Archive for the ‘I Love the Giants’ category

The UFL truth

October 8, 2009

Tonight, at AT&T Park — the home of your San Francisco Giants — the new United Football League (to be referred to hereafter as the UFL) kicks off its inaugural season.

Nobody cares.

This maiden contest pits the homestanding California Redwoods (whose uniforms, in stark contrast to the obvious hues suggested by the name, are a sickly lime green) against the visiting Las Vegas Locomotives.

Nobody cares.

All four of the UFL’s teams — the others are the New York Sentinels and the Florida Tuskers, the latter of which will play home games in the Tampa Bay area — are coached by NFL veterans. The Redwoods’ main clipboard holder is Dennis Green, former head coach of the Minnesota Vikings and Arizona Cardinals, who has local ties as a two-time assistant coach with the San Francisco 49ers and head coach at Stanford University.

And still nobody cares.

The last serious attempt to burrow into the National Football League’s stranglehold hegemony occurred back in the early 1980s, when the United States Football League (USFL) struggled along for three seasons. (I use the word “serious” because no one took seriously the short-lived XFL, concocted by by the same geniuses who brought you the WWE.)

The USFL played its games in the late spring and early summer, avoiding direct competition with the NFL. The moment that the USFL — in a fit of self-destructive bravado — decided to move its season to the fall, the NFL pulled in the reins. The upstart league died with barely a whimper.

I actually enjoyed the USFL for two reasons. For one, the local team, the Oakland Invaders (a certain similarly named NFL squad was slumming in Los Angeles at the time), played many of its home games on Saturday afternoons, making it possible for those of us with Sunday responsibilities to attend. For another, the Invaders’ tickets were relatively inexpensive and readily available, unlike those of the then-dynastic 49ers, so that even on my college student budget I could take in a few contests each year.

As most startup sports leagues do, the USFL went through near-constant franchise turmoil throughout its three-year run. Between the second and third seasons, the Invaders absorbed the former Detroit franchise, the Michigan Panthers, and the two teams’ rosters merged. This resulted in the Invaders, a mediocre club their first two seasons, suddenly becoming a powerhouse — thanks to the addition of several top players from the former USFL champion Panthers, including quarterback Bobby Hebert. The rejuvenated Invaders compiled a 13-4-1 record on their way to the league championship game, which Oakland lost in a 28-24 thriller to the Philadelphia Stars.

Then the USFL went away.

I anticipate the same dire fate for the UFL. Only, I doubt it’ll take three years.

Go Redwoods?

Nobody cares.

[UPDATE: I’m informed that the first UFL game between the Redwoods and the Locomotives is actually being played in Las Vegas, not in San Francisco. You know what? Nobody cares.]

Giants post-script, 2009

October 5, 2009

As the San Francisco Giants began their 2009 campaign, I wrote:

If the Giants hit the way they did in 2008… well, it’ll be a long summer in San Francisco.

As it happened, the Giants did, in fact, hit this season pretty much the way they did last season. The team batting average (.262 in ’08, .257 in ’09) and on-base plus slugging percentage (.703 last year, .699 this year) actually declined. Still, the Giants managed their first winning campaign in five years, thanks largely to one of the best pitching staffs — if not indeed the best staff — in the major leagues.

San Francisco came within two games of completely reversing its dismal 2008 record — the club improved from 72-90 to 88-74, a 16-game uptick — and remained in the National League wild-card race until only five games were left to play. By any measure, that’s a monumental achievement.

Instead of being a long summer, it proved to be just a few weeks too short.

So, while the glow of exploded expectations remains fresh, let’s talk about who did what for the G-Men in ’09.

