I (think I) Believe in Ryan Braun

Ryan Braun's sincerity made a believer out of me......I think.....

(Photo Courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

Each time a baseball player — be it a star or some lesser known role player — tests positive for performance enhancing drugs, you hear a familiar refrain from the “sports talk” world….”If I were suspected of using PEDs and I were innocent, I’d be proclaiming my innocence for all to hear.”  Some players have done just that, only to find their reputations further damaged when their stories fail to hold up (yeah, looking at you Roger Clemens and Rafael Palmeiro).  When news leaked that Ryan Braun had tested positive for elevated levels of testosterone, he emphatically denied that he was guilty, but unlike Rocket and Raffy, spared us the finger wagging theatrics (at the advice of his legal representation).

As it turns out, that was very good advice.  Braun has been mostly quiet while we’ve been waiting for the verdict from his appeal — though he has taken a few opportunities to remind us that he’s not guilty.  Earlier this week, his 50 game suspension was overturned — the first time that has happened — due to a delay in delivering his urine sample to a Fed Ex shipping facility after it had been collected on October 1.

Braun met the media yesterday (2/24) and, at least to my ears, sounded every bit the innocent man that he’s proclaimed himself to be.  But while he sounded like an innocent man, there are still lots of questions surrounding his positive test.  We don’t really know why his testosterone levels were elevated, but we do know that the testosterone detected was synthetic.  We do know that roughly 44 hours passed between his urine sample being collected and the sample being delivered to Fed Ex for shipping to the testing facility in Motreal…but we don’t know exactly why it took so long.  And we know that under Major League Baseball’s testing system, all of the details that we have come to know should never have become public knowlege…but we don’t know who is behind the leaked information.

Had things gone according to the rules, none of us would have ever known that Braun tested positive and that he had appealed the decision and won.  Regardless of what questions you might have at this point of the story, that’s a disservice to Braun, the Brewers and baseball fans in general.  The system was put in place for a reason, and while it mostly worked (Braun doesn’t have to sit 50 games, after all), there are those that will never believe he’s clean.  If he continues on his current career pace, that just might cost him a spot in the Hall of Fame.  That’s not fair.

I’m not a Brewers fan, and prior to last season, really didn’t care much for Braun (the change of heart, I’ll admit, is due to the fact that he kept me in the running in my fantasy baseball league last season).  But, I’ve appreciated what he has done in his career to this point, and I hate the fact that yet another baseball star is tainted with the “CHEATER” label.

I feel like there are more facts out there that will come to light in the coming weeks, and from what I’ve seen so far, I believe that Braun is the innocent man that he claims to be.  I don’t see the fact that he got off “on a technicality” as proof that he’s getting away with cheating — I simply think his representatives looked at the case and used the defense that gave them the best chance to overturn the ruling.  I’m nowhere near knowledgeable enough when it comes to the science of these tests and how the results might have been impacted by the delay in delivery.  I don’t know that I believe the sample was tampered with, either.  What I do know is that, to my eyes and ears, Braun doesn’t look the part of a drug cheat, and more importantly to me, he isn’t carrying himself like one.  He sounds very reasonable, and like a man that believes himself to be innocent.

Perhaps he’s just a good actor.  Lord knows, it won’t be the first time I’ve believed in an athlete only to be proven wrong.  I think it’s hard to fake sincerity on this level, though.  McGwire, Sosa, Bonds, Giambi, etc, always seemed to me like they knew they had done wrong.  In fact, I think Braun’s speech ranks right up there with Andy Pettitte’s — though there are some obvious differences there as Pettitte’s involved an admission that he had used HGH.  But where I find them similar is that I believe that Andy only had the one transgression, even though you’re tempted to question the convenience of that story (and, yes, it is true that I am a Yankees fan — especially of the teams of Pettitte, Jeter, Posada and Rivera — so I wanted to believe his story).  And I want to believe in Braun.  As with Pettitte, there’s some bias there because my chances of winning a game are better if Braun is playing a full season.  I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have questions.  I’d be foolish if I told you I expected answers to all of them.  So, for now, I’ll just stick with my gut and believe in the player — and hope that, as has often been the case, I won’t end up wishing that I hadn’t.

One last look back at 2011

Before closing the books on 2011, seemed like a good time to look back on some of the bigger things that happened.  Being a blog on MLBlogs.com, that will obviously be the focus, but I’ll waste a little bit of space to talk about some favorites in music, TV, movies, etc.

And what a year it was to be a Cardinals fan.  Not an awful one to be a Yankees fan, either.  The Cardinals brought home their 11th world series title with an unlikely run that didn’t see the Wild Card locked up until the final day of the baseball season.  The Cards backs were literally against the wall throughout most of August and all of September and October, culminating in a World Series game 6 that was arguably the most exciting game in World Series history — unless of course you were rooting for the Texas Rangers.  That game 7 was a bit of a letdown is a huge testament to what a great game #6 was.  The Cardinals came back twice to win the game finally forcing a decisive game 7 after hometown hero David Freese’s walk off home run in extra innings.

The post season, as a whole, was a fitting encore to a final day of the regular season that was equally exciting.  The Wild Card berths were in doubt until late into the evening.  The Cardinals easily beat the Astros to guarantee a shot at a one game playoffs.  Then the Braves choked away a lead against the Phillies (an especially bitter pill for Braves fans, as the Phillies had little to play for except keeping their division rivals out of the playoffs).  With the benefit of hindsight, the Phillies might have found more luck if they’d let the Braves win that game, as their vaunted pitching staff came up a bit short against the Cardinals’ team of destiny.  Seemingly within minutes of the Phillies putting an exclamation point on the Braves collapse, the Yankees saw the Rays pull off an improbably come back to win their game while the Orioles stunned the Red Sox to send them home without October baseball. The Braves collapse was probably the more drastic of the two, but the Red Sox being such a high profile club meant a shakeup of epic proportions for the New England team.  Terry Francona was fired amid claims that he’d lost control of the club house (which included the bombshells that pitchers John Lackey and Josh Beckett were drinking beer and eating fried chicken in the clubhouse during games), and a couple weeks later, Theo Epstein said good bye to become the savior of the Chicago Cubs.

