Thursday, June 30, 2011

Cal's baseball team faced elimination even before the season started

Golden Bears' program was going to be a victim of budget cuts, but boosters came through with millions and team is in the College World Series for the first time since 1992.
California's Marcus Semien (15) is greeted by teammate Chadd Krist… (George Nikitin / Associated Press)
June 17, 2011
By David Wharton, L.A. Times
Reporting from Berkeley
On that bleak day in September, the day when university officials handed the California baseball team a death sentence, it just so happened the players were scheduled to practice.
They arrived at the ballpark to learn their storied program — more than a century old — had fallen victim to state budget cuts and would be disbanded at season's end.
"I was really angry," sophomore pitcher Justin Jones said. "I was upset, disappointed in the university and kind of ashamed, all at the same time."
Coach David Esquer told his guys that he would help them transfer to other schools. He made it clear they could take the day off to deal with the news.
To his surprise, they laced up their cleats, put on their mitts and began tossing the ball around. Pretty soon, these young men — many of them still teenagers, their futures abruptly scattered to the breeze — were joking and laughing.
"Once we got on the field, we put everything else aside," Jones said. "That was one of the best practices we've ever had."
Esquer recalled glancing at his assistants and saying: "We have a special team here."
A team that could turn calamity into a Cinderella story.
'Roller coaster ride'
Eight teams begin play in the 2011 College World Series this weekend and the Golden Bears will be among them. Their quest for an improbable national championship begins with a game against top-seeded Virginia on Sunday.
So much has changed in the last nine months.
Not only has Cal returned to Omaha for the first time in nearly two decades, it has won an even bigger victory, earning reinstatement with help from rabid supporters who raised millions of dollars.
"Unbelievable," said Austin Booker, a senior outfielder. "It's been a huge roller coaster ride."
As soon as the university announced its athletic department cuts last September, the alumni sprang into action. They understood the administration would not accept a short-term fix — their campaign needed to raise $25 million, enough to support baseball and four other endangered sports for the next seven to 10 years.
"I don't know if it was naivete or passion, or both, but I knew we were going to succeed," said Doug Nickle, a former pitcher who helped lead the effort. "It didn't matter what the numbers were."
In those early days, only three players decided to transfer immediately. As star infielder Tony Renda put it: "It weeded out the people who did not want to be here."
The remaining players contacted teams throughout the country — Renda and Jones committed to Oregon — but vowed to remain with Cal for what looked to be its final season.
That left the Golden Bears with a veteran roster and strong pitching, enough talent to rank in the preseason top 25. The ballpark became a sanctuary, Renda said, "a place where you can forget about things, a place to be yourself and have fun and play a game."
Not that everything went perfectly.
Cal suffered early losses to opponents such as Oklahoma and Connecticut and hit losing streaks during the Pacific 10 Conference schedule, getting swept by Arizona State and Stanford.
Still, Esquer marveled at a team that could ignore the ax hanging over its head. The same could be said for his staff.
Facing imminent unemployment, the coaches vowed to put the players' welfare first. Assistant Dan Hubbs took a wish list of schools from each athlete and began making calls, telling coaches, "I've got someone you should look at." Esquer dealt with upperclassmen who faced a trickier decision — they could transfer for one or two seasons of baseball elsewhere or quit the game to finish their studies at Cal.
"People ask me what it was like," the coach said. "If you can imagine running your program, saving your program and dismantling your program, all at the same time, it was all day, every day."
Before anyone gets the wrong idea, Esquer adds, this effort wasn't entirely noble. If he and his staff could hold the program together for six more months, it might look good on their resumes.
Away from campus, the team's supporters worked just as hard. A relatively small number of big donors — including alum and former Dodgers star Jeff Kent — contributed millions of dollars, but there were hundreds of others giving $5 or $10. Even Stanford alumni, those enemies from across the bay, sent money.
"Think about it," Nickle said. "There's no more rivalry if there's no more Cal."
Wherever the Golden Bears played, opposing fans leaned over the railing to wish them well. After a three-game series at Oregon State, a couple with season tickets near the visiting dugout handed Esquer a check.
"I like what you're doing," the man said. "Good luck."
By February, the campaign had secured more than $12 million in pledges. Then came a setback — university officials decided to reinstate rugby, women's lacrosse and women's gymnastics, but not baseball.
"We were shocked, to say the least," Nickle recalled.
A number of baseball supporters threatened to withdraw their pledges. The fundraisers had to push their anger aside and get back to work.
Finally, on April 8, university Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau announced that the total raised specifically for baseball had reached $9 million, saving the program. The players got the news in a Tucson hotel before a game against Arizona.
"I didn't believe it at first," Jones said. "This sense of joy overwhelmed me."
Just reward
How do you save a baseball team?
Take equal parts optimism and grit, add the kindness of strangers. And maybe one more thing, an unexpected ingredient that pretty much every Cal player mentions.
"You can see on the field that we play looser because we're closer to each other," Booker said. "We have a great time out there."
This attitude translated into a 37-21 record and a dugout where teammates whooped, hollered, and cheered with a sheer volume that occasionally annoyed opponents. Catcher Chadd Krist said: "That's why we have so much success. We have so much energy."
The postseason began with a loss to Baylor in the Houston regional, but Cal bulled its way through the loser's bracket to earn a rematch and won the deciding game with four runs in the bottom of the ninth.
Next came a best-of-three super regional in nearby Santa Clara against upstart Dallas Baptist. Esquer admits that he did not sleep much that weekend, wanting so badly to win as a way of repaying all the donors in the stands. The Golden Bears swept two games to advance.
Now, on the eve of the College World Series opener, it is too early to put this wild ride into perspective, Jones saying: "I don't know if it went by really fast or really long … it's been weird."
But Renda figures if there is any justice in the world, the good feelings won't end yet. He wants a few more victories in Omaha.
"We all deserve it," he said, "for everything we've been through."

