Viva La Vidro Visits Safeco Field: Scenes from a Seattle Mariners Home Opener

Despite the pleadings of my closest advisors and body guards that I stay in my underground bunker with Tupac, I ignored their advice and decided to attend the Mariners’ home opener on Monday knowing full well that I would be mobbed by adoring fans at every turn. When you reach the level of fame that I have as a two-time A.S.B. President and the second best 14-15 year-old swimmer in Central Washington, you become accustomed to countless autograph and photo requests. While I realize that it comes with the territory, the constant attention can make going out in public quite difficult, and with over 40,000 people in attendance at Safeco it seemed destined to be a long day.

As it turns out the fans were much more interested in the game than they were in the author of a mildly popular blog and I was able to enjoy the game in relative peace. The M’s really rose to the occasion with a total of two hits as a team and were blanked by the Athletics 4-0. The highlight of an otherwise dull game was Randy Johnson throwing out the first pitch (the Big Unit was well received despite his tumultuous exit from the team) and then being joined on the field by Seattle legends Jay Buhner, Dan Wilson and Edgar Martinez. An otherwise reliable camera wasn’t able to capture any photos from the pre-game pageantry but I did manage to snap a few shots of the game action. They are as follows:

Ichiro’s slow start to the season has been a major source of the Mariners scoring troubles. He went 0-4 in this game and blamed the alignment of the planets for the hitless home opener, cursing Mercury for ever being born.

Ryan Rowland-Smith had a no-hitter through 5 innings, but the Hypenator struggled with his control all day, and was eventually undone by his own wildness. Seattle will need more consistency from him moving forward, although he made it up to the fans with an acoustic version of “Down Under” after the game.

Ken Griffey Jr. was understandably nervous with me in the stands and it showed as he struck out in his first two at-bats. I apologized after the game for being a distraction and Junior promised he would never let me down again. After that we went to Dave and Buster’s to play ski-ball…he won.

It only took one game for the Safeco Field faithful to start booing Milton Bradley for his play in left field. Thankfully, he didn’t respond with a middle finger as he did in Texas, though I’m sure he wanted to. Has there ever been a player in sports whose name is a worse fit for their personality? When I think Milton Bradley I think fun. When I see the Milton Bradley that plays baseball I think dark and troubled. If his name was Gregory Grumppot it would be a total non-issue.

 Junior thought about stealing home but his hamstrings decided against it.

The game ended on a long fly ball that was just a little short. Let’s hope that’s not a harbinger of what’s to come or my World Series prediction will look awful silly.

Th-th-tha-that’s all folks! Hope to head out to a few more games this summer. Stay tuned to Viva la Vidro for all things not worth being published elsewhere.

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The Lasting Legacy of Randy Johnson

There will be no debate for voters when Randy Johnson's name appears on the Hall of Fame ballot.

Unlike most sportswriters and columnists who feel the need to write about news the day or the day after it happens (boring), I like to stand above the fray and let the facts work themselves out before putting my thoughts to words. That way, I have the time to properly research the subject in question and I don’t let my emotions get the best of me. So after I heard that Randy Johnson was retiring from baseball, I spent most of the week pouring over his stats and crying until I was so dehydrated that my body could no longer produce tears. It was at the point that I was beginning to hallucinate from dehydration that I finally knew I was ready to put Johnson’s career in perspective, so here it goes:   

Randy Johnson is one of the three greatest left-handed pitchers all-time, along with Warren Spahn and Denny Neagle Lefty Grove. He was the most consistently dominant pitcher in an era ruled by hitters and is easily the best pitcher in the history of the Mariners franchise.  Though he finished second on the career strikeout list to Nolan Ryan, you could make a case that the Big Unit was a superior pitcher to the Ryan Express (Randy had a higher winning percentage, better adjusted ERA, better WHIP, better strikeout-to-walk ratio and killed more birds in his career than Ryan). A quick look at his career numbers; 303-166 record, 3.29 ERA, 100 complete games, 37 shutouts, 4,875 strikeouts and a 1.17 WHIP; reveals just how incredible Johnson’s career truly was. Statistically there is no doubt that the Big Unit is a first ballot Hall-of-Famer, but numbers alone don’t do justice to how intimidating Johnson was, and how much opposing batters hated facing him in his prime. He put the fear of God in hitters with his high-90’s heat and made even the best players look silly (just ask John Kruk). Perhaps more important to society than any of the awards he won or no-hitters he pitched, Randy Johnson proved once and for all to the world that tall, ugly, mustachioed people can do great things, and for that he deserves our heartfelt thanks—and maybe a free haircut.

