Baseball

Season of ’73 Saved Baseball in Jax

There’s s rich list of names and dates that are a part of Jacksonville’s baseball history: Henry Aaron 1953, Tom Seaver 1966, The Bragan’s 1984, Alex Rodriguez 1994 and even 2019 as current All-Stars Brad Hand, J.T. Realmuto, Christian Yelich and Clayton Kershaw all spent time In town during their ascent to the Majors.

But there’s an untold story about the 1973 season makes much of that list possible.

Since building the Baseball Grounds in 2003, fans have flocked downtown to see baseball games. But in 1972, baseball in Jacksonville was anything but a foregone conclusion.

“We had to borrow $75,000 from the parent club, the Kansas City Royals in ‘72 to stay in business,” former Suns General Manager Dick Kravitz recalled.

You might know Kravitz from his political career on the Jacksonville City Council and in the Florida House of Representatives. Before that, Kravitz was the GM of the baseball Suns, the football Express of the World Football League and the soccer Tea Men of the North American Soccer League. He also served the City of Jacksonville as the Executive Director of the Sports and Entertainment Commission during the Godbold administration.

After getting his undergrad at Temple, Kravitz went to Ohio University to get his masters in sports administration. He then went to work as the business manager in Oklahoma City for the Kansas City Royals’ AAA ball club. They asked him to come to Jacksonville the next year to run the Suns under new ownership.

“They told me we needed to pay back the $75,000 that year or we’d be out of business,” Kravitz said of his charge for the season. “We had four employees, including me, and we all did double duty.”

Ownership was two investors from Oklahoma City; Keith Price was in the oil business, and banker Carl Grant. They were anything but absent.

“Price liked to come to games and watch from upstairs,” Kravitz recalled. “It was wild. He got thrown out of a game from the press box for arguing with the umpire. The ump sent a policeman to he press box and he physically threw him out of the ballpark.”

The business plan was simple: Raise as much money as possible and spend as little as possible. They started selling sponsorships and season ticket packages in the fall of 1972.

And it wasn’t easy.

“We had to fight against what had happened before. Some people wouldn’t even talk to us,” Kravitz said of the business climate regarding minor league baseball in Jacksonville at the time.

They sold five sponsorship nights to Prudential. They had a cow-milking contest that included one of the players with some farm experience. “Rocky Gibraltar” was a regular promotion, throwing a ball into a replica of the famous Rock. Kravitz even arranged for one of his players to race a horse in the outfield.

“We were playing a day game and I knew we needed a promotion,” he explained. “So I tried to ask one of our players, Minnie Minoso’s son, if he’d race a horse. He didn’t speak any English and I didn’t speak any Spanish and I couldn’t find an interpreter. But I pulled out a $100 bill and he eventually figured out what I was asking. He said he would so I went to Bayard where they were running quarter horses at the time and we set up the race, foul line to foul line. A handicapper gave Minoso a head start. And he was winning but heard a thousand pound of horse coming and jumped out of the way!”

It was an uphill battle, even facing the weather. Because of a lack of staff to put the tarp on and off the field, the city provided eight workers out of the daily labor pool to do the job. They weren’t very skilled at handling the tarp and the team had 14 rainouts in 72 games. Once they pulled the tarp off the field but only had seven workers finish the job. The eighth had been rolled up in the tarp.

Minor league staples Max Patkin, Eddie Feigner and the barnstorming/retired Bob Feller were regulars.

“I knew we were in the entertainment business, not the baseball business,” said Kravitz.

Minimizing expenses was the mantra for that year. Every dollar counted. There was no money to send the play-by-play person on the road so he did re-creations of the game, a half inning delayed, from Jones College. Re-creations generally stopped in baseball during the 1930’s. Travel was done on a church bus until one night the team ended up in a ditch on the way to Chattanooga.

“The driver worked for the church and he was working all day and then driving all night,” Kravitz explained.

Local kids were paid 50 cents to retrieve foul balls and home runs so the balls could be reused. Scuffed baseballs were rubbed down with milk to give them a new white shine. The visiting clubhouse was a Spartan affair.

Even Kravitz now admits he cut too many corners.

“One night I forgot and left the baseballs in the milk,” he explained. “After the game the umpire asked me about the baseballs because they were like lead weights! Cal Ripken, Sr. was managing the Charlotte AA club and came into my office railing about the lack of towels in their locker room. That’s when I knew I had gone overboard trying to save money.”

The club’s books were being run out of a bank in Oklahoma City. Kravitz deposited the money and filed the receipts each night and went back to selling. He didn’t keep a ledger of whether they would make enough money to stay in business.

Around Labor Day when the season ended, the Royals sent word that the Suns had done enough to pay the parent club back their $75,000 and had made another $100,000 to boot. Kravitz was named AA General Manager of the Year by the league and the Sporting News.

So add 1973 as an important date in Jacksonville baseball history.

