Saturday, October 21, 2006

Our Destiny: Cliche-Addicted Broadcasters

At playoff time, remember to throw those records out the window

By Christopher Heun

When it comes to baseball in October, announcers and sportswriters are helpless in the face of destiny.

Now that the Cardinals have outlasted the Mets for a trip to Detroit to face the Tigers in the World Series, the people who get paid to tell us what happened are falling all over themselves to wax poetic and invoke the power of Providence, Fortune and Fate.

They’re so excited to credit a supernatural force – rather than something obvious, like superior pitching – that they can’t make up their minds about which team is actually destiny’s favorite.

“Destiny seemed to belong to the Mets,” Tom Timmermann wrote yesterday in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about the decisive Game Seven the previous night. “All season long they made comebacks to pull out wins, and Thursday night had all the trappings of another dramatic moment headed their way.”

Until, of course, Carlos Beltran didn’t pull it out in the bottom of the ninth. That meant fickle fate was really fingering St. Louis: “Destiny writes Cards' ninth-inning script” was the headline Friday on just hours after the game was over.

Michael Rosenberg of the Detroit Free Press was so giddy about the Series matchup that he proclaimed, “Both teams in this World Series must feel like destiny's children. One of them is right.” Oh. So, presumably a team must only be blessed with the magical pixie dust of hack sportswriters when it wins. But why can’t it be a team’s destiny to lose? Like the Cubs, for instance. The Orioles, by contrast, seem destined only to finish in fourth place every year. They’re not even good at being bad.

Rosenberg speaks for most sportswriters and others in the media when he writes that “On paper, the Tigers are the much better team -- they won 95 games, compared to 83 for the Cardinals, and they did it in the American League, which is much tougher than the National League.”

To his credit, he points out: “If the Tigers have proven anything this season, it's that the heavy favorite doesn't always win.” That’s true, although it says more about the people picking the favorites, but that’s another topic altogether. To Rosenberg’s discredit, however, he also typed out this zinger: “But if they played games on paper, nobody would wear cleats.” Apparently, he forgot to remind his readers that during the postseason, you can throw the team records out the window.

Both of these Series teams slumped at the end of the season and then rebounded, surprisingly, in the playoffs. I don’t think the Tigers beating the Yankees ranks as much of an upset as the Cardinals deposing of the Mets, because of Detroit’s superior starting pitching. Destiny, her name is pitching.

St. Louis deserves more credit for its National League pennant than simply attributing the achievement to “destiny.” Jeff Suppan pitched brilliantly in his two starts and has won two NLCS Game Sevens in the past three years. Jeff Weaver in the playoffs is throwing like his younger brother Jered. As MSNBC, that trusted source of baseball analysis, put it: “If pitching keeps up, Cards have a chance.”

I happen to think the Tigers will chew up the Cards like red-feathered chum and win this World Series, but whether or not that’s the case, destiny will have nothing to do with it.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Steroid Talk Just Empty Gossip

If so many O’s were juicing, then why all the losing?

By Christopher Heun

I’m sick of hearing about steroids.

No, not because the latest revelation – or desperate accusation, depending on your point of view – forces Orioles fans to stomach Brian Roberts and Jay Gibbons as juicers, along with oft-accused teammate Miguel Tejada. As sad as that is, and as much as we don’t want to believe it (and who really does, anyway?), that’s not the real problem.

I’m sick of hearing about steroids because everything we hear about performance-enhancing drugs and sports – not just in baseball but track and field and cycling, too – is nothing but conjecture, wild finger pointing and leaked testimony or test results, followed by fervent denials from the accused and an extra helping of conjecture by the rest of us. In the end, we don’t know whom to believe.

Rarely is there any proof. Despite all the suspicions about them, Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa never failed a drug test. Remember, it was Bonds’s December 2003 testimony to the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative grand jury, transcripts of which were later illegally leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle, that ignited the media scrutiny of the indignant superstar.

The Chronicle reporters responsible for the BALCO story, who together wrote the book on Bonds and steroids, "Game of Shadows," now face 18 months in jail, pending an appeal, for refusing to disclose the source who leaked the grand jury testimony to them.

