11th and Washington

11th and Washington: June 2006

Monday, June 26, 2006

Old home week for some Mets

The Mets seem to be on a reunion tour, or a You Can Go Home Again tour. Bon Jovi could sponsor it.

First, it was Carlos Delgado in Toronto, where he went 3-for-11 with two runs, a double and an RBI in the Mets' three-game series at the Rogers Centre.

Now it's on to Boston, where Pedro Martinez will pitch on Wednesday, in an appearance he doesn't want to make.

Then, on Friday, they'll send Orlando Hernandez to the mound at Yankee Stadium, where he's sure to get the warmest ovation for a Met in the Bronx since interleague play began in 1997.

John Rocker just needs to shut up. Who asked him? Why is he even talking about this? Though, it does raise some questions about how professional sports leagues follow through on their fines and other punishments.

And then there's Joe Mikulik, a manager in the South Atlantic League for the Rockies' Asheville (N.C.) affiliate. He, um, got a little upset at a call on Sunday.

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Thursday, June 22, 2006

Griffey redux

Ah, you've just gotta love the anonymous hate comment.

As a sportswriter, one of the things that irked me the most was when I'd get an anonymous letter criticizing, insulting or threatening me for something I'd written in the paper -- something I'd written with my name and, sometimes, photo attached to it, but that prompted someone to write in with their own opinion and not have the courage to put his or her own name on it.

The internet, of course, is different. So many of us are posting anonymously, and replying anonymously is just much easier. But that's fine. I have to moderate my comments here because of spam, so I could have easily refused or ignored the response I got to yesterday's post about Ken Griffey Jr. skipping batting practice at Shea Stadium on Monday.

But I didn't. I didn't because I'd rather use the response to go further and to update what I initially wrote.

Perhaps "diva" was the wrong word. That term is often preceded by "demanding," so anyone tabbed a diva is assumed to be demanding. I don't think Griffey is too demanding, at least not anymore than most teams' highest paid players. So be it.

I should have also added that I've met Griffey, briefly, and I don't think he's a bad person -- and I never said he was. He's a nice family man, a player to admire for having hit 586 career home runs without any hint of suspicion that he did it on anything other than God-given ability and GNC-bought nutritional supplements. (Let's not kid ourselves -- in today's game, Babe Ruth would've been John Kruk.) I was at the press conference at the 2004 All-Star Game in which all the living members of the 500 home run club were present. To be in a small conference room at Minute Maid Park and to see Willie McCovey, Willie Mays, Barry Bonds, Frank Robinson, Mike Schmidt, Reggie Jackson and Harmon Killebrew all under one ceiling -- often scraping the ceiling, as Bonds and McCovey seemed to be -- was amazing. Griffey didn't have to be there; he'd been injured just days before and would miss the game and the Home Run Derby, but he was, and he -- like Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro -- had his children with him. It was sweet. But even then, just six years after the Great Maris Chase and three years after his retirement, I noticed that Mark McGwire seemed smaller than the last time I'd seen him in person, at Wrigley Field in May 1998. His skin -- remember how his face always seemed extremely pock-marked? -- seemed smoother. And that's when I thought hmmm...

But back to Griffey. Junior is also the face of the franchise; he has been ever since that winter day when the Mariners traded him to his hometown team. When the Reds travel the National League, fans in those cities want to see the superstars, the players they know, and Griffey is that guy on the Reds. There's a responsibility that comes with that. If he missed on-field batting practice to spend time with his father, that's nice, but I'd wager the cost of a flight from Cincinnati to New York that Griffey has it better than 99 percent of 30-something Americans who live and work hundreds or thousands of miles away from their parents. You don't think he sees his folks more often than most of us? With a private jet at his disposal, I'm sure he can have Mr. and Mrs. Griffey in the stands any night he chooses, with barely more notice than a morning phone call.

Ken Griffey Sr. was a ballplayer too, though. He should know the game. It's not like Junior had to be out there stretching with the team, but I'm sure fans would've appreciated seeing him come out from the clubhouse in time to take his round in the cage, then return to the cool comfort that is the bowels of Shea Stadium.

Monday was an historic night because Griffey tied Mike Schmidt for 11th on the all-time home run list. It wasn't a record; it wasn't even the top 10. Even if the Bonds' father-son home run record is tainted (which it certainly is), Junior's Monday homer didn't do anything more than put another notch on the family tally. Has Ken Sr. been at every game since Junior hit No. 585?

In the end, I don't think Griffey's a bad person. I never disparaged his personality or his family; I merely criticized his public profile, expressing my personal disappointment that I didn't get to see him pepper the scoreboard with home runs in batting practice before the game.

