All Ball Sports: Turner returns, Kobe’s all too human pilot, Herbert charging toward the Super Bowl

Justin Herbert’s rookie year show promise of a Super Bowl in his sophomore year. Photo by Ty Nowell/Los Angeles Chargers

by Paul Teetor

If you turned the volume down on the must-see impeachment TV Saturday afternoon, you could hear the cheering from homes all over SoCal as news spread that the boys in blue had just resigned the most popular Dodger of them all, third baseman Justin Turner.

It took more than three months for both sides to agree on the terms — $34 million for two years, with a team option on a third year at $14 million – but as in any good deal, both got most of what they wanted.

Turner, a Lakewood native, got to stay with his hometown team and play in front of fans who revere him as the Yosemite-Sam, the bearded, wild red-haired, friendly face of the franchise.

The Dodgers got the short-term contract they wanted. They initially rejected Turner’s demands for a three- or four-year deal, and held firm until he agreed to the terms they wanted. The third-year team option was the deal-maker: if he continues his clutch performances, he gets the third year he wanted so badly. If he doesn’t, well, vaya con dios and thanks for all the post-season memories that culminated in a World Series title last fall.

The deal was a long time coming because Turner lost a lot of negotiating leverage with his crazy Covid-19 antics in the game 6 clincher in the World Series. It’s worth recounting one last time for the historical record, and to explain why this deal was far from the no-brainer it seems like when you look at his whole history with the Dodgers.

The Turner story is a remarkable redemption tale that mirrors the Dodgers’ own recent history as a perennial championship contender after the chaos, penny-pinching, moral and financial bankruptcy and rampant incompetence that marked the Frank-and-Jamie McCourt years. That error-filled era thankfully ended in 2012 when MLB forced them to sell the team to Guggenheim Baseball Management, with Magic Johnson as their front man.

Turner, meanwhile, originally spent three years with the New York Mets as a scrub, but they declined to offer him a new contract in December 2013.

Searching for a deal with a new team, Turner came up empty until he played in a Cal State Fullerton Alumni game. Dodgers bench coach Tim Wallach watched the game and later asked Turner about his contractual status. A week later Turner signed a minor league deal with the Dodgers, and received a spring training invitation with the big club — no promises asked or made, just an invite.

Turner competed for a spot on the Dodgers roster and made it, but again only as a utility player. In the 2014 season he filled in at every infield position and had a break-through season with the bat, giving much of the credit to a significant change in his swing. 

By the middle of the next season he was the club’s everyday third baseman and just kept getting better. In the 2016 season he finished ninth in the National League MVP voting. The Dodgers, no longer the 

cheapskates they were under the McCourts, responded by rewarding him with a four-year, $64 million contract.

In the 2017 season he made his only All-Star team and finished eighth in the MVP voting. In the 2018 post-season he became a cult hero when he smashed a walk-off home run in game 2 of the NLCS against the Chicago Cubs. It was the 29th anniversary of Kirk Gibson’s most memorable Dodger hit, the walk off homerun in game 1 of the 1988 World Series. It felt like a foreshadowing of what would have been the Dodgers’ first World Series title in 30 years. But it was not to be, and the Dodgers kept churning their roster in an endless attempt to find just the right championship-winning formula. By now Turner had become one of the team’s cornerstones, a vocal leader and clutch performer.

Finally came last summer’s pandemic-shortened 60-game season. Turner only played in 43 games because of a hamstring injury, but recovered to play in all 18 post-season games, where he hit three home runs and six doubles.

It all came to a championship climax in game 6 against the Tampa Bay Rays. During the seventh inning break Turner was informed he had tested positive for the Covid-19 virus and would have to be immediately quarantined in the team doctor’s office.

So Turner disappeared from the game without an explanation being offered by the telecast announcers. Next thing the fans saw after the Dodgers had won and started the ritual on-field celebration was Turner sprinting onto the field with a face mask, which he quickly removed. Then he started hugging and kissing everyone around him, including teammates and their families. He even posed for the team picture sitting next to Manager Dave Roberts, a cancer survivor, which made him more vulnerable to the virus.

