Friday, March 17, 2006

Mets Don't Know When to Fold 'em

by Rob Hyman

I am quite the amateur Texas Hold'em player. I'm at just the stage where I'm good enough to know what I'm doing, but not good enough to realize that I actually don't know what I'm doing. I have played enough, however, to live by one rule...

There is no such thing as being "pot committed".

So what does this have to do with baseball? Let's say Kaz Matsui is a pair of 10s. He looks solid on the surface – no guarantees, but definitely something to get excited about. After all, in 8 seasons in Japan, he averaged 19HRs, 69 RBIs, 36 SBs and hit .313 (average 136 games per season). Not that bad – certainly the kind of numbers that make it seem worth betting a blind on.

Then comes the 2004 season, or the flop (no pun intended, but I thank
whoever named the flop, the flop). Kaz's 2004 season was akin to a King, Jack and 6 coming out. He had 7 HRs, 44 RBIs and hit .272 in 114 games. Lest we not forget his .956 fielding percentage – second worst in the Majors among starting Shortstops (his fielding percentage in 8 years in Japan was .978). But okay, it was his first season in the United States so I can understand cutting him some slack and thinking that he would turn things around in 2005. The pair of 10s, suddenly don't look overly impressive any more, but still, worth sticking around for another card.

The 2005 season was the turn (as in "Kaz, turn around and go back to Japan.") Another King is out of the deck. After this past season, I think it has become clear that the guy is a bust. 3HRs, 24 RBIs and hitting .250. The shift to second base only marginally improved his fielding percentage, which was again second worst in the league. The best day of the season was June 17th when he got injured in Oakland. The odds are starting to pile up against you. It's highly probable that someone is holding a King or Jack, meaning it's time to cut your losses and bow out of the hand.

This brings us to the current day – the river. (If it were me, I'd throw Kaz in the East River right now.) Give up on him! The Mets have young talent that can be brought in and taught on the job. It will take a near miracle (another 10) to make it worth keeping Kaz around. Unfortunately it seems as if the Mets feel they are "pot committed". Somehow they think it is a better decision to start someone they don't want there, just because they made a financial commitment before they had the current information at hand. All they're doing is digging themselves a deeper hole.

Kaz is a sunk cost, as are the poker chips you already threw in the pot with your once good-looking pocket 10s. Poker players sometimes have the tendency to think that they've come this far, they may as well play out the hand, even though they knew they'll probably lose. There is more respectability in saving face now than in explaining yourself later. That money would be better spent on the next hand – or on another second baseman in this case.

My prediction – the last card will be an ace, giving the Mets almost no chance of winning the hand. There is no way it could have been a ten anyway because Victor Zambrano is holding the other two.

Rob Hyman's column appears alternate Fridays

Thursday, March 16, 2006

A Growing Global Sport

by Scott Silversten

When the United States first sent a "Dream Team" of men's basketball players to the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, the goal of the National Basketball Association was to grow the sport internationally. And you know what...it worked! Just 12 years later in Athens, the U.S. was no longer the dominant team.

And guess what happened? People called the Americans an embarrassment! It was a ridiculous notion, considering that the development of the game worldwide had been the desired intention of putting together that team. People should have stood up and applauded what the NBA had accomplished.

Of course, things never change. Now we hear that the U.S. is again embarrassing itself in a sport it "invented" with its poor showing in the World Baseball Classic. The real embarrassment is that most fans and media members are failing to realize that several of these other nations have for a long time produced quality baseball players. Latin American nations have been churning out quality major leaguers for the last half century, and Japan didn't decide to take up the sport upon Ichiro's arrival in Seattle.

Now granted, the star-studded U.S. team has not performed very well. It barely swung the bats in a 2-0 victory over Mexico, got blown out by Canada, beat Japan on a controversial call – actually, a bad call – and lost to South Korea in a fairly uncompetitive contest.

While it's true the U.S. dominated South Africa to survive the opening round, it's also true that one 17-year-old member of the South Africa squad was so green, he wondered if his acne medication might inadvertently cause a positive steroid test. And here we thought there was nowhere else for the steroid story to go?

