February 2009

From the railroads to the farms to the baseball fields

An early highlight in Scottsdale is the bat of first-baseman Travis Ishikawa. He is only 25 and has just 65 days of major-league service under his belt, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a more serious and mature player in the clubhouse. While others are texting and playing games on their hand-helds, Ishikawa is working a crossword puzzle. He’s quiet and methodical, a family man whose wife gave birth to their second child in September.

Maybe that’s why he fits in so well at the over-55 mobile home community where he’s living during spring training. His parents bought the place as a retirement residence, but both are still working in Seattle, where Ishikawa grew up.

“I like getting away from everything and having some quiet,” he says, sitting in the living room of the mobile home the other day. Outside, a golf cart putters past the white-pebble front lawns and cacti and the occasional gnome.

Ishikawa has come a long way in a year. Last spring, he was working out with the Double A-ers and now he’s the front runner for the starting job at first base.

“Until they tell me otherwise, that’s my spot,” he says. “If something happens and I’m on the bench, I’ll be the best left-handed hitter off the bench.”

Ishikawa is half Japanese on his father’s side. His great-grandparents came over from Japan to work on the railroads and settled in Chicago. During World War II, his grandparents were imprisoned in an internment camp in Colorado. They now are in their 90s and living in Southern California – where decades ago they owned and worked farmland before the freeways came through. Travis has never asked his grandparents about the internment camp.

“They never give you an opening to talk about it,” he says. “My father has never talked about it. I think it’s a cultural thing. There are some things you just don’t talk about.”

Travis never even knew his father had played much baseball until he was going through some old boxes in the attic. In one dusty box were newspaper clippings of Alan Ishikawa throwing a no-hitter and a one-hitter in high school.

Alan Ishikawa, a controller for a chain of Washington supermarkets, is 5 feet 8. His son is 6-3. Obviously, Travis didn’t get his size from his dad. But his paternal bloodlines seem to have passed down strength and resilience from the railroads and farms, and more than a little bit of baseball talent.


Travis Ishikawa and his mom.jpg

Giants Cover Boy

Tim Lincecum is on the cover of ESPN The Magazine this week in a great story by Bay Area-based writer Tim Keown. Not lots of new information for folks who have followed Lincecum since he reached the major leagues in 2007, but the story captures the Cy Young winner’s unconventional approach to the game.

Some excerpts:

* Lincecum might just be the most unlikely

dominant athlete in team sports today, baseball’s

equivalent of Allen Iverson in his prime. When

scouts told him he was small, Lincecum said, “Yeah,

I am. There’s not much I can do about that.” Except

punch out hitters, over and over. The message is

the same for scouts and fantasy owners alike: Don’t

question what you see. Simply appreciate it.

* One of many photographs displayed prominently

in the elder Lincecum’s family room in Bellevue,

Wash., is from Timmy’s days as a member of a fifth-

grade basketball team. There were seven players

on the squad, and league rules mandated that

everyone had to spend some time on the bench. In

this photo, one boy has his head in his hands, eyes

cast downward, clearly pouting because he isn’t in

the game; the other boy, feet off the ground,

mouth in midscream, is raising his fists to the sky

as he reacts to something the camera can’t see.

The second kid on the bench, the one jumping

around, is Tim Lincecum. “Whenever someone asks

me about Timmy, I show them that picture,” Chris

says. “That tells people who he is better than I ever

could. He’s a great athlete, but more than that, he

just loves to be part of whatever he’s doing.”

* At a time when ballplayers, especially pitchers,

obsess over training regimens and slavishly

follow routines with a compulsive joylessness,

Lincecum subscribes to no solemn throwing pro-

gram. He doesn’t really stretch, never ices and

swears he has never felt so much as the slightest

twinge in his right arm. Nine teams passed on

him in the 2006 draft, and six of them chose

pitchers. Two of those guys, Colorado’s Greg

Reynolds and Pittsburgh’s Brad Lincoln, have

already undergone arm surgery. All of them were,

in Lincecum’s term, “specimens.”


* Lincecum’s most overlooked quality

might be his adaptability. He’s gone from

relying on a strict mid-90s fastball, power-curve

repertoire to incorporating a changeup (the grip

took him three years to master) and a cutter.