Shoot Your Age 500 Times Former Cubs Manager Jim Frey Did That This Week

You never know who you might run into on the golf course. A few years ago I saw Jim Frey headed to the first tee at Marsh Landing. Sports fans know Jim as the manager of the Chicago Cubs in the mid-‘80’s. The Cubs were broadcast every day on WGN “Channel 9” on the cable out of Chicago. Same as the Braves were on the “Superstation WTBS” from Atlanta. The Cubs were a national team. Harry Cary was doing the play-by-play, drinking Budweiser in the left-field bleachers; Jim Frey was running the team from the dugout.

Growing up in Baltimore, I knew Jim from his fifteen year stint with the Orioles as a scout, coach, and the guy who was coaching first base or sitting next to Earl Weaver on the bench in their heyday of the 1970’s. That stint is part of a more than four decades career in baseball as a player, scout, coach, manager and general manager. So we’ve had a lot to talk about.

It’s not unusual to hear about professional athletes in other sports playing golf at a high level. Michael Jordan’s money matches are legendary. Steph Curry’s play at the Web.com event last year turned some heads. John Smoltz, Tony Romo and countless others have game.

The same can be said for Jim Frey. This week, the week of his 88th birthday, Frey shot “his age” carding an 80 at Marsh Landing.

It’s the 500th time he’s done that.

A baseball man through and through, the golfer they call “Coach” at Marsh Landing is used to keeping track of a game based on numbers and statistics, Frey has documented the 500 different times he’s shot his age, from the first time when he was 72 at Cave’s Valley in Baltimore to this week at Marsh Landing.

And it’s amazing he’s even still playing. Just last year Frey, who moved here in 2008 to be closer to his daughter, had a health scare that included chemo, radiation and double pneumonia. So serious that at one point, as he puts it, “I thought the party was over.”

Once with a handicap as low as six, Frey has never relied on length rather using accuracy to get the ball in the hole. “I’ve always hit it straight,” he said remembering golf games with Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer who consistently outdrove him. But much like his plus-.300 batting average in his 14-year minor league career (two of those in the South Atlantic League here in Jacksonville), Frey’s golf game relies on his hand-eye coordination and his ability to think through the game.

When his playing career was over, Frey served as a scout and a coach before managing in Kansas City and Chicago. He took the Royals to the World Series in 1980 after winning 97 games in the regular season, losing to the Phillies in six games.

In his first season as the Cubs manager, they won 96 games to win the division and held a 2-0 lead over the Padres for the National League Pennant. But San Diego won the last three behind Steve Garvey to go to the World Series.

Baseball is a game built on failure. Get a hit three out of ten times and they put you in the Hall of Fame. As fans, the ups and downs stick with us. But when you’re in it Frey says, the downs really sting.

“You get your heart broken in baseball,” he said as he recalled a few of the near misses. “We got to the 7th game of the World Series in Baltimore in ’79 and Willie Stargell beat us with a home run.”

“I still lay in bed at night and think about games in 1991 that didn’t go so well,” he said of his final year as GM of the Cubs.

Maybe that prepared him for the ups and downs on the golf course. He had a chance to shoot his age they day before he did it for the first time fifteen years ago.

“I didn’t tell anybody, but when we got to the 18th that day at Caves, a pretty strong par four up the hill, I had a 7-footer to shoot 72. And I missed it. The next day, I had a six-footer for 72 and I stepped away and told the guys I was playing with what was going on adding, ‘I’m making this putt!’ he said with a huge laugh. And he did.

Shooting your age is a big deal in golf. I’m sure Chris Kappas at Sawgrass did it all the time. John Tucker and Wesley Paxon notched that with regularity.

But 500 times?

“I played a lot of golf after I retired down in Estero in the winters and in Baltimore in the summers. When we moved here in 2008 I was still playing three, four times a week.”

Knowing Jim, it’s no surprise that friendship and relationships are at the core of the two games he’s been involved in his whole life.

He was the young scout in the Midwest who alerted the Orioles that the Reds were willing to trade Frank Robinson. It’s considered one of the greatest heists in Major League history.

“I had breakfast with and old scout from Cincinnati and he said, “I just came from a meeting and they want to trade Frank Robinson!’ I went to the phone and called Baltimore. I had just started scouting for the Orioles. I talked to my boss, and they brought me home.”

He met with the Orioles brass including Lee McPhail, Harry Dalton and Manager Hank Bauer.

“How good to you think Frank Robinson is?” Frey was asked. “A better offensive player than Brooks?” He didn’t hesitate, ‘”Yes I do.”

And shortly thereafter the Orioles traded pitcher Milt Pappas to the Reds and got Robinson who won the MVP, the Triple Crown and helped Baltimore win the World Series over the Dodgers in four straight in 1966.

“All of the sudden, I’m not a little scout in the Midwest,” Frey said with a chuckle.

Frey hedges a bit when asked who the best player he ever worked with was, but admitted, “When I was with Baltimore, Frank Robinson was clearly the best player. He never quite got his due. He was the best player for nearly 20 years.”

That trust, camaraderie, friendships and the relationships he found in baseball are the things Frey says are important to him now in his golf game.

