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.

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.

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.

Realign This

June 23, 2011

I needed a serious diversion. It had been raining for days – a soaking, chilly Wisconsin weekend. Andrew’s little league games were washed out. Brewers telecasts were no help as the Crew were finishing a terrible road trip by getting pounded by the Sox in Boston. 

And then Major League Baseball gave me one of the great parlor games: Realignment!

ESPN was reporting a proposal in which the Houston Astros would go to the American League, giving baseball two 15-team leagues. There would be no divisions. Interleague play retained. Each league would have a 4-5 team playoff system culminating in a World Series.

I mulled it over. I had my own initial ideas. Why not? It couldn’t be any more rediculous than all the others. Besides, it’s a parlor game.

So,

Disband the Toronto Blue Jays. Baseball is the “National Past Time.” Well, it used to be – 50 years ago. But the Jays’ attendance is among the worst. And now the Rays are closest to catching the Red Sox and Yanks in the AL East. Here’s a trade? MLB disbands the Jays. The Canadians take back the Coyotes.

Disband the Florida Marlins and Tampa Bay Rays. Who would be inconvenienced? It appears “fans” in neither market would really miss the clubs (29th and 30th in home attendance). People might say, “You can’t go to South Beach all the time.”  Yes. Yes, you can. And Tampa, a winner, can’t attract more than 18,000 per game. Lets face it. The best attended baseball in the Sunshine State is Ft Lauderdale for Yankees spring training.

Combine the Kansas City Royals and Oakland A’s.Kansas City has been declining since the creation of refrigerated rail cars, right? OK, I’ve never been there. But you can only get there by rail road or Greyhound, right. OK. Still after 40 years the Royals can boast of  George Brett, and a blown call at first base. And,yeah, the Green and Gold uni’s and the donkeys were fun. Bando, Catfish, Blue Moon and Rudy were great. And LaRussa’s chemically induced Bash Brothers. But, it’s been more than a  decade since Money Ball and the Magical Been. The two can relocate to Omaha.

Combine the Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals. Yes, the Nationals are the hottest thing going. Some one should tell the Capital’s residents. The Nat’s are drawing 23,000, 21th in the MLB. The Orioles are getting the same gate. I know. The Orioles have a real history, stretches of success and Washington deserves a chance. True. But not in this exercise.        

The Yankees and Red Sox won’t destrow the game for ever.  The Yanks’ roster is as old as I am (very old). And the Boss has passed. Will the kids be regular winners? The Red Sox? Well, if they were realigned to Finland that would be fine with me. But they’re entitled to a run every 95 years . I don’t think Phillies, Giants, and Rangers fans shouldn’t give up yet.

Fans will lose interest if 75% of all teams has no chance to go to the Series.  Right. Like all clubs in any year since 1900. Alignments won’t produce winners. Today’s divisions system doesn’t insure the Nationals’ success any more than 2 leagues insured the Senators success. It’s all about management and commitment.

How should Interleague play be treated? Easy. Eliminate it. 

In the end, here’s an outcome:

American League – East: Boston, NY Yankees, Cleveland, Detroit, NY Mets, DC-Baltimore.

American League – West: Texas, Houston, Omaha, Minnesota, Milwaukee, Chicago White Sox.

National League – East: Philadelphia, Atlanta, St Louis, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Chicago Cubs.

National League – West: San Francisco, Los Angeles Dodgers, Los Angeles Angels, Colorado, Arizona, Seattle.  

And, after all of that, the Red Sox and Phillies go to the Series.

It was a great holiday weekend. The Brewers were rolling on a home stand when the SF Giants arrived for a three-game series. It couldn’t have been more entertaining. 

Tim Lincecum was starting for the Giants. I had tickets for Saturday afternoon. But I wanted to see “The Freak” in person and he was scheduled to pitch on Friday night. Hm.

I appealed to the High Command. “Listen, I know I have tix for Saturday, but, if we don’t have plans for Friday night, I’m going to exchange them so Andrew and I could see Tim Lincecum. Who knows when Andrew gets to see him.”

Having a young son can really play to a guy’s advantage. My Dad would do the same thing. I’m sure that’s how my brother and I would get to go to the Polo Grounds to see the Giants and Dodgers.

I tried the same ploy and was stunned. “Yeah, ‘the Freak”. Andrew told me about it. Why not go to both games?”

What? What? I think retribution is going to be painful. But there we were in the Loge, 4 rows behind the Giants dugout.

I think Lincecum is the best pitcher in baseball and have been for a couple of years. He is going into the Hall of Fame. He had an 2.09 ERA. He was in a track to again lead in K’s.

