That Fine Line

April 16, 2012

Brian Wilson joked Sunday about going up to the broadcast booth during his time away from the field and winning an Emmy.  Forget that.  I’d give him an Oscar right now.  He is one our finest actors.

Sunday, he acted upbeat about possibly fading away into the background for a year, maybe more.  He regarded the possibility of a second Tommy John surgery like he was paying a traffic ticket, calling it a “mild bump in the road.”  It has to hurt a little more than that.

        

Then again, he’s been pretty good at hiding pain.  On Thursday at Coors Field, he heard a pop in his elbow, but told trainer Dave Groeschner and manager Bruce Bochy that he tweaked his ankle, convincing the Giants to keep him in the game.

The act could only go so far, however. His body language said something much different.  Then, Wilson’s pitches told the story. He couldn’t reach 90 on the radar gun.  Something was clearly wrong.

  

Wilson said he didn’t want to “walk off the mound a failure.”  Short-term, he didn’t.   In fact, it’s amazing he could even pitch at all and get out of a jam for what will likely be his final save of the season. 

         

Long-term, we’ll see.  Nobody doubts that if Wilson undergoes Tommy John surgery, he will work as hard as anyone at getting back.  But nobody knows whether he’ll come back with closer’s stuff.

         

Wilson walks that fine line most athletes walk when they deal with pain and injury.  Push yourself and win the admiration of your manager and teammates ?  Great, until you aggravate the injury and can’t help the team anymore.

         

Pace yourself and refrain from taking the field when you’re not 100 percent?  You get sideway glances from teammates and the hairy eyeball from your manager,  but maybe wise in the long run.

         

Some players have taken the latter option, but that’s not Brian Wilson.  Maybe he was nonchalant Sunday because he knew the day was coming:  he said he was on “borrowed time” after extending himself to the limit in 2010. 

         

Manager Bruce Bochy surely appreciated it at the time;  not so much now.  Bochy said Wilson can be “difficult to manage” because he doesn’t always tell the truth about his physical condition.  But the truth catches up to everyone, and it caught up with Wilson Thursday.

         

Who’s to say Wilson was wrong ?  He’ll always have a World Series ring, no matter what. In his world, that’s called “winning.”

Wilson says he wouldn’t have handled things differently. By last August he was dealing with a flexor tendon issue, not a ligament problem. That all changed this spring. 

By the end of spring, he finally ramped up and threw well against the A’s, but hid the fact he wasn’t completely comfortable. He wasn’t going to tell, however, and he was throwing in the mid 90’s at Coors until the elbow disengaged.

        

Wilson says he’s going to be around during his rehab, however long, become a “student of the game” and a “better teammate.” But players on the injured list become apparitions.  That’s the way it is.  That’s a not-so-fine line.

         

Wilson says it’s a chance to get “a better arm,” but even the man who performs so many of those surgeries, Dr. James Andrews, has said the odds are stacked against those who undergo a second procedure. “You can always get it redone, but it won’t be as good as the first time.” (USA Today, 7/18/07).

The track record is mixed. For every Doug Brocail and Al Reyes there is a Darren Dreifort. Jason Isringhausen has endured three surgeries and has compiled 300 saves, and at 39 is still pitching, for the Angels. Wilson will have a companion across the Bay if he goes under the knife, because A’s reliever Joey Devine is due for a second Tommy John surgery.

Is it Robb Nen 2.0 ?  Did Wilson sacrifice his career for a season of glory ?  Maybe, but my money is on a better outcome. 

       

One thing you have to say about pitchers who come back after two surgeries, and a grueling rehab ( or three, in the case of Isringhausen ), is that they must really love baseball. Or, you could say they have nowhere else to go.

Wilson will probably have options in the media after he’s done, but at 30 he isn’t ready to give anything up, and he truly loves the game as well. He also has a pretty big heart, as fans have already witnessed in the past couple of seasons.

Wilson is known to the casual fan for the beard, his quirky answers, The Machine, and the spandex tuxedo. He seems to enjoy the spotlight and he certainly has an ego, which was part of the problem in the way he handled his injury.

All that aside, Wilson is also a very smart player who has a work ethic like no other. You can tell he is already preparing himself mentally for the challenge ahead.

If he returns, will the Giants cut his pay and keep him, or let someone else claim him ? The Giants don’t necessarily owe Wilson, but there is such a strong tie between player and team that I can’t see the Giants casting him off to the four winds.

So, WHEN he returns, will he have closer’s stuff ? Or will he be another retread veteran middle reliever ? Wilson has been down this road once before and knows what to do, but the quote from Dr. Andrews is still ringing in my ears.

I also have this memory: I was there when Tommy John walked off the mound at Dodger Stadium in the middle of an All-Star season in 1974, his left arm limp at his side, his season and perhaps his career done.

He walked into a very uncertain future, with the same damaged ulnar collateral ligament that plagues Wilson now. Later that year, John underwent the first surgery in which a ligament from his other arm replaced the damaged one, performed by Dr. Frank Jobe.

The surgery didn’t have a name yet, but that would change.

John returned after more than a year and went on to win 164 more games (288 total ), pitching until 1989. There’s the famous line as he finally called it quits at age 46, after Mark McGwire got two hits off him.

McGuire’s father was John’s dentist, and John said “when your dentist’s kid starts hitting you, it’s time to retire.” John not only had a tremendous career, he had a surgery named after him, and he paved the way for numerous pitchers with an operation that saved many careers.

Still, John has never come close to getting enough votes for induction into the Hall of Fame. For me, it’s a no-brainer, but maybe the Veteran’s Committee will get a clue.

So, 38 years after the first TJ surgery, Brian Wilson is hoping he’s the latest whose career will be saved. Stay tuned for the next act.

 

 

 

 

        

 

 

 

 

FanFest

February 5, 2012

February 5

Aubrey Huff’s quick wit is always at the ready, and after 2011, it’s gallows humor.

At a Q & A session during Saturday’s Giants FanFest, a little girl asked Tim Lincecum how he felt when Buster Posey was injured by Florida’s Scott Cousins in a home plate collision.

That drew an “awwwww” from the crowd, and Posey drew laughs when he made a sad face. Then Huff said his first thought was, “there goes the offense.”

In retrospect, Posey’s awful night in May was the turning point of a season that ended with disappointment; along with the shoulder injury to Freddy Sanchez. On the flip side, their return to health and effectiveness are keys to a Giants rebound in 2012.

Both can at least laugh a little now.

Posey moved about easily Saturday, and by all accounts his rehab is going well. He is also considering using a different catcher’s mask to reduce the risk of concussions, a concern before the home plate collision last May.

During our Q & A session, Sanchez told me his rehab from shoulder injury is going well, although his constant workout regimen is tough. The real test will be when he needs to make a throw to first from behind the second base bag, while heading toward the outfield. He has had surgery on both shoulders, partly due to his all-out style of play, and Sanchez says he won’t change that.

Even if both Posey and Sanchez return, there is no guarantee they will make the same contributions. Things have changed.

Posey gave the Giants a huge edge in 2010 because he was almost exclusively a catcher. Now he might catch four days a week to reduce the risk of injury. However, the offense was so bad last year that Posey’s bat is welcome, no matter where he plays.

Sanchez is close to a .300 hitter when healthy, but staying on the field has been an issue in his career. There’s no guarantee he can play 150 or 160 games this year. In addition, he is 34 now, and his range isn’t quite what it used to be.