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Shawn Green Says He'd Play for Israel

Ken Belson, New York Times

June 8, 2011

When Major League Baseball announced last week that Israel would be included in the next World Baseball Classic, it triggered speculation about which current professional players might join the team.

Many of the best Jewish players in the United States, including Ryan Braun and Kevin Youkilis, could play for Israel. Under the rules, a player can join a team if he is a citizen of a country, can qualify for citizenship, holds a passport of that country, or has a parent that is or was a citizen of that nation.

But retired Jewish players in theory could join, too. Shawn Green, 38, who played outfield and first base for the Blue Jays, Dodgers, Diamondbacks and Mets, said he would be willing to come out of retirement to play for Israel.

"It would be an honor," Green said in a phone interview from New York, where he is promoting his new book, "The Way of Baseball: Finding Stillness at 95 MPH." "If it fit into my life situation, I'd love to do it."

Green said he has kept in shape since retiring in 2007, but has not been playing much baseball. But if he got his stroke back, he could provide a punch. He hit 328 home runs and batted .283 in his 15-year career.

Despite Green's Jewish roots, his book describes how he relied on Eastern philosophies in the big leagues. He was influenced by "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," and he meditated to help block out distracting thoughts. Hitting off the tee to practice, he said, was also a form of mediation.

"I followed the idea of being in the present moment," Green said. "It's more common than not for players to find some routine to enable them to get their thoughts."

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Israel to Participate in 2013 World Baseball Classic

  By Ken Belson,
  New York Times
June 1, 2011
Too bad Sandy Koufax is not pitching anymore.
Major League Baseball said Wednesday that a team from Israel would participate in the World Baseball Classic in 2013. The event will be expanded to 28 teams from 16. In a new format, 16 teams, including those from Brazil, Britain, Israel and Thailand, will play in a double-elimination qualifying round in late 2012.
The top four teams will then join 12 other countries, from Australia to Venezuela, in the final round.
Israel's entry in the tournament raises some interesting possibilities. According to the rules, a player is eligible to join a team if a player is a citizen of the nation, qualified for citizenship or can hold a passport of that country. A player who has one parent who is, or was, a citizen of that nation, can also join that team.
Under these rules, several players in Major League Baseball could qualify to play on the Israeli team. Imagine this team:
The infield might include Ike Davis, whose mother is Jewish, at first base; Ian Kinsler of the Rangers at second base; and Kevin Youkilis of the Red Sox at third base. Ryan Braun, the slugger for the Brewers, could bat clean up and play left field. Pitchers Scott Feldman of the Texas Rangers and Jason Marquis of the Washington Nationals could start; John Grabow of the Chicago Cubs could pitch in relief.
The Israeli team could use a few major leaguers. According to the Israel Association of Baseball, more than 1,000 children and adults play baseball in Israel. The six-team Israel Baseball League started in 2007.
The former major leaguers Art Shamsky, Ken Holtzman and Ron Blomberg have managed, and Dan Duquette, a former general manager of the Red Sox and the Expos, was the league's director of player development.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Players Begin Long Journey to Majors with Draft

Corey Dickerson of the Casper (Wyo.) Ghosts steals second against Ogden (Utah)
Raptors shortstop Jake Lemmerman. Leagues like theirs are often the first stop
for recently drafted players. (Kerry Huller / Associated Press)
Baseball's apprenticeship often takes years, so don't expect to see even the first-round picks from this year's Major League Baseball draft in the big leagues anytime soon.

