Orioles

USC fires basketball coach O'Neill

201301141311474921021-p2.jpeg

USC fires basketball coach O'Neill

LOS ANGELES (AP) Kevin O'Neill took over a troubled Southern California basketball team, getting the Trojans back to the NCAA tournament after NCAA issues kept them out in his first season while producing winning records twice in 3 1/2 years. It wasn't enough.

He was fired on Monday, with the Trojans 7-10 overall and 2-2 in the Pac-12 after splitting their road trip last weekend.

``We just didn't win enough last year and this year. That's what this business is,'' O'Neill told The Associated Press by phone. ``We tried to do as well as we could, tried to get the program to the highest level. My goal every day going in there was to try to win a national title.''

He had a 48-65 record at the school known primarily for its powerful football program after going 6-26 last year while setting a USC record for losses.

Athletic director Pat Haden said the program needed new leadership.

``Despite a nice road win in our last game, I felt it was best to make a change now, with most of the Pac-12 season still ahead of us, in order to re-energize our team,'' he said.

O'Neill was hired by Haden's predecessor, Mike Garrett, who said at the time, ``Hopefully he's here forever.'' O'Neill took the USC job after spending a season as an assistant with the Memphis Grizzlies.

``Nothing in this business surprises me,'' O'Neill said, adding that he and Haden ``really didn't have any discussions other than how the team is doing.''

Veteran assistant Bob Cantu will serve as interim coach while USC searches for a successor. Cantu took over for O'Neill during a Pac-10 tournament semifinal game against Arizona in 2010-11 when the coach was suspended after getting into a verbal confrontation with a Wildcats booster. He has remained on the staff through four coaching changes and is the longest tenured assistant in the Pac-12.

``Couldn't be more excited and anxious to get started with (hashtag) coachbobcantu,'' tweeted senior center James Blaszyk.

The Trojans lost at Colorado before winning at Utah to snap a 14-game road skid over the weekend. USC has lost nine of its last 13 games, which included a five-game skid.

``There's been a lot of challenges in it but I really enjoyed my time,'' O'Neill told the AP. ``I'm thankful for my opportunity. I'm going to cheer for them every day.''

Upon arriving at USC in June 2009, O'Neill had to deal with the fallout from an ongoing NCAA investigation and school-imposed sanctions involving star O.J. Mayo, who played one season under Tim Floyd before leaving for the NBA.

The Trojans went 16-14, including a sweep of crosstown rival UCLA, and were in the hunt for the conference title until the final two weeks of the season. Sanctions imposed by the school in response to the NCAA investigation prohibited them from postseason play.

The next season, O'Neill lost three starters and four of his top six players from the rotation, but he guided the Trojans to a 19-15 record and an NCAA tournament berth. They lost in the first round to Virginia Commonwealth. That team included Nikola Vucevic, a first-round draft pick who now plays for the Orlando Magic.

Last season, the Trojans were hard-hit by injury, leaving O'Neill with just six scholarship players for nearly half the season who managed to keep the team in most every game. The biggest blow was losing point guard Jio Fontan, who tore his ACL after scoring 57 points in two exhibition games in Brazil. Forward Aaron Fuller (shoulder) and big man Dewayne Dedmon (torn MCL) also went down with season-ending injuries at different points.

``It got really pronounced because we didn't have freshmen or sophomores when I got here. Those classes were blank,'' said O'Neill, who dipped into the ranks of junior college players and transfers to fill out the roster. ``I thought our team was starting to come around and play better.''

He had a full complement of 13 scholarship players who were healthy this season.

``It was hard for me to evaluate him as a head coach until this year when he had enough players and veterans to compete,'' Haden said.

O'Neill said he's given no thought to his immediate future.

``Take a little time off, chill out a little bit,'' he said. ``I might go to New York and visit my dad. I really don't have any regrets, none at all.''

O'Neill, who turns 56 on Jan. 24, was hired by coach Lute Olson as an assistant at Arizona before the 2007-08 season, and became interim coach when Olson took a medical leave of absence.

O'Neill led the Wildcats to a 19-15 record and the school's 24th consecutive NCAA tournament appearance, at the time the nation's longest active streak. He was designated Olson's permanent successor, but when the Hall of Famer returned that spring he announced O'Neill would no longer be part of the program.