Nonetheless, a healthy Sanchez will be an upgrade from anything the Giants ran out to second base last year. Also, his presence in the two-hole should help make the offense more efficient.

Posey and Sanchez are two of the biggest question marks on a team with many.

Can the offense re-emerge from the Dead Ball Era of 2011 ? Can Huff return close to his form of 2010? Can Brandon Belt step up to the next level as a major league hitter — or can he even get enough playing time to get into a groove ?

Can Melky Cabrera approach the impressive numbers he put up in Kansas City last year, on a team that will probably play more pressure-packed games ? Will a change of scenery help Angel Pagan, and can he make a contribution from the leadoff spot ?

Can Brandon Crawford handle the job of an every-day shortstop, and can he provide more at the plate than a Johnnie LeMaster ? Can Pablo Sandoval continue to take his physical fitness seriously now that he has a three-year deal and an All-Star game under his belt, or will he have too much girth for his belt to take ?

Can Brian Wilson recover from the wear and tear of 2010 and 2011 ? He admits to pushing himself to the max to get a World Series ring in ’10, something he doesn’t regret. Can Ryan Vogelsong repeat his impressive All-Star campaign of 2011, or will the back of the baseball card rear its’ ugly head ?

The odds of having all those questions answered positively are not great, but if most are, the Giants have a real shot to win the NL West.

During our Q & A session, Vogelsong said his experience in Japan was a big help in his career. Sanchez, a teammate of his in Pittsburgh, said Vogelsong was a hard thrower then but has now learned to be a true pitcher.

Vogelsong and Sanchez, by the way, might want to take their act on the nightclub circuit. They cut it up for the fans on the Club Level. Sanchez relayed how he hit a home run with a Vogelsong bat. I asked him how long he kept it and he said, “until it broke.”

Someone asked Vogelsong about his tattoos, of which provided only partial information. A couple are related to his strong faith. I asked him about Ryan Roberts of Arizona, who has tats going up his neck: he said “I don’t know, I haven’t checked him out.”

There were plenty of laughs and fewer complaints at this year’s FanFest. There were about 5,000 fewer fans, and the entire field was available so people could roam around. Autograph lines were still longer than toilet paper lines in Stalinist Russia, but no one should be surprised at this point.

That November night in Texas seems a long time ago, but there’s no doubt the Giants still have a massive, enthusiastic fan base. Last year’s string of mishaps and injuries showed how difficult it can be to repeat a championship, but for players and fans, there is reason to hope for a bounce-back year.

A Legendary Day

January 15, 2012

January 14

All week long, KNBR personalities recounted their memories of “The Catch” game on its 30th anniversary. For my part, when Dwight Clark caught Joe Montana’s pass, I damaged hotel property at the Sheraton Waikiki. I jumped so high that it took a few minutes to dislodge my head from the ceiling.

I have no doubt that this generation of 49er fans will remember Saturday, January 14th as long as they live. No matter what happens from here on in, the playoff game with the Saints will be etched in 49er lore forever.

I jokingly said at the end of the Fitz and Brooks show Friday that since no one is predicting it, I would forecast the 49ers winning in a shootout. Did I really believe it ? Not completely, but then again no one foresaw a game ending like a thoroughbred horse race with a mad dash to the finish line.

This game wasn’t high drama, it was opera. It was a game of incredible highs and gasp-inducing lows. Could you sell the script to Hollywood ? Yes, probably. There’s a shortage of good ideas in that town right now, so why not ?

The 49ers began the game like their hair was on fire, especially on defense. The likes of Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner acted like bulls who saw red. They hit everything that moved, forcing four first-half turnovers.

Whitner’s hit on Pierre Thomas near the goal line on the first series led to the first turnover. It not only forced the first turnover and kept the Saints from taking the lead, it forced Thomas out of the game, weakening the Saints’ rushing attack.

Although the 49ers bolted to a 17-0 lead, the Saints were too good and too potent to keep down. When Saints quarterback Drew Brees found freakishly talented tight end Jimmy Graham in the end zone, everyone at Candlestick Park knew they were in for a ballgame, especially the 49ers. It was 17-7, and Brees would strike again a few minutes later with a pretty arc to Marques Colston.

Despite four turnovers, the Saints only trailed by three at the half. Then in the third quarter, 49er quarterback Alex Smith briefly reverted to 2006 form as the conservative ‘Niners closed ranks, and Frank Gore was oddly missing from the game plan.

Brees was cooking, while the 49ers offense was beginning to find quicksand. It almost sunk the team, but as they have all season, they leaned on the defense.

Thanks to big plays by Justin Smith and Carlos Rogers, the 49ers managed to put the finger in the dike for a while, and the 49ers held a 23-17 lead midway through the fourth quarter. Fans wondered how much longer the 49ers could lean on their D, which had been on the field way too much.

That’s when the dam burst. On both sides of the ball. What followed was four minutes of mind-blowing football theatre.

Drew Brees found Darren Sproles on a short pass, and if it was flag football he still would have scored a touchdown. The inevitable had happened — the little guy broke a big one — and the Saints led 24-23. An emotion somehwere between worry and panic probably overcame some of the red-clad fans at Candlestick.

Then, Alex Smith and the 49ers began what should have been a defining drive, which included Smith throwing a beautiful sideline lob to tight end Vernon Davis. Then on third down on the Saints’ 28, offensive coordinator Greg Roman pulled a play out of a rather large bag of tricks. Smith, from the shotgun, bootlegged around left end, getting great blocks from Kyle Williams and Joe Staley, and loped all the way in for a score.

On Twitter, some fans were already calling it The Run. Too soon, though.

A few fans wondered whether Smith should have fallen before the goal line and let the clock run, but that’s counter-intuitive for a competitor. It’s debatable whether the 49ers could have run out the clock, but a touchdown is very hard to turn down.

Gore was stuffed on the two-point try, a curious call after the great call on the Smith bootleg. Play-action rollout might have worked better there, but the 49ers still held on to a five-point lead with 2:11 left.

Plenty of time for Brees and the Saints : in fact, too much time. Brees found Graham on a 66 yard catch and run, and Graham rampaged through the weary 49er defense to give the Saints a 30-29 lead, followed by the two point conversion.

Again, some fans might have wondered if Graham should have fallen down just short of the goal line, have the Saints work off the clock, and then dive over the goal line for the clincher. Again, counter-intuitive and too risky.

Graham and the Saints celebrated. Maybe they thought they had finally driven a stake into the 49ers heart. After all, there was no way Alex Smith … ALEX SMITH … could top the great Brees and muster another legendary scoring drive. Could he ?

There was 1:37 left, and I told everyone in the room there was still time to not only tie but win the game. This game had broken loose and if Smith could come up with one clutch drive, why not another ?

Why not, when Vernon Davis was matching Graham and proving next-to-impossible for the likes of Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper to cover ? That was the price the Saints paid for blitzing, and the 49ers took advantage, time and again. Smith found Davis again, and he raced down the left sideline for a 47 yard connection, setting up a possible game-tying field goal.

The way things were going, however, the 49ers did NOT want to go overtime with the Saints. Why risk a coin flip that gives the potent Saints the ball first against a ‘Niner defense that was gassed ?

With a short pass to Frank Gore and a spike, Smith and the 49ers reached the 14-yard line with :14 seconds to go and one timeout left. Time for a shot to the end zone.

That’s what Smith did, and it was the pass of his career. A dart over the middle to Davis at the goal line, touchdown 49ers. With Akers’ extra point it was 36-32 with nine seconds left, and the game was locked up.

