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The Joys of Autumn in New York, Part I

October 18, 2017

Tags: Columbia and Wisconsin undefeated football (so far), Al Bagnoli, Anders Hill, Josh Wainwright, Michael Murphy, Jonathan Taylor, Ron Dayne, Orpheus, Mischa Maisky, New York City Ballet farewell to Robert Fairchild

It has been more like late summer or even mid-summer in Gotham the last few weeks.
I am not complaining except that there is a shocking lack of fall foliage so far.

As you know I am not a Yankees fan but they and the Dodgers are clearly the hottest teams left in the post-season. The Dodgers are undefeated after sweeping Arizona in three games in round one of the playoffs - NLDS. And now they have a seemingly impregnable lead of 3-0 in the NLCS over the soon ex-champion Cubs.

The sports highlight of my fall has been the undefeated Columbia Lions football team. They beat Penn in overtime on Saturday October 14 - An absolutely thrilling game before over 13,000 fans at Homecoming way north in Manhattan at the Baker Field complex west of 218th Street and Broadway.

It was the first win over Penn in 21 years and was very sweet for Columbia coach Al Bagnoli who coached the Quakers to most of those wins over Columbia and brought many Ivy League titles to the storied Philadelphia campus.

After the dramatic win, Bagnoli wisely and accurately credited the coming of age of the players who rallied from a 14-point deficit to score 3 TDs in the 4th quarter. In overtime, it was senior quarterback Anders Hill who threw a perfect 24-yard pass to sensational sophomore wide receiver Josh Wainwright for the winning points.

Wainwright spiked the ball with emphasis and the celebration began. Ecstatic fans almost tore down the goalposts until security and calmer heads arrived on the scene.

Columbia faces two tough road games with also-undefeated Dartmouth this Saturday Oct 21. Up next is a visit to Yale on Oct 28 before a home tussle with Harvard on Nov 4. The season ends with Cornell in Ithaca on Nov 11 and a home finale against Brown on Nov 18.

Columbia is a fun team to watch on offense and defense. Sophomore linebacker Michael Murphy was seemingly all over the field in the Penn win and won league accolades for his play.

In his third season Bagnoli clearly seems to have turned the program around.
There is more pride and less resignation in Columbia fandom, a truly welcome development. Expecting to win instead of fearing the worst is a wonderful feeling!
(But believe me, that feeling of dread doesn't die totally after decades of drought.)

My other alma mater Wisconsin is also undefeated but their offense has sputtered at times. They have a remarkable freshman running back in Jonathan Taylor from Salem NJ (not far from the home of former Heisman winner Ron Dayne). But it has been Badger defense that has excelled all year.

The schedule is admittedly weak in 2017 so the road to the playoff in Indianapolis against probably Ohio State or Penn State seems smooth. But it says here that the
offense has to become more consistent if the Badgers hope for a major bowl.

I personally doubt given the weak schedule that they will make the four-team playoff. But as a traditionalist, an appearance in the Rose Bowl would suit me fine.

On the arts and musical side, I've experienced some great performances lately.
I saw the opening of the Orpheus season at the 92nd Street Y. The conductor-less chamber orchestra featured special guest cellist Mischa Maisky.

Citizen of the world fits the intense and lyrical Maisky born in Latvia, educated in Russia, now residing in Israel. His renditions of Arensky and the Tchaikovsky "Andante Cantabile" as an encore connected deeply with my Russian roots.

I also caught the farewell performance of ballet star Robert Fairchild with the New York City Ballet this past Sunday Oct 15. Only 30, Fairchild is the youngest dancer ever to be honored with a "farewell".

He enjoyed several standing ovations at the end and graciously handed out roses to all of the company's principal dancers. Fairchild may be leaving ballet. but he is in line for many musical theatre and other opportunities.

He should be a delightful and rewarding presence on the arts scene for years to come. I loved him as the male lead in "An American In Paris" that ran recently for over a year at the Palace Theatre on Broadway.

I'll be back next time with final thoughts on the MLB baseball season and Orpheus's next performance on Oct 26 at Carnegie Hall with guest soloist pianist Andre Watts.

For now: Always remember: Take it easy but take it!

Prize Fight Intensity On Display in Baseball Playoffs

October 10, 2017

Tags: Bobby Thomson, Dave Winfield, Hagler-Hearns, Luis Severino, Didi Gregorius, Corey Kluber, CC Sabathia, Joe Girardi, Francisco Lindor, Masahiro Tanaka, Greg Bird, Andrew Miller, Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Ramirez, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Josh Reddick, George Springer, Jake Marisnick, David Cone, Joe Davis, AJ Pierzynski, Dan Quisenberry

After watching the Yankees-Minnesota first inning last Tuesday Oct 3 (Bobby Thomson Day BTW in 1951 and Dave Winfield's birthday), I couldn’t help thinking of the first round of the Marvin Hagler-Tommy Hearns middleweight fight in April 1985.

