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.

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

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.

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.

The Mid Summer Classic is upon us. It’s time for MLB to truck out the best of the game – the All Stars. It’s a time to recognize and enjoy player performance. And it’s changed a lot.

I was lucky to go to the 1964 All Star Game. Dad had gotten tickets and drove us off from New Jersey to Flushing Meadows. In my 10-year old existence family road trips had included the Hamptons and the Jersey Shore. Now there was Flushing. It could be land of  the ’64 Worlds Fair and the All-Star Game, but it was Flushing.    

Maybe Robert Moses liked Shea Stadium. I never did. Of course it couldn’t compare to the “House that Ruth Built.” But having also been to the Polo Grounds, Shea just didn’t feel like a ball park. Maybe it was just because I was 10 and didn’t truly appreciate what architecture, concrete and steel could create.

There wasn’t an All-Star “Festival.” There was the game. The game was in the afternoon.

There was no free agency, no interleague play. Players could be ID’d by team and league. And while they competed to get to the Series, they played together against the other side. Bragging rights.  

There was no ESPN-produced “Home Run Derby.”

There was batting practice. That was batting practice with the Mick, Harmon Killebrew,  and Al Kaline. Not bad. But consider the NL: Mays, Aaron, Clemente and Stargell. And the Nationals had Cepeda, Groat, Flood, Mazeroski, Williams and White. Is that six Hall of Fame members?

A youthful Joe Torre played for Milwaukee (the Brewers have 3: Braun, Fielder and Weeks). Ever the clever youngster I quipped, “Hey, if Joe Torre was afraid they could call him ‘Chicken Catcher Torre’.” Rimshot. Two hours in the car was tough on Dad and Bill.

Players wore their own uniforms in 1964. If you lived in the NYC metro that was no big deal. Having both the Yanks and Mets meant all of the visiting uni’s were coming through town. But for some fans it was part of the experience.

In fact, during BP I asked which team had the bright red caps. They weren’t the Reds. Dad explained the Cardinals wore red hats at home and blue on the road. The NL was the home team so the Cards would wear red ones. 

Fans didn’t vote to select the rosters. And there were plenty of Cardinals in the NL roster. They had 4 of the 24 players for 12 NL teams. The Cardinals had position players White, Groat, Boyer, and Flood.

Johnny Callison was the only everyday player from Philly despite a huge lead in the National.

The leagues’ managers were selected by their team’s records at the break. Gene Mauch was leading his Phils. The White Sox’ Lopez would managed the American League.

I loved every moment, every play. My guy, Brooks Robinson, got extra bases despite Clemente’s rifle. The crowd roared when the Mets’ young Ron Hunt singled to be met at first by coach Casey Stengel.

And at the end, my American League was set to finish off the National, 4-3. Then with runners on base Yankees first baseman Joe Pepitone (that’s right, Joe Pepitone) threw the ball away tying the game 4-4. With two on, the Americans called on Boston’s Dick “the Monster” Radatz. Callison was at the plate. The Monster fired and Callison hit a bomb into Flushing Meadows.

NL 7, AL 4. And the National League players ran to the plate and await Callison.

I had seen the best. That’s what an All Star Game is intended to be. That’s what an All Star Game should be.

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.

I don’t want to root for the Red Sox. Just the name makes me queezy. Sure, I will worrying about their prospects. But, frankly, I have no choice.

The Tosa little league season was about to begin. Andrew and I had gone on the web site when rosters were first posted. He was nervous wondering who had picked him, whether friends would be on his team, how the uni’s would look, and what number  he might wear. They are the concerns of many 11-year olds player.

We were scrolling the list for each team. “Hey, there’s Mathew’s team – the Tigers.” At that moment I noticed all of the teams represented an American League club. He had graduated from the “Minors.” I got it. Dad was a little slow on the up-take. Rays…..A’s…..White Sox…..Rangers…..             

How many of the kids would be enthusiastic starting the season with “Orioles” or “Mariners” on their chests. “Yankees” rolled by. Too bad. My team.

And there it was: Red Sox.  Andrew Nicol will play for the Red Sox.

I don’t like the Boston Red Sox. I have never liked the Boston Red Sox. Growing up in northeast Jersey I had no time for the Boston Red Sox. 

“Look, I’m on the Red Sox!” “That’s great,” I faked. “May be I’ll get ‘8’ like Yaz.” “Cool.” I was trying to sound excited. “Or Pedroia.” Sure. There have to be enough miscreants in the Boston clubhouse to cover uni’s for 13 kids. Or how about Manny? Frank Malzone?

Andrew sensed my mood. “It is just a uniform, Dad. We don’t get real ones. I’m sure we’ll get a red jersey and red cap.” He was assuring me that it was going to be all right. What was the matter with me?

“Of course this year I have to root for the Boston Red Sox because my team is the Red Sox.”

He’s out of the Will.