Saturday, December 30, 2006

Roids Rage On And On And On...

Barry Bonds may enter the 2007 season second only to Henry Aaron on the all-time home run list, but in the story line that should matter the most, Bonds is still pleading the Fifth.

The Fifth, as in no comment to any question regarding the federal government’s ongoing attempt to nail him with steroid-use/related perjury charges.

Bonds’ thus-far successful dodge of criminal charges has accomplished two things. It assured that any and all on-field accomplishments emanating from his bat, from his era, will continue to enrage rather than elate.

It also assures that Bonds, in particular, and the issue of illegal performance-enhancing drugs in general will continue to present massive dilemmas for baseball. Commissioner Bud Selig & Co. can’t help but be at a loss as to how the game should honor Bonds should the man standing on 734 home runs approach Aaron’s record of 755.

Arguments will be made that no honors should be conveyed should Bonds catch Aaron.

Honor Bonds, don’t honor Bonds — either way, baseball’s approach is guaranteed to polarize and inflame.

Poor Bud. He won’t have enough fingers and toes to count the kinds of charges and countercharges any decision will generate, from racism, generational bias and flat-out hypocrisy, to name but a few of the high, hard ones sure to come the commissioner’s way.

Some would argue that baseball earned this thankless mess on merit. Club owners, players, sponsors — and, alas, even reporters — allowed themselves to be mesmerized by what is commonly referred to in bitter terms as the steroid era.

That does not mean that the anguish of the powers-that-be won’t be as real as the certain embarrassment. Because you’re talking about a scenario in which the game possibly not only has to ignore its greatest hitter for all eternity (the banned-for-life Pete Rose) but also its home-run king.

Unbelievable, but true.

Still, any anguish Selig is about to feel, any anger even a slightly snubbed Bonds is bound to harbor can’t possibly compare to what will course through Aaron come crunch time.

A proud man, Aaron knows in his heart that his march past Babe Ruth’s one-time hallowed record of 714 homers was not only noble and heroic.

Aaron also knows his milestone was built with an integrity that is beyond question.Now he might be asked to honor Bonds, and therefore the era that made it possible for his record to be wrenched from him in highly suspicious fashion.

How insulting.

And, unless Bonds pulls up short, how unavoidable. While there remains so much we do not know about this tawdry era, one thing we do know is that should the record fall, there won’t be a greater victim in this sorry saga than Hammerin’ Hank.

As for that era, while it is said to be mercifully receding into the past, it is still spreading its stench. That much became clear this week when the federal government, on the hunt for Bonds and others, won a court appeal guaranteed to send shudders through the ranks of every major-league clubhouse.

A federal appeals court this week cleared the way for prosecutors to access the names and test samples of 100 players who reportedly tested positive for steroids in a voluntary scientific survey conducted by Major League Baseball in 2003.

The Major League Baseball Players Association will fight the decision, all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary. That is Donald Fehr’s job, to protect these knuckleheads — and the head of the players union does his job very well.

Still, should the union lawyers fail in their attempt to keep those records sealed, the fallout could devastate no only the ballplayers but baseball.

You do the math: What’s in those vials might not only contain the proof needed to convict Bonds of lying about having never knowingly used steroids.Those urine samples could at last legitimize what has been long-thought to be baseball’s ugliest secret of all: This isn’t just about Bar-roid. It’s about Bonds Times hundreds!

The wide net the public clamored for is about to be hauled in. And it might contain results the public isn’t braced to receive. It’s been easy to demonize Bonds — made so by the sheer force of his often surly personality. Is the public really prepared to wrap arms around the fall of players once thought so pure and pristine?

Baseball and its fans might have to embrace a new, ugly reality in which the playing field was not as skewed in favor of power hitters as once thought, because starting pitchers, relievers, Punch-and-Judy infielders, etc., all may have benefited from the shady times when ’roids were all the rage.

Ah, the steroid era: the gift that keeps on giving — black eyes, likely more than baseball ever imagined.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Ouch! Junior Injured, Again

One of the sadder developments of Major League Baseball in the 2000s is how the ascent of Ken Griffey Jr. to the ranks of the true greats has slowed to worse than a crawl.

Once the presumptive heir to Henry Aaron's home-run record, Griffey - "Junior," "The Kid" - was the player once thought the most likely to carry the game into this century on the magnificent twin forces of his talent and his personality.

Yet as we approach 2007, Griffey is in danger of once again receding to the backwaters of baseball's consciousness by yet another confounding injury.

Memories of Griffey's on-field brilliance as well as those of his luminous personality are now being bulldozed under by one numbing physical calamity after another, the latest a broken left hand suffered at his home Friday.

As if The Kid needed another reminder that he is no longer The Man.

Was he ever once, though.

Junior was Ryan Howard, David Wright and Jose Reyes rolled into one.

He could out-Bonds Barry, outbash Big Mac, outslug - and outsmile - Slammin' Sammy Sosa.

But the teen sensation turned 20-something all-star marvel is now an old 37.

A very old 37.

And that 37-year-old with a wounded body has now drifted so far off baseball's primary radar, some wouldn't be blamed for thinking Junior had already retired and was working on his Hall of Fame eligibility.

That might be a mercy at this point. Especially after the news broke Friday that fate had kicked Junior in the teeth again.

The Cincinnati Reds reported that the one-time perennial all-star will have his broken hand in a hard cast for three weeks. Only after that can he start another in a long line of inexorable rehabilitations.

At this point, Griffey couldn't be faulted if he felt his career is in a hard cast from which he will never escape.

How could he not after landing on the disabled list eight times since 2001?

Yes, he enjoyed something of a revival just two years ago, winning the award no player ever really wants - comeback player of the year - thanks to a 35-homer campaign.

Last season marked a return to a crueler reality. The Reds were robbed of Junior's bat down the stretch, when Griffey suffered a dislocated toe trying to make a leaping catch of a Bonds home run on Sept. 5.

Griffey appeared in only two games after the toe injury - limiting him to a total of 109 games - his fade from the pennant race preceding that of the snakebitten Reds.

Fans don't want to remember Ken Griffey Jr. this way, a broken shadow of his former self, running into walls in an attempt to escape disabled-list all-star status.

And I've known Junior too long for that to be my lasting image; I've known him since he was a precocious teen hanging out with his all-star father.

I saw life in that face then, as well as a mix of mischief and physical makeup that suggested the approach of something both fun and fantastic.

I remember watching in wonder as Junior tweaked his famous dad as only he could when comparing respective days on the diamond.

"How was your day, Dad? I had a pretty good day, too," Junior would inform Senior, usually after Senior had just done some pretty impressive things playing left field for the New York Yankees.

That now seems so long ago, just like when Junior enjoyed some pretty good days with the Seattle Mariners, those prime-time nights he won home-run contests.

Junior still possesses the face of that teen who strutted without apology into the Yankee Stadium clubhouse of the mid-1980s.

Last summer, though, the eyes betrayed him as he hobbled around the visiting clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park on an old man's legs.

He knew his durability, speed and another run of pretty good days had been robbed by too many tears, sprains, breaks.

These injuries have cost the Reds millions of dollars, but the loss to baseball is immeasurable.

Though often guarded in private, Griffey instinctively understood and accepted his public role. And he used a boundless puppy-dog energy to sell the game, as at home on a Wheaties box as in the batter's box when marketing the game.

The result: He proved to be the perfect - and most welcome - counter balance to sourpusses like Bonds and Albert Belle, and dour faces like Mark McGwire's.

Then came the era in which 50 home runs a year became mere footnotes, as did the man who has 563 home runs, now "pedestrian" and well short of the 600 Club that became the exclusive haunt of the nouveau-Herculean slugger.

Now injuries continue to force Junior's retreat. These days, the only headlines he seems capable of garnering involve calamity.

Fragile Star

p>Ken Griffey Jr. has been on the disabled list eight times since joining the Reds in 2000. He's also missed significant playing time at the end of the last two seasons without going on the DL. Griffey has played 699 games in seven seasons with the Reds. Here are his year-by-year totals:

2000 - 145 games

2001 - 111

2002 - 70

2003 - 53

2004 - 83

2005 - 128

2006 - 109

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Jim Rice: Hall of a Candidate

A good friend, Dick Bresciani, the Vice President of Publications & Archives with the Boston Red Sox, recently mailed out his arguments for the inclusion of Jim Rice in the Baseball Hall of Fame (an argument with which I agree, by the way).

Bresc's many points were very compelling. Here are but a few:

CAREER (1974-1989)

Led A.L. with 382 HR and 1451 RBI in his 16-year career, all with Boston.

Rare Power & Average: Seventeen players with 300+ HR and a career AVG as high as Rice have been on the HOF ballot. All but Rice are HOF:

Aaron, Brett, DiMaggio, Foxx, Gehrig, Greenberg, Hornsby, Klein, Mantle, Mays, Mize, Musial, Ott, Rice, Ruth, A. Simmons, T. Williams.

8-time All-Star
8-time 100 RBI
7-time .300 hitter
6-time Top 5 in A.L. MVP – more than anyone else during Rice’s career (Murray 5)
4-time A.L. TB leader
3-time A.L. HR leader

1978 A.L. MVP (.315 AVG, 46 HR, 139 RBI, 406 TB, .600 SLG, 213 H, 15 3B)
Only M.L. player to lead either league outright in 3B, HR, and RBI
Only A.L. player with 400+ TB since 1937 (Joe DiMaggio)
A.L. record for biggest margin in TB (113 over Murray)
Only A.L. player with 46+ HR between ’69 (Killebrew) and ’87 (McGwire)

3-YEAR STRETCH (1977-1979)

Only player in M.L. history with 3 straight seasons of 35+ HR and 200+ hits
Tied A.L. record of 3 consecutive years as TB leader (Williams, Cobb)
Ruth and Foxx are the others in A.L. with 3+ straight 39+ HR, .315 seasons.


