The Harsh Reality Surrounding The Death Of Tony Gwynn

As we celebrate the life and legacy of Tony Gwynn,  I can’t help but think that we lost one of the greatest players and most brilliant minds that ever played the game way too soon.  The reality of the situation is that Tony Gwynn died from oral cancer most likely caused by years of chewing tobacco.  On the surface,  it makes one believe that Gwynn’s death very easily could have been prevented.  Habitually, I chewed tobacco for nearly 15 years.   I can tell you with great conviction, there would have been nothing easy about it.

I took my first chaw of Red Man tobacco when I was 12 years old.  I took my first dip of Copenhagen when I was 16.  By the time I was 22 and playing professional baseball, I began chewing nearly a can a day.  When I woke up in the morning,  I would have a cup of coffee, then put in a dip.  After breakfast, I would put in a dip.  After my workout, I would put in a dip.  After Lunch, I would put in a dip.  When I got to the ballpark, I would put in a dip.  During batting practice, I would put in a dip.  When the game started, I would put in a dip. After each at bat, I would put in a dip.  On the way home from the ballpark, I would put in a dip.  What started as something I would do to pass time turned into a full blown addiction.  To this day, chewing tobacco is the only thing I have ever encountered in my life that I had absolutely no control over.  In a sense, I was helpless.

Throughout the course of my entire baseball career, MLB did a very nice job of warning players about the dangers of smokeless tobacco. During spring training every year, it was mandatory for all players to watch a video that detailed the harsh reality of all off the health risks associated with chewing tobacco.  I didn’t quit.

My dentist and life long family friend, Len Vinci, still sends me articles and personally lectured me on several occasions about chewing tobacco.  I didn’t quit.

Joe Garagiola, whom I have as much respect for as anybody in baseball, has led a public charge against chewing tobacco for years.  He pulled me aside several times when I was with the Diamondbacks encouraging me to give up the potentially deadly habit.  I didn’t quit.

With tears in her eyes, my own mother pleaded for me to stop.  I didn’t quit.

At no point was I dumb enough to think that I was invincible or immune to the potential dangers.  I didn’t quit because I couldn’t. Copenhagen had become such a big part of my life.  Like air, food or water,  I felt like I needed chewing tobacco to survive.  I never denied my addiction, it just took me a while until I finally did something about it.

March 2, 2011 my Dad unexpectedly passed away.  Over the course of the following weeks,  my chewing tobacco use hit an all time high. After the service on St. Patricks day, March 17th, 2011,  I sat back in a lounge chair in my back yard, looked up to the stars, then fired in the fattest pinch of Copenhagen I could possibly fit into my mouth.  That was the last dip that I ever took.

Why then? I don’t exactly know.  I didn’t plan for it to be.  I didn’t tell anybody I was going to stop or that I even wanted to stop.  I just did. At the time, I had a 2 year old, a 1 year old and my wife was pregnant with our 3rd child.  I do know that I realized I was no longer living life just for myself.  Sometimes it takes a tragic event in somebody’s life for that person to make a major life altering decision. Unfortunately, I had to deal with the tragic event.  Fortunately, I finally made the life altering decision.

It has been 3 years since I last took a dip of Copenhagen.  There is not a single day that goes by that I don’t think about it.  Every time I finish a meal, take a long drive, step on a golf course or a baseball field, it is on my mind.   I am not a quitter, I never have been and I never will be.  I simply have stopped.  I am not going to chew tobacco today.  Day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute is the only way I have been able to get through the most difficult battle of my entire life.

I am not writing this as a PSA to get try to get people to stop chewing tobacco because I know it’s not possible.  There is nothing I or anyone else can say or do that will get you to stop.  I am simply telling you my experience with one of the most addictive and deadly vices in the world.  Take it however you want.  Ultimately it is your decision, ultimately it is your life.

 

 

The Life and Legacy of Pat Tillman 10 Years Later

 

As you sit around the BBQ this weekend surrounded by family members and friends enjoying burgers, dogs, a big slice of apple pie and an ice cold Budweiser,  take a minute or several , to remember the very real sacrifice that Americans have made in order for us to enjoy life as we know it within the United States.  Then, go ahead and make sure you find a kid,  could be yours or somebody else’s, and explain to them the significance of Memorial Day beyond getting a day off of school and stuffing their faces with ice cream.   It is our responsibility to teach our children the very harsh reality.  We celebrate Memorial Day because American soldiers have been killed defending our Country.  Have them understand that those soldiers died fighting for our freedoms, liberties and future well being of the exact kid you happen to be talking to.  Teach them that Memorial Day is our way to honor, give thanks and celebrate the lives of those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

 

September 11, 2001 hit me hard like it did with just about every other American.  Immediately I questioned the life that I was living and thought about how I could possibly help protect the future of our Country.  My great grandfather, grandfather and father all served in the military to help ensure future generations of Americans will be able to live in a free and democratic society.  Now, here I was, representing the future generation that they had fought so hard for and I hadn’t done shit.  Ironically, shortly after 9-11, I saw an interview with a guy that I had always respected and admired that virtually shared the exact same sentiment, Pat Tillman.

 

I first learned about Pat from watching High School Sports Focus which was a local Bay Area TV show that would run high school football highlights on Friday and Saturday nights.  Pat was a running back and linebacker for Leland High School in San Jose.  Basically, he was unstoppable on both sides of the ball but what made him different was the flare and style in which dominated.  He was by no means an imposing figure physically but add in Pat’s unbelievable quickness, devastating hitting ability and long hair flowing out of his helmet, he might as well have been some sort of greek god playing amongst a bunch of mere mortals.

 

My Sophomore, Junior and Senior year I played on a football team that won 3 consecutive Section championships and had several guys go on to play D-1 football,  yet for whatever reason just about every single guy on our St. Francis football team was mesmerized by the mysterious surfer looking dude wearing #42 single handily winning football games for a school with a relatively underwhelming football pedigree.  For insecure teen age kids to idolize a peer on another football team was in my opinion unprecedented, or at the very least, extremely rare.  Pat had become so much of a football icon in the area that when a group of my teammates and I were at at high school basketball tournament and spotted Tillman on the other side of the gym,  it literally became some sort of dare to see who was going to sack up and go introduce themselves to the iconic high school legend.  Ironically, that guy was Zack Walz, the same dude who 5 years later would become Pat Tillman’s teammate with the Arizona Cardinals.  After the chance encounter, Tillman went on to become the Pac 10 defensive player of the year at ASU while Walz became the Ivy League defensive player of the year at Dartmouth.  Walz was then selected in the 6th round of the 1998 draft by the Cardinals with Tillman getting selected in the 7th.

 

The two immediately became great friends and training camp roommates.  I signed with the Oakland A’s that same year and was sent to instructional league in Phoenix where I shacked up on Walz’s couch.  It was during that fall that I had a chance to finally meet and hang out with the guy that I had looked up to for years.   People talk about the “it” factor whether referring to an athlete or a person.  Generally “it” can be described as an aura, confidence and demeanor carried by somebody clearly playing their sport or living their life on a different level… Both on and off the field, Pat had “it.”

 

Although I was emotional after 9-11,  I eventually put aside any thoughts of joining the military in any sort of capacity that actually would have had a direct impact on the immediate and future safety of our country.  I talked about how cool it would have been to join the Navy Seals.  I talked about what it meant to be an American.  I talked about how I would be willing to do anything to protect our freedom and liberties.  Yet, at the end of the day all I did was talk.  Like many other people I had great intentions but I did not follow through, quite frankly, I wasn’t even close.   I was way too wrapped up in my selfish world of chasing a life long dream of playing major league baseball.  A dream made possible only because of the generations before me that sacrificed their individual dreams for the collective dream of our nation.

 

Pat did much more than talk.  Despite a multi million dollar contract offer on the table, he walked away from the NFL and joined the Army Rangers.  I became so enthralled with his story that I intensely followed what was happening with Pat and his brother Kevin, who joined the Rangers as well.  Both were assigned to the second battalion of the 75th Ranger Regiment based in Fort Lewis, Washington.  Through Walz, who was one of the very few in contact with Pat during this time, I would get updates.  Originally, they were about the rigors and challenges of becoming an Army Ranger and eventually the updates detailed the brothers trips to Iraq in 2003 during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom.  The last briefing I got from Walz was in early 2004 when he showed up at my house with a set of Tillman’s dog tags Zack had begged Pat to send him.  According to Walz, the plan was for Pat to finish out his 3 year commitment to the Rangers and then return to the NFL.  Unfortunately, Pat never got that opportunity.  April 22nd, 2004, while in Afghanistan, Pat’s unit was ambushed while traveling through rugged Eastern Afghanistan canyons.  In a heroic effort to provide cover for his men, Pat Tillman was killed.  I have listened to stories, read books and watched documentaries that have detailed Pat’s death by friendly fire and the massive cover up that ensued.  I am still not sure exactly what to believe but what I am sure about is that we lost one of the greatest Americans who ever lived.

