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From Scapegoat to Unsung Hero

aybar hero

Although the Angels’ 2008 season ended on a walk-off hit by the Red Sox, many remember it ending with Erick Aybar at the plate.

With 1 out and a pinch-runner Reggie Willits on 3rd, Mike Scioscia opted to win or lose by doing what they had done all year… play Angel baseball.

A suicide squeeze was the call, but when the pitch ran up inside on Aybar and he couldn’t get the bat on the ball, Willits, like the rest of the team, was done for. You could feel the momentum shift away from the Angels, it was that monumental. Pack it up. Head home. Season over.

One could only imagine what had gone through Aybar’s head on that flight home, and for the entire offseason for that matter. Many people (including myself) blamed Aybar for ending the Angels’ postseason run. Many people blamed Mike Scioscia for putting on a high-risk play in such a crucial situation.

When a suicide squeeze is called, the manager puts the absolute utmost confidence in the batter to at least hit the ball into the field of play, because if not, the runner is a sitting duck, and the team squanders a potentially vital run-scoring opportunity.

But, as the great Mark McGwire once said, “I’m not here to talk about the past.” It’s time to recognize what’s been going on in the present day.

Since day 1 of  being part of the Angels’ system (just like that fateful at-bat in Boston), the club had invested the utmost of confidence and placed immensely high hopes in this “Aybar kid”. He’s quick, he’s a slap-hitter, his range in the field is jaw-dropping, he’s acrobatic, you name it. Over his minor league career, Aybar hit at an impressive .312 mark. When he was 20 years old, he stole 51 bases over the course of his season in Advanced-A ball.

Management had touted Aybar as a player where “the sky’s the limit” for him in terms of potential and the type of player he could grow to be.

In 2007, he hit .237.

In 2008, he hit .277.

An improvement, yes, but me like plenty of other Angel fans out there were missing something. If this kid is supposed to be “so good”, don’t you think he could lay a suicide squeeze down? You’d think. This guy’s our future everyday shortstop? Yeah right.

As you can tell, I was not impressed with Aybar whatsoever since he had been called up to the Angels’ big league squad. I had seen flashes of him being who the Angels hyped him up to be, but he was way too streaky. He’d go on a tear for a few games with the bat, then go ice cold for a week. Consistency was nonexistent.

Then 2009 rolled around.

A redemption year for Aybar, if you will. And a year where I finally understand why the Angels’ front office loved this kid so much.

To start the season, I was hoping they would give the starting shortstop job to Maicer Izturis, a guy who was consistent, clutch, and more proven to-date. But Aybar had put forth a better spring training than Mighty Maicer, and was the Opening Day shortstop for the Halos.

Erick would hit at a disappointing .245 mark over the course of the opening month, which had me somewhat furious why Mike Scioscia kept putting him in the lineup.

He would hit .303 during the month of May, which made me a tad bit happier. His season average was just a shade under .280 after 2 months of play… not great, but not horrible either.

June gloom hit Aybar pretty hard as he batted a mere .256 during June, but then Aybar would turn on the jets.

EA had an absolutely unreal month of July. So good in fact that he had the highest batting average of every starting position player in the entire league over the course of the month.

What did he hit, you ask?

.414. Let that soak in for a moment, do a double take if you need to, you’re reading it correctly.

36 hits in 87 at-bats, 17 runs scored, 18 RBI, a homer, 2 triples, and 6 doubles. All while playing exceptional defense in the field.

In a double-header at Kansas City, Aybar collected 7 hits (yeah… 7 hits in one day!) by going 7-for-9 with 5 runs scored! I don’t know if you could draw up a more successful day of baseball for one player.

His batting average has dipped below .300 once since July 19th (September 4th’s game with the Mariners capped off an 0-for-20 slide… which brought his average to .299).

On the season he’s hitting .306 with 5 homers, 53 RBI, 62 runs scored, 21 doubles, and 5 triples, all career bests. He’s also stolen 13 bases and posted a .350 on-base percentage, also his best marks in his young career.

But as much as he’s been letting his bat do the talking, his work at shortstop has been nothing short of sensational.

