Ray Ratto

With All-star games under assault, the NHL has its work cut out for it

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USATSI

With All-star games under assault, the NHL has its work cut out for it

There are probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 19,000 sporting events in the United States in any given year, and that’s only taking in the Big Four sports, pro soccer and college football and basketball (men’s and women’s), so it is understandable that we have only so much brain to give to practice games and exhibitions. As an example, the Pro Bowl is largely and correctly regarded as American’s greatest shame, because for all its other problems, America’s role as the world’s entertainer is damaged by the low level of this particular entertainment.

Thus, it is easy to see why the NHL All-Star Game being awarded to San Jose for 2019 slipped under the radar, the skyscrapers, the two-story homes and even under the topsoil. All-star games are under assault across the continent for being anachronisms whose only value are watching the teams being selected (and the NBA even screwed that up this past week).

This means that to get the area reinvigorated in the next year’s time, the NHL may need to fool with its format to address the new societal realities. The divisional-round-robin format doesn’t exactly vibrate with fun, and the game is way too convivial in any event.

Thus, we suggest that the league take a note from the NBA’s new book and go Stars vs. Snubs. Or acknowledge the new politics under which we endure and go U.S. vs. Foreigners. You know, sell that misplaced jealousy and status-seeking.

The enduring argument about all-star selections (other than how many players want to be selected and then not show up) has always been whether it should reward careers or best seasons – in other words, legacy choices against guys actually doing the deeds. And as we have seen with the NBA, those who don’t get picked get very very salty indeed.

This is an area that screams for exploitat . . . err, marketing. The NHL does not have a history of guys complaining that they should have been named, but it is amenable to trying anything to get people to pay attention to their ever-shifting formats. Thus, the trick is to name a team that will torque off other players (maybe taking Alex Ovechkin but not Sidney Crosby, or vice versa) to the point that they will both bitch about the selections and bring that bitching to the ice.

If it means paying one team more than the other, do it. If it means Gary Bettman doing a presser in which he says “We all know who the best players are, and these are the others,” do it. Hockey struggles to avoid stratifying its work force, but it seems to be working in the NBA, where royalty and reputation go hand in hand (see Paul George).

But if the game is coming back here to give an artificial prod to a franchise that evidently needs one, the league should make it a priority to find a way to make the game We vs. They. It will be an absurd contrivance, but at this point, what contrivance hasn’t been tried? So let's go past "He Hate Me" to "Of Course We Do," and see if that'll sell.

Trevor Cahill's career day moves A's into tie with Astros atop AL West

Trevor Cahill's career day moves A's into tie with Astros atop AL West

OAKLAND -- It is generally agreed that Trevor Cahill has been a very useful piece of an often suspect Oakland A's rotation. I mean, Sean Manaea is not starting every second day, and Edwin Jackson has only so much trickeration to go around for the benefit of his 13th team.
 
Saturday, though, was Cahill's masterwork by any metric analysis, and it came at one of the dandiest times in this decade of Elephant baseball. An equal share of first place in the AL West was there to be had, a big crowd was in the building, the day was warm, the beer was cold and the bat rack had been charged with vibranium.
 
The result: Cahill’s best start ever, with a palindromic pitching line of 7 1 0 0 1 7 and (dork alert) a game score of 85, his highest ever and one of the 150 best, give or take, in franchise history. Oh, and the A’s beat Houston, 7-1, to move into a flat-footed tie for first place in the AL West with only too many games left to play.
 
“I think it’s so early in the year for that,” Cahill said afterward said of dealing with the rarefied air of mid-August baseball. “It’s not even September yet. I mean, it’s a divisional rival and all, so it’s not like I wouldn’t think about it, but...”
 
But Cahill isn’t going to get giddy on command. He knows he pitched well, very well, but rather than trip down memory lane for the 2010 start against Pittsburgh when he threw 7 2/3 innings of two-hit, 10- strikeout ball, or the late 2009 start against Texas in which he matched Saturday’s pitching line save for a second hit, he fretted about his mid-game changeup (“but I got some outs and the defense backed me up and we got some hits”).
 
Yes. Some hits – 11 of them, including eight doubles, only one of which (Stephen Piscotty’s one-out drive in the fourth) did not lead to a run in Oakland’s binge-and-purge attack. Indeed, this game had breezy shutout written all over it until the ninth inning, and only because backup left fielder Tony Kemp explained to a 90-mph fastball from Yusmeiro Petit what happens to most 90-mph fastballs these days.
 
But in hindsight, the key moment in the game was back in the second when Houston’s Yuli Gurriel hit a grounder that shortstop Marcus Semien couldn’t come to terms with. There was no reason for the moment to resonate at the time, but it was Houston’s only baserunner off Cahill until the seventh, and the only hit he allowed all day.

Had Semien made the play (which in fairness was not an easy bit of business), Cahill would have walked off the mound in the seventh with 100 pitches and a hammer over manager Bob Melvin’s head. Instead of an easy call to pull Cahill, Melvin would have had to wrestle with removing a pitcher on the cusp of a no-hitter, as he did April 21 with Sean Manaea.
 
“Oh, Cahill’s pretty easygoing, and I don’t think it would have been a problem,” Melvin said, lying only about 40 percent. “But yeah, that would have been interesting.”
 
Not just interesting though, but a much more tortuous decision given that Manaea was only at 84 pitches through seven innings back in April while Cahill’s 100 marked only the 14th time all season an Oakland starter has thrown that many pitches.
 