While the Yankees did endure another less-than-successful October, it was a good year in the Bronx.  The Yankees captured another AL East crown, and better still saw the rival Red Sox revert back to their pre-2004 persona with an epic collapse that left many Red Sox fans sniping at the hated Yankees.  I’d be lying if I suggested that this didn’t give me at least a little bit of joy — and is a big reason that another poor showing in October didn’t cause the usual hand wringing that a typically accompanies a divisional series exit from the playoffs.  It also helped that the Yankees provided their fair share of magic over the summer.  Derek Jeter became the newest member of the 3,000 hit club, and became the first lifetime Yankee to reach the milestone.  After enduring a rough start to the season, Jeter returned from the DL and capped his magical run to 3k hits by collecting #3,000 on a surprising home run.  The day itself turned out to be a classic Jeter game as he provided most of the Yankees’ offense in a win over the Rays.  The season also saw Yankees’ closer Mariano Rivera become the all-time saves leader — a mark that is not likely to be eclipsed any time soon.  The “core four”, as they had become known during their 2009 championship year, shrank to three as Andy Pettitte retired prior to the 2011 season.  The year played out with the knowledge that it would likely be Jorge Posada’s last in Yankee pinstripes, and while he has yet to officially retire as I am writing this, I’m really hoping that he does decide to call it a day.  It appears that Jeter and Rivera still have at least one more year together for fans to look forward to in 2012.  The Yankees (and Red Sox) closed out 2011 with what has been a surprisingly quiet off season that has seen the big name free agents (aside from Prince Fielder and Yeonis Cepedes — who have yet to be signed) sign with other teams.

The big free agent domino, of course, was Albert Pujols signing with the Angels — a tough pill for Cardinals fans, who ultimately realized that the team likely did the right thing as their last offer would have committed a huge sum to an already 32 year old slugger.  Pujols will be missed, and probably cursed by many Cardinals fans.  While I’m sad to see him go, I do realize it was probably the right move on the Cardinals’ part.  The Cardinals did offset the loss of Pujols by resigning Rafael Furcal and bringing in outfielder Carlos Beltran.  It won’t replace what’s lost in saying good bye to Pujols, but with the Brewers losing Prince Fielder to free agency and Ryan Braun slated to miss the first 50 games of the season due to a positive PED test, the Cardinals shouldn’t have much competition in the NL Central — though the Reds are a talented team and should be a force in 2012.  Regardless of what happens, 2011 will be a tough year for baseball to top.

And with that, I’ll put an end to the baseball talk for now.  Which means I’ll waste some space talking about a few of my other favorite things from 2011…

Favorite Television:  Hands down, the best new show that I watched in 2011 was Showtime’s Homeland.  I came to the show fairly late — just as the first season finale was about to air.  I had read a lot of good reviews of the show and decided to check out a few episodes that were available on-demand.  4 days later, I had watched the entire first season including the season finale.  Claire Danes gave an emmy worthy performance as a CIA analyst while one of my favorite actors, Damian Lewis, was equally good as a rescued POW turned suspected terrorist.  I won’t say too much more for those of you that haven’t yet seen this show, but I can’t recommend it highly enough.

The best returning show, for me, was Parks and Recreation.  This show started out as a clone of the Office (which, by the way, should have been cancelled with Steve Carrell’s exit — I thought it might be able to reinvent itself, but decided to got he easy route and is trying to capitalize on Ed Helms’ post “Hangover” popularity.  And is failing miserably), but is now perhaps the most satisfying comedy on television.  It is a show the requires a little bit of patience — you have to get a feel for the characters before you really become hooked.  But once you invest a little time, you’ll realize that the show features some of the best written stories and characters that we’ve seen.

Favorite Movies:  Having a young daughter at home has severely limited my movie watching to films available on DVD, so I haven’t seen many of the year’s most highly regarded flicks.  Those that I did manage to see were more of the blockbuster variety — Bridesmaids, XMen: First Class, and the final Harry Potter.  I found Harry Potter to be a bit of a letdown, though I think on the whole, they did as good of a job bringing the books to life as was possible.  I was also disappointed in Bridesmaids…but I suspect that has as much to do with the fact that I did not see that film until New Year’s Eve, and had heard so many raves about the film that it couldn’t possibly live up to the expectations that I had.  I did not have such high expectations for XMen, which is probably why I enjoyed it so much.  I liked the first two movies, but found the third movie to be close to awful and the Wolverine solo movie not much better.  But First Class was a great mix of retro style, thrilling super hero action and a surprisingly deep story.  If you’re not completely sick of the super hero blockbuster by this point, then I think you’ll find it a worthwhile way to spend a couple of hours.

Favorite Books:  As with movies, I don’t read quite as much as I’d like to.  I did enjoy Ian O’Connor’s biography about Derek Jeter — and think most baseball fans would feel the same unless they absolutely hate Jeter (which I know many do).  I found the “ESPN book”, Those Guys Have All the Fun, to be interesting, but ultimately far too long and conciliatory to ESPN (and I find that I like ESPN less and less these days).  I found Erik Larson’s tale of pre-WWII Nazi Germany, In the Garden of Beasts, to be a great read — and still find it amazing that the powers that be in the 1930′s were able to turn a blind eye to the horrors of Hitler’s reign.  I have not yet finished the book, so I can’t count it as a favorite of the year, but at just under half way through Stephen King’s latest, 11/22/63, I have to say that it’s the best King novel I’ve read in a long, long time.

