Ray Ratto

Barry Zito -- The perpetual fifth starter


Barry Zito -- The perpetual fifth starter

You are about to be given the usual boatload about spring training as the happiest time of the year, as a time of rebirth and optimism and warm-and-cuddlies all around.

And who are we to disabuse you of that myth if it keeps you warm? I mean, it isnt like spring training is a Turkish prison, either.

But in the middle between bucolic rite of spring and hellish nightmare in a God-forsaken land lies the truth that this when the angst of the season begins to build.

Yes, angst. You know where the story lines of the year begin the arduous process of being beaten to death.

And we know the worst of them, dont we? The one that never ends, no matter how many times it is dismissed as the ephemera it is.

Yes. Barry Zito. The Perpetual Fifth Starter.

REWIND: Barry Zito stats

And this isnt even his fault any more. It hasnt been for awhile, either. He hasnt been a problem child, or a diva, or an issuer of demands. He has taken whats been given without overt complaint, and he shows up on time, and in shape, ready to give it another go for as long as theres a go to give.

But here we are again, two days before pitchers and catchers report, and it will be the first order of business what to do about Barry Zito.

Well, the solution is the same solution thats existed for three years now. Hes the fifth starter, and one of the longest-serving fifth starters in the game. He pitches and meets the criteria of a fifth starter until he hits a rough patch, or gets hurt.

Thats how it works. Thats how it has always worked. Thats how its going to continue, and it is hard to understand why so few fans or medioids seem to get that.

And dont bring up the money. The money is gone, a sunk cost. The contract is two owners ago, and Zito did not hold a gun to the Giants and demand the money. They outbid everyone else by 46 million, and they get to pay for that judgment.

Plus, we havent seen that there is some pitcher whose progress is being retarded by Zitos continued presence. Jonathan Sanchez sped by him and then lost the strike zone so badly that he ended up in Kansas City. Ryan Vogelsong sped by him after years on the major league fringe and is now the fourth starter.

This is about money that No Longer Exists, that the Giants wouldnt be able to regain if Zito wandered into the woods, moved to Nepal or decided to open for the Foo Fighters. Money that was lost in 2007 five years ago. Money that still has two years and 46 million to run.

Zito will make 19 million this year, 20 million next year, and then will be bought out for 7 million in 2014. The 18 million option for 2014 would kick in if he pitched 200 innings in 2013, a figure he hasnt reached since he left Oakland, or totaled 600 innings in 2011, 12 and 13, which means he has to average 273 innings this year and next. Thats pitching into the ninth inning every time out for two consecutive years.

In short, this is a two-year commitment to a fifth starter who has already been moved aside once for baseball reasons a problem, then, that does not exist.

But the rehashes will be done anyway. If the story changes at all, it will change with his performances once the season begins. He may turn out to be a feel-good story in 2012, and theres no reason to root actively against it, but it wont be in February.

Its spring, though, and the traditions must be honored, even the absurd ones. Barry, you got a few minutes?

Dusty Baker's postseason agonies and his Hall of Fame candidacy


Dusty Baker's postseason agonies and his Hall of Fame candidacy

Dusty Baker’s face tells a lot of different stories, but there is only one it tells in October.

Disappointment. Deflating, soul-crushing, hopeless disappointment.

With Thursday night’s National League Division Series defeat to the Chicago Cubs, the Washington Nationals have reinforced their place in the panoply of the capital’s legacy of failure.

But Baker’s agonies extend far further. His 3,500 games rank him 15th all-time, and only one manager above him, Gene Mauch, is not in the Hall of Fame. His 105 postseason games ranks seventh all-time, and his nine postseason appearances ranks sixth.

But his postseason record of 44-61 and no World Series titles curse him. He has been on the mailed backhand of eight series losses in 11 tries (plus a play-in game loss in 2013), and been marked by the media-ocracy as an old-school players’ manager who doesn’t wrap himself in the comforting embrace of statistical analysis.

He is now Marv Levy and Don Nelson – the good manager who can’t win the big one.

Only Levy and Nelson are in their respective halls of fame, and Baker probably won’t be. Having no World Series titles (his bullpen dying in 2002 being as close as he ever got) dooms him as it has doomed Mauch, although Mauch made his reputation as a brilliant tactician with bad teams.

But even if you take Baker’s worst metric – the postseason record – he still ranks in the 90th percentile of the 699 managers in the game’s history, though even then there’s the caveat of the 200 some-odd interim managers who you may choose not to count.

This is not to claim he should be in the Hall of Fame. This is to claim he should be discussed, if only to determine if reputations in the postseason are the only way managers are allowed to be evaluated. Because if that’s the case, Dusty Baker’s world-weary October face makes that conversation a very short one.


U.S. Soccer: Patriotism-fueled frontrunning born of inexcusable arrogance


U.S. Soccer: Patriotism-fueled frontrunning born of inexcusable arrogance

So Bruce Arena resigned as the U.S. National soccer team coach Friday. Big damned deal.

Oh, it is to him. He probably liked the job, and might have wanted to keep getting paid.

But whether he’s there or isn’t doesn’t matter. In fact, whether the people who hired him are there or not doesn’t matter either. U.S. Soccer is the definition of sporadic interest and patriotism-fueled frontrunning, of imbedded self-interest and general indolence, all born of inexcusable arrogance.

Bruce Arena didn’t bring that to the job, nor does he remove it by leaving. He’s just another head on a spike, like Jurgen Klinsmann was before him, and Bob Bradley before him.

But that would also be true if the head of U.S. Soccer, Sunil Gulati, quit or was fired too. Even the people bleating that the U.S. shamed itself by losing to Trinidad and Tobago display the same kind of blinkered ignorance and arrogance that dogs this sport in America.

Being in CONCACAF is a gift from the heavens, and the U.S. has decided as a national collective to replace that with actual achievement. Beating Germany in friendly is proof of long-term worth. The fact is, we don’t know how to evaluate America’s place in the soccer world except as an audience, let alone how much massive structural change is required to change that.

And change must be massive, and can’t be evaluated by the next cheap win or the next galling loss, or television ratings. America is good at watching soccer, good enough to catch on the actual chasm between its national team and development structure.

But that’s where it ends, because knowing what’s bad because you just watched it, or what is actually good (like, say, a UEFA or CONMEBOL qualifier) is light years from knowing how to fix a system built on the flawed concepts of work rate without creativity and money as a solution to crippling organizational problems.

So Bruce Arena does the decent thing given the circumstances, falling on a sword that should actually be a kebab skewer. But it makes no difference. The American soccer structure needs to get what it needs before it can get what it wants, and there are no more shortcuts to take in a short-attention-span world.