Saturday, August 10, 2013

In Other Words: Jack Clark and 'The Accusation'

AUGUST 9th, 2013-Well, here we go again.

Former ML outfielder-first baseman Jack Clark, in his first week of co-hosting an afternoon drive show on St. Louis's WGNU (920 AM), decided to stir the PED pot a bit.

After his partner on the show, Kevin Slaten, mentioned the possibility that former Cardinals first baseman, current LA Angels' DL denizen and living legend Albert Pujols had used steroids in the past, Clark responded in the resoundingly affirmative:

I know for a fact he was. The trainer that worked with him, threw him batting practice from Kansas City, that worked him out every day, basically told me that's what he did.”

The four-time ML All-Star Clark, who played with the Cards from 1985-87, has now twice made this claim in his first week on the show. Slaten didn't even finish his statement about Pujols' alleged use of steroids before Clark jumped in. Commenting on trainer Chris Mihlfeld, who worked with Pujols (as well as Jason Grimsley, who was busted after being caught shipping PEDs directly to his own home), Clark said the following:

(Mihlfeld) had told me what he was doing with 'Poolie' (Pujols, in lame baseball nickname-speak). He threw him batting practice, worked him out, shot him up, all that stuff.”

OK. Let's start with the character of the man making said statement.

Clark was not one to shy away from expressing his opinions during his MLB career. For that matter, he seemed to engender negative feelings from his teammates from time to time.

In his time with the San Francisco Giants in the early-80's, Clark often complained about the playing conditions at old Candlestick Park. In fairness, I remember The 'Stick: it was cold, windy and damp. Frequently. But this sort of attitude, along with concerns from manager Frank Robinson and the front office that he was, perhaps, 'milking' his injuries, led to his trade to the Cards in 1985 for SS Jose Uribe, pitcher Dave LaPoint and 1B-OFs David Green and Gary Rajsich.

In 1987, Clark had managed to get on SS Ozzie Smith's bad side. In 1988 he had signed a two-year contract with the New York Yankees, but while he enjoyed playing for manager Billy Martin, he didn't much care for Martin's replacement Lou Pinella. At the end of '88, he was on his way out of The Big Apple and heading to San Diego, traded with Pat Clements for Ps Lance McCullers and Jimmy Jones, and OF Stan Jefferson. He took one last shot at NY and the American League, in general, saying “I hate that damn league. Every game lasts 3 ½ to 4 hours. No wonder the fans are bored over there.”

In San Diego, Clark's newest target for criticism was OF Tony Gwynn (of all people). Clark felt that Gwynn was more concerned about his batting average than he was about winning, and that he often bunted in situations which seemed inappropriate in order to preserve said average. “No one bothers Tony Gwynn because he wins batting titles, but the Padres finish fourth or fifth ever year”, said Jack the Ripper, ostensibly a nickname gained from his run-producing talent, though it could just have easily come from his frequent character attacks on other players.

As much as Clark (supposedly) hated the AL, he returned there in 1991 when he signed with the Boston Red Sox. Again, he took aim at one of his former comrades:

(Padres manager) Greg Riddoch is a bad, bad man, and he's sneaky. He's a snake. Well, not just a snake, but a s-s-s-n-n-n-a-ke.” well as firing off a few rounds at the Padres' fans:

Everything that they should cheer for, they'd boo for, and everything they should boo for they'd cheer for...Tony, he's perfect for them. He just plays the whole thing up, and the town is so stupid that they can't see (emphasis added).”

It was around this time that Gwynn decided he'd had quite enough:

Let's talk about him walking 104 times, being a #4 hitter. Let's talk about his not flying on team flights. Let's talk about him getting booted out of games on a called strike three.”

Clark had his own faults, beyond his need to point out the flaws of others. In 1992 his lavish spending habits led him into bankruptcy, driven primarily by his obsession with luxury cars. His bankruptcy filing stated that he was paying on 17 car notes at the same time. Seventeen. He would sometimes get bored with a car and simply get rid of it in favor of a new and different one. In the end, he lost his home (valued at approximately 2.4 million) and his drag-racing business, but was once again financially stable by the late-90's.

This leads us to thirteen years ago. In 2000, he was working as hitting coach for the LA Dodgers. It was in this season that he supposedly was told by the trainer Mihlfeld that he was giving Pujols steroids.

Now, the easiest flaw to point out in Clark's statement is that it's pure hearsay; just because Clark says that someone else said that so-and-so was being given steroids, that doesn't make it true. Granted, Mihlfeld was involved with Grimsley, who was most assuredly using PEDs. But this sort of 'guilt-by-association' strategy is what's being used against a number of former players even now, with reporters and fans alike making reckless assumptions (in some cases).

