At The Ballyard ... with Steve Weissman

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Selig Launches Drug Probe: Sings the Right Song but Sounds the Wrong Notes

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig today announced that MLB will launch a formal investigation into the past use of performance-enhancing drugs by major league players. Former Senator George Mitchell will head the effort, which apparently was catalyzed by the new book Game of Shadows, which details alleged steroid use by San Francisco Giants’ slugger Barry Bonds, among others.

Selig’s announcement was prefaced by a series of statements that seemed designed to extract teeth from the probe even as it gets underway. The likelihood that players may find themselves in the position of having to incriminate themselves, the inability of MLB to offer legal immunity to anyone who cooperates, and the risk of running afoul of an ongoing grand jury proceeding all were cited as possible limitations on the effort. While all of this is strictly true, one was left with the distinct impression that MLB already has prepared its lifeboats should it find itself in deeper water than anticipated.

This sense of tentativeness was only reinforced by the commissioner’s reading of baseball’s roll of anti-drug measures dating back to 1994, and his recounting of Mitchell’s qualification to lead the investigation. No doubt, Selig’s intention was to impart a suitable sense of seriousness about, and commitment to, the task at hand. But it left this observer feeling he simply protesteth too much, and it certainly wasn’t helpful to have been reminded that baseball is in this mess even after a decade’s worth of his best intentions and efforts to clean it up.

Perhaps most telling was Selig’s comment that “the unique circumstances surrounding BALCO [the organization through which Bonds is said to have received his substances], and the evidence revealed in a recently published book, have convinced me that Major League Baseball must undertake this investigation.” This suggests that had there been no book, there would be no investigation. And this worries me, for he can’t possibly believe that all the newspaper columns, talkradio commentary, and blog entries on the subject would simply have then petered out, taking him off the hook in the process. Or can he?

The point the commissioner seems to have missed is that practically everyone who loves the game is on his side in terms of wanting to restore the luster to baseball’s reputation, and they already know it’s not going to be easy. But rather than tap into this vein of shared emotion, Selig painstakingly pointed out why the findings could turn out to be incomplete, over-explained the background and context of the investigation and its principals, and intimated that for all the history – including an uncomfortable appearance before Congress – he’s still only reacting to outside stimuli. In so doing, he’s set the effort up to be second-guessed even if names actually do get named. And that may be the greatest shame of all: to finally get to the bottom of this ugly thing and to have no one then believe it.

Monday, March 27, 2006

BoSox Talent Breeds Certain Regret

– No Room on the Roster for Some Quality Guys –

Young people take note: the Boston Red Sox were not always so talent-rich, and did not always contend for the postseason. In 1997, for instance, the club finished below .500 and featured such luminaries as Jeff Frye and Darren Bragg in the starting lineup. Yes, Nomar Garciaparra and Mo Vaughn hit 65 home runs between them, but that was about it for offense, and with a team ERA of 4.87, the Sox were lucky to finish two games ahead of the last-place Toronto Blue Jays.

Today, of course, things are quite different, as there are All Stars and Gold Glovers at nearly every turn, and it is a given that the Sox will make a run for a playoff spot. The shame of this, though, is that there is no longer room for the kind of players the Sox once would have paid a king’s ransom to get, and we ache for those players even as we celebrate the circumstances that make them expendable.

Tony Graffanino and Dustan Mohr are just two examples – Bronson Arroyo makes three. They are quality people and solid performers, and we dearly wish we could keep them. But there can be only 25 players on the big-league roster, and thanks to the trade for Mark Loretta, Graffanino was just placed on revocable waivers (meaning that the Sox can withdraw him from the list should another team make a claim, theoretically setting the stage for a trade). Meanwhile, Wily Mo Pena was acquired in a trade for Arroyo, and Mohr’s chances of making the team were instantly diminished as a result.

Forget the spring training numbers, which aren’t great for Graffanino and are stellar for Mohr: both of these guys are into the game, they hustle, they make plays, and they don’t complain. For them, it’s just too bad that the Sox are as loaded as they are, though for fans, this is just the sort of situation we once prayed for.

As this season begins, wish Graffanino well and hope he finds a situation to which he can bring the same positive energy and attitude that helped push the Sox into the playoffs last year. Root for Mohr to find a place in which he can continue to shine and be recognized accordingly. But most of all, keep your fingers crossed that injuries or personal distractions don’t leave us wishing these players were still here, and leave us seeking a latter-day Mike Benjamin as a replacement.

Monday, March 20, 2006

BoSox Trade Innings for Homers

– Arroyo to Reds for Pena Leaves Sox Fans Feeling Conflicted –

The Boston Red Sox today traded pitcher Bronson Arroyo and a satchel of cash (thought to total $1.5 million) for Cincinnati Reds outfielder Wily Mo Pena*, and the debate over the merits of the deal began almost immediately.

