A’s show life on Geren’s ejection, Giambi’s homers

OAKLAND -- The manager finally showed some life. So did his first baseman. Not the afternoon the Oakland Athletics had wished, but one that offered a great deal of possibility, and in May baseball that is not to be underestimated.

Bob Geren got bounced. Indeed, the guy in charge of the A’s, the man who seemingly never displays any emotion, who treats the old national pastime as if he were wearing a suit and tie rather than a uniform, was ejected.

“It was nice to see Bob support his players,’’ said Jason Giambi. It was nicer to see Giambi have his first multi-home run game since last June, when he hit the 398th and 399th of his career.

All that, the excitement, the ejection, the long balls, only proved to be diversionary, as the Toronto Blue Jays beat the A’s 6-4 on Saturday, before only 15,817 at the Oakland Coliseum. The Athletics did virtually zilch until the ninth -- for a while they had more errors (two) than hits (one), when at least they rallied enough to get the winning run to first with two outs.

A’s general manager Billy Beane likes his non-playing employees to not to lose their cool -- in other words to be the opposite of the Billy Martins and Earl Weavers. Not much for the TV cameras or journalists seeking inflammatory quotes, but that’s the way it is. And Geren, pleasant, informed, is the way he is.

It was the way home plate umpire Paul Nauert was that irritated A’s cleanup batter Matt Holliday, who having been called out on strikes on a questionable pitch in the first was agitated when he was called out on strikes on a questionable pitch in the seventh.

When Holliday started arguing, Geren jogged from the dugout, said something to Nauert and with the ump’s theatrical wave of the arm and thumb was tossed.

“I didn’t really ask for an explanation,’’ Geren would say later. “I just told my part of the call. But you can’t argue balls and strikes. There wasn’t much to it.’’

There’s a great deal to Giambi’s best day since he was signed by Oakland in January with the thought he might bring back some of the magic from 2000 and 2001 before he joined the Yankees. Jason was hitting only .202 and had just one homer in 26 games.

Then, Saturday after a walk and strikeout against Toronto starter Brian Tallet, Giambi homered off Tallet in the seventh and off Scott Downs in the ninth.

“I’m swinging the bat better and better,’’ said Giambi. “I swung it good the other night, but I didn’t get any hits. That’s part of the process. You can’t worry about results. You just have to worry about the ingredients.’’

For some, the worry was that the 38-year-old Giambi had lost bat speed, that after the injuries and the steroid use, he had been down a road too extended and too hard to allow him to recapture the past.

The 399 home runs? “It means I’ve played the game a long time,’’ said Giambi. Indeed, he arrived in the majors in 1995. “I’m hoping to get this team going. That’s what I’m here for, to help lead this team in the right direction.’’

Neither Giambi nor the A’s have succeeded so far. Oakland did have a two-game win streak, after four straight defeats, but against the Jays it was down quickly. Yes, the rally indicated the A’s haven’t quit. But something more than tenacity and hustle are needed when you’re in last place in the American League West.

The A’s wore their awful-looking black jerseys Saturday, and while  laundry never will be as important as the players who wear it, the franchise has too much history to go around looking like the Rays or Marlins. Especially when the Athletics’ home whites are as classy as any baseball attire.

You wouldn’t see the Yankees or Dodgers in black at home (or on the road), so the A’s should dispense with the idea and the jerseys.

What Geren said the rest of us should get rid of is the belief that Giambi still can’t hit a baseball.

“Ever since a week ago in Seattle, when he hit a ball to the opposite field about as far as you can, 420 feet, without leaving the stadium, his swing has been shorter, crisper.

“Reaching 399 home runs is quite a milestone. Just to play in the major leagues 10 years is very hard to accomplish. And he’s averaged a lot of home runs, almost 40 a year. That’s tremendous.’’

Two homers for one man and an ejection for another. Now that’s baseball we haven’t seen from the A’s for a long while.

Raiders’ first pick is a first-class guy

ALAMEDA, Calif. — In person, Darrius Heyward-Bey didn’t look bad and sounded good. The most disparaged, berated, criticized individual in pro football who never had played a game was wonderfully slick and carefully glib.

