’27 Yankees meet the ’09 Team Astana

image from fingerfood.typepad.com So last night I was up living the life and decompressing after the trip home from Atlanta that took me through Charlotte to Baltimore before finding my car intact at the BWI Marriott, and just skipping through the channels on ol’ tee-vee. That’s what I do late at night when everyone else is in bed and I’m knee-deep in baseball hours and too tired to read or write.

Anyway, the Versus channel had a show on called, Lance Armstrong: The Look Back, but when glanced at quickly on the scroll all it said was, “The Look.” That alone made it sound like a pretty good show. After all, Lance was known for flashing that Look in the peloton during his seven victories in the Tour de France, and the lead-in to the program showed that moment when he was riding toward his sixth victory when he turned all the way around in the saddle, stared right into the face of Jan Ullrich to challenge him before he rode off.

Actually, Lance did a little more than simply challenge Ullrich in the race. He just might have challenged his manhood, too.

Either way, it’s pretty clear what Versus is banking its coverage of the 2009 Tour de France on. Lance, indeed, is back and the cycling fans watching in the U.S. will get all of the details.

There’s certainly no surprise there. After three years away from the race – three of the worst years ever at the TdF (and they can only blame themselves) – the grand champ is back. Since his last victory he ran three marathons, hung out with Matthew McConaughey and one of the Olsen Twins, became a father again, had his shoulder put back together with more screws found in a three-bedroom apartment and got back into shape for the three grueling weeks of the most famous bike race on earth.

In a sense Lance retired from his retirement because it was way too busy. Why not just race a bike a couple thousand miles through the French Alps?

Nevertheless, there are reports that Lance is, indeed, the most intimidating and formidable rider in the ’09 race. No argument here. There’s The Look, the seven titles, the ability to endure ridiculous levels of pain, plus the dude is fit. Even at 37 Lance reportedly has been turning in the same type of workouts he did during the apex of his title run. In fact, he could be one of the best riders in the race…

That is if he didn’t ride for Astana.

Armstrong opened the 2009 Tour de France with a time trial in Monte Carlo that put him in fourth place… on Team Astana.

That sounds about right, too. Astana is loaded like the ’27 Yankees or an All-Star team. One stage in and the team already has four riders in the Top 10 and likely will move all four of those riders up even higher in the overall standings. A Top 4 sweep wouldn’t be far-fetched.

But for as strong as Astana is with Armstrong and American Levi Leipheimer and German Andreas Kloden, they are all just there to carve a path for Alberto Contador.

It’s Contador’s race and everyone else is just riding in it.

Contador finished second in the first time trial and that discipline isn’t even his top strength. The 26-year-old Spaniard is a climber with one TdF title under his belt from 2007 when Michael Rasmussen was booted out just days away from winning. Regardless, if Contador doesn’t win then something extraordinary must have gone wrong.

If Contador doesn’t win, Levi Leipheimer will instead.

*
Back to the Versus show…

The episode of The Look I caught was the epic Stage 17 of the 2004 Tour de France. That was the one where Floyd Landis and Lance Armstrong took on the world and won. It was where Lance stared down Ullrich, Floyd earned the nickname “Mofo of the Mountains,” and was famously had an in-race dialogue to go like this:

Lance: How bad do you want to win a stage in the Tour de France?

Floyd: Real bad.

Lance: How fast can you go downhill?

Floyd: I go downhill real fast. Can I do it?

Lance: Sure you can do it … ride like you stole something, Floyd.

In the end, Floyd couldn’t fend off the best riders in the world until Lance showed up with a mad sprint to the line to win the stage.

Take a look:

Just a slight delay for Lance

Lance Armstrong flew back to the United States on Tuesday morning. After a stopover in New York, the seven-time Tour de France champion made home to Austin, Tx. in time for an appointment with his doctor.

It was during that visit with his doctor that Armstrong learned his “clean” clavicle break wasn’t so clean after all. As of 8:20 p.m. eastern time on Tuesday, the great bike rider was getting a CT scan after learning about the not-so clean break.

“Bummer,” he tweeted on his Twitter feed.

Meanwhile, while the health and pending comeback of Lance Armstrong was all being documented in real time via “new media” (and the death of the “old media” had a bit more dirt shoveled on it with each tweet), somewhere near Paris tired old men waited anxiously for the next update.

Yes, when Armstrong “tweets” folks take notice. And no, it’s not just the fans, either. Take those tired old men in France for instance. When they read that the collarbone might be a little more damaged than expected, those “nefarious Frenchmen” might just have been moved to “twirl their moustaches and laugh heartily at his plight,” as the great Bob Ford once wrote about Lance’s ex-teammate, Floyd Landis, a few years back.

