Say it ain’t so, Ryan!

February 20, 2013

If there is smoke there is fire. And Ryan Braun’s season and reputation may be burning. For the second straight year Braun enters the major league season with questions and doubts about his use of performance enhancing drugs.

How should a Brewers and long-time baseball fan react?

Braun is the face of the Milwaukee franchise. In his 6 seasons the left fielder has hit .313 with an on-base percentage of .943. Braun averages nearly 35 home runs and produces more than 100 runs per year. He has been an All Star 5 times, received the Silver Slugger Award 5 times, and earned the National League MVP Award for 2011. Braun is on his way to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Well, maybe.

Last year Braun was accused of failing a mandatory drug test. Major League Baseball was set to levy a suspension of up to 50 games, roughly a third of the season. Instead Braun and his legal team went through the MLB Arbitration system. They successfully argued that Braun’s test sample had been tampered and valid.

Did he win on a technicality? Most fans in Milwaukee, and many in the country, thought the decision was right. Heck, his stats were consistent year to year, and baseball is about stats. There hadn’t been any significant increase in his results. The annual home run totals were 34, 37, 32, 25, 33, and 41. The batting averages were .324, .285, .320, .304, .332, and .319. There are no outlier.

Look at the guy. At 6’2′ and 200 he doesn’t have the physique of other “bashers.” I recall taking my son Bill to a card show where we met Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire . Canseco looked powerful but McGwire was not imposing. Canseco was on the “juice” and in the end McGwire looked like Popey.

And of course there was Barry Bonds. Young Barry looked like his dad, a great athlete but not a weight lifter. Barry could hit but suddenly he could hit for power and distance. By the time he led in career home runs he was Mr. Potato Head.

Braun wields a 40 ounce bat (son Andrew has one in his bedroom won in a raffle) and hits to all fields. There are as many frozen doubles as homers. He is a hitter, not a slugger.

There was no reason to doubt Braun would have another outstanding season in 2013. As recent as last week ESPN proclaimed Braun the #1 player in fantasy leagues. Braun may have claimed the top of all players.

Now what to think? Last year his answers were plausible. The sample had been kept overnight in somebody’s house.  It could have been mixed up. A player PED test sample was going to be mishandled sooner or later. Why not Braun’s?

But how do you explain it this time? There’s much more circumstantial evidence. There are reported documents and lists with Braun among players having violated the PED rules. This time his attorneys haven’t offered an explanation. Braun has been silent.

Many local fans hope and believe. Some — like fans in San Francisco and St. Louis — may consider Braun a “cheater” but he’s “our cheater.” What’s the problem, they all do it. The MLB should just recognize that and lift the ban.

I can’t. I need Braun to give us the explanation.

Tomorrow is Super Bowl LXIX, or whatever, between the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49’ers. An estimated 180 million  will watch part, if not all, of the game. I might skip it.

I’ve watched part of all of them, from the Packers pounding the Chiefs to Ely pulling off another one. But this one has no cache.

I don’t care about the Harbaugh Bowl. I didn’t like Jim when he was at Michigan or with the Bears. And I can’t root for him now. John Harbaugh? He often looks like a loan officer on his way to a golf outing.

I suppose I could root for the city of Baltimore. But then they caught a break when the Browns moved into town and they got their championship. And as best I can tell Cleveland still doesn’t have a professional sports franchise.

I’m not big on the look either. Nothing says “thugs” better than the black and purple uni’s. And let’s face it. Ray Lewis can praise and thank his maker all he wants, to me, he’s still a gangster.

I do like Joe Flacco, the Ravens QB. He’ll finally get the recognition he has deserves. And he saved us from 4 hours of looking at Brady’s dimples. But the rookie Niners QB, Kafwhatever, has also been brilliant the few times I’ve seen him play. Too bad about the tats.

Kaepernick has been hot. San Francisco has a couple of talented running backs with a huge offensive line. And, frankly, the defense has looked like the strength during the year. I’d have to say the 49’ers would be my pick in the game.

Except my brother roots for them. In fact he has rooted for them for decades. He’s already had his Super Bowls, a couple of them. I have been a Lions fan for decades. I watch the Super Bowl for the commercials. I can’t root for San Francisco.

The best thing about the Super Bowl? It won’t be long until pitchers and catchers report.

