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!

New York Mets Sweep Atlanta Braves

New York Mets and Atlanta Braves fans rarely agree. But for those who watched this past weekend’s series between the two teams, they must be in agreement over what transpired. Because what took place on the field was downright unusual.

You see, Bobby Cox’s club has been the pinnacle of professionalism for nearly two decades. The Braves won the National League East an unfathomable 14 straight seasons, from 1991-2005. It was the Mets who finally ended that streak, and the Phillies who have become the elite team in the division, but Mets fans will always fear the Braves.

So yes, New York’s sweep of Atlanta was a pleasant surprise for the Flushing faithful. But what was really shocking was how it all went down. The Braves committed seven errors in only 21 innings of defense during the series. I hate to say it, but it was almost as if the players switched jerseys on Friday afternoon. It was Atlanta playing sloppy baseball, and the Mets that took advantage of those mistakes. Yes, the tables were turned at Citi Field this weekend.

The biggest gaffe was certainly on Friday night. In the bottom of the seventh with one out and runners on first and second, Jose Reyes popped the ball up to the left side of the infield and was called out on the infield-fly rule. Although the shortstop was settling underneath it, third baseman Chipper Jones cut in front of him at the last moment, only to drop the ball. His misplay allowed the runners to advance.

Forgetting the rules, catcher Brian McCann, who ended up with the baseball after Jones’ boot, walked towards first base before flipping the ball to the first baseman, who tagged Reyes. Again, Reyes is already out. With home plate unoccupied, Angel Pagan made a mad dash and scored before Jones could field the throw and apply a tag. The Mets scored another run two batters later and won the game 5-2.

On Saturday, in the fifth inning of a scoreless game, the Braves had runners on second and third with one out. Troy Glaus lined out to right center. Had Yunel Escobar been paying attention, he would have been able to tag up and score. That’s certainly what Martin Prado was thinking, so he tried to advance from second. The only problem was, Escobar didn’t tag; he wandered a few steps from third, and right fielder Jeff Francoeur fired it to the infield. Reyes eventually tagged Prado for an inning-ending double play. The Mets won 3-1.

On Sunday night, perhaps because they were on national television or maybe because they sensed the rain might stop play, the Braves displayed their ineptitude earlier than usual. In the bottom of the first and two outs, Reyes walked, and then stole second. On the next pitch, Jason Bay hit a sharp grounder down the third base line. Jones made a nice backhanded play, but his throw to first bounced, handcuffing Glaus. Reyes sped around from second and scored. When the game was called due to rain after five innings, that unearned run was the only run, and the Mets had won their fourth straight.

Conversely, it was the fifth straight loss for Atlanta, a franchise that may no longer be the team to beat in the division, but is still above playing careless, lackadaisical baseball. For Mets fans, it was a welcomed role reversal, and regardless of how the Braves, or anyone else, play for the rest of the season, they’d like to see the Mets be the team that looks smart and focused.

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LPGA Star Lorena Ochoa Retires at 28

Because of Lorena Ochoa, I broke a cardinal rule of sports journalism very early in my career: don’t ask an athlete for an autograph.

It was on May 21, 2006, the day Ochoa won the Sybase Classic at Wykagyl Country Club in New Rochelle, N.Y, and in my defense, it was for my mom; possibly a belated Mother’s Day present. She had already been keeping an eye on Ochoa and the fact that she had won in our hometown made my mom an even bigger fan.

I was only a teenager, and, at the time, it was the biggest event I had ever covered. I remember listening to Ochoa speak in the media room, though I was too nervous to ask a question in front of the professional writers. But Ochoa was nice enough to speak with me privately afterwards. When I was done with my questions, I asked her to sign a sheet of paper from my notepad.

On Friday, three years to the day after she replaced Annika Sorenstam as the No. 1 golfer in the world rankings, Ochoa confirmed her retirement from golf. It marks the end of a relatively short, but remarkable career for the 28-year-old Mexican.

“This isn’t a surprise because I have planned this for many, many years,” Ochoa said during a media conference call after her session with the Mexican media. “I wanted to play for around 10 years. I wanted to be able to achieve my goals to stay at the top. Then after that I wanted to move on.”

And stay at the top she did. Ochoa retires as the No. 1 player, having spent 157 consecutive weeks there since she took over three years ago. She was named the LPGA Rookie of the Year in 2003, won 27 Tour events, and collected four Player of the Year awards.

The 2006 Sybase victory was a critical one, as it was the first time Ochoa won an event in which Sorenstam participated. She took over the money lead that day, too — it was the sixth straight event she finished in the top two.

Her career took off from there. Her domination for certain stretches was just as impressive as what Tiger Woods was doing on the men’s Tour.

Ochoa excelled off the course as well. For a star athlete not to have any haters is almost unheard of, but good luck finding a golfer, media member, or golf fan who doesn’t adore Ochoa.

The big story after that win at Wykagyl — and something that was noted throughout her career — was how Ochoa represented her country with such pride and grace. She was known for interacting with fellow Mexicans, even in the middle of a round. “That’s very special for both of us,” she said on that rainy day in New Rochelle. “I represent them.”

Ochoa was a great ambassador for women’s golf, and it will be interesting to see how the LPGA copes with losing its biggest star for the second time in less than two years (Sorenstam retired in 2008). While Ochoa may have had this in mind since she turned pro, 28 is a young age for retirement from the sport. But last December, Ochoa married 40-year-old Andres Conesa, the CEO of Aeromexico who has three children from a previous marriage.

“I’m ready to start a new life,” she said. “I just want to be a normal person.” Ochoa was certainly confident in announcing her decision, adding, “There are so many other things that I’d like to do. I’m really happy today, and I’m pleased. I’m 100 percent complete.”

Only time will tell whether she’ll be at peace with her decision in a few months, or a year, or further down the road. For someone as competitive as Ochoa to step away from the game before the age of 30 is atypical, but she knows what she wants better than anyone else.

So next week’s Tres Marias Championship, in Mexico, will be Ochoa’s last Tournament, though she plans to compete annually in the Lorena Ochoa Invitational, held in Guadalajara each November. The game will certainly miss her, and I’m glad I got to cover her, even if I was a bit unprofessional.

I’m happy to report that I haven’t broken that journalism rule again. Then again, I haven’t met an athlete as captivating as Lorena Ochoa.

One man's writing in one place.