By Kevin Baxter
L.A. Times, June 4, 2011

Jake Lemmerman remembers the day he was taken in the Major League Baseball draft like it was yesterday — in fact, it's been nearly a year.

"It's kind of surreal, basically. This is what I always wanted, with the team I always wanted to play for," says the Dodgers minor leaguer who was taken in the fifth round last June.

Teammate Blake Smith, a second-round selection in 2009, won't soon forget his selection, either.

"I think about it all the time," he says. "It definitely changed my life."

Stories like that bring a smile to Logan White, the Dodgers' assistant general manager for scouting and the man who selected Lemmerman and Smith — as well as every other Dodgers draft pick over the last nine years.

"Actually, that's part of why I do this job," he says. "I love watching players get drafted and helping them and making their dreams come true."

White's own dream also started in the draft, 27 years ago when a scout named Jeff Malinoff — now with the Angels — persuaded the Seattle Mariners to take a chance on a scatter-armed right-hander from western New Mexico.

"I remember what it meant for me," says White, a 23rd-round pick who went 5-12 in three seasons in the low minors. "And I remember the guy that signed me. And if he didn't draft me and I didn't get signed, would I be where I'm at today in baseball?

"Probably not."

A lot of journeys will get started Monday, the first day of baseball's annual amateur draft. White won't tip his team's hand, but the Dodgers, picking 16th in the first round, are once again interested in pitching. Oregon left-hander Tyler Anderson and South Carolina high schooler Taylor Guerrieri are said to top their list.

Expect the team to put a premium on a prospect's willingness to sign. With the Dodgers struggling to make payroll at the major league level, the team might not be able to offer much more than the below-slot bonus of $1.06 million that last year's 16th pick, pitcher Hayden Simpson, got from the Chicago Cubs. ("Slot" is the suggested bonus MLB assigns to each pick.)

The Angels pick 17th in the first round, but then don't select again until Round 3 — 87 picks later. They are also interested in high school pitchers, though in their first draft under new scouting director Ric Wilson they might also go for high school position players such as Florida infielder Francisco Lindor or power-hitting Texas outfielder Josh Bell.

Whoever the Dodgers and Angels select, don't expect to see them in the major leagues any time soon. While top picks in the NFL and NBA drafts are often starting for their teams the next season, there is typically an extended apprenticeship in baseball.

Of the 50 players the Angels and Dodgers have drafted in the first five rounds since 2007, just one — Angels right-hander Tyler Chatwood — is in the major leagues.

"I don't like to call it an exact science. I like to call it an art," White says. "There's a long list of guys that don't make it. My role is to be realistic, preach patience and know I'm not right 100% of the time."

Three years ago, White took high school pitcher Ethan Martin with his first pick, giving him a $1.73 million bonus. Martin missed his first pro season with a knee injury and has gone 19-25 with a 5.57 earned-run average in Class A in the 21/2 seasons since.

For Martin, being a first-round pick guaranteed nothing beyond that big, one-time bonus.

"Yeah, you're a first-round pick but … you can't expect to be treated any differently," Martin says. "I'm just another person, just another player trying to get to the big leagues, trying to fulfill their dream."

There's that word again. Dream. It's what keeps Martin and others pushing through the tedium and frustration of minor league baseball. And it's what gets people like White out of bed each morning — especially around draft day.

"More than anything in the world, I like being a part of the dreams of these kids," says White, who gives every draft pick his cellphone number and continues to speak with many of them, even those who were released long ago.

"Helping them along the way and watching them fulfill their dreams, being able to help them in their lives and their career is just awesome."

Friday, June 03, 2011

How to Visit 30 Ballparks in 35 Days This Summer

June 3, 2011
From the Wall Street Journal

Still looking for vacation plans this summer? We may be able to help—all you need is an unhealthy obsession with baseball, a functioning automobile and five weeks to spare.

