Monday, April 30, 2012

Young arrest evidence of MLB's alcohol problem

The New York Yankees taking two out of three games from the Detroit Tigers this weekend shouldn’t overshadow the ugly story involving Tigers outfielder Delmon Young.

Young was arrested and charged with a hate crime after allegedly using an anti-Semitic slur against a group of men and tackling one of them. The religious and racial undertones of this story make it a particularly ugly one. But the far more disturbing part for me is that Young was apparently intoxicated during the incident, the latest in a long line of baseball players to get into serious trouble because of excessive alcohol abuse.

Thankfully, Young was not behind the wheel of a car like so many other players or the consequences could be devastating. But are Major League Baseball and the players’ union going to wait until it comes to that, until another one of their players is killed or tragically kills someone else while recklessly abusing drugs and alcohol? Not even the death of young Josh Hancock of the St. Louis Cardinals five years ago yesterday spurred baseball to take serious steps to address the problem.

Boston Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine bannedalcohol from the team’s clubhouse and returning flights after road trips. But this move came only after news emerged that some Red Sox starting pitchers were drinking beer in the clubhouse last season rather than supporting their teammates from the bench. That there is no league-wide policy banning alcohol is just one sign of MLB’s failure to lead on this issue.

Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter has made it his personal mission to keep kids away from drugs and alcohol, as his parents successfully instilled in him an aversion to such substances. Unfortunately, it is starting to seem that Jeter is alone in caring about this issue and there is not much he can do to save his baseball counterparts. It’s tragic that no one else in the baseball world cares as much about preventing drug and alcohol abuse. 

There needs to be a stricter policy with real consequences for players who violate it, mandatory rehab and a loss of salary rather than a stay on the restricted list and full compensation as Young has received. 

It’s time for MLB and the players’ union to step up and take real steps to curb the alcohol problem in their sport.

Thanks to Keith Allison via Wikipedia for the Delmon Young photo.   

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Yankees starting pitching still a big mess

It’s not quite time to panic about the New York Yankees starting rotation, but there is definitely a lot of reason to be concerned.

The really sad news is Michael Pineda’s arm injury, which will keep him out for a full year. What terrible news for the youngster, who was probably so excited to get out of the relative anonymity of Seattle to pitch for the constantly-contending Yankees. And the team was counting on him to be a key member of the rotation. So Brian Cashman’s grand plan must be put on ice. (Just for the record, I still think the trade of Jesus Montero for Pineda was the right move, unless evidence emerges that the Mariners knew about Pineda’s arm problem and the Yankees missed it during the medical exam).

But now I’m officially worried about Phil Hughes. I was looking forward to his outing last night, thinking that he was going to build on some of the positives we saw in his last start. For a couple of innings, it looked promising, despite the monster home run he gave up to Adrian Beltre. Hughes was freezing batters at the plate and inducing ground balls for outs. But everything just fell apart in the third inning and this time it couldn’t be blamed on another Eduardo Nunez error. Hit batters put Hughes in a major jam, one Joe Girardi obviously did not trust him to get out of. To his credit, Hughes said he has not earned that trust, but it was a terribly demoralizing moment for the youngster regardless of his manager’s intentions.

The Yankees have managed a 10-8 record despite their starting pitching problems, which include CC Sabathia, who hasn’t yet pitched like the ace we all know he is. Their bullpen has been carrying them and Derek Jeter, Mr. Turn Back the Clock, is on an unbelievable hitting spree. But sooner or later, the Captain and the relievers are going to need to take days off and someone else needs to step up to carry the team.

Thankfully, Superman, I mean Andy Pettitte, is on his way to save the day. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Funny Billy Beane baseball lines

More noteworthy [and often hilarious] quotes from Billy Beane’s keynote speech at the Risk & Insurance Management Society annual conference last week:

“You guys are worried about the global economy, I’m worried about the Angels.”

“The key to a good trade is to make sure everyone hates your trade.”

