Results tagged ‘ Bill Neukom ’

From the Horses’ Mouths

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It sure looks weird to see the clubhouse in the off-season. Even filled as it was last night with fans in folding chairs, it was like walking into an abandoned building. There’s a kind of ghostly loneliness about it without players slapping domino tiles on table tops and answering fan mail in front of their lockers and yanking down the bills of their caps as they rush out to take early BP. Is April really still three-and-a-half months away?

The next best thing to the actual baseball season, though, is talking about it.

Up on a temporary stage, erected on the far right of the room near the starting pitchers’ lockers, Giants manager Bruce Bochy was sitting next to general manager Brian Sabean and taking questions from moderator Greg Papa.

“He’s the best all-around player that I’ve ever seen because he can play everywhere,” Bochy was saying. “He has a very similar body type to Tony Gwynn.”

He was talking about Pablo Sandoval, who embarked on a rigorous conditioning and weight-loss program during the off-season, a one-man camp the Giants dubbed “Operation Panda.”

“Obviously,” Sabean cracked, nodding at Bochy and himself, “we haven’t been in the same camp.”

Packed into the room, in rows of chairs bordered by four walls of lockers, were season-ticket holders who had been invited to talk baseball with Bochy, Sabean, managing general partner Bill Neukom and relief pitcher Sergio Romo.

Asked by Papa if two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum’s stuff matches up with the all-time greats, Bochy didn’t hesitate.

“Sure it does. He’s by far the best pitcher I’ve ever seen. When you have four pitches, especially the best or close to the best changeup in baseball right now, he’s up there among the greats. He’s a thinker out there and knows what the opposing team is doing and that’s why he’s won two Cy Young Awards.”

What’s interesting about him,” Sabean said, “is in college he would throw 140 pitches on a Friday night and then be the closer for his team on Sunday. He’s proved to have a rubber arm and has an inner strength that other people don’t have. He’s fearless and he thinks that on any given day that he’s better than anyone else.”

Perhaps the highlight of the evening was Sergio Romo. He’s a player that fans don’t know very well yet, and last night they got a glimpse of his sense of humor and his boyish excitement for the game – starting with the fact he was texting his mother as he climbed onto the stage to tell he was going to be on television.

You’re from Brawley, California, near Los Angeles,” Papa said, “so who was your favorite team growing up?”

No comment,” Romo said, smiling. “Let’s just say I started hating the Dodgers the second I put on a Giants uniform.”

After struggling with injuries last season, he said he’s “very excited for the season to start . . . I miss my number 54 on my back.”

When Papa opened the discussion to questions, one of the first was an update on the Giants’ up and coming players.

“Peguero is a young outfielder that we just placed on our 40-man roster,” Sabean said. “He’s a lot like Sandoval in that he has a lot of energy. Thomas Neal came into his own last year and developed an all-around game. Brandon Crawford is going to be our shortstop of the future. We have a flow of talent that people will be proud of.”

As for the readiness of pitcher Madison Bumgarner and catcher Buster Posey, Bochy said, “I really think that they can start for us next year. Posey is gonna be a front line catcher and he’s on the fast track. Bumgarner did a heck of a job last year when Timmy went down. Here are two tremendous kids that stood out and both held their own. I’m curious to see how Buster looks this spring.”

One fan wanted to know about keeping Lincecum and fellow pitcher Matt Cain as Giants for the long haul.

“Cain has two more years before free agency,” Sabean said, “and Lincecum has four more and is going through arbitration right now. We are in a good situation because they both want to be Giants for a long time.”

Sabean also addressed the decision not to resign veteran pitcher Brad Penny.

“We had a short window and in our estimation we thought we had home court in our situation. We couldn’t bring ourselves to overpay when we have Madison Bumgarner in the wings.”

Still want more? Tune in to a full broadcast of the event on Comcast SportsNet Bay Area on January 15 at 6:30 p.m.

Some shots from the taping:

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Off-Season – But Not Time Off

Giants batting coach Hensley “Bam-Bam” Meulens is wasting no time diving into his new job. He has gathered John Bowker, Travis Ishikawa, Nate Schierholtz and minor-league first baseman Brett Pill for a six-day hitting clinic at AT&T starting on Monday. Then he’ll fly down to Venezuela with Bowker, who will play winter ball in that country’s extremely competitive league. Schierholtz is going to Puerto Rico. (I’m not sure yet what the other two are doing.)