“I belonged to three or four other clubs before I came to Jacksonville. I joined Marsh Landing and I’ve appreciated the membership there, they’ve really embraced me. The group of guys I play with there has been a lot of fun. At this point in my life I’m appreciative of how they’ve taken me in.”

Hey Jim, that was the easy part.

Social Media a Fact of Life in Pro Sports

Walk into the Jaguars locker room during the “media availability” time on any given day and there will be a smattering of players arrayed in front of their lockers in various positions of repose with one thing in common: They’re all on their phones. Not talking on their phones, not texting, but looking at their phones, perusing social media.

“Media availability” happens four times a week for about an hour in the middle of the day, between meetings and around lunch. So it might be the only time the players have to check their phones.

While social media has given fans perceived access to their sports heroes, it’s also given players some ownership over a part of their public image and branding.

“My social media is about who I am not about what I have,” said Defensive Lineman Malik Jackson. “I’m fashion forward, so I post some fashion, some things about the team and some stuff about my family. That’s about it. Instagram is visual and written, that’s why I’m on it.”
We used to joke in the sports department about what goes happens on social media. “I woke up this morning thinking maybe Twitter would be nice today,” my colleague Matt used to say. “But then I got on it and.. . . Nope!”
Since becoming the NBA commissioner in 2014, Adam Silver has encouraged the use of social media league wide. So much so that it’s become an indelible part of the league’s culture.

“Those guys in the NBA, they’ve got a lot of time on their hands,” Jaguars Defensive Lineman Abry Jones said regarding what seems like the constant stream of tweets and post coming from NBA players. “Two hours here, two more there. We don’t have that.”

In 2018, the NBA has already been tweeted about more than any other sports league. The league’s official Twitter account has 27 million followers, 3 million more than the NFL’s. On Instagram, the NBA has 31 million followers, more than the NFL, MLB and the NHL combined. In the NBA, there are 33 players with at least 2 million followers on Instagram. In the NFL, there are nine.

But NFL teams are using social media platforms to expand their reach. The Green Bay Packers have more Twitter followers than the entire population of the Green Bay metropolitan area.

Jalen Ramsey is the most active and followed player on the Jaguars roster. Ramsey has nearly a million social media followers, three-quarters of those on Instagram. He’s created some controversy and has experienced plenty of blowback on social media. So much so that he recently tweeted, “I’m gone from here, y’all gone miss me. I ain’t even trippin lol.”

When asked who that was directed at, Ramsey said, ““Whomever. You have something to say, you have some negativity, I guess the fake fans, the fake … Whoever. Whoever.”

While the Lakers’ LeBron James has 44.5 million followers on Instagram, more than the top 12 NFL players on that platform combined, Sixers Guard J.J. Reddick has none. He deleted all of his accounts recently. He believes he was an addict and it was taking away from his real life.

“It’s a dark place,” he told Bleacher Report. “It’s not a healthy place. It’s not real. It’s not a healthy place for ego. It’s just this cycle of anger and validation and tribalism. It’s scary, man.”

“I encourage players to use social to interact with fans and the community,” said Tad Dickman, the Jaguars Director of Public Relations. “If they’re looking for a restaurant, I’d rather them ask fans on Twitter than just go to Yelp looking for a place to eat.”

At the beginning of the season, Dickman, a 29-year old a social media participant himself, conducts a seminar on social media use, gives the players a handbook outlining the do’s and don’ts and how players can use it to their benefit. While the NFL has a broad social media policy, most of the specifics are set team by team.

No game footage can be used and live streaming is prohibited according to NFL policy. For the Jaguars the rules are pretty basic: No pictures or videos that could harm the team. No pictures from the training room or the locker room.

“Just like missing a meeting or being late, violating the rules could involve discipline,” Dickman responded without elaborating when asked if the players could find themselves in trouble posting on social media.

Like any organization with young employees, the Jaguars warn their players about putting out too much information.

“I don’t want people all up in my business,” Jones said, explaining why he limits his social media use to Instagram and even there, not much. “I like to stay in touch with some friends.”

Most Jaguars players have limited their social media to the Instagram platform. And as Jackson alluded to, it seems that everybody on there owns everything and has a fabulous life going on.

“It’s all fake,” fullback Tommy Bohanon, an Instagram participant said with a laugh. “I like to keep up with some friends. I don’t post much, but I scan through it to see what’s going on.”

Bohanon said the negativity on his accounts isn’t an issue. “I don’t care what anybody outside this (locker) room says. They don’t know what’s going on anyway.”

“I’m just on Instagram, I got rid of the rest,” Offensive Lineman Josh Wells explained.

Any trolls?

“Me, no, not me. But I know guys on the team who really get it all over social (media).”

Which is why some players have self-imposed rules.

Famously, James halted his social media posts during the 2015 NBA Playoffs calling it, “Zero Dark Thirty-23” mode.
“No phones, no social media, I don’t have anything,” James said at the time. “There’s too much nonsense out there. Not during this time. This is when I lock in right now, and I don’t need nothing creeping into my mind that don’t need to be there.”
Golden State’s Steph Curry recently stopped his usual ritual of looking at social media at halftime.

