Rooting for A-Rod

August 19th, 2013 sendarama Posted in baseball 1 Comment »

You know who you are.

You’re recognizable in a frenzied crowd because you’re the only one not cheering. You hate all things trite. You cringe when a stranger says “Have a good one.”

Were you of a different age, you’d have condemned HUAC, rooted for the Loyalists, and cheered Muhammad Ali when he refused to step forward for induction. You’re the dopey kid who came to Will Kane’s aid in “High Noon” when the whole town had deserted him. You’re against mob rule. You can’t resist an underdog.

You’re A-Rod fan.

Following six weeks of public revilement which would have caused other national disgraces (Tonya Harding, Steve Bartman, OJ Simpson, to name a few) to run for cover, Alex Rodriguez has been unwavering. You are impressed by his steadfastness and calm under pressure. You know that under similar circumstances, you would crumble like a Ritz cracker. You don’t like Bud Selig, and you can’t help feeling that he is attempting to destroy A-Rod’s career for the purpose of burnishing his legacy.

You’re A-Rod fan

You don’t like that A-Rod was singled out for punishment far beyond the fifty-game suspensions levied on eleven other similarly-situated players, and you’re turned off by the faux praise lobbed at Ryan Braun by MLB brass when he copped an early plea to a 65-game suspension. You think that whiners like John Lackey who “wants back” a home run he surrendered to A-Rod ten years ago are hypocrites because they played with other admitted steroid users. And why should players be upset about A-Rod for exercising the appeal rights available to all players under the Joint Drug Agreement?

You can’t help thinking that MLB is trying to discredit A-Rod by the systematic leaking of information suggesting that he interfered with MLB’s investigation of the Biogenesis clinic and divulged information about other alleged users to the press. These events, if true, occurred several months ago during a bidding war between MLB and A-Rod for Biogenesis evidence. Leave it to the arbitrator, you say, to decide whether such activities warrant extra punishment. Despite MLB’s holier than thou stance, you know that this is not obstruction of justice, that this is not a criminal investigation.

You’re A-Rod fan

And you’re appalled that Rod is being targeted by other pitchers with beanballs, and that fans are cheering when he gets hit. It happened in Chicago last week; and last night, Ryan Dempster hurled four consecutive pitches at A-Rod before nailing him in the back as Boston fans exploded with glee. You thought Dempster should have been tossed, but it turned out for the best when A-Rod turned on the pathetic Dempster two at bats later and smashed his weak serving on a line over the centerfield bleachers, spurring an important victory.

You’re A-Rod fan.

If you are a Yankee fan, then you never abandoned A-Rod in the first place, because team fandom trumps the peccadillos of any particular player. A-Rod’s return from a season-long injury has already sparked the Yankees to improved play over his first twelve games. If he can somehow lead them into the playoffs, his pitfalls with PED’s will be a mere footnote to the Yankees’ most remarkable comeback since 1978.

You’re Yankee fan and A-Rod fan.

You’re isolated because the powers that be are aligned against the beleaguered slugger; and everyone you talk to thinks A-Rod is a sleaze and should have the book thrown at him. But you sense that subtly, gradually, public opinion is shifting in A-Rod’s favor. The bombastic Steven A. Smith praised A-Rod’s “intestinal fortitude.” You can’t help but appreciate his focus under tremendous pressure, noted another commentator. His inspired performance last night may well mark a turning point for the Yankees and for A-Rod’s reputation, said Mark Schlereth of ESPN. Even those who detest A-Rod must be saying to themselves, “That guy sure can compartmentalize.”

Dempster plunks A-Rod.

In the build-up to A-Rod’s suspension, few came to his defense. Not even the Yankee front office offered support. Following a public dispute with A-Rod over whether he was ready to come back from injury, Yankee GM Brian Cashman told him to “shut the fuck up.” Later, the Yankees extended A-Rod’s re-hab past the point when his suspension was likely to be announced. Several talk show hosts predicted he would never again play for the Yankees. Even the Yankees’ beat writer for the New York Times, Tyler Kepner, lashed out at Rodriguez’ poor character and weak-mindedness.

And the rift between team and player will only get deeper now that A-Rod’s new counsel, brash celebrity lawyer Joseph Tacopina, has accused the Yankees of “running an invalid” onto the field last fall with knowledge of A-Rod’s hip injury. He will recommend , he said, that A-Rod agree to “not one inning of suspension.” With the revelation that Rodriguez is planning to file a grievance against the Yankees based on faulty medical treatment, Cashman fired back that A-Rod was a liar because he had previously told him (Cashman) that the Yankee doctors were fine. Rodriguez’ camp appears to be laying the foundation for a lawsuit against MLB and the Yankees alleging a conspiracy to ruin A-Rod’s career. Relations between team and player could not be worse.

Has any athlete felt such combined heat from Team, League and Public while still competing? Lance Armstrong was retired when his world came undone. And when has a team so publicly trashed its own player? Not since George Steinbreener hired gambler Howard Spira to gather dirt against Dave Winfield in the 80′s have the Yankees so turned on one of their own. And that was in secret.