Yes, the cycling bureaucrats are feeling pretty good about themselves lately. When Lance hopped on that plane to go home, it meant there was an entire ocean between him and the nexus of the cycling universe. CT scans and doctor’s visits that elicit tweets that read, “bummer” gets that twirling in full flight. The next one might even be enough to cause a World Series-style victory celebration full of champagne spray and maybe even some high-fives. Why not? They already made him cut his hair for DNA-style drug tests.

Only in this case it might be real champagne instead of the sparkling wine those gauche Americans like.

Sacrebleu!

Continue reading this story …

Filling in

When Tadahito Iguchi arrived in Philadelphia in time for Saturday night’s game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Phillies’ new second baseman brought with him a lot more than just a suitcase full of clothes and personal items and an equipment bag with his baseball gear.

Better yet, Iguchi brought with him an entire entourage.

Fresh from being traded from the Chicago White Sox to the Phillies on Friday afternoon, Iguchi pulled on his new red-and-white pinstriped uniform, exchanged greetings with Ryan Howard, a friend from last winter’s MLB All-Star tour of Japan, as well as Aaron Rowand, his teammate from the World Champion White Sox team during the 2005 season before taking in his new surroundings.

He even chatted with his manager Charlie Manuel, who like Iguchi was a star in Japan’s Pacific League. Manuel still speaks some Japanese, an ancillary benefit from his six years playing ball as a gai-jin in the Far East, which should help the Phillies’ first Japanese player make an easier transition to his new surroundings.

“He’s got me,” Manuel smiled. “I’ll be his interpreter. I can talk to him.”

First things first, though. Iguchi’s first order of business was to find the lineup card where he located his name in the No. 7 hole at second base, and then greeted the media horde that follows him wherever he goes. Though Iguchi isn’t a well known player to the casual American baseball fan, he was quite popular on the Southside of Chicago and remains one of dozen or so Japanese ballplayers to make the jump to the Major Leagues.

Because of that, Iguchi travels with a translator (David Yamamoto, who also wears a uniform because he sits in the dugout during the game) and does pre and post-game interviews with the Japanese media after every single game. It doesn’t matter if Iguchi goes 0-for-4 with three strikeouts, goes 4-for-4 with a pair of home runs, or simply sits on the bench without seeing a lick of action on the diamond. The 32-year old infielder discusses his day with the roughly half dozen or so media members that chronicle his every move.

“They even have the cameras rolling on him when he walks through the parking lot to his car,” a media member and witness to the Japanese media’s insatiable thirst to cover their stars in the minutest detail.

In nearly three seasons in the Major Leagues, following eight seasons with the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks of Japan’s Pacific League, Iguchi has a .273 batting average, 39 homers and 169 RBIs in 363 games for the ChiSox. This season, he is hitting .251 with 17 doubles, four triples, six home runs and 31 RBIs in 90 games, and hit .281 with 18 home runs and 67 RBI in 138 games last season. During the White Sox championship run Iguchi had a .278 average with 15 home runs and 15 stolen bases. In the 2005 ALDS, he hit a go-ahead three-run home run in Game 2 against David Wells to turn the tables against the Boston Red Sox.

White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said Iguchi was the team’s most valuable player during the World Series run.

“He had a lot to do with the rings that we have right now,” Guillen told Chicago’s Daily Southtown. “He was great for us every day.”

Someone who can attest to that is Rowand, who remembered bantering back and forth with Iguchi through an interpreter during the ’05 season. Rowand said Iguchi’s English improved as the year went on, but he was able to communicate and have fun with his teammates. Interestingly, Rowand pointed out that the team enjoyed talking about baseball with Iguchi.

“We’ve had some good times with the language barrier, but he’s one heck of a player,” Rowand pointed out. “He’s really smooth in the field. He’ll add to the team and make it a lot easier with Chase being out.”

Ah yes, the real reason why Iguchi has landed in Philadelphia. With Chase Utley likely out for the next month with a broken hand suffered when he was hit by a pitch in Thursday afternoon’s loss to the Washington Nationals. Though he had surgery to insert a pin into the damaged area on Friday and the team revealed that they did not think the injury was as bad as it could have been, Utley will likely miss a minimum of 20 games. With 60 games remaining in the season and the Phillies doing all they can to remain in the playoff chase despite a plethora of injuries, it appears as if Utley will miss a third of the remaining games.

Enter Iguchi.

“I was able to play with Mr. Utley in the Japan series after the season and I’m very, very aware of how great a player he is,” Iguchi said. “I have tremendous respect for Mr. Utley and I just hope that I can fill in and [and contribute to the team] anywhere near Mr. Utley.”

The Phillies put the deal together with the White Sox rather quickly, announcing it just as they reported on Utley’s surgery.