More haymakers were thrown in the first round of that classic fight than in most entire bouts (Hagler won it by a third-round KO - I saw it on small theatre TV at Madison Square Garden’s long-gone Felt Forum.)

The Twins hit two HRs and knocked out Yankee ace Luis Severino in first inning. But Curacao’s pride Didi Gregorius smacked a three-run dinger to tie the game immediately, and Yanks won going away.

Nothing like playoff games to reveal intensity a la boxing’s concentrated mayhem. (I’m not an ardent boxing fan because the aim of the sport is really to concuss your rival. But I’m a flawed human being who does believe in a fair fight with no favor.)

And with the exception of LA Dodgers sweep of the Diamondbacks, the playoffs have been intense and gripping (despite the length of the games due to extra commercials and incessant meetings between catchers and pitchers).

We’ll see if Cleveland can continue in the playoffs by winning Game 5 at home tomorrow night (Wed Oct 11). “Momentum in baseball is the next day’s starting pitcher” will be truer than ever. Cleveland ace Corey Kluber will be matched against the former Indian CC Sabathia.

Kluber was treated rudely by the Yankees in the now-infamous Game 2 - you know the one where Yankee skipper Joe Girardi, the obsessive note-taker with the big thick looseleaf book, didn’t appeal a bad call on a hit-by-pitch. And moments later Indians leader Francisco Lindor hit a grand-slammer to bring the Indians back into a game they won in extra innings.

Just hope it is a good game like the classic Game 3 in which Japanese import Masahiro Tanaka won a gripping 1-0 shutout that proved again that nothing quite beats a low-scoring baseball game with plenty of base runners but stout pitching.
Revived Yankee first baseman Greg Bird homered deep into the upper right field stands off usually impregnable reliever Andrew Miller for the game's only run.

It would be nice for Cleveland if they can get injured slugger Edwin Encarnacion back into the lineup. And if their number three hitter Jose Ramirez finds his hitting stroke.
The playoffs, being so short compared to the long grind of the regular season where “tomorrow is your best friend,” intensify slumps. Hope J Ramirez snaps out of it.

Meanwhile Houston eliminated the Red Sox three games to one. The Astros embarrassed punchless Boston in the first two games in Texas by identical 8-2 scores.
The Red Sox salvaged some respect by winning the third game at home and leading the fourth one by one run into the 8th.

But the talented young Alex Bregman, a natural shortstop now playing third because of the emergence of Carlos Correa at short, homered to tie it. And then former Red Sox outfielder Josh Reddick hit an opposite field single to give the Astros the lead in their ultimate 5-4 win.

The only blemish on the Astros performance was center fielder George Springer’s botching balls in Fenway Park’s tricky deep center field. On Sunday he played a catchable ball into a double when he didn’t realize he had more room to catch it.

Yesterday (Monday Oct 9) Springer allowed an inside-the-park home run to talented Red Sox 20-year-old rookie third baseman Rafael Devers when the ball ricocheted wildly off the metal wall into Fenway’s vast right field.

For Houston’s sake I hope Springer plays better on the road in the upcoming ALCS either in Cleveland or New York. Or maybe Jake Marisnick returns to the lineup.

In the National League, the Cubs have taken a 2-1 lead over the Washington Nationals. The pitching has been great in this series - the defense not so great.
I was glad that the Nats at least won a game at home before heading to Wrigley Field for Games 3 and 4. They'll have to conquer Jake Arrieta to stay alive.

Washington has not won a playoff series since they returned to the majors in 2005 as the former Montreal Expos. It looks like they will have their work cut out for them to break that bad streak.

Before I close, I want to tip my cap to some of the insights of the Fox Sports One team covering Boston-Houston, Joe Davis and former players David Cone and AJ Pierzynski.

Cone, whose first team was the KC Royals, paid homage to the former Kansas City reliever the late great Dan Quisenberry who once noted that Fenway’s Green Monster Wall had a heartbeat and as the games got close, you felt it beating.

It was also Quisenberry that described the secret to his success: “Thirty ground balls, thirty strikeouts, thirty great plays.”

Cone, Davis, and Pierzinski also deserve kudos for praising Alex Bregman’s confident take of a pitch seconds before he hit his tying home over the Green Monster off Red Sox ace closer Craig Kimbrel.

Just remember as these games go on until the end of the month - “The only reason to play baseball is to keep winter away.” Next time I hope to say about my two alma maters currently undefeated on the gridiron - Columbia (4-0) and Wisconsin (5-0).
Both have tough games ahead so not feeling overconfident.

In the meantime, always remember: “take it easy but take it."

