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Just Off-Camera

"They respect you if you write. The dumber the world gets, the more the words matter." -Dan Jenkins


Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Send Les Expos To Vegas, Baby!

In Ernest Lawrence Thayer's classic poem "Casey At The Bat," there's a line that goes, "'Fraud!' cried the maddened thousands, and the echo answered fraud."

I can only imagine that this was set in Montreal's Olympic Stadium, because the team only draws a few thousand for a game, so you can certainly hear an echo off the permanently closed retractable roof and plastic playing surface. How do you say "fraud" in French, anyway? Giguere?

How comical is the Expos' lack of attendance? On June 16, 3,763 fans turned out to watch the Expos lose their fifth straight game. There were so few people there that a fan sitting behind the first-base dugout farted in the sixth inning and leftfielder Carl Everett cursed him out.

Okay, I made that up. But what really did happen was that the Expos' AAA affiliate, the Edmonton Trappers, drew 3,975 fans to their home game against Tucson. That's 212 more fans. In Edmonton. At a triple-A game. Probably didn't hurt that the Trappers actually play winning baseball - they won that game, their fourth win in their last five games.

Bottom line: Les Expos need to move, and they need to do it yesterday.

Send them to Vegas.

Bud Selig and his cronies probably won't do that for two reasons, which are that Washington, DC/Northern Virginia is the frontrunner to land the 'Spos, and that gambling on baseball is legal in Las Vegas. Neither of those two reasons are compelling to me.

For starters, the DC area already has the Orioles. The Washington newspapers treat the Orioles as their home team, and the politicians all go to Orioles games. Even with two major cities to draw from, what kind of attendance are the Orioles getting this season? They're not selling out Camden Yards the way they did when the park was at the forefront of the retro stadium movement. The yard seats over 48,000, but the O's have failed to reach 20,000 on occasion this season. It doesn't sound like a situation where another team could enter the picture and thrive. Besides, DC has already had two cracks at a major league franchise, and both times its team packed up and moved west.

As for the gambling issue, certainly, it's a legitimate argument, albeit one that is vulnerable. Certainly, Major League Baseball doesn't want players to be even tempted to wager on the games. However, pro sports, including baseball, have been able to coexist with casinos in the past.

Exhibit A: The Las Vegas 51s have been existing quite well since 1983, when they began play. Since the 51s are a triple-A team, they carry players on their roster who are part of the Los Angeles Dodgers' 40-man roster. Big leaguers routinely come through Vegas on minor-league rehab assignments (Hideo Nomo did this within the past month).

Exhibit B: The Montreal Expos currently play a stone's throw from the Casino De Montreal. No, there is no sportsbook there, but the legalized gambling hasn't caused a problem in the Expos' present location.

Exhibit C: The Las Vegas Invitational, a PGA Tour event, comes to the desert every year, and there also haven't been any problems.

Other pro sports teams also have existed in Vegas (the XFL's Las Vegas Outlaws and the WCHL's Las Vegas Wranglers, for instance), and still, no big issues.

On the plus side, the population of Las Vegas grew 83.3 percent from 1990 to 2000, more than twice the growth rate of any other city in the 35 most populous cities nationwide. By 2010, if Vegas continues that rate, it will have a bigger population that that of San Diego, St. Louis, Tampa, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Kansas City, and Milwaukee - all of which have MLB franchises.

In addition to that, Las Vegas is constantly flooded with tourists. Baseball games, especially in the early evening - between the end of conventions and when people are ready to hit the casino floor - would be a popular attraction.

The possibility of removing MLB from the sportsbooks in Vegas remains a possibility in exchange for the arrival of a team. Since the action that Vegas takes on baseball games is minimal compared to other sports, the loss could potentially be offset by the revenue that a baseball team would bring, especially if it is marketed well (the 51s led all minor league teams in merchandise sales in 2001).

The only drawback is that if you go 0-for-4 in Vegas with four strikeouts, it doesn't stay in Vegas. The whole world hears about that.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Seeing Stars, Part II

Here's some quick hits on why I picked some of these players. These are guys who aren't in the top two or three in voting, or in the case of pitchers, have never been All-Stars before. To see all of the Just Off-Camera All-Star picks, check out yesterday's column.

