Archive for July, 2008

Manny Still Rakes

July 28, 2008

by John Furgele

It has become an annual tradition, much like Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter.  You know it’s coming and even though you don’t plan on it coming, it still comes—the Manny Ramirez  Saga.  And, it usually comes when the Yankees are either in town or breathing down the necks of their long time rival Boston Red Sox. 

A few years ago versus the Yankees, Ramirez took himself out of the lineup, but was later seen having drinks with former Yankee infielder Enrique Wilson.  This year, he complained of a sore knee and took himself out of the series finale in Seattle and the 1-0 Friday night loss to Joba Chamberlain and the Yanks.  Should Red Sox management and Nation be surprised?

Ramirez says his knee is sore, that he suffers from tendonitis, but MRIs taken on both knees showed no structural damage.  That certainly doesn’t mean he is not in pain.  Tendonitis often does not show up on medical exams and it is never good to question a players contention that he is injured.  Some players have a higher pain tolerance than others.  If Manny Ramirez says his knees are sore, then you should give him the benefit of the doubt.

Of course, this is Manny Ramirez we’re talking about.  A player with a history of mood swings and “questionable” injuries.  In 2006, he missed most of the last month of a what turned out to be a disappointing 86-76 season.  There were hints that Manny could have played, but with the Red Sox out of contention,  he chose to milk the injury and sit out. 

After the MRI, Red Sox management went on the offense with Manny, telling him “play Saturday, or face the consequences” (suspension without pay).  Manny played, went 0-4 and drove in a run in a 10-3 loss to the surging Yankees.  Last night  he played again, going 3 for 5 with two runs scored, and two RBI.  For the season, he has played in 97 of Boston’s 106 games, and is hitting .302 with 19 home runs and 65 RBI. 

Before last night’s game, Manny told ESPN Deportes that he would waive his no-trade clause if the Red Sox could find a suitor.  He said that he is sick of the Red Sox and the Red Sox are sick of him and perhaps, that it is time to move on.  Of course, the Red Sox said nothing and even though they would like to trade Manny Ramirez, it is not going to happen.

Why?  Because Boston cannot win it all without him, and nobody knows this better than Manny Ramirez.  Ramirez may come off as being aloof, but he knows exactly what’s going on.  He may be dumb, but he’s not stupid.  Mike Lowell and Kevin Youkilis are nice players, but without Manny, there stats would compromised—greatly.  David Ortiz is a very good player, but without Manny, his numbers would be compromised, maybe not as much as Youkilis and Lowell, but compromised enough. 

The Tampa Bay Rays are the other reason why Manny will stay in Boston.  In the past, the American League East was pretty simple:  watch the Yanks and Sox battle it out, with the runner-up getting into the playoffs as the Wild Card.  But this year, the Rays continue to lead the AL East, and as long as it’s a three team race, where is Manny going?  In the past, both the Yanks and Red Sox knew that it would be a two dog fight, but Tampa Bay is now the third dog.  They may or may not disrupt the usual order, but as July becomes August, they are there, and they can pitch, which suggests that they will be there right to the end. 

What happens after this year is the mystery.  The Red Sox have a $20 million option for 2009 and another $20 million option for 2010.  Manny turned 36 on May 20, so he’ll play most of 2009 as a 37 year old and most of 2010 as a 38 year old.  One would expect a little bit of decline in batting average, home runs and RBI, but 38 is certainly not old.  Dave Winfield batted .290 with 26 home runs and 108 RBI for the 1992 World Champion Toronto Blue Jays as a 40 year old, and as good as Winflield was, he isn’t near the offensive player that Manny Ramirez is.  And, at $20 million, he is far from overpriced. 

If the Red Sox and Ramirez part ways, his agent’s phone will be a burning rope with just about every team looking to sign him.  He’s that good of a player.  For his career, Ramirez has 509 home runs, 1,699 RBI, but the most revealing stat—his .312 career batting average.  People don’t realize just how good a hitter this man is.  In today’s game, the 400 and 500 home run club is fuller than ever, with some saying that 400—sans Dave Kingman, Darrell Evans and Jose Canseco—is not even automatic for Cooperstown enshrinement, no longer a “magic” number.

