Fear For The Beard

On a family vacation in San Francisco last week, a few things became apparent. Stereotypes about the Fog City aren’t necessarily generalizations – they’re true. San Franciscans appreciate the bay, the same gender and, over and above all, their Giants.

By my estimate, one out of every five people was donning some form of Giants apparel.

The San Francisco baseball club are, just that, giants. Having won two out of the last three World Series (one a sweep and the other in five games), their dominance recently is unparalleled. Their success provides a cause for honor and pride.

During their successful run, the Giants transformed their image – hurt during the early 2000s by a dyspeptic Barry Bonds whose attacks on everyone around him made Lance Armstrong look like a philanthropist – into a fun-loving, idiosyncratic bunch that enjoyed being on the field with their teammates and interacting with fans as much as they did winning.

The 2010 World Series Champion Giants featured an amalgam of characters headlined by All-American boy Buster Posey, vegan ace Tim Lincecum with a contortionist pitching style as well as World Series MVP Shortstop Edgar Rentería.

There was one more man: Closer Brian Wilson who was as unshaven as he was effective.

Known for his facial hair, which likely requires the same amount of maintenance as a row of hedges, Wilson delivered. He closed out World Series games in a victory that brought the Giants their first title since moving to San Francisco in 1958.

The amount of San Francisco attire that featured the motto “Fear the Beard,” synecdoche for Wilson, was astounding and showed the popularity that Wilson had received.

When I attended a Giants-Padres game while in California I had to ask myself the question, “Self, what ever happened to Brian Wilson?”

Wilson, a native of the great state of New Hampshire, parlayed his success and new found notoriety into fuel for his unique engine. The sometimes odd, sometimes eccentric, but always entertaining act that he seems to put on for MLB fans has seen a wide array of material.

There was the spandex “tuxedo” that Wilson wore to the ESPYs that prompted host Seth Meyers to poke fun at him during his monologue. Then, the next year, he topped the spandex by bringing a six-and-a-half foot Sasquatch to the sports award show, who he affectionately called “Squatch.” Then, when asked about a $1,000 league fine he incurred, he simply explained the transgression was having “too much awesomeness.” He is also the league’s only self-proclaimed “certified ninja.” The apologues about Wilson could continue on for pages.

However, the sole reason those tales are well known is because Wilson was successful. Unfortunately for him, his elbow gave out at the close of the 2012 regular season and he watched from the bullpen, recuperating from his second Tommy John surgery, as his friend and fellow Beard, Sergio Romo, closed out World Series games and garnered saves in three tight San Fran wins.

Now not only is Wilson, a former three time All-Star, nary the most recognizable bewhiskered athlete in sports (James Harden, Guard for the Houston Rockets owns that accolade), but even in the Giants own bullpen.

To make matters bleaker, the Giants did not even offer Wilson a contract – so he’s out of a job. What could he do to get hired again at baseball’s advanced age of 32 years old?

Well, luckily for him, it seems as if 2013 is the year for reclamation projects. John Buck, who seems to personify the mantra “wrong place, wrong time” as he was on the Royals during their toughest years and the absolutely horrendous Miami Marlins squad a season previous, finally broke through. At the age of 32, he is finally hitting above the Mendoza line and in only April has just under half of his career highs in homeruns and RBIs. Vernon Wells, another recipient of MLB’s senior citizen-discount, has also rejuvenated himself and aided the ailing Yankees to second place in the tough AL East on the young season.

Another note for AARP-eligible Major Leaguers is the payday for 38-year old R.A. Dickey, whose rise from minor league journeyman, and co-owner of the inauspicious record of most homeruns allowed in a game (6), to National League Cy Young winner with the New York Mets is oft-told. Dickey’s transformation came about through his advent of the knuckleball and took his ERA from 5.21 in 2008 to an astonishing 2.73 last season.

Dickey isn’t even the first pitcher to accomplish such a feat. Rip Sewell, who debuted in the Majors in 1932, spent six years in the Detroit Tigers minor league system before being dealt to the Pittsburgh Pirates where his first full Major League season was a disaster. He started 12 games and posted a 4.08 ERA (terrible during those times). Then, quite literally by accident (he injured his foot in a hunting expedition), he became great.