I’ll try to grab some time with Meulens during a break in the action on Monday and share what I learn.

I’m going down to Arizona on Tuesday with some of the video guys from the Giants. We’ll be checking in with Pablo Sandoval, who is in the midst of his own personal conditioning camp with team trainers.

Pablo ended his spectacular season with the second-best batting average in the National League (.330), 3rd in doubles (44), 4th in hits (189), 6th in total bases (318) and slugging percentage (.556), 7th in extra base hits (74). But he wants to get better, so he has committed himself not only to developing a new regimen of physical exercise but also to learning how to eat healthy. He also wants to work on improving his English pronunciations and educate himself about Facebook and blogging – all for the purpose of communicating and connecting more with the fans.

Got a text-message from Tim Lincecum earlier this week. He’s in Seattle right now visiting family but will be back in SF next week and will stay through the winter. He, too, is developing a workout regimen to get even stronger. He seems to be all-muscle already – his percentage of body fat has got to be almost zero. So I’m not sure what exactly he wants to improve. I hope to chat with him when he’s back in town and will let you know.

The Giants held a three-hour meeting Wednesday of the entire staff. They went over highlights of the 2009 season and laid out plans and goals for 2010. (Orange Fridays are coming back!) There was particular focus, as you might imagine, on improving offensive production, including a better on-base percentage and a more consistent one-through-five batting lineup. Brian Sabean’s staff talked of identifying possible trades or free-agent signings. Any trade, managing general partner Bill Neukom explained, would have to meeting the following criteria:

· Does this player significantly improve the team’s win-loss record?

· How much money will he cost?

· How much talent do the Giants give up for him?

· Does this player’s arrival thwart the progress of a top homegrown prospect?

· Does this player fit in with the team chemistry?

What struck me most, though, in the meeting was how much was accomplished in 2009 – and what a great foundation it provides for next season and beyond.

Some 2009 facts that stand out:

· Best home record in the NL and improved overall record by 16 wins over 2008.

· Best starting rotation in baseball (fewest runs allowed, most shutouts and most strikeouts). Lincecum led the league in strikeouts for the second consecutive year, was the 2009 All-Star Game starting pitcher and again was named NL Sporting News Pitcher of the Year.

· Bullpen strength: Jeremy Affeldt led the NL in holds (33) and Brian Wilson tied for third in the NL in saves (38).

· Great team chemistry: This team – in particular, the relatively unknown group of young players — won the hearts of the fans. And they did so by working hard day in and day out and playing with excitement and energy. As a result, Giants’ attendance stayed nearly the same this year from last year – even in a down economy — and the team set record television ratings (up 37 percent on Comcast over 2008). The veterans were fantastic with the young guys – everyone from Randy Johnson to Edgar Renteria to Juan Uribe stepped up as unofficial mentors and teachers.

· The deepening pool of emergent talent: Five of the Giants’ seven minor-league teams reached the championship game in their respective leagues (three teams won championships). The Giants’ affiliates combined for the best record among all major-league organizations. Catcher Buster Posey was named Topps/Minor League Player of the Year. Others, such as Madison Bumgarner, Roger Kieschnick and Brandon Crawford, established themselves as exceptional prospects. This is a great sign that the Giants’ investment in the farm system is paying off.

· Valuable late-season experience: Playing meaningful baseball in September gave younger players a foundation on which they can build in the seasons to come.

Here’s something else from the meeting that I loved, though it has nothing to do with baseball. The Giants made a real commitment to making AT&T the greenest ballpark in the country. In 2008, it managed to recycle 40 percent of all the garbage and other waste. In 2009, it recycled 67 percent. Pretty amazing.

More next week.

The faces, and hands, of baseball

You can’t go to a minor-league park, even in the off-season, and not be reminded why you love baseball.

I drove down to San Jose Municipal yesterday morning to listen to the SF Giants and San Jose Giants announce a new partnership. (The major-league team has bought 25 percent of the minor-league team.) I figured I was in for a bunch-of-suits press conference, and certainly there was some of that.

But there’s something about a small park with outfield signs for Rotten Robbie and Sheet Metal Workers International Association that puts you in mind of hot dogs dripping with pickle relish and the smell of Sea & Ski on already-burnt shoulders and third outs coming too quickly.