The Man. The Myth. The Mullet.

One particular four-year stretch of Johnson’s career shows just how otherworldly the Big Unit was. From 1999 through 2002, Johnson posted a 81-27 record with ERA’s of 2.48, 2.64, 2.49 and 2.32 and 1,117 total strikeouts. Randy won the Cy Young Award all four years and led the Diamondbacks to a World Series in just their fourth year in existence by winning three games in the Fall Classic (the first pitcher to do that since Mickey Lolich in 1968). Now, I don’t have the Elias Sports Bureau at my disposal like ESPN, but I can reasonably assume that Johnson’s 1999-2002 seasons were one of the best stretches by a pitcher in the history of baseball, especially considering the offensive records being set at the time (even 100% steroid free Luis Gonzalez hit 57 homeruns in 2001). Randy wasn’t just good, he was utterly ridiculous.

As a Mariners’ fan I was lucky enough to see Johnson go from a dangerously wild young pitcher to the ace of Seattle’s staff. Randy, along with Edgar Martinez and Ken Griffey Jr, was a major factor in turning around a moribund Mariners franchise and will likely best be remembered for closing the door on the Angels to clinch the AL West title for Seattle in 1995. Depending on what happens with Edgar over the next few years, Randy might be the first Mariner to enter the Hall-of-Fame (followed shortly afterwards by Junior) and will certainly be remembered as one of Seattle’s biggest stars in a golden age for sports in the Emerald City. 

Though the Big Unit may be gone from baseball, he won’t soon be forgotten. Because as I once read on a baseball card advertisement: great players never fade…they become classics.

Glass Half Full: Baseball’s Midseason Stars

Last year's Cy Young winner has been even better in 2009.

Last year's Cy Young winner has been even better in 2009.

It may be hard to believe, but the the MLB season is already halfway over. As the month of July rolls along most teams have played 80 to 81 games and about two-thirds of those teams are still in the playoff hunt (apologies to the Pirates, Indians, Athletics, Nationals, etc–start looking forward to the new Harry Potter movie next year) The season has been full of highs (Randy Johnson’s 300th win, Gary Sheffield’s 500th HR), lows (Manny Ramirez steroid scandal) and bizzare celebrity deaths (Michael Jackson and Billy Mays) and undoubtedly there are plenty more of each ahead (is anyone in Hollywood safe these days?) The 162-game marathon has reached the midway point and though there is still plenty of baseball left to play, certain players are worthy of recognition for their contributions thus far. Let’s examine the best from both leagues in the first half:

NL MVP (Albert Pujols-St. Louis): Not much of a debate on this one, Pujols leads the league in nearly every offensive category (HR, RBI, R, BB, SLG, OBP, OPS) and might capture the NL’s first Triple Crown since 1937. Phat Albert has almost single-handedly lead a mediocre Cardinals squad to the top of the NL Central and if St. Louis decides to get some protection for him in the lineup (cough Matt Holliday cough), Pujols will have a season for the ages. No doubt about, 2009 will mark the third time Albert takes home the MVP award. How in the world was this guy only a 13th round pick?

NL Cy Young (Tim Lincecum-San Francisco): There are a plethora of quality young pitchers in the NL (Dan Haren, Johnny Cueto, Barry Zito, Matt Cain, Jair Jurrjens) but the best of the bunch so far has been the Giants’ Tim Lincecum. The defending Cy Young award winner has gotten even better this season, posting a record of 9-2 with a 2.23 ERA and 141 Ks in 121 innings. Lincecum has made major strides with his command, dramatically lowering his walk rate while still striking out more than a batter an inning (which helps to explain his current 23-inning scoreless streak). At only 25, “the Freak” is firmly establishing himself as one of the best pitchers in all of baseball.

Rasmus is starting to look like a star for the Redbirds.

Rasmus is starting to look like a star for the Redbirds.

NL Rookie of the Year (Colby Rasmus-St. Louis): After a slow start to the year, Rasmus has rewarded the Cardinals’ faith in him by hitting for average and power in the #2 hole of St. Louis’ lineup. Rasmus is only 22 and came into the year with zero big league experience so a bit of a learning curve was expected. He only hit .254 in April and .212 in May, but has rebounded to .333 in June and .462 so far in July. It’s a good sign that he didn’t lose his confidence during the early season struggles and it looks like he could team up with Pujols to keep the Cardinals contending for years to come.