As a result of his foot, he had to rework his pitching motion and evidently it turned out alright. In 1940, at age 33, he went 16-5 with a 2.80 ERA and was nominated for the MVP award. Over the next eight years, he dominated going 103-65 with a 3-and-a-half ERA as well as three All-Star selections. A major contributor towards Sewell’s success was his looping pitch called the Eephus, which kept hitters off-balance. The Eephus was similar to former Boston Red Sox and Saibu Lion Daisuke Matsuzaka’s “Gyroball” – except in the fact that the Eephus seemed to work.

Another pitcher similar to Brian Wilson is former Anaheim Angel and current Boston Red Sox, John Lackey. Lackey who, in 2007, went 19-9 with a 3.01 ERA and two complete game shutouts dazzled the American League. Lackey who, in 2011, went 12-12 with a 6.41 ERA did exactly the opposite. It was a tale of two pitchers. So he missed the entire 2012 campaign after Tommy John surgery, like Wilson. Already this season, Lackey looks changed, improved. Over 10 and one-third innings he has an ERA of 2.61 and 12 strikeouts. Then again, Lackey has pitching sage John Farrell guiding the way.

So if Lackey improved the year after Tommy John, but didn’t pick up a taboo pitch – then Wilson could do it too.

So to answer my original question of where had Brian Wilson gone, the answer is where all 30-plus year old Major League Pitchers go when the ligaments in their throwing arms are torn, twisted or bruised: the regular season Free Agent-list. The regular season Free Agent list (shudders) is a quick prelude to retirement, when players cite made up reasons rather than “I can’t pitch” as to why they’re out of the game.

The path that The Beard’s career is travelling on really is unfortunate. In a game that has been rife with PED scandals and ownership battles and sign stealing. The goofiness and comedic relief that Wilson brings to the game of baseball is a fun and light-hearted way to remember that baseball is to be enjoyed. His antics can turn the monotonous routine during Game 100-something into an entertaining day at the park. So even though Father Time and Right Arm oppose Wilson, it is possible for a comeback.

Under the tutelage of a good pitching coach, Wilson could return to form. Wilson could be a quality Major League pitcher again. Wilson could.

In John We Trust

How much do the Red Sox value their manager, John Farrell?

At the end of 2012 they were willing to exchange their recently-acquired starting Shortstop Mike Aviles with the Toronto Blue Jays for the coach; and so far this season, the gamble has been garnering stellar dividends.

Already, on April 21st, the Red Sox have accomplished a few notable things. With their 4-3, come-from-behind victory on Saturday against the Kansas City Royals they extended their current winning streak to seven games – their longest since they took nine in a row in 2011. After taking a pair of series from Cleveland and Tampa Bay, Boston had won six consecutive in April, much like they did last year. The difference being that this year, it was to get to 11-4, whereas a year previous, it was an improvement on their 4-10 open to get to even.

Though April is mile one of the marathon that is the baseball schedule, the Red Sox are exhibiting signs of promise. Even after dropping both ends of their Sunday double-header, the Sox are still tied for the third-best record in the Majors.

Those hopeful indicators can be attributed the revival of the pitching staff in Boston.

In years previous, the Boston mentality was that if the opposing team tagged Sox pitching for eight runs, the offense would just hope to score nine. When Red Sox ownership realized last year that their lineup would not have the same “pop” as years previous, they knew strategically adjustments were necessary.

That’s where Farrell entered stage right. If they couldn’t out-slug teams, they would turn to the mound for support. Farrell, known as the pitching guru that could revive careers and nurture young talent, excited the Sox fan-base for other reasons than his expertise with hurlers.

Boston’s favorite thing about Farrell was that his name wasn’t Bobby Valentine.

So far, the two who have benefitted most from Farrell’s presence are the same two who are most responsible for their winning streak – Clay Bucholz and Jon Lester.

The re-emergence of the duo has spearheaded Boston’s early push.

Certainly, their performance is a direct reversal from a year ago when Lester specifically had the worst year of his professional career.

“It’s hard for me to walk around this clubhouse and look guys in the eye right now. I’m not pitching well. I’m not doing my job.” That was Jon Lester after he gave up seven runs in four innings against the Rays last season.

