Thursday, July 30, 2009

Pirates. Killing Me. Not Very Softly. Not at All.

So, yeah, I got a call from the Buccos. I guess I'm playing 2nd base on Friday night. Who the hell else is going to start there?

Penned last night for True/Slant. Of course, fewer than 24 hours later, the Bucs traded Gorzelanny and Grabow, too. No huge loss, but you know, that blue light is only on for a few more hours, Pirate-Mart shoppers!

From True/Slant on July 30, 2009:

How to Kill a Sports Franchise.

Are you one of the millions of Americans who would like to kill a sports franchise? You’re in luck. For this special offer, at the low, low price of simply logging on, here’s a handy eight-step how-to guide for killing a professional team, courtesy of the brain trust at the Pittsburgh Pirates.

1. Trade All-Star, Gold Glove centerfielder Nate McLouth, making just $2.5 mil a year (Wal-Mart pricing by baseball standards) to Atlanta. In return, receive several prospects, including left-handed pitcher Jeff Locke (2nd round draft pick in 2006) currently pitching single A ball; Charlie Morton, right handed pitcher who has made eight starts since arriving in Pittsburgh, with a 2-3 record, a 3.72 era and averages 4 2/3 innings per start; and Gorkys Hernandez, an outfielder currently playing AA ball with the Altoona Curve, where he’s batting .257 with two home runs.

2. Wait for the fans to settle down from this dust up. About three to four weeks should do it.

3. Trade wildly popular, fleet of foot, energetic, engaging left fielder, Nyjer Morgan to the Washington Nationals. Be sure to cite his lack of power hitting. In return, obtain pitcher Joel Hanrahan, a right handed pitcher with a 6.7 ERA; and, of course, known headcase Lastings Milledge, who started the season so slowly (batting .167 with 1 RBI) that even the lowly Nats sent him down to AAA ball. Milledge was rehabbing from an injury at the time of the trade. Since returning from injury, Milledge has played 17 games with the Pirates AAA affiliate, the Indianapolis Indians, where he is batting .333 with zero home runs. Whups. So much for that need to get a power hitter in left field.

4. Bide your time. Wait. A craptacular offer is bound to cross your desk on the eve of the trade deadline.

5. Trade Jack Wilson. Yup, the 2004 All-Star rep, the winner of the Silver Slugger for shortstops in 2004, the guy who is one of the five best fielding shortstops in the league and who, as of July 17, helped to turn 100 double plays, most in the majors. Send the guy who willingly took on the tremendous burden of this accursed franchise and actually wanted to remain in Pittsburgh to turn things around to Seattle for shortstop Ronny Cedeno (batting .167), first baseman Jeff Clement (batting .227) and pitching prospects Aaron Pribanic, Brett Lorin and Nathan Adcock. Oh, last thing, tell the fans that this wasn’t a salary dump.

6. As news of the Wilson move is burning up the internet machines, even causing the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette website to go all wonky (not that that’s anything new), quickly orchestrate a trade that sends the other key element of that middle infield to the San Francisco Giants. In return for three time All-Star 2nd baseman Freddy Sanchez, receive Tim Alderon, pitcher who was selected third in the 2005 draft and is currently working in double A ball. Aldereson seems to be a superb pitching prospect, but by this point, the fans can’t even see straight, let alone read this breakdown per ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick:

“The Giants paid a big price for Sanchez in surrendering Alderson, who was ranked by Baseball America as the No. 4 prospect in the San Francisco organization entering this season. Alderson, 20, is 6-foot-6 and 217 pounds. He has a 7-2 record and a 3.65 ERA in two minor league stops this season. The Giants selected Alderson with the 22nd overall pick in Major League Baseball’s first-year player draft two years ago and gave him a $1.29 million signing bonus.”

7. Act indignant over widespread media indifference to your team while everybody obsesses about the Steelers, who aren’t even practicing in shorts and t-shirts yet. Act perplexed when irate fans start staying away from the ballpark in droves.

8. Blame the media and the fans for an historic 17 year run at suck.

Oh, and would the last fan out of the ballpark please turn off the jumbotron? Thanks.


Meanwhile, my virtual buddy the Sports Noter said in one quick paragraph what it took me 600+ words to say:

All right, settle down, I think we're all here so let's take seats. I'd like to welcome you all to the Pittsburgh Pirates Mid-Summer 2009 Strategy Meeting. Item No. 1 on the agenda ... The Steelers open up training camp in just a few days. What do we do? Okay, let's see some ideas, people. Trade Adam LaRoche to the Red Sox? Didn't we send Jason Bay to them last year? Never mind, it's brilliant. I love it. Make the call. Okay, next ... Trade Jack Wilson and Freddy Sanchez? Wait, aren't they our double play combo? Whatever, I like it. Do it. Wow, I'm getting goosebumps here. You guys are on fire. What else you got?