AL MVP (Justin Morneau-Minnesota): The AL MVP race isn’t nearly the runaway that it is in the NL, but if the season ended today the junior circuit’s MVP would be Twins 1B Justin Morneau. Although he already captured the award in 2006 (suck on that Derek Jeter), Morneau has continued to fly under the radar as one of the game’s best sluggers. Halfway through the season, Morneau is hitting .323 with 21 HRs and 69 RBIs, putting him on pace for career highs in each. The Canadian Crusher is 4th in the league in batting and 2nd in HRs, RBIs, OPS and SLG. If Morneau can lead the Twins to the division crown, the award should be his.

The Royals stink, but don't blame Grienke.

The Royals stink, but don't blame Grienke.

AL Cy Young (Zack Grienke-Kansas City): Although the Royals’ hurler has come back to earth after an unbelievable start, Grienke stills leads the AL in most major pitching categories. After 17 starts, he is 10-4 with a 2.00 ERA and 120 Ks against only 19 walks, putting him on pace for the pitching triple crown. Even though Kansas City has fallen out of contention (who would have ever thought?), if Grienke can keep pitching like it’s the dead-ball era, the young star could become the Royals’ first Cy Young winner since David Cone in 1994. His only major hurdle will be getting enough wins; Grienke may have been able to overcome social anxiety disorder, but the woeful Kansas City lineup and defense are another story. Look for Roy Halladay to snatch the award if Zach Attack can’t close the deal in the second half.

AL Rookie of the Year (Andrew Bailey-Oakland): There aren’t too many rookies that are difference makers in the AL currently as many hot shot prospects (Elvis Andrus, Matt Weiters, Matt LaPorta) struggle to adjust to the major leagues; the best thus far has been a reliever–Oakland A’s pitcher Andrew Bailey. Bailey came into the season with little hype, but has put a stranglehold on the A’s closer position after Brad Ziegler missed time early on. The rookie reliever has gone 4-1 with a 2.03 ERA and 57 Ks in 48 innings and has also saved 9 games. For his stellar first half work, Bailey was selected to represent Oakland (narrowly beating out Jack Hannahan) in the All-Star game on July 14th.

Big Unit Joins Exclusive Fraternity: Will There Ever Be Another 300-Game Winner?

Will Randy Johnson be the last 300-game winner?

Will Randy Johnson be the last 300-game winner?

With a prostate the size of a honeydew and a head full of bad memories, Randy Johnson strode to the mound last night as defiantly as ever, zipping fastballs by hitters and glaring like he needed a new prescription. After six strong  innings of 2-hit ball, Johnson handed the game off to the Giants bullpen, and when Beach Boy closer Brian Wilson shut the door on the Washington Nationals in the 9th inning, the surly southpaw became only the 24th member of the 300-win club. At the grizzled age of 45, the Big Unit became the second oldest player to reach 300, coming in just a hair younger than the immortal Phil Niekro. Although he was already a sure fire Hall-of-Famer, win number 300 cemented Johnson among baseball’s all-time greatest pitchers. With 5 Cy Young awards and 6 seasons of 300+ Ks, it could be argued that Randy Johnson was the most dominant left-handed pitcher ever (and only the 6th to ever win 300 games).

As a young hurler for the Montreal Expos and Seattle Mariners, the Maestro of Mullets never looked destined for greatness; a late start to his career and erratic control lead to only 64 wins in Johnson’s twenties. But with perserverance and a face only a mother could love, he continued on unfettered, becoming nearly unhittable in his thirties (a decade in which he averaged 16.4 wins per year). Johnson has continued to defy father time this season at an age when most men struggle to do anything more athletic than change the channel to Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Incredibly enough, the Big Unit has won more games in his 40’s than in his 20’s, a mind boggling stat.

Halladay is on his way to 300 wins, but it won't be easy.

Halladay is on his way to 300 wins, but it won't be easy.

Yet while the night belonged to Randy Johnson, and rightfully so, much of the talk following the game centered around whether another pitcher would ever cross the vaunted 300-win threshold. Many baseball experts contend that it will never be done again, citing pitch counts and 5-man rotations as factors why today’s starting pitchers won’t be able to accumulate 300 wins.  Consider that a pitcher would need to win 15 games a year for 20 seasons in order to rack up 300 wins; that kind of consistency just isn’t found in baseball anymore (where are you Greg Maddux?). Throw in unpredictable bullpens and homerun friendly ballparks, and it’s easy to see why the odds are stacked against pitchers in this era.

