Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Benitez Experiment: Over—Please

Here’s a recipe for losing a ballgame that includes one nutbag umpire and one emotionally fragile pitcher:

  • Take a one-run lead into the twelfth inning.
  • Dispense one base on balls to the leadoff hitter.
  • Add one balk call for no discernible reason.
  • Broach one sacrifice bunt.
  • Induce one ground-ball-hold-the-runner surprise.
  • Infuse another balk.
  • Lose composure entirely.
  • Cough up game-winning dinger.

This was Armando Benitez’s night at Shea Stadium. The Giants are 24-26.

Tonight’s first-base umpire, Bob Davidson, sees a balk around every corner, hence Mike Krukow’s longtime nickname for him: Balkin’ Bob. (I think of Davidson as someone who was through at least 10 years ago, but that’s just my correct opinion.) Davidson just doesn’t feel comfortable in a game until his fist has shot into the air—still attached to his arm, I mean. The defense could still be in the dugout, waiting to take the field, and Davidson will still call a balk if he can. Then again, it could be not a balk call so much as an extremely weird, inconvenient nervous tic. There has to be some rational explanation for Davidson calling a balk on a stationary Benitez—I mean, the guy did not move. Not the first time, anyway. The second balk, in all fairness, was all Benitez.

As our closer prepared to enter his stretch, Carlos Beltran began scooting down the line at third… and Benitez bit. And balked. And blew. The save, I mean. Tie game. Then Armando turned his attention… Carlos Delgado, the batter? The game situation? Nah—Balkin’ Bob. So upset was Armando that he felt he had no choice but to lob what appeared to be a Pony-League-pitching-machine fastball. This Delgado crushed—I mean, I nearly turned off the TV before the pitch, but no, I had to stay tuned. Had to watch Delgado’s ball zoom over a distant fence. Must be my fault.

But no. I won’t cop to this one. What we have here is someone who’s lost whatever guts he’s ever had, despite whatever confidence he may unjustly retain. I wouldn’t be surprised if he yet again said, “Hey, I did my job”—his standard line when he blows a save despite, say, getting a ground ball. All I know is that I’m sick of this guy and want him out.

And yet, I’m not even angry. It’s not as though tonight’s result was a surprise or something, even though he’d saved nine of 10 this year (somehow). Indeed, I’d been pretty patient all season. Really. Benitez threw well in the spring, and he looked as though maybe he’d turned it around. But now, every appearance he makes ups the collective blood pressure of Giants fans everywhere—even, I daresay, the ones who say they’ve got faith in him.

I can’t imagine another team being willing to take Benitez (and his contract) off the Giants’ hands, but if there’s anybody in the world in worse need of a change of professional scenery (besides me, I mean), he must be one sorry bastard. He needs out. I need him out. I’d rather have Rod Beck and his 10-years-dead arm out there. He’s 38, three years removed from Major League Baseball, and all he has is guts. Maybe the only current Giant I’d hate to see closing games more than Benitez is Vinnie Chulk. Maybe.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Lincecum Shots

Posted today, mostly written yesterday:

Mike Krukow said before tonight’s game that he expected Tim Lincecum either to get rocked in the first inning of his major league debut or to strike out the side on nine pitches. Therefore, when Phillies leadoff hitter Jimmy Rollins took an 0-1 pitch for a ball, I knew that meant it was time to go “Uh-oh.” Rollins ended up nudging a slow ground ball up the middle into center field somehow, and Shane Victorino hit an 0-2 curve just into the crowd in the right-field arcade for a 2-0 Phillies lead. Lincecum then struck out two guys, walked one, and struck out another. The Giants managed an unearned run in the bottom of the inning against Cole Hamels, the Phils’ own phenom. If anything was particularly noteworthy about the inning, it’s that Lincecum, who gave up two runs through two batters, had surrendered only one run in 31 innings at Fresno before his recall. Then again, I suppose it’s not that noteworthy. “Giving up twice as many runs in one inning as he had at Fresno” would’ve been a lot more interesting if he’d given up, say, 15 at Fresno.

It took me longer to write that paragraph than it took Lincecum to get through the top of the second inning, however—and I type fast. I hope that means he’s settled down. Meanwhile, though, if he isn’t thinking, “Thanks piles, Boch,” he’s a stronger man than I, because today’s lineup features Pedro Feliz in left field, Todd Linden in center, and Kevin Frandsen at third, with Barry Bonds and Dave Roberts (who hasn’t hit much anyway) on the bench. Let’s see… Phils phenom… Linden and Frandsen in a lineup… you go ahead and do the math, ‘cause I refuse. (And well I did, because—Earnest Ragging being what it is—Linden took a four-pitch walk instead of a three-pitch whiff, and Frandsen poked a hustle double into right field. Lincecum struck out on three pitches, though, but Randy Winn tied the game on a 3-0 pitch, a run-scoring ground ball. Then Omar Vizquel doubled over Aaron Rowand’s head in center—his 2,500th career hit—so it’s 3-2. So yay. The still-homerless Rich Aurilia, though, has been stone cold, and despite Vizquel’s subsequent steal of third, Richie’s three-pitch strikeout ended the inning. So whee.)