Dracula or Legos

January 23, 2013

Legos are amazing – and going a little too far. I don’t know who created them but that person has probably worth a couple of billion dollars. And, the same person could be both a hero or scourge in your household.

Andrew received a Legos set (is an individual Legos a Lego?) for Christmas.  It is a 1962 Volkswagen T1 Camper Van. The Legos folks can be – if nothing else –  good with the details.

It hasn’t always been that way. I recall the original “sets” challenged your creativity because it was difficult to distinguish pieces. A foot was a head was a leg unless they were painted. Now Legos has engineers and architects to create life-like models. The Camper is so realistic you would think it was designed in Stuttgart. There are 1332 individual pieces and when completed it will be a foot long.

The VW Van used in Tom Wolf’s “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” had fewer 125 parts.

More than two scores ago friends and I made plastic models. You got a box with all the pieces to assemble a figurine. Cars were big of course. But there was a wave of World War II airplanes. And I recall tanks were big. Mine was an British military vehicle used in beating back the Germans.

Monsters came in a series and everyone made their favorite. Mine was Count Dracula. But there was Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, the Creature, and the Mummy. They are yawners in a decade featuring Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.

My biggest modelling accomplishments were the USS Constitution and Yankee Stadium. Actually I never finished “Old Ironsides.” The rigging was too much for my lack of patience (a life-long short coming). Yankee Stadium was a lot easier. The field, seats and stands were a walk in the park, so to speak. It was all about the prominent facade that distinguished “the House that Ruth Built” – home of my Bronx Bombers.

Unlike Legos, model pieces were glued. Many a model was destroyed by glue smeared or left too weak. Decals were critical. They had to be centered and not ripped.  And a great model required painting. You had to be careful to paint just enough copper on the ship’s hull or get the right green to make sure the Creature didn’t look like Kermit the Frog.

Legos eliminate some of those risks. The pieces fit together as if locked. I haven’t seen any painting. And the VW doesn’t have any decals. It costs $200.

But maybe I’m an old curmudgeon.

Andrew completed an airport and a police station before knocking out the Seattle Space Needle and the Guggenheim Art Museum. Legos Mega stores are in almost every major city. Are they for kids? My 6-year old grandson wanted one for Christmas. A friend’s 25-year old son – with a science degree from Cornell – wanted one for Christmas. Legos may be a vacuum cleaner’s worst enemy but I guess they are also the models of Andrew’s generation.

I wonder if they have a Yankee Stadium set.

Voices in My Head

September 8, 2012

Milwaukee dedicated a statue to Bob Uecker last week. “Ueck” is a nationally known personality. He, a native of Milwaukee, played as a back-up catcher for the Braves, Cardinals and Phillies in the ‘6os – and without distinction. He parlayed his play and humor into numerous appearances on the Johnny Carson Show (Carson: “Well, how hard is it to catch a knuckle ball.” Uecker: “I don’t usually have a problem. I would wait for it to stop rolling and then pick it up.”). Uecker was a major character in a sitcom (“Mr. Belvedere”) and as announcer in the move Major League (“Just a little outside…..”). And, of course, he has sold with the best of them (“Great seats, eh buddy?”).

But more than anything else Bob Uecker is a baseball play-by-play radio broadcaster and personality – not “announcer” – for the Milwaukee Brewers. On a quiet afternoon Summer and Fall you can hear the voice, “Get up, get up, get out of here…” You stop to hear Uecker at a critical moment, you wait to hear him share that moment.

You enjoy the game through the voice of a play-to-play pro painting a picture of probabilities, actions, choices, nuances, and outcomes.  Baseball does that better than any other sport.

For me baseball broadcasters started with Phil Rizzuto – the “Scooter” – and Jerry Coleman doing Yankees games on WPIX.  They were a Yanks double-play combo in the ’50s. and knew the game. Before there was Red Barber and Mel Allen, radio and TV guys. The Mets countered with Bob Murphy, Ralph Kiner and Lindsay Nelson. But who cared about the Mets?

Yes, radio gave us the early NFL. For me the New York Football Giants home game on the radio broadcast would waff from yard to yard like burning leaves in a Jersey Sunday afternoon. “Tarkenton hands to Koy who gets a seam off tackle….goes to his left…gets a block…dodges a defender…. bulls his way before being stopped on the play. It’ll be second and 9 at the Giants 16 yard line….” Marty Glickman would make some truly brutal Giants losses sound close.