In other words, Melvin had a potential conundrum removed for him, with 32,000-some-odd angry customers on one shoulder and a glowering Billy Beane on the other.

So even when they don’t get outs these days, it still works fine for everyone.

As for the bigger picture, the A’s won their second straight against Houston, and their sixth in seven games, 13th in 16, 19th in 25, and 43th in 53, plus their 20th of 24 at home. They have wiped all 12 games they had spotted the Astros this year, 14 from Seattle, 10 from the Yankees, and even a half-game from the Boston Red Sox, who seem to have actually won more games than they have played this season.
 
And for the even bigger picture, they did all this in front of the sixth-biggest crowd of the year, and the first that didn’t feature the Giants, free admission or fireworks. This winning-80-percent-of-your-games thing may actually be catching on, even if they audience got screwed out of a Cahill no-hitter, a record-setting ninth double, or a chance to take the division lead outright.
 
But hey, that’s tomorrow’s plan. And if you don’t get all of that and then some, be sure to complain to club busybody-in-chief Dave Kaval. He’s the customer service jockey around here, and now that the standard for daily joy has been set, he had damned well better be prepared to meet it, or explain the failure.

A's becoming even harder to ignore after wild walk-off win vs Astros

A's becoming even harder to ignore after wild walk-off win vs Astros

OAKLAND -- August is a nice time for October. For one thing, the weather’s better.
 
The baseball, on the other hand, looked very autumnal, at least here at the corner of 66th and Are You Kidding Me – where The Magic Is In The Concrete.
 
The Oakland A’s, for whom cheating gravity is merely pregame stretching, stole game one of this very playoff-y series with the Houston Astros, 4-3, on Matt Olson’s 10th-inning home run – and when we say stole, we mean swindled.
 
They won the game because Olson turned on an 82-mph slider from  Tony Sipp. They got to Olson because Ramon Laureano is a masterful second-story man.
 
Laureano, pinch-running for Chad Pinder (who had drawn a particularly diabolical walk to start the ninth inning), raced home from first on Nick Martini’s one-out double down the right field line – except that he was called out at home by umpire Alfonso Marquez because of shortstop Carlos Correa’s brilliant cutoff and throw home.
 
Only Laureano jumped up after his head-first slide, Mutombo-fingered manager Bob Melvin and demanded a review of the play. After three fairly agonizing minutes, the call was reversed and the game was tied, en route to being won.
 
In other words, the Astros won all the way until they didn’t, 23,535 fans went home captivated, and the American League playoff race is a little more on than ever.
 
The last two innings were indeed quite highlightable, for both aesthetics and weirdness, and Oakland’s role as the impish mega-underdog was enhanced. The A's cut their deficit behind Houston back to one game, are three games behind the New York Yankees, who beat Toronto 7-5 in a rain-shortened game, and 3 ½ ahead of Seattle, who was comprehensively mauled, 11-1, by the Los Angeles Dodgers.
 
But the momento dei momenti was Martini’s line smash off the right field wall, Laureano’s mad dash from first, third base coach Matt Williams’ emphatic windmilling to send him home, Houston third baseman Alex Bregman’s seeming indecision on how best to avoid Laureano, Correa’s throw, catcher Martin Maldonado’s tag and the out that wasn’t.
 
“I wanted to know about possible interference by (third baseman Alex) Bregman,” Melvin said afterward, explaining how thorough he intended to be in getting the call overturned. “I wanted to know about blocking the plate (by Maldonado), and I thought he (Laureano) definitely got his hand in. I thought the tag was a little delayed.
 
“Of course,” he added, “I’m obviously biased.”
 
Indeed, the call looked too close to overturn, but after a dawdly 3:06 of study time, Marquez reversed himself, and the die was cast for Olson, who crushed Sipp’s fourth slider in a six-pitch at-bat to improve the Elephants’ vistas both ahead and behind.
 
And speaking of bias, Josh Reddick is biased too, and the Houston right fielder and Oakland ex-pat who chased down Martini’s drive was not in an understanding mood.
 
“From everything I saw, he was out,” Reddick said. “I have no idea what they saw. There was no angle that showed otherwise. I’m tired of getting screwed by replays. That’s not the first time. I’m upset by a call that controls everything. I threw it gunning for home plate all the way; I wanted to get the ball to Carlos. He has the best arm in the infield and the most accurate arm. I knew the longer they looked at it they were trying to get it right. Obviously they didn’t.”
 
But there was no doubting Olson’s drive, which left the bat with clear intent to travel far.
 
“It’s definitely one of the cooler things I’ve done in my career,” Olson said. “It’s the most juiced I’ve gotten on a field for sure, just for us to stay in that game.”
 
And to reaffirm what the nation is beginning to understand – that the A’s die harder than most.
 
“We’ve known that we’re a capable team, we’re a very good team all along,” Olson said. “We knew it going into the year that we were going to have a chance to make a run, so glad to finally get a little recognition for it and when we go out and win games like that, people are looking at us a little bit.”
 
Well, actually, a lot. Friday’s game was not a statement by any means – there are still 40 more games to navigate for both teams, and Seattle has 39, and the schedule is sufficiently entwined to recreate games like this again and again before the playoffs are sorted out.
 
But the A’s gave further notice to the reluctant eyes, feet and wallets of the greater East Bay that they will be increasingly difficult to ignore. Friday’s game was a clear worth-the-price extravaganza, and if they keep piling those up, they’ll be nearly irresistible.
 
Nearly, that is. One never assumes they’ve turned that particular corner until they’ve actually completed the turn. For the bandwagon, it's early yet.