Incidentally, Bonds has 10 home runs this year, 744 total, so there’s been plenty of talk about Hank Aaron’s plans for Bonds’ record-tying and record-breaking home runs (which, frankly, I wish he’d hit tomorrow—which would set a few more records, but still). At present, Aaron reportedly does not plan to be in attendance. Now, on the surface, that’s not so bad, right? It’s not like planning for Cal Ripken’s record-breaking 2,131st straight game: you’d have a darned good idea of the date for such an event. But with Bonds… well, geez, if he gets hot and gets pitched to, he could easily break the thing by the end of May. If one or the other condition isn’t met, who knows? And all that is true as long as it’s a given that Bonds is gonna break the record anyway. I mean, he might not—the world could end, or worse. So if Aaron were expected to chase Bonds around the country until he hits 755 and/or 756, well, you could see how that might annoy the man. (Not as much as the two-out, two-run home run crushed by Ryan Howard—who’d been hitting kind of like Lincecum all season—that puts Philly in front 4-3. E! Lincecum has now walked three, along with five strikeouts, and I don’t see him getting much past the fourth. Too many pitches.) (Addendum: Well, how prophetic of me! He left with the bases loaded and one out in the fifth, having thrown 100 pitches. But you know what? I don't think he pitched badly. He made a couple of mistakes, but unless this all somehow gets inside his head, I think he’ll be okay—possibly even great, once we trade him for the not-yet-awful Shane Victorino. Don’t worry, though—I won’t even mention the fact that Lincecum’s short stint was somewhat mitigated by possibly the worst call I’ve ever seen: Lincecum picked off Victorino, who got himself in a rundown; he’d initially been running on the outfield side of the baseline, then went several feet onto the infield grass, then collided with Omar Vizquel—upon whom the appalling Gary Cederstrom called obstruction. The man blew the call horrendously. He knew he did. He still knows he did. His three partners know he did—but they chose to uphold the call. So I won’t bring it up. Nor will I mention Peter Gammons saying something about how one or more of the umps have since pointed out that “every time the runner changes direction, he's defining his own baseline, so the call is correct because Vizquel was in his way.” Or words to that effect. If that’s true, couldn’t the runner could just zip one way or the other and take out infielders at will? Or was it no more than a classic umpire bluff? And doesn’t the runner have to actually be running toward a base, rather than the mound?)

However, Aaron has pretty much said he has no intention of being present at the big event. It doesn’t really matter to me, but… why not? For the aforementioned travel-related reason? For reasons related to his stated disdain for records that are not achieved “honestly”? Or because he’d rather not see the record broken to begin with?

I’m sure the travel thing is a small factor, but I suspect it’s that last thing that matters most to Aaron, and I don’t think I blame him. Ruth’s 714 stood for nearly 40 years, and Aaron’s 755 for around 33. Long time either way, but at least Ruth didn’t get to (or have to) live to watch his mark fall. Aaron probably won’t feel so great about watching his fall.

If, however, Aaron’s reluctance is about the “honesty” thing, I pity him not. First, we don’t know about Bonds, we only suspect, and no matter how reasonable those suspicions are, that’s all they are. No proof. No proof about Aaron, either: lots of folks think he used amphetamines. (Well, Bonds has copped to using those….)

And during tonight’s game, shortly after Lincecum coughed up the lead, ESPN showed the results of a poll of (maybe a few hundred) black and white fans regarding Bonds and the record, and black fans are overwhelmingly more “forgiving” of Bonds. In short, the white people polled believe Bonds is knowingly dirty, his records shouldn’t stand, and he shouldn’t go into the Hall of Fame. This white fan considers those white fans to be pretty stupid and transparent. I mean, I have no doubt that fans exist who used to admire Bonds but don’t anymore because of steroid allegations, and believe he should be punished, etc., but for the most part, the anti-Bonds faction will have to go a very, very long way to convince me that the anti-Bonds sentiment is about steroids and cheating rather than simple dislike for a player who, admittedly, isn’t easy to like. When I hear nonsense about cherished records and the integrity of the game, it’s hard not to laugh. First… what integrity? Baseball has a history that is as far from unblemished as Pluto is from the sun. An entirely different sun, in an entirely different galaxy. (Next guy who screams about baseball’s integrity, I want him to have a sit-down with Gary Cederstrom and his umpiring crew.) Second… if records are cherished, it’s solely because Babe Ruth was cherished, and well he should be, sort of. What other records are cherished? Cy Young’s 511 wins? Well, they’re safe, so why cherish (or not)? Ryan’s five zillion strikeouts? Ty Cobb’s historically adjusted batting average? DiMaggio’s hitting streak? Gehrig’s playing streak? Well, those two are cherished—but for any reason other than them being career Yankees? I kinda doubt it. Even Aaron—as I’ve said in EEEEEE!—isn’t “the all-time home run champion”: He’s the guy who took down Ruth. Cherishing records is mostly about Ruth and the Yankees—the team the whole country is told to love. This doesn’t exactly smack of integrity and “purity,” or whatever, either. It smacks mildly of vomit.

Meanwhile, ESPN has shown a quote from Bud Selig pointing out that he wasn’t present for Roger Clemens’ 300th win—apparently as a justification for possibly (if not probably) missing Bonds’ 756th. As if those 300 wins are somehow a Cherished Record rather than a very impressive milestone (and less than 60 percent of the record figure). Translation: Selig doesn’t want to be there to see The Cheater break the record of a man who hit many of his home runs in Milwaukee—Selig’s town—and a man whom Selig brought “home” at the end of his career. It’s the same mentality that led Ford Frick, as commissioner, to declare that Roger Maris’ 61 home runs would only count as a record if he’d achieved them within 154 games. Frick was a buddy of Ruth’s, and you could safely bet that such a condition wouldn’t be decreed by a commissioner who wasn’t.

I love baseball. True, I’m not fond of the history of cheating, lying, drug use, and other crazy crap that has permeated the game in its professional incarnation, but I accept it, though not all that happily. However, it’s happened; it does happen—and, outside of baseball, far worse happens. So how ‘bout we just accept what we cannot change, and move on?

Besides: Soon enough that Cherished Record will be set by Alex Rodriguez or Ryan Howard or somebody.