“When everybody is watching your game every night, if you let one ounce of negativity or one terrible comment creep in, especially right before a game or at halftime or something, it’s probably not the best bet,” Curry told the Mercury News.
I asked Head Coach Doug Marrone if he’d ever been on social media, he laughed as he headed to practice.
“Never. No Twitter, no Instagram, no Facebook, nothing. When I’m gone from here nobody will know how to find me!”
Probably a generational thing, but for sure, social media is a fact of life sports teams will have to continue to deal with in the future.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Arod’s Legacy Now In Question

One day you’re a hero, the next a goat. That describes a lot of professions but none more perfectly than professional sports.

Alex Rodriguez was generally considered the best among the best of all time. But he was revealed as a steroid user and admitted to it two days later, leaving his legacy and his place in the game in question.

The good thing from ARod’s perspective is that he has nearly a decade of a career in front of him. He claims he’s been clean since 2003 and that he used “performance enhancing substances” for the three years between ’01 and ’03.

“I don’t know what I was taking,” he told Peter Gammons in an exclusive interview. “I was stupid, naive and I was young,” is how ARod described his confession for using a banned substance. He says he got caught up in the “everybody’s doing it,” mentality of Major League Baseball at the time.

To tell you the truth, I don’t know what to make of his use or his confession.

Rodriguez claims he didn’t know he was on the list of 104 players who tested positive until a reporter from Sports Illustrated told him a week before it was revealed to the public. He says the union said he “may or may not’ be on the list so he figured whatever he was taking in Texas was OK. I don’t know if that’s a lie or not, but it sounds plausible given baseball’s history of ignoring their problems off the field.

Drinking, Drug use, “greenies” and who knows what has been a part of baseball’s culture since the game was organized. They knew steroids were a part of the game for a while. They knew players were doing whatever they could to stay in the game, put up bigger numbers and make more money. But until there was a public outcry and a variety of media reports baseball accepted the inflated numbers and the corresponding jump in fan interest and attendance that went with it.

It wasn’t against the rules and barely illegal so players, insulated by the league and their teams, took pills, shot up and made concoctions of whatever they thought might make them hit better, run faster and last longer.

So if “everybody was doing it” where does that put the numbers? Mark McGwire was probably still going to lead the majors in home runs, but probably not 72 in a season. Sammy Sosa was probably going to finish second, but instead of hitting 66, he might have hit 50-some. ARod was probably still going to be the MVP in ’03 but might not have put up the gaudy numbers to go with it. So season-by-season, player-by-player comparisons in that era are probably fair.

But baseball is such a game of numbers and the custodians of the game consider themselves such purists that comparing Babe Ruth’s 714 home runs to Hank Aaron’s 755 is important to them. So Barry Bonds’ single season record for home runs is illegitimate to them. I’d say Bonds’ single season record is fine based on the competition he faced. It’s his overall production that should have an asterisk.

ARod’s immediate admission that he was involved is an attempt to put it behind him, to be as upfront as he can for one reason: to protect his legacy. Rodriguez might put the numbers out of sight in the next eight or nine years and wants those records for his own. He wants to be considered among the best of all-time. He doesn’t want to have a tainted career. He wants to go to the Hall of Fame.

This is one of those wait-and-see situations. He’ll be under unbelievable scrutiny as his career goes forward comparing his numbers to those in the years he admitted to using a banned substance.

I took creatine for a while to help in my workouts. While it’s not a steroid, it’s definitely performance enhancing. It didn’t make me hit a baseball farther, or run faster but it did allow me to workout harder and more often. My workouts were more productive. So much so that I was growing out of my clothes. Taking a performance enhancer doesn’t make you hit the ball more often, but it does turn about 10 warning-track fly-ball outs into home runs. It does allow a player to continue to play at a high level in August and September where he used to get worn out.

But the big factor might be that the public doesn’t care. Nobody’s worried about athletes, especially baseball players using a drug that makes them bigger and stronger to produce bigger numbers. A lot of people would just as soon see the players get as big as they want and see where the numbers go.

ARod’s legacy?

It’ll have to wait.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Still A Game of Shadows

The Mitchell Report took a while to compile and $20 million of Major League Baseball’s money. So why then is every body in it denying the findings or just ignoring it completely? Probably because there is no real enforcement risk based on baseball’s current relationship with the players union.

The current collective bargaining agreement runs through 2011 and doesn’t allow MLB to really punish players for using illegal performance enhancing drugs.

Why hasn’t Donald Fehr, the players union representative, come out with a big statement either saying the problem is fixed, is still going on or never existed? Because he’s already positioning for the negotiating that will go on looking for the new agreement.

The baseball era just past was full of steroid and performance enhancing drug use and clearly some of the administrators of the game thought that was just fine. When the 1994 World Series was cancelled because of a players’ strike, the game was crippled. Cal Ripken Jr.’s march past Lou Gerhig’s record revived some fans interest in the game but it was the long ball, and the home run chase in 1998 that really brought the game back.