Twenty M.L. players have hit .300+ with 350+ HR over a 12-season stretch (Babe Ruth was the first, from 1915-1926), but Jim Rice stands alone in his dozen years (1975-86).

He is the only M.L. player of his generation who accomplished the feat (linking 1974, when Hank Aaron became the career HR leader, to 2001, when Barry Bonds became the single-season HR leader). All players on the following list who have been on the Hall of Fame ballot have been elected – except for Jim Rice.

The list: .300+ with 350+ HR over a 12-season stretch
(Date listed indicates final year of stretch)

1926 Ruth
1927 Ruth 1967 Aaron, Mantle, Mays, F. Robinson
1928 Ruth 1968 Aaron, Mays, F. Robinson
1929 Ruth 1969 Aaron, Mays, F. Robinson
1930 Ruth 1970 Aaron, Mays, F. Robinson
1931 Ruth 1971 Aaron, F. Robinson
1932 Ruth 1972 Aaron, F. Robinson
1933 Ruth 1973 Aaron
1934 Gehrig, Ruth 1974 Aaron
1935 Gehrig, Ruth 1975
1936 Gehrig 1976
1937 Foxx, Gehrig 1977
1938 Foxx, Gehrig 1978
1939 Foxx, Gehrig, Ott 1979
1940 Foxx, Ott 1980
1941 Foxx, Ott 1981
1942 Foxx, Ott 1982
1943 Foxx 1983
1944 Foxx 1984
1945 Foxx 1985
1946 1986 Rice
1947 1987
1948 1988
1949 1989
1950 1990
1951 1991
1952 1992
1953 1993
1954 Williams 1994
1955 Williams 1995
1956 Williams 1996
1957 Williams 1997
1958 Williams 1998
1959 Snider, Williams 1999
1960 Snider 2000
1961 Snider 2001 Bonds
1962 Mantle 2002 Bagwell, Bonds, Thomas
1963 Mantle, Mays 2003 Bagwell, Bonds, Gonzalez, Piazza, Sheffield, Thomas
1964 Mantle, Mays 2004 Bagwell, Bonds, Gonzalez, Piazza, Ramirez, Sheffield, Thomas
1965 Aaron, Mantle, Mays 2005 Bonds, Piazza, Ramirez, Rodriguez, Sheffield
1966 Aaron, Mantle, Mays 2006 Bonds, C. Jones, Piazza, Ramirez, Rodriguez, Sheffield

(Does not count military service against anyone in World War II and/or Korea)

From 1975 to 1986 Jim Rice was the most dominant player in the American League. During that 12-year stretch he led the league in 12 categories and ranked among the top five in two others. His numbers are indicative of a player who was dangerous in nearly every situation.

He led the league over that period with 350 home runs but unlike most sluggers of his day, he ranked fourth with a .304 batting average. He collected the most hits over that time period and also ranked first with a .520 slugging percentage. He legged-out 73 triples, including 15 in 1977 and 1978, and he was the most dangerous outfielder to run on in the American League. In every category he ranks above or among existing Hall of Famers.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Why Barry, Not Big Mac Belongs

Barry Bonds hasn't retired, yet, but that doesn't mean he's not the elephant in the middle of the Hall of Fame controversy swirling around Mark McGwire.

If Bonds' name were on the ballot he would get my vote. McGwire would not (don't think his numbers are worthy, period).

Bonds, on the other hand, stands up, numbers-wise, even discounting what he accomplished in the steroid era.

My reasoning: when he looked like Derek Jeter, played like Jeter (doubles, triples, and more than the occasional big fly), he won three Mvps. So even prior to the suspected steroid years, he accomplished things some players already in the Hall did not.

Big Mac never had an Mvp season, not even in that magical summer of '98, suggesting an immensely impressive feat that was, none-the-less a singular one _ kind of like Roger Maris' summer of '61. That, too, was not considered enough to get Roger into the Hall.

Pleeease ... Say It Ain't So, Mac

A lot of those who are responding to the Mark McGwire/Hall of Fame vote contend that McGwire had yet to be found guilty of using banned substances (remember, Andro was not illegal when McGwire admitted using the over-the-counter substance).

Still, none of this convinces me that McGwire went through the steroid era cleanly, mostly because he still refuses to adamantly say that he did!

Big Mac has yet to deny Jose Canseco’s claim that they shot each other up with steroids during their Bash Brother days.

Why not call him a liar, or sue for libel to clear his name?

I know I would – if I knew I was clean and there couldn’t possibly be a smoking gun. I’m still waiting for Mac to come to his own defense.

Thus far, his silence continues to speak volumes.

Monday, November 27, 2006

'Roid Rage and The Hall of Fame

Universal rejection vs. unanimous choice.Both intriguing possibilities were conjured up yesterday when, as expected, Mark McGwire, Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn made their inaugural appearances on the baseball’s annual Hall of Fame ballot.

The voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America — those with 10 years or more experience covering the sport — are expected to wrestle with McGwire’s candidacy, and only in part because of his overall numbers.Despite exceeding a time-honored Hall threshold (500 homers) with his 583 home runs, McGwire is very much on the bubble because of the steroid era in which he both thrived and was tainted.

Though McGwire never admitted to or was caught using illegal performance enhancers, he was famously accused of doing so by fellow first-time Hall nominee Jose Canseco.

McGwire has never denied the accusation. His not doing so, most notably before a congressional committee examining illegal steroid use in baseball, could cost him when the results of the BBWAA vote is announced Jan. 9.

Veteran Boston Herald columnist Steve Buckley perhaps illustrated some of the simmering condemnation when he told The Inquirer why he won’t write McGwire’s name on the ballot, now or ever.

“I thought his performance before Congress was a disgrace,” Buckley said. “Whenever anyone asks me about his home run numbers, I simply say I am not here to talk about the past.”

But, Jayson Stark of will reluctantly vote for McGwire in part, he said, “because baseball allowed all this to happen.“We know he gave some horrible answers to some members of Congress. But in truth, we hardly know anything about what anyone in the sport may or may not have done.

“So to me, just as baseball allowed [spitball pitcher] Gaylord Perry to go out and win his 300 games — which got him to the Hall of Fame — it allowed McGwire and all of these players to compile their stats and break their records and earn their money and accolades based on those feats.

So I think I’m stuck with evaluating what the sport allowed to happen on the field. Either the ’90s happened or they didn’t.”

The approximately 575 writers aren’t expected to struggle as much, if at all, on the Hall merits of Gwynn or Ripken.

Gwynn, the eight-time National League batting champion, and Ripken, the man who surpassed Lou Gehrig’s legendary Iron Man streak by playing in 2,632 consecutive games, should easily gain the required 75 percent of the vote needed for induction. But will Ripken or Gwynn be named on every ballot?

No player has yet gained 100 percent of the vote. Not Babe Ruth. Not Gehrig, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ty Cobb or Ted Williams.

Tom Seaver, elected in 1992, came the closest to perfection when he was named on 425 of 430 ballots in 1992, for 98.84 percent of the votes.

Seaver is joined in the top 10 in terms of percentage by: Nolan Ryan (491 of 497, 98.7), Ty Cobb (222-2226,baseball hall of fame website 98.23), George Brett (488-497, 98.19), Aaron (406-415, 97.83), Mike Schmidt (444-460, 96.52), Johnny Bench (431-447, 96.42), Steve Carlton (436-455, 95.82), Ruth (215-226, 95.13) and Honus Wagner (215-226, 95.13).

Rice and Rich “Goose” Gossage return to the ballot as the top candidates not elected a year ago. Rice, the former Boston Red Sox slugger, fell 53 votes shy in his most recent attempt at election. Gossage, one of a host of stoppers hoping to follow Bruce Sutter into Cooperstown, fell 54 votes shy on the last ballot. Cherry Hill East graduate Orel Hershiser is also among the holdovers.

This is the 15th and final time on the ballot for Steve Garvey, who was on 26 percent of the ballots cast last year. His best finish was 43 percent in 1995, his third year. This is the 14th year for Dave Concepcion (13 percent last year) and the 13th year for Rice (65 percent) and Tommy John (30).

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Big Mac No Sure Hall of Famer

On Friday, Hall of Fame ballots will be mailed to the approximately 575 voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America.
Though there are few certainties in life, it's guaranteed that all Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn have to worry about is not if not whether they get in but by how much of a margin more than the 75 percent votes required for election to the Hall they will surpass the requirement that they be named on at least 75 percent of ballots cast .

Mark McGwire should be so lucky. For he is about to jump into the steroid-era cauldron as the first bona fide Hall candidate from that time.

McGwire's name will sit there in close uncomfortable proximity to noted juicers Jose Canseco and the late Ken Caminiti. There, he will be judged by writers with 10 years' experience covering the game, this writer included.
Finally, McGwire's full body of work, from the 583 career home runs to the famous stonewalling of Congress, will be judge Forget being elected on the first shot. McGwire has to worry about getting the five percent of the vote needed to remain on the ballot.

Here is a sample of his tough road as seen through the eyes of some of the nation's leading writers who recently answered said how they will wrestle with the McGwire issue. Players are judged by the writers for their first 15 years of eligibility:

Jayson Stark
I'm going to vote for him. I can't say I feel good about voting for him. But here's why I'm going to cast that vote:

People have oversimplified this issue, to the point where, if you listened to the way most people talk about it, you'd think there were only 10 players taking any kind of performance-enhancing drugs in the '90s. But we know that, in truth, there were hundreds. So should I only cast votes against players who happened to get mentioned in Jose Canseco's book, or who got subpoenaed by Congress?