O'Neill had previous head coaching jobs at Marquette, Tennessee and Northwestern. He has a 219-245 record in the college ranks.

Quick Links

Saved! Baines surprise pick for Hall, Lee Smith also chosen

haroldbaines.jpg
AP Images

Saved! Baines surprise pick for Hall, Lee Smith also chosen

LAS VEGAS (AP) -- Harold Baines was given a save as big as any Lee Smith ever posted.

In a vote sure to spark renewed cries of cronyism at Cooperstown, Baines surprisingly was picked for the baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday after never coming close in any previous election.

"Very shocked," the career .289 hitter said on a conference call.

Smith, who held the major league record for saves when he retired, was an easy pick when the Today's Game Era Committee met at the winter meetings.

It took 12 votes for election by the 16-member panel -- Smith was unanimous, Baines got 12 and former outfielder and manager Lou Piniella fell just short with 11.

George Steinbrenner, Orel Hershiser, Albert Belle, Joe Carter, Will Clark, Davey Johnson and Charlie Manuel all received fewer than five votes.

Smith and Baines both debuted in Chicago during the 1980 season. Smith began with the Cubs and went on to record 478 saves while Baines started out with the White Sox and had 2,866 hits.

Baines had 384 home runs and 1,628 RBIs in a 22-year career -- good numbers, but not stacking up against the greats of his day. He never drew more than 6.1 percent in five elections by the Baseball Writers' Association of America, far from the 75 percent required.

"I wasn't expecting this day to come," the six-time All-Star said.

The Hall board-appointed panel included longtime White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf.

"I'm glad he was on that committee this year to help to get into the Hall of Fame," Baines said.

Reinsdorf praised his former player in a statement. Baines currently serves as a team ambassador in community relations department of the White Sox.

"So happy for Harold. He's a great player and a great human being," Reinsdorf said. "I am so honored that I was a member of the committee. He deserved to be in long ago. I am just so excited."

"Not only was Harold one of my favorite players to watch, but I have nothing but admiration for him as a player and as a human being," he said.

Tony La Russa, Baines' first big league manager, also was on the panel that elected him.

In the past, Phil Rizzuto and Bill Mazeroski were among the players who benefited from friendly faces on Veterans Committees to reach the Hall. That panel has been revamped over the years, and the Today's Game Era group was created as part of changes in 2014.

"The era committees were established as a sort of a court of appeals for an opportunity in the event that over time it was felt that maybe somebody slipped through the cracks," Hall President Jeff Idelson said. "And in the case of someone who received 6 percent of the vote in the BBWAA election, the reason that may have happened could be for many, many reasons."

Baines, now 59, had a smooth, consistent, left-handed stroke. But he never finished higher than ninth in an MVP vote, and never was among the top five AL hitters in the yearly batting race. His single-season high was 29 home runs at a time when lots of players hit more.

Smith's fastball helped him become a seven-time All-Star in an 18-year-old career. Known for his slow trudges from the bullpen to the mound, he owned the saves record when he retired during the 1997 season while with Montreal. Trevor Hoffman and then Mariano Rivera reset the mark.

Smith never reached 51 percent in 15 BBWAA elections. Still, he kept believing his day would come.

"I'm pretty patient, though, and I think I waited long enough. But it's sweeter," he said on a conference call. "You look at those things, well, OK, who's on the ballot this year? Who's on the ballot next year? But I'd never, never, never give up hope.

"And then when they started with the second-chance ballot, I thought my chances got a little better. This probably today was probably the (most) nervous I've been with this Hall of Fame voting thing," he said.

Smith became the seventh pitcher who primarily was a reliever to make the Hall, joining Hoffman, Dennis Eckersley, Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter and Hoyt Wilhelm. The 61-year-old has long worked for the San Francisco Giants as a minor league pitching coach and instructor.

Baines was a designated hitter for much of his career after knee trouble ended his days in the outfield. DHs have struggled to gain backing from Hall voters. Baines joined Frank Thomas as the only players in the Hall who spent more than half his games as a DH.

"Everything I hear or read is DH is really not part of the game, I guess. But I disagree. But maybe this will the open up the doors for some more DHs," Baines said.

Both closers and DHs could see the numbers increase again very shortly.

Rivera is eligible for the first time and big-hitting DH Edgar Martinez will be back on the ballot when results of the next BBWAA election are announced Jan. 22.

