A's Revival; Roger Federer/Rod Laver; Tiger Woods; Patriotism; Joe Paterno
EARLY IN the season, the A’s were almost unwatchable, going down meekly in games dominated by pitching, mostly because the A’s hitters were so wretched. But after almost daily changes in the roster, the A’s have developed into a team which still has an outside shot at making the playoffs. For sure, they’re more interesting.
The big changes have been in the manager and pitching coach.
Bob Melvin is a big league manager, which Bob Geren clearly was not. He’s respected by the players because he makes rational decisions, even if it goes against the grain. Early in the season, he used Grant Balfour as the closer. Balfour was fine at first but then had some rocky moments, so Melvin went to a closer-by-committee system. Ryan Cook, obtained in an offseason trade, emerged as the best choice, though his previous major league experience was only 36 days. Cook has pitched so well, he was selected to the American League’s All-Star team.
Meanwhile, Brian Fuentes, who also had a brief shot at being the closer, was designated for assignment and released today when he went unclaimed. Fuentes was frustrated by his problems but he made it clear that he thought Melvin had treated him fairly.
There are two attributes I think are vitally important to a manager’s success: 1) He must treat players fairly, giving playing time to those who have shown they deserve it. This is where I faulted Art Howe, who famously kept Terrence Long in the lineup to preserve his consecutive game streak, though Long was not contributing and no working at it, either. 2) He has to know how to handle pitchers.
Melvin does well on both counts. Players know they will play if they’re producing and sit if they aren’t. (Geren was so distant with his players, they didn’t even know whether they were starting until they saw the lineup posted in the dugout.) He’s given players the chance to show they belong. One example among many: Rookie Derek Norris was playing in his first major league game when he came to bat in the bottom of the ninth, with two outs, in the final game of the inter-league series against the Giants, with the A’s trailing by a run. But Melvin didn’t pinch-hit for him, and Norris hit a three-run homer to win the game.
There has been a constant shuffling of players in and out for the A’s this year – hardly a day passes that I don’t have an e-mail from the A’s about a transaction of some sort – but Melvin has kept his cool with all of it. When a new player is acquired, he gets a chance to play, to show what he can do. Then, Melvin decides whether he’ll be better as an everyday player or as a bench player. There are always a number of players who can do well for a short time but fade if they play regularly, and a manager has to identify which type of player he has.
Melvin has had a big helper in pitching coach Curt Young, back after one year with the Boston Red Sox.
The A’s have had some outstanding pitching coaches, and I’ve learned something from all of them. Dave Duncan was outstanding when he was working with veteran pitchers because he could make relatively minor changes that would have major results. His No. 1 reclamation project was Dave Stewart, who had gone winless the year before but became the best big game pitcher in baseball under Duncan’s tutelage. Duncan was also instrumental in the decision to make Dennis Eckersley a closer. But, Duncan didn’t work well with young pitchers. When A’s general manager Sandy Alderson told Tony La Russa that he was going to trade or release the veteran players on the roster and bring in youngsters from the farm system, he advised Tony to take the managing offer from the St. Louis Cardinals – and Tony took Duncan with him.
Rick Peterson was a great theorist, and I enjoyed talking with him because I always learned something. Rick also worked with Dr. James Andrews, the leading doctor in working with pitchers who have arm problems.
Young is different from both Duncan and Peterson. He is not a big talker, like Peterson, and his specialty is working with young pitchers. He treats each one as an individual, and his record in working with young pitchers is outstanding. This year has been a special revelation. The A’s pitching staff has had pitchers coming and going all season. Bartolo Colon, the one real veteran starter, has been on the DL and may well be traded before July 31. Brandon McCarthy, who is probably their best starter, is fragile, on and off the DL. But Young has nonetheless managed to keep his staff pitching consistently well, leading the league in ERA.
A good word also has to be said for general manager Billy Beane. Since the killer combination of Lew Wolff and John Fisher bought the A’s, the team has spent as little money as possible, not just on the big league team but on scouting and the farm system. Beane admitted in the offseason that he had to make trades – of closer Andrew Bailey and Trevor Cahill, an All-Star last season – to get prospects to build up the farm system.