Ben Blatt of the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective recently built a computer program that devised the best way to visit all 30 baseball stadiums in the shortest possible time. The results are not for the faint of heart—it's a grueling, convoluted journey sending courageous souls on a 35-day road trip covering more than 18,000 miles of American (and briefly Canadian) highway.

To make his conclusions, Blatt used a mathematical method known as linear programming, which takes loads of data and crunches it into an optimal outcome. In this case, Blatt plugged the schedule for each team into his model, while setting one key parameter: For every 12 hours of estimated driving between ballparks, the system must allow for eight hours of rest, ensuring that the road trip is, at least in theory, humanly possible.

But possible doesn't mean desirable. Completing this challenge requires considerable backtracking and crisscrossing (one segment has travelers going from Boston to Washington to New York to Philadelphia in four days). It also calls for a couple brutally long drives, like leaving an afternoon game at Coors Field in Denver and heading straight to Miller Park in Milwaukee for another game the next night. (That one, Blatt admitted, "just barely made it.")

So if you're brave enough to give it a try, the trip starts at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo., on Monday night and ends at Busch Stadium in St. Louis on Sunday, July 10. "I wouldn't say it would be a fun road trip." Blatt said, "Well, maybe if you wanted to get into the Guinness book of world records."

by Jared Diamond
The Wall Street Journal

The Perfect Baseball Odyssey

The itinerary for the optimal way to see all 30 baseball stadiums
this season (all times local):

6/6, 7pm
6/19, 1pm
6/30, 1pm
6/7, 7pm
6/20, 7pm
7/1, 7pm
6/8, 7pm
6/21, 7pm
7/2, 7pm
6/10, 7pm
6/22, 1:30pm
7/3, 1:20pm
6/11, 5:30pm
6/23, 1pm
7/4, 1pm
6/12, 5pm
6/24, 7pm
7/6, 7pm
6/14, 6:40pm
6/25, 7pm
7/7, 1pm
6/15, Noon
6/26, 1:30pm
7/8, 7pm
6/16, 12:35pm
6/27, 7pm
7/9, 7pm
6/17, 7pm
6/29, 7pm
7/10, 1pm

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Moneyball - The Movie with Brad Pitt

The book by Michael Lewis
June 2, 2011

Moneyball is a new movie to be released in September starring Brad Pitt, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Jonah Hill. It is based on the true story of how a successful baseball team was put together while on a tight budget, by employing computer-generated analysis to select their players.

This Bennett Miller directed movie was previewed tonight for audience feedback. The reviewer felt it was true to the real story as well as entertaining, amusing, and even heartwarming.

• The acting seemed realistic, the clubhouse and ballpark scenes worked well.
• Very good, key moments involving specific players, Scott Hatteberg, David Justice, and Jeremy Giambi.
• The script captured Billy’s idiosyncrasies, such as his inability to watch his team play, being too uncomfortable.
• The baseball seemed authentic.
• Touching moment when Billy’s 12 year old daughter sings him a song

• The movie dragged a bit after telling the story of Oakland’s 20 successive wins in September 2002. (Movie people, this is where you apply the tweak)
• Another viewer with me had trouble following some of the trade talk, too confusing for the non-baseball crowd.
• Too many flashbacks to Billy’s days as a ballplayer. We got the point that he never got over being unsuccessful as a first round draft choice.

• Didn’t use enough of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s talent, his part was too shallow and one dimensional.
• Would have liked to see more conflict between Art and Billy.
• A needless moment when Billy goes to pick up his daughter from his ex wife’s home and has to kill a few minutes. Waste of time.

Billy Beane, the general manager of the A’s played by Brad Pitt, fought his scouts, his players and his manager, to learn a new way to evaluate player talent. Before sabermetrics, players were often evaluated by how good they looked on the field, how great guys they were, or in one case even how ugly a player’s spouse was (a player with low self-esteem).

The A’s could not compete with the big budget teams, they had to learn a new way, and Peter Brand, played by Jonah Hill, showed Billy the statistics that became better predictors to success on the field.

Billy wanted his manager Art Howe, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman to use his players, not the ones Art favored, because Billy's analysis showed it would lead to more wins. When Art refused, Billy traded Art’s favored players forcing him to play Billy’s guys; amusing scene.

It would be fun to re-read the book now, to see how some of those players identified as diamonds in the rough actually fared. Let’s see, there was Kevin Youkilis, the greek god of the walk, Nick Swisher, and Jeremy Brown. Two out of three is pretty good.