What about all the other players who I might suspect were doing something but have never come up in this conversation?

Should I vote only against players who hit home runs, or broke home run records, or challenged home run records? What about all the pitchers we know were taking something? Do we care about them or not? Should I vote against them if I just THINK they might have done something?

I don't see how I can start picking and choosing when, in fact, baseball allowed all of this to happen. So that was the culture inside the game at the time, just as amphetamines were part of the culture in the '60s and '70s and '80s (and beyond). Because baseball allowed all this to happen, we hardly know anything about what McGwire may or may not have done.

We know he gave some horrible answers to some members of Congress. But in truth, we hardly know anything about what anyone in the sport may or may not have done.

So to me, just as baseball allowed Gaylord Perry to go out and win his 300 games -- which got him to the Hall of Fame -- it allowed McGwire and all of these players to compile their stats and break their records and earn their money and accolades based on those feats. So I think I'm stuck with evaluating what the sport allowed to happen on the field. Either the '90s happened or they didn't.

Since they happened, and the hundreds of players using something leveled the playing field to some extent, I feel more comfortable voting for players like McGwire than I do trying to pick and choose who did what, and when, and why.

If more evidence emerges, I always reserve the right to change my mind. But for now, I'm going to cast a very uncomfortable vote for McGwire and, for the most part, every great player of an obviously tainted generation.

I know this was probably way more than you wanted on either guy. But I'm nothing if not exhaustive. Or is that exhausting?)

Bob Nightengale
USA Today

I won't vote for him on this ballot. I don't believe he's a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He had a fine career, but he hit about half of his home runs in a five-year period when he was allegedly on steroids. He had too many off-years to be considered on the same ballot as Ripken and Gwynn.

And yes, I will vote for players I suspect or have been caught using steroids. Barry Bonds and Rafael Palmeiro will be on my first ballot.

Phil Rogers
Chicago Tribune

I'm not wrestling with the McGwire decision. He wouldn't be a strong candidate without his home run totals, which have been tainted by his unwillingness to declare himself steroid-free. Unless something changes drastically in how he presents himself, I can't imagine ever voting for him.

Pat Borzi
New York Times

I'm seriously considering not voting for McGwire at all this year. He admitted using andro, and if he doesn't use it, he doesn't stay healthy enough to hit 70 or go over 500. Doesn't matter to me that baseball hadn't banned it yet. It was already banned in the Olympic movement.

If I had a ballot in front of me today, I wouldn't vote for Bonds or any of the other implicated juicers either.

And even if I decided not to hold that stuff against then, there's another issue here: Stat inflation. The 'roids influence devalues 50-homer season and 500-homer careers. I usually vote for anyone with 500 homers, but in the modern game, 600 might be the fairer benchmark in judging players from this era.

Bob Elliott
Toronto Sun

McGwire ... 1,626 hits in 16 seasons. That total is not enough for me to vote for McGwire - clean or dirty which to my mind have not been proven - when ballots come out in a few months.

Can you justify voting for a guy with almost half as many hits?

A McGwire backer will ask about his single-season home run record of 70 homers. Very impressive. Those nights in St. Louis were magical. We saw homers No. 60, 61 and 62 at Busch Stadium. Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth's mark in 1961 with 61 home runs and that was pretty impressive, too, breaking a 37-year-old record.

And we saw Maris hit No. 57 at Briggs Stadium in Detroit. Paul Henderson scored the greatest goal in Canadian history with seconds left against the
Russians in '72 but he is not in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Maris with his mark - and 1,325 hits - was on the ballot 15 years and never got more than 43.09% of the vote, far short of the required 75%.

There are only three Hall of Famers (position players) with fewer hits than McGwire's 1,626. They are:

- Infielder Jackie Robinson, who had 1,518 hits in 10 seasons with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He started at age 28, having previously played with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues.

For the good he did for the game, for the man he was and for the abuse he took as the first black player in the majors, Robinson belongs even if he had averaged 15 hits a year. If Robinson had not opened the doors would we have ever have had the pleasure to watch the likes of Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Billy Williams and Reggie Jackson to mention a few stars? Robinson was named on 77.5 percent of the ballots by Baseball Writers Association of America voters in 1962.

- Outfielder Ralph Kiner had 1,451 hits in 10 seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians. His career was cut short by a back ailment. He won or shared the NL home run title his first seven seasons in Pittsburgh.

McGwire led his league four times -- 1987 and 1996 with the Oakland A's, along with 1998 and 1999 with the Cards. With a ratio of 7.1 homers per 100 at-bats, he trails only Ruth and McGwire among retired players. Kiner had more than 50 homers twice, 51 in 1947 and 54 in 1949. He received 75.51% of the vote in 1975.

- Roy Campanella had 1,161 hits during his 10-year career with Brooklyn. He was a three-time National League most valuable player (1951, 1953, 1955). McGwire's best MVP finish was second in 1998. Campanella broke into the majors in 1948 at age 26 after playing seven season with the Baltimore Elite Giants in the Negro National League. The catcher's career came to an end after an auto crash prior to the 1958 season confined him to a wheelchair. He was named on 79.41% of the ballots in 1969.

Jeff Blair
Toronto Globe and Mail

As for my Hall of Fame vote? I will, without question, vote for Mark McGwire along with Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken, Jr. First, I'm not interested in moral arguments; I'm not electing a prime minister, mayor or Pope.

I would not vote for Pete Rose, because I believe that any manager or player tempted enough to bet on a game might be equally tempted to do something that would knowingly affect the outcome of a game. That's different than taking a performance enhancer, which is for 'enhancing' performance.

Generally, fans don't feel cheated by people who are 'enhancing' their performances. Second, I believe that at least as many pitchers used/use performance enhancers as hitters.

I think the playing field was a lot more level - is a lot more level, if we're talking about HGH - than we know or knew. Third, who cares if McGwire stonewalled Congress. Isn't that what cabinet members do in committee hearings? Better to break down and be thought of as being fraud than wag your finger at cameras, say you never took steroids, and end up failing a steroid test.

Mark Whicker
Orange County Register

The McGwire vote is easy. The man had 1,600-odd hits. The only category in which he excelled was home runs. Vince Coleman had only one standout category (steals) and he isn't in. Mark Belanger had one standout category (defense) and he isn't in. McGwire's uneven career, to me, takes steroidsout of the equation. That's not to say he shouldn't make the Hall of Fame eventually. Just not on the first ballot.

Ray Ratto
San Francisco Chronicle

McGwire, he doesn't have to do anything.

My vote will be based on what he did as a player, and whether that is enough on its face to get into the Hall. My feeling is that the HOF isn't church, that it is the history of baseball, bad and good, and that if we're making behavior an issue, then the people who defend Ty Cobb and Cap Anson have some serious explaining to do.

Ken Davidoff

As for McGwire, while I reserve the right to change my mind, I don't anticipate ever voting for him. His conduct during the House Government Reform Hearing, on March 17, 2006, as well as the revelations of his backroom dealings prior to the hearing, are all the evidence I need to believe that he was a steroid user.

Murray Chass
New York Times

On McGwire: A more difficult deliberation. Although the Times does not allow us to vote, I would probably not vote for McGwire.If I were voting,I'd do far more serious thinking about it than I have, but I would probably not vote for him.

He never tested positive and he has never said "I used steroids," but his Congressional refrain -- "I'm not here to talk about the past" -- made him look guilty as hell.

The home run achievements in the steroids era by McGwire, [Sammy] Sosa and Bonds were too far out there to think something underhanded didn't have an effect on their numbers. If they were in the Hall of Fame, they would unfairly skew the measurement of players in future years as well as dwarf the accomplishments of Hall of Famers from the past.

Jack Curry
New York Times

As you know, The Times doesn't let us vote for these awards. I am eligible for the H of F vote. If you're just looking for "numbers" to show how people are leaning, I would vote "no" on McGwire if I was permitted to vote.

I did a piece back in July or August where I polled 50 writers on McGwire. I forget the exact totals, but a very small percentage said they would definitely vote for him.

Bill Madden
New York Daily News

I'm on record as being a hard-liner on all the alleged steroids cheats. I'm not voting for any of them, but if 75% of my colleagues deem them Hall-worthy, I have no problem with that. They're just not getting in with my vote.

In McGwire's case, I'm not sure if I would have voted for him anyway. He was essentially a one-dimensional player, below average defensively, who had 4-5 big home run seasons. I put him in the Harmon Killebrew (who I also didn't vote for) mode.

Hal McCoy
Dayton Daily News

As for Mr. McGwire, he will not be on my ballot, probably not ever. Using performance-enhancing substances certainly aided everything he did. Then his non-performance during the congressional hearings wiped him out of my consideration under the character clause on the ballot.

Bob Dutton
Kansas City Star

The HOF is a tougher call. Intellectually, I feel if a player is on the ballot, then his numbers/contributions should be viewed dispassionately and on merit. Realistically, I know that's tough to do. I don't know how I'd vote on McGwire.

Rick Hummel
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

McGwire has no chance to get into the Hall this year, not just because of his link to the steroids issue but the appearance of two clearly better candidates in Gwynn and Ripken. There is nothing McGwire needs to do - at least not now.

He doesn't have a chance anyway this year although that is not to say I wouldn't vote for him because I probably will. Next year, however, is different with no standout candidate ahead of McGwire and we'll have a better barometer of how much the steroids thing has hurt him.

Steve Buckley
Boston Herald

I have no intention of voting for Mark McGwire. I thought his performance before Congress was a disgrace. Whenever anyone asks me about his home run numbers, I simply say I am not here to talk about the past.