In the fading afternoon shadows, Smith and Davis lit up Candlestick better than Pacific Gas and Electric ever could. The pair, who had been through so much over the last several years, played Big Boy Football. At the most opportune time.

After a gallant effort by the defense, it was Smith who had to take this one to the finish line. After all he had been through, after being forged by hardship on the field, he was ready to handle the gridiron crucible.

Then there is Davis, once sent off the field by Mike Singletary. He appeared to cry as he caressed the game-winning ball. Those rough days early in his career had to come to mind in his moment of greatness.

Both players have made millions, but I think if you ask them, nothing is more valuable than those crucial final minutes of Saturday’s classic. They both found their way into 49er legend. As did Roman, and head coach Jim Harbaugh.

This was NOT on the same level as The Catch, which propelled the 49ers into the Super Bowl, but for a fan base that had so little to cheer about since 2003, this will do just fine. Davis’ catch is certainly up there with Terrell Owens’ Catch 2.

For me, it was another chance to do property damage. This time the damage was done to my own home, and I’ll leave it at that.

Funny thing about that lockout. It looked like the worst possible set of circumstances for a new coach with no NFL head-coaching experience, but it worked out well.

It forced the 49ers, and Harbaugh in particular, to cast their lot with Smith as quarterback. Harbaugh, who has gained the reputation as a quarterback “whisperer,” saw enough in Smith to salvage him, and rescued his career. Saturday, Smith repaid the favor.

Now comes a sentence I never thought I would write. The 49ers would not have made the NFC Championship game without Alex Smith. If they decided to pursue other options a year ago, they likely would have watched the playoffs from their living rooms.

If this sounds like a full-fledged apology to Smith, after years of crushing him, it is. He deserves it. Frankly I couldn’t be happier for the guy, who has respect all around the locker room.

I had already said on the air, before the playoffs, that I was sold on Smith as long-term 49er quarterback, as long as Harbaugh was his coach. I’d bet on it now.

Smith had already earned major kudos during a 13-3 regular season, doing things Harbaugh asked him to do within a limited framework. However, Saturday was different. Harbaugh had to let Smith loose, trust him to answer one of the great quarterbacks in the NFL, and win the game instead of just “managing,” that awful word.

In the frantic final minutes, Smith coolly exorcised all of the demons. So did Davis.

The 49ers have come of age. Whether they visit Green Bay or host the Giants in the NFC title game, you want to bet against them now ?

Damn You, Mayan Calendar

January 2, 2012

January 2, 2012

So, they say it’ll be curtains this year, if you believe the Mayan calendar.  Sudden death, but no overtime.             

Does that mean I’ll not post a blog to begin the new year ?   Just give up, like Billy Beane and the A’s, until we reach our next destination ? 

Hell no. The blogosphere is still here, in the face of adversity.              

First of all, this just in — we’re all going to die, anyway.  Well, at least those of us who were not transported to Earth in pods from the planet ZZYZYX to mix with the human population centuries ago. 

I think I’ve done a decent job of assimilating, if I do say so myself.  But my, how your measure of time flies. The pod’s solar-powered motor is running, but we’re all sticking around just in case there’s been a mistake.

We hope so. Earth is just so gosh-darn fun.

And yes, there’s a chance that translating the Mayan language led to subtle inaccuracies.  For example, maybe the world ends in 2210, not 2012.  Cheap Shot Warning: that should give the Warriors just enough time to make the playoffs again.

So assuming we aren’t facing the End of Days just yet ( the popularity of Lady Gaga notwithstanding ) , I have several requests as a sports fan leading into 2012 and yes, beyond.             

– I hope and pray I have no more child sex abuse scandals on which to report during my sports updates.  And if Jerry Sandusky is convicted, please put him away for the rest of his life, so we don’t have to hear any of his creepy rationalizations — or his dumpkopf attorney.

Do not let this man profit from his story. Even if the dollars go to his alleged victims, it would seem disingenuous. Almost like blood money.          

– A Final Four in college football.  Really, do I need to justify this further after the hundreds of thoughtful articles written on the topic by the likes of Dan Wetzel ?  Bowls gives us the likes of John Junker, and big payoffs for guys in blue blazers at the expense of schools. Yet, schools still go.

– No more bowl games with teams under .500. I say this as a UCLA fan. There was no use in going to that game. A recruiting tool ? Feh. Any kid with talent who saw the SC-UCLA game knows which way the wind is blowing. Hopefully that wind also blows Dan Guerrero out of the Athletic Director’s office in Westwood.

– Electronic chips must be inserted in footballs and sensors on the field to mark yardage.   Enough of chains, the football equivalent of churning your own butter.  I saw a game this year between USC and Utah where a spot was missed by ONE YARD on a 4th down call.

– Oregon’s De’Anthony Thomas getting some Heisman recognition in his sophomore year. I direct your attention to the Rose Bowl. Oh. My. God. Is he fast.

– I don’t want to hear one more athlete say they, or their team, is “gangsta.”  The Ugly 90’s ended more than a decade ago. There is nothing good about the word, even if “Goodfellas” is my favorite movie.

– For Hue Jackson and Carson Palmer to get a refresher course in Clock Management 101.

– For 49ers fans to stop worrying about whether they are getting “respect” from the national media. Who the hell cares ? Respect or not, the 49ers are 13-3 with a first round bye and a home playoff game. If the 49ers make a deep run in the postseason they’ll get plenty of props.

– Give us a sports network whose pursuit of the dollar hasn’t co-opted its journalistic integrity.  Is that even possible anymore? I know NBC Sports is going to give ESPN a run but I don’t see how it will be much different.

Make it an up-front pay-per-view network so that leagues, schools, and sponsors don’t exert undue influence.  What’s that, you say ?  You don’t pay for ESPN ?  Eau contraire.

– Take the Hall of Fame vote away from baseball writers, especially if they exclude Jeff Bagwell.  You will never meet a more smug group of people, some of whom are in no position to judge the integrity of anyone, let alone baseball players.  Fans should be given a voice, along with ex-players and coaches and Hall of Famers.

If they exclude Jeff Bagwell, whose credentials exceed many in the Hall, because they THINK he might have used performance-enhacning drugs ?  That reasoning is intellectually lazy, and specious.

– I want to see the best players from the steroid era in the Hall, even those who were nailed as users.  You can only compare players to those of their era, and the best of that time period should be allowed in. 

Barry Bonds belongs in the Hall, no matter what you may think of him.  Uncomfortable ?  Tough. Hitters faced pitchers who were on steroids, and vice versa.

– MLB, instead of falling for the A’s tantrum, should only give them San Jose if the franchise agrees to compete and
achieve a minimum payroll while still in Oakland.  What’s going now is an absolute sham. 

They did a movie about the A’s called “Moneyball,” but it’s more like “Wal-Mart Ball” now.  At least in “Moneyball,”
there was a pretense of trying to compete.  The more realistic depiction of the current A’s would be “Major League” — except nobody wants to strip a cardboard cutout of Lew Wolff or John Fisher, and the A’s aren’t bringing in Willie Mays Hayes. 

They are giving the double-bird to their fans and the city of Oakland, while issuing the vague promise that “we’ll be good  when we get a stadium ( that hasn’t been financed ).”

– That we stop hearing the phrase “dialed up” in football broadcasts.             

– That Tim Tebow continues to be the Broncos’ starting quarterback, just because it pisses off so many people. Of course, his image will saturate the media, but better him than the Kardashians. He could host Saturday Night Live some day. If so, I hope Snooki is a guest.