New York City Pays Homage To Willie Mays & More on Dear Departed Baseball Scouts

October 1, 2017

Tags: Willie Mays, Vic Wertz, Dusty Rhodes and 1954 World Series, NYC Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, Mayor Bill DeBlasio, Rico Pena, Rio III Gallery, Gene Michael, George Steinbrenner, Gene Bennett, Mel Didier, Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, Kirk Gibson, Dennis Eckersley

Friday September 29 was the 63rd anniversary of Willie Mays’ great catch off Vic Wertz in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series. Along with a timely Dusty Rhodes home run over the Polo Grounds short right field fence, Mays’ defensive gem sparked the New York Giants to a sweep over the favored Cleveland Indians.

To commemorate this anniversary, New York City's Mayor Bill DeBlasio proclaimed Sept 29 Willie Mays Day. In a noontime ceremony, the sign Willie Mays Drive was unveiled at the northeast corner of 155th Street and the Harlem River Driveway.

Down below stood the Polo Grounds where I saw my first baseball game at the age of 6 in the summer of 1948. Now a school and housing project occupy the space.

One of the prime movers in this celebration was City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez who represents the 10th city council district that includes the Polo Grounds on Harlem’s Sugar Hill. Normally the City of New York does not permit streets to be named for living people but Rodriguez lobbied successfully to make an exception in the case of Mays.

Councilman Rodriguez is a native of the Dominican Republic who came to NYC as a eighteen-year old. He thrust himself into community affairs as a student at City College and has been a longtime advocate for making his constituents aware of the rich athletic history of his neighborhood.

Another honored invitee was fellow Dominican Rico Pena, the coach of the Luperon High School baseball team that in its brief history has already become a contender for the city championship. Pena brought several of his players to the ceremony.

Mays is now 86 — Willie Mays is 86 years old! - and makes his primary home just south of San Francisco (though he has long kept an apartment in the western Bronx neighborhood of Riverdale). He didn’t make the trip for this honor but his adopted son Michael Mays was on hand. So was Mario Alioto, the executive VP of Business Operations for the SF Giants.

“I don’t make history, I just catch fly balls,” Mays once said. He was being modest because he was the epitome of the five-tool player who could run, throw, field, hit for average, and hit with power. In one of his pithiest phrases, Branch Rickey once said of Mays, “The secret to his success is the frivolity in his bloodstream.”

At a reception after the ceremony at the Rio III gallery on the SE corner of St. Nicholas Avenue and 155th Street, a portrait was unveiled of Mays playing stickball
with neighborhood Harlem kids.

The lower floors of this handsome new building on 898 St. Nicholas Ave. house The Sugar Hill Children's Museum of Arts and Storytelling. This new facility was designed by famed architect David Adjaye who created the acclaimed African-American cultural museum in DC and just was selected to build the new Studio Museum in Harlem.

The Sugar Hill Children's Museum should be a must-visit for parents who want to educate their children about the rich cultural history of their neighborhood and urban and rural life in general.

Before I conclude this first October blog, I want to say a few more words about the achievements of three great baseball people who passed on in recent weeks.

Gene Michael, 79, may have been the classic "good field, no hit" player. But he learned from his failures to become a top-notch player evaluator who somehow survived the George Steinbrenner firing machine to be a key part of the Yankees resurgence in the 1990s.

Gene Bennett, 91, spent his whole career with the Cincinnati Reds. Growing up in Branch Rickey country of Scioto County in southern Ohio, Bennett was advised by Rickey to take a job as scout instead of minor league manager.

"You can get fired if one season you are given a bad team," Rickey sagely advised. A good scout, though, can perform a service to the team if he finds prospects year after year. "TALENT SETS THE STAGE, CHARACTER SETS THE CEILING," was one of Bennett's most memorable adages.

Last but not least, Mel Didier, 91, left a remarkable legacy in baseball. He was the only man to work on the ground floor of three expansion franchises - the Montreal Expos, the Seattle Mariners, and the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Didier signed future Hall of Famers Gary Carter and Andre Dawson for Montreal. He tried valiantly to sign Kirk Gibson for Seattle but team owners weren't supportive and Gibson insisted on finishing his athletic career at Michigan State.

Ten years later when working for the LA Dodgers, Didier was instrumental in getting Gibson to sign with LA as a free agent. It was his scouting report on Dennis Eckersley's penchant for throwing sliders on 3-2 counts that Gibson remembered when he hit his walkoff homer in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series that propelled LA's sweep of the Oakland A's.

Didier wrote often on baseball and its techniques. His memoir with sportswriter T.R. Sullivan, PODNUH LET ME TELL YOU A STORY is one of the best of its kind.

That's all for now. Next time we'll have a better sense of how October baseball is shaping up. I still sentimentally like Cleveland to win the World Series, perhaps over Washington (but another injury to hurler Max Scherzer puts that outcome in doubt.)