And in the 70’s and 80’s NYC metro sports fans were treated to 3-4 magical years of Knicks basketball and 50 years of frustrated Rangers defeats. Marv Albert told it all.

But TV changes the NFL and the NBA.

Baseball – radio broadcasts in particular – is best. And almost each market has had a special voice.

As a homer I’ve enjoyed: Jack Buck and Mike  Shannon in St Louis – and later Bob Costas – for the Cards. Hawk Harrelson at Sox Park. And Harry telling the story from Busch, and Comisky, and Wrigley. Now Uecker.

What about Bob Prince (Pirates); Harry Callas (Phillies); Ernie Harwell (Tigers); Marty Brenamen (Reds); and Vin Scully (Dodgers)? They are icons. I wish I had heard more  of them. They are as much a part of baseball’s history as Ruth or Fenway.

You are a baseball fan. You have known your own. You can hear them. Baseball puts voices in your head and special memories in your mind.

You know, may be its time to crank up the blog. I mean the lousy Wisconsin summer weather forces you to stay indoor (?). The kids are enjoying organized activities that challenge their creativity and skills (unlike, well, school). The brutal political contests have subsided (for a month). The week offers fireworks, Yankees/Sox, and the MLB All-Star Game.

What the heck. I should pick it up. I have some time. I have the vehicle. Now if I only had something to say…….


A Look at Ebbets

August 22, 2011

I’m lucky to have gone to games at both the “old” Yankee Stadium and the Polo Grounds. Dad would take my brother and me to see the two. He didn’t have a lot of time for the Yanks. But we got to go anyway – Mom was a native of the Bronx. Dad grew up a Giants fan, adopted the Mets, and took us to the Polo Grounds.

But I never saw Ebbets Field. The Dodgers had left for the coast playing at Wrigley Field in LA (taking the Giants with them) before I knew of baseball.

Now my cousin’s son Heinz can give us an idea of the site and place. Check it out.  


Feeling the Magic?

August 19, 2011

The Milwaukee Brewers look like they could win the National League Central Division. They have a 6 1/2 game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals. They have only 38 games left.

Brewers fans are getting excited. They are starting to talk in hushed tones about the teams Magic Number.

In Major League Baseball parlance a team’s Magic Number is calculated using the number of games left and the lead a team has in the race. If a club leads the race by 3 games and there are 5 games left, it’s magic number to win is 3. And, a club’s number can be reduced when opponents lose.  

By Labor Day all but a few teams know their number will never be called.  Some teams never get a real shot for a Magic Number, like the ’62 Mets and, well, nearly every Cubs club. 

I’m getting nervous. It’s too early to start doing the math. Yet twice in the last 24 hours the Magic Number was referenced.

First, there were some Milwaukee sports radio guys. “So, there’s only 40 games left …… and they have series with the Mets, Pirates and Cubs …….. so you figure……. it would almost be impossible to miss the playoffs….” Similar extrapolations were being conjured using the more complicated two-team method. “OK, the Crew gets the Mets, Pirates and Cubs for 10 games but the Cardinals get the Cubs, Reds and Astros……so the Brewers should get 4-6 wins out of that week while the Cards can expect…….” It’s beginning to sound like winning the division is a foregone conclusion.   

But there are 38 games left.

The Brewers have a miserable road record and they’ll be playing in New York and Pittsburgh the next 7 games. They get at least three games left with St. Louis. They could face a hot club on the road. And injuries can crop up.

They have been scoring only 2-3 runs a game over the past month. They won a 1-run game last week by pulling off 3 double plays and one triple play. They won another when their runner moved from first to third on a passed ball. He then scored the winning run from third on a passed ball. The runner? Their catcher, batting 7th in the order. 

There are 38 games left.

The Brewers could collapse like the ’51 Dodgers. Or the ’64 Phillies. They could choke.

There are still 38 games left, people are calculating Magic Numbers – and I just received an invitation in the mail to purchase playoff tickets.

They have no chance.

A Sinking Feeling

July 28, 2011

It’s a little league axiom: “Every kid wants to pitch.” 

