Tuesday, October 19, 2010

So This Is Hockey, Eh?

Until I was about 16-years-old, I thought the only sport worth watching was baseball. I was inducted into the sacred club that is the MLB at the age of two and got so attached that I cried when my favorite player, Jose Canseco, was traded when I was four. Slowly, my eyes were opened to other sports; first it was Cal basketball, then when I went to the University of Colorado, I bled black and gold at football games. But there was one sport with which I could never quite develop a relationship: Hockey. 

Perhaps I was lazy when it came to hockey. We ran in different circles. I was a California girl who loved being outside in the sun and hockey only wanted to hide itself in a cold, dark arena. I was of the school of thought that athletes should have all their teeth; hockey had a different idea. I rolled my eyes at the thought of fights during a game; hockey wanted to beat the heck out of anyone who gave it a dirty look. I guess we just never really saw eye-to-eye. 

And then one day something happened. I caught a glimpse of postseason hockey and it was love at first sight. Call me fair-weather, but maybe a little excitement is what a fan needs to become hooked on a team. At any rate, I couldn’t get enough of the Sharks. I was glued to my TV and even wearing teal to work.

Suddenly, with horror, I realized how dense I was on the subject of hockey. I grew up watching baseball and playing soccer and basketball. The rules and strategy are engrained in me. They are completely second nature. But in hockey, everything is a little bit different. It’s similar to learning Spanish, or because we’re talking hockey, French. You recognize the root of the word, but it’s not quite the same. The basic plays are similar to sports I already know, just masked under different terms. For example, it’s not a breakaway, it’s a rush. It’s not a press, it’s a forecheck.

I’ve always prided myself on my sports knowledge so during the offseason, I studied and studied hard. I barely scratched the surface, but I’ve learned the lingo. I can now confidently say the words “blueliner” (a term for a defenseman), “neutral zone” (that area of the ice in between the two blue lines), “crease” (the area in front of the goal that can’t decide if it’s a circle or a square), “sweater” (what we outsiders would call a hockey jersey) and “major” (a five-minute penalty for the big offenses, the more typical “minor” is only two minutes). See how well I just did that? (On a related note, did you know that there are websites that can help dummies like me learn hockey definitions?) I learned who was on each line and what that meant, only to watch Todd McLellan completely mix them all up and make me start all over again. Thanks a lot Todd. I learned about the different penalties and man, are there a lot! (We’ll go over that next time).

Once I began to understand what made hockey tick, my relationship with it strengthened. The Bay Area isn’t really a so-called “hockey town,” but why can’t it be? Hockey’s a gritty sport made up of scrappy players. It’s fast paced and exciting. It’s about time we embrace the team that has been in our neighborhood for 20 years. I’ve decided to finally dedicate myself to becoming a full-fledged, card-carrying, sweater-wearing member of Team Teal. It’s going to take a lot more work, but I’m ready to take the plunge. Join me won’t you? And if you get confused by those foreign terms spoken with Canadian accents, here’s a good dictionary.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Putting the Class in the Fall Classic