Look at Ramirez’s contemporaries and you’ll see just what a great hitter he is.  Barry Bonds, love him or hate him, batted .298 for his career; Hank Aaron, .305; Alex Rodriguez, .307; Ken Griffey, Jr., .288; Jim Thome, .280; Carlos Delgado, .279.  Ramirez’s .312 beats them all, in fact the only player with a better batting average that is still active (sluggers only) is Vladimir Guerrero, who is a .322 hitter.  Chipper Jones (.310) and the recently retired Mike Piazza  at .308  are close, but still lower than Ramirez. 

Ramirez can flat out rake and overall, is the best pure hitter in the game today.  The Red Sox Nation and management may be sick of him and made rid themselves of him at season’s end, that’s for sure.  It may be time, but the Red Sox will someday realize that they were in the midst of greatness when Manny was in the lineup.  Furthermore, after not winning a world title in 86 years, Ramirez helped Boston win two titles in four seasons, and yes, he was the 2004 World Series MVP to boot.  Hopefully, the Red Sox faithful will remember the long years of suffering, the heartbreak of 1967, 1975 and the tragic heartbreak of 1986.  Have then been so spoiled by their recent successes that they have forgotten how sad they once were? 

Manny has been in Boston for eight years.  He should remain for two more.  He’s just too good to let go.

Random Thoughts

July 18, 2008

by John Furgele

-Baseball’s All-Star Game was quite compelling, but I still don’t think it should determine home field advantage for the World Series.  Is it fair that the Natonal League, and more importantly, the fans of the National League clubs only get three possible home games in the Fall Classic?  More importantly, are the silly rules of baseball.  What about the different rules for the different leagues.  Once again, the DH will be used for four of the seven World Series games.  Is that fair?

-Enough of the “play to win,” ASG theory.  I would rather see all the players play then see the Jeters, Rodriguezes, et al, play the entire game.  It’s an ALL STAR game, and in an all-star game, all the stars should play.  Joe Morgan said the ASG is treated too much like an exhibition game.  That’s because is is an exhibition game.

-No player has seen his skills diminish more than former Seattle Mariner Richie Sexson.  Last year, he batted .205, and this year, he was batting .218 with 11 homers and 30 RBI before being released.  Now, it looks like the Yankees are going to give him a try.  The move reminds me a bit like 2000, when the Yankees acquired Jose Canseco.  Canseco did nothing for the Yanks and I wouldn’t expect anything from Sexson either.

-The second half should be an interesting one.  Are the Tampa Bay Rays going to hang in there and break up the Yankee-Red Sox “natural order” in the AL East?  Are the suddenly right Mets going to keep up the momentum and pull away in the NL East?  Are the Twins and White Sox for real in the AL Central, and in the NL Central, which one of the three (Brewers, Cubs, Cardinals) will fall out of the race for both the NL Central title and the NL Wild Card?

-Another day, another positive drug test at the Tour de France.  If tour organizers had any big ones, they would pull the plug on the 2008 race right now.  Send the Renaults up the mountains, pack away the bikes and be done with the tour for this year.  No prize money, no awards, no prestige.  The only way you can be serious about drug cheats is to take away the cyclists right to make a living.  Yes, this will punish the clean riders—if there are any—but the message will be clear.

-In the 1978 NBA Finals, the Washington Bullets beat the Seattle Sonics 105-99 in Seattle to secure the NBA Championship, and the Bullets remain the last road team win Game 7 of the NBA Finals.  Thirty years later, the Bullets are now the Wizards and the Sonics have pulled up and moved to Oklahoma City.  Sadly, this move went relatively unnoticed.  The media allowed a great run of 41 years in the Emeral City to end without much protest, and David Stern was not called on the carpet at all. 

Let’s see, under Stern, the Charlotte Hornets were allowed to move to New Orleans, and if not for Katrina and the subsequent guilt, Stern would have moved the Hornets from New Orleans to Oklahoma City; the Vancouver Grizzlies went to Memphis and now the end of the Sonics.  Under Stern, if the city does not fork over the monies for a new arena, then Stern allows the threat of relocation to be held over the head of a city like Seattle.  But, when Stern needs money, he will bring Seatltle back and force the “new” Sonics owners to fork over hundreds of millions in exapansion fees. 

What a great and shrewd businessman.