People who believe a team can’t ever have enough pitching are wholly puzzled by the transaction, while those who believe the Sox had too many starters find it to be entirely sensible. My problem is that I hold opinions on both sides of this particular logical fence, and it took me nearly the entire construction-tortured ride back from Cape Cod this afternoon to decide that I like the move more than I don’t.

Critics are pointing to Arroyo’s durability and flexibility, and faintly accuse the Red Sox of behaving in bad faith given the pitcher’s recent re-signing for a hefty home-town discount. However, the club specifically made no promises concerning Arroyo’s tradability – a fact his agent first stressed privately with his client and then later with the media – and it does have an uncharacteristically (for the Sox) large number of quality arms in the high minors (e.g., Delcarmen, Lester, Hansen). So even if Arroyo’s presence is missed, I suspect it will be more than suitably covered at least by the All Star break, and certainly next year.

Detractors also are citing Pena’s frighteningly high strikeout rate (one every 2.89 at bats in ’04 and ’05 combined) and lack of walks (only 42 for the period). However, let’s not forget that the Sox won a World Series with Mark Bellhorn in the lineup, and all he did was put up numbers for strikeouts (one every 2.82 at bats over the past two years) and walks (52 times over that span) that nearly mirror Pena’s. So it’s a wash in that regard, with a tip toward Pena given his decided advantage in home runs (45 to 25 in total).

I love what Arroyo has brought to the Red Sox in terms of both pitching and personality, and I certainly would have liked to see him remain with the team for at least one of the three years covered by his new contract. But it is certainly true that the Sox could use some additional power to complement Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz, and since you have to give something to get something, this may well be the best way to fill the immediate need without sacrificing the future possibilities.

* This is not a typo: Wily Mo spells his name with one "L" in the same way former Sox manager Jimy Williams used only one "M." Not what the commissioner meant by "contraction," I'm sure!

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

A Cape League Postcard from Phillies Camp

Had a few down hours during a business trip to Clearwater last week and spent the day at the Phillies’ minor league facility, where I was able to visit with a few of the players I profiled in my book about the Cape Cod League.

It was a typically gorgeous Florida day, and I was pleased to discover that every player wore a uniform shirt with his name on the back. This made it easy to determine who was who, and thus to identify which workout group – the members of which were listed on a handy information sheet – was on which practice diamond. But before I could even choose a likely vantage point, the lunch bell rang, and practically every player in camp paraded past me on their way inside to eat.

Pitcher Brett Harker spied me almost right away and pointed me to fellow moundsman and group-mate Justin Blaine, who had played with Harker with the Y-D Red Sox. Shortly thereafter, I found third-baseman Mike Costanzo limbering up for his intrasquad game – those of you who have read the book will remember that Costanzo was a one-man gang as he pitched and hit his Hyannis Mets into the playoffs. It was hard to tell who got a bigger kick out of our little reunion: the players or me.

My only “whiff” came in the person of Sean Gamble, another Y-D alum, who was my son’s coach in the week-long baseball clinic the club runs (as do all the CCBL teams). I spied him in the batting cage but was unable to catch up with him afterwards. Still, it was great fun to see him, and the others, in their pro uniforms.

Harker, Blaine, and Costanzo all had productive outings in their practice games, which unfortunately for me were on two different diamonds and had me running back and forth for two hours in an effort to see them all perform. Harker followed Blaine to close out their game against Lehigh Valley College, and Costanzo homered in his intrasquad contest.

A large part of the fun was hearing other players comment on the action as they came out of the games themselves. Harker’s curveball, for instance, was described as being “filthy,” but the most notable moment undoubtedly occurred when one hitter caught a high fastball flush and sent it whistling right back through the box. Remember the old cartoons in which Charlie Brown flips over backwards and his shoes and socks fly off? Well, then you get the idea! Fortunately, no damage was done, and the game continued.

After the games and follow-on conditioning exercises were completed, I sat down with ‘my’ three guys, and they all commented on the high level of play they are finding in the minors. Ironically, they all had said much the same thing upon their arrival on the Cape, right down to the fact that they “face a Number One pitcher every day.” To me, though, the difference isn’t really about raw physical skill; instead, I sensed it more in the form of a mercenary competition that exists between players. Sure, they root for their friends and teammates to succeed – they’re good guys, and they’re all in it together. But I suspect that, someplace deep down, they secretly hope for some measure of failure as well: not enough to derail a career, but just enough to open the door for them to step up and rise through the system as a result.