Entering 2009, Aybar had possessed unbelievable range in the field, meaning he could cover so much ground that he would almost always get a glove on a ball hit in his general area. He has a cannon for an arm despite being just 5’10” and 170 pounds. But he had always been erratic. For every highlight reel play that he’d make, he would counter by messing up the simplest of grounders.

But as in almost every aspect of Aybar’s game, 2009 would be a new season.

This year has proven to be a “make a name for myself” type of year for Aybar. He would routinely make plays that even the best of shortstops could only dream of making. He’s been making appearances on SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays of the day feature seemingly every other day.

At this juncture, I don’t think I could be any happier for Erick.

Nearly 11 months after a potentially career-defining blunder at the ripe age 0f 24, he’s helping erase Angel fans’ unforgettable memory of his ALDS Game 4 mishap by playing the best ball of his career.

And although 2009 has been a year that has shown me a lot about individual players (Torii Hunter, Kendry Morales, Aybar, Juan Rivera just to name a few), but more about what this team is really made of.

This team is made of competitors. This team is made of positive influences. This team is made of winners.

This team… is a team of destiny.

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Vlad Joins 400 Home Run Club… Hall of Fame Awaits?

vlad 400th

On Monday, August 10th of 2009, Vladimir Guerrero blasted his 400th home run of his illustrious 13+ year career.

Not only would his blast eventually lock up a win for the Angels against the visiting Tampa Bay Rays, it also virtually locks him into being a future Hall of Famer after the “Big Daddy” decides to hang ’em up.

Vladdy became the 45th player in Major League Baseball history to reach the 400 home run plateau. Of the other 44:

23 are in the Hall of Fame

8 are still playing

Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Gary Sheffield, Carlos Delgado, Chipper Jones, Jason Giambi

1 will be eligible for being elected this year

Fred McGriff

7 aren’t yet Hall of Fame eligible as of 2010

Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, Frank Thomas, Jeff Bagwell, Juan Gonzalez, Mike Piazza

That just leaves out Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, Dave Kingman, Andre Dawson, and Darrell Evans as the only members of the 400 home run club who have not yet been enshrined in Cooperstown.

Let’s take a quick look at some of Vlad’s career numbers:

– 2004 American League MVP

– 8-time All-Star

– 7-time Silver Slugger Award Winner

– 2007 Home Run Derby Champion

His best year can be debated between 2000 with the then-Montreal Expos:

.345 avg./.410 OBP/.664 SLG/101 R/197 H/28 2B/11 3B/44 HR/123 RBI

or in 2004, his first year with the Angels, in which he won the AL MVP award:

.337 avg./.391 OBP/.598 SLG/124 R/206 H/39 2B/2 3B/39 HR/126 RBI

My vote would have to go to the year where he put a team on his back and single-handedly willed himself and his team into the postseason, with that year being 2004 in Angel red.

Vladdy has posted years of a .300 batting average, 30+ home runs, and 100+ RBI in 10 of 11 seasons where he appeared in over 112 games.

Despite being arguably the biggest free-swinger the game has ever seen, Vlad has hit over .300 in every full season’s he’s played in (.302, .324, .316, .345, .307, .336, .330, .337, .317, .329, .324, .303).

To go along with his “hack away” mentality, Vlad has never struck out 100 times or more in any season, a rarity that possibly may never be seen again.

To-date, the injury-plagued 2009 season could mark the first year where Vladdy’s batting average falls below the .300 line… and he’s batting .299.

He posted 2 years of 30+ home runs and 30 + stolen bases back in 2001 and 2002 with Montreal.

Entering the 2009 season, Guerrero’s career numbers ranked pretty high up on the all-time lists:

– #13 all-time – slugging percentage  (.575)

– #43 all-time – batting average (.323)

– #99 all-time – on-base percentage (.389)

Although his current career statistics are so staggering, the thing that makes Vlad so special is that he is more than a rare breed of a hitter.

Sure, there have been hitters before Vladdy who could turn their wooden bat into a 9-iron and literally golf a pitch that bounces in the dirt, 430 feet away to straightaway center. Sure, there have been hitters before Vladdy that make you feel the breeze from every swing he takes… even if you’re sitting in the cheap outfield seats. Sure, there have been hitters before Vladdy that make you marvel at the raw strength that they possess to muscle a ball in off their hands, to the deep power alleys of a ballpark.