“We wanted to do something and we wanted to move quickly,” assistant general manager Mike Arbuckle said. “Obviously, you don’t replace Chase Utley, but we wanted the guys in the clubhouse to understand that we wanted to step up and come up with a suitable replacement to help us stay competitive.”

For the short term Iguchi seems to be a good answer to a very difficult problem. The second baseman is signed for $3.25 million this season, and turned down a contract extension to stay with the White Sox during the winter despite saying he wanted to continue his career in Chicago.

“I’m very surprised by the trade,” Yamamoto said for Iguchi. “I was notified about it yesterday and I really didn’t have any notification, so yes, I was really surprised. But I’m really excited to join the Phillies and I’m starting to like my new, red uniform.”

However, Iguchi has a clause in his contract that will allow him to become a free agent at the end of the season if the ChiSox – now Phillies – don’t sign him to an extension by the end of the season.

With Utley expected to make a full recovery, it doesn’t seem as if Iguchi will figure into the Phillies’ plans beyond this season.

Unless he can play third base?

***
For a brief moment at the Tour de France, all of the events of last week were forgotten. The scandals, the doping and all of the bluster were replaced by an actual competition where there was a lot on the line.

Montanan Levi Leipheimer had the time trial of his life, squeezing to within 31 seconds of the leader and his Discovery Channel teammate, Alberto Contador. He did it with his teams’ part-owner Lance Armstrong trailing in the team car, shouting instruction and encouragement as he all but assured himself a spot on the podium in Paris.

With one more stage to go into Paris tomorrow, Leipheimer is eight seconds behind second place Cadel Evans in one of the closest finishes in Tour de France history.

And yet it still hard to think about what might have been…

Certainly it doesn’t seem as if ousted leader Michael Rasmussen would have been able to hang in Saturday’s time trial. Nor did it seem like Alexandre Vinokourov wold have been able to chip away enough to be a threat had he not been bounced from the race. Could Andreas Klöden been right there had his team not been thrown out?

How much fun would it have been to see all of those guys competing all the way through the Tour, especially in such a dramatic time trial?

But despite the good day of competition the newspapers and magazines are littered with stories about controversy, doping and lawyers.

* Is the 24-year old wunderkind Contador doping and is he really linked to Operacion Puerto?

* Vinokourov has hooked up with Floyd Landis’ legal team to fight his doping charges.

* The delusional and notorious windbag Greg LeMond is opening his big fat mouth… again. Does that guy ever shut up and why does he always come off like a bitter old fighter still hanging around the gym?

Here’s something I found interesting about today’s time trial: In praising Leipheimer’s speedy ride, announcer Phil Liggett compared the American to LeMond, noting that his ride to capture the victory in the stage was “almost as fast as Greg LeMond…”

Hmmmm… almost as fast as LeMond, huh? [Insert sarcasm font] Gee, I wonder what he was taking?

Here’s the thing that bothers me the most about Greg LeMond aside from his ego, his arrogance, his bitterness and his personality. LeMond (correct me if I’m wrong) is just like those old-time baseball players who missed out on the big paydays that today’s players get so they try to ciphen all they can from the sport by selling out anything they can. LeMond, it seems, still makes his money from cycling, but what does he really give back?

That’s why his bitterness toward Lance Armstrong seemed like nothing more than a small man with a big case of douchebaggery. LeMond won the Tour three times, had a horrible accident and then got old, yet seems to believe that something was taken from him. Conversely, Armstrong missed a couple of years from his career because he nearly died from cancer, yet rebounded to win the Tour de France seven years in a row.

That would be enough for most folks, but as Lance always noted, “It’s not about the bike.” With that he became the leading advocate for cancer research in the world. That was the primary goal and that’s what LeMond and the David Walsh types in the world don’t seem to understand.

So Le Mond can keep running his mouth, telling everyone how great he was and take, take taking from his sport… and he can continue to come off as a little bitch.

Again, if I’m wrong, correct me. I’m easy to find.

* Here’s what I do not like about the Tour (aside from the sideshow crap, of course): the race is practically over. Even though Evans trails Contador by 23 seconds and Leipheimer is in third at 31 seconds off, the American says Evans doesn’t have to worry about an attack in the final stage on Sunday. There is a gentleman’s agreement regarding such things, they say.

Lame.

There’s one day left and three riders are separated by 31 seconds — GO RACE!

The true sportsman that is Greg LeMond won the 1990 Tour de France on the final stage. It was a time trial, and his closest competitor had saddle sores so bad that he could barely ride his bike, but ol’ Greggy went after it. Usually the last day is largely a ceremonial ride, but 31 seconds is nothing. It should be every man for himself into the Champs-Élysées.

Anyway, sorry for coming out so strong on Le Mond, but I just don’t understand why he had to put himself in the middle of everything.