 

After Pat’s death I made sure I spoke about him and the sacrifice he made every opportunity I had.  My goal has been and always will be to keep his name and legacy at the forefront of American culture.  In 2006 while I was playing for the Arizona Diamondbacks, Richard Tillman, Pat’s youngest brother reached out to me to invite me to Pat’s statue unveiling at the new Arizona Cardinals stadium in Glendale.  It was there that I had an opportunity and pleasure to meet the entire Tillman family.  From that day on,  I knew I wanted to focus my individual fundraising efforts throughout the course of my entire life on the Pat Tillman Foundation.   Without getting all nostalgic, between my connection to Pat through Bay Area high school sports, Zack Walz, and playing baseball professionally in a city in which he became an icon, I felt as if it was something in my life that I was meant to do, my small way to finally do more than talk. The foundation was founded on the basic principles that encompassed everything Pat Tillman represented.  Education, leadership and loyalty.  “Leadership through action”  was the foundations original rallying cry.  The Tillman Military Scholar program was eventually formed and has been expanded throughout the years.  Today, the program is now responsible for putting over 300 Tillman Military Scholar’s and their spouses through schools of higher education.

 

While with the Diamondbacks, I hosted several fundraising events benefiting the Tillman Foundation.  I have since been able to continue my fundraising efforts through the different Ironman triathlons that I have competed in, each time crossing the finish line with Pat’s Arizona Cardinals #40 jersey flying high above my head.  August 5th and 6th I will play baseball for first time in 4 years when I suit up for the San Rafael Pacifics, an Independent Professional Baseball team just north of San Francisco.  The only possible reason I agreed to play was because of the Tillman Foundation fundraising efforts both the Pacifics and my family have committed to.   What I have enjoyed more than anything is the opportunity to talk about and reflect on the significance of Pat’s life.   It has been over 10 years since Pat’s death and there is now an entire new generation of kids that have no idea who Pat Tillman was.  I relish every opportunity I have to teach my children about the selfless nature of Pat’s decision to walk away from the limelight of the NFL in exchange for the front lines of combat.  Pat’s story speaks for itself and by no means needs me or anybody else to sensationalize it.   The reality is that there have been so many others, just like Pat, who walked away from other life opportunities and ultimately were killed in action protecting your ass and mine.  Memorial Day is our chance to honor all those who didn’t just talk about what it meant to be an American, they showed us what it meant to be an American…

tillman_full

 

 

San Rafael Pacifics Press Release

 

FORMER A’S FAN FAVORITE, ERIC BYRNES, SIGNS HISTORIC CONTRACT WITH PACIFICS
Byrnes to Play LF on August 5th and 6th as Fundraiser for Pat Tillman Foundation
April 30, 2014 – San Rafael, CA
Former Oakland A’s outfielder and 11 year major league veteran, Eric Byrnes, agreed to a historic 2-day contract to play for the San Rafael Pacifics on August 5th and 6th.
“This is a thrill for me to go back to the roots of baseball,” said Byrnes.  “The Pacifics and all of Indy ball are what it’s all about – a close connection with the fans and with the community.  The guys I’m playing with are not in it for the money or fame; they do this because they love the game.  I’m proud to be a small part of it.”
The 38-year old Byrnes, well-known in the Bay Area for his time with the Athletics, also played for the Rockies, Orioles, Diamondbacks and Mariners. His major career accomplishments include a 22 game hitting streak, hitting for the cycle against the Giants,  winning the “Fielding Bible” as MLB’s best left fielder and becoming the 11th player in the history of baseball to hit 20 home runs and steal 50 bases in the same season .  Since retiring in 2010, Byrnes has turned to broadcasting where he is an analyst for MLB Network, Pac 12 Network and an occasional host on KNBR 680.
The Peninsula native was drafted by the A’s in the 8th round of the 1998 draft after a very successful collegiate career at UCLA (.331 career BA), where he is enshrined in the UCLA Hall of Fame.
In retirement, Byrnes has immersed himself in surfing, golfing, slow pitch softball and competing in triathlons and ultra marathons.  He has completed 5 Ironman triathlon’s which consist of a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike and a 26.2 mile run.
Byrnes’ stint with the Pacifics is first and foremost a fundraising effort for the Pat Tillman Foundation.  Tillman, the former Arizona Cardinals starting safety, put his all-star career on hold to join the Army after the 9/11 attacks.  He was killed in action in 2004.  After his death the Pat Tillman Foundation was created to support veterans and spouses through educational scholarships and a social network.
The Pacifics are donating a portion of the ticket sales for both of Byrnes’ appearances to the Pat Tillman Foundation, and Byrnes has agreed to donate his Pacifics salary, as well as personally donate $1,000 for every walk, stolen base and single he hits; $2,000 for a double; $3,000 for a triple and $10,000 for a homerun.  He will also donate $500 for every ball he catches.
“Let’s make it $100,000 for a grand slam, just in case:)” said Byrnes in an email to Pacifics Media relations Manager, Vincent Espinosa.

 

Let Americans throw!

With the recent announcement that San Diego Padres right hander Josh Johnson is going to have Tommy John (elbow ligament replacement) surgery,  I couldn’t help but think that there has not only been a crazy influx of TJ surgeries the past few years but for the most part those surgeries always seems to involve an overwhelming large percentage American players.  I called upon MLB Network’s head researcher Elliot Kalb to confirm my beliefs and the results were even more staggering than I had originally thought…

Since 1977 there have been 372 documented TJ surgeries in MLB… 345 (93%) have been performed on American players while 27 (7%) have involved international players… Since 2010 there has been 124 TJ surgeries and an astonishing 83 in the last 2 years!

How do the numbers stack up proportion wise based on the MLB player constituency?  Not even close.  It fluctuates daily but over the past few years when the vast majority of TJ surgeries have occurred, MLB has been comprised of roughly 60% American players and 40% International…

So why are Americans at a much greater risk?  I can only speculate but in large part American players have followed structured throwing programs and strict pitch counts since little league.  This brings into question that maybe Americans are coddled way too much and throw way too little.  Through my experience playing parts of 11 seasons of major league baseball and 5 winters in the Dominican Republic,  it is my belief that International players just throw more.  Many always have and still do play year round in their country which allows them to strengthen their arm while building a much higher throwing endurance base.  In turn this typically results in a much greater propensity to stay healthy. Just ask the TJ numbers…

Let Americans throw! EB

PS… I am not a scientist or a doctor but I did sleep in my van rolling through Coachella last night

Amend Rule 7.13 Immediately

 

Dear Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association…

First and foremost I want to commend both MLB and the MLBPA for recognizing that major steps needed to be taken to protect the well being of both the catcher and baserunner in regards to home plate collisions.  With the daunting injuries we have seen over the past few years and the ever growing information about the seriousness and long term effects of brain injuries, something had to be done to protect both the welfare of the players and the league. Unfortunately though, I am writing this letter because of grave concerns I have over new rule 7.13.  I no doubt believe the rule was put into place with appropriate intent yet in reality the rule has potentially created an even more dangerous situation than we had before.  Let me explain… Rule 7.13 reads “Unless the catcher is in possession of the ball, the catcher cannot block the pathway of the runner as he is attempting to score.”  My biggest issue is with the fact that the catcher CAN still block the plate with the baseball.  Shockingly this is not any different from rules of the past. The catcher was never supposed to be allowed to block the plate without the baseball and so long as the catcher is still allowed to block the plate with the ball, violent collisions will continue to be a major part of the game.

In my opinion though, the most disturbing part of rule 7.13 is presented in the comments section.  “The failure by the runner to make an effort to touch the plate, the runner’s lowering of the shoulder, or the runner’s pushing through with his hands, elbows or arms, would support a determination that the runner deviated from the pathway in order to initiate contact with the catcher in violation of Rule 7.13.” 