Meanwhile, Bonds passes Babe Ruth and edges closer to Hank Aaron on the all-time home run list, while Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield, two more BALCO All-Stars, still swing their bats in what has become their annual run of October baseball. It's mind-boggling that an investigation of illegal drug use by professional athletes would lead to the imprisonment not of any of the athletes who actually used steroids but to the reporters who wrote about the BALCO trial.

The latest bombshell, delivered by Jason Grimsley in April and
reported last week by the Los Angeles Times, names the three Birds along with Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte as players whose identities were redacted from a search warrant affidavit filed in Phoenix on May 31.

That search warrant was made public by federal investigators. Those investigators now say that the Times' sources, who told the paper some of what had been blacked out of the public copies, got their facts wrong. However, no one is volunteering to set the record straight.

There might be a grain of truth buried in Grimsley’s allegations, but how would anyone know? There certainly aren’t any test results to back up his claims. If it weren’t for rumors, we wouldn’t have anything to talk about.

All five players named in the Times story deny using steroids, but that won’t erase the stain on their reputations. Outside of baseball, the story is much the same. Marion Jones found out last month that a second urine sample came back negative, thus exonerating her, after an initial test found the blood-boosting substance EPO. Floyd Landis failed a test during the Tour de France, but the results remain in dispute more than two months later.

People with access to test results, court testimony and search warrants are handing the information to reporters, sometimes in violation of the law.
Martin Dugard, author of Chasing Lance, a behind-the-scenes look at life at the Tour de France, has had enough of trying athletes in the court of public opinion:
Everyone from the Tour de France, to WADA (the World Anti-Doping Agency), to the federal prosecutors investigating Major League baseball has gotten in the habit of leaking privileged and confidential information long before any formal charges are filed. Those leaks (an unfortunate coincidence, but it's appropriate that testing involving urine samples is actually "leaked") make headlines. Those headlines are splashed around the world. And those headlines form opinions -- yours and mine.
There has to be a better way to sort through this mess. We have a fascination with knowing who cheated with steroids (and then, curiously, once we know and they "apologize" – witness Giambi – we forget it ever happened). But the truth is, we will never know for certain who was juicing before 2005 because there were no tests in place with publicized results.

So, the next time headlines scream about some guilty player naming his teammates from three years ago as fellow juicers, I don’t want to hear about it.

If Bonds manages to pass Aaron as the home run king next year -- a prospect that countless fans, along with Bud Selig, are rooting against -- I won't accept it. Bar-roid has already made a mockery of the record book.

The slow response by the commissioner or anyone else in baseball to crack down on steroids in the sport, coupled with the failure to this day to develop a test for human growth hormone, ensures that we’ll never know for certain who did what.

For all the press attention of the past few years and the cloud of suspicion over many of the game's best players, nothing's really changed. The best we can hope for is that the tests that are in place now discourage future drug use. And where's the comfort in that?

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Cabrera's like one of Dem Bums

Early numbers resemble those of a familiar voice for O's fans

By Matthew Taylor

The Orioles aren’t the first team to have a hard-throwing right-hander who alternately frustrates with his control problems and tantalizes with his promise. A guy who sets a record for walks early one season and throws a one-hitter as the schedule winds down on another. The type of hurler who has fans cursing one moment and saying “Thank Youuuuuuu” the next.

Daniel Cabrera, meet Rex Barney.

Nearly six decades separate the careers of Rex Barney and Daniel Cabrera, but both pitchers have suffered from similar cases of baseball bipolarity. And thanks to the now-deceased Barney’s long-time role as Baltimore’s beloved public address announcer, the players share fewer than six degrees of Orioles separation.

Bird loyalists might believe there’s never been a major league pitcher as maddeningly inconsistent as Daniel Cabrera, but baseball history, just like the real thing, has a way of repeating itself.

Sportswriter Bob Cooke famously said of Barney that he “would be the league’s best pitcher if the plate were high and outside.” Much like Cabrera, Barney – who played in 1943 and from 1946 to 1950 with the Brooklyn Dodgers – struggled to harness his enormous potential on the mound, ultimately ending his injury-shortened career with more walks than strikeouts.