Andrew is no different. He had pitched over the past two years, getting through 3 good stints and getting roughed up once. He had completed 4 innings benefitting from nervous hitters and line-drives ending innings.

Sure it was modest success, but his record was better than mine. At his age I was pitching in the Ho-Ho-Kus (NJ) little league, 4 or 6 team.  I was the Falcons’ best starting pitcher. In fact, the only pitcher. And I still share the worst win-loss record for little league in New Jersey history – 0-10 or .000. So when Andrew announced he wanted to pitch I wasn’t going to tell him he couldn’t.

But I was concerned. First, he is an 11-year old in a league for 11- and 12-year old kids. They get first shot. Second, the A-Train is neither big nor aggressive. Finally, he just didn’t look like he had the arm strength.

With about 5 games left Andrew told his coach he wanted a chance to pitch. All kids in the TOSA league are given a chance to play any position. The coach assured Andrew he’d get a chance.

There were three games left – a scheduled game for Monday; a rain-out on Wednesday; the season finally on Thursday. We would be vacationing Thursday. Andrew expected to pitch either Monday or Wednesday.

Now the most important thing a little league pitcher can have is control. Most players at 11-years old are unreliable fielders. Most catchers are sentenced to the position. Walks abound. Runners frolic around the bases. Andrew’s Red Sox had won a game 20-13 and lost another by 15 runs.

But success could come by knowing half the batter are hesitant (scared), doesn’t have a swing (hacks) or don’t know the strike zone. If a pitcher throws strikes he can get by or better.  

Andrew, Micheal nextdoor, and I prepped him. I paced off the 50 feet creating a chalk spot on the drive way for the rubber to a plate. We eliminated the “windmill” his wind up and faced him at the plate. He’s righthanded so we pushed him to target the plate by extending his left arm using the “eagle spread.” Turn the hip, follow through and touch the ground with his right arm. Easy.

Sure. Right.

Time for the secret weapon. Andrew would grip the ball to create a “sinker” effect. And it worked. He threw 30 over two days. Seventy-five percent  dropped. He was ready.

Wednesday night came. Andrew informed his coach he was ready. His coach told him he wouldn’t be pitching. He didn’t even have Andrew in the line-up. The coach had Andrew down as on vacation.  

Andrew didn’t know what to say or do. It was all I could do to rip the guy’s head off.    

But the Red Sox had a bigger problem. The game was scheduled for 6pm. At 5:30 there were three teams limbering up. The coach had the boys at the wrong field. The Red Sox forfeited.

The coach pronounced was a great opportunity to practice with a scrimmage. They would play 6-a-side and a Dad would ump behind the mound. Teams would change after 3 outs or 4 runs. The coach divvied up the teams as the 11-year olds vs the 12-year olds. Great.

In the first inning the younger guys went down with out a run.

The coach for the youngsters club announced, “Andrew, you are the starter.” I quietly blessed him.

Andrew trotted out like Tim Lincecum – without the stuff. He warmed as we had talked. The batters were snickering.

Then Andrew was quickly up 0-2 on the first batter. The older boys were laughing at their peer before he hit it hard back at Andrew. He muffed it.

The runner got to 3rd on the next two pitches – both strikes. The third pitch was a strike but fouled off.

Andrew was throwing strikes and the sinker was working.

The next batter popped the ball up ten feet among the first basement, second baseman and Andrew. It’s little league. The three of them allowed another to call it. None made the play.

Two errors. A run in. A man on first. 

Andrew coaxed Cameron to produce the same pop-up. This time the first baseman called the pop – and dropped it.

Three errors. Two runs in. A man on first. 

The next pitch resulted in a ground ball for a force at second. Andrew was throwing strikes. The ball hadn’t left the infield, and the big guys were having a tough time. The sinker was working.

Big Charley stepped in. The kid could hit, evidenced by his home runs during the season. He would belt one in the playoffs.

But Andrew didn’t seem impressed. He was focused. And he and Charlie battles for about 5 pitches, all strikes. Andrew didn’t have the velocity for a strike out. Charley couldn’t make good contact.

The A-Train threw Charley one more sinker……..and it didn’t. In fact the fighter squadron at Mithell Field tracked the ball for about 15 miles. Charley trotted home.

