LeBron James Free Agent Announcement

The face. The game. The seven-year NBA career. These things sometimes make you forget that LeBron James is only 25 years old.

And while some of his antics this past year would be considered immature even for a 25-year-old, it’s probably not fair to hold James to the same standard as your average 20-something. When you’re one of the best at what you do there is going to be extra scrutiny and a large number of people who don’t like you. And come Thursday night, the fans of all but one NBA team will have another reason to dislike James, all claiming they were spurned by “The King.”

Thursday is when James will announce which team he’ll be signing with, doing so during a one-hour television special that he is calling “The Decision.” While my eyes are rolling, everyone else’s will be watching ESPN tomorrow night. All eyes on LeBron — just how he wants it.

Some have suggested that James’s free agency circus stems from his decision to skip college and go directly to the NBA. He missed out on the recruiting process then, so he’s making up for it now. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if he lined up the hats of the six teams courting him, much like many high school athletes now do when announcing their college choice.

Of course, for the high schoolers, the ordeal ends when they choose a school. We can only hope that James’s “look at me” behavior will end after he announces his decision. And, given his age, it’s reasonable to expect that he will mature in the next few years. (Let’s ignore the fact that Alex Rodriguez will be 35 in a couple of weeks.)

After all, it’s not entirely James’ fault. He sneezes, and every major sports news website has a new headline. Sometimes I wonder whether the interest warrants all the coverage, or if the market is so saturated that people have no choice but to become interested. Regardless, James lives in a world with a 24/7 news cycle where nothing goes unreported.

But he loves it. He craves the attention and tomorrow’s TV event is further proof. Can we all contemplate how absurd this is? I feel like this is a joke that’s coming true: Hey, LeBron should turn his announcement into an hour-long television special! It’s laughable, and only confirms the thoughts of those who feel James’ ego is out of control.

At least the advertising money from the program is going to charity. I’ll consider that James’s first step towards adulthood.

Should the New York Mets Trade for Cliff Lee?

I’ve always liked playing the role of manager more than the role of general manager, and this week has been no different. I’d much prefer to be in Jerry Manuel’s cleats than Omar Minaya’s shoes. The reason? Cliff Lee.

Lee is Seattle’s ace, a pitcher who won the Cy Young for Cleveland in 2008, got traded to the Phillies in July of last year and led them to the World Series, and was traded again this past offseason after Philadelphia acquired Roy Halladay. He is a free agent after this season.

I am having a difficult time deciding whether or not I want the Mets to trade for Lee, though. Here’s why:

They’re only prospects…
Reports are saying that a package of minor leaguers will likely be enough to get Lee. If that’s the case, then the Mets could significantly upgrade their team without giving up anyone whose absence will hurt the team in 2010.

And they may never help the team, as prospects often don’t pan out. If you have the opportunity to trade players who might amount to something for a player who’s already a star, you do it, right?

…but they are prospects.
To recognize the value of holding onto prospects, the Mets can look at their very own infield. Ike Davis (23 years old) and Ruben Tejada (20) made their major league debuts this season and have been instrumental in the team’s success, while Jose Reyes and David Wright (both 27) are also home-grown. That’s without even mentioning starting pitcher Mike Pelfrey.

Youngsters such as Jenrry Mejia, Wilmer Flores, and Josh Thole could be the next wave of players to come up through the minor leagues and excel with the Mets. It would be a shame to see promising young players traded, especially since watching home-grown players perform well is more satisfying (at least to me) than signing a free agent star.

Lee is very, very good…
After starting the season on the disabled list, Lee is 7-3 with a 2.45 ERA for a last-place Seattle team. In his 12 starts, he has the same number of walks as complete games (five). Five walks is a good outing for Oliver Perez.

Mets fans who want Lee think he can do the same thing for New York that he did for Philadelphia last season. The Mets are right in the thick of the race, but there are still questions about the rotation: Is Hisanori Takahashi better suited for the bullpen? Can R.A. Dickey maintain his impressive start? My gut tells me “yes” and “probably not,” so adding a quality starter, especially one as awesome as Lee, would be a great thing for the Mets.

…but nothing is guaranteed.
Contrary to what some fans seem to believe, adding Lee doesn’t automatically earn the Mets World Series rings. Putting Lee at the top of the rotation with Pelfrey and Johan Santana looks great on paper, but dealing away top prospects to get him puts even more pressure on the team.

What are the expectations for a Mets team that includes Lee? A playoff berth? A World Series appearance? A championship? If the Mets mortgage some of their future to acquire Lee and fail to meet these expectations, the season will be a big disappointment.