And, finally, my top 10 album for 2011… I found 2011 to be a great year for music — or more specifically, for music that I happen to like.  A few “ground rules” for my list — these are the albums that I liked the most on the year, which means that I own the albums.  So if your favorite isn’t represented, I’m not slamming it — it’s either not my cup of tea or I just never got around to hearing it.  I had a tough time with this list…as I knew that my favorite album of the year was released very early on in the year.  The fact that the same band, R.E.M., happened to call it a career in the same year attached a certain sentimentality that would be tough for any other album to overcome.  But, two late entries actually end up captivating me a bit more — perhaps because they were a bit fresher in the memory banks.  I also left off best-of sets from R.E.M. and Pearl Jam (well, PJ20 was sort of a best of for die hard fans).  So here goes….

10.  “The King is Dead” – The Decemberists:  Did I mention that I’m an R.E.M. fan?  Probably had a lot to do with me liking this one.  The Decemberists stopped making concepts albums and featured Peter Buck as a guest performer in an homage to R.E.M.’s younger days.  The only knock is that the homage feels a little bit too much like a retread at times.

9.  “Whatever’s On Your Mind” – Gomez:  Again, I’ll stress this is my list of favorite albums of the year — not necessarily those that make the biggest contribution to music.  And I’m not saying that as a slam on Gomez or any other band on this list.  What Gomez might lack in treading new ground however, I feel is made up for by the fact that they’ve started to revisit many of the things that made their earlier work so interesting, while still embracing the more “Adult Alternative” sound that typified their previous two albums.

8.  “Wasting Light” – Foo Fighters:  Best Foos album since their first.  Another band where you might slam them for not treading new ground, but I think you have to give them credit for doing what they do as well as it can be done.  Another one that sounds great blasting on the car stereo.

7.  “The Whole Love” – Wilco:  I do like Wilco, but more often than not, their albums tend to be those that I feel like I should like as opposed to ones that I actually really end up liking.  This one is a bit more experimental than their last few, but I am not sure they’ve produced a song that I’ve liked more than “I Might” since the “Being There” album.

6.  “Helplessness Blues” – Fleet Foxes:  The opening song grabbed me right away, and before long, the whole thing settled in as one of the better albums I’ve heard in a long time.  It feels retro and current all at the same time.  Not an easy trick.

5.  “Codes and Keys” – Death Cab For Cutie:  I think this was a very underrated album.  It’s happier than previous DCFC albums (but not so much so that it’s annoying).  Ironically, one of the better songs – “Stay Young, Go Dancing” – is also the most out of place.  Feels more tacked on than “Her Majesty” at the end of Abbey Road.

4.  “Bon Iver” – Bon Iver:  Downloaded this one strictly based on word of mouth, and am very glad that I did.  The first song grabbed me, and I was hooked.  And yes, the last song sounds like something from the Karate Kid 2 soundtrack.

3.  “Collapse Into Now” – R.E.M.:  Prior to December 6, this would have been my choice for favorite of the year — unfairly so.  This is the best post-Bill Berry album R.E.M.released, and it plays like a greatest hits album.  Each song harkens back to earlier times, but doesn’t sound like a rehash.  It Happened Today is perhaps my favorite R.E.M. song to be released in 10 years.  Knowing what we know now, it is also a fitting swan song.  The lyrics in many songs — notably All the Best and Blue — sound like a band saying “so long…”.  And doing it with style.

2.  “El Camino” – The Black Keys:  While I liked “Brothers”, I wasn’t blown away by it.  There are great songs, but I have found that I can rarely sit and listen to it start to finish.  Hardly the case here — as each song builds on the last.  This is going to sound incredible blasting out of the car windows when summer rolls around.  There are no lame ballads, no missteps.  Every song is great, and the album is a perfect length, clocking in just under 40 minutes.

1. “Undun” – The Roots:  I didn’t intend to buy this one, and just downloaded it on a whim after reading one of the many glowing reviews of the album and an article where Questlove mentioned it was inspired by a Sufjan Stevens song (really….a hip hop band that is inspired by a weird folkie from Petosky, MI…how cool is that?).  It tells the story of Redford Stevens…in reverse.  I have no idea why — I’m not a huge hip-hop fan, and there’s little I can identify with personally in the subject matter — but there’s just something about the music that grabs you, pulls you in and begs you to listen for more.  And, like “El Camino”, it clocks in at an economical 38 minutes.

A few honorable mentions that spent a good bit of time playing on my iPod, but fell outside my top 10:  “Zonoscope” – Cut Copy, “21″ – Adele (I simply lover her voice), “Kiss Each Other Clean” – Iron & Wine (a step back from “Shepherd’s Dog”, but still really, really good), “Angles” – The Strokes (saw them open for Pearl Jam, and liked them almost as much), “Ukulele Songs” – Eddie Vedder (bought this during my PJ kick this year but surprised at how good it was — and the version of Can’t Keep buries the “Riot Act” version by a mile), “Dye It Blonde” – Smith Westerns (how do 19 year old kids do such a dead-on George Harrison impersonation?), “Stone Rollin’”  - Raphael Saadiq (retro without sounding cliche), “2011″ – The Smithereens (proving they are still a dependable, if somewhat predictable, band).

 

Thanks for reading….bring on 2012.

Less Brains, eh Braun? (and a bit more on Albert)

Big news in baseball — Ryan Braun may be baseball’s latest PED cheater.  I’m not a Brewers fan by any stretch of the imagination, and honestly, some of their little celebrations over the years have really annoyed me.  At one point, I thought Braun was most likely to have a ball thrown at his ear because he seemed to spend a little too much time admiring his own handiwork. 

But, as often happens to me in this era of fantasy sports, picking up Braun on my NL only fantasy keeper team has softened my opinion of him.  Especially coming off an MVP season where he almost single handedly kept my team in the running for the league title.  With the defection of Pujols to the AL, Ryan Howard’s achilles injury and the chance that Prince Fielder would also wind up on the AL, I was feeling pretty good about my decision to hang onto Braun, even though I had him at an inflated price ($50 for you roto-heads, thanks to the owner that originally drafted him).  