In a stark juxtaposition, Lester this season has been nothing less than dominant. He is 3-0 in four starts with a 1.72 ERA and has a new-found control, averaging just over one free pass over nine innings – a career low. He is using the fastball more to set-up his devastating curve. He also is pitching the best with runners on in his career, leaving roughly 80 percent of men who reach…there on the bases paths, stranding them and preventing runs.

With pitchers reclaiming dominance after the steroids-era play and the hacking, homerun-or-nothing approach at the plate, strikeouts have become the main tool to a pitchers success.

Bucholz has obliged, striking out 8.7 batters per nine – a career high. He also has thrown more fastballs this year, 43.8% a year ago compared to 52.2% this season, and seen the value of mixing in cutters and curveballs. He has had to do so because of his fastballs falling velocity; Bucholz is beginning to pitch like a crafty veteran – at only 29 years old. His batting average against plummeted 80 points and is already 4-0 in his first four starts – good for a first-place tie for wins in the league. He also leads the Big Leagues with a 0.90 ERA. Staying healthy and his self-proclaimed ritual of washing his Johnny Damon-esque hair between have been large factors in his improvement.

The largest factors in both aces improvement? John Farrell. The manager’s guiding hand and adamant attitude on getting ahead in the count and finishing hitters off early.

Dustin Pedroia, the team’s second baseman and second longest tenured member, says, “It’s not that guys fear him, but I think they respect him so much that forces them to believe in what he wants us to do. It’s very helpful.”

The biggest contribution by the pitching pair has been their ability to eat innings. On Saturday, Bucholz went eight innings only giving up two runs, which allowed Farrell to rest his bullpen and use only his closer, Andrew Bailey, to capture the win. Deep starts by starters early in the season allows for conservation of the ‘pen for later in the season when their need increases and reduces injury risk and overuse.

A breakout by one of the Sox starters could have been attributed to diligent off-season workouts, but two?

There is no such thing as coincidence. There is such a thing as coaching.

Death of a Sales Pitch

Have you ever done something stupid?

Maybe you lied…and didn’t admit to it until you were caught, or bought something expensive…and didn’t tell your spouse, or maybe you were a little inebriated…and ran on the field at Fenway Park.

There are a few things that can be gleaned from a video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KGERG5WoAY4) like that. Look both ways before you cross Center Field. Also, when a person runs onto the field, unnecessary roughness has been authorized. The third, and most telling thing in the video, is after the guard imposes his will on the intoxicated man.

As the amateur filmmaker pans the camera up and to the left to follow Pedroia-shirted man, it can be seen on the Green Monster scoreboard that it is in the seventh or eighth inning. You can also see under the Coca-Cola sign in the left-field box, or to some extent under even that canopy, that no one was even there to witness the man’s run. There was may have been half the sits filled; definitely not a full crowd.

Before you question if the game was a rout, one-sided or not, or if the game had run over, overtime as baseball can sometimes do, here are some game statistics. This game was on May 2nd, 2011, the Red Sox took on the 6-0 Jered Weaver and the Angels.

The Sox were attempting to regroup from a poor start and a win over a solid Angels team was what the doctor proscribed for a boost in momentum. Keep in mind the game was around the 7th or 8th inning. The game’s full time was three and one half hours which, by baseball standards, is reasonable; that’s about what’s expected during a day at the park. The game-time temperature was 580 – which most New Englanders consider balmy and the Red Sox scored sixth seventh inning runs en route to saddling Weaver with his first loss of the season and winning 9-5. Arthur Miller couldn’t have penned a better script.

Those statistics show that none of the fans can be missing because of time, inclement weather or absence of competition. Entering the seventh up only 3-2 and tagging the American League’s best pitcher – at the time – for six runs…no one leaves during a home team’s rally.

Another statistic from that night, the Red Sox reported that 37,017 were in attendance, which is 100.2% of Fenway’s capacity. I don’t think it takes a salesman to look at the figures and realize there weren’t as many people as seats up in the left field stands on that night.

That night was just a microcosm of the Red Sox season and the seats weren’t full. And that was the same year as “The Great Collapse” in which the Sox missed the postseason after having baseball’s best record on July 2nd and on September 3rd were evaluated with a 99.6% chance of making the playoffs. The Sox beat the odds and missed the postseason.