In the meantime always remember: Take it easy but take it!

Orioles Salute JJ Hardy + My National Anthem Thoughts

September 25, 2017

Tags: John Montgomery Ward, JJHardy, Jose Bautista, Lance Lynn, Tim Beckham, Buck Showalter, Jonathan Schoop, Manny Machado, National Anthem suggestions, Columbia and Wisconsin football, Jonathan Taylor, Neil DeGrasse Tyson

Late 19th century Hall of Famer John Montgomery Ward once sagely noted that baseball without sentiment would be a very empty game.

Oriole players and fans in Baltimore proved that point again on Sunday afternoon Sept. 23 when they showered shortstop J.J. Hardy with multiple ovations at the last home game of the Birds. Blue Jay fans gave the same loving treatment to Jose Bautista likely playing his last home game in Toronto.)

The icing on the cake for Hardy was hitting a two-run homer to give the O’s the lead in a game they won 9-4 over the Tampa Bay Rays. The Bird season went up in smoke weeks ago when the combination of historically horrible starting pitching and a homer-or-bust offense exploded the myth of contention.

A healthy JJ Hardy might have somewhat stopped the slide, but he was out since mid-May after suffering a broken wrist on a pitch from the Cardinals’ Lance Lynn. Last year Hardy missed considerable time after suffering a broken foot on a foul ball.

Hardy is not that ancient in baseball terms, having turned 35 in August. But the injuries and the decline in his above-average-for-shortstop home run power has been evident for some time. The acquisition of 27-year-old shortstop Tim Beckham from Tampa Bay, the 2008 number one draft pick in the entire country, has likely sealed Hardy’s departure.

Though not blessed with great speed, Hardy will always be remembered for his understated defensive brilliance and quiet clubhouse leadership. O’s manager Buck Showalter has called him “the best tagger I have ever seen.”

I saw a vivid example of Hardy's team-first attitude on a recent Oriole telecast. The clip showed Hardy demonstrating in practice his tagging techniques to his likely successor Beckham.

After a record-breaking August offensively, Beckham came down to earth in September. But it seems likely it is his job to lose come spring training.

Second baseman Jonathan Schoop, the deserved Oriole MVP of 2017, has been effusive in his praise of Hardy's helping him grow defensively. So has Manny Machado.

I hope Hardy's career continues somewhere in 2018 because he brings so much to the game. The son of a tennis pro and a golf pro has really made a great contribution.

Before I close today, let me put in my two cents about the protests around the National Anthem. Americans love symbolic gestures and ceremonial solutions that in my humble opinion generate more heat than light.

If I had my way, I wouldn’t play a National Anthem before EVERY game. Doesn’t it mean more when it is played infrequently only on special occasions? Every now and then, a sports team has even had the creativity to substitute the martial song of Francis Scott Key for the far more lyrical “America the Beautiful.”

I know this is unrealistic blathering by yours truly so let me offer this suggestion: Let’s keep the National Anthem rendition to under 90 seconds, OK? And it should be about the song not the singer.

The best rendition I ever heard came at Yankee Stadium about 15 years ago. The brass section of the U. S. Air Force Band performed it in 75 seconds. They called themselves
The Players To Be Named Later.

That’s all for now. Next time more detailed thoughts on the playoffs with an explanation of my sentimental hopes for a Washington-Cleveland World Series.

In the meantime my visceral fan's focus is now on football rooting for my two alma maters. Columbia is off to a 2-0 start for the first time in 9 years. It faces its first Ivy League challenge at Princeton on Sept. 30.

Wisconsin after a bye week will be trying to up their 3-0 record at home against tough Big Ten foe Northwestern on Sept 30.

BTW during the Badgers' 40-8 shellacking of Brigham Young in Utah, one of the announcers said that freshman running back Jonathan Taylor has developed genuine admiration for science expert Neil DeGrasse Tyson. That's the kind of tidbit I like to hear.

Always remember: Take it easy but take it. (

Playoff Spots Still In Doubt As Late September Baseball Drama Builds + Homage to Three Departed Scouts

September 20, 2017

Tags: Astros and LA Dodgers losing streaks, Branch Rickey's 1944 Dodgers, Washington Nats aces Scherzer, Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Justin Verlander, Dallas Keuchel, Cleveland's winning streak and playoff chances, Red Sox-Yankees AL East battle for supremacy, Casey Stengel, Kevin Kiermaier, Gene Bennett, Mel Didier, Gene Michael, George Steinbrenner

If you didn’t believe there was such a thing as baseball gods, think again. All summer long the building story was that the LA Dodgers might shatter the major league record of 116 for most wins in a season. Not so fast.

Though they have built up a huge cushion in the NL West over the playoff-bound Arizona Diamondbacks and playoff-contending Colorado Rockies, the Dodgers recently endured a 11-game losing streak.