On having to trade premier starting pitchers over the years: “The one thing about Oakland is we’re kind of like the band Menudo that when you get to a certain age, you’ve got to leave.”

“The riskiest thing you can do as an A’s fan is to buy a jersey with your favorite player’s name on the back.”

His wife Tara’s reaction on him trading Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder: “We are going to suck this year.”

Beane on his own baseball career: “I was a classic case of an overvalued asset.”  

On the New York Yankees spending $2.3 billion in payroll over the 1999-2011 timeframe: “The great thing about running the Yankees or being a Yankee fan is that they are a global brand name. You can go to Prague and someone will have a Yankees hat on. Nobody’s going to have an A’s hat on.”

On adopting the Moneyball philosophy: “For us, we had no choice,” he said. “We had to try something different.”

Upon hearing that a reporter wanted to do a story on the Oakland A’s philosophy for the New York Times magazine: “Nobody in baseball reads the New York Times so we’re probably going to be fine.”

On Moneyball author Michael Lewis, who did not tell Beane that his idea evolved from a newspaper article to a magazine article to a book: He is “a sneaky SOB”.

On reading Moneyball for the first time: “I read it in about four hours,” he said. “Paul [DePodesta] reads it in about an hour and half. I walk into his office. I’m beat red. I’m mad. Paul is as white as a ghost. I said ‘Paul, am I that much of a maniac in the office’? He looked at me and said ‘am I that much of a geek?’”

BTW, the good news for Chicago Cubs fans is that Beane also predicted that the long-suffering Cubs would break their World Series futility streak soon now that Theo Epstein is in charge. It’s hard to argue with that assessment, given that Epstein built the Boston teams that ended that city’s championship drought, even though he left the Red Sox in a terrible mess. 

Monday, April 23, 2012

Billy Beane gives insight into his Moneyball world

My professional and personal interests once again collided at a conference I covered last week when I got to hear a keynote speech by Billy Beane, who provided tremendous insight into how he used the “Moneyball” concept to build a playoff-caliber baseball team despite limited resources.

The Oakland A’s general manager was nervous and edgy on stage, maybe due to a phobia about public speaking (hard to imagine for a person with his job title) or perhaps somewhat intimidated by talking in front of a crowd of insurance professionals who Beane insisted were much smarter than him (he was speaking at the Risk & Insurance Management Society’s annual conference). Beane seems to have a bit of a complex about his intelligence, cracking several jokes about his much smarter former right-hand man, Paul DePodesta, now an official with the New York Mets.

It’s shocking to realize this, but the A’s in 1992 had one of the highest payrolls in baseball at $48 million. But as other teams’ payrolls skyrocketed, in large part thanks to lucrative television deals, the A’s payroll rose at a much slower pace.

“For us, the biggest risk that we can have is actually doing things like everybody else because if we do things like everyone else, we’re destined to finish exactly where our payroll and revenues say we are,” he said.

To his credit, Beane dismissed the notion that he and DePodesta created the Moneyball concept. He specifically named Bill James (who Beane said deserves to be in the Baseball Hall of Fame) and others that advocated the use of mathematical analysis to build baseball teams for years before Beane did, but were generally ignored because they were outsiders.

But for a while, Beane and his team used the Moneyball theory of player evaluation better than anyone else in baseball, focusing on players with strong on-base percentages and other unrecognized metrics that were important to winning games. For instance, he drafted a young Nick Swisher, a player now with the New York Yankees who is known for his OBPexcellence, out of college.

“That’s passé now because the highest paid players in the game are guys that get on base,” he said. “Back then, 10 or 12 years ago, it was about the seventh highest paid statistic in the game. People were paying for skill sets that didn’t necessarily correlate strongly to winning.”

Beane talked about how teams with greater resources could invest in players that had all the skills, the way the Yankees once invested in a young, high school shortstop named Derek Jeter, who could run, throw, hit and play defense.