How high these former Cape Leaguers go remains to be seen, of course, and they are – as am I – looking forward to their first full season as professionals. (All three spent 2005 in the short-season New York-Penn League.) Here’s hoping they weather their trials well, avoid injury, and are back in Clearwater next year at the next level up!

Friday, March 10, 2006

Accounting for Victory

-- A Stab at the '06 Red Sox Win Total --

On the Sports Exchange at WATD radio last week, I was asked how many victories I thought Curt Schilling will earn for Red Sox this year. This weekend’s news that David Wells apparently now wants to remain with the team only puts a fine edge on this question, for his staying means the Sox truly do have an overabundance of quality starting pitchers in camp.

Just for grins, let’s do some accounting and see how many victories this cache of arms just may give the club before the season ends. A few assumptions before we begin:

- Schilling’s health holds up and he is close to being as good as he says will be
- Beckett performs as well as he did last year
- Wells spends some time on the DL, but when on the mound, he’s his usual steady self
- Wakefield does what Wakefield does
- Arroyo, Clement, and Papelbon each spend time in the bullpen, and one of them (likely Clement) is traded

OK? Here goes:

Pitcher / No. of Wins
Schilling - 17
Beckett - 17
Wells - 13
Wakefield - 14
Arroyo/Clement/Papelbon – 29
Bullpen - 8

That’s 98 wins, and presuming the Sox do anything more than split against their division, that ought to be enough for a playoff berth. However, the margin of error is considerably smaller than it has been, as the Blue Jays have made significant improvements (in theory, anyway) and are poised to displace the Sox as runners-up to the Yankees. As is always the case, it will be pitching and defense that will tell the tale, and it will be nice to root for a Home Towne Team that for once has both.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

If True, New Book on Bonds Seals His Fate

– Note to MLB: Do Nothing; Let History be His Judge –

There will be so much written and said about Barry Bonds in the days and weeks ahead that I’ll try to limit my own commentary on the subject to these few words:

If even half of what’s written in the upcoming a new book Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, BALCO, and the Steroids Scandal that Rocked Professional Sports is true, Bonds will be revealed as a liar and a cheat, and will forever be the poster child for all that was wrong with major league baseball in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Written by San Francisco Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, and excerpted in this week’s Sports Illustrated, the book tells a sorry tale that would make a compelling motion picture if only it ended happily. It begins, the authors say, with Bonds coveting the attention that was lavished on Mark McGwire the year (1998) McGwire broke Roger Maris’ single-season home run record. Of course, Bonds already was a force in his own right (.290 career batting average, 411 home runs, eight Gold Gloves, three MVPs), but he apparently decided to hurry the process of super-stardom along and jumped on the bandwagon of performance-enhancing drugs.

There’s no doubt that Bonds has been a dominant force ever since. Unfortunately, his ‘success’ evidently has taken the usual terrible toll associated with steroid use: changes in physical aspect and well-being, tendencies toward dramatic mood swings and aggression, etc. Bonds, as you know, has denied using drugs (at least knowingly) all along, and now it appears his reputation as a game-breaker – the reason he chose this path in the first place – is about to be utterly and irretrievably destroyed.

The tragedy in all this is the fact that he likely would have achieved the status he obviously craved without the artificial assistance – unlike, say Sammy Sosa, who is under the same cloud of suspicion but didn’t have the same credentials at the similar midpoint of his career. Sure, it would have taken him longer to get there. But even he had to know that a day of reckoning eventually would dawn for drug users and abusers, and that he’d be better off being indisputably clean when that day came.

What’s to be done now is a question largely without answer. Bonds could do everyone a favor by using his bad knees as a cover and simply retiring. My guess is that he probably won’t, to his shame and disgrace, at least until he passes Babe Ruth on the all-time home run list. Instead, it will be up to baseball to make a decision, and after much soul-searching, my recommendation is that the game’s powers-that-be do nothing.

Based on what I have read and observed, I have respect for neither the decisions Bonds has apparently made nor for him as a player. Had I a vote for the Hall of Fame, I’d give it to Rafael Landestoy before I used it on Bonds. And I may yet send a sympathy card to Willie Mays, who must be mortified by his godson’s behavior. So please do not construe my stance as being an endorsement in any way of what Bonds has done.

But the simple fact is that 40 years from now, the emotion surrounding the current controversy will be forgotten in the same way the upset surrounding the 1919 World Series fix has long since been left behind. Taking this emotion out of the equation now leaves me on the side of letting history be Bonds’ judge rather than actively deciding to expunge him from the record book.