Now, I may well find myself without his services until May.  Tough pill to swallow, for sure.  But, one thing you always hear pundits say is that if they stood accused of using PEDs, they’d scream from the mountain that they were innocent.  Braun’s done that, and issued a statement professing his innocence.  Love him or hate him, I hope he does prove his innocence.  Baseball has too many stains on its reputation already, and I don’t want another star tainted this way.  Braun is an exciting player to watch, and it would be a shame if we had to discount what he’s done to date.  So, even though my thoughts are somewhat driven by my unhealthy addiction to fantasy baseball, hope this one is ultimately proven false.

Speaking of PED and players suspected of using them, Pujols is a guy that had drawn his fair share of speculation on the topic.  I myself have some doubts, mainly because he’s had a few injuries, such as last year’s arm fracture, that he came back from pretty quickly.  There’s some obvious bitterness to the sentiment, but there’s a tiny part of my brain that wonders if his jumping at the big payday in Anaheim has anything to do with the HGH testing that is part of the new CBA.  And, yes, you’d be correct in assuming that I’d never put that thought to print if he had re-signed with the Cardinals.

Seeing Albert in an Angels uniform was weird, but as with the whole thing, not as weird or painful as I thought it would be as we’ve worked our way towards this day.  I do wish the man well.  I do think that he believes this is about more than money, and that Arte Moreno made him feel a bit more wanted than DeWitt and Mozeliak did.  I also think that the Cardinals did the right thing by not going to the extreme to keep him.  Furcal’s now back in the fold, and talk that the Cards are going after Beltran is still out there.  No, that doesn’t replace Albert, but it does set the Cards up with a decent enough chance at making another run in 2012.  The offense will be a bit less than it was, but with Waino coming back, the gains to the starting rotation offset that a bit.  And Cardinals fans can rest easy now that it’s apparent that the team isn’t just pocketing the savings.

Goodbye #5

With the first 24 hours of the post-Albert Pujols era now in the books, it’s time for a little reflection.  Obviously, first post in a long time and to say a lot has happened would be an understatement.

The Cardinals are World Champs — and as unlikely a champion as we’ve seen since the 2003 Marlins (or as the popular joke goes, the 2006 Cardinals).

But the big news now, of course, is the departure of Pujols.  Looking at things now, it seems like we saw this one coming, but that doesn’t soften the blow.  All season, the standard quote regarding Pujols’ impending free agent status was something like “I just can’t imagine him anywhere but in St. Louis.”  But, to me, that always felt more like wishful thinking than anything near a fact.

My first reaction was the same as most Cardinals fans….disbelief followed by anger followed by disappointment.  This quote from a 2009 article on MLB.com is exactly the type of thing we’d heard Albert say time and again when he discussed being a free agent for the first time in his career:

“Do I want to be in St. Louis forever? Of course,” Pujols said. “Because that city has opened the door to me and my family like no other city is ever going to do. I don’t want to [go to] any other city, but if that time comes I’m pretty sure wherever I go they are going to do the same way — hopefully, open the doors. But I don’t think it’s to be anything compared to St. Louis.

“People from other teams want to play in St. Louis and they’re jealous that we’re in St. Louis because the fans are unbelievable. So why would you want to leave a place like St. Louis to go somewhere else and make $3 or $4 more million a year? It’s not about the money. I already got my money. It’s about winning and that’s it. It’s about accomplishing my goal and my goal is to try to win. If this organization shifts the other way then I have to go the other way.”

As fans, we want to believe that all of our favorite players fall in line with this line of thinking.  And I do believe that Albert wanted to stay in St. Louis….really, I do.  I also think that had the Angels not stepped in with such a huge offer (and full no trade protection), then Albert would have accepted the Cardinals offer.  But, the Angels played this perfectly.  They let the suddenly flush Marlins up the bar, and then swooped in full force — no doubt inspired by losing out on every big name they had pursued the past few offseasons.  This time, they did not get turned away.  And with that, Albert is now a former Cardinal.

In spite of the sting at watching perhaps the greatest player of this generation move on, you have to realize that we’ve been lucky enough to witness an 11 year run that rivals the greats of the game.  Albert’s numbers belong in the conversation with names like Ruth, DiMaggio, Mantle, Musial and Williams.  That hasn’t changed.  And he did it wearing the birds on the bat.  And now he’ll do it wearing the red and white of another team.  That is the nature of baseball (and pro sports, in general) in 2011.

And I’m OK with that.  I’m not on the ledge.  Really.  Will the 2012 Cardinals suffer from the loss of #5?  Probably.  Are they doomed to be a repeat of the 2007 Cards?  I don’t think so.  First off, the roster isn’t as much of a patchwork as the 2007 Cards were.  The rotation is in decent shape — Carpenter, Wainwright, Garcia and Lohse/Westbrook are still a solid 1-4, and fifth starters are a little easier to develop and/or sign than the other positions in the rotation.

The bullpen also seems to be in a bit better shape…Motte may not be the next Mariano Rivera — or even the next Jason Isringhausen, for that matter — but he showed he’s learned how to handle the ninth inning in pressure situations.  Kyle McClellan, Mitchell Boggs, Scrabble (not going to even try to pretend that I can spell his last name)…these are solid building blocks.  The team wants to add another lefty, and there are still some big name late inning guys on the market (such as Ryan Madson) that could make it possible for the Cardinals to be a team that doesn’t have to score more than 3 runs a game to win.

On offense, Berkman and Holliday still give the Cardinals some thunder in the middle of the lineup.  Add to that a (hopefully) healthy David Freese and Allen Craig, and it could be more than adequate.  There are some “ifs” — will Craig be exposed with more at-bats?  Will Freese stay healthy for a full season?  Who is going to play shortstop and second base?  What about a full year with John Jay as a regular rather than a 4th outfielder?  Is Furcal coming back?  What about adding Carlos Beltran?  Or Jimmy Rollins?  Or does the team make a run at Prince Fielder — who just might decide to take a shorter term deal in hopes of having a second turn on the free agent market in a few years.  Regardless of the path they choose, Mozelik has earned a vote a confidence in my opinion.  This Cardinals team has felt like a playoff contender every year that he’s been in charge, and I don’t think that will change in 2012.