Jerry Crasnick

I'm probably going to vote no on McGwire - primarily because we're still trying to assess exactly what happened during the steroid era, and I'm afraid he might go into the Hall and some startling new revelation might come out. And once a guy is in Cooperstown, you can't vote him out.
I'd rather be cautious and wait on this one.

Marty Noble

I'm all but certain McGwire won't need my support to be elected - in some year. I still am unsure how to evaluate him because of the performance enhancers - legal or illegal. That uncertainty, that he had nine seasons that fell short of HOF standards, and that he played his entire career in a time of offensive glut will make me withhold my vote until I have a better sense of how his candidacy compares with what I think and HOF player is.

Joel Sherman
New York Post

As for McGwire, I think I know which way I am leaning (not to vote for him). But I really have decided to wait until the ballot arrives and think fully about what I think on this issue. I think time is the only ally we have to assess these matters and I am going to use all of it.

Paul Hagen
Philadelphia Daily News

My standard answer still holds, which is: Why make a decision before you have to? This is an evolving story. We learn more all the time. The three questions I think a voter has to ask himself/herself are:

1. Can you vote for anybody in what we now have to consider the steroid era or do we just measure players against their peers in that era and ignore the external factors?

2. Did the player have Hall of Fame credentials before he was suspected of using steroids?

3. Can you take into account something that, no matter how strong your suspicions, are at this point just allegations?

Claire Smith
Philadelphia Inquirer

The qauge I will use is, would such a player have been considered a Hall of Famer before steroids sullied his era and/or name? To my mind, only Bonds gets a firm yes here. McGwire, one-dimensional and both a beneficiary and victim of his times, does not, and therefore will not get my vote now, perhaps even ever.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Philly's M(ost) V(aluable) P(ick-me-up)

To baseball writers across the land, it is now official: The Phillies’ Ryan Howard was the most valuable player in the National League in 2006.

In Philadelphia, a city sport-scape increasingly marked by dreariness and despair, the Bunyanesque first baseman with the powerful personality and home-run swing to go with it, continued to be the most valuable pick-me-up.

As Howard so perfectly summed up with one word yesterday, Philadelphia is “starving” for a winner. He is doing more than his part to win something for Philadelphia and the fans he applauded yesterday. And, as his win yesterday showed, he is doing so in both rapid and impressive fashion.

One year removed from being named the rookie of the year, Howard easily outdistanced the Cardinals’ Albert Pujols to win the MVP in his first full major-league season.He is the first Phillie to be named MVP in 20 years and the first pro athlete in Philadelphia to capture such an honor since Allen Iverson won the NBA’s MVP in 2001.

“I never would have thought it would happen this fast — rookie of the year, home-run derby [crown], and now the MVP,” a humble Howard said as he addressed a news conference and crowd of family, teammates, and Phillies officials at Citizens Bank Park yesterday afternoon.

Even before Howard spoke, his growing import on the Philly sports scene could be measured in the well-wishes sent his way. Not only did the usual suspects — Mike Schmidt, Darren Daulton, Gov. Rendell — weigh in via video messages, but Iverson, like the Flyers’ Mike Knuble and the Eagles’ Donovan McNabb, took time from a troubled season to wish Howard well.

Iverson, who taped his message yesterday morning at Sixers practice, issued a “God bless.”

Knuble thanked Howard for “putting baseball back on the map in Philadelphia.”

McNabb? In a taping that predated the quarterback’s season-ending knee injury Sunday, implored Howard to “continue on with everything that you have done.”

To do that, the man who turned just 27 on Sunday will have to top two seasons that have been both historic and impressive. For Howard is the only player other than Cal Ripken Jr. to follow up rookie-of-the-year honors with an MVP.

He shattered Mike Schmidt’s single-season club home-run record by hitting 58. That total and his 149 RBIs were major-league bests.The homers were the most ever by a second-year big-leaguer. The RBIs were a record for a second-year National Leaguer.

Howard’s numbers — so dominant during the season — were equally impressive when the balloting by the 32 voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America was announced.

He received a total of 388 points to Pujols’ 347, based on tabulations that reward 14 points for first place, nine for second, eight for third, and on down to one for 10th.

Howard won 20 votes for first place to Pujols’ 12. His only other votes were for second (12), while Pujols settled for 19 second-place marks and one for third. Chase Utley tied for seventh.

Howard, who joins Chuck Klein (1932), Jim Konstanty (1950) and Mike Schmidt (1980, 81 and 86) as the only Phillies to win the MVP, didn’t pretend to know what caused the writers to separate him from Pujols. “That’s up to you guys,” he joked during an early-afternoon conference call with members of the BBWAA.

What Howard does know is how much he appreciates finishing ahead of a player who’d never finished lower than fourth in the balloting in any of his six seasons.

“That definitely means something,” Howard said of Pujols, who led the NL in batting with runners in scoring position (.397) and slugging (.671), and finished second to Howard in home runs (49) and RBIs (137).

“Just to be able to compete against a guy like Albert is a feat in itself,” he said.

Howard’s ability to shrug off the competition mirrors his ability to defy labels, such as those that suggested he would be vulnerable to the sophomore jinx, to lefthanded hitting, and to the weight of replacing the tremendously popular Jim Thome.

Phillies manager Charlie Manuel wasn’t surprised that Howard shred each issue. “It just tells you the kind of person he is,” Manuel said. “He’s just a man. I’ve never had to reassure him, even back in the spring [when Thome was still a Phillie], because the only thing he wanted to do is go out and play, try hard. He did, and he determined who’d get the job.”

What he did with it — well, that was a lesson in itself, said Phillies pitcher Geoff Geary, who likened Howard’s growth as a hitter to no less than Barry Bonds. "I’ve been with Ryan for a couple years now, and what’s neat is to see how he’s adjusted,” the reliever said. “He makes the adjustments more quickly now than he did in the minor leagues. He’d developed patience.”

Indeed, Howard conceded that the growth that made him most proud in 2006 was with walks — the ones he drew rather than the intentional sort. They totaled 108 and, he said, fit in with his game plan of continuing to learn and grow.

The walks, of course, did not drive the writers’ votes. What did, in part, was the Phillies’ near-miss playoff run with a strong second half of the season, something Howard fondly, succinctly called “the run.”

“Ryan Howard played in only one meaningless game all season — the last one,” said Jayson Stark of, explaining, in part, his vote for Howard. “So that was the context his numbers needed to be placed in — the same as Pujols’. Every hit, homer, RBI, etc., meant something.”

To the Phillies, to the fans, to the voters and, in the end, to the MVP.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

And the winner is ... Vet Writers Weigh In

Ryan Howard or Albert Pujols?
Mirror images of each other, these two players present a tantalizing dilemma as to which was the National League's Most Valuable Player in 2006.
"If I had to vote in this election, I would have had a very hard time deciding between Howard and Pujols," said Phil Rogers, baseball columnist of the Chicago Tribune.

Who walks away with the honor bestowed by the Baseball Writers of America will be revealed today.

As Howard and Pujols await the 3 p.m. announcement, we take a look at what how 17 esteemed writers - whose experience covering the game combines for over 420 years - wrestle with what constitutes an Mvp.

Here are the full transcripts of the BBWAA members' responses:

Don Burke, Newark Star Ledger: I had an MVP vote and cast it for Ryan Howard. I just thought he meant more to his team this season than any other player in the National League this season. While Albert Pujols was extraordinary, the Cardinals kept on going when he missed time with injuries. But I thought Howard carried the Phillies as they made their late-season push that ultimately fell short, a push they couldn't possibly have made without him.
Bob Nightengale, USA Today: "I think Ryan Howard epitomizes the MVP award. He carried the Phillies on his back, put up monster numbers in the middle of a playoff race, and was a first-class citizen. He is my MVP, narrowly ahead of Albert Pujols. To me, an MVP has to come from either a playoff team or a team in playoff contention.

If the Phillies weren't a factor in the race, the nod would go to Pujols, but since they stayed alive until the final weekend, the vote swings to Howard. I also believe he might be the classiest young player in the game today and should be baseball's next great role model.

Jayson Stark, I was an NL MVP voter this year, and I've never taken longer or thought harder on any award ballot I've ever filled out in my life. First, I make a list of every conceivable candidate, not just for the first spot on the ballot but for all 10. Then I narrow down the choices. I looked really carefully at six candidates -- Howard, Albert Pujols, Lance Berkman, Miguel Cabrera, Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran.

Then, when I got down to just Howard and Pujols, I spent way too much time over three days trying to separate the two. I even broke down the score before and after every one of their homers. I looked at every conceivable number. I weighed intangibles. And I still wasn't sure. It got to be so late in the afternoon on Monday, the day after the season ended, that Jack O'Connell of the BBWAA even emailed me to say, essentially, It's time to vote!

I decided, in the end, that the biggest argument people were going to use to vote for Pujols over Howard, besides the fact that there were compelling cases to be made for each of them, boiled down to these two factors: 1) Howard didn't hit 60 homers, and 2) Pujols' team made the playoffs and Howard's didn't.

On item 2, though, my standard is different than many voters' standard. If a player's team doesn't get eliminated until the next-to-last day of the season, that's very different than, say, what happened to Derrek Lee last year, or to Travis Hafner this year. Their teams didn't play a meaningful game in September.

Ryan Howard played in only one "meaningless" game all season -- the last one. So that was the context his numbers needed to be placed in -- the same as Pujols'. Every hit, homer, RBI, etc. meant something. So argument No. 2 didn't wash.