– That those obnoxious Lexus holiday “red bow” commercials come to an end. In a recession, they are the equivalent of taunting, and so far away from the true meaning of the holidays that you would need a Hubble telescope to see it. In fact, if they continue, I might hope that the Mayan calendar was right.

– Can we stop having Baby Boomers on Super Bowl halftime shows ? I say this as a Baby Boomer who thought Madonna was a phony when she was in her prime. Please tell me there are newer, fresher acts that have talent. Pretty please ?

– I would like to have Gus Johnson provide the play-by-play on my golf round:  “Woodson … a 7-iron … it’s headed for the TREE-EEEE … OHHHHH !!!!!  TIM-BERRRRRR !!!!! “

Sports Story Of 2011

December 27, 2011

December 27

Remember back in the good old days, when the Nevin Shapiro booster scandal at the University of Miami, rocked the college football world ? When Jim Tressel got the boot because players were trading “golden pants” for tattoos and he didn’t tell anyone until it was too late ?

Ah, the halcyon days of John Junker’s Fiesta Bowl scandal, including visits to strip clubs that were expensed and his 50th birthday party on the bowl’s dime. Come with us now, as we walk down memory lane, to a time when the name Cecil Newton ( Cam’s dad) and the phrase “pay for play” stole the headlines and bespoke the worst kind of scandal.

Wow, do I miss those days.

All that seems so trivial now. Last fall, when news emerged from a place called Happy Valley, it all changed. If there was any innocence left in college football, it ended.

That’s when the allegations against Jerry Sandusky became known. When I first read about him on Twitter, I turned to my wife and said, “this is bad. This is really bad.”

There were the child sexual abuse allegations, the apparent coverup by school officials at the peril of young people, the departure of three top school officials and the firing of an iconic football coach. Joe Paterno lost his job and legacy because he apparently failed to act decisively at a critical moment.

Joe Paterno, a coach who preached “success with honor.” Now, he is remembered for these words: “I wish I had done more.”

This was followed by another bizarre chain of events — a violent protest by some Penn State students after Paterno’s firing, with some chanting outside his home until he and his wife emerged to say a few words. Meanwhile, others held a vigil for the kids.

Then there was Sandusky’s odd appearance on television to state his case, when he should have remained silent. His attorney seemed to make it worse with every word he uttered. Meanwhile, we forget about the alleged victims.

There was a highly regarded institution now synonymous with the worst kind of human behavior, and one of the nation’s great football programs left in ashes. It could take years for the school and the football program to recover, and some wondered if Penn State should keep playing at all. There were innocent football players trying to make sense of it all.

There were uncomfortable questions about just how much this institution valued football over anything else. In a sport flush with television money, are people less inclined than ever to upset the apple cart ?

There is a question even more uncomfortable: how much are any of us willing to sweep under the rug in the name of a dollar ? In a recession, are we more inclined to trample over anyone and anything, in order to keep a job ? If we were in Mike McQueary’s shoes, how would we act ?

The Sandusky case shed a vary harsh light on Penn State, and on our sports culture. That case will be played out in all its ugly detail in 2012, unless Sandusky decides to plead out. Then, there will be the equally ugly case against fired Syracuase associate basketball coach Bernie Fine to crowd the headlines.

It was a year of huge stories, to be sure: lockouts by both the NFL and NBA, a wild final night of the baseball regular season, a kid winning the Daytona 500, Albert Pujols going west after winning another World Series, the deaths of Joe Frazier and Al Davis. Derek Jeter got his 3,000th hit and Mariano Rivera got the saves record.

There was a stirring win by the U.S. over Brazil in the Women’s World Cup, then the loss to an inspired Japanese team trying to give its country something to cheer about after an earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster.

Unfortunately, the top sports story of 2011 was a no-brainer. In fact, the Sandusky case was voted the #6 NEWS story in an Associated Press poll. This will be remembered as the year we may have found out just how low people will go to preserve a job, a legacy, an institution, and a revenue stream.

In a country that seems to value the dollar and social status more than anything, a school that pretended to be above it all may have acted in a manner that should be beneath our contempt. Ugly scarcely describes it.

Candlestick Blowout

December 20, 2011

December 20

In the wake of two power outages at Candlestick Park last night, the 49ers released a statement saying “there are more questions than answers.” That’s for darn sure.

Like, can the 49ers ever play at that dump again ?

It was a great night for the football team, a 20-3 smothering of the Steelers, but an embarrassing night for somebody: the franchise, the city, Pacific Gas and Electric, ESPN — maybe all of them. After the second outage, the NFL was actually discussing contingencies in case another outage hit and public safety was compromised, such as playing the game Tuesday during daylight hours or finishing the game across the bay at the Coliseum.

Thankfully that never happened. However, you can’t say there is a great level of trust right now. THe 49ers had better hope their playoff game is in the daytime.

They and the NFL will need to have assurances that what happened Monday will never happen again. Those might be hard to come by. Of course, they would have those assurances if they play elsewhere.

Obviously, they would have to find a way out of their lease, but I would think power problems would be a pretty good escape clause. And while it might seem onerous to 49er fans to play at another, smaller stadium such as A T & T or Stanford Stadium — or across the bay at O.Co — the lights worked quite well at those stadiums the last time I checked.

As the banks of lights slowly came on before kickoff, all sorts of conspiracy theories abounded. Some said the outage made the convenient point that it’s time for the 49ers to leave the crumbling stadium. Others, including Steve Young, joked that the city was pulling the plug out of spite because the team is leaving.

Still others thought suspended Steelers linebacker James Harrison might have blown up the transformer. Harrison piled on, tweeting that if he couldn’t play, “can’t nobody play. Lights out !” There were jokes all around, because what happened last night WAS a joke.

On a more serious note, it’s been a bad year for the old monstrosity. In preseason there was a parking lot shooting not far from where the transformer blew. Certainly that incident crossed the minds of some fans as the lights went out last night, but at last report the only arrests on Monday were for selling bogus tickets.

It looks like the 49ers are playing in a bogus stadium. An interim home might be in order down the road, even before the shovels are turned in Santa Clara. At any rate, what happened last night might be the clincher in getting the NFL to kick in money for a new stadium.

Oh, by the way, Santa Clara has its own utility.

***

Another question that will be asked many times: why did Mike Tomlin start a clearly hobbled Ben Roethlisberger, and why did he leave him in late in the game, down 20-3 ? While it was an important game for the Steelers, there are bigger games down the road. The main thing is they’re going to the playoffs and have to let Roethlisberger try to heal.

It was a difficult call for Tomlin, but with a quick turnaround Saturday against the Rams, he might have been better served saving Big Ben ’til then. As it was, he threw for 330 yards Monday, but he was clearly affected by the inability to push off his left ankle and tossed three interceptions. He also fumbled on a sack.

So they lost the game and were one tackle away from losing their quarterback. What of their playoff hopes then ? Pffft.

***

Aside from the two outages, there were other records set last night:

Aldon Smith with 2 1/2 sacks to give him 13 for the season, passing Charles Haley for the 49ers rookie record.

With two more field goals and two extra points, David Akers set the franchise’s single season scoring record, breaking Jerry Rice’s mark of 138 points back in 1987. A sign of Lee’s success, and the offense’s inability to convert in the red zone.

The 49ers became the first team in NFL history to not allow a rushing touchdown in the first 14 games of a season.

Thanks in part of Akers’ kickoffs and the tremendous punting of Andy Lee, the Steelers’ average drive-start was at the 15 yard line, the worst field position for any NFL team since 2005.

