June 1, 2008
Every Given Sunday
Don Long has a lot of reasons to smile this year. The Pirates' first-year hitting coach has finally made it to the major leagues after spending 21 years in the minor leagues as a manger, coach, and instructor. Furthermore, the Pirates' three starting outfielders, left fielder Jason Bay, center fielder Nate McLouth and right fielder Xavier Nady, are having All-Star caliber seasons under Long's tutelage. However, it is physically impossible for Long to smile right now thanks to something that is becoming more of a problem with each passing day in the major leagues-the breaking of maple bats at an alarming rate.
Maple bats seem to break more easily than the traditional bats made of ash because of the hardness of the wood, and also the fact that most models have thinner handles and thicker barrels. While we don't have the figures on how many bats have broken this season in the major leagues, it seems like far too many projectiles are flying towards the infield from the batter's box. "It really seems like you're seeing about a half-dozen bats break a game and they're not such splintering like they used to but they're exploding," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. "You're seeing the barrels of the bats fly like helicopters toward players in the field and in the stands. It's a dangerous situation and I hold my breath every time another one breaks." Adds White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, only half-jokingly, "I think we're losing more bats than balls this season."
Long certainly understands the consequences of what can happen, as he was struck on the check when one of McLouth's bats broke and the barrel came flying into the visiting dugout at Dodger Stadium during a game in April. Long looked to watch McLouth's fly out to right field, and never saw what hit him. "I felt blood running down my face and I saw it dripping on the chart I keep in the dugout," Long said. "I didn't know what happened for a few seconds."
Long suffered nerve damage in his left cheek that makes it impossible for him to smile. Doctors have told him the nerve should regenerate within a six-month period. If it doesn't, Long will need surgery to have a nerve transplanted from another part of his body. "It was just really scary," Pirates manager John Russell said. "What if had hit him a few inches higher? He might have lost his eye. I don't even want to think what might have happened if it hit him in another part of his head. These bats are dangerous. We saw what can happen up close. I wouldn't want to see it happen to anyone else."
Commissioner Bud Selig is well aware of the situation, and lawyers from Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association have had preliminary discussions about ways to solve the problem. "I watch a lot of games and bats are not only breaking but shattering," Selig said. "We need to get to the heart of that, and do it quickly. I have to have them to meet really expeditiously and come back to me with some recommendations. I've also talked to some bat people to try to find solutions."
One of the solutions that many people in the game are pushing for is the elimination of maple bats. "I know a lot of (players) use the maple bats and feel comfortable with them, and I hate to take that away from them," Long said. "At the same time, you're talking about a dangerous situation. I don't want to see anyone get hurt and I worry that something really bad might happen. Ideally, what you would like to see is a better overall product when it comes to the maple bats."
The manufacturers of the maple bats naturally argue that their product should not be eliminated. "People are jumping to conclusions and they're lumping every maple bat company into the problem," said Jim Anderson, vice president for MaxBat, a Minnesota-based company.
Not surprisingly, hitters are loathe to give up their maple bats and believe major-league officials should also focus on other areas of safety. "I think foul balls are more dangerous than bats that break twice a game," Twins first baseman Justin Morneau said. "Rarely do you ever see a bat go into the stands. It's dangerous when it happens, but with foul balls, you see rockets going into the stands every game."
White Sox shortstop Orlando Cabrera says he is only looking out for his best interests as he likely has a big payday coming after the season when he can become a free agent. However, Guillen and some of Cabrera's teammates are not thrilled that twice in last month Cabrera has called the press box during games in a successful effort to convince the official scorer to change errors that had been charged to him. In one case, an error was then charged to White Sox catcher Toby Hall for making a poor throw on a stolen base attempt, breaking an unwritten rule that a player does not have a call changed that would hurt a teammate.
"If things continue to happen, I'm not going to say we're going to have a problem, but I don't think it looks good to his teammates for him to worry about his numbers, especially the way we're playing," Guillen, whose team in the surprise leader in the AL Central, told the Chicago Sun-Times. "I know I never did that. That's something the manager or coach should do. I'm not going to say don't call up to the box, but it looks kind of bad."
Guillen is certain that Cabrera is trying to protect his value on the open market by keeping his error total down. "Obviously, a good player, a Gold Glove winner, you want to have a good season for the free agency, and different guys respond to that stuff differently," Guillen said. "But he better be careful about what his teammates are going to think."
Cabrera learned of Guillen's reaction from reporters who cover the White Sox and became defiant while defending his position on the matter. "If it happens again, I will call again," Cabrera said. "I don't have to do it with other teams because they always had my back. They don't want to do it here, I can take care of my own business. If you have a problem with what I did, come to me and say something. Don't go to the media to send a message, because he didn't send any message."