That left argument No. 1, which I felt wasn't just about the magic number of 60, but more revolved around the fact that Howard didn't hit a home run in the last nine games of the season, when, theoretically, his team needed him most. Pujols, on the other hand, hit a couple of huge homers in that time.

So I looked at each player in those final nine games to see if the theory that Howard had somehow let the Phillies down was true. What I found was that Howard reached base in every game and, even though he was obviously being intentionally walked and pitched around so he WOULDN'T hit any more big homers, he still drove in a run in five of those nine games.

But over the Cardinals' last nine games, Pujols drove in a run in only one of the games in which he didn't homer. So that wasn't as big an edge as most people perceived.If you want me to tell you how I voted in the end, I will. I voted for Howard. But even now, I'm still not convinced I was right. I can't ever remember a time when the case for two candidates was that close -- and that good. And I've filled out a lot of ballots in my life.

Pat Borzi, New York Times contributor: I've never had an MVP vote. But if I did I'd lean toward a guy on a contending or championship team unless someone had numbers off the charts (Andre Dawson 1987, for instance).

The Phillies were in it long enough at the end for me to consider them contenders, but Howard's year was so big it doesn't matter. I got to see Pujols more than Howard this year, though, and I'd probably vote for Pujols because of some of the big hits he had down the stretch that saved the Cards from total collapse.

Bob Elliott, Toronto Sun baseball columnist: Don't think I qualify as venerable but I am old.

1. Have not voted for MVP in a few years, but I always voted for people in the post-season. The award is not like the Cy Young award for the most outstanding pitcher ... it's for the most outstanding player.

You know the way you admire Don Baylor ... well my admiration for Andre Dawson, who I used to see getting helped off the plane and off the buses (when we flew the charters) and still was able to play - despite his bad knees.
Yet I did not agree he should have been the MVP with the Cubs in '87 when they finished last.

How valuable was he? Without him would they have finished in American Association. Same with [[Cal] Ripken when he won and the O's were 81-81.

I would have voted for Pujols, by the way.

Jeff Blair, Toronto Globe and Mail columnist: I didn't have an MVP vote in our chapter this year, but I voted in the past and I have a fairly liberal interpretation of things.

On one MVP ballot, when I was in Montreal, I voted for Greg Maddux simply because I felt he was the most dominant performer, in terms of helping his team win, in that particular season. To me, the player who is judged most valuable to his team must almost out of necessity play on a team that contends for a post-season spot, unless the weight of his statistics are so overwhelming.

Mark Whicker, Orange County Register columnist: I don't have an MVP ballot but in writing about the MVP Award, I hardly ever give a first-place vote for a player who isn't in the playoffs. It would have to be an extreme case with no other standout candidates, because the word "valuable" to me connotes value to a winner.

Andre Dawson won it when the Cubs finished sixth and they would have finished sixth with an average player in that position.

In that light, Pujols beat out Howard for me. In a year when the Cardinals were savaged by pitching injuries, lineup injuries and general inconsistency, Pujols basically took them to the NL Central title. The fact that he has made himself a Gold Glove first baseman cannot be diminished either.

Howard's numbers speak for themselves and he would be the Player of the Year if such an award existed. But the Phillies didn't get the deal done.

Ray Ratto, San Francisco Chronicle columnist: I don't have an MVP vote, but I think you do it a bit by feel. I find it hard to imagine that Ryan Howard was more important to the Phillies than Albert Pujols was to the Cardinals, but it is close enough that I would be willing to break down some numbers as a tiebreaker. It also helps to be on a winner, because you can more easily point to value on a winning team.

Murray Chass, New York Times columnist: When I was allowed to vote for the award once upon a time I tried to decide who the player was without whom his team could not have done what it did (usually finish first or contend seriously for first). I have always felt that the less help a player has had in helping his team get where it finished the more valuable he was. The opposite of that - is the more good players a team has the less valuable each is.

Bill Madden, New York Daily News: My MVP selection process is to first look at the teams that made the postseason for candidates that in my opinion had the most impact. After that, I look at players (such as Howard) who had the most impact in getting their teams to the brink of the postseason.

If a guy leads the league in both homers and RBI he would get top consideration from me unless it was for a team that went nowhere (such as A-Rod with Texas a couple of years ago.) I put the heaviest emphasis on winning or contending for the postseason.

Hal McCoy, Dayton Daily News: I'm fairly wide-open on my MVP considerations. First I consider the stats, of course, and mix in the value of his contributions to his team. Ryan Howard qualifies mightily on both counts, although his late fade and the Phillies late fade in the face of the Albert Pujols and what he did for the Cardinals weighs heavily.

Rick Hummel, St. Louis Post-Dispatch: I generally vote for the best player on the best team, if at all possible. The Cardinals weren't the best team on Oct. 1, but they were in the playoffs. Howard's team wasn't in the playoffs.
Pujols' average with men in scoring position was startingly higher than Howard's and he is also a Gold Glove first baseman, compared to Howard's sub-standard play at first base.

I'm not caught up by who hits the most home runs although this is not to discredit Howard as a legitimate candidate.

Phil Rogers, Chicago Tribune: For me, playing on a playoff team is not an absolute for MVP worthiness, but it comes pretty close. With four post-season teams in both leagues, it's hard to ignore players who helped a team get to October to honor someone whose team fell short.

With that said, a player with Ryan Howard's performance - particularly as he pushed a team toward the playoffs, albeit eventually falling short - challenges me to defend that position. If I had to vote in this election, I would have had a very hard time deciding between Howard and Albert Pujols.

Tom Verducci, Sports Illustrated: The MVP is about assigning a personal value to the production of a player in the context of his team and the league. Statistics are enormously helpful, especially as the foundation to each player's case, but they are the not the be-all and end-all. If they were, we could just run the numbers through a computer and hand the trophy to the name the machine spits out on top.

I lean toward players on teams that contended and, with slightly more emphasis, those that reached the playoffs. I lean toward position players, and taking into account the value of their position on the defensive spectrum and how well they play it, but do not rule out pitchers. I have only one iron-clad rule: there are no iron-clad rules.

Marty Noble, One factor makes me question Howard's credentials for the MVP award - Chase Utley. No question Howard was the Phillies' most valuable player, and Utley was the team's second most valuable commodity. Here's the snag.

The MVP ballot awards 14 points to the player for each first-place vote. The second-through-10th places are awarded 9-8-7 etc. To me, that five-point difference means No. 1 has to be a clear-cut choice over No. 2, and really, more clear cut choice than any other entry on the ballot. And I cam make a better case for Howard being a clear cut choice than I can any other candidate.
But Utley is one of the leading candidates, too, along with Pujols, Reyes, Beltran, [David] Wright and [Carlos] Delgado (in that order among the Mets).

My question becomes this: Is Howard's relative value within the league worth five more points than the next candidate -- Pujols, in my mind -- and six more than Reyes when when he had a teammate providing as much as Utley did and his team didn't win either of the two postseason berths available?

What saves Howard is that the Cardinals faded and had two fewer victories than the Phillies, that Pujols played in fewer games - 143 to Howard's 159 and the ballot says number of games played is to be considered - and that Reyes, the best defensive player on the ballot, had more help from Beltran, Wright and Delgado that Utley provided.

And all that aside, 58 home runs and 149 RBI, are remarkable totals for an era and in any ballpark, even Citizen Bandbox. And, without precise measurement and comparison, what Howard did felt like an MVP performance.

Bob Dutton, Kansas City Star: I am a frequent voter for MVP because, well, it's a small chapter in Kansas City. My overriding priotity in voting is pretty simple: Based on this year alone, if I was picking up sides, whom would I pick first and so on.

I rarely penalize a player for playing for a poor team because, as Bill James contends, why should a player be penalized because he has lousy teammates?
The only exception is if players are virtually even in my eyes, then I'll tend toward the player on the better team -- assuming he performed down the stretch.

Similarly, I don't penalize a DH unless it's a dead heat, and then only if the other player is a superior defensive player.

I'm not opposed to voting for a pitcher for MVP, but his numbers would have to be overwhelming.

Jerry Crasnick, I haven't actually had an MVP vote for at least 10 years, but I'm like most writers, I'm sure. I try to assess a player's impact through statistics and intangibles, and determine who was the most indispensible to his club.

All things being equal, I'm going to favor the guy who played for a winner. But I wouldn't penalize someone like Howard, whose team fell just short of the playoffs for reasons entirely unrelated to him. For what it's worth, I would have taken Howard over Pujols, even though Pujols was far superior in some important categories (like batting with runners in scoring position).

Monday, November 13, 2006

Howard Wins Straw Poll

It's not an exact science, like, say, exit polling, but the baseball gurus at overwhelmingly viewPhillies firstbaseman Ryan Howard as the National League Mvp.

In the poll of 18 pundits, Howard pulled 11 votes to Albert Pujols' 6 and Carlos Beltran's one.

There were holdouts. Peter Gammons notably tabbed AlbertPujols. But Jayson Stark, Jerry Crasnick, Buster Olney, Jim Caple and Steve Phillips, among others, swung the vote for the Phillies' first baseman.

The only poll that will count won't be released until Monday. That's when the official tabulation of votes by the Baseball Writers Association of America will be revealed.

Prediction: It likely will not be a landslide, but Howard will win - again.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Astros Need to Honor Niekro

As it always seems, honors don't always come in timely fashion.

Joe Niekro
, the winningest pitcher in Houston Astros' history, never had his number retired by that organization in his lifetime.

Houston should correct that oversight, now, to honor Joe's memory. Certainly the recognition would provide some semblence of comfort to Joe's widow, Debbie, their young son, J.J., and his two grown children, Lance and Natalie.