And allegedly, still, the Sox sold-out games.

But last Thursday, April 12, that streak came to a close after 820 straight games (794 regular-season contests and 26 post-season ones). The string of sellouts came down hard as there were over 7,000 unoccupied seats in the house as the Sox fell to Baltimore 8-5. The streak began on May 15, 2003. To put that in perspective: Nomar Garciaparra homered and Pitcher Félix Doubront was a sophomore in high school. Another fact: Dustin Pedroia – Boston’s second longest tenured player – has never played a home game in front of less than a “sellout” crowd.

The Red Sox consecutive games of full stands trumped the Portland Trail Blazers sellout streak of 814 games by a mere six contests to take hold of the prize that signifies the most sellouts in a row.

Although, the Red Sox streak is contrived. The 2012 Red Sox season was abysmal. There was the salary/roster purge, the awkward standoff between Bobby Valentine and, well, pretty much everyone in Boston, along with unceremonious jettisoning of fan-favorite and Greek God of walks, Kevin Youkilis. It was an awful centennial celebration for Fenway.

If things were going well in the first half of 2011 and the seats weren’t sold out, how can anyone expect to believe the Fenway group when they say that all throughout the dismal 2012, the games were sold out? The 2004 and 2007 World Series trophies were well-spaced enough and dramatic enough to make those years believable, but towards the end (2011 on), it seemed that the Sox were neither playing well, nor selling well.

Ownership, the title which Larry Lucchino, Tom Werner and John Henry have earned through their austere and dislikable ways as of late, tried to siphon off as much publicity as possible. In an email to Red Sox insiders early this year, they claimed they had been “crunching the numbers” and “things didn’t look good [for the streak]” and indeed they didn’t.

Which is why it is such a good thing that the laughable, embarrassing streak came to a close, because the streak ending represents a turn of the times. Long-time coach Terry Francona is out, the roster was overhauled, and only a few players remain from either of the World Series title teams.

The Sox have a goofy, loveable bunch for the first-time since the 2004 “Idiots” and they also possess a fresh slate. They are lowering concession prices, bringing in high-character guys and ending the streak. None of those are monumental revelations, but they are a cornerstone for a new way, built on Red Sox baseball.

Speaking Money

Baseball is a tough game. Not only is it mentally tough, but it’s physically demanding as well. Fans recognize and appreciate that, but have little sympathy for those who say they’re tired when they’re playing baseball. Fans have even less sympathy for those who, at minimum, are guaranteed $480,000 (with the average Major League Baseball salary at $3.2 million).

Clearly, it’s a lucrative game and without a salary cap, baseball’s on-the-field employees are the biggest beneficiaries. Twenty-two players in MLB made more than $18 million during 2012 – and all 22 made more than arguably the most popular athlete in the world right now: LeBron James.

Putting sponsorships, shoe deals and record contracts (looking at you, Tony Parker) aside, LeBron was paid $17.5 million last season. Three MLB players really stand out as having made more than LBJ.

First, there’s Ryan Howard, who just last year batted .219 in 71 healthy games for the Philadelphia Phillies while striking out in 38% of his at bats. (To summarize Howard’s career as of late, his top highlight on MLB.com is his RBI groundout into a double play.) Second listed is Johan Santana who makes $23.5 million per year, and who has been shut down for the second time in three years because of his elbow; the only year of those three that he was healthy? 6-9 with a 4.85 ERA, Santana went from stellar to cellar. Lastly, Alex Rodriguez pulls down $30 million per year, making him the highest paid professional athlete in the world, and his career numbers – along with his relationship with just about everyone from fans to owners to teammates – has been in heavy decline for about seven years now.

But, at some point, each player in that trio played well, and leveraging the deep-pocketed spenders of MLB, they parlayed their success into financial security for their family’s future. Baseball players realize that one solid year could mean a major money deal for multiple years.

Even if MLB isn’t the most popular sport any longer (to which I disagree, but there is a large sentiment in our country) – it is indisputably the highest-paid.

The aspect of wealth in baseball is the reason why it has such a problem with Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs).  Players long ago discovered the secret of baseball business: play well, pay well. That mantra symbolizes the theory that a player elevates effort in a contract year, but it also signals that players will do anything – from training longer to dietary techniques (and not just Subway, Ryan Howard) – to improve their game.