Jim Harbaugh tied his brother John for second most wins by a rookie coach, two behind Jim Caldwell.

Two more wins, and the 49ers will get a badly-needed bye week. That’s the good news. The bad news ? They’ll have a home playoff game. I didn’t think that was bad news until last night.

Pagan, Part Two

December 7, 2011

December 6

The Giants did pretty well the last time they had a guy named Pagan in the lineup. Granted, it was 50 years ago when Jose Pagan was their shortstop and they pushed the Yankees to the final out of the 1962 World Series. Now, they have spirited away outfielder Angel Pagan from the Mets, saying goodbye to outfielder Andres Torres and reliever Ramon Ramirez.

From reading the media reports out of New York, the Mets-Pagan relationship soured by the end of the season. The New York Daily News said Pagan “regressed this season and became highly unpopular in the clubhouse.” Oh, dear.

Being a hemorrhoid is not the end of the world, especially if you have an OPS of 1.000. Lord knows the Giants have experience in that department. Angel Pagan might have an OPS of 1.000 in a week, but not a season. Therein lies the problem.

It’s at least instructive to see that a player less talented than, say, Barry Bonds apparently sulked when things went south. How will Pagan deal with possibly moving around in the lineup, and not playing every day, in San Francisco ? How will he endure cold nights in July ?

Or, on the flip side, will a change of scenery do him good? Will the trade, plus a chance to play for a winner, be enough of a jolt to motivate Pagan ? He had solid years in 2009 and 2010 so it’s possible he could return to form, and as a switch-hitter along with Melky Cabrera and Pablo Sandoval pose a problem for opposing managers.

Whatever’s going on between Pagan’s ears will determine whether this deal works. That’s the bottom line. He has stolen 69 bases in the last two seasons, batted as high as .309 and he’s had an on base percentage as high as .350 playing in a large ballpark. If he brings that to the table, things will end well for him and the Giants.

Pat Burrell arrived in 2010 with a less-than-sterling reputation in Tampa. It was a bad situation for him from the get-go, and it wasn’t a good clubhouse mix. Then, as Duane Kuiper might say, he became a Bitchin’ Guy in San Francisco.

Burrell had to perform with his bat first, however. And you know which bat I’m talking about. He mashed in the summer of 2010, and was a key cog in the Giants’ playoff run.

Nobody’s expecting 18 home runs out of Pagan but if his bat performs like last year, he’s not much use to the Giants. Defense ? He is decidedly inferior to Torres, so inserting him late in games at cavernous AT and T Park doesn’t seem to make much sense. Unless he’s replacing Aubrey Huff, and isn’t that a delightful proposition ?

Clubhouse chemistry is a tricky thing. The Giants have had a stellar group the last couple of seasons, and they’ve said goodbye to two important players from the 2010 championship run. Torres was by all accounts a really swell fella, and his story was inspiring, while Pagan’s reputation is much more sketchy.

None of that will matter if the Giants win and Pagan plays well, and his disposition will likely be pretty sunny in that case, anyway. As for Torres, he was a good guy but it was clear his 2010 season was an anomaly, and at best he’s a fourth outfielder for the rest of his career.

Nothing wrong with that; he can still make a buck in this racket. He says he’s been working on his swing with Juan Gonzalez ( which immediately raises the Red Flag ), and there is definitely some pop in his bat. I’m rooting for Torres to stay in the game for a few more years.

Ramirez was a pretty effective middle and late inning reliever for the Giants, and he won’t be hurt by pitching at Citi Field, even with more hitter-friendly dimensions. The Mets have made a big move to upgrade their bullpen, and Ramirez is a part of that. He’s pitched in Boston and in high-pressure situations with the Giants, so he should be able to handle the heat in New York.

It’s not like you can’t find middle relievers, though. The Giants should be able to find an arm or two to take his place via trade, free agency or the farm system ( i.e, Heath Hembree ).

As of this writing, there is another trade in the works, possibly involving Jeff Keppinger. I hate to disappoint Giants fans, but that will probably not bring a middle-of-the-order hitter, and the Giants have made it clear they have put a Chastity Belt on their wallet for the rest of the offseason. They are spent from their dalliances with Zito and Rowand, and they have Cain and Lincecum to deal with, so the free agent route is closed for the winter.

We’re talking utility guys and bullpen arms, if anything, in the next trade. That’s about it. This is what you get, folks. Good enough to contend in the NL West ? We’ll see.

The Giants have so far put together a team that won’t inspire the fan base, but they are banking heavily on the return of a healthy Buster Posey and Freddy Sanchez, and knocking on wood that Aubrey Huff emerges from his championship hangover. Maybe the Giants will allow Brandon Belt to emerge from the dungeon like The Gimp from “Pulp Fiction” ( stolen by Brian Wilson’s Machine ), and actually see playing time in 2012.

Maybe Belt and Brett Pill can play enough to provide some badly-needed power. Maybe I’ll wake up in the morning and sport the flowing locks I had in 1987. All this is a lot to count on, but trades like the one for Angel Pagan show the Giants are doing a lot of wishing and hoping this offseason.

A Red ( And Gold ) Letter Day

December 5, 2011

December 5

Back in the dark days of 49ers football — you know, way back in the mid-oughts — none of this seemed even remotely possible.

You remember the days of Dennis Erickson, then Mike Nolan, then Mike Singletary. The days of “salary cap hell” with the in absentia GM Terry Donahue.

Days when fans were so hungry for offense they lustily cheered Cody Pickett when he threw for a first down. Days when the 49ers had one of the worst offensive lines in the history of the NFL. Days when a road trip meant another 41-6 loss.

Those were the days when the 49ers struggled to beat teams in the weak NFC West. Then they would pull the old ‘back-door cover” with a couple of late wins to give fans false hope, and repeat the cycle the next year.

Those days are long gone.

On Sunday the 49ers clinched the NFC West by smothering the Rams 26-0, claiming their first division title and first playoff appearance in nine years. It’s been a long, long nine years.

At the start of the season, Fitz and Brooks asked me how I thought the 49ers would turn out in their first year under Jim Harbaugh. Because of the lockout and the return of Smith many predicted gloom and doom. I didn’t think it would be that bad — I thought there would be fewer in-game coaching mistakes, a bit more imagination of offense, and an 8-8 finish.

Well, I was right on two of three. I didn’t think they would be this good. Really, who did outside of Jim Harbaugh ?

When Mike Singletary was fired, it became clear what the 49ers had to do. Although they played hard for Singletary and occasionally played good defense, their inconsistency was maddening — largely because their quarterback play was so dodgy.

I was one of several voices on KNBR who said the new head coach would have to understand quarterback play in the NFL. The team simply had to get better play at that position. That’s one reason Jim Harbaugh became such a hot property.

Sure enough, the 49ers have received much-improved play from the quarterback position, but no one thought it would come from the same quarterback. At the start of 2011 it seemed unthinkable that Alex Smith would return. Maybe Harbaugh knew better than all of us.

Indeed, it was Alex, Part VII. I remember doing a Sportsphone 680 show last winter after reading a very insightful article by Mark Purdy of the “Mercury News” which laid out the reaason why it was quite possible Smith would come back. Most fans howled in protest, but all you had to do was connect the dots.

During the lockout no one was sure how free agency was going to pan out, and when Harbaugh was hired, he and Smith struck up a solid relationship. Smith had the playbook and an understanding of the offense, very important given the abbreviated offseason.

