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Posted on: March 7, 2010 10:07 pm

Hardy hopes to solve mystery in Minnesota

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- You like fresh starts in the spring? Well come visit for a moment with shortstop J.J. Hardy, whose tale is a classic in the genre:

Hardy, part of Milwaukee's young wrecking crew, falls off the cliff in 2009.

His 24 homers in 2008 melt to 11 in '09.

His 74 RBI in '08 shrink to 47 in '09.

He scuffles so much the Brewers ship him back to Triple-A Nashville. Then, looking to trim their payroll this winter, they ship him to Minnesota for center fielder Carlos Gomez.

So here Hardy is, new Twins uniform, blank slate, hopes as high as his production once was.

Credit for some of those hopes goes to Twins hitting coach Joe Vavra and special spring training instructor (and, of course, Hall of Famer) Rod Carew.

"I've made some pretty big changes, and for the better," Hardy says. "Some things I've known I've needed to do, and I just haven't been doing them."

What Vavra and Carew have succeeded (so far) in doing with Hardy is this: Last year, he fell into a bad habit of twisting his upper body back toward the catcher too much as he was loading his swing. What Vavra suggested, and Carew has helped fine tune, is getting Hardy's hands and back elbow in a spot that makes it hard for him to rotate his upper body so extravagantly.

Now, instead of turning back too far before he launches his swing forward, Hardy says he's coming straight to the ball in a shorter, more compact manner.

"It's a new start, and I'm excited about that," Hardy says.

Especially alarming were two things: His deteriorating power, and his declining effectiveness against lefty pitchers. He's never hit right-handers particularly well, but he hit only .169 against lefties in '09 (as opposed to a .299 career average against lefties through '08).

Can Hardy bounce back?

Did Vavra unlock an eternal mystery?

Will Carew's suggestions put Hardy back on track?

For now, the smile is back, and that's a start.

"I'm going to have fun. Last year, I was miserable. For some reason last year, I felt more pressure on myself. If I was 2-for-4 or 1-for-3, I was miserable because it just wasn't good enough.

"I'd come to the park in a bad mood. It was a long, frustrating year for me."

Sunblock Day? Slow start, but it was in the 70s by day's end Sunday and it is supposed to remain in the 70s for the rest of the week. Let the burning begin.

Likes: Nice conversation the other day with former Twins manager Tom Kelly, in camp helping as an instructor. The other day, he was on a half-field working with the infield defense and with the pitchers in their fielding practice. He's doing well and roves throughout the Twins' minor-league system during the summer, evaluating and teaching. As for spring camp, he'll be here through the end. "Gardy wanted me to come for the whole spring," T.K. says of manager Ron Gardenhire, as if it came as somewhat of a surprise. ... Hall of Famers Harmon Killebrew, Rod Carew and Paul Molitor also are in uniform as guest instructors. Between those three and T.K., it's an impressive sight. ... Nice conversation also with former outfielder and first baseman Dmitri Young, who is retired and was visiting his brother, Twins' outfielder Delmon. Dmitri says he's retired with no regrets, and his top priority now is being a father to his three kids. He brought his oldest, 12-year-old Owen, who served as the Twins' batboy on Saturday. ... Nino's Italian Restaurant and Pizzeria in Fort Myers remains as delicious as ever, and it was good to hear that the owner of the joint, Graziano, was able to get away to his native Italy for three weeks last summer. More impressive, he spent the time with some friends making food and feeding people following last April's earthquake centered in Abruzzo mountain region of Italy.

Dislikes: Aw, I'll have left Florida by the time Wilco plays in Clearwater on March 23. I've had a heck of a time catching up to them over the past year. Would

Rock 'N' Roll Lyric of the Day:

"I feel alright, it's a Minnesota night
"You've got nothing left to show me but your smile
"Stars so bright on this Minnesota night
"Can we cut the conversation for a little while?"

-- The Push Stars, Minnesota

Posted on: January 6, 2010 5:47 pm

Hall of Fame election, random thoughts

A few final random thoughts on Wednesday's Hall of Fame election results:

-- Though falling five votes short of election surely is agonizing, Wednesday also should be heartening for Bert Blyleven. At 74.2 percent of the vote and with two more years of eligibility, Blyleven -- who looked like a longshot a few years ago -- almost certainly is a lock.

And incidentally, you should have heard what Hall of Famer Hank Aaron said of Blyleven on Sirius/XM radio's MLB Home Plate channel Wednesday morning during an interview with hosts Seth Everett and Jim Duquette:

"I hit against him and if there was a finer pitcher than he was then, I don't know who it was," Aaron said. "I only went to bat maybe 10 or 15 times [against Blyleven]. I don't think I ever got a hit off of him. But he was quite a pitcher.

