By Steve Kallas
If you are baseball fan (whether you are a Yankee fan or not), it's hard to celebrate A-Rod's 600th homer as an earth-shattering achievement. We will never know exactly how many home runs A-Rod hit steroid-free. He admitted taking steroids when he went to Texas (because of the "pressure' of that big contract he signed). He hit a staggering 156 home runs in his three Texas seasons – and finished last each year (in fact, Texas improved by a staggering 18 wins AFTER A-Rod left for the Yankees).
And, frankly, virtually nobody believes that, after being banished to baseball Siberia in Texas and taking steroids due to contractual "pressure," he stopped taking steroids when he showed up at the biggest pressure point in the country – New York City.
So, questions abound and remain as to what A-Rod did clean and what he did under the influence of steroids or HGH or you fill in the blank. Absent a total confession and believability of that confession, we will never know the whole truth.
The 600 list is now, really, a split decision. On one side, there's Aaron, Ruth and Mays, three of the greatest players ever (with Ruth ahead of everyone). On the raise-your-eyebrows side, there's Bonds, Sosa and A-Rod. In the middle, but leaning to the good side, is Ken Griffey, Jr. And, unfortunately for Griffey, while nobody's accused him of using steroids, he hit homers in an era where even his clean achievements (and this writer, for one, believes they are clean) are clouded and undermined by the proliferation of home runs in the steroid era.
The most important thing about A-Rod's 600th home run is that it helped the Yankees win a game they needed to win. And nothing more.
THE HAMBLETONIAN THIS SATURDAY
Many of you know that the Hambletonian is harness racing's version of the Kentucky Derby. It takes place on the first Saturday in August every year and, interestingly, it must be raced in the daylight. Out at the Meadowlands this Saturday, ten of the top three-year-old colt and gelding trotters in the world will race for the top prize in the $1.5 million race (WFAN will have live coverage at the Meadowlands Saturday morning from 10-1, anchored by the knowledgeable Marc Malusis).
Nowadays at the Hambo, the elimination winners (from last week) get to select their post positions and then the other seven trotters draw by lot for their positions. The three elimination winners (and, not surprisingly, the three favorites, with drivers) are Lucky Chucky (John Campbell) at 5-2 from post 2, Cassis (Tim Tetrick) at 7-2 from post 1 and Pilgrims Taj (Mike Lachance) at 9-2 from post 3.
Of the three, it says here that Lucky Chucky is the best, after leaving from post 5 and pulling a late first-over to win in 1:53.1 with the fastest last quarter of the winners (27.1). Trained by Chuck Sylvester (four Hambo wins as a trainer – that's four Super Bowls for you football fans) and driven by the great John Campbell (all-time record six Hambo driving wins), Lucky Chucky is the sentimental favorite as last year, on Hambo day, Chuck Sylvester lost his 45-year-old son, the well-respected horseman Troy Sylvester, in an ATV accident.
If you are looking for something of a longshot (i.e., not one of the three elim winners), take a good look at Muscle Massive (Ron Pierce). Listed at 8-1 in the morning line, this horse went a monster mile last week, pulling first-over into a final half of 56.3 to just get beat a half-length in 1:53.3. If Ron Pierce can work out a better trip, he could beat them all in the stretch.
Gates open at 9:30. First race at 11:30. The Hambo is scheduled for 3:43 p.m.
HAVE THE JETS DONE TOO MUCH?
After a great run in the playoffs, you knew that the Jets weren't going to stand pat (no pun intended). But they've taken some guys of questionable character and look more and more like the Ravens of yesteryear.
But have they done too much? Yes, they brought in a quality guy like LaDainian Tomlinson (please don't call him LT in New York – there's only one LT and he played for the Giants), but a back who is past his prime. But they also brought in questionable guys like Antonio Cromartie and Santonio Holmes. And no matter what you think of him, Jet-hater Jason Taylor is on the down side.