Last spring, he embarked on Camp Alex. At the time many reporters used that title as a pejorative term.

As with many long-time observers of the 49ers ( and I go back to the days of John Brodie ), I was highly skeptical that Smith could get the job done. Sure, he had been given several lousy hands (and some claimed he had small hands ), but conventional wisdom is that truly great talents rise above their circumstances. Smith had done precious little of that.

As a #1 overall pick, Smith had not been a bust, but had certainly been a disappointment. He didn’t force anyone to pick him first but was clearly overmatched for several years. Worse yet, the 49ers passed over Aaron Rodgers — a Chico kid who played at Cal — and he’s only become the best quarterback in the NFL.

In fairness, there was a heated back-and-forth at the time about who the ‘Niners should pick, and I challenge all those with 20-20 hindsight to be honest aboout what they were saying six years ago when Smith was drafted. It’s also fair to say Smith has endured some of the worst circumstances of any quarterback this side of David Carr.

Whatever, Harbaugh seemed to have an understanding of what Smith can or cannot do. He fashioned a game plan that would allow Smith to be reasonably effective while cutting down on turnovers, and leaning heavily on Frank Gore. That, with an improved defense and special teams unit has been a winning combination.

There is Smith, the eight-rated passer in the NFL, with just five interceptions — second best among starting quarterbacks who have played all season. He trails only, ahem, Aaron Rodgers. Leading a team to a division title has to be sweet vindication for Smith, who has gotten it done without a top-shelf assortment of receivers.

Smith’s improvement parallels the rise of the 49ers, but it’s not the only reason they are playoff-bound, with a chance for a first-round bye. It’s easy to point to Harbaugh’s effect on him, and that is most certainly a factor, but that’s not a complete explanation.

Harbaugh is certainly familiar with the NFL as a longtime quarterback and assistant coach, but he is smart enough to bring along a very good coaching staff as well. I think the improvement in coaching is front and center among reasons the ‘Niners have turned things around so quickly. People such as Vic Fangio, Greg Roman, and Brad Seely deserve as much credit as Harbaugh.

I heard Steve Young say on KNBR last week that Singletary deserves some credit for putting in place a defense that has allowed the fewest points in the NFL this season. I suppose that’s partly true, but it’s also true that the 49ers made some subtle but important upgrades in the secondary, adding Carlos Rogers and Donte Whitner.

Nate Clements and Manny Lawson were among those to say goodbye, but the 49ers have added a dose of youth in Aldon Smith, Navarro Bowman, Dashon Goldson and Tarell Brown, to name a few. The front seven is as good as they come in the NFL, with Ray McDonald and Isaac Sopoaga getting more playing time along Pro Bowler Justin Smith.

Twelve games into the season, and the 49ers have still not allowed a rushing touchdown. The record for an entire season is four. We’re talking about a defense that is not only good this year, but moving into the “historically good” category.

Special teams, which were a disaster in recent years, have been rock-solid this year. Punt returns used to be an E-ticket ride for the 49ers, but now it’s that way for the opposition. Ted Ginn, Jr. turned around the season opener with a punt return and kickoff return for scores, punter Andy Lee is as good as ever and placekicker David Akers might have been the team’s best offseason acquisition.

Trent Baalke also deserves some credit. When he was promoted to General Manager last winter, there was general skepticism. Some wondered how an in-house functionary from the previous failed regime would succeeed. My take was, “I don’t know” because it was hard to tell how much credit he should have received for any of the good moves the ‘Niners had made in recent years.

It hasn’t hurt that the NFC West nearly assumed room temperature by Thanksgiving. This is a bad, bad division, but the 49ers didn’t just feast on divisional foes. Road wins in Cincinnati and Philadelphia and a home win against the schizophrenic New York Giants were arrows in their quiver. Lousy division or not, 10-2 is good enough to win anywhere.

Linebacker Patrick Willis’ hamstring injury was the only thing to mar an otherwise perfect Sunday. Frank Gore set the franchise record for rushing yards ( although they don’t count Joe Perry’s stats from the All-American Football Conference ) and David Akers set the franchise record for field goals made in a season. Jim Harbaugh marveled at how his fleece sweatshirt successfuly warded off the moisture from the Gatorade bath.

Now the 49ers will try to solidify their position as at least a second seed, earning a first-round bye and then a home playoff game. They remain a game ahead of the Saints for the #2 slot, and hopefully do so while giving Willis time enough to mend.

They will also try to work on their remaining weaknesses. The offense is clearly not up to snuff in the red zone. Akers has the field goal record because the 49ers can’t punch the ball into the end zone enough. Piling up field goals won’t work against such high-powered teams as the Saints and Packers in the playoffs.

It would help Smith and the offense if Braylon Edwards could get healthy. Nagging knee and shoulder problems sidelined him Sunday, and he has been almost invisible when he has played. His size and strength can be very effective on fade routes and lob passes in the end zone — if he’s 100 percent.

The good news is that Michael Crabtree has stepped up and is playing the best ball of his three-year career with the 49ers. He seems to have good mental telephathy with Smith, and on Sunday he caught a 52 yard touchdown. He isn’t known as a speed-burner but he got behind the Rams’ secondary for a score that basically nailed down the title.

In addition, Kyle Williams has stepped into the void and become a potential game-breaker. He took a slant pass and outran the Rams for a 56-yard touchdown. Williams has made the loss of Edwards and Joshua Morgan much easier to take.

Smith had a 142 passer rating for the day, which would have been even higher if Vernon Davis hadn’t dropped a pass that landed right in his breadbasket in the end zone in the first half. As Smith said, the 49ers are still leaving some points out there, but they will need to continue to throw deep and connect on a few if they want to reach the next level.

Whoa, whoa, you’re saying. Next level ? They just won the divison. One step at a time. The 49ers have already done something pretty remarkable this season.

We have a pretty good idea of who they are now. They have great defense and special teams, and they do just enough on offense to get the job done most of the time, especially at home. Their success is coming just in time, as the franchise tries to build momentum toward a new home in Santa Clara.

I’ll go back to the early-season analogy: they remind me of a certain baseball team that went all the way in 2010. Now, I wouldn’t expect the 49ers to win the Super Bowl this year. An appearance in the NFC Championship game would be amazing enough. Then again, they’ve been exceeding everyone’s expectations all year.

Then, would anyone question Smith’s return NEXT year ?

The Good, The Bad, and The Really Ugly

November 28, 2011

November 28

Now the story takes a quantum leap. Bernie Fine is fired as Syracuse University associate basketball coach amid child sexual abuse allegations, as evidence mounts against him. There are now three accusers, but it’s important to emphasize that unlike the Penn State case no charges have been filed yet.

Head coach Jim Boeheim denies knowing anything, and he staunchly defended his longtime friend and his associate. There’s nothing wrong with defending a friend, unless you know better. There is something wrong with the way Boeheim went after Fine’s alleged victims at first. Now he has apologized for that, in a statement that sounds like it was crafted by an attorney.

It may be too little, too late.

***

Tim Tebow has become a lightning rod with a helmet. Those uncomfortable with his religious convictions, and his willingness to be a witness for his beliefs, have had a field day. Their vilification of him has been unfair at times.

On the flip side, others have elevated him to a status just below Messiah. It’s tough to be comfortable with that, either.

As a football player, he has already accomplished something: he has forced us to look at the game a bit differently. We have to get around our preconceptions about what a quarterback is supposed to be.

He is unorthodox, to say the least, but he is 5-1 as a starter. Will it last ? Even Tebow acknowledges he has to get better.

