11th and Washington

11th and Washington: March 2005

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Zito shoots

SI.com has a great photo essay shot by A's pitcher Barry Zito. The guy's got an eye for it.

I wonder if we'll eventually see some from the visit to Dairy Queen.

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Wednesday, March 23, 2005


I've wanted to stay away from commenting on this whole steroids issue. I'm not trying to ignore it and think that it will go away, because it clearly won't. But I felt I didn't have much to say that wasn't already being thrown about, and that's still probably the case. But on the heels of last week's congressional hearing, it's taken a new turn.

First, there was the delicious sight of Bud Selig squirming and Donald Fehr sounding simply sleazy and heartless. "Progressive punishment?" God. The best thing that came out of the D.C. grandstanding was the exposure of the true wording of baseball's supposedly "tougher" steroid policy.

As for the players, it was shameful on both sides of the photographers' pit. The politicians fawned over the players and acted like they'd invited their athletic heroes into their homes and were amazed by their mere presence. For the athletes' part, they backtracked on everything they've said and done in the past few weeks or years. Jose Canseco backed off everything he's ever said or written about steroids and even Curt Schilling -- perhaps the biggest politician in the MLB players' association -- backtracked from what he's been saying for months about steroids.

But the saddest sights were Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. As Tom Verducci said, here's a guy who felt free and comfortable talking in English since the 1998 home run chase, and now he doesn't even open his mouth in his own defense? I have yet to see a news clip since that shows Sosa saying anything. He looks like a mentally challenged hulk sitting there in his suit while his gray-haired lawyer serves as his mouthpiece. And, of course, everyone's already pointed out his use of the word "illegal" when saying he'd never used "illegal drugs."

As for McGwire, a player I once enjoyed to watch and marvel over, it was clearly a sad scene -- this once Paul Bunyan-esque slugger now appearing smaller, his face markedly clearer, dressed up (it seemed) in grandpa's reading glasses. All he had to do was come out and say it, say he never used steroids, and he'd be validated. But he didn't, probably because he couldn't, and now everyone -- Buster Olney, Jayson Stark, the news articles have jumped on the player everyone praised six summers ago.

Except one. Interestingly, Ben McGrath's "Talk of the Town" piece in The New Yorker is the one column I've seen that's portrayed McGwire in a positive light. But as Verducci said, hasn't McGwire learned the importance of history, of learning from the past? Clearly, we won't be learning from him.

* * *

Now what to make of Barry Bonds? Which is the act? His brash bravado during his press conference when he arrived in spring training? Or his quiet, humble, whimpering sob story yesterday? If not somewhere in between, I am going with history here and leaning toward the former. Will Bonds miss the entire season? Doubtful. Is he really done? Probably not. He's frustrated. True, he has been beaten down by allegations and accusations, but much of it he's brought upon himself. He berates the media, the sportswriters for bringing him to this point, but he had a choice in how he dealt with the reporters who, for the most part, were simply doing their jobs. He hasn't been cordial with any of them, or with many fans.

Blaming the writers for his woes, for his family's "pain," is weak. It's part of your job, your privileged career, that you have to live with. With McGwire's Hall of Fame resume clearly tarnished, in the minds of many, what will we make of Bonds'? Eddie Murray was known to be surly with the press, but he had little trouble getting to Cooperstown. Bonds shouldn't either, just because -- steroids or not -- his numbers are so eye-popping.

I, for one, won't be counting the days until Bonds is back on the field. I'll monitor his rehab, if only because of the fantasy baseball implications. But if he's hit his last home run, or if he comes back but still falls short of Hank Aaron's respectable 755, baseball will be better off. If not, if he gets healthy and passes Babe Ruth this year and Aaron in 2006, it will be a fitting mark on Selig's tenure -- perhaps his lasting impression. Baseball's greatest record, its home run crown, will be shrouded in a fog of suspicion, forever.

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Thursday, March 17, 2005

Embedded baseball writing

Tom Verducci's outstanding first-person account of his five days spent as a player with the Toronto Blue Jays is a fascinating look into a major-league clubhouse. Spring training is definitely the time to do it. Had he managed to gain access for five days during the season in April (which, of course, wouldn't happen because those games count), his days would've been filled with milling around hotels, malls and playing video games.

Reading the article, which was essentially a journal of his week in Dunedin, in the magazine, took me back to 2001, when I covered the Lakewood BlueClaws. The Phillies and the BlueClaws gave me permission to join the club on a road trip for a feature article in the newspaper. Ideally, I would've gone on a slightly longer trip, one that took us to two cities in the South Atlantic League, but my duties in the office required me to choose a four-day, down-and-back trek to Greensboro, N.C. So on the last game of a homestand, I arrived at the ballpark with my computer, as usual, but also with a duffel bag for the trip. We left after the game, arriving at the Greensboro hotel sometime in the late morning. I quickly fell into the routine. Like Verducci with the Blue Jays, I found the BlueClaws players to be very accommodating. They were a bit more relaxed around me after that trip, talking more freely and openly after games and for stories. Interviews were no longer like pulling teeth, answers did not have to be coaxed out of them.

The night before we arrived, rain had soaked the field at 80-year-old War Memorial Stadium. It's so old that the war it refers to is World War I. The field has horrible drainage, so despite a hot, sunny August day, that night's game was postponed because the field was too soggy. With idle time, many of the players (as well as myself, the broadcaster, Neil Solondz, and the strength coach, who I spent most of my time with) navigated the overpass and the four-lane highway to get to a Best Buy visible from the hotel parking lot. On the way back, Neil, hitting coach Jeff Manto and I played a round of miniature golf.

