Is Steve Finley finally feeling 40, or are the minerals just wearing off? Has something invaded his force field?
Although he's struggling to get over the "Mendoza Line," he was one of the most sought-after free agents in the offseason, actually taking less money to go to the Angels for a two-year $14 million contract.
So how has he stayed so productive so long? As a fellow alum, I'd like to say it was his training at Southern Illinois University. Most likely it's his rigorous year-round conditioning program and diet after all, he was a physiology major as a Saluki.
But maybe it is the stones. Finley doesn't want to give them credit, but he's been wearing them since his days as a Diamondback, when Craig Counsell shared the secret power of the pouch. It's a pouch he wears around his neck with a special assortment of minerals put together by Layers of Light International. The company's Web site proclaims the pouch offers a "layer of protection against many harmful external energy intruders that attack our bodies on a daily basis."
The pouch works from the outside in, while you can also purchase M-Power Ade, and M-Power Mix, which work from the inside out. And among other qualities, M-Power Mix will "make sure you are electrical."
According to founder Dr. Frank Seely, "Additionally, our products support higher consciousness for sustained wellness."
Finley's a bit self-conscious discussing the pouch, but does believe in the benefits of aligning body and mind, including the company's theory that the products are "organized in ranges of frequencies much like your radio."
He said it was just a coincidence, but in the one game Finley forgot to put on his pouch, he suffered a hip pointer and missed his only two injury-related games this season. He played his next game at DH rather than in center field. Finley hasn't been on the disabled list since adopting the pouch at the end of the 2001 season, and he played all 162 games last season.
Teammate Darin Erstad's curiosity got the better of him. When he asked Finley about the minerals, the Angels' center fielder told Erstad to put them around his neck, hold his arms at his side and flex.
Then Finley asked, "Do you feel anything? Do you feel stronger?" Erstad, already possessing a toned physique to rival Finley's, said he felt stronger. Considering the litany of injuries that have plagued Erstad throughout his career, the pouch was worth a try. He's been wearing the minerals since early this season, and after missing 132 games the past two seasons, Erstad hasn't missed one this season and leads the team in at-bats.
Neither Angels player believes the minerals have magical powers. But don't ask Finley or Erstad to play a game without them. And don't be surprised if more pouches aren't popping up on teammates before long.
Maybe they should have convinced Vladimir Guerrero to wear a pouch. It might have prevented the sling the reigning MVP has been sporting this week after an ill-conceived slide home dislocated his shoulder. The team has spent much of the past month trying to locate its run production, which should be more elusive with the loss of its most feared hitter.
Maybe the magic minerals are the best explanation for how the Angels have at least shared the AL West lead all season while being the only team in baseball with an on-base percentage below .300. Manager Mike Scioscia is at a loss to explain the Angels' anemic offense, but he gets defensive about his team's being referred to as "Hatcher's Hackers," for their free-swinging approach and being last in walks. Of course, Mickey Hatcher is the same hitting coach the Angels had when they won the World Series in 2002, when much of the credit for their success was attributed to an aggressive offensive approach in the box and on the bases.
The manager says the notion of "Scioscia Ball" is a misnomer. As a former catcher, he appreciates the running game and situational hitting, but it's not necessarily his trademark; it's merely dictated by personnel. The championship team had David Eckstein and Erstad at the top of the order, but lots of thunder in the middle of the lineup with Troy Glaus, Tim Salmon and Brad Fullmer, wrapped around Garret Anderson, and then Adam Kennedy batting ninth to bring back the speed element as the order flipped.
Although Guerrero has some speed, the additions of Finley and Orlando Cabrera, and Dallas McPherson's emergence, have caused the team to shift its focus offensively. Chone Figgins' speed and versatility are even more valuable now as they find different places to fit him in the lineup, but the Angels are a power team when Guererro is healthy.
Scioscia isn't a "Moneyball" devotee, getting' down with OBP. He focuses more on getting runners in scoring position and then producing. As he reached across his desk to get the current numbers and draw a comparison, he was startled to see that those numbers weren't very good either. But the Angels focused on defense in signing Cabrera and Finley this offseason, returning Anderson to his natural position in left field. It was all done in an effort to help their pitching, and Buddy Black's bullpen remains among the best in the majors, keeping the Angels out front in the West.
Boone in the movies
Aaron Boone was born in Southern California and still makes his home there, even though he's never played for the Angels or the Dodgers. In addition to being a baseball hotbed, Southern California is the center of the movie universe, and those worlds are colliding as the Indians third baseman finds himself the subject of a documentary film by Robert David Port.