Nadal-Federer Epic Sets A Delicious Future

July 7, 2008

by John Furgele

In my last column, I mentioned that today’s Wimbledon final was going to be the most important match since McEnroe beat Borg in 1981.  Roger Federer played the role of Borg.  A win, he would have been the 1980 Borg, a loss, the 1981 Borg.  Well, Federer lost, so in the end he was the 1981 Borg, but unlike the 1981 Borg, who never played at Wimbledon again, it is fairly safe to assume that Federer will be back for some more Wimbledons. 

Today’s match was simply brilliant, one for the ages, an epic and every other superlative one can think of.  Though the first two sets were relatively close they went Nadal’s way, and it appeared that the 22 year old Spainard was going to find a way to wrest the title from King Roger in straight sets. 

But, the King would not fold, would not go easily.  After looking a bit passive in the first two sets, he began to play more with more agression, and though he could only manage one break of Nadal’s serve all day, he won the third set tiebreak, then won an epic 10-8 fourth set tiebreak.  Down 7-8, Nadal hit a great approach shot, only to see Federer flick a backhand winner to stay alive.  Two points later, the set was Federer’s and the set that all in attendance at Centre Court wanted to see—set five—was upon us. 

In that set, the man who won the first two sets would prevail winning 9 games to 7.  Perhaps if they played a fifth set tiebreak Federer may have won, but at the Big W, they play until somebody wins the fifth set by two games.  When Borg beat McEnroe in 1980, the fifth set score was 8-6.

It was a match, that despite the two battling for almost five hours and two rain delays, that actually saw the level of play improve as it wore on.  Incredible as that was, it appeared that darkness was going to push the match back to Monday.  Fortunately, that didn’t happen as it would have deprived us a conclusion to one of the better Sports Sundays in history. 

The match was eerily similar to Borg-McEnroe, 1980.  In that match, McEnroe took the fourth set tiebreak, 18-16, and Mac admitted on NBC television this morning that he figured that the match would be his, that Borg, after winning four straight Wimbledon titles, would not feel the urge to dig down deep to win another. 

“He (Borg) taught me a lesson about heart that day,” said McEnroe. 

Nadal had to be down after leaving several championship points on the table, yet, he did a fine Borg imitation, holding his serve before breaking through in the 15th game of the final set.  On match point, Federer dumped a relatively easy forehand approach shot into the net, giving Nadal the historic win.  But, after five years and five hours of dominant tennis in the London suburb, he is allowed to finally be less than perfect. 

Nadal and Federer have met in six Grand Slam finals, the most between two players in tennis history, and after watching these two at the Wimbledon fortnight, there is one thing that remains clear.  These two men are far and away the best two grass court players in the world, and it’s not even close.  To see them on Centre Court on the first Sunday in July, 2009 would be a surprise to no one.

Where the rivalry goes from here remains unclear.  Has the mantle been passed from Roger to Rafa, or does Roger have a Boris Becker in him?  In 1988, Becker, after winning Wimbledon titles in 1985 and 1986 lost the final to Stefan Edberg.  The next year, Becker and Edberg met again in the final with Becker winning the last of his three championships.  Can Roger get the title back from the young Nadal?  Usually, once the King is dethroned, they never get back.  We have seen this so many times, too many times to count.  Borg.  McEnroe.  Connors.  Even Sampras left Wimbledon in the 2001 fourth round—to Federer nonetheless. 

Federer will have to do some serious thinking over the next year.  He still has to be the favorite for the U.S. Open title for two reasons.  One, he really hasn’t slipped that much in his play, unless you call reaching the Aussie Open semis, the French Open final and the Wimbledon final, slipping, then yes, he has slipped.  Two, Nadal seems to really struggle there.  In the past after Wimbledon Nadal goes back to clay and by the time he gets to New York in late August, he is worn down and usually battling some type of injury.  Here’s hoping that he plans his schedule accordingly and comes to New York healthy and poised at the opportunity to capture his third Grand Slam of the calendar year.

Federer will want to make his own history by coming back to Wimbledon and reclaiming his crown after losing there for the first time in the final.  Becker did it, but if Federer could do it after winning five, losing one, then winning another, that would be an historic feat of its own. 

He has one major question/challenge to answer, and it can be broken into three parts.  He has to figure out what he wants more:  1)  Sampras’ record of 14 Grand Slam titles—he has 12.  2)  A French Open title on the red clay that just may solidify him as the greatest tennis player of all time, even if he doesn’t break the mark of  Sampras, who never won in Paris.  3)  To reclaim the Wimbledon title. 