Now, with this winter’s discovery of the Miami Biogenesis clinic, the Steroid Era’s supposed ending left an unsettling queasiness in the stomachs of fans.

It appeared that Anthony Bosch (the owner of the Biogenesis clinic) was the new Victor Conte. Conte was the man who owned the Bay Area Laboratory Corporation (BALCO) and supplied steroids to *All-Time Homerun Leader* Barry Bonds during his tenure in San Francisco with the Giants. It was BALCO’s discovery and the release of the steroids exposé The Game of Shadows – that prominently featured Bonds – that was the impetus for the investigation and publication of the Mitchell Report.

The Mitchell Report was a 409-page document that leveled accusations at 89 players in MLB at that time. They were not small fish either; former future locks in the Hall of Fame saw their career become permanently stained with the dreaded asterisk. Miguel Tejada, Roger Clemens, Andy Pettite and famed Closer Éric Gagné all were mentioned. Alex Rodriguez’s name also appeared.

The Mitchell Report caused Commissioner Bud Selig to tighten the reins on the baseball express and enforce harsher penalties and stricter drug testing. As opposed to a ten-day wrist slap, MLB vowed to toughen up and made a first penalty a whopping 50-game suspension. MLB did not renege on their promise either and showed they had the strength to enforce these rules.

Never was executive power more evident in baseball when journeyman Melky Cabrera was batting .346 over half-way through the season. After Cabrera tested positive for PEDs, he was immediately suspended for 50 games by the League and was not invited back for the postseason, for which he would have been eligible, by his team the San Francisco Giants.

Bud Selig had toughened up on baseball and was seeing the rewards, and even the appeals process had proven to work as well. When 2011 National League (NL) MVP Ryan Braun had been accused of testing positive for banned substances, baseball seemed to hang its proverbial head because here again was a hero, dethroned, because he couldn’t resist the allure of the possibly “being better” – but by cheating. But Braun won his case, it may have been on a technicality, but a win will be taken in any form. It marked the first time a player had won an appeal.

Selig, players, and fans alike seemed to be content. Restoration of balance and order occurred in baseball.

That is why baseball sighed again during the 2012-13 offseason because – once again – players were allegedly using steroids. It wasn’t just anyone, either. It wasn’t Joe Schmo, a career minor leaguer, down in single-A ball trying to make the next leap to AA before he retired. The players discussed in the Biogenesis records were perennial Steroids Poster Boy Alex Rodriguez, All-Star Melky Cabrera, Cy Young award-finalist and Nationals pitcher Gio Gonzalez, as well as Texas Rangers slugger Nelson Cruz.

These players are the faces of baseball, and they are not facing the pressure well. After an initial deny, Cabrera owned up to his steroid usage, but the other three stayed on script. That’s always how it is in baseball. An operation is found out, player’s names get released, the players deny steroids and claim they were using other substances. Excuses range from flax seed oil for Barry Bonds to deer antler spray today.

Each time, a fan realizes that baseball has been cheapened and it’s a little less pure and fun than how you remember it. PEDs taint everything and makes you question even more.

Like myself. I’m a Red Sox fan and in three full seasons, Red Sox Outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury’s homerun totals went like this: 9, 8, 32. Immediately, a nagging thought appears, did Ellsbury juice? It’s like seeing Orioles first-baseman Chris Davis on TV and seeing through the screen that this 6-3 232lb behemoth with tree trunk legs and Pop-eye arms and saying to yourself: he can’t be made of the same stuff that I am, he must have something I don’t.

Selig has the responsibility to clean up the game for good, he has the opportunity to banish PEDs and expel them from the game we all love. ESPN defines the Steroid Era as running from the late ‘80s to the late 2000s. However, is the Era over? Is it really and truly over? Because as long as places like BALCO and Biogenesis exist, I don’t believe it can be.

As I watch baseball’s opening week and see people like Chris Davis complete herculean efforts similar to racking up 17 RBIs in six games – I always think to myself: that’s a great accomplishment, unbelievable…wait, it is unbelievable, is there any way he could be cheating the system? That second-guessing and the nagging doubt – both things baseball could do without.