Heyward-Bey spent a few hours showing his moves on a morning of sunshine and curiosity, and then followed that up with a few minutes showing his intelligence.

Not a tart word or an angry thought about those who deem his selection in the first round by the Oakland Raiders nothing short of blasphemy.

For the past two weeks, since the draft, observers who weren’t wringing their hands — “How could the Raiders take this guy when they had a chance at Michael Crabtree?’’ — wanted to wring someone’s (yes, Al Davis’) neck. It was if football had been profaned.

“Everybody wants to get you when you’re down,’’ said Raiders coach Tom Cable when asked to explain what some saw as a greater national scandal than the economy. “People get upset when you do something they think you shouldn’t do.’’

What the Raiders did, of course, was with the No. 7 pick in the draft take Heyward-Bey, who was a junior at Maryland, who caught passes for only 600 yards and who has brilliant speed, but that apparently didn’t enter into the equation — except, as always, for Al Davis.

Saturday was the first day of the rest of Heyward-Bey’s life, minicamp for a franchise that, after six consecutive losing seasons, needs a maximum of help. He was out there with the big guys, JaMarcus Russell at quarterback, Nnamdi Asomugha, the all-pro, at cornerback.

Then while a continuous loop of videotape ran on a television screen above him, the Raiders’ ingenious method of proving Heyward-Bey can catch the ball as well as run with it, Heyward-Bey faced the media and the music. He departed leaving an impression.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. Maybe, as the analysts predict, Heyward-Bey will be a bust. Then again, listening to the young man (he’s 22) after watching him, one is struck with a surprising thought: He might be the next Bay Area superstar.

It isn’t only talent that elevates an athlete into that rare position, although you don’t qualify without having a great deal of that. You also need personality, an ability to handle an interview as smoothly as a deep pattern. You need a smidgen of arrogance and a great deal of confidence. You need a sense of humor. And to make it all work, you need a topping of self-deprecation.

If the sit-down after his first practice is an indication, Heyward-Bey has all of the above, at least off the field. And he believes he has what is required on the field, too. Naturally.

“It wasn’t strange to me,’’ said Heyward-Bey, when someone wondered about the controversy created by his draft selection. “Things like that happen all the time. But I was happy to be a Raider. I know Al Davis and the rest of the coaching staff made a great choice.

“All I can do is worry about me. My attitude was going to be the same whether I was the first pick in the draft or the last pick in the draft or a free agent. I was going to work hard, regardless.’’

Cable hasn’t commiserated with Heyward-Bey, who didn’t arrive in town until Friday. The player said he doesn’t need happy talk. “He called me,’’ Heyward-Bey said of the coach, “and said he had my back. I felt good enough with that . . . you can run through mountains when a coach tells you that.’’

Mountains he doesn’t need to conquer. Rather it’s the doubts of the non-believers. The Sporting News Today gave the Raiders a grade of D, adding, “Bad teams can’t make mistakes such as WR Darrius Heyward-Bey and S Michael Mitchell.’’ Another scouting service awarded the Raiders an F.

“My mom doesn’t understand,’’ said Heyward-Bey. “It doesn’t bother me at all. You brush it off and keep working. That’s what we’re born to do.’’

When it was pointed out he and Crabtree, picked by the 49ers, might be linked competitively as Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are, Heyward-Bey quickly answered, “I don’t think we’re like Kobe and LeBron yet. I’ve just got to worry about getting into the playbook and making the team.’’

What he made was a leaping catch and a couple of adjustments on routes, as both JaMarcus and Jeff Garcia threw to him and other receivers.

“Every time you’re in there,’’ said Heyward-Bey, “you want to think you’re a starter and hold on to the spot as long as you can, and don’t want to be starstruck with all those big-name guys, You want to feel part of the group, and they made me feel right at home.’’

And his reaction after his first workout as a Raider? “I didn’t pass out, so that was good.’’

This kid is a comer.