And again, I don’t think this team was ever going to repeat.  It’s tough to win a World Series.  It is even tougher to do it a second time.  That bullseye is on the Cardinals’ backs now — and that was true whether #5 was staying or not.  I’m hardly the first or last to say this, but in reality, this probably sets up the Cardinals better for the next 10 years than if Albert had taken the $210 million/9-10 year deal that was reportedly on the table.  True, Cardinals fans would probably tolerate a decline in his skills through his late 30′s/early 40′s more than any other fan base, but the fact remains that Pujols is most likely not going to get any better than he has been for the last 11 years.  To pay a premium for those years is not something a successful franchise does.  One of the things that made the Atlanta Braves so successful for so long is that they were not afraid to change the individual parts to improve the whole.  They weren’t afraid to send a good player packing if it meant saving the team from a bad contract that would hinder the team for years.  True, they never faced that type of dilemma with a player like Pujols, but the point is the same even if you’re only talking about David Justice.

So this is a sad day for Cardinals fans, but it isn’t really a bad day.  The Cardinals still have a good team, and have the financial flexibility to address some things that they would not have had if Albert stayed.  Someday, we’ll look back fondly on the career of Albert Pujols, who will go into the Hall of Fame as a Cardinal.  We’ll marvel at the 3 homer game against Texas, the time he put out one of the letters in the in the ‘Big Mac’ sign, how he played second base for a few innings in 2010 and played a few games at third in 2011.  Maybe we’ll even be giving him a standing ovation as his #5 is retired (though personally, I’m not quite ready to afford him that honor just yet).  But as someone said on twitter yesterday — “I was a Cardinals fan before Pujols and I’ll still be one after Pujols.”  We root for the birds on the bat.  Period.  It’s a shame that Albert Pujols is no longer wearing them.  But it is not the end of the world.

Next big thing, or next big headache?

Ok, by now most of you have probably seen video from Sunday’s Cubs/Cardinals game showing Starlin Castro doing everything but paying attention to the baseball game.  At one point, he seems to completely miss the fact that Cubs’ pitcher James Russell throws a pitch to the Cardinals shortstop, Daniel Descalso.  You know it’s bad when Mr. No-Attention-Span himself, Alfonso Soriano, is the one who tells you that you missed an entire play.  Castro admitted that he didn’t know he had missed the play until he saw it on TV later that night.  Castro and the Cubs were roundly criticized during the game and Castro got a day off on Monday, presumably as a form of punishment.

There’s a part of me that wants to join in.  Castro’s one of the only possible “stars” for the Cubs to latch their wagon to, but honestly, I think he’s just got too far to go development-wise to justify the fuss.  It is beyond clear that the kid has talent, but it is also apparent that he’s lacking a bit in maturity.  I’ve heard folks throw out comparisons to Jeter, which just makes me laugh.  As a huge fan of Jeter’s, I have to admit a strong bias here, but even during his early years in the majors, Derek never took his eyes off the ball.  And while he still commits his share of errors, generally, he’s the kind of player that makes all the plays he’s expected to make.  With Castro, sometimes it is the highlight reel plays that look easy and the easy plays that end up looking embarrassing.
But ultimately, I this highlights a big problem I’ve seen with the Cubs over the last several years…and to a certain extent in pro sports in general.  The Cubs have a long history of enabling less than acceptable behavior when it is generating the optimal result.  Sammy Sosa always seemed to get away with being a poor teammate — until such time that he stopped hitting home runs at an incredible rate…then he was banished to the Orioles.  Corey Patterson was brought up through the minors as a #3 hitter in the order, then became a problem child when he wasn’t able to change his mindset to be a leadoff hitter.  Carlos Zambrano looked to be a Cy Young caliber pitcher and earned himself a big payday…and, well, saying that hasn’t turned out well is an understatement.  And now we see Castro — star of the future — gifted with amazing natural talent, and yet it isn’t until ESPN’s cameras catch him popping sunflower seeds in his mouth and kicking at the dirt that he gets reprimanded.  I have a hard time believing this was the first time the kid has zoned out during a game, yet this is the first time Quade (more likely someone in the front office) has seen fit to give Castro a day off.
Castro has the talent to be a very good — if not great — major league shortstop.  He could be the next big star for the Cubs.  He could also be yet another player in a frustratingly long line of guys that are content to compile stats and be the “big man” on a mediocre team.  I really hope the former will turn out to be the case, but I fear that the latter is far more likely.

Goodbye, Colby.

Looking back on it now, it seems like something that was inevitable. Colby Rasmus is an ex-Cardinal. To a certain degree, I think the Cardinals have made a bit of a mistake. Rasmus has issues, and had earned a fair bit of the ire that he’s received from some corners of Cardinals nation. He’s requested trades, and by many accounts, ignores the advice from the coaches that are paid to make him a better player in favor of the advice that his Dad (also his former high school coach). This has never sat well with TLR….and that is completely understandable. At the same time, it seems that La Russa has had his mind made up regarding Rasmus while he was still working his way up the minor league ladder.