Despite that, he has done a great job of putting together a team on the fly. He was criticized when he designated Kila Ka’aihue for assignment the day after Melvin had said the Hawaiian would be his first baseman but that was because he had Brandon Moss in the wings. Moss, a converted outfielder, hit 10 home runs in his first 26 games for the A’s. Ask Melvin if he regrets that change.
The A’s are still not hitting much for average but they’re hitting home runs; they had a stretch of 17 straight games with a home run just before the All Star break. I always like to see home runs, especially since I don’t see many when I go to games on the other side of the bay.
Interestingly, Dino Costa interviewed me for half an hour last night on his Sirius show regarding the A’s-to-San Jose storyline, which Bud Selig largely evaded in questioning yesterday Costa gave me plenty of time to explain my position, which you already know, but he kept coming back to one question: “Wouldn’t it be better for baseball if teams got a bigger payday at A’s games?” I never answered that directly because I had other points to make but, in fact, it would only be better for the owners’ bottom line, and Selig is taking care of them in that department already..
GIANTS DECISIONS: Brian Sabean made two very good decisions in the offseason, trading the erratic Jonathan Sanchez for Melky Cabrera and Ramon Martinez and Andres Torres for Angel Pagan. With Gregor Blanco, originally signed to a minor league contract, the Giants have their best defensive outfield since Willie Mays was playing with anybody else.
At the same time, he’s stuck with two mistakes. Freddy Sanchez was signed much too early to a contract extension last year. Shortly after that, he went on the DL and hasn’t played since. After still another surgery last week, his career appears to be over. In gratitude for his contriutions in 2010, Aubrey Huff was signed to a two-year, $22 million contract. As I wrote at the time, Sabean should have made the second year a club option with a buyout. Huff partied his way through the 2011 season, had an anxiety breakdown early this season, no doubt the result of his wife filing for divorce because she was tired of Huff forgetting he was married when the Giants were on the road. He’s had a series of problems since and I’d be surprised if he makes any real contributions to the Giants this year.
Early in he season, when Tim Lincecum’s struggles were just beginning, one of my readers suggested that the Giants should trade Lincecum for a power hitter. I told him that was a terrible idea. He wrote me again last week, saying in effect, what do you think now? I told him I thought this was always a bad idea.
I get e-mails like this from fans frequently, with ideas about how to improve their team. But, there are two teams involved, so a trade has to make sense for both teams. Imagine that you’re the general manager of another team and Sabean had called you earlier in the season, willing to trade Lincecum, a young pitcher who had won back-to-back Cy Young awards and whom the Giants thought so highly of they gave him a contract which pays him $20 million a year for this year and next. You’d have to think that the Giants knew there was something wrong with Lincecum and were trying to unload his contract. So, you’d be giving up a proven player, taking a huge chance and, BTW, taking on a huge contract for the next couple of years. Maybe you’d just laugh and say, “You’re a funny man, Brian. Now, what did you really call about?”
Young pitchers who are top-of-the-rotation starters are almost never traded. The pitchers who are traded are like Sanchez, sometimes brilliant but woefully inconsistent and injury-prone. Or, they’re young and unproven. The Giants traded Ryan Vogelsong when he was still a minor leaguer in a deal which got them Jason Schmidt. Great trade. They also traded Joe Nathan (and Boof Bonser and Francisco Liriano) in the deal that brought them A. J. Pierzynski for one miserable year. Very bad trade. But in neither case, were these pitchers established.
I don’t know what Lincecum’s problem is – my guess is that it’s a combination of the physical and mental – but they have to work it out themselves.
FOR AMUSEMENT, I read the “Letters to the editor” in The Chronicle, and I saw and all-timer yesterday. The letter writer said Oakland mayor Jean Chan should drop her “Coliseum City” idea and concentrate on building a stadium for the Raiders, either downtown or in Jack London Square, to improve business for the city.
This is wrong on so many counts that I don’t know where to start, but the most important factor is the fact that football teams do very little for a city’s economy while baseball teams do a great deal.
Anybody who has been to games knows why. Football teams play only 10 games a year guaranteed, perhaps another two if they’re in the playoffs, and fans don’t patronize local restaurants and hotels. They usually tailgate and drive home after the game. Visiting teams will stay in a hotel in the city but usually just for one night.