Baseball has taken a few hits the last couple of years. Cheating scandals have run rampant and many have worried about how this will affect the impressionable youth of our country. Well boys and girls, you can start watching again because the 2010 Postseason has been filled with moments that would make any mom proud.
            Braves second baseman Brooks Conrad had a day that was so terrible, horrible, no good and very bad that even Alexander would be thankful that he wasn’t in his shoes. Still, there was his manager Bobby Cox standing up for his player in the postgame press conference and even more touching was the fans cheering for him the next day when he took the field to warm up for a game he would likely see little playing time in (Hey, Bobby Cox is a nice guy, but he’s no dummy and this isn’t intramurals).
            Fast forward through nine innings of torture for both Braves and Giants fans alike and you’ll see another class act. The Giants have just completed their 27th out and are headed to the NLCS for the first time in eight years. Naturally there’s a lot of jumping around, hugging, yelling, but there’s also something else. The Braves fans are making noise too. They’re not booing the celebration, they’re chanting “Bob-by, Bob-by, Bob-by.” As Bobby Cox, the Braves manager of the last 20 years, steps onto the field to greet his fans one last time before hanging up the metal cleats for retirement, the Giants players press the pause button on their moment of bliss to pay tribute to a guy who has been managing baseball longer than most of them have been alive. Both sides recognized that this moment was something bigger than just a win or loss, even a postseason series win or loss.  It was about respect for someone who has accomplished so much and given his life to the sport.
            It seems like baseball celebrates by pouring alcohol all over the locker room for just about everything. You clinch a postseason berth, bring out the tarps; you win a series in the playoffs, better put on your little goggles; you save 15% on car insurance, get out the raincoats, but baseball can’t pretend that all of its players are saints or 21 and over for that matter and maybe alcohol can’t always be at the center of the celebration. When the Texas Rangers clinched the AL West title, they celebrated with champagne, but Josh Hamilton, who has struggled with alcohol addiction, decided not to participate in order to keep himself away from any kind of temptation. When the team won their first ever playoff series, the possible MVP candidate was intent on sitting this one out too, but his teammates found him and surprised him by dousing him, and each other, in Ginger Ale instead of champagne, which they soon found out is just as sticky and stings just as much as the real thing.
            This postseason has seen examples of players and fans alike recognizing that the game is just that, a game and that occasionally there are moments or stories that are bigger than the final score. Maybe baseball players are working their way back up to role model status. Keep it going boys. 

A's Moments of the Year 2010

            While editing the A’s Plays of the Year piece that aired on the final episode of A’s Pregame Live, I came to one conclusion: The 2010 Oakland A’s are the greatest team ever assembled. Ok, maybe my sample was slightly skewed. I was only looking at their best moments of the year, but give them some credit. They accomplished a lot without any real star power and without a big bat. They finished at .500, in second place and didn’t let the Rangers off the hook easily at the end of the season. They battled through another season with comical numbers of injuries, using the disabled list 23 times, and emerged from the season with a pitching staff that will make a few ball clubs nervous next year.
            No, they’re not gearing up for a postseason-run like the team across the bay, but that doesn’t mean fans shouldn’t look back on 2010 with fond memories.
            The brightest spot all year long for the A’s was no doubt the pitching. The staff had easily the best ERA in the American League (3.56 compared to second-place Tampa Bay’s 3.78) and was tied with Atlanta for third-best in all of baseball. They did this with two starters who are barely old enough to drink a beer after a nice outing. Assuming the first four in the rotation next year are Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, Brett Anderson and Dallas Braden and without knowing exactly who will be number 5, the average age of the starting rotation is 24. That’s what you call a bright future.
            We got to catch a glimpse of another bright future in Chris Carter this season. Yes, he started his career going 0-33, but with that first base hit against Chicago, a very visible weight was lifted off his shoulders and with a big sigh, we saw him flash a huge smile to hitting coach Jim Skaalen to was a not-so-cryptic “I’m ready.” After that, Carter got at least one hit in 10 of his final 13 games and hit 3 home runs. The swing was there, the confidence was there and hope for the future was there.
            Speaking of the future, there’s the double play combo of Mark Ellis and Cliff Pennington. One’s future is slightly uncertain, the other looks to be a mainstay for the next few years. Ellis has a $6 million option for next season, but proved and vocalized his desire to stay in Oakland, especially down the stretch. In the month of September he hit .413 and went 4 for 12 with a homer and 4 RBI in the three October games that the team played. This is a player who has proved his loyalty to the Oakland fans and  Beane has the opportunity to keep him around and put a stopper in the revolving door that has become the Oakland A’s roster, proving to the Bay Area that the team will still be recognizable from one year to the next.
            Shortstop Cliff Pennington will be around next season, barring an unforeseen trade, which means we’ll have a chance to see what he can do with a little more seasoning. He was unpredictable this year on defense, committing 25 errors, but frequently showed moments of brilliance diving for a ball and flicking it to second baseman Ellis to start a 6-4-3 double play or bare handing a weak grounder and hurling it to the ever-so flexible Daric Barton. If the Ellis-Pennington combination returns for an encore next season, expect even more moments like these and fewer errors.
            And of course, finally, Dallas Braden. The man who made Stockton’s 209 area code more recognizable in the Bay Area than 510. The Perfect Game has become an important moment in history for A’s fans; the kind of moment people will ask, “Do you remember where you were when it happened?” Of course a perfect game is a historic event no matter the circumstance, but this one seemed to have a little extra pizzazz. Perhaps it was because just a couple weeks earlier, Alex Rodriguez had waved his hand at Braden and dismissively allowed him his 15-minutes of fame for the feud that began between the two when A-Rod ran over the mound at the Coliseum and we all learned that this is, apparently, not ok. Perhaps it was because this outspoken kid from Stockton who had never had a huge spotlight on him as a member of the A’s rotation and who had lost his mother as a child suddenly had all eyes on him and was tugging on the heartstrings of millions as he sought out his grandmother in the crowd after retiring 27 straight batters on Mother’s Day. Whatever the reason, the 2010 season will be defined as the year a gritty kid from the 209, backed up by 24 more scrappy guys, defied the odds in more ways than one.
            While the Giants and their fans are in the midst of an exciting run, A’s fans can’t do much but offer their congratulations and at least be thankful that they won’t lose much sleep over the next few weeks worrying about playoff outcomes (there’s a silver lining in everything, right?). Oakland does, however figure to become much better in the offseason. The team will have money freed up from saying goodbye to Ben Sheets and Eric Chavez and hopefully Beane can convince a big bat that, hey the Coliseum really isn’t such a bad place to play. Just think A’s fans, with the flashes of brilliance shown in the 2010 season combined with some extra power, maybe next year the East Bay boys will be in the midst of all this playoff excitement. 

