Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Phew Philthy Phellows

Philadelphia is known as a great sports-town. Despite going on a major-sports-championship drought from 1983-2008, before the Phillies finally won the World Series, each of their four franchises have enjoyed some consistent success mixed in with some major struggles. And through it all, they have had some of the most outspoken and loyal fans in all of sports (notice that Jimmy Rollins is leading the All-Star voting despite only playing in 12 games all season due to injury).

As a Mets and Giants fan however, I don't have a lot of appreciation for these teams, their players or their fans. So admittedly, perhaps I am not exactly the most objective person to be writing about them.

The Phillies, in particular, have been riding very high over the past few years, especially taking advantage of the struggles of the Mets. Would they have won the World Series in 2008 had the Mets not pulled off yet another magnificent collapse? Probably not. Does that mean they didn't deserve it? Of course they deserved it...they won the games. But in the midst of all these successes, a few chinks in their armor appear to be rearing their ugly heads. But given the mature, unbiased perspective that I come from, I am sure they are just coincidences.

Philadelphia fans have long been decried as being classless and crude, perhaps even predating the famous incident in 1968 when Eagles fans booed Santa Claus as he took the field for a halftime show and pelted him with snowballs. But in reality, can Philadelphia fans be any worse than fans from other cities? In Los Angeles and San Diego, where fans are notoriously laid back, I've seen opposing fans get punched and had drinks and food thrown at them. Once I was hit in the head with a plastic soda bottle at a Dodger game because David Wright hit a homerun. So it must be that Philadelphia fans get a bad rap, and it must be a coincidence that it was a Phillies fan who recently plead guilty to starting a fight with, and causing himself to vomit on, another fan and his children because that fan had asked the vomiter and his friends to refrain from spitting on and using foul language around his teenage daughters.

As for the Phillies themselves, they've had some great success with the bats over the past few years. Long-time Phillies Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, in particular, have become huge stars and carried them to that World Series title. Other more well-traveled players like Raul Ibanez have enjoyed the hottest stretches and most success of their careers with the Phillies as well. They must have quite a hitting coach, right? Or I guess it could have to do with the fact that they’ve been cheating for years (accused by many teams many times and then caught this month). Since their bullpen coach Mick Billmeyer was caught stealing signs with binoculars from the Rockies' catcher in early May, the team’s runs per game, batting average, and homerun totals have all dropped.

• Runs scored per game: Before - 5.40; After - 4.15; League Average - 4.48
• Homers per game: Before - 1.22; After - .85; League Average - .91
• Team Batting Average: Before - .273; After - .261; League Average - .257
     (Note: the Phillies have played 13 games since this incident.  7 at their hitter-friendly home park, 1 at the hitter-friendly Coors Field, and 5 at pitcher-friendly Wrigley and Citi Fields.)

After the Rockies spotted Billmeyer using the binoculars in the first inning, they informed the ump who told Phillies manager Charlie Manuel between the first and second innings to knock it off.  Manuel denied it was happening and the ump said he'd been spotted on camera.  Then Manuel said that he was just checking on his own catcher's defensive setup...they do that a lot.  The ump said no more.  Then the same coach was spotted doing it again in the next inning.  So he cheated, got caught, lied about it, immediately got called out for lying, and lied again.  And didn't even stop cheating! 

After the game, Manuel deflected the guilt away from his own team onto the Mets (despite that they weren't involved in this incident at all), saying the Mets must cheat because their home record is better than their away record (which incidentally, is pretty much standard).  He then said, "(The Rockies complained) Because we beat them… Keep crying."  Actually Charlie, I think they complained because they caught you on camera multiple times.  And because you have a reputation of cheating, just ask the Dodgers and Yankees during last year's NLCS and World Series, and the Mets many times over the last few years (all accused the Phillies of illegally stealing signs with video cameras).  Classy guy.