“When you walk in here as a 5-year-old,” Giants pitching coach and San Jose native Dave Righetti told the audience of San Jose Giants season-ticket holders, sponsors and media, “and watch your dad play ball, and then to be back here . . .”

He choked up like every boy trying to talk about his dad and baseball.

The men on the dais yesterday were a snapshot of the game itself. On one end of the row of chairs sat the great Jim Davenport, man as Southern as pecan pie who, from seven decades in the game, has palms as rough as his old third-baseman’s glove. On the other end sat Pablo Sandoval, a Venezuelan kid with braces just starting in the majors.

There was Giants managing general partner Bill Neukom in his now-trademark black-and-orange striped bowtie, making such a forceful and eloquent case for his “Giants Way” that Sandoval and Buster Posey – the only players in attendance – lifted their eyes from the floor and watched their boss like jurors.

There was general manager Brian Sabean, in Darth Vader black, whose New York growl and knit brow have yet to be softened by 16 years in San Francisco.

And there was Posey, the poster boy, in his crew cut and crisp white button-down shirt tucked neatly into khaki pants. Later, signing autographs in the park’s “Beer Batter” patio with Sandoval, Posey smiled politely and chatted with fans like an usher at a wedding, slightly formal, regally reserved. Sandoval, on the other, seemed like the guy who, with some prodding, might take the mike from the wedding singer. He laughed and joked, easily draping his arm around fans for photos. He wore a black, long-sleeve T-shirt with metallic writing, his sparkly Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses clipped to his collar.

From outside the patio, Linda Pereira watched the two young men like a doting aunt. She has known Sandoval for several years, from his days with the San Jose team, and met Posey when he was with the team for a week last summer. She’s been working for the San Jose Giants for 43 years, starting when she was in sixth grade. Now she’s director of player relations and has been placing players with local families for 29 years.

“One lady had six players in a five-bedroom house,” she said, recalling some of her best host families. Shawn Estes lived with an older woman who, over 12 years, fed and housed 54 players. Estes, the former Giants pitcher, called her every Sunday until the day she died at the age of 88.

Pereira and the San Jose Giants will have Posey again, at least for a while. Then he’ll, too, leave Rotten Robbie and the Beer Batter patio and head out to Connecticut or Fresno or San Francisco and one day, if he’s extremely lucky, be the guy at the other end of the dais with palms as rough as his catcher’s mitt.

Appreciating the Fans

 

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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.

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“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. 

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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.

Travels With Bill

Giants managing general partner Bill Neukom is learning about his club the way a mechanic learns about a car: Examining every component, determining how each part functions, gauging the need for repairs and replacements.

To him, that means visiting every minor league operation, a plan that began in San Jose in the fall and continued this month with a trip to the Dominican Republic. He returned from the Dominican, he said, with a much deeper understanding of what baseball means to the country.

“We visited Felipe Alou’s Junior Giants Field,” Neukom said by phone from his office this morning. “It is used every daylight hour of every day. At every major-league complex, you see remarkably athletic, earnest young men trying to hit and pitch their way off the island.”

He was impressed with the Giants’ system of finding and developing talent. It’s a lean and mean operation, with most of the team’s resources going into the actual teaching of skills instead of into luxurious facilities. Neukom does, however, want to improve the fields and buy equipment for a good weight room.

One highlight of the visit was getting his first glimpse of Rafael Rodriguez, the 6-foot-5-inch outfielder the Giants signed last year at the age of 16.

“Very impressive,” Neukom said. “Standing behind the batting cage, you just hear the ball off his bat. The ball just carries.”

For Neukom, though, these visits are more than opportunities to learn. They’re also opportunities to teach.

“Part of the purpose is observation, and part of it is evangelizing,” he said. “I want everyone in the organization on every level to understand the Giants’ way. We want to start right there with the prospects, even before they sign.”

Next stop: the Single A club in Salem, Oregon.

Neukom flew there this afternoon.

Prospects Classroom

The young men sit behind tables in three neat rows, black three-ring binders open, pens in hand. The room is in the bowels of AT&T Park, down the hall from the Giants clubhouse. It is usually used for press conferences. But during this week in November, it has been transformed into one of the most exclusive schools in the world.