The slide brought back comparisons to the World War II 1944 Brooklyn Dodgers (Branch Rickey’s second Brooklyn team was a ragtag outfit, waiting for the arrival of Boys of Summer Gil Hodges, Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, among others.)

LA’s ship has been somewhat righted recently. They won two of three over possible playoff opponent Washington Nats. But then improbably oft-injured ace Clayton Kershaw gave up a grand slam home run to Aaron Altherr in a loss to the last-place Phillies.

Washington like LA has run away with the far weaker NL East division. If their starting pitching remains healthy, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez could be formidable in the post-season. But the Nats and their fans have their demons to deal with because they have endured many recent tough playoff losses without making the World Series.

Don’t count out the defending WS champions Chicago Cubs. They swept the St. Louis Cardinals last weekend and have a three-game lead on the Milwaukee Brewers. But the Brewers are only one game behind Colorado for the last playoff spot. They host the Cubs in a four-game series starting Thursday Sept 21. Talk about Midwestern baseball drama!

In the American League, the Houston Astros have run away with the AL West, but like the Dodgers they have endured some rough patches. Last-place Oakland recently swept them in four games. Astoundingly, the Astros gave up 9 or more runs in each game.

Yet the late August pickup of Tigers ace Justin Verlander has definitely boosted the Astros’ chances for a good playoff run. But they need a healthy 2015 Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel to augment Verlander and that remains to be seen

Las Vegas odds-makers and occasional sentimentalists like yours truly are making the Cleveland Indians favorites to win it all. After coming so close last year losing an extra-inning game seven to the Cubs.

The Indians just broke Oakland’s American League record 20-game winning streak by running off 22 wins in a row. Even more impressively, once Kansas City eked out a 4-3 win over the Tribe, Cleveland won the next two games and now are on a 3-game roll.

Another fascinating aspect of baseball's long long season is that winning streaks in baseball are often followed by losing streaks. It was a lesson ingrained in me when I was 11 years old in 1953 and the Yankees won 18 in a row only to lose the next nine. They still won their fifth World Series in a row under Casey Stengel.

A rewarding aspect of the 2017 schedule is that Cleveland and Houston will have a lot to say about the American League playoff participants. Cleveland visits the LA Angels this week and a week later they host the Minnesota Twins. The Astros visit the Red Sox for the final four games of the regular season.

As of this blog posting before games of September 20, the Twins lead the Angels by one game in the lost column. Kudos to Twins skipper Paul Molitor and Angels manager Mike Scioscia for keeping their unheralded teams in contention. The same shout-out goes to Brewers manager Craig Counsell.

There is a school of thought that says playing teams already in the playoffs is a break for the team trying to get in. I’m skeptical of that argument because no team wants to go into the playoffs on a losing streak (I know the Yankees limped into the 2000 post-season, but they were fortunate in playing an underwhelming though gritty Mets team in the World Series.)

Methinks that Boston wants to wrap the AL East before those final games against Houston. Three of the Red Sox’s last four victories on the road have been dramatic extra-inning wins, the last two in Baltimore. They need them all because the Yankees are only three games behind them and are also playing well.

Boston needs to win the AL East division outright to avoid the wild card single elimination game. If they tie, Yankees win the division because they won season series against Boston.

Friday night September it took 14 innings but Boston beat Tampa Bay on the road. Last night they rallied twice from five-run deficits to beat the Orioles 10-8 in the 11th. A clutch two-run single by the remarkable rookie Andrew Benintendi was the difference.

In the Tampa Friday win, the Bosox scored three in the 9th to tie the game. Only a sensational diving catch by the Rays gold glove centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier prevented them from winning in regulation.

Kiermaier made another leaping grab in extra innings and homered to avert a Tampa Bay loss in the 13th inning before Boston salted away the game with 7 in the 14th.

Kiermaier is a great testament to the importance of grass roots baseball scouting. The 2010 31st round draft choice from tiny Parkland College in Champaign Illinois, the Fort Wayne Indiana native has put himself on every team's and fan’s radar.

Speaking of scouting, I want to note with sadness the passing of three great baseball talent evaluators who recently left us within 10 days of each other: Cincinnati's Gene Bennett, Toronto's Mel Didier, and the Yankees' Gene Michael.

More on these irreplaceable men in the next post. They were so much more than the prizes they brought to their teams:
Bennett signed Don Gullett, Hall of Famer Barry Larkin and Paul O'Neill.

Didier, who remarkably helped to lay the groundwork for three expansion teams Montreal, Seattle and Arizona, signed Gary Carter and Andre Dawson for the Expos.

Gene Michael, who traded for Paul O'Neill and as general manager in the early 1990s during George Steinbrenner's suspension held on to the Yankees' core players Jeter, Pettitte, Posada, Mariano Rivera, and Bernie Williams.