Lincecum went seven innings giving up a 2-run blast by Ricky Weeks. The Brewers scratched out a another run to lead 3-1. It wasn’t his best outing but he still looked to be in command.

In the 6th Brewers pitcher Shaun Marcum ran out of gas. Unfortunately, he was replaced on the mound only after giving up a grand slam to the Giants Brandon Crawford. The kid has a nice swing but for God’s Sakes a grand slam. It was his first hit in the Majors. Geez.

But the Brewers weren’t done. They loaded the bases in the 9th with two outs. Casey McGehee singled to score Braun but the on third and Prince on second with two outs in the bottom of the 9th. A hit and its tied.

Well, no. Prince tried to score from second but he was thrown out without a crash.

We had seen Lincecum. We had been treated to a great game – tight and dramatic. In a word: draining. OK, draining with a brutal outcome.

Frankly, neither of us was sure we wanted to go Saturday. But, you don’t get too many hall passes. So we went.

Good thing we did. The Brewers scored first when center fielder Carlos Gomez circled the bases for an inside-the-park home run. I told Andrew we were lucky to witness the feat.

Both pitchers were hot. It looked like a 2:30 hour game.

Then the Home Plate Ump pulled a muscle, tore a tendon or some darn thing. He couldn’t continue so there was a 20 minute delay as the remaining three pulled lots to see which went behind the plate. In the interim the crowd received a range of fans favorites. You know, “I Saw Her Standing There”, “Sweet Caroline”, “Macho Man” and, of course, “YMCA.”

At some point in the interlude Andrew was “dancing” beside his old, overweight , slovenly clothed Dad. It was at that moment Fan Cam (or whatever it is) decided to pan in our direction. More than 40,000 got a good shot of the two of us gyrating. OK. He was gyrating. I was doing what 50+ men do to disco beats.

Andrew loved it. We had an inside-the-park homer and Fan Cam.

But the best was to come. The Giants had scored two undesired runs and it was 2-2 in the bottom of the ninth. Like the night before the Brewers had a chance to win. And this time they did.

Braun raced from third to the plate seconds before Lecroy buntted the ball towards first. It was unbelievable. It was a suicide squeeze bunt.

The A-train and Dad had witnessed an inside-the-park home, an injured ump, Fan Cam up close and personal, and a game winning suicide squeeze play. Unbelievable. Fantastic. 

The Brewers continued their winning ways on Sunday smacking SF 6-0.

It had been a truly memorable baseball weekend.

The Brewers have played only 31 games into a 162 game season. They have a dismal record, 13-18. Still it’s been only 31 games. The Crews’ poor start has to be put into perspective.

First, there are still 131 games to go. Of course, that’s 131 games of 162. By my math 20% of the season is over.

No problem. It’s not how many games they play. It’s a matter of how many they win. Assuming a final record of 90-72, a club would have a winning percentage of .555. Hey, you don’t have to be the Big Red Matheen to hit that target.

Of course, with a start of 13-18, the Brewers would have to go 77-54 or a winning percentage of .587. Not easy. 

Forget the pure math. A winning percentage among the NL Central clubs should be enough. Although .555 might be just a little shy in the division based upon the past 2 years – Cincy in 2010 (.562) and St. Louis in 2009 (.562). And the Cards are at .563. So 90 wins might be just a little short.

Only the Cubs pierced the .565 the division’s winning percentage barrier in recent years. Chicago had a .602 winning percentage in 2008. The Brewers finished that season with a .556 winning percentage and a Wild Card invite to Philly.

A Wild Card finish this season could be possible but for the 5 or more contenders. At this point, based upon winning percentage, you can ID the Marlins (don’t laff), Braves (just swept the Brewers 4 in Atlanta), Reds (2010 Division Champs), and Giants (just World Champs). Then add the current division leaders – Phillies, Cards and Rockies. That’s 8 clubs including the Brewers.

That’s crowded. OK. Forget the Wild Card. Back to winning the division.

The Brewers are just 5 games behind the division lead! Sure, they are barely ahead of the Astros and have to climb over the Cubs, Pirates and Reds to get to the Cardinals. They won’t be in a two-team race for a month like the 1951 Giants and Dodgers (or even the Giants and Padres).  

But they do visit St. Louis this weekend for 3 games. Despite losing 6 in a row against the Astros and Braves, the Crew could turn it around. They might collect some two-out hits. Some one other than Braun and Fielder might drive in a run. May be none of them won’t get caught on the bases, booting the ball or throwing to the wrong base. Perhaps their bullpen won’t melt down. Maybe they can turn it around.

Forget the records and play. May be they can get 2 of 3.

It’s baseball. There are 131 games left. It’s a long season……