Obviously everybody is concerned about the well being of the catcher and rightfully so.  Yet with the rule as it reads above, the baserunner would be put in an incredibly vulnerable position.  Believe it or not, lowering a shoulder or pushing off is the only line of defense that a runner has when colliding with  a catcher that is stationary and loaded with the full arsenal of shin guards, chest protector and a mask.  Therefore, if the catcher is in possession of the ball and blocking home plate, the baserunner has two options and both of them are ridiculously dangerous. 1) Slide into the catchers shin guards risking blowing out an ankle or knee. 2) Run into the catcher without lowering a shoulder or pushing off thus risking even greater carnage.  Quite frankly, this is a recipe for disaster and could potentially cause career threatening or even life altering injuries.

Throughout my career that spanned parts of 11 big league season, whenever the catcher would have the ball before I arrived at home plate I would make it a point initiate contact and do everything in my power to dislodge the baseball.  The results were generally not good.  The collisions were ugly and I sent multiple catchers to the disabled list and even ended a catchers career while playing in the minor leagues.  After my playing days, I transitioned into the media as an analyst and quickly realized how unnecessary and reckless collisions had become.  Ultimately, there was a disturbing video that surfaced last season of a AA game in which Erie Seawolves 2nd baseman Brandan Douglas ran into Harrisburg Senators catcher Brian Jeroloman.  The collision was so vicious that even though I was somebody that did nearly the same exact thing for years, I actually had to turn away.  Jeroloman spent several days in the hospital and long term effects of that collision still remain to be seen.  For me, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Immediately following that collision I started a one man campaign to eliminate collisions at home plate.  I actually wrote an article on this website titled The Most Violent and Reckless Play in all of Sports detailing my experience with collisions and how and why Major League Baseball must take some sort of action before it’s too late and somebody is critically injured or even killed.  Through my work within the media I also took every opportunity to denounce home plate collisions and raise awareness about the potential detrimental effects of not addressing the rule.

When word came out that a rule was actually going to be put into place to eliminate collisions I was ecstatic to say the least.  Then when rule 7.13 was unveiled a few days ago I almost could not believe what I was reading.  Not only were collisions not eliminated but essentially the runner was stripped of any sort of right to protect himself if a collision did occur.  As the rule reads, so long as the catcher has the baseball the runner is screwed.  Indecision is the worst possible thing an athlete can have in the full speed moment of competition, sadly rule 7.13 seemingly creates potential indecision on all ends.

For the sake of the safety of current and future players I recommend immediately putting into effect a rule that would make the catcher give the runner a lane to slide into home plate.  The rule would then also make it mandatory for the baserunner to slide.  It is a very simple change that will have no effect whatsoever on the overall integrity of the game yet would help prevent any sort of catastrophic injury still very possible under the current rule structure.  I played four years of college baseball and I have worked extensively as a broadcaster within the college game as well.  In that time there have been countless plays at home plate which are every bit as exciting as any play at the plate that has taken place in Major League Baseball.  The barbaric nature of a rule that still allows ferocious collisions in this day and age of extensive head injuries in all sports is unacceptable. Please contact me if there is any way I can help facilitate the process.

Toward greater safety, success and enjoyment of this great game… Eric Byrnes

crash

The Sad Joke That Has Become The Baseball Hall of Fame

First and foremost, I want to say how much baseball has been an incredible part of who I am… As a matter of fact, ever since I can remember, my life has been consumed with the game… As I kid, I would spend my days pitching a tennis ball against the garage and then picking up a bat and whacking the rebound… When “The Natural” came out, I went to see it with my Mom in the old Belmont Theatre on the El Camino… I loved it so much I would not leave… I made her stay so we could watch the next showing an hour after the first one ended… After I saw “Major League” the first thing I did was go and buy a Cleveland Indians #99 jersey… I watched “61” so many times I actually became a quasi Yankee fan… I would fall asleep to Ken Burns’ PBS documentary “Baseball” almost every night, when I played professionally… I collected baseball cards as a kid and spent every dollar I earned pumping gas at Chevron and slicing meat at Melina’s Deli on improving my collection… Nolan Ryan, Rickey Henderson, Wade Boggs, Don Mattingly, Ken Griffey Jr, Jose Canseco, Cal Ripken Jr, Daryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden “Rookie” Cards, had to have them… Mark McGwire and Will Clark 1984 olympic cards, no doubt I needed the whole set… At one point there was not a Will Clark card that existed that I did not own… I even splurged for the famous “F-Face” Billy Ripken card, I was the envy  of every 12 year old kid in my neighborhood…

To be able to then play parts of 11 major league seasons with 5 different teams was beyond a dream come true… Even now, working for KNBR 680, the San Francisco Giants flagship station, and the Major League Baseball Network, there is not a single day I don’t realize how fortunate I am to have my professional life entrenched in something that I have had so much passion for throughout the years…

I have prefaced you with all of this because what I have to say next may be viewed as somewhat anti Major League Baseball, and that is not the case… We all, including myself, have plenty of imperfections and MLB is not any different… Replay should have been implemented 30 years ago, it took a catcher nearly getting killed before they finally changed the rule about collisions at home plate, and a one game wildcard game to decide a 162 game regular season still seems asinine to me…  Yet I am not sure anything upsets me more than when a game that prides itself on history and tradition above all else, fails to recognize some of the greatest players because they have decided to morally judge certain individuals based on circumstances and actions many would argue Major League Baseball helped facilitate… Over 500 writers have a difficult enough time deciding who to vote for without asking them to play “moral police.”

What I am trying to say is that I think the Hall of Fame has become a sad joke… MLB.com writer Ken Gurnick chose not to vote for anybody who played in the “steroid era,” yet voted for Jack Morris whose career was no doubt played during a time when certain players were abusing performance enhancing drugs… Miami Herald scribe and ESPN Radio host Dan Lebetard sold his vote to Deadspin because he said he had no desire to “be part of the present climate without reform”… I don’t blame either one of these guys for being disenchanted with the process… Voters need some sort of clarification to an incredibly murky situation…

The only person with 7 MVP awards and the only person with 7 Cy Young’s in the history of the game didn’t stand a chance of admittance when they were on the ballot for the first time last year… This year wasn’t any different… We might as well throw Barry Bonds and Roger Clemons in the same category as Pete Rose… Three of the greatest players of all time that all of a sudden people want to forget ever even played the game… There is part of me that sympathizes with the writers, part of me that sympathizes with the players, but there is not a single bit of me that feels sorry for the Hall of Fame that makes the voting decision incredibly difficult for everybody involved…

The Hall of Fame is listed on Wikipedia as a “American History Museum and Hall of Fame”… How can the Hall possibly be considered an “American History Museum” when it attempts to turn its back to baseball’s historical past? There are plenty of things in our history that we as Americans are not proud of, but the great thing about this country is that we recognize our mistakes of the past and move on to correct those mistakes for the betterment of the future…

The Hall of Fame’s motto is “Preserving History, Honoring Excellence, Connecting Generations”…. By not recognizing the “steroid era” in general and honoring that times greatest players the ‘Hall’ is failing to do any of the three… Baseball facilitated a culture for many years and now is trying to do its best to pretend like that entire era never existed… 3 managers of that time just unanimously got elected to the Hall of Fame… How many games did those managers win with the help of juiced up players? Obviously the Hall of Fame Veterans Commitee did not hold those managers accountable for their players actions when deciding their HOF fate, and they should not have… Yet if we are willing to forgive the “steroid era” managers why would we not forgive the “steroid era” players? Especially when we have no idea who did what and when they did it…

The Hall of Fame Veterans Committee was amended in 2001 to include current Hall of Fame members and other “honorees” including executives, baseball historians and media members… The intention of putting the vote into the hands of living players in the HOF seemed to be a good one but there is one major problem… The more guys that are elected into the Hall the more a current Hall of Famers brand is potentially diminished…  In 2007 after 3 consecutive years of electing nobody, Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt admitted such… “The same thing happens every year. The current members want to protect the prestige as much as possible and are unwilling to open the doors”…