RealClearSports: Manny being a mess

By Art Spander

OAKLAND –- Manny? He’s sorry. Maybe not as sorry as the Dodgers. Maybe not as sorry as baseball. Still, he’s sorry. And he’s been advised not to say anything more. Which is always the way when somebody breaks the rules.

Let an agent talk –- are you out there, Scott Boras? Let an attorney talk.

Athletes were playing ball Thursday afternoon at the Oakland Coliseum. Not Manny, although he and his drug suspension were the only things people seemed to want to discuss. The Texas Rangers and Oakland A’s were going at it in the sunshine.

Manny Ramirez was down the coast, in southern California. And down for the count. Or more specifically, 50 games.

John Madden could have summarized this one beautifully: “Boom.’’ A story that hit like a bomb. A story that made us wonder, who next? A story that, after all the agony of the Yankees’ and Mets’ ticket blunders, of Alex Rodriguez’s drug involvement, trumps all the rest of the negative material with one big blow.

Manny gone until the beginning of July. What’s going to happen to sales of those dreadlocks wigs in the stands at Dodger Stadium? What’s going to happen to the Dodgers?

With Manny in the lineup, they literally had been unbeatable at home, 13 out of 13. With Manny in the lineup, they had compiled the best record in the majors.

Barry Bonds never was suspended. A-Rod hasn’t been suspended. But Manny was given 50 games for failing a drug test, which proves both that baseball is serious in cleansing its sport of the doubt and disgrace and that Manny is either arrogant or ignorant.

Ramirez said the drug violation was due not to a steroid but a medication from a doctor, “which he thought was OK to give me. Unfortunately the medication is banned under our drug policy . . . I do want to say I’ve taken and passed about 15 drug tests the past five seasons.’’

He didn’t pass this one. A man with a two-year, $45 million contract, a man who almost single-handedly carried the Dodgers to the 2008 postseason after they traded for him in July, a man batting .348 after Wednesday night when he doubled in two runs, got smacked and hard.

They must be laughing and exchanging high fives in Boston. And exhaling in San Francisco, not that the Giants, even with frequent rumors, were a particularly strong candidate to get Manny last winter when he became a free agent. He was worth too much to the Dodgers. And worth more than the Giants could ever pay.

A healthy Manny, an unsuspended Manny, is a winner, a player who turns teams into champions. The Red Sox couldn’t win a World Series, if you don’t revert to 1918, until they got Ramirez. Then they won twice in four years.

Juan Pierre takes over in the Dodgers outfield for Manny. Not exactly the power or the personality. But a body that isn’t under suspension. Or suspicion. A dropoff in talent, but an improvement in eligibility.

All February, the questions swirled about the Dodgers. Would they finally give Manny, and Boras the agent, what they wanted? Would they be successful in re-signing the irrepressible Ramirez, who had made them successful? Finally, a couple weeks into spring training, the Dodgers made the announcement. They were whole once more.

No longer. Not for another two months. The guy who dominates the cover of their media guide, indeed the guy who dominates Dodger opponents, arguably the biggest bat this side of Albert Pujols, is banned from the game.

The sport’s balance is tipped. The Dodgers are more than Manny, certainly. You don’t start the way they’ve started without other star players. Yet they will be less without Manny.

As Bonds, when Barry was at his best, Ramirez is a difficult out, less troublesome with an intentional walk than a pitch that could be driven to the fences or over them. A week and a half ago, in a game against the Giants, Manny walked in his first two plate appearances and doubled in his next three.

After Bonds, after Mark McGwire, after Rafael Palmeiro, after the warnings and the threats, the presumption is that players understand they are responsible for what ends up in their bodies, even if they contend they have no idea how it got there.

A month ago, Jose Canseco, self-professed steroid user, at an appearance at the University of Southern California, said Ramirez’s name “is most likely 90 percent’’ on a list of 104 players who failed a drug test in 2003.

It sounded like bluster. Instead, it was dead accurate.