Anyway, back to the U.S. team. Yes, this is a team that has been more talented than its opponents thus far – could that be said of possible championship game matchups with Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic? – but it's not like the other teams are makeshift squads. These are pro baseball players, just from different countries, and in no way do they resemble the teams that took the floor for other countries in the 1992 basketball tournament.

And let's not forget...it's baseball! The U.S. has played five games in the WBC. That is just about 3% of a Major League Baseball season. If anybody judged a team based on five games, writers would be declaring teams out of the pennant race on April 8. (NOTE: This is NOT the place to insert Pirates or Marlins jokes.)

Johnny Damon is "slumping" in the WBC, according to most scribes. Slumping? He's 1-for-7! If he had one more hit in those seven at-bats, he would be batting .285, which is essentially his career average. Dontrelle Willis has struggled on the mound, but it's only mid-March. The Japanese and South Korea players were basically done with their spring trainings before they started WBC play, meaning that, in theory, they were all ready for real games.

And yes, baseball is America's game. But so is basketball. Let's face it, other countries have good athletes...unless we're talking about snowboarding. In that case, the U.S. clearly dominates world competition - though the sport, primarily an American creation, has been around for as long as it has taken me to type this sentence.

It's well past time for everyone to realize that the U.S. is not a clear favorite in these international events. And that fact makes the tournaments even more intriguing. Softball has been dropped from the Olympic slate after 2008 because people tired of watching the U.S. roll to easy victories. The fact that the U.S. was upset by Sweden last month just might have saved women’s hockey from being eliminated as well.

Let's face it...for the WBC semifinals to get any decent coverage in this country, it's imperative that the U.S. reach Saturday’s game in San Diego. However, the U.S.'s appearance is not necessary to crown a true world champion, because we no longer are the kings of sport...snowboarding notwithstanding.

Scott Silversten's column appears every Thursday

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Need for Speed

For this week's Wild Card Wednesday, guest contributor Tony Park examines what the effect of testing for amphetamines will have on the quality of play in MLB:

Amphetamines are clinically prescribed to treat narcolepsy, obesity and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). What is known is that through various methods, amphetamines enable neurons to fire artificially longer and more frequently than what the body’s system can naturally sustain for that point in time. I say point in time because a person’s unaided alertness and focus is by no means set at a constant level; Johnny has problems focusing on homework for more than 5 minutes, but has no problems sitting down and focusing intently until finishing the latest multi-disc version of Metal Gear on his favorite game console. At a more holistic level, it is theorized that amphetamines increase focus by targeting neurons in the regions of the brain that increase inhibition and self-control. Presented in 1937, that theory sadly remains the leading, but still unproven, hypothesis to date.

When MLB players and owners announced in November of last year that players would be tested for amphetamines, Rockies pitcher Jason Jennings laid out what could be the biggest problem for MLB players this season:

"It's a long season -- six weeks of Spring Training and April through September, or longer if you happen to go to the playoffs. That's a lot of baseball. It takes a lot to go out and perform at a high level every day for position players, so maybe that's something to look at as far as the schedule goes. A lot of people may not think much of it. They may say, 'You've getting paid millions of dollars just to play a game.' Well, it's not that easy. We want to go out and perform at a high level. So guys are going to have to adjust. Whether they drink coffee, Coke, whatever it's going to take, guys are just going to have to make the adjustment."

Unfortunately for the players, while caffeine is a stimulant like amphetamines, caffeine can’t hold a candle to amphetamine’s impact on a player’s quality and length of concentration. While exactly how and why amphetamines like Ritalin, Aderall, Dexedrine and Concerta achieve these results is still largely a mystery, their ban from baseball is, at the very least, likely to setback the confidence of those pitchers and position players who used amphetamines as a crutch.

