We were intrigued and amazed at the same time after reading an article that appeared in this week’s issue of “ESPN: The Magazine” about how major league baseball executives are facing the harsh reality that performances by 30-plus-year-olds can’t be trusted after the steroids era in the sport has faded.

According to the article, in 2008 MLB experienced the largest one-year drop in average age—down more than a year, to 27.7—in the history of the sport. And so far this season 17 pitchers have already won their big league debuts, a record prior to the All-Star break.

“This youth movement is built upon increased skepticism in front offices about whether players in their 30’s can maintain production without the use of performance-enhancing drugs,” the ESPN article points out.

It is also based on simple economics—young players are cheaper because teams have control over their salaries through their sixth year in the major leagues, after which free agency kicks in. 

A prime example is 25-year old San Francisco Giants’ ace hurler Tim Lincecum, who started for the National League in last week’s All-Star Game, who is making $650,000 this season and is probably worth 10 times that figure.

Ten years ago drafting and developing players was a strategy used by only a handful of teams and today practically every organization is doing it, instead of using the free agent marketplace to try to fill needs.

What is disturbing about this article is that our Houston Astros must be operating bass-ackwards because they have an average age of 32.2 years which is the highest average in the major leagues and most of the players appearing on the diamond are, indeed, free agents.

We’re talking about infielders Miguel Tejada, Kazuo Matsui, Geoff Blum, Jeff Keppinger, outfielders Carlos Lee, Michael Bourn, catchers Ivan Rodriguez and Humberto Quintero, pitchers Brian Moehler, Mike Hampton Russ Ortiz, LaTroy Hawkins, Wesley Wright, Jose Valverde, Tim Byrdak and sensational Alberto Arias along with back-up players Darin Erstad, Chris Coste and Jason Michaels all came to Houston either through free agency or via trades.

Only ace pitchers Roy Oswalt and Wandy Rodriguez, fleet outfielder Hunter Pence and slugging first baseman Lance Berkman come to mind as impact players who were drafted by the Astros.

The magazine stated that in an effort to get younger and more efficient, teams are fundamentally changing the way they operate, although few executives are willing to talk specifics on the record.
“Some teams are doing things as elementary as trying to keep their minor leaguers away from double-cheeseburgers and fries,” the article points out. “Others are going high-tech: One team is using an evaluation tool borrowed from the U. S. military (you’d need security clearance to hear the details).”

Many teams are dramatically increasing their budgets for acquiring and developing young talent. Over the past three years one American League team has raised its domestic spending 35% and its international cash flow a whopping 700 per cent.

During these early days of the post-steroid era, the most intense baseball competition isn’t on the field. The real action is in the front offices among rival executives and on the road among scouts, all looking for young talent. Put scouts from different teams in the same room and it’s like watching a poker game—they’re all trying to read each other.

Equally important is maximizing the investment teams make in young players after signing them. Today strength and conditioning coaches are the norm throughout the minor leagues and teams are emphasizing good eating habits. The Milwaukee Brewers even send their top prospects to cooking classes.

Every team uses psych exams, whether it’s one of its own, one developed by sports psychologists or the test given by the MLB Scouting Bureau. And in the scramble for young talent, the Los Angeles Dodgers lead the league in evaluating the mind as well as the body. 

“It’s another tool just like a stop watch or a radar gun,” pointed out Cincinnati Reds scouting director Chris Buckley. “These kids are getting more money than ever. We need to make sure they’ll be good teammates and good people.”

KWICKIES…Although no National Football League team has publicly stated they would like to take a chance talking to Michael Vick about being a quarterback on their team, several teams have indicated that he would be an asset to their respective team. And if the commissioner doesn’t sanction his return to the NFL, the United Football League would be overjoyed to have Vick play in their league.

It took 71 holes before the pressure got to him but 59-year-old Tom Watson had a very weak effort on his potential eight-foot putt to win last weekend’s British Open, coming up nearly two feet short and forcing a four-hole playoff with Stewart Cink, who made a 12-foot birdie putt on the final hole of regulation. Cink beat Watson every way possible, winning the four-hole playoff by an amazing six shots for his first major win and sixth career victory. Cink was born two years before Watson won his first British Open at Carnoustie in 1973.

And while we’re on the subject of the British Open, Tiger Woods found out first hand that it takes more than being physically fit to return to the PGA Tour. That long layoff also requires a golfer to heal mentally to the pressures and rigors of the game at that level. Last weekend marked only the second major and fifth tournament where he failed to make the cut.

Two of our Southeast Texas pro golfers survived the cut at the PGA Tour U. S. Bank Championship Tournament played at Brown Deere Park Golf Course in Milwaukee. The tourney was won by Bo Van Pelt’s 267 in a playoff with John Mallinger. PNG and Lamar golfer Chris Stroud shot 276 and won $14,400 while Orange’s Scott Sterling finished with 277 and won $11,340.

For the second Monday in a row Orange County’s only daily newspaper plastered another bogus headline across the front page of its sports section about the result of Saturday’s Houston Astros loss to the LA Dodgers and then ran Sunday’s game story underneath it.

This Korner doesn’t know whether to laugh or feel sorry for the poor bloke who writes the sports headlines on Sunday night. One thing is for certain, that person’s head would have been on a platter if the late Bob Axelson was the newsroom editor.

JUST BETWEEN US…With a little more than a week remaining before the major league trading deadline, several front-running teams are willing to make some very generous trade offers to the Toronto for the Blue Jays’ ace pitcher Roy Halladay. The talented right-hander has an 11-3 record and a 2.73 ERA. Some of the teams battling for Halladay’s services include the St. Louis Cardinals, Philadelphia Phillies, New York Yankees and Boston. In fact last Friday the Red Sox called up former Lumberton High School star Clay Buchholz from their Class AAA Pawtucket International League affiliate to showcase him against Toronto and he beat the Blue Jays 4-1 before getting sent back to Pawtucket on Saturday. The 25-year-old Buchholz would be a key player involved in the potential trade for Halladay by the Red Sox, who are already over-loaded with starting pitchers.