It’s been said that some star athletes feel empowered when playing in a hostile environment. If so, can you imagine how pumped A-Rod gets going up against the World? Against this backdrop of hostility, A-Rod is playing well and he’s galvanized the Yanks into playing better. The team as a whole is hitting 60 points above its team average since A-Rod’s return August 5th.

Of course, it’s the magnitude of A-Rod’s contract which puts the Yanks in a quandary. If they cut him, they eat 86 million over four years. And they can’t trade him. At this point, it’s hard to know what they want. Do they wish A-Rod to recover his lost magic and be a productive player for the balance of his contract, or would they prefer that the arbitrator uphold the 211- game suspension and free them from liability for that period? As the tension between team and player continues to heat up, it appears that they are opting for the latter result.

Yes, A-Rod has made problems for himself by lying about his steroid use on national television, and by being unmindful of the impact of his conduct on his image. By allowing himself to be photographed kissing himself in the mirror, by sunbathing naked in Central Park, by slipping his phone number to an attractive blonde while on the bench during last year’s playoffs, and by a host of other tone-deaf acts, he has left the indelible perception that he is selfish, narcissistic, and self-absorbed.

All of that may be true. But that does not equate to making him the poster boy for steroid use.

While his legal team mounts open challenges to MLB and the Yankees, A-Rod sticks to his mantra: “My focus is on playing well and winning games.” If he continues to translate that theme into results on the field, he will mount his best case. Five weeks from now, if A-Rod is batting 320, with ten home runs, and 30 rbi’s, and the Yanks are in the thick of the wild card race, then he will have done more for his cause than all the posturing by his lawyers. Even the skeptical public will come to appreciate his grace under pressure. When and if that happens, the stage will be set for a negotiated reduced suspension, say 60 games, that A-Rod can accept.

Until then, A-Rod fan will watch every game, savor every at-bat, and yearn for heroic acts.

Here’s rooting for you, A-Rod.

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Back to Earth….. with a Thud

October 24th, 2012 sendarama Posted in baseball No Comments »

As the Giants and Tigers square off in the World Series, my thoughts turn to what might have been…

A Nats season ticket holder since 2005 and a Yankee fan since birth, I woke up two weeks ago pulsating at the prospect of the best baseball week, or fortnight, of my life. And it was not inconceivable that this magical stretch might culminate in a Yanks-Nats World Series, with me ticketed behind first base with four tickets to the Greatest Show on Earth. Friends I’d written off for dead were inquring about my health.

The tune on the tips of my tongue that Monday morning was “I’m in Heaven, I’m in Heaven, and my heart beats so that I can barely speak. And I seem to find the happiness we seek, when we’re out together dancing cheek to cheek.”

It’s been seventy seven years since the lovestruck Fred Astaire croooned these Irving Berlin lyrics to Ginger Rogers in “Top Hat,” but substitute the horsehide sphere for Rogers’ deep blue eyes, and you capture how I felt. Little did I know that five days later I’d be mouthing “Heartbreak Hotel” (for the Nats), and that not long after, I’d be writing script for the Yanks’ dynasty tombstone,

Going in, both teams were the short favorites in their league to make it to the World Series, but for different reasons. The Yanks, playoff participants in seventeen of the past eighteen years, were riding their reputation. The Nats, the first Washington team to play in October since 1933, had the best team.

And the respective Divisional Series began so promisingly. The Nats squeezed out a 3-2 victory over the Cards with a two-out eighth inning bleeder by pinch hitter Tyler Moore and a decisive save by closer Drew Storen. The Yanks broke open a 2-2 game in Baltimore with five runs in the top of the ninth inning. All was well.

With the prospect of attending six playoff games in one week, I drove to Baltimore Monday night for game 2 of the ALDS. Baltimore fans were giddy. The O’s having so unexpectedly made the playoffs, the fans were running on house money. Everything was great. No worries. And why should there be? The O’s were 31-10 in 1-run games. They had won an incredible 16 straight in extra innings.

The Yanks spurted out of the gate in Game 2. A walk to Jeter and a single by Ichiro set the table for A-Rod. In an at-bat which set the tone for his playoff failures, the fading superstar ripped a liner over second base, surely destined for center field. But Andino made a diving grab and flipped to second for the double play. Instead of one run in, no out, first and third, it was two out and a runner on first. The Yanks eked out a first inning run on an acrobatic slide by Ichiro after a double by Teixeira, but Andino’s play saved a big inning. Andy Pettitte had less than his best stuff, and the O’s clawed their way to a 3-2 win, tying the series at 1-1 and their season series with the Yanks at 10-10.

After a game 2 drubbing in St.Louis to tie the series, the Nats returned home Wednesday to a sundrenched day before an adoring crowd. The 1:00 start was reminiscent of the World Series games of my youth. All that was missing was the black and white TV flickering in the appliance store. It was an idyllic setting punctuated by a glorious rendition of the national anthem and the roar of the Navy Seals flying overhead just before first pitch. Despite the newness of the surroundings to the young Nats, particularly when compared to the battle-tested Cards, few at Nats Park seriously doubted the ability of the homestanders to prevail.

