Right where he belongs

. Saturday, February 21, 2009

Ken Griffey Jr. no longer sprints around the bases with the grace of a gazelle. His tired knees won't allow him to patrol the outfield with the ease that he once did, seemingly tracking down any ball hit within a mile radius of his glove. The swing that was once dubbed the sweetest in all of baseball just doesn't seem to possess the speed to catch up to fastballs like it used to and grey hairs have begun sprouting within his dark goatee.

These days, "The Kid" is anything but a kid.

Yet Saturday when Seattle's prodigal son once again donned a Mariners hat and buttoned up his teal No. 24 jersey, that was all pushed to the side. Only one thing mattered: Griffey was back.

Some things are just supposed to go together. Fish and water, Peanut Butter and Jelly, Michael Jordan and the Bulls, etc. To baseball fans, especially those in Seattle, when you think Seattle Mariners, you think Ken Griffey Jr.

In an era where the steroids hang over the game like a black cloud, Griffey seemingly did things the "right way". There's no proof of that, but there's certainly no proof he didn't. No positive steroid tests. No fellow players claiming to have seen him be injected. Over the course of his 20-year career, the only thing on Griffey that seems to have expanded is his waistline.

He represented what was good with the game. With his hat backward, a smile on his face and the carefree nature of a kid (wait, am I describing Brett Favre here?), he made the game look easy. He hit bombs, climbed walls and made diving catches that left you scratching your head. He was named to the MLB All-Century team at the age of 30 and seemed like a shoe-in to break Hank Aaron's home run record.

After a few (ok, MANY) bumps in the road after leaving Seattle, he now returns home. He returns to the place that Mariner president Chuck Armstrong dubbed "The House that Griffey Built". For good reason, because it is not out of the realm of possibility that the Seattle Mariners might be the "Oklahoma City Mariners" right now if not for Griffey.

Who can forget the 1995 season, when with the team on the verge of moving to a new city, Griffey and the Mariners came back from two games down against the Yankees in the ALDS, winning the dramatic fifth game in the 11th inning when Griffey went from first to home on a double by Edgar Martinez to topple the Yankees.

Of course, that was 13 years ago and one might wonder what trotting out what's left of Griffey does for the present day Mariners, a team seemingly on the fast track to nowhere, in dire need of a rebuilding plan.

It goes without saying how much sense the move makes from a business perspective, but it's not a bad baseball move either. Griffey is 39, but hit 30 homers and drove in 93 runs just two years ago. Bothered by knee injuries in 2008, he hit only 18 home runs between stints with the Reds and White Sox. At Designed Hitter, the Mariners could have done much worse. The in-house options were Russell Branyan (who hasn't hit 18 HR's since 2001), Wladimir Balentin (8 career HR's in two years) and Jeff Clement (7 career HR's in two years).

Griffey won't ever hit 56 homers in a season again, but he can certainly provide the Mariners with better production than they probably would have otherwise gotten in his spot. When he does, he'll do it in the stadium he helped build in front of people who grew up with him, in the only jersey that really looks right on him.

Just like it should be.

Desert mirage

. Friday, February 20, 2009

Phoenix storms have a bit of a reputation.

The sky will be clear in the morning, packed with clouds by the afternoon and will open up by nightfall. 90 minutes and several inches later, the rain will stop as suddenly as it started. The clouds will part. The desert sky will be clear once more.

Bad news was coming down by the bucketful in Phoenix over the weekend. While the NBA's  focus set on U.S. Airways Arena, rumors were flying over the future of the host franchise.

Would first-year man Terry Porter be fired as Suns coach? Would Amar'e Stoudemire's all-star appearance be his last game wearing a Phoenix jersey? Was the acquisition of Shaquille O'Neal a year earlier to blame of all of it?

The Suns were singing a much different tune by Thursday's NBA trade deadline. 
Porter was out. Former Mike D'Antoni assistant Alvin Gentry was in and already had two wins under his belt. Two wins in which Phoenix went back to its 7-seconds-or-less style of offense. Two wins in which the Suns scored 140 and 142 points. Two wins in which Stoudemire played his way off of the trading block. Two wins over the Los Angeles Clippers. 

Phoenix throttled the league's sixth-worst defense, taking the pair of games by a combined score of 63 points. Stoudemire had 23 points in 20 minutes in the first contest and 42 points in 36 minutes in the second. 

By the time Suns general manager Steve Kerr sat down for lunch Thursday, he was content to keep Stoudemire, content to turn down the Cleveland Cavaliers last-minute offer for Shaq, content on his promotion Gentry, content for two routs, albeit at the expense of the hapless Clippers. He was content for the first time since taking over the post a season ago. The front-office captain of the Phoenix Suns ship thought he'd weathered the storm. 

He was right in a way. He just mistook when the storm took place. It wasn't during All-Star weekend. It was Tuesday and Wednesday night, when the Suns swept a home-and-home with the Clippers.