That's all for now. Always remember: Take it easy but take it.

It's Only Early September But American League Wild Card Race Getting Wilder and Wilder + Two Good Causes

September 3, 2017

Tags: Jimmy Yacabonis, Jamie Moyer, Orioles-Blue Jays split four-game series, Richard Urena, Brad Brach, Jonathan Schoop, Manny Machado, Mark Trumbo, Nelson Cruz, Dylan Bundy, Bernie Williams, Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation, Baseball Miracles

The innovations of the second wild card and mainly divisional play in September have made for amazingly exciting American League races. Blasé folks will say, “It’s only mediocre teams fighting for the right for an early playoff elimination.”

They may be right, but for an Orioles fan the sudden re-emergence of Baltimore to (more…)

The Plot Thickens as Orioles Gain in the Playoff Race

August 27, 2017

Tags: Baltimore Orioles, Doug Fister, Chris Davis, Mark Trumbo, Jonathan Schoop, Roberto Alomar, Trey Mancini, Ubaldo Jimenez, Zach Britton, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Milwaukee Brewers

“Playing meaningful games in September” is all this baseball fan realistically wants.
Which is why the “outrageous sense of entitlement” of too many Yankee fans rubs me the wrong way, to put it mildly.

And lo and behold it’s possible after this weekend’s sweep of the Red Sox at Fenway that the Orioles might have a meaningful September after all. With 32 games to play, they are at back at .500 with a 65-65 mark.

Now carrying the remaining schedule in my wallet wasn’t such a bad idea after all. They return home for a 10-game home stand against Seattle, Toronto and the Yankees, the first and last teams with very realistic hopes for playoffs themselves.

Sunday’s 2-1 victory for O’s at Boston was the proverbial nail-biter. After outscoring Boston 23-3 in the first two games of the series, I expected a pitcher’s battle and got one.

I was happy that Doug Fister pitched well for Boston because he helped knock the Yankees out of the playoffs a few years ago, earning a special plaudit on our Yankee Elimination Day (YED) caps. It is always a special occasion when the Yankees are eliminated because they brag about their 39 post-season appearances but ignore their twice-as-many failures.

This Sunday August 27, the O’s made two runs in the first stand up against a suddenly slumping Boston offense that left 13 men on base.

My O’s still have many holes on offense and in starting pitching. Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo are not producing at bat but the slack has been picked up by talented second baseman Jonathan Schoop who just broke Roberto Alomar’s Oriole record for most RBI by a second baseman. And rookie Trey Mancini has been a godsend as a run-producer and near -300 hitter while adjusting quite well to his new position of left field.

Of course, any team with wildly inconsistent Ubaldo Jimenez in its rotation has mound issues. And last year’s star closer Zach Britton now has knee issues to go with his earlier forearm ailment.

Nonetheless there is hope in Charm City as the Labor Day weekend nears. A most lovely hopeful feeling that makes the foolish illusion of contention seem less foolish.

One final note on the series in Boston. The Red Sox NESN cable feed utilized former catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia as their color commentator. Though he made an interesting observation about location as a big factor in baserunners stealing signs from second base, he should be forbidden from using the word “great” until the next millennium. He also talked too much and too much of it was trite cheerleading.

Here’s a shout-out to the Milwaukee Brewers who beat the LA Dodgers in a series on the road this past weekend. It was the first series loss for the Dodgers since early June as they have a chance to break a regular season record of 116 wins.

Milwaukee is only two games behind the defending World Series champion Chicago Cubs. As someone with strong affinity for the Wisconsin Badgers (I got my master’s and doctoral degrees in American History at Madison in the 1960s), it’s nice to see the Brewers get into the hunt for post-season glory.

That’s all for this time. Always remember: Take it easy but take it!

More Adventures In Grass Roots Baseball + Homage to Don Baylor and Gene Bennett

August 21, 2017

Tags: Staten Island Yankees Daniel Alvarez, Lowell Spinners: Nick Sciortino, Denyi Reyes, Jennifer Pawol, slow pace of MLB games, Rob Manfred, SI Yankees attendance problems, Brooklyn Cyclones, PONY championships in Washington, Pa., Lew Hays, Joe E. Brown, James Jimenez, Hector Bautista, Don Baylor, Gene Bennett, Branch Rickey

With the Orioles seemingly headed for a mediocre finish to a disappointing season,
I have found several other ways to stoke my baseball passion.

Yesterday - a blissfully warm but not too humid Sunday afternoon August 20th - I made my second trip to the Staten Island Yankees this season.

With a five game lead over the second place Aberdeen Ironbirds the Oriole New York-Penn League farm club, the Yankees are headed for the post-Labor Day playoffs. But yesterday the Lowell Spinners, a Red Sox farm, tamed them 3-1.