With Edwin Jackson on the mound, the crowd stood up on every 2-strike pitch, no matter the count, no matter the score. In New York, they know to withhold these bursts of frenzy until there are two outs. But the not ready for prime time DC fans knew no such limitations. When the Cards burst to an early 5-0 lead, the exuberance seemed out of place. At 8-0, the practice became downright annoying. Belying its naivete, the crowd even cheered negative plays, as when La Roche bounded into a force at second with one out and runners on first and second.

With the Nats’ backs to the wall for Game 4, tension heightened for Thursday’s 4:00 tilt. Crowd merriment subsided, replaced by fear. As the sun turned to shadows, and the thrill mixed with chill, there ensued the most gripping game of the Nats 2012 season. In the second inning, against Cardinal ace Kyle Lohse, LaRoche ignited the crowd, first with a foul homer, then with a real one. The 1-0 lead lasted only an instant, thanks to an infield error by Desmond. Lohse and Detwiler matched zeroes through the sixth when the Nats bullpen took over. Nat relievers Zimmerman, Clippard, and Storen struck out eight of the next nine batters.Then Jason Werth faced Lance Lynn to lead off the ninth.

The most overpriced player in the majors, A-Rod excepted, Werth had received a pass this year. Since returning from a wrist injury which sidelined him from April to August, Werth batted leadoff and eked out a .300 average. With five sluggers following him in the lineup and the team successful, Nat fans were inclined to overlook Werth’s pathetic power numbers (5 hr, 31 rbi). And what happened next probably extended his grace period into next June. After a 13-pitch at bat, including at least three feeble popups which barely made their way into the stands, Werth met a Lynn fast ball just right and sent it soaring into the visitor’s bullpen in left field. The stage was set for game five Friday night.

To the north, the Bronx Bombers, now known as the Bronx Peashooters, were suffering a power outage which threatened to end their season prematurely. Several of the Yanks’ big guns – A-Rod, Cano, Swisher and Granderson- had become strikeout machines, as in “all they do is strike out.” These four, who earned 65 million/annum, combined to strike out 44 times in 125 at-bats times in the playoffs while batting to a collective .112 (14-125). In the words of Yank commentator Ken Singleton, they were “lost at the plate,” their indecision reflected in a flurry of checked swings.

In the case of Cano and Swisher, the problem was of sudden onset. Cano had closed the season on a 24-39 tear and Swisher had finished at a fast clip. But with A-Rod, the problems appeared to be of a more serious nature. Since returning from a hand injury in early September, the once-dangerous slugger had been helpless against right-handers, resembling a Punch and Judy hitter more than the compiler of 647 home runs.

By game three, the savvy New York crowd had already lost its patience with this group of over-swinging sluggers. At Nats Park and Camden Yards, it was sardine room only; but at the Stadium, throughout the playoffs, rows of empty seats were visible behind home plate and in the lower levels. The Yanks’ stirring 12-inning triumph in game 3, on two Raul Ibanez home runs, and their eventual victory over the O’s in five games, did nothing to quell the general uneasiness about the team’s prospects.

Game Five for the Nats, a game which will live in infamy, could not have begun better. Before the foam had subsided on the evening’s first beer, the Nats had plated three runs off Card starter Adam Wainwright – a double by Werth, a triple by Harper, and a booming homer by Zimmerman. Then, in the third, they took a 6-0 lead on homers by Harper and Morse. It would take the greatest collapse in a deciding game in Major League history for the Nats to lose this one. On the Win Expectancy Meter, the Nats enjoyed a 96.3% probability of success.

But that statistiic did not factor in a lack of playoff maturity and a slew of managerial miscues by Davey Johnson. When starter Gio Gonzalez walked four batters leading to three runs before being yanked, the Cards had crawled to 6-3. Johnson’s first mistake was leaving Gonzalez in too long. Then, he brought in starter Edwin Jackson for relief for the seventh inning instead of regular reliever Ryan Mattheus. The combustible Jackson was an odd choice since he had been shelled in Game 3 Wednesday and was not accustomed to relieving. He was lucky to escape with only one run allowed. When Clippard allowed a home run to light-hitting Descalzo in the eighth, the margin became razor thin; but an insurance run in the bottom of the eighth restored the win expectancy to a healthy 96.5% entering the top of the 9th.

With closer Drew Storen on the mound with a 2-run lead, the Nats could not have asked for better positioning. Even after Carlos Beltran’s lead-off double, Storen retired the next two batters and had two strikes on Yadier Molina with Beltran on third. The crowd stoked to a frenzy. Strangers were slapping five and exchanging hugs. Then, Storen became over-cautious and walked Molina. After several more 2-strike counts, he did the same with Freese. After the pesky Descalso poked a game-tying single to center off Desmond’s glove, Johnson chose to pitch to shortstop Kozma rather than to issue an intentional walk to bring up the pitcher’s spot, occupied by closer Jason Motte, who had already pitched the 8th inning. To creep back, the Cards had already burned their primary pinch hitters, and they had no one reliable in the bullpen.

But Johnson chose to pitch to Kozma, whose line single to right field dashed the Nats’ hopes, and season. After having been hailed as a wizard all year long, Johnson’s instincts had failed him. In game 5, everything he tried went wrong. His mistakes will be part of a legacy which will last until the Nats achieve post-season success.