He may not be worth a rental…
World Series titles don’t grow on trees (at least not for this New York team), so say the Mets trade for Lee and win it all, but he walks after the season — would it be worth it? Probably, but that is of course the best case scenario. A more likely result is that the Mets don’t win it all, in which case they would have dealt prospects for nothing.

…but he’s probably not worth re-signing either.
Lee will turn 32 at the end of August. He’s clearly in his prime right now, as he’s been dominating batters since the 2008 season. But unless Lee is unlike all the other star pitchers who have hit the free agent market over the last 10 years, he is going to want a very large, multi-year contract.

He may be worth the money for the first couple of years of that deal, but by the end of that fourth year, when he’s 36, it’s unlikely Lee will be performing at the level of his salary. No, it’s not my money, but no team has an unlimited budget, so cash tied up with an underperforming is money that could have been used to get someone else.

This is why I’m glad I’m not Minaya. It’s unclear what the right decision is, and even after he makes up his mind, it may take a few years before we learn whether it was the smart move.

Do you think the Mets should trade for Cliff Lee? What are your feelings about dealing prospects in general? Let me know in the comments section or via e-mail at andrew@thesportsjournalists.com.

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Ken Griffey Jr. Retires

George Kenneth Griffey Jr. silently exited baseball on Wednesday, but nothing about his career was quiet.

He was a generation’s favorite player. Ask baseball fans between the ages of 20 and 30 who their favorite player was and Griffey will get the most votes — easily. He was always the “coolest” player in the game — the guy with his hat backwards in batting practice, crushing perfectly parabolic homers with that pretty left-handed swing. He leapt over center field walls and robbed home runs on what seemed like a nightly basis. He could throw and run and hit for average, too. Griffey was a five-tool player, no doubt about it.

I was fortunate enough to see Griffey play in person three times. Since I’m a bit of a nerd and keep all my tickets, I know which games these were. The first was on August 17, 1996, my older brother’s 14th birthday. Griffey was Brian’s favorite player, and Junior delivered for him that day at Yankee Stadium. In my ticket book I noted that “Griffey carried the team.” Thanks to the Internet, I know that this means he got three hits, including a home run, in a 10-3 Seattle win.

I saw Griffey again in 2005 at Shea Stadium against the Mets, when he was with the Cincinnati Reds. The last time I saw him was in ’06, again at Shea, when Griffey’s 548th career homer gave Cincy the lead and tied him with Mike Schmidt for 11th on the all-time list.

In addition to these in-game moments, I’ll remember Griffey for: putting his name behind one of the great video games of all time (even a sub-par gamer like myself regularly hit 650-foot bombs with Griffey, whose “batting circle” was the size of a hula hoop); his appearances in television shows “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” (when Hilary mistakes him for an NFL quarterback) and “The Simpson’s” (his enormous head prevents him from playing in the softball game), and the movie “Little Big League” (where he breaks viewers’ hearts by running a half-mile and robbing a home run to end the Twins’ season); an article I read about MLB’s ridiculous “Turn Ahead the Clock” promotion, for which Griffey encouraged his Seattle teammates to cut the sleeves on the t-shirts under their sleeveless jerseys, among other things (definitely worth a read).

But perhaps Griffey will be remembered most for something he didn’t do: steroids. He was a naturally-gifted slugger who hit a lot of home runs in his prime and — get this — fewer home runs as he got older.

Just as it’s sad to think about his potential career numbers had it not been for his injuries (and the strike), it was upsetting to watch Griffey’s skills diminish. But at the same time, it was refreshing. The steroid era made us forget that guys aren’t supposed to go from 18 homers to 55 in their twilight years.

Griffey reminded us that even the superstars lose their powers. When he had his, though, there was no better player to watch.

Armando Galarraga, Jim Joyce, and the Imperfect Perfect Game

Did you see that?

I’m sick to my stomach.

What was he thinking?!

These were the phrases spoken and texted last night after Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga threw the perfect game that wasn’t. Galarraga retired all 27 Cleveland Indians batters in order, but first base umpire Jim Joyce felt that Jason Donald had beaten out his grounder, even though it was clear that first baseman Miguel Cabrera’s throw to Galarraga was in time to get the out.

In fact, it was clear to pretty much everyone watching. Typically on a close play at first, the first base coach will make the safe call with his arms in a fruitless attempt to influence the ump. Cleveland coach Sandy Alomar, Jr. did no such thing on Donald’s grounder. Even Donald, who busted down the line, seemed to be in disbelief of the call, clapping his hands together half-heartedly as if to say, “I wish you had called me out.” Replays showed several raised eyebrows on the Indians bench, too, after Joyce made the safe call.