Bobby Abreu - one of two active players with a .300 career average who has never made an All-Star team, plus he's second in the NL in runs, third in walks, and fourth in steals and OBP.

Jeromy Burnitz - all-around solid hitter is batting .288 with 16 HR, 47 RBI, and 41 runs.

Royce Clayton - NL shortstop is a woefully thin position, but he's eighth in the majors with 20 doubles.

Matt Clement - fourth in the majors with 90 strikeouts behind three other All-Stars.

Carl Crawford - faster than your father running from the cops, he leads the majors with 27 steals and is third in the AL with six triples.

Jermaine Dye - 12 HR and 45 runs means he's back on track after last year's injury.

Johnny Estrada - .335 average is eighth in the NL, plus he's baseball's biggest anti-drug advocate. The Braves didn't let Millwood go for nothing.

Steve Finley - 17 HR is a bright spot on the D'backs' offense.

Carlos Guillen - 49 runs scored is fourth in the AL; seven triples is second.

Jose Guillen - 46 RBI is seventh in the AL, rounding out a potent Angel outfield.

Livan Hernandez - leads the majors in innings pitched, plus the Expos have to send somebody.

Travis Hafner - second in the AL with 21 doubles and fourth in the AL with a .420 OBP.

Matt Lawton - fifth in the majors with 50 runs scored, 10th with 80 hits.

Mark Loretta - Dave Revsine's frat brother from Northwestern is one of the most underrated players in the game.

Victor Martinez - tied with Pudge for fourth in AL RBI, but not getting the same love.

Melvin Mora - a .357 average and he's not even in the top five in balloting.

David Ortiz - 54 RBI and an AL-leading 24 doubles says he should be starting, but he's not on the ballot.

Scott Podsednik - the best rookie hitter in the NL last year leads the majors with 27 steals.

Juan Rincon - better WHIP and more strikeouts than Joe Nathan, and tied for the team lead in wins with seven as a middle reliever. One middle man should go every season.

Frank Thomas - leading the AL with 17 HR.

Jim Thome - leads the majors with 20 HR, but somehow not even in the top three in the voting, plus his .688 slugging pct. is second in the majors.

Juan Uribe - .312 average, nine HR, but not on the ballot.

Javier Vazquez - seven wins and a WHIP under 1.00 shows he didn't need much time to adjust to the AL.

Craig Wilson - eighth in the majors with a .614 slugging pct and ninth in OPS.

Jack Wilson - the other Wilson "brother" is fourth in the majors with 87 hits, and leads the NL with five triples.

Michael Young - also fourth in the majors with 87 hits, and filling in for A-Rod at short quite nicely.

Carlos Zambrano - 2.32 ERA helps Cubs through Prior and Wood's injuries.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

I'm Seeing Stars

With the All-Star Game four weeks away, I figured I'd take this opportunity to pick my All-Star teams. Some of the players here are the leading vote-getters, some aren't even close, but I think they all deserve their spot on the team.

The guidelines I'll use are pretty much the same that MLB uses: For the starters, I'll go only with players listed on the ballot. For reserves, I'm taking players at positions at which they've played the majority of their games in the field (not including DH here, since the game is being held in an NL park). I'll go with 20 hitters and 10 pitchers from each league, and I'm going to take at least one player from each team. Also, there will be at least one backup at every position.

So here goes...

First, the AL starters:
C - Ivan Rodriguez, DET
1B - Frank Thomas, CHW
2B - Alfonso Soriano, TEX
3B - Melvin Mora, BAL
SS - Carlos Guillen, DET
OF - Vladimir Guerrero, ANA; Manny Ramirez, BOS; Matt Lawton, CLE
P - Curt Schilling, BOS

The NL starters:
C - Mike Piazza, NYM
1B - Albert Pujols, STL
2B - Jeff Kent, HOU
3B - Scott Rolen, STL
SS - Jack Wilson, PIT
OF - Barry Bonds, SF; Bobby Abreu, PHI; Lance Berkman, HOU
P - Randy Johnson, ARI