So the question now becomes how do we fix the problem? First and foremost I want an entire section built in the HOF explaining the “steroid era” and what sort of effect it had on the history of baseball…  Lets also make sure current members of the HOF have nothing to do with any sort of selection process… The conflict of interest is too great… The next thing that needs to be done is the Baseball Writers Association of America needs to limit the number of voters to those who actually follow the game, actively write about it and care about the historical meaning of what the Hall of Fame is supposed to represent… The original concept to grant the writers the power to decide the games greatest players of all time was to hopefully get unbiased opinions and votes… That has never been the case… The issue is that members of the BBWAA are actual human beings and just like the rest of us they have never been unbiased… They continue to prove that year in and year out when a seemingly no question slam dunk first ballot Hall of Fame’r gets denied votes… Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Willy Mays, Hank Aaron, Nolan Ryan, Greg Maddux and every other elected HOF’r have all been victims of blatant wrongful omissions on the ballot by members of the BBWAA… You would think that when it took Joe DiMaggio four tries to get inducted, thats right, four freaking tries, the HOF would have said enough is enough and they would have figured out a different election process… About the only semi logical reason to keep the standard HOF vote solely in the writers hands is because thats where it has always been… We all know baseball prides itself on tradition but whether we like it or not this world is about learning from our mistakes of the past and eventually changing for the overall well being of the future… The time has come for the Hall of Fame to make that change…

I propose an annual rotating panel of voters comprised of members of the BBWAA, noted baseball historians and former MLB players, managers and executives NOT in the Hall of Fame… Who better to judge the best players of an entire generation than the actual people that signed, managed and played against them… As well as those who documented their every move… The Hall would also need to make sure as many different eras as possible are represented… I would also propose a small portion of the vote comes from the actual numbers themselves…  In the sabermetrics world that we now live in I would trust a computer telling me who a Hall of Famer is just as much as a baseball historian or a certain player who may hold certain prejudices for whatever reasons… Trust me, I have no intention of eliminating the human element of the process, I just want to let the hard numbers have their say…. The final group that baseball has no right keeping out of the selection process are the consumers who keep the entire business of baseball in operation, the fans… The Hall must then make sure all of these groups have the appropriate education and understanding of what classifies a HOF’r …

In 1945, when the Hall came up with its official rules for election it asked voters to consider candidates based on “overall playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, their contributions to the team on which they played and to baseball in general”… This was the final product of qualification standards that were amended several times between 1936 and 1945… In order to eliminate gray areas and individual biases and judgements, I propose the HOF eliminates the “integrity, sportsmanship and character” portion… For me personally, I really don’t care what kind of guy you were or are… I just want to know if you were the best… The Hall of Fame selection process will never be perfect, there will always be controversy and debate but it is the Hall of Fames responsibility to make sure we simplify the selection process and eliminate subjective opinions as much as possible… There are already liars, cheaters and drug users in the Hall of Fame, whats wrong with a few more? EB

Ode to “The Stick”

January 10th, 1982…. 25 miles south of Candlestick Park in San Francisco,  I was sitting on my Dad’s lap in the family room growing increasingly irritated… About 30 family members and friends had been glued to the television for the past 3 hours watching the San Francisco 49ers play in the NFC championship game against the Dallas Cowboys… San Francisco had the ball on their own 11 yard line trailing 27-21 with just a few minutes remaining… All I wanted was peace and quiet but not surprisingly my family would not shut up… I needed to get away… I needed space… This was not only the biggest moment in 49ers franchise history, this was the biggest moment of my life… I was 5.

I bolted to the only other room with a TV, my parents’ bedroom… I then watched Joe Montana orchestrate a drive that put the 49ers on Dallas’ 6 yard line with 58 seconds to go… I was so nervous I went for cover underneath the sheets on Mom and Dad’s bed… I could not bare to watch… Then it happened, with my face firmly planted into the bed, I heard Vin Scully’s legendary voice… “For the upstart 49ers, they are six yards away from Pontiac”… Chills engulfed my body… “Montana… Looking, looking…”… I couldn’t take it anymore I needed to watch… I threw the covers off my head to see Montana rolling to the right and blanketed three Cowboy defenders including 49er nemesis Ed “Too Tall” Jones… Scully continued… “Throwing to the end zone”… To this 5 year old it looked more like heaving the football in a desperate attempt to toss the ball away… I put my hands back over my face, barely peeking through my middle and index fingers… Then, as if Dwight Clark turned into Clark Kent, Superman flew out of nowhere… Scully uttered the words that will resonate with me for the rest of my life… “Clark caught it!”.

I fired up out of the bed and ripped my shirt off, a move that would have made any European soccer player proud… I then began swinging it over my head as I screamed at the top of my lungs… I sprinted toward the family room to celebrate… Pandemonium had officially taken over Candlestick Park and the Byrnes household wasn’t any different… I began to take a lap around the house throwing out high fives to whoever I ran into… I then saw Dad across the room pounding his chest… “E, E, E… Chest Bump, chest bump, chest bump!”…   I sprinted towards him and tossed a ‘flying bump’ that nearly knocked over the 4th degree Kempo Karate black belt…  Immediately I regained composure and motored back to the bedroom to kick the extra point with a decorative pillow that was shaped like a football… A ritual I had begun for each Ray Wershing kick… Just like the 49ers kicker, I would not look at the goal posts (my parents headboard) as I lined up to strike the pillow that sat up nicely and did not require a holder… My kick was good, so was Wershing’s… The 49ers were headed to Super Bowl XVI in Pontiac, Michigan.

In many ways that was my introduction to life… I can vaguely remember certain things B.C (Before Catch) but essentially every significant happening P.C (Post Catch) is a vivid memory in my life… The 49ers went on to beat the Bengals a couple weeks later, a dynasty was born and so was a life long 49ers fan… The next season, at 6 years old,  I made my Candlestick Park debut… At that point in my life I had been to Great America, Knotts Berry Farm and the grand daddy of them all, Disneyland… Combine all three amusement parks and those experiences still didn’t come close to the moment I walked through the swinging metal doors in lower section 22…  The image of the fresh cut grass and painted red 49er end zones trumped meeting goofy or any stupid tea cup ride… As a matter of fact, if Mickey Mouse were there, I would have told him to kiss my ass.

Throughout the 80’s we had 2 season tickets to 49er games… More often than not it was my Dad and I that headed to Candlestick on Sundays… We would take the Ford diesel F-250 truck and stop by Roberts Market on the way to load up on fresh cut meats, cokes and red wine… When we got to “The Stick” the operation was simple,  pull down the tail gate, fire up the charcoal BBQ, load up the meat, pop our bottles and start chucking the football.

When we went inside it wasn’t exactly how you would envision a father and son watching a game together… We would both put on our head phones and listen to Joe Starky and Wayne Walker call the action on the radio… There was always plenty of time to reflect on the game during commercial breaks, half time and the ride home…  After a 49er win, we would stop at Estrada’s Restaurant in Daly City for their famous steaming tostada, a celebratory margarita for the old man and a Shirley Temple for the kid… Throughout the years, Candlestick Park essentially became the centerpiece for significant events that in many ways defined a large part of my childhood.

I was there October 10th, 1987… NLCS game 4 against the dreaded St. Louis Cardinals who the Giants and their fans absolutely despised… Mike Krukow went CG and Jeffery Leanord went bridge to put the Giants ahead in the 5th…  The “Hackman” then circled the bases with one flap down adding more fuel to the already intense rivalry.

I was there October 30th, 1988… Steve Young had the one of the most incredible runs by a quarterback in NFL history… Once everybody was on their feet during the run, Dad grabbed me and hoisted me on his shoulders just in time to see Young stumble into the end zone and score the game winning touchdown against the Minnesota Vikings.

I was there October 9th, 1989… Will Clark ended an epic battle with Mitch Williams by smoking a line drive single up the middle, clinching the Giants first trip to the World Series since 1962… I understand why this would not make sense to most people but I  would not have traded my view from the nose bleeds in section 62 for front row seats behind home plate.

I was there October 28th, 1989… 11 days after the Loma Prieta earthquake, the A’s won game 4 of the Bay Bridge World Series and swept the Giants… The view from section 62 that day wasn’t nearly as romantic:)

I was there as a regular in the left field bleachers during the summer of 1993… The Giants won 103 games yet still lost the division by one freaking game… The Wildcard and divisional realignment were implemented the next year… That could have been the best Giants team ever assembled… Its a shame we never got to find out.