Like so many other perfect games and no-hitters, this game featured a spectacular defensive play. Center fielder Austin Jackson made an over-the-shoulder catch, Willy Mays style, to rob Mark Grudzielanek of a hit to lead off the ninth. It was reminiscent of Mark Buerhle’s perfect game last season, when the center fielder made a fantastic catch to get the 25th out.

Unfortunately, due to the blown call, Jackson’s catch isn’t all that meaningful. After all, what’s the difference between a one-hitter and a two-hitter? But the catch, and the fact that Galarraga retired the batter after Donald, could become important if MLB commissioner Bud Selig makes an unprecedented decision and reverses Joyce’s call, awarding Galarraga the perfect game he deserved.

And make no mistake about it, the 28-year-old Venezuelan deserved a perfect game. But I’m not sure that awarding him one now, after the fact, is the right thing to do. It’s a decision I’m glad I don’t have to make. Everyone knows Galarraga threw a perfect game, even if it won’t go down in the record books as such. Part of me feels that is enough, even if it is unfair.

What I’m much more sure about is instant replay. Many will argue that it’s time for replay to expand beyond just home run calls. I was against it being used even for that, but with the wacky layouts of some of these ballparks, it has proven to be very helpful.

My worry was once it crept into the game, supporters would try to broaden its application. These voices will get louder after what happened in Detroit last night.

I truly believe replay rules have made college football referees worse at getting the call right initially. I fear the same will happen in baseball if replay is implemented. Joyce’s call was so surprising not just because of the situation but because umpires hardly ever miss that call. While it was devastating for Galarraga, the Tigers, and anyone with a soul who was watching the game, Joyce’s error is no reason to start using replay for these sorts of things.

Galarraga was a class act after the game, sympathizing with Joyce, saying, “Nobody’s perfect.” Except last night, Galarraga was. Sort of.

Do you think Bud Selig should overturn the call and grant Galarraga a perfect game? What are your thoughts on replay in baseball? Voice your opinions in the comments section or by e-mailing me at andrew@thesportsjournalists.com.

Tom Koehler: Florida Marlins Pitching Prospect

It’s refreshing to talk to someone who’s living their dream, as Tom Koehler is. Pitching in the minor leagues, he’s not exactly where he wants to be yet, but he’s ahead of schedule.

“When I first got drafted I was hoping to be where I am right now by the end of this year, the start of next year,” Koehler said by phone after his start last Sunday. “So I’m a little ahead of where I wanted to be, realistically. But right now, I’m just trying to get better each time I go out and see what happens. From here you never know really.”

Koehler is pitching for the Jacksonville Suns, the Double-A affiliate of the Florida Marlins. Through eight starts this season, he is 4-0 with a 4.01 ERA. He’s struck out 37 batters in 42 2/3 innings.

Koehler was a dominant force at New Rochelle High School in New York, earning All-State honors after a stellar senior season. He attended Stony Brook University, where he was a two-time All-America East second team selection and led the conference in strikeouts his senior year. In June 2008, the Marlins selected him in the 18th round of the First-Year Player Draft.

His professional career started in Jamestown, NY in Single-A short season. Last year he started in Greensboro, NC before moving up to Advanced-A ball with the Jupiter Hammerheads in August.

Koehler began this year in Jacksonville in the Southern League, which includes teams in places like Birmingham and Mobile, AL, and Jackson, TN, making for some long bus rides. “It’s tough when you play a game that ends at 11 and then you’ve got to travel eight hours on the bus and then play the next night at seven,” Koehler said. Still, he says most of the stadiums are fairly modern and get good-sized crowds.

Jacksonville, which won the league last year, is in first place with a 26-14 record. Koehler said his focus is on winning more so than it’s been in his previous minor league destinations. “There are a handful of guys (I’m playing with now) who are still prospects trying to get to the big leagues,” he said. “But on the other side, there are guys who know their days are numbered and are basically just playing to win each game they play. You want to work on stuff, but it’s about producing the wins at this point.”

One thing Koehler is working on is a cut fastball, a pitch which he says has helped him against lefties (they are only batting .222 against him). “I actually get myself in trouble sometimes because I try to throw it too much. It’s like a new toy,” Koehler admitted.

At 23 years old, Koehler is progressing nicely through the Marlins’ system, with his eyes on one day making the big league club. For now, though, he’s thinking about his next start — and how fortunate he is to be playing professional baseball. “Even if you have a bad day, there are a million people who would like to be in your position. If you take it that way, and try to use every opportunity, that’s the best way to go about it.”