Regardless, it isn’t a stretch to say that Rasmus wasn’t living up to expectations this year. His numbers have tumbled mightily after getting off to a good start, and he’s started losing playing time to John Jay. He’s one of those players that has so much natural talent that it can sometimes appear that he’s loafing it in the outfield. Add to that a few dropped balls in some key situations, and you have a scenario that rarely plays well with a fan base that values hustle and “playing the game the right way.”
So Rasmus leaves, along with relievers Brian Tallet, Trever Miller and minor leaguer P.J. Walters. The centerpiece of the players coming back is Edwin Jackson, an free agent to be who is in the midst of his best year in the majors. He’ll be tough to resign, especially if he performs well now that he’s moved over to the NL. The Cards also get relievers Octavio Dotel, Marc Rzepcynksi and former Cub Corey Patterson.
This deal does seem to make the Cardinals better for the short term. The offense hasn’t had much trouble putting up runs, the rotation has been decent, but the bullpen has shown a propensity to blow a lead in close games. This allows Skip Schumaker to see a little more time in the outfielder, so in theory the infield defense should improve a bit (though with the personnel in place, it will be a minimal increase). The team also expects Allen Craig back from a rehab stint sometime in early August. Kyle McClellan will move back to the bullpen, and the rotation shouldn’t suffer from the addition of Jackson. Rzepcynski will hopefully be an upgrade in the left handed reliever department, Dotel has closing experience (a role I hope he never fills in STL) and there are worse backup outfielders in the league than Patterson.
I have mixed emotions on the deal. On one hand, Colby wasn’t looking like the player that we expected him to be. But at 24, it isn’t like he’s reached that point in his career where he settles in as a ‘good’ player rather than improving and becoming a great player. Last year, Ludwick was sent packing after an underwhelming and injury filled first half, and Jay faltered a bit down the stretch as he went from sub to starter. But now we’re sure he’s ready to handle things as the starting center fielder? Then again, the only season that we should be worried about here is 2011 — we might well wish this trade has never happened a year from now, but if the Cardinals can use this move to get into the playoffs and hopefully make a run to the World Series, the trade of Rasmus will be nothing more than a footnote to the season.

Sometimes you can’t win for trying

Saturday, July 9, 2011…..the day Derek Jeter became the 28th major leaguer to collect 3,000 hits. Only the 14th to collect all of his hits with one team. First Yankee to get 3,000 hits. 2nd player to homer on hit #3,000. Jeter had quite a day as I’m sure you’ve heard….going 5 for 5 (half of the Yankees total hits), missed the cycle by a triple, but did manage to drive in the winning run. It was the kind of day that sadly has been in short supply for Jeter in 2011.

Leading up to this historic weekend, I was somewhat taken aback at all of the negativity surrounding Jeter and his chase for 3000. I fully understand why the average baseball fan is sick and tired of the “Damn Yankees”, and by extension, tired of Jeter. Negativity from those types of people is to be expected. But much of the furor was coming from Yankees fans themselves — many thinking that there is no way this team wins the World Series with Jeter as the full-time shortstop. The Yankees did play well while Jeter was on the DL, and his replacement, Eduardo Nunez, did little to disprove the idea that he may well be the Yankee shortstop of the future. Once Jeter was off the DL, there was also a fair bit of talk that Jeter did not deserve his starting spot on the AL All Star roster (I won’t disagree with this thought).
With 3k now in the books, the negativity turned to the events of the day. Quite a bit was made of the storybook nature of the kid who caught the home run ball. First it was that he couldn’t possibly be what he seemed on TV (the suggestion being that he was coached up by Yankee big wigs). Then he was naive for not trying to cash in on the ball. Then Jeter was a jerk for not offering up cash to the kid even though he demanded none (and got seats in a luxury suite for the remainder of the season through the playoffs).
Finally, with all of those topics beat to death, Jeter decides to skip the All Star Game, and that’s dominated the talk since. Honestly, do we not have anything better to talk about? Well, maybe not — baseball is taking its annual break and the other two major sports are both in lockout mode. There was the US Women’s team’s thrilling victory over Brazil on Sunday in the Women’s World Cup, but soccer always seems to stir up as many detractors as it does win fans during these tournaments.
So, the debate rages on. Sports writers, fellow players — even the likes of Hall of Famer Willie Mays — all had their say. Ad nauseum. I’ll freely admit that as someone who is a huge fan of Jeter, I’m inclined to give him a pass on this where I might not be so generous if we were talking about some other player. And Jeter’s been a good “baseball citizen,” too. He’s played in All Star Games, he’s played more post season games than most any player currently in the majors and been a part of both World Baseball Classics. He’s represented the Yankees and the game with class and dignity basically any time he has been asked. And no matter what any of us average joes think, playing baseball isn’t a game for a guy like Jeter, it is a job. And chasing a milestone like 3000 hits in a media market like New York is a tiring affair. I don’t doubt that Jeter needed the rest.
I’d also like to believe that an unspoken reason that Jeter declined to attend is precisely the one that many are using against him. There seems to be some sentiment that Jeter owed it to baseball to allow the fans to applaud his achievement at the All Star Game. But given the way Jeter has always conducted itself, I don’t think it is just my particular bias that wonders if, in part, Jeter stayed away to allow the spotlight to shine on all of the selected All Stars rather than to let it become DJ3K Celebration, Part 2. It makes a certain amount of sense, doesn’t it?
Again, I am biased. Jeter has been such a great player — a great Yankee — and I admire the way he’s been able to sidestep most of the kinds of things that have dogged pro athletes in the internet/social media age. When you consider just how big the microscope is that any celebrity is under these days, it’s simply amazing that Jeter’s never been the center of the type of controversy that’s dragged down the likes of Tiger Woods, ARod or Roger Clemens. Jeter hasn’t even been surrounded by something like the Michael Jordan gambling incident. His biggest crimes seem to be fighting for a contract this past off season, displaying the diminished physical skills that would affect any 37 year old and deciding he needed to skip the All Star Game. It seems to me that maybe we’d all enjoy things like the All Star Game more if we spent as much time saluting the players that are deserving to be there as we do worrying about one player that isn’t.
And I wouldn’t be shocked to see an article tomorrow blaming the NL’s newly minted ASG winning streak on the absence of a certain AL shortstop that decided to skip the game….

Incredible? Yes. So then why am I so worried?