AL reserves:
C - Victor Martinez, CLE
1B - David Ortiz, BOS; Travis Hafner, CLE
2B - Juan Uribe, CHW
3B - Alex Rodriguez, NYY; Hank Blalock, TEX
SS - Michael Young, TEX
OF - Carlos Beltran, KC; Jose Guillen, ANA; Jermaine Dye, OAK; Carl Crawford, TB; Hideki Matsui, NYY
P - Pedro Martinez, BOS; Mark Mulder, OAK; Mariano Rivera, NYY; Javier Vazquez, NYY; Eddie Guardado, SEA; Keith Foulke, BOS; Mark Buehrle, CHW; Juan Rincon, MIN; Roy Halladay, TOR

NL reserves:
C - Johnny Estrada, ATL
1B - Sean Casey, CIN; Jim Thome, PHI
2B - Mark Loretta, SD
3B - Aramis Ramirez, CHC
SS - Royce Clayton, COL
OF - Scott Podsednik, MIL; Steve Finley, ARI; Miguel Cabrera, FLA; Jeromy Burnitz, COL; Ken Griffey Jr., CIN; Craig Wilson, PIT
P - Roger Clemens, HOU; Armando Benitez, FLA; Jason Schmidt, SF; Matt Clement, CHC; Carlos Zambrano, CHC; Ben Sheets, MIL; Tom Glavine, NYM; Eric Gagne, LA; Livan Hernandez, MTL

Not surprisingly here, the Red Sox (five All-Stars) and the Yankees (four) have the most players represented here. In the NL, the Cubs and Astros are the only teams with three, which is a good representation of how evenly spread out across the league talent is.

What did surprise me was after I had made my teams originally and then went back to see which teams weren't represented yet, I was only missing two teams. Those were the Blue Jays and Expos, so I took the best pitcher from each team, mostly because neither team has anyone hitting at an All-Star clip this season.

Later this week I'll set out to explain the choices here. If there's anything you really are scratching your head over, let me know, and I'll do my best to back up my pick. I already imagine there might be a few names that provoke some feedback.

Monday, June 14, 2004

The Silence Of The Hawk

A funny thing about working for ESPN is that around Bristol and Hartford, when you tell other people where you work, it's no big deal. 3,000 people work at ESPN, and chances are good that you aren't the first person they've met who works there.

However, when you go somewhere else, people often have a reaction along the lines of "That's awesome, can you get me a job there?"

Yes, it is awesome. No, I probably can't get you a job there. I have no sway with the powers that be at ESPN. But I am very fortunate to have my job. I am also of the opinion that like most jobs in the media, it's not something that everyone can do - or at least do well.

That's why I was a little upset to see LaTroy Hawkins's reasoning behind his new boycott of the media. Before I get to that, let me go on a quick rant about athletes' media boycotts.

Many athletes already come across as spoiled. Boycotting the media is not a good way to change that reputation, unless you want to change it to spoiled, petulant, and puerile. The media is why athletes are able to command $2.67 million a year (that's you, LaTroy), $7 million a year (Michael Strahan), and $18 million a year (Barry Lamar Bonds). If your games weren't on TV, if the reporters didn't write their columns about you, if your leagues didn't sign massive deals with media outlets, you'd be playing for fun in your free time while you worked some other job (see the NHL if you're wondering what happens when the media isn't interested in you).

In addition to that, media boycotts never last. Eventually, enough things will be written or said about you and you're going to want to voice your opinion. That's why Michael Strahan ended his recent boycott by going on the radio, and why Barry Bonds holds his press conferences now and then, and why LaTroy Hawkins is going to start talking again pretty soon, probably as soon as he loses the closer's job in Chicago.

And that brings me back to Hawkins. Last week, after Joe Borowski became the latest Cub to visit the DL this season, Hawkins inherited the closer's role. His first action as closer was to announce that he would no longer speak to the media. Part of his speech referenced White Sox "closer" Billy Koch, who hasn't been the most reliable arm out of the South Side pen this season. That was the part that caught most people's attention - especially Koch, who responded unkindly because he misunderstood Hawkins's comments. But the part that caught my attention was this doozy of a line.

"I'm not going to apologize for [nail-biting saves], because I can do what you guys can do, [but] you can't do what I can do."

Really, LaTroy? You think you could be a baseball writer? Then go ahead and send in your resume to the Chicago Tribune - after all, the paper owns the Cubs, I'm sure they'd give you a fair shot at the job. Unfortunately for you, my guess is that they'd require a college degree before they'd even consider hiring a new writer. And while your teammate Mark Prior recently picked his diploma up at USC, you went pro right out of high school.

