Tuesday, September 28, 2010

...Neil Walker

When you come to the end of the baseball season - the final quarter - you are either going to be in a playoff race or out. And if you happen to be on a team that is on the outside, how you play out the final portion of the season can say a lot.

It is real easy to lose your focus and not be as concerned with the outcome of a game. Many players seem to be playing the end of the season by going through the motions because they have no hope of making the playoffs. And not just in Major League Baseball. I have seen it at all levels.

If you are a younger player, remember this piece of advice. Someone is always watching.

If you are a high school player, there may be a college coach in the crowd. If you are in a youth league, maybe there is a coach for a team at the next level up that is watching how you play. You can always catch someone's attention. It may just be for the wrong reasons.

Neil Walker plays second base for the Pittsburgh Pirates. If you are reading this and are a high school player or younger, you weren't alive the last time the Pirates had a winning season. The Pirates, as of today have lost 101 games and won 55. They haven't been in contention for the playoffs since the first month of the season.

But I would bet that Neil understands that the management of the Pittsburgh Pirates are evaluating this year's players as they already look towards next. If Neil would have backed off and not continued to play at the level he was capable of, the Pirates may have gone into the off-season looking for a second baseman for the 2011 season.

I've been around the game long enough to know that this is happening all around the league, in both directions. Some players are committed to playing at the highest level they possibly can and will keep their positions. Others, who are looking forward to the end of the season and some time off, will find themselves replaced because a lack effort.

But I singled Neil out for a reason. If you look up his statistics from the last ten games, (via the MLB website), in which the Pirates have won seven, but also surpassed the 100 loss total, he has a batting average of .343 with two home runs, ten RBIs and has drawn eight walks.

Neil worked hard to secured his position and I'm certain he doesn't want to lose it. I encourage you to do the same.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

...Pam Cunningham

I am a little bias on this post because Pam is my wife. I don't know that I have ever been more proud of her than what I was (and still am) today.

This is the third year in a row that we have signed up the the Richard S. Caliguiri City of Pittsburgh Great Race. The Great Race is a 10K (6.2 miles) that goes through the campuses of Pittsburgh's colleges and universities and ends up at Point State Park, which is a riverside park located where Pittsburgh's three rivers meet. We sign up in the spring as the race is typically full by mid summer. It gives us a reason to run and the accomplishment you feel at the end is pretty tough to top.

Without telling you our whole life story, we have been trying unsuccessfully for almost three years to start a family. Because of doctor's appointments and his recommendation not to run around our procedures, about two months ago she made the decision not to run. She didn't want to jeopardize the latest procedures.

Though I could tell she was disappointed, I supported her 100%. Starting a family has been her dream since she was a little girl and ours for the last three years and the risk wasn't worth it.

To our disappointment, we found out on Friday that this again wasn't our month. I could tell that she was hurt on two fronts. We were again confronted with the news that we didn't want and she wasn't even close to being in shape to run.

But last night, she made the decision that she was going to run. She was going to prove to herself that she could finish the 10K. Pam knew that it would be tough and she was undoubtedly nervous, but she was determined to run.

No matter what situation you find yourself it, when you are determined to accomplish something, you can. Putting your mind to work and believing in yourself are two of the most important actions you can perform as you travel through this journey called life.

Pam finished in one hour and ten minutes, only about four minutes slower than last year. I am proud of her accomplishment and proud of her determination.


Saturday, September 25, 2010

...the San Francisco Giants pitching staff

Yesterday, I talked about Ichiro and his consistency and longevity in Major League Baseball. If you haven't heard, there is another just as impressive streak that is also active.

The San Francisco Giants' pitchers have allowed three or fewer runs in 18 straight games. This isn't that the starter has allowed three or fewer in 18 straight. This streak is for the entire game - the starters, middle relievers, set up guys and the closer.

These are Major League hitters that the Giants are facing. They aren't facing minor leaguers every night. They are facing professional hitters that are the best in the world at what they do. And the Giants' haven't allowed more than 3 runs in almost three weeks.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau (through an ESPN article), this is the longest streak since the Chicago White Sox had a 20 game streak in 1917.
I would bet that each member of the Giants' pitching staff is putting a lot of pressure on himself not to be the person who allows the streak to end. To be a successful athlete, you have to have a little pride in what you do. Each pitcher has pride in this ongoing streak - as they should - and doesn't want to see it end.

But there also has to be a different degree of focus on what they are doing. You should never relax whenever you are competing. All it takes is a loss of focus for several seconds to change or alter the outcome of the game. But I'm sure that every Giants' pitcher is taking a little extra with him to the mound. 