Beyond Clark's assertion that Mihlfeld said he gave steroids to the Angels first-sacker, what else does he have to offer to back up that claim? Not to mention this little tidbit, where he said:

...basically told me that's what he did.”

“Basically told me...”. OK, so did Mihlfeld come out and say it, point-blank, or did he simply allude to the possibility that he might be doing so? Either he said it or he didn't. This 'basically' crap is close to slander, the way I see it. At first, Clark says that he was told by Mihlfeld that the trainer was giving Pujols steroids. The follow-up statement says “basically...”. So which is it?

For that matter, why are you bringing this up now? I would have to assume that your concern in this matter is that fair play and a clean game are paramount to the success and reputation of Major League Baseball. But if that's what you believe, then why are you coming out thirteen years after the fact with such an accusation, at a time in which you'd be hard-pressed to prove the the conversation even took place, about one of the biggest stars in the last 50 years? What could your motivation possibly be?

Actually, as I was researching for this post, writer Ray DeRousse had already written an excellent article about Clark's possible motivation for making such a (potentially) reckless comment. In this post, he noted that Clark seemed to be jealous of the success of both proven and suspected PED users, citing Clark's own words:

They got the money, that's what they went for. But when they get off the juice and that stuff's not around, their body starts breaking down and obviously you start seeing some results go away...The greed...they juice up, they grab the money and it's just a free pass to steal is the way I look at it.”

Well, now. That certainly clears up some things, doesn't it? At least it gives some insight as to why Clark might feel the way he does, as well as the timing in which he's chosen to make his accusations.

Granted, there has been some suspicion about Pujols since his earlier days with the Cards, but never has he even been remotely linked with anything in the way of concrete evidence of PED use. Yes, he was associated with Mihlfeld, who was actually cleared from involvement in PED distribution back in 2006 when Brian McNamee was instead linked to the Grimsley affidavit as the guilty party in question., on June 8th, 2006, also pointed the finger at Mihlfeld, going so far as to name Mihlfeld as the individual who connected Grimsley (and others) to a dealer who provided the players with “amphetamines, anabolic steroids and HGH”.

People in the sports media who play this sort of game, in which they may do no more than insinuate the guilt of a player, are on thin ice as soon as they start. Pujols has already stated in the press that he is planning to sue Clark and WGNU, as well.

Pujols told

It is irresponsible and reckless for Jack Clark to have falsely accused me of using PEDs. My faith in Jesus Christ and my respect for this game are too important to me. I would never be able to look my wife or kids in the eye if I had done what this man is accusing me of.

"I know people are tired of athletes saying they are innocent, asking for the public to believe in them only to have their sins exposed later down the road. But I am not one of those athletes, and I will not stand to have my name, and my family's name, dragged through the mud."

Of course, these are just words. We've all seen the 'Indignant Major Leaguer' card played many times before, and it's a pretty tired approach at this point. All that will matter in the end is whether or not Pujols used PEDs, and following the progression (or lack, thereof) of the libel suit that Pujols plans to file could tell a great deal as to whether Clark was right. Remember: it's only libel if it isn't true.

And Pujols has, to our knowledge, never failed a drug test. It will certainly be interesting to see how this plays out.

(UPDATE: Early Saturday morning, insideSTL announced the firing of both Clark and Slaten. The company is doing its best to distance themselves from the former co-hosts, as well as their comments. Best of luck with that. )

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Charging The Mound, For Beginners

AUGUST 6th, 2013-I'm not a guy who really cares for this sort of thing. But if you gotta throw down, throw down. And after hearing of Legends LF Terrance Gore's beaning at the hands of Asheville Tourists righty Rayan Gonzalez a few hours ago, I was 'inspired', shall we say, to broach the subject of bench-clearing brawls. (Note: Gore was the first batter Gonzalez has hit, this year, but he beaned him. And hard, too). I don't want to focus on that particular incident, though it got me a little hot under the collar to hear that T was potentially badly hurt (he's not, as far as I know).

Ty Cobb once said that baseball "is something like a war". Zack Greinke thinks he's dead right.

Greinke made the mistake of targeting Padres OF Carlos Quentin earlier in the year for something like the 15th time in his career, and Quentin decided to audition for the Chargers while he had the chance. Why, exactly, Greinke has such a need to drill the Padres linebacker/occasionally healthy outfielder, I have no idea. But lo and behold, on April 11th of this year the slightly-built Dodgers righty thought he'd send a message to the unfortunate batter, and that message was "I'm dying for a beat-down".