Last June, a small-time blogger wrote a piece about Raul Ibanez' incredibly hot start to the 2009 season and mused as to why the new Phillies leftfielder had had such a resurgence so late in his career. At the time he wrote it (June 10), Ibanez was 37 years old, had hit 20 homers and 55 RBI, with a .320 average in 228 at bats. Ibanez had only hit more than 24 homers in full season (often 600+ at bats) once in his 13-year career and his best batting average had only been .304. So among a number of possible reasons for this offensive explosion so late in the slugger's career, the blogger suggested such obvious explanations as the move to the hitter-friendly Citizen's Bank Park and steroids. Both were reasonable.

Ibanez apparently reads and responds to every remotely negative thing written about him on the internet (hi Raul!), so he called the blogger out and angrily denied the steroid accusations (that weren't ever actually made). So incensed was Ibanez, that he made national news out of a little blog piece that would have been read by maybe 100 people. The blogger had to appear on ESPN Outside the Lines the next day to defend his piece, and have noted newspaper journalists gang up on him and rail against his unprofessionalism and lack of journalistic integrity (note: he wasn't a professional journalist, but a fan, and never accused Ibanez of cheating. He only suggested that that might explain the numbers.).

How dare that blogger write what everyone was thinking! Incidentally, after that hot start, Ibanez went ice cold for the rest of the season after the "accusation," which must be a coincidence. His average had been 11.4 at bats between homers since coming to the Phillies. After June 10, that jumped to 19.4 at bats between homers. His batting average was .320 before and .232 after. This year? He's hitting .250 with 3 homers in 144 at bats (48.0 at bats per homer). So the facts that this guy was pointed out as going on the kind of heater that happens with steroid users, and then he immediately returned to his career averages after that attention was shined upon him, I’m sure that’s all coincidence.

So does that one player's massive drop in numbers after he's "accused" of taking steroids reflect on the team in general? Does the team's offensive slip since they were accused of cheating mean anything? Does that one fan's crude and disgusting behavior reflect on a whole city? Maybe not. Maybe they're all coincidences. And maybe it's a coincidence that it's all happening to the same team.

Maybe not.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Another Day, Another Miserable Heartbreak For One Sports Fan

Sports fans love lists. "Greatest Catches," "Best Superbowls," "Worst Draft Picks." And we love hyperbole (see above examples). And I am no exception. So it is not without self-awareness that write that I was thinking earlier about writing about the 5 or 10 worst days in my life as a sports fan.

Certainly one would be August 11, 2005. I assume Carlos Beltran and Mike Cameron would rank this one #1 on their lists. That was the day I was in the right-centerfield bleachers at Petco Park, about as close as anyone else on the planet when those two men blindly dove face-first into one another, ending their seasons and the Mets' hopes for the next five years (and counting...).

The list was a little too depressing to really put into order, so I gave up trying (Shawn Livingston's knee, Danny Manning's knee, Ron Harper's knee, Kenny Rogers' ball four to Andruw Jones, Beltran's strike-out looking against the Cardinals, when I realized Tiki Barber is an asshole, when Edgardo Alfonzo put on someone else's uniform, when Floyd Landis got stripped of the Tour de France, etc.).

Today would have made the list. It might have been #1. But I'll come back to that.

Quite a day Lance Armstrong had today. Not only did he have to worry about literally saving his face because he was involved in a nasty crash in the Tour of California and had to take a bunch of stitches in his elbow and more just below his left eye, but he is also trying to figuratively save face as well, as former teammate Floyd Landis threw Armstrong under the bus as an alleged cheater.

To be honest, I can't imagine Armstrong is all that perturbed about the allegations. He's heard it before. In fact, I would venture that no human being has taken more blood tests in any 10 year period than Lance Armstrong has in the last 10 years. So many people are so sure he's a cheater because his near-miraculous comeback from testicular, lung, and brain cancer to such unimaginable highs has been so...well...miraculous. But despite all the doubts thrown in his face, and all the needles stuck into his veins, he's never failed a single test. Not one. So Lance, please don't make a fool of me for believing in you.

I ran cross country in college and during my freshman year I had to have a surgery that I wasn't really expected to recover fully from. I'd be able to walk and run and exercise and have a normal life, but I wasn't really supposed to be able to compete at that same DI level again. No one ever had, but then not many people had ever had that surgery yet either, so "Why not?" I thought. Of course I never became a NCAA Champion, or a conference champion. I never won another race or ever placed first on my own team. But I ran again, and I was faster than I had been before, and I can tell you without any hyperbole whatsoever that I would not have been able to if Lance Armstrong had not risen from the grave and been winning Tour de France after Tour de France at the same time.