Starting pitching: Tim “The Freak” Lincecum made good on his 2008 Cy Young Award with another stellar season (15-7, 2.45 ERA, four complete games — two of which were shutouts — and a league-leading 261 strikeouts). Fortunately for Timmy, he didn’t have to carry all of the weight this year. Matt Cain rebounded from a disappointing ’08 to log the best season of his young career (14-8, 2.89. four complete games, 171 K’s). Barry Zito’s year mirrored the preceding one — he stank up the joint for the first two months of the season (1-6 at the end of May), then pitched solidly for the next four months (9-7 after June 1). Jonathan Sanchez threw a no-hitter against San Diego on July 10 — the first by a Giants pitcher since John “The Count” Montefusco accomplished the feat in 1976 — in the middle of another hot-and-cold campaign. In what likely will be the coda of a Hall of Fame career, 45-year-old Randy “The Big Unit” Johnson pitched fairly well (8-6 in 17 starts) before an injury sidelined him until the closing days of the season. Johnson’s farewell appearance — in relief, in the season’s final game — earned him a blown save (the Giants won in extra innings, on a Pablo Sandoval home run). Waiver-wire pickup Brad Penny, who joined the team on September 1 after a dismal year in Boston, pitched with fire and bravado in the final month, posting a 4-1 record and a 2.59 ERA in six starts for the Giants. Grade: A-.

Relief pitching: The Giants’ bullpen, an unqualified disaster in ’08, developed into one of the National League’s best in ’09. Closer Brian Wilson, an All-Star last season, posted another solid year (38 saves, third in the NL) despite adding drama to almost every game he entered. The ‘pen benefited most from the arrival of lefty Jeremy Affeldt, who proved himself one of the top set-up specialists in baseball (a 1.73 ERA in 74 appearances). Rookie Brandon Medders and veteran Justin Miller led the rest of the relief corps, pitching consistently as the middle-inning workhorses before Miller went down with a season-ending injury in late summer. Sergio Romo struggled after an early injury. Merkin Valdez failed to live up to his considerable promise, Aging Bob Howry — the oldest member of the staff at 35, outside of the Big Unit — set a career record for walk-off home runs surrendered to rookies. Late-season promotion Dan Runzler, on the other hand, looks like a gamer. Grade: B.

Catching: Veteran Bengie Molina again demonstrated his value behind the plate. Offensively, Molina stumbled beneath the burden of being the club’s miscast cleanup hitter. “Big Money” smacked 20 home runs for the first time in his career, but his overall production sagged. He drove in 80 runs — down from 95 in ’08 — dropped his batting average nearly 30 points, and struck out 30 more times than the previous year despite playing in 13 fewer games. Molina’s backup, career minor leaguer Eli Whiteside, showed exceptional defensive and game-calling skills, but an anemic bat (.228 with two home runs). One of the key offseason problems for Giants management will be whether to resign the deteriorating Molina for another year, or hand the catching job to top prospect Buster Posey. Grade: B-.

Infield: The Giants discovered their first post-Barry Bonds everyday star in Pablo Sandoval. The 22-year-old Kung Fu Panda broke out big-time in his first full season, leading the team in every offensive category — .330 BA (second in the NL), 25 home runs, 44 doubles, 90 RBI, and a whopping .943 OPS — while splitting time between third base and first. Sandoval’s infectious joie de vivre added spark to an otherwise lackluster lineup. Free agent pickup Juan Uribe, intended as a utility player, blossomed in an ever-changing role as second baseman Emmanuel Burriss’s season was aborted by injury, and shortstop Edgar Renteria gimped through the year with bone chips in his elbow. Uribe’s .824 OPS made him second on the club in offense thump behind Sandoval. The Giants traded at the deadline for second baseman Freddy Sanchez, but a host of ailments impeded his ability to take the field, much less contribute effectively. Another trade acquisition, first baseman Ryan Garko, was another nonfactor. Another first base candidate, Travis Ishikawa, settled into mediocrity at the plate after a red-hot spring training. Second baseman-outfielder Eugenio Velez returned late in the season from a minor league demotion with rejuvenated offensive aggressiveness — the Giants just have to find a position for his below-average defense. Grade: B.

Outfield: The best way I can think of to describe the Giants’ outfield this year? A whole lotta nothin’. The vast expanses of AT&T Park were patrolled in ’09 mostly by guys who couldn’t hit water if they jumped off the McCovey Cove promenade. Of the five players who saw the most outfield innings — Randy Winn, Aaron Rowand, Fred Lewis, Nate Schierholtz, and the aforementioned Velez — not one hit for a .270 average or drove in 65 runs, and only Rowand clouted double-digit home runs (16 — Schierholtz and Velez were tied for second among the outfielders with five HR each). That’s a monumental black hole among the traditional power positions. If you seek a reason for San Francisco’s offensive ineptitude, look no further. Grade: D.

