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.

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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.

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.  

                                       http://newyork.untappedcities.com

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.

I could have been Brett Carow, a 31-year old from River Falls, WI. Carow was recent recognized as the “Ultimate Fanatic” by the creators of Strat-O-Matic. Friends and I were Strat-O-Matic fanatics 40 years ago.

Strat-O-Matic, originally a baseball board game, was created in 1961.  There were 600 members at the convention celebrating the game’s 50th anaversay. The game gives baseball fans a chance to be the manager of MLB players. The game combines players’ actual statistics, baseball strategy, and probability.

I first encountered Strat-O-Matic at age 12 during a Connie Mack game (Connie Mack was the league for 16-18 year olds in my town).  A few of the older guys were talking about Philadelphia shortstop Bobby Wine.  Sure, Wine was a “1” at short but you had to carry his bat. I asked what the “1” meant and the older guys laughed it off. I didn’t get it.

Years later – 1968 – I was going through the Sporting News when I saw an ad for Strat-O-Matic. I quickly claimed it for my birthday gift, receiving the complete “Deluxe Set” before Spring Training started. And what a great set to have.

The 1967 season had been one of the greatest ever. The Red Sox, long-shots in the Spring, finished as the AL champs after a month-long race against a pack of competitors – Twins, Tigers, White Sox, and Angels. The Bosox’ dreams would be dashed by the St. Louis Cardinals in a 7 game Series. And I could replicate the entire thing. I had all the cards for all players. There was Yaz, the Triple Crown win. I had Bob Gibson. And Al Kaline and Harmon Killebrew. All of them.

Even better, I could trade big Frank Howard from the lowly Senators to the White Sox. How would Eddie Stanky’s great-pitch-no-hit Sox do with Hondo batting 4th or 5th? It might have been the White, not the Red, with the AL Pennant.

And the game offered Old Timers and Hall of Famers. You could buy the 1961 Yanks. Or Philly’s 1950 Wiz Kids. There was the Cardinals’  1934 Gas HouseGang.

The Old Timer team I liked the most was the ’31 Athletics with Lefty Grove, Jimmie Fox, and Al Simmons. I recall a friend inviting me over so my A’s could play 1927 Yankees. Yes, those Yankees. The Ruth and Gehrig Yankees. I believe my A’s were swept…. no, pounded.

But that was part of the fun. Six or seven buddies had Strat-O-Matic. We traded. We had a draft – even though there was no such thing. We had leagues and tournies. We kept score and had stats.

It became more than a hobby. It deepened our love for the game. And it probably created a few accountants or a Pentagon analyst. Andrew’s buddy Eathen’s Dad was in a 4-person league 3 years ago. I know Brewers owner Mark Attanasio played as a kid (I hope he was good at it). The age range of folks who have played must be 10-80.

It is a way to teach and a way to bond. I used Strat-O-Matic as a way to bond with my son Bill. And Andrew and I have played over the past 3 years.

But things change. People don’t play board games. Why play Risk or Monopoly? They’re too slow. Andrew can play baseball on PlayStation. He can swing and throw using buttons. He can even create himself (he’s on a pace to hit 180 homers this year).

Heck. there’s Strat-O-Matic for your PC. Strat-O-Matic is played on the Internet.

Not for me. Strat-O-Matic should be played as a board game. I want to hold and touch the player cards comparing shortstops Bobby Wine and the Tigers’ Ray Oyler. I want to roll the dice.

Special Balls

June 28, 2011

Millions of baseball fans treasure a baseball – maybe more – that reminds them of a  place, a day or a person. Maybe it’s in your den or office. You may have given it to a son or daughter. Perhaps you gave it away or simply lost it.

But it’s really with you.

(Wait, you didn’t think this post was about something other than baseball did you?)

Last year I purchased a ball for Andrew in a chuch  auction. They had one ball signed by the members of the World Champion San Francisco Giants. I figured that ball – complete with Tim Lincecum – would have value. The other was signed by all members of the 2010 NL All Star team. I had no chance, right?

I told my friend Mike to go up to $200 for the Giants ball. Frankly, I thought I was going to be an auction rabbit, increasing the bidding. No surprise when the Giants/Lincecum ball went for $400+.

But I had won the NL All Star ball. Now Andrew would have Lincecum – and Pujos – and Braun – and, well, all NL studs. Only $250. Who really knows what the value. 

Somewhere in our house is a ball signed by Brooks Robinson, a hero of mine, and given to me. There’s a ball signed by, well, we really don’t know. We think it’s Ken Griffir Sr. They are probably in the same place – lost.

But then there are the really memorable balls, like one at Yankees Stadium 40 years ago.

At 10 I was at the Stadium for a game between the Yanks and a sacrificial opponent (A’s?). Early in the game there was a line drive into the seats between first and the foul pole. It was smoking. A big man jumped up and snared it clean. Next day at school I’m talking about the game and Billy Prudin pipes up. It was his Dad that caught the liner. Great. Any kids nightmare, a dentist fast enough to spot a line drive.           

I got my own foul ball at a Yankees-Tigers game in the late ’60s.

Our neighbor Jay and his fiance Gail, invited brother Bill and I to the ball game. Bill begged off. I, of course, jumped at it “third wheel” or not. Hey, he offered. The seats were primo – four rows back and right next from the Pinstripe’s dugout. The boxes between us and the field were empty when Detroit’s Jim Northrup barely made contact. The scribbler came right back. I was slow but the bat boy was slower. I had my ball. Sure, it wasn’t a rocket but who cared – and who needed to know, right?

I lost the Northrup ball long ago. It was ripped up and worn from playing hardball and then lost. I blame Bill.           

I “caught” a ball for Andrew during batting practice before a Brewers game two years ago. I was looking at the game program. Andrew was among 10 kids – gloves in the ready – focused on getting a foul ball. Suddenly, “Look Out!” I looked up just as a ball caromed off my shin. The ball spun in place and a youngster scurried to get it before buddies raced in.

“Hey,” I bellowed,” that’s mine, pal. I took the shot. I get the ball.”

Great. I was getting tough with a kid over a used batting practice ball hit foul by a guy named Dickerson. Two months later Dickerson would be traded and sent to the minors never to be heard from. The kid, stunned, apologized. “Sorry mister.” Now neither the A-train nor I can find it.

If Andrew ever learns his dad moved seats at a game late last year, I’d have a problem. A ball fell right into the seat I had left. Then again I would have muffed it. 

Besides, there will be thousands of balls to come. Maybe one or two will be memorable.