As for the comment, I'd hope most of my readers (the dozen or so that there are) will read the whole thing and not pick and choose the parts that fit their argument. Of course some New York fans -- and New Yorkers -- are mean. But broad generalizations are petty and dangerous. You don't think there are asshole fans in Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Oakland, Houston and -- yes -- Cincinnati? Does every fan in Great American Ball Park pick up his or her trash on the way out of the stadium?

Had Griffey come out for batting practice, he would've been greeted warmly by the fans who were there at that point. I spent the entire pregame period standing over the Reds dugout, and every player who emerged got a warm welcome from the dozens standing in that area. The truly boorish fans don't show up two hours before the game. Griffey didn't need to avoid the pregame fans.

As for those who come to a game to jeer the opposition, I find them to be the idiotic ones. It's a waste of money to pay ballpark prices simply to get on the case of an opposing player. Personally, I won't do it. In college, I cringed at the student section tradition of yelling, "SUCKS!" when the opposing team's starting lineup was announced at basketball games. I was at a hockey game on campus once when a fan of the visiting team berated our goalie by making comments about his mother, who had died a few years earlier. In a small arena, where everyone -- including the goalie himself and any family he did have there -- could hear, those of us near the fan in turn berated him. "Oh, I'm sorry," he said, cowardly. "I didn't know." Of course you didn't know, which is why you should keep your jeering to what happens on the ice -- or the field or the court.

So I never said anything about Griffey's family, or his role as a father and son. I was a bit shortsighted about his absence from on-field batting practice, and I regret that, but I'm not -- and you have to love the use of capitalization here (or rather, caps lock) -- "MEAN, SELFISH, RUDE."

But the two best things about anonymous hate comments are these: First, if you so choose, you can make fun of the poster all you want, because you're not hurting anyone with a public profile; it's just a faceless, nameless bloke at a keyboard, and the only one who will know it is the poster him- or herself. The second is that, by the end of their comments, they almost always turn out to be exactly what they accuse you of being.


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Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Are the Shea fans too mean for Griffey?

My gut feeling is that Ken Griffey Jr. is a prima donna. A baseball diva -- a divo, if you want to masculinize it.

I went to Monday's Mets-Reds game early to take some pictures during batting practice. I arrived at 4:30, 10 minutes before the gates open to the fans, and took a spot above the Reds dugout, on the third-base side. I was there more for a view of the Mets during their hitting session, and to avoid what I expected would be a crush of fans on the home dugout side.

My position allowed me to watch David Wright warm up at third base and gave me a perfect view of the Reds as they emerged from the clubhouse. The first thing I noticed was that players on both teams tended to wear other warmup jackets or shirts, rather than their BP jerseys. My practical side figured this might be because the other options are cooler than jerseys on a hot, humid June day, as Monday was. My cynical side figured the thinking was that the more casual fans shouting from the stands wouldn't know who they were without the names or numbers on their backs.

The Mets' Paul Lo Duca (left) and the Reds' Austin Kearns
(on the ground, stretching) and Adam Dunn (center, in black)
and several other Cincinnati players chose not to wear their
batting practice jerseys.

It worked, in some cases. When Reds first-base coach Billy Hatcher came to the top step of the dugout, the uninformed in the stands thought he was a left-handed reliever who makes his living in Colorado this season: Ray King. Unfortunately, I didn't think to take a picture of Hatcher, because if I didn't know that King was in Colorado, I might've made the same mistake myself.

So while Austin Kearns, Adam Dunn, Ryan Freel and the rest of the Reds emerged to take their cuts in the cage and pickup grounders in the infield or shag flies in the outfield, one name never popped out of the dugout, one face and its well-known smile never gave the fans a nod of the head and tip of the cap.

That would be Griffey.

Adam Dunn stands out before the game.

Ryan Freel waves hello to the fans shouting his name.

I'm guessing Griffey either had some nagging injuries and, to protect himself, he opted out of batting practice. He also could've used the first-game-of-the-series out, though that holds less water when your previous game was a Sunday afternoon home game and your travel schedule didn't necessarily involve checking into the hotel at 4 a.m. The other option is that Griffey took his pregame swings in the cage beneath the stands, choosing that location to either keep out of the sun or away from the fans.

Dunn, however, made Griffey's absence minimal, because he put on a show during BP that probably hasn't been seen around baseball since the Mark & Sammy Show in 1998. Dunn's home runs were Home Runs, moon shots out to right that peppered Shea's huge scoreboard. He hit them off the big Budweiser ad and high up on the Mets' lineup listing, with one reaching as high as the No. 2 slot -- Paul Lo Duca's name. If you're going out to a game involving the Reds, don't miss Dunn during BP.