Dugout: Results count, so credit manager Bruce Bochy and his staff — especially pitching coach Dave Righetti and bullpen coach Mark Gardner — for making the most of this lopsided mix. If I had to guess, I would bet that Bochy and most of his team will be retained for next season (no formal announcement has been made, but the rumor is already circulating), but that hitting coach Carney Lansford will be kicked to the curb. (Lansford’s replacement may be minor league instructor Hensley “Bam Bam” Meulens, who’s said to be responsible for Velez’s late-season turnaround.) Grade: B.

Overall: For a team that many — yours truly included — thought might be one of the worst clubs in baseball going into the season, 2009 was a phenomenal year. With even one more capable bat to complement Sandoval, the Giants would be playing postseason baseball right now. Management will have to exhaust every option to bring more offense to the club between now and next spring. With a magnificent rotation — the Giants will need to decide whether to pursue Brad Penny for an ongoing deal — and an improving bullpen, San Francisco simply must find ways to push more runs across the plate. This ’09 team was 75-25 in games in which the offense scored three or more runs. Just imagine what Lincecum, Cain, Zito, Wilson, Affeldt and company might do behind a lineup that could tally four runs per game. That smells like a World Series to me. Grade: B.

He may be no Angel

September 21, 2009

This might just be the most improbable event in an improbable season for the San Francisco Giants.

Angel Villalona, a 19-year-old slugging catcher-turned-first baseman considered the hottest prospect in the Giants’ minor league system as recently as six months ago, was charged today with murder in his native Dominican Republic.

Authorities in Santo Domingo allege that Villalona shot and killed 25-year-old Mario Felix de Jesus Velete in a bar last weekend. Villalona is pleading not guilty.

Villalona was the biggest bonus baby in Giants’ history when he signed with San Francisco in 2006. His $2.1 million signing bonanza outstripped the first-contract cash paid to such stellar talents as Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, who currently form two-fifths of the Giants’ starting rotation.

After some initial success in the low minors (17 home runs, 64 runs batted in, and 29 doubles in the South Atlantic League last summer), Villalona’s progress slowed this year at Class-A San Jose, hitting an unremarkable .267 with nine home runs before a season-ending leg injury.

If convicted of murder in the D.R., Villalona faces a minimum sentence of 20 years. The Giants face a loss of $2.1 million and a bucketful of potential.

That’s baseball.

Ryan is tryin’ but Freddy’s not ready

July 29, 2009

Do I think that the San Francisco Giants have become world-beaters, now that they’ve added Ryan (Don’t Call Me Donnie) Garko and Freddy (Don’t Call Me Dirty) Sanchez to their everyday lineup?


But I do think they’re a better ballclub than they were three days ago. And I think they’ve improved their chances in the National League wild card race, which they currently lead by a half-game over the Colorado Rockies.


Sanchez is legit — a career .300 hitter, an All-Star three of the last four years (including this year), and a solid defensive second baseman. Assuming that his inflamed knee clears up sooner rather than later, and doesn’t prove to me a chronic complaint, Sanchez is light-years superior to the cast of thousands the G-Men have trotted out to the keystone sack thus far this season.

Garko, while not the player than Sanchez is, will give the Giants more consistent offense than the incumbent, Travis Ishikawa, who will still see action as a late-inning defensive replacement and against certain right-handed pitchers. Garko’s a former Stanford guy, so he’s got to have at least a few synapses firing, and he brings post-season experience to a team with next to none.

Had I my druthers, sure, I’d have liked for the Giants to pick up a bat that could jolt the ball out of the yard once or twice a week. Unfortunately, most of the available power hitters come with serious negatives — either they would cost San Francisco more in trade than the Giants would want to surrender (Jermaine Dye), or they’d command too high a salary to guarantee return on investment (Adam Dunn), or they’d alter the team dynamic (specifically, the defense) in unpalatable ways (Dunn again, or Nick Johnson).

With these considerations, I believe that GM Brian Sabean and his team have done as well as one could expect.

Now, we just need Freddy’s quarrelsome knee to mellow out, keep Garko swinging the stick the way he did in his first at-bat today, and follow our world-class pitching staff into the playoffs.