Right now, there is a good bet that Federer can win another Aussie, another Wimbledon and another U.S. Open, so there is a reasonable chance that he can at least tie Sampras mark of 14.  But, after being routed by Nadal at the French Open final, most think Federer’s window of opportunity for winning at Roland Garros is closed.  If Federer skipped the French Open in 2009, it would be a surprise, but not a shock.  Same if he entered and went out early (before the quarterfinals).  He may want to gear up and save himself for reclaiming Wimbledon. 

I’m not sure which would be more impressive.  Winning a career Grand Slam is special and it hasn’t been done too often, but Andre Agassi did it and as good as “AA” was, nobody has ever called him the greatest tennis player of all time.  Pete Sampras won seven Wimbledons and 14 slams, but never won the French Open.  He did, however have a reclaim.  After winning three straight Wimbledon championships, he bowed out to the eventual champion Richard Kraijeck in 1996, but then roared back to win the next four.  But, back then, there was no Nadal lurking, ready to pounce and take over the number one ranking.  What Federer does down the road is just as intruiging as what Nadal does. 

What we saw Sunday was a match for history, but what we might see in the future might be even better.

Wimbledon Final Will Set Bar For The Future

July 6, 2008

by John Furgele

There is no mistaking that tomorrow’s Wimbledon final between top ranked Roger Federer and number two Rafael Nadal is easily the most important tennis match since John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg met in the 1981 final.  This match will dictate where men’s tennis is headed for the rest of this year and beyond.

Federer has won five straight Wimbledons, just like Borg did from 1976-1980.  Nadal has broken Federer, beating him in two finals at the French Open and last year, at All-England pushed Federer to the brink, with Federer winning in five tough sets.  In 1980, Borg was on the brink.  Like Nadal, Johnny Mac had broken through, having won the 1979 and 1980 United States Opens, beating Borg in 1980.

Borg beat McEnroe in the epic 1980 final.  After losing two of three sets, Mac prevailed in the 18-16 fourth set tiebreak and appeared to be ready to wrest the crown away from Borg.  But, the Swede, knowing that this may be his last stand, took set number five, 8-6.  Borg walked away the champion, but deep down he knew that the young lion, McEnroe was ready to take the throne. 

The next year, they met again, and even though Borg was the five time defending champion, my gut tells me it was McEnroe who went to bed the night before knowing that it was time, his time to rise and replace Borg as Wimbledon champion.  Borg likely slept that night knowing that this was his final shot to keep a title that he eventually knew McEnroe would take.  In the end, Johnny Mac, the bratty kid from Queens won Borg’s title in four sets and Borg would be done.  Later that summer,  he would make the U.S. Open final (and lose to McEnroe) and that would be that.  By the end of 1982, the icy Swede was gone from the game.

Roger Federer has reached the brink.  There is a time when you know a player can’t lose.  In 1978, nobody was going to beat Bjorn Borg.  In 2005, nobody was going to beat Roger Federer.  It is called the peak of the athlete.  Jimmy Connors had it in 1974.  Pete Sampras had it for years and was 14-4 in Grand Slam finals.  John McEnroe had it.  Borg had it, and Federer has and still has it.  Last year, Nadal pushed Federer, just like Mac pushed Borg in 1980.  You knew it was going to be a tough match, but deep down, you weren’t going to go against the defending champion.

Sunday is the day.  Will the Wimbledon final be the 1980 version, where the proud multi-time defending champion holds off the rising young lion, or will this be 1981 final, the year the lion rises and takes over the top perch?  Regardless of the outcome, this is a monumental moment in tennis, and frankly should be covered as such.  Federer cannot dominate forever, but can he hold on and dominate for one more year?  Nadal is clearly the second best player on the grass surface and even if he loses, figures to eventually hold the Wimbledon trophy.  But, if Nadal wants to be remembered as a truly great player, he needs to take the crown from the King, just like McEnroe took it from Borg.

A major tournament.  A monumental moment.