No one makes the argument better than Dennis Orlandini of Irvington, N.J., who wrote, in part, in a comment to this blog:

Let's not forget that Joe Niekro, while under the shadow of his Hall Of Fame brother, Phil, had some great moments and one "Hall Of Fame" moment that most pitchers would give their souls for.

Those 144 franchise leading wins, could have been a much higher total if Houston wasn't such a weak hitting team and the pitchers had to shoulder most of the load.

His 221 overall wins and .520 winning percentage would likewise have improved if the Astros had a more fearsome lineup.

His greatest moment came at the end of his second consecutive 20- win season.
The Dodgers finished the season with Houston in a head-to head battle between the top two teams in the NL West in 1980. Houston needed just one win to clinch the division. However Los Angeles swept the series to force a playoff. The Dodgers had all the momentum going to steal the division title, except for one thing. It was Little Knucksie's turn in the rotation.

Niekro's knuckleball fluttered that day and he mixed in other pitches to keep the Dodgers off balance. From the first or second inning onward it became apparent that the Dodgers batters were going to get nowhere with Niekro that day.

Joe went the distance, the Astros got some timely hitting and I believe the final score was Houston 7, LA 1. Niekro had turned back the tide of the Dodgers late season comeback, and the Astros had their first championship in franchise history.

Not many pitchers could have done what Niekro did that day - that was his career's absolute pinnacle, a shining moment in a pretty darn good career that had lots of other highlights.

Thanks for the memories, Dennis - and the foundation of a campaign the Astros would do well to recognize and act upon.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Remembering Joe Niekro

Joe and Claire, 1987, during Twins-Cardinals World Series

Joe (left) and Phil Niekro in Cleveland during the 1987n season

Joe and Phil in their short time together with the Yankees

Joe and son, Lance, in 1987 Twins' World Series victory parade

Rest in Peace, Little Knucksie

Joe Niekro (left) and brother, Phil, in 1987
How do you get your arms around a loss like the one suffered Friday when Joe Niekro died from a brain aneurysm?

Joe's death, at age 61, is simply crushing, not only to his family, his friends and to baseball, but to this reporter. Because Joe - Little Knucksie, embodied everything good about the people we cover.

Joe didn't pander to us. He merely thought it right, and professional, to honor the working relationship between players and the reporters who cover them. And because he could do that, he relaxed through a rewarding career, one that was as fun to cover as he obviously had fun playing.

By doing so, he helped make livable a road traveled by this reporter because, in a male-dominated sport like baseball, that road was and is often lonely and uncertain.

Little Knucksie, like his brother, Hall of Famer Phil, got that. And they realized that just by being humane, understanding and cooperative, they remained always the gentlemenly souls and genuinely good people that their parents raised.

Joe, one of the true cards I've ever covered, never took himself too seriously. He and Phil not only left in their wake over 500 victories, but 5 million laughs and as many irreplacable memories.

Joe never adopted the officious attitude that it was somehow beneath him to cooperate. He knew it didn't cost him anything to simply be honest, available and civil, not matter the circumstances. And, as evidence that genes count, what he learned from Phil he handed down to his son, Lance, a personable young first baseman with the San Francisco Giants.

That Joe treated all members of the media with respect made him special. In the end, it also made him a friend, one I cherished long after he stopped pitching. One I will miss and mourn.

I have to go, now, Little Knucksie. Because, for some reason, the screen is too blurry to see.

Rest in peace, my friend. Rest in peace.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Countdown to pitchers and catchers

Congratulations to the St. Louis Cardinals, world champions. Four-plus months to pitchers and catchers.

Underdogs Cards Rule Baseball World

ST. LOUIS - The Detroit Tigers entered the 102d World Series as American League champions and exited as the Keystone Kops.

The St. Louis Cardinals entered the Fall Classic as the postseason's most unexpected participant and exited as world champions, thanks to a 4-2 win last night in the fifth and final game of the best-of-seven Series.

Numbers that were supposed to haunt St. Louis - an 83-78 record, a 12-17 September-October finish - instead seemed to inspire the team most often branded as this postseason's underdogs.

"Nobody believed in us coming in, only these 25 guys," Albert Pujols said as the crowd cheered during the trophy presentation at Busch Stadium. "I just thank God we proved everybody wrong. We never gave up. We're warriors."

"From the first game in San Diego [in the National League Division Series], the guys were so determined," shouted joyous Cards manager Tony La Russa, now the only man other than Sparky Anderson to manage teams to world titles in each league. "Way to go, fellas!"

Numbers that forever will haunt the Tigers include eight unearned runs, including two last night.

The plays not made, balls not fielded, throws not reaching their targets marked every game in Detroit's profoundly flawed Series performance.

Even before the loss - and Detroit's seventh and eighth errors overall - Tigers manager Jim Leyland had said, "I haven't seen anything like it, but I don't believe that's the reason [Detroit trailed in the Series]."

No, it wasn't just the fumbling and bumbling. To suggest that would overlook St. Louis' smoothly functioning pitchers, such as last night's winner, Jeff Weaver, and hitting heroes such as David Eckstein.

Eckstein, who hit .364 and was the main piston in an offense that never quit, was named the Series' most valuable player. The honor brought with it a new Corvette, a prize Eckstein said was won by more than just himself. The Series triumph, he said, "was a total team effort."

With the victory, St. Louis ended a drought of sorts, having lost three Fall Classics since last winning in 1982.

The Cards and the New York Yankees are the only teams with double-digit Series titles (10 and 26, respectively). St. Louis also brought a world title back to the heretofore-beleaguered National League for only the fourth time in 11 years.

Detroit, in the Series for the first time since 1984, had hoped to get home to put Game 6 in the hands of undefeated post-season hero Kenny Rogers.

To do that, the Tigers needed Justin Verlander, a 17-game winner, to rebound from a shaky postseason (1-1, 7.47 ERA entering last night).

"I just want him to be more relaxed and just get ahead," catcher Ivan Rodriguez had wished aloud before the game. "What we've got to do is set up a game plan and just make him be Justin."

Verlander's 35-pitch first inning, replete with a wild pitch, three walks and all-over-the-lot 100 m.p.h. pitches, suggested a long night ahead.

He wriggled out of that scare, but not the one just one inning later. After Cards catcher Yadier Molina's single and two groundouts, Eckstein's infield single was thrown away by Detroit third baseman Brandon Inge.

The error - and Eckstein steaming around the bases - joined similar lasting impressions of the this Series.

Eckstein's 4-for-5 performance the night before included his using a third double of the night to drive in the winning run in a Game 4 also marked by disastrous Tigers fielding.

The fourth inning was marked by a Cardinals error - the two-base variety on a dropped ball by rightfielder Chris Duncan. That gave the Tigers an opening. And Detroit pushed two runs through it, on a Sean Casey laser shot into the right-field stands on the next pitch thrown by Weaver to give the Tigers a 2-1 lead.

But if the Tigers dominated this Series in one category, it was in costlier errors.

Verlander, unable to live large with the lead, committed a pitching no-no by allowing one-out back-to-back hits, by Molina and So Taguchi, just after his teammates had given him the lead.

Weaver then attempted a sacrifice, and seemed to play into Verlander's hands - because when the pitcher fielded the bunt he definitely seemed to have a shot at Molina at third.

But for the fifth time in five Series games, a Tigers pitcher committed an error; for the fourth time it was by badly overthrowing a base, which Verlander did for the second time in two starts, tying an ignominious Series record for pitchers.

As the ball rolled into foul territory past third, Molina scored. Taguchi did, too, moments later on an Eckstein RBI grounder.

What Detroit kept giving away, St. Louis gladly accepted - including, in the end, the World Series.

Friday, October 27, 2006

No Rogers? If He's the Best, Why Not?

ST. LOUIS - Kenny Rogers is the best pitcher remaining with a team still playing who might not get to pitch again. Because the Tigers continue to start him only in home games.

Thing is, the Tigers, down 3-1 in the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals, may not get to the home game Rogers is scheduled to start. Because Game 5 of the Series is here, in St. Louis, and a Cards win ends the Series.

Still, when asked if there was any chance he might juggle his rotation and skip rookie Justin Verlander in favor of Rogers - 3-0 and unscored upon in 23 innings this post-season - Tigers manager Jim Leyland said: "Absolutely none. I'm not going to pitch him in this atmosphere."

Leyland went on to add: "We have to win three ballgames. ... If we had to win one game, if it was a seventh game, I'd pitch him. We have to win three games."

Still, by evoking the idea of a hostile atmosphere, Leyland makes necessary the question: Would Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Christy Mathewson or any of the true greats, have accepted being shielded, or would they have demanded the ball in a game that absolutely must be won for there to even be a tomorrow to think about?

Series Slip-Sliding Away For Detroit

ST. LOUIS - Detroit and St. Louis emerged a from a rainout of their fourth World Series game the night before not only in search of traction on the slick turf of Busch Stadium but at the plate, as well.

Well, the bats came to life last night, even as the wheels came off in soggy St. Louis, resulting in the most entertaining game of the 102d World Series.

What else could be said of a game that resulted in Detroit now being close to slip-sliding away in this Series because a fielder and then a bullpen could not keep their feet under them?

The Cardinals, 5-4 victors in a bizarrely entertaining game, lead the Series, three games to one. David Eckstein's RBI double in the eighth was the decisive blow. Detroit literally and figuratively could not hold onto a game the Tigers had in hand.

First, centerfielder Curtis Granderson's stumble led to a pair of unearned runs for St. Louis in the seventh.

Granderson, one of the Tigers whose bat revival led Detroit to within nine outs of evening the Series, had cautioned about slick conditions just before the fourth game had been scheduled, then rained out the night before.