Sure, that puts Vlad in rare and special company, but the thing that makes Vlad so unique, is that he has the uncanny ability of turning a pitcher’s best pitch into a ball that lands deep into the left field stands.

Growing up in the Dominican Republic, Guerrero would play stickball with his friends, a game where a thin stick would be used as a bat, and a rock as a ball. The object, like baseball, was to hit the rock into play, but there was a catch… you had to hit the ball, regardless of where it was thrown. Vladdy’s roots haven’t left him.

A sharp-breaking 12-6 curveball could start right in the middle of the plate and drop down to his shoetops, but Vlad, the great “bad ball” hitter that he is, uncoils that powerful swing of his, and makes his way around the bases, giving the fans in the cheap seats a souvenir.

A 100 mile per hour fastball could run inside on him, but he’d get the bat out in front and send a 450+ foot mammoth blast sailing into the night.

And he’s been having fun all the way through. His big smile could light up a dark room with ease.

Here’s to the guy who truly deserves it.

A once-in-a-generation type of hitter who swings at everything, and hardly misses anything (as Rex Hudler says, “from his nose, to his toes, that’s how Vladdy goes!”).

(Here’s a funny video of a guy spot-on imitating (duplicating sounds about right) Vlad’s quirky stance/swing… in front of the man himself!)

A player who was both a contact and a power hitter.

A player with one of the best cannon arms to ever play right field (as ESPN anchor Stuart Scott said following Vlad gunning a guy out at third, “he’s a mutant!”).

A player who could do it all.

Here’s to you, Vladdy. And as much as it’s hard to believe after your remarkable 13-year career (and still going), you will continue to be on your way to bigger and better things.

The baseball world congratulates you on reaching another incredible milestone.

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Hall of Fame* and a Tarnished Game

mannyWell, it’s official, another high-profile superstar is “linked” to steroids. This time, it’s just Manny being Manny.

Manny Ramirez of the Los Angeles Dodgers, tested positive today, not for a Performance Enhancing Drug like HGH, but for hCG, a women’s fertility drug….

WHAT?

Yes, Manny Ramirez tested positive for a women’s fertility drug.

There’s more to it, though. The drug he tested positive for is used by steroid users who are coming off of a steroid cycle to restart their body’s natural testosterone production. It is a very similar drug to Clomid, a drug that Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi (both linked to steroid use) used as BALCO clients.

Hmmm, is that Manny being Manny, or is that Manny trying to mask being a cheat?

That’s up in the air, but Manny has never had his name come up in steroid investigations, I’ll give him that. But to use a drug that is used by steroid users, and to not take a look to see if it’s on the MLB’s banned substances list, is it just Manny being a blind idiot?

Could be, but Jose Canseco got busted for the same thing that Manny tested positive for. I just don’t even know what to think about these positive tests regarding high-profile big leaguers. Some players and coaches are thinking the same way.

Astros manager Cecil Cooper said, “Today, you’re not really surprised by anything.”

Lance Berkman of the Astros said, “When people make the game look as easy as some do, I’m not surprised.”

David Eckstein of the Padres said, “Nothing shocks me anymore.”

But Atlanta Braves 3rd baseman Chipper Jones brings up a great point, a point that is more than just Manny.

“You can’t have arguably the greatest pitcher of our era, arguably the two greatest players of our era and now another very, very good player be under this cloud of suspicion and not feel like it’s ruined it for everybody.”

The pitcher he’s referring to is Roger Clemens.

The “arguably” two greatest players of our era are Barry Bonds and Alex Rodgriguez.

And the “very, very good” player he refers to is now Manny Ramirez.

Roger Clemens was an 11-time all-star, 7-time Cy Young award winner and a 1-time MVP. Let’s not forget to mention his career record of 354-184, good enough for the 9th most wins in a pitching career in MLB history (2nd in the modern era behind Greg Maddux), and his 4,672 career strikeouts is 3rd all-time. Clemens was one of the most dominant pitchers to ever take the mound, and was a force year after year throughout his illustrious 24-year career*.

Barry Bonds was a 14-time all-star, 7-time MVP, 8-time Gold Glover, and oh yeah, he’s the all-time leader in home runs with 762. His 7 MVPs are the most by any player in baseball history, the next closest total is an 8-way tie with 3 career MVP awards. All-time, Bonds is #1 of all players who have ever played the game in home runs and walks, 2nd in extra-base hits and times on base, 3rd in runs scored and 4th in RBI and total bases. No doubt one of the best to ever play the game*.