New York Mets Score Six in the Eighth to Beat Washington Nationals 8-6

The biggest difference between baseball and the other major sports is a clock. The other sports have one; baseball doesn’t. So when Yogi Berra said “It ain’t over till it’s over,” he was right, assuming he was talking about his sport.

In baseball, the threat of a late-game comeback, no matter the deficit, is always possible. Such is not the case in basketball. If your team is down 20 with 2:30 left, you can stop watching. In baseball, you can never safely stop watching, which is what makes baseball great and what makes it sort of terrible, too.

If your team is leading by seven runs in the seventh inning and you want to stop watching, that’s not a bad idea. I wish I had done that more while watching the Mets in 2007. But if your team is losing and you tune out you never know if you’re going to miss a thrilling come-from-behind victory.

What got me thinking about this was Tuesday night’s Mets-Nationals game at Citi Field. The Mets were down 3-0 before they came to bat. They trailed 6-1 in the fifth, and, according to Baseball-Reference.com, which provides win probabilities given two average teams playing each other, the Mets had a four percent chance of winning after Jason Bay flew out to end the inning.

The score was 6-2 when they came up in the eighth, and the likelihood of winning was still just four percent. Remember, this is with two average teams playing each other. The Mets were not average on this night; they were awful. Even after the first two batters reached base, it was hard to get excited; the Mets had already hit into three double plays. The run-scoring error that proceeded the hits helped, but the next batter struck out and it seemed like New York had just been delaying the inevitable.

But before the Nats could get the second out, the Mets strung together straight four hits followed by consecutive walks and had taken an 8-6 lead. They had gone from being four down with six outs to work with to needing only three outs to secure a win.

In basketball, a barrage of three-pointers can cut a deficit rather quickly. A combination of a big special teams play, a long touchdown pass, and a forced turnover can turn around a football game in a hurry. But in these sports, a team that holds a commanding lead late in the contest has the clock to do the hard part: end the game.

The clock provides room for error. It makes commentators applaud the fight of the trailing team but announce that it is “too little too late.” In baseball, it is never too late. There’s no holding the ball to run out the remaining time. If you want to end the game you’re going to have to do it yourself.

Of course, Tuesday night’s Mets-Nats game was an aberration. There is a reason the Mets’ odds of winning were 1:25. If your team looks listless and the weakness of the team — scoring runs — is what’s going to have to carry them back, you should have no worries about turning off the radio, changing channels on the TV, or leaving the stadium. Usually, in a situation like that, watching the rest of the game is a waste of time.

But every now and then, your team will reward your commitment. And that’s why baseball is so fun — and so frustrating.

Mothers Day

It takes a special kind of mom to live in a house with four males and no females, as my mom does — especially when the men are obsessed with sports.

When the television is on, it’s usually showing a game. In the winter it’s college basketball. In the spring and summer it’s baseball. These sports are on virtually every night. Fall is the easiest for her, because college football is pretty much relegated to Saturdays.

I suppose a mom in this situation has two choices: rebel or accept. Now, don’t get me wrong — my mom is a big sports fan. But even for her I think it’s a bit much to have nearly every dinner conversation touch on a sports topic.

For the most part, though, she joins in. She really enjoys College GameDay, ESPN’s Saturday morning football pre-game show, and clearly she pays attention: This past bowl season, my family competed in a bowl pick ’em competition with 20 people. My mom won the whole thing.

Come March, my friend Lee and I always discuss the NCAA Tournament bracket. Lee loves college hoops as much as I do. He can tell you who’s the best foul shooter on Louisville and whether Arizona’s point guard prefers to drive to his left or his right. Yet when he calls me after Selection Sunday, the first thing he asks is, “Who does your mom like coming out of the West?”

My mom earned her reputation as a guru of the Dance by picking Cinderellas like Gonzaga, before people knew Gonzaga existed, and Kent State. She often beats the rest of our family in the bracket contest, though some have said she’s been slipping the past few years. Perhaps she is watching too much football in December.

My mom is the most knowledgeable sports fan of any mother I know. I’m pretty sure she could tell you what a 6-4-3 double play is. She knows how many fouls before a player fouls out. And although we laugh when she asks us to remind her, I’m confident she knows how overtime works in college football.

Sure, she sometimes gets frustrated when the Mets are on the television for the twelfth straight night, but watching the Mets and frustration go hand in hand. Putting up with four guys isn’t easy, and my mom does a great job.

So to my mom and mothers everywhere, whether they like sports or not, happy Mother’s Day!

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