There is undoubtedly a little luck that is on the Giants side and you have to get great starting pitching to even be in that position. And the Giants' rotation of Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Barry Zito, Jonathan Sanchez and Madison Bumgarner have been unbelievable.

As a former professional pitcher, I know there are nights when you just don't feel good, have good command or throw as hard as usual. This stable of Giants' pitchers are showing what focusing on a common goal - making the playoffs - can do for a team.


Friday, September 24, 2010


Last night in Toronto, Seattle Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki got his 200th hit of the season, which is a big deal in itself. But for Ichiro, it was just another year. The 2010 baseball season is the tenth season IN A ROW that Ichiro has eclipsed the 200 hit mark.

Pete Rose, the all-time hits leader in Major League Baseball, is the only other player to have ten 200 hit seasons, but his were not consecutive.

The word that comes to mind is consistency. Consistency is one of the most important traits - at least in my eyes. If you can do something positive over and over and over, especially in sports, it leads to success. 

There are 162 regular season games in a Major League Baseball season. Ichiro has averaged over a hit a game for the last 10 years. His best total was 262 hits in the 2004 season.

Ichiro is also extremely durable. He has played in at least 157 games (again out of 162) every year he has been in the league except for last year when he played in 146.

Other impressive numbers of consistency include a batting average over .300 in all ten of his Major League seasons, scoring at least 100 runs in each of his first eight seasons and stealing at least 26 bases in every season, with his high mark being 56.

He has struck out just under 700 career times or right around 70 per season - this year's total of 84 (so far) is by far his highest. To put that in perspective, the current league strikeout king is Mark Reynolds of the Arizona Diamondbacks, who has struck out 206 times JUST THIS YEAR.

There is no question that Ichiro is a Hall of Famer. But think of what his career statistics could have been as he played his first eight seasons in Japan, where he put up just as consistent numbers as he has here in the U.S.

Consistency is a big part of anything that you do. Consistency comes from not being satisfied with what you did yesterday or your last game or last year. Stay focused on what is ahead of you and don't rely on your past performance. Ichiro doesn't.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

...the Colorado Rockies

A month ago, the Colorado Rockies were 11 games behind the first place San Diego Padres and it seemed as they would be playing out the last month of the season for pride. But this morning, the Rockies find themselves a game and a half out with 13 games remaining.

During the last couple of seasons, September has belonged to the Rockies. They seem to play their best baseball in the last month of the season. Since August 21, the Rockies have a record of 20 wins and seven losses. They have transformed into a legitimate playoff contender. But they should be thankful they play in the National League West.

It is a great thing to play with confidence in the final month of the season. But it is a dangerous train of thought to expect to play your way into a playoff race every year. Confidence in baseball is essential. But in any sport, you can't assume you can raise your play on when needed.

I wonder if the Colorado players assume that if they can stay around .500 (win half of their games) through the first four and a half months of a baseball season, they will play well enough through the end of August and September to be in the hunt. If so, this is a dangerous trend to fall into.

There is no question the Rockies are playing good baseball. When you are 20-7 in the last month, there is no arguing that point. But over the same time, the Padres have a record of 10-17. including a 10 game losing streak, and the San Francisco Giants are 15-11. Colorado has had plenty of help to creep back into the playoff race.

If you look at some other races - let's look at the Yankees, who have the best record in baseball. On August 21, the Yankees had a record of 76-47. If the Rockies and Yankees were in the same division, the Rockies would have been 12.5 games out of first place. As of today, even with the Rockies recent streak, the Yankees would hold a 7.5 game lead and there would not be any playoff conversation associated with Colorado.

I understand that that Rockies don't have to play in the American League East and I should only compare them to the teams they are in direct competition with. And that is fair. Again, I don't want to discount the fact that Colorado has been playing terrific baseball and look to be heading to the playoffs.

I just caution that if you think the way you play the first three quarters of a season doesn't matter because you can make a splash during the final stretch, your season may be over before you get there. 


Friday, September 17, 2010

...Khalid Askri

Now I know Khalid Askri isn't a household name, especially in the United States, but his recent misfortune is something we all can learn from. Khalid Askri is the goalkeeper for Moroccan team FAR Rabat. He was playing in a Moroccan Domestic Cup match the other night against MAS Fes.

He was facing a penalty kick and, like so many in today's society, was more concerned about showing up his opponent and putting all the focus squarely on his shoulders. Well Mr. Askri, you have.