Port shared an Oscar with Bill Guttentag in 2003 for documentary short subject for his film "Twin Towers," so this is quite a departure from that 9/11 project. Port is also a reserve deputy in the LA County Sheriff's department, and contributed to the revised "Dragnet" TV series, and also produced the court documentary series, "Arrest and Trial."
What started as a film on the rehabbing of a professional athlete, in the wake of one of the most famous home runs in postseason history, has now expanded to include spring training footage from this March, and more filming on the Indians visit to Anaheim this month. Boone isn't sure when the project will be done, but now it's almost certain to include how a career .267 batter has spent much of this season hitting 100 points below his average, and how he'll recover from his slump. Aaron would love to say it's the knee he blew out after his Yankee heroics, but that's holding up far better than his average.
Although it has yet to produce the desired dividends, Cleveland general manager Mark Shapiro's signing of Boone in the midst of his rehab was a shrewd gamble. It represents the dramatic shift the franchise has adopted since the days Cleveland ruled the AL Central, and Jacobs Field had the toughest ticket to buy in baseball. Even in the mid-to-late '90s, when the Indians were among baseball's big spenders, and Shaprio was John Hart's assistant GM, Cleveland was unable to attract the top free-agent pitchers who might have turned one of those pennants into a championship.
Now in his fourth season as GM, Shaprio is on a defined and restricted budget, and must make difficult decisions, like letting local icon Omar Vizquel leave, and trading Matt Lawton for Arthur Rhodes. Much like the formula that led to the Tribe's great run from 1995 to 2002, the Indians still sign developing stars to extended contracts, making the deals bargains by the time the players peak.
That was the idea behind Victor Martinez's five-year, $15 million deal this spring. Although he was Cleveland's best player a year ago, when he set a franchise record for RBIs by a catcher, the humble and quiet Venezuelan might be putting too much pressure on himself to live up to that contract. But Shapiro is confident that Martinez, off to a meager start in 2005, will produce numbers more like last season's over the life of the deal, which includes an option for 2010.
Martinez might be a microcosm of the Indians' struggles this season. Shapiro acknowledges the team's success in 2004, contending into late August, was at least a year ahead of their projections and might have raised unrealistic expectations for this season. The Indians are now in baseball's peculiar middle-class, no longer in the lofty free-spending heights of the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels, Cubs or Orioles, or even the recently more cost-conscious Braves and Dodgers.
Like the low-income Pirates, Royals and Devil Rays, the Indians focus on building their farm system, but unlike those teams, and more like the AL Central rival Twins, they can keep a select handful of those developing stars. Elsewhere, they have to develop depth at positions to facilitate trades like the Lawton deal, and sign free agents on the rebound of failed big-money signings like Kevin Millwood.
Shapiro still expects to contend, although this season increasingly looks like a lost cause, but sellouts at Jacobs Field might never be back on a daily basis. Cleveland has gotten innovative with its marketing. Last week the Indians passed out permission slips around town for employees to take to their bosses to allow them to play hooky and catch an Indians game. In the process the employees got $4 off any ticket in the house. It helped draw 19,000 for a Wednesday afternoon game, their largest crowd of the series, and a bit above average for the season.
No love for the Cubs
Colorado rookie-of-the-year candidate Clint Barmes finally returned to Wrigley Field on Thursday. Growing up in Vincennes, Ind., Barmes was actually a Cardinals fan and never made it to Wrigley as a kid. Instead, he opted for the three-plus hours cutting across Illinois to catch the Cards. In fact, he hated the Cubs; Vincennes was so split in its loyalties that it only hardened his resolve.
But Barmes, playing at Larry Bird's alma mater, Indiana State, was more than happy to take the Cubs up on an invite to a tryout camp at Wrigley Field in the spring of 2000. Clint remembers being awful: "I'm not a tryout guy, didn't throw well, hit well or run well. But I got to meet Sammy Sosa and Mark Grace, and that was kind of neat. The Cubs never called, so I guess I did stink. They were talking about taking me a lot higher than where the Rockies drafted me in the 10th round, but I never heard from them again. I guess it worked out for the best."
I guess it did. In April, Barmes became just the third rookie in history, joining Andres Galarraga and Willie Randolph, to bat over .400 while playing every day. Even though a recent 0-for-17 slump has knocked Barmes down closer to the .328 he batted at AAA last year, he's still the best story in a lost season for the Rockies so far. And his return to Wrigley worked out a bit better than the tryout a couple of runs around the bases, and a hit and the go-ahead RBI in Thursday's series opener as Colorado won for only the fourth time on the road all season.
Gary Miller is a reporter for ESPN's major-league baseball coverage.