As the figures on the scoreboards continue to escalate, so will the figures in players bank accounts. But at some point, fans will become discouraged with PEDs – they want to see a real product on the field. Fans want to see a talented Ryan Braun, not a cheater.

Baseball fans want to see baseball, they don’t want to see Anthony Bosch.

America’s Game

There’s something great about the beginning of April in New England.

Snow fades away (or at least begins to in the Shire); the perpetual white coloring of the outdoors is replaced by green. The temperature rises to about 50 degrees and people awaken from hibernation.

April also signals the beginning of baseball. Spring training finally comes to a close and the games start to count. Even teams like the Houston Astros, projected to finish the season 50-112 by Sports Illustrated, and Minnesota Twins feel as if they have a chance to defy all expectations and win.

Everyone holds a share in first-place and every team steps on to the field thinking that this could be their year.

Today is the day that players in pristine uniforms jog on to the field, on to expertly manicured grass, and prepare for an extensive season spanning 162 incredible games.

Baseball represents America’s pastime and America’s sport of choice. Baseball is the oldest sport in our country and has been prevalent in society since Alexander Cartwright published the rules in 1845 and umpired the first game ever on June 19, 1846. The longevity of the sport out-does every other “Big Four” (football, basketball, hockey and baseball) in America today.

Despite the belief that America is only interested in instant gratification, the “slower” sports are more popular than the fast-paced ones like basketball and hockey. Football is no quicker than baseball, averaging eleven minutes of action for the three hour, ten minute games and thirty-seven seconds between plays. Baseball averages twenty seconds per pitch and each batter faces about four per at bat, (all according to Fangraphs). Neither is decisively quicker than the other.

However, that time between pitches or plays builds battles on the field. When a batter works a pitch count higher, not only is it good for the strategy of the team, but it is also good for the player, who sees more pitches.

For example, in 2004 Dodgers second-basemen Alex Cora went to the dish against Cubs phenom pitcher Matt Clement. Clement had hurled 86 pitches already, and Cora emptied anything that Clement had left in the tank. Cora was sitting on a 2-1 count when he fouled off 14 straight pitches. At that point, it got personal. And finally, on Clement’s 18th pitch, Cora hit a homerun – one of 35 in his 14-year career. Though some people would say, “Come on, hit the ball already!” the battle between a pitcher and a catcher, the mano-a-mano of the game, makes it special.

The schedule of baseball is tedious and arduous for the players who have to head to the plate three or four times a night for 162 games. But for fans, it’s perfect. Being able to turn on the television most any night and watch a game (or even just an inning) of action quenches the baseball thirst of summer.

There are 32 teams in the Big Leagues and, coupled with a minor league system that’s so expansive, that baseball has reach in forty-eight states. Even in Idaho could you see Chukars play ball. Added to this, the atmosphere of baseball is so relaxed that just going to the park on a summer night is enough to improve anyone’s mood.

Another bonus for baseball is the playoffs. After playing 162 games, finally a team’s dreams are realized and they capture a postseason spot. It takes more to reach the postseason in baseball than in any other sport; there is a greater playoff payoff. Twenty-five percent make the playoffs in baseball, 40-percent in football, and 53-percent in both the NHL and the NBA.

The last, and most important, facet in favor of baseball is what it doesn’t have: a time limit. In any other sport, if you’re is down by three scores (football), 15 points (basketball), or two goals (hockey) with less than five minutes to go, the game is surely over. But baseball? The game is never over until the last out is recorded. I know I’m close to a Yogi Berra cliché. Each team gets 27 outs and if a victor can’t emerge by then, hey, give each of them three more.

For example, on August 5th, 2001, The Indians were down to the Seattle Mariners, 12-0 in the 4th, and 14-2 in the 6th. Ultimately, the Indians rallied to win, 15-14 in 11 innings. That game became known by baseball fans as The Impossible Return. In other sports, after such a fast and dominating start, there could be no comeback. It is the biggest comeback in MLB history. More recently, just two years ago the St. Louis Cardinals were down to their last strike in a World Series Game 6 (in two separate innings, no less!) but they came back to win as David Freese led the way to defeat the Texas Rangers, 10-9, in eleven innings. Comebacks like those are unique to baseball.

It’s always been America’s game, since 1845, and baseball will continue to be our game. And this spring…today…the season begins again.