“He’s learned that he doesn’t have to go full-tilt

boogie all the time,” Tidrow says. “He’s learned to

make the ball do things, and he’s learning how to

do more with fewer pitches. It’s scary, but he’s

only going to get better.”


A Little Friendly Chin Music

Pretty good
succession of pitchers for today’s first round of batters:

Johnson, Lincecum
and Zito.

didn’t participate in live batting practice Friday, so this was the first time
his new teammates have faced him this spring. Among the batters Johnson faced:
Fred Lewis. As a rookie last season, Lewis became the first left-handed batter
ever to go four-for-four against the five-time Cy Young Award winner.

first pitch to Lewis today had Lewis jerking back from the plate. A little

let me know he ain’t forgotten,” Lewis said later, laughing about it.

Lincecum trotted in from the outfield to replace Johnson, Shawon Dunston – a
roving instructor for the Giants’ minor leagues now – was taking throws at
first. Rich Aurilia, Dunston’s former teammate, was about step to the plate.

Dunston yelled. “Who’s the new guy? Looks like a little guy. You should tear
’em up!”

come try!” Aurilia shouted.

“I had my time.
I’ll take the next one!”

Bengie Molina, who
caught both Johnson and Lincecum today, said both pitchers accomplished what
they wanted. Johnson is building up stamina, not throwing all out yet, not
trying to get too cute. Lincecum, a generation younger, is already working on
hitting corners – and succeeding, Molina said.

“It’s very
difficult, though, for pitchers to throw against their own guys because you
don’t want to risk hurting anyone,” Molina said. “But you’ve got to get

At third base,
Pablo Sandoval looked like he belonged at his new position. It’s not really a
new position. Third base was his home for most of his life before he became a
catcher in the pros. Today, among several highlights, he made a diving stop on
an Aurilia bullet to third – a play spectacular enough to earn the rare
“Ohhhhh!” from his teammates. When Sandoval leapt for a high line drive and
missed, however, Molina howled and held his fingers an inch a apart.

how much you air you got!” he hollered out to Sandoval. “You didn’t even get
one inch!”

held his fingers two inches apart.

think two.”

don’t be getting any of mine,” Molina teased as he waited his turn at the
plate. “Let me be happy with my hits while I can.”

is crazy about Sandoval. He credits the rookie with lifting everyone’s spirits
when he joined the team late last summer.

he came in, he changed the club big time,” Molina says. “He is so happy every
day. So excited to be here. He has this fearlessness, too. That’s what you need
on a team, guys like that.”

The Crud was still making its way
through the clubhouse. Six guys were out sick today, plus J.T. Snow. Now it has
attacked the press corps. Andy Baggarly from the Mercury News was stricken,
though he managed to stay upright long enough this afternoon to file his
stories. (I figure if players get credit for playing hurt, so should the press.
I’m biased, of course.)

Best Seat in the House – the Dugout Rail

Here’s the scene.

Gorgeous day. Blue sky. High sixties, low seventies maybe. Sunny, but just enough leftover winter to need a jacket in the shade.

Scottsdale Stadium at 10 a.m.

The field is scattered with players and ball machines and screens.

Brian Sabean and Felipe Alou are on the top step of the dugout, leaning on the railing, silent, their eyes taking in the smallest details about this player or that one, bits and pieces of information to be filed away in their baseball brains for later analysis. Bobby Evans joins them. Then Larry Baer. A couple of equipment guys. A few reporters.

We look like railbirds at the racetrack.

On the field, coach Fred Stanley is hitting grounders to third base. Sandoval, Guzman, Gillaspie, Rohlinger, Uribe, Aurilia – they take turns scooping and throwing to first. Scoop and throw. Scoop and throw.

Each throw seems barely to miss coach Ron Wotus, who is standing a few feet behind the pitcher’s mound, tossing soft grounders to three players taking turns at shortstop. They field the ball and throw to second. Another group of players, lined up at second, take turns catching the throw, pivoting and firing to first.

Except it’s not really first base. That has already been claimed by the guys participating in the third-base drill. The second basemen throw to coach Roberto Kelly, who stands in the baseline between first and second. There is a screen behind him to keep errant throws from beaning the coach playing first.

In the outfield, a ball machine shoots fly balls from the right-field line to players spread out in center field. They practice calling for the ball.

“Gottit! Gottit! Gottit!” each one yells as he settles under the ball.