Would you be willing to take the pay cut? How would someone so disinclined to take part in an interview deal with having to (gasp) interview players for a living? And what if they refused to talk to you, like a certain new Cubs closer? Could you still bang out your game recap in 20 minutes and send it in under deadline?

Don't get me wrong. I don't think that all athletes are unfit to write for a paper. In fact, I'll throw out two names of pitchers whom I know can write: Todd Jones and Curt Schilling. Neither of these guys may be the most liked in the world, but Jones has a weekly column that runs in his hometown paper, and Schilling has written open letters that have run on ESPN.com and were fairly well-done.

Another story: Flash back 10 years, to after the 1994 season, when Hawkins was still a struggling minor leaguer thinking about quitting. In a 1997 interview, Hawkins recounted what his grandfather - someone who had worked in a steel mill for 35 years - told him.

"He told me I have a chance to make a lot of money doing what I love, that baseball is easier than the average person's life. I said, 'Yeah, granddad, but you just see it from the outside. You don't see what's going on on the inside.'"

Now that Hawkins has succeeded, and he is making a lot of money, his life probably isn't too difficult. I'm sure I'm not the only one making that assumption, and it's a reasonable one to make. Of course, I may be wrong. I don't see what's going on on the inside. He won't talk about it.

Monday, June 07, 2004

Getting Stupid About Smarty

Come on, admit it. You didn't really think Smarty Jones was going to win the Belmont Stakes and the Triple Crown.

Not when no horse has won the Triple Crown in the past 26 years. Not when six of the past eight years, all a horse needed to do was win the Belmont to win the Triple Crown but still failed.

It wasn't going to happen, even if Smarty Jones was the favorite. I didn't think it was going to happen until Smarty held a four-length lead around the final turn. And even then, it didn't happen.

I'm not saying horse racing is fixed. I don't know how it could be done, not with all the media attention the Triple Crown races get. I also don't know much about horse racing, but I can tell you that the Belmont Stakes would be an afterthought if the same horse didn't win the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. So naturally, it's in the sponsors' interest - hell, it's in the sport's interest - for a horse to win the first two jewels of the crown and fix everyone's attention on his bid for the Belmont.

And lo and behold, that's exactly what has happened in six of the past eight years. It certainly raises a red flag in my eyes. Not only that, in each of those six opportunities, the horse making his Triple Crown bid has come up short - literally - in the longer Belmont Stakes. And that, of course, raises interest in the Triple Crown the next year.

So I don't know if the fix is in or not, but I certainly wouldn't be surprised in the least if such news broke.

***

In a related story, the City of Philadelphia is licking its wounds again as another hopeful from the banks of the Schuylkill falls short of a championship.

Bah!

Smarty Jones is not a substitute for a Flyers, Phillies, Eagles, or Sixers championship. Cry not, Philly.

Here's why (and keep in mind that I haven't lived in Philly for a few years now, so maybe I'm detached from the Smarty Jones hype): First of all, Smarty Jones already won the "championship," which is the Kentucky Derby. Every year, exactly one horse wins the Derby, just like every year, only one team wins the Stanley Cup, World Series, etc.

In team sports, a champion isn't crowned every 26 years. So why was the Triple Crown necessary for Philly to feel as though Smarty Jones cleaned the slate of championship failures?

It wasn't.

The bigger reason that a Smarty Jones Triple Crown would not serve as a surrogate champion for the City of Brotherly Love is because a month of rooting for a horse is in no way equal to 21 years of supporting a city's teams.

Maybe Philadelphia is so desperate for a champion that it needed a Triple Crown to make up for 84 combined seasons without a championship in the NHL, MLB, NFL, and NBA. But that wouldn't have made up for anything.

Assume Smarty Jones had won the Belmont. Four months from now, if the Phillies fell short of the playoffs, would Philly fans say to themselves, "Well, Smarty Jones won the Triple Crown, so I guess we can't win 'em all?"

Of course not. Smarty Jones would be ancient history in the minds of Philly fans. They've waited 24 years for a World Series champion. If you think for a second that a month of support for a champion horse about which they had never heard before could make up for a quarter-century of losing baseball, you're flat-out wrong.