Now we know that Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and company were all using drugs to help hit those home runs. Somebody at the top of the game knew it. They might not have been there when guys were getting injections but they had some suspicions that the game was tainted.

And they did nothing.

Why?

Because people were flocking to the ballparks and watching the game on television. MLB had unprecedented growth to a $6 billion dollar game in 2007. People like the long ball and were paying money to see it. So in one-way or another, baseball turned a blind eye to what was going on.

I heard an interview with a player the other day that said he was aware of what was going on but that any illegal “actions” were performed outside of the ballpark. It’s not that there were a bunch of syringes sitting around the clubhouse, but that players were aware that if they needed some help, they could get it from one of their teammates pretty easily.

Storm Davis said the other day he wouldn’t have admitted it ten years ago but now says that he was well aware of performance enhancing drug use and it’s availability during his playing days.

Nobody wants to throw anybody else under the bus and even some say that the Mitchell Report is “incomplete.” But at the same time, nobody’s come out and said, “Yeah, I did it. I knew it was illegal and I did it because I thought I could make some more money.”

Andy Pettite admitted to taking HGH during a rehab but he didn’t exactly trumpet any willing “illegal” drug use.

I just think somebody either has to stand up and be counted in the Major League Baseball office or the commissioner and Donald Fehr should both resign. Players won’t be punished because of the collective bargaining agreement and there’s a bunch of muddling around going on instead of some explanations.

I guess it’s still a “game of shadows.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Teams, Clint And The Rockies

One of the attractive things about sports for me has always been what it reveals about people. Whether it’s a team sport like football or an individual effort like golf, playing it, and observing others playing has always been as much of a mind game for me than a physical challenge.

I still enjoy going to the gym, running, riding my bike and other forms of exercise but the real fun is in the playing, and competing when it comes to sports. I’ve encouraged my kids to get involved with sports, not from a “crazed sports-dad” perspective (although some who have observed me at my kids games over the years could accuse me of that) but rather to keep them active and occupied and learn some of the things about life that sports can supply.

“Sports doesn’t build character, it reveals it,” is a slogan that rings very true, especially when your “playing” days are over.

“I can tell the people who never played a team sport,” one of my children said to me when talking one night about a real life experience. “They have a different outlook on problem solving and how to get from the start to the end of a project.” They said this without malice or judgment, but rather as an observation of how different people manage their lives, personally and professionally.

I’ve had great success and pitiful failure on athletic fields. I’ve been exalted and embarrassed for things I’ve done in sports. But I’ve tried to take something positive from all of it each time.

For a few years in a row, my friends Lex and Terry and I attended several baseball fantasy camps. It’s called a fantasy camp because usually it’s the players’ fantasy to mingle with their childhood heroes. I doubled off Mickey Lolich the first time I faced him on the mound.

Hanging around the batting cage with Hall of Famers Al Kaline talking about the science of hitting could be considered a fantasy come true. But there is the playing of the games that’s also a part of the experience. Some guys are very serious, other couldn’t care less. They’re either there to make up for some deficit they perceive from their younger days or just looking for an escape to green grass and the chance to wear a uniform again.

I always enjoyed being on the team. The banter in the clubhouse, the observations in the dugout (not always about baseball) and the winning and losing as a group. I played for Darrell Evans one year at Tigers camp. He could have cared less about the baseball but was very engaging when it came to off the field activities.

Tom Pacoirek was always fun to play for. He knew what we were looking for and provided the right blend of fun and inside baseball knowledge that you can’t get in a five-minute conversation. Ralph Garr watched me backhand a ground ball behind third base and throw a guy out by five steps while telling me, “You’re not that good anymore!”) And then pulling me aside to tell me what a great play it was.

John Shoemaker worked on my balance in the field while a major league hitting coach whose name I can’t remember told me to drag the butt of the bat through the hitting area before rotating into the ball. (That really worked!)

In those camps, the one guy that really stuck out though was Clint Hurdle. Hurdle kicked around the majors for a while, after being tabbed as “The New Phenom” on the cover of Sports Illustrated. I remember the cover as a kid, and Clint broke it out on the first day of camp, giving himself some credibility while explaining that sometimes it doesn’t all work out that way.

Hurdle told me to quiet my body in the batters box, but also explained that I had to make the routine play in the field if we wanted a chance to win. He encouraged guys who looked like they never played the game as if they were major leaguers. He’d talk about the technical refinements of hitting or the stupid baseball blunders he’d witnessed in his time in baseball.

And the more you got to know him, the more you realized that he cared about the game, but he cared about you as well. He wanted your experience to be what you were looking for and created an atmosphere that you could succeed in.

He’d been a coach for a while when he started running the Braves camp but you always had that feeling that he’d soon be a major league manager. He understood the complex relationship between being intense and relaxed all at the same time that is necessary to be a baseball player. And it shows now on his Colorado Rockies team.

“Sometimes, I just try and stay out of the way,” Hurdle told some reporters the other day.

I’m glad I’m getting a chance to write this because I thought that the Rockies might get rid of Clint because he hadn’t won enough in his first few years in Denver. But they knew he didn’t have the talent he needed, but was creating an atmosphere of success. So they kept him around to continue the process.