So maybe one day the story will finally break that Armstrong has been cheating us all along. And if so, I don't know what I would think. I couldn’t forgive him for cheating, but I couldn't exactly forget that he had inspired me so deeply either. But I pray that that story never breaks and that until the day after I die all there ever were were allegations and negative tests, because I am just about out of heroes. Especially today.

After Armstrong won his seventh straight Tour and retired, most Americans let professional cycling drift back into anonymity. I think I was lucky that I had found so much love for the sport, not just the man who had carried it on his back through terrain as tricky and tumultuous as anything the Alps ever threw at him. I knew in 2006 that the sport was still in good hands and that there were lots of guys to root for. More importantly, there were lots of Americans to root for. Levi Leipheimer and George Hincapie were (and are) true greats, but that year Floyd Landis was truly spectacular at the Tour de France.

Imagine all those French people who were so incensed that an American had hijacked their race and their sport for most of a decade had to see him retire only to have a parade of new Americans come in ready to take over the family business. And then Landis went out and turned in what I have, on many occasions, called the greatest athletic performance I have ever seen in stage 17 and went on to win it all. Another year, another American. Of course soon after, it was revealed that he had failed a doping test and Landis was stripped of the title. He fought the result for years, took it to the highest authority in the world and lost, and through it all, I steadfastly supported his claims of innocence.

On April 1, 2008, I wrote on this blog, "Floyd Landis finished his appeal to the arbitration court of sports and their decision is expected in June. From what I know of his case, I don't think he did it."

On June 27, 2008, after the test results were upheld, I wrote, "I am a big fan of cycling, and I watched every second of that Tour, and I have read every word of the case against him and the case for him (yes, even the famed slide show presentation). That guy is innocent. I don't care what the test showed on the day he pulled off the greatest turnaround in sports history. The test the day before showed nothing. The test the day after showed nothing, and what Landis is alleged to have done would still show up long after the initial day he allegedly did it. It also would have had no physiological benefit had he done it the morning of a race (it is a long term technique that had not long term presence in his body according to multiple tests)."

On September 10, 2008, I wrote again, "I still feel that Landis was innocent of the charges levied against him...".

So what happened on May 20, 2010 that makes this all relevant again? Why is today such a bad day for me as a sports fan? Because today was that day that after four years of vociferous denials, Landis came clean and revealed that he had been cheating for basically his entire career.

I guess it's easy to be cynical and just assume that they're all cheating. Baseball players, football players, cyclists, name it. It's easy to look at Albert Pujols' seemingly sincere declaration that we can all rely on him to be the clean superstar to lead all of us, a weary mass of doubtful devotees and former fans, back to the glory days of squeaky clean stars and believable box scores. But the more we learn, the less we feel we can believe it, and the more we see that it wasn't all so clean back then anyway; we just didn't have reporters willing to blow the whistle.

Athletes cheat. It's old news; I know. I shouldn't be surprised about Landis; I know. I am the last one to the party; I know. Everyone assumes our heroes are cheats and it's gotten to the point where they don't even bother to pretend to be disgusted when they first find out anymore. Sports fans are jaded. "A-Rod, seemingly the last great, clean baseball star admitted to cheating and lying about it over and over? Hmm. Well, he's my fantasy third baseman and I'm hurting for RBI's this week, so what did he do today?" Reporters are all on the hunt for the next scandal to bring down a star, but fans are just kinda used to it and don't bat an eye.

And as a sometimes-professional sports writer over the past few years, I have tried really hard to not become jaded myself. That's one thing I hate about working in have to look for angles and stories, you can't just watch the games and enjoy. I was working the day the Mitchell Report was released and I wrote the story up for CBS and created a slideshow of all the big names and local stars named. That was another of the worst days of my sports-fan-life, and there weren't even really any big surprises in it for me. But just that cold realization that THAT many people had been cheating and that it was probably just the tip of the ice berg…that stung me.