Here's Bob's real blog. He's a panic. And quick. Man, is he quick:

Ugly Pete

How long have they been playing baseball?
About 110, 120 years.
Who has more hits than anybody else in all that time?
Pete Rose.
Put that Jackass in the Hall.

From True/Slant on July 28, 2009:

Pete Rose. Jackass. And Hall of Fame Worthy

Pete Rose is in the news again, which is never good news for MLB commissioner Bud Selig. (Or anyone who is a fan of comely coiffure, for that matter.) The recent chatter centers on whether or not the all time hits king should be enshrined in baseball’s Hall of Fame, despite his lifetime ban from the game. Baseball legend and Selig pal Hank Aaron thinks so and publicly stated as much, saying, “I would like to see Pete in. He belongs there,” which has prompted Selig to at least consider lifting the ban.

That would make Rose eligible for the Hall, but also for employment with MLB. What on earth is Selig thinking?

Here’s what we know on the Rose case to date: Rose gambled on sports and lied about that. He gambled on baseball and lied about that. He gambled on his own team when he managed the Cincinnati Reds and lied about that. He maintains that he always bet on his team and never against them, but given what we know about Rose, why would anybody believe anything that comes out of his mouth? Ever?

Going back to the days of Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the former judge turned baseball’s first commissioner, gambling has been the most taboo, verbotten transgression known to ballplayers. There is to be no gambling on baseball. And no fraternizing with gamblers. Essentially, if you don’t want to get hit by the train, don’t play on the damned tracks. Simple enough.

It’s the number one deadly sin.

Steal some signs? Gamesmanship, my silly friend. Doctors baseballs with a nail file or vaseline? Again, gamesmanship. And an advantage that could be easily rectified by diligent umpires in live game situations. Pop some greenies? Shoot some steroids? Hey, everybody was doing it!

Gambling? On Baseball? On games involving your own team? Indefensible. And deserving of the ban from ever participating in MLB in any capacity beyond buying a ticket to sit in the bleachers.

But what if Pete could be banned from baseball and still be enshrined in the Hall of Fame? The Baseball HOF is an independent animal from MLB proper, although the two share a cozy, hand in glove relationship. Per their website:

“The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is independent of Major League Baseball, however it does maintain an excellent relationship with MLB.”

The HOF did not respond to my request for clarification via telephone or email, but my reading of the above is that, technically, the HOF could make Rose (or Shoeless Joe Jackson) eligible for induction and then let the chips fall where they may with the Hall voters. Theoretically, at least.

So, they could, I’m thinking, put a plaque in the Hall of Fame for Pete Rose, all time hits king and book-makers buddy. And an even bigger plaque next to it that reads: Banned for Life from Baseball for Gambling.

UPDATE: Shortly after posting this story, I did get an email note back from the Hall as follows: “Thank you very much for your note! At the Baseball Hall of Fame, we work very closely with Major League Baseball, but we are a separate entity. We are not owned by Major League Baseball.”

Again, that reads to me that they can go their own way on this matter.

Interview with Insane Ultramarathoner - Wow. Just Wow.

I always feel like such an ass when I interview people like this. First of all, I'm genuinely interested, so I sound like a dork. But also, I feel like a piker. The longest I've ever run is 6 miles and I nearly died. I mean, that was hard. Like really, really hard. So I can't even begin to imagine ultramarathoners.

And then this. 135 miles.

Chin. Floor. Resting.

From True/Slant on July 26, 2009:

Inside the Mind of an UltraMarathoner
Imagine standing in Death Valley at 280 feet below sea level. It’s anywhere from 120 to 30 degrees farenheit, temperatures so high that, if you don’t run fast enough, your running shoes will literally melt on the pavement. When you can finally stop running, you will have run continuously throughout an entire day, well-over 24 hours. You will have climbed and descended, climbed and descended, and passed through landmarks like Furnace Creek, Salt Creek, Devil’s Cornfield, Devil’s Golf Course, and Stovepipe Wells, none of which sound particularly inviting. At the end, you will have climbed to the finish at Mt. Whitney, 8,360 feet above sea level. And you will have covered 135 miles.

That’s just a thumbnail of what awaits runners competing in the Badwater challenge. What the hell would possess somebody to do that to themselves? Seriously, wouldn’t you have to be certifiably crazy to even consider something like that?