In the Bronx, the aftertaste was just as sour. The Tigers 4-game sweep left the Yanks in disarray and with many decisions to make in the off-season. At least, the Nats can rely on the quality of their roster and the depth of their pitching staff to look promisingly to next season.

It’s a long plunge from baseball heaven to the double whammy inflicted on my Yanks and Nats – a devastating deciding game defeat followed by an humiliating 4-game sweep. It’s enough to make one turn to football. Does anybody need World Series tickets?

But enough with the mourning. It’s back to the future….. San Francisco in six.

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Pettitte to the Rescue…….Again

September 18th, 2012 sendarama Posted in baseball No Comments »

In Andy Pettitte’s long history with the Yankees, reaching back to 1995 and including 206 wins and 38 post-season appearances, he has never been their number one man. Though Pettitte has been a Yankee starter longer than anybody not named Ford or Ruffing, he has always played second or third fiddle in the rotation – to David Cone, David Wells, Mike Mussina, Roger Clemens, and more recently, CC Sabathia. Even AJ Burnett was slotted ahead of Pettitte in 2009 and 2010.

But if he hasn’t been the Yanks’ top dog over the years, Pettitte has certainly been their rescue dog. For most of his 14 years with the Bombers, including tonight, when he will take the mound against Toronto at the Stadium after a three-month layoff with a broken ankle, Pettitte has been a veritable St. Bernard for the Yankees in critical situations, whether it be the second game of a playoff series in which they trailed (4 times), the deciding game of a playoff series (3 times), the fifth game of a tied World Series (1996), or to salvage a season and pitching staff spiraling out of control, such as right now.

Make no mistake. The Yanks are getting by on fumes. Since July 18, when they led the American League East by 10 games with a majors-best record of 57-34, they have gone 26-29. Between August 15th and September 13th, they did not win two consecutive games.

You could make the argument that putting aside a six week stretch from June 3 to July 18, when they went 29-10, the Yanks have been a sub-500 team for seventy five percent of the season. Contrast the Nationals, who have posted a winning record for each month.

Despite an uptick in the past few days, the Yanks’ starting pitching has been a wreck, their bullpen a shambles; and despite leading the majors in home runs, their regular lineup has been startlingly unable to hit with runners in scoring position or to move runners around the bases. Of the ten Yankee hitters who have stroked ten dingers or more, all of them hit less with RISP than otherwise. The averages dip even further with RISP + two outs.

Furthermore, their running game has disappeared. Last year, with Brett Gardner and Eduardo Nunez playing major roles, they featured a nice mix of speed and power. This year, Gardner has been injured, and Nunez spent most of the season in the minors. They are pure station to station.

Andy Pettitte as a dog

For Yankee fans, such as this writer, it’s become fashionable during late season slumps to foretell the end of their run, which has included sixteen post-season appearances in the last seventeen years. But historically, no team has been more resilient at season’s end than the Bombers. Nor a better front runner. They have never blown a lead of six games or more to lose a pennant or divisional title. Twenty eight times they led the field by ten games or more.

So what makes this Yankee team different?

In the words of one baseball analyst, “they have no strengths as a team other than their ability to hit home runs.”

A former strength, the bullpen, has been reduced to mediocrity by the year-long absence of Mariano Rivera due to injury, and the regression of David Robertson, who handled the eighth inning so superbly a year ago. If a Yankee starter should work through the sixth, the seventh and eighth innings are a crap shoot. Among Boone Logan, Cody Eppley, Clay Rapada, and Joba Chamberlain, there is no one capable of pitching a clean inning. Rafael Soriano has been an effective substitute for Rivera as closer, but it’s just a matter of time before the mercurial Dominican implodes in a big spot.

The Yanks’ starting lineup is old, averaging 34 years. Their bench is aged (Chavez 34, Jones 35, Ichiro 38, and Ibanez 40). While other contenders have incorporated contributing young players into their mix, the Yanks have unveiled no new blood. And there appears to be little help in the farm system. Top pitching prospects Manny Banueles and Dellin Betances have endured disastrous seasons, and there is no non-pitcher on the expanded 40-man roster who is likely to make a difference, other than Nunez, whose ground ball error Friday night was costly.

Complicating matters for the Yankees, in a season with more plot twists than a full year of “Twilight Zones,” is the surreal play of the Orioles, who remain a threat to win the AL East. And under the new rules, the loser in the AL East race, although a near-certain wild card entry, will be at a severe disadvantage. The second-place finisher will play at Oakland in a one-game elimination, and if prevailing, will then face tough Texas in the ALDS. The AL East champ will face easier Chicago or Detroit with home field advantage.

The Orioles, with more runs surrendered than scored, and with a 27-8 record in 1-run games, have defied explanation in compiling an 83-64 won lost record. Last Saturday at Camden Yards against New York, the Birds started three players batting less than .200 and won the game on an horrendous call at first base. They edged Tampa Bay twice last week in showdown games in extra innings. Over the course of the season, Manager Showalter has scrapped four of his original five starters and has mixed and matched among his regulars to fashion a young, energetic squad which is full of surprises.

