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8 Upper

Picked Off

By Tom Scocca | Posted 9/5/2001

On Aug. 30, after three years of mixed signals, the Orioles finally decided to do something with Triple-A slugger Calvin Pickering: They traded him to the Cincinnati Reds. For "future considerations."

In a better, smarter world, the Orioles would have called the big lefty first baseman up to the majors that day (or at least two days later, when rosters expanded). Pickering, who had 21 homers and an International League-leading 98 RBIs, had just been named MVP of the O's Rochester affiliate and an IL all-star.

Meanwhile, the big-league club, crippled by the absence of constantly injured first baseman David Segui, was on a five-game losing streak, during which it had scored a total of four runs. Promoting Pickering was the obvious move to make. Instead, the O's signed him over to the Louisville RiverBats--and then went out and got crushed by Oakland, 15-0.

There were some reasons for the organization to have soured on Pickering. Except for a home run off Pedro Martinez in 1998, his major-league experience was undistinguished: a .164 average and eight RBIs in 32 games. He had trouble with injuries, and with his weight. Left off the 40-man roster, he was going to become a free agent after this season.

But the O's 40-man roster is packed with players who have brief and undistinguished major-league careers. The outfield lately has been Larry Bigbie, Chris Richard, and Luis Matos--a decent outfield, if you're in Triple-A. In the majors, all three are overmatched, as is scatter-armed utility man Brian Roberts. It's a youth movement: Unproductive veterans go, and unproductive youngsters try to learn while they play.

Yet no one gave Pickering a real tryout. The O's main complaint is that he struck out too much: 149 times this year in 131 games. For reference, the major-league leader in striking out is Jim Thome of the Cleveland Indians, who through Aug. 30 had fanned 152 times in his first 127 games--while putting up a .295 average, 43 home runs, and 108 RBIs for his first-place team. Other top-10 whiffers include Troy Glaus (35 homers and 84 RBIs), Manny Ramirez (39 homers and 111 RBIs), and Sammy Sosa (52 homers and 135 RBIs).

Striking out does not make someone a bad hitter. These hard-swinging sluggers make up for the K's by drawing a lot of walks. And so does Pickering. He had 64 walks at Rochester, more than twice as many as anyone else on the team--more too than anyone on the Orioles, who are awful at getting on base.

And even when he wasn't hitting, Pickering kept his plate judgment. He drew 14 walks in his brief time in the majors, for a .320 on-base average--better than most of the O's leadoff men this year. If he'd been less patient, more aggressive, he might have scratched out a few more hits, maybe raised the average to a more presentable .240. If he'd been a worse hitter, in other words, the Orioles might have kept him around.

When labor and management go to war, everyone suffers. Hence the hour or so I spent watching the New England Patriots play the Washington [racial slur] in preseason NFL action. It was the debut of the league's scab officials, brought in after the regular officials were locked out for demanding drastic pay raises. The theory was that the scabs, recruited from B leagues and colleges, would be overwhelmed by the speed and complexity of the NFL game.

Maybe they were. New England quarterback Drew Bledsoe--who scarcely needs to take any extra punishment--got decked after throwing the ball, a flagrant roughing job that went unflagged. Pats defensive back Terrell Buckley got clobbered five yards out of bounds after making an interception. No flag. Washington QB Jeff George got called for a safety (overturned on replay) when he intentionally grounded the ball from the 1-yard line.

But all these things could have happened anyway. Even polished professionals screw up all the time. Bad calls are part of the game, people shrug, understating the case. In fact, outright travesties are part of the game. Someone blows a whistle early, and a fumble recovery gets erased. Someone blows a whistle late, and the quarterback is out for four to six weeks.

This is why the lockout is dangerous for the NFL. Despite the blundering, fans trust the integrity of the game. Specifically, they've been willing to bet on it.

Nobody on either side of the lockout has mentioned gambling, but it hovers over everything. How do you tell a fix from a blunder? Grabbing on the line and bumping downfield happen--or plausibly look like they happen--on every play. The officials decide when the conduct draws a penalty. With the regular refs out, those unwritten standards are going to be broken anyway; consistent judgment, as any pitcher knows, is the hardest thing to get from the authorities.

So all an official needs to do is drop the flag. One or two holding calls, and a team is backed up in its own end. One pass-interference flag, and a team is instantly in field-goal range. Add in clipping calls, or noncalls, on kick returns, and an official can pretty well tilt the field as he pleases.

If the NFL had sense, it would be trying to guarantee and certify the integrity of its officials. Which is, in part, what the locked-out officials were asking for: The fight is over whether NFL officials should get full-time wages, in line with other pro sports, or keep getting part-time pay.

The NFL is holding the line against making the officials full-timers, at the expense of its own image. If pro football is a part-time business, why did we have to build a $220 million stadium for it? Who can justify all the effort and money and attention that goes into a measly 16-game season? Here stands the emperor, complaining that his new clothes aren't very warm.

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