There was an immediate and very public backlash to Turner’s reckless behavior. Many media outlets – including All Ball – called for the Dodgers to cut all ties with the fan favorite. MLB condemned his actions and launched an investigation to determine how it could have happened.

Nine days later it was resolved: Turner publicly apologized and promised never to do it again, and MLB admitted that some of its employees were responsible for letting it happen. There was no punishment dished out and everyone agreed that was the end of it.

But the bizarre incident raised a serious question of whether Turner, an unrestricted free agent, would ever play for the Dodgers again. That gave the Dodgers more leverage to hold firm and reject his demands for a longer deal.

But ultimately both sides wanted a deal, so they compromised on a third year at the team’s option. Now fans can once again look forward to watching Turner’s agile fielding, exuberant play and clutch hitting for at least two more years.

Pitchers and catchers report to spring training this week. The Dodgers first exhibition game is scheduled for February 28 at Oakland.

To paraphrase the great Vin Scully: It’s almost time for Dodgers baseball.

           

Kobe’s pilot all too human  

More than 200 years ago the great English poet Alexander Pope wrote these immortal words: “To err is human, to forgive divine.”

It was wisdom for the ages — unless you’re Kobe Bryant in 2020. His fans, friends and family have no one left to forgive, even if they wanted to feel divine.

And the irony of Kobe’s tragic death is too rich to ignore: the man obsessed with perfection in everything he did died because of simple and oh-so-avoidable human error.

And because of human hubris.

And human frustration.

And human ambition.

And human rule breaking and corner cutting.

All those terrible all-too-human flaws contributed to Kobe’s shocking death a year ago.

There were no surprises in the final National Transportation Safety Board report issued this week on the Kobe helicopter crash on a fog-shrouded hillside in Calabasas the morning of January 26, 2020.

No surprises at all — just more sadness and frustration. 

It’s big revelation: How easily this tragedy could have been avoided. All it required was the pilot doing his job properly and landing at nearby Van Nuys airport, as the flying conditions clearly dictated he should do. But he apparently felt pressure – internally or externally from Kobe we’ll never know because there was no cockpit voice recorder – to press on to the Camarillo Airport, which is closer to the Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks. That’s where Bryant was scheduled to coach his daughter’s team that morning.

In the end, it was a simple case of human error. Nothing more. The helicopter didn’t malfunction. The Island Express support system and the FAA air traffic controllers guiding the flight from takeoff at John Wayne Airport in Orange County didn’t malfunction.

Only the human pilot malfunctioned

We all make mistakes. Even highly-trained pilots on luxury helicopters that cater to celebrities and other high-net-worth individuals.

But this mistake was fatal for Kobe, his daughter Gigi, and seven others – including the pilot, Ara Zobayan. More than a year later, Kobe’s death still doesn’t seem real, still doesn’t seem possible. Kobe could fight his way through anything – terrible injuries, bad teammates, poor coaching and determined opponents.

Everything except a careless, reckless, over-confident pilot who had been Kobe’s personal chauffeur for years, regarded their relationship as the biggest achievement in his life, and would do anything to maintain the friendship.

Zobayan broke the rules against flying in foggy conditions. It was “legally prohibited,” the report said. He also ignored his training and thought he was a better, more skilled pilot than he actually was. Oh, and his helicopter lacked a TWS – Terrain Warning System – that might have alerted him that he was hurtling towards the ground at 184 miles per hour, not, as he thought, ascending out of the fog bank enveloping his craft.

Despite the report’s recommendation, having a TWS has not been made mandatory on aircraft like the Sikorsky helicopter that crashed that terrible morning.

Once you strip away all the technical jargon and flight lingo contained in the report, it all pretty much boils down to one big, fat fatal mistake: Zobayan’s reckless decision to fly under visual flight rules in foggy conditions, which resulted in spatial disorientation – up feels like down, down feels like up — and eventually loss of control of the aircraft.