We have all seen seen some of our greatest champions (love 'em or hate 'em) toppled and defamed. Some lesser stars but truly beloved figures as well. Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Marion Jones, Andre Agassi, Ivan Basso, Ato Boldon, Ken Caminiti, Tyler Hamilton, Paul LoDuca, Erik Zabel, Alex Rodriguez, Rafael Palmeiro, Jan Ullrich, Dennis Mitchell, Tim Montgomery, Alexander Vinokourov, Julius Peppers, Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens, Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz.

I think what has helped me to keep from becoming completely jaded to all of this was that I hadn't had "my guy" get nailed. It's always been guys I hated (Bonds, Clemens) or just people who were big names, maybe even on my teams, but not my favorites (LoDuca, Vinokourov).

Maybe that's why when I read that SI article, I bought every word Pujols said. Sure athletes cheated, but no one I ever really loved so it never hit too close to home. But today one of "my guys" went down. Big time. And now I'm finally at that place where most fans seem to have been for years now. I don't know where I go from here because one of the ones I truly, truly believed was lying actually all along. Floyd Landis' admission of using performance enhancing drugs changed the way I look at things, and in my mind, added a lot of weight to what Pujols was already carrying.

Even today, Landis still insists that that fateful test back in 2006 was indeed a false-positive (ironically perhaps the only false-positive in a career of false-negatives). He says he did not use that doping method at that time and that the results from that week are not consistent with the results you would expect from someone using that doping method. Maybe that's true. And maybe I can still believe in that utterly spectacular day in Morzine in the Alps. But why should I? Not that he has any idea who I am or that what I have to say matters, but he doesn't deserve my belief in him.

How can we trust him when he says what he did or didn't do? For years, he's lied to protect his his career, so why wouldn't he be lying to protect the single greatest day of it? How can we trust his allegations against Armstrong, Leipheimer, Hincapie, Dave Zabriskie, Johan Brunyeel and the rest of the U.S. Postal/Discovery/Astana/Radio Shack family? Are these the words of a man finally coming clean or the words of a man trying to tear down his former teammates who had turned their backs on him in his failed comeback because he was a cheater?

All I know is that I lost, once and for all, one of my greatest heroes today. And I was one of the last people who still believed in him. And that's sad. He lied all that time and he made me a liar. And that's infuriating.

I can't imagine I could ever get to the point where I would actually, finally, give up on sports. My love affair runs far too deep. But I hate the idea that I am a revelation or two away from having to give on sportsmen. So Albert Pujols and Lance Armstrong, the clock is ticking. I figure I have about a half-a-century left to keep what may be the illusion that it is possible to be great and be clean. If you two are making me a liar too, just make sure they wait till I'm gone to publish the story.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The More Things Change...

I always think it is a little funny when people do the same thing over and over expecting a different result and then seem completely shocked when they get the same one. Thanks to the Seattle Mariners and the Cincinnati Bengals for both being from cities that I kind of have to think twice about when spelling, and also for proving the axiom correct that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The Seattle Mariners traded for Milton Bradley in the 2010 offseason thinking he had put his anger-management, authority-rebelling, and home fan-attacking ways behind him. And why wouldn't they? It's not like he had a history or anything. But as I wrote last month, it took Bradley just 5 games to have a blowup, and it took just 22 more for him to be shut-down indefinitely with "emotion stress," which is a euphemism for being a "chronic lunatic."

Can a man change? Sure! Should the Mariners (and all the rest) be ripped for trying to salvage the poor bastard's career (and life)? Yes and no. Perhaps it is a noble thing to try and help the guy straighten himself out and realize his potential. Perhaps it is pure ego that each of these organizations thinks they have all the answers and can make him a champion. Perhaps he'd be better off cashing his checks and getting out of the pressure cooker of professional sports that he clearly does not have the temperament to deal with.

So who is this guy? What exactly is his history? Is he worth all this trouble? Career averages of .276, 20 homers and 76 RBI per 162 games would say no. Especially since he's only played more than 101 games three times in 11 seasons, so you know you aren't getting a full season out of him. The other 8 seasons, he averaged 71 games played (which breaks down to 9 homers, 33 RBI). As for his history, it all started in Montreal.

