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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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.

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.

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.

It could have been one of the worst Mondays in a long time. But, in the end it was fantastic, memorable.

The Brewers were swept by the Washington Nationals over the weekend in DC. The Nat’s had been 5-7. What’s worse the Brewers had won 7 of 9 after starting the season getting swept by the Reds. 

Sure, it was only 15 games of 162. But it was a bad start. And, the Crew would be starting a 3-game series with Philadelphia Phillies, the odds-on favorite to get to the Series. The year wasn’t going to collapse on April 18th, right?

I was mulling the question during the 10 am Water Aerobics class at the Wisconsin Athletic Club. Water aerobics hadn’t been my idea. For a couple of reasons, I have the hips of a 12-year old collie. Kathleen had demanded I go.

The first time I attended a session I looked around the lobby and thought “Not bad. A group of 60-year old guys attempting to stay in shape.” Then I realized these guys were dropping off their 80-year old mothers.

I changed my focus to the fact Kate and I had sent out our taxes over the weekend. That was great. We signed the return with 3 days to go. Good thing. It was snowing.

It’s Monday morning. The Brewers had been swept by Washington. I was bobbing in a pool with octogenarian to the beat of disco. I had just sent a check to the Feds. It was snowing.

Brutal. And then, the most fabulous thing in the world happened.    

Kathleen, my wife and partner, won the Pulitzer Prize for Journalism in the category of “Explanatory” for a series covering treatment of a little boy, Nic, and DNA sequencing. Kate was one of the reporters and photographers who had followed Nic’s challenges over 12 months. It is an incredible story. And Kate and her colleagues got it all down. You can read the series – “One in a Billion” – at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (www.jsonline.com).

It was a most beautiful day. Like no other.

St. Louis Cardinal outfielder Albert Pujols is off to a terrible start for the 2011 season. And it couldn’t be any better for this baseball fan.

The 31-year old Pujols is the best player in Major League Baseball. And he’s got the statistics to prove it. In his 10-year career Pujols has produced a batting average of .331, 409 home runs, and 1231 runs-batted-in. He has 3 Most Valuable Player Awards and 4 Silver Slugger Awards. He received the 2010 Golden Glove Award as best fielder at his position. He is going to the Hall of Fame and be the greatest ever.

But he’s not worth the money he is asking the Cards to pay over the next 10 years. His current contract – expiring this year – pays Pujols $111 over 8 years. He’s seeking a new contract worth $300 million over 10 years!

Those terms would be bad for baseball. Let’s respond to those who think the Cards should pony up:

1. The Cards have a chance to “lock” him up.   He’s 31. If they sign him for 10 years, what happens when at 36-year old he’s batting .275? There won’t be a designated hitter in the NL (at least I hope not).

2. Won’t his productivity just continue? Is he going to hit 50 HR this year? Next year? Five years from now? No.

3. Hasn’t he been a model citizen, an example for kids, and a credit to the game? Yes, but I assume he would be all those things at $111. What, he’s a better person at $300 million?

4. A high tide will float all boats. Won’t the players benefit from Pujols contract? Some. Pujols’ contract might be a measure/a target for the elite players. But, it could cap the amount available for average players. The Union may have a problem.

5. Shouldn’t he be able to get whatever he can? Sure. And in the course of doing so he could wound the game. How much is enough?

Pujols might find out there are few takers. Only a few clubs could consider a deal that size. The Red Sox, Yanks and Phils are set. The Cubs would have the need and the cash. They wouldn’t be that foolish would they? Hmmm… 

Here’s hoping he hit .275.