I was there for the BB twirl in 1997…  Fresh off an appearance in the College World Series and a summer spent in the Cape Cod baseball league, I couldn’t have asked for a better homecoming than a Giants/Dodgers series at “The Stick” with the NL West title on the line… To make sure we were able to get bleacher tickets my boys and I arrived to Candlestick at 10 am for a 7 pm game… There are very few rivalries in sports that could match the electricity of a Giants/Dodgers matchup when both teams are relevent come late September… There was also something about Candlestick that seemed to make both the players and fans even more ‘on edge’… I will never forget Barry Bonds hitting a ball so hard I can still remember hearing the echo through the metal seats below me… I imagine most people in the park  followed the ball hit well over the right field fence but for whatever reason I never took my eyes off of Bonds… He stood at home plate to admire his work for a moment and then pulled off something I had never seen done on a baseball field, a pirouette! Shocked and going nuts celebrating with my fellow ‘bleacher bums’ I actually slipped and and fell back into the row of people behind me… Thankfully the fans caught me, then proceeded to body pass me half way up the section as if we were at some sort of rock concert… #OnlyAtTheStick

I was there January 5th, 2003… The 49ers fell behind 38-14 to the New York Football Giants… 49er quarterback Jeff Garcia then led a miraculous comeback with the 49ers eventually winning 39-38… I was playing for the Oakland A’s at the time and told 49er/A’s team photographer Michael Zagaris I would do anything to get onto the field for the game… “Z” man came up big… He got me a press pass and registered me as his assistant which basically granted me access well beyond a normal credentialed media member… I acted as “Z” man’s shadow and carried his camera bag around the entire game… Occasionally pretending as if I was snapping a couple shots myself… Ill never forget being inside the locker room and tunnel with the players right before the game… The entire 49er squad banging the walls and chanting as they walked toward the field… “We ready, we ready, we ready for Y’ALL”… I just about dropped “Z” man’s camera bag and charged the field with the team… After the game, as the stadium was going berzerk,  I found myself standing on the sideline next to my boyhood idol Ronnie Lott who was getting ready to do the post game on TV… He looked at me with a huge smile on his face, slowly gazed around the entire stadium then uttered  one word… “Unbelievable!”… Nothing more needed to be said, for the first time in my life I was speechless.

I was there October 6th, 2013… My final time at Candlestick park… It was the Sunday night game against the Texans but for me it might as well have been a Wednesday daytime matinee against the Houston Astros in 1985, the year the Giants lost a franchise record 100 games… I wasn’t there for the game, I was there for ‘The Stick” and I was there to give my 3 young children the same experience my Dad gave me 30 years earlier… I explained to my kids that the 49ers were going to get a new home next year and we are going to say goodbye to the old stadium that they are going to tear down… I purposely bought tickets in section 62, the exact same seats I sat in, 2nd row from the top on the aisle, when Will Clark busted the Cubs ass and sent the Giants to the 89’ Series… I wasn’t exactly sure how my kids, just 2,3 and 4, were going to react but they stuffed their faces with cotton candy and loved every minute of it… My girls kept dancing in the aisle and my boy would stand up on top of his chair, put both hands in the air and scream “NOBODY” (a little trick Daddy taught him) … After the game my 4 year old kept looking back at the stadium as we walked back to the car… Then when we drove out of the parking lot she began to cry… “Whats wrong Peanut?”… “Daddy, I don’t want them to blow up the Candlestick!”… “Me neither Peanut, me neither.” She wasn’t the only one with tears in her eyes…

December 23, 2013… The final game at Candlestick Park… I was not there… I was at my home in Lake Tahoe watching the game in the living room with 30 of my family members who had come up for the Christmas holiday… As you could imagine the crowd was loud and I was growing increasingly irritated because my family would not shut up! I needed to get away, I needed my space… The game that seemed to be locked up took a turn for the worst…  Atlanta scored late in the fourth quarter to make it a 3 point game… The Falcons then recovered an onside kick and were on the doorstep of punching it into the end zone and putting the 49ers playoff hopes in serious jeopardy… More importantly, the sendoff to the stadium that has given so many fans so many great memories was about to be closed out with one big kick in the nuts… Then it happened… A deflected Matt Ryan pass ended up in the hands of 49ers linebacker Navarro Bowman… I sprung up off of the couch the same way I sprung up out of my parents bed when I was 5 years old… I ripped off my jacket as Bowman crossed the 50, by the time he got into the end zone my shirt was off and I was waving it above my head screaming at the top of my lungs… I then began a lap around the house throwing out high fives to my wife, kids, Mom, sister, aunts, uncles and cousins… Unfortunately, Dad wasn’t  there this time for the chest bump, he passed away 2 years ago… Before I had time to get all nostalgic, I spotted my 2 year old boy across the room…  Just like his Daddy and just like his ‘Great Pa,’ his shirt was off as he was pounding his chest and screaming… “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy… Chest bump, chest bump, chest bump!”  Farewell Candlestick, I appreciate the generations of memories… EB

 

View from Section 62… Farewell "Stick"

View from Section 62… Farewell “Stick”

 

 

Baseball’s opportunity to make up for 28 years of blown calls

The year was 1985… The St. Louis Cardinals were up 3 games to 2 on the Kansas City Royals with a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the 9th inning in Game 6 of the World Series… Rookie closer Todd Worrell was on the mound and Jorge Orta was at the plate… Orta hit a high chopper to the right side of the infield that first baseman Jack Clark fielded then tossed to Worrell covering first… Don Denkinger, the 1st base umpire ruled Orta safe… The Royals went on to score 2 runs in the inning to beat the Cardinals in game 6, then rode that momentum to a game 7 blowout of the Red Birds the next night…

I just watched the replay multiple times on You Tube… With Orta charging down the line, Clark moving in and far to his right to get to the ball, and Worrell pulling off a Texas two step over at first base to get his foot on the bag, there was a lot going on to say the least… Watching it in real speed I could not definitively tell you whether or not Orta was safe or out… Then, take into account Denkinger’s awkward positioning and it is very easy to see how and why the call was missed… Yet, with just one replay from a different angle than Denkinger had, there was no doubt that the toss from Clark had beaten Orta to first base and Worrell did keep his foot on the bag… The blown call changed baseball history…

The amazing thing is that the replay was actually available and easily accessible 28 years ago…  Just seconds after Denkinger blew the call, the video footage and legendary play by play man Al Michaels alerted the entire country of the mistake… Of course Major League Baseball knew that the wrong call cost the St. Louis Cardinals the World Series… Of course MLB also knew that the technology was and has been available to prevent another such disaster… Since 1985, every other major professional sport in the United States, as well as several collegiate sports, have all managed to adopt some form of replay… Yet, for years Major League Baseball buried their head in the sand while technological capabilities continued to improve the overall integrity of every other sport but their own… It was not until 2008 (the same year Little League baseball introduced a replay system) that MLB hopped on board, sort of… They installed a review system that included questionable home run calls ONLY,  but still nothing that would have righted Denkinger’s wrong that fateful night in Kansas City…

Opponents to having a replay system have long argued that it would increase the length of a game that is already too long… They have also defended the “human” element and have not wanted to alter a game which is historically very rich in tradition… The matter of fact is that life is about changing and adapting to an ever evolving world… Over time, we as a society have been constantly challenged… Through the years, we have answered many of those challenges both socially and economically…  In my opinion though, what our generation will long be remembered for are the technological advancements that continue to push the envelope on a daily basis and shape the world that we live in…  We are generation “NOW”… This is the “that was so 10 minutes ago” day and age… We all have a choice, including MLB,  to either embrace it or get left behind… That’s just who we have become as a whole… Therefore, instant feedback, response and correction are all part of what people living in the 21st century have come to demand and expect… Major League Baseball has finally made the decision to conform next season… Replay will officially be expanded and as of now everything with the exception of balls and strikes could potentially be up for review…

So long as actual people continue to play the game the “human” element will always be there… For those of you sickos who actually like the “human” element of umpiring, need not worry, just watch the NFL and realize you will still have plenty of opportunities to chastise the men in blue with or without a replay system in place… When it comes to the concerns of the potential lengthening of the game, this should not be an issue… In a trial run in the Arizona fall league this month the average review time was 1 minute and 40 seconds… Compare that to an epic Earl Weaver or Lou Pinella tirade that often times lasted over 3 minutes and I can make an argument that replay will actually shorten games… Going to miss those classic melt downs by hot head managers? I don’t blame you but don’t fret… Just ask A’s manager Bob Melvin how easy Angel Hernandez can blow a call on the field and then screw it up again in the video room…