As a reporter since 1960, Art Spander is a living treasure of sports history. A recipient of the Dick McCann Memorial Award -- given for his long and distinguished career covering professional football -- he has earned himself a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And he has recently been honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA of America for 2009.

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© RealClearSports 2009

Cust becomes A’s designated viewer and slammer

OAKLAND -- Jack Cust isn’t much different from a lot of men who love baseball, other than the fact he can hit one over a fence. Jennifer Cust isn’t much different from a lot of wives whose husbands probably spend too much time around the game, even if it’s the game where Jack makes his living.

Cust is the Oakland Athletics’ designated hitter, if he’s not playing outfield. On Wednesday night, in the A’s 3-2 loss to Texas, Cust went 3-for-4 and then returned to his residence and watched highlights on ESPN.

Not of his game -- of the Dodgers’ game in Los Angeles.

“I slowed down Manny Ramirez’s swing,’’ Cust said, alluding to recording and playing back the sequence, “and I show it to my wife. She said, ‘Enough of this baseball stuff. You’re playing all day and then you come home and show me Manny Ramirez’s swing on TV?’ She’d had it.’’

We know what happened a few hours later to Ramirez. He was suspended for 50 games after failing a drug test. What happened to Cust not long after, Thursday afternoon, was he hit a grand slam to get the A’s rolling in their 9-4 win over the Rangers at the Coliseum.

Cust thus became the focus of journalists who wanted to know about his homer and naturally about Manny’s figurative fall. Cust wasn’t terribly enlightening about either, but that was acceptable. His requirement is to help unleash the A’s offense, and in the previous three games that hadn’t happened.

“There’s not a lot of pressure on a hitter when you have the bases loaded and nobody out,’’ said Cust, describing his at bat in the fourth. “You’re just trying to hit the ball in the air (for a sacrifice fly). I wasn’t trying to hit a home run.’’

But when he did, the dugout of an A’s team that had scored 13 runs in the previous three games combined became energized.  “You could feel the excitement,’’ said Cust after his second career slam. “It was something we hadn’t had for a while.

Not after four straight defeats -- three to open their home stand. In the warmth of the best weather by the Bay in two weeks, things suddenly become more encouraging.

Asked the obligatory question on his feelings about Ramirez, Cust said, “Well, we’ve got Alex (Rodriguez) and Manny, now, two of the best hitters who ever played (both having failed tests). People are going to have questions. You don’t know about anybody, including our favorite players when we were growing up.’’

What we know about Cust is on DH days, which means most of the time, he has his own in-game agenda. Thursday it kept him from seeing very much of teammate Trevor Cahill getting his first major league victory.

Cahill had made five starts and pitched decently in four of them, but his record was 0-2. At last he got off the schneid in a game in which Cahill didn’t walk anyone and allowed only five hits in seven innings.

“He looked good,’’ said Cust of Cahill. “But honestly I wasn’t watching him. When I’m DH I don’t watch much of the game. I just kind of watch our at bats and then go to the video room to watch my swing and how their pitcher is throwing to the other guys. Really, it kind of stinks, because I enjoy watching both sides of the game, enjoy playing defense.

“I saw some of his strikeouts, a lot of stuff. But I also didn’t see lot of stuff.’’

Cust, however, was watching when in the bottom of the fourth Matt Holliday, apparently out of the doldrums, hit a three-run homer to left.

“I was on deck,’’ said Cust. “When he hit it, I knew it was out. Then it hung up for a while, and I said, ‘Oh, oh, I hope that gets out.’ It did. I’m happy for him, because Matt has worked as hard as anybody. He’s a great teammate. You wouldn’t know he’s been struggling.’’

Holliday had been down to a .222 batting average. He’s now .233 and moving in what he believes is the proper direction.

“We’re humans, and confidence is always an issue,’’ said Holliday, a lifetime .319 hitter signed as a free agent. “But enough of us have had careers where our past indicates it’s there and eventually it’s going to come out. It’s been frustrating. You feel you’re not helping the team. But I promise you, I’ve been doing all I can.’’

Short of videotaping Manny Ramirez’s swing.

