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Baseball: Answer to a prayer and other surprises

Sunday, July 07, 2002

True or false: The Cardinals sit atop the National League Central going into the All-Star break, and to thank they have that wellspring of major-league talent -- the Italian Olympic team.

(Insert Jeopardy music here.)


Answer: Strange, but somehow true. Note: Doesn't every American baseball team find its savior playing in the shadow of the Vatican?

Two years ago, Jason Simontacchi had nowhere to go but Italy after washing out of the Royals' and Pirates' organizations (yes, the Pirates had him at Hickory in 1999) sandwiched around a stint in the Frontier League. Going to Team Italia turned out saving his career. Go figure. Wednesday, he defeated San Diego, 4-1, to run his record to 7-1 and lower his earned run average to 2.77 since being called up May 4.

This 28-year-old rookie, who apparently got his shot only after the batboy at Johnson City came down with a sore arm and the janitor at Busch Stadium wanted to renegotiate, has stabilized a Cardinals staff rocked by inconsistency, injury and the now the death of Darryl Kile. A long shot? He warranted only one inning in spring training before being shipped out.

Now, only the Dodgers' Kazuhisa Ishii (11) and the Giants' Ryan Jensen (8) have more wins among major-league rookies.

And we hadn't even heard of him in March. For that matter, The Guy In The Stands didn't even know how to pronounce his name until June (sim-un-TOCH-ee).

"I hate the word surprising," St. Louis Manager Tony La Russa said Wednesday, but "he's been not just a pleasant surprise, a great surprise, [but he's been] a life-saving surprise for us."

Why stop at that? He is a poster child for why, even after 133 years, this game continues to show us something new every day.

Hey, who would've predicted that major-league batsmen would smote a record 62 home runs in a single evening as they did Tuesday? And that Barry Bonds would not hit one, but Tsuyoshi Shinjo and Raul Ibanez would hit two apiece? Or that, for heaven's sake, the Pirates would hit four (and still lose, 12-6)? And that all this would happen just 24 hours after pitchers posted a 2002 single-night record-tying four shutouts?

Offered Rockies pitcher Denny Neagle: "Sometimes the game doesn't make any sense."

Amen! And isn't it wonderful.

So, in honor of the nine wins Pirates newcomers Josh Fogg and Kip Wells had put on the board before the weekend -- in itself a head-turner seeing as the Pirates haven't had a pitcher win more than 11 in an entire season since 1999 -- The Guy offers his nine most surprising stories of the first half.

The Guy's list

Shot of Colon: The Expos, baseball's version of dead (broke) men walking, become buyers and trade for Indians ace Bartolo Colon June 27. Could the bleacher bums in Galilee have been any more amazed when Lazarus stumbled out of the bullpen of death two millennia ago?

Bravos: With apologies to the Angels, Reds, Twins and Expos, their exploits in many ways are not as shocking as what has transpired in Atlanta. After a run of 10 consecutive division titles, the Braves' dynasty was supposed to be dying. Instead, they are 36-10 since May 15 en route to the best record in the major leagues (55-31) and the largest lead of any division leader (9 1/2 games) going into the break. Dying? In their championship run, Atlanta's largest lead at any break was only slightly larger than it is today (12 1/2 in 1998).

Bombers away: The Yankees, with a whopping 133 home runs, find themselves on pace to lead the league for (can it be?) the first time since 1961 ... and must practically apologize to Manager Joe Torre, who doesn't want the long-ball mentality to erode the offensive discipline that has been their trademark. Said Jason Giambi to Torre after Nick Johnson "goofed" and hit an opposite-field, three-run homer against Arizona last month: "Hey, Joe. I think he tried to hit a single on that one."

Did he say that? Americans always say they want honesty from their leaders, but ... well ... Indians GM Mark Shapiro, rather than put some sort of spin on that white flag flying over Jacobs Field, tells Cleveland fans that with the trade of Colon "we are clearly moving to a total rebuilding process." But hey, fans, there are still plenty of good seats available.