"In the outfield, you just have to make sure you get a grip, because the ball is going to be soaked by the time it gets to you," Granderson said.

He should have worried about his footing instead. That's what failed him when David Eckstein sent a fly ball his way leading off the bottom of the seventh.

When Granderson tried a mid-course adjustment, he slipped and fell. The ball flew by him, and Eckstein flew into second. Eckstein then scored when reliever Fernando Rodney threw So Taguchi's bunt down the right-field line.

When Preston Wilson followed back-to-back strikeouts of Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen with an RBI single, the Cardinals led, 4-3, and were within sight of the organization's 10th world championship.

But Ivan Rodriguez's double and a Brandon Inge two-bagger, off stopper Adam Wainwright, knotted the score, again in the top of the eighth.

Not to worry, Cardinals fans soon learned.

Tigers reliever Joel Zumaya walked the first man he faced in the eighth, then, two outs later, lost the game on Eckstein's backbreaking double.

Until last night, outbursts of offense had been as rare as good weather in the thrifty Series.

Neither the Tigers nor Cardinals, hitting .185 and .196, respectively, entering last night's game, could be accused of flirting with the Mendoza Line.
There had been exceptions, however, most notably Rolen on the Cardinals' side and Sean Casey on the Tigers. Their five hits, including two Rolen doubles and a Casey homer, showed in the first half of last night's game.

Game 5, weather permitting, will be played here tonight. Justin Verlander of the Tigers and Jeff Weaver of the Cardinals, two righthanders who had lost their earlier starts in the Series, will start.

The caliber of last night's starters suggested that the teams' offensive struggles would continue.

Detroit's Jeremy Bonderman finished second in the American League in strikeouts this season with 202. And the Cardinals' Jeff Suppan was nearly perfect against the Mets in the NL Championship Series, going 1-0 with a 0.60 ERA in two starts.

Granderson had predicted all it would take was one good swing to loosen the Cards' pitching stranglehold. Casey, seemed to provide that when he drilled the second pitch he saw from the righthander into the Cards' bullpen in right-center.

The one-out hit in the second produced Detroit's first run since the fifth inning of a Game 2, seemingly played a lifetime ago on Sunday in Detroit.
Casey was not finished. Granderson led off the third with a double, the centerfielder's first hit in 15 trips to the plate, and after Carlos Guillen walked, Casey doubled in a second run.

Rodriguez, 6 for 12 lifetime against Suppan entering the game, then singled in a run for a 3-0 Tigers lead.

The string of hits was what Tigers manager Jim Leyland had hoped would come of a shuffle in which Casey moved from seventh to fifth in the order, ahead of I-Rod; and Guillen jumped several spots to the third hole in place of the hitless Placido Polanco.

The Cardinals did not smoke the ball against Bonderman, but their timing proved impeccable at times. A pair of two-out doubles, by Eckstein in the third, and Yadier Molina in the fourth, plated two runs.

Molina's double drove in Rolen, who moments earlier had turned a hit to left into a hustling double.
Rolen's sixth hit in 14 Series at-bats continued his hot hand. So, too, did his double leading off the bottom of the sixth.

Sacrificed to third, Rolen was set up to tie the game.

Rodney, brought on to relieve Bonderman, had other ideas. He quickly silenced the Cardinals and their fans with consecutive strikeouts of second baseman Aaron Miles and pinch-hitter John Rodriguez to end the inning.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Ah,The (Shivering) Summer Game

ST. LOUIS - The turf was soggier than a dishrag. The fans were dressed as if they were about to float on the boat rides that sail beneath Niagara Falls. For three straight hours.

Welcome to the rain-soaked 102d World Series, in which inclement weather continues to stalk the Fall Classic from Detroit to St. Louis and now poses a very real threat of pushing it into November.

The unrelenting rain from a cold front that stalled over St. Louis and the new Busch Stadium, forcing the postponement of Game 4 last night, is not projected to leave the St. Louis area soon.

When the Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals will get to play the two games needed to complete the Series' leg in the National League venue is not known. The forecast for today and tomorrow here is bad.

"They're going to be dicey," Jimmie Lee Solomon, vice president of Major League Baseball operations, said of the two days. "There is about a 70 percent chance of rain [today]... . Friday's forecast is pretty bad, also. We could get a soaking as much as 2, 21/2 inches, they say."

Game 4 is rescheduled for tonight at 8:27, with the Tigers' Jeremy Bonderman pitching against Jeff Suppan of the Cards.

In essence, baseball's schedule is as much a mess as the weather blanketing this Mississippi River city. Since baseball has no idea when the fourth and fifth games will be completed, there is no way to determine the future of Games 6 and 7, if needed. They originally were scheduled to be played Saturday and Sunday in Detroit.

Before baseball conceded the issue on Game 4 after a fruitless 1-hour, 51-minute delay last night, players were bracing for the worst. Like life in bullpens without propane heaters and little shelter other than the parkas on their backs.

"An 18-inch electrical heater, 12 guys with their hands over it, like we're sitting about singing around a barrel on the side of the street," Tigers reliever Todd Jones lamented.

Such weather is not surprising. Not in October in cities where fall happens. Ask the Cardinals, who have now been rained out of three games - once in New York and twice at home - since the playoffs began.

Still, no one in uniform had anything but disdain for any reference to a neutral warm-weather championship site, no matter how much rain was falling all over the Fall Classic.

"I would never go for that," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "I think it would be a crying shame to take something like this away from the fans of St. Louis or the fans of Detroit."

St. Louis reliever Brad Thompson agreed. "The fans have been here all year long," he said. "You would never want to take this away from them.
"It's an advantage for them. It's an advantage for us, too, when you're home and your fans are cheering for you. So I would never want to go to a neutral spot."

So the sport deals with nights like the last, with its bone-chilling soakers and mist that the hound of the Baskervilles would have loved.

"I thought there was global warming going on, but apparently not," Jones said. But hey, Jones reminded, "It's the World Series, it's the Cardinals. If you have to do it frozen, you do it."

Where the fans at Comerica bundled in their seats in expectation of a rainy Game 1, Cardinals fans retreated to every nook and cranny they could find during the long delay.

That, too, the players had tried to prepare for.

"You just block it out: If we play, great, if we don't... we'll just figure it out," the Cardinals' Scott Spiezio said in the late afternoon. "We'll play when we can, all the way until spring training if we have to, then take a week off," he added with a laugh.

"I need an electric blanket," Jones said. "And anyone over the age of 25 should get to loosen up in the tunnel."

Ah, the summer game, happily played in October wherever the league championships are won, no matter the weather in which the pennants have to fly.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Carpenter Devours Tigers This Time

ST. LOUIS - When National and American League teams get early exposure to each other, thanks to interleague play, the danger is that a little thing like the World Series could lose some of its mystery.

Or so the Detroit Tigers had hoped.

After all, the AL champions went into Game 3 of the 102d World Series not only having seen St. Louis Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter in this calendar year. They had also but having tattooed him in a June game when he yielded a season-high seven runs, on nine hits - six for extra bases.

So much for the familiarity breeding contempt, or Series edges.

Last night, a steely Carpenter stung the suddenly inconsistent Tigers attack, winning, 5-0, in front of a jubilant sold-out crowd at the new Busch Stadium.

His sharp outing - eight innings, three hits, zero runs, little sweat - and a Jim Edmonds two-run double early on, were more than enough to push the Cards up, two games to one, in the best-of-seven Series.

The National League's most storied World Series franchise had its first-ever Fall Classic victory in its new gem of a park. More important, the Cards had bounced back from a now-infamous Game 2 loss to Detroit pitcher Kenny "Was He or Wasn't He Cheating?" Rogers.

The sea of fans, heavily clad in Cardinal red and unfazed by the 43-degree weather, loved it. Because they know,They knew that another tough veteran, Jeff Suppan, cancould pull St. Louis within a victory of its 10th world championship with a Game 4 triumph tonight.

Tigers righthander Jeremy Bonderman will try to prevent that, and assureensure a Game 6 Saturday in Detroit.

Thank Carpenter for instilling that much drama into a Game 4.

"He's got a lot of weapons," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said of the former Cy Young Award winner who won 15 games in the regular season. "Everything moved. He had really good command."

La Russa's counterpart agreed - to a point.

"You've got to credit Chris Carpenter, but we've got a few guys not swinging the bat very well," the Tigers' Jim Leyland said of the team now hitting .159 in the Series games and likely facesfacing a new lineup from himthe manager by Game 4 tonight.

Carpenter credited the game plan drawn up by pitching coach Dave Duncan and catcher Yadier Molina - and, oh, yes, himself.

"I was able to execute," he said. "If you do that, you can have some good success."

The Cardinals, like the struggling Tigers, have had their share of issues on offense in this pitching-rich Series. So they were especially in need of Carpenter's being Carpenter, who was 8-4 in home starts - with a downright stingy 1.81 ERA - in 17 starts here this season.

Still, the Cardinals couldn't count on Carpenter alone. Not when they, like the Tigers, faced their own set of numbing negative numbers, primarily the 23-34 record in games against lefthanded starters this season. In the Series they stood 0-1, having meekly lost to Rogers, 3-1, in Game 2.

Last night they faced another southpaw in Nate Robertson. And he appeared primed for a duel, not allowing as much as a hit, for three innings.

Free-swinging leftfielder Preston Wilson, the one Cardinals batter who could match Robertson in confidence, ended all that.

Wilson, 5 for 5 with two home runs in his career against Robertson, lined out, hard, in his first-at bat, then singled in his second trip to open the fourth.
The Cardinals were in business moments later when Albert Pujols - hitless since homering in the third inning of Game 1 - doubled.