He was drafted by the Expos in 1996 and made the roster as a light-hitting centerfielder in 2000. He apparently had no blowups with the Expos, but was traded mid-season in 2001 to the Indians, and maybe it's their fault he cracked.

He finished 2001 as a backup and played in 98 games in 2002 with Cleveland. His career batting average was .234 and he'd hit just 12 homers over 3 seasons. So we're not talking about world-class talent that is worth the headaches (Gary Sheffield, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, etc.). He blossomed (sorta) in 2003, batting .321, but still only hitting 10 homers and 43 RBI as the Indians' primary centerfielder (101 games played). That small success seems to be the butterfly wings that caused the hurricane to come.

During Spring Training the next year, Bradley got into a fight with manager Eric Wedge and was promptly traded to the Dodgers just days before the 2004 season. Hello spotlight! Goodbye sanity. As a fulltime starter in LA, Bradley's numbers stayed near his career averages, but playing in more games, he did hit 19 homers and drive in 67 runs. His batting average dipped back to .267 though and he was plagued with character issues.

One night in June of 2004, he stepped into the batter's box, exchanged words with the home plate umpire and was promptly ejected before even seeing a pitch. He then calmly set his batting gloves and bat in the box, stormed to the dugout and threw a bag of balls onto the field, scattering some 70 balls around the infield and a few in the left field corner (he picked a few up and hucked them down there).

With just 5 games left in 2004, in the midst of a pennant race, Bradley dropped a liner with the bases loaded and allowed 2 runs to score. And the bomb was planted. A few pitches later, some jackass Dodger fan (I know, I need to be more specific) threw a plastic bottle onto the field in Bradley's general vicinity. And the fuse was lit. Bradley picked up the bottle, raged towards the stands and BOOM! He threw the bottle into the stands, challenging fans to fight him (apparently). He was restrained by teammates before going into the stands and was, of course, ejected. As he headed back to the dugout, he tore off his jersey and hat, eliciting boos from his own home crowd...which he further incited with a palms up, "bring it on" gesture before he was yanked into the dugout and off the roster for the rest of the year.

Believe it or not, the Dodgers didn't dump him after this and Bradley survived one more year in Dodger blue, but played only 75 games and driving in only 38 runs in 2005 (maybe because the Paul LoDuca steroid pipeline dried up when LoDuca was traded away late in 2004). He was traded to the A's after the 2005 season (bringing Andre Ethier to the Dodgers...nice call, Moneyball).

Bradley spent most of two seasons as a part-timer in Oakland, not driving in many runs, or scoring many runs, or hitting or stealing much. But he did benefit from one of those poorly conceived, massive contracts that the Dodgers were always handing out, so that was cool.  After his suspension in 2004, Bradley reportedly went to anger management and seemed to genuinely want to turn his life around. He spent most of the next three years in relative anonymity, staying out of the spotlight and keeping his rage nestled all safe and warm inside.

In June of 2007, the A's gave up on Bradley because his price tag was still too high for his output (thanks Dodgers). They traded him to San Diego, where after a brief stint on the disabled list, he became a full-time starter in left field and went on to become one of the Padres' best hitters, carrying them to a division lead with just under a week to go. [queue the Jaws theme]

Stop me if you've heard this one, but with only a few games left in the season in a pennant race, Bradley apparently tossed his bat in frustration after a strikeout. It went in the general direction of first base umpire Ron Winters, who apparently took offense and he told the home plate umpire that it had happened. In his next at bat, the home plate ump told Bradley that Winters had taken exception to the bat-toss. Bradley hit a single, of course, and while standing on first base he confronted Winters, who replied with some foul language and had three years of crazy blow up all over him.

Bradley was restrained by his manager, and somehow twisted his knee in the fracas, tearing his ACL and ending his season, the Padres' pennant hopes, and Bradley's tenure in America's Finest City. But at least this rousing pennant win by the Rockies ended up being a great story and a really fun postseason for the rest of us.

