Monday, August 31, 2009

Sox gamble on Peavy: Did they lose?

Kenny Williams is a gambler. He bets big, and big bettors can cash big paydays. Williams banked one gigantic payday: the 2005 World Series.

But one is never enough for a gambler. Winning is intoxicating – for the White Sox general manager and anybody else who calls the South Side of Chicago their home. They all want more, and Williams went out to improve his team’s chances for a second championship this decade.

Not content with his rotation, Williams traded four prospects for right-hander Jake Peavy, a talented piece the Padres could ill-afford to keep. Peavy, a former Cy Young winner, looked like a great fit into a rotation that had Mark Buehrle, John Danks, Gavin Floyd and veteran Jose Contreras in it.

The July 31 trade with the last-place Padres included a footnote: Peavy was coming to the White Sox with an injured right ankle, an injury that had kept his name on the disabled list since May 22.

Minor point to Williams. He figured Peavy’s injury would heal soon enough and the White Sox would have a top-of-the-rotation pitcher for a September run. So Williams went all in. Looks as if he's been dealt a bad hand.

Peavy had a rehab assignment last Saturday for Triple-A Charlotte. His right ankle felt fine; his right elbow did not. Throwing 68 pitches in an outing that lasted 3 1/3 innings, Peavy felt the after-effects of having taken a line drive on the elbow in his previous start.

Not good news for Williams.

Reports had the 28-year-old Peavy scheduled to return to pitch Thursday in a makeup game at Wrigley Field, but the wisdom of having Peavy pitch in a game where he had to bat and might have to run the bases made a return then unlikely.

So Thursday looks out, so does Friday now. So does maybe the following Friday. And the season? It might be out as well.

For an aching elbow isn’t a thing to dismiss easily. Just ask the New York Mets, who have been forced last week to shut down high-priced ace Johan Santana when his left elbow caused him discomfort. Santana is penciled in for surgery.

Right now, Peavy is penciled in for tests today, which should give Williams an idea on whether his cards got better. If they didn’t, he might as well throw in his hand on this season, because his White Sox, a team in a late August tailspin, won’t have enough quality pitching to overtake the front-running Tigers for the AL Central title.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Serena at No. 2? Open nonsense ...

Serena Williams got a No. 2 seed at the U.S. Open, which begins Monday morning. While a No. 2 seed might sound fair, how can it be fair when Dinara Safina, the player seeded ahead of her, has won nothing of importance.

The collection of insignificant titles that dot Safina’s resume doesn’t add up to one of the 11 Grand Slam trophies Serena Williams has on her mantel. The U.S. Open, however, stuck to its traditional rules of using yearly rankings to seed players, though officials had the prerogative to ignore the rankings.

OK then, tournament officials should have exercised their prerogative. To stick with tradition makes a mockery of the seedings, because nobody who keeps a close eye on women’s tennis can look at Safina and the youngest of the Williams sisters and not see who has the better chance of winning the Open.

For while Safina has titles aplenty this season, her shaky game doesn’t hold together under the intense glare of a Grand Slam, and no Slam venue is as intense as Flushing Meadows.

Her U.S. Open seeding, even with the year she’s having, should have been fifth or sixth, a seeding that put her chances of winning behind both Williams sisters, Jelena Jankovic and Elena Dementieva.

No use crying now, not for Serena Williams anyway. She knows that the Open isn’t decided in the seedings, and the path to the title will have obstacles for the No. 1, No. 2 or No. 23 seed to clear.

Never has the women’s field here had a deeper pool of talent. The return of Kim Clijsters, the 2005 U.S. Open champ, and Maria Sharapova, the ’06 U.S. Open champ, leaves capable players everywhere. Any champion will have to avoid this minefield en route to the Finals, and who can guarantee that Serena Williams or Safina can even get to the quarterfinals?

But were I a betting man (well, I guess I am a betting man), I’d put my last dollars on Williams, not on Safina. The flashy Williams has the athleticism, the big-event toughness and the penetrating groundstrokes that are tailor-made for the swift hard courts of Flushing Meadows.

As for Safina, she has her No. 1 ranking and a 0-3 record in Slam Finals. You tell me, is that the mark of a No. 1 seed? Let me answer this for you: No!

What else is left for 'Fed' to prove?

You wonder whether Roger Federer, the world No. 1, has the stomach for the grind that will be the U.S. Open.