Looking at their lineup, it’s still hard to take them seriously, but the standings say otherwise.

Enter Pettitte, in circumstances eerily similar to 2010, when having been sidelined for two months with a groin injury, he returned on September 19 in time to stabilize the reeling Yanks and lead them to another division title.

This time, Pettitte was retired in 2011, came back in mid May, and only started nine games before going down. He will be on a strict pitch count and cannot be expected to last beyond five innings in his first start and slightly longer in his remaining two or three outings.

Whatever his won-lost record, the symbolic effect of a string of decent performances by the tall lefthander cannot be over estimated. Conversely, if he falls on his face, the Yanks will be devastated.

It’s a heavy burden to place on a 40-year old veteran, one year removed from retirement, just off a serious leg injury.

But on the shoulders of Andy Pettitte, it looks good.

Just Joshin’

Josh Morgan seems to have escaped his fair measure of public excoriation for the ball-throwing penalty he incurred at the end of Sunday’s Redskins-St. Louis game, costing the Skins a chance to win or tie. To anyone not smothered in political correctness, Morgan’s maneuver will live in infamy as one of the dumbest, most inexcusable misdeeds in an athletic endeavor, not to be soon if ever forgotten. Move over Chris Webber, Leon Lett, Jim Marshall, and Fred Merkle. There’s a new moron in the house.

But the reaction from the media has been muted. Morgan was hailed by some commentators for admitting that he “lost control of his emotions.” As if we thought his act was premeditated. Mike Shanahan’s most severe criticism was, “We can’t lose our poise.” The mantra seems to be “We win and lose as a team. One play did not cost us the game.”

Wrong. Morgan’s bonehead maneuver did cost the Redskins the game, and might have turned around their season, in a bad way. It was unforgivable, no matter how chippy the game became. To make matters worse, Morgan told a Washington Post reporter before the game how important it was to not respond to provocateur Courtland Finnegan’s antics. Stupid is as stupid does.

Can you imagine if Mike Ditka or Vince Lombardi coached the Redskins? Their first move would have been to cut Morgan, their second to kick his ass out of town.

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Roger Restored

June 18th, 2012 sendarama Posted in baseball No Comments »

Was the jury verdict in the Roger Clemens case more a comment on the quality of the lawyering than on Clemens’ guilt or innocence?

Does Clemens’ acquittal on all counts restore the righthander to his rightful prominence in the pantheon of great hurlers or will he be perceived, like OJ Simpson, as a guilty athlete who got off?

Clemens was charged with lying before Congress. Did the jury agree with Clemens’ lawyer Rusty Hardin that Congress should never have held hearings on the Mitchell Report, which was a non-governmental operation commissioned and paid for by Major League Baseball?

If we forgive Roger because he went to trial and was acquitted, shouldn’t we afford the same beneficence to other suspected and admitted users who did not receive their day in court, and accept their records without question?

The answers to these questions will evolve over time, but one thing is certain. The Clemens verdict was less a determination that Clemens never used steroids than an expression of distate for the government’s methods and the integrity of its main witness, Brian McNamee.

Clemens is certainly entitled to bask in his victory, and he will claim vindication for his position that he never used steroids or Human Growth Hormone (HGH); but you would have to believe in the tooth fairy to have heard the testimony in this case and conclude that Clemens never touched the stuff.

Because in the words of defense attorney Rusty Hardin, the government’s prosecution of Roger Clemens was a “horrible overreach,” and because all roads of the government’s case lead through McNamee, who was exposed as a more persistent liar than Alibi Ike, the jury felt compelled to side with Clemens – characterized throughout the trial, even by prosecution witnesses, as a man of great talent, character and determination – over an avaricious government and the very sleazy McNamee.

The government based its case against Clemens almost entirely on McNamee, who testified that he injected Clemens with HGH and anabolic steroids on multiple occasions in 1998, 2000, and 2001, first in Toronto when he was employed as a strength coach with the Blue Jays and then while working for the Yankees, who hired him at Clemens’ request in 2000.

As corroboration for McNamee, who has dealt drugs, lied under oath, forged documents, and suffered two DWI convictions during his checkered past, the government offered syringes, vials and cotton balls saved by him for seven years and allegedly containing Clemens’ DNA, and the testimony of former teammate Andy Pettitte that Clemens admitted steroid use to him in 1999 or 2000.

McNamee first told his story to the Mitchell Commission, which was created by MLB in response to pressure from Congress; but Congress was not involved in the investigation. The Mitchell Report was released in December, 2007, naming Clemens as a user. The 7-time Cy Young award winner challenged the Report’s findings publicly, held a press conference, and sued McNamee for Defamation.

The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, bruised by Clemens’ challenge to the accuracy of the Mitchell Report, called hearings to investigate the matter and subpoenaed Clemens to testify. Congress didn’t have to do this. Its decision to call Clemens was politically-charged, backed by Democrats and opposed by Republicans.

In depositions before House investigators, and then again before the full committee, Clemens made the statements denying steroid use which gave rise to his indictment two years later for six counts of lying to Congress.