Plus, look at who the Jets have lost! It's hard to believe they let BOTH Thomas Jones and Leon Washington go. Yes, Shonn Greene played great for Gang Green. But are he and Tomlinson the answer? Can Joe McKnight really replace the return threat and all-purpose yardage machine that was Washington? All of this remains to be seen.
Worse, from this angle, is the unceremonious dumping of the perennial All-Pro guard, Alan Faneca. A number of Jets seem particularly unhappy about this, none more so than his running buddy, rising star Nick Mangold. Mangold told the New York Post that the decision to dump Faneca was "very disappointing and difficult to deal with." He sent out a warning about the system by saying (possibly referring to draft pick Vladimir Ducasse from UMass) "I'm going into my fifth ear and I still don't know exactly everything about the [Jet's] system."
Translation: It's going to be very hard to replace Faneca and still be the line of a year ago while trying to protect the improving-but-not-quite-there-yet Mark Sanchez.
Throw in the embarrassment that is the handling of the Darrelle Revis situation (what, you say the guy is the best defensive player in football (and that might be true) and then you offer him no guaranteed money? Preposterous) and the not-very-bright decision to do this Hard Knocks HBO thing (what a soap opera that will be if Revis's holdout is an extended one), and the Jets still have a long way to go to get to the Promised Land.
We'll see what happens.
ANATOMY OF A PHIL HUGHES TAMPA LOSS
Rarely do you have such a clear-cut example of poor pitch selection on one pitch being the difference between a win and a loss. But so it was last Friday when Phil Hughes pitched a gem – except for that one fastball to Matt Joyce in the sixth inning that turned a 2-0 lead in a huge game against Tampa Bay into a 3-2 loss.
When he hit the home run on a pitch up and out over the plate despite Jorge Posada's target down and in, both Yankee announcers Tino Martinez (he should do more games) and John Flaherty noticed that Hughes missed his spot. They both commended Joyce for hitting a high fastball out, a tough thing to do.
As usual, though, you would have to look at Joyce's at-bats earlier in the game plus other at-bats to understand what really happened. In his first at-bat, Posada called for a 1-1 fastball down and in but Hughes missed up and out as well, and Joyce pop-fouled out to Posada. In his second at-bat, Joyce grounded out weakly to first on a first-pitch curveball.
The problem for Hughes was that, in the fifth inning, with the count 3-2 on Reid Brignac, he threw FOUR fastballs in a row before striking out Brignac. To the next batter, Jason Bartlett, with the count 2-2, Hughes threw FOUR fastballs in a row before Bartlett flied out to center to end the fifth. All in all, Hughes, with 2-2 or 3-2 on a Rays batter, threw 13 fastballs out of 15 pitches. Every curveball he threw to a Ray with two strikes and any count was for a ball, usually in the dirt.
So, you didn't have to be a brain surgeon or a batting coach to know what Matt Joyce was going to see with the count 2-2 in the sixth inning. Joyce knew, got the same pitch he fouled out on in his first at-bat, and hit a game-winning moonshot.
If Phil Hughes, a very good young pitcher, wants to get to the next level (stardom), he's going to have to have the guts (confidence?) to throw a two-strike curveball over the plate for a strike and not in the dirt.
Interestingly, after Joyce's home run, Hughes faced Willy Aybar, his last batter. With the count 3-2, Hughes threw his first and only two-strike curveball right over the plate. A stunned Aybar took the pitch for strike three.
We will never know what would have happened if Phil Hughes had thrown Matt Joyce a curveball rather than a fastball in the Yankees 3-2 loss against Tampa Bay on Friday, July 30, 2010. But it would seem virtually impossible for Joyce, sitting on a fastball, to have hit the curve out.
Hopefully, the Yankees coaching staff will fix this pattern.
Steve Kallas writes about sports in general, youth sports and sports and the law. More columns by Steve can be found at stevekallas.com.
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