One out later, Edmonds, the only Cardinal with an RBI in Game 2, snaked a two-run double between first baseman Sean Casey and the bag.

"In moments like this, he doesn't get awed, he just concentrates better than ever," La Russa said of Edmonds, who has hit in four consecutive postseason games and is hitting .444 in the Series.

Detroit fell further behind late, thanks to a costly two-run throwing error to third base by reliever Joel Zumaya and a run-scoring wild pitch by another reliever, Zach Miner.

None of that mattered, though, because Carpenter had allowed nothing at all. In a Series marked by three dominating performances, St. Louis is winning the arms race.

"If you get into a World Series, you have to have good pitching," figured Leyland said, "and you have to beat it to win."

Baseball Labors Under Prosperity - And Peace

ST. LOUIS - By the time baseball's newly agreed upon collective-bargaining agreement expires in 2011, the sport will have enjoyed a historic 16-year run without a divisive strike or lockout.

The unprecedented era of peace was ushered in before the world's media last night on baseball's biggest stage: the World Series. It was further evidence of how the partnership between management and players has grown as impressively as the game itself in the last four years.

Gone was the acrimony that historically marked the beginning, middle and end of past negotiations. Gone were the divisive issues that led to so much mistrust and post-negotiation fallout, which usually did not dissipate before new talks were to begin.

"These negotiations were emblematic of the new spirit of cooperation and trust that now exists between the clubs and players," commissioner Bud Selig said during a news conference overflowing with players, union officials and club executives taking turns singing each other's praises.

Donald Fehr, head of the Major League Baseball Players Association, agreed. Noting that he has been representing the players for 29 years, Fehr said: "I'd been waiting for most of that time to see if we could ever get to the place where we reached an agreement prior to [a contract's] expiration. . . . I'm not sure that I believed that it could happen - until this time."

The two sides reached agreement two months before the current deal was to expire. The new deal mirrors, in many ways, its predecessor:
The revenue-sharing agreement between large-market and small-market teams remains the same.

The competitive-balance tax (commonly known as the luxury tax) remains the same: 22 percent for teams over the threshold for the first time, 30 percent for the second time, and 40 percent for the third time.

The drug-testing program - with a 50-day suspension for first-time offenders, a 100-day suspension for second-timers, and a lifetime ban for third-timers - stays the same.

One of the more notable changes involved free agency, with the elimination of various signing deadlines, including the one that prohibited teams from talking to former-players-turned-free-agents until May 1.

The minimum salary will increase from $327,000 this year to $380,000 next season.

Among the new deal's declarations: no "contraction" (elimination of teams) / during the term of the agreement. Also, the home-field advantage for the World Series will still be awarded to the league that wins the All-Star Game.

The seeds for peace were sown not in the talks that preceded this five-year deal but in 2002, when the owners let go of their demand for a hard salary cap.
In place of that demand, the owners and players compromised on a luxury tax, and a work stoppage was avoided.

Since then, with the tax in place on the big-spending teams, money has rolled in and fan interest has boomed.

"We're in the midst of baseball's golden age," said Selig. "More than 76 million fans attended our games this season, setting a record for the third consecutive year. And we produced $5.2 billion in revenue, which quadruples our revenue total 14 years ago."

Both sides still see the luxury tax as a compromise. Policies to ensure that low-revenue teams roll the largesse into their product are once again written into the deal. However, markets such as Tampa Bay and Miami remain economic worries.

"No system is ever perfect in any sport, or in most everything in life, but we have made substantial improvements in the system," Selig said. "And I believe that the small- and medium-market teams today are in far better shape than they were five years ago."

As proof, both sides pointed to a second straight World Series featuring teams from baseball's small-market-dominated Central Divisions, and to the fact that when the Detroit Tigers or St. Louis Cardinals win the 2006 Series, they will be the seventh different world champion in seven years.

All sides placed credit on the end of the war between the two sides.

"Labor peace is good for the game," said Arizona infielder Craig Counsell, one of the players-negotiators said. "Interest is at an all-time high. We feel the focus is on the field. It's good for baseball. It's good for us, as well."

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

La Russa: Dirt Under The Rug Should Stay There

Not a big fan of Tony La Russa. Fits too easily into that category of the "Importance of Being Me" school of managing.

But La Russa has done a fine job in a thankless position the last two days, having to explain why he didn't get down-and-dirty because of Kenny Rogers and DirtGate in Game 2 of the World Series.

La Russa explained that he didn't want to get into B.S. by having the umpires charge the mound and undress the Tigers starter despite the obvious: Rogers had some substance on his hand that shouldn't have been there, and was doing little to hide it in the first inning of his 3-1 victory over La Russa's Cardinals.

La Russa instead says he asked the umpires to take care of it - and they had Rogers wash his hands - rather than force the issue, and perhaps force Rogers' ejection.

"I have no regrets, because we got it fixed and," La Russa added - with a ton of class, "we still couldn't beat them."

La Russa also addressed concerns that some of his players might have disagreed with his approach. That is why he held a team meeting Monday, in part to explain to the Cardinals in uniform.

"I briefly explained where I was coming from and I said, anybody felt like I should do different, then I disappointed you, but I went to sleep at night and I looked in the mirror," La Russa said. "You've got to live with yourself. And they didn't raise their hand and say, hey, I disagree, they just didn't say anything."

Kenny Good, Christy Off The Charts

Sunday, Major League Baseball notes suggested that Kenny Rogers' 23-inning scoreless streak ranked second only to Christy Mathewson's 27 thrown for the New York Giants in the 1905 World Series.

Turns out Rogers is tied for third for such a streak in a single post-season, behind Lew Burdette (24 scoreless innings for the '57 Milwaukee Braves).
Rogers' seven scoreless innings in Game 2 put him in a tie with Jerry Reuss, who pitched 23 straight scoreless for the 1981 Dodgers.

It should be noted that Mathewson and Burdette shut down the opposition in the World Series - Mathewson doing so with three shutouts of the Philadelphia A's in a six-day span.

Burdette pitched three complete games and two shutouts against the '57 Yankees, the last on two days' rest after stepping in for flu-ridden Warren Spahn.

Reuss, like Rogers, pitched in the era of multi-tiered playoffs. Rogers' streak was built through three levels of playoffs and he pitched at least 7 innings of shutout ball, against the Yankees, A's and Cardinals, in each round.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Tigers' Monroe Flexes Surprising Muscle

ST. LOUIS - His is not the first name to come to mind when one sets out to put a human face on the saga of the 2006 Detroit Tigers.

That line, that very long line, forms to the right of Jim Leyland. And Kenny Rogers. And Ivan Rodriguez. And Placido Polanco. And . . . well, you get the idea.
Yet, if Craig Monroe keeps traveling the lofty path he's been on since starting his first postseason, the youthful leftfielder will soon be able to tell those who wish to excel on baseball's biggest stage to line up after him.

For Monroe not only has played a large role in the Tigers' surprising overall success this October. His booming bat also has made it possible for the American League champions to be even with the National League pennant winners, the St. Louis Cardinals, after the first two games of the 102d World Series.

When the best-of-seven Series resumes tonight at Busch Stadium, Monroe and company will be challenged by a former Cy Young Award winner, Chris Carpenter. The Tigers' Nate Robertson will start the first of three games at the home of the National League champions.

The fact that the Series has been reduced to best of five has much to do with the personable, 29-year-old Monroe, who has enjoyed his turn on the big stage as much as any player in uniform in the Fall Classic.

Generous with his time and thoughtful in his interpretation of this unfolding October pageant, Monroe has made his locker a necessary stop for those in the national media.

His performances have increased the necessity to stop, look and listen to this Fall Classic World Series surprise. For example, on Sunday, Monroe used a first-inning home run in Game 2 - his second long shot in two Series games - to stake Rogers to a lead the lefthander never relinquished in a 3-1 victory in Detroit.

In a Series dominated by talk of Albert Pujols' batting prowess, it was Monroe who staked his claim to a bit of Series history after just two starts. He is the first player to homer in his first two career games in the Series since Barry Bonds did so for the San Francisco Giants in 2002.

What makes Monroe's accomplishments all the more impressive is that he has made this postseason thing look easy. Witness his five-game hitting streak dating back to Game 2 of Detroit's sweep of Oakland in the American League Championship Series.

"Not being in this situation before," he had been "shocked sometimes" by himself, he admitted. "I'm relaxed and having fun, and I'm staying focused on one thing, and that's trying to be a good player. I think the big thing for me is trying to compete and do everything that I possibly can to help this team win."

He has done so. Yes, most of the postmortems of Sunday's game at Comerica Park concentrated on whether Rogers was using an illegal substance on his pitches. But Monroe muscled his way into the spotlight by clobbering a Jeff Weaver pitch into the left-field bleachers with one out in the first inning.

"To see him jump-start us like that obviously made me feel pretty good," Leyland, the Tigers' manager, said of Monroe, who had been 0 for 6 with four strikeouts against Weaver in his career.

The night before, Monroe had homered in the ninth inning of a 7-2 loss, showing reticent Tigers bats the possibilities.

Monroe has five home runs among his 12 playoff hits, equaling a franchise record for post-season homers held by none other than Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg.

Greenberg, whose name and retired number adorn the backdrop at Comerica Park much the way they did for so long at venerable Tiger Stadium, built his home-run total in 85 at-bats over four World Series.

Monroe caught Greenberg in 37 at-bats through the course of eight American League division and Championship Series games and the two contests against the Cards.

"Wow," Monroe marveled at his production. "That's something I'll have to really reflect on down the road, not now, because I can't even process that kind of stuff right now. . . . I'm focused on one thing, and that's to help this team win games."