Baseball has 81 home games, and visiting teams stay in local hotels for each game. Fans often patronize local restaurants, too, and fans from out of town will often stay over in local hotels.
I became really aware of this in 1980, when the Raiders were about to move to Los Angeles. At the time, they were a very successful franchise, selling out every game. The A’s had fallen on bad times because owner Charlie Finley couldn’t compete for players in the free agency years. Attendance had fallen as low as 306,000 in 1978, lower than some minor league teams. Finley wanted to sell the team to Marvin Davis, who would have moved the team to Denver, but couldn’t, because of his lease with the Coliseum. So, Oakland mayor Lionel Wilson proposed that Finley be allowed to buy out his lease, with that money then being used to placate Davis.
Yet, when I talked to hotel and restaurant owners on the other side of the freeway, they all said they would much rather the A’s stay than the Raiders, for the reasons I cited above.
That’s why it’s important that Oakland keep the A’s. The Warriors will probably stay, anyway because Joe Lacob won’t get approval for the monument to himself that he wants in San Francisco. And, the Raiders will share the Santa Clara stadium with the 49ers.
WIMBLEDON: So, Roger Federer tied Pete Sampras with his seventh Wimbledon win. Yawn. He wouldn’t have had a chance if Rafael Nadal, whom he cannot beat on any surface, hadn’t been upset earlier. And, please don’t give me that nonsense about Federer being the best of all time. Rod Laver is.
Laver got shut out of the big tournaments for six years in his prime because he turned professional. Those were the “shamateur” years in tennis, when the big tournaments were limited to amateurs, who were paid under the table not to make waves. But Laver won the Grand Slam the year before he turned pro, won Wimbledon upon his return and then another Grand Slam the next year. There’s no telling how many tournaments he would have won if tennis had had an honest system at the time.
I was not excited about Serena Williams winning, for another reason. I started watching women’s tennis at a time when the women made certain tournaments had a strong field. Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, for instance, never played in the same tournament until the majors, so the regular tournaments would have one of them as a draw. Serena, on the other hand, has dropped out of tournaments at the last minute on the flimsiest excuse – the Bank of the West tournament at Stanford one of them – which just kills the promotion for the tournament. To me, that’s inexcusable.
Serena is in the Bank of the West tournament again; it started yesterday. I hope she doesn’t come up with another crippling injury,like a torn fingernail.
A WEEK after winning a tournament, Tiger Woods missed the cut in his latest tournament last week.
He must have thought he was playing in a major.
PATRIOTISM: I was at the A’s-Red Sox game on July 4th, and we were awash in patriotism, starting with the National Anthem before the game, “God Bless America” in the seventh inning and Ray Charles’ version of “America the Beautiful” in the ninth inning.
As you know, I think it’s ridiculous to play the National Anthem before every game, but it was perfectly fitting on the 4th. I’ve long felt “America the Beautiful” should be our National Anthem, because it brings out the national wonders of our country; the “Star Spangled Banner” is militaristic, because the lyrics were written during the War of 1812 (the music is an old British drinking song). In an era when we’ve been in too many wars we shouldn’t hve been in – IMO, every one since the Korean War, which we called a police action, I’d like to see it replaced. I know, fat chance. At any rate, Charles’ version is the gold standard.
When we were attacked by terrorists on 9/11, I thought it was entirely appropriate to play “God Bless America” it at ball games, and I sang it along with everybody else. But now, it’s just a pathetic song that should be retired. Yet, the Giants play it in the seventh inning of Sunday games.
JOE PATERNO: The news on Paterno gets worse and worse. Now, some e-mails have been uncovered that seem to indicate that Paterno actively discouraged Penn Sttate administators from passing only the allegations about Jerry Sandusky to the police. And, he allowed Sandusky to continue using the collegiate facilities as he continued to sexually abuse young boys.
I suppose in that little enclave known as Happy Valley, they still venerate Paterno. But to me, it seems he wiped out his career accomplishments with this one craven act.
LAST WORD: “Robinson Cairo, who won the Home Run Derby last year, didn’t hit one this year,” writes Janice Hough. “What’s he trying to do – get traded to the Giants?”
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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