegations. I knew, for as much as I personally dislike Sheffield, there was something in his stories a few months ago. I knew that my father was probably right. Up until the last week I was able to put up barriers. I wanted to believe in him.

Unlike Aho and Brooks, I am not a Minnesota native. I didn't see the great World Series in '87 or '91. I grew up in the Bay Area, about equidistant from San Francisco and Oakland. My greatest memories are of the Bay Bridge Series, the earthquake, and the Bash Brothers. Now the first thing that comes to mind when I think of McGwire is Creatine. When I think of the madcap race he and Sosa had to 61, all I can think of is a shattered bat on a grey day at Wrigley and x-rays of Hall of Fame memorabilia. Bonds is not the first hero to fall from grace. We forgave McGwire. We forgave Sosa. But Barry may be a different story. I'm not interested, however, in speculation as to when and how fully we may or may not forgive Barry. I'm not that rational right now. I'm still thinking about his homeruns, his elbows hanging over the inside edge of the plate, the electric feeling when he came into the on deck circle. I'm still thinking about the road trip I took to Chicago just so I could see the Giants play a game, about standing the whole game because the only tickets left were standing room, and that the morning after I went to the game he hit a ball in batting practice that broke a window in a building across the street. I'm thinking about all the nights and days I went to the park to see him. But I don't know what to think of it anymore. It feels like a relationship, when someone says they've been cheating on you. All these memories you have suddenly feel out of place. You don't know what to do with them anymore.

In Aho's entry, he suggested that Bonds' fault was greater than Rose's. I disagree. Bonds may have dirtied the game, but he did so the same way that Sosa, McGwire, Canseco, and however many spitball pitchers ever existed. He did so trying to be better, stronger, faster. He erred but it was for the game. Rose bet on the game while managing. I see no worse act on could take on the game. Nothing is more dishonorable, nothing leaves a more indelible mark. Bonds tried to give himself an edge, albeit an ilicit one. Rose used the game explicitly for his own financial gain. He did not show respect to the competition. His bets led the bets of thousands of bookees and gamblers, all convinced that Rose knew something they didn't. What Rose did says more than "I'm going to win this game anyway I can, even if I cheat." What Rose did says, "I care more about making money from betting on games than winning the games themselves." I guess what I'm saying is I'd let Bonds babysit, but not Rose.

Only one act in the history of baseball was worse than what Rose did. Only the Black Socks are deeper in baseball hell than Rose. The rest of these players, I believe, are bound for purgatory. They need time to reflect on their folly, to see where they went wrong, even as they pursued what they believed was good.

To return to my earlier analogy, I think at this point in my relationship with Barry, there's only one thing left to say; It was good while it lasted.

12.07.2004

Roids and Roses

In the past few years sports commentators, writers and bloggers including the bloggers of the Confines have heaped praise on Barry Bonds. The man changed the game to the point that he almost singlehandedly put his team in the playoffs. In the past four seasons Bonds hit a home run in 7.9 at bats, shattered the all time walk record. Bonds' performance over the past four years turned statisticians on their collective heads. He was far from my favorite player but I still called him the best hitter since Ted Williams.

Until this..

I'm lucky in a way. This hurts a bit less for me. I was introduced to baseball through the Twins of 1987 and 1991. This is an organization which last had a player hit 30 or more home runs in 1987. So its easier for me to pass judgement from afar, confident that my team is clean. I don't have the complications of being a Giants fan, or much of a Bonds fan for that matter. Even for me, however, what Bonds did to baseball surpasses everything except what baseball did to itself in 1994.

Bonds was never popular in the way which Sosa and McGwire were. Barry wasn't supposed to break the record set in the now cannonized summer of 1998. Bonds ignored the media, and they made him pay for it, helping to make Bonds one of the most unpopular players in the game. At the same time Barry was forced to deal with his father Bobby Bonds waste away from cancer. Although Bonds has damaged the game more than any single invidual player, he is no monster.

In the 1980's the Pete Rose scandal rocked the game. Rose disgraced the game. There is no doubt of that. Rose did not however, throw the credibility of every hitter in the game into question. Rose did not draw other managers into betting on baseball (at least that I'm aware of). Rose disgraced himself alone, and baseball could retain an appearance of intregrity.

Bonds' sin is not simply that he was a player who took steriods, it is that Barry Bonds took steriods. Bonds was already a hall of fame player before he began to take the steriods. Bonds was the son of a great player, godson of an even greater player. Bonds was the heir to the mantle of Mays and Aaron and he threw it away. Bonds drew other players to the same deplorable means of ascent which he has used to unprecdented effect.

From the San Francisico Chronicle:

"One week after Bonds testified, New York Yankees first baseman Jason Giambi and his brother Jeremy, both former Oakland A's, described in detail how they had injected themselves with performance-enhancing drugs. The Giambis testified they were drawn to Anderson because of Bonds' success.

Other players who admitted their use of performance-enhancing drugs were former Giants Armando Rios, Benito Santiago and Bobby Estalella. The players said they had come to know Anderson because he was Bonds' trainer.

A sixth witness, Yankees outfielder Gary Sheffield, testified that while he trained with Bonds in the Bay Area before the 2002 baseball season, Bonds had arranged for him to receive "the cream," "the clear" and "red beans," which the prosecutors identified as steroid pills manufactured in Mexico.

Sheffield said he had never been told that the substances were steroids. Bonds also was using "the cream" and "the clear," Sheffield said. "Nothing was between me and Greg," Sheffield testified. "Barry pretty much controlled everything. ... It was basically Barry (saying), 'Trust me. Do what I do.""


I don't know for certain is Sheffield is telling the truth, but it doesn't really matter. The pattern is very clear. Every single player associated with BALCO was drawn into it by Bonds, either directly (as Sheffield testified) or indirectly as with the Giambi's.

Bonds' accomplishments of the past four seasons are now relgated to the scrapheap of history. Everything which Barry might well have ligitmately accomplished is now nothing. A possible astrisk would become Bonds' scarlet letter. The effects of what Bonds' has done to the game is far worse than anything which Pete Rose did. While Rose compromised his postion as manager, Bonds ruined the credibility of all any player who nears the hitting prowess which he displayed over the past four seasons. Throughout the events of the past four years I have remarked that baseball seemed to be one of the last vestiges of the promise of America: that all people will be able to rise as far as talent and hard work can take them. Amid the corproate scandals, prison abuse, debt, and religious intolerance baseball remained above the fray, untainted in my mind.

No longer.