His season has already been wildly successful. He’s conquered a demon: the slow red clay of Paris; he’s recaptured the glory on the hallowed grass at Wimbledon when he bested Andy Roddick in an unforgettable Finals, and he’s marched on toward the kind of greatness few men in any sport have ever achieved.

On Monday, Federer returns to New York City to perform on the largest theater in men’s tennis. He’s already earned the affection of crowds in Flushing Meadows. They adore him, as tennis fans elsewhere do. They’ll root for "Fed" to repeat, cheering on the Swiss star, a five-time winner here, as they’ve cheered on Americans like Connors and Ashe and Agassi and Sampras in Grand Slam yesteryear.

All had much to prove as they stood on the U.S. Open courts and prepared to slug it out with competitors who longed to win the year's final Grand Slam to put a signature on their tennis seasons.

Federer doesn’t need a signature on this season. For aside from the Australian Open in January, he’s won all the tournaments that matter. He’s beaten Rafael Nadal on clay, though not on the red clay of Roland Garros. But it wasn’t Federer’s fault he didn’t. A gimpy Nadal didn’t make the Finals there, perhaps opening the way for Federer to claim the only Grand Slam that had eluded him.

His trophy case is filled with more than Grand Slam glory. He has awards that he’s won from every corner of the tennis universe. His bank account is flush with cash, richer than he could have imagined. He’s happily married now, the father of newborn girls.

And he’s No. 1 again, ahead of the extraordinarily gifted Nadel – the lone player who has dared to challenge the Federer supremacy in men’s tennis.

On the first day of the U.S. Open, Federer will show up with no tennis worlds left to conquer. To say he’s playing for pride, as clich├ęd as that statement is, would be accurate.

But if he must play for something else, then play for the crowds that worship him. Give them what might be the last great moment in a career of great moments. In a young man’s game, the old pro Federer might not have many great moments left in his brilliant forehand. 

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Thriller at 51 ... Thanks, Michael

Michael Jackson would have been 51 today, which doesn’t seem old when you know his life expectancy should have been 70-something. But for a generation of people, Michael Jackson, the cute kid who fronted The Jackson Five, will be forever young.

To think now of Jackson, whose death last month has been ruled a homicide, is to remember that skinny, boyish entertainer whose falsetto voice displayed uncommon range. He was, a legion of music lovers will attest, the most gifted performer of his era, an artist with a velvety voice that made girls weep and whose dazzling footwork would have made "Mr. Bojangles" jealous. 

The scope of his career touched all aspects of life in America, aside from politics. Jackson was a celebrity who fascinated us, even if the man often confounded us.

He was an entertainer we knew all too well, and he was a man we knew not at all.

For he closed that part of himself to the prying eyes of the public, holing up on an expansive estate he named “Neverland.” Out of nowhere, he’d re-emerge, talking about one project or another, preparing for a concert tour that, more often than not, didn’t take flight.

But when he did perform, when he did put on his dancing shoes, take center stage and sing the songs that spoke to Baby Boomers, Jackson reclaimed the throne he had abdicated.

“The King of Pop” was back, and we regretted he had been away. His absence cheated those who didn’t care about his personal life; they cared about his wonderful music and his performances.

When Jackson did perform, what entertainer was better?

He was a showstopper – period. Who but Michael Jackson could trump the Super Bowl itself, as the man did Jan. 31, 1993, in the most brilliant halftime performance the signature sports event of our time has ever witnessed.

Back in '93, he was 34. He was still the “Thriller,” proving it to the worldwide audience of millions as he moonwalked across a makeshift stage. His life looked full of promise. Michael Jackson seemed to have even higher heights to scale if that’s what he wanted for himself.

We never found out if he did.

For Jackson soon turned inward, closing himself off from his legion of fans and their adulation. He become, as the tabloids called him, “Wacko Jacko,” the man’s whose grotesques feature repulsed us.

Yet we never forgot Jackson the entertainer even as he hid, and we don’t forget him now in death. We do wonder why a man with so much used so little of it.

Perhaps he gave us all he could give, and when he spent all those gifts, maybe Jackson felt he had nothing us to thrill us with.

Maybe dying was his way of easing on down the road. But Jackson shouldn’t have left without first hearing our acknowledgment of him. In his work, he brought so much joy too so many.   

For that, the man deserves our thanks, although they come his way posthumously: “Happy birthday, Michael!”

Leaking names as bad as PED abuse itself

Journalists preach about integrity and transparency, two noble principles that have long been the hallmark of the profession. Yet those principles can collude head-on with the issue of privacy.