The Rockies were out of it in mid-August, but their late season and now post-season run is unprecedented. I mean it’s never happened before in Major League history. And I think a lot of that is how Clint puts things in perspective.

After this run and the national publicity the Rockies and Hurdle will get, he should never have a problem getting a managing job in the majors again. Can you tell I’ll be rooting for the Rockies?

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

300; 3,000; 500

I was driving the other day flipping through the stations when I came across Jim Rome talking with Bob Costas. Obviously much of the conversation centered on Barry Bonds with Rome giving Costas a chance to rebut some things Jon Miller had said the week before.

“I like Jon,” Costas said, “but he does work for the Giants so perhaps in this case he should recuse himself.”

Rome spent two segments with Bob, giving him a forum to get into the whole situation with Bonds, the Giants fans, steroids, Bonds’ denials (or not) and baseball’s position on the whole thing. Costas was able to distill much of every fan’s feelings down to their essence: Bonds cheated.

But it was a very solid argument, noting that Bonds was a great player through his career up until 1998-99 when his alleged performance enhancing drug use started. But that his numbers since then are somewhat artificial and that perhaps his “cheating” has allowed him to extend his career to this point.

Whether it’s on his nationally syndicated radio show or his current “Costas Now” on HBO, Bob has always had a long-form outlet for his ideas and opinions, and they’re usually well thought out and insightful. In this case, he filleted both Miller and Bonds (who had called Costas a “midget who never played the game”), leaving anybody with a logical thought with a very convincing argument.

As Bonds “takes” (Costas’ characterization) instead of breaks Hank Aaron’s home run record it comes at the same time as Alex Rodriguez hits a milestone at 500 home runs and Tom Glavine wins his 300th game. Is it just the time we’re living in that allows us to see such monumental feats in baseball? Is it how the game is played now? Are the players just better?

It’s actually all of those things.

The careers are longer, the players are better trained, some naturally, and in fact, it’s the time we live in. I’m sure you’ve seen the stat regarding the time frame for 300 game winners. Eleven before 1925, a couple in the next 57 years and eight since 1982. There won’t be a bunch in the near future based on the players currently in the game.

The three real milestones in baseball are 300 wins, 3,000 hits and 500 home runs. Of the three, 300 wins only comes from a long career, solid performances and playing on some good teams. Three thousand hits means you played a long time and stayed healthy. You had to be a solid player but a long career is part of 3,000 hits. Twenty years, 150 hits a year and you’re there.

Five hundred home runs are all you. Nobody’s got to make great defensive plays, and you have to have that pop in your bat that gets the ball over the fence.

At 32 years old, ARod is at 500 and could easily eclipse wherever Bonds sets the bar at some point in his career. Eight hundred? Absolutely attainable if he stays healthy and wants to get there.

I did the play-by-play for the Florida High School association baseball championships for about six years and I remember doing the title game when ARod’s team played in it. He pitched and played short. (Same with Chipper Jones). You could see he was a special player right away and he’s fulfilled that potential five-fold.

Without the steroid era, that’s one of the things I like about baseball, the stats hold up from decade to decade, century to century. The players, the fields, the agronomy, the bats, the balls, they’ve all gotten better, but it’s all relative. The numbers match and they matter.

Just think about this one fact that continues to amaze me.

Despite all of the changes, one constant is 90-feet between bases. Ninety feet from home to first. And every play seems to be bang-bang. If it’s 91, everybody’s out. If it’s 89, everybody’s safe. But it’s not. It’s 90 and perfect.

Hopefully we’ll figure out where to put Bonds in the context of his numbers versus the history of the game. For me, I’ll stay a baseball fan, Barry or not.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Hey Barry, You’re No Babe

I haven’t been a Barry Bonds fan from the beginning. I thought he was a great player, and continue to think that, but I’ve never been a fan. His years with the Pirates were punctuated with the occasional tirade, the most celebrated was one directed at then Manager Jim Leyland.

Bonds didn’t like PR department’s ability to allow journalists to do their job, and photojournalists to take Bonds’ picture during spring training. Bonds went into a profanity laced diatribe aimed at the PR director, who was backed up by Leyland. So Bonds turned his venom on the Manager, who didn’t back down. And Leyland proved to be right and Bonds proved to be a bad guy. He says the Pirates never made an offer to keep him, and he’s probably right. A city like Pittsburgh isn’t going to put up with a sulking star, so Barry was out, off to San Francisco.

It’s one thing to have a bad relationship with the fans and the media, but when your teammates are willing to throw you under the bus at the drop of a hat, then you’re the problem. Bonds had his own corner of the locker room created, taking up three lockers with lounge chairs and a big screen TV. And the TV’s were tiled so only Bonds and his “visitors” could see them.

I’ve been on enough teams and have been around enough athletes to know that some have a reputation that precedes them. And people buy into it and it’s self-perpetuating. But if you’re around them long enough, you know what kind of person they are, what their values are (if they have any) and if it’s an act, or the real thing. Baseball especially with its long hours and extended season of 162 games feeds off the chemistry of a team. Teammates know who you are, and none of Bonds’ teammates have ever backed him up. They all hate him too.