If the quality of play is significantly lower this year, with players dozing off in the dugout, pitchers losing steam 10-15 pitches earlier, infielders booting balls with alarming frequency, hitters barely getting bats off their shoulders in the late innings, and closers blowing save opportunities left and right by not being able to spot their fastballs or sliders consistently, I wonder how much of that can be attributed to the loss of the chemical intake of amphetamines, and how much can be attributed to withdrawal symptoms (i.e. depression and loss of confidence) triggered by stimuli with which players usually associate with amphetamines. I'd also be interested to find out how many ball players are prescribed anti-depressants due to significant withdrawal symptoms. Of course, if play doesn't drop off at all, perhaps those who hold Nurture as king can use the players' ability to maintain a "high level" without greenies to renew their fight against the loose prescription of amphetamines to children and adults deemed to have ADHD. Either way, Bud Selig and Congress will keep a close eye. Hopefully they won't fall asleep from boredom while doing so.

- Tony Park

Wild Card Wednesdays appear every Wednesday

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The Politics of Baseball in the Nation's Capital

by Jeremy Bird

With a recent 9-4 DC City Council vote, the Team Formerly Known as the Expos' homeless odyssey from Montreal to Washington, DC may finally come to an end.

Barring another political fiasco between the Washington DC City Council and MLB, it looks like baseball fans will watch the Nats play in a state-of-the-art, 41,000-seat waterfront stadium, fully equipped with a contemporary glass-and-stone façade and a view of the U.S. Capitol, as soon as opening day 2008.

With the negotiations over the stadium finally over (for now at least), we are left to ask a question that has perplexed politicians, voters and baseball fans across the country: are we better off as a society spending millions in taxpayer money to subsidize a bunch of millionaires?

Yet, perhaps the more poignant question I am left pondering is this: what am I to do when my politics and love for baseball are in direct conflict?

My knee-jerk reaction to the publicly-financed stadium deal was to shout obscenities at the DC City Council and Mayor. After further reflection and meditation on the topic, I have come to a final conclusion: bring me October baseball, and we’ll call it even.

According to the Washington Post, the stadium deal calls for “more public money than has ever been spent on a professional sports stadium.” The deal’s $610.8 million “cap” on spending does not even close loopholes to stop overrun charges from ending up on our taxpayer tab.

DC taxpayers have already voted against this type of public financing. In the 2004 local elections, voters ousted all three DC Council incumbents who supported spending tax dollars on a stadium. (The three who ran on a platform opposing public stadium funding all voted for the recent stadium deal by the way – what else would you expect in DC)?

On the other hand, not all DC residents lose out on the deal financially. The DC stadium deal includes a measure calling for the stadium to be built primarily with local union labor. The Project Labor Agreement, as they called it, includes two important provisions: 1) that at least half of all apprentices who work on the stadium must be city residents, and 2) District union members will be the first ones on the job. It also includes some provisions to include a young worker program to provide youth summer jobs.

For a city with a relatively high unemployment rate, the labor provisions are a huge benefit for city workers. Furthermore, the union provisions will ensure living wage jobs with good benefits. Still, is there any reasons a stadium funded by the millionaires who will own the team would not provide the same labor benefits to city workers?

Perhaps the worst part of the whole stadium deal is that it took 16-grueling months that have left Washington baseball fans and players with little hope for the 2006 season.

The ownerless and “poor” (by league standards) Nats major pick up this winter? Alfonso Soriano. Even that pick up has been disastrous. The arrogant, selfish Soriano refuses to play left field despite the fact that the team already has a second baseman (Jose Vidro) and desperately needs both bats in the lineup.

It is going to be a long summer for baseball fans in DC, in part because the Nats had no money to boost their mediocre pitching or help their Expoesque offense.

In the long run, the Nats get a new state-of-the-art stadium instead of playing in RFK (where home runs go to die). Baseball fans will get to watch the team play with a beautiful view of the Capitol and the waterfront.

My politics tell me we aren't getting our $611 million’s worth. Find me in the bleachers in summer ‘08, and I might have forgotten my politics. Hopefully, with all of the tax hikes, I’ll have enough money for a beer.