“Those guys cost $20 million a year,” he said. “We couldn’t afford that. What we needed was guys who did one thing really well and what they did really well had a huge impact on winning.”  

Beane adopted this philosophy out of necessity, of course, due to his miniscule payroll, but he still deserves a lot of the credit for the Moneyball concept taking hold in Major League Baseball.

The GM was quite funny and self-deprecating, noting the disappointment of women when they see him rather than his movie star alter-ego Brad Pitt, and his own unsuccessful baseballcareer, launched after being the 23rd pick of the 1980 Major League Baseball draft, which ended with a career stat line of a .219 batting average, 66 hits and 29 runs batted in.

“That’s essentially Chapter 11 if you’re a baseball player,” Beane said. 

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Yankees comeback a great birthday present for me

The New York Yankees gave me a fantastic gift for my birthday yesterday when they staged an epic comeback against the hated Red Sox.

Of course, since I was out celebrating my birthday with my family, I didn’t see the live version of the event. Thank goodness for my DVR. I was able to fast forward through the less fun parts of the game, like the Saux taking a 9-0 lead, to see the Yankees smacking baseballs all over Fenway Park. As an added bonus, I saw the 9th inning of Phil Humber’s perfect game (that was probably the one and only time I actually didn’t mind that Fox cut away from Yankees-Red Sox).

I feel a little bit bad for Bobby Valentine. He is taking a lot of heat for something that isn’t his fault. The Red Sox are a seriously flawed team and it’s showing out the field. The Yankees don’t make that comeback without the shoddy bullpen work of the Saux. But I don’t feel that bad for Bobby V. He desperately wanted that Boston job and he got it. Valentine will have to live with whatever comes next. Hopefully he won’t be a fall guy, the way Terry Francona was.

I was looking forward to tonight’s game, which was just rained out unfortunately, so the Yankees can’t go for the three-game sweep. But I guess I will just have to re-watch last night’s instant classic.

Happy birthday to me! Thanks, Yanks. 

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Pettitte comeback sullied by Clemens retrial

Andy Pettitte should be completely focused on his (hopefully imminent) return to the New York Yankees. Thanks to his old pal Roger Clemens, that’s just not possible.

Pettitte had another strong outing this weekend as he gets ready to head north to the Bronx to reclaim a spot in the Yankees starting rotation. The veteran lefty is working on his stamina and his control on the mound. He seems to be in a good place mentally for his comeback. But that could be seriously hindered when and if he is called to testify against Clemens.

Pettitte is considered a star witness so in all likelihood he will have to testify, unless some plea deal is reached before the trial starts tomorrow (highly doubtful as Clemens has consistently and quite stubbornly maintained his innocence).

If Pettitte does take the stand, it will break his heart to have to tell the court that his pal confessed to using a banned substance. But he will do it, because Pettitte is an honest guy and he will tell the truth after putting his hand on the bible and swearing to do exactly that. I just hope that whatever pain and anguish he feels over possibly helping to send his former friend to prison does not follow him to the Bronx. 

Monday, April 9, 2012

More photos from new Miami Marlins Park

One of the coolest things about being an environmental journalist is the occasional opportunity to combine my professional interests with my personal hobbies, like when I was part of a group of journalists who received a behind-the-scenes tour of the new Miami Marlins ballpark when it was still under construction in October. The differences are striking when you consider it opened for baseball less than six months later.

The field was basically a mound of dirt back in October…

…but it looks fantastic now.

It must have taken a lot of work on the area surrounding the stadium…

…to get it to look like this.

The foundation for the Marlins home run sculpture was the only part standing when I initially visited…

…but the sculpture itself is quite lovely, even if there is a bit too much color for my taste.

The new Marlins Park is built on the site of the old Orange Bowl…

…as officials like to remind us.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Marlins lovely ballpark a transportation nightmare

I’m not worried at all about the New York Yankees 0-2 start. But truthfully, I’m not worried about much at all since I just got back from a very relaxing vacation of fun and sun in Miami that, of course, started with some baseball.