Quentin was happy to oblige.

As you can see in the above video, Greinke has a poor grasp of basic tackling skills (and physics), as he only slightly lowers his shoulder into the charging rhino that is Quentin. He got mildly stomped for his trouble, and suffered a broken collarbone to boot.

My personal feeling on this fight is that it never should have happened. Problem is, Quentin has been plunked by Greinke so often that I suppose he got the idea that Greinke had some sort of vendetta. It used to be that 'misunderstandings' like this were settled on the field; one pitcher would hit a batter (whether accidentally or intentionally), the opposing pitcher would respond in kind. End of story.

But it seems nowadays that most players can't just let it go at that. Some will even get bent out of shape when a pitcher has the GALL to pitch on the inner part of the plate. How dare they! As if that part of the plate even belongs to the pitcher!

What a steaming load of horsecrap. So many sensitive hitters out there. Makes me wonder if modern players have a full understanding of the game. But I digress.

Brawls have been a part of the game for as long as it has been played, at every level. One of the more famous was the Nolan Ryan-Robin Ventura bout back in 1993, in which Ryan instructed the young Mr. Ventura in the finer art of noogies:

In this instance, Ryan had 21 years on the 25 year-old Ventura, and it's believed (citation needed) that his love tap of a fastball to the White Sox third sacker's spine was merely his way of telling him that he had neglected to buy a ticket for the Ryan Express. Ventura was kind enough to offer the demi-god pitcher the top of his skull as payment for the ride. And had his fine motor skills beaten out of him, because of it.

Ah, the olden days. Hey, kids! Remember black and white TV? Course, you don't.

The date was July 22nd, 1986. The SF Giants were lost in the Busch, facing off against the Cardinals. RHP Frank Williams was the pitcher, OF Vince Coleman the batter. Williams was in the middle of what would be an outstanding season, posting a scintillating 1.20 ERA over 52 1/3 IP for the Giants. Of note is the 4 batters he hit, on the year. Four. Indeed, over his career he hit only 20 batsmen in 471 2/3 innings. Mr. Coleman would be one of the twenty.

As you see in the video, Williams had already come up and in (way up, way in) to the left-handed batting Coleman, and manager Roger Craig took some exception to this. As it turns out, so did Coleman.

On the very next pitch, Ol' Frank nailed him. Benches cleared, anger simmered, blah blah blah...

Next thing you know, C Mike Heath literally has to carry Vince off the field. This is just after Heath had to subdue him by wrestling him to the ground. So Vince was perhaps a little miffed by the whole experience.

Other highlights of this bout: IF Joel Youngblood in what appears to be a reversed sleeper hold, Cards skipper Whitey Herzog shoulder-blocked by Giants IF Randy Kutcher, and #43 of the Giants (who I can only assume is a coach) entertaining thoughts of causing mayhem in the stands. This one had it all.

Rewind even further to August 12th, 1984, Padres @ Braves. San Diego was on their way to a 92-70 finish, a narrow victory over the Chicago Cubs in the NLCS, and a 5-game elimination in the World Series which came courtesy of the Detroit Tigers. Atlanta, on the other hand, was fighting for its place in the annals of mediocrity; however, though they would finish tied for 2nd in the NL West with the Houston Astros, their record was a less-than-compelling 80-82, good for 12 games out of first place. So San Diego was the only team in their division to finish with a winning record in 1984. Baseball is a funny game.

Anyhew, the game starts off on the right (wrong?) foot, with human Jheri Curl and RHP Pascual Perez went right after the lefty-batting 2B Alan Wiggins, who would steal 70 bags that year and 242 in 631 ML games before his life was cut tragically short in 1991 at the age of 32. That, however, is another story.

Not a team willing to forgive and forget, the Pads waited all the way until the bottom of the 8th, when LHP Craig Lefferts decided to express his disapproval with the offender himself, laying a love tap on the right-handed batter Perez.

When I think about it, I can't remember the last time I saw a pitcher actually get plunked in retaliation. Hm.

That should have been the end of it, right? Wrong, again. Enter RHP Donnie Moore (another tragic story) in the top of the 9th. Moore ended up pitching to one batter, that man being 3B Graig Nettles. Did Nettles get a hit? Well, sorta.

So Moore, perhaps misunderstanding the meaning of 'turnabout is fair play', keeps the beanball war going as he makes Nettles the third victim of this game. That didn't go over as well as perhaps he had hoped.