I'd ride the bus to the ballpark with the players and was under even more deadline pressure to file my game stories. Once the final out was made, I'd already have a lede written up because then I had to hustle down to the cramped visitors' clubhouse down the right-field line, get the comments I needed, and zip back up to the press box to file my story before the bus left to return to the hotel.

One morning, I joined the workout group on a trip to a local gym and found myself riding a stationary bike in a line with Manto (who was the acting manager for the trip, with skipper Greg Legg having used these four days for his vacation that the Phillies allow each minor-league instructor to take during the season), the bus driver and several Greensboro residents.

The trip home was much like the ride down, leaving after the game and driving through the night, arriving back at the ballpark at 7:30 in the morning. Everyone then went home for a few hours' sleep before returning for that night's game.

I'll have to dig through my old disks to see if I have the original story to post here. If I do, it's probably the unedited version.

* * *

I also came across my scorebook from the 2002 BlueClaws season, when they hosted the South Atlantic League All-Star Game. Curious, I opened it up to see who played in that low-Class A midsummer classic. I remembered several names, but was surprised to be reminded of another.

The hometown BlueClaws featured Ryan Howard, now one of the Phillies' top prospects and the guy who hit 48 home runs at three levels last year. Also starting for the Northern Division was second baseman Jeff Keppinger, then with Pittsburgh's Hickory affiliate but now in the Mets' organization, and Jose Bautista, now the Pirates' starting second baseman. He played third back then for Hickory.

The Southern Division started Dodgers farmhand Victor Diaz at third; in two weeks he could find himself the Mets' starting right fielder if Mike Cameron isn't ready. The Mets featured three starters and four all-stars overall that year. Outfielder Angel Pagan was set to start in center and lead off, but was promoted days before the game. Catcher Justin Huber did get the start, but was traded last summer to the Royals. In left field was Jeff Duncan, who's since reached the big club.

But the name I'd forgotten was one I became aware of only a week or so before the game, when the all-star teams were announced. I hadn't pegged him as a prospect until then and I remember wondering just how long it might take this guy to get to the big leagues. He didn't start the game, but after two at bats by starting DH Scott Thorman of Macon, David Wright pinch-hit. He went 0-for-2 in the game, but 25 months later he made his major-league debut with the Mets.

Other SAL All-Stars of 2002 who have reached the majors include Willy Taveras of the Astros and Chris Young of the Rangers, who allowed the only hit in the game to the South (yes, it was a no-hitter until the eighth) but was credited with the win when the North scored three runs in the bottom of the inning.

It's a little surprising that, just two seasons later, I'm able to name so many players from low Class A who have already reached the majors. The first player from the SAL in 2001-02 who got to the bigs, I believe, was Houston reliever Mike Gallo. Now the all-stars are getting there. A few more should make it in the next year or two, but after that, if they're not there already, the dream is pretty much over.

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Thursday, March 03, 2005

Minaya knows when to let go

This week's New York magazine has a great article on Omar Minaya and the Mets. It delves into Minaya's professional history and his plan of action after returning to the Mets at GM back in September.

I took particular note to the paragraphs that talked about Al Leiter's departure. I'd heard a lot before, from Leiter's 20-minute-plus discussion with Steve Somers on WFAN back in December to various articles -- particularly in today's Daily News, where Leiter blames his departure, in part, on "Mike & The Mad Dog" on FAN. I mean, c'mon, Al. Please.

Then, on Michael Kay's show on the way home tonight, a caller talked about the running back situation with the Jets and compared it to the Knicks in 1994 with Patrick Ewing. This caller felt that the move 11 years ago would've been to trade Ewing when they could've gotten several top players and/or first-round picks in return. He wondered if maybe the Jets should've done the same -- trade Curtis Martin, last season's NFL rushing leader, for a player to fill a need and a first-round pick and a later-round pick or two. Promote the promising Lamont Jordan to starting running back. Kay agreed he had a point, adding that he felt the downfall of the Boston Celtics was their determination to hold onto the past and not cutting ties with Larry Bird, Robert Parrish and Kevin McHale when they could no longer carry the team deep into the playoffs.

Minaya's doing what the Jets, Knicks and Celtics probably should have done. He's said goodbye to 39-year-old Al Leiter and 57-year-old John Franco, two longtime Mets who deserve a special place in fans' hearts, but not on the roster anymore. It won't surprise me if he does the same this offseason with Tom Glavine and Mike Piazza, unless, of course, the right deal comes up in July. It might be tough to replace Piazza with anything more than a weak-bat, strong-glove kind of backstop, but a good defensive catcher presumably will be the final piece needed to shore up the defense up the middle. Sign Charles Johnson for a year, finally make that trade involving Mike Cameron or Cliff Floyd, and use the money for a big bat in the outfield. Next winter, we should see Brian Giles and Lance Berkman on the market.

Piazza has long been my favorite Met since I looked up at the bar TV at Craigville Pizza and Mexican in Hyannisport, Massachusetts, and saw the trade announced on SportsCenter. But now there's David Wright, Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran. There's Pedro and Kris Benson and you just can't have a 37-year-old catcher as the heart of your order in the National League and expect to have a shot at going far into October. Come November, I'll be ready to let go. He's done enough to have that interlocking "NY" on his Cooperstown plaque in seven or eight years.

March is here. Exhibition games have begun, tickets to six Mets games and a Giants game are already in my possession, with more untold games to plan. Opening Day is four weeks from Monday.

It just can't go by fast enough.

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