He can’t carry the ball 19 times a game for very long, and his much-analyzed throwing motion will be a weakness defenses will learn to exploit. He’s big and strong and pretty fast, but so are NFL linebackers. There will be wear and tear.

How long can this go on ? Despite his shortcomings, longer than his critics think, and it’s not necessarily because of his will to win or his work ethic. Many players possess those qualities.

It’s because Tebow does a pretty good job of taking care of the ball, is pretty smart, can make good things happen on broken plays, and he plays on a team with a pretty good defense. As long as it can keep games close, he can work whatever magic he has. He does have experience in big-time pressure situations, so that helps.

I was one of the many skeptics when he was drafted. Now, I wouldn’t call myself a believer ( in his football skills ) but I understand that he can succeed short term, and why.

***

Chargers kicker Nick Novak relieved himself on the sidelines, and soon Norv Turner will be relieved of his duties. Novak took a leak on the sidelines, and his kicks leaked to the right.

If you take away one of Novak’s misses, Turner’s less-than-aggressive style might have worked against the Broncos. Now the Bolts have lost six in a row and are fading away in the less-than-electrifying AFC West.

***

If Norv Turner is on the hot seat, Rick Neuheisel’s seat has flames leaping 20 feet into the sky. Saturday was a dark day for longtime UCLA fans, a soul-crushing 50-0 loss to USC in the rivalry game.

It’s a nightmare scenario for the Pac-12 that the Bruins are in the championship game at Oregon Saturday. The only reason the Bruins are going is because USC is on probation. It’s an absolute joke that they should be even sniffing a bowl game.

I tweeted that Saturday’s “contest” was like the Packers vs. a Pop Warner team, but that’s an insult to young football players everywhere. I’d like to think Saturday was when the Bruins hit bottom, but I’ve said that a couple of times already this season.

Neuheisel, a former quarterback, couldn’t recruit a good quarterback and can’t beat USC. Case closed. He most go, and so must the man who hired him, Athletic Director Dan Guerrero. I don’t trust Guerrero to hire anyone better.

As much as I hate the notion of paying college football coaches more than CEO’s of major corporations, if some of UCLA’s well-heeled boosters can pony up, the school needs to pay for a top-notch coach. Otherwise, stop pretending you have a football program.

I’ve watched the Bruins since I was a kid, going to games with my Dad, who had season tickets at the Coliseum for many years. The Bruins didn’t win a national title during that time but had some pretty damn good teams, and they managed to beat the haughty Trojans once in a while. Those days are a distant, distant memory.

***

Andrew Luck is a victim of his own success. He managed to throw a few interceptions, including a couple of pick-sixes, and “the bloom is off the rose.”

Let me give you some stats: 87-for-131, 952 yards, 12 touchdowns and five interceptions. That constitutes a “slump” over his last four games. Meanwhile, some other top players have put up gaudy numbers and he has supposedly “lost” the Heisman Trophy.

Let’s forget for a moment that the Heisman is a joke of a popularity contest that excludes almost anyone who can’t put up tangible “numbers,” something for fantasy and rotisserie players. Luck has lost several of his top weapons, and is one of the few quarterbacks able to select a play call at the line of scrimmage. To me, that gives him a decided edge.

Matt Barkley might end up being an even better NFL quarterback, and he totally eviscerated UCLA Saturday. ( Love how Lane Kiffin kept him in almost the entire game, despite an insurmountable lead, so he could put up more big numbers. ) He’s got all the tools, but he also has incredibly talented receivers.

Robert Griffin III, Trent Richardson, and others have had unbelievable moments this year. I’ve obviously seen Luck and Barkley play much more than other candidates around the nation, but I don’t see what Luck has done to “lose” the honor.

***

Karma is a bitch. Just ask Bills receiver Stevie Johnson. After scoring a touchdown, he mimicked Plaxico Burress shooting himself in the leg. Admit it, you laughed, I did — for a second.

It was, however, an obviously stupid stunt. Not as stupid as Plaxico’s stunt in a nightclub, but dumb nonetheless.

Johnson was given an excessive celebration, and the Jets really appreciated the extra 15 yards. On the subsequent drive they tied the score at 14-all at the end of the first half. Later, Johnson dropped a potential game-winning pass later in the fourth quarter, and the Bills went down to their fourth straight defeat.

Johnson’s not a bad guy, just misguided. After the game, he apologized. At least he didn’t blame God in a tweet this time. Or Tim Tebow.

Awards Week (Or, The Raybucks)

November 14, 2011

November 13

And now, we take a welcome break from talk of grand juries, witnesses, boards of trustees, and worse. That story in Happy Valley will certainly not go away, but to be honest I am simply spent talking about it. We will revisit in the very near future, but right now, a much more enjoyable topic.

Some major hardware will be handed out in Major League Baseball over the next week. That includes the coveted Raybucks, a special honor bestowed on this blog and nowhere else ( for a reason ).

Let’s take them in chronological order:

Monday 11/14 Rookies of the Year

There are enough good young players in both leagues to field competitive teams.

I think when all is said and done, the Royals’ Eric Hosmer might have the best career among the American League candidates. Along with Mike Trumbo of the Angels, Michael Pineda and Dustin Ackley of the Mariners, Ivan Nova of the Yankees, Jeremy Hellickson of the Rays, and the late-charging Brett Lawrie and Jemile Weeks, there are plenty of bright futures.

I think Hellickson will win, and he will also get a Raybuck as top AL rookie, barely edging out Pineda, Hosmer, Nova and Ackley. All of these candidates have strong selling points but to me it comes down to Pineda, Hosmer and Hellickson.

Pineda was 9-10 with a 3.74 ERA, but with better strikeout ( more than one per inning ) and walk rates than Hellickson and a much higher WAR ( Wins Above Replacement value ) at 3.4.

However, Hellickson’s opponents batted just .210 ( best among rookies, slightly better than Pineda ), he went deeper into games ( the 22-year-old Pineda was handled a bit more carefully ), and pitched more pressure games against tougher lineups. Pineda, despite better peripherals, had an ERA more than three-quarters of a run higher despite throwing in a pitchers’ ballpark ( SAFECO ).

Hosmer plays in relative obscurity in Kansas City, but that won’t last for long. He’ll be in the middle of a talented young lineup for years to come. He was named rookie of the month twice and despite being called up May 6th, still managed 19 home runs and 78 RBI with a .293 batting average.

In this toss-up I give it to Hellickson.

In the National League, the group is also very talented but I think the decision is much easier. Despite the Braves’ late-season collapse, Craig Kimbrel will get the honors, edging out players such as teammate Freddie Freeman, Vance Worley, Wilson Ramos and Danny Espinosa of the Nationals. More importantly, he also deserves a Raybuck.

Kimbrel struck out nearly FIFTEEN batters per nine innings, tied for the NL lead in saves and posted an impressive 3.2 WAR (Wins Above Replacement), best among NL rookie pitchers. He wins out over Freeman.

11/15 AL Cy Young Award

Not only will Justin Verlander win this, he might win MVP, the first starting pitcher to win both since Roger Clemens in 1986. Like Roy Halladay last year, he could be a unanimous winner, despite an impressive year by Jered Weaver of the Angels. That’s how dominant and important Verlander was for the Tigers.

Verlander performed well enough to earn two Raybucks as the top AL thrower.

