Bonds trial update: Agent Novitzky takes center stage

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The government’s first witness against Barry Bonds was called yesterday: agent Jeff Novitzky, the man who made the BALCO case. And the Brian McNamee case. And the Kirk Radomski case. And who has spearheaded  just about every other investigation into athletes and performance enhancing drugs, from Bonds to Lance Armstrong (case still building).

It was Novitzky who spent a year literally sifting through the trash outside the BALCO labs, looking for evidence of steroid distribution after he received a tip that bad stuff was going down there.  He’s a highly controversial figure who has been accused by some of having a vendetta against Barry Bonds, though that has always seemed like a stretch to me. More likely, it seems, is that he is a careerist who at times has gone too far in order to bring home cases that are less valuable to the protection of the public welfare than they are salacious and attention-grabbing.  His greatest trespass in my mind was his illegal-seizure of baseball’s 2004 drug testing results and subsequent creation of that list of 104 names, some of which have been leaked. He was smacked down by the courts for that.

His testimony yesterday is similar to the testimony he has given in multiple other BALCO cases, all of which have resulted in convictions. He explained how he got on BALCO’s trail, how he came to learn of its clients, including Bonds, and how when the government subpoenaed Bonds and other athletes, there was never an intention to go after them, just BALCO.

Novitzky was cross-examined sharply by Bonds’ lawyers — with many of the questions seemingly designed to discredit other witnesses against Bonds as opposed to attacking Novitzky head-on — but reports from the courtroom suggest that he maintained his cool and made a point to look at the jury when he spoke, not at the lawyer questioning him, which is a small but quite effective touch when a witness is trying to explain technical or scientific evidence. Law enforcement officers tend to do this well.

How effective his testimony was is open for debate. Gwen Knapp, who is in the courtroom live-tweeting the trial for the San Francisco Chronicle suggested that the facts weren’t being strung together very well and that the government, via Novitzky’s testimony, wasn’t explaining its case particularly effectively. The New York Times, in contrast, painted a picture of an engaged jury, following the exchanges between Novitzky and his inquisitors raptly.

Novitzky will continue to be cross-examined today. Then he will return to his work of bringing down cheating athletes. The value of his testimony and that work will both be open questions for some time.

UPDATE: Donald Trump declines Nats offer to throw out the first pitch

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UPDATE: Welp, we wont’ get to see that:

Sad!

8:53 AM: It’s just gossip now, but Politico is hearing that Donald Trump is in talks to throw out the first pitch at Nationals Park on Opening Day. The Nats are not commenting. Neither are the Palm Beach Cardinals of the Florida State League, who no doubt feel slighted given that the president effectively is a local.

With the caveat that, on Opening Day, tickets are likely to be more expensive and thus you’re likely to have a lot more rich people and friends-of-the-owners in attendance, thereby ensuring a more conservative crowd, I’m struggling to imagine a situation in which Trump strolls on to a baseball field in a large American city and isn’t booed like crazy. He’s polling as low as 36% in some places. He’s not exactly Mr. Popular.

Oh well. I look forward to him three-bouncing one to Matt Wieters and then grabbing his phone and tweeting about how it was the best, most tremendous first pitch in baseball history. Or blaming Hillary Clinton for it in the event he admits that it was a bad pitch.

2017 Preview: Texas Rangers

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2017 season. Next up: The Texas Rangers.

The Rangers somehow won the AL West last year despite not being super great at any one aspect of the game. There are stars here — Adrian Beltre, Cole Hamels, Yu Darvish and Rougned Odor are all spiffy players — but the Rangers won the division by being greater than the sum of their parts. They scored a decent number of runs despite some bad collective peripheral numbers and they allowed more runs than anyone in the AL except the Twins and Athletics. Yet they had a great record in one-run games and outperformed their pythagorean record by a WHOLE lot. Luck shined brightly on the 2016 Rangers.

It’s hard to expect luck to hold in any instance, but that’s especially the case when there have been some pretty significant changes. Changes like the loss of Carlos Beltran, Ian Desmond and Mitch Moreland. In their place: A full season, the Rangers hope, from Shin-Soo Choo, a converted-to-outfield Jurickson Profar and Mike Napoli. That may wash out OK, especially if Choo is healthy, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see some regression in two of those offensive slots.

Starting pitching is also a big question mark. Cole Hamels at the top is not a problem, obviously, and if Yu Darvish is healthy and durable the Rangers have an outstanding 1-2 punch. Martin Perez in the third spot presents promise, but he’s been exactly average so far in five major league seasons. The back end of the rotation has some real problems. Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross are hurt at the moment and even if healthy, Cashner seems to be a shell of his once-promising self. A.J. Griffin is looking to pitch in his first full season since 2013. If the Rangers are strong contenders all year it’s gonna be on the “Spahn and Sain and two days of rain” model, but I have no idea what rhymes with “Darvish” and that’s sort of a problem.

The bullpen is going to look a lot like it did last year. Sam Dyson will close, but manager Jeff Banister has shown in the past that he’s not a slave to keeping guys in any one role down there. Jeremy Jeffress will likely set up but he’s closed before. Some think Matt Bush or Keone Kela could close. We’ll see Tanner Scheppers and lefty Alex Claudio. Banister has a Manager of the Year Award on his mantle and while that often doesn’t mean anything, it usually suggests that a guy knows how to deal with his pen. Banister will do OK with what he has.

Really, though, the rotation is a concern, as is hoping that a 35-year-old Mike Napoli and a soon-to-be 38-year-old Adrian Beltre can continue to be the types of players who can form the offensive core of a playoff team. There’s talent and a track record here, but there’s a lot of uncertainty. For that reason, I suspect the Rangers will fall back a smidge this year, even if they’re a playoff contender.

Prediction: Second Place, American League West.