The first home runs of the year by Spinners catcher Nick Sciortino from Barrington, New Jersey were more than enough for Denyi Reyes to improve his record to 7-0 with six strong innings of relief. Reyes also set a franchise record with 24-plus scoreless frames. Staten Island righty Daniel Alvarez took the loss despite striking out 10 Spinners.

The game lasted just an amazing two hours and thirteen minutes. Perhaps it was the crisp and efficient work of plate umpire Jennifer Pawol who really kept the game moving. The only woman umpire currently in pro baseball definitely bears watching as a comer.

What a difference from the regular three and a half hour marathons that are marring major league baseball games this season. THE MULTIPLE VISITS OF CATCHERS TO THE MOUND IN EVERY HALF-INNING MUST STOP. If Commissioner Rob Manfred really wants to speed up “the pace of play,” curbing the catchers’ mound journeys is the obvious place to start.

It’s a shame that attendance is so poor in Staten Island. It is rare when the customers total over a thousand in the impressive 7,000 seat stadium overlooking New York harbor and just a short walk from the Staten Island ferry (which by the way is free!).

There are multiple explanations for the lack of attendance: Ticket prices higher than most minor league stadiums; reduction in food services; massive construction going on in the area for future hotels and outlet stores; several ownership changes in recent years.

But the product on the field remains good - unlike the Brooklyn Cyclones, the Mets New York-Penn League team, that is having a historically bad season. Attendance in Coney Island is down by more than half but still far more than the Staten Island Yankees.

Earlier last week I enjoyed the final days of the PONY League championships in Washington, Penna. just 30 miles south of Pittsburgh. The 14-and-under tournament has been going on since the early 1950s and the ballpark dedicated to PONY's first commissioner Lew Hays is a gem.

When PONY started locally in 1951 it stood for Protect Our Neighborhood Youth. But the idea caught on nationally and internationally of having a league for players who were too old for Little League but not ready for Babe Ruth League on adult diamonds.

PONY soon changed its acronym to mean Protect Our Nation's Youth. Its first president was baseball-loving comedian Joe E. Brown who served effectively from 1953 to 1964.

Brown, whose baseball films from the 1930s especially his favorite "Elmer the Great" are now available on DVD, provided a motto for PONY when he said, "Teach them to play by the rules and they will live by the rules."

Future major leaguers who played in the PONY tournament range from Jim Abbott to Robin Yount, the Alomar family to Mookie and Willie Wilson, the Bonds family to Darrell Strawberry and Jim Thome, and on and on.

The 2017 champions came from Covina, California - located just a few miles east of Los Angeles. They won the title with a thrilling 3-1 extra-inning victory over Seoul, Korea.

The heroes for Covina were pitcher James Jimenez who threw seven strong innings and blasted a two-run homer in the top of the 8th off a light pole to provide the margin of victory. Catcher and leadoff hitter Hector Bautista forced the game into extras by a two-strike two-out seeing-eye single in the top of the seventh.

The game was televised on local cable which meant the half-inning delays were almost as long as the tiresome hiatuses that afflict MLB. Seoul’s manager was also thrown out of the game for arguing balls and strikes causing a delay of more than five minutes.

Nothing could spoil the beauty of the event, however. A real slice of late summer Americana nestled in so-called “Little” Washington, Pa. Lew Hays Stadium is only a few miles from PONY League headquarters in Washington, that adjoins the home park of the Washington Wild Things in the independent Frontier League.

And for those who can't get enough of baseball, next to the independent ballpark is the college home park of the Washington and Jefferson Presidents. There was no independent game going on last week and college ball is restricted to the spring. It was still a thrill to be surrounded by actual baseball and imagined baseball of the future.

I must conclude though on a sad note. More vital baseball people were lost to the great beyond recently. I am referring to the departure of eminent player-manager-coach Don Baylor, 68, and renowned scout Gene Bennett, 89.

Baylor fought quietly and valiantly a long battle against multiple myeloma, a form of cancer. He was the 1979 American League MVP for the California Angels AL West champions that lost the ALCS to Baylor's first team the Orioles. He never wanted to leave Baltimore and wept when told of the trade that saw Reggie Jackson leave Oakland for Baltimore before the start of the 1976 season.

Like his teammate in Baltimore Lee May, who I eulogized in the last blog, Baylor was far more than his impressive numbers: 18-year-career, .267 BA, .436 SA, 2135 H, 338 HR, 1236R 1286 RBI.

He served as a DH in three consecutive World Series, losing with 1986 Red Sox and 1988 Athletics and winning with the Twins in 1987, going 5 for 13 in that seven-game thriller. He was also the first manager of the expansion Colorado Rockies and served many teams as a valuable batting coach.