So will any pitcher ever crack this elusive milestone, or did the door to 300-wins swing closed behind Randy Johnson? Let’s examine, in order or probability, the five current pitchers that have the best shot at joining the Big Unit in this exclusive fraternity:

1) Roy Halladay (32-years-old): One of the most consistent and durable pitchers in the game today, Doc Halladay has averaged just over 16 wins a season the past 7 years. Like Johnson, Halladay didn’t blossom until his mid-20’s, but he has been a workhorse ever since. He’s currently sitting at 140 wins and if he continues his year-to-year improvement, and can fight off the injury bug, Halladay has a reasonable shot at joining the 300-win club…in 2019.

2) CC Sabathia (28-years-old): The hefty lefty has been a mainstay in major league rotations since he was 21, giving him a head start on most MLB pitchers. Sabathia has averaged nearly 15 wins a year since his career began in 2001, and joining a potent Yankees team should add some wins to his total over the course of the next few seasons. C.C. has piled up a boatload of innings over the past few years (including 253 last season), and it will have to been seen if this leads to breakdowns/injuries later on, but with 122 wins before his 30th birthday Sabathia could join the Big Unit as the 7th lefty to 300 wins.

Sure he's less exciting than a box of rye crackers, but Buehrle has quietly been piling up the W's.

Sure he's less exciting than a box of rye crackers, but Buehrle has quietly been piling up the W's.

3) Mark Buehrle (30-years-old): The darkhorse of this group of starters, Buehrle has quietly plugged away in Chicago, winning between 10 and 19 games every season from 2001-2008. His career total of 128 doesn’t blow anyone away, but consider that Randy Johnson had just 64 wins at the same point in his career, and Hurley Buehrle’s shot at 300 doesn’t seem so far fetched. Plus he’s left handed, and thanks to the trailblazing efforts of dinosaurs like Johnson and Jamie Moyer, Buehrle will probably pitch into his 60’s.

4) Johan Santana (30-years-old): Johan has been one of the most dominating pitchers over the past 6-7 years, and shows no signs of slowing down this season thus far, with a 2.00 ERA and 89 Ks in 72 innings. Satana has already racked up 116 wins, a number that would surely be higher if he hadn’t been handing the ball off to Aaron Heilman and Co. last season. There were some concerns about the Voracious Venezuelan’s shoulder at the beginning of the year, but he has quited those doubts with his strong start. Santana definitely has the stuff, but it remains to be seen if he has the drive to pitch into his 40’s for a shot at 300.

5) Carlos Zambrano (28-years-old): Sure he’s crazy (just ask Michael Barrett), but he also knows how to pitch, and with 100 wins at the age of 28 Killer Z is already a third of the way to pitching immortality. Zambrano has an electric pitching repertoire, and should get even better if he can learn to control his emotions. He has struggled with injuries the past two seasons, and that should be a concern moving forward, but so far Zambrano has put himself in a good position to challenge for 300 wins.

What are your thoughts? Will there be another pitcher who wins 300 games? Who do you think has the best shot at the milestone? Will Steven Strasburg win 300 in his first season in the bigs? Should Jamie Moyer pitch into his 50’s for a shot at 300?

Not Just For the Sad and Lonely: A Defense of Fantasy Baseball

Hong-Chih Kuo doesn't exist unless you play fantasy baseball.

Hong-Chih Kuo doesn't exist unless you play fantasy baseball.

Playing fantasy baseball is a lot like watching the English Patient. It’s long, tedious and in the end you really aren’t sure if it was worth all the trouble. It’s the overlooked little brother of fantasy football; kind of nerdy and viewed with all the same skepticism of Dungeons and Dragons(by the way Randy Johnson has a nice slider +5, but you have to equip him with the enchanted Hands of Tyman first). Sure there aren’t 20-sided dice, but fantasy baseball isn’t exactly something you want to bring up on a first date. The season drags on from March through September, or roughly the gestation period of an American Black Bear. Unlike football, where you have to check your roster about once a week, fantasy baseball requires that you look at your roster every day for seven months to avoid the embarrassment of leaving Ty Wigginton in your lineup even though every else in the league knew that he was out with a pulled hamstring (not something that is easily lived down). I mean you could go on a three-day vacation and by the time you come back, your whole season could be shot! Kaput! Gone in the blink of an eye.