So now that Major League Baseball has so kindly joined the rest of the sporting world in modern times, the question becomes what is the best way to implement the review system? Being late to the party could actually benefit baseball, they should be able to learn from all of the other sports replay successes and failures… Although the official rules are not set, it appears that managers will probably have two challenges… If they win a challenge, they will not lose a challenge opportunity… In my opinion, regardless of how MLB wants to set it up, the only thing they should be concerned with is making sure they get EVERY call right… I don’t care if the challenge comes from either one of the managers, a member of the umpiring crew, a player or some dude sitting in a box 3,000 miles away… ALL questionable calls should be looked at whether the score is 0-0 or 10-0 in the 1st inning or the 9th…

The NFL has had replay since 1986 and still continues to puke all over themselves on a weekly basis… Major League Baseball has a very unique opportunity to nail it the first time around, but in order for them to do so they must realize the more we use our “human” ability to embrace technology the better off we will be as a society and the better off baseball will be as a sport… Personally, I am obviously thrilled that MLB has finally decided to expand replay and it is no doubt a step in the right direction toward ROBO UMPS that I look forward to seeing in the near future… Unfortunately though, for Don Denkinger and the 1985 St. Louis Cardinals, the review system was put into place 28 years too late…

Welcome to AT&T Park… Home of the San Francisco Giants & Oakland Athletics

I can sense panic about to take place within the San Francisco Bay Area… After years of endless pot shots and adolescent type bickering over territorial rights, it is my feeling that it is now time for the two Bay Area baseball franchises to begin cohabiting for the eventual betterment of both teams as well as for the greater good of Major League Baseball… Several years after Bud Selig apparently appointed a blue ribbon committee that was supposed to figure out some sort of solution in finding the A’s a new home, we finally have movement… No thanks to the committee that some people have questioned even exists… The issue that may finally force some sort of action is the Coliseum Authority’s demands for a new 5-8 year lease from the A’s and some absurd restructuring of concession profits which the A’s currently manage and financially benefit from… Not exactly sure how or why anyone representing the Coliseum would think that they have any sort of leverage or bargaining power after two major sewage spills making the already outdated stadium the laughing stock of the professional sports world…

Its similar to when my toilet clogged in college, the landlord didn’t fix it for a month then tried to raise the rent… I laughed and then told him to go eat the turds that were still marinating in the can… I am guessing something pretty similar to what the A’s have told the Coliseum Authority… Believe it or not, word on the street is that MLB has finally stepped in and actually threatened to move the A’s across the bay to AT&T Park if a lease agreement cannot be reached… I can hear both Giants and A’s fans bitching right now as I type… Giants fans not wanting anything or anyone “East Bay” near their crown jewel stadium, and crazed Oakland fanatics cringing at the thought of having to deal with the “yuppies” by the bay… 

Lets put emotions and name calling aside for a minute and think about the reality of the situation… The A’s need to move and them continuing to play in a city that seems either  unwilling or unable to properly and adequately provide for a Major League franchise is bringing absolutely zero urgency to the situation… Oakland would obviously benefit playing at AT&T based on the posh luxurious accommodations and more than likely increased attendance …. Most importantly though, is that the first step toward moving into your new home is moving out of your old one.

What’s in it for the Giants? A lot… Ultimately nothing gets done without their approval, they own the stadium… Therefore they can write up the lease agreement however they choose, setting the term of the contract, monetary compensation and any sort of other provisions they deem necessary ( i.e. A’s to San Jose never happening) Conservatively, lets say that AT&T Park rents out for $250,000 a day for 81 Oakland A’s home games … That would leave the Giants with an extra $20,250,000 each year they share occupancy… This would now put San Francisco in a position to become much more aggressive players on the free agent market… How would Jacoby Ellsbury and his 52 stolen bases or Shin Soo Choo and his .423 on base percentage look in a Giants uniform? Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka is said to be every bit as good as Yu Darvish, he finished this season in Japan 24-0 with a 1.27 era and will be by far the most sought after pitcher this off season… Between the posting fee and Tanaka’s contract, the gigantic price tag will almost immediately eliminate nearly 25 teams including the Giants… Interested in that lease option yet Giants fans? The Dodgers have already proved they will spare no cost when it comes to fielding the best possible team money can buy… As of now, the Giants cannot fiscally compete with the Dodgers and their borderline reckless spending on the open market, but rather they must continue to find creative ways to get better… Development of the farm system, signing undervalued free agents and renting your stadium to your cross bay rivals all seem like very good solutions to me…

Relax Giants fan… Deep breath…  There is no need to replace Willie Mays’ statue with Rickey Henderson or rename McCovey Cove “Jackson’s Corner”… For now, the Giants are merely letting an old buddy (acquaintance is probably more appropriate) from across the bay shack up until he can get back on his feet… No need for the A’s to take the pictures of the Giants’ kids off the walls and replace them with their own just yet…  The stay will most likely will be short lived… Although it does seem to me like the perfect time to unveil a Vida Blue statue and put him in one of those half Giants half A’s hats…

Before you start casting stones at me realize that the Lakers and the Clippers share an arena in Los Angeles, the Jets and the Giants call the same stadium home in New Jersey and now a large majority of MLB teams share spring training complex’s… The idea is not nearly as far fetched as you think… Lets not forget the Raiders are essentially in the same situation as the A’s,  I just wonder when the NFL will step in and how will the 49ers respond if they are asked to share their new mega home? Here in the Bay Area, I feel as if we are way ahead of the rest of the world when it comes to being environmentally and economically conscience… This is just another way to prove our incredible resourcefulness in the region… I understand I am in the minority, but I would take pride in AT&T Park becoming the mecca of the baseball world by proudly being the only venue to play home to two teams… Just think, they could have a Bonds, McGwire and Conseco shrine on a makeshift Alcatraz Island set up in McCovey Cove or Jackson’s Corner. (Whichever you prefer) How cool would a Rollie Fingers handlebar mustache statue look mirroring Juan Marichal’s flying leg kick?

I grew up a die hard Giants fan and I played the first 7 years of my professional baseball career with the Oakland A’s organization… To say I am “fair and balanced” when it comes to my Giants and A’s allegiance is an extremely accurate accessment… My door swings both ways on the territorial rights debate… I 100% get how and why the A’s would flourish with a move to San Jose but I also believe the Giants have legitimate concerns regarding the potential impact on corporate advertising, luxury box sales and a Giants heavy South Bay fan base.

Lets not forget the Giants were in a very similar situation nearly 20 years ago with an aging Candlestick Park… Thankfully a group of local investors came in and saved the franchise from moving to Tampa Bay… They did so by throwing their balls on the line and privately financing a stadium, which was essentially unheard of at the time… Many say the only reason why the Giants were given the South Bay territorial rights by the Haas family was in hopes that the Giants would at the very least move 40 miles further away from Oakland or better yet completely out of the Bay Area altogether… The A’s then had visions of dominating the northern peninsula and San Francisco market simply based on geographical proximity… Another reason the A’s were so accommodating was that the Silicon Valley was still in its infant stages and had yet to become the holy grail of the technological world… How were they to know that Apple, Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Hewlett-Packard, Oracle, and Cisco Systems would become just a few of the mom and pop companies that would dominate the area and serve as obvious potential big money advertisement dollars and luxury suite occupants…

The A’s took a gamble and it backfired… They since have begged and pleaded to MLB to get approval to move to San Jose which so far has fallen on deaf ears… It seems obvious that the move is not going to happen without the Giants approval which I imagine would only come with extreme financial compensation… When I was with the A’s in the early 2000’s they had an opportunity to essentially build their own gem of a stadium near Jack London Square on the Oakland waterfront… Jerry Brown, the mayor of Oakland at the time and now the governor of California, helped nix the project which would have required a decent percentage of public money, in favor of a large scale low income housing project that since has turned out to be a colossal failure… Ever since then, the A’s have flirted with Fremont and several other East Bay locations but in reality cannot take their eyes off the hot momma in the south land, the ever seductive San Jose.