Friday morning brought news that Stoudemire, the all-important cog to Phoenix's fast-paced machine, would be out eight weeks after surgery to repair a partially detached retina in his right eye. It'll be the last week of April before Steve Nash has his high-flying buddy back throwing down alley-oop dunks and thundering fast-break putbacks.

At 30-23, the Suns are a game behind Utah for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. It will be a miracle if they're not statistically eliminated by the time Stoudemire returns.

Even with a healthy lineup, the Suns were lying to themselves if they thought that all was well in the desert. Too many things needed to happen for them to reach the playoffs. Two blowouts over the Clippers does not a season make. Phoenix needed to beat a legitimate playoff team like the Celtics on Sunday or the Lakers on Thursday. They needed Shaq to not break down going at Phoenix's break-neck pace. They needed one of the teams in front of them to suffer a major injury like the Mavs losing Dirk Nowitzki or the Blazers losing Brandon Roy and even that wasn't a guarantee. Houston and Utah are still ahead of the Suns and they've been without Tracy McGrady and Carlos Boozer, respectively, for most of the year.

Without Stoudemire, Phoenix will see less motivation and fewer games from Shaq and more frustration by the docile-by-nature Nash. It will see fewer highlights on Sportscenter and more finger-pointing I-told-you-sos from pundits and coaches alike. 

It might be the first time the ousted Porter has cracked a smile in months.

With Stoudemire healthy, the best Phoenix could have hoped for would have been another quick exit in the first round. Without him, the best it can hope for is more ping pong balls in this year's draft lottery. 

For two days against the sixth-worst defense in the league, it rained buckets in Phoenix. Now the Suns will try and make it through the next predictable desert weather phenomenon - the months of drought that follow after the rain stops. 

Manny being Boras

. Friday, February 6, 2009

Manny being Manny.

It's a phrase that has been repeated countless times over the years about controversial slugger Manny Ramirez.

Whether he's faking an injury, complaining about money, cutting off relay throws from center field, letting the baseball bounce off his head or taking a nap inside the Green Monster at Fenway Park, Ramirez always seems to find away to get himself publicity.

You can still get your usual Manny fix from the various sports media outlets, but only this time, it's not his face on the front page because Manny isn't the one doing the talking.

Manny is off.. doing whatever it is that he does (feeding pidgeons? playing X-Box? writing poetry?) while "evil" super agent Scott Boras does his bidding.

Boras is, without question, the most controversial agent in pro sports. He is also the most successful. But while he has gotten teams to sign many of his clients to contracts well over what they deserved, he has also managed to turn many of those same clients into Public Enemy No. 1 in their respective cities.

In Ramirez's case, it was no different. Once adored by all in Boston, Manny became quite possibly the most despised man in the city last year when he hooked up with Boras, who helped Manny orchestrate his way out of Boston after the team wouldn't budge on giving him a contract extension when he still had two years left on his current deal.

Manny landed in Los Angeles, where he tore up National League pitching and put a team and an entire city on his back in the process of leading the Dodgers to a National League West crown and an appearence in the NLCS.

Everything was coming up roses until the day the Dodgers season ended, when after being eliminated by the Philadelphia Phillies, Manny was asked about his future and said simply, "Gas is up and so am I".

Ironically, gas prices across the country were going down at the time of the statement, but while they're going back up now, Manny's value doesn't seem to be. Which makes it all the more mind numbing that he can't come to a contract agreement with the Dodgers.

Dodgers General Manager Ned Colletti's tenure in Los Angeles has been nothing short of atrocious with signings like Jason Schmidt, Juan Pierre and Andruw Jones coming under his watch, but the fact is that he has handled the Manny Ramirez situation as well as he possibly could.

Boras and Ramirez have two offers on the table. One is a one-year, $25 million deal and the other is a two-year, $45 million deal.

Both would make him the second highest paid player in baseball over the next two seasons behind Alex Rodriguez.

Both are from the Dodgers.

The sticking point is the number of years. Ramirez, who will be 37-years-old when the 2009 season starts wants some long-term security, at least three years, preferably four or five.

It makes sense, but it also makes sense that instead of bidding against themselves, the Dodgers would offer him as much money in as short a time as possible so he can hit the free agent market again next year when maybe the economy is doing a little better and the team can avoid being tied into a long-term deal when they're already paying Andruw Jones $16 million over the next five years to do absolutely nothing.

Despite what Boras would like us all to believe, the market for Manny Ramirez as of today seems to start and end with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Boras claims there is strong interest from other teams, but aside from whipsers that the San Francisco Giants MIGHT be interested, not one team has stepped up to the plate to make a legitimate offer.

If no deal is made, the Dodgers will move on to another, albiet less attractive, option in someone like Adam Dunn, but what of Manny? Will he sit at home until someone offers him the contract he wants? If that happens, he might never suit up again. He has allowed Boras to bid him out of the price range of just about every team in baseball.