Scoop, throw, pivot, fire, gottit, gottit.

Over and over at all three stations.

They’re the same drills you see in Little League. The same drills, probably, players have done for a hundred years, minus the ball machines.

“Doesn’t even look like he’s moving,” one of the equipment guys says of Fred Lewis, chasing down a ball by the far fence. “He just glides across the field.”

I ask Bobby Evans what he looks for this early in the spring.

“You look at the crispness,” he says. “This early on, that stands out. If you can make the play over and over. If you have the range and footwork.”

He’s not paying much attention to hitting yet. The players just started with live pitching yesterday. But he watches the pitchers, who have been in camp almost a week. “You look to see how well they’re able to repeat their delivery. Finding that arm slot.”

Only a smattering of people watch from the stands. I’m not sure why more people don’t come down to this portion of spring training, before the games. You get to see all the players on the field simultaneously. No one’s in the dugout. You see non-stop action. And it’s free. And you can spread out across three seats, like the old days.

Larry Baer recognizes the pleasure of just watching the players practice. So this year, the Giants plan to open the doors to spring training games about 30 minutes earlier than usual so fans can watch more batting practice and fielding drills.

I was laid up yesterday with a bad cold and couldn’t make it to the ballpark. Something’s going around because today the team sent seven players home from practice for the same reason. Happens every spring.

Fred Lewis is still waiting for his special spikes from Nike. After his bunion problems last season, he flew up to Nike in Oregon in December and his feet were measured by some special computerized system. He needs his spikes to be a little wider than usual to reduce the risk of further bunions. Until the new custom shoes arrive, Lewis wears his old spikes to take fielding, then switches to tennis shoes for hitting and conditioning.

More tomorrow.

Full squad practice begins

It was the kind of morning that makes you tilt your face to the sun, take a long deep breath and give silent thanks to whatever cosmic forces conspired to allow you one more trip to spring training.

At 9:30 a.m., Bruce Bochy stood in the middle of the Giants’ Scottsdale packed clubhouse and welcomed 58 players to the team’s first day of full-squad workouts.

After congratulating the guys participating in their first big-league spring camp, Bochy acknowledged the losses suffered by several Giants during the off-season – in particular, Bengie Molina’s father and Barry Zito’s mother. Then he delivered a brief tribute to Ted Uhlaender, a former major-league player and valued Giants scout, who died of a heart attack last week at the age of 68. Brian Sabean and other Giants representatives flew to Denver for this afternoon’s memorial service.

Bochy asked for a moment of silence, and before he finished the sentence, every player in the clubhouse had his cap off.

“He was a good baseball man,” Bochy said of Uhlaender.

In that room, there could be no higher compliment.

One after another, players stepped into the batting cage for the first time in 2009 and murdered pitches from coaches. Other coaches hit grounders to the infielders. Barely a word passed among them. It was all cracks and pops – the background music of spring.

The players will take live batting practice tomorrow, Bochy said in his meeting with the beat writers in the dugout after practice. Today, he wanted to get them acclimated, “get some swings in.”

Out on the field, Brian Wilson was doing an interview with a TV station. Henry Schulman asked Bochy about a game last season in which Wilson threw nothing but sliders. Bochy looked over at Wilson – with his standing-straight-up hair that Bochy compares to a quail – and smiled.

“Sometimes you wonder if he’s playing another game inside our game,” he said.

You won’t be seeing any all-black bats in the major leagues this year. On every handle -of which will be natural wood — you’ll see a black-ink, hand-made line. And on many of the knobs, you’ll see a date etched into the wood – indicating the exact day the bat was manufactured.

With the spate of broken bats in recent seasons – and several injuries — MLB analyzed 2,232 bats that broke during games last season. MLB and the Players Union then agreed on new rules for this season, many having to do with something called “slope of grain.” Slope of grain refers to how straight the grain on the wood is.

This list of rules ran in The New York Times:

# All manufacturers must place an ink dot on the tangential face of the sugar maple and yellow birch bats before finishing. This enables the slope of grain to be viewed easily.

# The orientation of the hitting surface on sugar maple and maple bats should be rotated 90 degrees. To facilitate the change, all manufacturers must rotate the logo they placed on bats by 90 degrees.

# The handles of sugar maple and yellow birch bats must be natural or clear to allow for the inspection of the slope of grain in the handle.