“There’s going to be somebody in this room who’s going to play for us next year in the big leagues,” Giants general manager Brian Sabean tells them. He sits on a raised dais next to Giants manager Bruce Bochy.

Several students shift in their chairs. Some nod. Most try hard to show no reaction, assuming as best they can the unflappable posture of a star. But you can see it in their eyes: The anticipation of what might come. Some might someday land on the cover of Sports Illustrated someday. Some might become so famous they have streets named after them.

But for now, at this moment, they are just guys with great curve balls, guys with wicked swings, with other guys with great curve balls and wicked swings, in a room full of hope.

These 20 young men are among the Giants’ top prospects, handpicked from the farm system to come to San Francisco for five days of Here’s What It’s Going to Take. One player graduated from high school just four months earlier. The others attended at least some college. Most have spent a little time in the minor-leagues, living four to an apartment, riding buses, budgeting their few-hundred-dollars-a-week salaries – all to earn their own three-foot-wide locker at 24 Willie Mays Plaza.

The curriculum for the week was The Giants’ Way – how to get in top shape, how to play with integrity and enthusiasm, how to behave professionally, how to engage with the media and fans. The young players spent their mornings with the Giants conditioning staff, pushing themselves through tough workouts. They spent their afternoons in this makeshift classroom with Giants front-office staff, learning that making it to the major leagues takes more than talent.

“Attitude is so big in this game,” Bochy tells them. “You have to be full of optimism. You have to have a gut-level belief that you will play at this level. We all know you have the ability. That’s not the question. The question you have to ask every day is: Do I have the attitude to leverage my capabilities to be a major-league player?”

Sabean leans toward the microphone to deliver the hard facts, the ones these players won’t hear on SportsCenter. They have to be willing to put baseball before everything in their lives, Sabean says, which means making sure their loved ones are willing to make the commitment with them. They have to play on rock-hard fields in Arizona’s midday sun in front of near-empty bleachers. They have to play in the Dominican and in Puerto Rico. They have to play and play and play and play. They have to figure out how to keep their sanity in the face of repeated, sometimes unrelenting, failure.

“I’m not sure what the wash-out rate is today, but it used to be that just 5 to 8 percent of players signed made it to the major-leagues,” Sabean says. “You have to be one tough SOB to play this game.”

He offers an example.

“Barry Bonds never put himself in a position to let his guard down,” Sabean says. “He never showed his frustration — threw a bat, kicked the dirt. If he hit a ball well and it was caught, he tipped his hat to the other guy knowing he did the best he could. He rarely showed any emotion to an umpire. He acted as if it never happened because he never wanted the pitcher to think he wasn’t in control.

“His complete control made his talent that much more to deal with.”

Earlier in the week, new managing general partner Bill Neukom told the 20 hopefuls that the Giants’ Way meant fundamentals, attention to detail, preparation. The Giants, he said, have made sure there are great teachers at every level of the organization.

“As Giants players, you will be better conditioned and better informed than your opponents,” Neukom said. “You will be more focused. You will have an approach to every at-bat, to every pitch at that at-bat. As good as you are, you will get better.

“We wouldn’t swap this group of young players for any other group,” Neukom says. “You not only are the best in the Giants organization, you are the best in baseball. You’re here because we think you’re warriors, because you love to compete. We want to help you express that. But you will be the ones to decide if you’re going to get here.”

In the makeshift classroom at AT&T, Sabean and Bochy are wrapping up. Sabean throws in another piece of advice: “Sign autographs. Connect with fans. It’s a relationship you need to have.”

The players close their binders and head down the hall to the clubhouse, where, for one more day, the lockers of Lincecum and Molina and Zito are theirs. They don’t know that Willie Mays is waiting there for them. It’s a surprise. A gift. Another lesson in what it means to be a Giant.

Soon the 20 young men will return to Michigan and Florida and New Jersey, wherever they call home, until another conditioning camp in Arizona in December and spring training in February. In the meantime, the Giants pass around a sign-up sheet for an optional tour of the ballpark on their final day. Nothing special. The same thing any fan or tourist gets.

Seventeen of the 20 sign up – a sweet reminder that even future baseball stars are, at heart, romantics like the rest of us. They know, or at least seem to know, that baseball is more than the dugout and the diamond, more than the players. The real classroom of baseball is the park itself, housing as it does our memories of past summer days and delivering each spring another dose of hope.

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