A native of Austin, Texas, Baylor integrated his elementary school and thought about playing football for the local Texas Longhorns before wisely choosing baseball. He was an active member of the Players Association and a key contributor to many charities including the Cystic Fibrosis Association. He will be missed very much.

So will the longtime Cincinnati Reds scout Gene Bennett who was a bulwark of the only organization he ever worked for. Raised in Branch Rickey's Scioto County in southern Ohio on the Kentucky border, Bennett's minor league career as an outfielder was curtailed by injury.

Offered a chance to manage or scout for the Reds, he took the advice of his mentor
Rickey: "Choose scouting over managing!" Baseball's wise man stressed to Bennett that as a scout you can find almost every season someone to help the organization, but if you are a manager and are given a bad team, you can be fired.

Among the prizes Bennett found for the Reds were southpaw Don Gullett, Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin, right fielder Paul O'Neill, and third baseman Chris Sabo. Bennett was very active in the Wheelersburg Little League which now bears his name.

He will never be forgotten in Scioto County. I am pretty certain that the annual January Portsmouth Murals banquet will be dedicated to him this coming year.

That's all this time - but always remember: Take it easy but take it!

The Joys of Chautauqua And In Memory of Bob Wolff and Lee May

August 2, 2017

Tags: Chautauqua Institution, Charles Young Hickory Crawdads, Julian Mock, P.J. Dragseth, Annette Gordon-Reed, Theodore Olson, Pablo Ziegler, Astor Piazzolla, Edvard Grieg, Jared Jacobsen, Emil Gilels, Bob Wolff, Babe Ruth, Lee May, Brooks Robinson, Eddie Murray, Al Bumbry, Pat Kelly, Earl Weaver, Andres Mora

I just got back from a blissful week at the Chautauqua Institution in southwestern New York State past Jamestown and not far from Erie, Penna. For the second straight summer, I was privileged to teach a class in Baseball and American Culture.

My students were a diverse and fascinating group that included former concession (more…)

Adventures in Grass Roots Summer Baseball

July 21, 2017

Tags: Danbury Westerners, Mystic Schooners, Griffin Dey, Giovanni Dingcong, Hartford Yard Goats, Drew Weeks, Matt Pierpont, Bowie Bay Sox

The dog days of summer may have started a little early in the Northeast U.S. The first heat wave has arrived but hopefully it won't last more than a week.

I always tell people up here that if you lived in Texas and other parts of the Southwest
you face months of steamy weather where the temperature may not go below 100 even at night. Air-conditioning becomes a must, though it is an unnatural way to live IMHO.

I got my first taste of the New England College Baseball League on a warm Tuesday night July 18. The visiting Mystic Schooners held off the Danbury Westerners in a wild 17-15 affair.

A hitting star for Danbury was first baseman Griffin Dey from Yale who belted two HR and had six RBI. He did commit two errors. Ah baseball - the only sport where the bad and the good are ALWAYS built in.

Outfielder Giovanni Dingcong, formerly of Manhattan's Beacon HS now at St. Thomas Aquinas College, contributed two hits for the Westerners, but the power of U Santa Barbara's third baseball Tommy Jew and the rest of the Schooners proved too much.

The Westerners play in Rogers Park that adjoins a Danbury middle school in a complex of many other fields. Ticket prices are very reasonable - $5 and $3 for seniors and I think also the youngsters, and the $3 hot dog was quite good.

My mini-trip ended the next afternoon with another "pitchers' battle" at the new Dunkin' Donuts Stadium in Hartford. The home Colorado Rockies affiliate Yard Goats came from behind three times to whip the Orioles' Double A Bowie Bay Sox,
12-8.

The Yard Goat is the small locomotive that connects cars to fancier trains and the Hartford locals have taken a liking to that metaphor. The franchise had to travel all last season because of delays and legal problems with the new stadium.

The new structure is well worth waiting for. The sight lines and concessions are first rate. I recommend a visit to the left field corner where you can get a great view of the entire field. The nearby barbecue is worth tasting, too.

The foul lines are only 325 feet from home plate and the left field power alley is a ridiculously short 362 feet. Center field is only 392 away and the ball was flying out on this steamy summer afternoon.

Rockies prospect Drew Weeks blasted two key home runs in the Yard Goats' come-from-behind win. Reliever Matt Pierpont got the win by silencing the Bay Sox hot bats for two innings.

That's all for this edition - here's hoping you stay cool and keep rooting for your team(s) and always remember: Take it easy but take it!

Featured Work

History
Story of baseball's reserve system and the men who fought to change it
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“Lowenfish’s take is detailed and nuanced.... he doesn’t look for simple answers; despite his own abiding admiration, he never sugarcoats or presents Rickey in anything other than a three-dimensional light.”
–David Ulin, Los Angeles Times