# Manufacturers must track each bat they supply.

# Officials from each manufacturer must participate in an M.L.B.-sponsored workshop on engineering properties and grading practices of wood.

# M.L.B. will visit manufacturers regularly to audit each company’s manufacturing processes.

# Random audits of bats will be conducted by M.L.B. at ballparks.

# A third-party bat certification and quality control program should be established to certify new suppliers, approve new species of wood, provide training and education to manufacturers and address non-compliance issues.



Baseball Luncheon on Treasure Island

Comcast SportsNet Bay Area held its annual baseball luncheon on Treasure Island Wednesday. Over chicken and tiramisu, players and staff from the Giants and A’s fielded questions from MC Greg Papa.

My personal highlight: Brian Wilson in a sport coat. My second personal highlight: Wilson and Jason Giambi showing up with the same haircut, the upswept soft-peaked Mohawk that only professional athletes and Grammy winners can pull off.

Some notes:

* Wilson on the increased pressure on Tim Lincecum: “I don’t think he has any pressure on him. He’s very competitive but he’s very loose. (When he was in the hunt for the Cy Young), he didn’t change anything about his game plan. He was always loose and joking in the clubhouse.”

* Wilson on nightlife with Barry Zito in the off-season: “We did nothing that would void a contract.”

* Randy Winn on his success on the bases last season: “I’m trying to get a little smarter as I get older. I’m talking a lot to Dave Roberts.”

* Brian Sabean on Jonathan Sanchez pitching in the World Baseball Classic: “He’ll be one of the top pitchers for Puerto Rico, which will be great for his confidence and his maturation.”

* Sabean says Sanchez is “bigger and stronger” and that the fifth spot in the rotation is his to lose. “(Noah) Lowry’s going to have to unseat him,” Sabean said. As for trading Sanchez: “I have a very hard time thinking he could be traded for his full value.”

* Asked whom the fans should be watching for on the horizon, Sabean said Bumgarner. “He’s on a very fast track. When this kid gets here, he’s not going back.”

* The folks at Comcast SportsNet Bay Area say the Bay Area has “the most passionate and underserved sports fans in the country and are hungry for more coverage.” So Comcast is dedicating one channel to the Giants and one to the A’s. The network will carry 134 regular-season games, including 75 games in HD. It also will broadcast 3 hours of live shows every day – “SportsCenter”-type programs plus a local “Sports Reporters”-like show with Chronicle reporters — from its new HD studio in San Francisco.

Appreciating the Fans


Bob Howry.jpg

In 10 years in the majors, pitcher Bob Howry said, he has never heard a team owner address the players the way Bill Neukom did at a breakfast meeting this morning. Howry was with the Cubs, Indians, Red Sox and White Sox before signing with the Giants this season.

“They basically welcome you and wish you luck,” Howry said of other executives.

Neukom was more direct, talking to the players as professional colleagues, articulating the Giants’ expectation that players are civic leaders and businessmen as well as athletes. In particular, he emphasized the importance of connecting with fans at tomorrow’s Fanfest.

Neukom and Players.jpg 

“People are coming out and spending their hard-earned money with us – and it is hard-earned. As we all know, most people have less money in their pockets this year than last year,” Neukom told the players in a large meeting room on the suite level of AT&T Park. The fans need to know, Neukom said, that the players – and the entire organization – don’t take their support for granted.

“I think the veterans know that,” Howry said, “but there are so many younger guys on this team, so it’s good to have that kind of message from the man at the top.”

Later in the morning, the players met for nearly two hours with members of the media. Then, the team joined Giants employees for lunch – each player sitting at a different table so everyone had a chance to talk and get to know each other.

Jeremy Affledt and his wife, Larisa, are having dinner tonight with David Batstone, an ethics professor at USF and the director Not For Sale, a non-profit group that fights human trafficking. Affeldt called the organization two months ago after reading about it. Affeldt began his own foundation six years ago that focuses mostly on youth issues. He spoke at 18 high schools in Spokane, where he lives, and hopes to get to as many high schools in the Bay Area as he can during the season. 


Check out Andy Baggarly’s blog (http://blogs.mercurynews.com/extrabaggs/). He had a great interview with Tim Lincecum in San Jose last night. Lincecum was a rock star at the Sharks game, where he dropped the first puck. The crowd – and the entire Sharks team – gave him a standing ovation.