Ding down: The record 62 home runs Tuesday would seem to fit right in with the hulked-up times in which we live. Except home runs are actually down. Through June 30, 2,570 home runs had been hit -- 168 fewer than through June 30, 2001 (2,738). And they're 416 down from the record year of 2000, when 2,986 had been hit through June 30.

Did he say that II? With his Devil Rays in the midst of a 15-game losing streak -- longest in the majors since 1988 -- GM Chuck LaMar tells reporters May 10: "I don't think this leads to questioning the direction of the club. I think to a man, everybody is not only pleased but excited about the direction of the club." And that direction is ... ?

Lowe to the high: Who would have imagined that Boston's Derek Lowe -- booed off the Fenway Park mound in September as a failing closer -- would find himself carried off it in cheers as a starter six months later on the heels of the season's only no-hitter en route to a 12-3 first half and a probable All-Star start? Who does he think he is? Pedro?

Slamming: Angels shortstop David Eckstein, all of 5-8, 170 pounds and owner of a less-than-prodigious four home runs, leads the major leagues with three grand slams. What's more, not even Rick Reilly thinks he's on steroids.

And finally ...

Gummed up: A chewed piece of Luis Gonzalez bubblegum goes for an unheard of $10,000 in an Internet auction April 15 ... and by midsummer proves to be a better investment than 10,000 shares of WorldCom.

Enjoy the second half.

All-Star dust

Wonder if Miller Park's Bernie Brewer is going to have to make his "beer run" after every homer in tomorrow night's Home Run Derby (8 p.m., ESPN)? ... In light of all the talk about steroids since the Jose Canseco and Ken Caminiti stories bubbled to the surface, do you imagine baseball would like to turn back the clock and reconsider the promos for the derby and the game that portray the players as hulked-and-bulked superheroes? ...

The Yankees are the first team since the 1954 White Sox to have their entire infield represented. ... Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell, retiring at the end of this season after 55 years, will make a guest appearance in the Fox booth during the game. ... Said Red Sox outfielder Johnny Damon after narrowly edging Indians first baseman Jim Thome for the 30th spot on the AL team in Internet voting: "If [he'll] decline his no-trade [clause] and come to Boston, I'll be willing to let him take my spot."... Miller Park has 106 obstructed-view seats that the Brewers sell for a buck apiece during the regular season. Tuesday night, those seats sell for $175.

Time passages

Chicago -- the band, not the Cubs -- used to ask the musical question: "Does anybody really know what time it is?" Perhaps The Guy could ask the same of Yankees GM Brian Cashman. In offering his take on the Expos' acquisition of Bartolo Colon last week, Cashman told the New York Times: "In New York, the future is now all the time. In Cleveland, the future was always now for the last 10 years. Now the future is the future. In Montreal's case, the future wasn't always now. Now the shoe is on the other foot." Make sure to catch Brian next week when he will read passages from physicist Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time."

A natural high

Steve Fossett gained world-wide headlines this week when he finally completed his 21,000-mile circuit of the earth in a hot air balloon after six years of trying. Yeah, yeah, whatever. It took Houston catcher Alan Zinter 14 years to make a 360-foot circuit of the basepaths in Cincinnati Monday night -- a home run off the Reds' Scott Williamson. It stands for the first major-league hit in the career of the 34-year-old Houston rookie who came to our attention last month when the Astros called him up for the first time since he entered pro ball in 1989. That was 4,706 professional at-bats ago, all but five of them in the minors.

Fossett was his equal in one respect, though. Said Zinter: "I floated around the bases. ... I don't even know if I touched them all. It was beautiful. Awesome." Isn't it a small world?