Of course, if we could snag Jermaine Dye for a rosin bag and a shoe-shine, that would be wicked awesome too.

Angels in the outfield

July 15, 2009

The last time I attended a major league baseball game at a park outside of my hometown Bay Area was way back in the early 1980s, when I caught a couple of games at Dodger Stadium during my days at Pepperdine University.

So, when I found myself headed for Anaheim at the beginning of this month — you’ve already read about that, haven’t you? — I thought it might be fun to check out a tilt at Angel Stadium, the home of the most ridiculously named team in professional sports, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. (Most ridiculous, that is, next to my beloved Golden State Warriors, whose geographical designation makes them sound like a Division III collegiate squad from Colorado.)

Fortunately for me, the Angels were hosting the Baltimore Orioles on Sunday afternoon as I was bound for home. Online ticket in hand and Giants cap on my head, I joined the throng at the Big A (do they still call it the Big A?) for a dose of the national pastime in the southern California sun.

My impressions…

We Giants fans are totally getting ripped off on parking fees. Whenever I go to a game in San Francisco, it costs me $30 to stash my minivan in a lot two blocks from AT&T Park. In Anaheim, I paid a paltry eight bucks to park in a lot right on the property — close enough that with a decent tailwind, I could have hit the side of the stadium with a well-hurled baseball. The parking lot attendant enjoyed a good chuckle at my out-of-towner’s incredulity over how cheap the tariff was.

Angel Stadium is a pretty decent place to watch a game. It’s not as stunning as AT&T — then again, what is? — but it’s nicely designed, with good sightlines, easy accessibility, and a touch of character.

The Angel Stadium customer service staff gets an A for effort. I had no less than five polite, friendly folk pause unbidden to help direct me to my seat. And I wasn’t sitting all that far from the front entrance.

Angels fans, on the other hand, must be the least involved spectators anywhere. I was dumbfounded by how quiet the crowd was — and this was an exciting, high-scoring, come-from-behind victory for the home team. At both Bay Area parks, and especially at AT&T, you’ll hear a constant stream of individually self-directed chatter from the stands, aimed at the players on the field: “Let’s go, Giants!” “Throw strikes, Zito!” “Come on, Pablo, crank one!” That sort of thing. There was none of that in Anaheim. Oh, sure, the Angels fans clapped and cheered when a member of their team got a hit — Vladimir Guerrero’s two-run jack in the bottom of the fifth even yanked them from their seats — or made a good play. They made noise when the scoreboard operator cued them to do so (usually with a caption that read, “Make Noise!”). But they didn’t engage in the kind of random, freelance byplay to which I’m accustomed.

Everything you hear about SoCal physical culture is true. The petite female half of the couple seated next to me sported a prominent pair of mammary accessories that clearly reflected the talents of an expensive surgeon rather than the hand of Mother Nature. And she didn’t lack for company. Doc Hollywood must be making a fortune.

No matter where you go, ballpark concessions are exorbitantly overpriced. I didn’t eat anything during the game, but my lone Diet Pepsi set me back $5.25. I wanted a drink, not a seat at the stockholders’ meeting.

Tough to judge by one game, but the Angels look like a terrible defensive team. I’m mostly a National League aficionado, so I haven’t seen Anaheim play all that much. They were charged with two errors in this game, and a less charitable scorekeeper could have tagged them with a couple more. If that’s indicative of their usual play, it’s a good thing they can hit.

The Angels can definitely hit. See above.

That Rally Monkey is darned cute. I especially enjoyed the film vignettes played on the Angel Stadium scoreboard, which digitally incorporate the Anaheim mascot — a hyperactive capuchin monkey clad in a miniature Angels jersey — into clips from several popular motion pictures, including Shrek and Night at the Museum. I don’t get the connection between angels and monkeys, but somehow, it works. After the game, I hied myself into the nearest souvenir shop and bought my daughter a stuffed Rally Monkey. (I’m still angry about the ’02 World Series, though.)

You can’t make baseball any more convenient than the Angels do. Within a one-block drive of the stadium, I was on Interstate 5 and aimed for home. If only it was that easy to get in and out of China Basin post-game.

Anaheim is not in Los Angeles. Obvious, I know. But it deserves repeating.