PAnews.com, Port Arthur, Texas

May 31, 2014

West column: Lew Ford still doing amazing things

Bob West
The Port Arthur News

PORT ARTHUR — He may not qualify for a Dos Equis commercial but PN-G ex Lew Ford continues to be the most interesting man from Southeast Texas in professional sports. Ford, after a professional baseball career that’s taken him all over the world, including MLB stints with Minnesota and Baltimore, seems hell bent on repeating his improbable 2012 feat of jumping from the Independent League to the bigs. Signed to be a player/batting coach for the Long Island Ducks at age 37, he’s tearing the cover off the ball to the tune of a .397 average that’s second in the league. In a recent game he went 4-for-6 with two doubles, a grand slam and seven RBI. Lew owns a team-leading 34 RBI through 31 games, with six homers and nine doubles. If you are visiting New York City this summer, you might want to consider a side trip to Long Island to watch this guy hit . . . The Astros couldn’t have picked a better time to go on a tear that suggests their days of being baseball’s biggest joke might be coming to an end much sooner than anybody expected. Last Sunday’s lead sports story in the Houston Chronicle was headlined, “Radical ways paint Astros as ‘outcast.’ ” In the story were critical quotes from former players like pitcher Bud Norris, agents and other baseball people trashing the way the Astros are doing business under new owner Jim Crain and GM Jeff Luhnow. The story, ironically, coincided with the start of a seven-game winning streak featuring seven-home-runs-in-seven games by rookie George Springer, sizzling hitting by Jose Altuve,  AL Player  of the Week honors for lefty pitcher Dallas Keuchel and a lot of really good baseball. The winning won’t continue, because there are still too many holes, but there is now legitimate reason for optimism. Indeed, the Astros might be good again before the Texans.

    There’s good reason for Southeast Texans to pay attention to the NFL Network’s weekly countdown of the 100 best players in the NFL. Why? Because it’s plausible we could wind up with bragging rights to having two players in the top 10. Memorial’s Jamaal Charles was No. 20  last year and seems like a lock to jump into the top 10, based on the monster numbers he put up in 2013. West Orange-Stark’s Earl Thomas was No. 66 on last year’s list, but is now widely recognized as the game’s top strong safety and got considerable notoriety after signing a four-year, $40 million contract extension. He’s perfectly positioned to make a quantum leap on the best player list. It’s going to be fun to watch as the countdown, which will identify 51 through 60 this week, gets into its final stages in late June and early July . . . If you’re looking for a unique and really special Father’s Day gift for 40-somethings and above who grew up rooting for Houston teams, consider Austin artist Robert Hurst’s redux of one of his most popular pieces that sold out many years ago. That would be the “Houston 34s”, a 16 x 21 matted print of Earl Campbell carrying the football, Hakeem Olajuwon shooting a basketball and  Nolan Ryan throwing a baseball. The print is signed by the three Hall of Famers who wore 34 for the Oilers, Rockets and Astros and made it the hottest number in Houston. A limited number of the pieces, priced at $550, will be available after June 3. Orders can be placed through hurst@adamnfineartist.com or by calling 512-444-7751. If price is no object, go for the 24x36 hand-painted giclee print on canvas. It sells for $1,650.

    Lots of eyebrows were raised over the ACL injury suffered by Dallas’ defensive mainstay Sean Lee last week, in what was supposed to be a non-contact OTA drill. Lee, who was slightly off-balance, got blasted helmet-to-helmet by rookie guard Zach Martin  and took an awkward tumble. “The way it went down, you can’t help but be upset about it, there’s no question,” said tight end Jason Witten. “I was kind of surprised when I saw how it happened,” said former Cowboy coach Wade Phillips. Dallas’ already woeful defense just got a lot worse . . . Lost in all the stupid, overblown fuss about Johnny Manziel going to Las Vegas last weekend was the announcement that Wally Waffle in Akron, Ohio has introduced a product named after the Cleveland Browns new quarterback. Known as the “Johnny Cleveland Waffle”, it’s a Belgian waffle loaded with chocolate chips and topped with champagne-infused butter cream frosting, a chocolate drizzle and whip cream. No word on the calorie count or the price . . . A new name was added to the blue-chip quarterback competition hoping to follow in Manziel’s footsteps at Texas A&M. Kyler Murray, son of former A&M QB Kevin Murray, has announced that he’s settled on the Aggies over Oregon. Murray, even smaller than Manziel at 5-11, 170, will be trying to lead Allen to a third consecutive 5A championship this fall. If he makes it to A&M — he’s projected to be selected in the first or second round of the 2015 baseball draft — the Aggies will have the most highly regarded stable of QB talent in the country. True freshman Kyle Allen was the nation’s No. 1 rated QB last fall and sophomore Kenny Hill was the Gatorade Player of the Year in 2012.