I went down to Miami to see the Yankees play the Marlins at their sparkling new stadium. It was an exhibition game so I was not invested in the outcome, which made it easy for me to enjoy the surroundings and take frequent walks around the ballpark. I was very curious to see the new ballpark after having been given a behind-the-scenes tour back in October with fellow environmental journalists (the Marlins are selling their park as environmentally-friendly and sustainable).

I got a surprising thrill when the retractable roof opened about 15 minutes before the game started. On our tour, we were told that the decision to open or close the roof would be made three hours before game time and when I arrived the roof was closed. But the outside temperature were rather comfortable for southern Florida with no precipitation in the hour before the game so the roof was opened, rather quickly I might add, leading to a loud cheer from the fans (here's a photo of the retractable roof retracting).

I had purchased an upper-deck ticket over left field and enjoyed the view from that vantage point. The left fielder disappeared from sight on plays hugging the third-base line, but other than that the sight lines are excellent from the upper level (I also took a walk to the right-field side to check the view during a lull in the baseball action). I settled into nice conversations with several nearby fans, most of which were Yankees fans, but also a nice couple from Denver on vacation in Miami who encouraged me to visit their fair city and ballpark.

My biggest complaint about the stadium is the transportation situation. I took a $35 cab ride from South Beach to the ballpark, costly due to the rush-hour traffic. But at the end of the game, there was an absurdly long line at the taxi stand due to a mystifying absence of taxis. I finally had to take the shuttle bus, which I almost was not allowed to get on due to a lack of exact change, to the Metrorail. I would have had to take another bus after taking the train two stops, but fortunately there was a single cab waiting as we exited the Metrorail station. My New York instincts took over as I ran to grab the cab before anyone else could steal it so mercifully my trip back to South Beach took only another 15 minutes from that point. But if the Marlins really want to ensure that people visit their beautiful ballpark, they are going to have to figure out how to make it easier to get to and from the stadium.

But my time inside the new Marlins ballpark was lots of fun, capped off by a Yankees victory and the fact that Phil Hughes, in his final tune-up before the regular season, pitched pretty well. Not that it matters. 

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Yankees rotation problem solves itself for now

Michael Pineda’s unfortunate arm injury solves the problem of having too many starting pitchers for the New York Yankees, but only temporarily.

Joe Girardi jokingly blamed Phil Hughes for the Yankees being extra-cautious with Pineda and putting him on the disabled list, a reference to last year when Hughes’ fastball mysteriously disappeared and it was later discovered he was suffering from tendinitis that would force him off the mound for months. Concerns were also raised about Pineda’s lack of velocity this spring. But, unlike with Hughes, the Yankees did not wait until the regular season to figure out that there was a medical cause for the unexpected slowdown.  

Some cynics or conspiracy theorists might say that the Yankees put Pineda on the DL in an effort to put off making a decision about their rotation or to give themselves a chance to showcase Freddy Garcia for a possible trade. Since I’m neither a cynic nor conspiracy theorist, I will choose to believe that the Yankees are acting out of genuine concern for the health of a guy who they see as a potential future ace.

Even without the Pineda injury, Hughes had pitched his way into the rotation with his strong spring, as shown by the fact that Girardi named him the #3 starter in the rotation ahead of Ivan Nova and Garcia. But Hughes will have to pitch well in April to make sure he stays there after Andy Pettitte is ready to officially come back to the big leagues. Pettitte’s not coming back to be a reliever and Hughes has the most bullpen experience so he needs to pitch well to ensure he’s not banished to long-man duties. Or the Yankees could keep their youngsters Hughes and Nova in the rotation and try the veteran Garcia in the bullpen, a role that he has never had and likely wouldn’t embrace.

So it looks like Girardi’s difficult decision was only put off for a few more weeks. But it’s a good problem to have.

Thanks to Keith Allison via Wikipedia for the Michael Pineda photo.