But the threshold issue before the jury was not whether Clemens lied to Congress, or whether he took steroids or HGH but whether the government proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Clemens made the alleged mistatements with criminal intent.

Did the government prove its case on any count beyond a reasonable doubt?

As the quick jury verdict indicates, the prosecution did not come close to meeting its burden. When you consider that a) McNamara was shredded on cross examination by the ultra slick Hardin and acknowledged at least fifteen different instances of mistakes, bad memory or lying during the progression of the case; b) McNamee’s drug paraphernalia exhibit was deemed “hopelessly contaminated” by defense expert Bruce Goldberger; and c) Pettitte admitted on cross examination that he was only “50% certain” that he understood Clemens correctly during their pivotal conversation in 1999-2000, the government’s case became infected with reasonable doubt.

Things went south early for the feds when former and current Yankee Pettitte was called to the stand out of sequence, before McNamee, because of his obligations to the Yankees. Resplendent in a gray pinned-stripe suit, tanned and lean, the left-hander glowed like a movie star. ‘What a dreamboat,” purred a woman attorney in the courtroom.

Pettitte was deemed vital to the case against Clemens because unlike McNamee, he was a churchgoer and family man and had a reputation for truthfulnes. Compared to McNamee, he was Abe Lincoln. Pettitte had admitted his own steroid use to the Mitchell investigators, and because of his strong religious convictions, had felt compelled to tell the truth about Clemens despite their close relationship.

It was high theatre to see these celebrated Yankees squaring off in Courtroom 6. Five years ago, who could have imagined this scenario?

On direct examination, Pettitte seemed uncomfortable, but he testified consistently with the affidavit he had provided the Mitchell people, namely that Clemens had admitted steroid use to him during a work-out session in Clemens’ home gym in 1999 or 2000. But Pettitte did not want to be the one to send his buddy Roger up the river. He’d been sandbagged by the feds, but damned if he was going to make it easy for them.

Sensing Pettitte’s vulnerability, defense attorney Mike Attanasio, imported by Hardin’s firm to assist in the case, chipped away at the level of Pettitte’s certainty. “Is it fair to say that there’s a 50-50 chance that you misunderstood Clemens,” asked Attanasio. “That’s fair,” said Pettitte.

Petttitte had slipped the feds a curve that was nastier than any of the low and away sliders he used to befuddle Bryce Harper Saturday in Washington. Prosecutor Steven Durham attempted to repair the damage on re-direct, but the lasting image of Pettitte’s testimony is that it was “insufficiently definitive,” in the words of Judge Reggie Walton.

McNamee subsequently told his story, but by the time Hardin finished with him, McNamee was dismayed, disheveled, and discredited. The defense then presented 21 witnesses (not including Clemens) who effectively rebutted every allegation of the indictment. Attanasio and Hardin outclassed the government lawyers during closing argument.

Four and one half years after his ordeal began, Roger Clemens has put his legal problems behind him. It has been estimated that his legal fees to the Hardin firm are between ten and twenty million dollars.

His freedom assured, his legacy restored, his ticket to the Hall of Fame punched, Clemens probably thinks he got a bargain.

* * ** * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Yankees-Nationals

Nats’ manager Davie Johnson is considered a premier game strategist and one of the best skippers in the game, but overlooked in the Yanks’ sweep of the Nats this weekend was a managerial miscue by Johnson that arguably cost Washington a victory in Saturday’s 14-inning second game of the series.

With the game knotted at 2-2 in the Yanks’ top of the sixth, Jordan Zimmerman was scheduled to face number 8 hitter Eric Chavez with two out and a runner on first. On deck was starter Andy Pettitte, who had a low pitch count through five innings and was projected to pitch at least through the seventh. Zimmerman pitched to Chavez who ripped a double to right center that drove in the lead run.

Though conventional wisdom is that you should not intentionally walk a runner into scoring position, the more creative, and correct, move here would have been to walk Chavez and force Yankee manager Joe Girardi to make a choice – Let Pettitte bat or pinch hit. In the first case, Zimmerman would be facing a weak-hitting pitcher rather than the dangerous Chavez. In the second case, Pettitte is out of the game.

Because Girardi emphasizes getting distance from his starters, the guess here is that he would have let Pettitte bat in a tie game rather than be forced to go to his bullpen early. Johnson, regrettably, did not force Girardi to choose.

The next day, Nat fans and sports talkers alike complained that the bad call on the play at the plate in the eighth inning cost the Nats the game. There was no discussion of Johnson’s decision to pitch to Chavez, but there should have been.

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‘Cuse Weathers the Abuse/ Yanks Shuffle the Deck/ Giants/ Ali

January 19th, 2012 sendarama Posted in baseball, college basketball, pro football No Comments »

It’s been joked that the best team in the country is Syracuse, and the second best is their bench. But if the games of last week are any gauge, it may not be a stretch at all to assert that the Orange’s top five reserves could play tough or beat the rest of the Big East and many of the top 25.