So in his insulated world, Bonds is existing as a baseball player with a constant shadow. Actually two shadows. One is his personality that turns off just about everybody, the other is the shadow of steroid use as a performance enhancing drug that helped him get bigger, faster and stronger. At this point, it doesn’t matter if Bonds did steroids or if he admits to it or denies it. The question will always be there and it will always taint any milestone he reaches.

Major League Baseball decided not to do any kind of celebration for passing Babe Ruth’s mark, rather calling it a “milestone” and putting specially marked balls into play to authenticate the actual home run ball. “We’re not going to have a celebration for passing into second place,” was their thinking. You can be sure it would have been different if Bonds didn’t have a shadow or two following him all over the place.

You might remember he derided Babe Ruth about a year ago saying nobody would remember Ruth once he passed him. Wrong again Barry. Ruth was no saint but his mark was an enduring standard only broached by one player, who did it through hard work and long seasons.

There are no shadows following Henry Aaron around. If Bonds ever gets to 755 baseball will be obligated to have some sort of celebration. Which might finally answer the question: What if you were to throw a big party and nobody came? Is it still a party?

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Baseball’s New (and Old) Problem

I suppose you can’t come to any other conclusion than Rafael Palmeiro is lying. He sat in front of a congressional committee on March 17th, waved his finger and said, “I have never used steroids.” When Major League Baseball suspended him for 10 days last week, he altered that statement adding, “I have never intentionally used steroids.” So he gave himself an out, giving rise to the theory that he took a supplement that had a steroid product in it, unwittingly.

But then it was reported that he tested positive for Winstrol, and that whole theory went out the window. You don’t get Winstrol by accident in your system. It’s either done through a pill or through an injection. Maybe his doctor, not associated with the team gave him the pill to help rehabbing an injury, but that’s not an excuse either.

As a pro athlete in these very sensitive times regarding steroids, if you sat in front of congress and waved your finger, you better know everything that you’re putting in your body.

It’s a real shame too, because Palmeiro was looked on as a sympathetic figure after the congressional hearings. He didn’t look like a steroid guy, so it was plausible that he had been named as a user because of some kind of grudge. But that all goes out the window now. Congress has asked for the documents regarding his failed drug test and if the test was before March 17th, they’re thinking about charging him with perjury, for lying under oath.

Mark McGwire came off poorly during those hearings because he kept protecting himself. Palmeiro, on the other hand, seemed to be the guy baseball was counting on to drag them out of this morass. A bona fide major league hitter with Hall of Fame numbers who didn’t look like he was about to bust out of his uniform. Now the question is reminiscent of the Watergate hearings and the question asked often, “What did baseball know and when did they know it?”

There are reports that baseball knew as early as May that Raffy had failed his drug test and tested positive for steroids. But, they held off the announcement until after the All-Star break and until after Palmeiro broke the 3,000 hit mark. (He’s the fourth player in history to hit 500 home runs and have 3,000 hits.) If that’s all true, baseball will have another black eye, and the game will take another step backwards. Not in places like Boston or New York or St. Louis, but in the non-major league cities where daily contact with the majors only comes through news reports. And those reports in recent years have been more about baseball’s problems than it’s glories.

Bud Selig has never been a strong leader for MLB, but now, more than ever, he needs to turn the reigns of this problem over to an outside agency. People are losing faith that baseball is capable of policing itself when it comes to drug testing. Hire the World Anti-Doping Agency or somebody like it to run the testing. Get out of that business and make the punishment swift and meaningful. We can hope can’t we?

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

A Baseball Town?

When the city announced that the ACC baseball championship would be contested at the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville in 2005, there was a small amount of excitement in town. Not a lot, but not a collective yawn either. Nice event, nothing spectacular.

Wrong.

The ACC championship drew over 66,000 fans over the five days, and could have easily been more if there had been a night game on Saturday to determine who was going to the finals. As it was, the tournament had every thing you hope an event in your town has. Good weather, competitive games, a great venue and happy fans.

In all, eleven teams came to town with a chance to win the conference championship. Three play-in games on Tuesday put Wake Forest in the main draw, a double elimination tournament beginning on Wednesday with the top seven teams from the regular season. (The conference will cut the tournament down to eight teams next year with no play-in games)

There were all kinds of games in the tournament. Low scoring, high scoring, tight finishes and blowouts. In the end, Georgia Tech was named the winner, beating Virginia 4-3 in the title game on Sunday afternoon.

But the real winner was Jacksonville.

It’ll be hard for the conference to move the game anywhere else. The attendance eclipsed the previous record by the time they had played games on Friday. Florida State got beat by Tech on Saturday afternoon, but if they had been able to force a second game Saturday night, you can add over 12,000 more to the final total.