Four runs in. Inning over. Pitching season over. But the assistant coach umping behind the mound asked “Wow, they couldn’t hit Andrew. What was he doing?” It was the best performance in the scrimmage. 

The Red Sox would get smacked in their only playoff game, done in by a 9-run inning tossed by the coach’s twins.

No matter. Andrew wants to play Fall Ball in late August. I have to start pacing off the 50 feet.

Tell the truth. Last April you picked the Pittsburgh Pirates to win the NL Central Division. Yeah, me too. And we’re both liars.

As I write this the Pirates are either a half game ahead or behind the Milwaukee Brewers in what will be the most interesting division race this season. The NL Central looks like a 4-team battle. The Reds were last year’s winners. But St Louis were a preseason favorite though many thought the Brewers off-season acquisitions would give them the edge.

But no one, I mean no one, predicted the Pirates would be in the mix with 70 games to go. And why would you? They finished the 2010 season with 105 losses and last in the NL Central. They have not had a winning season in 20 years. 

These are not the Paul Waner, Pie Traynor, Ralph Kiner, Bill Mazerowski, Roberto Clemente, and Willie Stargel’ family. All indicators are they don’t hit. 

In fact the Pirates’ batting average (.247) is 11th in the league. The Cards, Reds, Brewers, and the Cubs and Astros have higher percentages. They are 11th in runs (371), 13th in home runs (62), and 11th in on-base percentage (.314).

They are not prolific.

The Pirates can pitch. Their young staff allows 3.40 earned runs per game. But doubters and stat guys would point out their WHIP (1.31) is the same as the Reds and Cardinals. The Brewers’ number is at 1.32.

They don’t field as well as the Reds and Cards (the Brewers are a softball team in the field).

History says they can’t win. When they were contenders in the 70’s, there was the Big Red Machine. Sure they had a big family once, years ago. But when they had the next shot Bonds couldn’t throw Sid Breams out at home. Sid Bream for crying out loud. It’s been high profit team constantly selling assets.

Sure, history can be a poor predictor. But I wouldn’t bet on them. They are the Pirates.

An MLB Death March?

July 14, 2011

I was thinking  about two upcoming trips. Both begin Thursday. Both show promise. The question is whether each can avoid becoming a Death March. 

The Brewers are enbroiled in a war with the St Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds. Only one of the three will play in the post season. It is a whole new season.

And the Brewers begin this new season on the road. Their trip will take them from Colorado to Arizona to San Francisco. So far this year the Brewers have gone 7-5 against those three. Not bad. But then 9 of the 12 were at Miller Park.  

The Brewers have the best home record in the National League (33-14). Unfortunately, they have the worst road record in the league (16-29). Heck, if the Brewers had the Padres’ road record (21-25) they would be back in Milwaukee printing playoff tickets.

Well, OK. You get it. They don’t have to play 50% ball on the road to have a 5-6 game lead to win the division.

What explains the disparity? Who knows? It’s enough to be alarming.

And it could get worse. The Rockies have been average  at home (22-22).  But Arizona (23-19) and San Francisco (28-16) defend the house very well.

And where are the Cards and Reds starting the second half? The two first go to the Queen City. They hate each other. It’s either good for the Brewers or LaRussa’s guys get a leg up in the tightest of divisions.

The Cards then go to NYC to meet the Mets (what’s left of them) before playing the Pirates (and let’s not forget the Pirates). All of the three series are on the road.  

The Reds travel to Pittsburgh and go back home versus Atlanta. Atlanta is a playoff team but I’m not sure anyone “travels” from Cincinnati to Pittsburgh. Mark Twain’s characters may be. Advantage Reds. 

The point is the Brewers get the daunting  schedule. They travel the furthest. They have the longest stretch. And they are already the worst road club in the league.

I could be wrong. I often am. But it seems the Rockies often beat the Crew. And I know the D-backs have been beating the Brewers both home and away. Maybe the Brewers will finish a long trip by winning a series against the Giants. Sure.

The Brewers will welcome the chance to come home and host the Cubs. Well, may be. The Cubs have beaten them 5 of 7.

A promising season could be over in a week.

Meanwhile my family travels this weekend for 4 days  in the Wisconsin Dells.  It’s an annual get-together with the extended family. Her extended family. Getting smacked around by the Rockies doesn’t sound too bad.