Let it be known that he hit more home runs in a single season than anyone else, just as it is known that the Cincinnati Reds won that long-ago Fall Classic. There’s no need for an asterisk, or for any lingering angst: let there be only historical fact, the acknowledgement that something went terribly wrong, and that corrective action was taken. For all our current outrage, marginalizing Bonds in this way may be the best we can hope for as an outcome, and the worst he could imagine given his thirst for fame. And from where I sit, that’s not a bad way to put the whole mess behind us.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Thoughts Clogging the Cranial Vent

The U.S. entry in the World Baseball Classic starts play today at 4pm EST, when it takes on the team from Mexico. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the WBC is how non-U.S. centered the tournament really is. As Americans, we’ve grown used to having world and sporting events revolve around us; the WBC, however, is aimed at audiences elsewhere, and it was refreshing, and a bit disconcerting, to have the Pool A games in Asia start in the wee hours of the morning here in the U.S. This, to me, is a good thing, and it is absolutely necessary if baseball is to become any kind of global force. With that in mind, I’m keen to see what will happen should the American team find itself in a tight contest, or even lose a game. We think of baseball as being ours, but few of its dominant stars are actually American, and it may take a serious challenge in a tournament such as this to wake us up to this fact.

The Boston Herald today speculates that the Red Sox may go north with only 10 pitchers instead of the usual 11, or even 12. The Sox have a couple of off days in their early-season schedule that makes such a decision feasible. Making this choice also allows them to easily carry Rule 5 draftee Adam Stern without having to sacrifice someone else to make room for him. (Stern must spend the first 17 days of the schedule on the major league roster or be offered back to the Atlanta Braves, from whence he came.) What’s funny is that, not so long ago, teams used to carry only 10 pitchers as a matter of course: back then, four-man rotations were the norm, and being in the bullpen generally meant you weren’t good enough to start. Ah, well: how the times have changed!

Read absolutely nothing into Josh Beckett’s Red Sox debut performance yesterday vs. the Devil Rays. Yes, he surrendered two first-inning home runs and left after three innings trailing 5-0. But this is the time of year pitchers are more concerned with the feel of certain pitches than with getting batters out, and it is not unusual for them to deviate from their usual strategies, especially in these early days. Think of Ft. Myers as being similar to Las Vegas in that what happens here, stays here, and has no impact on what happens at home.

We conclude with a moment of silence to mark the passing of Hall of Fame and Twins outfielder Kirby Puckett, who died yesterday following a stroke at the too-young age of 45. No one had more fun playing major league baseball than he did, and his joy brought a lightness to the game that too often goes missing.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Boomer’s Back, and It’s Like He Never Left

David Wells yesterday surprised and delighted Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein by announcing he had changed his mind about wanting to be traded closer to his West Coast home. “Plan on me going north,” he is reported to have said. “I want to stay. I think it will be fine.”

While hardly a ringing endorsement, Wells’ statement and followup comments suggest the veteran lefthander has come to realize several important truths:

• The Sox and the Padres (the team in his home town) really don’t match up well as trading partners, which, of course, is what both clubs have been saying all along.

• The Sox are greatly improved over last year – potentially, anyway – and are in a terrific position to go far into the post-season.

• The passion of Red Sox Nation is a good thing, even if it does impinge on his wholly reasonable desire to be able to enjoy Boston life without being bothered everywhere he goes.

• He has indicated that he probably is going to retire at the end of this season, and that his wife supports the decision to finish up here in the East.

As a matter of practical fact, Wells’ change of heart really changes nothing about his situation: he was, and remains, under contract to the Red Sox until the end of this season, and the Sox were, and are, under no obligation either to trade or to keep him. But it is a major positive to hear him say that he’s more comfortable with the idea of staying, and as fans, we should be thrilled indeed by his change of heart. For like him or not, he brings a stability, a depth of experience, and a left-handedness that only strengthen the Sox rotation.

Wells himself may have said it best. “If you're going to go out on top, you might as well do it with a team that you feel good with,” he said. “And this is it.”

Say a prayer for former Twins star and Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett, who suffered a stroke this weekend at the young age of 45.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Manny – Happy? – Returns

Red Sox left fielder Manny Ramirez arrived at training camp at 9:01 this morning, placing him either on time, a week late, or one minute behind schedule, depending upon your perspective. Whether he’s happy to be there remains to be seen, as does whether he will leave camp tomorrow to join the Dominican Republic’s entry in the World Baseball Classic. For now, though, Ramirez at least is present and accounted for, perhaps removing one nonsensical ‘controversy’ from the top tier of public consciousness and hopefully allowing us to concentrate on more pithy issues (irony alert!) like when David Wells will speak to the media, or who the backup catcher will be.

[Update: Ramirez spoke briefly with the media shortly after his arrival, and confirmed he would not be playing in the WBC. He also was quoted as saying, apparently referring to his upcoming season with the Red Sox, that "I'm going to go out and perform, whether I like it or not.'' So it would seem issues still linger on Planet Manny, and the silliness is destined to continue.]