Good, wild & ugly

Box score lines of the week:

Good: Hideo Nomo, Dodgers, Monday: 3 AB, 1 R, 1 H, 1 RBI in a 4-0 win vs. the Diamondbacks. Of all the hits, runs and home runs this week, none was quite so improbable as Nomo -- hitting .014 (1 for 24) entering the game -- spinning himself into a 3-and-2 Randy Johnson fastball and hitting it off the left-field wall at Bank One Ballpark for an RBI double and a 1-0 lead. "He was a little Ichiro right there," marveled teammate Eric Gagne.

Wild: Kaz Sasaki, Mariners, Tuesday: 1 IP, 2 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 0 BB, 3 Ks in a 7-5 loss vs. the Rockies. He had given up only one earned run in 28 appearances all season, then gave up two earned runs in back-to-back appearances (Sunday and Tuesday).

Ugly: Denny Neagle, Rockies, Tuesday: 2 IP, 10 H, 10 R, 10 ER, 3 BB, 0 Ks in an 18-5 loss to the Giants. Put bluntly, no one hurled worse than him this week save for that kid who ate those 50 1/2 hot dogs Thursday.

Series of the week

Diamondbacks (51-34 before yesterday) at Dodgers (53-33), Thursday-Sunday. ... Considering that the upstart Dodgers have won 4 of 6 vs. the world champions since May 31 to take a 1 1/2-game lead in the NL West, the ball is in Arizona's court to reassert itself. ... Big? The teams meet only six more times (in a nine-day stretch from Aug. 26-Sept. 4).

This 'n' that

In all the water-cooler talk about Ted Williams Friday, the question came up (as it usually does when talking about old ballplayers): Wonder what he'd make today? Street & Smith's Sports Business Journal addressed just that question in 1999. Answer: $19.3 million a season. FYI: In 2002, that would put him just behind Toronto's Carlos Delgado ($19.4 million). ... Tough times in Kansas City? When Paul Byrd (11-5) beat Seattle Tuesday, he became the first Royals pitcher to win more than 10 games in a season since 1998. ... The Indians' 11-15 record in June marks their first losing month since April 1993. To listen to GM Mark Shapiro, it may not be their last for a while. ... The meeting of the players union's executive board is still on for tomorrow in suburban Chicago, and still sounding ominous. Translation: A strike date is on the agenda. "It will be a very significant meeting," Twins player rep Denny Hocking said. "Huge," says Dodgers rep Paul Lo Duca. ... Brian Giles might not be an All-Star, but he ranks 29th on The Sporting News' list of the 50 best players in baseball. ... Jim Thome's streak of seven consecutive games with a homer becomes more impressive when considering the pitchers he homered against, a list that includes Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling and David Wells. ...

Remember when five runs used to give you a pretty good chance to win a game? The Padres scored five times in the first inning against the Giants June 27 and the Royals June 28 and lost both games -- 11-6 and 14-10. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that makes them the first team to pull off such a stunt since the 1893 Chicago Colts. And in a freaky bit of coincidence, the Colts did it on the very same dates. ... Baseball has lost Padres outfielder Mike Darr and Cardinals pitcher Darryl Kile since the start of spring training. In an eerie bit of happenstance, Mike Darr Sr. coached Kile at Norco High School in Southern California. ... Pete Gray died this week at age 87. The Guy, like most of us, never saw him play a game. But think about it: Anyone that can hit .218 at any level with one arm as he did for the St. Louis Browns in 1945 deserves our awe. ... From the other end of the spectrum, writes Ray Ratto of the San Francisco Chronicle on the Barry Bonds-Jeff Kent feud: "The one who lives longer will attend the other's funeral, just to make sure he's dead."

Shot and a jeer

Shot: Rumor has it that Joe Torre would have taken six shortstops to Milwaukee with him, but Cal Ripken declined to come out of retirement.

Jeer: Dateline, July 8, A Meeting Room Somewhere in suburban Chicago: Don't do it! Don't do it! Don't do it! Ah ... you know the players are gonna do it.

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