Admittedly, it’s shaping up that there are few exceptional teams. In the past several days, top teams have been dropping like flies to lesser foes. North Carolina was pounded by Florida State 90-57. Ohio State lost to Illinois. Duke was upended by Temple, Michigan State by Northwestern. In the Big East, Villanova stinks, UConn has lost to Seton Hall, Rutgers, and Cincinnati; and most surprisingly, perennial power Pitt lost its sixth straight Big East game Monday to Syracuse, which marched to 20-0 for the first time in its celebrated hoops history.

Syracuse has previously suffered from early departures, but not this year. They return four starters and four experienced reserves from last year’s 27-victory squad. Add freshmen Rakeem Christmas and Michael Carter-Williams, and you’ve got a 10-man rotation, ten players averaging ten minutes or more. Check it out folks – no other team in the top 25 plays nine.

They are not just deep and talented – they are balanced, with several interchangeable parts. Scoop Jardine, Howard Triche and Dion Waiters can all play the point or shooting guard. 7 footer Fab Melo ( Fabricio De Melo), after re-structuring his body, has emerged as a dominating shot-blocker; and his replacement, Baye Moussa Keita, is easily the best back-up center in the country. Kris Joseph and C.J. Fair fill the lane with gusto. Fair can also play the power forward. G-F James Southerland, in limited playing time, has scored 14 pts or more five times this season Freshman Christmas adds bulk up front. It’s been speculated that Syracuse has nine potential NBA players on its roster.

Waiters lays it in against Villanova

And almost everybody got in the act against Pitt. Five players scored between 10 and 16 points in the 71-63 triumph. Coach Jim Boeheim has so much depth that he could afford to yank Christmas after one minute of the second half for failing to prevent an offensive rebound. The youngster did not return.

In winning, the Orange cemented their hold on the No. 1 ranking for the sixth straight week. Their strength of schedule is 2nd in the country; but of the eleven games left, only road affairs at Louisville and UConn loom as threats to the first undefeated regular season in Division One play since St Joseph’s ran the table in 2004.

Unlike their counterparts at Penn State, the Orange have not been derailed by the sexual abuse allegations hurled at a member of their staff, long-time assistant Bernie Fine. When Fine was named as a youth predator, fresh on the heels of the Penn State situation, it was feared that Syracuse would suffer comparably to Penn State; but Boeheim’s keeping his job, no administrative heads have rolled, and Fine himself will probably avoid indictment.

There is no such calm at Penn State. The Board of Trustees has come under attack for its heartless dismissal of Paterno by late evening phone call. The selection of Pats assistant Bill O’Brien as Paterno’s successor has been widely derided. And administration officials, with knowledge of the pending grand jury investigation of Jerry Sandusky, allowed him to watch Joe Pa’s 409th victory from the presidential box just one week before Sandusky’s indictment on 50 counts of sexual assault.

Sally Jenkins’ interview of Joe Paterno for the Washington Post published this week did little to alter the negative view of Penn State or the dismay over Paterno’s inaction. It provided a sensitive portrait of the ailing ex-coach but little in the way of new facts or explanations for his decade-long failure to stop Sandusky.

Joe said that he was unaware of the 1998 police investigation of Sandusky, and had no suspicion prior to 2002 that Sandusky was a sexual deviant. He did not follow-up, he said, because he did not want to “exert influence for or against Sandusky.” Though the interview did not provide much new information, it did muddle the government’s pending perjury case against Penn State administrators Tim Curley and Gary Schultz.

Curley and Schultz were indicted for telling the Grand Jury last year that Assistant Coach Mike McQueary in 2002 did not tell them that he saw Sandusky committing sex in the shower on a 10-year old, but rather described “inappropriate behavior or fondling” in the shower. That is substantially the same as what Paterno says McQueary told him. But McQueary told the grand jury that he described Sandusky’s behavior to Curley and Schultz in more graphic detail than he did to Paterno, specifically describing sodomy on a 10 year old in the shower.

The case against Curley and Schultz will rely almost exclusively on the testimony of McQueary, who admits giving two different versions of what he saw. Curley and Schultz will certainly be consistent in their accounts of what McQueary told them. That’s two against one, and the one has already been trapped in an inconsistency. It looks like an uphill climb for the government.

Yanks Shuffle the Deck ….The Yankees’ recent trade of top prospect Jesus Montero for young stud pitcher Michael Pineda and their signing of free agent pitcher Hiroki Kuroda on the same day signal changes to come throughout the Yankee roster.

Montero, a powerful hitter but a defensive liability at catcher, was projected to catch 30-40 games and serve as the right-handed DH. But Yank GM Brian Cashman must have recognized that DH was no place for a developing player and that he could not trust Montero behind the plate. By trading Montero for a top of the rotation pitcher, the Yankees undid a logjam at catcher and DH, strengthened their staff, and opened up a number of intriguing lineup possibilities.

First, the right-handed DH slot is freed up for more than occasional occupancy by Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. Eduardo Nunez started over eighty games last year at third and can be counted on to spell Jeter and A-Rod in the field when these aging veterans need rest. When Nunez starts and A-Rod DH’s, the Yankees can come at you with speed (Granderson, Gardner, Nunez) and power (A-Rod, Teixeira, Cano, Swisher). Look for a change in the batting order with Cano batting third and Teixeira fifth. Jorge Posada’s retirement leaves an opening for a left-handed DH. Ex-Yank Hideki Matsui, a free agent, would be perfect.