When it does, privacy should seldom lose.

But privacy took a trouncing when journalism steamrolled it with the ongoing leaks of names of ballplayers who used performance-enhancing drugs (or steroids). Their names were supposedly on a “secret” list. Yet it seems as if each day another player whose name made the list is outed, much to the consternation of the player and his union leaders.

They had agreed to the testing under the condition players who tested positive for using PED would have their identities kept secret. The agreement also satisfied people at the highest levels of the Commissioner's Office.

Deals like these, however, are as shaky as a house built with Popsicle sticks. They fall apart because a well-kept secret is as rare as a game-ending triple play. So, of course, such a deal had no chance of holding up, and it didn’t.

Not that I have one ounce of sympathy for men like Alex Rodriquez, David Ortiz and Miguel Tejada, men whose names made the users' list. For what they did was stain the game’s integrity, and no American sport has put a higher value on its integrity than baseball.       

I do, however, think the PED abusers are owed more than a bad bargain. To leak their names cast a spotlight on them that is unwarranted. To leak their names, by all accounts, was illegal, too.

Illegality outrages journalists. They pour endless hours and as much of their newspaper’s money into setting a wrong right. Yet I have not seen a single newspaper or Internet company or newsmagazine take aim at the man (or men) who leaked these names. 

The leaker has become baseball’s version of “Deep Throat,” though comparisons between the two are as absurd as comparing Morton’s to McDonald’s. Both serve meals, but does anyone want to build a gourmet dinnerl around a bagful of Big Macs?

Somewhere out there is a journalist who sees the injustice of what has happened to these ballplayers. I would like to think that an investigative reporter for a media company with pockets deep enough will explore the matter: find the person who leaked the names. The reporter might find a Pulitzer Prize in it for him.

I hope he uncovers the person’s name not to vindicate the PED abusers but to make certain that people in positions to keep secrets, keep secrets. For to assail the behavior of Rodriguez and Ortiz on one front leaves no choice, as unseemly as it might be to people, but to do likewise on the legal front.

As bad as what the 104 PED abusers did, it pales in comparison to breaking the law in leaking names. The man who did deserves more than public scorn. A caning sounds about right.

Or, better yet, a prison cell next to Bernie Madoff.  

Friday, August 28, 2009

Oh, Those 'Little' Boys of Summer ...

I can't pull myself away from ESPN and its saturation coverage of the Little League World Series, now winding toward its endgame. I'm borderline obsessed with it.

I thought I had gotten my fill of the Series last year when I covered these pint-sized ballplayers for MLB.com.  But even as my career with the dot.com veered in another direction, I've maintained a deep affinity toward the event. 

I left a piece of my baseball heart last summer in Williamsport, Penn., the epicenter to what might just be the purest form of America's national pastime. 

Each summer, teams of Little Leaguers travel there from places as near as Kentucky and as far as Japan or Saudi Arabia. They come carrying hopes and dreams and passions for what has become a decidedly international game. While baseball planted its roots firmly in U.S. soil, its branches go in every direction.

So you sit in Lamade Stadium or Volunteer Stadium and see this United Nations of youngsters enjoying this game like Jeter and Howard and Braun and Granderson and Pujols and Mauer and Ellsbury and ... well, like any big leaguer. The youngsters run and throw and swing and catch. They laugh, they hurt, they cry. They make new friends, they see new sites, they live a fantasy. 

I used to think that putting a spotlight on boys 11-, 12- and 13-years-old was misguided. I mistakenly believed adults had co-opted the game, molding the World Series into what it has become: a made-for-TV spectacle. 

But I discovered firsthand last summer that the Little League World Series is no more about adults than a secondary education is. The World Series is about little boys like Dieter Miller and Hung Yuan Lin and Wen Hua Sung and Edmond Americaan and Claycandy Hariquez, Kiko Garcia and Bulla Grant and Harley Hunter and Katie Reyes -- and, yes, a girl of summer, too; it's about what they love and enjoy.

Oh, the adults around them enjoy it all as well. They soak up this intoxicating atmosphere at Williamsport like a town drunk with no limit on his bar tab. They cheer wildly for their sons and grandsons and brothers and cousins and the neighbor's kids. They celebrate the successes; they mourn the disappointments.

And there are many of the latter in Williamsport. For only one team will leave this burg deep in the middle of nowhere with a championship. The rest of the teams will return to their homes with disappointment in tow, though not as losers. 