I’m off to go shopping with Pablo Sandoval for a piece I’m writing for Giants Magazine. Look for it on Opening Day.

I hope you can make it to FanFest tomorrow! Get here early and pray for clear skies.

A Night in San Jose

I did a double take when I saw pitcher Sergio Romo with his teammates at the Giants fan event at the Britannia Arms restaurant in downtown San Jose last night.

Romo’s round baby face was lean and angular. Last season he almost could have passed for a guy who played on the company softball team. Now he looks ready for the San Francisco marathon.

I told him he looked great and asked how much weight he lost.

“Last time I checked, about 12 pounds,” he said. “People here (with the Giants) are taking me seriously, so I’ve got to take it seriously, too.”

He played fall ball in Mexicali, Mexico, then attended the Giants’ three-week conditioning camp in Scottsdale. He continued training at home in Yuma, forgoing a vacation.

“(The trainers) took the time to teach me what I should be doing, and I saw what a difference it made,” Romo said.


Here is the first thing I heard when the team arrived at the Brit Arms into a crowd of fans:

That little kid? He looks like the kid that rides the bus to the mall in Santa Cruz!”

The incredulous woman’s companion had just pointed out the 2008 Cy Young Award winner.



Rookie RH pitcher Joe Martinez — signing autographs at a table between Steve Holm and Kevin Frandsen — went straight from the instructional league in November to Columbia High School in Maplewood, N.J.

Since he was signed by the Giants out of Boston College in 2005, Martinez has earned a few bucks every off-season by working at a substitute teacher.

“He teaches whatever class they need him to teach – gym, Spanish,” said his girlfriend, Lindsay Harrington. The two met while students at BC. Harrington works at a public relations firm in Boston.

Alex Hinshaw’s fianc, Courtney, is much more comfortable going into this season than she was last year when Hinshaw was a rookie.

“I was a little intimidated and a little worried about what we were going to find when Alex was called up to San Francisco. But there are so many good guys here. I can’t imagine there’s any other team like this. We feel really lucky.

“Brian Wilson and Barry Zito have been amazing,” she said. “And Jack Taschner. I commend them on how they’ve helped him grow. They gave him a taste of the nightlife and a taste of responsibility. A little bit of everything.”

She and Hinshaw met at San Diego State. Courtney was a basketball player and would have liked to become a high school coach.

“But this has always been his dream,” she said. “So I’m putting that first. He’s had such a tough time getting here, so I want to help him see this through. I get so much joy from seeing him so happy.”

The two plan to get married in November in Oregon, where Courtney’s parents live.


Look for another post later today from the players’ meetings with new managing general partner Bill Neukom, media interviews and lunch with the Giants office staff.


Lincecum at Britannia Arms:

Lincecum San Jose.jpg

Lincecum San Jose 2.jpg

Play Ball (Well, Almost . . .)

Opening Day is two months away, but for Giants’ fans the season unofficially begins tomorrow night at the Britannia Arms in downtown San Jose with the first glimpse of the 2009 team.

The team has flown in the entire roster (except for guys who couldn’t make the trip for personal reasons) plus coaches and broadcasters to meet fans in San Jose on Thursday night and at AT&T Park in San Francisco Saturday.

Both events are free.

In San Jose, 30 players and coaches will be signing autographs, posing for pictures and perhaps even tending bar from 4:30 to 7 then heading over for the Sharks game – where Tim Lincecum will drop the first puck.

On Friday, the players have a day of in-house meetings, starting with a breakfast gathering with Bill Neukom and other management. They’ll do media interviews mid-morning then have lunch with the Giants staff – all the folks who make everything happen behind the scenes. In the afternoon and early evening, a handful of players will be shooting TV commercials. (I had a peek at the scripts. You’ll love them. Funny and irreverent and completely San Francisco.)

Then the players are back at AT&T Park on Saturday from 10 to 3 for the annual FanFest, which draws around 20,000 people. This will mark the first appearance of Randy Johnson, who has other obligations preventing him from attending Thursday’s San Jose event.

Here’s a complete list of players, coaches and broadcasters attending each of the public events.