Again, another fascinating exchange of testosterone-fueled man-love: Champ Summers gets assaulted by fans, one of the Padres (unidentified, but one of the balder ones) gets his jersey ripped off, and Perez gives the cameraman a long dramatic stare after attempting to fend off numerous Pads while still armed.

Yep. Perez never dropped his bat. But since when would a pitcher know how to use one?

Oh. My bad.
And last, but certainly not least, there's this little gem out of South Korea. They do things a little differently, over there. Uh...yeah. 

Professional athletes have a lot on the line, every time they take the field. There's tons of pressure, and some guys handle it better than others. There will always be moments when that frustration, anxiety and rage boils over. When that happens, there will always be some nameless fan, video phone at the ready, who will immortalize and capture the moment for the rest of us to argue over, analyze, or just plain laugh about, at our leisure. 

It's all part of the process.  

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Great American Ball Park, Great American Game

AUGUST 4th, 2013-I had the pleasure of spending a little time with an old Navy friend and his son, this evening, as the Cincinnati Reds took on the visiting St Louis Cardinals at the Great American Ball Park. My friend Jerry and his son Trey made the trip up from Florida, visiting Jerry's daughter Britney on the way, and were intent on catching a Reds game while they were up here.

 I've been to this park only once before; back in September 2011, I made the trip North to watch the Astros get creamed by Cincy. Of course, since our local minor-league affiliate was at the time connected to Houston, I was rooting for the beleaguered 'Stros. It was less than two weeks prior to this game that current 2B Jose Altuve had made his debut in The Show, and for me he and OF J.D. Martinez were the only reason I needed to show up.

Trey and Jerry
Altuve had made a meteoric (and somewhat unexpected rise) through the Astros system, having played for the Class A Lexington Legends in the South Atlantic League as recently as 2010 and producing a .308 BA with 11 homers and 45 RBIs in 94 games to go with his 39 SB and 75 runs. These were gaudy numbers for the short time he played in Class A ball, to be sure. Yet the odds, as well as the baseball pundits, were somewhat against him ever making even a minor impact in MLB. Being all of 5'5" probably didn't endear him to the scouting crowd. J.D. had owned SAL pitchers in '10, winning the batting title and pacing the league with a .362 average. He hasn't had the same luck as Altuve, yet.

In front of the "Original Nine" Mosaic
Returning to GABP for the first time since that 2011 game, I wasn't aware until shortly before game time that the Reds would be taking on St Louis, their despised division rivals. As I suspected would be the case, the game was sold out. We were fortunate to pass by a large family group who had 5 missing from their party, and as such were willing to hook us up with tickets. The alternative to this stroke of luck was standing-room only tickets at $12 a pop; hardly an acceptable option.

Anyway, as we made our way to our seats, it was nothing but a sea of red in the stands throughout the park. The vast majority of these red shirts were representing the home team, though there were some Cards jerseys to be found. The atmosphere was more akin to that of a playoff game, and the crowd of 41,000+ was hanging on every pitch and every play throughout the night. I even saw The Wave make a complete circuit around the stadium several times, uninterrupted. I figure that's the first time I've ever seen nearly everyone in a sellout game participate.

Tonight for the Reds, outstanding young lefty Tony Cingrani took to the mound to face off against veteran righy Jake Westbrook. The box score and recap can be found here; you really don't need me to go into all that. C Devin Mesoraco had two bombs in this game, while CF Shin-Soo Choo added one of his own, and the crowd went customarily nuts. Cingrani struggled a bit in the first inning, but ended up mitigating the damage somewhat, allowing 3 runs on 4 hits in 5 innings while striking out 7. The Ks are never surprising, when this kid's on the bump. Big-time talent, and one to watch for certain.

Anyway, it's hard to describe the feel of a game like this. This kind of thing has to be experienced, first-hand. I've been to so many games in the past, both at the major and minor-league level, where the fans all seemed like they had lapsed into a coma. This was far from the case, tonight. The way I've felt about baseball in recent months has been less than positive. There have been a number of reasons for that; part of it is due to general stress and anxiety over matters other than those related to the game. But this game tonight was, in a word, electrifying. Reds and Cards fans always crank it up a notch when their teams face off, and tonight was no exception. It was refreshing to see real, vibrant life in the stands, from first row field level to the highest rows of the upper deck.

I suppose it made such an impression on me because it's been so long since I've seen fans so into the game. I guess that's all I'm saying here. Maybe it doesn't seem like a big deal to others, but games such as the one tonight (even if it had little true bearing on the postseason) are not all that common. For me, they're even less so.

It was just nice to see. And it was the sort of jolt I so badly needed. Never hurts to be reminded why you love something so much. We all need that, from time to time.