I had questions. Lots of them. So I called up Jamie Donaldson, who just completed her third Badwater challenge over the weekend of July 13-15.

Put it this way, if you left the gift shop of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and ran to the cafe at the Rock-N-Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, you would cover 135 miles. When I put the Badwater distance in that perspective, even Donaldson admitted with a laugh, that yes, it did sound a little crazy. But Donaldson herself didn’t sound at all crazy. In fact, the sixth grade teacher based in Littleton, Colorado sounded pretty normal on the phone, with a self-deprecating sense of humor and more perspective than I expected.

She said that the heat is the biggest factor, “because you never know how your body’s going to handle that,” but the heat didn’t bother her much this year as it did her first two years. She fought through heat-induced nausea during her second run at Badwater, in the summer of 2008, but still finished about 10 minutes under 27 hours. Yes, 27 hours non-stop. To cover 135 miles in 27 hours, a runner must average five miles per hour, or a 12 minute mile — a remarkable pace to keep up as morning turns to afternoon, afternoon to evening, evening to night, and then to morning again. Competitors have to essentially pull an all-nighter while running and I’m ashamed to admit that the last time I pulled an all-nighter, it was fueled by caffeine and nicotine and George H.W. Bush was Commander in Chief.

This year, Donaldson was the first woman to finish, coming in fifth over all at just hair over 27 hours. She wasn’t too bothered by the heat and perhaps, she suggested optimistically, she’s gotten used to it.

But why? And how?

The how is grueling, but simple: to train for one of these races, she runs 200 miles a week and often runs several marathons in one day.

The why is more complicated. Garden variety 26.2 mile marathons were the gateway drug, as it were. She ran her first in 2003 in Pittsburgh (she was born and raised not far from Pittsburgh) and ran just a handful more before the challenge wore off and she was kind of, well, bored by them. She needed a bigger challenge, something tougher, something that would push her to her absolute limits. So she did a 50 mile race; she was hooked and her ultramarathoning (distances of 50 miles or more) has taken her to such far-flung locales as Korea and Italy. One of the most fun races (if I can use even the word ‘fun’ in relation to such distances) is a 100 mile run that cuts through a Hawaiian rain forest. Donaldson says it’s awesome.

The Badwater challenge is the toughest of all of them. Even for a highly trained athlete, taking the race in its entirety, considering the 135 miles of the course as a whole, is discouraging, seemingly impossible. To get through the endless hours, Donaldson plays mental tricks on herself, breaking the race into more bite-sized chunks to make it palatable, saying to herself, “Oh, I only have another 18 miles to the next stop,” using the stops along the route (there are designated stops at 17.4 miles, 41.9 miles, 72.3 miles, 90.1 miles, and 122.3) as mental carrots, as well as for physical respite.

If the mental challenge kicks in as day turns to night, the first half of the course may be the most grueling physically. Specifically, the first 42 miles from Death Valley to Stovepipe Wells are the hottest. “You’ve got to be really careful about your pace in that heat,” according to Donaldson. After that, the course starts to seriously climb from sea level to nearly 5,000 feet over a 17 mile stretch; then it drops over 3,300 feet for the next nine miles, an extremely steep, dangerous descent. “It’s the worst,” said Donaldson. “You run the risk of blowing out your quads if you run too fast. But you can really hurt your knees if you go too slow, because you’re braking all the time. Plus, you can wipe out.”

After that, it’s smooth sailing. For another, you know, 67 miles to the finish line.

With another Badwater under her belt, Donaldson’s taking it easy, running short (for her) distances, doing a lot of walking before she’ll get on the road for her next race, a 100 miler right in her backyard in Colorado. It’ll be a piece of cake after Badwater.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Five Teams to Head Bang By

From True/Slant on July 16, 2009:

Five Teams that make fans want to smash their heads on their desks

There are teams whose fans throw up their hands in disgust, wallow in despair and watch through paper bags. There are franchises with nothing to celebrate in the rear-view nor any promise of success on the horizon.

Then there are the Pittsburgh Pirates, a franchise in pursuit of a record breaking 17th consecutive losing season. Somehow, the locals remain invested enough to smack their faces off their desks in frustration. Trust me, I know.

It’s particularly bad because Pittsburgh fans can always point to the other local franchises, and few hold up well against the standard set by the Super Bowl champ Steelers and Stanley Cup champ Penguins. Of course, the Pirates don’t help themselves much by (a) losing a lot, (b) trading away nearly every player with any talent, spark or connection to the fans, and (c) losing a lot. (The losing. It bothers folks.)