RealClearSports: A Volume on A-Rod Is a Yawn

By Art Spander

Another book about another baseball player whose lifestyle was something other than visiting orphans and signing autographs. Once again, America turns out to be the land of the free and the home of the disgraced athlete.

Anyone care?

Alex Rodriguez maybe was feeling a bit rejected, what with Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens the only ones to have volumes about their off-field activities. Not any more. Alex gets his own pages of accusations and intimations.

Selena Roberts, formerly of the New York Times, currently of Sports Illustrated – and are there any two more impressive journalistic connections? – has produced “A-Rod: The Many Lives of Alex Rodriguez.” She was allowed.

Just as we are allowed to shrug.

The problem with books about athletes used to be they made every subject sound like a blending of St. Francis of Assisi and Sir Francis Drake. Even Ty Cobb was made to appear charming and kindly in a first biography. Then a second showed him to be the louse he truly was – not that he couldn’t hit a fastball.

We do the full 180. Now the books detail everything from a man’s immoralities to his phobias and fantasies. In a world full of Dr. Phils and Jerry Springers, it’s the only way to sell. You are obligated to offer something more appalling, and presumably compelling, than seen on TV.

So, “Game of Shadows,” created after brilliant investigative reporting by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, hit the stands and whacked Bonds. For about 10 minutes there was outrage. Then we returned to our normal programming. Hey, who’s batting third?

A book on A-Rod’s contretemps was inevitable. Virtually all the publishing houses are in New York. A-Rod, when he’s not rehabbing, is in New York. Something like 15 million people are in New York. The tabloids are in New York. Was there ever a more likely scenario for several hundred pages on performance-enhancing steroids, performance-enhanced Madonna and a ball player reputed to not perform when it matters?

Interestingly enough, in a town where journalists usually jump onto a scandal without caution or question, some of the sporting writers, while not doubting their colleague Roberts, have asked about a few details in the book.

Neil Best of Newsday reminds that Roberts in an interview said much of her evidence of A-Rod after 2003 is circumstantial.

It’s been a fine few months for those (see reference to New York’s 15 millions) who find fulfillment reading about the woes of the Yankees. Tom Verducci and Joe Torre combined to knock the team the tabs call The Bombers. Then there’s the book about Roger Clemens, “American Icon.” And now – please don’t doze off – A-Rod.

Who’s next, Nick Swisher?

Not that we don’t believe in fair play, the so-called level field, but we’ve reached our quotient of shock and awe. And probably of interest. Every day brings a new allegation. Bud Selig seems to be the only one surprised, and you’ve seen how he’s responded.

Sport is supposed to be the last place in society where people must follow the rules. Three strikes, you’re out. A game goes nine innings. No matter what a defense lawyer argues. That’s why the use of steroids finally became an issue no one could ignore.

But we’re in the Commissioner-Who-Didn’t-Cry-Wolf stage of the situation. No matter what we hear or read, or even see, we’re numb. A-Rod on drugs? Well, then we'll have to idolize Albert Pujols.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi, saying exactly what we’d expect him to say, explained, “I don’t want this Alex thing to be a target because I have some issues with it. It’s interesting how the book date got moved up, and I get tired of answering these questions. I don’t understand why somebody would write a book like this anyway.”

Girardi understands. You write a book because (a) you have a story to tell and (b) because you want to make money from the book. Nothing wrong in either case. Nothing right – or write – either.

Terry Francona, the manager of the Red Sox, who have been embarrassing the Yankees of late more than any book possibly could, naturally was asked if he had thoughts on the volume.

“What I care about,’’ Francona responded, “is when (Alex) comes back, I hope he makes outs against us.”

If that is the case, it will disturb Yankee partisans more than anything in any book. Fans never are into ethics and principles as much as they are into winning and losing.
As a reporter since 1960, Art Spander is a living treasure of sports history. A recipient of the Dick McCann Memorial Award -- given for his long and distinguished career covering professional football -- he has earned himself a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And he has recently been honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA of America for 2009.  

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© RealClearSports 2009