San Jose:

Affeldt, Bowker, Burriss, English, Flannery, Frandsen, Hinshaw, Holm, Howry, Kelly, Krukow, Lansford, Lewis, Lincecum, Joseph Martinez, Misch, Molina, Rohlinger, Romo, Rowand, Sadler, Schierholtz, Taschner, Wilson, Winn, Wotus, Yabu and Zito.


San Francisco:

All of the above plus: Vida Blue, Bruce Bochy, Cain, Cepeda, Will Clark, Dave Flemming, Mark Gardner, Randy Johnson, Kuiper, Martinez, Jon Miller, Righetti, Dave Roberts, Sabean, Sandoval, Lon Simmons and J.T. Snow.

See you there.

Programming notes:

The second episode of Inside the Clubhouse, which features Giants manager Bruce Bochy, outfielder Fred Lewis and infielder Kevin Frandsen, will air on Friday, February 6 at 7:00 p.m. on Comcast SportsNet Bay Area. It will also be available at Comcast Cable’s ON DEMAND Channel 1 and at sfgiants.com beginning February 7.

The third installment, which features bullpen pitchers Jeremy Affeldt, Bobby Howry and All-Star closer Brian Wilson, will premiere on Wednesday, February 11 at 7:30 p.m. It will also be available at Comcast Cable’s ON DEMAND Channel 1 and at sfgiants.com beginning February 12.

Here’s a complete listing of the air-dates:

Inside the Clubhouse #2

Fri 2/6/09 7:00 PM

Sat 2/7/09 9:30 PM

Sun 2/8/09 8:30 PM

Tue 2/10/09 6:30 PM

The Numbers Game

Thirty-five-year-old Jeremy Shelley, the Giants’ newly promoted senior director of baseball operations, won’t ever tell you exactly what he does – or at least how he does what he does.

He’s kind of like the guy in CIA movies who sits in an ordinary office behind an unmarked door and, unbeknownst to everyone but the most senior staff, is actually one of the most powerful operatives in the building.

Shelley works with General Manager Brian Sabean and VP of Baseball Operations Bobby Evans on player research, statistical analysis, major league contracts, arbitration preparation and scouting. He also oversees the information systems within the scouting department.

In short, Shelley decodes baseball statistics. He finds meaning in numbers. He excavates databases like an archaeologist at a dig – except Shelley uses his unearthed artifacts to piece together a picture of the future instead of the past.

He projects how players are likely to perform over a season, or over the course of a contract. He and his team figure out before each season, for example, how many runs the Giants are likely to score and how many they are likely to give up. They go through each guy in the lineup. They add and subtract. They move decimal points around. They substitute this player for that one and recalculate everything. They use arcane formulas they have developed over the years and that they share strictly on a need-to-know basis, and, really, almost no one outside baseball operations needs to know.

“I’m a little uncomfortable saying anything more than that,” Shelley tells me. “What I can say is that analysis in baseball has gotten so sophisticated and it’s changing all the time. I read, read, read – every baseball web site, every publication, everything.

“And every day, it seems, I see some new stat or method of analysis out there. We’re always asking ourselves Does this make sense? Does this help us?”

Shelley was a finance major at Santa Clara University when he landed an internship at the Giants in the spring of 1994. He went to classes until about 11 a.m. then spent the next eight or 10 hours at Candlestick Park, earning $5 an hour to sit at a computer and input hand-written scouting reports, players’ medical histories and other relevant information in preparation of the draft. He worked nights and weekends.

In August of that year, with still two months left in his internship, the players went on strike and the season was over. He took another internship in the Giants’ baseball operations from March to October in 1995, balancing the Giants with schoolwork until he graduated in June. He moved back in with his parents in Concord, unable to support himself on an intern’s salary. He spent one more season, 1996, as an intern, hooked now on the numerical intricacies of the game.

“But after three years, I told the Giants I needed to get a full-time job,” Shelley says. They hired him in July 1996 as an administrative assistant in baseball operations.

He has been with the Giants 16 years. When his own baseball-playing days ended 20 years ago at the age of 15 — “Too small,” he says. “Not good enough.” – he never imagined a career in major-league baseball.

“I just want to keep learning and growing,” he says.

Maybe some day there will be a stat that shows how many runs are produced and saved by the work of Shelley and his colleagues in baseball ops – the guys who help major-league teams win games without ever touching a bat or ball.