"I know that he didn't win 20 games, but sometimes you don't need to win 20. I think it's just a matter of how you carried yourself and what you did for your other teammates. Just to have him in that rotation for that many years with Minnesota, [he] was somebody that you didn't look forward to hitting against."

Aaron wasn't too far off in his memory. Lifetime, he was 0 for 7 against Blyleven with one strikeout.

-- I didn't expect former Cincinnati shortstop Barry Larkin to make it, though I do think he's deserving and I did vote for him. Within that, I thought his vote total would have been higher than 51.6 percent (he finished fifth).

-- In what essentially was the first true test of a designated hitter's place in the Hall, former Seattle DH Edgar Martinez notched only 36.2 percent of the vote, which placed him seventh overall.

A day earlier, during his retirement announcement, this is what Randy Johnson had to say about his former Seattle teammate's Hall of Fame chances: "I'm hoping he gets a lot of consideration. I know it's been debated whether a DH is worthy. During my time, I've never seen a better pure hitter than him.

"That's no disrespect to any teammates I've had or played against. I think anybody would agree who watched Edgar during that era how good he was. I'll be pulling for him because of what he meant while I was on the mound."

-- Tim Raines's 30.4 percent of the vote is ludicrously low. The guy reached base more times and scored more runs than Tony Gwynn. He wasn't anywhere near the hitter that Gwynn was, but Raines, together with Rickey Henderson, changed the way the leadoff slot in the lineup was viewed.

-- Glad to see Jack Morris' vote total increase to 52.3 percent (from 44 percent last year), but he's still way too far off for my liking. People need to get over his 3.90 ERA and look at the rest of his game. Nobody was more dominant than Morris throughout the 1980s and early 1990s.

-- The near-misses this year -- Blyleven and Alomar -- also will have their chances increase dramatically in the near future because the next two Hall of Fame classes just aren't very good.

Next year, among the names that come onto the ballot for the first time are Jeff Bagwell, John Franco, Kevin Brown, Rafael Palmeiro, Larry Walker and Juan Gonzalez.

In 2012, it's even worse: Bernie Williams, Ruben Sierra and Tim Salmon are the biggest names who come eligible.

Likes: Andre Dawson is a class act and a deserving Hall of Famer. ... Matt Holliday back in St. Louis. ... The film Precious. ... The DVD Revolutionary Road. ... Wilco (The Album). ... Lyle Lovett's Natural Forces. ... The shift in focus to college basketball in January. ... My wife's homemade pizza, on deck this Thursday night while the college football national title game between Alabama and Texas is played. ... Former Los Angeles Times rock critic Robert Hilburn's memoir Cornflakes with John Lennon. Some great stories and behind the scenes stuff. ... John Meacham's American Lion: Andrew Jackson and the White House, an excellent biography. ... Alicia Keys doing a version of Empire State of Mind on Stephen Colbert's show last month with Colbert rapping about the suburbs. Very amusing.

Dislikes: Christmas vacation is finished already?

Rock 'N' Roll Lyric of the Day:

"Come on children, you're acting like children
"Every generation thinks it's the end of the world
"All you fat followers get fit fast
"Every generation thinks it's the last
"Thinks it's the end of the world"

-- Wilco, You Never Know

Posted on: September 13, 2009 9:51 pm

Chad bad for Dodgers ... again

SAN FRANCISCO -- The Dodgers have the best record in the National League, they've nearly clinched a playoff spot and they have probable home field advantage until the World Series.

So why does it feel like they might be vulnerable?

Chad Billingsley's second-half, that's why.

Billingsley, the supposed ace, lasted only 70 pitches in Sunday's 7-2 whipping by San Francisco. The Giants scored three runs and collected eight hits against him in four innings. He left a fat pitch for Juan Uribe to whack for a two-run homer in the second.

Were it a one-time slip, it would be one thing. But Billingsley, an NL All-Star, seems to have left his stuff in St. Louis. He's 3-6 with a 5.49 ERA since, and he doesn't seem to know how to fix it.

"It just looked to me like he was feeling for it," manager Joe Torre said. "It didn't look like he was able to locate."

"The cutter," Billingsley said of his cut fastball. "That's mostly what was getting hit today. It was spinning out of my hand. It wasn't moving too much."

Is that a recurring problem?

"Usually, it doesn't do that," Billingsley said.

He's got three weeks -- and probably three more starts -- to iron things out and give Dodgers fans confidence when he's matched up against Philadelphia's Cliff Lee or St. Louis' Chris Carpenter in Game 1 of a playoff series.