At this point of  “A Turd Runs Through it” something has to give… That is why MLB has finally imposed its will in negotiations with the Coliseum Authority and has essentially  implemented their “for the greater good of the game” policy which just may include an A’s move to AT&T Park… Most importantly though, after years of a seemingly fictitious blue ribbon panel, Major League Baseball seems willing and ready to take some sort of real progressive action toward finding a plausible solution to the A’s shitty situation. (literally)

EB

The Worlds Toughest Ironman? Ironman Lake Tahoe Race Recap

Over 2700 people signed up for the inaugural Ironman Lake Tahoe with hopes and dreams of crossing the finish line at Squaw Valley with legendary announcer Mike Riley calling their name followed by the declaration… “YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!”… Unfortunately for just about 40% of the original entrants that never happened… Many never made it to the start line because of below freezing temperatures while others made an attempt but simply just couldn’t pull it off for a variety of reasons… Several athletes were actually pulled out of the water or decided to shut it down after the first loop of the swim course… Visibility was an issue because of steam coming off of the water and chop left over from the storm the day before, making swim conditions rough toward the middle of the lake… On the bike, there were actually busses that needed to be sent out to pick up athletes because so many people met their Ironman fate on the brutally hilly course… Many participants who were lucky enough to make it to the marathon eventually fell victim to night fall, rapidly decreasing temperatures and/or the eventual the 17 hour cut off…

Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I spent many summer and winter days with the family in Lake Tahoe… I grew up on the slopes skiing in between my Dad’s legs when I was 2 years old… During the summer, water skiing, jet skiing and cliff diving were family rituals…   I actually even learned to surf on the lake with my feet locked in by two wind surfing straps Dad had drilled into the board,  years before wake boarding ever existed…

No doubt Lake Tahoe has always been somewhat of a sacred place for me, so when I heard Ironman was going to be coming it was a no brainer… I was in!  Apparently 2700 other people had similar feelings because within 20 minutes of opening online registration, the race sold out.

I completed my first triathlon in late 2010 following a challenge from 3 childhood friends.  Problem was I didn’t know how to swim, the only bike I owned was a beach cruiser, and my tri kit consisted of board shorts and a t-shirt.  Needless to say I was totally clueless, but I absolutely fell in love with the sport… A year later in November of 2011, I completed my first IM (Ironman) in Arizona.  I then went on to finish 2 more IM’s (NYC, AZ) in 2012… With 3 under my belt I understood what I as in for,  but I also knew that with the altitude, elevation gains, and the potential for inclement weather,  this was going to be an entirely different animal… I was right.

The course included two 1.2 mile swim loops at Kings Beach in Lake Tahoe followed by a two and a half loop bike course through Tahoe City, Truckee, Martis Camp, Northstar then up over the 267 “Brockway” summit, back to Kings Beach and eventually ending at Squaw Valley 112 miles later… The run took us from Squaw Valley to Tahoe City then back to Squaw for a fly by the finish line tease only to head back out for another 8 miles completing the marathon and 140.6 mile day back at Squaw Village… The official elevation profile on the Ironman website for the bike was 6,550 feet of elevation gain and 653 feet for the run… Although several people (including myself) measured the gains at well over 7,500 for the bike course and 1000 feet for the run… Ultimately, does it really matter? Ironmans were not meant to be easy.

On Saturday, the day before the race, I got up at 5 am and headed to the swim start at Kings Beach thinking I was going to jump into the water to for a short swim session… By the time the sun came up, a storm was in the process of moving in and by 6:40 am, exactly 24 hours before the race. there were 3 foot waves in the lake… I then headed to Squaw to meet my 3 munchkins for the IronKids race which was a very cool event, the kids absolutely ate it up!  Not long after the race was over the torrential wind and rain officially shut down the expo… By the time I got back to my house, which is literally located on the bike course, it looked like a very standard Lake Tahoe Christmas… My kids were in the back yard building Frosty, having snow ball fights and asking Daddy where their sled was?!?! Not surprisingly talks of Ironman canceling the race spread quickly.

When I went to bed at 9pm Saturday night I had no idea wether or not we were going to race…  The below freezing temperatures and potential ice on the roads became a major concern… I got up at 4:30am, fired down a bannana, two packets of instant oatmeal then filled up my coffee cup and headed to my early morning “office” with my cup of JOE and the open package of coffee grinds that I held under my nose helping build up the explosion that was about to take place in the toilet… I followed up the session with a race day trick that has yet to fail me, two imodium tablets to clog the pipes for the rest of the day…

When I got into the family conversion van at 5:30am the temperature read 27 degrees… I picked up my race/training compadre, Team Firefighter captain Kyle Hamilton, on the way down to Kings Beach still not knowing our racing fate… When we got out at about 6 am to drop off our water bottles on the bike we got word everything was on as scheduled, meaning a 6:40 rolling start for the age-groupers… It was on! Now the question was ‘how was I going to stay warm?’… I reverted back to my baseball days, whenever I would play a game in cold weather I would lather up my ENTIRE body in a super hot lubricant nick named “The Cheese”… Think Bengay multiplied by 10… The day before at the expo I found a lube called “DZ Nuts.” (No Joke)  It wasn’t quite the same strength as the queso, but definitely had some kick… Generally, I would avoid covering the groin region but figuring temperatures were in the 20’s and I was about to jump into lake water in the 50’s, extreme conditions called form extreme measures…

The pro cannon went off at 6:30 and that was our cue to hightail it out of the heated van and to the start line…  The “rolling” start consisted of several groups beginning with the self seeded sub 1 hour swimmers… I jumped the fence where the 1 hr to 1:10 group was situated… As I settled in waiting for the age group cannon to go off, I quickly realized “DZ Nuts” were on fire!!! I was now profusely sweating and practically foaming at the mouth…   I needed water… Thankfully I spotted a spectator holding a half full water bottle… I literally  grabbed it out of his hand then guzzled the entire thing… In case you are reading this, sorry dude!  “BOOM” the age group cannon fired away…

The first 50 yards of the swim were very shallow and filled with all sorts of sand bars that essentially made swimming impossible… Every Ironman that I have done in the past I have had some sort of euphoric experience that generally happened towards the latter stages of the bike or at some point during the marathon… This time, that experience happened as soon as I crossed the timing mat… Maybe it had to do with the fact I began skipping in the water which for whatever reason brought out my more sensitive and emotional side? Very tough to describe but I essentially become completely entranced by the snow topped mountains and steam rising from the water… Everything became quiet, all of the noise around me and the other swimmers became non existent… As soon as the water was deep enough I took one final big skip and dove in head first… The immediate ice cream head ache woke me up from LA LA land and the reality of the 140.6 miles that lied ahead set in…

The steam made it very difficult to see anything so my only focus was the next yellow buoy… The first row of buoys to follow were yellow and the turn buoy was red… I swam along side the yellow buoys keeping anyone in a kayak or on a stand up paddle board to my left… I felt like I had been swimming for awhile and still had not found the red buoy to make the turn, thats when I realized I was about to swim into cross traffic… I had followed the yellow buoys but missed the red turn buoy… As much as I wanted to keep going and blend in with the rest of the swimmers, which I could have very easily done, I had to go back… I figured I didn’t get to the starting line of my 4th Ironman by cutting corners and I wasn’t about to start…

I essentially had to swim about 100 yards to go back around the red buoy and then another 100 to get back to where I was…  I was swimming the complete opposite direction of traffic and did my best to avoid head-on collisions, it was kind of like playing Frogger in the water… I eventually made it back on the correct course completing the first lap in 36 minutes… I was not thrilled with the time but considering my Magellan route I wasn’t about to complain… I then hammered out the second 1.2 mile loop in 32 minutes completing the entire swim in 1:08… My expectations for the 2.4 mile swim were anywhere between 1:02 and 1:10 depending on the conditions and my questionable navigational ability… Not surprised at all that my watch read 2.8 miles!