Although it’s a two-year contract with a third year option for the ACC, no doubt they’re looking to keep the game in Jacksonville for a while. But there are a couple of other options, including a very attractive one at Fenway Park. Apparently because Boston College joins the fray next year, Fenway would like to host the tournament with the Eagles as the home team. That would be tough to pass up, no matter how nice things were here in Jacksonville. And with its roots in the Carolinas, the conference probably wants to put the tournament in its home state every once in a while. So while Jacksonville is the preferred venue, it’ll take some lobbying and some guarantees to keep the tournament here.

What it proves is that Jacksonville is more than just a one-horse (football) town. Anytime there’s been a well promoted, worthwhile event here, people have turned out. The ACC Championship isn’t supposed to be a big time event, but it attracted fans from all over the conference and all over the city. If it’s not here permanently, don’t worry, it’ll be back.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Baseball, Steroids And You

It’s not hard to discount anything and everything Jose Canseco says. He’s been a self promoter and a characiture for most of his career. In a nutshell, he’s not smart. But he has admitted to using steroids during his career in Major League Baseball, and has implicated most of the big names in baseball in the process.

His book about steroid use explains how, and why, top-notch athletes use performance enhancing drugs to make good athletes better and as Canseco writes, “great players legendary.” It’s not hard to look back at Canseco early in his career and see a very different body style than the one he had as his carrer ended. He was tall and muscular, but was almost wiry. He stole 40 bases and hit 40 home runs in the same season. He ran balls down in the outfield, and legged out doubles with his speed. But as his career progressed, Canseco became a heavily muscled bomber, somewhat injury prone, but more prone to outlandish behavior and prodigous home run blasts.

In other words, the poster boy for steroid use.

Whether he actually injected Mark McGwire with steroids in a bathroom stall in Oakland as he claims in his book is not very relevant. McGwire clearly enhanced his body style and his performace with some kind of substance. He’s admitted to using androstinedione, not a steroid per se, but rather a drug that allows an athlete to work out harder and more often with less recovery time.

McGwire went from a strong, tall home run hitter to a strong, tall, huge home run hitter. No doubt he spent a lot of time in the gym, and no doubt he used drugs to get big. Did Canseco inject him? Did he use illegal drugs? Who cares? Either way he did it with help, and that help put him in the record books with 70 home runs.

As a fan, just think about the players you know in your mind who went from regular looking pro athletes to sculpted Adonis looking mashers. Barry Bonds, Brady Anderson, Ron Gant, McGwire, Canseco, Sammy Sosa, Ken Caminiti, Roger Clemens, Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield, all guys who are substially bigger than when their careers started. So were they all on steroids? Did they just get bigger with age and hard work? We’ll never know. Unless of course, more players like Giambi come clean.

Canseco might be a cartoon character, and desperate for money, but at least a portion of his claims are true. Baseball players went outside the game trying to break the bank. And most did. But at what cost? Whether there’s an asterisk or not next to the records, the last ten years will always be known as the time in baseball when the players used drugs to inflate the numbers.

And how about the latest allegations?

Did MLB know this was going on, only to turn a blind eye in order to bring some new excitement to the game?

Boy, I hope not.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Yankees Go Home

While you can call it the greatest comeback in baseball history, which it was, you can also call it the greatest collapse in baseball history. The Yankees with a 3-0 league clammed up and stopped figuring out how to win while the Red Sox were focused on every pitch and every at bat trying to get to the next game. While you can excuse a little bit of a relaxed atmosphere among the Yankees after spanking Boston 19-8 and going up 3-0, it was an uneasy feeling even after the Sox won game 4 with a David Ortiz home run.

What did the Yankees do after that?

They seemed to jog off the field in anticipation of the next game. And what did they do after Ortiz singled in the winning run in the 14th inning the next night? They seemed to jog off the field in anticipation of the next game. And what did they do after losing game 6? You know the drill.

There wasn’t any sense of urgency, nobody in the Yankees clubhouse seemed to be seething with the competitive fire that’s necessary in the post-season. Where were the leaders? Starting with their captain, Derek Jeter, they seemed to forget how to win. The Yankees are super talented, chisled and well dressed. The Red Sox seemed to try to portray themselves at the opposite. They grew their beards, they messed up their helmets and wore their uniforms baggy. So what! The Sox were just as talented and it showed on the field. Even Joe Torre said after game 6, “We’re evenly matched, so now we’re tied. What else is there to say?”

But Torre failed to mention heart.

Did you see the Red Sox players hugging each other in the dugout? When was the last time Gary Sheffield hugged anybody? Alex Rodriguez is easy to root for. He’s talented and plays the game impecably. But with runners in scoring positon, Rodriguez was a .250 hitter. And with two outs he was down around .200. The Yankees needed a grinder in this series and they didn’t have one.

It’s now four years in a row that they’ve had enough talent to win the World Series, but haven’t come home with the hardware. Should we expect a George Steinbrenner meltdown? Probably not, but a real evaluation of the team’s psyche is in order. Paul O’Neill, Tino Martinez, Goose Gossage, even Reggie Jackson seemed to have that intangible that translated to their teammates when it came to crunch time. This version of the Yankees seemed to check their briefcase before going up to bat. What they should have been looking for was their heart.