Cabrera also insists he has not damaged his reputation inside the White Sox's clubhouse. "I never had anybody complain about that stuff. If there was a major-league player who tells me he's not selfish, he's lying," Cabrera said. "Everyone is selfish about numbers, because that's the only thing people cannot lie about. That's it. It's not a big deal. I don't know who's trying to make this a big deal. Maybe it's the media, maybe it's the manager. And nobody is complaining about that stuff. Nobody cares about it."
One of the highlights of the Phillies and Marlins meeting in a three-game series at Citizens Bank Park that ends today isn't just that they are battling for first place in the NL East. It also features two second basemen on their way to potentially having some of the best offensive seasons by a player at that position. Phillies second baseman Chase Utley is seventh in the major leagues in EqA with a .337 mark, and the Marlins' Dan Uggla is eighth at .336. Utley is also fourth in the majors in VORP with a 34.1 mark, while Uggla is fifth at 33.1.
"Utley is one of the guys that just amazes me each and every day I see him play," Uggla told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. "He goes about the game, I think, with the best attitude that anyone could go about it. And his swing is just so short and compact. I really don't know how pitchers get him out." Uggla's swing, by comparison, is the exact opposite: "I'm not up there looking for singles," he said.
Marlins infielder Wes Helms has a unique perspective on the two second basemen, as he spent last season with the Phillies. "Uggla will take a walk, but he's up there to crush the ball," Helms said. "And Utley is fearless. Doesn't matter who's on the mound, doesn't matter the situation, he's the same hitter. He'll go up there and have his approach and he's never going to veer away from that."
The record for home runs by a second baseman in a single season is 42, set by Rogers Hornsby for the 1922 Cardinals and matched by Davey Johnson for the 1973 Braves. That record is in jeopardy considering Utley has already homered 19 times this season, and Uggla has gone deep 16 times. "Usually your second basemen have been known for defense and average," Helms says. "These guys give you that, but power too. That came along (in the 1990s) with A-Rod and them setting the bar for shortstops. Now you're looking at Uggla and Utley setting the bar for second basemen. It's definitely a different game now."
The MLBPA ratified the third change in MLB's drug policy since it was instituted in 2002 this past week. Thanks to negotiations sparked by continuing Congressional scrutiny of performance-enhancing drugs in the game, there will be more frequent testing of players, both during the season and offseason, and more authority given to an independent administrator.
Giants right fielder Randy Winn, San Francisco's player representative to the MLBPA, said his teammates went along with the new policy without any dissent. "I'm hoping that we don't need to do anything more," Winn told the San Francisco Chronicle. "I think we've done a good job of seeing what's worked or what hasn't worked and being flexible and making changes to the agreement. I think right now, as it stands, it's a pretty good policy."
However, critics believe the sport will continue to have a problem with PEDs until a successful test for human growth hormone is developed. Because HGH is perceived as a problem, Winn was asked why fans should believe the game is any cleaner than before drug testing started. "Anytime people get publicly punished for something, it creates the fear that, 'Hey, this is for real. It really happens. That's something I need to stay away from,'" Winn said. "There's been a lot of attention given to this. Now that there have been changes to the policy, I think the game is cleaner."
NL Rumors and Rumblings: The Mets are not only seriously considering releasing first baseman Carlos Delgado, they're interested in trading for a power hitter, with Pirates outfielders Jason Bay and Xavier Nady and Orioles first baseman Kevin Millar their top targets. … Piniella is pining for an additional left-handed bat but will give first baseman/outfielder Micah Hoffpauir a further look before Cubs General Manager Jim Hendry pursues trade possibilities. … The Giants are willing to trade middle relievers for some hitting and are making left-hander Jack Taschner available along with right-handers Vinny Chulk and Tyler Walker. … Right-hander Jeff Weaver, currently pitching for Triple-A Nashville, has extended the deadline for opting out of his contract if he is not in the major leagues with the Brewers to June 15. … Chad Cordero will go back to being the Nationals' closer when he comes off of the DL, even though set-up man Jon Rauch has done a fine job filling the ninth-inning role. … Cardinals second baseman Adam Kennedy is expected to continue losing playing time to Aaron Miles and Brendan Ryan. … Dodger Stadium is expected to be named the site of the 2009 World Baseball Classic finals.
AL Rumors and Rumblings: The Mariners have interest in first baseman Scott Hatteberg, who lives in Seattle and was designated for assignment by the Reds this past week, and could very well release slumping first baseman Richie Sexson to clear a roster spot. … The Angels will likely use right-hander Kelvim Escobar in relief if and when he gets over his shoulder problems and is activated from the DL, which isn't likely until after the All-Star break. … The Yankees are believed to be close to releasing both reliever LaTroy Hawkins and infielder Morgan Ensberg. … If they feel they are out of contention, the Rangers are said to be willing to considering trading Hank Blalock, who is recovering from minor wrist surgery. … The Orioles are giving serious consideration to releasing right-hander Steve Trachsel.
Interesting facts as week nine of the regular season comes to a close:
No. 11 Marlins at No. 3 Braves, Monday-Thursday, June 2-5