A Great Run Ending in Oneonta

July 2, 2008

by John Furgele

Over the past 20 years, there has been a boom in minor league baseball.  New stadiums, better marketing, and in game entertainment has made minor league baseball a fun place to be over the summer in America.  Because of this explosion, independent leagues have popped up as well.  Because the demand for minor league baseball is so great and so many cities want a part of it, independent leagues like the Atlantic, Can-Am, Frontier, Northern, and American Association have formed.  As a result, we have affiliated minor league baseball (Class AAA, AA, A, Rookie) and the various independent leagues.

But, it wasn’t always this way.  Back in 1966, minor league baseball was very minor league.  Teams were located in very small towns and there wasn’t much emphasis on attendance and marketing the focus was to develop players for the next level of play.  There wasn’t much marketing done to entice fans to come to the ballpark; fans found the games because they were….fans. 

One of those small towns is Oneonta, located in southeastern New York State with a population of a bit more than 13,000.  Oneonta has played in the short season Class A New York-Penn League since 1966.  Back then, the NY-P League had teams in places like Little Falls, NY, Geneva, NY and Newark, NY.  Today, those small cities are gone, replaced by the likes of Albany, Brooklyn and Staten Island.

The reason Oneonta has remained is owner Sam Nader, an Oneonta businessman still going strong at age 89.  The Oneonta Tigers are a throwback to the simpler days of minor league baseball, in fact, when I called the Tigers office, the voice on the other end was Mr. Nader himself.  Unlike many of their NY-P brothers, the Tigers do not play in a state-of-the-art stadium.  They play at Damaschke Field, which first opened in 1940.  No luxury boxes, no fancy seats, just baseball.  The Tigers sell baseball, which unfortunately, in this day and age may be not be enough to attract big crowds.

The Tigers are averaging about 700 fans per game this season, and included in that was a game against the Tri City Valley Cats that drew 341.  Sometimes, selling baseball doesn’t bring the casual fan to the ballpark. Today’s game requires stunts, fireworks, giveaways, contests, relay races and much more.  In some parks, there are 5,000 fans there, but very few are watching the game with all the distractions going on.   Oneonta is a small city, so expecting the Tigers to draw 4,000 per night is probably not realistic, but Nader expects attendance to increase with the better weather.

“I expect by season’s end, we’ll be averaging around 1,500 per game,” Nader said.  “Attendance so far has not been very good, but we’ve had a lot of rain.” 

With demand for minor league baseball at such a high, there is no doubt that Nader has been asked to sell the Oneonta franchise in the past.  But, he has always declined, viewing the Tigers as a community asset to the “City of the Hills,” that is Oneonta, which by the way is about 20 miles from Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame.  The region may not be heavily populated, but obviously it is rich in baseball tradition. 

Nader announced this week that the time has finally come to sell the Oneonta Tigers.  The team will be purchased by Miles Prentice, a lawyer who also owns the AA Huntsville Stars of the Southern League and the AA Midland RockHounds of the Texas League.  Prentice tried to buy the Kansas City Royals and the Boston Red Sox, so we trust he has deep pockets and is looking to create his own minor league empire.

The pending purchase is leading to speculation that Oneonta will eventually lose its baseball team, but Nader is hopeful that this is not the case.  One condition of the sale is that the team has to remain in Oneonta through the 2010 season, so we know that Damaschke Field will have at least two more seasons of NY-P League baseball.  After that, who knows, but Nader thinks there is a chance for Oneonta after 2010.

“We are encouraging them (the new owners) to stay,” Nader said, “and they have been impressed by the area, but they will absolutely be here through 2010.” 

Nader, of course, can’t guarantee more than that, and with an old stadium in a small town, the chances of Oneonta staying are remote.  The once chance may be the link to Cooperstown.  Who wants to be the person that takes professional baseball away from where the game’s roots are?  But, these are different times.  Minor league baseball teams are in business to make money and they do that by opening new stadiums, selling luxury boxes and advertising.  Cities like Oneonta no longer provide those big dollar opportunities.  It happened in Little Falls, Geneva and even happened in Utica and Niagara Falls, cities with five times the population of Oneonta. 

Oneonta has hung on—for 43 seasons.  That’s a pretty good run and the man to thank for that run is Sam Nader who still answers the phones and whose voice can be heard on voice mail.  Though we don’t know what will happen after 2010, one thing we call can do, regardless of where your loyalties lie is root for Oneonta.

They deserve it, thanks to Sam Nader.