In plain English, Zobayan charged into the fog bank even when the flight rules he was operating under prohibited it, accelerated the helicopter to rise above the clouds – another horrible decision – and crashed straight into the ground below even as he thought he was heading straight up.

That kind of screwup is unforgivable, no matter what Alexander Pope said so long ago.

 

Justin Herbert: still the best QB in LA 

The single most important position in all of pro sports is the football quarterback. On every play except punts, field goals and kickoffs, the other 21 players on the field are reacting to what the quarterback does – run, pass or hand the ball off.

The only other team sport position even close to the QB in relative importance is the pitcher in baseball. But there’s only 9 players reacting to what he does on every pitch – eight players on his own team and the batter on the other team. Even in a bases loaded situation, there’s still only 12 players reacting to what he does – far less than the QB’s 21. 

History tells us that with the exception of journeyman QB Trent Dilfer and the 2000 Baltimore Ravens – who had possibly the best defense ever — you can’t win the Super Bowl without a top-10 quarterback and preferably a top-five quarterback.

That’s why the Rams threw all their chips on the table in last week’s blockbuster trade to get Matt Stafford from the Detroit Lions. He’s not now and never was a top-5 guy, but he’s a borderline top-10 QB with a strong team around him, and that’s exactly what the Rams are. Plus, they have the top-rated defense in the league – the other key ingredient to winning a Super Bowl.

But while all eyes locally are on the Rams and their obsessive quest to play in next year’s Super Bowl at their $5.5 billion showcase So-Fi stadium, don’t sleep on the Chargers as a dark horse to accomplish that very same feat. Remember: So-Fi Stadium just happens to be their home, too.

It’s crazy to even contemplate, a team going from almost-worst to first, but it’s remotely possible only because of one player: star rookie quarterback Justin Herbert. I wouldn’t bet the house on it, but if I had a few bucks to waste this would be a much better bet than winning the Mega Millions or PowerBall lotteries. 

This week Herbert was named as the NFL Offensive Rookie of the year. All Ball readers know we have been extremely high on Herbert from the first time we saw him play in the second game of the season, a 23-20 overtime loss to the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs.

He went on to have the greatest season of any rookie QB since the NFL started keeping records in 1950. He now owns almost all the rookie QB records for passes thrown, receptions, touchdowns etc.        

But it wasn’t just his howitzer arm. There’s plenty of those military-grade weapons in the NFL.

And it wasn’t just that at 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds he has incredibly agile feet, because there’s more and more mobile QB’s coming into the NFL every year.

And it wasn’t just his pin-point accuracy under pressure. When pass rushers are converging on you, you usually have at most two seconds to make a smart decision, and there’s a half-dozen quarterbacks that make the right decision almost every time. We saw two of them in the Super Bowl with Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes.

No, it’s that he displayed all those attributes from the very first time he stepped onto an NFL field – and then kept on getting better and better. His team sucked and suffered a string of last-second losses because of timid play calling and bad game management by Head Coach Anthony Lynn, who was fired a day after the season ended. Management cut ties with him even though his team, led by Herbert’s heroics, ripped off a four-game winning streak to end the season.

They were smart enough to recognize that Lynn was not the head coach to take the Chargers to the next level, to the playoffs and beyond. So they looked across town and hired Rams defensive whiz-kid Brandon Staley, who will have a lot of talent to work with. On defense they have three Pro-Bowl level players in defensive ends Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, as well as strong safety Derwin James.  

On offense Herbert has two elite wide receivers in Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, as well as a very good tight end in Hunter Henry.

Now that they have the right coach in place, the Chargers will go as far as the precocious Herbert takes them. Next possible stop: playing the Super Bowl in their home stadium.

Hey, they already have the best quarterback in LA. 

That’s a great start for a not-so-impossible dream.  

Contact: teetor.paul@gmail.com.Follow: @paulteetor. ER

 

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Written by: Paul Teetor

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