The ultimate prize. Was it worth seven months of your life?

The ultimate prize. Was it worth seven months of your life?

Additionally, there are numerous other traps that first time fantasy baseball players can fall into. Wanting to get as many starts as possible, an owner may pick up pitchers every day and plug them into their rotation. This seems like a good idea until you realize that there is a maximum number of innings allotted to a team’s pitchers and once you cross this threshold you no longer accumulate stats. You then wrap your mind around the horrific truth that you have banked your playoff hopes on pitchers like Jeff Weaver and Livan Hernandez, the only ones available on the waiver wire, and burst into bitter tears. By gosh you could burn out your pitching staff on mediocre starts by July if you really worked at it, and where would that leave you? In a quite a pickle, that’s where. Also, a number of players that seem valuable in real life, like Derek Jeter or Bobby Abreu, aren’t nearly as much of an asset on your fantasy squad, and are overvalued year after year by new fantasy players (you get exactly 0 points for leadership or clutch hits). Stats like steals mean just as much as homeruns in most leagues, leaving baseball fans turned fantasy players wondering if Willy Taveras is really as valuable as Ryan Howard (not quite).

With all that said, why would anyone in their right mind want to commit to a season of fantasy baseball? Well, the reasons are as endless as the hairs on David Hasselhoff’s chest.

The Crown Prince of Fantasy Baseball

The Crown Prince of Fantasy Baseball

First and foremost, baseball has always been the most stat driven of all sports. Even most casual fans can identify the significance of such numbers as 61 (Roger Maris’ single season HR record), .406 (Ted Williams average–the last man to hit .400) or .304-56 HR-147 RBI (Ken Griffey Jr’s 1997 MVP season). Fantasy baseball gives fans a chance to see these numbers or records as they are actually happening; certainly any fantasy baseball owner won’t forget Lance “the Big Puma” Berkman setting a career high with 18 stolen bases last year because it may have helped them knock off a hated rival to win their league, but just about everyone else outside of Houston will. Fantasy baseball also allows fans to understand the importance of such complex statistics as WHIP (walks + hits/# of innings pitched, a great way to gauge the efficiency of a pitcher) or BABIP (batting average on balls in play, the league average is around .300). For example, a player with a low BABIP, say .280, is probably suffering from bad luck and is due for a breakout, which is something a casual fan will probably overlook. Following this principle, expect Evan Longoria’s average to improve this coming season.

Moreover, fantasy baseball allows you to discover players that normally go unheralded. For instance, Hanley Ramirez and Ian Kinsler are two of the top 10 players in fantasy baseball (thanks to their combination of speed, power and high average) but they normally get lost in the shuffle of higher paid players in large media markets. Think of Ramirez and Kinsler as the indie music of baseball, they’re so great because no one else knows about them (but thankfully, they don’t wear flannel, slackline or drink out of mason jars). Playing fantasy also allows you to discover the next crop of young players. Many owners will draft prospects who are in Triple-A at the beginning of the year and then salivate (like dogs after bacon) over their minor league stats until they are finally called up. Names like Max Scherzer, Travis Snider and Andrew McCutchen might not mean much to you unless you play fantasy baseball; it’s a great way to learn about the future all-stars of the game before anyone else does.

Did Pete Rose have it right all along?

Did Pete Rose have it right all along?

The MLB season is a long one; no one will contend that point. So why not add a little spice to a 162-game season by having a little something riding on each game? Of course Pete Rose thought the same thing and look where that got him, but I digress. No longer will a July series between the Pittsburgh Pirates and San Diego Padres be as pointless as another installment of The Land Before Time series. Owners of Nate McClouth and Adrian Gonzalez will have no choice but to pay attention to the games and chart their players’ performances. It’s not quite turning water into wine, but the ability to turn something meaningless into something meaningful, now that’s fantasy baseball’s true gift to mankind.

So the next time your friend mentions an upcoming fantasy baseball draft,  don’t call him a pale worthless excuse for a human being (sticks and stones may break but bones, but words will hurt forever). Instead, ask him if you can join and tell him you know all about WHIP and BABIP. After all, you do get a shiny little trophy if you win; isn’t that worth seven months of your life?

Best site for fantasy baseball: http://sports.yahoo.com/fantasy