For to make it to Williamsport is to be a winner. It's an experience of a lifetime, a lifetime that has only begun to take shape. 

As I watched these little boys of summer last year, I hoped they would have successes beyond the playing field. The odds are that, of the scores of boys playing in Williamsport then, only two or three of them will reach the big leagues.  

That's OK, because what they will have learned from their experience is how to be a good teammate, how to accept things they cannot change and how to enjoy a moment that so few boys will ever experience.

And for the rest of their lives, they will have hours of ESPN video and their watercolored memories to remind them of the thrills they are having -- win or lose -- on a small stage that is every bit as grand as Fenway Park, Wrigley Field or Yankee Stadium.    

 

New Eagle lands without a big to-do

The headline: “New Eagle Has Landed,” words that had nothing to do Thursday night with a moon landing. 

The words referred to a much-anticipated event, one that, while significant in its own way, could never measure up to a more historic occasion decades ago.

The new Eagle was Michael Vick, a convicted felon who was trying to resurrect an NFL career that unraveled like a spool of thread because of Vick’s fascination with fighting – and then lying about -- pit bulls.

His return didn’t draw the public outrage many people had expected. Animal rights activists who criticized the team’s decision to bring in someone guilty of so ghastly a crime had talked of massive picketing and of boycotts. But nothing like that occurred in Philadelphia – not inside the stadium and, apparently, not outside of it either.

Philadelphians stayed focused on Vick’s football and not on his criminal past. They showed a side of themselves that is … well, not all-too common among the hypercritical people who call the “City of Brotherly Love” their home.  They showed compassion.

In the end, Vick’s debut was just a footnote in a 33-32 win over the Jaguars. His role in it wasn’t much: six plays in the first half, one as a slot receiver. He looked rusty, but he was back after more than two years, which likely meant more to him than it did to anybody else.

“It felt the same,” Vick said of getting on the field. “It’s almost like riding a bike, you know. You never forget how to do it.”

For him, this was one small step, a step that might bring Vick the glory and the adulation he once enjoyed before he went to prison. He’s a long way from reclaiming that glory, but at least his journey won’t be interrupted because people refuse to accept the fact that Vick, repentant about his past, had paid his debt to society.

 

Thursday, August 27, 2009

A 'fool' by any other name: Milton Bradley

I won't talk about what a fool is likely to do with his money. Not when I can simply talk about the fool himself. His name is Milton Bradley, a $10 million head-case who plays right field for the Chicago Cubs. 

Smart but unschooled on how to be a grownup, Bradley had a typical Bradley comment to a question from an ESPN Chicago reporter after a 15-6 loss Tuesday night to the Nationals, the worst team in baseball.  

The question: "Obviously not the type of beginning you felt you were gonna have here on the homestand."

Bradley's answer: "No, we got a Rodney King beatdown tonight."
Well, "GameBoy," as Bradley was jokingly referred to during his stormy seasons with the Indians, could have picked a lot of things to compare a nine-run loss to, but Rodney King's bloody, brutal beating should have been the last example he picked. For as horrible as a nine-run loss to the woeful Nationals might be, it compares not a bit to what the L.A. cops did to King. 
To even put the two events in the same sentence, as Bradley did, shows the kind of ignorance too often seen in athletes like him. They speak first without putting a minutes thought into what they say and how those words might be construed. Typical Milton Bradley stuff, though.
I had to see him daily when I covered the Indians and he played for them. It wasn't an experience I relished. For you never knew what personality would show up from day to day. Bradley could be the smiling, jovial Bradley, a young man of wit and charm. Then, in an instant, an anger could well in Bradley, erupting without notice to turn him into the devil in a jockstrap. The latter was a frightening sight to see, because you could never figure out where his anger springs from or if it would turn into violence.
During his Indians days, I heard the pop analysis of Milton Bradley: He had no strong black male in his life. Surely, that absence shaped his character. Yet thousands of black males have rose above that limitation, carving out successes despite of it. And Bradley has been better positioned than most of them to find a calmer, more reasoned terrain to live his life. He seems not to get it.
His shallowness would be understood if you didn't see his intellect. He can't mask it. Yet that's what is most confounding about him; he's content to carry out the handiwork of a fool. I never figured out why. 
I guess I should be inclined to call Milton Bradley an "enigma" and be done with it. To do so, however, would be an injustice to the word. To call him "complex" might not be accurate either. I guess that's the image he wants for himself -- the person nobody can figure out.