Induction ceremonies are scheduled for July 21 at Cooperstown, New York.

Between now and then, there's certain to be more debate about who else should be in the Hall. Drug-tainted Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are on the upcoming BBWAA ballot, influential players' union head Marvin Miller has been denied seven times by various committees, and admitted steroids user Mark McGwire wasn't among Sunday's candidates.

Quick Links

Nationals on periphery in Las Vegas

bryceharpermarlinstarp.jpg
USA Today Sports

Nationals on periphery in Las Vegas

LAS VEGAS -- Marlins Man walked into a modest eatery Sunday here in Las Vegas to look over the options. His bright orange jersey stood out among the cowboy hats and zombie-like Sunday exodus inside the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino.

While another Las Vegas weekend closed, sending an army of roller bags across the casino floor toward the exit and airport, baseball started to creep into the home of the 2018 Winter Meetings. Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo wandered across the marble floor. Media members from cities across the country became situated. Television stations raised their studios and radio talkers began to ramble. Everyone is wondering if the show in Vegas will be filled with drama or just another stall along the way to the offseason’s biggest news.

We know Rizzo turned in his homework early. Patrick Corbin’s money and introduction arrived late last week. Corbin, presumably, is the Nationals’ largest offseason expenditure. Surprising comments from Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner to 106.7 The Fan on Friday made that seem to be the case. He described Bryce Harper as all but gone, speaking wistfully, if not definitively.

Which means Rizzo is here for smaller shopping and the rest of baseball waits on Harper and Manny Machado.

A look through the Nationals shows few remaining gaps. Rizzo publicly contends he feels all right about starting the season with a Wilmer Difo/Howie Kendrick platoon at second base. The outfield is clear without Harper. Joe Ross and Erick Fedde will fight for the final rotation spot. Two new catchers have arrived. The bullpen was upgraded. Rizzo didn’t wait and watch what other teams were doing.

“We like the club we have at present,” Rizzo told NBC Sports Washington last week. “But, we’re never satisfied. There’s tweaks and combinations we can go after. We’ll be looking for values out there. What works for us, how do we construct the periphery of the roster. You can never have enough pitching and we’re always on the look for good starting and relief pitching. That could be something we attack either via the free agent market or trade market.”

One thing the market remains full of is left-handed relievers. The Nationals currently have three. One of which is Sammy Solis.

Washington decided to tender him a contract and the sides reached a one-year deal. There was consideration not to tender him a contract, which would have ended Solis’ time with Nationals. Instead, he’s back despite two back-to-back poor seasons following a strong 2016. Last season was a wreck. Solis finished with a 6.41 ERA. The other two lefties, Sean Doolittle and Matt Grace, were excellent. So, are the Nationals in the market for one more left-handed reliever to be sure?

“We’ve got right now on the roster three really competent left-handed pitchers,” Rizzo said, “in Doolittle, Grace who had a magnificent season last year and Sammy Solis, who we feel is a bounceback candidate. We feel good about the left-handed spot. We feel good about our bullpen as a whole.”

The Nationals were mid-pack last season in relievers’ ERA in both the National League and Major League Baseball. Their bullpen does appear close to done: Doolittle, Trevor Rosenthal, Kyle Barraclough, Koda Glover, Grace, Solis, Justin Miller and Wander Suero are eight quick spots down there.

One upside here for Rizzo is he can wait. He doesn’t need to jump at the flush reliever market, which includes several decent left-handed options, because of the team’s prompt signings. A discount may arrive later. A factor to remember in regard to Solis is the Nationals would only be on the hook for 1/6th of his salary if they cut him in spring training. That’s a small penalty if someone in West Palm Beach appears more capable.

Washington also needs a left-handed bat off the bench that can play first base. Matt Adams, Justin Bour and Lucas Duda are names that could fill that slot. None will rattle the meetings.

This is life on the periphery, as Rizzo puts it. Will they talk to a lot of agents here? Yes. Will they consider an upgrade at second base? Of course. Are they part of the gigantic Harper and Machado storylines unlikely to conclude in Las Vegas but en route to dominate the conversation? Not really. At least not if Lerner’s public declaration is filled with flat facts. They offered Harper, he can do better elsewhere, and now life is quieter, even in Las Vegas.

MORE NATIONALS NEWS