Still, I suppose there are worse things than being a Pirates fan. Like having your eyelashes tweezed out one by one. Or being questioned by a knuckleheaded pissant like Jeff Sessions. But keeping in the world of sports, as the Pirates complete their annual crawl of shame, here’s my very unscientific short list of fans who have it worse than I do as a Buccos fan:

New York Knicks. Only the Knicks would amass a payroll larger than the GNP of Papua New Guinea and fail so miserably on court. Only the Knicks could allow Isiah Thomas to run the team into the ground from the front office, then add head coach to his job description. To add whipped cream and cherries to it, he was paid to stick around but kinda go away. There is failure, there is incompetence, there is malfeasance. And then there is Isaiah Thomas. It may get better for Knicks fans, but to hoops fans all over New York, particularly those who grew up with Frazier or Ewing, it must feel like James Dolan purchased the team specifically for the purpose of torturing them. Commence head banging.

Buffalo Bills. Remember back in the 1990’s when the Bills lost the first of their four consecutive Super Bowl losses on an errant, last-minute field goal try? Yeah, well those were the good old days for Bills fans. Ownership is financially strapped and there has been talk of moving the team. Since the retirement of Hall of Famer Jim Kelly, the fans have witnessed such luminary quarterbacks as Drew Bledsoe (past his expiration date), Kelly Holcomb, Alex Van Pelt (I am not making that up), J.P. Losman and Trent Edwards. The Bills wear some of the busiest, most hideous uniforms in all of the NFL. And, as though Buffalo fans haven’t suffered enough, enter Terrell Owens (and his shadow, Drew Rosenass.) Good times.

Cleveland. You cannot look at any one single Cleveland franchise without recognizing the sorry state of affairs all over. Context, like timing, is everything. Cleveland fans haven’t enjoyed a championship of any kind since the 1964 Browns. In the 1980’s the Browns lost to the Broncos in back to back AFC Championship games, dubbed “The Drive” and “The Fumble.” but they would be more appropriately titled, “Kill Me, I’m A Browns Fan,” and “Please Kill Me, I’m a Browns Fan.” Did I mention the hijacking, um, relocation of the franchise a decade later? Yeah, that, too.

The Indians came close to a title, but lost in the 1995 World Series to the Braves. And for a super-special encore, they followed that up with the 1997 soul-crushing loss to the Marlins. Do not say the name Jose Mesa in northern Ohio unless you want a fist to the throat.

Those kinds of things take a toll on the collective sports psyche of a town, so much so that ESPN conferred the title of most tortured sports fans on Cleveland a few years back.

But, you say, the Cavaliers have King James! They just got Shaq! This is the year, baby. Except I can’t hear you over the constant, ear-ringing din about Lebron leaving for a bigger market as soon as this contract is up. Every media outlet from Boardman, Oh. to Bristol, Ct. insists he’s already gone, ready to trot off to some bigger market to make more money and become more famous. (I wonder, how much more famous could the guy even be?) Lebron’s assumed departure must hang over Cleveland fans like the sword of Damocles. It’s no way for the city to enjoy what might be the last best chance it has at a title.

Detroit Lions. No list of of futility can skip the team which drives fans to the streets with torches and pitch forks while burning the general manger in effigy. The dome? Football indoors is depressing all by itself. Add the Lions to the equation and I can actually feel my body decaying while I watch them. The Lions draft record was once read at a comedy club. It killed.

Some fans have their hopes dashed every year, but at least they have hope. Despair, thy name is Detroit.

Chicago Cubs. When I was a younger, I thought Cubs fans were reinvigorated each spring. They seemed excited when pitchers and catchers reported for spring training and the tingle of a new start mingled with the spring chill that typically remains on opening day at Wrigley. They kept their hopes for a championship just barely under wraps, but they were there. Oh, they were there. Cubs fans meant it when they said get ‘em next year.

In more recent years, in the post-Bartman era, I get the feeling that a century without a title has gotten the best of them. Cubs faithful are tighter, crankier, and just barely teetering on the edge of sanity. Misery loves company. Maybe it all turned sour after the Boston Red Sox fans and crosstown Chi-White Sox fans got to celebrate in 2004 and 2005. With those historic wins, Cubs fans stood alone as the loneliest long-suffering franchise. It doesn’t seem fun for fans anymore, which is a bummer even for me. Every loss carries the weight of 100 years, every missed opportunity seems inevitable. The Cubs are the face of disappointment. Goats optional.

Honorable mention: L.A. Clippers, Ottawa Senators, N.Y. Jets, Hartford Whalers (I interviewed some locals a couple of years ago for a story on Ron Francis; they’re still bitter).

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