But the trade may have its most dramatic impact on the pitching staff. The arrival of Pineda and Kuroda marks the downgrading of AJ Burnett and Phil Hughes. Pineda and Kuroda will be slotted second and fourth in the rotation, respectively. Ivan Nova should be number three. That leaves Burnett, Hughes and Garcia to duke it for fifth starter. Expect Burnett as a number 5 to equal or exceed reduced expectations, Hughes to go to the bullpen or be traded, and Garcia to spot start and do long relief.

Under the new collective bargaining agreement, teams will be more sharply penalized for exceeding the luxury tax threshold. In anticipation of the new rules, and with exception for the 1-year deal to Kuroda, the Yankees steered clear of this year’s free agent pitcher class and have instead chosen to stockpile young hurlers under contract by trade (Penada) and through their farm system (Dellin Betances, Manny Banuelo)

These are not the free-spending Yankees of the George Steinbrenner era, who wasted tens of millions on multi-year contracts to free agent pitchers Kevin Brown, Jared Wright, Kei Igawa, and yes, Burnett. Mistakes on pitchers may be made in the future; but if so, they will be made one year at a time.

Giants….. In an NFL season filled with more story lines than a Dickens novel, the late-season run of the Giants continues to be a page-turner

There’s been no shortage of heroes during the Giants’ four-game march to Sunday’s NFC Conference title game against San Francisco: Eli, the defensive line, the resurgent backfields, offensive and defensive, the wide receiver corps. Improvement in each of these areas has contributed to consecutive victories against the Jets, Dallas, Atlanta, and Green Bay altering the course of a season which just a few weeks ago was heading south.

Now, as Giant fans evoke parallels to the 2007 Super Bowl run, they are poised to win it all.

But ask yourself what if Victor Cruz does not make that 99 yard catch and run against the Jets in week 16. Here’s the scenario – Fresh off an abysmal defeat to the Redskins, the Giants were 7-7 and on the brink of a lost season. They needed to win out to make the playoffs. The Jets, at 8-6, had been modestly successful, but had the inside track to a playoff berth. Before the game, Jets coach Rex Ryan stoked the fires by claiming that the Jets were the better team.

The Jets dominated the early going, and led 7-3 with 2:12 left in the half and the Giants pinned back on their own one yard line with a 3rd and 10. If the Jets stopped the Giants and got the ball back at midfield, they had a good chance to take a potentially crippling 14-3 lead into halftime.

Instead, Eli completed a short toss to Cruz over the middle. Cruz eluded one tackler, dashed to the sideline, leaped over another defender and cruised 99 yards for the score. It was the play that sent the Giants soaring, and the Jets reeling.

Since Cruz’ touchdown, the Giants have out-scored their opponents by 118-43, and have registered four touchdowns of sixty five yards or more in four blow-out victories. Since Cruz’ touchdown, the Jets lost their last game of the season to miss the playoffs, fired coaches, and have been riddled with dissension. The franchises have been heading in opposite direction at warp speed.

On the Giants’ march to a Super Bowl victory, there may be many more big plays, perhaps even a game-winning one. But of all the plays in all the games, the one that changed the course of the season, the one Giant fans will most cherish will be Victor Cruz’ gift of a 99-yard catch and run against the Jets on Christmas Eve.

Ali …… Muhammad Ali, nee Cassius Clay, turned 70 Tuesday. Incredibly to men of a certain age, it’s more than 50 years since The Mouth that Roared won a gold medal in the 1960 Olympics; and it’s just under 48 years since he toppled Sonny Liston in the sixth round in Miami Beach in February, 1964 in what many consider to be the greatest sports upset ever.

Clay entered the fray as a 7-1 underdog. An examining doctor, shocked at Clay’s heart rate, expressed concern for his safety against ex-mob enforcer Liston, who had destroyed Floyd Patterson twice with his savage right hand and was considered unbeatable.

After achieving Olympic Gold, Clay plowed through a slew of pretenders and contenders, boldly predicting the final round by rhyme. When he narrowly edged Doug Jones in an elimination bout at the Garden in 1963, he became 18-0 and in line to fight Liston for the title.

The fight was much anticipated, but by today’s standards, it was conducted in secret. There was no home TV and only limited closed circuit availability. Some early cable systems carried the fight, and this writer drove 75 miles to Ithaca, New York to watch the bout in grainy black and white.

Clay surprised the world by dashing and slashing and jabbing Liston for six rounds, so befuddling the Big Ugly Bear that he didn’t come out for the seventh. Clay bounced hysterically around the ring shouting “I am the Greatest.”

Shortly thereafter, Clay announced his conversion to the Muslim faith and his new name, Muhammad Ali. Three years later, he was stripped of his crown for resisting induction to the armed forces. While in exile, he embarked on a speaking tour of liberal-leaning colleges, including the University of Michigan, where he conducted an hilarious monologue of black-white jokes. He was handsome, witty, and gracious.

Ali was the most polarizing athlete of his generation, but he transcended sports. He had a world championship game and a world championship personality. That is a package we may never see again.

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