Worrisome thing is, nobody seems close to any answers.

"It's sort of a domino effect, I think," Torre said. "The psychological effect of not winning, trying to find that niche for yourself, that comfort zone."

Likes: Colorado at San Francisco beginning on Monday with at least some juice to it. Must-win for San Francisco. Heck, must-sweep for San Francisco. ... Tony Bennett singing I Left My Heart in San Francisco on the sound system at the Giants' ballpark after Sunday's game, accompanied by loving, gorgeous video of The City on the scoreboard. ... Tommaso's Italian Restaurant on Kearny in North Beach. ... What a great Michigan-Notre Dame game on Saturday. ... What a great USC-Ohio State game. ... Very entertaining start to the college football season. ... Good news on the Michigan high school football front Friday with Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central pummeling Flat Rock 40-0. Next victim for the Falcons: New Boston Huron, Friday night.

Dislikes: Early morning school days.

Rock 'N' Roll Lyric of the Day:

"Come on children
"You´re acting like children
"Every generation thinks
"It's the end of the world
"And all you fat followers
"Get fit fast
"Every generation thinks it´s the last
"Thinks it's the end of the world"

-- Wilco, You Never Know


Posted on: June 24, 2009 10:47 pm

Word of advice on foul balls: Duck

OK, now. Let's see. To write and post a blog. ...

How does this computer thing work again?

Forgive me if I seem a little tentative. See, I've been without my laptop for the past week or so. It was blasted by a foul ball while I was working in San Diego's Petco Park last Wednesday, sending it immediately to the disabled list and me scrambling.

Ah, the joys -- and hazards -- of making your living as a baseball writer.

San Diego catcher Nick Hundley was the culprit. He sliced a foul ball against Seattle that came rocketing straight back toward the press box at warp speed. I mean, it was screaming.

I saw the ball whistling straight at me, so I did what pretty much anybody from a working stiff to a fourth grader would do in the computer age: I immediately risked life and limb to protect the doggone laptop.

You were thinking, "Duck"?

Or, perhaps, "Try and catch it, dummy"?

No dice on either of those.

What I did was wrap my right arm in front of the laptop, positioning myself to block the ball from making a crash landing. The plan, devised in, oh, a split-second, was to knock the ball down with my hand.


It was sort of like Texas catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia attempting to corral Jason Jennings' sinker with the Giants' Nate Schierholz on third base and the score tied in the 11th inning in San Francisco on Saturday night. Wild pitch, Schierholz scored, game over.

The ball was sinking so quickly I didn't get my hand down in time. I missed. The baseball smashed into the back of the computer screen. Game over.

In this case, E-W didn't mean the magazine Entertainment Weekly. No, it was E-Writer. Though several colleagues sitting near me in the press box enthusiastically commented on what a good thing it was that I did miss, otherwise I may have a broken hand.

Instead, it was just the laptop screen.

Fortunately, the hard drive stuff was fine. And my friend Tim lent me a monitor, which, when plugged into my laptop, at least allowed me to see stuff on that screen.

The Dell technician came by the house on Tuesday and installed a new screen, and 15 minutes later, presto. I was portable again. I can actually bring my laptop with me to the ballpark and work there. What a thing.

I'm telling you, it was six harrowing days.

Meantime, two days after the, uh, incident, the Padres placed Hundley on the disabled list with a bruised wrist.

They couldn't have done that 48 hours earlier?

Glad to see Jim Tracy get another chance to manage. After the way things ended for him in Pittsburgh, you bet he's thrilled to get another opportunity in Colorado. ... Love to see the way Juan Pierre, one of the best and hardest-working guys around, has taken advantage of the absence of Manny Ramirez. ... Blueberries in the summer. There are few better things. ... Caught up with a rash of music-related DVDs lately and highly recommend Neil Young's Heart of Gold, the Jonathan Demme-directed concert video shot at the legendary Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tenn. . ... Also enjoyed I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, the documentary tracking the band Wilco through the making of its classic disc, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Very interesting behind-the-scenes stuff regarding how a band writes songs, puts an album together and then deals with record companies.

Dislikes: The Manny Ramirez circus in Albuquerque. Good for the baseball fans in that city that they get to see a superstar in person. And when he returns to the Dodgers, I'm sure I'll be writing plenty about it. But though I considered flying to Albuquerque for Manny's games there this week, I'll be damned if I'm going to join the circus and feed the hype before I have to.

Rock 'N' Roll Lyric of the Day:

"There's bourbon on the breath
of the singer you love so much
He takes all his words from the books
that you don't read anyway"

-- Wilco, Poor Places

The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or