"But we fixed Josh Hamilton's life. Why not Milton Bradley's too?" thought the front office of the Texas Rangers. Bradley was brought to Texas in 2008 (after knee surgery) to resurrect his career and get his life back together. And it worked. And then it didn't work anymore.

Bradley had by far his best season with the bat in 2008. Relieved of his outfielding duties, perhaps to help him focus and not be distracted, he batted .321 as the Rangers' designated hitter. He had a .443 on base percentage and led the American League in OPS. He was chosen as an All-Star and ended up starting due to injury to David Ortiz ('roids are brutal on the body).

Besides his obnoxious, gratuitous spotlight grabbing during Hamilton's spectacular Home Run Derby performance, it seemed Bradley had finally put it all behind him, grown up, and had gotten his life together. Then one fateful day, he was watching his team's game broadcast in the clubhouse during the game and heard the Royals' play-by-play announcer talking about Bradley's parade of off-the-field issues (ironically, it would turn out, because he soon became the Grand Marshall of Bradley's 2008 parade of off-the-field issues).

Bradley stormed out of the clubhouse through the stadium trying to find the announcer and confront him. He had to be chased down by the GM and manager (during a game!) and later said that he was upset that someone he didn't know was talking negatively about him (let that be a lesson to you sports announcers, sports anchors and fans).  Apparently it didn't matter that the negative things the announcer was saying were true.  Thus, the Rangers bid him farewell at the end of the season.

The thing is, at this point in the story, Bradley is a somewhat sympathetic character. For the most part, he had been on the right path for a few years. He was officially exonerated of any wrong-doing in the scuffle in San Diego (no suspension because he was apparently incited to act out by the ump, who was suspended). He was just defending his honor in Kansas City (though perhaps there are better ways to do so) and he was playing the best baseball of his career.

So the Cubs took a chance on him. And why not? Sure, his hitting only became decent when he was moved to DH and the Cubs don't play in a league with a DH. Sure he has a history of confrontations with umpires, managers and other authority figures, and the Cubs have a surly, firey manager. No bad can come of that pairing. Sure he has a history of bad blood with his own fans (let alone the other teams'), are Cubs fans are particularly devoted, obsessive and vengeful (see: Bartman, Steve).

Almost as if he had given up trying to be a good guy after being run out of Texas, and perhaps because this was the worst fit in the history of personnel moves, Bradley made sparks fly throughout his tenure in Chicago. Finally, after a number of flare-ups with manager Lou Pinella, who had sent him home during a game and benched him numerous times, Bradley was suspended for the season (again, late in the season, during a pennant race). This time he had spoken out at a post-game interview at Wrigley field about how the Cubs organization was run poorly, that it was no surprise they hadn't won a World Series in 100+ years, and that the Cubs fans were garbage.

Apparently the Cubs and their fans didn't like this tirade, so they dumped him off on the Mariners last winter and here we are again. The Mariners must have thought that they had the right balance of team leadership and management structure to keep him in line. They don't. In his fifth game in Seattle, he either flipped off heckling Rangers fans or was just showing them how many hits he had on the season at that point.

Then yesterday, 17 games later, mired in a season-long slump, Bradley struck out looking and was screaming at the umpire from the bench. Manager Don Wakamatsu told him to be quiet and made the decision to sit him down for the rest of the night. It was reported that Bradley then told Wakamatsu, "I'm outta here" and left, through Bradley denies this. Another story says that he stormed down the tunnel to the clubhouse and Wakamatsu followed him (during the game...familiar?) and told him not to quit on his teammates.

So Bradley returned to the bench to see that he had been replaced in left field so he again stormed out. Apparently he thought they were going to play with no left fielder until he got back. This morning he told management that the emotional stress was too much for him and asked out of the line-up.

I commend him for asking for help, but seriously dude. You are getting paid $30 million to play a game that you don't even have to play well; they have to pay you even if they don't play you. Which they are now doing.

Will he return to the M's? I hope not. Seattle fans deserve better after the 5 years they've had. Will he wind up somewhere else? Probably. Doesn't everyone need an emotionally fragile, light-hitting power hitter with anger issues? He's only 31 or I'd say Omar Minaya would be all over that trade. Give him 5 more years, and then he's Mets material.