Think things have been bad with Cabrera? Legendary baseball executive Branch Rickey once became so frustrated with Barney’s control problems that he hired a hypnotist to address the issue. Baltimore’s front office hasn’t taken to using pseudo-psychology on Cabrera, but many similarities still exist between the short career stories of Rex Barney and Daniel Cabrera.

On May 13, 1951, Barney walked a Texas League record-setting 16 batters in fewer than eight innings of work. The similarly erratic Cabrera issued six walks in the first inning of a game this season with the Red Sox. Barney, like Cabrera, had lights-out stuff when the switch was flipped on. He tossed a one-hitter on Aug. 18, 1948, only to do himself one better less than a month later with a no-hitter. Had the Orioles’ season ended just a few weeks later perhaps Cabrera would have likewise met with baseball providence.

No side-by-side comparison reveals the similarities between the mound work of Barney and Cabrera quite as effectively as does a look at Barney’s 1949 season up against Cabrera’s rookie campaign in 2004.

Rex Barney, then 24, finished the 1949 season with a 9-8 record and an ERA of 4.41. Cabrera, then 23, finished the 2004 season with a 12-8 record and an ERA of 5.00.

Barney (140.7) and Cabrera (147.7) pitched roughly the same amount of innings, had similar totals for home runs allowed (15 to 14), hit batters (3 to 2), and shutouts (2 to 1), and each saved a single game for their respective teams. Both players walked 89 batters, a number that eclipsed their strikeout totals (Barney – 80; Cabrera 76). There’s no precedent, however, for the dozen wild pitches Cabrera uncorked in 2004.

After 1949, Barney pitched just one additional major-league season. He got beaned by the baseball gods, retiring due to injury before the age of 30. Barney therefore never lived out the potential that left Dodger fans breathless with anticipation during his shortened career.

Cabrera, meanwhile, just finished his second full season since 2004 and has breathed new life into his own career after flirting with no-hit history at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 28. Writers like The Sun’s Rick Maese are now suggesting that Cabrera’s going to be worth the wait after all. Hopefully, Maese is correct and Cabrera’s destiny on the diamond will turn out more favorably than did Barney’s.

It must be noted that Barney did create a meaningful legacy for himself after his career ended. He worked as the Orioles’ public address announcer for 25 years, delighting fans with his comforting cadence and familiar catch phrases. Listen when a looping foul ball enters the stands at Camden Yards and a spectator makes a clean grab; chances are you’ll still hear fans over the age of 30 mimicking Barney’s trademark, “Give that fan a contract.”

The announcer also penned two books about his baseball experiences. Of his career, he wrote in his autobiography, “I should have been up there with the greats. I should have gone right up the ladder in 1949, but too many rungs were missing.”

The Orioles offered a touching tribute to Barney after his passing on Aug. 12, 1997, by foregoing a public address announcer for their game with the Oakland A’s. Having been there that evening, I can say that the gesture revealed just how integral Barney was to a night of baseball in Baltimore.

If you’ve ever heard Daniel Cabrera give a post-game interview, you can fairly predict that he won’t match Barney’s legend behind the mic. However, Cabrera might still create a legacy of his own in Baltimore. His statement game in Yankee Stadium suggests that his career arc could be ready to head in a new direction once he takes a few more of those lanky 6-foot-7-inch strides to the mound. And, he's willing to give back to the community, too: Cabrera volunteered to donate a game ball from his one-hitter to a Johns Hopkins charity auction.

But with the Orioles’ 2006 season in the books and Cabrera’s development on hold for another off-season, there’s room to establish one final link between the young hurler and his inconsistent predecessor while time, in a baseball sense, is frozen.

Fans of the Brooklyn Dodgers were known, among other things, for coining the phrase “Wait till next year.” O’s fans have adopted a similar line of thinking with Daniel Cabrera. Next year came in 1955 for the Dodger faithful. Could next year come in 2007 for Oriole fans?