If you haven't seen it, he made the initial save on the penalty kick. And rather than focusing on the ball, he immediately pounded his chest to let everyone know that he had made the save. But what he didn't see what the spin that was on the ball after it hit off his hands.

The ball spun back and went into the goal. Now in soccer, the player taking the kick cannot kick the ball again if it is saved in a Shootout situation. But apparently, the ball can roll in even after the initial save.

I will never expect anyone - an eight year old or a twenty eight year old professional - to make every play in every game. There are errors in baseball, right? But there is something to be said about making sure the job is finished before celebrating and making sure everyone knows who made the save - or gave up the goal.

To watch the video, visit the link below.



Thursday, September 16, 2010

...Derek Jeter

The buzz of the day has been the actions of Yankees' shortstop Derek Jeter and how he was able to act his way onto first base last night against Tampa Bay.

If you didn't see it, in the top of seventh inning, Jeter squared to bunt. The pitch was inside and he pulled his bat back. The pitch hit off the knob of the bat and Jeter immediately acted as though the pitch hit him and he was awarded first base. The next batter was Yankees outfielder Curtis Granderson who hit a two run home run that gave the Yankees a 3-2 lead at the time.

I'm looking at this from two conflicting sides. As a former minor league pitcher, that part of me doesn't like the base being awarded. But as a coach, I struggle with giving up a base late in a tight game. Another thing is that I have seen plenty of wrong calls the other way - umpires ruling a batter being hit as a foul ball.

There are wrong calls at every base on any given night. Runners that are safe are called out. Pitches that are strikes are called balls. One of the great things about baseball is the adversity that you fight through on any given night.

I'm not going to go so far and call it cheating as many others have. The umpire awarded Jeter the base and I don't think anyone expects any player to turn a free base down. What I have a problem with is the way he reacted. Was it necessary to throw your bat down, bend over and wait for the trainer to arrive? Acting as though the ball hit you and putting on a show to make the umpire believe it is a little overboard for me.

If the umpire makes a bad call so be it. But you don't have to make a fool of the umpire.

I'd like to think that Karma works itself out in any situation. In the bottom of the seventh, Rays DH Dan Johnson hit a two run home run to give the Rays a 4-3 lead. The bullpen held the Yankees scoreless and preserved the win to put Tampa Bay back into first place.


Tuesday, September 14, 2010

...Logan Mankins and Vincent Jackson

As the start of the NFL season has come and gone, there are undoubtedly many headlines depending on who is your favorite team.

But a sad reality is the situation of New England guard Logan Mankins and San Diego wide receiver Vincent Jackson. Both Mankins and Jackson have refused to sign one year offers of just over $3.25 million, though the Chargers cut Jackson's offer significantly - just under $600,000 - when he didn't show up to training camp.

Both are seeking longer contracts with more significant money.

I understand the argument that NFL contracts are not guaranteed - if a player signs a five year, $50 million contract and is released after year two, he does not receive the remaining value of his contract. Because of that, I don't fault a player who tries to rework a deal in the off-season - especially when you feel you are a valuable part of the team. Mankins is a two time Pro Bowler and Jackson is arguably the Chargers' best receiver.

I realize that the typical football player's career is shorter than most other sports and there is a chance of a career threatening injury on every play. Without getting into specifics, I know that there are implications of the collective bargaining agreement that have also contributed to the situation. 

The cliche "professional sports is a business" is true. But the games aren't going to stop because a player or two are unhappy with their contract.

Maybe it is because I only played minor league baseball and would have done anything to play at the highest level, but I don't understand how a player can simply sit out and watch his team play. Players are supposed to play and should take pride in the fact they are professionals and are getting paid a lot of money to do so.

Without Mankins, who apparently had a deal that fell apart because he was asked to apologize for comments he made about the Patriots' owner, New England rolled over Cincinnati. They gained 118 yards rushing and they didn't allow a quarterback sack.

Without Vincent Jackson, the Chargers fell to the Chiefs, 21-14. San Diego quarterback Phillip Rivers threw for 298 yards and two touchdowns. And while it looked like the Chargers could have used Vincent Jackson, other players - Legedu Naanee in particular - were ready to step in and take his place.


Monday, September 13, 2010

...Denard Robinson

If you are a fan of college football, you have undoubtedly heard of Michigan's sophomore quarterback Denard Robinson. After the second week of the season, Denard has already been discussed as the early front runner for college football's most recognizable individual honor - the Heisman Trophy.