Unless a surprise team steps up in the next coming week and gives him what he wants, there's really only three options: A.) Retire. B.) Settle for less money after the Dodgers pull their offers off the table. C.) Sign with the Dodgers and become the second highest-paid player in baseball over the next two seasons (aww, what a shame. I really feel for you, Manny).

With Spring Training a little more than a week away, someone is bound to blink soon.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Sheets
Manny Ramirez is one of the last big name free agents left on the market, but he isn't the only one. Ben Sheets is another, although this one is not quite as puzzling.

Just a couple of years ago, Sheets was considered one of the most promising young pitchers in baseball. A definite future ace. Maybe he will be, but unless someone decides to bite the bullet and sign him, that can't happen. Of course, for any team to sign him, Sheets would have to convince them that his arm isn't about ready to detatch from his body and fly into the stands the next time he attempts to pitch, and today's news certainly didn't help ease those fears:

Ben Sheets, the injury-plagued, free-agent starting pitcher, is expected to undergo elbow surgery and be sidelined for four to six months, according to CBSSports.com sources.

The surgery, to repair Sheets' partially torn flexor tendon, is expected to be performed by noted orthopedist Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham, Ala. A source with knowledge of the situation said that Sheets is not expected to undergo Tommy John ligament replacement surgery.

Still, the elbow surgery likely will keep Sheets on the sidelines until August, or later. The right-hander was prepared to undergo surgery this week, according to sources, but those plans hit a snag over insurance issues and who would pay for it.

If Sheets will settle for a cheap one-year deal, he could provide a great boost come playoff time for a contender, but the biggest problem he faces that he is a 'Type A Free Agent', meaning whichever team signs him has to give up their first round pick to the Brewers. Good luck with that, Ben.

Juiced coverage


After standing outside the Federal Courthouse in San Francisco for two hours Thursday morning, the moment finally came. 

A Chevy Tahoe with window tint as black as its paint pulled up to the Turk Street entrance. Out stepped two blue-suit-and-sunglasses wearing secret service wannabes followed by the man of the hour: Barry Bonds.

Bonds coolly strutted by the media en route to arraignment and evidentiary hearings in his perjury case. No one said a word until one reporter called out "Hey Barry, how you doin'?" Bonds responded. "Good morning. How you doin'?"

The court house doors closed behind him without incident. No cavalcade of questions by reporters. No deaf ears by Bonds. No bruised egos.

But you wouldn't know it by many of the local stations' live reports from the court house.

Each of the top four TV news stations in the Bay Area reported that Bonds gruffly whisked by, ignoring questions, which in turn raised another: is the media unjustly slamming Bonds as the slugger has always claimed?

On Thursday, Bonds' claim was valid.

I may have hated him. I may still. He treated the fans like garbage. He treated his teammates like garbage. He treated the media like garbage. That still doesn't justify the haphazard coverage he received Thursday. 

We could do the chicken-or-the-egg argument of "who spurned who first" all we want. That still doesn't justify the haphazard coverage he received Thursday.

I lost a great deal of respect for people who I work with because of it. I even felt a little sorry for the man who I've booed and cursed and accused unmercifully from my couch and from the Left Field Pavillion in Dodger Stadium.

At 12:20 p.m. Thursday, Bonds walked by reporters on his way to the awaiting Tahoe, his heart not quite as black as the media has made it out to be. 

Bad timing for Bynum, Lakers

. Wednesday, February 4, 2009

In a time where hyperbole runs rampant in sports, saying Andrew Bynum's MCL tear couldn't have come at a worse time for the Lakers would be inaccurate.

But it's close.

The 21-year-old center was finally earning his wings before Kobe Bryant's shoulder grounded him for 8 to 12 weeks.

Now the Lakers face their toughest stretch of the regular season: an NBA finals re-run Thursday at Boston and a Sunday afternoon tilt in Cleveland where LeBron James' Cavs have yet to lose a game.

Both Boston and Cleveland are even with L.A. in the loss column. Both got there by bullying their opponents. 

Kobe can flex his 61-point muscle all he wants. It's not big enough to hide the gaping hole in the middle of the Lakers' defense. 

With Bynum, Kevin Garnett settles for fall-away 17-foot jump shots. Without him, KG gets lower on the block and hits a turn-around 8-footer or drop steps for a layup. With Bynum, LeBron's drives turn into pull-ups. Without him, they turn into posters with Pau Gasol or Luke Walton in the lower-left corner. 

L.A. will be lucky to split the last two games of their east-coast road trip. They'll be lucky to be even with the Celts and Cavs come April.

And for those of you who think the Lakers can bide their time until Bynum returns in early May, weren't you saying the same thing last year?

Saying that the Lakers title hopes crumbled with Andrew Bynum's knee would be inaccurate. 

But it's close.