Alex Rodriguez, considered one of the best players ever and still only 33 years of age, is a 12-time all-star, 3-time MVP award winner and 10-time Silver Slugger award winner. “A-Rod” has 553 home runs, and became the youngest player ever to hit 500 home runs, a mere 8 days after his 32nd birthday. He debuted as a major leaguer with Seattle before he even turned 19! He has 11 straight seasons of 35+ home runs and 100+ RBI and is still one of the most feared hitters baseball has ever seen*.

Manny Ramirez has been an offensive force ever since 1995 in Cleveland, and is still slugging at an incredible rate, even though he is due to turn 37 at the end of May. Manny is a 12-time all-star, 9-time Silver Slugger, and was the MVP of the 2004 World Series when the Red Sox broke their 86-year World Series drought. He has 533 career home runs, and has one of the most pure, compact strokes I have ever witnessed. It’s like art in motion every time he swings the bat. He’s always been one of the goofier guys in the MLB, but there’s no questioning that Manny Ramirez is one of the best hitters of his generation, and of all-time*.

The * denotes the question: can you take their career numbers seriously?

Did they earn those statistics and accomplishments or did they have to cheat the system and cheat themselves to go from great to incredible?

The question remains to be answered for Manny. A-Rod admitted to steroid usage between the years of 2001-2003. Clemens and Bonds… not so much.

When you describe Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez, a few words for me that come to mind are incredible and unbelievably good.

Incredible is defined as, “not credible; astonishing; hard to believe; so extraordinary as to seem impossible.”

Unbelievable is defined as, “having a probability too low to inspire belief; too dubious to be believed.”

Since these 4 have been linked to cheating, it’s kind of ironic to think of how we’ve described them the whole time, don’t you think?

Here’s what I say: strip them of their careers. Everything. Home runs, MVPs, Cy Youngs, every statistic, everything.

Let’s take a tally of what’s lost between these 4 players:

– 11 MVP Awards

– 49 All-Star selections

– 7 Cy Young Awards (just Clemens)

– 10 Gold Gloves Awards

– 31 Silver Slugger Awards

– 1,848 Home Runs

That’s a lot to lose, but their actions deserve consequences. Let’s not fail to mention other steroid users like Jason Giambi, Rafael “I have never used steroids… period” Palmeiro, Mark “I’m not here to talk about the past” McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Jose Canseco. Between the 5 of them, you’re taking away another 3 MVP awards, 34 All-Star selections, 15 Silver Slugger Awards, and a whopping 2,620 home runs.

These 9 players take away a total of 14 MVPs, 7 Cy Youngs, 83 All-Star selections, 46 Silver Sluggers, 14 Gold Gloves, 354 wins and 4,672 strikeouts (from 1 player), and 4,468 home runs, and more importantly 9 potential Hall of Fame ballot positions.

Since 1990, 18 of the 38 players who won MVP awards have been linked to steroids.

The entire league hit 4,458 home runs in the 1987 season, 10 fewer than those 8 hitters did in their careers.

After the league had its highest total of home runs ever back in the 2000 season with 5,693 total home runs league-wide, the home run total has dropped in each of the past 3 years, hitting a 15-year low in ’08, most likely due to the recent spike in harsher drug testing and consequential suspensions from positive tests.

As much as I am disheartened by what has arisen regarding Manny Ramirez, I’m with Eckstein on his response, “nothing shocks me anymore.”

What I fear what is yet to be said. Although Manny did not test positive for steroids, he tested positive for something that is used to mask the effects of steroids. You could put 2 and 2 together, and let’s face it, what in God’s green earth is a man doing taking a woman’s fertility drug? Yeah, exactly. You can’t be that stupid to take a drug that’s prescribed for one sex (which is not the one that Manny falls under), let alone to have a doctor prescribe it to you, could you? Yeah, yeah apparently you can be.

The game of baseball has lost so much credibility in the past decade, and I’m not quite sure if the game can ever get it back.

And so help me God if a player like Albert Pujols gets linked to steroids… that’ll be the end of the game of baseball altogether.

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