Through two games, Denard has thrown for 430 yards, ran for 455 yards and accounted for five touchdowns. He has also displayed his leadership qualities, as he led Michigan on the game winning drive in the final minutes of the fourth quarter against Notre Dame.

Pretty good for a kid who started zero games a freshman with another freshman starting ahead of him.

Denard has shown his athleticism - much of which is God-given. But something that is understated is his perseverance.

In the situation Denard found himself in after the 2009 season - zero starts and competing with another true freshman - many people probably would not have faulted Denard if he would have left the Michigan program and transferred to another school where he felt could play.

However, rather than giving in, he decided to stick it out, work hard and compete for the same job he lost last summer - starting quarterback at the University of Michigan.

Along the way of your athletic career, people will tell you that you aren't good enough. Rather than believing them, work hard to prove them wrong and enjoy the competition along the way. Denard does.


Sunday, September 12, 2010

...Trevor Hoffman

Late last week, Trevor Hoffman became the first player in Major League Baseball history to record 600 saves. After making a name for himself as one of the best closers in baseball with the San Diego Padres, like many players toward the end of their career, Trevor moved on after a long stint with his signature team and took his trademark change up to the Milwaukee Brewers before the 2009 season.

After recording 37 saves in 2009, Trevor struggled at the beginning of the 2010 season and Brewers manager Ken Macha decided to turn to rookie John Axford to close out games.

All too common in today's world is the talk of veteran players being "disrespected" in situations like this where a 27 year old rookie steps in. Many times a very public feud ensues, the true personality of a player shines through and a legacy is potentially tarnished. 

Trevor Hoffman didn't take this route. In a true professional manner, he accepted the role that was given to him and tried to do it to the best of his ability to help his team win. But more than that, he turned his attention to helping his replacement succeed. In an Associated Press article, John Axford says, "In all honesty, he's meant everything to my development. He carries about his business perfectly. He's been the best mentor for me."

Learn a lesson from Trevor Hoffman. Accept whatever role you are asked to play and do it to the best of your ability. And don't act like you are too good or busy to help a teammate out.


Tuesday, September 7, 2010

...the San Diego Padres

If you have been following baseball this year, one of many stories has been the upstart seasons of the Cincinnati Reds and the San Diego Padres. Most commentators, analysts and casual fans have been waiting for one of them, if not both teams, to fall off and be taken over by the Cardinals and Giants, respectively.

And the Padres have almost been caught.

They finally broke through with their first win in 11 tries and in the last two weeks the Giants have climbed within a single game of the Padres lead.

For all the young players out there, this is a good opportunity to learn from the Padres and see how they respond. Not in the sense of "don't lose 10 games in a row." Losing streaks will happen. But it is how you deal with your problems that show you, and others, what you are made of.

Some people will start to believe what others think. They will start to agree that they are not good enough or they don't deserve to be there or they are playing above their potential. I've played with and coached players whose performance, at the first hint of criticism, starts to rapidly decline.

The excitement that Heath Bell showed after recording the final out last night against the Dodgers tells me that the Padres feel a huge relief off their back. It also told me that the Padres are not going to fold under the pressure of the last three weeks of the season. I'm not predicting that they will hold on to their lead. But the Giants aren't going to run away with the division.


Thursday, September 2, 2010


Yesterday, while listening to national Christian radio station K-Love, morning hosts Lisa and Eric were talking about a subway driver that was able to save the life of a woman because he was paying attention and wasn't distracted by his cell phone as many of us today have become.

And Lisa said something powerful that translates into the world of sports. She said that there are two kinds of pain in world - the pain of discipline and the pain of regret.

I am not, and will never, suggesting that in order for a young athlete to become better at his sport, one has to practice all day, every day. I think that it is very important for kids to lead well rounded lives and experience many things. But if you want to be truly great at something - athletics, instruments, dance, theater - you have to stay disciplined with your practice.

It may be tough to walk away from the television or computer for 30 minutes a day. It may feel "painful." But the success you can achieve through disciplined practice will be worth it. There is no greater feeling than knowing you were able to put everything you had into a competition. While winning is always a better experience, if you can walk away after a loss knowing you competed to the best of your ability, that is all you can ask of yourself.

There is nothing quite like regret in this world. Many people carry around the burden and sorrow of regret. Missed opportunities and the inability to redo some of life's moments can tear a person down. The disappointment of regret can lead to a a feeling of failure and the pain of regret is real.

Though it is difficult to lead a disciplined life, it is better than living with the regret of what could have been.