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Baseball: A's Style

Has anyone seen a flux capacitor lying around? Doc Brown? Anything from "Back to the Future" that might help me time travel? I'd really like to go back to 2002. Not because I miss having braces, or Avril Lavigne on the radio or thought bare mid-drifts were a particularly flattering look, but because I miss the Moneyball glory days. I miss the team that was worth making a movie about; the team that wanted to win so badly they rifled off 20 victories in a row and finished the year with their second straight 100+ win season. There was something to be said about watching a gang of ragtag misfits with a chip on their shoulders take the field every night. Don't get me wrong, I'll always support the green and gold, but right now the team is, as Simon Cowell might say, the equivalent of baseball wallpaper.

The boys are missing fire and it just seems like losing no longer stings as badly. I'm sure that's not the way it feels to the players at all, but from a fan's perspective, it feels like there's little urgency to win, at least this year, within the organization. Geren has the same expression, inflection, demeanor after a win as he does a loss. It's simply, "Ho hum, lost another game in the standings but what can you do?" I understand that it's a long season and you'd go insane (see Ozzie Guillen) if you lived and died with each and every inning, but come on, where's the emotion?

The teams of the early 2000's had it in spades. Miguel Tejada standing on the top step of the dugout swinging his arm like a windmill to wave a runner home. All 245 pounds of Jermaine Dye bringing T Long to the ground after he made a miraculous catch in Boston. Eric Chavez standing up in front of the team and telling them to get their act together. Everything that Jason Giambi did.

Yes, it occasionally got them in trouble (unchecked emotion was the perp in the 2003 ALDS) but it also got them wins. And it got them fans.

I think that if I left town for a few weeks and was completely cut off from any form of communication, came back and Gabe Gross was no longer on the team, it would take me awhile to notice. That's nothing against Gross, he's a very nice guy, but that's the point. It's a team full of "very nice guys" and that's about it. There's no star power and there's little personality on a team whose franchise possesses one of the most personable and wacky histories in baseball. Even the victory song went from the edgy "Rock and Roll All Nite" by Kiss back to "Celebrate" by Kool and the Gang.

I miss the days when fans knew generally what the lineup was going to look like every day. Maybe Mark Ellis would be moved out of the two-hole because he had been struggling for a few days, but for the most part, you knew who would be batting 3-4-5. You knew if that part of the lineup came up in a crucial situation, the other team would be a little nervous.

The pitching staff is still one of the best in baseball, and they haven't had shake-in-your-boots scary offenses since the early-nineties (which I don't really miss because I was four) but they've lost personality, they've lost interest, they've lost drama.

We saw a little bit of it at the beginning of the year, something to do with Dallas Braden, some guy from New York and a mound, but we haven't seen much of that same fire and passion towards winning.

Can we just go back to a time when, win or lose, it was going to be exciting? Can we please go back to Baseball: A's Style?