This should be good news.  I should be thrilled.  I should be rushing to tell a certain Facebook friend/Cubs fan that “The Machine” — Albert Pujols if you’re not familiar with his nickname — came back from injury early…..AGAIN!  This isn’t the first time Albert’s pulled off this trick.  In 2006, he came back from an oblique injury after missing just a couple of weeks.  In 2009, people were sure it was a matter of time before he blew out his elbow.  He played the entire season, and missed a minimal number of games.  This one is perhaps the most amazing….  Pujols seems to be finally working his way out of a season long slump (which in his terms is a decent season for a lot of really good players out there) but collides with a runner while reaching for a throw on Father’s Day.  Pujols immediately goes down and the injury looks serious.  Turns out to be a fracture, and he’s expected to miss AT LEAST 4-6 weeks.  (Quick aside — I’m ticked because I have tickets to the 7/29 game vs. the Cubs and was facing the prospect of my first Cardinals game since ’98 that didn’t involved Albert).

Image courtesy of STL Today/Cardinals (http://www.stltoday.com/sports/baseball/professional/)

Then late last week, news came out that Albert was making incredible progress in his recovery and that it was looking like he’d be back early.  The worry doesn’t start just yet….the guy’s known as a quick healer, and I’d begun to expect (hope?) that he’d be returning sometime around the game I have tickets for.  But this is a fracture….even if you’re a quick healer, it just takes what it takes for a bone to heal, right?  So I was more than a little surprised to see the MLBTV “Ballpark Cam” trained on Pujols and his trainer as I was waiting for the Yankees/Indians game to start yesterday.  Then I hear the announcer say that Pujols may be “….back as soon as tomorrow.”  Tomorrow was Tuesday, July 5, 2011 (today, as I’m writing).
And that’s when it started….The worry.  Started out wondering if the Cardinals doctors are just that incompetent.  These were the guys, after all, that had played havoc with my fantasy team the week I traded for Matt Holliday, and these same doctors let Holliday play through a quad injury that ultimately landed him on the DL.  Worse yet, since he’d tried to give it a go, they couldn’t retro the date.  (Incidentally, I traded away Jay Bruce who went on a hell of a tear just as he joined the other team’s roster.  I know — no one cares about your fantasy team but you, but I can’t help talking about it a little).  So maybe they’d misdiagnosed Albert’s injury.
Then the conspiracy theories started.  Was this some plot to keep Pujols out of the line up and drive his value down?  Who knows?  Or did Pujols play up the injury to get a little break and also add to his legend (and eventual payday)?  Both seem a little far-fetched, sure, but crazier things have happened in baseball history, so maybe this was it.  Or maybe he’s pushing his way back too early trying to salvage his numbers ahead of free agency.  Maybe he’s coming back before he’s ready and this is setting up a season ending injury (which would likely end what chance the Cards have at making an October run).
But ultimately, my real worry — my 2nd biggest baseball-related fear, to be more exact — settled into my head and has been sitting their weighing on my thoughts since.  What if this recovery — and I guess by extension the previous ones that I mentioned — was accomplished by less-than-natural means?  After Manny Ramirez, I can’t imagine that any big name player is stupid enough to test his luck with MLB’s drug testing policy and use steroids.  But HGH?  I don’t know.  They can’t test for it, so any current MLBer could be taking the stuff and we wouldn’t know.  Pujols is a big guy, too…There are more than a few Cards haters out there that would suggest that the guy can’t be doing this without some kind of booster.  A quick google search brings up all kinds of possibly legit information suggesting that HGH could speed bone healing.
I don’t want to believe this is true.  I hate that the thought even crossed my mind, and I suppose I’m being somewhat irresponsible putting pen to paper as I’ve done here.  The only thing the could shake my passion as a fan more than Albert Pujols being found out as a drug cheat would be if we learned that Derek Jeter was one.  I’d be a little less surprised if this did prove true for Albert, but my disappointment would be indescribable.  With Jeter, I’d be upset because his general demeanor — as I read one writer suggest — is that he thinks he’s just better than the type of guy who’d take PEDs.  Where Pujols is concerned, it’s more the fact that he’s said more than a few times “Don’t be afraid to believe in me.”  He says it would be an insult to his faith to cheat his fans.  He says that his wife would kill him, and he’s more afraid of her than any fan based wrath he would have to face.  He says all the right things, and I want to believe that he’s the real deal.  I want to believe that I’m seeing one of the greatest of all time giving his all game in / game out.
The sad fact is, even after all this time, no matter how sick I am of talking about PEDs, they are still a part of the game.  I still remember turning a blind eye to them as Sosa and McGwire were crushing Maris’ home run record.  I’m ashamed that I’ve left ballparks satisfied that I saw one or both of those guys clubbed one.  I said the same after seeing Bonds hit one in Coors when he took over as the game’s premier slugger.  I’ve seen the legacy of some of my favorite teams of all time tainted by the likes of Roger Clemens.  I sympathized with Andy Pettitte as he admitted his own HGH use.  I’ve felt the mix of sympathy and “yeah, so now you guys have your cheats, too”-itis as the key duo to the ’04 and ’07 Red Sox teams were outed as PED users.  There have been a steady string of no names that have been busted.  I should be numb to it by now.  But this is different.  This is Albert.  This is one of my favorite players — my favorite Cardinal since Ozzie (except maybe for Stubby Clapp).  It’s hopefully just one of those stupid little things that I decide I need to worry about, and I’ll tell stories one day of how I saw the great Albert Pujols come back from a fracture in 15 days.
But in 2011, it is hard to be sure about anything, no matter how badly you want to be wrong.