Smarty Jones could never count as a Philadelphia champion the way the Flyers or Eagles could. Fans haven't invested their emotions in Smarty Jones the way they have in those teams. I've seen people with Flyers tattoos. I've seen Winnebagos painted in Eagles colors and logos. Ask those people what Smarty Jones means to them, and they'll tell you it's nice, good for Smarty, but Philadelphia still hasn't had a champion since May 31, 1983.

Apologies to the vendors selling Smarty Jones shirts outside the new Phils ballpark, but it doesn't count. We need Jim Thome and Larry Bowa smiling next to Bud Selig in late October for the championship drought to truly end.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Jacked And Jack

Sometimes, you just have to bite the bullet and give a man his due.

Barry Bonds could very well be the best hitter of all-time. He's certainly the best hitter right now, even at age 39. If he actually saw the same pitches that every other hitter in the league say, he'd blow everyone away, no contest. Sure, Albert Pujols and A-Rod are tremendous. And since those are probably the only two players you could even put in Bonds's league right now, you have to think about how they affect a game.

Pitchers don't walk those guys with the bases empty or a man already on first. Pujols and A-Rod are probably seeing twice as many strikes as Bonds over the course of a season.

Steroids or no steroids, a needle full of THG isn't going to give you the incredible eye at the plate that Bonds has. As I'm writing this, I have my eye on a Giants-D'backs game in which Bonds took Casey Daigle deep after fouling off a few pitches. Daigle finally put one slider in the wrong spot and Bonds took his opportunity and hit the ball to Flagstaff.

There is no such thing as a lucky break with Bonds. If you make a mistake to him, you will not get away with it. That is the nature of the hormonally enhanced beast that is Barry Bonds.

It is especially hard to admit this, because not only do I strongly dislike Bonds, I spent a good deal of effort trying to convince a fellow sports editor back at The Sun that A-Rod was the best player in baseball. And while I'm not going to give up that argument (because at this point, A-Rod is the entire package, and he's shown that he can even field a new position well), I'll concede that Bonds is the best hitter.

Of course, I'd still boo him when he comes to the plate, I still say there are other players around which I'd rather build a team, and I still say he's not my first choice for my fantasy team.

***

This is a week late, and by no means is it a knock on the show...but let's take a quick look at the last 24 hours in the world of Jack Bauer.

Jack started a prison riot, found out that his daughter was dating his colleague, tried to combat his new heroin addiction, went to Mexico, was involved in a deal with Mexican drug lords that was ultimately useless and only resulted in both of their deaths, made several fruitless agreements with the woman who killed his wife, chased the guy who was ultimately behind the Mexican deal only to see him die, then found out he wasn't behind it after all, found out it was an old British agent with whom he used to work who was masterminding the whole thing, barely escaped the MI6 building before it was attacked, went to the bad guy's daughter's college to kidnap her, killed his boss because the bad guy demanded it, tracked down the bad guy, tracked down a fellow agent who was trying to escape with the bad guy's daughter, tracked down the bad guy again, captured him, then chased a deadly vial of a virus through a subway station and into a middle school.

And that doesn't even touch upon things like Tony getting shot, returning, admitting that he and two other agents orchestrated a year-long covert plot to infiltrate the Mexican drug cartel, dealing with his wife's exposure to a deadly virus, then committing treason in an attempt to save her once she was captured after she was found to be immune to the virus, and then his subsequent attempt to escape, his capture, and his impending imprisonment.

Oh yeah, there are also a whole bunch of quarantined zones in Los Angeles due to the virus, and the President has debated his opponent, broken up with his girlfriend, somewhat orchestrated the death of a prominent contributor and its coverup, and decided against seeking reelection, all while dealing with an impending terrorist attack.

There's much more that I'm forgetting from the latest season of the show, and it all supposedly went down in 24 hours of real time. Plausibility is an issue that must be ignored in order to fully enjoy the show...so I ignored it and fully enjoyed the show.

On the other hand, the last 24 hours of my life went something like this: I slept for eight hours, then I woke up, showered, went to work and watched baseball for eight hours, took a break, then came back to work to watch some more baseball.

My life is more believable, but somehow not nearly as exciting.