When I got out of the water it was awesome to see the tremendous crowd support along the beach including my Mom, sister, Aunt Claudia, Aunt Cathy and Uncle Mike, and of course my wife Tarah and her two best friends “Cole Cole” and “Amanda Panda” all standing at the waters edge … It definitely helped me forget how freaking cold it was outside… I headed up to transition, grabbed my bike gear bag and then went into the changing tent to do my best Clark Kent impersonation… The tent was packed so instead of trying to find a place inside the tent, or a chair to sit on, I just peeled down right at the entrance… Usually I would have worn my tri shorts underneath the wetsuit but because of the cold I wanted to keep every thing dry and decided to go commando… I could probably think of better times to expose myself considering the natural shrinkage elements…

I geared up with my tri shorts and top and then covered that up with my tight black long underwear I generally wear under my ski gear… I topped that off with a wind breaking jacket, full booties covering my shoes and gloves that I could have comfortably built a snow man in… The last thing was the beanie on the head and I was off… I got about 50 yards away from the tent and just as I was digging myself after what I thought was a pretty good transition, some guy from the crowd chimed in… “Dude, where’s your helmet?” S%$#! Back tracking was becoming an all too common theme of this race so far… I sprinted back to the tent, barging through the other triathletes like a frantic maniac as if I literally lost my head… Before I was eventually on my bike I had spent over 10 minutes in transition… My boy Mike Breen who also competed and finished, later asked me if I was checking football scores…

Although my hands and feet were numb for the first 2 hours of the ride, the good part about spending the appropriate amount of time in transition was that I was able to gear up and was actually very comfortable on the bike despite starting temperatures in the 20’s and 30’s… I had ridden the course several times and planned to manage my effort by using my power meter… Overall I wanted to average 230 watts for the ride… I figured if I stayed between 210 and 220 on the flats and around 260 on the hills I should come in around the 230 number… Of course, like most races I have done in the past, my ego kicks in when some yahoo passes me on the bike, and generally the watt plans go out the window… Although I figured if I rode each 45 mile loop in 2 hours and 30 minutes I would leave myself an hour to finish the last 22 mostly flat miles to Squaw Valley in order to achieve my under 6 hour bike goal… Unfortunately, I got into a pissing contest on Highway 89 and finished the first loop in 2:24 averaging 255 watts…  I quickly realized if I wanted to run the entire marathon I was going to have to scale it back…

All seemed to be going well but then I hit about mile 70 of the bike… I actually started to enter a pretty dark place… My legs felt overly fatigued, my neck was starting to get sore from the extended amount of time in aero bars, and I still had 42 miles to go including the most difficult part of the bike course… Oh, and there was this little 26.2 mile run that awaited me at the completion of the bike… I quickly refocused on the process and simply put all my attention on continuing to move forward with smooth, clean peddle strokes… I then got a HUGE recharge when I rode by my house climbing through Martis… My entire family, including my 3 kids, were out front ringing cow bells, blowing horns and holding signs… I am usually very uncomfortable riding my bike with no hands but I could not help throwing both arms in the air to salute their support… It is amazing how that sort of encouragement can take me from thinking “this is the last Ironman I will ever do” to the thought process of “when is the next one!” I finished the second loop in 2:36 putting me right back where I had hoped to be, at 5 hrs with 22 flat miles to go…

I eventually pulled into Squaw with a bike split of 5 hours and 58 minutes but I was not feeling great… I could only hope that I did not burn too many candles on the first lap… Regardless of how I managed my watts on the bike I was hurting and the notion of running a marathon at this point seemed ridiculous… I did just about all of my long training runs on the IMLT course so I knew exactly what to expect, problem was I had no idea how my legs were going to respond after a 2.4 mile swim and 112 mile bike with gnarly elevation gains…

I had done all of the training runs of 18 miles or more between an 8:30 and 9 min pace… To be conservative I figured I would be about 1 minute per mile slower based on fatigue so I went into the run with the goal of running 9:30 to 10 min miles… I came off of the bike running very comfortably at an 8:30 pace for the first two miles which were mostly flat and a bit down hill… The 3rd mile took us back uphill and around the Squaw Creek resort, thats when I knew I was going to slow down… 10 min/mile… The next mile was downhill so I went back to around 8:30 then followed it up with a mostly uphill 10 min mile when we hit Highway 89… All the way out to Tahoe City I was clocking 9-10 min/mile running slightly up hill and against the Truckee river flowing the other direction…

When I made the turn around I was hoping to get faster running “down river” as I had during my training runs but that did not happen… My legs continued to get heavier and heavier as the miles piled up… My goal was to make it to mile 16 then I would dip into the reserve gasoline… Coca-Cola! In my last Ironman, between miles 10-16, my splits dropped off significantly… I finally decided to go for a Coke at the aid station as a move of desperation and what I experienced after that was a game changer… My thoughts became clear, my legs all of a sudden felt fresh and most importantly my pace picked up big time and I actually negative split the last 10 miles… So when I finally got to mile 16, pure bliss awaited me and I guzzled down the soda… Every mile after that I was like a crack addict looking for his next fix… My times did not improve but they also did not fall off and considering what I had put my body through since 6:40am I was not about to complain as the sun began to set… Coming up on mile 25 I felt great… I am not sure if it was the Coke, the fact that I did not over exert myself at any point during the run or simply because the finish line was 1 mile away… I came into the Squaw Village and spotted my sister holding Pat Tillman’s #40 Arizona Cardinal jersey over the rail… For all of my IM’s she has been there to pass me the jersey which I have pridefully have made my Ironman finishing tradition…  11 hours 37 minutes and 5 seconds after the race had begun I crossed the finish line with Pat Tillman’s jersey flying high completing my 4th Ironman triathlon… I was 155th out of the original 2700 to finish and 22nd out of 270 in my age group… My first 3 Ironman’s I finished in 11:09, 10:45 and 10:24… I was 1 hour and 14 minutes slower than my personal best yet it was by far the highest I have placed overall and in my age group…

 

I can go out on a training run and it feels like it is almost impossible for me to go any  slower than a 9 min mile… My last half marathon I completed took 1 hour and 26 minutes, 6:36 per mile… My last 5k, I finished in 18 minutes clocking 5:50 miles… My marathon time was 4 hours and 14 minutes which equates to 9:41/mile… That is the amazing thing about Ironman… Several times when I have been feeling good and was thinking I am moving along nicely, I have looked down at my watch only to find out I was running an 11 minute mile!

My wife Tarah, and 3 kids, Chloe 4, Cali 3, and Colton 2, were waiting just across the finish line and I literally fell into their arms… I then looked back into the snow filled mountains and could have sworn I saw my Dad with a big ass grin on his face… When I first got into triathlon and everybody thought I was nuts for wanting to do an Ironman it was my Dad who encouraged what others perceived as insanity… Shoot, I even questioned myself! His explanation was very simple though… He felt that the challenge of IM would help me transition away from baseball and into the next phase of my life as a father, husband and broadcaster while maintaining the physical and psychological discipline and structure which I had become accustomed to and essentially needed since my childhood…  The passion and drive that he and my Mom instilled in me throughout the course of my life is what continues to bring me to the start line… I now relish the opportunity to set an example and pass those same traits on to my children…  My Dad passed away just months before I finished my first Ironman less than 2 years ago… I feel like he has been right there with me for every single one of them…

I want to give some love to a good buddy Rob Dean, who I convinced to sign up for IMLT, despite never completing a triathlon before he began the IM journey…  He finished in 14:55 and I am sure cursed me the entire way! Mike Breen, another good friend and IM mentor of mine, grinded out a 13 hour effort despite being 6’7 and for one of the few times in his life probably had his height work against him on the hilly course… Kyle Hamilton, aka “THE JOCKEY,” my right hand man who went from facebook stalker to my BTP, “best training partner.” The little man turned in just over a 12 hour day and actually beat me on the marathon, apparently it helps weigh 140 pounds! Ritch Viola, and the other team members of the most kick ass age group tri team out there, “Every Man Jack”…  Appreciate you dudes letting me hop in on some training sessions… Ritch was the age group champion and finished in 9:36 15th overall…

I want to thank Matt Dixon for his IMLT plan that helped me finish the race feeling sexy and Frank Sole from Sole Swim Solutions who since I first got into triathlon is solely (no pun intended) responsible for me not drowning in the water! I want to acknowledge all of my fellow Ironman Foundation team members… We spent Thursday before the race out at “Butt Rock Beach” on the North shore of Lake Tahoe picking up trash in an ongoing effort to “Keep Tahoe Blue”…  Of course put a bunch of triathletes on the job and we ended up turning it into a trash collecting competition that I no doubt ran away with:) Dave Deschenes, the executive director of the Ironman Foundation and our team head honcho, handed over a check afterwards for several thousand dollars to the “Keep Tahoe Blue” organization… #TriTeamForGood Kokua!

In Ironman, each race has its own personality, difficulties and challenges… Statistically there has never been a harder Ironman than the inaugural Lake Tahoe… While many people may avoid a race with an average finish time of well over 14 hours  (basically an hour slower than any other Ironman)  believe me when I tell you, I cant wait to do it again! See you at the start line… EB