Jeremy Bird's column, "Bird's Eye View", appears alternate Tuesdays

Monday, March 13, 2006

My Deal with the Devil

Yankee Diary
by Michael Carlucci


Sunday March 5

In flipping through the channels, I saw the first inning of Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS. Those Yankees Classics are like a drug, a pacifier, a magic elixir. But this is one of those games whose memories have changed because of the history since they were played. Boone's home run was a seminal moment in my life. A few innings earlier, I had engaged in such ferocious bargaining with God, the Devil, the wind, anything to deliver a Yankee win. Now I realized it would be costly. Now I owed everybody.

One of the deals I made involved being magnanimous, even happy, if the Marlins went on to win the World Series. I began breaking the spirit of the agreement before even the first game ended. I eviscerated it by the time that goofball Beckett tagged Posada for the last out.

Still, I figured I had gotten off easy, and when the Yankees took a 3-0 lead in the 2004 ALCS, I wasn't even thinking about my karmic debt. Then the unspeakable happened. It was no accident, this collapse. It was my fault. There was the Devil, for some reason laughing not like a hyena or like Vincent Price at the end of Thriller but rather like an upper crust British man. It's a scary sound, that snobby laugh, because apparently there's a whole class of people who've trained themselves to be completely humorless. The laugh is the vestigial remnant of their souls seeping out of them. Anyway, that Devil -- my personal Devil -- reminded me that I would suffer every baseball season. And even worse, he reminded me that of all the entities I had desperately asked for help, only he answered.

So after the Yankees blew it, no measure of reason (that the Yankees had no business being up 3-0; that Torre bungled games 4, 5 and 7) could console me. Not only had my beloved team fallen in excruciating fashion, but I was to blame. I must have been the saddest person alive.

There is a guy who probably knows my pain. He's a fellow in Nebraska I read about a few years ago. Roger Daltry appeared before him and demanded he stab himself. The man obliged and thrusted his knife 7 times into his abdomen and once into his neck. If Roger Daltry invaded my brain with the same request, I might have been impressed that he took the time to see me personally, but would have tried to plea it down to a paper cut. Roger Daltry was once a Rock Legend but now goes on infomercials pushing the "Greatest Rock Collection Ever." Greg Brady does the same exact thing. It's somehow appropriate that Greg Brady would do this, but not Roger Daltry. I mean, Greg Brady got beat up on national TV by Danny Partridge. Do you remember that? When Danny Partridge knocked him down three times on Celebrity Fights? However, if Robert Plant asked me to harm myself, it would be harder to wiggle out of.

Robert Plant was my inspiration when, at age 7, I formed my first rock band with Bobby Finklemeyer. We were the Shockers, and while we didn't have any instruments or know how to play them, we were terrific. I was not quite as precocious as Mozart, who began composing symphonies at age 4, but I quickly discovered I had first-rate song writing skills. Robert Plant might not have favored my first effort, "Cream and Coffee," yet I had the idle thought that it might become a rock anthem on par with Whole Lotta Love. The chorus was brilliant: "I had cream and coffee for breakfast -- and I never went back to eggs again." Sure it had its limits, including a non-existent musical accompaniment, but it had Bobby making guitar sounds and banging his drumsticks on a chair. And my voice soared. I sounded just as good as Robert Plant at the end of Stairway to Heaven.

But Stairways to Heaven never quite reach their destination, do they? No -- it's like when Kenny dies in the South Park movie, floats his way toward Paradise, and then plummets unceremoniously into Hell. Lucifer amuses himself with Yankee bumbling. A merciful God would not have allowed the Yankees to come within one Mariano Rivera inning of a sweep only to have them implode. The Yankees are an absolute good. This debacle was the Devil's doing, and it is all my fault. Absolve me, Yankee fans of the world, absolve me.

Michael Carlucci's column, "Yankee Diary," appears alternate Mondays
"I've had a pretty good success facing Stan (Musial) by throwing him my best pitch and backing up third base."
- Carl Erskine

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