    Once upon a time Lamar and Louisiana Lafayette (then USL) had comparable athletic programs and enjoyed an especially intense rivalry in basketball. That is no longer the case and hasn’t been for years. ULL has taken a step up in class, while Lamar has taken a step back. It started happening about the time LU opted to leave to Sun Belt Conference to rejoin the Southland. While the Cardinals bask in mediocrity in many sports, look at what ULL has done this year alone. The Ragin Cajuns won the New Orleans Bowl for the third consecutive season, played in the NCAA basketball tournament, are hosting an NCAA baseball regional after finishing the regular season ranked No. 1 and are playing in the college softball World Series for the sixth time . . . There is, by the way, an interesting Beaumont connection to the ULL softball program. Robert Verde, who was one of the best high school receivers I’ve seen when playing at South Park in the early 1970s, is an unpaid assistant coach for the Ragin Cajuns and works specifically with pitchers. Long a major force in area softball, Verde became close to the ULL program when his daughter Melissa was a star there a few years ago, Since then, he’s been a key behind-the-scenes contributor from the dugout as the Ragin Cajuns have made multiple trips to the World Series. Verde, at one time, looked like he was going to play a significant role for Lamar, but had a falling out with then athletic director Dean Billick . . . Figure this one out. When expanded instant replay was approved for MLB, conventional wisdom was that player and manager ejections would drop significantly. After all, it’s hard to argue with video evidence. So much for conventional wisdom. Ejections are up 22 percent over this time a year ago.

    Good news for those who value what the Port Arthur News Friday Night Experience has meant for high school football, and those who follow it. Appearing doomed heading into its 20th year because of financial concerns and problems finding a place for the games to air, FNE now has the green light for the 2014 season. Thanks to Jim Barton’s efforts, a 10-game regular-season schedule will once again be carried by the Time Warner Sports Channel. That means the games will air three times a week in most of the state’s biggest TV markets — Dallas, Austin, Waco, San Antonio, El Paso, the Rio Grande Valley and the Golden Triangle. We are still a couple of major advertisers short and think there’s great value being offered because of the wide exposure the games receive. A $5,000 package — that’s $500 per game — gets four 30-second spots during the telecast and 10 2x6 ads in the PA News. The $2,500 package gets two spots during the game. Call me (409 721-2432) or Barton (409 540-0912) if you are interested in being part of what’s probably the final year . . . One thing that’s always bothered me about Youth Baseball Select Leagues is the wear and tear on young arms. That was reinforced by a Friday USA Today story documenting that 21 MLB pitchers have undergone Tommy John surgery since the start of the season. Dr. James Andrews, the orthopedist who does most of the work on pitching elbows, says the problem has reached “epidemic” proportions and delivered an ominous message. Youngsters who pitch more than 100 innings in a calendar year are three times more likely to incur serious damage to their throwing arm at some point in the future. He cautions against pitching year round, wants youngsters to pitch less and to not throw past the point of fatigue. Unfortunately, that goes against the grain of parents pushing hard for their kid pitchers to get the attention of MLB scouts and coaches offering scholarships . . . And, finally, happy 46th anniversary to Genie West. My life wouldn’t have been nearly as good if I hadn’t showed up to cover a Lamar basketball game that night in 1966, spotted a cute Cardinal cheerleader and realized right away she was the one.

    Sports editor Bob West can be e-mailed at rdwest@usa.net.