The National League East just looks weird. I'm a Mets fan, and I can't believe what I'm seeing. It was one thing in April and May, but we're at June 21 now, 10 days from July and 11 from the announcement of the All-Star teams.

And the Mets are 9 1/2 games up in first place, with the Braves mired in last and currently amid their longest losing streak in 17 years. The Mets are playing their 71st game tonight -- "it's still early" is just 10 games away from being halfway through the season.

But what stands out to me is the Marlins, in third place, with a 30-37 record. They've won nine in a row and may be the hottest team in baseball right now.

It won't last. A year ago, the Washington Nationals stood in first place at the All-Star break, and pretty much went nowhere but down from there. Even more so than those Nationals, these Marlins are young and inexperienced. They'll fade because they haven't played together in a long season like this. They'll tire in August, they'll stop winning close games.

At least they've shown some spark, and perhaps that, all along, Joe Girardi was the true managerial prospect on Joe Torre's bench, and not Lee Mazzilli. Perhaps they'll get their ballpark deal, move out of Miami and into the suburbs, and bring the fans back. But they won't finish in third place in the NL East.

And the Braves won't finish last.

I think.

Finally, on Sunday, Jon Stewart spent Father's Day at the Mets game and was interviewed on the local broadcast. It was a funny interview that can be seen via the link on Sunday's game story.

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Tuesday, June 13, 2006

All is Wright with the Mets

Four years ago, I covered the South Atlantic League All-Star Game in New Jersey, and that's when I met David Wright. The Mets' affiliate in the league was in Columbia, South Carolina, at the time, a team in the league's southern division that had not -- and did not over the rest of the season, if I recall -- visit Lakewood that season. As a Mets fan, I looked at the rosters to see what prospects the organization had, and I was intrigued by a name I had not heard before.

Wright wasn't voted a starter, but he essentially put himself on the minor-league map with that selection. He had been a supplemental first-round draft pick, but until that point, I hadn't read much about him; after that, I knew the name and noticed when it appeared in print.

For some reason, I made a point to talk to Wright. It wasn't too much of a stretch, once he came in second in the Southern Division in the pregame home run derby, but even before that outcome, I told myself to make a point to talk to the young third baseman who might be a Met someday. I had a better feeling about Wright than I did about reserve outfielder Angel Pagan or starting catcher Justin Huber and starting left fielder Jeff Duncan. Huber I had already talked to, at the previous night's welcome dinner, mainly because he had already been chosen to represent the Mets -- and Australia -- on the World Team in the Futures Game.

Wright was the runner-up to then-Atlanta farmhand Andy Marte, falling by a point in a scoring system created to account for the difficulty of hitting one out at Lakewood's FirstEnergy Park. Any fly ball that reached the warning track earned a point, hits off the wall garnered two points, and home runs were worth four. Wright's 28 points were one short of Marte's total. But I spoke to Wright because, at that time, neither my Spanish nor Marte's English were good enough to allow for an interview of the victor.

Even with the difficult surroundings, Wright hit six homers, one short of his season total at the time. The power was there, though we didn't see it after the derby; he pinch-hit and had two at-bats as the designated hitter, going 0-for-2.

"I just didn't want to embarrass myself," he told me then. "Going up there first, there's a lot of pressure."

Wright was just 19 at the time, and the thinking was that he and Marte might be facing off as division rivals not far in the future. It might have happened, had the Braves not traded Marte to the Red Sox this past winter.

"I knew he had a lot of power and it was going to be tough for mine to stand up," Wright said of his showdown with Marte. "Until that last swing, I was hoping."

Wright lost that battle, but he could be the first player from that South Atlantic League All-Star game to make the one at the top level. This week, he moved into first among National League third baseman in voting for this season's All-Star Game.

But he won't be alone. The Phillies' Ryan Howard -- a member of the hometown BlueClaws in that '02 SAL game -- and Padres starter Chris Young, then an Expos prospect and the game's winning pitcher, both have numbers that should warrant consideration from NL manager Phil Garner. Howard currently ranks third in the voting, behind the Majors' leading vote-getter, Albert Pujols, and the Mets' Carlos Delgado.

Wright has quickly gone from prospect to star, and he's on the verge of becoming a superstar. For the past few months -- mostly leading up to this season -- he's been called the Queens answer to the Yankee star power of Derek Jeter, the King of New York.

That might be a shared title now.

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