11/16 AL, NL Mangers of the Year

Although “I don’t give two (bleeps) about whether I’m manager of the year,” Kirk Gibson will have a trophy dropped at his doorstep via FedEx if he doesn’t bother to pick it up. He will win NL honors for leading the Diamondbacks to the NL West title, a 29-game improvement from the year before. Certainly a nod should also be given to the front office, who brought in some good young arms and has developed a talented young core of position players.

Gibson will win out over Ron Roenicke of the Brewers, who enjoyed a 19-game improvement and went to the NLCS for the first time since 1982. The Cardinals’ Tony LaRussa will also get strong consideration for the way he led the Cardinals back from the dead into the postseason, and the rest is St. Louis history.

Gibson won’t even give ONE “bleep” about this: he won’t get a Raybuck. That will go to LaRussa, who kept the Cardinals together and focused when they were seemingly dead at the end of August. The Cardinals and Rays mounted two of the most remarkable comebacks in baseball history, climaxing in the “greatest night ever” that final Wednesday. Are we still talking about baseball ?

Honorable mentions: Bruce Bochy was a strong candidate for the way he held together the injury-riddled Giants, but their late-season collapse opened the door for Gibson and the DBacks to win. Charlie Manuel led the Phillies to the best record despite a ton of injuries, but he still had the finest starting rotation. Don Mattingly guided the Dodgers to a strong finish despite working in a nuthouse.

In the American League, Joe Maddon of the Rays will win Manager of the Year AND a Raybuck for the same reason LaRussa gets a Raybuck: leading a team back from the dead in the final month. Not to mention getting off the mat after an 0-6 start. And no, I’m not biased because of the team name.

11/17 NL Cy Young Award

Clayton Kershaw won the pitching triple crown (Wins, K’s, ERA — tied for lead in wins at 21 with Ian Kennedy ). Not only did Kershaw lead in the glamour categories, but he had the best WHIP among starters at .977. He also won a Gold Glove. History is on his side: in the seven previous times a pitcher has won the “Triple Crown” since the CY Young has been given out, that pitcher won the Cy.

I think Kershaw will win the Cy, edging out Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Ian Kennedy. He won’t get a Raybuck as the top NL pitcher, though: that will go to Halladay, by the slimmest of margins.

Halladay was 19-6 with a 2.35 ERA and an unbelievable 6-1 walk-to-strikeout ratio and had the highest WAR among all starting pitchers in the major leagues (8.2, a full win better than Verlander). Although Citizens Bank Park slightly favored pitchers ( thanks to the great starting rotation the Phillies employed ), it favored hitters more than Dodger Stadium.

Teammates Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels were just a tick below Halladay’s performance, along with the Diamondbacks’ Kennedy. Unlike Kershaw, all of the other pitchers named were pitching in pressure games in August and September. Also unlike Kershaw, Halladay didn’t get to pitch against the Giants six times in 2011.

If Kershaw wins the Cy, he should give part of his trophy to the punchless Giants: he went 5-0 vs. with a 1.07 ERA, 49 strikeouts and eight walks in 42 innings, with just 29 hits allowed against San Francisco.

By the way, would it surprise anyone to know that Matt Cain ( 12-11 ) pitched almost as well as Kennedy ( 21-4 ) ?

11/21 AL MVP

Justin Verlander did everything a pitcher could do to win the award, and I’m not prejudiced against pitchers winning. He led the Tigers to the ALCS and led the AL in these categories: winning percentage, ERA, innings, strikeouts and WHIP. but I think the Red Sox’ Jacoby Ellsbury is most deserving of the Raybuck as top AL player.

Despite the Red Sox’ late-season collapse, Ellsbury was at his best in September, capping off one of the best years a leadoff hitter has ever had. Ellsbury led the ENTIRE major leagues in WAR at 9.4. Get a load of these numbers:

He batted .321 with 119 runs, 212 hits, 46 doubles, 32 home runs, 105 RBI and 39 stolen bases. He was the first 30-30 player in Red Sox history. Basically, he brought more to the table than any player in the league.

Ellsbury also won a Gold Glove with a 1.000 fielding percentage in center field, and while the Red Sox were disintegrating in September, he batted .358 with eight home runs and 21 RBI in the final month. Ellsbury gets the Raybuck over major league OPS leader Jose Bautista, and the Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera, second in the majors in OPS.

I think Verlander has a chance to win the MVP. No one led the league in as many categories as he did, so it would not be shocking if he gets the hardware. However, he is facing a very strong field that includes Ellsbury, Cabrera, Bautista, Curtis Granderson, Robinson Cano, and Adrian Gonzalez.

This one will be very interesting: some writers are simply averse to voting for pitchers as MVP, as great as Verlander was. I’m hoping they come to their senses and vote Ellsbury.

11/22 NL MVP

A very, very tight race between the Dodgers’ Matt Kemp and the Brewers’ Ryan Braun. Before I give you my choice, I’m going to smash something into a fine pulp right away: do NOT give me the argument that Braun had more “protection” in his lineup.

Kemp was definitely like Mt. Everest in the Dodgers’ lineup, but consider this: there were MORE baserunners on when Kemp strode to the plate this year, compared to Braun. To his credit, he did a lot with them, threatening to become the first Triple Crown hitter since 1967.

He managed 39 home runs and 126 RBI while being intentionally-walked 24 times. He did so while hitting in a ballpark that favors pitchers more than Miller Park, and actually hit slightly better at home. Braun got a nice bump hitting at Miller, with a 1.069 OPS compared to an also-impressive .926 on the road.

Kemp was simply awful in 2010, in addition to being the butt of Rihanna jokes. He was determined not to repeat that experience in 2011 ( baseball, not Rihanna ), and despite the dysfunction in the Dodgers’ ownership, he came out focused and on fire ( can you say, “contract year?” ) and stayed hot almost nearly all season. He also won a Gold Glove playing a more demanding position than Braun, although I think he’s somewhat overrated as a center fielder.

Braun led the NL in OPS while playing pressure-packed games down the stretch, as the Brewers reached the NLCS. His final day 0-4, and Jose Reyes’ bunt, cost him the batting title. He had 33 home runs and 33 stolen bases, and he also does a solid job in left field.

His teammate, Prince Fielder, was right behind Kemp in several major categories and had a .415 on-base percentage, knocking in 120 runs. The Brewers managed to make the postseason although he made the mistake of saying he might not return next year.

This was probably the toughest decision of all, and one could use the argument that Kemp didn’t play in meaningful games, as did Braun and Fielder. However, Kemp was so outstanding he merits equal attention.

He was the best player in the league, its most dangerous hitter, while playing in a division with tougher pitching rotations and while playing his home games in Dodger Stadium. The Dodgers were out of contention early but he didn’t stop playing hard, and is one big reason they amazingly finished above .500. Again, you couldn’t go wrong giving the award to Kemp, Braun, or Fielder, however …

I think Kemp will edge out Braun for MVP, and he will also earn a Raybuck. Giants fans would actually love it if Kemp wolfed down a thousand Raybucks before spring training.

So, recapping:

PREDICTED WINNERS:

KEMP, NL MVP … VERLANDER, AL MVP … KERSHAW, NL CY YOUNG … ELLSBURY, AL CY YOUNG …KIMBREL, NL ROY … HELLICKSON, AL ROY …GIBSON, NL MANAGER OF THE YEAR … MADDON, AL MANAGER OF THE YEAR

RAYBUCK WINNERS:

KEMP … ELLSBURY … HALLADAY … VERLANDER … KIMBREL … HELLICKSON … LARUSSA … MADDON.

I know you all will have your scorecards ready.


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