Both Barrels

Rough times for Cardinals fans….Pujols is out 4-6 weeks with a fractured wrist and all of a sudden, the Cardinals look like a very mediocre team.  Of course, anyone who’s a fan of a team in the NL Central has to acknowlege that even the best team in the division might be mediocre.  Injuries have been a big part of the story of the 2011 Cardinals, but when you have a guy like Albert Pujols in your lineup you tend to weather the storm.  But even with guys like Holliday and Berkman around to help keep this ship on the right course, you don’t lose a guy like Albert to injury and not see some kind of impact.  I didn’t think the impact would be quite this noticeable, though.
One thing that I never do is celebrate injury.  I think the vast majority of Cardinal fans are with me on this one.  As a whole, we’re a part of a fanbase that appreciates good baseball, and so that’s why a recent post by a friend on Facebook has been bugging me for the last few days.
My condolences to the Cardinals fans on the loss of your Pujols for 4-6 weeks. Today’s message is brought to you by the letters H and A!! ;)”
Now to be completely honest, I’m married to one of THE greatest Cubs fans in the world.  Her first words when she heard of the injury were “So we won’t see Albert when we go to St. Louis?”  (We’re making our annual trip to Busch for the 7/29 game vs. the Cubs).  That’s how a real fan reacts.  But too many Cubs fans seem to fit the comment above.  Well, folks, it’s a little too easy, but rather than respond directly to this “friend” I decided this was a better forum to blow off a little steam with responses that I’d have to that statement.  With both barrels…..
  1. Well now I feel bad….I didn’t share my condolences when Darwin Barney…your team’s best player….hit the DL.
  2. Umm, when you posted this, you were still 5 games behind the Pirates.  now you’re 8.
  3. (the LeBron answer) But when you wake up tomorrow you’re still going to have the same problems….you’re still rooting for the Cubs.
  4. The hand gesture I’m showing you has been brought to you by the numbers 1, 9, zero and 8.
  5. My favorite joke from 2006 was “What do the Cubs and Cardinals have in common?  Neither team has won a World Series in their new stadium.”  Of course, the Cardinals ruined it by winning the 2006 World Series.  I resurrected it in 2009 with the Yankees (my other favorite team) instead of the Cardinals.  They ruined it, too.  Doesn’t have the same zip if you plug in the Twins, does it?  Ahh, but it’s still fun.
  6. Good for you….maybe you’ll only finish 15 games behind the Cards instead of 20 (or more).
  7. Feels like I should be able to come up with a really witty response, but after 100+ years of this, I’ve grown weary of making fun of the Cubs (Ok, I’m not quite that old, but you get the idea…..).
Thanks.  Felt good getting that out of my system.
(and seriously, this is meant in fun, and with the type of spirit that makes the Cardinals/Cubs rivalry the most fun in baseball)

LeBron could learn from ARod, Jeter

It might be the most I’ve enjoyed a championship that didn’t involve a team that I cared about. It’s also probably the first time since the Jordan era came to a close that I’ve really watched an NBA Finals series that didn’t involve the Celtics. The rational human being that lurks somewhere inside my head wanted to feel at least a little bit sorry for LeBron and Heat as they fell short of their own expectations, but the obnoxious sports fan – as he often does – took over and enjoyed every second of the Heat’s demise. He even switched over to see just how dejected the losers looked after the last two losses. I don’t think I’m much different from any fan out there that doesn’t hail from Cleveland. I don’t really have any reason to hate the Heat and LeBron except for “The Decision” and the premature championship celebration. No use in spending more time talking about those events. Bottom line, you celebrate a title that you have yet to win, and people are going to love watching you lose. At times, I feel a bit uneasy at how we put people up on a pedestal in our culture and then try to tear them apart. Yet, you just know that one day, after LBJ has failed to win title after title, he’ll be the sentimental favorite.

One thing that just baffles me about LeBron is how he simply refuses to learn from his previous gaffes and continues to give the public things to pick apart. He really has replaced ARod as the most needlessly dissected athlete in America…..at least until the next girlfriend is caught feeding ARod popcorn at a sporting event. Truthfully, the steroid fiasco took some of the fun out of hounding ARod. So we’ve moved on to LeBron. He doesn’t come off as calculated as Rodriguez, but he does have the same talent for saying something completely dumb at the worst possible time. Case in point, LBJ was doing a decent enough job answering questions during the post-game presser after the Mavs clinched. Then, all of a sudden and seemingly out of nowhere, he responds with a quite that sounded to many as if he was essentially saying “I’m still ‘King James’, you’re still a bunch of peasants, and when you wake up tomorrow, then next day, the next month, that will still be the case.” It’s up to you to decide what he really meant with the statement, but everyone agrees it was a poor choice of words. LeBron could learn a thing or two from a guy like Derek Jeter — a guy who very rarely seems to be the center of controversy even playing in New York. Instead, LeBron seems to have taken a few pages out of ARod’s “Guide to Embarrassing Yourelf In Front of the Media.”
Thanks to my infrequent posting, a few other thoughts to share…..
  1. Someone in the Post Dispatch floated the idea that the Cardinals might be the best team in the majors, and the Cards answer with a 7 game losing streak that finally came to end against Kansas City on Saturday. When healthy, the Cardinals should be as much a contender as any other NL team. But, the injuries have caught up with the team a bit, and now we’re facing 4-6 weeks without Albert Pujols….although knowing Pujols, it will only be 3 weeks.
  2. Speaking of Albert, the silver lining may be that it lowers the price tag a bit for 2012. Still can’t imagine him playing in another uniform.
  3. I’m sure this will read as a Cards fan picking on Cubs fans, but I had to laugh that many of the Cubs fans I follow on twitter suggested that their team was putting itself back into the NL Central race. We all know the NL Central is a shaky division at best, but really, when your team comes off a nice stretch where you’ve made up ground and you’re STILL 9+ games out…..well, you were that far back for a reason, and post-Memorial Day, these things don’t tend to change. Sorry.
  4. Picking on the Cubs, Part II: Many Yankees fans that I follow on twitter said that the shine was off of young shortstop (of the future?) Eduardo Nunez now that they’d had a look at Starlin Castro. Wonder how they feel after watching the full series. To my eye, and it is admittedly one that looks for things to not like about the Cubs, Castro is much like Carlos Marmol and Carlos Zambrano — tantalizing talent that makes you think he could be special, but a head that just as often makes you wonder how quickly he can get out of town.
Can’t think of anything else that needed to be said….thanks for reading.
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